Saturday, September 30, 2006

Books of the day

I finished the Ruins and I think Stephen King (scroll down) is right. It's an amazingly good horror story. By that I don't mean scary. There aren't really that many surprises, twists yes, but it is the twist of the knife rather than a ghost saying boo. A group of friends, not all of whom really like each other, get in a bad, if not totally deadly, situation and react in very different ways. The horrible sense of doom creeps up on all of them and we get a great sense of what it would be like to be in such a bad position. And that's all you get. If the horribly real sense of being trapped doesn't sound fun, you probably won't like it. If like many of the reviewers on Amazon, you are looking for a mystery or an adventure, you won't like it. If you want to be scared, you won't like it. Just so you know.

I keep going back to Iraq books, but really is there a more important topic right now? This one is called Blood Money and concerns the reconstruction effort. The thesis (as I can tell right now) is that mismanagement, hubris, corruption and lack of skill ruined whatever chances the reconstruction had. It's well written and I am enjoying so far.

One item on the Iraq books is that they are all negative on the war. Now I am willing to accept an argument that the writers of these books are some combination of biased, not aware of the full story, laden with out of date information, not looking at the conflict at the right scale or some other failing of analysis. That is fine, but as Kevin Drum has asked, if that is this case, where is the detailed argument showing that the war is going well or is part of a large strategy that will reap great rewards at some point. Are there any books with this viewpoint? Saying we are in "A Long War" is so creepily Orwellian that I refuse to consider it.

Kit Kat sadness

I have been pleased with nearly all the limited edition Kit Kats, they have been fun twists on the basic chocolate covered cookie concept. Hershey therefore surprised me with awfulness that is the chocolate mocha version. I'm not sure why they call it mocha, it is mostly a rancid coffee taste. The sort of coffee you find at rarely visited convenience stores. In a pot that has clearly not been touched for hours. If it is mocha, it is the kind in 99 cent mocha machine you find next to the nacho cheese dispenser in the same convenience store. Just not at all good. And it overpowers the chocolate to the point that I couldn't taste it.

What's worse is that the label looks a lot like the one for the malt flavored Milk Shake which I really quite like. Cybele at Candy Blog flat out hated the milk shake, although her description made me think of the dreadful coffee mocha. This makes me think that the flavors might be randomly switched.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Davies

Amazon is now running online book clubs. The first is associated with Penguin Classics. Thanks to Max at The Millions, I see that the moderator was chosen because of her review of the 1,000 book Penguin library. He also tips his hat to Amazon for picking Robertson Davies as opposed to some more well known author. I love Davies, so it must have slipped my mind that he remains somewhat (and unfairly) obscure. So allow me to also give Amazon a hearty "Huzzah!" The discussion group is starting with Fifth Business. That one is great, but so are the entire Salterton, Deptford or Cornish trilogies. I myself am thinking of reading his book of ghost stories for a good Halloween read.

The discussion groups are in blog format which allows the moderator to post thoughts and questions. I like what she says here about Davies' books:

With some authors I feel a very emotional connection to their characters. I don’t find this to be the case with Davies. Instead, I feel an intellectual connection. I can apply some of their insights about themselves to myself, and learn something about myself that way. To put it simply, it makes me think about where my own identity derives from…what goes into its making.

Michael Dirda (I think) on his Washington Post discussion board, compared Davies to John Irving, which surprised me. I thought his early works were good, but his later stuff left me cold. Both tend to the didactic and to long term character development. But they feel different to me.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Yet another great TV show?

Showtime is making a series based on the Darkly Dreaming Dexter books. This will be really hard to pull off, but I am glad they are taking a risk. Dexter is a blood spatter technician who has excellent insight into crime, since he is a serial killer. Thanks to his father, who recognized something was amiss with the young man, Dexter has channeled his wickedness to do the least damage. He identifies and researches bad people, like child molesters. When he can no longer restrain his urges, he kills one of these people.

If that were all that was going on, the books would not be that interesting. The plots and the black humor take the book over the edge. In the first one, Dexter sees cases (in his CSI role) coming in that look a lot like how he kills people. It's a great read. The book is now out in mass market paperback, so you are only risking eight bones. Go get it.

The challenge for the show will be in effectively communicating the character of Dexter. To most people, he is simple quiet person, while to his victims he is a nightmare. Dexter appears almost incapable of normal human emotion but he wrestles with this when he gets a girlfriend. This is no easy acting job. So, if you have Showtime, give it a shot.

My hate for it is ticking clock

There are few books in the world that make me want to go Berserker like Tuesdays with Morrie. It's got more saccharine than a Sweet 'n Low factory and it is as subtle as a nuclear explosion. You might ask why I read it. Well someone insisted so I went ahead and did it. I don't understand how he knows about the five people you will meet in heaven, since he's going to hell for writing Tuesdays with Morrie.

Now he's going to be laughing all the way to the bank with a new novel. Break out the hankies, it's about someone who gets another day to spend with his long dead mother. And plug your ears because you are going to be hearing about this from a lot of people.

Now you might call me a heartless bastard for all of this, but in truth I like novels which are emotionally resonant. Writers like Iris Murdoch do an excellent job of showing the consequences of our choices, but they do it in a non-maudlin way.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Banned books

Powells has a list of children's books that were banned somewhere or the other at some point in time. Scrolling through list, most of the reasons were obvious (not good reasons mind, but obvious as to why some people objected), but then I came upon Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. What the hell problem did people have with that book? Well it seems that Steig used different animals for all the jobs, and guess what? The police were pigs. Now who knows if he was making some sort of statement or not. The police are presented as helpful investigators rather than harsh oppressors so I am surprised people got so bent out of shape.

Do we need to think about banned books at all? At this point, are there any banned books in the United States? I imagine there are regional libraries that have run into problems. I am not saying we shouldn't swat down attempts to ban books, but the whole idea of doing so seem so fringe at this point. Then again the American Library Association reports that these books are common banning targets. I do believe we need to promote the idea that unpopular ideas should be protected, and challenged by argumentation rather than silencing.

