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Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

The book count is 34 books this year, I actually have four more to write about but I'm out of time.  This year I'm not going to be as hard on myself for falling short of the 52 books in 52 weeks mark because some of the books I read were textbooks.  Since textbooks are 700 pages of raw information and since I read some of the chapters of my macroeconomic theory and public policy books several times I'm going to count this year as the most thorough year of reading that I've had in years.  Now it's on to the awards in my limited world of literature.

Best book:  Let the Great World Spin

Worst book:  Potshot

The book I can't stop thinking about is Super Sad True Love Story.  The story itself was average but the world was so detailed and such an interesting take on our modern world of social networking and oversharing.  Also Gary Shteyngart has such a powerful and compelling literary voice and cadence to his writing that I'm compelled to read his other novels.

The best thing to happen locally is the used book store that opened in Nashua.  It's called, plainly enough, Used Book Superstore.  If you live in the New Hampshire/Northern Mass area keep your eye out for the 40 percent off coupons.  We went in as a family last night and we spent enough that they gave us another coupon good for 50 percent off for the next two weeks because we spent so much.  I guess just like a good casino they know how to recognize their prime customers and ply them with discounts.

The best thing to happen to me literature wise was the arrival of e-books into my life.  In March I bought a droid phone which had an e-book reader on it called Aldiko.  I was instantly hooked.  I still read more print books than e-books but I can see a day when the e-book rules all.  From doing academic work this year I'd have to say that both print books and e-books have their advantages.  Print books have what I call the flip factor.  It's easy to flip a couple of pages back in order to take another look at a table or to re-read a chapter or two.  I'd never attempt to do homework with an e-book.  Homework is all about flipping all over the place of answers and e-books are just not quite fast enough yet to allow you to flip all over the place to find an answer.  E-books do have the advantage of search though.  I keep running into situations where I start writing a paper and remember a passage I'd really like to find to cite or to read again.  Indexes help but they're not nearly as good as a search for a word that you knew was in the sentence.  E-books are still inferior if you like marginalia and finding little notes in your used books so hopefully print books will be around for a long while.

So here is to a happy and prosperous 2011!  I hope you read some great books and win some big hands.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Economic Growth in Britain and France, 1780-1914: Two Paths to the Twentieth Century

Whew, just reading the title of that book wore me out.  This book was one I read for research on my term paper on French economic history.  Originally I was going to write a paper on French economic history from the industrial revolution to the present, that turned out to be a too broad nightmare.  I then decided to write a paper on whether or not the French Revolution made workers better off, no dice, there is not a lot of material on that kind of history, probably because as soon as the French revolution was over Napoleon was in power so there just isn't a whole lot of French revolutionary history without taking into account the effects of the empire.  Lastly I decided that my best plan was to write about France during the industrial revolution, mostly because there were lots of books at the University library about it.

The University library is an amazing place.  I've never seen a collection of such amazing books about history and economics and math and social sciences before.  If I won a big lottery prize I would probably spend all day and night at a university library.  There is no larger collection of books there that no-one wants to read.  Another book I read for this paper was Rondo Cameron's France and the Economic Development of Europe which has been checked out twice before my since it was published in 1962.  One of the checkouts was returned the same day and since it is a thousand page monstrosity of tables, charts and dense statistics I'm positive that unless it was John Nash that checked it out that day it was not completely read.

The horrifying thing about my choice of paper topic was that I read my professor's bio after I'd chosen the topic and it turns out he is an expert on French economic history.  Since I'm totally obsessed with grades and any other form of achievement, I knew that it was going to be some work to get an A.  I ended up reading 1500 pages altogether of French economic history to get my paper done.  I've collected my A though and O'brien and Cameron have gone back to collecting dust.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

You may be asking yourself, "didn't you post about this already?"  Well Dear Reader let me assure you that there is a huge difference between the book by  J.Mokyr entitled The British Industrial Revolution an Economic Perspective and the Robert C. Allen book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective.

To give it to you the dry straight facts, Mokyr's book is about the theory of what caused the Industrial Revolution.  Why the 18th and 19th centuries and why Great Britain.  Allen also has his own theory and his introduction chapter covers this but Allen goes much more in depth about the history of Great Britain and does more to compare what was going on in England to what was happening on continental Europe and in Asia.

Allen's book does tell more of a story.  I loved the section where he discussed entrepreneurs and inventors in the U.K.  This was one of the moments of economic history class where economic history resembled what I thought history was about before I took this class.  I always imagined that history was a bunch of retired old men reading musty old books and telling stories around the fire at night while they smoked their pipes.  I never imagined that they would pore over spreadsheets of the percentage income gains of British laborers vs. French laborers.

If you do want to pick up an economic history book about the Industrial Revolution, I would say this one is the more accessible of the two.  Also it's much cheaper with a list price of $25 vs. the insane price of $50 that Mokyr's book is going for used on Amazon right now.  It looks like I'm about to make my own economic history by selling a paperback book on Amazon for a much larger price than I would ever have imagined.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Good in Bed

Chick lit has been controversial this year.  Jonathan Franzen was recognized and applauded for freedom before it even came out.  Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult decided to speak out about what they perceive as unfair media bias against women writers.  For some reason I'm drawn to situations where media types get all hot blooded so I decided to check out some of the books Picoult and Weiner have written to see what they're talking about.

I started with a used copy of Good in Bed, I hope Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner don't think that I'm going to be giving them any money to figure this out.  I'm afraid that unless you can produce some compelling cover art, I'm not going to be buying any new books.  My bookshelf is stacked two layers deep, I just got an unexpected bonus at work and I have a used bookstore coupon that's going to get used along with some of that bonus money.  Mr. Franzen won't be seeing any royalties either because I was able to pick up a big hardcover copy of The Corrections at the used book store as well.

Let the battle begin.  Jennifer Weiner's Good in bed is the story of a writer named Cannie who works the celebrity section of a newspaper.  Her ex-boyfriend gets a job at a national women's magazine writing a column called "Good in Bed".   The boyfriend writes about their relationship.  Cannie is overweight and the boyfriend writes about how challenging it is to date an overweight woman, which is of course our heroine Cannie.

I'm honestly reaching for ways to compare this book to other media I've consumed but the only other girly media that comes to mind is the day I was stuck with nothing else to do and ended up watching Bed of Roses in Lake Powell.  I think I may not have been sober that day either but I do remember the stalker flower salesman randomly chasing down some woman and then one of them deciding that they were having second thoughts.  I'm still perplexed at how having second thoughts about a perfectly normal relationship is a plot driver, in fact I'm not even sure that most men have second thoughts.  In fact many of the situations I've been in make me wonder if I even am capable of forming complete first thoughts.

Some of this book was fascinating.  There was a chapter where Cannie described going to college and getting her job in fantastic detail.  Jennifer Weiner showed some amazing talent in parts of this book, some parts though were rough, so rough that I'm surprised that anyone let it go to print without another re-write.  The ending was happy, Cannie got everything she wanted, it certainly didn't happen the way anyone would want it to happen but it happened nonetheless.

From a literary standpoint this book was average.  I need to finish the Picoult and Franzen before I make any kind of judgement about media bias and the subjugation of women's fiction but comparing this to other books it is a pretty lukewarm bowl of soup.  It wasn't terrible enough to send it back but it wasn't good enough that I'd call it memorable without the controversy.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The European Economy Between the Wars

Finally economic history starts to get interesting and useful once you can read about the post World War I economies of Europe.  There are still plenty of tables to be found here but at least there is some narrative and it starts to resemble the history you know and love.

Highlights of the years between the wars include reparations,  German hyperinflation, and of course the Great Depression.

The best chapter was the one that discussed the observation of Marienthal by sociologists.  Marienthal was a textile town that was completely devastated when the textile mill that supported the town shut down.  The workers had unemployment insurance but the unemployment wouldn't allow them to work at all. If someone who was receiving payouts worked at all, even carrying milk to market for a portion of the milk or taking in any kind of sewing they were cut off from the payments.  The town essentially became a place where people sat around and played cards all day and did nothing.  Even the city parks and common areas became overgrown.

