Category Archives: Books

Treatment: Looking For Normal

I’m going to try to write a regular post here. I’ve had two radiation treatments and one chemotherapy blast. I got yesterday and today off and it’s back to the machines tomorrow. Other than two sudden onrushes of dizziness and nausea — sending me scurrying for my bottle of super-duper anti-nausea dope — I’ve been living normally.

It feels as though my mouth is getting dry and thick. I can’t tell at this early date if it’s a real side effect or my imagination. Either way, I’ve knocked off alcohol-based mouthwash and I’m drinking water like a man fresh off a stroll in the Gobi. The Loved One is flitting around every few minutes, reminding me to keep hydrated. I’m lucky to have her around.

So, in lieu of a third dizziness/nausea wave, here I go with something I’ve wanted to put up here for a couple of weeks. Behold Big Mike’s Must-Read Nonfiction Books for Every Home Library™. [BTW: Pay no attention to all the ™ marks I’ve been using of late — they’re just another in my series of silly affectations. I like to have a weird brand of Fun™, in case you haven’t noticed.]

Anyway, herewith in no particular order are the books every smart citizen should have read, plans to read, or keeps in her/his library to give visitors the impression s/he is enlightened:

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, by Truman Capote, 1966 — A landmark in what would become known as “the new journalism,” Capote wrote the scariest goddamned account of the random murder of a farm family in Nowheresville, Kansas back in the ’50s. The subsequent 1967 Richard Brooks movie starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith also was top-notch.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier, 2007 — The New York Times science writer visits experts in the major scientific fields of inquiry — genetics, cosmology, biology physics, chemistry, and many more — for insights into what humanity knows as of the dawn of the 21st Century about…, well, everything. She writes in a poetic, almost flowery manner that takes the edge off what could have been an arid tome.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, 1995 — The frequent Johnny Carson guest (who, BTW, never actually uttered the phrase “billions and billions”) searches for the reasons people believe malarkey. If you’ve been paying attention to this year’s presidential beauty pageant, you know folks eat up malarkey as readily as as they down McDonald’s french fries. Sagan actually connects credulity in ESP, speaking with the dead, homeopathy, etc. with our growing inability to discern real from bunk in the political sphere.

The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report, by Timothy Ferris, 1997 — No, not the Timothy “Tim” Ferris who writes all those toss-away self-help books, this TF writes science books. Shebang is written for the scientifically unschooled (me, for instance) and updates us on the what we know about that big dark, sometimes glittery thing we occasionally see in the Midwest at night. He explains arcana like curved space and multi-universes so that even I can grasp them.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, 2005 — Levitt’s the rogue economist, Dubner his writing guru. This book made a lot of people itchy by proposing that US crime statistics went down in the ’90s as a direct result of the Roe vs. Wade decision and that municipal election cycles produce spikes in police hiring. You know the old saw, Lies, damned lies and…, but this statistical carnival ride is a hoot — and fairly informative.

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532 — Through the centuries the term Machiavellian has become a slur but old Nicky was a brilliant political scientist and student of psychology. The following diverse actors can be described as Machiavellian: FDR, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, JFK, LBJ, Hillary Clinton, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Jesse Jackson. If you haven’t read this, you don’t get politics.

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, January 10, 1776 — The kick in the ass many citizens of the 13 American Colonies needed to start blasting away at their British overlords. For more than 200 years it was the biggest-selling American book ever printed. Simple, concise, and a bit religious in its themes, CS nonetheless was a revolutionary manifesto to equal any before or since.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X & Alex Haley, 1965 — A riveting account of the life of a man who actually led three — or even more — lives. He grew from a street hood, a convict, a minster, a Black nationalist, a human rights activist, and, finally, a consensus-seeker. A brilliant man who otherwise could have bee the President of the United States, only he was born the wrong color, and too soon. Naturally, he was assassinated.

Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale & Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, by Art Spiegelman, published in Raw magaine, 1980-1991, the second volume in 1991 — If you want a kid to learn about the Holocaust and what it created in its survivors, you’ll find no better tool than this. And Maus is by no means a kids book. The first graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, it’s the story of Speigelman’s old man and his times in pre-World War II Poland, in Hitler’s concentration camps, and in his psychologically troubled post ordeal life in America. Speigelman draws the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Polish authorities as pigs. If you’re not drained of tears by the time you’re finished reading this, you ain’t human.

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, by Stephen Hawking, 1988 — This became one of those bestsellers, like Thomas Picketty’s Capital, that everybody bought and no one read. That’s a shame since Hawking’s our contemporary Einstein, here to explain to us that time, really, is nothing at all but a human construct. The universe goes about its business while we fritter away our time trying to capture it with a stopwatch.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson, 2011 — William Dodd was the last American ambassador to Nazi Germany. He and his family witnessed first-hand and up-close what the Nazi thing was all about. The book will disabuse you of the notion that simply assassinating Hitler would have turned the tide of Nazi history. It wouldn’t have. Naziism carried such a cachet that Dodd’s own daughter fell in love with a Gestapo leader. History’s a lot more complicated than the stuff you learned in elementary school.

The Liberation Trilogy, 3 volumes: An Army at Dawn, 2002; The Day of Battle, 2007; & The Guns at Last Light, 2013, by Rick Atkinson — A thorough and meticulous account of the War in Europe, 1939-1945. WWII was humanity’s ugliest, most evil endeavor, snuffing out the lives of upward of 60 million people around the globe. Yet Atkinson reminds us of all the little things that go into throwing a war, the number of staplers that had to be shipped to Normandy on D-Day, the petty squabbles between diva generals on all sides, the calculations of how many citizens this or that bombing mission would incinerate. We all know the end of this tale but I re-read the penultimate chapter often just for the frisson of imagining the German generals surrendering, unconditionally, at last. Atkinson carefully describes the tears running down the cheeks of Wermacht Commander Alfred Jodl at the signing table.

The Double-Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson, 1968 — DNA makes us human, pigs pigs, and the ebola virus what it is. Watson and his partners Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. And — oh yeah! — Rosalind Franklin who, by dint of possessing a vagina, was cheated out of honors, fame, fortune, and dignity, found this little fact out back in the 1950s. A must read for the scientific detectives’ tale and to glean how miserably women were treated by scientists back than ( and even today).

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro, 1974 — Moses remade New York City after his own imagination, moving entire neighborhoods, paving over riverfronts, constructing towering monuments to commerce and international affairs, and even unintentionally (or not) segregating its neighborhoods. How could one unelected man have so much power? Read and see.

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, by Desmond Morris, 1967 — What’s the difference between you, me, and a chimpanzee? Not much, acc’d’g to Morris. Nor between us and any number of other mammals, vertebrates, invertebrates, and earthworms. Morris has interesting hypotheses on why women have prominent breasts and like to wear lipstick. A fun read, although at times outlandish, but largely spot-on as most of its assertions have stood the test of time.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel, 1974 — Terkel was America’s preeminent recordist of the average person’s feelings, hopes, and dreams. Here he speaks with everyone form a cop, a switchboard operator, a supermarket bagger, a welder and even football coach George Allen and actor Rip Torn. This is reality, not that flotsam you get on “reality TV.”

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter, 1979 — Prose poetry on mathematics, symmetry, intelligence, and knowledge (not the same things, BTW). It gives me great joy to be able to live in a town wherein I can see Hofstadter pedaling his bicycle on the way to teach class on any given day.

Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 — An expansion of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the civil rights martyr teaches us about history, racism, civil disobedience, and fascism. And to a large extent, Blacks are still waiting.

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, 1970 — Bouton was an outspoken, opinionated, iconoclast baseball pitcher. He was an outcast on the old, stuffy New York Yankees dynasty and a hanger-on on a couple of expansion teams not many years later. He chronicled his 1969 season, revealing what a major league clubhouse was really like. The book shattered all the stereotypes of valiant, superhero pro athletes and showed them as merely human. It was as revolutionary as any political book. I’ve loved it from the first time I picked it up at the age of 14.

Hiroshima, by John Hershey, 1946 — Simple eyewitness accounts of survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear blast on August 6, 1945. Their common perception? None of them heard the sound of the explosion. You’ll need a strong stomach and a stronger heart to get through this.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter, 1964 — You think all this Tea Party, anti-immigrant, racist garbage all stared with reprobates like Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and Donald Trump? Think again. Politicians and demagogues have been selling fear and hatred here for our entire history. R. Hofstadter (not related, as far as I know, to Douglas) lays out the particulars in chilling fashion.

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan, 1964 — Notice how many groundbreaking books came out in 1964? Here’s another. McLuhan was the first to show us how we touched each other in a society ruled by the electromagnetic spectrum. His message was the technologies themselves shaped us more than the messages they carried.

On the Origin of Species (By Means of Natural Selection), by Charles Darwin, 1859 — Every critter, every plant alive, every fungus, every slime mold, can trace its ancestry to a common, microscopic bit of what we call “life” some three and a half billion years ago. Mutation and adaptation helped all those forms carry on. That’s what Darwin was trying to tell us. Still, some people don’t believe it.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, first Netherlands publication, 1947; first US & UK publication, 1952 — The firsthand account of an adolescent girl’s effort to hide from the anti-semites who wanted to kill her. Her flower was nipped in the bud. Evil resides alongside hope and love in the human heart.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, 1962 — Hey, there’s a whole world out there that just might get trashed if we continue to use its resources promiscuously and dump our detritus back out. Carson alerted us to this a half century ago yet, like Darwin, she has many, many disbelievers.

Relativity: The Special and General Theory, by Albert Einstein, the special relativity paper was published in 1905, the general in 1916; the American translation in 1920 — Einstein one day looked at a clock tower and imagined what it’d be like to travel as fast as the light rays carrying the image of the clock’s face. Thus began his famous thought experiment that led to his conclusion that time is not set in stone, but a malleable, traversable conceit. His papers are surprisingly accessible to layfolk, but don’t think they’re all that easy to read. It’s still a challenge to grasp all this and the old line is, if you think you’ve got it, you probably don’t.

Hmm. I’m starting to feel a bit dizzy. Better take a shortcut and just list the remaining choices.

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949

The Art of War (Master Sun’s Rules of Warfare), by Sun Tzu, 5th Century BCE

Principia Mathematica (Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), by Isaac Newton, July 5, 1687

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes), by Edward Gibbon, 1176-1789

Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistema del mondo), by Galileo Galilei Linceo, 1638

The Civil War: A Narrative, three volumes, by Shelby Foote, vol. 1 1958, vol.2 1963; vol. 3 1974)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

Black Boy, by Richard Wright, 1946

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), by Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, 1845

The Feynman Lectures on Physics (three volumes), by Richard Feynman with Robert B. Leighton & Matthew Sands, 1964

The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay, 77 articles published separately, 1787-1788; collected in two volumes, 1788

The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith, 1958

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob Riis, 1890

The Americans, Robert Frank, 1958

The Joy of Cooking, originally by Irma Rombauer, succeeding editions incl. Marion Rombauer Becker & Etahn Becker, orig published in 1931; total of eight editions through 2006

Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, by Niels Bohr, 1961

Experience and Education, by John Dewey, 1938

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, 1963

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou, orig. published in Greece, 2008; in the US, 2009

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt, 1996

Prejudices, seven volumes of articles published in the Baltimore Sun, by H.L. Mencken, 1919-1927

Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, 1963

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi, vol. 1, 2003; vol. 2, 2004

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley, 1999

The Blind Watchmaker: Why Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, by Richard Dawkins, 1986

The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, 1981

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O Wilson, 1998

King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz, 1952

Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis, 1989

Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, 1997 — Why do some societies dominate others? How do empires maintain dominance? Why do they crumble? Diamond answers these and other posers regarding our species’ bizarre predilection for beating the bejesus out of each other with the aid of our compatriots.

That’s it for now. Maybe when I feel a little stronger, I’ll finish up the blurbs on the titles that don’t have them. Don’t hold your breath, though.

Hot Air

A Christmas Horror Story

The mood around Chez Big Mike is tense. The news came in this morning, via radio.

(I wish I could say I’d caught a “communique” on “short wave radio.” You all know how much I dig drama. But no, it was a little feature on NPR’s Morning Edition. And, sorry, I can’t link to it because NPR hasn’t posted the clip yet.)

Anyway, the jitter-inducing news is that the price of olive oil is about to skyrocket due to a lousy growing season in certain olive-producing areas of this mournful globe.

Olive Oil

Air, Water, Shelter, Love, And Olive Oil

Mournful, natch, because what’s the point of living if one can’t get his mitts on olive oil? I’d prefer gasoline to hit seven dollars a gallon to a shortage of olive oil. Right now, I pay anywhere from $17 to $20 for a gallon of the good stuff, depending on little vagaries like, um…, well, I don’t know. It’s hard enough to figure out why petroleum and gas prices fluctuate as they do; now I gotta decrypt the inner workings of the O.O. racket? Puh-leeaze.

As soon as I heard the news, my imagination went wild: will my gallon of olive oil now cost $30? How about forty? Is fifty too crazy to even ponder?

In any case, I know what I’m doing first thing tomorrow morning. I’munna march right down to my nearby Kroger and cop at least two gallons of the extra-virgin. That’s what one does in an emergency — lay in a supply of life’s essentials.


It’s over. We’ve finished shaking the Xmas money tree. Bucks by the bushel-ful rained down upon us at the Book Corner. Apparently, President Obama‘s failed presidency has resulted in a now-reasonably vibrant economy (even taking into account the wealth and income gaps, of course) and folks are spending money — not as drunkenly as they did in the years leading up to the dot-com bust, Bush II’s apparently wildly successful presidency (complete with his two treasury-busting wars), and the Great Recession but more liberally than they did in, say, 2009, ’10, and ’11.

At least that’s what it looks like from the vantage point of the northeast corner of Walnut and Kirkwood. Selling stuff, though, is hard work and the crew at the BC was worn to a frazzle by Wed. afternoon. In fact, any customer who dared enter the store after 1:00pm on Christmas Eve was pretty much risking death by dirty look.

Credit card- and cash-lugging patrons usually are welcomed with open arms in any retail establishment but by that hour the Book Corner corps — as well as those of pretty much every shop and store in this holy land — had had quite enough of ringing up, giving change, wrapping, smiling, answering questions, solving problems, shelving incoming inventory, and plastering the ho-ho-ho spirit on our faces even as our feet ached and our bladders bulged.


A Typical Bookstore The Day After Christmas

All I know is the last week and a half or so I’ve been collapsing on the sofa after my shifts at the store and waking up the next morning only to have to go through the same ordeal again. When I locked the Book Corner’s front door yesterday at 4:00pm, I let loose with a torrent of expletives, describing customers — and for that matter, all members of the human race — in as unflattering terms as any of the 100 greatest novelists of all time could have conjured. At that, my confreres looked at me and wondered aloud how it could be that I was still in a sunnier disposition than they were.

I got home, poured myself a medicinal dosage of Coppola Zinfandel, threw my socks at Steve the Dog, pressed play on I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and emitted a sigh forceful enough to make the pictures on the wall crooked. Next thing I knew, the light of the morning was waking the hounds up and they, in turn, were nudging me with their cold noses..

Today I plan to heal my sore soul and body. Tomorrow, we’re back at it as customers pound on our front door and demand to exchange their copies of Not That Kind of Girl for Yes Please.


Don’t Get Used To This Just Yet

[Just a reminder: The Pencil is on hiatus right now as Big Mike — me — devotes time and energy to a fabulous book project, the details of which will be forthcoming as publishers are sufficiently fawned over and contracts are signed. Stay tuned for news on that front.

Meanwhile, I’ll be putting up little tidbits on occasion, just to keep the circuitry of this communications colossus in working order. I expect to be back telling the world what it ought to do full time within weeks or a couple of months at the most. Try your best to survive without my inerrant pontifications until then, okay? Okay.]

Hot Air

Moore No More

So, now both citywide candidates for public office have announced they’re turning in their lunchboxes.

City Clerk Regina Moore yesterday sent out an announcement to all her supporters and pals that she won’t seek reelection  next November. She joins Mayor Mark Kruzan in planning for a life without headaches, handshakes, and harping constituents.

Regina Moore

Moore (David Snodgress/Herald Times Photo)

I’ve got to imagine Moore must have grown a cauliflower ear from listening to so many friends and acquaintances try to weasel their way out of parking tickets over the phone. I can honestly say I never put the touch on her to spring me from the $20 fine — but I thought about it every single time I found that green envelope on my windshield.

Truth is, I’ll bet she’d have told me to take a hike. She was — hey, wait a minute: is — one of the finest public servants imaginable. What a couple, she and Don Moore, no?

I hope to see the two of them browsing in the Book Corner even more than they already do once she surrenders her keys to the City Hall office supply closet.

