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Light Reading

Metroland writers pick their favorite books—reference or anthology—you can read anytime, anywhere


Sometimes, reading for pleasure is just about the pleasure. This isn’t about choosing that beach-friendly thriller instead of a collection of profound geopolitical musings or a 900-word literary novel; this is about those times you don’t want to read Dan Brown, Thomas Friedman or Thomas Pynchon. What you do want is to pick up a book you can enjoy for a few minutes—or hours—of your time. It can be an outrageous survival guide, a humor anthology or a dictionary; the point is, you can open the book to almost any page and dive in. And enjoy.

Look It Up

Webster’s New International Third Edition Dictionary

I brought my unabridged dictionary to my wedding.

It’s not what it sounds like. We didn’t have anyone read out the definitions of love or marriage or fidelity during the ceremony, or place our right hands on it to make our vows, though there were those in the audience who may have chuckled knowingly if we had chosen to go there.

But I’m not quite that much of a nerd. No, the slightly-more-than-10-pound Webster’s New International Third Edition just came with us for the purposes of playing “fictionary” late into the night with the guests who were staying over. Fictionary is what Mattel ripped off to make Balderdash: You make up definitions to a word no one in the room knows, and then people try to guess the actual definition.

I learned fictionary before I could lift my parents’ 1935, 3,300-plus-page 18-pounder (Webster’s New International Second Edition), which came down off the stand by the dining room table only for fictionary parties.

Balderdash, by replacing the dictionary with a box of cards, not only limits the number of times you can play without repeating words, but it also takes away the heart of the game—getting passed the heavy book on your turn, and perusing the translucent pages while people converse, looking for a word that in the course of your normal flipping through the dictionary you would call out to whoever’s in the room: (for example) “Hey! Do you know what the verb ‘deg’ means?”

Because, of course, there is a lot of normal flipping through the dictionary in my life.

Usually there is an objective, but that objective is always marked by pleasant fictionary-esque digressions.

For example, on my way just now to see if the Third Edition had retained “elsewhither” (it did), I stumbled on “electuary.” A perfect fictionary word: Its meaning is nothing like its roots suggest. (It’s “a medicated paste, prepared with honey or another sweet, used in veterinary practice and administered by smearing on the teeth, gums or tongue.”)

Then there’s “spatulamancy” (divination by means of an animal’s shoulder blade), which I found courtesy of my household’s recurring debates over which of various kitchen implements to call a spatula (cake decorator? flapjack flipper? rubber bowl scraper? all of the above?).

Now, I realize that knowing “spatulamancy” doesn’t really enhance my everyday communication skills. But the value of an unabridged is really less practical than that. It is awe-inspiring to page through and feel, physically, the weight and variety of an ever-growing language. In mine there are 89 pages of addenda, thousands of words tacked on since the last major revision in 1961. The main dictionary is 2,662 pages, shorter than the last edition largely because of changes in font and page size. I could keep playing fictionary with this book until I need a magnifying glass to read the entries and still find new words. I find that comforting. You know, in a nerdy sort of way.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Unconventional Wisdom

Kill Your Idols By Jim DeRogatis and Carmél Carrillo

Every time Rolling Stone editors release one of their Top 100 lists, the ones that claim to definitively map out the very best albums of the rock & roll era (in ranked order, no less), it’s an event worthy of a good, strong cringe. But I, like many others I’m sure, find myself fascinated with these things, drawn like a kitten by a laser pointer. These lists invariably put the same contenders at the head of the class year after year, albums that were critically lauded—and, occasionally, promoted—as “masterpieces.” Kill Your Idols (tagline: “A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics”) strips 34 “essential,” “classic” recordings from the last four decades of their mythology and reveals them for what, in each writer’s own opinion, they really are: crap.

To begin, Idols co-editor Jim DeRogatis assails Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that has placed atop more Top Albums lists (Rolling Stone and otherwise) than any other record. DeRogatis creams this sacred cow for having been hoisted onto an unreachable pedestal by critics since day one, for having been anointed pop-culture ambassador for the ’60s—and for containing some of the worst songs in the Beatles canon. (DeRogatis, a generally astute observer, does note that “A Day in the Life” is among the Beatles’ very best.) Later, The Best of the Doors is systematically dismantled via a “conversation” between DeRogatis and writer Lorraine Ali. It’s hysterical, especially if you come from the anti-Morrison camp. (I personally have an estate there.)

