Monday, October 6, 2014


99. Do It! Let's get Off Our Buts: A Guide to Living Your Dreams by Peter McWilliams

This is an incredible book, made even more incredible and poignant by the author's biography found at the back of the book (sorry for the spoiler). This one is a re-read for me, of a book that I originally discovered by accident at Barnes and Noble 14 years ago, during or right after my breakup with my girlfriend of the time.

I am soooo thankful that I had held onto this book all this time, and that I recently found it again while searching through some bins in my basement. My copy has so many dogears that I hardly know where to begin with any kind of review.

I found this book particularly relevant to and resonating with my life right now, and my current search for career direction. Most important to me were the following insights:
  • You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want.
  • The effective person doesn't just get the job done right, but also gets the right job done.
  • The use of index cards to deeply inventory my life so far, and to then become clear regarding what I actually want to do with my life going forward -- what my Big Dream is...
  • Action focused all in one direction
  • Preparing oneself to let go of many side dreams in order to make room for and focus on the Big one
  • Freeing up extra energy and concentrating it, focusing it towards my dream
  • Don't tell anyone about my dream in the earliest stages -- only share when it has had a chance to grow and begin to succeed (not sure how I feel about this one; I think there is a lot to be said for accountability during the early stages of goal setting...)
  • I must become obsessively passionate about my dream
  • How to accept and manage the experience of achievement energy, and to further direct that energy towards even more achievement
  • A BIG ONE FOR ME: the confusion of creative energy with sexual energy!!!
  • Failing to plan = planning to fail
  • Also huge: Freedom is found in discipline, not in rebellion.

100. Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Bill Dobbins

This was my "most favoritest book ever" from maybe age 15 to age 18 -- from sophomore year in high school through freshman year in college. No joke.

In all seriousness, this book inspired a gangly kid to gain 70 pounds of muscle in 6 years as my body matured and I lifted weights obsessively for 2 hours a day 6 days a week, religiously. Protein milkshakes. With extra powdered milk added. Eggs and eggs and eggs. Turn that scrawny ectomorph into a manly man. No joke.

All of my closest friends had a copy of this book by the time we turned 16; I think that even my friend Dave, the skeptic in my circle, picked up a copy of this, or perhaps he borrowed Michael's copy; not sure.

Summer after summer. Weight training at home. Weight training during the school year with the wrestling team and then on my own. Exercising at the JCC. Exercising at some club at Chartley Shopping Center; I don't remember the name. And then at Duke University. Freshman year, in-depth discussions with Damon Chandler, now a doctor of oculoplasty, regarding the many poignant philosophies of Arnold. And this went wayyyyy beyond Hans and Frans, people. We're talking memorized blurbs about Bertil Fox's massive arms; Frank Zane's ultra-aesthetic  symmetry; Lou Ferrigno's sheer size; Serge Nubret's incredible muscle belly to joint ratio; Ed Corney's artistic posing routines; Franco Columbu's super-sick lat spread. Man, this stuff was the shit. Way back when, this book taught me to own my body and to chisel a child into a man.

101. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

A classic book on non-fiction and journalism writing techniques, this accidental Strand find from the other day seemed very appropriate as a read for my current Challenge. I was neither impressed nor unimpressed. I read this book quickly, in about an hour and 15 minutes, and while I was reading it, I absorbed all of the examples and anecdotes. Once I closed the back cover, though, it all went away like a gentle breeze. In my head, bounced around a little bit, and then gone.

I definitely recognized while reading this book that all of the suggestions of what to do, and of course what not to do, were pretty much spot-on and that they will certainly help my writing going forward. However, I couldn't tell you any one specific "teaching" from this book except for the "rule" that I came away with for non-fiction writing, and presumably for all writing in general: keep it simple, straight-forward, and don't use unnecessary words just to fill space. Don't use flowery language where plain language would communicate the point faster and more effectively.

To this, I would add from personal reading experience, and from the various classes I have taken in songwriting / lyric writing: show, don't tell. Let the story speak for itself most, if not all of the time, without explaining it or tapping it out in the reader's paw. The reader really can figure it out most of the time, and the impact of one's words might be all the more powerful for this brand of storytelling, for this approach to writing. I don't remember how much the author Zinsser emphasized this point in this book, but I feel like it is certainly related to his "rule" that I mentioned just now.

102. The Urban Treasure Hunter: A Practical Handbook for Beginners by Michael Chaplan

THE book that got me into metal detecting as a hobby -- something I really enjoy, but which I haven't done much of for the past year or so. I used to go either on Saturdays or Sundays quite often during the summers of 2012 and 2013; I don't think I've been once so far all year in 2014.

What a great armchair adventure this book is for me. Like the previous book that I reviewed on amateur archaeology (see earlier in this blog), this book focuses on techniques that the layman can use, appropriately per the laws of your city or town, to find really interesting historical relics and coins in the ground from bygone eras.

Chaplan first explains and gives many examples of the various sorts of items that one might find on top of and under the ground, if one searches in the right places. He describes in detail strategies and even research methods to seek out likely hunting spots, focusing on the topography of city parks, in particular those in New York City -- which is great for me since I live here!