So is it worth a read?  Only if you're into IS/LM curves, collapse of demand, and tariff policy.  I enjoyed this more than the other textbooks for my class but I know this won't be for most people.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

This was my first E-book purchase from Barnes and Noble.  I was wandering around the store a couple of months ago and was fascinated with the cover of this book.  I read the blurb on the back, a distopian future, government intrusion, xenophobia, count me in!  I started by downloading a sample, samples are the best part about e-book readers.  It takes the best part of bookstores where you can thumb through a book you're not sure you'll like but it takes out that part where you have to travel to a bookstore and feel guilty about ruining a book you have no intention of buying.

The story is set in a near future, everyone is afraid of terrorism so government checkpoints exist everywhere from the ferry terminal to random stops on the road.  Permanent life extension is just around the corner, in fact the protagonist works for a company that sells life extension.  I loved how Gary Shteyngart handled the evolution of social networking.  Everyone is on a global social networking site called globalteens.  All of your information is on the site, your credit rating, a rating of how attractive you are, all of the photos and videos that you've ever taken or been in.  I liked it because the truth may be that in the future, when so much information about ourselves is online, the only way to manage it will be to overshare.

I loved the book and the characters but I can't say it was a great or even a very good book.  The characters were engaging, the world was deep and well thought out, but the plot was just missing.  The characters wandered around in the world, the book came to a conclusion but I was left wondering where the other half of the book is.  Not in a good way where you're waiting for a sequel but in a bad way where you wonder if the author and publisher took a half finished book and decided to push it out to meet a deadline.  If you look it up on Amazon you'll see very mixed reviews, it's a like it or hate it kind of book.  I'd liked it, but felt it deserved a bit more work.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking has been on the news lately discussing how he has theorized that God is not necessary in the creation of universes.  Since the physics involved are probably at the edge of the frontier there is probably a very short list of people that can agree with him or contradict him.  The man is to the point where he can only move one cheek and one finger so I assume the existence or lack of of a supreme creator is high on his mind.

A Brief History of Time is called the most read physics book of all time.  I've seen it hanging around in book stores for quite a while and since I've been on  physics bent lately I decided to check it out.  Like Einstein Stephen Hawking is able to describe some very complex topics in simple language.  Unlike Einstein the math was missing from this book so the narrative experience was better.  When I'm reading things like this I like to have the math handy but not in the middle of the text.  Math in the middle of a theory book written for the mass market is like a Tom Bombadil poem is in the Lord of the Rings, you can just skip it and go on to the next line of the story.

If you're interested in a good description of quantum mechanics or black holes I'd recommend this book.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thomas Paine IV: The Age of Reason

This is post 100 here at www.wildpokerman.com.  It's been about 4 years since I started the site, it was soon after I moved to New Hampshire.  It's fall right now and the pageantry of foliage is on full display here in Nashua.  The trees are explosions of oranges and yellows.  My favorite tree is the one at the house next door, every year the leaves turn orange but stay green at the very edges.  It was an amazing scene yesterday morning as I pulled out of the garage.  The sun was rising and was a bright orange ball and seeing it through that tree was an experience and a half.  Fall is a time of year that I don't regret moving here.

So onto the post that's been sitting in the unfinished bin for about three years.  Originally I didn't want to put it up because four Thomas Paine posts in a row was too much.  I sat on it for a while after that because I wanted to do some more reading and thinking.  Right now I'm in the middle of God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens so I thought I should finish this post before I write about that book.

Thomas Paine left America as a hero, his pamphlets and articles inspired a nation in it's time of need.  He made the clear case for American independence and then moved back to Europe to continue his work of inspiring men to take destiny into their own hands.  In Europe he wrote Rights of Man, clearly explaining the case for the French revolution and furthering his case for representative democracy.  One of his later works was the Age of Reason and it was his most poorly received works, at least by people without titles of nobility.

Paine starts out with a declaration of his faith in God, and follows shortly after with his declaration that he did not consider himself a believer in any current christian church.  In his preamble he states "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."  Brave words for a man who lived in the 18th century where church and state were one in most of the world.  I don't know how much of his deism was a result of his moral evaluations of the state structures in the world at that time and how much was the result of his examination of the bible but it does appear that he examined the bible closely.

"I have now gone through the bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow."  he says in part II of The Age of Reason.  He spends  fair portion of his book describing the inconsistencies between what is written in the bible and what he perceived as reality.  According to legend, he lived his latter life in America impoverished and disowned by his former revolutionary colleagues.  Later biographers seem to think that this is a myth and I hope that it is.

Thomas Paine bravely used his pen to speak truth to power without fear of consequence and deserves his place among the cannon of American patriotism and among enlightenment thinkers.  That is a life and spirit worth celebrating with a 100th post.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The British Industrial Revolution an Economic Perspective

Textbooks are crazily expensive.  Beyond an economic explanation there should probably be some kind of societal investigation into the reasoning behind why this book should cost $50.  It's not even a hardback, like they couldn't throw in a decent cover for that price.

Beyond railing about the price of textbooks,the content of this book was dryer than the sands of Arrakis.  Dense doesn't begin to describe the text, the number of facts and figures this book threw at the industrial revolution was amazing but there was no context or conclusion.  Honestly the only section of the book that provided an interesting narrative was the section where Mokyr discusses the societal causes of the Industrial Revolution.  He said that the British society was unique because social classes weren't fixed, a wealthy man who gained wealth through industry or scientific practice or literary arts was just as revered and respected as a member of nobility. That took all of about two paragraphs.

And when that is the most interesting story to tell.  Since I don't expect anyone will read this for fun I'll have to just advise don't, and please buy my used copy at the end of the semester.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Getting Things Done

Ironically this book took me about two years to read.  I would get to the middle of the second chapter and get completely stuck.  Self improvement books are tough to get through because if the author is any good you want to go out and try some ideas right away.

Chapter 1 discusses David Allen's theory of organization.  You must have a system and you must start from the bottom up.  Most systems are top down systems, what that means is that you get down your goals and dreams and then start modifying your life to reach those goals.  A bottom up approach means you get rid of all the meaningless tasks that get in the way of you developing goals and dreams.

Chapter 2 where I always got stuck has you gather every single task that you want to do, have to do, think you might want to do, have committed to do or thought about doing into one place and one system.  Then you start processing them.  If it takes less than two minutes to do you just do it.  I was surprised how much I got done just by getting that far.  There's nothing like getting a few score nagging little tasks that you've been procrastinating out of the way and getting them out of your space and out of your head.  That was where I always got stuck, who has time to gather together everything you ever wanted to get done into one place?  It seemed overwhelming but now that it's done it just makes good common sense.

The subsequent chapters are about organizing your life.  David Allen explains what should go on your calendar, what should be filed, and what items should be reviewed daily, weekly and monthly.  It's a good comprehensive system.  I do have to admit that adopting all of his ideas is still an ongoing process, so far I'm working off a to do list and have an empty e-mail basket at work.  I really feel like I benefited from using it and I feel like I'm getting more done.  I really feel like there's no way I could take on work and school at the same time without it.

If you're looking for an organization book or looking to find a system to manage your life better I would highly recommend this book.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dune

After high school my friend's father started a construction business with his three sons.  It rapidly went into bankruptcy because his father under-priced the market, took jobs that were inadvisable if not impossible and because of family politics.  Everyone was working for less than minimum wage by the time the last job came along  I,as a young adventure seeker, decided to take a tour of duty and try my hand at construction for less than half of minimum wage.  This decision was a disaster.  Not only am I deathly afraid of heights I'm very fearful of saws due to an incident in junior high wood shop.  I ended up making $50 for a month of work, losing my car and moving back home with mom and dad.

The job we were on was building a cabin way out on the woods.  Fall was coming quick and there was no way a four man crew (one of the brothers had smartly quit the business by then) could close in this cabin by first snowfall.  The commute was two to three hours on a dirt road so the most efficient way to get work done was to drive out and work two or three days and then come back to town for a day.  On these camping trips we read a lot once it got dark, there was no electricity yet and we were too poor to run a generator all night so reading by firelight was a good way to pass the time.

My friend had a copy of one of the Dune series and I tried to read it but just could not get into it.  Bene Gesserit this, Muad'Dib that, spice and desert.  It was the driest sci-fi I'd read to that point.  When I picked up a copy of Dune at the local grocery store book bin it was mostly for nostalgia.  I never thought I'd read it let alone finish it. In fact because the first hundred pages are so dry it took me months to get through the first paragraph.  The first hundred pages is one of the slowest setups in literature but after that the book starts to pay dividends like no other.

