American Lightning, by Howard Blum I knew that battles between wealthy industrialists and labor forces during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were fierce. In my high school U.S. history class we talked about little else. But “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood” told a story that I had never heard before.

In 1910, the rabidly anti-labor Los Angeles Times’ building was bombed in a dynamite attack, killing 21 people. The private detective whose agency was given the task of hunting down the bombers was Billy Burns, known at the time as America’s true-life version of Sherlock Holmes. After months of cross-country hunting he discovers similar bombings throughout the nation and is able to uncover the men at the heart of the plot. Two of the men, brothers Jim and J.J. McNamara, are put on trial and defended by Clarence Darrow, a famed defense attorney and friend of labor organizations. The book weaves the stories of Burns and Darrow together to good effect, but Blum also tries to force in a third character: D. W. Griffith, the director and father of Hollywood.

I fully understand the siren song of research and how you can become enthralled by tangential stories. But that’s why you have an editor – to stop you from getting sidetracked from the real subject. The whole D. W. Griffith story arc felt tacked on and beside the point. The further into the book I read, the more irritated I became that the D. W. Griffith material never truly intersected with the stories of Billy Burns and Clarence Darrow.

Oh, Blum tried to force them together. Two movies were made during the time period about the McNamara case, but neither of them was made by D. W. Griffith. Blum’s argument was that the filmmakers had been influenced by Griffith because he was a pivotal director in the industry. He also claims, without any stated proof or examples, that the labor struggles in general and McNamara case in particular inspired Griffith’s KKK paean “Birth of a Nation.” But the only concrete historical moment of intersection comes in the epilogue when the three men ran into each other in a hotel lobby. Color me underwhelmed.

It felt like he was trying to pad out the book, which runs about 335 pages in the paperback edition. He had such a great, captivating story to tell with the dynamite plot that I just don’t understand why he was devoting pages and pages to the creepy relationship Griffith had with actress Mary Pickford. Tell us more about the bombastic owner of the Los Angeles Times, or the weird muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, who declared that it was a justifiable dynamiting. Enough with the laborious attempt to link Griffith to Burns and Darrow.

Verdict: I give “American Lightning” full marks for two-thirds of the book, so I’m going to round up and give it a 7 out of 10.

This was the case with a 32-year-old Slovakian named Mitja Valencic – he set a breakneck pace, and was beautiful, but you could tell, watching him, in his ski suit, and really, these things are too damn tight, he knew it would not hold up.

There were many crack-ups, especially in the first heat: Bode Miller, who stumbled then ditched, like a pilot with a punk engine (”Shut up and die like an aviator!”); Ted Ligety, the other American, who caught a gate, came to a stop, then floated sadly down to his parents, who looked even more bummed than the kid; and, most spectacularly, Austrian Manfred Pranger, who seemed goofy in his head shot, like he had just been arrested, but was not unhappy with that fact, cause think of the story–he caught air coming around a gate, was launched; you could see his face, and it had that terrible expression of “Oh no, it’s over!” He landed on his spine, slid, then lay still, as if thinking, “Back to the applications.” – Rich Cohen, “And they all fell down,”

  1. Speed. In the Summer Olympics you’re pretty much limited to the speed at which humans can run or bicycle, but a bobsled travels at 90 miles an hour.
  2. Danger. Summer has the marathon, during which you can drop dead. But Winter has the skeleton, luge, aerial skiing and guns.
  3. Curling, which is totally something that you should be able to do in a bar. Move out a couple of pool tables and put in a curling court.
  4. O Canada! It’s a lovely country, but more importantly it shares our time zones. No staying up until 3 a.m. to watch beach volleyball.
  5. Ridiculous costumes. Rhythmic gymnasts try for this in Summer, but they are heavily out-gunned by all the ice dancers and figure skaters. And the American skiers appear to be wearing starry blue pajamas, which leads me to the next item:
  6. It’s cozier. You can curl up under blankets on the couch, and it gets dark out earlier, so you don’t feel guilty for watching TV instead of being outside.

My motto is ‘never pick a fight with the person who buys ink by the barrel.’ – Ted Arrington, professor at UNC-Charlotte.

One month ago today, a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. News agencies immediately descended on Port-au-Prince, jockeying to see who could show the most heart-rending story. This seems distasteful and exploitative to a lot of people, and I do understand their perspective. On the whole, though, I believe that without media coverage Haiti would not be seeing the kind of global support they are now receiving.

But whenever I read stories about a natural disaster, I remember a letter that was written for the Galveston Daily News on Sept. 13, 1900. Five days earlier, a hurricane had taken the lives of more than 6,000 people and destroyed Galveston, Texas. It remains the United States’ most deadly natural disaster. The letter is written in what is now an archaic style, but it is eloquent and poignant in a way that modern journalism can’t be.

The story of Galveston’s tragedy can never be written as it is. Since the cataclysm of Saturday night, a force of faithful men have been struggling to convey to humanity from time to time some of the particulars of the tragedy.

They have told much, but it was impossible for them to tell all; and the world, at best, can never know all, for all thousands of tragedies written by the storm must forever remain mysteries until eternity shall reveal all.

Perhaps it were best that it should be so, for the horror and anguish of those fatal and fateful hours were mercifully lost in the screaming tempest and buried forever beneath the raging billows.

Only God knows; and for the rest, let it remain forever in the boundlessness of His omniscience.

But in the realm of finity, the weak and staggered senses of mankind may gather fragments of the disaster, and may strive with inevitable incompleteness to convey the merest impression of the saddest story which ever engaged the efforts of a reporter.

Audiobooks (iStockphoto)I wrote about my love for audiobooks in 2007, but it’s long past time for an update. At last count I had 96 audiobooks on my iPod, which seems a bit much even to me.

I started out only listening to audiobooks while I was driving. It made long trips more bearable to have a story to concentrate on, rather than just music. Later, I had a job that involved night shifts, a lot of mindless busywork and a lot of waiting on copy editors. It didn’t require my full attention, so I began listening to audiobooks while I was at work. Now I listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep at night, because it lets me drift off without the boring part of waiting to fall asleep.

In the beginning, I would only listen to an audiobook if I had read its paper version, but that’s changed. The thought behind it was that if my attention drifted, I wouldn’t be lost when my mind returned to the story. It was solid reasoning, but then I started branching out to books that iTunes recommended based on my purchase history. (Darn you, marketing wizards!) Now I have no problem buying audiobooks that I haven’t read before, but if it’s new to me, I can’t listen to it while falling asleep. I save that for the old classics.

Here are 10 more audiobooks that I highly recommend:

