Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book review: From the outside, looking in

As you might expect, "The Outsiders' Guide to Las Vegas" is not your mother's guidebook.

My first trip to Vegas was in January 1997. If it wasn't in preparation for that trip then it wasn't long after that first trip that I obtained a copy of a traditional visitors guide. I might still have it, although I'm betting I donated it to some sort of used book sale, because who doesn't want to read buffet reviews from 10 years ago, capturing the magic of the dearly departed Riviera buffet?

I lost count of how many times I've been to Vegas over the years, but I'm quite confident the total is more than 30 after nearly 20 years. The last thing I need to read is a visitors guide for Sin City.

But a year ago, when I started this blog, I checked out online Vegas resources that I hadn't given much time to, including "Five Hundy by Midnight," a longtime podcast that I had seen references to over the years, but had never attempted to dial up. (Do you dial up the internet?)

As I sampled the podcast I learned of its forthcoming guide book. It took me many months to finally pick one up, but given I regularly sample the podcast offerings I wanted to read what Tim Dressen, the show's co-host, would include in a guidebook about Vegas. Over a recent span of 10 days I did just that.

The book is very much in the style of the podcast, a bit irreverent and written for an audience you're more likely to find congregating at a local watering hole than in the library at an institution of higher learning. And really, isn't the former where you'd expect, and want, to find people discussing Vegas?

Dressen's book offers many recommendations and observations similar to those you will find from year to year within the traditional guidebooks, but it pulls no punches when it comes to critiquing what succeeds and fails in Vegas. The book leans heavily on the personal experiences of the author, but there's some indication that information compiled within its covers is also drawn from the feedback and experience of the thousands who listen to the podcast.

If you want to know the skinny on the hotels along the strip and downtown, you'll find it in Dressen's book. If you want to know about a variety of restaurants, that information is included, too.

But many of the opinions and recommendations of the author are colored with his personality, which you find little of in other guidebooks.

Few stones are left unturned by the end of the book. Dressen provides recommendations on how to go about planning a trip and things to avoid when doing so. He has his personal preferences when traveling to Vegas and a rationale for them. It doesn't matter to Dressen how delicious breakfast is at a quirky, unique restaurant 13 minutes by cab from downtown Vegas, Dressen isn't going there, and he explains why. I have different ideas about how I want to spend my time in Vegas, but Dressen gives good reasons for why he prefers to do things the way he does, and those give the reader something to think about.

Did I learn a few things I didn't know about Vegas by reading the book? Absolutely. Vegas is constantly changing, and no matter how much you read about Sin City or how often you visit, chances are there are a few things, trivial or significant, that you don't know or know about. My jaw never hit the floor while reading the book, but I learned plenty of tidbits that might be useful down the road. And I learned that the Forum Shops at Caesars has a spiral escalator.

As I noted, this is not your mother's guidebook. Therefore I'm not giving a copy to my mother for Christmas. Besides the fact she has no interest in going to Vegas, I don't think she'd appreciate the graphic descriptions under "strategic restroom planning." But it was reassuring to know I'm not the only person who thinks about such things.

Dressen has a few "editorials," for lack of a better term, about things he likes or doesn't like about Vegas, or the world in general. Did you know that audience participation is ruining the world? You will if you read his book.

No book can include everything, and this book is no exception. When it comes to reviewing off-strip casinos, several are critiqued, but not all of them. I'd be curious to know what Dressen likes and dislikes about the Orleans, one of my regular haunts. What he likes or doesn't like won't change my personal preferences, but it would be interesting to read. It's a major property, not far from the strip, but it didn't make the cut. I'd guess that other than favorable gaming conditions he isn't particularly dazzled by the property.

His review of south strip hotels didn't include the former San Remo, now known as Hooters. I haven't been in that building since its days as the San Remo, and most comments about it are less than glowing. I couldn't help but wonder how Dressen might skewer the property, but that didn't make the book, either.

The book has plenty of pictures, but they're small and are of little value. The book isn't intended to provide a visual guide to Sin City's casinos, but the small, black-and-white pictures don't have a lot to offer in many cases, and the book would be just as valuable without them. But they do help break up the copy visually, and that's often a psychological selling point to many readers.

I'm an unapologetic supporter of pinball, and every trip I make to Vegas includes at least one visit to the Pinball Hall of Fame, one of many unique off-strip attractions. I was pleased to see it made Dressen's guidebook. I'll gladly take a plug for pinball over a critique of the Orleans or Hooters.

Change is the only constant in Vegas, and Dressen's website for his book attempts to update information that has become outdated since last summer – such as the closure of Las Vegas Club – although no updates have been reported since January, and certainly some tidbit of information within the book has changed since then. Nonetheless it's a smart way to keep the book relevant, but it begs the question, will we start seeing updated versions of the book annually? There's no "2015" on Dressen's book, but now that the framework is in place, might we see periodic updates with new information and observations?

The outsiders' guide is a lot like reading reviews from Trip Advisor or other online sources. It represents what people think, not what a major publisher is willing to parrot on an annual basis. Unlike a user-driven website, Dressen's book is highly organized and easy to navigate.

It's a great book if you're a Vegas veteran like me and want to read Vegas opinions while staring at something other than a tablet or computer screen, (although you can certainly get a paperless version of the book should you so desire.) And it provides a lot of great advice for Vegas newbies who want to know if there's a great restaurant at their home base during their next trip, the Flamingo. (There's not.)

The book is $19 and available wherever Amazon is accessible via your tablet or smartphone. It won't change your life, but it won't ruin it, either. And it will entertain you for hours, unless you're my mother.

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