Book Review: Secret Route 66

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided to take advantage of an apparent lull in the plague by hitting the road. Specifically, “the mother road.”

Route 66 begins in Chicago, just a few blocks away from our home, and ends somewhere in California. (Where, exactly? Figure it out. Have you confused my blog with Wikipedia?) Our plan was to drive it through Arizona, then diverge into fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.

I should note that one does not actually drive Route 66. It doesn’t exist anymore, except as various non-contiguous historic snippets of varying length. Most of them are business loops through small, forgotten towns that desperately suckle from the teat of having once been a vibrant part of the route.

We’ve driven portions of the route before, I knew there was no shortage of roadside kitsch to explore, so I thought a travel book would be helpful in this regard. (Alas, online resources like Atlas Obscura were unimpressive.) However, I was surprised to find that my local Barnes & Noble had exactly zero books on the subject. What the hell? It’s literally a Chicago landmark.

So, I turned to the Amazon, making heaving use of their “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book that caught my eye. Thank heavens I did, as it revealed how boring and filler-packed each book was. I began to fear that I would never find the mother lode about the Mother Road. (Forgive me.)

Then I came across Secret Route 66 by Jim Ross and Shelly Graham. The book’s subtitle, “A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” was right up my alley. Look Inside revealed the location of road tar footprints improbably left by a very heavy bird crossing the road. I couldn’t click “Buy Now” fast enough.

gordon meyer holding book

I’m glad that I did. The book added a lot of flavor to our road trip. If you’re going to buy into the nostalgia of taking such a drive, you should embrace all the quirky and cheesy things that come with it, and this book will help you do so.

My initial concern about the book was its age. Published in 2017, I feared that the ravages of Trumpism and COVID-19 would render much of the information obsolete. Some information the book includes was probably out of date before the book rolled off the printing presses. However, many of the roadside attractions have weathered other storms and are still in operation (although barely so, in some cases). Furthermore, like the aforementioned chicken footprints, many of the features that Ross and Graham have included are not dependent upon visitors to keep them afloat. (The authors do love pointing out old bridges, for some reason.) As with any book, use the web to sanity-check any information that would throw your plans out of whack if it’s no longer correct.

If you get the book, I recommend paying attention to the small towns that the authors highlight. We pulled off to visit several of them, and they were almost all worthwhile, charming stops. One that we intended to visit is Galena, Kansas. But I accidentally programmed the navigation system for Galena, Missouri instead. We discovered that Galena, MO is a town of less than 500 people with a surprisingly large “downtown” for its size. However, we felt like we were in a Twilight Zone episode. Every business (even City Hall) was locked up tight in the middle of the afternoon. We didn’t see a single person, but there were at least a dozen cars parked on the streets. Was there a mandatory town meeting in progress? Were they watching us? It was an eerie and interesting visit!

The book does have one glaring flaw: a complete lack of any discernible organization. For example, the first item in the book is from the middle of the route. Did it not occur to the authors or publishers that a linear progression, East or West, would make perfect sense? Its random presentation of locations makes the book very difficult to use as a planner, and worse, worthless as a reference during the drive itself. Even a simple map of the route, with locations indicated, would make the book much more useful. Truly, what were they thinking?

To work around the problems of aged info and perplexing organization, I recommend creating a Guide in the Apple Maps app. Moreover, while you’re at it, take a look at the curated Route 66 guides that are available in Maps, they’re perfect for the mainstream attractions.

Happy trails!

Book Review: Horrorstor

I haven’t read a horror novel in decades, but the design and premise of this one was irresistible, so I dove right in. The book, written by Grady Hendrix and properly punctuated “Horrorstör,” is about the haunting of a low-rent IKEA knockoff store called “Orsk.” The book’s design resembles an IKEA catalog and even features (increasingly creepy) products with appropriately Swedish-y names. It’s a perfect execution of the concept.

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Here is a spoiler-safe example of how nicely the story and setting are interwoven:

(REDACTED) was completely immobilized in a wooden box roughly six feet long, twenty inches wide, so shallow that (PRONOUN) face touched the lid. It had the dimensions of a coffin, but (PRONOUN) knew right away that it was a Liripip, one of the most popular sellers in Wardrobes.

Up to about half-way through the book, the story is a fun, clever, satiric take on what it’s like working in a store like IKEA. There are ghostly vibes present very early, but for me, it was akin to an episode of Scooby-Doo.

After the halfway point, the book takes a dramatic turn towards the dark (literally) and disturbed (also literally). No spoilers, but I ended up regretting my decision to make this my “just before bedtime” nightly read. The book never loses its sense of humor or thematic cleverness, but holy hell, there are some frightening things happening in Orsk after closing!