What Barack Has To Look Forward To

The US presidential impeachment process really is simple:

  • 1) The House Judiciary Committee concludes that the President must be impeached
  • 2) The Chair of the Judiciary Committee sends Article(s) of Impeachment to the full House


House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte

  • 3) The full House approves one or more Articles of Impeachment by simple majority; this means the President has been impeached
  • 4) Now the Senate puts the President on trial; all 100 Senators will serve as the jury
  • 5) If 67 of the Senators (two-thirds of that chamber) vote to convict the President, another vote is held to either remove him from office or levy another form of punishment or censure on him

That’s it, kids. Oh sure, there are a gazillion little details interspersed: hearings to determine charges, votes to determine the rules of the trial, and so on. But these five steps are the process in a nutshell.

It’s so hard to get 67 Senators to vote one way on anything that doesn’t either enrich them or their campaign coffers that impeachment probably is — and will always be — used only to harass the President.

Certainly that’s what happened in 1998 when Bill Clinton was impeached. The Republican House couldn’t possibly have figured to get a Senate conviction on his fellatial (I just coined a word) crimes and misdemeanors but they loved — I repeat loved — dragging him through a four-year-long ordeal. (The first special prosecutor was appointed in January, 1994 to investigate the Whitewater financial affair and the death of Clinton lawyer Vince Foster; the Senate acquitted Clinton on unrelated charges in February, 1998.)


I don’t know if Bob Goodlatte‘s (R-VA) Judiciary Committee will decide to consider Articles of Impeachment as its first act when the 114th Congress convenes in January, but I just know it’ll do so eventually. Goodlatte seems a tad, well, more sane than some of the more virulent Me Party-ists of the new, total GOP Congress. But the pressure’s going to be on him from the madman wing of the party to make Barack Obama’s last two years in office a living hell.

As if the first six years haven’t been already.

Really Reading

Speaking of the Washington Post (look up), the paper has released its list of 2014’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction.

I plan, over the next few years, to read nine of the books. Wait a minute — over the next few years? Yeah.

See, because I peddle books, people think I read everything that comes in. I don’t. I can’t. No one can. And if, in some distance bookstore, another peddler says she or he does; know that s/he’s toying with the truth. Reading entails submerging one’s self in a book, savoring it, understanding it, being in it. Speed reading and other tricks of the hyper-caffeinated set do not, in my unhumble view, constitute reading.


My Nightstand’s Under Here Somewhere

At least once a week, a customer’ll pull a title off the New York Times Bestseller list shelf and ask, “Have you read this yet?” Invariably I say no. And the cust. usually responds with a a look of pained shock. I wanna say, “Look, you want me to read one of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing… fetish books? Or Heaven Is for Real? Hell, I haven’t even gotten to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist yet. Whaddya want from me?”

Anyway, throwing the list of nine in with the several dozen other books already waiting for me to devour, I’m being almost overly-ambitious by saying I’ll get to them in a mere few years.

That said, here are the latest nonfiction books that have gone into my reading queue:

  • The Bill of the Century by Clay Risen — about the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act
  • The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig — the simple daily contraceptive pill was perhaps the most important development in the women’s rights story in the second half of the 20th Century
  • Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter — about Stuxnet, the first burst in the 21st Century’s cyberwar
  • The Divide by Matt Taibbi — I’ll read anything by Taibbi; here, he lays out in his trademark rational rage style how money buys justice in this holy land

Book Cover

  • The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein — a confession: I’ve already read it. Perlstein covers the years 1974 through 1976 in his series on the history of the conservative movement in the US
  • My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossell — the author has scads of phobias (and so do I); here. he tackles them with candor and humor
  • The Nixon Defense by John W. Dean — the disgraced ex-president’s White House counsel gives the ultimate insider’s view of the tragi-comic scandal
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs — Peace grew up in the Newark slums and went on to study molecular biology at Yale; he also was a nails-tough street thug who ran a profitable dope trade
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre — Brit spook Kim Philby bamboozled pretty much everybody in the intelligence community, apparently not a difficult trick

If you phone me and I don’t answer, it’s because I’m reading.

Hot, Getting Seasonable, Air

Sly Fox?

Does it bother you that Fox Broadcasting is now financially supporting NPR’s Morning Edition?

Mind you, Fox B-casting is not Fox News. The two are separate entities under the worldwide umbrella that is Rupert Murdoch‘s media empire. Whereas Fox News typically airs topical news “debate” shows wherein, like professional wrestling, there are clear-cut villains and heroes, and its news updates generally steer blame for all the evils in the world, up to and including irritable bowel syndrome, toward Barack Obama and his liberal minions, Fox Broadcasting presents such darlings of the cognoscenti as The Simpsons, The Family Guy, and Glee.