In its way, Kill Your Idols is a treatise on the fallibility of memory. You shouldn’t need a point-by-point refutation on why Double Fantasy or Rumours sucks; they just suck. But these records are retrospectively adored, and the points made here squeegee clear a window to the not-too-distant past to help see where it all went right. Fred Mills uses the critics’ own, 30-year-old words to explain why Neil Young’s Harvest album is simply not as good as we remember it; two other writers deliver back-to-back essays explaining why both of the Boss’ best-loved albums—Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A.—suck monkey balls. Michael Corcoran’s studious dismantling of Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom makes some great points, and ties in a story about growing up as a Costello fan right here in Albany. And Allison Augustyn’s smartly worded rebuttal to Wilco’s lionized Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is enough to make an avowed defender of the record lay down his shield. “[T]his is not the worst album of all time,” she writes, “but that’s part of its problem: It’s painful to listen to music that is so close to being solid but is ultimately doomed.”

Kill Your Idols is occasionally too vicious to be taken seriously, and there’s nothing here to shoo prospective buyers away from any of the Velvet Underground’s so-called “classic” works, but as a curmudgeon’s guide to the “greats,” Kill Your Idols is indispensable. And it’s worth having around in case you ever find yourself thinking, “Hey, I really should pick up a copy of Desperado.” No, you shouldn’t, and here’s why.

—John Brodeur

Natural Apocalypse

Stocking Up: The Third Edition of the Classic Preserving Guide By Carol Hupping and the staff of the Rodale Food Center

I enjoy a good survivalist fantasy as much as the next person. While some people fantasize about battling zombies or nuclear terrorists as the end of the world nears, my survival fantasies usually involve a return to nature. In my mind, most human-made or natural disasters (with the frightening exception of catastrophic climate change) could be averted by retreating to a cabin in the woods, where one could cultivate enough food for survival and generally lay low, avoiding terrorist attacks, viral epidemics, floods and all sorts of disasters that seem to threaten us lately. There is something comforting about imagining yourself in a state of near-total self-sufficiency, with nothing to work toward on a daily basis other than ensuring your own survival.

Judging by some of the Web sites I’ve been to, a lot of people share this back-to-the-land survivalist mentality. Of course, the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, fueled a frenzy of survival preparations by some; my thoughts were never fully captured by this. I tried to scare myself by imagining a terrorist attack, but living in Saratoga Springs, I could think of only one major place where people congregate: the race track. Eh, not too likely. (Terrorists could strike the Indian Point power plant downstate; now that would be scary, although we are well outside the 50-mile zone that would be most devastated.)

Then along came the avian flu, which was being discussed on many liberal news and blog sites well before the U.S. government first publicly acknowledged the potential threat. People on some sites that I read talked about how they were stockpiling food, water and medicine to be prepared when the deadly virus mutated to a form that could transmit rapidly from human to human, devastating the world population and leading to social collapse. Now, this was a threat that I could get behind! I decided that, should the bird flu start killing humans in mass quantities, I would be prepared to hunker down in my apartment and not leave for months on end. This involved thinking about ensuring that I had enough entertainment—books to read, movies to watch—as well as enough food. Of course, I could stock up on boxes of macaroni and cheese and cans of Chunky soup, but Kraft and Campbell’s would get tiresome pretty quickly.

That’s when I saw, on the discount rack at Borders, Stocking Up: The Third Edition of the Classic Preserving Guide, by Carol Hupping and the staff of the Rodale Food Center. As I purchased it, the woman behind the counter said it was one of the two best books available on the topic of storing and preserving your own food (I’ve since forgotten the name of the other one). I look through it frequently, imagining that I’m in my cabin in the woods, or stuck in quarantine in my own apartment, and forced to feast on my own pickled beans, canned tomatoes and frozen peas. That leads to another thought: In situations of complete social breakdown, we’ll probably not have any power. Anyone have a root cellar that I could borrow?

—Kirsten Ferguson

Zombie Apocalypse

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead By Max Brooks

There are currently a number of guidebooks on surviving disasters: terrorism, hurricanes, typhoons, fires. Sure, some of these books paint a bleak doomsday picture for mankind, but author Max Brooks thinks that there are more pressing disasters to worry about—namely zombie infestation.

Do you hear that groaning behind you? Don’t turn around! Don’t take your eyes off this page, because The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead is the only thing that will get you through this zombie attack. For god’s sake, if you care for the ones you hold dearest, you will read The Zombie Survival Guide ASAP so you can survive the impending zombie blitzkrieg. What’s that? That groan is just your grandma snoring? Well then, sir or madam, read on.

