Monday, April 30, 2012

BC2012: Everybody into the Pool: True Tales by Beth Lisick

One of my favorite musicians these days is Chuck Prophet. His 2009 album ¡Let Freedom Ring! is in my top five of the millennium so far* (I'm afraid to buy his latest, Temple Beautiful, because I can't imagine it being as good). Late last year I read almost his entire website, including several years worth of blog entries. In October 2005, he wrote about this book. I put in on my list, and a couple months ago I found it at Half Price Books (as it turns out, it is available for even less than half price at right now).

This is what I call an episodic memoir -- not a complete story, but scattered bits and pieces. I found it hilarious, but I suppose I should warn about its content. Let's put it this way: if you think the idea of working for nuns to earn money to pay for an abortion is funny, then you'll probably like this book. If you like lesbians, you'll love it.**

One thing about Lisick's style that I particularly enjoy is the way her stories kind of sneak up on you. Each chapter begins with pages of scene-setting hilarity before she gets around to whatever the chapter is really about.

I was laughing so much reading this book in a restaurant that the people at the next table stopped by on their way out to ask what I was reading!

So thanks to CP for turning me on to a great book. I promise I'll give your new album a chance.

* The Dirty South by Drive-By Truckers is another. Okay, those are the only albums on the list, but there's a lot of millennium still to come.

** I had a (nonsexual) dream about lesbians last night, and I'm sure it was because of this book.


BC2012: A TV Guide to Life by Jeff Alexander

Subtitled "How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know from Television", this book is a riot. Alexander, who writes for Television Without Pity, extracts various life lessons from TV shows (mostly sitcoms and dramas) about school, friendship, parenting, crime, medicine, technology, and other topics. I'm far from a TV addict (these days I watch 5-6 hours per week), but I still laughed throughout this book. Actually, it was so funny that after reading the first two chapters alone, I decided to read the rest of the book to my wife (she liked it, too).

These lessons do not necessarily reflect the real world. For example, CPR as we've seen performed on dozens of TV shows is not the way the Red Cross teaches. The chapter about TV physics -- with an extensive analysis of The Dukes of Hazzard -- shows that TV is sometimes like a different universe.* In fact, calling attention to the absurd TV conceits we put up with on a nightly basis is one of the things this book does best.

A consummate smart-ass, Alexander pokes fun at everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to M*A*S*H to Friends to The Office. Even with my limited TV knowledge of the last 16 years (granted, I have extensive knowledge of the 16 years prior), I got enough of the jokes to make reading A TV Guide to Life worthwhile.

*  There is a hypothesis in astrophysics that in addition to the universe we know, there are other universes (of which we are not and indeed cannot be aware) where the laws of physics are different. TV is kind of like that.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney

 Kathleen Geier of Washington Monthly describes these two Republican characters:
Back in 2008, I used to argue that Sarah Palin didn’t really exist — that she was actually an incredibly elaborate Tina Fey performance art project, an Andy-Kaufman style hoax. Because, seriously — Palin was so staggeringly vapid that it stretched credibility that she could be for real. It almost seemed more likely that she might be an over-the-top parody of a certain kind of blissfully idiotic, all-American wingnut, than that she was an actual person. 
I often have similar thoughts about Mitt Romney. A surpassingly perfect villain for our times, he appears to come straight from central casting as the slick, shifty-eyed C.E.O. who’s fixing to downsize your ass — and implement his evil scheme for world domination while he’s at it. The G.O.P could not have run a more astonishing incarnation of the self-parodying cluelessness of the 1 percenters if they tried. For all practical purposes, it’s as if the the top-hat-and-tails-wearing Monopoly guy was their candidate.
I'd rather vote for the Monopoly guy than either of those goofballs.

BC2012: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

In one chapter of Another Shot, Joe Kita decides he wants to learn to be a "real man" and takes a wilderness survival course. After a few days of instruction, he is on his own:
I'm left in a stunning red-rock canyon, a private parlor for my game of desert solitaire.
This line is, of course, a nod to the classic book about the deserts of the American Southwest, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

Whenever I told someone how much I love the desert, they would say, "Oh, then you should read Desert Solitaire." I cannot recall when or where I purchased it -- at least seven years ago, probably more -- but whenever I attempted to read Desert Solitaire, I couldn't maintain interest for more than a chapter or two. I made a bit of progress over time -- when I picked it up this week, I found the bookmark tucked in at page 108. But after so many years of starts and stops, the remaining 160 pages looked daunting at best.

