Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Black Comedy

Both of these books are funny, but like many books by comedians, they recycle a lot of material from their stand-up routines. If you like the performer, you'll like the book, but if you know the comedian's material well, you won't find much new here. On the other hand, if you don't like the comedian, it's unlikely that anything in these pages will change your opinion.

Rock This! by Chris Rock - My wife's favorite comedian is Chris Rock so when I saw this in the Borders bargain bin, I had to get it for her. It was a perfect gift because I knew I'd enjoy it as much as she would (although I bought it for her, I'm including it in my "acquired" count since I read it). It's hilarious, as one would expect, but to someone who has seen all of his HBO specials over the years, it sounds awfully familiar. Rock This! is even written in a stand-up-like format with lots of short paragraphs (i.e., pauses between lines).

Yeah, I Said It by Wanda Sykes - I haven't seen as much of Sykes' stand-up, but according to Amazon.com reviewers, this book reuses a lot of jokes, too. At least Yeah, I Said It is formatted more like a regular book. It helps to imagine Sykes' voice while reading (even if you haven't seen her comedy routines, you may have seen her acting on The New Adventures of Old Christine). Yeah, I Said It is occasionally political, so right-wingers will undoubtedly be offended.

Current tally: 75 books finished, 68 books acquired

Monday, September 28, 2009

Creepiest Book Spine Ever?

A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically, The Know-It-All) has a new book called The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment. I didn't look inside because I was terrified by what I saw on the bookshelf:

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Critics

Two of my favorite pop culture critics are Chuck Klosterman and Joe Queenan. I read books from both this month.

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman - This is a collection of essays divided into three categories: Things That Are True, Things That Might Be True, and Something That Isn't True At All. The first section consists of previously published articles covering music, movies, and sports. The middle section contains opinion pieces that appeared mostly in Spin and Esquire. The last part is a short story, perhaps a "feeler" to see how the public would receive Klosterman's then-forthcoming debut novel (the paperback edition includes an excerpt from Downtown Owl). I don't always share Klosterman's opinions and taste -- heck, the guy's favorite band is KISS -- but I enjoy his writing immensely. He even makes basketball sound interesting, and I hate basketball. My only complaint about IV is the publisher's decision to include extra material in the paperback edition. This is a big f-you to everyone who paid more for the hardcover edition. Out of spite, I sat in a Borders this week and read all the new essays, which are mostly in the Things That Might Be True section. As much as I like Klosterman, I'm not going to buy the same book twice. Note: I wouldn't expect anyone to actually buy the now-obsolete hardcover edition, but I included it below anyway.

Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America by Joe Queenan - As a longtime cultural snob, Queenan decides to immerse himself in the worst our country has to offer for an entire year. He goes to Broadway shows like Cats. He listens to Michael Bolton and Kenny G. He reads books by Joan Collins and V.C. Andrews. He watches movies starring Adam Sandler and Demi Moore. He dines at Sizzler and the Olive Garden. He visits Las Vegas and Branson. And of course, he skewers them all with the mischievous, sarcastic wit I've come to expect from Queenan. But suddenly, he starts to like all this crap. Instead of recoiling, he begins seeking out and reveling in the pop cultural junk of the masses. Although these are easy targets, Queenan's wicked critiques are hilarious. As a book, however, Red Lobster isn't great. The plot is weak and predictable. The copyright page reveals that several chapters were originally magazine articles, which explains the book's patched-together construction. And in the end, it's a lot of snark without much insight about what makes something bad or good.

This month I've been trying to clean up DJWriter World Headquarters. About 90% of the books I've read and reviewed this year are still in my office, as well as stacks from the past several years (books that I reviewed as well as books that I meant to review). It has reached the point where I can barely fit between the piles, and one of the cats is always knocking them down. Perhaps the best way to sum up these two books is to say that I enjoyed reading both, but Chuck Klosterman IV is going on a bookshelf while Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon is going in a box for my next visit to an used book store.

Current tally: 73 books finished, 65 books acquired

Thursday, September 24, 2009

100 Reasons to Hate Your Country

100 Ways America Is Screwing Up The World by John Tirman - I didn't like this book. If not for my New Years resolution, I would have given up halfway through (it took me two months to finish). Don't get me wrong -- for the most part, I agree with the author -- but this book disappointed me. For starters, Tirman apparently doesn't understand verb tenses. Although one can make a case for lingering impact, it is ridiculous to recount our country's every post-World War II sin as "ways America is screwing up the world." Going back as far as the Reagan administration -- a quarter of a century ago -- is reasonable since that ideology still holds sway (besides, I love to read criticism of "Saint Ronnie"), but CIA shenanigans in 1954 Guatemala? That seems like a stretch in 2006 (when 100 Ways was published). Tirman even repeatedly dredges up the extermination of Native Americans in the 19th century, hardly relevant in the present tense.

