The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Blog Status
Yes, I know time is ticking away, but I am having a hell of a time computer-wise lately. First my laptop hard drive croaked last Friday. Since I'd have to start over anyway, I figured I may as well buy a new desktop PC (I've had only the laptop since 2005). The new PC is okay except my Internet connection keeps going down for no reason at all. This time it isn't even EarthLink's fault -- according to my DSL modem, everything is fine. But Windows keeps showing a big red 'X' between my network and the Internet. Others have reported similar problems with Windows 7, but all the solutions I've found online have failed.

I'm afraid I'll lose my connection at a critical juncture in the Blogger conversion wizard and something terrible will happen. But the odds are that my computer problems won't be solved by May 1, so I'm going to try to convert my blog now regardless. See you on the other side, I hope. Please go to to follow my further adventures (give me an hour or two -- or more)...


Boys Will Be Boys
Here's another interesting excerpt from Tom Zoellner's Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World:
In 1951, three boys in the prairie town of Dahlhart, Texas, discovered a black rock lying near the railroad tracks. It was weirdly heavy -- thirty pounds -- though only about the size of a hamburger. The boys found that it made colorful sparks when they pounded on it with a hammer. The editor of the local newspaper believed it might be a meteor and sent it off to the University of New Mexico for testing. The rock turned out to be highly enriched uranium, apparently stolen from Los Alamos. An even bigger chunk of it was discovered in a nearby junkyard. If slammed together correctly, these two pieces would have leveled everything within ten miles.
When I read that to my wife, she asked, "Why is it that the first thing boys do when they find something is to pound on it with a hammer?!"
Saturday, April 24, 2010
The Story of Uranus
Everyone knows Uranus as the seventh planet from the sun and the butt (pun intended) of many a joke. But the story of the god Uranus is pretty wild. From Tom Zoellner's Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World:
According to the Greek creation story, [the sky god] Uranus had visited the earth every night to make love with the ground and bring forth children who would one day grow into the mutated Cyclops and the Titans. Uranus hated his own children and ordered them chained in a prison deep inside his wife, the earth. One of the most violent of his children rose up from his prison, castrated his father, Uranus, and tossed the severed penis and testicles into the sea. These organs grew into avenging spirits called Erinyes, or the Furies, who occasionally returned to earth for the persecution and damnation of men who upset the natural order.
So let's see... Uranus screws the earth and then buries their progeny within, like stuffing them back into the womb. One of the kids gets pissed and cuts off dad's manhood (godhood?). Then Uranus's vengeful junk punishes people.

It's really a shame that the legacy of Uranus has been reduced to Klingon jokes.
Quote of the Day
"He's an alcoholic, but at least he drinks at home."
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Blog Update
When I started this blog, I thought I was being smart by using FTP to host it on my own domain. Now that Google has announced the end of Blogger FTP support, I don't look so smart anymore. Come to think of it, I've been feeling stupid for quite a while, ever since Google started adding a whole bunch of features to Blogger that were not available for FTP users (such as layouts and integration).

So after 5-1/2 years, I am being forced to make a decision: move to another URL or kill off this blog entirely. Frankly, my ego would not stand for the second option. Like many writers, I feel that my written work is far more important than it actually is. Killing off this blog is akin to chopping off a limb, albeit not a very important one. I'm sure I could live without one of my littlest toes, but losing it would still be painful.

I will be moving somewhere. The most obvious choice is, but I've decided against that. When I created this blog, I intended to use it to promote my business. Aside from disseminating public appearances related to Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides, this blog has utterly failed in that respect. Who really wants to blog about -- or read about -- work?

Even worse, connecting this blog to my business has compromised my freedom of expression. I've pulled a lot of punches over the years for fear that potential clients will be turned off -- if not downright repulsed -- by my blunt opinions and crass language (at this point, some of you are thinking, If he's been pulling punches, how much of an asshole is he really? Stick around and find out, I guess.). I also have felt stifled in writing about my career on a "company blog," even though it's my company. Instead, I am planning to move to I know clients could still find my blog there, but at least it won't be literally a part of my corporate identity.