I should note that the people who walk around with banned book T-shirts proclaiming that kids are smart enough to understand challenging arguments are the same people who think ROTC should be banned from campuses because college students are somehow not smart enough to do the cost-benefit analysis of joining the military.

Thank you for drinking

For awhile, Wonkette was down in quality, but it's back baby, it's back. The suite has a funny because it's true piece on lobbying. The anonymous lobbyist makes fun of the democratic process and points out that lobbying is even more of a old man's club in Europe. Proving more evidence for the booze=success formula, Ms. Lobbyist recommends the following for college:

That said, I strongly recommend using your time at college to build up your tolerance to alcohol and your ability to talk on message while blasted (“No, I really don’t want to sleep with you”), making nice with people at parties and in bars that you don’t know and probably wouldn’t like and learning just enough to sound smart without getting too confused by things like ethics or objective truth.

and some Halloween candy

Normally I am given to curmudgeonly comments about how early in the year holiday items are marketed. I will piss and moan about how in my day, we didn't see any Christmas decorations until the day after Thanksgiving. Halloween candy is another story. I'm not saying I want to see it at the Fourth of July, as I do like the fact you only get it part of the year. But if the drug stores put it out a little early I won't complain.

I am very happy to see that the orange marshmallow pumpkin is getting traction. Last night I tried the new Hershey one. I wish I had purchased a Russell Stover pumpkin for comparison, as I recall that one being slightly tastier. The orange marshmallow is not overly sweet and has a nice orange flavor that is stronger than the chocolate. I shared it with some trivia teammates last night, one of whom declared she would be giving it out at Halloween. I highly recommend buying them now, so you don't discover them late in October, right before they disappear. If you are feeling daring you can go try some of the other Russell Stover marshmallow pumpkins including coconut and strawberry.

In other Halloween candy news, for the first time I can recall, the Tootsie Fruit Rolls are available in their own bags at the drugstore. What a glorious Halloween it shall be.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There's some kinda love and there's some kinda hate

Man on man, the reviews of the Ruins are split on Amazon. The average is 2.5, thanks to more or less equal 1 and 5 star reviews. I say avoid those reviews, because of the spoilers and read the (editorial) reviews on Powells instead. The professional reviewers love it, although many of the Amazon consumer reviews are not finding it to their liking.

I am coming down on the side of the buzz marketers. This book is good. I worried that my learning the identity of the evil thing would lessen my enjoyment. Maybe it did, a little, but there is so much to like. Most horror stories serve up nanometer thin characters and throw poorly described atrocities at you. This book takes a set of well described, flawed people and puts them in a bad situation that slowly gets worse. We see how real people would deal with it. The bad events are so excruciatingly described that I actually said "Oh my god!" out loud while reading it. I wish I had been more inventive and shouted out "Christ on his throne!" or "Holy Mother of Moses," but I guess I was too absorbed.

What about the bad thing? Since I can't describe it, let's pretend it is the swarm of giant mosquitos from the 1993 classic Skeeter. So far (50% read) I am aware of the Skeeters and their nasty ways. One of the ways to make a monster scary is to not show it, and to force us to imagine it and what it can do. The movie Alien did this very well. The books starts with this approach, but appears to b shifting from a suspense mode to a horror mode. Effective horror is a challenge and some will find the Skeeters not that scary or even silly. I for one find their bloodsucking ways terrifying.

Monday, September 25, 2006

See your mother, put to death

As a rule, I like my kid's books to be scary-ass-crap free. I know some people want their kids to be aware that the world is chock full of suckassity things, but I am holding off on most of that. One book that has failed the scary ass test is I am a Quetzalcoatlus. Those of you with young kids most likely know that the Quetzalcoatlus (or Q) is the largest of the flying dinos. My kids love them, so I grabbed the book at the library. All was well for most of the book. Daddy Q flies above looking for the baddies while Mommy Q tends to the eggs. We learn about the Q's daily habits and other facts. Then some other dinosaurs show up at the end and eat Mommy Q and the eggs. COME ON! My daughter told me we were never allowed to read that book again.

Now hold on, I hear you say. Aren't Disney movies littered with the corpses of Mommies of all shapes and sizes? Why Finding Nemo starts with a barracuda eating the Mommy and all her eggs, less one. The difference is in the emotional engagement. In the Disney movies, the parents die early before we know them. Their death is more scene setting than anything else. In this book, the kids become engaged to the family, and then they get eaten.

Yes, yes, nature is red in tooth and claw, and all that. I suppose if you want to educate your kids in the school of hard knocks, you can choose to do so. I'd rather not.

Meeting you, with a view to a sale

The Book Covers blog has a bit on the truly awesome James Bond covers from Penguin. I think they are some of the coolest covers I have ever seen. One of the commenters thought it was a pulpy treatment of something stylish and iconic. For me, Bond is a pulpy icon. You can hardly take it seriously. I loved the covers so much that I finally broke down and read Ian Fleming. Score 1 marketers.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Let's have another round

I used to run into the problem of explaining my mediocre undergrad GPA to job interviewers. I usually had to explain it away with some euphemism like "I was really social." After many years of work and a better grad school GPA it is seemingly irrelevent, but maybe I should put it in bold. It seems there is a correlation (for males) between getting tanked in college and career success (as measured by salary.) Perhaps bar owners like NBK should apply for the educator's discount at Borders.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

I just finished the Egyptologist and I must be careful what I say about. I want to tell you why I liked it, but I don't want to risk the fiery wrath of Steve for spoiling its tricks. I'll say this, the book has at least one unreliable narrator, and it is an homage to Nabakov's Pale Fire. There is a plot puzzle, but to be honest, it is not that hard to figure out. It's more about the idea of personal identity and achieving immortality.

The main action centers on a British archaeologist who goes digging for a possibly apocryphal Pharoah, while Carter is just over the way looking for Tut. At the same time, an Australian PI is looking into an Aussie soldier who went missing in Egypt. The whole story is told in journal items and letters. As the book is about identity and how we can create it, this form helps each character present their identity as they see it. The reader gets to see alternate views as well. I found the characters interesting and the ideas of the book engaging. And it has a great ending.