A bigger problem is that even after reaching back to the 1950s, the author doesn't have enough good topics. The 100 ways overlap, and sometimes Tirman fails to convincingly explain how certain domestic issues are meaningful abroad. A few of his ideas are weak or peculiar (oh no, America is fomenting anti-smoking laws worldwide!). Especially toward the end, Tirman's case devolves into curmudgeonly whining. Liberal whining can be just as annoying as conservative whining (though not as mean-spirited).

I presume this book was inspired by the right-wing screed about 100 people (liberals, naturally) who are screwing up America. Unlike that book, 100 Ways is not a complete waste of time. Although a less informed reader probably would enjoy it more, even a jaded leftist like me learned a few things, such as how the NRA helped defeat anti-gun laws in Brazil. The trouble is that "answer books" are like "answer songs"; they rarely get as much attention as their inspiration. Tirman probably could have written a better book without the "100 ways" gimmick.

I suppose it works as a mediocre introduction to "why they hate us." In that sense, the worst thing about 100 Ways is that the people who need to read it the most are precisely those who will ignore it. I should send my copy to my Fox News-addicted grandmother.

Current tally: 71 books finished, 65 books acquired

Friday, September 11, 2009

Freight & Fark

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere: Trucking Two Continents by Graham Coster - The English author rides along with a truck driver from the U.K. to Moscow and back, and then he comes to the U.S. to make a couple of cross-country runs. The first half about Europe was pretty interesting, especially the hard luck stories such as drivers waiting in line for days at border crossings and a guy making a run from the U.K. to Iran only to discover that his employer has gone out of business and can't give him money to get home (he carried freight locally in Iran until he could afford the return trip). In one chapter, Coster takes driving lessons. Like many would-be truckers, he struggles with backing up. I found his solution ingenious -- he buys a toy truck and watches what happens to the trailer as the tractor makes various maneuvers. Part Two about U.S. trucking is less interesting mainly because I already know a fair amount about the industry here, but the foreigner's perspective is sometimes illuminating. All in all, this book is okay, maybe good but not great. Anyone interested in trucking culture would probably enjoy it, but it's not engrossing enough to recommend to a general audience.

It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News by Drew Curtis - Based on the popular Web site, this book combines media criticism with a sort of "best of Fark.com." Parts are hilarious; I cheered up my wife on several occasions by reading this to her. As media criticism, however, the book overstays its welcome. Most readers will get the gist of what Curtis is saying long before he finishes saying it. More Fark examples (plus the snarky Farker comments) and less explanation would have made this book much better. Still, any book that trains the mind to look more critically at mass media is worthwhile.

Current tally: 70 books finished, 62 books acquired

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Labor Day Anniversaries

Two notable past Labor Day weekends:
  • Fifteen years ago, I moved into my first apartment in Chicago. Damn, that makes me feel old. In a couple more years, I will have lived in the city longer than in the house where I grew up.

  • Last year, Half Price Books had a 20% off sale all weekend. My wife was out of town, and I visited every Half Price Books location in Chicagoland (then four, now five). Although I didn't spend that much money, I ended up with a ridiculous haul -- at least 35 books, maybe even 45. I had so many bags that I stashed a few of them where my wife wouldn't see them because I was embarrassed by the sheer volume. Much as hiding a whiskey bottle is evidence of a drinking problem, that episode made it clear that I was out of control. The memory of that weekend inspired my New Years resolution to finish more books than I acquire.

This Labor Day weekend, I intended to have a big "Chicago weekend" and do a bunch of things in the city to celebrate my 15 years here. At the same time, Half Price Books had another 20% off storewide sale.

For better or worse, I didn't do much of anything last weekend. Rather than focus on how lame I am for not really celebrating my Chicagoversary, I'll take pride in announcing that not only did I sit out the Half Price Books sale, but I also resisted the urge to redeem a Borders coupon good for 40% off one book. Instead, I devoted several hours to increasing my six-book margin, still chipping away at that pile of books amassed a year ago. While cleaning, I also found my receipt from Powell's Books in 2007, a truly epic shopping experience.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Movies & Money

A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey by Kevin Murphy - The author used to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show where a man and two robots made wisecracks as they watched the worst movies of all time. For the year 2001, he turned his obsession with film into a daily ritual. This book isn't about movies, though; it's about watching movies. Although Murphy lists every movie he sees, he doesn't necessarily write about them. Instead, A Year at the Movies is a collection of essays/rants about what's good and bad about the celluloid world, particularly the movie-going experience. Each week is a chapter, and each has a theme such as documentaries, in-flight movies, IMAX, and even sneaking in food. I very rarely see movies in theaters (three times since 1997!), but I enjoyed Murphy's humorous and thoughtful observations nonetheless.

What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?: Dr. Knowledge Presents Facts, Figures, and Other Fascinating Information About Money by Charles Reichblum - This book cost me one untorn dollar at Half Price Books. Reichblum shares a lot of interesting trivia and quotations about money. Unfortunately, there isn't enough material to fill the book's 320 pages. I read only a few pages per day over the course of two months (reading to my wife while she got ready for work), and I noticed a lot of redundancy.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired