Ryan Welton

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Judge a book by its cover: Why I loved Brian Doyle’s “Chicago”

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"Chicago" by Brian Doyle

Have you heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Of course you have.

But I do it all the time.

Several weeks ago, during a visit to the northwest Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library, I went on a search for my next two books to read. The first one I selected was picked precisely because I loved its cover. It was a 2016 novel called “Chicago,” written by a Portland, Oregon, author named Brian Doyle.

Turns out that Doyle died in 2017.

And it turned out that I deeply loved this book, proving if only for a day that it’s OK to judge a book by its cover. When I say that I deeply loved the book, I mean that it made me extraordinarily sad to learn that Doyle had died from brain cancer just a year before. I had hoped to maybe one day meet him at a bookstore somewhere and get him to sign it.

Not the copy I checked out from the library. No, I bought a copy about 100 pages into it.

I’m not a literary critic, neither in terms of my ability to write proper criticism nor in terms of my breadth of reading experience. I don’t have nearly the reading reps with which to compare “Chicago” to Driesser’s “Sister Carrie,” as this writer did.

But I can tell you why I loved the book, which best I can tell is essentially a memoir for Doyle, who was at one time both a working journalist and a Chicagolander. I loved it because he carried a go-bag and a basketball in his car, two of the items I regularly have. When you can see yourself in a main character, it’s hard not to connect.

The unnamed main character worked as a journalist for a Catholic magazine.

He loved baseball, and the ups and downs of the 1978 Chicago White Sox were practically a character in the story. Heck, my Texas Rangers were mentioned a couple of times.

Doyle also loved Abraham Lincoln, which was detailed through the eyes of a talking dog, Edward. It took me about 30 pages to figure out that this character, one of many residents in an apartment building, was a dog. And he talked. And it was no big deal. I even fancied him a bit like Brian from “Family Guy,” except that this dog was a stamp collector and obsessed with the speeches and writings of our greatest president.

Growing up, I was obsessed with the American presidency in general, having read biographies of all of them. Reading “Chicago” makes me want to honor Edward by at least starting to build my Lincoln repertoire.

I noted the narrator as the main character of the book, but really it was the city of Chicago itself and the apartment building where he lived. It’s characters like Miss Elminides and Mr. Pawlowsky and Ms. Manfredi, and her empanadas, were well drawn, interesting and nice. Genuinely nice. Perhaps it tugged at me a little because I know that Mom would have loved this book. During her later years, we often read the same books to have a little something extra to talk about. In this case, it was the goodness of the people in the story, their sheer decency, that I think would have appealed to her most.

Doyle’s writing reminded me a little of Faulkner in that he loves a good run-on, but unlike the Mississippi master in that he’s easy to read. Faulkner is work.

For anybody who’s randomly picked up a book at the library only to end up loving it, you know how I feel, except that in this case I didn’t merely like “Chicago.” I loved it, and there is a very good chance I read a bunch more from Brian Doyle, who by all accounts seemed like a great dude himself.

3 beers, 3 books: What I’m drinking and reading these days

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There’s nothing better than a cold beer and a good book, so I thought I’d write a blog post about both. I’ll call it three beers and three books.

I mostly stay in my lane as far as beers go. I like Sam Adams, Bass, Newcastle, Moose Drool and Guinness Draught. Those are my go-tos. During the summer, I would add Pacifico, Yuengling, Stella Artois, Shiner Ruby Redbird and Leinenkugel’s Weiss beers to the mix. That routine can get old, however.

So, periodically, I go to the aisle where you can buy single beers, and then I start picking freely. I force myself to get out of my comfort zone a little, and that can result in some serendipitous finds. Here are three I’ve tried recently:

1. Willy Vanilly from the Alpine Beer Company. I love vanilla, so I figured I’d probably love this — and I do like it. It was a bit sweet for my beer taste, but it’s as close to a truly excellent vanilla beer as I’ve tasted. I remember it being mildly carbonated with a nice collar.

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Score: 7 out of 10

Would I buy it again? I liked it but didn’t immediately fall in love with it. I wouldn’t turn it down if offered to me but probably wouldn’t pursue it otherwise.

2. Redhook Blackhook Porter. I prefer dark beers with hints of coffee, chocolate, maple and, heck, if they made it, bacon. I like beers that keep you warm and that pair well with a Miles Davis record. That’s about as metaphorical as I get writing about beer. However, in the spirit of something more like a Guinness, an Irish dry stout, or a Moose Drool, which is a brown ale, the Redhook Blackhook maintains its own very well. The one noticable difference — and I consider it an upgrade — is the hint of coffee when sipping. Really nice.

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Score: 10 out of 10. Terrific.

Would I buy it again? Definitely. This beer has a chance to make the rotation, especially when summer turns to fall, which in Oklahoma is December. Kidding aside, I really liked the Redhook Blackhook Porter, and it symbolizes the reason why I force myself to try new beers: It’s the best way to stumble upon something terrific.

