Monday, January 30, 2012

BC2012: Rock Names by Adam Dolgins

In case the title isn't self-explanatory, it's subtitled "From ABBA to ZZ Top, How Rock Bands Got Their Names." This is an excellent reference book that actually reads well from start to finish, too. The problem with rock band names is that many of the published explanations are just plain wrong. Sometimes a record label publicist will put out a false story because it's more clever or less embarrassing than the truth. Other times, band members will make up stories during interviews, maybe just for their own amusement or because they dislike the reporter. Dolgins figured this out and decided to conduct his own interviews (usually by phone or fax), and he was surprisingly successful in getting responses.

Even the stories about bands I don't like or haven't heard are interesting, and it's an easy book to pick up and put down if you only have a few minutes at a time to read (I know what you're thinking, but no, I did not read this in the bathroom!). I think it's better to read the whole book than to browse from entry to entry because there is one notable shortcoming: a lack of cross-referencing. For example, Dolgins asks Randy Bachman about the names "The Guess Who" and "Bachman-Turner Overdrive" since he was in both bands. This interview is listed under "The Guess Who". There should be a listing for "Bachman-Turner Overdrive" that says "See 'The Guess Who'" but there is not.

Aside from that, which affects perhaps 12-15 entries, this is a great reference work full of colorful stories. After reading this book, you'll never think of The Lovin' Spoonful the same way ever again!

Note: I read the "new and revised" second edition of this book from 1996. A third edition, which is 70 pages longer, was published in 1998.

BC2012: I Hate This Place by Jimmy Fallon & Gloria Fallon

Subtitled "The Pessimist's Guide to Life", this book could have been so much better. It might have put me to sleep, but it was too short. Not that I wish it was any longer, mind you. Fortunately, it was deeply discounted from its $8.95 list price plus I bought it during the Borders bankruptcy. I think I paid 25-35 cents!

There's not much to this book (literally, it's mostly 1-3 sentences per page), and most of it is obvious -- I knew many of the punchlines before I read them. According to the "about" page, this book started as an exchange of e-mails between brother and sister. As such, it was probably pretty funny, at least to them. But it doesn't make for much of a book.

It probably doesn't help that I knew from a Rolling Stone profile that Jimmy Fallon is an incredibly upbeat, positive guy. Come to think of it, maybe that explains everything. An optimist who writes "The Pessimist's Guide to Life" is clearly out of his element.

BC2012: Classic Rock Stories by Tim Morse

I was going to write that it is coincidental that I was reading two music-oriented books at the same time (this and Hell Bent for Leather). Then I realized there are two other music-oriented books I'm reading now, so perhaps it isn't so coincidental. Anyway, I started reading this, subtitled "The Stories Behind the Greatest Songs of All Time", to my wife the night we took Ginger to the emergency vet. I suppose classic rock is a comfortable "safe place" to withdraw to in times of stress or anxiety, and she appreciated the distraction.

Classic Rock Stories contains long quotes from songwriters, performers, producers, et al, about the songs you've heard on the radio hundreds of times. The book is fairly interesting, but it's all compiled from other sources (Morse includes a list in the back). The subjective list of the top 25 classic rock albums included at the end is rather pointless, I think, and doesn't provide any insights -- as an editor I would have cut it out. The "where are they now" section has the negative effect of showing the book's age (1998) when it also could have been left out (after all, the songs are "timeless" classics). There is quite a bit of white space throughout the book, too -- it could have been fifty pages shorter or included 75 more songs. Despite all that criticism, I didn't dislike Classic Rock Stories. I just thought there could have been more to it.

Incredibly, this is the second book I've read in January 2012 to use a cassette case motif in the cover design! (Sean and David's Long Drive was the first.)

BC2012: Hell Bent for Leather by Seb Hunter

I love Chuck Klosterman, but Hell Bent for Leather is the book Fargo Rock City should have been. Anyone who grew up during the 1980s with even a passing interest in heavy metal would love this book.

