The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, January 01, 2010
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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Tuesday, December 29, 2009
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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Sunday, January 01, 2006
Holidays on Ice
No, I didn't see an ice skating show -- I bought this petite sampler of six Christmas stories by David Sedaris. I've heard tapes of Sedaris doing readings at bookstores, and I really liked them. At Barnes & Noble a few days before Christmas, I saw this book and started reading parts of the first story, "SantaLand Diaries." It was hilarious, and I decided to buy the book. By the way, this isn't a new release; it's been out in paperback since 1998.

Holidays on Ice is okay, but it could have been much better. "SantaLand Diaries" is easily the cream of the crop, a delightful chronicle of the life of a Macy's elf that is rather like "Miracle on 34th Street: the Untold Story." The second story, framed as a twisted Christmas letter (a genre begging for satire), is darker but still entertaining. The book declines through the following stories, with the rambling, obtuse "Based Upon a True Story" being the nadir. The final selection, "Christmas Means Giving," is amusing in a morbid sense like the second story, though it tries a bit too hard.

On the back page of Holidays on Ice, there is a photo of the audio version of the book. While the paperback cover shows a holiday glass filled with some liquid and ice cubes (I'd guess liquor, but maybe that's just my idea of getting through the holidays), the audiobook package shows Santa Claus standing at a urinal (with an empty one on either side, as is the guy code). Intriguing. I had never thought about Santa using the urinal. Could you imagine a little boy coming up to him and asking for gifts while he's trying to do his business? And what if Santa has a shy bladder? It's probably best for department store Santas to have their own private toilet facilities, or at least something apart from the customers. Besides, you wouldn't want an impressionable young kid to see Santa adjusting his fake beard in the mirror.

All in all, Holidays on Ice is an uneven book. Since the first two stories originally appeared in Sedaris' Barrel Fever, one might be better off buying that instead. It's only a few dollars more than the $8.99 Holidays on Ice.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Thank you very little to those losers at the online Goliath who spoiled our family Christmas this year. My mom told me around Thanksgiving how she had gone to and carefully picked out all of my brother's CDs ("usually ships within 24 hours"), only to find at checkout that many (most?) of them wouldn't be shipped until after Christmas. Oddly enough, the "late" items included several recent releases that should not have been in short supply. She wondered if it was their way of trying to get her to upgrade to a paid shipping option. It didn't work -- instead, she bought some of those CDs at a different store (Target, with its broad selection!).

Alas, my tastes are generally more obscure than my brother's, so the discount store CD bins were not so accommodating. This year I got the following gifts from my grandparents (Mom shopped for them at When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops by George Carlin and Both Sides of the Line by Jason & the Scorchers (the latter is a combination of their 5-star EP Fervor and their 5-star debut LP Lost & Found -- simply some of the best music ever made). My grandparents usually spend a lot of money on me, so it seemed odd that I received only two gifts... until I saw the little piece of paper listing the items that hadn't shipped yet. One book, one DVD, and six CDs! Yes, that means 80% of my gifts were not sent on time, and the order was placed on December 5.

Looking for yet another reason to loathe the online behemoth, I looked up the missing items that are expected to ship between January 11 and 26:
The Fine Art of Surfacing by The Boomtown Rats - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Rumble! The Best of Link Wray by Link Wray - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Blood of the Ram by The Gourds - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Dem's Good Beeble by The Gourds - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Mr. Bill's Disasterpiece Theater DVD - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Made to be Broken by Soul Asylum - "Usually ships within 7 to 10 days"
Hitchhike to Rhome by Old 97s - "Usually ships within 7 to 10 days"
Signspotting by Doug Lansky (book) - "Usually ships within 4 to 6 weeks."
Well, isn't that interesting? So if I were to order these items today, I should expect five of eight to be shipped within 24 hours? And yet the order my mom placed on December 5 is not expected to arrive for at least two more weeks? Why do some people love this company when clearly they suck?

Of course, it could be -- and may very well turn out to be -- worse. A year or two ago my mom ordered a CD for me from which, after repeated delays, was finally declared impossible to deliver, vanished from the face of the Earth. Come to think of it, she never let me pick out an alternate selection!


Monday, December 26, 2005
Bittersweet Christmas
Our dog Teddy was a part of our Christmas celebrations since he showed up in our backyard in 1998. In our family, the dogs go everywhere -- Mom & Dad's house, Grandma & Grandpa's house. One Christmas Eve there were nine dogs at my grandparents' house! I guess having a dearth of children and a multitude of dogs makes this seem perfectly reasonable to us, though some people think we're just nuts. Of course, Rosco, our other dog, has been part of the festivities since 1999, although he was unofficially banned from Grandma & Grandpa's a few years ago. It was bad enough that he barked vociferously at my grandmother when she donned a fur coat (my wife said he was jealous that she had caught so many animals to make it!), but when he lifted his leg on the kitchen wall, he became canis non grata. I guess it was just as well since Teddy was uncomfortable that night. He was getting older, and visiting my parents in the morning and grandparents in the evening was just too much for him. He was hiding in the closet and pawing at the front door to go home. So in recent years we have taken the dogs to see my parents but left them at home in the evening.

