Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Done well is so much fucking better

Well I finished A Sunburned Country and it was good, almost as good as A Walk in the Woods. Sadly Akunin's Winter Queen was decidedly so-so. Nice writing, but the plot direction was glaringly obvious and the characters not quite interesting enough to get excited about. The main character does have the advantage of not being a grizzled vet of the police or military with drinking/relationship problems who has a best pal with a propensity to and skill in mayhem who is always there for the deus-ex-machina. Not being stereotypical is not quite enough.

Still it is the first mystery in a series. These series are a conundrum. The early ones are generally not so good, but the books improve with time. The trouble is, it is very hard to tell where to start. Since these books comprise a very long narrative arc, jumping in too late can spoil earlier books. Authors like James Lee Burke have a bad habit of describing the ends of previous books in follow-on ones. My general take is to start early and slog through the mediocre to get to the good. This doesn't scale very well with people like Ian Rankin who have a million books. So I need a new strategy.

Now that I have really sold the Winter Queen, I'm sure everyone wants it. If anyone does, let me know.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

We carry in our hearts the true country

Too much sadness, need some gladness. Thanks to Brack, I am reading Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, which is about Australia. I generally don't get all that excited about Bryson's column compilations, but his journey books are pretty funny. His book on hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in Woods, was interesting enough that I briefly considered (and quickly rejected) the notion of hiking the trail myself. This one has all the Australian stuff that is so fascinating like limitless desert, super deadly creatures, and the amusing Australians themselves. Great diversionary reading.

I saw enough to make me cry

The recent death of John Garang got me thinking about Sudan. Last year I read Emma's War, an underappreciated book about Southern Sudan. You won't get a lot on Darfur in this one, but you can always go to Nicholas Kristof for that. What you will get is a detailed look at the north vs. south problem which is also an Arab vs. Black African and Muslim vs. Christian problem. The titular character was an aid worker who married one of the southern warlords and gradually became an apologist for his less than savory activities. Despite its length it is a quick read and a good way to get a handle on Sudan. It is of course sad, but not stick-your-head-in-the-oven sad like We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. This is more staring-into-the-distance-while-thinking-troubled-thoughts sad.

See your mother put to death, see your mother die

Ruth Marcus has a nice anti-PowerPoint editorial in the Post. I know the arguments for why we should blame the artist, not the tool, but that sounds a little too much like "guns don't kill people, people do." This diabolical bit of software has completely taken over the business world and the government which its insipid mode of communication. In DC, you can drive an entire career on one or two briefs. People who do especially well are said to "give good brief." Yes, the sexual allusion is appropriate, because you get stuck in a long one, and you are fucked.

Marcus reports that younger and younger school children are being taught to use PowerPoint. Little by little the mother tongue is being worn away. It wasn't that long ago that school kids were expected to compose poems, and now they can sound like corporate drones. Yes, I am bitter.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Redder shade of neck on a whiter shade of trash

Since J also enjoys the glorious Scotchmallow I thought I would wax enthusiastic for marshmallow. You may not have noticed while checking the See's candy counter, but the good folk of See's sell a Scotchmallow bar that is five times the size of the truffle size. While this greatly increases the calorie load, it also allows for more tactile enjoyment of the caramel-marshmallow blend. Happily, See's sells these at their little airport kiosks, making for a much better lay-over treat than a Take Five.

I should mention the White Trash Special from Redbones, the best BBQ joint in Boston (admitedly not a fierce competition.) It is a sundae with copious amounts of Marshmallow Fluff, chocolate and ice cream. Rarely can one get piles of marshmallow goodness with ones ice cream. Word of warning, do not mock the White Trash Special in front of semi-strangers, if they ate Fluff as a child, they make take it badly.

For some Marshmallow humor, click here. It's way funny, for real.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Thanks a lot friends

A friend just reminded me of Kings of Infinite Space. It is a kind of mix of Office Space, a Richard Russo novel and a Stephen King story. The setting is a government services bureau pursuing a typically boring task. Our hero is a failed academic who is a temp and he is concerned about strange beings he spots in the office.

The writing is satirical and should be enjoyable for those who think their office mates are in league with dark forces. There aren't that many authors who can create convincing characters while also being laugh out loud funny but this guy succeeds. The copy on the back of the book didn't really do the book justice and I wouldn't have read it if Steve hadn't sent it to me. The cover art isn't terribly engaging either. Thank god for recommendations or I would just be reading what the marketers tell me to read.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

I push my fingers into my eyes

Now I can combine the thing people want to talk about, food, with what I am mostly posting about, books. Some have seen James Lilek's site on Regrettable Food those who have not should book 15-20 minutes to surf through his mockery of 1950s cookbooks. It is way more funny than it sounds. Be sure to look for the tumor-studded bruise cake. This one is also nice.