Although my favorite group in fifth grade was AC/DC, I was never a metalhead. I watched a lot of MTV (so I know songs like Ratt's "Round and Round" by heart even though I never bought the album) and I loved Appetite for Destruction, but I was never a part of the scene. I could have been an above-average poseur, had I wanted to be, but I was too busy exploring the music of the late 1960s.

Hunter traces his own heavy metal history, starting with the holy experience of hearing his first AC/DC song in 1981 (he's a year younger than I am and "discovered" AC/DC a year after I did*). He went much deeper into metal: buying lots of albums, reading magazines like Kerrang! (he lived/lives in the U.K.), learning to play guitar, and eventually forming several unsuccessful bands. Hunter weaves informational commentary about metal into his memoir, describing the guitars played by metal heroes, sub-genres like death metal, the typical metal stage show, women in metal (funny, after 20 years of hip hop I had forgotten metal's reputation for misogyny!), the ubiquitous live double-album, and more. His writing is funny, self-deprecating, and entertaining throughout (which I expected after reading How to be a Better Person). It's only January, but so far Hell Bent for Leather is the book I've enjoyed the most.

* One thing I have to admit here finally: Although I give my dad shit about liking crap like Journey, the truth is he had pretty good taste in music (I can't really use the present tense since I don't think he's bought any new music in quite some time). Hunter describes his family being rather horrified by AC/DC, but my dad owned Back in Black and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap before I did. There were certain songs he didn't want me to listen to -- the same songs Hunter lists, much to my amusement -- but of course that never works with kids. How could he deny me a classic like "Big Balls"?!? But seriously, my dad was only in his thirties during my teens. One day in 1981 (he was 31, I was 11), he took me along to Flipside Records** and bought a bunch of albums (he had a gift certificate) including Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard of Ozz and Blue Oyster Cult's Fire of Unknown Origin (I think he bought Pink Floyd's The Wall and maybe Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police that day, too). All kids should be so lucky music-wise to have young parents.

** A moment of silence, please, for all the great Chicagoland record stores that have disappeared including local chains like Flipside, Rose, Appletree, and Crow's Nest as well as Record Swap and Music Warehouse. I devoted a large portion of my teenage budget to keeping them alive.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno's Epitaph

"I wish I had died three months earlier."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

BC2012: How to be a Better Person by Seb Hunter

Though the title suggests otherwise, this is not a self-help book. Rather, it is a memoir of Hunter's experiences volunteering for various charitable and/or non-profit organizations in the U.K. The results are mixed but always entertaining.

While Oxfam is known in the U.S. for their catalogs featuring agricultural donations for the Third World, in the U.K. they also operate thrift shops akin to our Salvation Army. Hunter begins his quest working there and moves on to assisting the elderly in a computer lab, checking out police stations to insure that prisoners are treated properly, helping out at a homeless shelter, counseling immigrants seeking to become legal workers, and more. He ultimately decides volunteering is worthwhile, but this book shows that just as in paying work, one may have to search a bit to find the right direction.

I don't think I recognized the author's name when I bought this at Half Price Books last year, but one of his books, a heavy metal memoir called Hell Bent for Leather, has been on my shelf of unread books since 2007 (from my legendary Powell's book-buying orgy). Stay tuned...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

BC2012: The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Shipley

Occasionally, I stalk books. I search every bookstore for a new or used copy at a low price. Although is the easy way out, I resist unless I get an exceptionally good deal. I know this is not an efficient way to shop, but I've always enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. I can't remember exactly how I learned about The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife (probably an recommendation), but it was well over a year ago. There is another book with the same title authored by Jason Boyett, and I would have been thrilled to find either of them on a shelf somewhere. When Borders was still around, their online search showed no copies of either anywhere around Chicagoland. Ditto for Barnes & Noble. I also regularly searched every Half Price Books in the Chicago suburbs as well as stores in Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Kansas City, and Des Moines. As I said, I stalked this book.