Several years ago, I spent a summer as the sole occupant of a residence hall at Northern Illinois University. Being the only living person in a large building designed to house hundreds was sometimes quite unsettling. This description from the story really hit home for me:

Orsk was so big it needed a certain number of people on the premises to keep it under control. (NUMBER) of them weren't enough. The store was stirring, restless, growing slowly. Emptied of people, Orsk felt dangerous.

I also enjoyed this perspective about ghosts:

I believe a ghost is a subjective experience. It doesn't have an objective reality. It exists solely in the perceptions of the people who see it.

And finally, I’ve read accounts of 18th century séances and wondered how ectoplasm was perceived, this made me view the phenomenon in a new way:

(REDACTED) throat gave a final heave and what (REDACTED) saw next was impossible: it looked like she was vomiting underwater. A thick, milky liquid hung in front of (REDACTED) face, an impossible cloud suspended in midair, soft white tendrils unfurling in slow motion.

The book’s back-flap author bio indicates that Hendrix is a screenwriter, and even though I’m not a movie kinda guy, it’s easy to imagine this as a film. I hope he’s optioned it for a big pile of cash — it’s a remarkable and memorable work. (Although, I’m hoping to shake some of those memories myself.)

I found my copy on the Fiction table in a suburban Barnes & Noble, but you can get one at the Amazon, of course.

Book Review: Make Paper Inventions

This book, written by Kathy Ceceri, gives detailed instructions on making “machines that move, drawings that light up, wearables, and structures you can cut, fold, and roll.” It’s a MAKE and O’Reilly publication, so you know the instructions are top-notch.

photo of book on gordon meyer table

Additionally, the book has just the appropriate amount of educational content about the history and science behind the projects. The book is also chock-full of references to websites and retailers. (It was published in 2015, and there’s a poignant note that references to Radio Shack might soon be obsolete.)

I found the information on building electronic circuits from paper to be the most intriguing, but there is such a wide variety of things to try that I imagine almost anyone will likely find a project that appeals to them. The chapter on making paper was also of interest — somehow Ceceri’s instructions were more encouraging than others that I have read. Also included is a very intriguing machine that generates power using friction and mylar — I can’t wait to try that for myself.

I knew this book was meant for me when it began referencing familiar names and ideas, such as Martin Gardner and Buckminster Fuller. There are instructions for building paper models of their ideas, including a geodesic dome. I also found some new Möbius Strip information that would have been useful back when I used to perform Rick Johnsson’s Moby-Zip routine.

You can get your copy of this fun, easy book, along with many of the specialized materials, at Maker Shed. Or, via the Amazon, of course.

Book Review: Dr. Broth and Ollie’s Brain-Boggling Search for the Lost Luggage

What a charming and amusing book that Michael Abrams and Jeffrey Winters have created! (Granted, I’m about 22 years late to the party on discovering it.) From the charming retro-comics art (with perfect color palette), to the story, to the clever and often tough puzzles, this book is a winner. (Provided you’re into this sort of thing.)

gordon meyer holding book

The story revolves around finding a piece of luggage (lost at O’Hare, of course) accompanied by a time-traveling Alpaca named McGuffin. This simple, fanciful theme opens all the doors to a considerable variety of themes for the puzzles. The puzzles themselves are quite diverse, too, I encountered several that I’ve never seen before.

If you’re looking for a challenging, well-designed book that will take you hours and hours to finish (there are 80 puzzles), this is perfect for you. I stumbled across my copy at the delightful Bay Books in Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, but you can get it from the Amazon too, if you must.

Book Review: Move

Caroline Williams’ book is subtitled “How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free.” It’s a very approachable book of science reporting that includes the latest research into bodily movement and overall health, and how our traditional view of “exercise” is inadequate.

Although there is a bit too much blaming of technology for our woes to suit my taste, Williams does discuss some interesting studies revealing correlations with sedentary lifestyles, lower IQs, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. And, as evidence of how current this book is, there is discussion about how the COVID-19 pandemic has served to limit movement further.

gordon meyer holding book

One thing I particularly enjoyed were the explorations of mind-body linkages — that is, not treating movement as a way of getting fit, but also as a way of promoting mental acuity. By the time I completed the book, I had a better understanding of why there are mindfulness and breathing functions in the Apple Watch.

Speaking of breathing, I also learned that benefits of breathing exercises are decreased by mouth breathing. “In through the nose, out through the mouth” is a cliché, but it turns out at least the first part is backed by science.