I had seven faces, which I knew which one to wear

One of my many readers has shouted J'accuse! Apparently I am slighting literary fiction in favor of more genre work. Snobbery is unfortunate in all its forms. Nevertheless, I will mention William Boyd, whose book, Any Human Heart, I am about to begin. I recently read his Armadillo, which was quite good, if a bit heavy-handed in its imagery. It concerns an Englishman who hopes to obliterate his identity and replace it with another. His fetish for hiding his identity is reflected in his hobby, the collecting of masks. Good fodder for the constructivists in a book group.

On the genre side of things, I have cautious hope for Hitler's Peace. The Amazon reviews are fairly negative, but I like to give authors second (and third...) chances. Philip Kerr wrote three really good mysteries set in 30s and 40s Germany. The third, A German Requiem, is a must read for fans of the Third Man, as it is more or less an homage to that movie. Kerr ran off into Chrichton territory for a number of passable novels, but now has returned to his (potential) strength.

Friday, August 26, 2005

He knows damn well he has been cheated

I finally got back to reading the past few nights and luckily it was the newish Alan Furst book, Dark Voyage. Furst is shelved in mystery, but one day they will move him over to the fiction section. His writing is the equal of a number of purely literary writers, but his subject matter pushes him over in the genre ghetto. Because his novels are set in cities and countries under or soon to under the Nazi heel and his characters try to fight the fascists and survive, he is labeled a thriller writer. He is really not a thriller writer at all. Plot development is fairly weak and will be put aside to spend more time describing a setting. Resolution is rarely complete and the good guys, if there are any, don't necessarily win.

Instead he concentrates on the things that readers of literary fiction enjoy. He evokes feelings of warmth and claustrophobia quite well. Among the most exciting parts of his books focus on the emotions of those facing long or impossible odds, like a Resistance radio operator in occupied Paris. Because his characters are usually non-professionals forced into dangerous situations, they are often far more interesting than those found in more heroic thriller fiction.

As it happens, I like Dark Voyage, but I would not recommend starting Furst here. It is his only sea story and has more more violent action than his other books. Instead you should read World at Night and its sequel Red Gold, which focus on a French film director reluctantly entangled with British and Russian intelligence operatives.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Happy happy joy joy

Oh glorious day! I arrived at my parents to find that Mom has recently completed Darkly Devoted Dexter, sequel to the delicious Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I can't wait to return to this character. The lead character is a good serial killer, that is, he only kills people who deserve it. It is fairly nasty, but also very amusing stuff. Kind of Heathers like, but much more bloody. The main character is a blood splatter analyst after all.

My love of this book had me thinking of violence and humor. This book is really violent but also quite funny in a black sort of way. Flashman is another book I read (and tossed aside by page 20) that attempts to combine violence and humor. I'm not sure why I didn't like it though. It could be the nature of the violence in Flashman. Instead of whacking bad guys and hiding from the law, Flashman is a cad who at one point beats a sex partner who won't get back in bed with him. It could also be that I just didn't find the nature of the book that interesting. Flashman lampoons the heroic figures of adventure fiction, which may have been wild stuff in 1969 but seems a bit played now. Don't read it. Read Dexter.

I hung my head

I must report two shameful things.

The first is that my hometown's favorite hamburger is the Hardee's Thickburger. It is actually worse than that. Five slots on the top ten are taken by different Hardee's locations! I realize fast food burgers have their place, but it shouldn't be the top. Fortunately, help is on the way. DC's best burger joint, Five Guys, is coming to Virginia Beach. Mayhap they will place next year.

The second shameful thing is that I initially thought of referencing Cheeseburger in Paradise in the title line. Despite nearly clearing the remnants of a long dead Jimmy Buffet fascination from my head, little snippets remain lodged in my brain. I did go to two or three shows way back in the way back and I'd like to say it was just for the drinking, but sadly no.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

It's so easy to hate, it's takes guts to be gentle and kind

There was a really good article on Oprah's promotion of Faulkner in the Nation. Among the points is that we readers should not disdain the masses reading challenging books like As I Lay Dying, but should be excited. On the social side, it is certainly heartening to see people turning to such entertainment. On the selfish side, if Oprah is successful in driving the hoi polloi to the good stuff, then publishers may take more risks on literary fiction.