Right after Thanksgiving I had to order a replacement alarm clock from (because Ginger had severed the thin power wires of our not-so-old one in the aftermath of a seizure). Since the clock was $20, I checked my wishlist for an item to get the order up to $25 for free shipping. The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife wasn't it... because it was selling for the insanely low price of $2.24! Naturally, I had to buy it along with another book -- coincidentally a different title by the aforementioned Jason Boyett -- to get over the $25 threshold.

Subtitled "91 Places Death Might Take You", this book uses a combination of narrative and illustrations to explore the afterlife beliefs of 91 religions from A to Z (I never would have guessed Asatru (which I'd never heard of -- it's the modern version of Norse paganism) would be the first, but I fully expected -- correctly -- Zoroastrianism to be the last). I don't have the background to judge the theological accuracy of the descriptions, but Moore and Shipley put a humorous spin on them to make light reading of this heavy topic. So, was this book worth stalking? Considering that I invested months of effort to save about ten bucks, of course not! But I did enjoy reading it, although it could have been a bit longer.

Note: This is a review of the book on the left below.


Friday, January 13, 2012

BC2012: Fear Up Harsh by Tony Lagouranis

Subtitled "An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq", this is the most harrowing book I've read in some time. Lagouranis tells dozens of thoroughly depressing tales of Iraqi prisoners, most of whom were either innocent or of dubious intelligence value. Anyone brought in for interrogation was caught in a no-win situation: if you didn't talk, the U.S. would keep you longer or push you harder to get you to talk, but if you did talk, the U.S. would keep you longer or push you harder figuring that you must know more. Much of the book deals with morality and the author's inner turmoil. Where does one draw the line between interrogation and torture? How can you win the hearts and minds of a nation when you imprison people for no good reason? Fear Up Harsh is an eye-opening book that left me feeling sick about what happened there.

BC2012: Monday Morning Quarterback by Peter King

With the Chicago Bears' season over and the NFL playoffs starting, I thought this would be an ideal time for some football reading. King writes the "Monday Morning Quarterback" column on Sports Illustrated's website. This book includes his favorite columns along with new material, mostly of the best/greatest/top ten genre (e.g., top 100 active players, top ten draft choices since the 1970 merger). Also the outside margin of each page has an entertaining tidbit such as a fact, a brief story, a prediction that did or did not pan out, etc. This was a fun, quick read that I found during the Borders bankruptcy sale. I had never read King's column before, but I have started since I finished this book last week. I'm surely not the first new fan King has earned with this book.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ginger Johnsen, ????-2012

We didn't have her for long, only 22 months or so. She was a sweet, older yellow Labrador retriever. Someone probably abandoned her (we couldn't imagine her running away), and we ended up taking her in. Things I will remember most about Ginger: her tail wagged all the time, she seemed just happy to be there wherever she was, she was virtually unflappable (vacuum cleaner and hair dryer never fazed her), and she loved to eat.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

BC2012: Sean & David's Long Drive by Sean Condon

This is basically a diary of a trip Condon and his buddy took around the eastern half of Australia circa 1995. There's lots of driving, lots of drinking (but not while driving), lots of boring miles, and lots of exaggerations or half-truths. It's generally pretty amusing, and part of the fun is guessing exactly where the author crosses the line between fact and fiction. The cover design is pretty neat -- it looks like a cassette case with the cassette visible on the back (a blurb is written on the label) and the blank J-card in the background on the front. Based on that motif, I expected to read a bit more about the music they listened to along the way. I guess I'll cut the author some slack since the car's tape deck wasn't always working.

Naturally, this book reminded me of Cold Beer and Crocodiles, a book about a bicycle tour around Australia that I reviewed here over seven years ago. Of course, Roff Smith's bike ride was much more impressive, especially since Condon didn't even venture into Western Australia. I'll admit that this book was funnier, though.

Note: I read the edition on the left.