Please note that I have not made any changes yet, so don't go to the new URL looking for anything.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Next Time You're on a Bike Path, Think About This
This completely random shit always freaks me out:
The 33-year-old driver of a flooring company van was critically injured this morning when a rotted tree fell on his vehicle as he was driving outside a Northwest Side forest preserve. "It fell directly on his head--it was like the tree aimed at him," said Nancy Hagerty, one of the first people to reach him.
This particular incident occurred on a road, but it could happen in any forest anytime. Many cyclists think trails are so much safer than streets -- even though they may be surrounded by potentially deadly rotting trees!
Thursday, March 25, 2010
My Little Pony
On Monday night, my wife said she wants a pony that she saw advertised on Craigslist. When I asked why, she replied, "Because it's so cute!"

"I think some of the waitresses at the restaurant down the street are cute, but you won't let me bring one of them home," I countered.

Then she said that if I let her get a pony, I could get a waitress (provided she came willingly, of course).

When we went out to eat the other night, one of those cute waitresses was working. I whispered to my wife, "So, should I ask ______ if she'll come live with us if I let you get a pony?"

My wife, who is never sure whether I'm serious, backed down.
Monday, March 22, 2010
It ain't about the money or even being #1
You gotta know when it's all over you did the best you could've done
Knowing that it's in you and you never let it out
Is worse than blowing any engine or any wreck you'll ever have

--Mike Cooley, "Daddy's Cup"


Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Dumbasses of the Day
The Chicago Tribune has an article today about "census resisters" -- people who refuse to give the big, evil government any of their personal information. Clearly these people are living in 1952. Nowadays, anybody can find out anything about you if they want to. Do you really think you're protecting your privacy by throwing away your census form?

They say they want to "send a message" to Washington. And what is that message? I think it's, "I don't mind taxation without representation. Go ahead and send my tax money to some other community." Or better yet, "My silence shows my displeasure with government." Oooh, you guys really know how to protest, don't you?

These people make the teabaggers and the birthers look brilliant.


Sunday, March 14, 2010
I Slept with Cindy Crawford Last Night
Sort of.
Friday, February 19, 2010
The Kick Is Up...
Former Chicago Bears kicker Bob Thomas now serves on the Illinois Supreme Court. He wrote the majority opinion ruling against our convicted former governor today:

George H. Ryan Sr. has clearly forfeited all of the pension benefits he earned from the General Assembly retirement system. As the victims of Ryan's crimes, the taxpayers of the state of Illinois are under no obligation to now fund his retirement.

...And it's good!

Too bad we can't send the Honorable Judge Thomas to the federal prison in Terre Haute, IN to personally deliver a serious kicking to Ryan's corrupt hindquarters.

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Friday, February 12, 2010
CBS Déjà Vu
I watched The Mentalist last night, and it had virtually the same critical plot element as this week's episode of NCIS: Los Angeles!

***spoiler alert for both of the above shows***

Both CBS programs used a staged (faked) shooting to trick a suspect into acting/confessing. Did anyone else notice the similiarity?


Friday, February 05, 2010
You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up
* Since the charges were dropped, I guess I should say, "alleged hooker-slashing..."
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
Okay, So What About 2010?
I made a bunch of resolutions last year and managed to keep a few of them. One might think that success would be something to build upon, but I feel strangely unmotivated this year, uninterested in even setting goals, much less working toward them. Besides, if I really intend to die before I turn 40, making a year-long goal is pointless.

On the other hand, I thought Book Challenge 2009 was a worthwhile pursuit that ought to be repeated in some form. After all, I still have too many books. But then I recall that saying about Mt. Fuji, something like, "You are wise to climb Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice." If one makes a resolution and keeps it, why do it again? Keeping track of how many books I've acquired and finished is a good idea, but I'm not going to challenge myself to anything. I will still write the occasional book review here as I have for the past half a decade, but I won't review every book I finish anymore.