This is one of the most complex and rewarding stories I've read in a long time.  All the characters matter and every line of dialogue and exposition is well thought out.  You can see that Frank Herbert really though out how the world would work, how the characters would interact and how all the court intrigue would play out.  It's really like good complex Mexican food.  You start out with a homey flavor, it starts to sear a little and just when you think you can't stand any more heat it subsides and leaves you wanting the next bite.

The book is broken up into small sections with a bit of verse or a quotation from some made up bible from the future of this fictional land.  I was in the habit of skipping them, they reminded me of the songs of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings.  They were miserable breaks in the story and made no sense at all.  Once I got to the climax of the book and found out who Maud'Dib was I had to go back and read them all. Even the little things like those little verses are well thought out.

Now that I've finished the book I know why the Dune series is such a science fiction hallmark. I won't have to be three hours from civilization to read the next book.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Every Man for Himself

A lousy buck is all that a short story collection goes for these days, I guess if your marketing strategy involves urinals in the cover art then you're probably not going to get much more than a buck.  A bargain shopper like myself is happy to throw out a buck and see if there's anything worth reading.

The book is billed as "ten short stories about being a guy".  Most of them qualified as very readable, I can't say that I'd call any of them masterpieces but yes readable.  There were two that rose to be what I would call memorable.  "Princes" by David Levithan  is the story of a teenage boy who loves to dance, of course he loves to dance because he's gay.  He comes out right before his brother's Bar Mitzvah and this is the story of how his brother fights to let his brother bring a date.  The other story I really liked was "Fear" by Terry Truman which is the story of a boy in a bad neighborhood who learns to stand up for himself against some home invaders.

This book also includes "The Unbeatable" by Mo Williams which I believe is the short story the movie Sky High was based on.  I love it when decent literature is the inspiration for film.  It's a nod to the fact that writers are still important and the driver of all the good media we can consume.  Even though you don't have a prayer of selling a book of short stories for more than a buck these days, those fine folks who are building castles in the air and sweating to put them on the page still matter.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Paul Hodes in Nashua

I attended my first town hall today in Nashua, Paul Hodes is running to be one of New Hampshire's senators.  I don't know how they got my name, I'm a registered Democrat and I contributed a small amount to the Obama campaign so it could have been from either of those sources.

It was a nice event, about fifty people turned up, the crowd skewed to the older side.  I decided to wear a shirt and tie and was pretty overdressed.  A couple of people asked if I worked for the campaign.  I sat in the back, which is my usual MO, especially in situations where I have no idea what I'm doing.  It was held at a local theater/restaurant/pub called Chunky's, they served drinks and spaghetti and salad.  I decided long ago that I hate Chunky's food but this is the best meal I've had there.

Congressman Hodes started out the event with a speech.  His main points were partisan standbys.  Now I'm about as liberal as they come  but I like to think I'm pretty well informed.  He discussed how the Republican Party wants to privatize social security, end medicare and extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich.  Partially true but two out of three are politically dead ideas and the tax cut extension is probably a no go unless Obama gets convinced to go along for some bizarre reason.  I personally would have liked to see something a little more nuanced but when I take a tour of the comments section of any Yahoo story on politics I understand what he's up against.

To be a political candidate in this day and age you have to tailor your message to the masses and the masses just aren't paying attention or taking that extra second to take a look on Snopes before they get outraged and pass along a completely false story.  Regardless it would be refreshing to have  a politician who feels free to be a little more subtle and thought provoking when they are talking to people outside of DC.  What is so impressive about Obama is that he was so popular and can still speak plainly and clearly about complex issues.  I wish the Democratic party would just adopt this as a universal campaign principal.  Unfortunately "well we tried to tell you" party probably isn't in America's future anytime soon.

The Q&A was fantastic, that was when you really got to see Congressman Hodes in action.  The crowd was pretty knowledgeable, I sat next to a teacher with two masters degrees.  Her main concern and question was about monitoring the mercenaries in Iraq.  There were other questions about jobs, health insurance and a little foreign policy.  One man was concerned about Israel's response to the Iranian nuclear program.  I asked about the economy, specifically what can be done to reduce structural unemployment.  Representative Hodes actually gave a pretty good answer, he talked about improving the educational system, reducing the cost of student loans and introducing more programs where public service would provide money for education.  I'm a big fan of programs like the Stafford Loan forgiveness program so I thought it was a decent answer.

I'd like to thank Congressman Hodes and his campaign for inviting me to the event today, I know he's polling well below his probable competitors but when a  botched Sarah Palin endorsement is on your likely opponent's resume how can you give up easily?  Seriously read that link, Sarah is God's gift to comedians.  So Paul, here's hoping that you win in November. At the end I asked his local campaign manager what kind of volunteer opportunities there are and he said "everything" so I'll see if there's anything I can do as we get closer to election day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kitchen Confidential

This is the must read for anyone that's worked in a restaurant.  Anthony Bourdain, also the host of the Travel Channel's show No Reservations writes a tell all about the restaurant industry.  It's not a tell in the style of an expose on what really happens to your food, it's a tell all about the characters who tend to inhabit restaurant jobs and end up making careers of it.

I loved this book because it echoes truth.  I worked in restaurants for about ten years after high school and the cast of characters that make up the core crew of any restaurant are some of the most interesting and most damaged people you're going to meet.  Of course there is a heavy contingent of folks just working their way through college but the ones that you see on your shift closing down at 1 AM and then back the next morning cutting lemons beside you at 8 in the morning are people you want to know.  Restaurants also contrast with the corporate environment in that the work is low paid, easy to find and in most cases temporary.  This allows people to behave in a more open and genuine manner, which for good or for ill allows you to get to know your coworkers much faster than you do in a more sterile environment.

I love the TV show The Office, breaking it down the basic premise is what would happen if people acted at work exactly like they do in their private lives but I've seen that show played out in every restaurant job I've had.  Anthony Bordain tells the stories of how he got into the restaurant industry and tells the stories of the characters he encountered in his journey from dishwasher to to chef.   I loved how realistic his description of the type of people who take each job in a restaurant, from the bartender to the sous chef to the expediter.  Also this is the first book that completely captures how when you work in a restaurant it becomes your whole world, your social life, your dining room, and the place you get paid all rolled into one.  Home is just a place where you sleep it off until it's time to do it again.

So if you've ever done a summer in a kitchen I would highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Slowness

This book is about disconnecting from the fast pace of life that has taken over in modern times and taking control of how you spend your time.  Carl Honore is a journalist by trade and he writes in a journalistic style which I found disconcerting until I'd almost read the whole book.  The problem with a journalistic style is that you write as if you are presenting a group of facts to shed light on a topic that the reader may be unaware of or misinformed about.  The trap that Honore keeps falling into is that he presented each of his subjects as if he were exposing growing trends.  Looking back to 2004 when the book was published, life hasn't changed for most of us and in fact since the financial crisis most of us are more pressed for time than ever.  I thought this book deserved a harsh spanking by Jack Shaffer until I realized that Honore was writing an essay, an ode to a way of life and a way of seeing time that he found ideal.  Once I finally realized what he was doing I started to love this book.

For example, the first part of life that Honore explores is slow food.  He discusses eating fine meals at a European pace, interviewing chefs, foodies and some fine folks from a "slow food movement".  However since this story came out, fast food restaurants are slinging out more meals than ever, at least according to numbers I've read.  I'm sure that most of us would love to sit down and enjoy a fine meal but the pace of life just doesn't allow it all of the time as I will explain as I go more in depth into how I've explored this  set of essays.

One more word of caution for those of you who decide to give this book a peek, the slow lifestyle that Honore espouses in this book is mostly for the wealthy.  I know that there are hordes of people stuck in terrible abandoned manufacturing towns just trying to get by, there are others who are battling warlords and trying to pack out bags of selenium mud just to feed their family.  For those who share my liberal sensibilities the stark contrast of what's really going on in the world and the way Honore uses his style to show fast living as a problem make him look like an out of touch elitist.  I'm not so sure that allowing more people to work a French style workweek is the hot agenda item on most people's table and the fact that this book seems oblivious to that made it seem elitist to me.  It seems as if in every chapter Honore made a point to state that slow living is not just for the rich but it seems like all of his ideas would be far out of reach for the mass of desperate men who would be happy to have a bit of factory work and a couple of hot dogs.