One thing that could very easily put you off is the character of the British archaeologist. He is insufferably superior and pompous. If that were all there was to it, I wouldn't have liked it. I kept reading, because I found him amusing and because I quickly realized that all was not what it seemed, which made it endearing. Or it could just drive you nuts.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dark and sweet

Candy Addict has a nice brainteaser/timewaster. Remember the Virgin Records picture that represented 75 bands*? Anyway M&M/Mars has a picture with 50 "dark" (meaning horror related) movies in a Bosch-like picture. With M&Ms. This one has the big advantage of interactivity. You can click on a part of the picture, type in the movie name and see if you have it right. Sadly, your computer will not spew forth dark chocolate M&Ms once you are done.

*If you want a spoiler for that, someone has solved 74 on flickr.

I can't stand those useless fools

I've made known my distaste for books with pronounced ideological agendas and especially those lacking any informed analysis. Jennifer Senior at the Times indicts the genre of the angry political tome in general and Lewis Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal's recent efforts in particular. She scores a palpable hit here:

People who are serious about politics don’t just preen. They report, explain, explore contradictions, struggle with ideas, maybe even propose suggestions. If they do none of these things, they’re simply heckling, and if the best Lapham can do is come up with 50 inventive new ways to call Bush an imbecilic oligarch, that’s all he’s doing: heckling. Like his worst counterparts on the right, he compares those he doesn’t like to fanatics, as when he refers to David Frum and Richard Perle as “Mufti Frum” and “Mullah Perle,” adding, “Provide them with a beard, a turban and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldn’t have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News.” Possibly, but provide Lapham with a blond wig, stiletto pumps and a copy of “The Fountainhead,” and I suspect he wouldn’t look much different from Ann Coulter. He’s just another talk-radio host, really — only this time by way of Yale and Mensa.

Ann Coulter = Lewis Lapham. They would both hate that, but I think it is true.

A Virginian in New York

One of the more ridiculous ideas you hear at cocktail parties is that teachers have it easy. Sure they get the summers off, but they are so underpaid they usually have to take another job during the timeframe. They have to bring piles of work home, they have customers (children's parents) all over them making crazy demands and they have to manage far more people than any management theory tells you is possible. Oh and the people who say that teachers have it easy generally make at least 2X the average teacher, and have assistants to do all their crap work.

NBK pointed me to this blog which details the first year of a new teacher (from the Old Dominion) in the South Bronx. It's well written and gives you some insights into the challenges facing the teacher. Based on her profile image, it looks like she is planning the old Miss Nelson is Missing Trick in case the kids get too unruly.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Yo ho, yo ho the vegan life for me

What sort of town has a restaurant for vegans with a pirate theme? With a website designed by people spending too much time playing World of Warcraft? Portland. (via portland food and drink)

Scifi stuff

Potentially good and potentially bad movie news (via Powells). There is going to be (another) movie version of I am Legend. Arnie was meant to have the role for awhile, and then Johnny Depp, but now it looks like it is Will Smith. I tend to prefer him in comedic roles, but I did think he was outstanding in Six Degrees of Separation, so I will give it a chance.

The book, about the last human alive in a vampire ruled NYC, is excellent. Stephen King gives his take here. You just hate to see a book this good turned into Hollywood slag.

John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War (a Hugo Nominee) and the Ghost Brigades, has finished his latest. He gives a lengthy description why it took awhile, including the euthanasia of an annoying character. Scalzi is an entertaining blogger and he included this teaser for the fans:

But this is the last novel that will feature these particular characters, in this particular time, and, as it happens, I do something in the novel that pretty much assures that I can't go back.
Bwa ha ha ha ha! That's right! I did! And I won't tell you what it is! You have to wait until May! Bwa ha ha ha ha!
No, really, I did. No, really, I won't tell you now.


Finally SM Stirling has completed his NW Oregon based sci-fi series with A Meeting in Corvallis. In this post-apocalyptic world, Portland is dominated by mean nasties that the heroes of Corvallis must repel.

The not so great white north

This story is an opportunity for a writer to score another Endurance. Disaster at sea in the Arctic, babies in distress, rescue by airpilots, and now the discovery of the wreck. It's gold, baby, gold.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Can't you smell that smell

They could taste like Valomilk/salted caramel ice cream for all I know, but there is no way I am putting something called Lifesavers Musk in my mouth. I have plenty of associations with musk and none of them have to do with food.

Iraq

The other day I was talking with a friend about the difficulty in picking which nonfiction book to read. She mentioned going to Powells and staring at the mass of Iraq books, unsure which to read. I think the overall best single book to date is the Assassin's Gate by George Packer, which handily is now out in paperback. Packer supported the war on humanitarian grounds and the book is part mea culpa and an attempt to understand how the country went to war and how it bungled it. Packer does a great job examining the intellectual debate leading up to the war and is fair to the neoconservatives, which is less common these days. There is quite a bit less of the military detail that you find in Cobra II and Fiasco, which will make it more appealing to most people.

No Quarter, a Bushophobe foreign policy site, has a fascinating list of moments sent in from a Marine officer stationed in Anbar, the province that is out of control. Lots of interesting things like:

Biggest Outrage - Practically anything said by talking heads on TV about the war in Iraq , not that I get to watch much TV. Their thoughts are consistently both grossly simplistic and politically slanted. Biggest offender - Bill O’Reilly - what a buffoon!

Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - Any Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD Tech). How’d you like a job that required you to defuse bombs in a hole in the middle of the road that very likely are booby-trapped or connected by wire to a bad guy who's just waiting for you to get close to the bomb before he clicks the detonator? Every day. Sanitation workers in New York City get paid more than these guys. Talk about courage and commitment.

