Tuesday, December 28, 2010

National Just Read More Novels Month 2011

It's hard to believe it has been five years since the first ever National Just Read More Novels Month (or NaJuReMoNoMo for the abbrevophillic) and it has grown bigger every year. Celebrated every January, it is devoted to the appreciation of fiction. Just in case you are new to it or need a refresher, here is this year's version of the official rules:
  1. Must Be A Novel. Works of fiction only, please. Memoirs, non-fiction, how-to books, and Doonesbury collections, no matter how thick, don't count, no matter how obviously fictional.
  2. Memoirs Aren't Novels. No matter how made up the story, anything ostensibly true isn't a novel. This used to be known as The James Frey Rule, but is now called the Decision Point.
  3. Start and Finish in January. I guess if you got some cool books for Christmas, Hanukkah or some other gift-giving event and jumped the gun, you can't be blamed. But I only count books I start and finish within the 31 day window.
  4. Re-reading Doesn't Count. Try something new. Read something by your favorite author or try an entirely new author. This is a great chance to cut down on the height of the nightstand stack.
  5. Have Fun. Nobody is grading you or paying you or judging you. Read what you like and like what you read.
Last year we started the Facebook group, which anyone can join. It has several dozen members and it just keep growing.

This year NaJuReMoNoMo is expanding to Twitter. Anytime you finish a novel, just tweet about it with the hashtag #NaJuReMoNoMo.Someone will be curious enough to try to figure it out.

In the past, people have claimed to not have enough notice about the start, so I am posting this a few days early so you can clear the decks and get those novels ready to be read at the stroke of midnight on New Years. It only takes one novel to declare yourself a winner.

As always we have a fine selection of badges and logos which can be downloaded from Photobucket or just swiped from this page.

And have a great month of reading.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yes, Virginia


"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?




VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.


Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.


Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.


You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.


No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.


These photos were taken of the window displays at the Macy's on 34th Street and Herald Square in New York City. The full set of photos can be found here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why I Hate The Facebook BBC 100 Books Meme

There is a meme (in the 'internet silly game' meaning of the word, not the Richard Dawkins 'fundamental idea of civilization' meaning) going around the internet and on Facebook in particular which goes something like this:
Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here…

Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES.

Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety.

Italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read only an excerpt.

Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses! (Or not.) Feel free to add comments too.
It has even become a Facebook app where you can click off your list and then compare yourself to your FB friends. I have grown to despise this list on several levels. Every time it circles around, I hate it even more. Here are but a few of the reasons:

  1. The BBC had nothing to do with the list. The closest the BBC has come to doing a list like this is their Big Read from 2003 which has many, but not all of these books on their list. The Big Read was a write-in poll to determine Britain's best loved book. The Lord of the Rings came in first, followed by Pride and Prejudice. No quibble there. But this is not that list.

  2. The actual list is from a UK Guardian listicle published in 2007 titled "Books you can't live without: the top 100". I guess whoever started this as a meme thought the BBC had a greater Appeal To Authority.

  3. There is no explanation of how this list was compiled. If there were a companion article in the Guardian explaining how it was arrived at, it has been lost to the internet. With no methodology it's just a random list of books.

  4. Nobody EVER said most people have only read six. Not the Guardian, not the BBC, not anybody except whoever unleashed this meme on the world. This is a frustrating gimmick meant to raise the interest of the reader and make them feel good they are better than 'most people'. In fact, it is a particularly low bar. If you survived high school you are likely to have doubled that number.

  5. The list includes series as single works (Shakespeare, Narnia, Harry Potter, The Faraway Tree). If The Little Prince counts as one, why do you have to read the entire Bible?

  6. There are also individual books in these series listed separately, such as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and Hamlet, thus double counting them.

  7. The quality of the list is astoundingly uneven. There are some real stinkers that made the cut. Some of the dreck that made the list I have read (The DaVinci Code) but there is no way anybody is ever convincing me The Five People You Meet In Heaven should ever be read by anybody.

  8. It's an odd, odd list. A good chunk of it is traditional Western Canon full of Dead White Men (plus Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters). Another part is childhood favorites, that is if you were raised by a nanny in a English manor house. And another big chunk is contemporary middlebrow 'serious' literature like you find on the 3-for-2 table in any BigBoxOfBooks. There is just no theme or rhyme or reason to the hodgepodge. The list is both too broad and too specific.