The true threat to America is a zombie outbreak. While terrorists could be your neighbors or your mechanic, zombies can be any one, including grandma-snores-a-lot. That’s why Zombie Survival Guide should be on the list of your summer survival reading.

Sure, a zombie outbreak isn’t too high on the list of peoples’ concerns, but Brooks’ strategy for surviving zombie attacks is so much easier than all that duct-tape nonsense. Brooks provides practical (not physically taxing) alternatives to having your gizzard munched on by your accountant.

What is the best way to fend off a zombie attack? Hide in an enclosed, defendable building stocked with resources that will provide a good quality of life during your time barricaded away from those flesh- gobbling creepy crawlies. In other words, Brooks says to survive a zombie attack you should go to a mall, go to a Wal-Mart, hell, go to an offshore oil rig—just find someplace you can defend. Brooks helpfully rates some of these hiding places for your survivalist consideration. He also gives tips on how to recognize what kind of outbreak you are dealing with. Quick tip: Voodoo zombies recognize fire and can feel pain.

Brooks catalogs and rates some of the better weapons to use in fighting the flesh-eating fiends. From the Shaolin Spade to plate mail, from biological warfare to zoological warfare (using hungry animals to devour zombies), Brooks makes sure to prepare his reader for anything.

In case you are still skeptical, Brooks details documented zombie attacks throughout history. The first was in 60,000 B.C., in Katanda, Central Africa, and the latest being in 2002 on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The zombies are getting closer and Brooks realizes this. In the last few pages, he provides a helpful Outbreak Journal for readers to document their zombie experience.

Date: 08/8/06, Time: 1:52 PM. Location: Albany, N.Y. Distance From Me: Approx. two desk lengths. Specifics: Coworkers are munching each other’s ligaments, criticizing each other’s zombie grammar. Action Taken: Consulted handbook. Weapon of choice: Chainsaw. Decided not to engage. Retreating to defendable enclosed location. See you all at Crossgates.

—David King

And Now for Something Completely Different

Write if You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray By Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding

Fred Falvy, Webley L. Webster, Word Carr, Mary and Harry Backstayge, Calvin L. Hoogevin, Pop Beloved, Greg Marlowe, Jimmy Schwab, Mr. Science, Uncle Edgar, Bridget Hillary, Prentice L. Wilson, Hubert C. Murdock, Biff Burns, Stuffy Hodgson, Mr. Ramses Fletch, Wing Po, Commander Neville Putney, Lorelei Leilanie, Mr. Dockweiler, Patrick and Maurice Kirkpatrick, Chief Orderly Schnellwell, Senator Callahan, Grandpa Witherspoon, Mrs. Wanda Stapp, Roland C. Drob, Tippy the Wonder Dog, and Mr. Treet, Chaser of Lost People. These are just some of the characters who have floated through the world of Bob & Ray. Their NBC radio show in the ’50s made them the kings of droll, slightly surreal and gently fractured situational humor. When they came back to the medium in the ’70s on NPR, their resurgence brought about the publication of this book of some of their radio scripts. It was followed by two more, From Approximately Coast to Coast . . . It’s the Bob and Ray Show in 1983 and The New! Improved! Bob & Ray Book two years later.

The duo had also hung out their shingle as ad men, giving comedic voice to a range of products and programs. They maintained an office in Manhattan in the Graybar Building, simply adding the structure’s name to their own last names giving extra oomph to the enterprise. Around the time this book was published, I obtained their address from the directory and wrote to them, doing so thusly: Using one of my checks, I wrote across the “pay to” and “amount” lines, “Dear Bob & Ray, I was going to write you a letter, but instead I wrote a check.” Signed, I then mailed it to them. To my great joy and astonishment, a short time later I received a letter from them on their company letterhead. With a classic early-20th-century design, it depicted factories across the top, under the banner, “Goulding-Elliott-Graybar Productions: Sole Makers of Bob & Ray Stuff.” There was a board of directors listed down most of the left side of the stationary, and it included some of the names found in the paragraph above.

Though Bob & Ray’s work was originally created to be heard rather than read, their characters, suffused with loopiness and dignity, step right off the page for me. The book is full of short pieces, and I can open to any page spread and feel right at home. They create humorous conversations that are less about belly laughs than about befuddling the entire atmosphere around me into wrinkled and ticklish shapes.

