Hello! Since I last made an entry five months ago, I’ve read nine ten eleven books, and I’ve made a New Rule:* 1 book, 1 blog entry. This rule applies starting tomorrow, though. This will make things less complicated and more likely that I will update this blog. Also there will be no “Books-in-Between”, because that is pejorative towards those books. I’ll still number the books that are on the big spreadsheet, though.

*coincidentally, “New Rule” could be the alternate name of this blog.

So, for Christmas I asked for about 9 or 10 books on my Christmas list and Santa Claus brought all of them. I’ve managed to read most of them, so here they are:

1) Grantland Quarterly, Issue 1

Feels like a basketball? Or a football? What do balls feel like?

This year my favourite Literary Quarterly, McSweeney’s, combined with a website I’d not heard of, Grantland, to make a new quarterly that has the snazzy design that I enjoy about McSweeney’s and very smart, in-depth, philosphical writing about sports and pop culture. I am a former teen subscriber to both Sports Illustrated and  Entertainment Weekly, so this really spoke to me and I immediately asked Santa for a subscription.

It turned out to be even better than I thought it would, as the writing is not only smart but has a great sense of humour, making articles even about topics I don’t like, like music or basketball, compelling and funny.

The book is a collection of the best articles on the Grantland website, and since getting this quarterly I’ve started reading the website as well, so inevitably there will be some repeat content, which I’ll see in Volume 2. But as a lover of the printed page and repeat reading, I don’t think that will be a big deal.

Favourite parts: Ty Cobb as Detroit, an article about cricket from an ignorant perspective, and an insert about a national daily sports paper that died in the early nineties. But almost every article was enlightening. Highly recommended.

TV show I want to watch now because of an article I read: Friday Night Lights

2) Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving by Michael Ham

I don’t want to brag, but I actually have the fifth edition.

I’ve never been the most hirsute in the face area, and I’ve never enjoyed shaving that much, so for much of my life I’ve been walking around with a tufty scruff on my face. Also, when I did shave, for weddings or funerals, I got unsightly shavebumps on my neck, which would make me self-conscious, especially at auditions. “Let’s hire Dave Barclay!” would say the casting directors. “No, he has tiny bumps on his neck.” would reply the person they were talking to.

So then I looked up how to get rid of them, and apparently they didn’t exist in olden days when men used safety razors and badger brushes. So I asked for all of the stuff for Christmas, and got this book as well.

It’s not the most professionally written book, but it’s straightforward and comprehensive. I wish it would keep things a little less comprehensive, as sometimes I had to wade through a long catalogue of all the different brands of blade, razor, brush and cream, (sample reviews: “It’s not for everyone, but I like it” or “It’s not for me, but others like it”) which meant it wasn’t exactly a page-turner. But after reading it, I knew which website to go to, which razor I wanted to order, and which youtube videos to watch to give me an idea of what to do.

Now I’ve been shaving for five months with all this old-fangled stuff and found a way to make it work for me, largely thanks to this book. Every once in a while I cut myself, but there are no more shave bumps and having a warm shave with a badger brush is pretty soothing. So if you are thinking of switching to old-timey shaving, do it.

3) The Extra 2%  by Jonah Keri

Extra businessy

I got three baseball-themed books for Christmas, and I wanted to read this one first. Jonah Keri is Canadian and a world-class baseball writer, and is currently the main baseball writer for Grantland. If I am arguing with you about baseball, I’m probably recycling the arguments of Jonah Keri (or Mike Wilner).

This book is about the turnaround of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the way it is packaged and marketed is clearly inspired by the success of Moneyball as a crossover sports book that applies to business. If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that the book occasionally bends over backwards to apply its lessons to the business world when it could really stand as a great sports story. Then again, I have no interest in business. The book does a great job of showing why the Tampa Bay Rays have been so good lately, but is even more entertaining when its showing why they were so bad in their earlier incarnation as the Devil Rays. Looking forward to Jonah’s next work, the definitive history of the Montreal Expos.

4) Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

This is the cover of this book

Back when I worked at Scotiabank, (aka The Bank of Nova Scotia) I used to have a lot of free time on my hands. Whether this is because I was super good at banking or there was not much for a summer student to do in the ol’ lending department I won’t ponder here. I chose to spend that time reading biographies of every U.S. President, along with the text of their inaugural address, and also the biography of the vice president. It was very boring at times, but also more exciting than banking, and now I know all the Presidents of the United States.

