Saturday, July 01, 2006

From Greg's Bookshelf - Highly Recommended Books

In this post, I will go through my bookshelf, and make high recommendations for all the best books. In the spirit of the blog, however, rather than recommend novels or historical non-fiction works, I will recommend some of the more offbeat entries in my book collection.

1. Judith Martin - "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior: Freshly Updated"

WHAT IS IT?: This is a coffee-table book, hardcover, that compiles questions and answers from the Miss Manners column over the years, as well as republishing some of her best essays. Not just about table manners, like her name would imply, Miss Manners is really mostly a writer on social etiquette, though there is obviously plenty about table manners in here.

WHY?: This book is so much fun to flip through. And educational too! I learned from this book, for example, that Thank You notes should never start with the phrase "Thank you for the...". Ultimately though, this book is not intended for primarily etiquette lessons, although I usually find myself strongly agreeing with Miss Manners essays on the decline of social etiquette in today's society. Ultimately, you are going to read it for the novelty and humor value, and I do have to say that this book is very funny. Miss Manners is in many ways just primarily a humor writer, and the humor comes through in spades here. The question and answer/short essay format also makes this book ideal for flipping through idly to pass the time, and there is a detailed index in the back in case there's a specific question you want an answer to. Keep in mind this index has about 30 entries spanning the entire book for "Thank You" notes, the decline of which are Miss Manners primary pet peeve of today's society.

IN SUMMATION: The Miss Manners column is my favorite syndicated column, and this is a perfect compendium. Leave it out on a coffee table, and all who stop by will want to flip through it, and they will not be disappointed. Miss Manners is a great writer, who is able to use humor effectively, and makes great points without coming off as haughty or old-fashioned. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR ANYONE.

2. Irwin Chusid - "Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music"

WHAT IS IT?: This is a book about musicians who, though they lack conventional musical talent, make earnest and very unsual musical recordings. These recordings often come off with more charm and legitimate entertainment value than the genuine ones. This is a reference source on some of the more famous of these artists, detailing exactly how these albums came to be and who were the people who made them.

WHY?: The stories behind how these seemingly alien albums came into being are usually highly entertaining. The chapter on the most famous of these bands, The Shaggs, is one such example. They were young girls with absolutely no musical talent who were nonetheless forced to take musical lessons by their father. Convinced anyways they would be successful, their father forced them to make a record that's one of the most odd and terrible, yet eminently fascinating albums ever produced. Stories like this abound in this highly entertaining book. Every story in the book is great, and it closes with short capsule summaries of various other outsider records. This guy clearly knows his stuff and writes with a passion and enthusiasm that's apparent and infectious.

IN SUMMATION: Very funny and interesting book, this is a brisk read. If you are in the mood for some less serious reading, it gets no better than this. Please also note that there is an accompanying CD to this book that contains several of the songs discussed in the book, and that the CD is also excellent. The re-read quality on this is excellent as well, as the stories hold up to multiple reads. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TO ANY MUSIC FAN.

3. Bernice Kanner - "Are You Normal?: Do You Behave Like Everyone Else?"

WHAT IS IT?: For this book, the authors polled people across the country and across demographic groups on behavioral questions, and then record the answers in book form. And by behavioral questions, I mean like "How many cereals do you have in your pantry?" and "If given an extra $500 what fraction would you spend on clothes".

WHY?: This is a very interesting book to read through to try to compare yourself to others. 20% of men have cried at work, what babies! 56% of people think they laugh more than average! That's not even mathematically possible! Also reading through this book was the first time I ever learned that some people don't eat their corn methodically row-by-row or column-by-column, but just randomly eat chunks! Pigs! Yeah, this is one that in high school I would bring around to my friends and we would sometimes like to read this. Okay, we were nerds. I can't really vouch for the accuracy of the statistics in this book, but overall a very entertaining read. Some negative things: It's very short, the advertisements on the cover specifically pick out it was featured on Oprah and in Ladies' Home Journal, some of the questions are out of date.

IN SUMMATION: A very fun read, this makes a worthy addition to any library. Not essential, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, IF YOU CAN FIND IT FOR CHEAP.

4. Bob Longe - "World's Best Card Tricks"
WHAT IS IT?: Like the name implies, it's a book of card tricks. It contains 41 easy to perform tricks inside the book, explains exactly how they work and how to perform them, and even has a suggested patter/performance style for all the tricks.

WHY?: Most of the tricks in this book are "no-brainers", that is, if you have the cards set up properly, and know what to do, they require absolutely no skill to pull off. Even the ones that do require skill do not involve significant or complicated sleight-of-hand. The bottom line is that even my ten year old self could perform every trick in this book, and some of them still amaze people. Once again, several of the tricks are very stupid and can easily be spotted, but there are a few winners in here, and they are guaranteed to fool your friends. Bob Longe is a good writer, and he clearly lays out the tricks in easy to read and follow format, and the suggested patter he puts in there works. Ultimately, it's not about the quality of the tricks even, it's how you sell them!