  9. There are books I have never heard of on this list. I spend a lot of time in bookstores. One of my favorite games is to find the back-to-school or summer-reading-list table and see how many I have read. I usually do pretty well, but I have never run across Swallows and Amazons. Wikipedia tells me it is the first book in a British series that dates to 1930. News to me.

  10. The list is getting increasingly tattered. I've seen a couple of sub-variations of the list with different books substituted. The current version, even the one that has become a Facebook app, has a lot of misspellings which have crept in from going too many times through the virtual Xerox machine. A list with the authors' names misspelled is just embarrassing.

  11. There is no Kurt Vonnegut on the list. This is a serious omission. Given the very British roots of it, it's understandable that it is highly Anglo-centric, but any list of a hundred anything without Slaughterhouse Five on it has no credibility.

  12. Memes just annoy me. But that is a rant for another day. Of particular help to me in building up a steam of hate for this one was a very good entry on the PurpleCar blog entitled How Do Memes Start? A Case Study: 100 Books in Facebook.

And in case you think this is all sour grapes, I have read 27+/- (depending on how you count things and how good my memory is) of them, which is perfectly respectable. But at my rather languid reading pace nowadays, my time is precious and I'm not going to go 'birding' just to increase my score on a particularly vapid Facebook meme. I have enough unread books in my house to last me at least five years and maybe ten of these books on the list are somewhere in the to-read pile, but I'm probably not getting to them anytime soon. I read what I want to read because life is too short.

Far more interesting to me is this list which really is from the BBC of the books people claim to have read but really haven't. I've read three on that list. No, nine. Yes, it's nine.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Stupid Top 100 Book Memes: Harmless Fun or Pretentious Annoyance?

Updated 8:15 a.m.: Changed the title.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Where is Yellojkt Now? - Internet Edition

Judging from the rather meager posting rate on this blog, one could assume that I have taken a long hiatus from blogging, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. As a recent study suggested, actual real blogging is on a mild decline but all sorts of quasi- and para-blogging sites are booming. So rather than focusing on the flagship of the Foma* blogging media empire, my increasingly deficit-disordered attention has been frittered away on all sorts of side endeavors. Here are but a few of the places where you can find my nuggets of wisdom:

FourSquare – One of the features of my blog used to be me taking photos of places I go on business and then asking readers to guess where I am. FourSquare, the stalker-friendly social network has made that pointless. Now I am constantly updating with all the bizarre, obscure, and/or mundane places I find myself on my travels. So if you really care, you would already know that I have eaten at Blue Hill in New York, crossed the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati and had ice cream at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Amy’s. My little mindtwist on the site is that since everything is done on the honor system, I like to check into places I really haven’t been to. For example, I am the mayor of Clark’s Gun Shop in aptly-named Remington, Virginia despite having only set foot in there once. Also, if you see me check into a strip bar like The Cheetah in Atlanta, I’m just messing with you. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Gawker/Wonkette/The Awl – I started reading Wonkette back in the Ana Marie Cox days right as the Washingtonienne story broke. Ana is long gone (although I still hang on her every tweet) and Wonkette was unceremoniously set on an ice floe by Gawker Media only to thrive and form its own unique community and ecosystem. Similarly, several Gawker alumni formed The Awl as the anti-Gawker to prove that Nick Denton is a good person to have as a former boss. They regularly post some of the most thought provoking and intriguing stories, plus lots of videos of bears. As for the mothership, despite their recent password fiasco (which did snap me out of my lazy ways), I am still a faithful reader of the revolving door stable of writers at Gawker. I recently did some brand consolidation, and I am now known as Pop Socket across all three websites. What that does for me other than build a stronger case against me at salary review time, I don’t know.

Twitter – Twitter is the crack cocaine of micro-blogging. Quick hits, a short rush, and an empty queasy feeling of regret mixed with a hunger for more. Increasingly this is where I publish my non sequitur bon mots and random links rather than constantly annoying the insular circle of folks on the Achenblog. It’s also the clearinghouse for all my other social network postings since they all make linking to Twitter just a little too easy.