It would have been hard enough to celebrate Christmas without Teddy, who died this summer, but it was even harder celebrating with Maggie. Maggie is my parents' dog, a yellow lab mix. Since they got her a couple years before I moved out of the house, she's my dog, too. She is the one who made me a dog lover. I always liked dogs, but Maggie just has a way of getting into people's hearts. In April 1997 I took care of Maggie at my condo near Lake Michigan while my parents went on vacation. In the preceding weeks, I had been telling everybody that Maggie was going to be a babe magnet. With my pathetic dating history (if I were an ancient Greek, I would have been named Platonicus), my friends got a laugh out of that. Sure enough, the first day I walked Maggie on the lakefront, a woman stopped to pet her. Twenty-one months later, we were married. We even had a yellow lab statuette atop the wedding cake beside the traditional bride and groom.

Just before Thanksgiving, Maggie was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. The vet said she had two weeks to six months, that with some luck she'd be there to celebrate Christmas, but we'd better cherish every day after that. Needless to say, we've been visiting my parents more often than usual. Although she has been losing weight, Maggie is doing okay (my mom says that's because nobody told her she's sick). But having Christmas without Teddy and knowing that this would very likely be Maggie's last made it difficult to enjoy the holiday. My parents gave us a calendar with photos of the family dogs (Maggie, Molly, Teddy, Rosco, and Ellie) and a throw with a photo of Teddy stitched into it. Somehow we managed not to cry.

Maggie also made the trip to my grandparents' house, although in her old age she growls at the other dogs whenever they come near. After all the gifts were opened, my dad was in a sour mood so my parents abruptly left; I hardly got to say goodbye to Maggie. I hope I get to see her again. At least I spent several hours petting her while everyone was opening presents that night.

We do most of our gift-giving on Christmas Eve, and then we go to my aunt & uncle's house on Christmas Day without our dogs. There my mom told me she had been looking through old photos and found one of Maggie. Years ago (probably in 1999), I had run a race before going out to their house. I had received a finisher's medal (as opposed to a medal for a top placing -- I was never even close), and I put it on Maggie. I had forgotten all about that, but I knew what my mom was going to say next... the picture reminded her of the photo of Teddy I posted on my blog, the last picture I ever took of him.

After four months it still hurts. My wife sometimes worries that he wouldn't have wanted us to put him to sleep or that he could have lived a bit longer. I try to reassure her and remind her of his condition at the time, how he couldn't do the things he loved anymore, and how we had done all we could. I feel like sometimes I remember too much about his final month instead of all the happy years that came before. We still think about him every day, and maybe we always will.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005
Santa Derailed
Every year the Chicago Transit Authority runs a special Holiday Train in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It features red and green lights, as well as a flatbed railcar with Santa Claus on board. CTA employees are dressed like elves. I've never been on this train, but I once saw it out the window of our guest bedroom (known as "the Train Room").

Yesterday, for the second time in three years, the Holiday Train derailed... in the exact same spot! Wendy McClure, author of I'm Not The New Me, was there and took pictures. (hat tip to Gapers Block)

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Thursday, December 08, 2005
No Chreasters at the Megachurches
My mom calls the people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter "Chreasters." Oddly enough, some of the biggest Protestant churches in the country, citing low attendance, are closing on Christmas Day! And on top of that, Christmas is on a Sunday this year! You'd think people would show up just out of habit.
"This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" said David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."
Is this what Christianity in America has come to? Bill O'Reilly can't shut up about people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" (don't get me started on him), and these Protestant megachurches don't even bother to unlock the doors on Jesus' birthday. Pretty pathetic.


Last Call for the Walnut Room?
First off, Federated Stores says that the famous Walnut Room of Marshall Field's flagship store on State Street (follow link for ironic headline) will survive the store's conversion to Macy's next year. But I cannot imagine our family's December tradition of having lunch beneath the tree in the Walnut Room followed by an afternoon of shopping in this retail cathedral without the Marshall Field's name on the doors and the menus.

Wednesday was the sort of day that those of us who work at home love -- the frigid forecast was an invitation to fix a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the 15 inches of insulation that I finally had installed on Tuesday. Alas, it was the one day when everyone (grandma, grandpa, mom, three aunts, an uncle, a cousin and her two daughters (so I guess that's three cousins)) was available for our annual Field's trip. I had a special responsibility this year. As the one who lives closest to State Street, that Great Street, I was expected to arrive early to reserve our table.

