70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2006
This is an odd, moving, funny, troubling, and hugely ambitious book.
Yes, it is true that it describes some subtleties of how to succeed on Jeopardy; yes, presumably that makes it required reading for anyone who plans to compete on that show.
But to call it a "how-to" book ignores how much you have to learn to succeed on that particular show. So I'd even go further. This book teaches truly useful memory techniques which should be useful to anyone who needs to memorize -- uh -- well, pretty much anything. The works of E. M. Forrester, for example, permanently seared into your brain by a visual image that concludes with the Taj Mahal in a somewhat unusual location. This would be a good book for students, particularly high-school students, say, inflicted with a history teacher who demands rote memorization of history without inspiring a desire to learn it.
But to call this an educational how-to book is to cheapen it greatly. This is a very amusing book, playful and witty. Actually, at times it is laugh-out-loud funny. Mr. Harris has a dry, self-deprecating wit punctuated with occasional flashes of buttocks.
But to call this an educational how-to comedy is to shortchange it. This is an exciting book. Mr. Harris somehow manages to make Jeopardy games matter. He gives them the adrenal pulse of a real competition; he makes us suffer as he falls behind and rejoice when he takes the lead. It shows us the fierce preparation required to succeed, an almost compulsive focus on study and practice worthy of a professional athlete. Ok, so Jeopardy will never supplant football on the world stage, but after reading this book you'll understand why it's been on the air for forty years.
But to call it an exciting educational comic how-to drama is to ignore the real, underlying themes. At core, under it all, this is a very human book, recounted by a humble, observant, caring man. This is a tale of a real personal journey, of a man awakening from the opiatic haze of rudderless America to a higher, more personally satisfying realm; of loss, and love, and friendship; of achievement, of competition, of success, of failure, and in the end of self-acceptance.
This is an odd, moving, funny, troubling, and hugely ambitious book.
This book is a little bit wise, and a little bit muddled; a little bit sad, and a whole lot joyful.
But most of all, this book is worth reading.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
When he initially tried the audition test to become a panelist on the quiz show _Jeopardy!_, Bob Harris flunked out. He subsequently flunked it four more times. It would seem that something inside him knew that becoming a champion player was his destiny, because he kept on trying until he qualified. Eventually getting accepted into the game, and winning, and losing, has made him what he is today, which includes being the author of the funny and surprisingly touching memoir _Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!_ (Crown Publishers). It may seem that a life largely spent working hard to be good at a television game show would necessarily be superficial or inconsequential, but despite all the jokes in this account, Harris learned some wisdom worthy of the sages, and much of it was on a higher plane than "What is the capital of Thailand?" Readers might pick up some trivia, and will certainly have some laughs, but more importantly, will absorb an account by someone who learned some truly important life lessons.
The worst advice he got after his failures to qualify for an initial show was the reassurance from the people administering the tests he flunked: "After all, they would always insist, it's _impossible_ to study for _Jeopardy!_" Much of the initial part of Harris's book is spent showing just how untrue this is. All the other champions he met had their own training regimens, too. It would seem that an account of training for such an event might make boring reading, but not only are the techniques Harris used interesting in themselves, but they have surprisingly larger meanings, not the least of which is that any ordinary person can absorb as much arcane information as time and energy allow. A good deal of the preparation was spent in mnemonic techniques which memory experts have coached us to use ever since such experts existed. There are plenty of silly sentences to remember the biologist's hierarchy of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species, but Harris explains it is good to come up with your own as part of being involved in the creativity of memory (his was "King Philip Glass Orders his Family a Generous Special"). Harris summarizes the lessons in his preparation in a list he calls "The Eightfold Path to Enlightened Jeopardy", which actually has nine steps, and the last one is a reminder to relax and let such contradictions go. Following these steps, he enriched his own life in wonderful ways just by _Jeopardy!_ His gratitude and humility shine throughout his earnest book.
