Thursday, December 31, 2009

Number 100!

I wanted my 100th book of Book Challenge 2009 to be something special. I thought about doing something out of character, like reading fiction for once (Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl). Many thick volumes called to me (such as James Loewen's Sundown Towns), but I only had a few days until the end of the year so those were out of the question. I didn't want to be reading feverishly at 11:30 PM on December 31, and I really didn't want to set myself up to fail by picking a long or complicated book.

I looked through the five two-foot stacks of books in our dining room, selecting half a dozen prospects. I could have read any of them, but none were particularly special. Then I went into our library and scanned eight more two-foot stacks of unread books (remember, I haven't been winning this battle by much, so I still have almost as many books to read as I had on January 1). I picked out a few that I've been meaning to read for a long time, but again, nothing set them apart. Then I saw a book I got for Christmas a few years ago... In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom from Da Coach by Mike Ditka with Rick Telander.

I've written before about the 1985 Bears. I was 15, old enough to appreciate football but not yet jaded like I am now. Mike Ditka is my favorite coach of all time, in any sport. Ditka wore his heart on his sleeve and said what was on his mind (I don't like Lovie Smith because he's the anti-Ditka). He wasn't perfect, but he didn't try to hide that either.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved reading this book. Every page was a treat, reliving that fantastic season. I laughed and cried, turning page after page. Ditka has so many great stories, like about contract negotiations with George Halas. After Ditka had a spectacular rookie season (as a player), Halas actually tried to sign him for less money the following year! I found out a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff from the 1985 season, and I also was reminded of so many great moments. Any Bears fan should enjoy this book almost as much as I did.

Current tally: 100 books finished, 96 books acquired

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America

This book by CBS correspondent Bill Geist is one of my favorites for the year. I've always been more interested in visiting small towns than big cities, especially since I already live in the best city in the world (but seriously, since I already live in a city, going on vacation means not going to other cities). Geist describes all sorts of unusual sights, people, events, and adventures in out-of-the-way towns. The chapters are short and Geist's writing is humorous and irreverent. One chapter decribes the famous Moonshine Store in south-central Illinois, which you all know from "Ride 45 - Moonshine Run" in Biking Illinois (by the way, my book came out before his). If I had to find a fault, I'd say the interludes about motels, car rental, restaurants, etc. come across as more forced than the regular chapters, kind of like a weak stand-up comedy routine abruptly spliced into a funny movie. Regardless, those bits weren't enough to diminish my enjoyment of Way Off the Road, which has the added appeal of being a fast read (which is important if you're trying to read 100 books in a year and it's late December!).

Current tally: 99 books finished, 93 books acquired

In the Home Stretch

With just a few days remaining in the year, Book Challenge 2009 is winding down. It took more discipline than you can imagine, but I have managed to build up a comfortable lead in books finished versus books acquired. My advantage is safe enough that I asked for several books for Christmas, plus I can enjoy the post-holiday sales. More incredibly, my goal of reading 100 books this year is also within reach. I have fallen behind in blogging about each book, however, so let's get caught up...

Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History by Laura Lee - This book describes more than 50 historical events impacted by meteorological incidents from biblical times (the story of Noah's ark is probably based on a real flood) to the present (global warming, of course). An amusing recurring chapter title is "Gee, It's Cold in Russia," which describes failed invasions of Russia by Charles XII in 1708, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941, as well as the extension of the Crimean War in 1854. The tone is light and often humorous since the book is an entertaining survey rather than a history textbook. It is not comprehensive, but each chapter provides ample background info. Anyone with a casual interest in world history should enjoy Blame It on the Rain.

Christmas Sucks: What to Do When Fruitcake, Family, and Finding the Perfect Gift Make You Miserable by Joanne Kimes - I couldn't resist this book based on the title -- in fact, my mom put a copy in my Christmas stocking, not knowing that I already had it -- but it wasn't as funny as it could have been. For one thing, Kimes takes countless, unnecessary shots at men. There's plenty of humorous potential in holiday stress without conjuring a "lazy husband on the couch" stereotype. My wife enjoyed this book more than I did, although she agreed that the male-bashing was a bit much. As a humorist, Kimes is only so-so. I could have written a similar book (sans advice) better myself. And I sure as hell would have proofread it better, too.