Tumblr – The newest addition to the Foma Media Empire is my long dormant Tumblr account. Tumblr tries to bridge that Goldilocks range for when a Tweet is too short and a full blogpost is too long. As my energy level for my way-too-long posts (this one as an example) wanes, I may be putting more and more here. One feature I am moving off of Facebook is my Inexplicably Popular Photo item where I post a picture from my Flickr photostream which shows a sudden above average level of viewing for no apparent reason. The 'no apparent reason' eliminates all views of cheerleaders and Glee cast members on the grounds they are highly explicably popular.

Flickr – Speaking of Flickr, this is the culprit starving the most time away from my limited but seemingly far too available internet time. I had developed a serious backlog in posting photos from my most recent vacations. I have finally gotten all the way though the 2009 road trip in Big Sky country and am now focusing on organizing the ones from the Spring trip through the desert Southwest. I’ve got to get caught up because I just got back from Puerto Rico with several hundred pictures and I have trips to Kentucky Bourbon country and Ireland planned for this year. I suspect both of these places will be outstandingly picturesque.

Facebook – In all trend pieces about the death of blogging, Facebook is usually named as a prime suspect. My beef is that since Facebook is a closed system, anything posted there has a very limited readership. I would like to think that the Google-driven masses who stumble onto my blog are looking for something other than pictures of Miranda Cosgrove naked, but the stats don’t bear this out. Still, my ever decreasing chance at internet fame is contingent upon being discovered by someone somewhere. I’ve just read a few books on Facebook (reviewed here) and they keep making a big deal out of the fact that Facebook requires the use of real names. I hope the master algorithm never realizes that one Yellojkt Yellojkt is a pseudonym. My account under that name predates the one under my real name which I keep up as a ruse to fool my spouse and old high school friends (a demographic with a good bit of overlap). So if you haven’t ‘friended’ my online avatar (which frankly, is far more interesting than the man behind the mask), feel free to do so.

Dishonorable Mention:

– I’m a sucker for getting an account on every silly platform that comes out, mostly to prevent claim jumping on the highly desirable ‘yellojkt’ user name. I discovered Formspring through my just-graduated-from-college niece so this is clearly something cool with the kidz. The format is round-robin questions and answers. Other members ask you questions and your answer is posted on your page. So without a critical mass of people in your circle to ask you question, it’s mostly crickets chirping. Sara Benincasa has parlayed this into a schtick and an artform, but I just don’t see these catching on even with as much time on my hands as I seem to have.

BlatantCommentWhoring: What social media takes up your time?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top Five Greatest Hits

Hopefully this is the first of many new list style posts I am going to be sprinkling into the blog. The Top Five motif is a blatant rip-off of the lists from High Fidelity as well as a nod to A Little Night Music which frequently features really great mini-lists.

Greatest hits albums are usually blatant rip-offs of long-time fans while also being a cheap and dirty way to sell records to casual fans who don't want to plunk down a lot of money to buy the full catalog of an artist just to get the popular songs. But some greatest hits collections buck the trend and become worthwhile albums in their own right. So here are:

The Top 5 Greatest Greatest Hits

5Tori Amos Tales of a Librarian. Tori is an eclectic artist and a lot of her deep album cuts are kind of inaccessible. The most fantastic part of this album is that the songs aren't arranged chronologically or alphabetically, but by Dewey Decimal number. Now assigning these numbers is a bit arbitrary but I love the idea that someone went to the trouble. It's a clever idea studiously implemented. And the picture on the cover is just so hot.

4Madonna Immaculate Conception. A good greatest hits package gives you something that any individual album can't deliver. In this case, a career spanning overview provides a perspective on the chameleon-like Material Girl which is best seen from a distance. The songs are all truly hits, including the songs added just for the album. In one disc you really get why she dominated music in the 80s.

3Jimmy Buffett Songs You Know By Heart. The official subtitle for this album is "Jimmy Buffett's Greatest Hit(s)" with the parentheses being a great winking acknowledgment that Buffett is the world's most successful one-hit wonder. While he has put out over a dozen studio albums and several more compilations since that one, it is still the primary disc to have for potential Parrotheads. Got to any Buffett show and you are likely to hear nearly every song on this album, that is if you are sober enough to remember them.