  • The Big Over Easy – I mentioned this Jasper Fforde book in an earlier post. Nursery Crime Detective Jack Spratt solves the murder of Humpty Dumpty. It’s fantastic. I’d listen to his Thursday Next series too, but they’re abridged recordings, and I am completely opposed to abridged recordings.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This is the first Mark Twain book I ever read, about a 19th-century blacksmith who time travels back to King Arthur’s Court and makes himself the power behind the throne. Listening to it as an adult makes me realize how many 19th-century allusions and social commentaries I missed when I read it as a 9-year-old.
  • Ghost Map: The Story of London ’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – This is about an 1854 cholera epidemic that was halted by John Snow, a father of epidemiology. My favorite section explains the miasma theory of disease and why people clung to it for so long.
  • Good Omens – This just came out as an audiobook, and I was thrilled. It’s the hysterical collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, following the last days before Armageddon and the various angels, demons and people trying to prevent it.
  • In a Sunburned Country – This is Bill Bryson’s affectionate account of traveling in Australia. He’s enthralled by the myriad ways the country has to kill you, including the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders and jellyfish. My favorite parts are when he travels with a companion, one of whom makes the vow that if stranded in the murderous desert, he will let Bryson drink his urine. Screamingly funny in places, and it makes me want to travel there, which is after all the point of a travel book.
  • Into Thin Air – Author Jon Krakauer reads his first-person account of the 1996 Everest disaster that killed eight people. He can’t do accents at all, so everything is mostly read in the same voice.
  • The Lightning Thief – This is the first book of an entertaining children/teen series about a boy who discovers that he’s the son of Poseidon and is sent to a hero-training summer camp with other children of Greek gods. It’s being made into a movie, and I am cringing in anticipation of the final product.
  • The Man in the Brown Suit – One of Agatha Christie’s lesser-known works, this is the story of Ann Beddingfeld, a recent orphan who longs for adventure. Seeing herself as a movie heroine, she follows cryptic clues to hunt down a murderer and travels to South Africa on the trail of the Man in the Brown Suit. It has a colonialist mindset, but it’s very entertaining.
  • The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why – A journalist looks at disaster dynamics and how people cope in life-or-death catastrophes. I don’t listen to this one when I’m trying to fall asleep.
  • The Westing Game – If you left childhood without reading this whodunnit mystery, then I pity you. But it’s not too late!
  • Puppets – This was especially a problem when I lived in Prague for three months. There are neighborhoods in Old Town where display after display of marionettes line the streets. It was really unnerving because, as everybody knows, puppets come to life at night and hang over your bed to watch you sleep.
  • Raccoons - It’s their little hands, and the way they rub them together. They’re super creepy. I think this stems from childhood, when the top floor of my grandparents’ four-story house was inhabited by three destructive raccoons and I was forbidden to go up there.
  • Possums - Tail like a rat, pointy teeth and snout, hisses at you. A couple of weeks ago my mom came home from her honeymoon in New Zealand and she brought me back socks that are a blend of merino wool and possum “fibre.” They give me the heebie-jeebies, but I forced myself to wear them once.
  • Attic of my childhood home – It’s over the garage, and to get up there you have to pull on a cord, then unfold the rickety ladder and climb up it. I hate that ladder. Then once you’re up there, you have to be very careful to walk on the beams only, because the floor is just drywall and you’d plummet right through it. There is also the strong possibility of mice. Our Christmas decorations are stored up there, and one time my parents asked me to go up and get the boxes and start decorating the tree before they got home. They came back and found me in tears, unable to make myself climb more than halfway up the ladder.
  • Escalators – Oh, I use them. But I don’t like them. Regular stairs don’t have to have an emergency button.
  • Check Into Cash commercials – Okay, this is the weirdest one. Check Into Cash is some payday loan business. During the commercial, people repeatedly say “Check Into Cash.” As they say it they draw a checkmark in the air with their finger, and it’s animated to draw an actual red checkmark that appears on-screen and, if I remember correctly, it sort of shimmers. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares, right? But I actually have to change the channel or leave the room while it plays, it gives me the willies so badly. It might be on YouTube, but I can’t look it up for you guys because that would involve seeing it.

Shades of Grey by Jasper FfordeIt’s been a long, long time since last we met – and I’ve read many, many books. Let’s start this up again, shall we?

I’d like to start out by writing a little bit about the author of “Shades of Grey” and his prior works. I read Jasper Fforde*’s first book, “The Eyre Affair,” when it came out in 2001.  Set in a world in which literature has the same importance as sports or celebrities have in ours, it follows a Special Operations officer, Thursday Next, as she tries to thwart literary crimes. There are now five books in the Thursday Next series, and the sixth will be published in January 2011. I highly recommend them, but I do advise you to read “Jane Eyre” or the Cliff’s Notes version before reading “The Eyre Affair.”

His second series is about Detective Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crime Division in Reading, England. With his sergeant Mary Mary, he investigates crimes committed by (or perpetrated on) nursery characters. In the first book, “The Big Over Easy,” Jack must solve Humpty Dumpty’s murder. (You didn’t think he just fell off that wall all on his own, did you?) In the second book, “The Fourth Bear,” he solves Goldilocks’ disappearance, uncovers a nuclear cucumber conspiracy, hunts down the cakey serial killer The Gingerbread Man, and answers the riddle of the three bears’ porridge-temperature differential. This is my favorite of his series, and I listen to both books on my iPod all the time. I’m eager to read the final installment, “The Last Great Tortoise Race,” which will be published in 2011 or 2012.

In the first book of his new trilogy, “Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron,” Fforde has created another fantastical universe, and it’s the strangest one yet. In a world where all people have color blindness, your caste in society is determined by what colors you can see. Purples are the aristocracy, Yellows are the law enforcers, Greens are higher than Blues, and Blues are higher than Reds. Greys occupy the lowest rung of society and are relegated to menial labor. Artificial colors that can be seen by everyone are available but costly, and must be processed by using scrap color dug up from the ruins of a past civilization (us, presumably).

Every aspect of life is strictly controlled by the state, and there are many rules to define what technology can be used or produced. For example, it is forbidden to manufacture spoons, so spoons are jealously guarded and passed down through generations. “Leapbacks” are scheduled regularly, which means that old knowledge and technologies are removed and banned. Those who run afoul of the system and lose too many merit points are sent to the rebooting facility, and are never heard from again. Like in any restrictive society, people figure out how to get around these strict rules by obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit. “Train tracks” were banned, but not “train track,” so all the trains run on one rail.

