Can't Stop Won't Stop by Jeff ChangAlthough I’ve been doing music reviews for about a decade now (if you count the time I spent writing with my college newspaper), I’ve never considered myself a person who is really well-rounded in terms of being knowledgable in regards to all different genres. I know my indie rock and electronic music quite well, with dabblings of smarts about jazz and classical and other styles, but when it comes time to start discussing something other than the areas I know best, I start to feel rather stupid.

That was one of the reasons that I decided to order a book about the history of hip-hop. I’d heard a lot of good things about Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang and decided it would be a good starting point for me. As it turns out, it was probably one of the best places that I could have dipped my toes into the water, as it has a very thorough (if a bit trunicated) history of everything from street parties to breakdancing to graffiti artists to black nationalism right through to DJs and MCs and hip hop and rap music into present times. The time span covers roughly the last 30 years, and although I knew little bits and pieces about little things here and there, it was interesting to read the book and sort of tie all the loose ends together.

One of the things I enjoyed most was reading a more involved history of groups like Public Enemy, whom I really enjoy. I didn’t really discover the group on my own terms until well after their most popular (and controversial) period, and it was intersting to read about not only the things they did right, but their mistakes as well. Oddly enough, the book seemed rushed as it moved towards a conclusion, seemingly whittling down especially the past 10 years or so into a much smaller section of the book, but overall it was a highly enjoyable read. At least I don’t feel like quite as much of an idiot about hip hop music now.

Only Revolutions by Mark Z. DanielewskiOkay, so it’s not really that much of an issue, but at the beginning of this year, I told myself I would only read non-fiction this year. This hasn’t been a problem at all to date, as there are tons of books on my shelves (and a couple more that I ordered this week) that I could easily choose and stay within those boundaries. However, it was recently announced that Mark Z. Danielewski’s new book entitled Only Revolutions will be coming out in late summer (Sept 5th to be precise). Like many others, I was a big fan of his crazy debut novel House Of Leaves, so I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what’s up his sleeve with this newest tome (especially since it’s been almost 5 years since his last output.

I know it’s silly, but I’m trying to decide whether I should abandon my non-fiction plans and dive into the new Danielewski when it comes out, or whether I should just hold off until 2007 and keep on with the non-fiction.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins I’d heard many people mention that The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a good book, and in some odd chance I actually discovered it sitting on our bookshelf just over a month ago (this sort of thing happens sometimes when your wife is an obsessive book collector as well). After reading some lighter non-fiction to start the year, I decided to dive straight in on something a little more heady.

As it turns out, it took me more than a month to read it, which was quite a bit longer than I figured it would. Part of the reason behind that is spending less time overall reading in the past 30 days, but also due to this book by Dawkins being small on the print and full of ideas that needed a bit more time to digest. An overview and defense of evolution, it’s easily the most in-depth and interesting book that I’d ever read on the subject, and far, far more developed than anything I ever got in school.

All of the above said, the book is fairly easily to digest, it just takes a little more time. The biggest thing that I took away from it was simply the sheer scale of time involved in the development of the earth and evolution. Humans (myself included) are used to thinking of large periods of times as century or even millenium, but those time periods are absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. Oddly enough, instead of making me feel like some small, insignificant piece of it all, I came away in awe of the human body and how it developed.

In a rather timely bit of news, I ran across this article (which includes a quote from Dawkins himself) this evening when I got home after work. The Blind Watchmaker has a section devoted to discussing the very idea that the aforementioned article discovery negates, and it seemed like fitting timing given that I’d just read about it. I’m going to tackle a book that’s a little less intensive now, but I might go back to some more Dawkins as some point in the future.

A Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionIn addition to reading numerous positive reviews and it showing up on several year-end lists for 2005, TG had recommended a couple other Joan Didion books that we already own (Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays), so I decided to check out A Year Of Magical Thinking. The title of the book states the time frame that passes in the book, but it’s hard to imagine many more tragic events taking place in 365 days than what happens to Didion.

Around the beginning of the book, her daughter falls into a coma induced by septic shock. Two weeks after that happens (and two days after Christmas, coincidentally), her husband of almost 40 years dies of a massive heart attack right before they sit down to dinner. A couple weeks later, her daughter is out of the coma and is told the bad news, then only a couple weeks later has a massive edema on the brain and almost dies.

