Moments: On the burdens of books


My back is sore. My legs hurt. I’m tired of carrying this heavy load.

The burden I refer to is books. I have too many of them. The shelves of my overstuffed (and very cheap) bookcases sag beneath the weight of my books. Nearly every surface in my home serves as a holding space for books.

Paperbacks are jammed into the entertainment center behind the TV. Books pile up on the coffee table. There are a few in the closet and a few more in the nightstand. I bet if I looked real close, I’d find a few under the bed.

But I’m too scared to look under there. I saw “Monsters, Inc.” Nobody wants to be surprised in bed by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.

This book problem becomes particularly acute when one moves, which I’m doing this week.

Confession: I have not read all the books I own. I have not read most of the books I own.

I have, for example, a Christian Bible. I keep it out of respect for my parents, particularly my late father, who went to a great deal of hassle to make sure I passed confirmation at the First United Methodist Church in Winterset when I was a boy.

I’ve looked up things in it. There are lots of Biblical references in society, especially made by politicians. I like to look them up and see if they say what I’m told they say. But most of the time the language is very dense and often vague. So, no, I haven’t read it cover to cover.

I watched “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Bible” on TV around Easter every year when I was a boy. I know it’s not the same, but I understood those.

A very nice Methodist minister I knew gave me a guide to prayer when I graduated. I picked through it once in a while when I’m feeling desperate, but I didn’t understand the supplementary materials any more than I did the main text. But I keep both, just in case.

I have a very nice hardback collection of Plato’s dialogues. I haven’t read it, either. It makes less sense to me than the Bible. It was given to me by a philosophy professor I had at Drake University. He and his wife, who was the provost at the time, wrote a very kind dedication upon my graduation.

I briefly considered cutting out that page and putting the book in the pile to sell to the used bookstore. But that seemed uncouth. So the book went in a box.

Other books, however, were less fortunate. “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, three books by James Joyce and a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories were all sold. These are books I bought because I thought it was important to have them. I thought writers had to read these kinds of books to be writers of any promise or ability.

But I never read them. I’m not sure Joyce is even written in English. I bought those books because I wanted to impress a girl in St. Louis. Her former boyfriend quoted Joyce. She’s married now, not to me of course.

And, well, most of the people I know who regularly quote Joyce are kind of snobs. I can’t become a snob if I don’t read him and, thus, don’t quote him. So I got rid of those books to improve my character.

My apologies to Dickens and Hemingway, whom are often regarded as canon by people who call a writer “a man of letters.” I get more out of the collections of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I like those books.

I could never really get into the machismo Hemingway or the Victorian-era Dickens. I loved, however, the “Doctor Who” episode in which the Doctor and Rose meets Dickens. I have that on DVD. I’ll probably watch it before I read a page of “Great Expectation.”

People often give me books by Bill Bryson, the Des Moines, Iowa, native who moved to England and writes books admired by nearly everyone, save me, who prefers Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh. So a couple Bryson books, both gifts, were sold off, hopefully to land in a home where they’ll be read by an admirer rather than an ignorer.

My bookshelves are heavy with good intentions. There’s an acclaimed book about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I bought it at the suggestion of a colleague, who said it was excellent and showed everything the public thinks about that day is a lie. I bought the book used. It was sold with no additional mileage. It struck me as too depressing a topic to want to scratch through while relaxing at bedtime.

I always meant to read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It was the classic insider tell-all about life in the majors. Mickey Mantle reportedly wouldn’t talk to Bouton for years because Bouton revealed Mantle as a drunk. It seems kind of innocent in retrospect, doesn’t it? Entire books are written about all kinds of horrible things done by baseball players and other athletes these days. Being a drunk wouldn’t even rate an item in the celebrity news.

A copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun” won’t make it to my new home. I’ve never been one for epics, but I have the NBC-TV miniseries based on the novel on DVD. I think that’s probably enough feudal Japan for me.

I kept “Summer of ’49” by David Halberstam, which I bought as a paperback from the racks at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. I read it on long baseball road trips from Winterset to Nevada. I felt the hot sun on my arms and fell in love with the New York Yankees as they beat back the Boston Red Sox on the final game of the 1949 season.

I had several books by Charles Finney, who writes about time travel. I was impressed by the title of one book collection: “3 By Finney.” The guy had the same last name as me. Maybe I could write three novels. But its doubtful. I never read “3 By Finney” or any of the others.

For years, I owned a guide to being an action hero. I bought it one night after a writing class I took with my friend Syd Spink. We laughed uncontrollably under the section that advised what to do if you’re wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Advice included: “Take a lover if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive.” But I never really read it more than that.

