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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Fasman, Jon: The Geographer's Library | Main | Hurley, King: The Interview »

Harris, Bob: Prisoner of Trebekistan

  

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Crown Publishers © 2006, 333 pages [amazon]
4.5 stars

Bob Harris, a one-time "B-minus-list comedian" turned five-time Jeopardy champion, has written a memoir centered around his experiences as a contestant on the show. His Prisoner of Trebekistan--a title hearing which Alex Trebek is said to have "smiled inscrutably"--is everything you'd hope for in a comedian's Jeopardy memoir. Harris proves to be an affable, goofily amusing escort through the various stages of Jeopardy playerdom, from the tests administered to would-be contestants through the mind games played backstage in the green room to chats with Alex mid-game. Having lived it, Harris is able to describe the life of a Jeopardy contestant in training. The regimen of study he adopted makes for fascinating reading: notebooks filled with information to be absorbed (lists of presidents and Shakespearian plays and European rivers), innumerable cartoons, very often buttock-related, drawn as mnemonic aids; Harris's lifestyle and living room rearranged to facilitate his "state-dependent retrieval" of information once on stage. (Which means that he ate green-room-style food for months and moved his furniture around so it resembled the Jeopardy set.)

The regimen of study he adopted makes for fascinating reading: notebooks filled with information to be absorbed (lists of presidents and Shakespearian plays and European rivers), innumerable cartoons, very often buttock-related, drawn as mnemonic aids; Harris's lifestyle and living room rearranged to facilitate his "state-dependent retrieval" of information once on stage.Harris is fascinating too when he analyzes Jeopardy play. He explains, for example, that the typeface the show uses determines a question's maximum length--just over 100 characters into which "they have to squeeze enough data to limit all possible responses to one, usually include a clear hint of some kind, and if possible even cram in a small dollop of humor." Elsewhere he writes about the speed of game play:

"[T]he total time of an actual sixty-clue Jeopardy game (leaving aside the thirty-second fever dream of--p-TING!--Final Jeopardy): just under thirteen minutes. Sixty twelve-second cycles slowed only slightly by three Daily Doubles. As the game flies along, your total time-to-think period, as Alex reads each clue aloud: usually between two and seven seconds, followed by the wait-wait-now spasm of thumby buzzer-whacking. Twelve seconds, again. Twelve seconds, again."
Harris walks readers through his own Jeopardy appearances, explaining his thought processes and the difficulties posed by the game: knowing the right answer, it turns out, is often the least of one's worries.

Harris also teaches readers something of what he knows about memory techniques. Suffice it to say that by the end of chapter nine, with virtually no work on your part, you'll be able to reel off the titles of E.M. Forster's six novels and the names of all seven U.N. Secretaries-General.

But perhaps a humorous romp through mnemonic techniques is also to be expected from a Jeopardy champion's Jeopardy-centric book. What you probably won't have expected to stumble on in Prisoner of Trebekistan is a compelling, even wise account of the author's life, moving portraits of his family, failed relationships, chronic disease and cancer wrapped around Jeopardy tournaments and memory games, the manifold strands of Harris's account deftly woven together. Harris is surprisingly insightful, introspective and likeable and sweet. In the end he finds, to his surprise, great joy inherent in small, familiar things, his Jeopardy-wrought education having changed his perspective in unanticipated ways:

"Squirrels were cavorting with glee back and forth, their tails flicking and curling as if just for show. The word squirrel comes from the Greek for 'shadowtail,' skia oura, which descends to our very own word.

Wait, I thought. Hold on. I'd seen Mom's backyard before, once or twice. Was the connection to classical Greece always here? This seemed new."

I came to Harris's book at perhaps a disadvantage, not having seen his Jeopardy run on TV. Other readers may already be familiar with him and the great many players he mentions by name in his story. It would have been a big plus if the book had been packaged with a DVD of Harris's appearances on the show. This would not only get people like me up to speed on Harris's play, but would be interesting even for readers who never miss an episode to watch given the author's play-by-play discussion of the games.

The only substantial complaint I have about Prisoner of Trebekistan is that it goes on too long. Near the end of the book Harris details his post-Jeopardy wanderings, informed as they were by his new-found appreciation of things historical. I'm happy for his happiness, but I don't want to read about it: I would in fact omit the whole of chapter twenty-three and tighten up the last several chapters for a crisper ending that would leave readers wanting more. That said, make sure you do read Harris's index, as he clearly had fun drawing it up. Here's a sample entry:

Mosquitoes, size of lawn darts, 18; bird-eating, 61; fighting with bare hands, 62; unlike any I remembered, 208
And don't miss the Merv Griffin and Alex Trebek entries while you're back there.

Review summary: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris, a one-time "B-minus-list comedian" turned five-time Jeopardy champion, is everything you'd hope for in a comedian's Jeopardy memoir. Harris is an affable, goofily amusing escort through the various stages of Jeopardy playerdom. He describes the life of a Jeopardy contestant and analyzes Jeopardy play, walking readers through his own appearances on the show. He also teaches readers about memory techniques: by the end of chapter nine you'll be able to reel off the names of all seven U.N. Secretaries-General. Harris's book is also a surprisingly compelling account of the author's life, moving portraits of his family, failed relationships, chronic disease and cancer wrapped around Jeopardy tournaments and memory games, the manifold strands of Harris's account deftly woven together. The book drags a bit at the end, but this sweet, fascinating book is a great read.

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Book-blog.com reviews by Debra Hamel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Comments

1.

I would never have considered this book, and I didn't see Harris' run either, although I certainly heard about it. Your review makes me want to pick up the book and spend some time with it. Love the title, too.

2.

This does my soul good, Jen. Thanks! I hope you like it.




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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.