Bad people on the rise

Farthing is a new book that looks like a cross between Fatherland, It Can't Happen Here, and the Remains of the Day. Fascist sympathetic members of the British aristocracy kick out Churchill and sign a separate peace. The country starts democratic but under the influence of their Teutonic ally, they move steadily into the fascist camp. The plot revolves around the daughter of one of the plotters who has married a Jew. When someone gets murdered at high society party, guess who gets blamed?

Some of the buzz I have read makes dark allusions to the tide of fascism overwhelming contemporary America. That's just too over the top for me, and also counterproductive. Rather than talking about some grand conspiracy, or worse, implicating all of society (less your enlightened friends,) I wish people would focus in on the real problems, like the torture legislation, the attempts to expand executive power at the expense of legislative and judicial power and the emphasis of ideology over policy. These are real problems that don't fit on some bumper sticker label. Focusing on these will win over more people than wild eyed accusations that Mussolini is back from the dead.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Party Foul

So if you have been paying attention at all over the last few months, you've heard about Scott Smith's new horror/thriller The Ruins. Some of the best reviews of the summer. Note how the Amazon reviews (the professional ones, anyway) carefully avoid blowing the nature of the nasty surprise that awaits our heroes in the Yucatan jungle. Other reviewers followed suit. All except for this jackass (warning, major spoiler). I managed to avoid ruining the surprise for 3 months until Slate's Brian Curtis made the decision for me in the guise of advising me whether to read the book. F--- you, Brian Curtis.

There should be a term to describe a critic who blows the surprise because he either doesn't care about his readers or is so impressed with his own intelligence that he thinks his readers won't catch his clever allusions. The latter is worse - several years ago the New Republic's critic blew the surprise in The Sixth Sense by including a reference to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. That may have been my first and only letter to the editor and it read something very much like this: "Dear _________, Even those of us who didn't go to Columbia know that Peyton Farquhar is really dead. Asshole. "

The phenomenon is more frustrating than ever these days because the vast expansion of pop culture writing makes it much more difficult to keep a secret. I remember being blown away that the producers of Seven managed to keep Kevin Spacey's role under the radar (for anyone who has not seen Seven by now I invoke the just-invented 5 year rule of pop culture secrets).

Any other examples of nasty critical spoilers and/or great secrets?

It is your destiny

Julian Sanchez has some good posts up right now. I like this one regarding Chuck Klosterman. Here's a taste:

I wish I could detest Chuck Klosterman. Liking him feels obvious, a kind of demographic obligation—as though I'd watched that Nissan commercial where "Gravity Rides Everything" plays in the background and realized I really want a minivan. If mad Brazillian geneticists had plugged the vital statistics about myself and my ten best friends into some trend analysis machine and sought to engineer a Kwisatz Haderach ├╝berwriter we'd all run swooning to hear read at Politics & Prose, Chuck Klosterman would've stepped glistening naked from the vat.

This bit on Pitchfork is good as well.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

One of J.R.R. Tolkein's children has completed an unfinished tale by his late father. The story, Children of Hurin, is related to the Silmarillion rather than the Lord of the Rings. I believe Tolkein considered the Silmarillion to be his greatest work.

This made me think of the tradition of children extending their parents career. One of the more dubious examples is unceasing tide of Dune prequels and sequels by Brian (son of Frank) Herbert. They really weren't for me, but I am not nearly a Dune fanatic. Perhaps if I was, I would want to spend more time in that world.

Another example is Jeff Shaara who has followed up on his father's stupendous Killer Angels, with Gods and Generals and then a number of other historical novels. I read Gods and Generals and thought it was pretty good. The significant difference is that Killer Angels takes as many pages to talk about the Battle of Gettysburg (three days) as Gods and Generals takes to describe the war up to Gettysburg (two years.) If you are overwhelmed by the available number of non-fiction books on the war, this might be your speed.

Another one for the pile

There are some non-fiction authors whose writing is so good, that I will read any of their books no matter what the subject. One of those is John McPhee. His books range over topics like citrus fruit, Alaska and the underground art market in Soviet Russia. I may be wrong, but I think Hampton Sides is another one of these authors. His last book, Ghost Soldiers, was an incredibly accessible story about the rescue of American POWs from behind Japanese held lines. My wife, who has little to no taste for military related topics, could not put this down. It's moving, it's exciting and you will love it. I swear.

Sides has a new book coming out called Blood and Thunder. It is about the end of the Navajo nation. He apparently uses Kit Carson as the anchor to his story. I am not normally attracted to the stories of the Old West, which is a little odd, as the Southwest is one of my favorite regions. In any case, it's not a go-to subject for me. This one is now on the must go get list, which is the virtual counterpart to my already weighty reading list.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Haines

The new Emily Haines solo album appears to be to Metric as Feist is to Broken Social Scene. Which is to say, probably not for me. I rather like Metric, and their live show is well worth catching. Interestingly, the metaphor-laden pitchfork review indicates that Metric's songs were supposedly about "sweaty fucking." Ok, if that's the case they should have followed Big Black's lead in album name and cover art.

Swirling sands

Being a year or so behind culturally, I finally watched Syriana last night. I can see how it might be confusing from a plot perspective, but if you think of the various levels of conflict it makes sense. At the top, the US and China are competing for dominance of the energy supply. I would have liked to see a bit more China involved, but that may have been too much. Within the US and the un-named Gulf State, factions are jockeying for position in reaction to the efforts to dominate.

In the US, the players use all the tools at their disposal, which seem to include government agencies acting on corporate behalf. The main action centers on an American businessman, an American lawyer and an American CIA field operative and how they are manipulate, or more often are manipulated by often unseen players farther up the food chain. Showing the nastiness of the trade, one American ends quite well, one is scarred but Ok and one ends poorly.

I suppose people will be tempted to blame Bush for all this, but what we see has been US policy since the time of Roosevelt. The book upon which the movie is based, See No Evil, gives a lot of detail. It's a great read and since the author, Bob Baer, is former CIA he had to submit it to the Agency for approval. So in certain spots you see that blocs of text were redacted. Oh just what did they say!

