Sunday, July 29, 2012

BC2012: Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jen Lancaster

Here are a few reasons I love Jen Lancaster's books:
  • She lives in Chicago. I am so freaking sick of New York City memoirs. Plus I get excited when I recognize a place she mentions.
  • She doesn't have or want kids. I'm also sick of memoirs that end with pregnancy or childbirth, as if that's the only way to find happiness or meaning in life. I still haven't forgiven Jancee Dunn for switching sides from anti-baby (or at least ambivalent-baby) to pro-baby mid-memoir.
  • She has a few pets and discusses them reasonably. She doesn't obsess about them or anthropomorphize them.
  • She's around my age (almost exactly my wife's age), so I can identify with her experiences and pop culture references. I can also identify with her career arc, at least until she bounced back upward as a writer (I never bounced, although I rolled a little).
  • She has weight issues, and Lord knows (as does anyone else who can't ignore my bulging belly) I can relate to that.
  • She's really funny.
But at the same time, I realize it's classified as chick lit so I'm uncomfortable reading her work in public places, especially where someone might ask why I'm laughing so hard.

Confession: I took two books to the restaurant on the corner yesterday. When I saw one of my male friends was working, I left Bright Lights, Big Ass in my bag* and started on the other book instead. Sure enough, he stopped by my table later to see what I was reading. Fortunately I didn't have to show him this book with the pretty cursive script and the shiny handbag on the cover. Phew!

I took a great leap of faith with Lancaster. I bought her first three books, including Bright Lights, Big Ass, all at the same time when Borders in Wilmette was closing.** Luckily, I enjoyed Bitch is the New Black for most of the reasons listed above so it all worked out.

* Please don't call it a murse; I just carry my book(s) in a small plastic shopping bag in case it rains. And my cell phone because I don't like carrying it in my pocket. But that's all. It's not a murse. I swear.

** That store closed in round 1A of the closings, when Borders closed a few dozen stores just as the first round was finishing up. The Wilmette store burned its awesomeness into my memory by playing Chuck Prophet's fantastic Let Freedom Ring CD on the very last day I shopped there (just a few days before they closed forever).

Saturday, July 28, 2012

BC2012: Look at this F*cking Hipster by Joe Mande

This is yet another book derived from a website, one I knew about but never visited (apparently it hasn't been updated since September 2010). I don't like hipsters, so I liked this book a lot. Apparently Chicago hipsters pale in comparison to New York hipsters, and I think that's a good thing. Hipsters here are ridiculous enough.

BC2012: Geekspeak by Dr. Graham Tattersall

I bought this at Borders in Naperville when it closed. That night was also memorable because the Wendy's on Route 59 screwed up my order twice. It wasn't complicated -- I asked for a Baconator plain. When I received a Baconator with mayo, I returned to the counter (this is why I don't do drive-thru windows) and explained that plain meant no mayo. The manager apologized, talked to the guy at the grill, and a few minutes later I got another Baconator with mayo. The third time, the manager made the damn burger himself and got it right.

I will remember that awful Wendy's experience longer than I will remember this book. For starters, Geekspeak is a silly, inaccurate title. A better title might be Everyday Applications of Mathematics, but who the hell would buy a book with a title like that? Why did I buy a book about everyday applications of mathematics with a stupid title like Geekspeak?

I hesitate to say this is a bad book, but it lacks direction. Perhaps if Tattersall were a columnist, this book would be a collection of his columns. But as far as I can tell he is not, which means the chapters in this book ought to have a more coherent underlying theme. I agree with the book's premise in concept -- that people should know how to make basic mathematical calculations to understand the world and to determine whether someone's assertion is reasonable (as opposed to blindly trusting reporters, politicians, et al). But the execution seems rather scattershot (pun intended). Tattersall provides examples whereas guidelines would be much more useful.

BC2012: Jump the Shark TV Edition by Jon Hein

I know what you're thinking: Didn't the whole "jump the shark" thing jump the shark years ago? Well, maybe it did, but I got this used book super-cheap at Barnes & Noble in Madison so I figured why not revisit that pop culture phenomenon? Unlike many of the books I've read this year, I already knew about the website that spawned this book.