3. Rahr & Sons USS Fort Worth – American Session Ale. This beer was way out of my comfort zone. First of all, it was in a can, which means it’s automatically something I’d pass on normally. However, the design on the can was so over-the-top that I was intrigued by what this beer could be, and for me, it was a tale of two halves.

At first, the beer was off-putting like a much-to-hoppy IPA. Other beer critics refer to its citrus flavor, and I got that as well midway through. By the end of the pour, I had rather grown to like it. It was better in the second half than the first.

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Score: 7.5 out of 10

Would I buy it again? I might. This is more of a ‘hot day’ on the front porch after mowing the lawn sort of beer. However, the can’s design is kind of awesome, and I’m intrigued by drinking something named for a battleship with the motto “Grit and Tenacity” atop the can. And I like Texas, especially Cowtown.

That takes care of the beers. So, what about the books? I’ve been reading roughly a book every month or so, although I’m not sure it’s even that much. I’d love to read a book a week and most often don’t believe anybody who says they read that much, presupposing they do anything besides read. Alas, I’ll tell you about one book I’ve recently read, one book I’m currently reading and one that I intend to buy very soon.

First, I finished Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly” several weeks ago. I like Brene. She’s from Texas, and she self identifies as maybe a little bit loud and brash and strong-headed. She hooked me at “Texan.” However, only parts of this book appealed to me at the outset given that I’m not a parent. I’m also not touchy-feely at all. Ick. But I wanted to learn more about vulnerability and how it can benefit a person, especially professionally.

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What I was pleasantly surprised to learn was that this book wasn’t about being touchy-feely and learning to overshare. It was very much about being out there and being thoughtful, however.

I don’t memorize books, so once I’ve read something, I allow some of the big concepts to stick with me and then I lose the rest on purpose. I only have so much room in my brain. Here’s what I took from “Daring Greatly:”

1. Brene quotes Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the book, his remarks about the arena. “It is not the critic who counts…” However, this quote reminds me of Kool & The Gang’s masterpiece “Get Down On It.” Feel free to laugh although I think you’ll acknowledge my point. In that song, J.T. Taylor sings, “How you gonna do it if you really don’t want to dance by standing on the wall?”

This is essentially the Teddy Roosevelt quote personified in an early-1980s pop-disco hit. The credit goes to the person who gets out there and dances it even if it turns out to look like Elaine from Seinfeld.

And what I take from all of this, relative to the book, is that introversion is no excuse for emotional isolation and that, if one will allow themselves the opportunity to push the envelope personally, it will pay dividends. People are way more willing to open up to you if you will open up to them, in due time, of course.

2. We’re super hard on ourselves, but we’re uber judgmental of other people, more so than ever before. This might seem like a no-brainer to most of you until I suggest that “this means YOU.” Yes, you. The other person is a bad parent because… The other person is imperfect physically because… The other person is poor because… And it all stems from an insecurity. Brown makes it a point of noting that we pick folks who we believe are doing worse than us in certain areas, packaged in kind of a campaign against snark in general.

3. Vulnerability and the workplace. The three professional concepts I really internalized from this book are the negative effect of non-communication, the negative impact of blaming in situations where a result was less than optimal and the positive benefit of showing weakness, which to me means acknowledging sometimes that you don’t know, don’t understand, or aren’t sure.

The book I’m reading presently is Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World.” I’ve been a fan of Gary’s for a long time because I think he’s genuine and that he’s right. He’s been right before about many things in the digital content world, and because of that track record, I trust what he says pretty assuredly.

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This book is four years old, but the concept is super simple for businesses: Create content that informs and entertains without selling. That’s tough for us business folk to do, but the idea is to create value for the end reader each and every time so that when you do need to sell, you’ll have their attention.

That’s the thing about the digital world: we’re all competing for attention. News stations and companies with social channels and personal bloggers are all competing with Netflix and my blog and a good book and the desire to go to the pub or to take a bath. As consumers, we latch on to content that moves us, and we’re pretty agnostic as to where it comes from. All we’re doing as brands is hoping for a piece of that, a sliver of your attention with the unsaid quid pro quo that we earn your attention when we really need it.

This book is the guide on how to make that happen.

And last but not least, the book I want to read next is called, “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives” by Tim Harford. One of my favorite Sirius XM channels is called Business Radio on SiriusXM 111. They recently had a program called, “Your Summer Reading List,” and Harford talked about the power of chaos to fuel productivity and creativity.

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It’s not so much that spending all your time perfecting your environment takes away from the time to do amazing things. It’s that overemphasizing order in all parts of our lives belies a rigidity that ensures we’ll never achieve anything great, and even if that isn’t the goal, it will certainly rob us of wonderful experiences and moments.

And in an ironic twist, that’s the end of this blog post because I need to go clean house. Have a great rest of your weekend.

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