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Weird US

I both loved and did not love this book. I loved it because it covers all those weird little out of the way places that have freaky stories about it and is a great collection of trivia, odd pictures and first hand accounts of strange goings on. I knew some of the places being talked about and others were all new to me, to be added to me “to see” list. I did not love it for a few strong reasons: no index by state, or helpful map of locations if you actually wanted to see some of these places, lack of captions for a lot of the pictures, and an annoying intro that states that veracity was not a prerequisite for inclusion. I can see this being the case about a ghost story but the disclaimer was phrased in a such a way that essentially stated “this may be true, this may be lies, who knows?” For some reason, I’m much more interested in weird true stories than weird made up ones, so that dampened the usefulness of this book for me. That said it’s a gorgeous book chock full of weird stories and first hand accounts of places with names like The Gates of Hell or Blood Road or Midgetvilles. The authors supplement their own knowledge with letters and emails from locals who describe some of the places and include fun stories of childhood or teenaged visits to them when creepy stuff happened. There’s an odd mix of ghost stories, real life museums and collections of outsider art that will probably contain something for everyone.

The Turk

First off, this book has a web site that’s not the usual promotional dreck, if you’re really super fascinated in this stuff. The story follows the creation of a chess playing “automaton” that was first created in the late 1700’s and had a career spanning over 75 years, through several owners and across several continents. The degree to which people were willing to believe that a machine could be made that could not only move and somewhat look like a human but also think like a human reveals ths hopefulness and wonder of the age. The secrets of this chess playing machine were not revealed with certainty until after the death of the man who had been touring with it for decades. Even notable writers of the time like Edgar Allan Poe got into the act of trying to determine its mysteries

Like a mystery novel itself, the unknown mechanism that runs the Turk is the real story to this book so the reader, like the people who were witnessing performances of the Turk over the decades, is not brought in on the solution until the final pages. There are a few afterthought chapters on actual chess-playing computers including the famous Kasparov and Big Blue matches that, for the second time, convinced people it might be possible to devise a machine that could beat a human opponent in chess. This book, like many others I’ve read recently, does seem a bit like an expanded magazine article, but the research is solid, and the book itself is just plan lovely, well laid out with some interesting illustrations and

Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s

Pagan Kennedy is about my age and grew up in the suburbs, sort of like I did, except that I grew up in a little farming town outside the suburbs then was bussed in to a suburban school. In any case, I had many of my formative years in the seventies and remember them not entirely fondly. This seems to jibe with Kennedy’s experience of them except that where I just blithely thought of the decade as vapid and empty, she has actually explored all of the ways the decade was giving the appearances of freedom [for women, for gay people, for blakc people] while not being all that revolutionary. The seventies were when people realized that you could capture the counter-culture and sell it back to people and so they did.

Pagan Kennedy is no Tom Frank though her style and her lit-crit approach to the subject matter [how many times does she refer to a prototypical item as an ur-thing? more times than I needed to read it] are reminiscent of him. Where he comes across as well-researched, she seems more anecdotal and it only took a few stories of her or her friends saying something in the first person for me to realize that I couldn’t really relate to her experience of the Seventies. We watched the same TV shows but had different reactions. We shopped at the same stores but bought different things. I have a hard time determining if Kennedy is the expert on these things, or if she’s just a self-proclaimed expert, giving her opinion along ones like mine or my friends'. She listens to way too many eight track tapes according to her author bio, and maybe that highlights the difference between her attachment to the Seventies and my own, I’ve let mine go.

Devil in the White City

This book about the Columbia World’s Exposition in Chicago near the turn of the century reads like fiction but is actually all true. The author goes out of his way to include a list of footnotes at the end and tells the reader that any direct quote comes from primary source material. The story outlines two, almost three, tales at once: the creation of the fair in Chicago, creating a palatial spread of wonder and amazement from where there once was a lackluster park; the workings of a serial killer who lived right near the fair; and the assassination of the Mayor of Chicago.

Larson interweaves these stories with such skill that they all seem to balance and interact with each other. His descriptions of settings and characters are lush and thoughtful, even though he is describing many scenes and events that have been imperfectly left to history and has to do some speculative re-creation in order to fully flesh out his tales. The book is also chock full of weird bits of trivia about the fair, the people involved in the fair - most notably Frederick Law Olmstead, but there are also cameos by Teddy Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright among others - which propels the stories alongs at times when nothing else of note is going on. If you’re a crime fiction buff, you may want to try out some crime non-fiction and see if you don’t learn something about the history of Chicago before you’re done.