In the spirit of both Another Shot (doing things to right one's regrets) and Book Challenge 2012, I vowed to finally finish Desert Solitaire. Flipping the pages ahead, I figured that if I managed one chapter per day, I could get through it by the end of April.

The first couple of chapters weren't easy. Like previous chapters, these were largely introspective: a little ranting, a lot of description, and not much action. But something unexpected happened in the next chapter, a vignette about attempting to capture an independent (but not wild) horse -- I started to really enjoy it. The following chapter was an intimidating 45 pages. It detailed a raft trip Abbey and a friend took through Glen Canyon before the damn dam flooded it, and it was riveting.

Instead of slogging through a chapter per day for a week, I read the final 60% of the book in just a couple of days! A few chapters dragged a bit, but overall I think the second half of the book was simply better than the first half. Whatever. The important thing is that I finally finished it and even enjoyed a significant portion. I no longer have to look at that lovely cover photo of Arches National Park* and be reminded of my failure to complete the book. Now I really want to go back to Utah ASAP. There are four other parks I haven't seen yet.

* It was merely a monument when Abbey worked there in 1957-58 and when Desert Solitaire was published in 1968. I visited that park in 2003 on the way to riding the Las Vegas Century, but I can't remember whether I bought the book before or after that visit.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

BC2012: Another Shot by Joe Kita

In Another Shot, the author (a former Bicycling magazine editor) spends a year trying to right some wrongs and exploring the idea of a life without regrets. It makes perfect sense and no sense at all that I bought this book. It makes sense because I'm 41 and Kita wrote this when he was 40, so we're in the same place in life. It makes no sense because I don't have regrets like his. Kita rather arrogantly asserts that "a man with no regrets is a man who lacks the guts to confront himself," but I'm just not wired that way. Lord knows I've had plenty of time for navel-gazing in the past ten years, but regrets are not something I've ever given much thought. If I had to come up with regrets, mine would be more about things I did than about things I didn't do, and even those would be essentially vindictive and trivial, like "I regret that I did that favor for him since he turned out to be such a jerk" or "I regret that I spent so much money on that date since she dumped me the next week." So although the book looked interesting to me and I liked what I read at the store, I couldn't really identify with the author's premise. Plus it veers dangerously close to "self-help", not one of my favorite genres.

That said, I enjoyed the book anyway. Kita tries to get his first car back, learns to surf, and attempts to win a big prize at a carnival. Those are the more practical ones. Things get murkier when he tries to correct "getting cut from the high school basketball team", "never having the courage to ask her out", and "missing our wedding" (he and his wife felt that they missed it because it went by so quickly -- I can identify with that, but I wouldn't want a "do-over"*). You really can't go back to those moments, so these efforts are kind of pointless. Fortunately, Kita is a humorous and entertaining writer, and that made the book worth reading. I enjoyed the individual chapters despite my misgivings about the overarching premise. Besides, any book with a chapter about Jack LaLanne can't be bad.

Two cool things about this book that really have nothing to do with the book:
  1. I found a bookmark inside that says "I love my library" with library in 20 languages. It probably refers to one's local public library rather than one's personal collection, but I'll take it as the latter and add it to my collection (no offense to public libraries intended -- they would save me a lot of money -- but I haven't been to one in years).
  2. An old price tag on the back is partially intact, bearing the name and location of a bookstore I had never heard of (This Old Book in Grayslake, IL). I'll have to check it out someday.
As a writer, I also think it's cool that Kita got his publisher to fund many of these adventures and that he probably wrote off the rest on his taxes. Imagine itemizing a psychic, a private investigator, a butler, a surfing instructor, a survival course, and a weekend sex retreat! And it's interesting that the chapter about visiting Jack LaLanne came about because of something in Kita's previous book about fathers, while his next book, Accidental Courage, seems to have been inspired by a chapter in this book about being afraid. It's neat to be able to connect the dots in someone's body of work.

* Kita addresses this regret by renewing his vows, so that chapter was a total waste to me. I, like my dad, think that renewing wedding vows is bullshit -- you made the original vow "until death do us part", so why make it again?