Another point mentioned is that Oprah should be roundly applauded for her now defunct book club in addition to her current more high brow one. Has any public figure in our day done more to promote reading? Isn't this a good thing for both the community and ourselves? There is a wierd elitism that reminds me of certain friends who stopped listening to Metallica after they got a little too popular.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I've got the dungeon master's guide, I've got a 12-sided die

A few George R R Martin items:

All nerds ( and many closeted nerds) know that Feast for Crows is coming out this Fall. What I did not know is that the Brits are getting it nearly a month earlier! So if you don't mind spending a few extra bucks, your nerd lust might be sated all the sooner.

There is some online quest game being promoted in which you find hidden people on the Web and send in the links. Sounded somewhat interesting until I saw that the grand prize consists of things prized only by full-kickin' nerds. For example "A commemorative coin inspired by the fictional works of George R. R. Martin from Shire Post Mint." Come on, who wants that?

I swear I don't, really.

Gordon is really actually pissed about the splitting of the book into two sections. I'm just happy to have it, any one else care?

There's some kind of love, well there's some kind of hate

The latest mainstream candy bar is the Take Five. Sure there are endless variations on existing candies, like the unfortunate oversized M&Ms and the wonderful dark chocolate anything. The Take Five is meant to be something new and incredibly exciting, because it has a pretzel in it. This is doubly problematic. There isn’t supposed to be something hard in candy ( I admit to having textural issues. I won’t eat tomatoes because it is like biting into a human arm.) Also, the salty sweet thing doesn’t really work, it just tastes like too many flavors crammed into a small space, like Chubby Hubby*. I think juxtaposed flavor combinations must be simple, like chili powder on vanilla ice cream – surprisingly good.

I admit this has nothing to do with books, but I am writing a book review on intelligence reform and I know for a fact that no person reading this is interested in intelligence reform.

*Crazy-- Ben & Jerry's site will identify which groceries recently sold a given flavor of ice cream. So if you are desperate just for Fossil Fuel, you can find it.

I think it's time we got stinking drunk

This short movie combines beer and the scariest song on record. The medium option is fine and despite the warning, it is safe for work, unless you work with total assholes. Via Gordon.

Are you kidding me? You must be kidding me.

I saw this piece of insanity today. I don't like the guy either, but come the fuck on.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A Short Review of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

During the early years of The Simpsons (and perhaps now as well), the annual Halloween episodes were among the best. In 1994 or thereabout, Groening and co. dedicated an entire episode to Poe's "The Raven." The episode commences with Bart, Lisa and Maggie sitting in the treehouse as Lisa reads them The Raven by flashlight. Her voice shortly fades, to be replaced by James Earl Jones at his sepulchral best. The remainder of the episode is Jones' voiceover of an animated Homer's search for the lovely Lenore. Bart frequently interjects (e.g., "Quoth the raven 'Eat my shorts'"). Funny stuff.
Anyway, Bart becomes increasingly frustrated both with the slow pace of epic poetry and with 19th century conventions of horror. This classic and highly topical exchange follows the passage in which Poe's increasingly frightened narrator opens his chamber door to find ... nothing there:
Bart: "Hey, Lisa, you know what's scarier than nothing?"
Lisa: "No, what?"
Bart (yells in frustration): "Anything!"
Amen, brother, amen.

He's got a bad reputation and it is just talk talk talk

Anthony Trollope doesn't appear to be doing so well compared to his 19th century peers. He doesn't address giant moral problems like Dostoevsky or provide the scathing social critique of a Dickens, but he describes interpersonal relationships far better than either of those writers. Combined with his more gentle analysis of social structure, he seems to me to be a precursor of Robertson Davies. Still the marketers have a hard time selling him. The back of my edition of Can You Forgive Her includes the line "a depth of insight into human conduct which will surprise those who know him only by his unjust reputation as the efficient manufacturer of entertaining novels of country life." Damn, things are bad when you have to acknowledge that everyone thinks he sucks.

Anyway, I am about to start the Palliser sequence of books which like the Barchester books are both thick and numerous. I can usually manage one a year, so I should be done with these in 2011 or so.