The book is broken down into chapters of slow food, slow driving, slow neighborhoods, slow sex, slow child raising, slow working,slow exercise and slow leisure.  Whew, quite a heaping helping of ideas and ideals and I'm not sure you could do it all without a European style social net or an inherited couple of million dollars.  I've tried to apply many of the ideas into my life with mixed results.

For example I've made a serious effort to avoid restaurant food and take my time eating and paying attention to portion size.  I had a physical last month and a follow up this month, I've lost a bit of weight, not a significant amount but more than a rounding error and my blood pressure is significantly lower.  Maybe Mayor McCheese doesn't have my best interests in mind after all.  I've tried slow driving, that is driving defensively and at the speed limit.  I keep records on my gas mileage and honestly it's worse than ever.  This one is a hard one to guess on, is driving a bit faster and keeping up with the bulk of traffic actually faster and more fuel efficient?  It may be, after this tank I'm going to switch back to my old ways of driving the same speed as everyone else and see how the mileage holds up.  I know there may be a safety advantage to being a bit slower but it's really hard to tell if just blending in with traffic or putting the needle right at the limit is the safer strategy,  plus I'd need to drive for 10,000 years to see which way really made the difference.  For now I'm leaning away from the slow driving.

Slow sex?  Well I'll just keep that to myself except to say that it's different, and sometimes trying something different after you've been married for ten years is good.  I've also been trying the slow child raising and letting the kids have a bit more room, I actually think we're all getting along a bit better so this is another keeper.  I've been trying the slow exercise too, basically this is weightlifting and so forth going at a snails pace.  I haven't noticed a huge change in my fitness level but it does feel good.

The slow neighborhood idea is just out of reach, and probably out of reach for most everyone.  We all want a house with a big yard in a friendly walkable neighborhood.  Of course that is just an impossible dream because big yards just make that store or movie theater a couple of miles further than it would be in a city, and the other aspects of city living are about as opposite to a slow lifestyle as can be imagined.  As part of this section though he discusses a planned community called Kentlands in Maryland which he described as an idyllic break from urban sprawl that residents were loath to leave.  I have to admit after checking out a Google search that at this point home values and quality of life seem to have held up there.  I think our problem may be that cities in the East were built before people could plan for cars and cities in the west were built before people knew that they wanted to spend some time outside of the car.  For now though living in a walkable neighborhood with the advantages of suburban life is a rich man's pleasure, I doubt anyone is willing to bulldoze Nashua and start all over.

So the book had it's highs and lows, it's an passionate plea for a lifestyle that I'd love to implement.  Ultimately though I think that if improving the human condition is the goal, we should be looking elsewhere first.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Timequake

According to the foreword in Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel, and it was terrible.  So he decided to use what he could of the carcass and mix it in with some autobiography and the result is Timequake.

The premise of the timequake is that for some reason the universe contracted and everyone went back 10 years in time.  What makes this a particularly devastating event is that everyone is conscious, but unable to change anything about the events that they travel through.

Honestly I don't know how a novel like this could have ended up as anything less than spectacular, especially in the hands of a master like Vonnegut.  I guess some ideas just look good on the outline but fall flat on the page.  It's also possible that he was looking to wrap up a long career of writing, his next book, A Man Without a Country, was his last.  It's always possible that Vonnegut is having another joke with us by claiming that the timequake concept fell flat and spinning out a suitable autobiography.

Timequake is a story of free will and regrets.  We deal with out pasts by remembering the exciting parts and coloring the unpleasant parts until they are in a suitable form for our inner narrative.  In Memento the character Leonard says "Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."  Dealing with events long put to bed and having to see them in vivid detail would be painful and maddening and living through the long boring stretches in between with nothing to do but reflect on them would only heighten the torture.  I suppose there are a rare few that have lived life to the fullest, learned from their mistakes and gathered their self worth from simply being, but that aspect of the human condition may simply be myth.

Here's the beautiful part of my reading of  Timequake.  I had actually read it 11 years ago, when I was single and living in an apartment in Salt Lake with my friends Dave and Jerus.  Even though I was in my older 20s at that time I just didn't have the concept of good art being a mirror and spent my whole time reading the book thinking about war, poverty and injustice rather than thinking of myself as an actor.  In my mind I was an impartial observer of the world stage.  Now that I've actually gathered a bit of ability to self reflect, it was like reading a whole different book.

I really can't imagine going through all the petty fights with family members, the foolish things I've said when I've dropped my guard more than I intended, the mistakes I've made.  Sometimes life deals you situations where you should have said or done something and didn't and I would not want to live through those again.  Dealing with time in a linear fashion the mistakes can be seen as learning opportunities but  I have no doubt that seeing them acted out in the world's more realistic puppet show would drive the most clear headed among us to insanity.

There would be joyful days too, like the days my children were born and the morning I was told my daughter would survive her meningitis.  I can't see what I would usually call a good day seeming anything but petty if I was put through 10 years full of time to just think, when all the doing is taken care of by my past self.  I suppose that's what Vonnegut was reaching for when he dreamed the book up.

Vonnegut walks the fine line between parody and satire and crosses over into cynicism.  For example one story meant to capture the death of eloquence in America uses Lincoln's speech as he leaves Illinois as an example of what great leadership and eloquence we used to celebrate.  The speech he uses as an example though is actually a mash-up of three Lincoln speeches.  How can you glory in the day to day when the memories you have of the past are larger than life?  I think that a timequake could also bring some peace to anyone who glories in a past time when things were better than they are now.

So if you read this book, I suggest you give it another turn in 10 years and see what your own timequake would feel like.  God willing I have another date with this book sometime around 2020.

Friday, July 30, 2010

E=MC2 A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

So this book is another loaner, this time from Doug Aldridge.  I guess the universe really wants me to be familiar with Einstein's theory.  David Bodanis explores the science that led up to the famous equation and explores each of the pieces that make the whole and gives a great scientific history of what led up to Einstein's discovery.

Energy is the first topic, the book goes over the story of Michael Faraday and how he discovered that energy is a universal phenomenon, how energy was discovered to be an immutable and unchangeable property, when you start a reaction you end up with the same amount of energy as you went in with.  Often it's a different type, such as kinetic energy being changed to heat energy, or if you have a generator you can change kinetic energy to electric energy.  Faraday was one of the first scientists who was able to show that energy is a universal property and explain that it can transform.  The M for mass chapter discusses the story of Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry who proved that in a chemical reaction mass is conserves, specifically by weighing metal and then rusting it and weighing again, thus proving that the oxygen that was bonding with the metal was adding to it's mass.   The C is of course the speed of light, James Clerk Maxwell who while studying the older work of Cassini an Roemer, one of science's oldest rivalries, discovered that light works differently from most energy sources in that it makes jumps, as if it is sometimes mater and sometimes energy.  Mr. Bodanis even goes over the origin of the equal sign and why energy squared is such a powerful and universal physical property.

What I loved about this book wasn't only the greater understanding of the science, the author tells the stories of the scientists in a powerful narrative fashion that made me want to learn more about them.  For example Michael Faraday was a young scientist struggling to get cred. in a world where class mattered more than smarts.  Roemer battled the king's favorite astrologer Cassini about how light traveled across the universe, Roemer was right but Cassini has a space probe named after him and a Wikipedia page while Roemer has slipped into obscurity.  For the section on squaring the effects of energy, the tragic tale of Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet was a heartbreaking tale of romance, science and love lost.  Seriously I'm surprised that there isn't a major motion picture based on the tale already.

The book also went beyond Einstein and into the application of the theory, it has the most visceral description of what happens when a nuclear bomb explodes that I've ever seen.  It's evil stuff and I hope that it's never leveled against human beings again.  If the burning of skin right off the body and the radiation sickness isn't enough, there's a moment of vacuum that happens when the superheated air contracts that rips flesh off bones.  It seriously called into question the decision to use the bombs in World War II and I can see why many of the scientists who understood exactly what these explosions did were ashamed in their roles in creating the weapons in later years.