IN SUMMATION: I've read a lot of reviews of this book on, and this book, and Bob Longe in general, doesn't have a good reputation in the real magic community. I see their point, that these tricks are stupid, and there are much better trick books that spell out better and more mystifying tricks. But, whatever, this book is fun and cheap, the tricks are easy, and you'll find a few good ones. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, FOR PEOPLE NOT SERIOUSLY INTERESTED IN MAGIC.

5. Doug Moench - "The Big Book of Conspiracies"

WHAT IS IT?: The best entry into the classic "Big Book" series, like the other ones, this one takes famous stories and puts them in a comic book format. In this one, they highlight some wacky conspiracy theories.

WHY?: This book is the most entertaining read of any on this list. It contains information on some of the most famous conspiracy theories (several chapters on JFK), and some of the not-so-famous ones (Bush was behind the bay of pigs invasion!) . All of the chapters are very readable, and very interesting. Even if you don't believe in conspiracy theories, and don't believe anything written in the whole book (like me, more or less), you'll still get a big kick out of these stories. Yeah, the "evidence" presented for all the conspiracies is very selective and very shaky, to say the least, but just enjoy it for what it is! The book doesn't take itself too seriously, which could be a problem with a book like this, and just lets the weirdness flow.

IN SUMMATION: I actually can personally recommend all the books in the Big Book series, but most especially this one (and also "The Big Book of Losers"). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR ANYBODY.

6. Sean Hepburn Ferrer - "Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit"

WHAT IS IT?: A glossy, full color coffee-table book about Audrey Hepburn, written by her son, that kind of briefly goes through her life, but mostly contains lots and lots of never-before-seen and previously-seen pictures (though most of the pictures are black and white, given the obvious timing of the pictures).

WHY?: Okay, I absolutely love Audrey Hepburn, as I've noted on here several times before, so I'm not even gonna pretend to be unbiased on this. But flipping through this book is absolutely breathtaking for me. The writing by Sean Hepburn-Ferrer, while not of a professional quality is very good, as you can clearly see the love he had for his mom. Ultimately, of course, it's not about the writing, it's about the pictures. And I'm happy to report that there are literally hundreds of pictures in this book, and they are of uniformly high quality. Audrey Hepburn was one of the most photographed women of all time, and it's easy to see why: She's extremely photogenic, and just comes off looking fabulously in these pictures. The picture that adorns the cover is one of my absolute favorite pictures of all time, I love the colors! Behind the Miss Manners book, this is the second most frequently flipped through of all of my coffee table books.

IN SUMMATION: If you are a fan of Audrey Hepburn, you have absolutely no excuse not to own this book. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR ANYBODY WITH ANY LEVEL OF INTEREST IN AUDREY HEPBURN.

7. Fred Bronson - "The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits"

WHAT IS IT?: This book goes through all of the number one hits on the Billboard singles charts, staring with "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" and ending with Clay Aiken's "This Is The Night", in chronological order. Every hit gets one full page devoted to it, where they tell the story of the artist, or of how the song came to be, or of some interesting chart trivia about the song, or anything like that.

WHY?: This is the most "flippable" of any of the books on this list. There are 933 songs in the book, and most of them have interesting stories. Often if I have a few minutes of free time during a day, I'll open the book to a random page and just start reading. In addition, I've learned about lots of great songs from this book, as there are many number one songs I had never even heard before! Stupid static oldies radio! This is really an incredibly interesting book, all of these songs have interesting stories and it's an absolute joy to read. Fred Bronson, who wrote the book, is an excellent writer and is the foremost expert on chart trivia. His Chart Beat column, published online every Thursday, is an absolute essential read for anybody with the slightest interest in the charts.

IN SUMMATION: Extremely entertaining. I just got my book last Christmas, and it is already starting to get worn from over-use, as I am constantly flipping through it. I realize not everybody is as into chart trivia as I am, but HIGHLY RECOMMEDED FOR ANY MUSIC FAN.

8. Joseph Rosenbloom - "Biggest Riddle Book in the World"

WHAT IS IT?: As the name would imply, it's a huge riddle book. Like seriously, 250 pages of jokes. Literally thousands.

WHY?: I don't even like jokes, but I love this book. Not just for kids, but for anybody who can appreciate a terrible joke now and again, this book is an absolute classic. A lot of these jokes are out of date, most of them are not funny at all, some of them don't even have any discernable joke, but overall this is a very fun book to read with a group of people, or even by yourself. Another very "flippable" book, this is one you can just go through and read off jokes from for an hour at a time, or more. Although obviously intended for kids, this one will entertain those of all ages.

IN SUMMATION: This is the only joke book you'll ever need, and it sells for very cheap. HIGHLY RECOMMEDED FOR ANYBODY WITH ABILITY TO APPRECIATE A STUPID JOKE.


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