Unlike others perhaps, I tend to think the US support of its companies isn't a bad thing. The government is supposed to support the growth of the American economy, and one way it does that is by helping American companies compete with foreign companies. The methods chosen in this movie are not the ones I would choose, but I don't disagree with the policy goal. In his book, Baer addresses the blowback we continue to experience, which also calls into question whether the US should have an entirely different policy as well.

Monday, September 18, 2006

And so the story goes

Steve and I have often debated the worst collapse in quality among writers. In some cases, like the Magic Circle, careers are killed by the quality implosion. In others, they improbably live on. For me, one of the great disappointments was Hannibal, the follow up to the Silence of the Lambs. Not only did we get the sad tale of Hannibal's childhood but we get a bizarre change of character for Clarice.

Now we have Hannibal Rising. My suspicions are all the more dark when I see that the screenplay was written at the same time! The book will come out in Dec 06 to be followed by a Feb 07 film. So is this really a "novelization?" In case you care, the book will follow the life of Hannibal before he was arrested the first time.

The general low quality of the recent books should be contrasted to the excellent Red Dragon.

I remember Halloween

We try to buy a few new kid's Halloween books each year. It's fun to break out the fun seasonal books and the Halloween ones are often quite fun.

My Mom sent A Very Brave Witch, which is quite good. I was familiar with the illustrator who drew the art for Diary of a Worm, but the author was new to me. It's a nice little story about not being afraid of people who are different. There are some nice witch and ghost illustrations and I liked the touch of the tombstones. If you look you see names like Joey Ramone and Winslow Homer.

If you go in for the more ghoulish, I would recommend the House That Drac Built. Quite a few of the images might freak out your more sensitive children, but mine do laugh at it. You get to introduce your kids to some classic monsters with this book.

It's hard to go wrong with the Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. You get to make all sorts of loud sounds and remind kids not to be overly concerned about noises.

The witch talk reminds me of one of my favorite boardgames of the 70s, Which Witch. It's a simple game where like Moustrap, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time you will get whacked by a broom, bowling ball or other implement. Here is detail on how it is played.

Two great tastes

I just finished the first season of Lost. While I don't want to pick a winner, I say it is close, if not equal, in greatness to 24. Here's the quick reasons I like both:

Story arc: Both have an overarching story, some terrorist event or the crash landing, but these stories have interconnected subplots. On Lost we get the back stories, told in flashback, of the major characters. On 24, many of the major characters have their own side plot. What is nice is that the subplots end up driving the overarching plot. And they keep you interested in the short term.

Willing suspension of disbelief: Much of what happens on the shows is ridiculous. It's hard to imagine a real Jack Bauer existing as it is hard to imagine the island on Lost existing. The stories are exciting enough to overwhelm this problem. Lost presents its oddities in an X-files sort of way, as things that could have many explanations.

Characters: Great acting and characters abound in the shows. And interesting things happen to them. Lost is probably the only show with a former member of the Republican Guard on the show. Both shows have people who chose to ride the white horse, instead of the white pony. And both shows feature this guy.

So if you like one, I bet you will like the other.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

That joke isn't funny anymore

I saw the one of the most vile, but not the most funny, movies, the Aristocrats. Apparently the Aritocrats is an old vaudeville joke, and comedians have a tradition of riffing on the joke and making it as over the top as possible. The only rule is that the start and the punchline are the same. And the punchline is lame. So the documentary asks comedians to talk about it and tell it.

The joke is vile because it seems to always include piles of fecal matter, gallons of orgasm product, urine in keg sized amounts and often random acts of violence. Oddly no pus was mentioned. Pus is pretty gross, so it should be added I think. Anyway, most of the jokes aren't that funny, just nasty. There are some exceptions. Here is part of Kevin Pollack telling the joke as Christopher Walken would tell it. The one that is most worth watching is the Bob Saget joke. This is only part of it, but it is fun to watch his face. It's like the joke has taken over and he can't stop it. Sadly most of the rest doesn't reach those heights.

All the comedians in the movie are white. Chris Rock pops on and says black comedians don't tell the joke. Since they weren't mainstream to begin with, they just talked dirty on stage anyway.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I am the eye in the sky

(via google maps mania) This site has all sorts of interesting shots from Google Maps. Such as this cruise ship with a severe list in Korea. An old Soviet carrier in China. The always impressive Nike campus here in greater PDX. The place where I was married, and the place where everyone walks around whispering "red-rum." The place where the government keeps the UFOs. The NRA headquarters. I had steak there once. One of my favorite beaches. The place where I got the worst case of food poisoning of my entire life.

Plenty of time wasting fun to be had.

Cooler than you

CAJ called today asking about Vellum, a fantasy novel which is getting a fair amount of buzz, around arty types who like fantasy at least. SF Reviews.net, a reliable site, didn't like it. The books seems to be all style no substance, which I think is an attempt to achieve literary status while totally neglecting story or import. I like well written prose, but I think there is such a thing as a fetishization of words.

I have a book on my shelf that I think may fall into this category, Little Big. At the moment, the amazon reviews in order are "Beyond Good" "Superb" "Imaginative Masterpiece" and "Whew, not for me." Another review title sounds like a bad emo album, "The Key to My Indulgent Melancholy." I wish I could have made that one up.

People who like Little Big, and lyrically intense books in general, make the you-have-to-be-smart- to-get-it-argument, saying things like "I also would imagine that non-analytical readers may find the book a bit dull." So apparently the fans are pretentious at least.

Anyway, I will probably get to eventually. If anyone has an opinion on it, please let me know.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Vids for the weekend

I was really pissed at all the PDX cyclists today. No one ever signals that they are passing. OK like 5% do, maybe. I was feeling like Dave Grohl at minute 1:33 in this video. Sadly I could not grow a giant hand as he could.

Anyway that got me thinking about videos. No organizing principle, but after the freak video I posted below, I must make penance with some good ones:

Faith No More: A Small Victory. It shouldn't bother me, but it does. Pretty cool video too.