Any other resolutions? Like I said, I haven't felt too inspired lately. Maybe I'll take up heroin.
Bastard of the Day
It's primary election day here in Illinois, so I have plenty to choose from.*

However, I had an experience this morning that distracted me from my rage against politicians. I bought a concert ticket from Ticketmaster. How those bastards can charge $40 for a $25 ticket is beyond all logic and common sense. They are making a killing on consumers with no choice, and it will only get worse after their merger with Live Nation. Here's the breakdown of my costs:
Ticket Price $25.00 x 1
Facility Charge $1.00 x 1
Convenience Charge $8.60 x 1
Additional Taxes $0.43 x 1
Order Processing Fee $5.85
Standard Mail No Charge
The biggest scam is at-home ticket printing. I refuse to pay them $2.50 extra so that I can use my paper and ink -- plus save them postage -- to do their job.

I know this isn't news -- Ticketmaster has sucked for a long, long, long time -- but it's fresh in my mind so they're getting the award. Runner-up is Blogger for dropping FTP support, which may kill off this blog. More about that later...

* I have finally become so disenchanted and discouraged regarding our political system that I may not even bother to vote. I don't trust anybody anymore, and whenever I vote for a candidate I believe in, he or she proceeds to disappoint me (the first year of Barack Obama stank like his initials). I used to be emphatic if not downright enthusiastic about voting, so this is a major turn for me.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
What's Next for Apple?
Apple announced a new product today:
Apple Inc. will sell the newly unveiled tablet-style iPad starting at $499, a price tag far below the $1,000 that some analysts were expecting. The iPad, which is larger in size but similar in design to Apple's popular iPhone, was billed by CEO Steve Jobs on Wednesday as "so much more intimate than a laptop and so much more capable than a smart phone."
First the iPod, then the iPad. I know what's next... the iPud. Whenever you're bored, just pull out your iPud. The iPud is "so much more intimate..." No word yet as to whether Steve Jobs will offer a hand.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Book Challenge 2009 Wrap-Up
Being a compulsive data compiler, I couldn't resist analyzing last year's book project.

Hardcover: 39
Paperback: 62

This is a bit of a surprise because I rarely buy new hardcover editions, but many of them were clearance items at Half Price Books that only cost me $1-2.

Books finished by month, based on the month reviewed (usually but not always the same as month read):

Jan: 10
Feb: 8
Mar: 6
Apr: 11
May: 9
Jun: 9
Jul: 8
Aug: 5
Sep: 9
Oct: 7
Nov: 8
Dec: 11 (including one book reviewed 01/01/2010)

Months don't really illustrate the distribution very well. Reviewing a bunch of books at the end of one month can make the next look bad, or reviewing several books at the beginning of a month can make the previous look bad. I should have recorded the day I finished each book, but it's not a big deal. From the above data, I also calculated that I finished 53 books in the first half of the year and 48 in the second half.

Books by subject/genre. I categorized each book myself, and many books are in multiple categories. For example, Harry Caray's book counts as a sports book and as a memoir.

Memoir: 22
Humor: 20
Music: 14
History: 9
Sports (football, pro cycling, baseball): 9
Political Science: 8
Current Events: 6
Trivia/Q&A: 6
Travel: 5
Science: 5
Weight Training: 5
Essays: 4
Writing: 4
Energy, Water, Chicago, Crime, Journalism, Pop Culture Criticism: 3 each
Movies, TV, Psychology, Language, Biography, Advertising, Transportation, Drugs: 2 each

I didn't realize I read so many memoirs. I got on a rock & roll kick for a while and read more about music than I would have predicted. I would have expected more history and less sports, too.

And finally, here are my ten favorite books read in 2009 (no particular order):

What about 2010? That's a question for another blog entry...