Hell, F-Broad even will begin showing Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey this coming Sunday. To refresh, the original Cosmos was the brainchild of Carl Sagan. The presenter of this iteration will be Neil de Grasse Tyson. Both the late Sagan and and the still-very-alive NdGT would be ridiculed to high heaven were they to appear on a Fox News segment on climate change or evolution.

Murdoch as the Devil

The Devil No Matter What?

Still, the TV entertainment arm of the Murdoch octopus is run by, well, Murdoch. That’s gotta be enough to scare the bejesus out of us crunchy, bleeding-heart types who listen to Morning Edition.

Fun With Books

Would you read a book entitled Everything I Know About Women I Learned from My Tractor?

How about A Passion for Donkeys or Does God Ever Speak through Cats? And then there’s that classic, What’s Your Poo Telling You?

Book Cover


IDK about you, but I’d read ’em! Not only that, I’d proudly display these tomes in my living room library. BTW: You can, indeed, tell the book, What’s Your Poo Telling You?, by its cover. It’s about paying close attention to your porcelain princess deuces; its tagline is “Loads of facts about your health.” And, yes, it’s illustrated.

Other, more genteel folks, might be turned off by these titles and more. That’s why Bored Panda offers The 40 Worst Book Covers and Titles Ever. Here are a few more, for your pleasure:

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Book Cover

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[h/t to Tanisha Caravello.]

I, Libtard

Just a reminder that I am the world’s biggest liberal, even in these days when liberals have lost their spark and are routinely portrayed as Nazi/commie terrorists who force their daughters to have sex with black men and then have their resultant fetuses aborted.

How did a nice guy like me get hung with that kind of rep?

Anyway, here’s a Noam Chomsky quote that I particularly dig:

The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.


Now, Students, Remember: Never Rock The Boat.

Tell it, brother.

Barbarians All

And, finally, here’s Italian TV dude Adriano Celentano doing a parody video showing what American English sounds like to them goofy furriners. Sort of a counterpart to Andy Kaufman doing Latka Gravas, as you’ll see.

Weird thing is, when I watched this vid last night, I though the music was very, very cool. Then, when I watched it again this morning, it sounded, well, unlistenable. Further proof that we have to trust our second thoughts .

Quick Hot Air

Have Mercy On Me

If you’re a loyal Pencillista, you know I work in retail three days a week. Two of this week’s three days come right before X-mas so I’ll be in foot-aching, preacher’s-throated, headache-y, I’m-beginning-to-loath-humanity hell until Wed.

Ergo, I figure I’ll be short in these precincts until Thu. — that is if I post at all. But I’m here now so let’s go.

Buy Books

Get into the Book Corner at once. If not today, then tomorrow. Buy books for all your friends and loved ones. You know my philosophy (well, one of my philosophies; I have so many): Never trust a person who doesn’t have books in her or his home. Or, as John Waters put it more practically:

If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em.

Sage advice.

Now, then. If you’re a Bloomingtonian, keep your dough local by shopping at the Book Corner and keep it doubly local by purchasing tomes penned by B-town authors. Here’s a list of same, off the top of my head:

Nancy R. Hiller Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field; A Home of Her Own; The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History

Nate Powell March: Book One (with US Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia and Andrew Aydin); Any Empire; Swallow Me Whole; Sounds of Your Name

Book Cover

Michael Koryta The Prophet; The Ridge; The Cypress House; So Cold the River; The Silent Hour; A Welcome Grave; Sorrow’s Anthem; Tonight I Said Goodbye; Envy the Night

Janet Cheatham Bell The Time and Place That Gave Me Life; Victory of the Spirit: Reflections on My Journey; the Famous Black Quotations series

Joy Shayne Laughter Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery

Debby Herbenick Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Sex Questions Answered—For Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex; Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva; Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction

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Derek Richey & Jennifer Sommer-Richey Bloomington Then & Now

Christopher Shaw & Avi A. Katz The Fish on the Dome

Larry Eubank Why Marx Was Wrong

Douglas A. Wissing Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban; Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary; Indiana (Falcon Guides Scenic Driving)

Ross Gay Bringing the Shovel Down; Against Which

Micah Ling Sweetgrass; Three Islands; Settlement

Phil Ford Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture

Ford & Dog

Phil Ford & Charlotte

Monika Herzig David Baker: A Legacy in Music

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some people. Pencillistas, kindly let us all know who else is out there in these environs, clacking away to enrich our lives with the printed word. Use the Comments section to set me straight. As for the rest of you: Whaddya waiting for? Get out and start buying books!