Cheap Trick: She's Tight. I thought this song was amazingly dirty, when I was 12.

Roger McGuinn: King of the Hill. So awesome, esp when Petty comes in mid-way through the song. And the video's got the guy from SNL who said fuck on TV.

Soundgarden: Big Dumb Sex. I double dog dare you to play this really loud at work.

Tool: Prison Sex. This one will give you nightmares.

Grandaddy: Walk Up the Side of the Mountain. After that last one, I too want to try to be nice to everyone. And who knows? Maybe prance all about a local peak dressed as a bunny.

Watching vs. reading

Tyler Cowen has some theories about why we read books in bits but watch movies all the way through. I'm ADD and will happily break a movie into bits. Anyway, worth a look.

What a place

Will the wizards at the Multnomah County Library ever cease to amaze? Not only do they have great hours, wonderful selection, friendly staff (except for that one dude who really shouldn't be in the kid's section, can't stand noise, you see) and many locations. They now let you rate books on the website! I gave Fiasco a 5. If you place a hold, get ready to wait, there are 292 holds on 12 copies. They've ordered quite a few more though.

From the friends

HLK sent along this story on literary tourism in general and Edna St. Vincent Millay in particular. I am theoretically interested in literary tourism, but it doesn't grab me as much as I think it would. If there were a means of someone communing with the author's spirit that would be something. I would really like to get a James Ellroy based tour of LA. Or man, a George Pelecanos tour of DC would be an eye-opener. I would probably be giddy for a Trollope related tour, but it would be contrived as his Barset locales are mostly invented.

I was once in Dublin a few days after Bloomsday, so I heard all about the goings on. I am not a huge fan of Ulysses, so I wouldn't be all that excited anyway. One tour I did really enjoy was a literary/historical visit to Concord, MA.

Neill sent this item from the anyone can make a video file.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Who lives and who dies

Ross Douthat ponders the (to my mind) likelihood of a major character death in the final book of the Harry Potter series. He is also spot on in identifying Snape as the probable victim. He is indeed the one of the most interesting characters and the tragic hero of the series. If you've not read them by all means do so!

He also makes what I think is a false distinction, that between great literature and enduring myth.

There are creative gifts besides the talent for crafting gorgeous prose, and what Rowling has done is similar to what Tolkien did, or L. Frank Baum, or James Barrie: She has created, not great literature, but a great new myth, one that future generations may treasure as much as today we treasure Oz and Middle-Earth and Never-Never Land.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Peter Jackson is up to next

This Guardian article has the details. First up is the Lovely Bones, which should be worth watching. The next will be Temeraire, a novel about....dragons fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, sure it sounds juvenile and silly, but how about a story about hobbits, wizards and elves? Anyway, the (author-selected) review snippets look quite good.

The author of the book was involved in the coding of one of my favorite computer games, Neverwinter Nights, Shadow of Undrentide. And no, I didn't know that, it was in the article.

To complete the nerd trifecta, and bring it back to Napoleon, I played a rather fun game about the Napoleonic wars this evening. It's called Age of Napoleon and it has just enough detail to give it real flavor, but not enough to bog it down in rules lawyer fights. Like Ticket to Ride, it forces you to make difficult trade-offs too. If you like the time period, check it out.

To read list

Since I have been so busy trying to identify what makes a good book, I should take stock of my to be read list. This person puts all of hers in one place where it might glare at her. I prefer to distribute them around the house. This has many advantages, the most important of which is to hide the sheer size from those who might criticize new book purchases. Books get categorized into the following groups:

On-deck books: Usually 10-15 books sitting on my dresser. These are theoretically the next books to be read, but they often get line jumped by library books. Among the lucky volumes are City of Falling Angels, White Apples and Perdido Street Station.

The Pile of Shame: Beside my dresser and in a small bookshelf made by my eldest lie the mass market paperbacks. These are the sorts of things I don't want to show in the downstairs shelves. It's nearly all genre stuff, with the high risk of being ungood. Still there are gems here like Peter Robinson mysteries, Robert Charles Wilson scifi and this LA Condidential-ish thriller.

Display books: We have a bunch of old leather or generally more expensive books in one corner of the living room, lots of unread there including a bunch of Folio Society and Library of America.

Dining Room books: Our largest collection of books are here. That way, with every meal, our kids get the subliminal message of "Books.Books.Books." Plus we like scanning the spines. Since the fiction is alphabetized, I stumble upon unread volumes every few days, and then forget again. The non-fiction is not organized and I still lose books in there.

Stored: Thanks to limited shelf space there are a number of unpacked book boxes. And yes I sold/donated seven book boxes before moving from DC.

The downside to my to read system is that the lowest quality books are physically closest to my on-deck pile. So when a coveted spot opens up, I often just grab a good looking pulp novel.

Flavors of non-fiction

In the comments to the post below, Steve wondered if my division of novels into four groups could also be applied to non-fiction. I think it can with a slight tweaking of the terms. For novels, I said the key variable were literary value and entertainment value. In each case, these terms serve as buckets for a variety of sub-variable. Individual books would have their own mix of each.

For non-fiction, I think the variables are quality of argument of ability to engage the reader.

Quality of argument: This consists of the strength of the authors thesis, how well it is argued, how well it is tested, and an explanation of why you should care. At first blush, this may seem ridiculous, but for non-academic books isn't this incorrect. No it's not. All non-fiction books have an argument of sorts, for example Kitchen Confidential argues that the restaurant life is so wild and crazy and you should understand how food is made. Other books make their arguments up front like this one titled Screwed, the Undeclared War Against the Middle Class and What we Can Do About It.

Engagement: This pulls in some of the elements in the fiction categorization including clear, understandable writing, a strong point of view, effective and limited use of humor, and any other means that make the work of understanding the argument easier or even fun. More serious works will focus on clarity, where lighter works amp up the fun.

The four categories require a bit of work, but I think that same analysis holds. There is a category exception worth mentioning, the essay. These are works of non-fiction that are written and often read like fiction. They are therefore hybrids. I think they are best analyzed using the fiction model.