2Eagles Their Greatest Hits. Arguably you only need three Eagles albums. Greatest Hits, Hotel California, and The Long Run. All the rest is filler. Early Eagles albums are a little sleepy and indulgent. Their Greatest Hits puts together a group of songs that set the stage for one of the most significant albums of the 70s. Worldwide, it has sold 42 million copies and is the only album to give Michael Jackson's Thriller a run for its money, saleswise. Conversely, Greatest Hits 2, put out after just two additional studio releases, is one of the most cynically money-grubbing releases of all time.

1ABBA Gold. Abba was a singles band. At best. They only had one number 1 hit in the United States but they were a huge success everywhere else in the world. I recently listened to the 33-1/3 book series (review here) on this album and the author explains the reasoning behind using a greatest hits album as career retrospective. The claims, probably correctly, that this album by collecting all of Abba's international hits it reclaimed the Swedish power pop band's reputation and triggered the decade long Abba-tastic nostalgia trip. If there is any one greatest hit album everyone should own, it is this one.


Foreigner Records. The worst greatest hits albums are those that include live re-recordings of the original songs instead of the album cuts or singles versions. And no violation of this rule is more egregious than the live version of 'Hot Blooded' on Foreigners first (of several) greatest hits albums. Not only is it live, it is terrible. After listening through the other nine tracks, the final song is just fingernails-on-a-blackboard off-key. I mean my version is better. The inclusion mars what would otherwise be a perfectly respectable collection. I have no idea what they were thinking except to give their fans some sort of sorry "Fuck you."

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Feel free to quibble.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Virtual Thanks

This year I am most grateful for all the friends I have met through the internet. As unlikely a method as it is, I love that there are so many interesting people I would never have the chance to become friends with if we were restricted to mere spatial proximity. It's a large, large world and anything which can connect people in so many ways is something worth cherishing.

Most surprising to me is the wide of variety of people I have met. Rather than just finding shodows om my own interests and tastes, I have met people with an infinite variety of backgrounds and perspectives. I want to thank each and every one of you for enriching my life and broadening my horizon.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

BooksFirst - September-October 2010

Books Bought
Zero History by William Gibson
Star Island by Carl Hiaasen
Don't Vote by P. J. O'Rourke

Books Read
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
Hella Nation by Evan Wright
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


There may only be three books on the listfor the past two months, but they fill be with a huge sense of accomplishment. I have been nibbling away at Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver Cycle for nearly two years now and I got determined to finish it off. The final volume, The System of the World, takes place in 1714, a few years after the events that end Confusion. All the players are in and around London where most of the action takes place, if by action you mean endless set-pieces about currency and wealth and philosophy. The focus of the book is on Daniel Waterhouse, now and old man dragged into intrigue concerning destabilizing England's currency. This takes him into contact with his old roommate Isaac Newton, guardian of the Mint by day and mad alchemist at night. Also involved are Jack Shaftoe and Eliza and the dozens of minor characters they have accumulated, including future kings and queens.

Stephenson is playing a long game here. While there are certain phantastical elements at play, much of it is swashbuckling historical fiction. The slightly anachronistic style is tough to keep up with for over 2000 pages and certain verbal twitches just become annoying after a while. While any historical era can be seen as pivotal when viewed in the right light, the case for the early 18th century is made subtly but very strongly. There were a lot of different elements at work in that time.

Overall, the trilogy is to tour de force but Stephenson is a writer seriously in need of an editor. The exciting parts are amazingly gripping but the meanderings can be tedious. This is all just churlish nitpicking on a work which truly earns the word 'epic'.

Hella Nation is a book which came highly recommended by my dad and our tastes don't always overlap much, but he raved so much about this book I had to move it to the top of the to-read pile. Evan Wright got his start in 'journalism' as the movie reviewer for Hustler magazine and it flavors a lot of the book. Perhaps a third of it relates directly or indirectly to his years on the fringes of the adult entertainment industry. What is clearly a sleazy industry at all levels is captured with just a hint of winsome affection.

But the stronger pieces are the pure character studies where Wright captures the some of some peculiarly American subculture whether it be professional skateboarders or white supremacists or combat soldiers. The subjects are never patronized or ridiculed but always shown full-figure, warts and all.

The writing has a slightly Hunter Thompsonesque gonzo feel but seems to be more in line with the early writing of Tom Wolfe before he became an old man telling kids to quit hooking up on his lawn. There is a passion and compassion found in each of the rather oddball subjects he features.