The commute downtown went well. I just missed a Brown Line train, but I scored an instant transfer to the Red Line at Belmont (I swear the coldest spot in the city is on the elevated platform waiting to transfer, with the wind cutting through your clothing and frosting your skin). In the store, a waiting elevator took me to the seventh floor where there was no one in line at the Walnut Room. In recent years they have switched to a beeper system to manage the crowds, but there is still a long line later in the day (just to get a beeper). I was so early that I feared that I would be paged before the rest of the family arrived, so I lurked nearby reading a book (Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists by Joel Best) for 15 minutes. When I took a pager, I was told that it was for the 11:00 seating, the first of the day.

I had given my cell phone number to my mom the night before and assumed that she would at least have her phone on, but I was wrong. I tried to call her at 10:15, 10:30, 10:40 and 10:50. I waited near the beeper line, which began to stretch around the corner and down the hallway. By 10:55 I was getting nervous -- I might be sitting at a table for 11 by myself! Finally everyone showed up, and fortunately my pager didn't go off until 11:15 or so.

Shopping at Field's is one of those things I only do for tradition. While I once followed in my mom's footsteps as a power shopper, I have become less and less interested in "the hunt" over the past decade or so. In addition, the Walnut Room's food and service seem to be a little worse every year. And the Harry Potter-themed tree they had a few years ago was just ghastly. The merchandise has declined, too, especially for Christmas decorations. I usually get the most enjoyment out of making fun of everything. Besides, with more Christmas junk in the basement than we could ever be bothered to display already, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about ornaments or even the ever-expanding line of Department 56 buildings (every year I am disappointed to see that they still haven't added a brothel).

This year, however, the Walnut Room was surprisingly good. Service has improved -- I said everybody was working extra hard because they were afraid of losing their jobs when Macy's takes over. The BBQ spice chicken sandwich I had was downright fabulous. I removed the too-generous onion topping, but the multi-grain bun was tasty and satisfying. The chicken itself, while a bit drier than I expected (I had misinterpreted "BBQ" to means "BBQ sauce"), was quite flavorful. Even the seasoned fries were good, not over-seasoned like Bennigan's, Friday's, et al. On the other hand, my grandparents seemed less impressed with the chicken pot pie that I've eaten there so many times over the years. Halfway through her meal, my grandma quipped, "Look, a piece of chicken!" We finished with the traditional round of cinnamon toast (a hot drink with apple cider and amaretto that comes with a souvenir Field's Santabear glass) for dessert.

We walked past the Great Tree on the way out, but we went up to the eighth floor to take pictures. This year it was decorated with Swarovski crystal ornaments, a great improvement over Harry Potter. My mom had said it was something-ski, so I took to calling it Grabowski. Imagine a tree full of Ditkas. Now that would be cool.

I have no idea what Blogger did to this photo I took with my cell phone, but if you click on it, it looks normal.

The shopping went as expected. I got to make fun of a lot of goofy stuff and didn't buy anything. The offerings in the Christmas store were odd. For starters, they had evergreen feather wreaths. The weirdest thing is that they were displayed around the waists of sewing mannequins (the kind that go from the neckline down to the hips). They looked like feather hula skirts. There were some neat but way too expensive ornaments, but my favorite was one I called "the food chain ornament:" a cat looking intently at a fish jumping out of its fishbowl. I suppose it would be okay for someone who likes cats, but I don't think goldfish lovers would appreciate it! I don't know -- a predator-prey ornament just doesn't seem to be "in the Christmas spirit."

My grandma waited forever to make her purchase, and my mom waited forever to get gift boxes at the gift wrap counter. Maybe Field's improved the service at the Walnut Room by taking people away from the other departments! While waiting for my mom to get her gift boxes (you've gotta love that Field's touch -- they gave her 15 boxes for 15 ornaments she had purchased for $3.03 each), I noticed that there was a voice mail on my phone. My wife said that our dog had eaten the apple dumpling pie she had left on the kitchen counter. On the bright side, each of us had tried a slice and decided it wasn't so great anyway. On the other hand, our dog would probably get sick later.

The rest of our day was so-so. My mom found a great gift for my brother, and I think one of my aunts bought something. I spent time looking around and soaking up the architecture of the place. Granted, Macy's won't tear down the Tiffany ceiling, but it just won't be Field's anymore. In that respect, it was a sad goodbye yesterday. I don't know if my family will be going to the Walnut Room in 2006, but I can't imagine it being Macy's Walnut Room. The quintessential Chicago temple of retailing will become just another location of the New York store. We might as well hand over Wrigley Field to the Yankees.

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