What's the point of all this jibber jabber? It's just a means to think about what makes a book worth reading. Too many reviews just spit out the reviewers point of view, or depth of expertise, without answering the essential question of whether or not you should read the book.

Free Book from Poisoned Pen

If that title doesn't get your attention, you are at the wrong blog. Go back to watching lonelygirl15 or whatever it is you usually do online (and we don't want to know about it).

Poisoned Pen Press is a small publisher/distributor dedicated to mysteries. They published a number of mysteries sold by the late, lamented A Common Reader and appear (based on their correspondence with me) to have purchased ACR's mailing list. I've seen their catalog and it has some interesting stuff. Poisoned Pen is offering a free book (unidentified but presumably a mystery) to patrons who sign up to receive their mailings by September 15. Visit them here, click on "newsletter", fill in the form and put code #181165 in the coupon box to sign up and qualify.

That should get me out of a few minutes in Purgatory. Now for a comment on the current administration ... oh, never mind.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pile on

Christopher Buckley, son of William F, is one of the funniest writers around. He is excellent in short form, which is why my favorite of his books is Wry Martinis. He has written a number of satirical novels, my personal favorite being Little Green Men. In that story a secret government group fakes alien abductions and then they abduct a DC columnist (a somewhat disguised George Will.) It's quite funny. Thanks to the movie he is best known for Thank You For Smoking.

Anyway have a look at this article where the (conservative) Buckely writes in the (liberal) Washington Monthly about voting Dem in 06 and 08. For example:

Bob Woodward asked Bush 43 if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq. The son replied that he had consulted “a higher father.” That frisson you feel going up your spine is the realization that he meant it. And apparently the higher father said, “Go for it!” There are those of us who wish he had consulted his terrestrial one; or, if he couldn’t get him on the line, Brent Scowcroft. Or Jim Baker. Or Henry Kissinger. Or, for that matter, anyone who has read a book about the British experience in Iraq. (18,000 dead.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

The four kinds of novels

Nearly every business gets broken down into four squares. One is good, two are OK and one is bad. Consultants apply this segmentation to everything, so I thought I would apply it to books. I assert that there are two key variables to fiction. The first is literary value, the second is entertainment value. With these two variables we can break fiction into four cells.
Literary value: Literary value consists of factors like excellent or innovative use of language, ability to evoke emotional or intellectual response, social import, and realism in the depiction of people.

Entertainment value: Entertainment value consists of factors like effective pacing, compelling story line, use of humor and the use of surprise.

Cell 1 Trash (Low literary, low entertainment) These are the books you feel bad about finishing, because they are a waste of time. There may be something nice about them, like an effective scene or two, but for the most part, you shouldn't read these books. I would include 99% of all horror fiction and mystery-novels-by-successful-writers-who-are-now-phoning-it-in here.

Cell 2 Beach reads (Low literary, high entertainment) These are the sorts of books you want to read when thinking is not required. The cunningly plotted mystery, the frenetic thriller and wildly inventive space operatic scif-novel live here. These are the ones you end up passing on or lending as they are great fun, but not really gift quality.

Cell 3 Prize Winners (high literary, low entertainment) These are the books you feel like you should read, but generally don't like reading. Yes you can see that the writing is singular, and yes it does an lovely job describing loneliness or whatever, but you feel like you have to write an essay when you are done. An unfortunate artifact of English classes is the belief that these are the books you should read most.

Cell 4 Gift books (high literary, high entertainment) These are the books that make you laugh and cry, on alternate pages. When you stare wistfully into the distance after a few pages, but feel compelled to keep reading, you have one of these. These books are rare, but worth finding. The last few years have been decent with books like Kavalier and Clay and Atonement fitting nicely into the spot. Genre writers like Alan Furst and Phillip K Dick pop there heads into the fringes here as well.

The question is, how do you allocate your reading? Being the book fall guy means you might shoot for cell 2 but land in cell 1, as happens all too frequently to me. I would say I am 20% cell 1, 40% cell 2, 10% cell 3 and 30% cell 4. I would like to be all 2 and 4, but that doesn't seem to happen.

9/11

I can recommend two good books on 9/11. The first is the 9/11 report. It is a bit distressing to compare the recommendations with the policy result. It's a good read, and an amazingly good read for a government report.

102 Minutes is the story of what went on in the Towers between first impact and final collapse. It's a rivetting read and highlights the heroism of the first responders as well as the foresight of some of the emergency managers.

Munich reprise

What does an author whose star has begun to fade do? Why, go back to the well of course. My cynicism at hearing that Philip Kerr has reprised his Bernie Gunther character (the protagonist of his unparalleled Berlin Noir trilogy) is more than balanced by the hope that the new one will be good. With Dennis Lehane republishing old stories and Robert Crais awol, let's all hope Kerr has recovered his old touch.

Speaking of Dennis Lehane, I keep hearing that The Wire is the best written show on television (when we all know that honor goes to Deadwood or some trifling fare starring the perpetually tense and notably short Kiefer Sutherland, depending on your audience). Turns out that Lehane and George Pelecanos have served as guest writers for the series (although I understand that they have each penned an episode or two, which makes HBO's practice of listing them as "writers" somewhat deceptive) - I may have to tune in. Notice Ed Burns' name in there as well - not sure if that is good or bad, although his turn in Entourage was well done.

And how can this be?

For me, Dune is looking less like a sci-fi novel and more like a book of prophecy. See this. The Sardaukar are running into more trouble too.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Your tummy says howdy

When we lived in Virginia, we started going apple picking. Before then, we always assumed picking would require a ladder, but some orchards grow dwarf trees for the explicit purpose of casual picking. Back in Oregon, I was unsure where to go for apple picking. I knew many were grown in Hood River Valley, but couldn't say where to pick. Pick Your Own is a site that lists pick your own fruit locations around the country. Via the site I found the Kiyokawa Orchard, which has a bewildering array of apples from which to choose. This early in the season, they didn't have as many, but they did have the Sansa, which joins my short list of apple favorites (including the Fuji and the Honeycrisp.) We picked about 20 pounds in about 5 minutes.