—David Greenberger

Recorded History

The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen, Fourth Edition Compiled by W.E. Timner

The pages look as if they were ripped from a dot-matrix printer, except that it’s high-quality printing. But there’s that unmistakable computer-database appearance of columns and rows.

Open at random: Pages 130-131, Nov. 20, 1952: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra are at Birdland in Manhattan. Decipher the initials at the top of the listing and you see that Clark Terry, Britt Woodman and Russell Procope are among the players. No Johnny Hodges, though; he’d taken off for a while. Betty Roche sang “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Two nights later, they’re there again, and four nights after that. Much of the gig was issued on the Jazz Unlimited label.

In December, Duke is at the Apollo, then takes off to Chicago for a recording session and a concert at someone’s home in Winnetka. New Year’s Day he’s at Chicago’s Blue Note; at the end of January, he’s back in New York.

So it is with this book: From Ellington’s first recordings in 1923 as part of Snowden’s Novelty Orchestra to his last putative recording (“tape is said to exist”) at Northern Illinois University in 1974, Timner’s volume lists every Ellington performance that may have been preserved.

The book’s 600-plus pages also document significant recordings by Duke’s sidemen, and cross-reference every song title, so you can see that “Satin Doll” merited 439 waxings; “Clothed Woman” only eight.

But that’s not the fun of this volume. I pore over its pages and imagine being on that band train, chugging from town to town, playing the music of America’s greatest composer. It probably was more grind than pleasure, made all the worse by the racial hatred that drove Duke to get his own Pullmans so the band had somewhere to sleep each night. But the romantic in me sees a Hollywood montage, low-angle shot of that train engine bursting into the frame as you hear the band roar into “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

Players come and go, an impressive number of them, and those movements also are cross-referenced in an attendance chart that covers many pages in the back of the book. If I were a more obsessive Duke Ellington fan, I would own Klaus Stratemann’s book Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film, and be able to study the band’s movements even when they weren’t recording, but that title is way out of print (and hundreds of dollars as a used title), so I content myself with Timner. Besides, I have 149 Ellington CDs, so when I hunger for more—and there are plenty more out there—this book tells me whether I already have a particular session on a different label. In other words, if my wife spots the book on my desk, she’s quick to hide the checkbook.

—B.A. Nilsson

Everything You Know Is Wrong

The Experts Speak By Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky

When a good friend of mine gave me The Experts Speak a couple of years ago, I took it as a not-so-subtle reprimand of my lifelong weakness for making “educated” assertions. The book, which its editors call “The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation,” is a collection of predictions, social observations and criticisms that bring a simple truth into perfect clarity: Even the most brilliant thinkers can be, at times, full of shit. And as for the rest of us, we’d probably just be better off keeping our mouths shut and our keyboards unmolested.

Nothing and no one is sacred in this collection. Abraham Lincoln is captured deriding a growing consensus of his time: “Negro equality! Fudge! How long, in the Government of a God great enough to make and rule the universe, shall there continue to be knaves to vend, and fools to quip, so low a piece of demagoguism as this[?]”

Aristotle’s keen advice for the not-so-virile brings up some interesting dietary theory: “Erection is chiefly caused by . . . parsnips, artichokes, turnips, asparagus, candied ginger, acorns bruised to powder and drank in muscadel, scallion, sea shell fish, etc.” And this 1892 calculation made by Alexandre Weill probably shouldn’t spoil your weekend plans: “Every man who has sexual relations with two women at the same time risks syphilis, even if the two women are faithful to him, for all libertine behavior spontaneously incites this disease.”

For those of you who are concerned with overpopulation, the U.S. Office of Civil Defense offered this 1982 assurance: “[A] nuclear war could alleviate some of the factors leading to today’s ecological disturbances that are due to current high-population concentrations and heavy industrial production.”

And how about this candid moment of modesty from Richard M. Nixon: “I would have made a good pope.”

Obtuse critics are always fodder for a good laugh: “1984 is a failure”; “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics”; and, in reference to Igor Stravinsky, “Where did these turkeys learn to write music, anyway?”

Of course, not every misstep is an example of hypocrisy or short-sightedness. Andrew Carnegie’s touching, but kinda gross, meditation on future generations is something I wish I could believe: “To kill a man will be considered as disgusting [to the people of the future] as we in this day consider it disgusting to eat one.”

And, in 1911, a New York Times headline proclaimed (in a bit of journalistic skepticism worthy of Judith Miller): “Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years.” Maybe George Bush should look in those canals for them WMDs.

—Chet Hardin

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