So far I have to say this is one of the best reads this year.  It was that good.  Thanks so much for the loan Doug, I feel very enriched by the experience.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Te of Piglet

Te of Piglet is Benjamin Hoff's sequel addition to the Tao of Pooh.  Te is a concept of the virtue of the small and as in Tao of Pooh Hoff uses the stories of Pooh and his pals to show different Taoist concepts.  Te is about seeing how small things and small acts are just as important as the big acts, in fact the small and the large come from and define each other.

This book is one that I read years and years ago when a girlfriend had suggested the Tao of Pooh and last month I did a re-read.  The reviews that this book got originally were far less than stellar.  Hoff comes across as a bit bitter and didactic.  After forgetting about the content and reading the Amazon reviews I was going to give this a pass, but I'm glad I picked it up again.

Hoff rages against things like microwaves, sidewalks, fast food, and feminism and at first glance it looks like he's gotten out his laundry list of stuff to rail against.  Once I had read it though I see that Hoff is making the case for Taoism.  Would someone who follows the Tao really eat a microwave chimi-changa?  Don't Taoists walk just as much for the walk as to get anywhere?  Why do they need direct paved over paths?  If men are treating women with the respect they deserve why do we need feminism?  To clarify, yes the respect they deserve is to do whatever they want including work for equal pay, get just as educated and so forth.

OK we need all those things because we live out of harmony with Taoist principals, but still, wouldn't it be a nicer world if we didn't need them?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tuesdays With Morrie

I went into this book expecting to hate it.  No writer is more symbolic of the Oprahfication of our culture than Mitch Albom.  Oprahfication is the process of massaging your broken feelings with material goods and platitudes and the ultimate Oprahfied good is a book full of platitudes.  I decided to give this book a spin because it was free, and it was short.  I love low commitment levels when I'm trying something new.

Tuesdays with Morrie is the story of Mitch Albom visiting his old sociology professor as a grown up man and spending time with him as he dies of Lou Gehrig's disease.  It seems as if that might make for a sweet story but I don't really care to hear all the sunshine that dying people have to pass around.  Morrie goes through the predictable lectures about how you should spend time with family and friends, take care of your health and dance like no one is watching.

Someday I'd like to see the book from the guy who spends his dieing days getting revenge on those who deserve it while he still can, says mean things to people that have disappointed him so they can feel guilty for the rest of their lives, and spends all his cash on decadent pleasures .  Unfortunately that book hasn't come out, I guess because for some reason the normal bucket list is fairly benign.

I didn't quite hate it as much as I thought I would, Mitch does show some writing talent.  I just feel like Mitch lets us play the part of voyeur into the room of a dying man in exchange for a little money and fame.  The main life lesson this book taught me of is that our society is quick to sell privacy and cheap sentiment.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

David Sedaris wrote or at least published the essays in this book after he had become fairly famous.  Some of them are actually about his notoriety, one essay is the story of him telling his sister that one of his books will be made into a movie and her discomfort about having the family portrayed onscreen.

I love how well he handles the topic of his fame and fortune, he seems to take it in stride.  I like how people who become famous later in life seem to be a bit more fully baked than those that were shoved out into the limelight at an early age.

This novel focuses on his family when they're older and most of them get an essay each.  I especially loved the one about his brother, it was about him becoming the first one in the family to have a child and how fatherhood changed and didn't change him.

This book seemed a little darker than the other books, but still it was very enjoyable.  I didn't laugh out loud as much as I did reading the other books, If you want to see some of the better quotes you can look here.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Straight Dope

The Straight Dope was one of my favorite reasons to go to the laundromat when I lived in downtown Salt Lake City.  They carried the Straight Dope column and it was always exciting to learn something new and obscure.

Cecil Adams is the pseudonymous author, possibly a team of authors, that created a weekly column in the seventies.  People would write in and ask obscure questions and Cecil would find the answers.  Everything was in play from what happens if you carry a glass of water into space to why is there on channel one on television.

As you can see from the last question, since my Comcast now comes with channel one, lots of the information that Cecil imparted is now wrong, irrelevant or quaint.  This book even includes a charming chapter on the phone company.  Who is the phone company again?

Unfortunately someone like Cecil would have a tough time getting off the ground, now we have Wikipedia, Google and even Cecil has moved his content online with a forum where you can ask the "teeming millions" as Cecil affectionately called his fans questions and they will point you to a web link that will probably answer your question.  The days of writing in and hoping that weeks or months later that your question would be answered are long gone and good riddance to them but still those days of reading a paper while I did some laundry have a warm place in my heart.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Snuff

Amazon reviews on Snuff were overall terrible.  People didn't like the fact that Chuck Palahniuk used multiple characters when most of his books have been about exploring the deep dark side of one main character.  Was this written just to shock people?  Why yes but that's part of why Mr. Palahniuk writes and this one is definitely not for the kids,

This book is a two hundred pager set pretty much entirely on the set of a porn shoot.  The porn shoot is similar to the gonzo porn shoot that Annabel Chong did a few years ago that made the news, inspired a poorly rated documentary and achieved it's goal of causing jaws to drop all over the place.

The book is okay, not super, it reads more like a stand up act but didn't leave me rolling on the floor like Choke did.  As in all Palahniuk novels it's heavily researched.  I learned lots of facts about what goes on at a porn shoot, too bad none of that information is going to appear on a trivial pursuit card.  It's very unlikely that it will come up during casual conversation either so I guess it's as worthless as worthless trivia gets.  The best over the top part of the book was near the end, the main character is giving out movie star advice and beauty tips, like how Marilyn Monroe used to cut the heel of one shoe shorter so that a sexy grinding walk results.  Or how if you're a gay man that sounds like David Sedaris, if you scream until your throat is scarred and drink eggshells your vocal cords will thicken and you become Rock Hudson.  Yes it was outrageous and funny,  and a good share of it was probably rumor from the tabloids of the fifties but it was a wonderful chapter and a fantastic read.

After reading this I read up a bit about the Annabel Chong story, if Wikipedia is to be believed she was a young girl on a foreign exchange scholarship in Europe when she was gang raped.  Any low grade psychologist could probably make the connection to what a horrific ordeal that must have been and seen that an over the top career on pornography was a way to deal with the trauma.  The sad thing about Snuff was that it never reached even this level of depth of back-story so it ends up being more of a freak show than a novel.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dead Man's Walk

Dead Man's Walk is a book by Larry McMurtry that is part of his famous series about Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call.  If you haven't read Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo go read them now, they're the best western novels ever.

As in the other novels about the duo of Texas Rangers, ranchers and plains warriors the two are swept into a series of adventures on the central plains of the United States, partially out of a sense of adventure and a desire for pay and partially because they are swept along by events that we now call history.  I love how McMurtry always makes the land and the times as much of a character and a force of his novels as the people he spotlights.  It's what makes his novels rise above being an entertainment and a distraction and become literary art.  McMurtry is almost a post modern artist in his portrayal of his characters, in many tragedies you have a lament from a main character and an awakening as to how the tragedy could be avoided.  McMurtry is wise enough to know that some tragedies are destined to happen by the forces of change outside anyone's control and he is just highlighting a story that happened along the way.

For example the Native Americans were going to be forced off the plains and forced to integrate as much as they could and compromise with the settlers who moved west.  The stories of the (in his novels fictional) native warriors who fought are fascinating.

This novel suffers a bit from an altogether improbable ending.  The thing I loved about Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo were the endings.  Somehow even though the endings were nontraditional and unexpected they fit into the mood of the story and everything important was resolved.   Dead Man's Walk's ending slipped over the edge to being contrived.  It seemed like the book ended because the page account that the publisher required was met, not because the story had evolved to a stopping place.  I guess that's why Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo have page counts much larger than the none too thin 450 or so that this novel had.  There is another novel set in time right after Dead Man's Walk that may resolve the lives of the young rangers in a more satisfying fashion.  I'll have to read it someday and find out.

I did enjoy the journey though and would highly suggest it for anyone who loves McMurtry, history or tales of the Southwest.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fight Club

Today, we're talking about Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.  This book and the movie that resulted from it has become a cultural touchstone for generation X men.  The underlying theme is that modern life has made this generation of men a soft feminine generation.  Raised by our mothers and television we care more about our furniture and our bank account than we care about what really matters, but the existential truth is that nothing really matters.  It's an Oedipal complex writ large but where do you direct your anger when your father was never there?  With our basis needs assured we are left with nothing but our jobs where we do meaningless work so that we can stack our homes with meaningless stuff.