Friday, January 01, 2010
2009 Resolutions in Review
This is the first time I've ever seriously attempted to make and keep New Years resolutions. Before I think about 2010, I should review 2009.
All in all, I guess I didn't do too badly. I succeeded at the resolutions where I made the greatest effort and commitment. Throwing away my gains from weight training by blowing it off for the last few months of the year was a big mistake, though. Why did I stop lifting when I was making progress and enjoying it? Who the Hell knows?

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Just In Case...
Just in case I counted incorrectly somewhere along the way, I managed to finish a 101st book in the waning hours of 2009.

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales - Like Christmas Sucks, this collection of essays had a lot of potential and failed to deliver. My biggest complaint is that it seems like half the essays are written by Jews, which is just weird for a book about Christmas experiences. The conflict between celebrating secular Christmas while religiously respecting Hanukkah is so obvious that including more than one or two takes on that angle is overkill. Alas, most of the Christian writers don't contribute memorable tales either. A few of the essays aren't bad, and most have an amusing moment or two, but this book is not really worth buying or even borrowing. I only paid $4 at Half Price Books, but I wish I had checked the reviews first. I'm glad the Ditka book was number 100, not this waste of time and paper.

Final tally: 101 books finished, 96 books acquired

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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

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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.

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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."

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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

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Friday, November 27, 2009
On the Write Track
This has been a pretty slow year for me business-wise. While I'd like to blame the economy, my own listlessness is the real problem. Maybe reading a few books about writing will give me the kick in the ass I so desperately need. Speaking of kicking...

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

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

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

Current tally: 90 books finished, 83 books acquired

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Saturday, November 14, 2009
Precious Liquids
Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

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

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired

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

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Friday, November 06, 2009
Squeezing Oil From Planet Rock
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising by Luke Sullivan - When I started writing copy, I bought a stack of books about writing and advertising. I suppose nothing reveals what a slacker I am more than admitting that it took me almost half a decade to get around to reading this one (and I haven't touched most of the others, either). Hey, Whipple is an introduction to the world of advertising from the perspective of a "creative" at an agency. Sullivan not only provides examples of great advertising, but he also offers many helpful tips for those attempting to produce such ads. This book won't make you an advertising genius, but it will set you on the right path -- and give you a few laughs, too. Note: I read the second edition; the third edition came out last year and includes new chapters about "new media" and direct-response TV.

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

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

Current tally: 85 books finished, 73 books acquired

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk
First, I must apologize to author Steven Lee Beeber: When I saw that you were signing in August at The Book Cellar (the first time I'd heard of the book), I knew I'd want a copy. As an author myself, I know successful signing events are critical to a writer's mental health. I was free that night, and the bookstore is only a 10-minute walk from home. And yet, I did not drag my lazy butt out of the house that evening (I purchased a signed copy there a few days later). So I'm sorry, and I hope all went well (it probably did -- Suzy T. hosts great signings). If I had attended, I probably would have pestered you with stupid questions about the Dictators like, "What is a two tub man?"

Now that I got that out of the way... I love this book! I've been a fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground for 25 years (my first live concert was Reed at the UIC Pavilion in 1986), and the Dictators are one of my favorite recent discoveries, so I was excited to read about them. Plus Beeber tells much more about Blue Oyster Cult (another longtime favorite) in this book about punk than David Konow does in his book about heavy metal. I've never considered myself much of a punk rock fan, but maybe I've been in denial (probably because by the time I came of age in the 1980s, "punk" meant hardcore like Black Flag, early Husker Du, and the Dead Kennedys).

Beeber essentially credits New York Jews with creating and defining the punk movement. Reed is sometimes known as the godfather of punk (an ironically Christian label considering how many Jews it's been assigned to), and the Ramones (at least half Jewish) are arguably the best known American punk band. Beeber also profiles other Jewish New York punkers like the Dictators (5/6 Jewish), Richard Hell, Chris Stein of Blondie, Helen Wheels, et al. Hilly Kristal (owner of the legendary club CBGB's) and most of the first wave of rock critics (including Lenny Kaye and Richard Meltzer) were Jews, too. This book is about more than artists and their music, though. The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's also describes post-World War II New York Jewishness -- a real education for me, having been raised as a Chicago (area) Catholic.