Of course, there are books that will always be with me. “Nobody Asked Me But … The World of Jimmy Cannon,” by the great columnist Jimmy Cannon, was given to me by the best teacher I ever had, a journalism professor at Drake. I was struggling to come up with a column idea one week. He picked up the book at a used sale. It was a revelation. I keep it close, a reminder of the great teacher and the great writer. That’s the book I save in case of fire.

Collections of columns by Mary McGrory, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and Andy Rooney all made the cut. Most of my comic books and graphic novels make the trip. Yeah, I know they’re books with more pictures than words, but people who say that have never enjoyed the sublime pleasure of Jack Kirby’s kinetic art with Stan Lee’s prose in something as perfect as “Captain America No. 105.”

So I culled the collection, not as much as I probably should have and certainly not as much as my movers would have wished I had. But there are fewer books headed to the new apartment.

I would like to believe I’ll be content to enjoy the books I have — especially those gone too long unread. But I ordered a collection of Hunter S. Thompson works just this morning. I don’t think that cleared shelf space will stay vacant long.

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Book Report: ‘Shrinkage’ by Bryan Bishop

Shrinkage” | Author: Bryan Bishop | $26 | St. Martin’s Press |

Every oncologist, cancer center and, really, anyplace that treats people for chronic and critical illness should buy a case of Bryan Bishop’s “Shrinkage” and hand them out to people who face a long, hard and potentially losing battle with disease.

Bishop is best-known as the sound effects man for “The Adam Carolla Show” podcast. He also lives with an inoperable brain tumor kept in check by regular infusions of a new medicine. “Shrinkage” details his life from diagnosis in April 2009 to survival through a hellish year of treatment.

bryan-bishop-shrinkageBishop, called Bald Bryan by Carolla, was 30 years old and planning to marry his girlfriend, Christie, at the time his tumor was discovered. He writes of the stress and struggle to plan the rest of his life with Christie while realizing his forever might be sharply truncated by the tumor growing in his brain.

“Shrinkage” starts slow and gives too much detail on Bishop’s early life. His love of his college fraternity doesn’t move the story forward and it takes too long to get to the meat of the story: fighting a brain tumor. Similarly, the chapters on music playlists for radiation treatment and music at the wedding seemed to drag into minutia, though the idea of assembling uplifting music has merit even if Bishop is somewhat overbearing in his musical tastes.

Bishop’s prose is true to his on-podcast voice and that’s an accomplishment. The book reads like a long, amiable conversation with a friend about the toughest year in his life. His jokes are sometimes amusing, but his use of footnotes to deliver asides and one-liners is annoying and distracting to a reader who wants to move forward with the story.

“Shrinkage” could have used more detailed description — more show, less tell. Still, precise recollections are difficult to come by when one has a brain swollen by treatment and abused by a growing tumor.

But he does not spare the reader the occasional specifics from the darkest days, such as defecating on himself and being so weak and helpless his wife had to clean him. It’s a nightmare, but an excellent use of telling detail to show just how low the disease brought him.

His love of his wife is clear, as is her unwavering dedication to him. Perhaps his most admirable chapter comes when he describes the tensions that grew between his wife and parents during his recovery. The stress chronic illness puts on all branches of families is intense and Bishop’s refusal to gloss over that is much to his credit.

Bishop discusses the financial strain as well and how he got through them. His buddy Carolla headlined a fundraiser — organized by a fan — that raised six figures. Most fighting cancer don’t have celebrity friends who can sell out a 1,200-seat theater to see top comedians and rock bands — and sell more copies of the recording on the Web.

Still, it’s an example of Bishop and his family and friends using every available resource to fight a disease that is mentally, physically, emotionally and financially devastating. While most cancer patients can’t host a celebrity benefit, the newspaper and community calendar are often filled with fundraising spaghetti dinners for families in various stages of recovery from sundry ailments.

The real benefit to reading Bishop’s book is how he embraces positive thinking. Attitude is an important part of the healing and recovery process. Bishop recognizes this early in his battle and grips it strong, through meditation and a constant mantra of “I will get better.”

Book Report: ‘In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks’ By Adam Carolla

“In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks” | Author: Adam Carolla

Three Rivers Press | 264 pages | $15

“In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks” by comedian and podcast guru Adam Carolla is an all-purpose rant against everything wrong with society from politics to sports mascots. Some of it is very funny, though what makes a person laugh is very subjective.


