The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
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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Sunday, May 31, 2009
Finishing May Strong
I finished a few more books this past week. More significantly, I made it through a Half Price Books storewide 20% off sale without buying anything!

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire -- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa - I found this book to be a thought-provoking investigation of what we can attribute about "human nature" to evolutionary -- as opposed to environmental -- factors. When I told my wife about some of the findings within, she had a different take: she says it's just a lame justification for men being pigs. The reviewers at Amazon are similarly split as to the book's worth. My biggest complaint: the authors attribute so many behaviors, emotions, and preferences to the desire to reproduce that those of us who don't want children are made to feel outcast at best, genetically flawed at worst.

Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development by Brooks Kubik - If you have an unruly brontosaurus, this book won't be much help, but if you want to build honest muscle, Kubik will tell you how. He looks back to the strongmen of the early 20th century for training methods and inspiration. These men were phenomenally strong long before today's celebrity workouts and supplement-pushing muscle magazines. To be like them, one must work hard with progressively heavier poundages in productive exercises like deadlifts, squats, and presses (no "isolation" exercises or "toning" for those guys). Kubik also recommends pressing, pushing, or pulling sandbags, barrels, cars, and other "odd objects" to build real strength rather than "pumped" but ineffective muscles. He makes a lot of wisecracks about the "chrome and fern" health club denizens who use the same weights year after year, looking pretty but never getting stronger. I had already gravitated toward Kubik's approach before I started reading Dinosaur Training, and I thoroughly enjoyed this informative and inspirational book. Those who have been spinning their wheels using the "modern" training methods advocated by Mr. Steroid Olympia will find Dinosaur Training to be nothing less than a revelation. Order from Brooks Kubik's Web site.

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely and Answers to 100 Other Weird and Wacky Questions About How the World Works by New Scientist - This book examines a number of life's little mysteries. For example, as a longtime AquaFresh user, I finally learned how the manufacturer makes it come out in stripes. I was a bit disappointed with the format because it contains few definitive answers -- most of the questions have several responses contributed by New Scientist readers, and even then, some are not satisfactorily resolved. Nonetheless, the book is fun and quick reading.

Current tally: 43 books finished, 40 books acquired

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Friday, April 10, 2009
A Solid Week of Reading
The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked - I went through a heavy Beatles phase about 20 years (not coincidentally on the heels of a Charles Manson phase). Back then, I bought and read at least a dozen books about them. Although I still like their music, I'm not the Beatle-ologist I used to be. But while I was looking for something else at Half Price Books, this book by Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh caught my eye.

I enjoyed the way this book reawakened brain cells last accessed years ago, but it's not a good book. Most of it is trivial or esoteric, and I disagree with some of the authors' debunkings. For example, they contend that John Lennon was not a pacifist. Aside from an admittedly unconfirmed allegation that he gave money to the IRA, their argument is based on several incidents where Lennon got into fights. But that just proves he was a mean drunk, not that he supported war or violence as a solution. I hardly think punching some guy at a party in 1963 makes Lennon a non-pacifist any more than it makes him a pugilist. There's a lot of crap like that in this book. Many debunkings are merely conjecture and opinion. I expected some eye-opening revelations, but I found little that I didn't remember from somewhere in the deep recesses of my teenage mind. This book does have a lot of info about the early years in Liverpool, but I was never particularly interested in the details of the band's origins. There is little about the music (less than 20%), which is ultimately the most important thing about the Beatles. Also, I found it ironic that their selected bibliography criticizes books that lack indices since this book doesn't have one, either.

One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) - I wasn't sure whether I'd like this 1986 John Madden book, but when I saw the chapter titled "Why Payton Is The Best," I figured I couldn't go wrong. Actually, I know the players of the 1970s and 1980s much better than I know the current NFL, so this book was a lot of fun to read. My favorite chapters are the meat of the book where Madden names his favorite players at each position and explains what made them great. There are many good anecdotes, too. This is easily the best book out of the four here, and it only cost me $1!

