Non-fiction’s Revenge! Test Your Might!

So one thing I don’t like about e-readers is that it has now become more difficult to see what people are reading on the subway/bus. I used to have a whole system involving imaginary pulleys and levers which slowly, carefully, and with the appearance of nonchalance, positioned my brain-holder in such a manner so as to afford me a glimpse of what the person near me was finding so-damn-interesting (often followed by disappointment at the appearance of a moon-based, play-on-words title. In such cases, it turns out that my dejected sighs are not quite as inaudible as they perhaps should be). Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to talk to these people about their current read; dear no. But some twisted, deranged part of me is actually curious about what other people are interested in. But the ubiquitous aesthetic of e-readers foil this methodology of visual eavesdropping, and since actual communication is entirely out of the question, I am left bereft of material for silently judging my fellow commuters. Which brings me back to my point – e-readers suck. My literature-reading device has an instant refresh rate, does not require batteries, is cheaper (and even free if I’m visiting the library), and best of all, biodegradable; allowing me to feel superficially smug and superior instead of being superficially trendy.

Also, the robots will use e-readers in the Revolution of 2012 to destroy their human users, virtually ensuring victory over the weak, pathetic fleshies.

All this is not to suggest, either, that I actually like to read. But sometimes, in order to maintain the appearance of a well-adjusted, human-being-species-thing, one must partake in their ritual obsession with written communication. And so here I am, left with the remaining insights thoughts memories of my recently concluded readings:

Babylon by Bus Cover

Babylon by Bus
by Ray LeMoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster

I love when the lack of a plan comes together. The essential essence of Babylon by Bus is the story of two self-acknowledged idiots making a series of bad choices and coming out the other end (mostly) unscathed with some amazing stories and insight into a world most of us will never know. I am terribly jealous (most of my bad decisions involve the misuse of fire and/or electricity).

When you’re selling t-shirts vilifying the Yankees to Red Sox fans, you may find yourself with ample cash and the flexibility to randomly take off and visit, I don’t know… the Middle East? Plans? Bah! Common-sense? Poppycock! Safety? Overrated! Ray and Jeff have no problem telling their brutally direct stories, describing their experiences without bias; traveling from Tel Aviv to Iraq, living in Baghdad, and doing their best to contribute to the “rebuilding process” in a post-Saddam nation, all while looking for work, finding a place to live, not getting killed, and living in a perpetual drug-induced fog. Without pretension, they paint a picture of post-war Iraq untainted by political ideology (that’s not to say they don’t have their opinions, just that they acknowledge there’s no easy fix for what has become, at best, an unholy mess). Rather, they are more interested in what the Iraqi citizenry thinks, and develop relationships that reveal a wide range of opinions and attitudes toward the war; a far cry from the unified gratitude/zealotry we’ve been encouraged to accept as the image of Iraqis.

The two friends don’t spend a lot of time wondering what if? and this is the fault of… but rather, do everything they can to help under the CPA, while managing a fair amount of partying and ingestion of copious amounts of various substances. The many many people they meet and leave along the way are all distinct (though sometimes overwhelming - I had to keep going back to remember who each person was), from the clown troupe they live with, to the burly, ‘roid-raging military contractors.

All said, the book doesn’t have much structure – it’s better read as a series of vignettes than a single story with clear protagonists, goals, or conflict. What it does do well is tell a realistic story; life doesn’t always fit into nicely contained boxes, you’re not always the ‘good guy’, and you probably won’t ever get to see how it all ‘ends’.

Candyfreak CoverCandyfreak
by Steve Almond

Quick, name your favorite candy. And? Right, exactly – it’s impossible because anyone who has one, single, favorite candy that rises above the rest that is not immediately overtaken by another nearby competitor that was residing in a memory emerging only just now, is a damned fool. I can make pronouncements like this, because this is my blog and you’re still reading.

Steve Almond has no single favorite candy; he loves them all; or at least him claims to. Yet throughout the book he seems to take a perverse joy in specifically disparaging each of the candies closest to my heart (Neccos, Boston Baked Beans, Candy Corn, Anything-With-Coconut, etc) one-by-one. As a self-proclaimed “Candyfreak”, he is not terribly tolerant of those sweets which are produced by the big candy conglomerates (hate the hater, not the product), and his book has a heavy bias toward chocolate-based candy bars (fruity and sour candies are scarcely mentioned). Admittedly, he acknowledges his “refined” candy-tasting palette has transformed him into somewhat of a snob, but despite this cursory humility, Almond just came off sounding, time and time again, like a dick. This wasn’t helped by his repeated and jarring political rants (which had no problem taking causal jaunts into the territory of hyperbole and back again) about the downfall of America, how everything sucks all the time, and oh-how-screwed-we-are. Hey, I’m in agreement that there are things as a country we can do and should have done better (which involve a lot more depth than he was willing to accept), but I’m just trying to read about candy here! You know the “crazy guy” on the subway? You know, the guy who’s yelling to everyone about how we are all sheep (true) because the media is controlling our minds (true) with werewolves who have installed chips in our brains (only mostly true), and that Jesus is coming back with a robot army to destroy humanity in 2012 (probably not true – robots are faithless, which is why they’re so deadly). Meanwhile, everyone pretends to be intensely interested in their books, or phones, or the flyer advertising free information about starting your very own alpaca farm (call now!). Well, for a couple chapters, Steve Almond becomes that guy. He smells vaguely of urine and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about it.