Perhaps no book not involving precocious British wizards has gotten as much hype as Freedom. Jonathon Franzen even made the cover of Time as if he were a politician or rock star. The book itself is very good even if nothing could possibly live up to the rather elevated expectations. Like his earlier near-Oprah selection The Corrections it focuses on a rather dysfunctional family with widely divergent personalities. And while the characters and situations in Freedom are completely different from the ones in The Corrections, there is a certain familiarity and lots of easily drawn parallels.

I checked this book out of the library where it had a rather long waiting list meaning that I had exactly three weeks to get through all 560 pages. I set myself a pace of 30 pages a night and easily rolled through it. And while the plot and timeline do meander, by the end there is a clear concise satisfying if not wholly happy ending. In this respect, Franzen has more in common with Stephenson than most people would notice. Franzen works at a much closer level, but much of what they both do is the same. Small points have large meanings and everything connects to everything.

There is a lot of sex in Freedom. Underage sex, non-consensual sex, adulterous sex, make-up sex, even passionless sex. But none of it is prurient. There is always something else going on. The sex is always about more than just sex. Indeed, everything is about something else whether it be a bird sanctuary or a rock song or a war profiteering business deal. As for 'Freedom', well, let's just say that it means having nothing left to lose.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rally For Inanity

If you are going to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally on the Mall tomorrow, make sure you have a witty erudite sign to wave in front of the cameras. If not, just use this one:

You can download a printable pdf version by clicking on the image below:

I hope to see all my fellow radical moderates there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mini 500

While the Ramblin' Wreck Parade is one of the premiere events of the Georgia Tech Homecoming weekend, another activity has gotten more recognition as the result of a PSA being aired during Georgia Tech ACC football games.

While that video involves some Hollywood magic, the real race is just as bizarre. Teams are given an unassembled stock tricycle which they have to put together and paint. The teams consist of four riders and three in the pit crew. Here is the team from my son's fraternity with their tricycle:


The racers have to push the tricycle around the course. The most common posture is to put one knee on the trike seat and push with the other leg.


Although some people take fancier poses.


The other common technique is to sit on the tricycle backwards and push with both feet.


The race is between 10 and 15 laps of Peters Parking Deck which is easily a half mile around. This takes an enormous toll on the trikes and the riders. Wipeouts are frequent.


The front tire in particular is prone to blowouts and many trikes run on rims.


As the tricyles fall apart beyond repair, the teams just give up and resort to silly stunts.


Or just run around with the remaining parts.


The event draws a huge crowd and I was far from the only photographer grabbing pictures of the racers and wrecks.


Eventually someone comes up with enough laps to win. I have no idea if this team won, but there sure are showing some enthusiasm.


For lots more (perhaps too many more) photos of all the wackiness, check out the Flickr set. And if you are ever in Atlanta for Georgia Tech's homecoming check out the race itself.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Times are tough for a certain single mom of fourteen. As reported on Celebritology and elsewhere, Nadya Suleman, also known as the Octomom, had to hold a yard sale just to raise a little cash for all her little ones. Among the many personal items she sold off was one of her nursing bras. And to ensure its authenticity, she autographed it. While the buyer has decided to remain anonymous, Foma Central has captured an exclusive picture of this unique undergarment.

I just feel sorry for her once the little rascals start teething.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Vampire Weekend

The price for growing up in Florida and having a family that went waterskiing (and one of the verbal quirks that distinguishes me from a native Northener is that I call it snowskiing as if it were an equally likely alternative activity) every weekend. My dad would want to hit the lake about 8 a.m. so that he could get in an hour of skiing while the water was still 'like glass' - the super smooth mirrory texture of calm water. As soon as all the rubes in their speed boats showed up, the water just got too choppy.

We would head home after a picnic lunch and put the boat back in the garage. Meanwhile I would have fried to a deep lobster red crisp. For the next week, if I was bored following my mother around the commissary, I had some built in entertainment. I would play games with my peeling sunburn. The best one was to see how big a piece of skin I could pull off all at once. Sometimes I could do the entire length of my arm.

So for me the risk of developing skin cancer is a 'when', not an 'if'. After years of doing Male Habitual Doctor Avoidance, my wife booked me an appointment with a dermatologist, which is no mean feat. I've gotten a table at Babbo easier than a time slot with a skin doctor.