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages - This book is a disappointment. I've read several similar books, and Stupid History repeats many stories I've seen before. Author Leland Gregory employs too many corny puns, and some of this "stupid history" is just random "fun facts" with little or no historical value (isn't there enough real history to fill a book?). Even worse, there are mistakes. For example, Gregory asserts that Eugene Debs is the only person ever to run for president while in prison. But Leonard Peltier ran for president in 2004. The book is copyright 2007, so the author should have known. Amazon reviewers cite other errors, as well. I wouldn't recommend it and I definitely wouldn't trust it.

50 Ways to Build Muscle Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Muscles - I started reading this late last year and came back to it this week. I put it down because I didn't agree with some of author Dave Tuttle's suggestions, but in retrospect, I was being a bit hard on him. Aside from the typical volume training/isolated body parts silliness and a bit too much rah-rah about supplements (Tuttle's specialty), there are some good ideas here. There isn't a lot of new info, but it is useful as a quick refresher about a variety of training concepts. The end of the book is primarily motivational, which never hurts. All in all, there's nothing "ultimate" about this guide, but it's worth reading if it's cheap (as my copy was).

Current tally: 31 books finished, 26 books acquired

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Economic Hit Men, Hard Gainers, and Dead Celebrities
The Secret History of the American Empire by John Perkins -- I thought Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man was a pretty interesting book, so I looked forward to reading this one. It promised to provide more specifics, and it delivers. Perkins moves from continent to continent describing how the American corporatocracy has enslaved and manipulated so-called Third World countries since World War II. Actually, A Secret History would be a more appropriate title because the book is far from thorough. It is based on Perkins' own experiences (lapsing occasionally into memoir) and those of other economic hit men and jackals (his word) that he has met over the years. The examples he gives are just the tip of the iceberg, but this book could really shock a less jaded reader. Perkins ends on a hopeful note with a rousing call to action, comparing our times to the days of the American Revolution with corporate tyranny in place of King George III. As always, I remain pessimistic.

Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert -- This is one of the most thorough books about weight training that I have ever seen. Beyond Brawn is aimed at "hard gainers." At first, this was a turn-off to me because I don't consider myself to be one -- I've always been able to build muscle reasonably quickly when I bothered to lift regularly. But McRobert's broader definition of hard gainer includes the 85% of us who aren't genetically gifted or chemically enhanced. The book describes in painstaking detail how most people should train. Throw away the muscle magazines with their "12 sets per isolated body part" workouts that will only exhaust and frustrate most people. McRobert advocates "abbreviated training," which means fewer sets of fewer exercises with less frequency, focusing on multi-joint exercises that stimulate muscle growth throughout the body. He likes squats, bench press, overhead press, etc., and he loves deadlifts. Unlike many books in the genre, Beyond Brawn doesn't prescribe specific workouts. McRobert instead gives readers the tools (and freedom) to create their own routines. The book also excludes instructions regarding exercise form; for that, get McRobert's forthcoming Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique. The author is intent on imparting information rather than providing entertainment for the reader. My wife doesn't like his serious, somewhat dry, often repetitive style, which I also find tedious at times. She prefers the lighter (but still informative) tone of The New Rules of Lifting, which similarly concentrates on multi-joint exercises. Note: I read the Revised Edition from 2001, not the 2007 Second Edition available from below.

The Last Days of Dead Celebrities by Mitchell Fink -- I wasn't going to buy this, but after reading the chapter about Warren Zevon in the store, I decided to give it a shot. Covering 15 celebrities who have died since 1980, Fink sets the scene and then describes their final months or days. It's a thoughtful survey of death in general: sometimes it comes suddenly, other times naturally or mercifully. The tragic tales of the Johns (Lennon, Belushi, Denver, Ritter) are the most painful to read, even after many years have passed. Perhaps the saddest passage in the book comes from Dan Aykroyd. After his efforts to save Belushi from himself, he recounts having "the talk" with River Phoenix, Chris Farley, and James Taylor's brother Alex-- yet all three died of drug overdoses. Several of the deaths in the book are surrounded by controversy, such as Margaux Hemingway, who did not seem suicidal; Ted Williams, who allegedly did not want to be frozen; and Tupac Shakur, whose Las Vegas murder remains unsolved. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book, even the chapters about people who never interested me before.

