Wednesday, January 16, 2008


For some reason, I really like how the exclamation mark can really "punch-up" a title. It generates enthusiasm. For instance, if a post has the title "My Ass is Hurting," it sounds like a medical post. But if it's "My Ass is Hurting!" it almost sounds like a celebration.

Which would be, well, odd.

So here are impressions of four books, in order of how much I enjoyed reading them. They were all worthwhile, though.

1. C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America, by Geoff Williams
This is a phenomenal piece of research and writing. It's the story of the 1928 Run Across America, which is one of those fascinating little rabbit holes of history. 199 men entered the race, and first prize was $25,000--an epic sum for the time. The race lasted for 84 days, averaging over 40 miles a day, and it was full of intrigue and whimsy and borderline fraud.

Leading this circus was promoter C.C. Pyle, who was sort of a poor man's P.T. Barnum. Endlessly self-aggrandizing, always on the edge of financial ruin, he is an incredibly vivid character--if he wasn't real, someone would have created him.

I stayed up late several nights in a row to finish this book. It's meticulously researched and full of detail, but the detail never gets ponderous. Geoff Williams is truly a terrific writer, and it clearly shows in this book. It's one of those books that is just a wonderful experience to read.

Amazon link: C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America .

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
A description from the back cover of the book:
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed, a victim of "locked in syndrome." Once known for his gregariousness and wit, Bauby now finds himself imprisoned in his inert body, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. The miracle is that in doing so he was able to compose this stunningly eloquent memoir.

This is a remarkable, poignant book. It's staggeringly well-written, and I mean that not grading on a curve--it's just good, heartfelt writing.

It's also painful to read, given Bauby's circumstances. The idea that someone could be almost totally paralyzed, yet still be able to think with absolute clarity, is such a cruelty that it's difficult to even consider.

The book was recently made into a well-regarded film, but I think the impact of reading his own words would be difficult to match.

Amazon link: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

3. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin.
This is an autobiography of Martin's life that focuses on his years as a stand-up comedian.

If you're younger than I am (no great feat), it may be hard for you to understand how anarchic Steve Martin was when he first burst onto the scene. He didn't push the envelope--when he performed, there really wasn't an envelope at all. As he described it, he gradually came to the realization that he wanted to do a stand-up routine that had jokes but no punch lines, so that no one would really be sure when to laugh.

What makes this book really interesting is that Martin very carefully recounts how meticulously he honed his act over the course of hundreds of shows. Yes, you have to be funny to create a joke, but what I never understood until I read this book was just how analytical a comedian needs to be to improve his act. What looks random on stage has been refined, to the second, over a long period of time.

This is also a very personal book, and Martin discusses his life very frankly, particularly his anxieties and his relationship with his family.

It's well-written and engaging and very interesting, and if you have any interest in either Steve Martin or stand-up comedy, it's an excellent read.

Amazon link: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.

4. The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star
I don't know anything about Motley Crue (sorry--my umlaut machine is broken), and I don't know anything about "Nikki Sixx," except that his name sounds riddicculous.

This book, though, is interesting.

Sixx was a long-term heroin addict (among other things), and during one year of this addiction (1987) he actually kept a diary. So this book is both a publication of that diary as well as inserted excerpts from people who knew him during that period.

It's not pretty. Some of the entries are jaw-droppers in terms of what addiction can do to someone. Seeing it all "from the inside," though, makes for compelling reading.

If you want to know how far gone he was, let me just tell you one story. On December 22, 1987, Sixx overdosed and actually died. Word had gotten out from the people he was with when he OD'd, and local radio stations in Los Angeles were announcing that he'd died.

Except, of course, he wasn't actually dead--the EMT's had managed to restart his heart in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

He woke up in the hospital with an I.V. in his arm. He ripped out the tubes and walked out of the hospital. There were two teenage girls in the parking lot, crying--they were holding a candlelight vigil outside the hospital because they'd heard on the radio that he was dead.

They gave him a ride home, and on the way he heard his obituary on the radio.

So he gets home, goes into his bedroom, immediately shoots up, and passes out.

Seriously, there's stupid, and then there's STUPID.

This is good reading in a voyeuristic sense--if you ever wanted to see the wild ride, here's your chance. It seems honest as well, and some of the interviews with his friends from that time period significantly enhance the narrative.

One note: someone thought it would be a good idea to present all this with sort of a Ralph Steadman vibe, which would be fine, except they don't actually use Ralph Steadman's drawings. So the presentation is actually quite distracting, although I got used to it after the first few chapters.

Amazon link: The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star.

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