Sunday, April 22, 2012

BC2012: Great Mythconceptions by Karl Kruszelnicki

Apparently, the author is world-famous in Australia as Dr. Karl for his radio show and newspaper column about scientific mythconceptions. This book debunks 52 such mythconceptions including "Einstein Failed School", "Duck Quacks Don't Echo", "Milk Makes Mucus", "Truth Serum", "Man on Moon Conspiracy" (with a shout-out to Phil Plait), "Bible Code", and "Chocolate Zits". I had read about a number of these being untrue elsewhere (I've read several books in this genre, so overlap is inevitable), but many were completely new to me (maybe some are more common Down Under?). The author takes a decidedly scientific approach, but he explains things well for laypeople.

I even found one of these mythconceptions in the next book I read, Another Shot -- the one claiming the average person only uses 10% of his or her brain.

BC2012: Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer by Mike Lankford

I've been on a roll this month... Life in Double Time is another excellent book. This isn't a rock star memoir at all; it's an honest, often hilarious look at the life of a working musician. Lankford is just a regular guy, a decent drummer who toured the country for a couple of years with a band you've never heard of. He describes his struggles learning to play, his development in various bands, and finally life on the road. I had a hard time putting it down and finished in only two days.

I bought this at a Borders bankruptcy sale, but I couldn't remember for sure (I knew I had seen it, but I couldn't remember whether I'd bought it) so when I saw it for only a buck at a Half Price Books in Kansas City I bought another just in case. I have a friend who plays drums in a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band, so I gave him my extra copy. I'm anxious to hear what he thinks. Unfortunately, I just lent him The Advanced Genius Theory a week ago so I may have to wait a while for him to get to Life in Double Time.


BC2012: The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

It took more than a week to read this book, but it was well worth the effort. It starts out with an intriguing number: 1,595. After 9/11, fear of flying led people to drive instead, and that led to an extra 1,595 highway fatalities. This is the first of many examples Gardner uses to demonstrate the costs of our inability to rationally evaluate risk. The early chapters of the book explain how we make these mistakes. Our head (meaning logical, rational thought) and our gut (based on instincts developed throughout our evolution) are in constant conflict, sometimes leading us to to bad decisions because we over- or under-estimate danger. The rest of the book looks at how fear manipulates us in areas such as crime, chemicals, and terrorism.

People today are living longer than ever, and yet we are more fearful than ever. Plus we worry about the wrong things. We fear being murdered when murder is a relatively rare crime. We fear a nuclear attack by a terrorist organization. But we don't fear getting in our cars and we don't fear not getting enough exercise, even though those behaviors are much more likely to kill us. Seniors are most afraid of being crime victims even though they are least likely to be targeted.

The Science of Fear has life-changing potential. Not only does Gardner help us evaluate risks and allay many of our concerns (when we realize how small some of those risks really are), but he also encourages us to think critically about what we are told by the media, corporations, and the government. For example, everyone is afraid of cancer when we read that cancer rates are going up. But that fact doesn't necessarily mean that cancer is "an epidemic." Gardner notes several major influences on the increase in cancers:
  1. Cancer was lower on the list of leading causes of death a century ago, but some of those major causes have been greatly diminished or virtually wiped out by antibiotics, vaccination, and sanitation: tuberculosis, diarrhea and enteritis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, et al. Without them, cancer naturally moved up on the list.
  2. Age is cancer's number one risk factor so as people live longer they are more likely to get cancer.*
  3. Improved screening methods have led to more detection (including many cancers that would never reach a level that would noticeably affect one's health).
To keep perspective, we must remember that a century ago, the death rate for children under age five was 20% and the average life expectancy was around 50 years. Now only 0.8% of children die before age five, and the average life expectancy is around 80 years. Those kids who would have died of diphtheria before they started school are instead getting cancer 60 years later. With all of this in mind, we should resist immediately pointing the finger at, say, chemicals in the environment whenever we hear about people getting cancer. I'm paraphrasing quite a bit, but the book is full of thoughtful assessments like this.

I could go on and on about this book -- just ask my wife or my mom. The Science of Fear is a safe bet to be one of the top ten books of Book Challenge 2012.

* On a related note, breast cancer risk is greatest for women over age 80, but surveys find that women are not aware of this. When asked which age group is most at risk, more than half said "age doesn't matter", and one in five said it is when a woman is in her 50s. Only 0.7% chose the correct answer. Gardner believes this is largely because media coverage of breast cancer tends to highlight cases of younger women.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

BC2012: Grave Humor by M.T. Coffin

I bought this book, "A Photo Tour of Funny, Ironic and Ridiculous Tombstones", at Borders in LaGrange when the store was closing. Although humor was among the mostly deeply discounted categories, I probably shouldn't have wasted my money on this one. It must have seemed funnier in the store, plus I was reading a lot of death-oriented books last summer (two of the best were the brilliantly organized memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham and the informative The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End by Harold Schechter).