As those of you who have seen the movie know, the solution that the protagonist "Jack" comes up with is to develop an alternate personality called  Tyler Durden, start a revolution, and blow up all the big banks so that we can start over as a society.  Jack presumes that the world will become wild again, men will become men again and all will be well.    The book ends a bit differently from the movie in the movie Jack and Marla look over the new world as the cityscape goes up in smoke, in the book Tyler is disposed of by Jack shooting himself.  Don't worry though, Jack  survives and so does project mayhem.

Chuck was on Carson Daly the other night and in the interview he appears much more buttoned down than his Wikipedia entry suggests although writers usually are.  No matter how fantastic your celebrity gets or how much larger than life you are on the page, if you're going to keep writing successfully you need to spend hundreds of hours in solitude and so a certain amount of reticence is required to be built into your personality.

Is generation X a lost generation?  Perhaps, in fact the Blumenthal story from last week seems to indicate that men who live a quiet successful life in the world of cubicles are perhaps though of as lesser men.  Our masculine traditions have ceased to be passed down by fathers and are now passed down by blogs like the Art of Manliness blog.  While I don't think that the destruction of the world is a solution, I'm glad that Chuck gave me an opportunity to review my values.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Melancholy Baby

This time Sunny Randall is hired by a teenager to find out who her real parents are.  Turns out all is not kosher in Boston and a girl who suspects that she was adopted is trying to get her parents to admit that she is from another family.

Sunny Randall deals with more drama with her ex-husband who is getting married and the world turns.  So does my interest in mystery books.  I think I've had my nine dollars worth and it's time to rove on to a new genre.

Friday, May 7, 2010

E=MC2

There is no better recession buster than a borrowed book.  This one came to me courtesy of Michael Orr, so thanks Michael!  The book is the 100th anniversary edition of Einstein's paper on relativity.  I didn't cheat on this one, I did read all the words.  I do have to be honest though and say that I didn't understand much of it after chapter XVII when he leaps into the special theory of relativity.  I'm either a few Physics or Math classes short of understanding it or, it pains me to even say this, maybe I aint no Einstein.

Einstein has the heart of a teacher,  he starts out slow.  In the first chapter he gives a physical definition of geometry, in the second he defines geometric space.  He then moves on to define distance, not distance in the arbitrary sense, like how far is a meter or a mile, but distance in the physical sense, how long does it take for an object with a constant speed to travel from A to B.  If you can define that you can break it up however you want.  After that things get trippy.

He starts out by showing that if a person is dropping a stone off of a train, the two will describe the movement differently, then he shows that if one person observes two pulses of light at the same time, a person moving toward one of the pulses will see them at different times.  So now we can agree that time itself is relative to your movement.  After that we start to define that if one person is moving relative to another that length, mass, and time are all different for the two of them.  He even demonstrates that on a rotating body two people at different places will perceive time and space differently.  That's some mind blowing stuff right there. and that's about the sum of what I was able to understand and pretty much the limit of my math skills.  I forged ahead but most of the rest of the book just served to highlight my ignorance.

Once he had defined that he leaps into four dimensional space, the fourth dimension being time, so now we're talking space time, gravity and why Mercury wobbles in its orbit due to the gravitational pull of the Sun.  Of course it's not a simple wobble caused by an oddity of gravity  but actually the effect of the sun changing space time itself.  Of course all the planets are effected by this but at the time of Einstein's publication the wobble was only detectable in Mercury's orbit.

In later chapters he discusses a cool imaginary experiment where if you were in an elevator that was accelerating at the same speed as gravity it would feel just like gravity.  Then another chapter is a deep essay on how our shared experiences and even our definitions of  before and after are just compensating mechanisms that our minds use to try to make sense of the world and the universe.

While I was reading the book my wife and I had an argument.  It was one of those where I thought I'd said one thing and she thought I'd said another.  Thanks to Einstein I was able to see that maybe it was possible that both of us were right, and equally as possible that both of us were wrong, or maybe she was even right but I was so mad I couldn't come to accept that part of the equation at the time.

So while I may never understand how to calculate how much a ray of light bends towards the red spectrum while passing through the gravitational field of a baseball, I've found that I can absolutely understand how someone could see the world a little different from how I see it. The universe is in fact different if you're viewing it from a different place.

So remember to support your local library, borrowed books are the best books.  Thank you Einstein and thank you Michael, this was in a subtle way a life changing book.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Potshot

Somebody had a deadline.  Sometimes when you play paperback roulette you lose and this was one of those occasions.  Potshot is another Spenser book from the big pile of paperbacks, this time the Bostonian detective decided to work a case in Southern California.

Spenser is called in to solve the murder of a woman's husband,  she of course is the wrongly suspected damsel in distress and of course the mystery ends up bigger than it initially appears.  Once Spenser gets to town he discovers that the town is overrun with a gang of thugs that are extorting local businesses and bleeding the town dry.  For some reason he decides it's his duty to clean it up and calls in the crew.  Now according to the reviews, if you're a long time Spenser fan this book is a rewarding treat where all the old characters come on stage for a reunion and you get some joy out of reading about a road trip made up of morally ambiguous caricatures.  I however am here to testify that when you line up a whole row of potboiler stereotypes it makes for a sad scene that highlights how unrealistic and silly detective novel stereotypes are when you take them out of their element.

I'll give you a spoiler alert here and give you a recommendation to skip this book so if you want to take my advice read ahead.  So Spenser discovers that the townies are corrupt.  The woman that hired him is at the head of a ring of land speculators who have purchased all the land around town but need to clear out the gang in the hills to make the investment pay off.  For some reason even after discovering this Spenser and his crew decide to have it out with the squatters and since he doesn't really have any evidence the land speculators pretty much go free.  Lame!

I don't know if this was intended to be a morally ambiguous McMurtry style western but if it was the poor decision to use a well known Boston detective as the protagonist pretty much ruins the book.  Not to mention that Parker doesn't have the right set of skills to pull off a McMurtry style drama, it's still written like a mystery until the last 50 pages , then like a western for 30 and then a half crocked wrap up and we're done.

My summary of this book is that someone was cashing in, and it wasn't the fictional land speculators of Potshot.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poker Nation

This was the first book I picked up at the used book store that just opened in Nashua.  I was so excited to hear about this place.  When I was in my twenties I spent hour after hour in used book stores looking for books.  Those were the days when I made a little over four dollars and hour and had hours to spend reading.  I never appreciated how valuable time to read a book is and I wish I would have enjoyed it rather than dreading the long stretches of time laying around on a couch in my friend's basement or on the floor of an apartment before I could afford a couch.  I'm afraid if I could have appreciated how enjoyable it is to while away an afternoon I may still be waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant and going home to a small one bedroom apartment with no TV and the furniture that came with the place.  I would still read Vonnegut books and Tom Robbins and wonder why life is so pointless and pick up extra shifts so that I could afford to go home early on my regular ones.

So Poker Nation spends a good share of it's time wandering over well tread ground.  The first paragraphs of every chapter made me grown in agony because Andy Bellin starts out each chapter assuming the reader has never played a hand of poker in their life.  I checked the copyright to see if this was published back in 1980 but it was first seen in print in 2002 right in the middle of the poker boom.  I wish he would have made an assumption that his core audience may have played a hand or two and read a poker book or two.  Every chapter is filled with the stories that everyone who has done any semi-serious reading about poker has heard.  The story of Benny Binion, how the W.S.O.P. got it's start, the famous game in front of Binion's between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss, it's all there in detail.  Painful detail if you read the genre enough, he even has a section where he explains the order of hands.  The book has a few charts on odds and probability and I, who am no statistician, quickly found errors in two of them.

I wanted to hate this book so bad my teeth hurt but I couldn't.  Andy did what good poker writers do and tells his own story.  How he ended up as a professional player, what happened to all the girlfriends who thought dating a professional gambler would be a blast, he even committed the primary gambling sin and admitted to cheating a time or two.  Although of course he is reformed now so if you see him at the tables you can trust him right?