Even at a 264 pages, including a bonus chapter in the paperback edition, it feels long. I got tired of Carolla after a while. He was kind enough to break up his bits into bite-sized chunks good enough for a good long bathroom visit or a few chapters before dozing off at night.

I found myself laughing at more passages than not, but there were a few — especially the notion that most rich people are rich because they earned it — I thought his perspective was skewed. But that’s personal preference again. Other people probably admired that bit and disliked others.

Carolla writes well. His arguments are common sense, though sometimes they oversimplify an issue. But I suppose comedy would be difficult if the comic was forced to show his work like a proof on a math test. He actually offers some fairly decent, straightforward advice on everything from bathrobes to fixing a flat.

I enjoyed Carolla’s bits on race and racism. I enjoy a pink comedian who is not afraid to tell jokes about our cultural hang ups about brown people. Who said only brown comedians can tell race jokes? Was there a summit at Yalta with Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Steve Martin where Pryor was like, “OK, we’re all agreed, only brothers can talk about race stuff, right?” If there was, Carolla isn’t abiding by the rule and his comedy is better for it.

I like Carolla. I enjoyed him as co-host of “Loveline” on MTV. My friend and General Tso’s Revenge co-founder Memphis Paul introduced me to Carolla’s podcast. He’s very good at his job, which is being entertaining. His podcasts run about 90 minutes, which is probably the ideal amount of time to spend with Carolla.

I think Carolla would be a good guy to hang out with to watch a game, but not a guy I would want to spend a whole vacation with. The constant complaining gets tiring after a while. I found myself thinking “just let it go, man” quite a bit.

That said, I admire Carolla. He’s a self-made success. He went from carpentry to $50 an appearance on a radio show to a millionaire comedian who writes books. I don’t always like what he has to say, but enjoy the fact that it is still possible for a man like him to succeed by doing something different rather than another greatest hits package from the Hollywood establishment.

On the disappointment inherent in Highlights magazine

The only time I ever saw Highlights magazine was at the doctor’s office. This meant I was sick. That was a bad omen to begin with. The puzzles were already done. They were too easy anyway. The stickers were gone. The comics weren’t funny. The stories were stupid. The magazine was actually called Highlights for Children. I always wondered if there were Highlights for Adults, which was good. There wasn’t. The copy in the doctor’s office was likely covered in viruses and bacteria far worse than whatever brought me to there to begin with. Highlights was the magazine parents thought their children wanted to read. This was an early sign the people in charge did not necessarily know what the hell they were doing.

Great Paragraphs: Stephen King on how close he wants to get to you

I think that any book should bear up to two readings. Particularly, there are certain books that are very, very emotionally hot and that’s the kind of writing that I do. I’m a confrontational writer. I want to get into your face. I want to be in your space. I want to get within kissing distance, hugging distances, choking distance, punching distance, call it whatever you want. But I want your attention. I didn’t come here for cocktail hour. I don’t look at writing that way. I look at writing as a very vital, muscular deal.

— Stephen King, author, Dec. 12, 2012

Great Paragraphs: On the value of a good scream

I decided that it is better to scream. This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a man’s way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By his screams he asserts his right to live, sends a message to the outside world demanding help and calling for resistance. If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.

— Nadezhda Mandelstam, “Hope Against Hope” (1970)

Book Report: ‘F in Exams’ By Richard Beason (2011)



“F in Exams” collects actual test answers from students. Some are stupid. Some are silly. Some are wildly creative. All of them are incorrect.

Sometimes the answers end up being good riddles.


Q: Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?

A: At the bottom.

Or this gem:

Q: What was the first thing Queen Elizabeth II did when she ascended to the throne?

A: Sit down.

Others bring pop culture sensibilities to the test booklet:

Q: What is a “stakeholder”?

A: Someone who kills vampires, Buffy being the most famous.

Some are visual gag. One kid even drew a banana car for an answer to a geometry question. The absurdity was worth a chuckle.

The book is light and breezy, designed simply and compact. It reads like a tumblr blog of cat memes. You can spend an hour with it or sit it down after one or two pages. I recommend putting a copy in your bathroom. That maximizes the enjoyment.

A serious mind might wonder what these kinds of answers say about our educational system. I wonder about it, though I don’t have a serious mind. Some answers are just wrong, funny slips of the tongue and what not. That happens to everyone who takes a test. The answers are anonymous, so we’re not making fun of individuals who make a gaffe.