_Jeopardy!_ is always going to be part of his life. Harris probably will forever be asked "Hey, what's the capital of Libya?", since most who know him know he is a five-time Jeopardy! winner. He also has made good friends with other contestants. They share his obsession with cramming in more knowledge, of course, but have plenty of admirable qualities besides: "These were just hardworking people with great curiosity, all willing to try interesting things. One of which was _Jeopardy!_" Harris delights in the creativity and sense of community he found among them, and in the stratospheric championship rounds, they all seemed to be friendly competitors, cheering each other on and acknowledging that there was little difference between themselves, the games being decided by an arbitrary "one clue here, a Daily Double there, one lucky category, a millisecond of a blink on the buzzer." He won prizes, but he won friendships, and indirectly his efforts led to his fruitful relationship with his current and long-time paramour and best friend. _Prisoner of Trebekistan_ can be read as a manual for _Jeopardy!_ players, or as a jocular but heartfelt memoir, but there is no denying that there is deeper and delightful wisdom in its pages.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2006
As a former "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" contestant, I was expecting Prisoner of Trebekistan to be a funny book about the whole Jeopardy! experience. It's not.
It's funny alright, and it will be of great help if you are preparing for one of these shows, or want to vicariously live the life of a game show contestant, or improve your memory, but that's not what this book is about. It's about life, the joy of living every day and the great joy that the pursuit of knowledge can add to every moment, every experience.
Even if you think game shows are inane and a waste of time, you'll still enjoy this book as it takes a much meandering route through the life of a stand-up comic, humor writer, internet blogger, radio personality turned 13 time Jeopardy player, who has a surprisingly down to earth and just plain nice philosophy of life.
So - it's a philosophy book that gets to profound universal truths via giant buttocks and pudus running up logs. And a darn good one at that, don't miss it.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2006
I am yet another fan of Bob Harris' blog, and the humor and insight that he shows there were really the only reasons I purchased this book. Just officially finished it tonight, and I gotta tell ya: I am impressed. Insightful, moving (there were real tears, on more than one occasion, for happiness, sadness, and more), overall delightful and enlightening book. It was wonderful to take a trek through Trebekistan with him, and I hope there will be more in the future. Maybe he should try his hand at fiction (hint, hint)?
Anyway, this is a really great read (only took me three days, I couldn't put it down), and that coming from someone who hasn't watched Jeopardy! since I was a kid, and have no interest in the show.
Heck, I didn't even know that he had been on the show more than once when I bought the book. So that oughta tell you something.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2006
This is a terrific book. It looks like it's about Jeopardy and it says it's about Jeopardy and it's called Prisoner of Trebekistan but guess what? It's actually about finding out how to do something really hard that you really don't know how to do. And how that changes your life forever.
You learn how to study for Jeopardy--or anything, really--so for that alone, it's worth having. I taught college English for ten years, which is why I think all college freshmen ought to have this book. It teaches you how to learn and it shows you that the point of learning is the way that new knowledge enlarges your world and changes you, not the knowledge itself. Don't you wish you'd known that when you were eighteen? I wish I'd known that this clearly last week.
It's a very funny memoir with a plot, or several, and high stakes: the author's entire life. It's a story about figuring things out. It's about failure. Repeated, abject, public failure. It's about how new knowledge changes the things you see every day. It makes you burst out laughing and frighten the cat. It's a page-turner you can't put down, especially if, like me, you have never followed Jeopardy and you don't know what happens in the end. Even if you do know how it comes out, you'll be completely fascinated by this look behind the scenes of the show.
And, in the course of the book, the author outlines the Eightfold Path to Enlightened Jeopardy, which turns out accidentally to be a wise and funny guide to a happier and weirder and far more interesting life.
That's pretty impressive.
My favorite part is how the author learned more and more and more arcane and far-flung facts to play Jeopardy and how that completely changed the world for him. I've never seen a more convincing argument for learning everything you possibly can. You get out of your own skull, outside your limited experience, and discover how much more interesting and complex and wonderful the world is.
You get to the end of the book so excited that you want to jump out of your chair, call all your friends, hug everyone, quit wasting time, and go see the whole world--you want to do every important thing right now!
What a terrific book!
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2006
Prisoner of Trebekistan does have solid advice on how to prepare for Jeopardy! or any of the other game shows that test contestants' knowledge of trivia. Harris does a first-rate job of explaining and illustrating complex concepts from cognitive psychology, like state dependent learning and chunking, to a general audience. I have a Ph.D. in social psychology, and I can say that after teaching this type of material to students, being both clear and entertaining with this extremely dry subject matter is no simple task.