Freedom from choice is what you want

The tricksy marketers at iTunes have me over a barrel. You see, if you pre-order the new Death Cab record, you get a cover of Freedy Johnson’s “Bad Reputation” as an exclusive bonus. What I really want is that single, as Death Cab is responsible for one of my favorite covers (“I wanna be adored”) and “Bad Reputation” really fits the Ben Gibbard style. I probably want the record as well, but I also want the CD and booklet, not just a bunch of code on my iPod. You do get a digital version of the booklet at least. I guess the main dilemma is that since you have to pre-order to get it, you run the risk that you won’t like the record. Wicked, wicked iTunes.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

This is your ass, and I'm in it

There’s not much love for those that like their children’s books transgressive. There just isn’t very much in the way of shocking in books for the pre-school set. Sure, Japan has given us Everbody Poops and The Gas We Pass, but those are fairly benign really. Well the nation that brought us existential terror (and the nutella crepe!) has come through again. A lovely new book called That’s Disgusting has hit the shelves. The book gives us thirty nasty images followed by the words “That’s Disgusting.” It starts out with minor problems like sitting in chocolate or eating socks but quickly escalates to making shit sculptures and sticking a finger in the cat’s ass.

This stuff will certainly have the kids in stitches. Instead of giving parents their fifth copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, spice up bed time with That’s Disgusting.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

I want candy

A friend and I were talking the other day about Candyfreak. I agree wholeheartedly with the book’s central premise that the decline of the small candy manufacturer is a catastrophe. Taking the kids around on Halloween is depressing. They end up with a mix of 4 or 5 brands of candy, none of which is that interesting. In the book, Almond visits a number of manufacturers and tries lots of candy. Some of his highest praise went to the Valomilk, normally found only in the Mid-west. You can get it at Cracker Barrel, and if you are in Portland and are willing, you can go to Boise to get one.

While not as rare or as good as the Valomilk, I wish we could see more Cow Tales and fruit tootsie rolls. The Cow Tale is a cylindrical version of the Goetz caramel cream, which many people find vile. If the idea of eating a nine inch cream filled caramel tube sounds great, then you need one. They are best found in sad little boxes in sketchy gas stations.

The fruit flavored tootsie roll is almost impossible to find except as 1/30th the volume of a giant bag of candy. These are like Starbursts, except they are not hard, waxy or chemical tasting. They are so much better than normal Tootsie Rolls that I am surprised they are so hard to find.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Viddy well, viddy well

If you are feeling poppy click this. Check the kettle drumish synth. If you are feeling metal, click this. Check the Vans, the headbanging of a quality not seen since the 80s and the almost unmasked Slipknot.

It's time that the tale were told

Now that I am (likely) leaving Arlington, VA for Portland, OR, I can reveal the great book secret of Arlington. The Goodwill on Glebe Road has the best book selection (dollar for dollar) of any place on Earth. In the past few weeks, I have picked up two Boris Akunin mysteries, Flicker, Little Children, Any Human Heart, Hotel World, Fingersmith and the Translator. All for $1.19 each. I take three lessons from this.

If you live in a wealthy city with lots of smart people but somehow lacking good used bookstores, head down to the Goodwill.

Having really good books does not mean you will read them. I have all of those spread over the house and I read (or at least started) Demons. I make fun of people who buy books to show but never read, but it is not as if I am doing much better this week.

Cheap books increase the spread between book purchases and book reading. The delta is probably 2 or 3 books per week right now. This is unsustainable from a space perspective. Thank goodness back in PDX I will have to make do with Powells.

I tell myself I will not read them, even as I buy one

Maybe because I grew up getting thrilled by the tales of Lovecraft and King, I keep hoping that horror genre has something to offer. Book after book, I give it a shot. What I can’t seem to accept is that these books are best read when many of your conversations begin with “Dude, remember that time we were fucked up?”

My latest attempt was John Shirley’s Demons. It got blurbed by the likes of William Gibson and Tim Powers, which I know means nothing, but still I was taken. What you get is a tale of how man’s inhumanity and cruelty becomes manifest in the forms of demons who kill special ed kids and do other nasty things. The problem is that it is not scary and the writing is weak. At the John Shirley school of fiction, a few key rules are taught

Never ever have characters speak like humans. Instead, have them narrate long paragraphs or talk idiosyncratically. That makes them really cool.

Make sure to replace all simple words with complicated ones and be sure to use them inexactly. Burn is nice, but what about coruscate, that’s better isn’t it?

Instead of being scary or disturbing, go for the gross-out. Terror is hard to evoke, so let’s strangle the President with a demon’s johnson!

Some cultural theorist I read once noted that “scary” is a social construct and what is scary changes based on society’s changing fears. So maybe we (non-millenarians) are no longer afraid of the Apocalypse. There is some truth here, but the Exorcist still scares the hell out of me. So I think really it is just hard to evoke feelings of dread, unease and fear, so people take the easy route.