Just when I felt confident that I was getting ahead in the game, I answered the siren song of a Half Price Books e-mail full of coupons and bought seven books. Now I'm behind by one book for the year. I'm still struggling to keep this New Year's resolution.

Current tally: 24 books finished, 25 books acquired

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Sunday, February 15, 2009
Power to the People!
When it comes to weight training, it's hard to find a better move than the deadlift. In Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, Pavel Tsatsouline presents a workout program of just two exercises, the deadlift and the side press (a one-armed overhead barbell (yes, barbell) press, though one may substitute another pressing movement).

I haven't tried that exact routine, but it sounds fairly reasonable (keep in mind that he's talking about strength training, not "body building"). For me, the other training advice in Power to the People! is more valuable than the routine. The author covers a lot of ground and dispels a lot of myths that are widely spread by muscle magazines. He doesn't waste words, either; it doesn't take long to read. That's good because much is worth reading twice.

This book's biggest weakness is its price. For 116 pages with liberal amounts of whitespace (excluding 25-30 pages of advertising in the back for Tsatsouline's other products), the $35 list price is a bit much (of course, anyone who knows me knows that I didn't pay that much). Also the author's "evil Russian" schtick, though sometimes amusing, is pretty dated and probably sounded that way even when this book was first published ten years after the end of the Cold War.

Power to the People! presents a realistic way for mere mortals to build strength, none of that "use fancy machines, take lots of supplements, get huuuuge" garbage one gets from health clubs and fitness magazines. Tsatsouline offers practical, no-nonsense advice that can save readers a lot of time and money.

Current tally: 14 books finished, 9 books acquired

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Saturday, February 07, 2009
Brother Iron, Sister Steel
Dave Draper is a bodybuilding legend. His glory days (Mr. America, Mr. Universe, Mr. World) for the most part came before Arnold, but Draper is still pumping in his 60s.

What sets Brother Iron, Sister Steel apart is the pure joy bursting from its pages. Too many bodybuilders and coaches treat the subject with such dry seriousness that the reader sometimes wonders why they do it. With Draper, it's clear that lifting weights is what he loves, and he wants to share that passion. That's also why he's still advising fellow weight lifters on his Web site while most of his contemporaries have disappeared from the scene.

Another thing I like about this book is that Draper has a fairly open philosophy about training. While he has his preferences (he's big on supersets, for example), he accepts that there are many effective methods of training. This is refreshing in a genre where almost every author claims that his or her way is the single best way of building size and/or strength. Draper even suggests inventing your own moves when you're in a slump just to keep things interesting. He takes an "it's all good" approach, so there's something for everyone here. That said, the usual caveat applies: following the routines of Draper or any other champion without having his genetic gifts won't deliver the same results.

In addition to the expected training and nutrition advice, Draper shares stories from his past ranging from hanging out with other bodybuilders to acting in Hollywood. The book has lots of great photos. Some show his awesome muscle development, while others are delightfully cheesy (like his role as "David the Gladiator" introducing movies in 1963). I like the one where he is holding Sharon Tate overhead during the filming of Don't Make Waves. There is also a chapter of Draper's magazine covers from the 1960s. The photos often look silly and/or dated, but what really cracked me up was reading the teasers on the covers because they are so similar to the teasers on modern muscle magazines -- little has changed over the years.

I'd strongly recommend Brother Iron, Sister Steel to anyone with an interest in weight training or bodybuilding. Draper offers a lot of useful advice and great stories, but above all, this is a joyful book of contagious enthusiasm that makes the reader anxious to hit the weights him/herself.

Current tally: 12 books finished, 9 books acquired

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