The appointment included a Full Body Scan, which is far less sophisticated than I thought it would be. The doctor looks over my whole body while a nurse writes down the rapid fire jargon-filled observations. The only thing slowing the doc down from her voluminous tracking of conditions was her stopping to zap scaly areas with her liquid nitrogen gun. A quick peak at my pale white ass confirmed for her that all the skin damage is sun related. Thank goodness I never became a nudist.

All the dry flaky spots on my skin which I thought were just a lack of moisturizing were actually pre-cancerous actinic keratosis conditions. While the cold gun burns off the surface cells, the doctor told be to come back for the Blue Light Treatment, or it's more technical name, Photodynamic Therapy (PDT).

PDT involves applying a chemical that takes away the natural UV resistance of the skin. To get the chemical absorbed into the skin, they wrapped my forearms with cheap Target brand saranwrap and then had me sit in the waiting room for 90 minutes with my arms looking like they were being marinaded, which I guess they were.

After being thoroughly basted, they then stick my arms into an open ended EasyBake oven of lights that put off a preternaturally blue light. During this time the skin gets warm and some spots begin to tingle.

But the most disruptive aspect of this treatment is that you then have to stay out of sunlight for 48 hours afterwards. Like indoors away from windows. My tech even cautioned me against standing in the kitchen with the blinds closed. So that began what I am calling my Vampire Weekend. Normally my house is kept dark enough to meet London Blitz darkout conditions anyways, but I took extra precautions.

Rather than use my desktop computer I set up a laptop in the dining room which is equidistant from the rather sunlit kitchen and the living room which has perfectly opaque vertical blinds. I even turned the overhead lights down on the dimmer.

Normally, having to stay indoors all day on a weekend is not a problem. But when you are told not to do something, it's all you can think off. All day yesterday, I was itching for the sun to go down. Finally, as twilight began to glimmer I begged my wife to go to the movies with me just to keep me from going stir crazy.

Today, as my 48 hours are to expire, the skies are rainy and overcast, but I am going to wear a thick long sleeve shirt just to stay on the safe side. I was given some topical creams just in case my skin gets irritated, but so far all I feel is the warmth of a mild sunburn, which just brings back the memories of those summer days of my youth blissfully ripping the blistered skin from my arms. Now I leave that to the doctors.

And just in case you feel misled by my post title and were expecting some tweeny pop band, here is a link to make up for it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pigtown Races

Fall is festival season and one of the cuter small neighborhhood ones is held by the Washington Village Community Association aka Pigtown. It got its name because the trains would offload livestock and run them through the streets to the butcher shops in the area.

So to celebrate the refound heritage of the area, the annual street festival holds pig races. Five times a day they have four heats of races. Two with pigs and two with 'ugly pigs' which closely resembled ducks.


And the losers of the races went straight to the barbecue vendors. Which were delicious. And between races they had a live entertainment stage. The band we saw was The Dutch Cousins who played an energetic country folk mix of originals and covers.


The Pigtown area is now a slowly gentrifying area with luxury townhomes where a housing project used to be, but there is plenty of Charm City character left as well. I love seeing those uniquely Baltimoron formstone faces.


But the slickest house was this rowhome with a trompe l'oeil mural on the side which perfectly matched the preternaturally blue sky.


The perfect day. Good music, fine food, and fast pigs.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Prater Power

Some of the best things we did on our tour of Central Europe were not on the official itinerary. For example, in Vienna we were told about an amusement park. Not having anything better to do that evening we hopped the subway and headed out. We got to the park just before dusk. We weren't really expecting much, but we were quickly overwhelmed. What a blast we had. It was as if Coney Island had been dropped in the middle of Austria.


Our group of five first headed to the large ferris wheel near the back of the park where we got a great overview of the park. It went on for acres and acres.


After a couple more thrill rides, three of us decided to tackle the Prater Tower (or Praterturm in German). We had no idea that at over 100 meters tall it is the highest swing ride in the world. Check out the video. It does tower over everything else in the park.


After a few more thrill rides (including one I was too chicken to try), it was time for some liquid refreshment in the beer garden near one of the many funhouses.


But before we left, I insisted we ride the Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel that dates back to 1897 and which has been featured in several movies including The Living Daylights.

We didn't leave the park until nearly midnight and the fairgrounds were still going strong. So when in Vienna, make sure to take a turn on the Praterturm.