It took a surprisingly long time to read this thin volume to my wife while she was getting ready for work. We usually got through just two or three TV shows per day. For anyone interested in older TV shows (the book was written in 2002), this is a fun read to reminisce about what made them great and how/when they went off track.

Friday, July 27, 2012

BC2012: People Are Unappealing by Sara Barron

This is one of those books I never would have discovered if not for the Borders bankruptcy. Since the biography/memoir section was discounted more than most other sections, I bought a lot of books there. By the final days (after shopping at more than a dozen Borders stores), it seemed like I knew nearly every title in that section, and I had purchased many of them. For that reason, I find it hard to remember which book I bought where. Such is the case with People Are Unappealing.

This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious (seriously -- I was giggling like a schoolgirl). Having a cover blurb from Sloane Crosley is perfect because Barron reminds me of her (except IIRC Crosley is cleaner). I would venture to guess this is the only book ever written with FUPA* as a recurring theme. I love the title, too.

* FUPA stands for Fat Upper Pussy Area.

Monday, July 23, 2012

BC2012: Motels: American Retro

There isn't much to read in this photo book, but the "if I bought it, it counts" rule lets me claim this as part of BC2012. I had completely forgotten I had this book, but it churned to the surface while I was decluttering the kitchen (the dining side as opposed to the cooking side) outside of our library.

At seven inches square, Motels is rather small for a photo book, but it's part of a four-volume series from Sourcebooks, Inc. (the others are Main St., Diners, and Cars). To be honest, it's not much of a book. I mainly bought it because it was cheap (under $2) and at the time I was collecting roadside photo books. It does have some decent pictures, though. Highlights include the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ and the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, MO (I've slept in both), as well as a great picture of Roy's Motel in Amboy, CA (all three are located along old Route 66). The photo of the Hobo Inn in Elbe, WA (near Mt. Rainier) made me wish we had stayed there in 2007.


BC2012: Keep the Change by Steve Dublanica

I enjoyed Dublanica's first book, Waiter Rant, so I picked up this one in hardcover when Borders went bankrupt. Still I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about reading it. An entire book about tipping didn't sound all that interesting.

My concern was unfounded; Keep the Change is surprisingly entertaining. Dublanica doesn't just tell us how much to tip. He actually performs many of the jobs to determine just how much skill is involved and explain why that occupation warrants a tip in the first place. He interviews lots of service workers and learns which jobs rely on tips for compensation. Although concierges appreciate tips, they make more money from the businesses they refer people to. At the other end of the spectrum, one shoeshine explains that when you pay him the $7 fee for a shine, he only gets to keep $1. Since his employer doesn't pay a base wage, tips provide almost all of his pay.

Perhaps the ultimate tipping environment is strip clubs. Writing off his expenses as "research" (in Las Vegas, naturally), Dublanica explains how a $200 half-hour VIP room dance costs nearly $300. There is a two-drink minimum and the drinks are $15 each. Then you have to tip the cocktail waitress 20%, the bouncer $20, and of course the dancer 20%. If you use a credit card, the house takes 10% from the dancer and her tip, so you should tip extra to make up for it. Additionally, one must tip the host to get a good seat. Then he looks at the other side -- how the dancers have to tip the hosts, the house moms, the bouncers, the waitresses, and the DJ. In short, there's money being passed around everywhere.

This book is also full of interesting tidbits. For example, Dublanica tells why manicures cost much less today than they did in the 1970s (you can thank Tippi Hedron!).

Lessons Learned / Advice to a Friend

They say you don't know what you've got until you lose it. But sometimes you find that you're better off without it.

Some people are such cesspools of negativity, even a pessimist can recognize them.

People who shit on you are not worth your time, no matter how much you've invested in the relationship.

Sometimes the best solution is dissolution.

No prizes are awarded for sticking it out. Martyrs don't finish first.

If you show too much resilience, people may forget that you still feel pain.

People misunderstand "forgive and forget." It means forgive the transgression, and then forget the transgressor.

When you finally get over the hurt of caring too much, there is serenity in not caring at all.

BC2012: When Science Goes Wrong by Simon LeVay

I often read while dining in restaurants, sucking down free refills of Coke. With this book, that was a terrible mistake. I can sum it up in one word: brains!