Get Even: The complete book of dirty tricks

I’ve seen this book on so many shelves of radical bookstores that when it showed up at my librayr’s book sale I decided I had to take a look at it. Hayduke claims to be value-neutral with regards to his pranks, basically allowing the reader to determine which “marks” are deserving of such dirty tricks and which are not. This is a fairly interesting assumption since in many cases the tricks he offers could do serious harm to the victims. Truly harmful tricks that could easily kill a victim are noted, and of course there’s the “don’t try this at home” entreaty in the beginning, but this book is a set of recipes for causing trouble. That is not really what’s wrong with it, my problems lay more in its outdatedness (mess with a computer by punching new holes in the punchcards!) and its lack of a sense of humor. It’s all well and good to think about sending your enemy’s mail to some central Los Angeles factory, but for this book to actually be a good read, I’d like to think that I’m not just reading the words of a terminally angry man. We’ve all been wronged by people and we’ve all thought about ways to get even, but I would have enjoyed more creative and itenresting solutions, not just learn lots of different ways to slip laxatives or stink bombs into someone’s life.

Eggplants, Elevators, Etc.

Remember those great bathroom type trivia books you’d see a lot in the seventies with all the really great engraving illustrations and sort of funky collections of odd lore? This is one of those. The subtitle to the book is “an uncommon history of common things” Some of the histories of the usual suspects are now more commonplace, such as the story about the guy who invented the safety pin, sold the patent rights for 0 and lived unhappily ever after. In fact a lot of the stories in this book are about patent struggles, simultaneous or near simultaneous invention/discovery, and one guy getting rich while the other guy died peniless and destitute. The articles are a page or three long and any modern invention is accompanied by a collection of pretty interesting photographs, with illustrations and often advertising interspersed throughout. Meyers additionally peppers his text with relevant pithy quotations and the result is a fun readable book of the curious origins of really commonplace objects.

The Radioactive Boy Scout

One of my resolutions for this year is to really try to get reviews posted in a timely fashion, hence, they may be shorter. This book is an expansion of Silverstein’s Harpers magazine article, for all the good and bad that portends. It’s the story of a kid who is obsessed with nuclear power [Aspergers anyone?] to the point that he tries to obtain as much nuclear material as he can, both legally and illegally, and tries to build a nuclear reactor of sorts in his backyard lab. Add a few inattentive ineffective parents to the mix and a lonely kid with few friends and social outlets and it turns into a mess that eventually turns the backyard into a Superfund site. Since most of the experiments and whatnot are related by the main character to the writer of this book, there is definitely some question as to the veracity of all the events, a note that is only sort of acknowledged by the writer towards the end. He has done a great job of expanding a magazine length article and adding in a lot of pretty interesting factoids about the American nuclear power industry and its history.

Made in America

After finishing this chock-full-of-word-trivia book by Bryson who wrote one of my favorite books of last year In A Sunburned Country I’ve decided that I like Bryson talking about Bryson even more than I like him talking about anything else. So, to say that this book was a disappointment would be wrong, but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny and the things that I found so delightful about Bryson as a writer were less evident in this book. On the other hand, that’s the absolute worst of it, and that’s not too bad.

Word fans will die when they see what Bryson has in store for them. He traces the history of the peculiar language we call English and other people call AMERICAN English from the very beginning settlements on the continent up until the weird PC era of the 90’s. He discusses where a lot of slang comes from, dispells common myths about word origins and has weird factoids you are pretty much guaranteed not to know on every page. I read this book at about the same time greg was reading about the Gettysburg Address in one book and while we watched the PBS documentary about the history of New York City and both segued uncannily into what I was reading. Bryson’s humor, though not as always-apparent as it was in his other book, is still present and keeps some of these chapters from turning into dull recitations of history. I’ve learned more from this book than possibly any other book in the past few months, now if I can only remember all of it...

Clean It, Fix It, Find It

Anne Adams and her co-author Nancy Nash-Cummings write a syndicated column about basic how-to home repair and cleaning that started out in Vermont and now has a national audience. This book consolidates some of their Q&A from their columns as well as some additional resources and commentary. They are more concerned with practical low-cost solutions to household problems like termites, stained sinks, pantry moths and the like, then just buying the latest product from the shelf which may have dubious efficacy. To this end, they also compile suggestions from readers supplmenting their own research and reporting. In cases where their suggestions lead to hard-to-find items like pennyroyal oil or decaffeinated cocoa, they will also try to provide a way to find the items they suggest. A lot of their responses fall into the “folk wisdom” category because they tend to try to solve problems with minimal damage to the environment as well as to family memers and pets. At the same time, you can read letters from contributors ruing the day when the government made various pesticides and poisons illegal and they had to resort to alternative methods of pest control. The resulting book seems very Vermont, even though it has a national audience, and is fun to read even if you aren’t contemplating a bathtub refinishing project.