Since Bellin's primary stomping grounds were the underground clubs in New York City he gives you a good picture of how the scene looks  in a jurisdiction where poker isn't technically legal but the police have higher priorities than to break up poker games.  This was the part of Rounders I was most interested in but the part that got completely overshadowed by Matt Damon's perverse feeling of responsibility for Edward Norton.  Now that was a story I had no problems hating.

So if you haven't read a mountain of poker books I would highly recommend this book.  If you have I'd say it's worth a whirl but don't expect that more than half of what's covered will feel new to you.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Shrink Rap

Is that the first Sunny Randal novel you're got wrapped under that book jacket from the Audacity of Hope?  Why yes it is.  Sunny Randal was born, at least in paperback form, much later than Spenser.  Yet she too is for hire.

I'm guessing that Robert B. Parker suffered from a dog obsession because all of his main characters are totally in love with their pooches.  Not the normal, I've got to make sure that I feed and walk the dog love.  Sunny Randall keeps a good relationship with her ex-husband because she doesn't trust anyone else with her dog.   For some reason in the two weeks since I've read the book, that's the main thing I remember about Ms. Randall.

This book is about Ms. Randall being hired to watch over an author on her book tour.  The author has a psycho ex-husband and Sunny has to get to the bottom of why the author is so terrified of him.  The back of the book promises "But when Sunny becomes his patient she discovers as much about herself as she does about the criminal mind."  Now I don't know when outright lying became a best practice when writing book jackets but I'm under the impression that either the publisher didn't bother to read it or just didn't want to say that Sunny Randall remains a second class Spenser even after she cracks the case.

I'm not really as harsh on this book as that sounds.  I burned through it in four or five hours, and hey it cost a buck, you can't even get a good candy bar for that price anymore!  This one is headed right back to a donation box so if you want a few hours entertainment look for it in the Hannaford bargain bin.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Bad Business

When you're a foodie, admitting you occasionally like a Big Mac chased down with some Coke makes puts a huge dent into your credibility.  We lovers of literature have our own subdivisions.  If you say you love Joyce or Salinger you get a nod, if you say that you groove to Kerouac or H.S. Thompson you get another.  Stating that Anna Karenina is your thing or that you dream of reading Hugo in the original French gets you some admiration.  If someone asks you in a physical bookstore or as part of an academic discussion who your favorite is and you say Steve King or John Grisham or God help you Danielle Steele, you instantly get a smile and a nod.  Then the person you were speaking to sees how fast they can make an excuse and exit the conversation.  Just as no foodie believes that a McDonald's meal can provide the taste or nutrition to keep a body upright, the belief is that mass market paperback authors can't begin to provide the ideas necessary to have an intelligent uplifting conversation.

I had never heard of Robert B. Parker before the Hannaford Supermarket clerk dumped a pile of his books into the dollar bin at the front of the store.  The store takes donations of books and then puts them out front with a suggested donation of a dollar to a different charity each month.  Honestly that bin of books has earned them more of my money than any of their fine cheeses or their good frozen appetizer selection because I make excuses to shop two or three times a week more than is necessary.  I always wonder what I'm going to find in the bargain bin and some days I walk out with some huge prizes for a buck.

About a month ago I finished my shopping and went to the bargain bin and there was a copy of the 12 step and 12 traditions AA book, a book I'd been wanting but I have had no desire to go to an AA meeting to get one.  I had neglected to get change and the smallest bill I had was a ten.  So of course I had to buy nine more books to fill my quota!  I looked and looked and couldn't find anything even worth storing for $9 and then the lady came from the back with some new unsorted boxes of books.  Jackpot I thought but the books were all detective novels, a genre I don't read at all, and there were several books from this Parker fellow.  I figured if he was truly terrible that he wouldn't have more than one book and after reading the back and seeing they were all set in Boston sealed the deal, I picked up the 12 with the most tawdry covers and back cover descriptions and put my $10 in the box.  I figured if nothing else I would have a Lonely Planet guide to Boston on the cheap.

Once I got them home and started reading I realized that I had stumbled on to the Pringles of literature.

This book was a book about a detective named Spenser that has a lawyer friend named Rita and a bad ass of a friend names Hawk.  It took me a trip   through Wikipedia to realize that this was the same guy in all those Spenser for Hire shows that my parents watched while I was growing up.  It was a pop culture connecting of the dots that made me go "ah ha".  The book went super fast, it was about four hours cover to cover and I don't remember putting it down for any extended time.  Most books wear on me after a couple of hours and I either need to put them down to gather my thoughts or need to put them down just because my brain is burning and I'm not paying attention.  This book was easy on the mind, just like a Sandler movie or sit-com.

Most of my book collection is secretly picked out so that I can be caught reading it at a small independent coffee shop.  Someone that knows me would walk up and say hi, I thought that was you over there.  I would then say yes that was me in the corner reading Dostoevsky, don't you think his storytelling is so poignant?  With Robert C. Parker I'm sure I'll be caught in the corner of a downtown Burger King while the kids run around screaming on the play place.  We will all be having a fantastic time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The 25 Most Common Sales Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

I've been reading faster than I can blog lately.  I've put the literature on the back burner and the how to books and the mass market fiction in my pocket as I wander around.  It's like the difference between a movie and a quick sit com episode and the pages have been burning through my fingers.

This book was picked up as part of a 4 for three Amazon bundle.  I'm a sucker for the sale.  I really want one book that's on the 4 for three list, then I kind of want one more, but wait, if I buy one that I don't really mind having then they'll toss in something I don't care one bit about for free!  How appropriate that one of the books in that particular episode ended up being a book on sales.

Again, I hate the motivational books and this book is not among them.  It goes over mistakes like not staying in contact with your existing customers, not asking for the business, focusing on price instead of value and so on.  It's not as comprehensive as value added selling was but the format is a nice little pocket sized volume that you could carry around and get some quick pointers from.  I'm adding it to my pile of books as a slump stopper, if I'm back in a sales role again and need some help stopping a slide I can pick it up and try a couple of the ideas to see if they can turn things around.  It beats not changing my socks.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

So finally some literature.  I have had this book on my shelf for a couple of years.  I originally bought it because it's the home of Brokeback Mountain.  For those of you that have seen the movie the story is identical.  I don't know who to compliment more, Ang Lee and Larry McMurtry for not ruining the story by adding too much Hollywood or Annie Proulx for writing a piece that was well worth reading after seeing the movie.  Either way I was pleased twice and would highly recommend either, it's one of the greatest love stories ever told.  Even if you believe that straight monogamy is the ideal, Brokeback Mountain deals a heap of tragedy into the relationships to make the story a palatable realistic portrait and unless you are from the all homos will burn in hell camp you will feel some sympathy for the characters.

So now that I've addressed the big gay elephant in the room I'd like to move on to the rest of the book which is quite a collection of literature.  I was raised in Utah and since driving for hours in any direction you choose is what we do for fun in the west I've had the misery of being in and through Wyoming several times.  As a child we took several trips to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and the southwest corner of Wyoming on the trips to Dinosaur National Monument which were my absolute favorite when I was younger.  I even remember a couple of trips where for no apparent reason we drove to the Little America which is an overblown truck stop in the middle of nowhere.  It's advertised as a heaven of a family resort but I suppose that's only true if you're a long haul driver who thinks that Wendover, Nevada is as good a place to stop as Las Vegas.

To complete my Wyoming story, as an adult I worked for a company that did industrial cleanup and had the displeasure of sucking the soot out of various processing units of a shale oil mine.  My favorite time was when I, even though I am afraid of climbing the shortest ladders, was up about 10 stories using a vacuum hose to suck the ash out of some large tower who's purpose was nothing other than to pour foul black air into the sky.  All this while my oxygen mask wasn't working so to breathe I had to move my mask aside and suck up huge lungfuls of smoke that tasted like a cross between motor oil and wood ashes.  After that disastrous day I got to go over to suck the water out of a gold processing pond, we had to make sure we had the right pond because the wrong one was sure to have some cyanide in it, I was told it was used to separate trace amounts of gold from the mountains of dirt they poured into the ponds.  The crew I worked with called me "the professor" because I wore glasses and didn't swear.  I learned a modicum of respect for the working class on that trip and also learned that my destiny was at a desk somewhere.  I tried working for the company for a bit when I got back to Utah but I had to call in every day I wanted to work to see if anything was available and I just couldn't motivate myself to make the call more than twice.