In the first chapter, a doctor takes a patient suffering from Parkinson's Disease to China to inject fetal tissue into his brain. Later an autopsy reveals hair growing inside the patient's brain. If that doesn't gross you out, rest assured that the book describes the operation and autopsy in much finer detail. Two chapters later, geologists studying a volcano are caught by surprise when it erupts. A flying piece of rock hits one man in the head. When another attempts to sit the victim upright, his brains fall out. I've never come so close to puking while reading a book.*

My wife says I should have known better; with a title like When Science Goes Wrong, the book has to be full of disgusting tales. She reads lots of "true crime" stories, which she contends are less gory than this book.**

Tossing cookies aside, this is a pretty good book. LeVay describes and analyzes a dozen major screw-ups in a variety of scientific disciplines. His personal expertise is in neuroscience, which perhaps explains the preponderance of cerebral tissues.

* Granted, I normally avoid stomach-turning genres.

** I shouldn't misrepresent the book -- at least a third of the scientific mistakes do not result in gruesome human deaths. But other chapters are utterly horrifying.

BC2012: Conservatize Me by John Moe

In this political version of Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, lifelong liberal Moe spends a month trying to embrace the concepts and culture of modern American conservatism. He interviews leading conservative voices such as William Kristol, Rich Lowry, and Jonah Goldberg, and he reads books by Dinesh D'Souza and Sean Hannity. He puts conservative favorites on his iPod (Daryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?", Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."), listens to conservative talk radio while shunning NPR, and attends a Toby Keith concert where he tries chewing tobacco. He changes his entire wardrobe, shoots guns, and shops for a big SUV. He spends a day in the studio with radio host Michael Medved. He celebrates Independence Day in the Idaho county that voted 92% for George W. Bush in 2004. He attends a College Republican National Convention, and he visits the presidential museums of Reagan and Nixon. Fortunately, he stops short of joining Operation Rescue or the Westboro Baptist Church.

Conservatize Me is a funny and thoughtful book. Moe explores the best and worst of conservatism with mixed but always humorous results. He is surprised to find value in some of the people and their ideas*, but on the other hand there's Lee Greenwood, who just plain sucks.

* This doesn't surprise me since liberals are generally better than conservatives at perceiving and accepting shades of gray. If the book's premise was the opposite, I doubt that a hardcore conservative would admit there's anything good about liberal ideas.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Close to Home

Not literally, but this movie theater shooting overnight in Aurora, CO is creeping me out because my wife also went to a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises last night. I thought I was doing the right thing to drive her to the theater and pick her up afterward* -- it's only a few blocks away, but I didn't want her out walking alone at 3 AM (it's a long movie). I never suspected that being in the theater could be more dangerous than walking the streets.

* No, going to see it with her was not an option. I don't like/watch movies based on comic book characters or superheros. As I've said before, I really dislike comic books.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BC2012: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

Late last month I read an interview with Rhett Miller of the Old 97's where he said Wallace was his favorite author. A few days later I was at The Book Cellar trying to find a book to fulfill my "buy one book locally" commitment, and I found this collection of essays (fans probably will say I should have bought Infinite Jest instead, but I know I'm unlikely to read fiction -- Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl is still gathering dust on my "to read" bookcase, and I love Klosterman*). Overall, this book was challenging to read. I've always prided myself on having a reasonably broad vocabulary, but Wallace's clearly was broader**. I also found his style difficult to get into; I had to push myself to get through the early chapters. Here's my take essay by essay:
  1. This essay recounts Wallace's experiences playing junior tennis in the winds of east-central Illinois. He grew up near Champaign-Urbana, where I was born, which is the main reason I soldiered through the essay.
  2. I nearly quit reading a dozen times during this long, dense meditation on television and fiction writers. However, I loved the part where he described an episode of St. Elsewhere that heavily referenced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and explained how intertwined the two shows were (for starters, both were created by Moore's production company).
  3. Wallace writes about a visit to the Illinois State Fair for an East Coast magazine. This is where the book started to turn around for me. Although I've never been to a state fair, I've been to enough county fairs to identify with the author's observations. This is the book's second best chapter.
  4. This mercifully short book review didn't make a lick of sense to me.
  5. Here Wallace watches the filming of a David Lynch movie, which leads to an in-depth review of Lynch's body of work. I've never seen a David Lynch movie, but after reading almost 70 pages about him, I feel like I have.
  6. This is another essay about tennis, this time about a professional player at the Canadian Open. Although I have little interest in the sport, I still enjoyed this one. I think Wallace was starting to grow on me.
  7. It takes Wallace nearly 100 pages to describe his experiences on a seven-day Caribbean cruise, but wow, I loved this essay! It is informative and frequently hilarious.
For those keeping score, I really liked three (3,6,7), kind of liked two (1,5), didn't get much out of one (2), and found one incomprehensible (4).