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front by Francis MacDonnell - This book is predominantly about Nazi espionage, or at least the fear of it. Concerns were rather overblown (in part because the Germans had a bit of success in that arena during World War I), though the author recounts some amusing tales of bungling spies who were caught by the FBI. He also discusses how Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and others used spy fears to their political advantage. The fear of Nazi spies in the United States precipitated the "Red Scare" and Cold War paranoia of the following decades (I couldn't help noticing that even 70 years ago, people were ignorantly conflating fascism and communism/socialism just as many conservatives do today*). This book may not interest casual readers, but as a longtime student of World War II, I enjoyed reading about a topic that is barely discussed in most history books.

Turning Points in Rock and Roll by Hank Bordowitz - This is a different rock history book. Instead of weaving everything together in one big mess, Bordowitz selects 20 moments in rock history and describes a thread extending from each. For example, he starts one chapter with the founding of Crawdaddy! magazine as a jumping off point to write about rock magazines and criticism. Although I'm pretty well versed in rock history, I learned a lot from this book about people like Les Paul and Dick Clark. Bordowitz backs up his work with ample source information, something often missing in rock and roll books. Turning Points in Rock and Roll is far from exhaustive, but I'd recommend it to all but the most obsessive rock and roll fans for its fresh perspective.

Current tally: 98 books finished, 86 books acquired



* While I sincerely doubt that Barack Obama is either a socialist or a fascist, I know for certain that he cannot be both.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Baseball & Bicycling

Holy Cow! by Harry Caray with Bob Verdi - Caray is my all-time favorite broadcaster so when I saw this for $2 at Half Price Books, I couldn't pass it up. It's from 1989, a year that would prove memorable yet ultimately -- inevitably -- disappointing for the Chicago Cubs. Many Cubs fans also may have been disappointed with this book since most of it describes Caray's earlier years broadcasting in St. Louis and for the White Sox, but I enjoyed it. Longtime Chicago Tribune sports columnist Verdi stays true to the sportscaster's inimitable voice; I could easily imagine Caray telling these stories from an adjacent bar stool. I only wish there were more tales about the late-night carousing for which he was famous (the Mayor of Rush Street). This book could have been 100 pages longer without wearing out its welcome.

Tour de France/Tour de Force: A Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race by James Startt - I got the original hardcover edition of this when it came out and read almost half as evidenced by the bookmark, a lunch receipt from January 2001. This summer I saw the paperback "100-Year Anniversary Edition"* in the bargain bin at the local Borders. I was pretty sure I already had the book, but I couldn't remember. After all, I hadn't looked at it in eight years. Since it was only $1.00, I went ahead and bought it. When I got home, I found the hardcover edition and started reading the softcover where I had left off (conveniently, the page numbers match up). When I finished, I went back through the final pages of the hardcover edition just to see how much Startt had updated (very little, it turns out).** Tour de France/Tour de Force combines a photo-packed coffee table book with a fact-filled historical narrative of the Tour. Unfortunately, its ostensibly chronological organization is flawed. The author highlights a famous champion and then describes the Tours of that champion's era. The confused reader gets redundant chapters essentially telling the same story but with different details included. Aside from that, this book is a decent introduction to the history of the Tour de France with lots of quality photographs, many taken by the author.

Current tally: 94 books finished, 86 books acquired



* The Tour de France started in 1903, but it was not held during the World Wars. Although the "100-Year Anniversary" Tour was in 2003, the 100th Tour has not been run yet.

** For the purposes of Book Challenge 2009, the paperback counts as "acquired" this year but the two editions count as only one "finished."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Imaginary People and Black People

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan & Jeremy Salter - This book looks at the power of fictional characters in society and culture. The authors draw from 17 categories ranging from mythology to literature to television to propaganda. Unfortunately, I think the concept is better than the execution. For starters, I would prefer a list based on something more than the opinions of three American guys and their friends, especially when it comes to ranking the characters from 1 to 101-- it's just too arbitrary. Worse, it is painfully clear that the essays were written by three authors because the tone from essay to essay is jarringly inconsistent (a better editor might have smoothed over those differences in writing style). Their attempts at humor often fall flat or just feel out of place. Plus, most of the essays spend more time telling who the characters are rather than what their influence is, even though most readers should already know most of them. Bottom line: it's an intriguing idea but a disappointing book.

Making Friends With Black People by Nick Adams - Black comedian Adams starts with advice for whites interacting with blacks, but eventually this book develops into a platform for his opinions about race relations, pop culture, and politics. He maintains a humorous and sarcastic tone throughout. I particularly enjoy his lists such as ethnic food "delicacies" and Tom Cruise's variations on Top Gun (e.g., Cocktail is Top Gun in a bar, Days of Thunder is Top Gun on a racetrack). I still don't have any black friends, but this book is pretty funny and often thought-provoking.

Current tally: 92 books finished, 83 books acquired