Following this is a cursory, but effective, introduction to the workings of your average metal detector using the current technology, and then a short explanation of how to use these various features to discriminate against garbage and properly read and listen to the signals of a detector to locate coins and other objects. Later in the book, Chaplan, an archaeologist by training, goes on to expand the scope of his how-to to include searching for Native American relics, and even explains how to read an archaeological site report. Man, this is a really excellent book if, like me, the reader might be interested in getting his or her hands dirty and taking a little adventure here and there into our accessible urban past. I will keep rereading this book every so often for years to come!

103. Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America by American Foreign Service Association, edited by Shawn Dorman

I read this book as part of my Challenge for two reasons: 1) it is very short at 125 or 140 pages; and 2) because of my interest in language learning, I have been toying with the idea of eventual government work involving travel. Reading a book like this, I thought, might be a good way to see if this really is something I might like to think about doing down the line.

I must say that the jury is out for me regarding whether I would like to one day work for the government. Certainly not full-time in the capacity of any of the sample jobs profiled in this compendium. I think I might like to one day consult for a government agency, though I am very unclear as to how the idea of that would fit into my future -- mainly because I am currently very unclear as to the future I want to carve for myself.

All of this said, I won't say that this was an enjoyable read for me; it was dry and not particularly inspiring. However, the many varied stories and "days in the life of a..." examples throughout the book do an excellent job of presenting a wide selection of US foreign embassy jobs at all levels, from administrative coffee maker on up to Ambassador.

104. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I had thought I was saving this book for last -- for book 100 of my Reading Challenge, but alas, due to a counting error, this was really book number 104. I had no idea while I was reading Schwarzenegger that I was actually completing my challenge. I guess that is appropriate, though,. since at 736 pages (albeit with a lot of photos), Schwarzenegger's book was both the longest and the most sentimentally evocative of warm childhood feelings of any of my reading choices for this blog and Challenge.

Now to the book at hand, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I did not read this entire book today; I read a chapter or so of it each day for the past week, and then finished the last 3 or 4 chapters this morning.

My favorite piece of prose ever, I think -- or perhaps tied with Jack London's Martin Eden, which I was hoping to read as part of this Challenge, but didn't get to this go-around -- this is such an amazing graphic novel that I am almost at a loss to review it. It is no wonder that it won both the Hugo Award, the top honor a science fiction writer can receive in the world today, and was selected as one of Time Magazine's100 best novels of the 20th century. Wow!

I would need to really collect my thoughts to do this book justice, because I think that this work, Alan Moore's writing, is so important to the evolution of the modern comic book and to comic book storytelling in general, that it kind of needs to be analyzed and explored in a classroom setting, in a graduate literature thesis, or in a book length analysis.

This said, I will mention some of the things that most impress me every time I reread this amazing story, this amazing writing:
  • The quality of the writing itself. From character Rorschach's very first words on page 1 of the book, I remember being awestruck and enraptured at writer Alan Moore's command of the English language. Though to my knowledge writing almost exclusively within the comic book and graphic novel genre, Moore's choice of words, phrases, his use of symbolism and other narrative devices matches or exceeds most of the 20th century authors that I studied in school. His writing simply is beautiful. Beautiful to read, and beautiful to marvel at, that one man can express himself SO well in a medium that many have come to think of as limited by the frame structure or "mentality" of most comic books out there.
  • The flow of the story, how well everything fits together. I am not sure how much of this story Moore wrote in advance, and how much he wrote issue by issue. This graphic novel, in case readers don't realize, is actually a compendium of 12 separate consecutive comic books released by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987. It is only in hindsight, reading all 12 in order as a book, that the reader realizes just how amazing and special this work really is. It is truly a work of art -- one originally released in serial form, like many of the great works of European and American literature in the 19th century.
  • The subtle, super subtle details in Gibbon's artwork and in Moore's storyline, creating foreshadowing and symbolism that tie together bits of the story that otherwise might be left unexplained. These pop out to me each time I reread this book. This story is so well crafted that it is literally astounding to me how much is packed into the 12 original comic book issues. 
  •  Book 4 (Chapter 4), entitled "Watchmaker," is the most beautiful writing I have ever read in my life. I am not exaggerating when I say this. Every time that I read this chapter, which I sometimes reread without rereading the rest of the book, I literally get chills down my spine and tears well up in my eyes. Sometimes I literally start to cry, as I would at a really great Broadway show or at a beautifully filmed tear jerker of a movie. The writing in this chapter -- the English language words that Moore has chosen to communicate this section of the story -- are so beautiful that they literally changed the way I viewed writing, the way I viewed written language as a medium for communication. It is because of this one chapter in this particular book that I began to hope, maybe 5 years ago when I first read it on a plane from New York to LA, where I was working on the production of a friend's album at the time, that one day I might be able to move readers in such a way with my own writing. It is because of this one chapter, in addition to my rereadings of London's Martin Eden, previously mentioned in this review, that I continue to hope that I might one day make this dream a reality.

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