* OMG, Klosterman is the new Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine ! I had no idea, though in my defense I was on vacation when they announced it. It sounds like the perfect gig for him.

** I say "was" because Wallace committed suicide in 2008.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Not Complaining

I want to complain about people who complain too much, but that would just make me part of the problem.


Today I've been thinking of all the time, effort, and lives wasted in futile allegiance to a person, group, country, or belief.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

BC2012: Pedaling for Pizza: Our Odyssey on Bikes by Jay McNaught and Robert Berger

When I saw this at Half Price Books in Madison, WI, I just had to buy it. After all, it combines three of my favorite activities: reading, biking, and eating pizza.

It's a fun book, albeit somewhat of a vanity project. These biking buddies seem more interested in documenting their cycling adventures together than providing a useful guide to pizza. The style is casual and conversational; McNaught and Berger remind me of a rambling Click and Clack.

The authors are apparently working on another book, so I have a few suggestions to make it better than the first:
  1. You need to review more pizzas!
  2. I like that you include lots of pictures, but the captions shouldn't merely repeat sentences from the main text.
  3. You should eliminate the excerpts in the margins -- that's more of a magazine style than a book style. (Numbers 2 and 3 can be summed up as "I don't like to read the same words twice.")
  4. Most importantly, why would you go through all the effort and expense of writing and self-publishing a book without hiring a decent proofreader?!?!? It's not just the spelling errors... Sheesh, there are two Chapter Sevens!
Incidentally, I happen to know someone who'd love to proofread your next manuscript.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Rockin' the Office

Just now I was singing Ben Folds'* "Rockin' the Suburbs"** up in my office, and our Siamese cat walked past. I pointed at him and said, "Y'all don't know what it's like being male, middle-class, and white."

Then I thought about it for a second and realized, Yes, he does know what it's like being male, middle class, and white. Or at least cream-colored.

* I may have mentioned this before... I somehow "missed" Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five up until a couple of years ago, so it sounds newer and fresher to me than it probably does to most people. I missed a lot in the late 1990s/early 2000s, maybe because I didn't listen to the radio or even watch TV. Anyway, I've enjoyed collecting older BF/BFF CDs, and now I've already pre-ordered BFF's new one.

** I listened to Rockin' the Suburbs (the album) twice in a row this afternoon (I almost never listen to a CD more than once in a day). In the morning I had "Fred Jones Pt. 2" stuck in my head, one of the most thoroughly depressing songs of all time. Twenty years ago I wouldn't have thought twice about such a situation-- when you're young and invincible, you look at those older co-workers and just wish they'd retire already so you can move up the ladder, get a better office, etc. But now I recognize that this song happens to all of us, and not just with regard to work. You will be replaced and forgotten in every aspect of your life; there are always younger people to plug into your spot. You can fight it, but you cannot win.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

BC2012: Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook

I needed something lighter after reading about old people and Hitler recently, and Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me delivered. This amusing and insightful memoir comes from a self-described Jewish American Princess who marries and immediately heads to Japan for her husband's two-year teaching assignment. Cook had been fully immersed in the "L.A. lifestyle" of shopping, mani-pedis, and driving (in a convertible, of course). In Nagoya, she has to adjust both to a very different culture and to a new role as wife and homemaker.

A lot of reviewers rip on this book because they don't like J.A.P.s -- they complain that Cook is a spoiled brat -- but to me that just seems silly. It's like complaining about the movie The Pride of the Yankees because you don't like the New York Yankees. Besides, Cook is pretty upfront about who she is; it's in the freaking title.

The more I think about this book, the more her husband irritates me, though. It's like he was always saying just the right things to her. He wasn't perfect, but he was close enough to make me feel like a schmuck of a husband myself.