The Pencil Today:

HotAirLogoFinal Monday


“My alma mater was books, a good library. I could spend the the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.” — Malcolm X



Susan Taitel was one of my cool pals back in my Whole Foods Market days. We worked together in the wine and cheese department at the Evanston, Illinois store before I got bumped up to the education department and she took off for Minneapolis to write books.

Taitel’s been hyper productive the last year, having churned out three manuscripts (god, I hate her). Still she’s managed to consume some 48 books, evenly split between the audio variety and traditional hard copy stuff. Search me how she does it.

From her website

In any case, she has kept a running list of the books she’s read and posted same on her website. She also breaks down her 2012 reading by books read on Kindle or where she got her traditional books (borrowed from friends or the library, for instance). It’s OCD elevated to the most positive level.

Sure, and it’s braggadocio as well. So what? It’s books! I heartily recommend that everyone who visits this indispensable site (mine, that is, although you’re welcome to drop in on Susan‘s) do the same.

Let’s all brag about what books we’ve read in the past year.

My own list will be woefully incomplete because I had not kept a real time running count throughout the year. So, I’ll just say my fave things that I read in 2012 included:

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Just to show how inaccurate this micro-list might be, it’s entirely possible I read one or more of those titles sometime in 2011.

Thanks to Susan Taitel, though, I’m going to keep my list faithfully in 2013.

How about you?


I’ve been seeing a lot of links to a site alternately identified as Samuel Warde and Liberals Unite. It’s pretty boilerplate polemic stuff — every time some hillbilly drawls out the word negro so that it almost, maybe, if you listen really closely, sounds like nigger, the site runs a headline as if the Republicans are pushing for a return to slavery.

Until the other night, I never clicked on one of those links. I have enough of my own bile stored up for the GOP, thank you. I don’t need some canary in a coalmine website roiling my blood for every insult, real or imagined.

Anyway, for some reason I’ve already forgotten I clicked on a link that read “Kentucky Man Decorates Lawn With Obama Mannequin Holding A Watermelon.” The link was put up by the Facebook site, I Acknowledge Class Warfare Exists, which I subscribe to, but I’m not a fanatic about either.

From Facebook

So, I get to the story in Liberals Unite about this fellow, named Danny Hafley, who has told questioners he put the mannequin up around Halloween and has kept it up since, and he later put a big fake wedge of watermelon in the faux prez’s hands “because he might get hungry.”


I didn’t even look at the vid showing an interview with the laugh-a-minute Hafley. I mean I can’t get riled up about every dope who makes racist statements and then, as Hafley did, denies being a racist.

From Liberals Unite

Naw, It’s Not A Bit Racist.

Sure, I hope a bunch of big dogs piss on the mannequin and then when Hafley hauls the thing back into his living room, he can’t figure out what the odor is. Then again, such a refined soul just might not notice anything amiss.

In any case, I discovered something compelling. There was an ad on the site for Ann Coulter’s daily column (no link; she doesn’t need me to pimp for her). We all know Ann Coulter, right? She’s just Danny Hafler with a miniskirt, long, blond, stringy hair, skinny legs, and the worldview of a John Bircher, circa 1959.


Right-Wing Porn

Why, then, would Ann Coulter be advertising on an ultra-liberal website? Was the ad placed there in error?

Hell no!

At this point in this holy land’s weird, weird history, nobody listens to or reads Ann Coulter anymore except liberals who get off on having apoplexy every time she puts forth what passes for “thought.” Liberals support Ann Coulter and, for all I know, half or most of the whacked-out, wing-nutted, far-right demagogues and gangs out there. Without liberal anguish, these circus sideshow freaks would shrivel up and die.

Me? I don’t care what Ann Coulter says any longer. The next thing I want to read about Ann Coulter is that Dorothy’s house has fallen on her after the tornado.

The Pencil Today:

HotAirLogoFinal Wednes II


“When you read a piece of writing that you admire, send a note of thanks to the author.” — Sherman Alexie



I want you to come into the Book Corner. I want you to buy ten books while you’re there.

Okay, if not ten, then at least one.

The Book Corner is a treasured South Central Indiana cultural institution, and I don’t say that solely because I work there.