BC2012: Bad for the Jews by Scott Sherman

Subtitled "Jews in the News who Embarrass the Tribe", Bad for the Jews begins by poking fun at some successful but mildly annoying Jews like Barbra Streisand and Jerry Bruckheimer and gradually works its way up to real bastards like Michael Savage and Bernie Madoff. It's an entertaining journey written by a Jew mostly for other Jews. There's a bit too much Yiddish for the average Gentile, far beyond mensch and putz. Come to think of it, as in the previous sentence, half the Yiddish words I know are synonyms for penis. Anyway, although I would have enjoyed it more if I were Jewish (I even saw it on the Hanukkah table at one Barnes & Noble!), I still enjoyed reading it aloud to my wife using my best "old Jewish guy" impersonation and we both got some laughs out of it.

BC2012: The Next Decade by George Friedman

This isn't a book of mystical, Nostradamus-like predictions; Friedman is the founder and CEO of STRATCOM, a private intelligence firm. I read his previous book, The Next 100 Years, last year and found it fascinating. This book is even easier to grasp since it relates to a shorter time period. Friedman talks about how the United States has to accept its imperial role whether Americans like it or not. He says the best way for the U.S. to manage world affairs is to set regional rivals against each other to maintain a balance of power. For example, Iran and Iraq filled that role in the Middle East. For decades, the U.S. maintained balance by offering assistance to one side or the other depending on which needed help the most. Unfortunately, the "war on terror" has undermined this strategy by weakening Iraq (it has also weakened Pakistan, which has served as India's foil in southern Asia). We are already seeing a resurgent Iran attempting to fill the power vacuum.

In addition to predicting the future, Friedman provides ample education about how current geopolitical situations have developed. While many Americans think the Arab nations are against us because we support Israel, Friedman explains how those nations actually turned against us by siding with the Soviets before we threw our support to Israel. Regardless, he suggests that we reconsider aid to Israel because it is no longer a weak state that needs our assistance. He notes that although U.S. aid has remained more or less constant, it was about 21% of Israel's GDP in 1974 whereas now it is about 1.4%.

Although my examples above are from the Middle East, Friedman covers every region of the world thoroughly. The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years are must-read books for anyone interested in geopolitics. While I consider myself more aware of international affairs than most Americans, I still learned a lot from both books.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Some Favorites from 2011

Before I get into Book Challenge 2012, I wanted to mention a few interesting books I read last year. This list is far from complete, and it excludes books already reviewed in the aborted Book Challenge 2011, but it's something. In no particular order...

The Evolution of God by Robert Wright - This book details how the concept of God, specifically the "Abrahamic God" of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has changed over the years, often for socio-political pragmatism. It's a long book and not always easy to read (though generally Wright is an engaging author), but it's well worth the investment. I got a lot of insights from it, and a more dedicated blogger would have wrung half a dozen posts out of it (I intended to, but let's face it, the more time passes, the less likely that is to happen).

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond - I've read several of Almond's books and enjoyed them all. This book is about being a "drooling fanatic" of rock and roll. One useful assertion: every straight guy is allowed to have one man-crush on a musician. Almond scored big points with me when he mentioned Chuck Prophet several times, especially when he put the Let Freedom Ring album on his desert island playlist, because Prophet is my current musical man-crush.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman - This isn't Jeane Dixon or Nostradamus stuff -- Friedman is the founder of STRATFOR, a private intelligence firm. Most of the book is about geopolitics and how power is expected to shift among nations. Friedman describes how U.S. history thus far has run in 50-year cycles, an insight that was new to me.

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer - Not to be confused with The Big Con by Jonathan Chait. This book from 1940 tells about the elaborate schemes used by con men to fleece their marks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories are fascinating, and the language is rich and colorful. The old truism "You can't con an honest man" is explained here: in a con game, the con man is offering to let the mark in on a deal that is illegal to begin with, so the mark has to be willing to cheat to make money in order to be cheated out of his own money (this aspect also works to discourage the mark from reporting the crime, similar to "But officer, he stole my drugs!"). I felt like I entered a new world while I was reading this book. I recently picked up a memoir from "The Yellow Kid", one of the con men named in The Big Con.