Harris also tells the story of his family's ongoing struggle with his sister's autoimmune disease. He gives a very moving and compassionate portrayal his admiration for her strength and his own helplessness in the face of the never-ending, grueling effects of the disease on his beloved sister. Harris writes a very human account of the impact that chronic disease can have of the friends and family of the afflicted.
And, on top of all of that, Mr. Harris has written a laugh-out-loud funny book. Trebekistan is a well-paced, delightful read! Buy this book!!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2006
Who knew that the hilarious Bob Harris is also an eloquent writer? His Prisoner will have you laughing out loud while you are being brilliantly informed about all things Jeopardy (and a few things about life) -- from how the game is played by the experts to what it is really like to be on that stage. Bob's personal asides leave you convinced that if everyone had his amiable zest for life the world would be a much better place. It also occurs to me that when Mr Trebek delivers his last Final Jeopardy question he should hand the baton over to Bob. Now THAT would be something to see.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2006
Also full disclosure: I'm in it, but I also teach literature. I read A LOT, and the bio is not my favorite medium, because there is no story arc. HOWEVER, this book has one, and a good one. Bob manages with aplomb his three-fold task: he gives us the scoop on his jeopardy experience, he tells us how to cram stuff into our heads (and why we should want to do so), and he gives us an honest, conflicted, heartfelt story of one man's struggle to find himself and true love and millions of dollars. I really did laugh and cry (no hurling, though).
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2006
It seems as if both Prisoner of Trebekistan and Ken Jennings' Brainiac are always reviewed together. This isn't too surprising since they're both more or less about Jeopardy! and were released at almost the same time, but curiously the two are never really compared head-to-head. I've read both, so let me just tell you right away: Prisoner of Trebekistan is a better read.
Bob Harris is a professional writer and former stand-up comic. Ken Jennings is a software guy. With all due respect to software guys -- and I'm one myself -- who would you rather read a book from? Brainiac isn't half bad; it's just that Trebekistan outshines it.
The first half of Trebekistan is all about Jeopardy!: watching the show on TV, trying out for it, nervous sweat in the green room, and studying like a maniac. It's a terrific behind-the-scenes peek into what it's really like being on the show that, every weeknight, gets people from all walks of life to yell questions at the TV. And Harris does a terrific job of letting you in to experience every little bit of how it really happened for him, from the proud moments (pulling an answer out of nowhere) to the shameful (psyching out the other contestants with a cheap shot just before going on stage). There's a lot of focus on tips and tricks for getting your brain to memorize things, which Harris has clearly perfected over the years.
Then the book takes a sharp and unexpected turn about halfway through. After winning five times, Harris takes us beyond the show and describes in detail how everything started to change for him. Relationships failed, and opportunities opened up. Stuffed full of an incredible amount of facts but no real understanding about most of them, he decides to fill in the missing details and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Along the way we visit with pudus, go on a few lesser game shows, see penguins vomit, talk to a monk sitting on top of a dome, experience the pain of the Browns losing, ride in Malaysia's national car, sing Muppet songs, and find true love. Not bad for a guy from Cleveland.
For a book ostensibly about a trivia show, Trebekistan is incredibly wide-ranging and heartwarming. There's never a dull moment. Harris' writing talent shines through as he brings us right inside every single joy and failure of his wild ride through life. I highly recommend this book to everyone, not just people interested in game shows.
As an extra bonus, Bob Harris has been blogging for years and has started a Trebekistan blog. So once you've read the dead-tree version, you can go through the supplemental materials online for an extra dose of goodness. Particularly noteworthy: Bob's interview with Brad Rutter, and "Just Over 20 Questions With Just Under 20 Champions".
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2006
Full disclosure: I know the author, Bob Harris. But because I do I can say this book is every bit as funny, smart and fascinating as he is. You don't have to be a genius to enjoy this book. My favorite parts so far are about the nerve-wracking moments before he steps up to the podium for the first time and finds that playing at home and playing on television are two very different things. Tons of bizarre and cool factoids about the shows history and inner-workings. This book is fun, fast reading. Highly recommended.