Friday, November 27, 2009

On the Write Track

This has been a pretty slow year for me business-wise. While I'd like to blame the economy, my own listlessness is the real problem. Maybe reading a few books about writing will give me the kick in the ass I so desperately need. Speaking of kicking...

And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks - I knew I'd like this book, but I didn't think I'd plow through its 337 pages so quickly. To my surprise, I even enjoyed the chapters about writers whose work I have never read or seen. I wish Sacks had spoken with more stand-up comedians and fewer TV writers, but that's just my personal preference. The six interludes of "Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer" are very useful; I only wish there were more. And Here's the Kicker has a misleading subtitle, however. Most of Sacks' questions cover what the writers have done rather than how they do it, so the focus isn't really on "their craft." Regardless, I'd recommend this book not only to humor writers but also to fans of comedy in general who like to hear "behind the scenes" stories. Note: See the book's Web site for excerpts and bonus interviews.

Some Writers Deserve to Starve! 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles - This humorous look at getting a book printed imparts many valuable lessons about dealing with agents, publishers, and fellow writers. Aspiring authors will learn a lot, and published authors will laugh or sigh in agreement with many of these "brutal truths." Niles includes many anecdotes from her own experiences and those of others. It's a quick read in an informal format, but the information is pretty good.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost - Like Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, 100 Ways is a book that I purchased years ago when I changed careers. There are a hundred similar books out there, and getting a variety of perspectives about how to write well is a good thing -- as long as one doesn't spend more time reading about writing than actually doing it. Provost's book is as helpful as many others, although parts are quaintly outdated (don't type your final draft on onion skin paper!). Just the fact that it's still in print after 37 years is evidence of its value. Most of these tips are applicable to all writing; don't look here for genre-specific guidance. Also the format is convenient for reading in small chunks a few minutes at a time.

Current tally: 90 books finished, 83 books acquired


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Precious Liquids

Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

Return to Thunder Road by Alex Gabbard - Almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen invited Mary into his car, another "Thunder Road" was part of American pop culture.* Robert Mitchum directed and acted in the 1958 movie Thunder Road about running moonshine, plus he wrote and sang the theme song:
Thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and
White lightnin' was his load.
Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him,
But the devil got him first.
This book is a joy to read. Gabbard explains the origins of homemade whiskey and the motivations of the men who risked their lives to deliver the illegal goods across the rural South. Much of Return to Thunder Road is presented in oral history form with extensive recollections from moonshiners, whiskey runners, and ATF agents. The 'shiners talk about the distillery process and how they built and concealed their stills. The drivers describe dozens of heart-racing midnight escapes in souped-up cars with big motors and heavy-duty springs. The U.S. Treasury agents recount raids and chases, along with the frustrations of a never-ending battle. In fact, moonshining came to an end not because of enforcement, but because of new economic opportunities (in the case of legendary Wilkes County, NC, a Holly Springs chicken plant). Gabbard discovers that the movie Thunder Road was likely inspired by the real-life final run of a certain driver. In the book's climax, he leads the reader along the fateful route, interlacing his narrative with the lyrics of the song. Anyone interested in fast cars, whiskey, the South, and/or 20th century American history should enjoy Return to Thunder Road. I'll have to bump the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired



* There is a Springsteen connection to this book, not in his "Thunder Road" but in "Cadillac Ranch." When he sings of "Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline," he's talking about the famous moonshine runner turned NASCAR racer/owner. Junior and his family are quoted and mentioned many times within these pages.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Squeezing Oil From Planet Rock

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising by Luke Sullivan - When I started writing copy, I bought a stack of books about writing and advertising. I suppose nothing reveals what a slacker I am more than admitting that it took me almost half a decade to get around to reading this one (and I haven't touched most of the others, either). Hey, Whipple is an introduction to the world of advertising from the perspective of a "creative" at an agency. Sullivan not only provides examples of great advertising, but he also offers many helpful tips for those attempting to produce such ads. This book won't make you an advertising genius, but it will set you on the right path -- and give you a few laughs, too. Note: I read the second edition; the third edition came out last year and includes new chapters about "new media" and direct-response TV.

Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska by John Strohmeyer - This book describes the impact of the oil industry on Alaska's government, Natives, environment, and even newspapers as they ride the waves of boom-and-bust from the 1950s to the 1990s. Strohmeyer writes this history in a journalistic style, though he skews a bit to the left in favor of the environment and the citizenry over the oil corporations. Several later chapters describe the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath, which was recent news when this book was published in 1993. This book has restored my pride in being a Chicagoan because corruption here is nothing compared to Alaska's. Considering the rogue's gallery that has led the state so poorly over the past half-century, the title of Sarah Palin's new memoir, Going Rogue, is incredibly ironic (though she was a mere Wasilla city councilperson when this book came out). Overall, Extreme Conditions is a reasonable, readable recounting of the changes that oil drilling and oil money brought to Alaska.

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock's Most Debauched Decade by Lonn Friend - Although I had never even heard of RIP magazine before (I was never into heavy metal enough to read the magazines), I enjoyed this memoir by its former editor. Friend's anecdotes are often funny and sometimes quite touching; despite their angry, bad-ass reputations, many masters of metal are actually decent guys. Most chapters are about a particular band and Friend's relationship with them. This makes Life on Planet Rock a little jumpy chronologically but otherwise works well. I found the chapter about the frustrations of working as an A&R man for Arista Records very revealing. It made me wonder how much great music we've all missed due to the capricious nature of the music industry. One weakness of Life on Planet Rock is the way Friend dances awkwardly around the edges of his marital problems, as if he couldn't decide whether it belonged in the book. Although his earlier personal life is entertaining and illustrative, it becomes a distraction from the narrative during the RIP years and beyond. As a memoir, this book is less thorough but more engaging and fun to read than David Konow's more historical Bang Your Head. Friend tells some great tales, and anyone who loves or at least grew up with this music should enjoy Life on Planet Rock.

Current tally: 85 books finished, 73 books acquired