All this is stated on the book cover, so I knew that I wasn’t exactly going to be reading an uplifting sunshiney book. The first 50 pages of A Year Of Magical Thinking are like successive punches in the gut as all the major events described unfold. Didion has a somewhat dramatic flair that seems a bit much at times, but during the first part of the book, she draws you in and really makes you think about how you would feel if some of the same things happened to you. Major life events that she’d never had to worry about are thrown at her rapid fire and the book gives a good account of the range of emotions that she goes through, from self-pity to near complete irrationality.

It’s around the middle of the book that things seem to go a bit off course, though. As her daughter is going through therapy, Didion starts to simply churn out memory after memory of life with her husband as she ferries herself about her everyday life. Many of these memories are repeated several times during the course of the book, and while some of them are interesting, at times the page after page after page of exposition feels almost like random name dropping (whether she’s making note of staying at the Beverly Wilshire, that Donald Rumsfeld was a classmate of her husbands, or that her husband has an autographed copy of a book from Julia Childs). Some of the facts seem to tell a story, but many feel barely relevant at all.

In some ways, I can see how this huge diversion (which takes up nearly half the book it seems) fits in with her at times incoherent behavior after her husband dies. The random thoughts and fleeing memories do seem like they’re coming from someone who is grasping and reaching and remembering to retain every little detail. The problem is that they just don’t add up to very compelling storytelling for the casual reader.

In the last section of the book, Didion again seems to pull things together as she recounts different events and how she is progressing, but by then the story of her daughter is oddly lost. After investing so much into her story throughout the book, that thread simply unravels a bit as the book reaches the conclusion (although through some reading on the web, I found out that her daughter never quite recovered fully, finding herself in a wheelchair before finally dying last summer).

Having said the above, I feel a bit odd being critical at all of such a personal work, but as a reader the book padded out for me in places. I’ll have to plan on reading some of her earlier work at some point.

As a quick sidenote, I must say that I love the simple design of the book cover and the very subtle use of color on the type to spell out her husbands name.

Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace Consider The Lobster was the fifth book (and coincidentally the fifth book I’ve read this year) that I’ve read by David Foster Wallace. Because I’m a wimp, I still haven’t tackled either of his true novels (Broom Of The System or Infinite Jest). Perhaps someday I will.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy his collections of shorter pieces, whether they be fiction or non-fiction. I plowed through Oblivion and like most of his work I found it to be somewhat frustrating at times yet amazing at others, which is why I always seem to come back to his work. Even when he frustrates me, he manages to keep me interested.

Anyway, Consider The Lobster is a collection of his non-fiction work from the past six years or so, and it contains everything from book reviews to a long piece on John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. For those that find DFWs fiction work a bit too obtuse, they can rest easy knowing that his non-fiction is almost completely the opposite. Sure, there are places where he seems to revel in the craft itself more than the storytelling, and one story in particular (the closing one of the book) seems to rely a smidge too much on gimmicky arrowed subnotes, but overall this is a great collection of work that’s highly enjoyable to read. Even his sharp-witted criticism of a new John Updike book (which I hadn’t read (and had no intention of reading)) kept me engrossed.

Basically, if you enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, you most likely won’t go wrong here. Easily one of the most fascinating writers practicing the craft today.

I’m currently about 5/7ths of the way through my current book, and with any luck I should be able to finish it up this week some time. I have another book in the queue after that, and possibly one more arriving soon from an online purchase that I may or may not want to push to the top of the pile.

I’m one of those people who likes to plan my reading in advance (just so I can get excited about what’s coming next), so I want to ask for book idea suggestions from people. Because this is The Year Of Non-Fiction (a choice I made before beginning 2006), I ask you to please recommend titles in that genre only.

Basically, I just want to read about real experiences this year, whether they be personal essays or something more learning-based. Please, recommend away!