That having been said, Almond is pretty damn funny (think Chuck Klosterman, but even more proud of his own cleverness). And the anecdotes about his factory tours intermingled with his childhood memories make up for the fact that he occasionally pisses himself and doesn’t notice. But my favorite people in the book are the factory owners who, despite their differing attitudes and personalities, become the same person when it comes to candy-making. Basically, they regress to the unbridled joy that comes with being a kid in a candy factory. You get a good idea about how the candy in the book is made, but the focus tends more toward the history and nostalgia invoked by the hardcore candy-lover community. By the end of the book (despite the last chapter, which is utterly soul-crushing and generally sucky) I did find myself hoping for a sequel, just maybe written by somebody not having a mid-life crisis.

Non-fic Recap – Round 1: Fight!

Albino unicorns punching a baby.

Good, now that I have your attention, I want to babble on about my life and what I’ve been doing since my last post. What? You have no interest in these things you say? But say I: “I hear there are whole communities built around letting each other know when we get a new toothbrush, dye our hair a new color, or think a clever thought in our thought-having skulls”. And like the curmudgeon I am, I will willfully mispronounce the name of one such service as “tweeper”, thinking it cute in it’s artificial naivety and not at all cliche.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve usually have a rule of not writing when I have nothing to say (and I rarely do; I work hard to avoid the affliction others know as “opinions” and “beliefs”). But today is so nice, and I am so wonderfully touched with madness at this particular moment that I decided, what the hell? Let’s live a little and linguistically vomit all over this particular corner of the Internet.

But no, I’m finding now that can’t do this thing. Let’s cut to some quick and dirty book critiques, shall we? I’ve been reading, right? Let us see what has been keeping me from endless rounds of Starcraft and Team Fortress:

Manhunt CoverManhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
by James Swanson

Um, okay. I read Manhunt long enough ago (June) that I probably shouldn’t have this on my list of recent reads, but let me put down my antique smoking pipe for a moment and stare whimsically into the five feet of blank space in front of me while I think. Ah, right. I *did* enjoy this book – it’s peppered with all kinds of interesting facts and theories surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and his murderer (spoiler alert!), John Booth (just for today, no middle names). For the most part, Swanson does a good job of weaving what must be a plethora of sources into a single coherent narrative. That said, he has the tendency to go off on ridiculously long tangents that have no immediate relationship to the story, pedantically examining the history of every character and their family, significant or not. While history buffs might love this sort of monotonous recounting of irrelevant facts, I have shit to do – tell me if John Booth and his criminal (and, I got the impression, intensely enamored) companion David Herold make it out of that thicket, dammit! This characteristic of the book actually caused me to stop halfway through and start reading something else; you know, where shit actually happens. But I needed to know how it ended, so I diligently read through scene after scene of our outlaw sitting in the woods (the actual assassination plan and execution is only about 1/4 of the total book) whining about how nobody understands him. The only other serious irritation Swanson commits is the occasional romp through time, casually jumping ahead to a character’s vindication or villification years later as new evidence surfaced (which reminds me, I need to see The Conspirator). To be fair, the pace of the book picks up again once Thomas Jones obtains a rowboat for their journey south. After that point, the book had no trouble holding my attention. I didn’t read the appendix either, but there was plenty of information there to keep history lovers busy for days-worth of hours.

Uncle Tungsten CoverUncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten is quite possibly my new favorite non-fiction book of all time (and not just because of extensive usage of footnotes, which at one point, spans 75% of two consecutive pages – he acknowledges such insanity with great glee). Half childhood autobiography, and half history-of-the-era-of-modern-scientific-discovery (an amalgamated awesomeness shared only by the elusive and deadly narwhal), Sacks has a way of making you feel the same excitement for chemistry and physics as that of his childhood, placing his own learning discoveries alongside instances of first discoveries in the scientific world (luckily, he explains the sciences as he learned them as well, making the book readable to those otherwise disinclined to such devotions). I particularly enjoyed his experience “discovering” the modern table of elements and the recounting of its development by the rarely-mentioned-in-pop-culture hero/chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev (a man whose predictive powers must have been akin to magic in his time). Look, plainly put, there is nothing not-awesome about the developing scientific theories of the 1700s and 1800s. Sacks includes great stories about some of the paradigms that emerged during the demise of phlogiston theory, and the continual cycle of failure and success in the scientific community of the era. He goes to great pains to paint the scientists he admires and discusses in as much vivid detail as his family members, revealing the personalities behind each theory and experiment. Suddenly, the history of science becomes a narrative filled with characters, both heroic and villainous (though thankfully, no pirates), each on their own quest for truth (this time, a first for my blog, “truth” here does not mean “ice cream”). Some succeed! Others fail! New elements and friendships are forged, while others are destroyed, and betrayal reigns supreme! New episodes every Thursday at 8:00 pm EST!

*ahem*

Sacks has also written the apparently-very-good The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which is among the next few books on my list of future reads.

I have notes for some other books here (“here” being an abstract space in my head which only occasionally manifests itself in reality, and “notes” being nothing) about my summer reading, but my bourbon is gone, and I have a strict policy against writing reviews without my bourbon close by (bourbon is the brown stuff, right?). So until next time, terrified readers, do… whatever, I guess?