Grave Humor isn't awful, but there isn't much substance to it. I Hate This Place is verbose by comparison. Had I not been pressed for time that day (I had an hour to cover the entire store so I could get home for my wife to take the car to work), I could have easily read the whole thing in the store. I have grappled with the question of whether a book this short should even count in Book Challenge 2012. I decided that if I bought the book, it counts. I mean, it's not like I'm reading a stack of Golden Books taken from the little boy next door just to pad my numbers.

One last thought: I have a feeling that isn't the author's real name.


Friday, April 20, 2012

BC2012: Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

I bought this at the Borders bankruptcy because I enjoy Sheffield's writing (mostly about television) in Rolling Stone. I chose to read it now because Sheffield provided a blurb for the back cover of The Advanced Genius Theory.

Subtitled "Life and Loss, One Song at a Time", the book uses track listings from some of Sheffield's mix tapes to help tell the story of his relationship with his wife, who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at age 31. He reveals this on page 14, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. While it's always awkward to spring a surprise like that in a memoir (i.e., had he withheld it until it happened in the order of the story), knowing ahead of time gave me a sense of impending doom that made the book harder to read. In fact, when I realized a few sentences into a chapter that his wife's death was probably coming (I recognized that Sheffield was describing the mundane in great detail, which usually portends unexpected tragedy), I put the book down and spent all afternoon doing something else because I didn't want to read it yet.

Regardless, this is a good book. Sheffield manages to incorporate the songs from his mix tapes into the story without the effect becoming gimmicky, and since he is near my age, I could recall and identify with a lot of the music. He also succeeds in painting a loving but not hagiographic portrait of his wife, and he describes the mourning process about as vividly as one could (considering that such times tend to be blurry, in my experience). I have a feeling that writing this book was a large part of that process, as well.

It's a good thing that I liked this book because I also bought Sheffield's second book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, during the Borders bankruptcy sale (I made a lot of gambles like that, buying multiple books from authors I hadn't read yet).

Not-So-Great Moments in Headline Writing

The hype machine is cranked up for next week's NFL draft. Yesterday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted an anonymous scout who said quarterback Robert Griffin III was selfish. This morning the Chicago Tribune website posted this story from The Sports Xchange:
"You could say (I'm) surprised, but you never know," Griffin told "It's just when the draft gets closer, everybody's going to try and find something wrong with you to try and pull you down, so I'm not going to sit here and argue that, well that guy is dead wrong. But I think the people that know me -- and even in the people in the media have seen -- know I'm not a selfish guy. You know you don't have to fight your own battles -- let other people fight them for you.

"That's about all I can say about that. I heard it, but it's not something I'm going to address."
So what headline was slapped on this story? Griffin addresses 'selfish' label!

Of course, one could point out that Griffin spent a solid paragraph addressing the issue before saying he wasn't going to address it. But the headline writer surely could have been a wee bit more creative in choosing a verb.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

BC2012: The Advanced Genius Theory by Jason Hartley

It starts with a Chuck Klosterman foreword. It ends with an index like every good non-fiction book should (memoirs, dictionaries, and encyclopedias excepted). The 250 pages in between are the kind of pop culture commentary and criticism that I love.

Basically, the Advanced Genius Theory states that certain people are so brilliant that their work is beyond reproach. If you don't like a particular album, movie, or book created by an Advanced artist, it's because that person is so far ahead of you (and by "you" I mean virtually everybody) that you are not yet capable of understanding and enjoying the work. After laying out the theory, Hartley analyzes the careers of dozens of artists (mostly musicians but also actors, directors, writers, et al) to evaluate which ones are Advanced.

Hartley uses Lou Reed's Mistrial album as an example of an Advanced project that he was unable to grasp when it first came out (indeed, Reed was the inspiration for the whole theory). Personally, I love Mistrial although I wouldn't call it one of Reed's best.* Reading this book, I'm certain that Hartley would consider Reed's almost universally panned recent collaboration with Metallica, Lulu, to be Advanced.

As a theory, I think the Advanced Genius Theory is only worthwhile if you have someone to debate with (give the book to a friend!), but I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Advanced Genius Theory nonetheless.