From the Herald Times

Me, Slaving Away At The Book Corner

It’s locally owned, having been under the control of the Spannuth family since…, well, since cavemen chipped rudimentary messages into stones

It’s independent.

It carries books and magazines the big boys like Barnes and Noble would never think of stocking.

And I’m there, good for a laugh, a wink, a flirt, or a good recommendation.

Speaking of recommendations, I’ve got a few for you right now.

First, a recommendation of what not to buy. It has to do with the 50 Shades franchise of housewife porn.

50 Shades Trilogy

Mommy Smut

Oh, I don’t want you not to buy a book from that best selling trilogy of steamy novels. Go ahead. My old pal R.E. Paris writes in the upcoming issue of Ryder magazine that any book that causes millions of women to engage in a certain solitary behavior, sometimes simultaneously across several times zones, can’t be all bad.

That said, there’s now the phenomenon of shirt-tailers, trying to make an even faster buck off of what already is a fast buck racket. To wit: Yesterday we unpacked a tome entitled “50 Shades of Chicken.”

Yeah, you guessed it, the “author” of said consumer product has produced a “book” of recipes based on the soft S&M theme of the trilogy. Someone named F.L. Fowler (yeah, surrre) has taglined this literary excrement “50 Chicken Recipes Bound to Be Delicious.”

Get it? Bound. Teehee.

Don’t buy it. We shouldn’t be encouraging these people.

So, what to buy?

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✐ “Just Enough Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse. The Bertie & Jeeves series has been my “comfort food” reading choice for some 30 years now. Wodehouse is one of the finest comedic verbal technicians of the 20th century. He competes with S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen, and the writers of “National Lampoon,” “Spy,” and “The Onion” for the top spot in that category. A wild range of authors from Christopher Hitchens to J.K. Rowling swore by him. Not only are the antics of Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman a pure joy, but the series is tantamount to an historical treatise documenting the fall of the British caste system.

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✐ “Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution” by T.J. English. A history of the Mob’s presence in Cuba under the Batista regime. Even a cynic has to be shocked by the nefarious cabal of US government officials, the Cuban strongman, and the Italian and Jewish hoodlums who raped and pillaged the Caribbean island nation for so long. And we wonder why Castro and his gang have been throwing us the finger for half a century.

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✐ “Goodbye, Columbus (And Five Short Stories)” by Philip Roth. Now that the curmudgeonly hermit of American letters has announced his retirement, it’s time to go back to his first published novella. Imagine, Roth was 26 in 1959 when GC was released. The story betrays that youth. Surely Roth was an old soul who could see why fools — and the young — fall in love. Yes, there was something about Brenda Patimkin — Roth writes in the opening scene of her climbing out of a swimming pool and reaching back to flick with her fingers the fabric of her hiked-up swimsuit to re-cover her firm buttocks — but Roth’s Neil, who had to be Roth himself, loves her for other, less honest, reasons.

From "The Elements"

From “The Elements”

✐ “The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe” by Theodore Gray. This is a delight for science geeks as well as lovers of gorgeous photographic images. Gray lays out images of all the elements from their constituent atoms to their real-life, practical forms. Have you ever wondered what in the hell krypton is and how we use it? The answer’s here.


✐ “The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: 2000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Food Magazine” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. CI is by far the best cooking magazine around and this hefty book serves as a greatest hits from it. The dishes herein are basic, timeless, and would be at home in your grandma’s recipe box. This is a standard for any cook.

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✐ “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. The most influential book of my young life. Bouton was an outsider who chronicled the day to day lives of two otherwise nondescript Major League Baseball teams, the short-lived Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, in 1969. It’s hilarious, revealing, tender and tough, and it spits in the eye of all those licksplitters, Boy Scouts, and petit tyrants you love to hate. Plus, it’s a cultural chronicle of perhaps the most gut-wrenching period of time in American history outside of the Civil War.

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✐ “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago” by Mike Royko. Hands down, Royko was the best newspaper columnist of my lifetime. He ranks with Twain and Mencken as the finest newspaper writers in this nation’s history. The fact that Royko’s “Boss” exposed a dying political machine was only an accident of time — had Royko been active several decades earlier, he’d have torn the cover off the venal, venial, tawdry operation when it was at its supposed unassailable height. Of course, he probably would have been killed for his efforts.

There. Now go out and buy some books.


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