Everything is Wrong with Me: A Memoir of an American Childhood Gone, Well, Wrong by Jason Mulgrew - These entertaining tales of juvenile delinquency reminded me of Joe Peacock's Mentally Incontinent. I read a lot of memoirs in 2011 and bought even more since they were among the deepest discounted categories during the Borders bankruptcy.

But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet by Jancee Dunn - Dunn writes about her career with Rolling Stone and MTV2, interspersing her own memoir with advice and tales about interviewing celebrities. I read and enjoyed her Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? first, but I liked But Enough About Me more.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane - The Apollo program gets much more attention, but the space shuttle was my generation's version of space travel. I liked most of this book, and Mullane's poetic description of looking out the shuttle's windows on his last flight while everyone else was asleep was awesome. In a review, I might ding him a star for the awful, softcore porn-ish tale of the time he almost nailed a fellow (female) astronaut. That part was unnecessary and frankly made me uncomfortable and embarrassed for him (I'm no prude -- the writing was just that bad).


Introduction to Book Challenge 2012

The main goal is to read more books than I buy. Assuming Barnes & Noble doesn't go belly up this year (which may be a big assumption) and I don't make it out to Portland, that shouldn't be a problem. Ideally, I will restrain myself enough to create a meaningful ratio, such as 1.5 books finished per book purchased (in 2009 the margin was a narrow 1.05 to 1). I will blog something about each book, probably a brief review or summary plus whatever else I feel like saying about purchasing or reading it. My next goal is to finish more books this year than in 2009, when I finished 101 (as in previous years, it only matters when I finish a book, even if I started it years ago).

Changes: 1.) I'm not going to bother with that "give up on two books per month" thing that I tried last year. 2.) Instead of keeping a running total in each post, this year I plan to update my numbers monthly. That should make it easier for me to keep track of books purchased. 3.) At least to start, I won't have any book cover illustrations because those bastards at terminated my account (all Illinois affiliates got the ax -- although my Amazon links are still active, I don't get a commission anymore). I joined the Borders affiliate program, but obviously that didn't work out. Then I signed up for the Barnes & Noble affiliate program just a few weeks before they switched over to another affiliate management company. By then I was too annoyed to sign up again. It didn't seem worth the aggravation for the $20-30 bucks a year I earned as an affiliate.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Doesn't Seem Fair

NFL players' contracts are not guaranteed. I understand this is because playing football beats the shit out of them, so nobody wants to promise them anything over the long term unless they are still able to play at the expected level. This is a great deal for the teams because they don't have the headaches that, say, MLB teams have when they want to dump a declining player but they are stuck paying him and/or negotiating for another team to take over some portion of his ridiculous salary. In the NFL, they can just cut the guy with no strings attached.

Anyway, if NFL players' contracts are not guaranteed, why are NFL front office contracts guaranteed? If an offensive lineman sucks, the Bears can cut him and they don't have to pay him. But if the guy who hired that lineman sucks, the team can't just fire the GM and keep his salary. For the next two years, the Bears have to pay Jerry Angelo to sit on the couch and laugh at how lousy the team he formed plays.

Don't get me wrong; I am definitely pro-labor. Ideally, NFL players wouldn't get discarded like meat scraps when they lose a step. It's a brutal sport and a brutal business, and I hope those guys have negotiated good pension benefits for their short, painful careers and whatever longer-term damage they incur. But given how players are treated, the NFL should handle the front office the same way. I'm sure that never came up in last summer's labor negotiations!

North Dakota Bicycling Legends

Now there's a category you won't be seeing on Jeopardy! anytime soon. This great story involves internationally known American racer Andy Hampsten from Grand Forks -- the only non-European to win the Giro d'Italia -- and a less famous racer from Fargo, Hans Scholz.

Coincidentally, both would go on to make bicycles in the Pacific Northwest with their brothers. First Hans' brother Alan started Burley Design (nee Burley Bike Bags) to make panniers, eventually adding trailers (for which the company is best known) and bicycles (which they no longer manufacture). In the late 1980s, Hans and Alan founded Green Gear Cycling in Eugene, OR to build folding bicycles. The company is now known as Bike Friday. Not to be outdone by their old NoDak rivals, Andy and Steve Hampsten started Hampsten Cycles in Seattle in 1999.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


So much for my dream of a Bachmann-Palin ticket for 2012. Maybe in 2016...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Good Morning!