* I know my opinion is partly the product of two biases: 1.) the concert halo effect - I saw Reed on the tour promoting this album so those songs remind me of the concert (my first rock concert ever), making them seem better** 2.) the first new album effect - Mistrial was the first new album that Reed released after I became a fan of his music.

** I have seen this effect in others as well. In high school, a friend made me a cassette he called the "Best of Bruce Springsteen." It was heavily biased toward The River and included middling (for Bruce) songs like "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" and "Crush On You". When I became a fan and bought all of his albums, I didn't think The River was all that great compared to Darkness on the Edge of Town. But my friend had seen Springsteen on The River tour, which explains why he put so many songs from that album on my best-of tape.


Planned Parenthood Refuses Tucker Max's $500K Donation

I guess he shouldn't have made his donation in honor of Haywood Jablome!

See Feministe rant here. Although I think Feministe* goes overboard**, I won't defend Tucker Max because I think his books are shit. I tried hard to like I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, reading more pages than usual in the bookstore on several occasions. I don't recall why I made such an effort; I guess because I kept hearing how hilarious he was supposed to be. Anyway, it was a complete waste of time because everything I read was just dumb and unfunny, like it was written by a drunken Wrigleyville frat boy with a Bud Lite in one hand and his johnson in the other.***

Of course, the stupid thing about this rejection is that Tucker Max still gets all the publicity he wanted, but Planned Parenthood doesn't get a penny from him in return. Way to fight the power, sisters!

* I found the story through AlterNet. You didn't really think I spend all my time reading feminist blogs, did you? I mean, I have a lot of free time, but not that much free time.

** The argument that Planned Parenthood's enemies would use a Tucker Max donation against them to deny funding sounds specious to me. The kind of people who are against PP probably don't have any idea who Tucker Max is, or maybe they are in fact his biggest fans. Either way, I can't see how they would use it against PP. Think about it -- a guy widely considered to be immoral giving a donation to a group they consider to be immoral. How could PP's enemies leverage that?

*** Therefore the only Big Question one must broach in critiquing this sort of literature is this: how did he write or type with both hands otherwise occupied? Hey, I think I just stumbled upon the plot for the next Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software commercial!

Monday, April 02, 2012

March - BC2012 and Other Goals

For the most part, March was a lost month. I spent the first half pretty depressed about losing Gracie. I never thought I'd miss her so much. To my surprise, I started missing Ginger more after Gracie died, too. If I hadn't had Book Challenge 2012 to fall back on, I probably would have spent most of my time contemplating the pros and cons of razor blades, nooses, and barbiturates. I was overwhelmed with lethargy. The weather was beautiful -- June warmth in March -- but I didn't leave the house for days. It took two weeks to complete a one-hour task related to preparing my tax returns. The second half of the month was better, but I had another project to finish up before the 28th so most of my goals were ignored. Geez, just look at how long it took to get around to writing those book reviews.

1. Book Challenge 2012: This turned out to be a good month book-wise. Any month when I finish more than ten books is a success, and I managed not to go overboard with my purchases. In fact, I had a coupon for 40% off one book at HPB that I wound up leaving on a bookshelf for another lucky customer (actually I was so down that even book shopping couldn't make me happy). March totals: 11 books finished, 6 books purchased. Overall totals: 29 books finished, 19 books purchased.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I cancelled two infrequent subscriptions, but I signed up for Google's daily offers so this month was not a success. I need to work on this one because I'm falling behind managing my inbox. For the past few months I had 30-50 unread messages, and this month it jumped to 100.

3. Drive less: This one is still going well. Of course, not leaving the house helps.

4. Physical activity: Not much, but better than last month. I willed myself out of my depressed state to go for one bike ride during the June-like weather, and I walked several miles attempting to redeem a Groupon-type offer (I succeeded, but it took two days to do it).

5. Drink more: I drank a little more water since it was warmer.

6. Dine and shop locally: Not bad. I bought groceries at Gene's Sausage Shop (they sell kringle from Racine!) instead of driving to Jewel, and I ate locally more than not.

7. Clean and declutter: I worked on a photo project, and in the process I gathered all of my 35mm prints in one place. They had been spread around five rooms so that's an improvement.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: No progress.

9. Figure out my professional future: Nothing, but I may have a writing project coming up to pass the time.

10. Floss regularly: This one is going well. I think I only missed flossing two or three days out of the month.

The good news is that Rosco lived to see April 1, so my streak of losing a dog a month has ended. Maybe I'll be in a better mood this month and make some progress.