Sarah Vowell is also a nerd obsessed with presidential history, and also one with a dark sense of humour. This book covers Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley and their assassins, and hit the sweet spot of learning and funny. I now know that President Garfield loved reading books more than being president, I can visit McKinley’s huge tomb in Ohio, and John Wilkes Booth could have shot Lincoln at his second inaugural address (he didn’t though).

This book, which I read while visiting my parents in Florida, inspired me to start reading another Sarah Vowell book, but it wasn’t quite as good without all the presidential stuff. Or maybe it was Vowell fatigue.* It also inspired me, when I couldn’t sleep, to make a list of books about (or by) Presidents that won a Pulitzer Prize. It can be found here.

* If my last name was Vowell, when I got agitated I would tell people I was suffering from Irritable Vowell Syndrome. So it’s a good thing that’s not my name.

5) Neurobics: Build a Better Brain byDavid Owen and Chris Maslanka

This book poses the following question: Does doing puzzles (or “brain exercises”) make you smarter? One time I had a book of puzzles that had a disclaimer stating that there is NO scientific evidence they would. Neurobics takes a contrary position, but I don’t think it makes its case very well, for three reasons:

a) The book is divided into several chapters, devoted to math, creativity, memory, etc. and in each chapter there is an introduction describing how to make yourself smarter in these areas. I expected a lot of studies to be referenced, and there were a few, but they were pretty vague and didn’t offer a lot of insight. Most of their points were along the lines of “Did you know memorizing your grocery list before going to the store will improve your memory? It will!”

b) I was hoping this book would have new and interesting types of puzzles I’d never seen before that they had cooked up in science labs to touch the exact parts of your brain that needed to be smarter, but it was a lot of garden-variety puzzles like word scrambles and sudokus.

c) Speaking of sudokus, one of the sudokus came with two pre-existing 3’s in one column. If you’ve done a sudoku before, you know this means the puzzle is unsolvable before you start. There were a few of these errors, which not only made me question whether the authors of this book knew what they were doing, but whether there was a God. When you put your brain in the hands of the creators of a puzzle, it is very unnerving when you realize that the rules you assumed existed, do not exist. Maybe this was what I was supposed to learn from this book, but that seems unlikely.

6) The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst

Another baseball book, this is a Ball Four-like record of what happens in professional baseball by a genuine professional baseball player. Unlike Ball Four‘s savvy veteran Jim Bouton, Dirk Hayhurst is a young pitcher who is struggling in the minor leagues, plagued by his self-doubt and seriously disturbing family issues back home. It seems like all the pitchers who have written books that I’ve read, including Jim Bouton, Dirk Hayhurst and Dave Stieb, have a need to be super snarky in a self-deprecating way. They also all share confidence issues, which is not something I think about when I’m watching baseball on TV and yelling at the screen. This is a great book. I wouldn’t say it’s super hilarious, but I found a connection in attempting to chase a dream that only you think is going to happen, and that’s only some of the time. Meanwhile, you’re hanging out with a bunch of people at various stages of delusion about their own dreams, and the only thing more depressing than those other people’s failures is those people’s successes.

My friend Steve already bought me the sequel to this book, Out of My League, as a birthday present. It’s about the time Hayhurst spent with the San Diego Padres, a major league baseball team that plays in San Diego, CA.

7) The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

I have grown to love John Hodgman, starting from the day I was cast in a commercial parody of the Mac-PC advertisements as a John Hodgman lookalike. It was the first paying gig I ever booked through my agent. Years later I started listening to his podcast, Judge John Hodgman, where he mediates silly minor disputes, and it became one of my very favourite podcasts. Now I feel like John Hodgman is a trusted friend whose wit and wisdom I treasure, or possibly is even an extension of myself. Or maybe he is someone I wish to be, funny and intelligent, very successful at a later stage of life.

Thus I figured I would enjoy his book, and at first I was surprised that I didn’t. It’s a book of fake knowledge, and though well written, it turned me off with its empty, targetless nonsense. The odd part of it was I felt like it was something I would come up with myself, and that made me resent it, and hold it to a higher standard than I otherwise would. It’s difficult for me to parse out my feelings in this regard, but my appreciation of this book was somehow tied up in my own sense of self-worth.