Wow! This is just about the best news I could have imagined waking up to today. According to a Chicago Tribune e-mail alert from 24 minutes ago:
Jerry Angelo out as Bears GM

A public that has largely been calling for sweeping changes at Halas Hall has gotten its wish: Jerry Angelo will not return as general manager of the Chicago Bears for a 12th season, multiple NFL sources told the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday.
I am part of that public, and I am very happy this morning. I've been waiting years for this. As Brad Biggs' article says, "...ultimately a track record for poor drafts will mark his legacy." He didn't do so well in the free agent market last year either (Brandon "The Freelancer" Meriweather, Roy "Hands of Stone" Williams, Sam "Just Say Yes" Hurd, et al -- although I have to admit Adam Podlesh is a heck of a punter). I hope offensive coordinator Mike Martz follows him out the door.

UPDATE 01/03/2012 - Hallelujah! Martz resigned! The QB coach is leaving, too, which is great considering how utterly unprepared back-up Caleb Hanie was to run the Bears offense.

New Year's Goals

I think goals is more appropriate than resolutions, especially since no one ever keeps resolutions.
  1. Resurrect the Book Challenge for 2012. The Borders bankruptcy sale derailed my plans last year; I ended the year with twice as many unread books as I started with! The good news is that this year I have twice as many books I can read. A related goal is to read less online and more offline.
  2. Cut down on e-mail. I get 70-80 messages daily excluding spam. About 10% are news, but most are from "daily deal" sites and stores where I rarely shop. My attitude has been "I don't want to miss anything", but this has a negative impact in the form of wasted time and e-mail clutter.
  3. Drive less. It's not that I really drive too much or dislike driving, but our car is now six years old. With less than 70,000 miles, it probably has many more to go, but I want to put off replacing it as long as possible.
  4. Find some sort of rewarding physical activity. I need to admit that a.) I'm hideously obese, and b.) I've reached the age where people like me start dropping dead. I can't run anymore, I don't bicycle enough to make much difference, and obviously team sports are out because I'm anti-social. Any suggestions?
  5. Drink more. I should drink more water, and I will start by replacing the nasty-ass plastic water bottle I've been using for the past half a decade or so. I also need to drink more liquor. My surplus of scotch and vodka doesn't quite rival my surplus of unread books, but I have plenty and I should enjoy it more often (no one said these resolutions goals had to be healthy).
  6. Dine and shop locally. One thing I've discovered while traveling to use Groupons is that I pass many places closer to home that I've never tried. And now that Borders is gone, I should go to The Book Cellar more often (though not too often), along with other nearby stores. This goal dovetails with #3.
  7. Continue my recent campaign of cleaning and decluttering. We don't need most of the stuff we have. I'd also like to reorganize a couple of rooms, a project I started last year that was forgotten when my grandparents died. While I'm getting rid of stuff, I also want to make a concerted effort to buy fewer things.*
  8. Create new content for my web sites and add advertising to existing pages. In particular, the America in Pictures project needs to be more fully developed. I might even refresh my cross country bike tour pages to mark the tenth anniversary. A major stumbling block has been finding something better to replace my old editing/publishing software (Namo WebEditor). Again, I'm open to suggestions.
  9. Figure out my professional future. Copywriting is something I can do competently, sometimes pretty well, but it doesn't excite me. I'm fortunate to be in a position where pay isn't a major issue; I just want to find something I like to do.
I could come up with more, but I probably listed too many already. If you focus on everything, you're really focusing on nothing. I should be able to achieve at least two thirds of the above, but some of them have been on my list for several years already so maybe that's wishful thinking.

*  One tactic that has worked well for me lately is to pause before going to the register, look over every item in my cart/basket/hands and ask myself whether I really need them and whether I really need them right now.