Eddie Carmine, a Red from a Green sector, travels with his father to the town Vermillion, on the outer fringes of Red Sector West. He is eager to return home because he hopes to marry Constance Oxblood and run the string factory owned by her powerful Red family, but is thwarted at every turn. He falls in love with a violently disagreeable Grey named Jane, who at the beginning of the narration has just shoved Eddie headfirst into a carnivorous plant. Together they begin to solve the mystery behind a swatchman’s death, the ancient civilization’s end, a ghost town named High Saffron, the deadly mildew and what goes on at Reboot. While some of these mysteries become clearer, there’s plenty left to explain in his next “Shades of Grey” book, to be published in 2012.

Verdict: 7.5 out of 10. It’s not my favorite Fforde book, but it’s an excellent debut for a series that promises to be mind-bending and highly intelligent.

*Full Disclosure: I met Fforde at a book signing in Chicago during the publicity tour for his second Thursday Next book, “Lost in a Good Book.” He was lovely, and he helped me to coerce a friend into reading “The Eyre Affair” by writing “Now you have to read this book. – Jasper Fforde” on the inside cover. So I’m quite fond of him.

American GodsThere’s nothing more delightful than a book that makes me feel smart while I’m reading it.

I don’t mean in a “Oh my God, this is such simplistic writing” kind of way. More like “Hey, I totally recognize that obscure cultural/literary reference!” It’s why I like reading Jasper Fforde. It’s a reward for the vast amounts of usually useless trivia that’s taking up shelf room in my brain.

The premise of “American Gods” is that all the immigrants who came to America brought their gods with them. The people who crossed the Bering Strait brought their animal deities, the Vikings brought Odin, the Irish brought the Morrighan and leprechauns – and here the gods languish, as the people who once worshiped them die out or stop believing.

But here in the New World, we created our own gods to worship: Highways, Cell Phone, Internet and Credit Cards. And the new gods are ready to make war on the old gods.

Into this steps Shadow, a recently released ex-con whose wife has just been killed in car with another man. A mysterious stranger named Wednesday offers him a job as a bodyguard, and suddenly he is caught up in the schemes of a god.

As a kid, I was very into mythologies. Greek, Norse, Egyptian, you name it. Neil Gaiman drops hints and references to hundreds of different mythologies, and figuring out all the clues awoke the 8-year-old nerd in me. (To be honest, that little girl is never sleeping very heavily.)

That’s not to say that I would let an 8-year-old read this book. It is adult and it is dark.

Verdict: 8.5 out of 10. As a bonus, I got to break out my rusty Russian skills! Such as they are.

Seeing Me NakedMy family is crazy – just like everyone else’s family. But there are books that remind me why I’m so grateful to have them. And this is one of them.

Seeing Me Naked” is undoubtedly chick lit, but hey, I’m not a snob. I like chick lit, and this is a good example of when it works.

Elisabeth Page is the daughter of a W.A.S.P. socialite and a celebrated Kerouac-like writer. (Let that combo roll around in your mind for a little while. In the words of Ralph Wiggum, it tastes like burning.)

She and her brother, Raskolnikov or “Rascal,” have always lived under their father’s shadow. Rascal responded by setting out on a literary path of his own. Elisabeth responded by becoming a pastry chef. Neither of these choices is respected by their father.

One of the things that really works in this book is the way Elisabeth’s job completely consumes her life. I have a friend who is a chef in a Chicago restaurant, and I only get to talk to him every 10 months or so. He is always working. Elisabeth’s social life is pretty much restricted to semi-annual hookups with her childhood sweetheart Will, a foreign correspondent to war-torn countries. And that particular relationship is far from healthy.

Now, the inevitable love interest: Elisabeth donates a cooking lesson for one of her mother’s charity auctions, and regular-guy Daniel is the top bidder. He’s a basketball coach at UCLA. They hit it off, and slowly and painstakingly try to build a normal relationship. You know, the hard kind, with compromises, disappointments and insecurities.

So, you know, heartwarming. But my favorite part of the book was the Page family dynamics – and again, they make me super happy to be a member of the Rawles family.

Verdict: 7 out of 10. Light and fluffy, but with a bite.

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