I also spend about three months working in Yellowstone park.  It wasn't my cup of tea.  Danger lurked at every turn.  It wasn't even the famous bears or the fact that if you left the trail you were running the risk of falling through the thin crust into a pool of boiling sulfur water that caused the real problems.  Those things just gave me nightmares and made me afraid to leave my room whenever I wasn't working.  What interfered with my everyday life was the bison.  I was always afraid to go anywhere at night.  Every day there was a story of a tourist running afoul of the huge woolly beasts and getting gored.  My favorite story was the one of the tourist who set his son on the bison for a photo op.  The op ended up being an operation, not an opportunity.  Once I was trapped in the laundry room for four hours by a bison and once my friends car was attacked by a bison on the way home from the pub.

On my way east I drove across Wyoming.  It was the loneliest part of the country and I've sworn I'll never voluntarily return.  Somehow Annie Proulx captures this mood perfectly in her stories.  I'll need to do a re-read to see exactly how she does it but somehow I felt the emptiness and the sense of despair all throughout the book.  What makes these stories so great is that without detailing the characters she fleshes them out with their thoughts.  There's plenty of time for thinking in Wyoming, in fact there's not really a whole lot else to do but think and wait for something to happen, and if you've ever lived in a small town you know that when something happens it's larger than life.

The second greatest story in this book is The Half-Skinned Steer, an award winning story itself that has been featured in several anthologies outside this book.  People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, Pair of Spurs, and The Governors of Wyoming are all great character and prop driven stories.  I also have to say that 55 Miles to the Gas Pump was a fantastic one pager that I read four times just to drink it all in.

So go enjoy your well earned awards Annie, because it's a cold lonely night in Wyoming and your book is so startingly descriptive that it's as close to the real Wyoming as I want to get.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Value-Added Selling

The other day I was asking a co-worker what books he recommends to other people about sales.  He explained that he doesn't really get motivated by sales books.  I feel the same way about motivational books.  How to get over being rejected, how to pump yourself up to prospect, how to fake it till you make it.  All hogwash, whatever hogwash is.  I always imagine that Hogwash is like Listerine but it's bacon flavored.  I wish I knew how a concept like that got a poor reputation, but hogwash is what you call it when someone tries to pump you up to do something you don't really feel like doing.

So back to sales books.  This was an excellent book because it's about sales process.  I love business books that are about how to organize a process or interaction.  It comes from an assumption that I'm motivated to do well because if I wasn't I wouldn't be reading the book.  This book is about the process of selling when you are in a market where your product or service isn't the lowest priced.  Assuming you charge a higher price because you have something to offer that is better than the price leader, you need to explore what is important to your prospect and then make sure he knows how your product addresses these needs.  It's a good basic ABC selling process that refined the way I think about selling a bit.

So I do recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to sell or refine their selling skills, because I"m assuming that if you're looking for such a book you're already motivated.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy

I thought that my mother and I could not possibly have any overlapping taste in books.  There are two exceptions that have proven themselves over the past two years.  One was the old family copy of Don't Forget the Star that she sent in 1998 and the other is How to Build a Business Warren Buffet Would Buy that she sent this last Christmas.

The book is the story of RC WIlley, the Utah and now Nevada and Idaho furniture store.  I knew RC Willey as the store where Joanna and I bought some of our furniture in Utah.  There was also an episode where I lived behind the West Valley store in a storage shed with my friend Dave but that's a story for another day.

So RC Willey started a store, and then he died.  This book is actually the story of his son in law who wasn't named Willey and who actually saved the store from the creditors and built up a debt free furniture and appliance industry.  Yes common business sense abounds, treat the customer right, make sure you keep your product line relevant, watch the bottom line.  The main things that made the story remarkable were that after inheriting the store in a pile of debt, Mr. Child kept it debt free and never opened on a Sunday.  Those are two bold moves that should have smothered this retail company as soon as a more nimble and less risk adverse competitor came to town.  However the concept worked and the owner was able to make a bundle selling out to Warren Buffett.  Not that selling out to Buffett is like selling out, he usually lets the business owners continue on as before and if you're in love with your business I would suppose that's the way to go.

The book is steeped in folksy charm.  In my younger years I would have vomited at the sentimental viewpoint but now that I'm a bit older my tolerance for maple sap spilled all over the page has increased a bit.  This book was a good read but it sent me looking for something darker to cleanse my palate.  But thanks Mom, maybe we do have some tastes in common after all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

So round trip from Thomas Paine to now, I finally read something that could be considered current.  Let the great world spin had a publication date in 09 and the edition I had included reader notes with a 2010 copyright date.  That's the shortest time span from a book coming off the presses to me flipping through the pages that I've ever experienced.

This book was listed as Amazon's best fiction book of 2009, on top of that the late Frank McCourt gives a hearty endorsement on the Amazon page.  Feeling flush with overtime money from the Christmas and New Year's holidays I thought I'd try it out.

Parts of this book made me feel like I was reading the best book ever.  The book is broken down into short stories about characters who's lives all intertwine on a certain day in 1970s New York.  You can certianly find out about the event portrayed or other information about the book, spoilers abound on the web because this book has been heavily discussed in literary circles.  I'll leave it up to you to decide if you want a more thorough spoiler laden review before deciding whether to read it but I'll stay at a high level here.

It joins the proud tradition of New York stories, not a new genre, a good one but I've grown tired of novels set in the city.  When stories are told about New York, this includes TV series like Sex in the City and movies like Woody Allen movies, the rest of us are somewhat left out.  Writers get all gushy about their favorite brownstones and doormen and write a lot of dialogue about what a pain in the ass it is to get a cab when you want one.  What Makes setting a story in New York a tired gimmick at this point is that it's the easiest way to smash the world of the haves and the have nots together, mix it around a bit and see what comes out.  This story is not an exception to that formula, the run ins between the classes are what makes the stories move.  Most of them are so well written that it's not a noticeable faux pas but there are a couple chapters where I just couldn't hold up my suspension of disbelief  long enough to not wish that those painful passages would end.

The issue here is that Collum McCann writes each of the chapters in a different style.  Some are written in a first person biographical style, some in a classic third person omniscient style.  He's able to nail 10 out of the 12 chapters and I kept thinking through all of them that everyone should read this book.   The two that I felt were clunkers used different voices but both were in a stream of consciousness style.  Collum McCann, you are not a Joyce or a Faulkner.  You are however one of the most brilliant narrative writers that I have had the pleasure to read.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Salt: A world history

This is the definitive textbook on salt.  That should be a good thing but the keyword is textbook.  I loved the first three chapters of this book.  I really enjoyed learning how man discovered salt, how people quickly learned how to adapt salt to preserve food.  I found it fascinating learning how the Chinese discovered that they could use natural gas to boil brine from wells deep in the earth to make salt.

Then my love of learning about salt started to fade.  I learned how caviar was discovered and every single detail of the four common kinds of sturgeon.  I learned how the Swedes make salt packed sausage.  I learned how cheese progresses from being ricotta to formaggio to finally being parmigiano.  Fascinating stuff but once you've read 450 pages in tiny type about salt you're totally worn out on the stuff.  By the time refrigeration and chemical salts come to save the day making salt cheap for everyone I never wanted to see a tiny white grain again.  I literally fell asleep at the table one night while reading it, that's something that hasn't happened since I undertook the Thomas Paine marathon last spring.

The book was packed full of recipes though, if nothing else if the apocalypse comes, signs of which have been seen already today with a Republican winning Ted Kennedy's seat, I'm your man to preserve your fish and game for the long harsh nuclear winter.  My specialty will be Chinese pickled frogs.

Take a bucket full of frogs, a barrel of brine and a slew of wooden chips.  I suggest beechwood for it's mild flavor.  Dump the frogs into the brine, let them swim to the top and perch on a chunk of wood, then cover the barrel.  In three months open and enjoy.  Serve frogs as is, pickled on top of their salt encrusted beechwood chip.  Flavor with pepper sauce for Schezwan style.

So if you want to read this book, try to find a readers digest edition, but if the end of the age of electricity comes, you'll want a copy of this book to get you through.