Regardless, I enjoyed the glimpse into Japanese culture, particularly because this book was about living and working there, not just vacationing, and because it was about Nagoya, not Tokyo (not that I have any particular interest in Nagoya, but Tokyo is the New York City of Japan, so it was refreshing to read about an average city instead).

Monday, July 02, 2012

Another Reason to Declutter

Since Moose arrived, there is a new game in our house: What was that?

Here's how it works. I go upstairs to use the computer, leaving a disappointed and bored Moose on the other side of the pet gate (this gate isolates our Siamese cat from our crazy dogs). I'll be reading an article, playing a game, or blogging, and suddenly I'll hear a noise. What was that? Then I run down the stairs to see what sort of mischief Moose has gotten into.

On Friday, he had upended a sturdy wooden chair in the mud room, clawed at the plastic blinds, and knocked over a few other things in that room. Tonight... To be honest, I just can't tell what that was. It might have been the food scoop in the kitchen, which I found lying on the floor, but it didn't really sound like it was that, or like it was only that. And there is the inspiration to declutter: so we can easily scan the room and figure out what is out of place. It's like Highlights magazine come to life -- can you find what's different in this picture?

Unfortunately, Moose has inspired decluttering in another way as well. Last night he pissed on the mud room floor, which happens to be particularly uneven, meaning that his urine ran everywhere. My wife was so angry she said we'll have to return him, but later she backed down. On the bright side, our mud room mostly serves as a sort of halfway house for future garbage anyway. Moose just expedited the process.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Actual Conversation

We're getting ready to go out. My wife asked me to take my shower first while she walked Moose. I finished my shower in the upstairs bathroom, and my wife yelled up to me from the main level.

Wife: Are you done showering?
Me: Yeah. Go ahead.
Wife: What's that noise downstairs?
Me: How the hell would I know? I'm upstairs!
Wife: Are you washing clothes?
Me: No.
Wife: Oh, wait. I am.

June - BC2012 and Other Goals

June was a good month overall, especially compared to last year when I spent most of the month visiting my grandfather in the hospital. This June began with a vacation and ended with the arrival of Moose, our new furry family member.

1. Book Challenge 2012: I got off to a slow start during our vacation and didn't read many books this month. On the bright side, I bought only a few books and even gave my $5 birthday coupon for Afterwords to a friend. June totals: 8 books finished, 3 books purchased. At the year's halfway point, I'm happily surprised by both overall totals: 62 books finished, 38 books purchased.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I got pretty aggressive with this in June. For the past two weeks, my unread messages have hovered in the 60s, a great improvement over recent months when I had more than 300. At this moment I'm down to 47 (and half of those can be eliminated when I get the sound fixed on my PC). I've also unsubscribed from a bunch of lists to help keep my inbox manageable.

3. Drive less: This one is going about as well as I could hope. Aside from our vacation, we drove out to McHenry to meet Moose.

4. Physical activity: We hiked a few miles in Wisconsin early in the month, and then I walked all over River North in 90-degree heat for two evenings at the end of the month. I went for a couple of bike rides, but more often I just thought about it. I hope to walk Moose more after his heart worm treatment is finished.

5. Drink more: This was a success on both counts: I drank more water and more booze.

6. Dine and shop locally: I'm still uncertain about buying a book locally every month because it goes against two goals (#1 & #7) in the service of one (#6), but I figured it would be okay this month since I didn't buy many books elsewhere. I also visited the local distillery for the first time in June. I drove there instead of walking, but that was good because I bought five bottles of spirits (a big load to carry home, plus there's always the chance of being mugged by alcoholics!). As usual, I dined locally plenty.

7. Clean and declutter: After reading The Secret Lives of Hoarders, I launched a full-on assault on our clutter. I threw out boxes of junk. I shredded hundreds of papers. I set aside half a carload for Goodwill plus a few boxes for Open Books. I even cleaned most of my desk. Overall, I made some progress in almost every room in the house. My wife is noticing; now I wish she would help.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: I didn't make any progress, but I sold another $250 worth of advertising.

9. Figure out my professional future: No progress. Each month finds me a bit further adrift.

10. Floss regularly: I've been doing it three months straight now. I almost broke my streak on vacation when my trial-sized spool ran out, but my wife let me use hers.