But some of the answers are so boldly creative, I do find myself wondering about the educational system. I wonder if we are doing enough to foster, harness and direct the kind of thinking that goes behind some of these answers. I hope so, but I have doubts. We have always valued prescribed answers that can be neatly tracked on a Scantron form more than the abstract thinker.


Book Report: ‘Overqualified’ By Joey Comeau (2009)

Joey Comeau


Overqualified” is a collection of short stories written as letters written by Joey Comeau. Literary types call this “epistolary.” I did not know this. I read the word on the back cover of the book and looked it up. The word was used in a review by the Los Angeles Times. Newspapers may be dying, but they are still educational.

The letters are in the form of cover letters, the kind written to potential employers in an effort to get a job. Cover letters are usually a series of lies told in effort to sell yourself to a corporation that will slowly whittle away whatever remaining dignity you have left for pocket change in comparison to the executives’ salaries and bonus packages with and benefits only slightly better than that of the local animal shelter. Comeau is right to turn them into comedy because they were already fiction.

The part of me that likes to needle powerful people hopes Comeau sent the letters. I imagine it would be unnerving for some human resources drone at Nintendo to read the letter in which he suggest Mario is in a loveless, sexless relationship with the Princess. The part of me that does not wish to see creative, if slightly odd, people incarcerated hopes that he did not send the letters for in the post-Sept. 11 world, nobody has a fucking sense of humor anymore.

I laughed some reading this book. It made me sad more often. Comeau’s narrator returns to a theme of his brother being killed by a drunk driver. The narrator often breaks down into nonsensical rants or babble about sexual situations. These can be read as funny. The can also come across uncomfortable.

The book is amusing, but I was left uneasy for the reasons above. It reminds me of Andy Kaufman‘s schtick. Kaufman made people uncomfortable by being odd or abusive to ordinary people. I never cared for that kind of humor. I felt much the same way about the book. I could see how someone would find this funny, but I’m probably not that person.

Great Paragraphs: On a new Mario Bros. game concept

We need a new Mario game where you rescue the princess in the first 10 minutes, and for the rest of the game you try to push down that sick feeling in your stomach telling you she’s “damaged goods,” a concept detailed again and again in the profoundly sex-negative instruction booklet, and when Luigi makes a crack about her and Bowser, you break his nose and immediately regret it. Peach asks you, in the quiet of her mushroom castle bedroom, “Do you still love me?” and you pretend to be asleep. You press the A button rhythmically to control your breath, to keep it even.

— Joey Comeau, “Overqualified”

Book Report: ‘The Stench of Honolulu’ By Jack Handey (2013)


The first thing I learned from “The Stench of Honolulu” by Jack Handey is that Jack Handey is a real person. I honestly thought he was an invention of “Saturday Night Live” writers. But apparently the long-running “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” segment was in fact written by a real, live person. And that person’s name is really Jack Handey. That was a big shock right there. It would be like learning Richard Pryor was real.

“The Stench of Honolulu” is the first novel by Handey. He has written several “Deep Thoughts” collections. This story is about an idiot who goes to Honolulu with his friend Don in search of a mysterious treasure known as the Golden Monkey. The narrator is never named. That frees me to name him under a little-known subset of the Shadow Proclamation. I am going to call the narrator Jack. I am not calling him Jack because Jack Handey, who is a real person, wrote this book. I am calling him Jack because I like the name Jack and once played a fun game called “You Don’t Know Jack” at a party in college. Also, Jack Bauer from “24” was a badass.

Anyway, Jack is a moron and kind of evil in a Cobra Commander from the “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” cartoon kind of way. Jack wears his underwear for a beret, kills a turtle man, steals a doctor’s Nobel Prize and is stung by so many poison darts he develops immunity. The story gets stranger from there.

The book reads like “Deep Thoughts.” Every paragraph contains at least one joke. Sometimes it is every sentence. Some of these sentences and paragraphs are very funny. But it can be exhausting. The book is only 224 pages. I found myself laughing a lot but also saying, “Come on, let’s get on with the story.” I am a person who likes linear narrative. It may be boring, but it’s my choice in entertainment and I won’t apologize for it.

Anyway, this is a very good book if you like stories that do not make much sense. I don’t happen to be one of those people, but I could see how someone would enjoy it. It does not speak well of Hawaii, but I don’t think it is meant to be a travel guide. If it is, I would avoid Honolulu at all costs. I think, in fact, it is supposed to be a sendup of adventure novels that set their stories in exotic vacation spots. I did not figure this out on my own. I had to read it off the back cover. Had I read the back cover, I might not have bought the book. But so it goes. They can’t all be winners.