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner Despite the glowing quotation on the cover of the book from one large-haired Malcom Gladwell, Freakonomics is not a book to read if you’re looking to have you mind blown. Yes, Steven Levitt is an interesting guy who tends to look at things in very unique ways, but much of the data and theories in the book don’t tackle very weighty subjects. Instead, the book uses the study of numbers and large sample data (economics, yo) to try to figure out if Sumo Wresting is fixed, whether or not real estate agents have much of an incentive to sell your home for a lot more money, or whether names given to people actually hold them back in life.

Granted, there are a few more serious subjects tackled (including Levitt’s controversial, but rather logical theory that the legalization of abortion in the 70s was the key factor triggering a massive crime drop from the late 80s to early 90s), but mostly the book is sort of a “gee whiz” look at tackling problems from a different angle. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of it, and it was a brisk and enjoyable read. I already have sort of a weird obsession with numbers and data (although not enough to real hardcore economy books), so this one was right up my alley.

Including this book, I’ve now finished 4 books this year for a total of 884 pages read. I guess I still haven’t quite recovered from reading the massive Rising Up And Rising Down last year, as it’s obvious all the books I’ve tackled this year have been rather wimpy. Still, I’m on pace to beat last years total of 28 books and 8440 pages, but I’m going to have to dig into something more serious at some point.

A Man Without A Country by Kurt VonnegutBack in 1997, I read Slaughterhouse Five and I’ve been a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut ever since that time. Although I haven’t thought every single one of his books were outstanding, the books of his that I have enjoyed are pretty high up on my all time favorite books list. Although I knew it was just a collection of essays, I decided that I should check out A Man Without A Country to see if he still had a little of his old piss and vinegar left.

As it turns out, the book is a pretty darn good collection of essays. At 125 pages with huge print, it’s a super-fast read (took me about 45 minutes total), but as always he seems to hit on some things with an almost perfect touch of humanism and sarcasm. There were a couple places in the book where I actually laughed aloud, which isn’t something that happens often for me (and I think some of the people sitting around me on the bus perhaps thought there was something wrong with me).

Alas, if you’re a Vonnegut fan, you’re not going to go wrong here, although after finishing it up quickly, you’ll probably wish that there were a lot more to it. He’s already stated that he’s done writing, so I guess I should just be happy that this little book even came out. I’ll add it to my Vonnegut collection and be glad.

Last True Story I'll Ever Tell by John CrawfordI’d heard a lot of good things about John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, so I decided to follow up a more lighthearted book with a serious one. Also, I wanted a soldiers-eye view of the war in Iraq, as it seems hard to get something unfiltered these days.

First off, I have to say that this is one of the more gritty and harsh books that I’ve read in some time. It’s easy to get sucked into, but as it progresses, the book gets more dark and bleak, and the ending is a total punch in the gut. It doesn’t pull any punches, lobbing shot after shot at the military for their management of things. Crawford doesn’t even depict himself or fellow soldiers as completely sympathetic, instead portraying them as young people stuck in a very bad situation without much guidance or support from above.

For all the talk of supporting the soldiers, it seems that the administration in charge of those in Iraq aren’t doing a very good job of not only giving them all the equipment and necessities they need to get the job done right.

I’ve never been a proponent of the war, and reading a book like this makes me even more sick about it because of the sheer amount of human damage being done (physically and mentally) on both sides (but especially on the troops that should be given what they need to succeed). It’s not easy to take, but I highly recommend it.

Spook by Mary RoachI’d read Mary Roach’s book Stiff last year and really enjoyed it. I have to admit that deep down, I have a weird interest in the morbid, and her take (not too heavy, somewhat conversational) on the different things that happened to bodies after they died (other than being buried) was interesting and fun.

I just finished her latest book Spook, however, and had almost the opposite reaction. In the book, she takes her conversational writing at least two steps beyond what it was in her other book and the result is really annoying. Instead of coming across as a curious outsider, she seems rather condescending to many (if not most) of the subjects she interviews. Although the people that she talks to are obviously involved in rather strange (and even non-scientific) pursuits of trying to commune with / prove the existence of the afterlife, her mocking tone is barely concealed most of time and rather frustrating.

To top it off, there seems to be a rather base obsession with completely random minutiae in the book (much of it related to toilet-humor) that sidetracks the narrative and makes the book even harder to read. Not very highly recommended.

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