There are other tidbits that triggered “aha” moments, and some reminded me of “new age” or “ancient” wisdom. There is some discussion about the body’s role in memory (perhaps the brain is not the seat of all things), and also a long discussion of research into audio frequencies, the body’s electrical network, and rhythm. (Maybe those drum circles aren’t just for hippies after all.)

I also came to new understanding about the role of the vagus nerve. And although I have only witnessed, not experienced, the healing power of acupuncture the discussion of the latest research into the body’s fascia was fascinating.

The book is not only approachable and interesting, it’s also well indexed with an interesting bibliography. Overall, I’m impressed and pleased that I took some time to study it. I bought my copy at Barbara’s Bookstore in Northwestern Hospital, but you can also find it on the Amazon.

Book Review: Robot Magic and The Maker Magician Handbook

These are two separate, but related books, by Mario Marchese. He’s a specialist in entertaining children and performs under the name “Mario the Maker Magician.”

The books, like all publications from MAKE: and O’Reilly, are wonderfully designed technical instruction. Marchese’s clear intention is to inspire and encourage young adults, but grown adults can enjoy them too. (Particularly his unrestrained enthusiasm!) The projects and the author have a clear “do-it-yourself-with-what-you-have” vibe, and that permeates all the way through to the list of materials, which frequently reference using pizza boxes as a source of cardboard.

cardboard robot

The audience for the first book, the Handbook, is the most clear. That one focuses on simple (but very clever) magic apparatus and there isn’t much presumption of interest in magic, beyond having picked up the book. The second book, Robot Magic, aims higher with its magical jargon, and its reliance on downloadable starter code. But the physicality of the props that you’re building are given in exhaustive detail. It’s an interesting and contrasting instructional mix, but it avoids a much longer, dry book. It all works.

The book is supplemented by a web collection of sample cut-and-paste code, and videos of many of the projects. This video example at his site is a fine one to start with if you’d like to get a feel for the whole.

I truly enjoyed both books, and I found myself wishing they had existed when I was a youth. I’m more of a software guy, and for the first time I found myself understanding some electrical and mechanical concepts that had never quite sunk in for me. (My micro-servos should arrive soon.) These are widely distributed books, so you can find them almost anywhere, but in the spirit of things, see if your local bookseller or library has them before getting them at the Amazon, eh?

Book review: Scooby-Doo and You: The Case of the Glowing Alien

Yes, I read a 22-year-old book from Scholastic that is aimed at the youth. And I really enjoyed it. If this surprises you, read this: Why You Should Read Children’s Books.

No, I did not solve the mystery. But, then, I didn’t take advantage of the built-in clue tracking worksheets, which might have helped. It’s a fun story, even when you’re not trying to be the next Jupiter Jones.

gordon meyer holding book

I didn’t buy the book, it arrived in our Little Free Library, so having grown up with Scooby as well as being a fan of Scholastic and teen mysteries, I decided to read it. (One of the perks of being a library steward is getting first crack at the good stuff.)

If you don’t have a youngster from whom you can borrow a copy, you can get one from the Amazon.

Book Review: Can We Stop

I’m a sucker for roadside attractions, and roadside attractions are what this full-color zine chronicles. You’ll notice that the author, Lindsey Miller, has omitted the question mark from the title, which speaks to my heart because there is no doubt that stopping is going to happen.

gordon meyer holding book

I have so many fond memories involving these gems of Americana that I can’t even begin to list my faves. In this work, Volume 2, there are sixteen pages depicting approximately twenty locations, all of which are on the East Coast. (I could have done with a few less photos from Dinosaur Land, but hey, if it were my book, there would be several from Wall Drug, so I’m not throwing stones.)

I got my copy at Quimby’s in Chicago. Stop by the store for yours, but be warned, the result will be an urge to hit the road to find your own roadside surprises.

Book Review: The Fairy Tale Review

This journal, published by Wayne State University, is the pre-eminent publication for contemporary fiction in the style of fairy tales. (Yes, that’s actually a thing.)

This is the first issue that I’ve read. It’s from 2021, but the annual publication is cataloged by color (for some reason) so this is known as The Gold Issue. (The first one, published in 2006, was The Blue Issue.)

gordon meyer holding book

The journal publishes not just stories, but also poetry, art, and nonfiction, all in the fairy tale realm. This particular issue has a strong academic focus on the works of Anne Sexton, a poet who breathed new life into contemporary fairy tales with her reinterpretations from the Grimm canon. (See her collection, Transformations.)

I enjoyed reading this issue, although it had a bit too much poetry for my taste. I’ll definitely try another issue if the opportunity arises. Thanks to its academic approach, I was able to discover many additional books and publications that have caught my interest as well.

Kindle-format back issues are available on Amazon, but they are more expensive than printed copies directly from Wayne State.