Around about the list of 700 hobo names, I came around and started to love the book, which started to create a coherent world where things related and made consistent sense. There wasn’t any narrative at all, but the more ridiculous facts that one waded through, the more one could see a kind of framework, which was mostly built around an alternative history of the United States featuring very powerful hoboes. So I still like John Hodgman, and am interested in picking up his next two books.

8) How to Be a Man by Glenn O’Brien

The nine (non-periodical) books I received for Christmas can be placed in three categories. There are three books about baseball, three different takes on U.S. History, and 3 books that are trying to improve me. I had previously learned how to shave, then how to grow my brain. Finally, I would learn from this book how to be a man, from style guru Glenn O’Brien.

I originally saw this book in Chapters in the staff recommendations section. I enjoyed the writing style, and I also felt the need to know more about worldly things that grown up people are expected to know, especially now that I am 32 and am going to be a father before the end of the year. The book largely deliviered, giving me lots of information I didn’t previously know, like what a double-breated suit was, the history of ties and other things like that.

It also gave my a liberating sense that style wasn’t about certain rules, but having a consistent and personal way of presenting yourself to the world. If you want to be a rebel, go ahead and wear the opposite of what people thinks is tasteful. When people cluck at your fluorescent purse, you’ll know you’re doing it right. If you want to be conservative and wear suits, that’s great too, you’ll always look good. Taste is personal.

Later on the book got broader in scope, and lost its coherence a little. I think this was partly because it was a collection of previously published essays. The already outdated riposte on the evils of facebook, in particular, cast doubts on O’Brien’s validity as a guide to manhood. Overall, though, I got what I wanted out of this book, which is a bit more confidence to be my own person. Being yourself, like following your dreams, is a cliche, but only because it’s so hard to do and important enough that people feel the need to repeat it.

9) McSweeney’s 39

Whenever a new McSweeney’s comes in the mail it’s so so long after I think I’m going to receive I’m just so god damn happy to have it, even if I’m not planning on reading it right away. After having this new one on the shelf as I read several other books, I decided to make a new rule and declare that when a McSweeney’s or Grantland arrived in the mail, I would read it as soon I was finished whatever book I was reading.

This one I very much enjoyed, especially the printing of a speech by Vaclav Havel and a story by Yannick Murphy. The Havel piece emphasized thinking of politics not as an adherence to one system or another, but government by conscience. He also talked about breaking out of any kind of cliched, mechanical thinking, which reminded me of Henri Bergson’s writing on humour. Bergson thought that humour arose out of seeing the mechanical encrusted on the living. As I see it, the greatness of comedy is that it is able to break up that scar tissue by flexing against systematic thinking, and I think that’s related to what Havel was saying.

The Murphy story was about an American housewife living with her Mexican husband in Mexico with a child that ate nothing but chocolate. I kept thinking about it after I read it.

10) Grantland 2

If you remember the very beginning of this blog entry, I’m a big fan of Grantland, the Quarterly/Website that focuses on sports and pop culture. Only after reading this issue do I fully understand the details of what happened at Penn State last year (usually I avoid rape/murder/pedophile news stories because I worry it will make my mind overfearful). I  put up on my office wall the poster of a basketball player I’d never heard of that was included as a dust jacket.

Best Parts: An article on Eddie Murphy, an interview with Noel Gallagher, a Malcolm Gladwell piece on the Brooklyn Nets

TV show I want to watch now because of an article I read: Homeland

11) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

If you put the following things into a book

a) baseball

b) a campus setting

c) depression

then Dave Barclay will probably like it. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to examine why I enjoy these elements so much, but it makes for a great read.

I couldn’t put it down, felt like I knew the characters super well, and genuinely did not know what was going to happen next. All of the characters were facing crises of confidence, and the nature of confidence is something I’m thinking about these days, and luckily I seem to be accumulating a lot of it. I even finished this blog entry, when at times I doubted that I could do it. I thought the very end of Fielding wasn’t quite as good as the rest of the book, but the climax was dynamite. And… I think it’s good even if you don’t like baseball.

Next up: A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, which is 953 pages long(!)