Anyone interested in punk, particularly the New York scene, must read The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's. I think Beeber makes a convincing argument for Jews being critical to the rise of punk, but even readers who disagree with that premise will learn a lot about many influential performers and the background that informed their work. In Chapter 1, Beeber notes that another book could be written about Jewish influence in heavy metal (heeby metal?) including KISS, Twisted Sister, Geddy Lee of Rush, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and, of course, the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult. Mr. Beeber, I would love for you to write that book. If you do, I promise I'll attend your book signing!

Current tally: 82 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Answers & Advertising
Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (& Not-So-Everyday) Questions by Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D. - The Sones brothers write a syndicated column called "Strange But True" which is similar to Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope". I read a lot of books like this because the format is ideal for reading aloud to my wife as she gets ready for work (a few questions/pages per day). Having sampled this very uneven category, I can say that Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is far better than most. Instead of providing trite responses or mealy-mouthed ramblings, the Sones brothers consult and quote experts to get their answers. The only weak portion of the book is the section about love. Those questions just aren't as scientifically explainable as those about the body, death, and animals. Regardless, if you like this sort of book, Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is one of the best (don't confuse it with Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which is more popular but inferior).

Selling It: The Incredible Shrinking Package and Other Marvels of Modern Marketing by Leslie Ware - The inside back cover of Consumer Reports is my favorite part of the magazine. Each month, the editors put together a page of perplexing advertising and packaging. Examples include garbled English, misleading promises, and oddities like a photograph of a rose bush that appears in several catalogs, each time illustrating a different variety of rose. I was quite excited to buy a compilation of such items, yet this book took seven years to finish. The entries are like bacon -- it tastes great as a garnish, but one can't eat it all the time (and I've tried; eventually the salt and grease overwhelm). Each time I picked up Selling It, I read 5-10 pages, got tired of it, and moved on to something else. Ware's chapter introductions provide some basic consumer education in bullshit detection, but the examples are the best part... even if they don't read well in one sitting.

Current tally: 81 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Saturday, October 10, 2009
The Waiter, The Bard, And Lots Of Cops
Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica - Dublanica (whose blog I haven't read) humorously describes the challenges and frustrations of waiting tables. Waiter Rant isn't exactly the book I wanted it to be -- I'd rather have less of the author's life story -- but I enjoyed it much more than Debra Ginsberg's Waiting. If you're browsing at the bookstore, at least take the time to read "Appendix A: 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer." Not only is this useful advice, but if you like the way it's written, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the book.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson - To be honest, I've never had much interest in Shakespeare. I endured Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in high school freshman English class, and I haven't given him much thought since. But when I saw this book by Bryson, an author I enjoy very much, and found that it was about Shakespeare the person rather than his works, I figured it was worth a shot (its brevity also attracted me). My gamble paid off, as Shakespeare is a fascinating book that examines the playwright's life in the context of late 1500s-early 1600s England. This is not a groundbreaking work (nor does it pretend to be), but Bryson succeeds in making the biography of someone I wouldn't ordinarily care about into something entertaining and worth reading. Note: an updated and illustrated edition is coming out next month.

On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department by Daniel P. Smith - Despite my negative predisposition toward any book that I could've/should've written myself (my wife is a Chicago police officer), I found On the Job to be pretty insightful. Smith combines a history of the department with plentiful mini-bios of current and former officers. He interviews a broad range of men and women from various units, collecting humorous and heartbreaking stories from throughout the city. On the Job is undoubtedly favorable toward the department, which probably explains why it didn't get much attention from the local media where cop-bashing has been in fashion lately. Although the frustrations of police work are not ignored, the book avoids the jaded cynicism of bloggers like Second City Cop. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Chicago history or policing, especially anyone considering a career in the field.

Current tally: 79 books finished, 69 books acquired

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