For more picture of the Prater, check out the Flickr set.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

BooksFirst - March to August 2010

Books Bought
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Talib

Books Read
Bonk by Mary Roach
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey
60 Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

Books Heard
Fluke by Christopher Moore
Abba's Abba Gold (Thirty Three and a Third series) by Elisabeth Vincetelli


It may came as no surprise to regular readers that I have a deviant streak in me. In middle school I would go down to the base library and read the entire shelf of books in the 612.6 section. I never understood why books on human sexuality were filed under Applied Technology, but after reading Mary Roach's Bonk, I understand that odd categorization a little better.

The book is not about sexuality per se, but rather about the people who study it. Going back to Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and even earlier, she chronicles the researchers who had an uphill battle in even getting the authority to begin legitimate scientific or medical investigations. And not all these researchers come off as disinterested folk in white lab coats holding clip boards. A lot of them have rather colorful personal lives.

While not an explicit theme of the book, the recurring item that I kept noticing was how sparse the research is. There just isn't that much out there. And the researchers that are doing it are still fighting puritanism. At one point, in order to see a particular type of MRI procedure, she had to volunteer herself (and her husband) as subjects because volunteers are so rare.

All of this is written with a great deal of wit and just enough titillation to keep the interest level up.

Far and away the leader in the fiction section of my Which Book Should I Read Next poll was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. That I have never read this book before was a monumental failing on my part. I think perhaps some of avoidance was fear that I would like it more than Slaughterhouse Five, the book most often mentioned in the same breath.

I immediately found that the book does live up to its reputation. It is funny, dark, and subversive. The absurdist humor has withstood the test of time and still accurately skewers the follies of war. Fifty years after its publication, it is not the stunning revelation it was when first released, but it still packs a punch. I do have a few quibbles. It is perhaps about 20% too long. Some of the bits and points seem to be hammered home over and over again. And in a few places it is just a little too over the top. Nonetheless, an amazing work and achievement.

But Kurt Vonnegut has nothing to worry about. Heller really never matched the success of Catch-22 while Vonnegut went on to write on a wide variety of themes with equal wit and insight. But Catch-22 is a legitimate member of the modern canon and one I was remiss to miss for so long.

On the non-fiction side of the poll, The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach also ran away in the polling. Perhaps plugging the poll in the comments of his blog wasn't the best way to get an impartial opinion. Achenbach is the Washington Post's best reporter to have never won a Pulitzer. You practically need one to be admitted to the WaPo cafeteria and it's a shame he doesn't have one yet.

Achenbach clearly has a love affair with the Potomac River and the book is pitched as a biography of George Washington's effort to develop it. The problem is that Washington never accomplished much of his grand idea and he comes off as a bit of dick trying. George Washington used his experience as a land surveyor to claim large swathes of western territory and then uses his reputation as a war hero to fend off stake jumpers. He also uses his influence to steer the new national capitol to a location just upriver from his plantation, an early example of what George Washington Plunkitt would call 'honest graft.' It doesn't help that the Potomac never quite becomes the road to the west that Washington wanted it to be, regardless of his motives.

As a narrative, the story just fizzles. There is no real drama, intrigue or tension. As a route west, the Potomac just missed the boat. The last third of the book chronicles the post-Washington history of the river. And while the C&O canal did eventually achieve some of Washington's dreams, the railroad and other routes west eventually made even that obsolete. Achenbach does point out that one of the central ironies of Washington's grand idea is that had it not failed, we wouldn't have the wonderful natural resource that we have today.

It's pretty well established that I am an Anthony Bourdain groupie. I've seen him on stage four times. I have his No Reservations show on DVR. And so when he dropped hints that a new book was about to drop, I ran to BigBoxOfBooks to get a copy. Medium Raw is a new collection of essays about food, travel, and life. They don't have any sort of narrative arc, but tend to jump around. But they are beautifully written. When he wants to be eloquent the words just flow; when he wants to be profane, the profanity just flies. Tears will flow either out of laughter or out of sorrow.

One problem is that Anthony is a little ubiquitous, so a lot of this information was not entirely new to me. I'm familiar with all his grudges and feuds but it is good to hear his authoritative take. A lot does also get a little inside baseball-ish. He names names, but unless you eat in New York a lot, you don't really know who he is praising or trashing. But overall this book is great for both the casual fan and the diehard foodie. You will laugh, you will cry, you will get very hungry.

Ever since I read the entire Travis McGee series in one summer, I have been a sucker for the cynical satiric Florida-set thriller. There is just something so absurdist about the state that brings out the best in writers of dark humor. The 1999 debut novel by Tim Dorsey, Florida Roadkill, mines this vein deep and wide. Written very broadly, it is for people who find Dave Barry a little subtle and Carl Hiaasen's characters just too naturalistic.

The writer is a former reporter for the Tampa Tribune. As an erstwhile Tampan, I found the geography and the descriptions hilariously dead on. Every real place he mentioned was perfect in his description. Even the fictional locales were so true to life they should have existed.

There are enough low-lifes, deadbeats and scammers to fill a dozen novels. The shifting points of views are dizzying until about halfway through the book Dorsey starts killing them off in a spree that would make Quentin Tarantino squeamish. Overall, the book is derivative of so much it ends up reading like an homage to every twisted Florida tale ever. By the end I was finally involved enough in the surviving main characters only to have that shot out from under me in a way I wasn't quite expecting.

Dorsey has gone on to write another dozen books. In the meantime I have yet to buy Carl Hiaasen's latest. The rest of the Dorsey oeuvre will have to wait until I have caught up on the real thing and am jonesing for a whacky Florida novel hit strong enough to settle for second best.

Now that I live in the greater (very greater) DC area I should read more books set in that locale. One trilogy that I started a while back by Kim Stanley Robinson concludes in Sixty Days And Counting, the finale to Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below Zero. These books are set in DC against a world undergoing catastrophic climate change. While the first two books were clunky, they at least featured some great disaster movie set pieces, a flood and an extreme cold snap respectively, that added some excitement.

I kept waiting for the grand weather finale in 60 Days and I'm still waiting. The trilogy ends not in fire or in ice, but in endless polemics. Nearly all the action takes place off stage and the heroes just kind of walk around spouting position papers. The smug moralizing would make Al Gore cringe and the over the top technological solutions are well researched but just a little too clever. What little action there is comes from an astoundingly lame romance-suspense subplot about sinister secret government agencies which is excruciatingly bad and simple-minded.

I struggled through this trilogy hoping for a better payoff, but instead of hurricane I just got a fizzle.

Last summer on family vacation, we listened to Lamb by Christopher Moore and the entire family thought it was hysterical. So this spring when I went on a driving trip of the Southwest, I took along one of his earlier novels, Fluke. Set among whale researchers in Hawaii it showed a lot of promise to have some biting satire about phony scientists and ecological zealots.

Instead, about half way through it goes off the deep end, literally. The whole mystery of if and how whales are communicating with the hero is revealed and not in a good way. From there the rest of the book takes a bizarre turn in a direction that aims high and misses wide. The fantasy pseudo-science fiction section is nowhere near as interesting as the more reality based parts of the book.

Christopher Moore is a daring and very very funny writer, so I guess I can forgive the occasional mistake, but I just wish I had picked something a little better this trip out.

Picking audiobooks to share is a tricky proposition. They have to interest all the listeners. I am a bigger ABBA fan than a straight man ought to be and my wife loves them even more. There is a series of books/audiobooks where each volume examines one seminal album. Rather than pick any one album, Elisabeth Vincetelli uses ABBA's Gold as a retrospective on the career of Sweden's greatest guilty pleasure export. She uses each track to illustrate some phase or aspect of their career. While I am a fan, I learned a lot about the band I never knew. I also appreciate the thesis that there is a lot more pain and introspection in the songs than the poppy arrangements would suggest.

One failing of the audio version in particular is the lack of clips that would illustrate the points better. Brief snippets of spoken lyrics just don't cut it. Even worse are the long passages discussing the visual aspects of the many pioneering music videos they made and the painfully 70s outfits they wore. Without a YouTube connection, trying to visualize the segments being described was frustrating.

Another intriguing part of the book was how Benny and Bjorn had musical ambitions beyond pop music. By no coincidence, we went and saw the Signature Theater production of Chess a week after listening to the book. In hindsight, there are a lot of very theatrical clues in ABBA's music that would emerge in their stage writing. This book made me feel a lot less guilty of being an ABBA fan even when it wasn't (and perhaps still isn't) cool to be.