What to do with so many? First thing was an apple pandowdy, so named for its frumpy look. I used the Baking Illustrated version, which goes light on the sugar, but is still quite tasty. It called for a mix of apples, Granny Smith to hold form and give texture and MacIntosh to turn into an apple sauce to nestle the Smiths. Oh so tasty. Next stop, the crisp. According to this book, all my oat-based crisps should really be called crumbles or grunts as they aren't crisp.

If you've not picked fruit, it is more fun than it sounds. I thought it sounded like labor before, but it is as easy as you want it to be. You take your time and enjoy the quiet of the farm. It's quite relaxing. And if you have kids, you get a bonus snack time for them. You have to take that when you can get it.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Instead of time, there will be lateness

I enjoyed the rare opportunity of seeing the Silver Jews last night. Since the show started at midnight, I was a tad too sleepy to fully enjoy it. The perils of growing old. Still, I am glad I made it. The best part was seeing David (He insisted it was David, not Dave) Berman make peculiar comments during the banter periods. Most were strange and near-unintelligible, but instead of collapsing into Cat Power-train-wreck-land, it somehow fit into his mad poet vibe. He did have one joke about German food. He said it was good, but two hours later you are hungry for power. Ba Dum Bum.

The song selection was good, with something from every album. He hit one of my faves, Trains Across the Sea, which you can see from this show earlier in the year. The sound quality at the show wasn't the best, but that may have been where we were standing.

There was one odd note. There were two young ladies dancing like they were at a Kelly Clarkson show. That's not a dis by the way, the greatness of Since U Been Gone is denied only by people who are afraid of looking uncool. But you don't see that exaggerated, space taking dance style at indie rock shows. They knew ALL the words, to theTanglewood Numbers songs at least, so they were just expressing their enjoyment. Compare that to most indie show attendees for whom a slowly moving head and perhaps a bouncing foot is an indication they are FEELING it. I'm not in a band, but if I was playing I think I would rather see people getting crazy than a bunch of bouncing heads.

If you are unfamiliar with the band, I would recommend American Water. Most of the others would be a good starting point, with the exception of The Natural Bridge. While it has what is one of their best song, How To Rent A Room, it is overall not that great. Here is the official video for "I'm Getting Back into Getting Back Into You." So check that out if you are unaware of their sound.

Stephen Malkmus opened solo (not with some new non-Jicks band, but all by himself with an acoustic). He played a number of new items, some unfinished. Based on what I heard, I think the next album will be good. He also played Trigger Cut and a pair off of Watery, Domestic. You can imagine the reaction from the audience.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Ah, the good ole days

Now I am one of those who poo-poos the idea that political correctness has much impact on anything of note. For example, it drives me nuts when someone recommends that we might take Islamic viewpoints into account before making public statements. "Political correctness!" they shout. No, it's marketing. That said, the world of videos is definately constrained by PC. You wouldn't see songs like these on the indie playlist these days.

Wall of Voodoo - Mexican Radio. How can you dislike a song with this lyric "I understand, just a little/no comprende it's a riddle." This would be one of the archetypical 80s modern rock tunes.

Vapors - Turning Japanese. I realize that if you think about it, this is a sly nod to Chinese/Japanese/Dirty Knees/Look at These. But I love the singer's Brit-mullet and everyone loves songs about the low five. What, you heard the Vapors claim it is not about dancing with yourself? Well, I will take the deconstructionist stance here and claim the text stands on its own regardless of what the author says. So there.

Rolling Stones - Little T&A. It's always great when Keith sings, and this is one of my favorites. It's hard to imagine a major rockstar belting out "Ah, the little bitch has got soul." Oh wait, I forgot, mysiogony is TOTALLY* cool these days. My bad.

*Sorry for the goofy kids lip synching vid. The real video uses the weak-ass radio friendly lyrics. The song can only be appreciated with the real words.

Los Desaparecidos:

If Bill Clinton was our first black Presdient, then is it rapidly becoming clear that George W. Bush is our first Argentine. I have two kids, five and two. How do I explain this to them? How do I reconcile my hope that they are one day smart enough to ask "Dad, what did you do about it" with the fact that I don't have an answer? I'm starting to think I know how the Good Germans felt.

If it was in your ass you'd know where it was

This goes to show there is a hobby for everyone. I'm curious to know the "training" involved in learning how to stick an entire wine bottle up there. Or maybe not.

Potter and international relations?

My alma mater sends out information on new publications by its staff. I thought one called Harry Potter and International Relations had to be a goof. After reading the ad copy, it looks interesting. The book is a collection of essays exploring how other cultures have reacted to the book and the possible lessons for understanding globalization. I find the globalization debate (greatly simplified as to whether Thomas Friedman or Samuel Huntington is closer to reality ) to be a fascinating one. Sure the decision to use Harry Potter has to be marketing related, but there is nothing wrong with using a popular icon to attract people to serious issues. This one would be probably be a good cross-over volume for people wanting an introduction to some of the issues in international relations.

And I can hardly mention Harry Potter without linking to this video.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The blog of lists

Amazon has some nice Top Ten lists from experts, most of whom happen to have a new book themselves. The section is called Grown-Up School. I really like Ian Bremmer's list of international politics books. I've read nine of the ten, so I guess I should read the tenth as well as his book. This Thomas Ricks section on books not about the Iraq War that help you understand the Iraq war is also nice. For the kiddies, we have a baby shower list, including the splendid Owl Babies. And some have more limited interest, like this list of 15th century English history.

Back to the well

Excellent news on the Philip Kerr front. His new book, the One From the Other, is the fourth in his Bernard Gunter series. Kerr wrote three excellent mysteries involving a good German cop trapped in Nazi Germany and its aftermath. His follow on work seemed like Crichton copies for the most part, and paled in comparison to these mysteries. So is this a return to form or wrecking of earlier greatness? Kirkus at least, loved it. I can whole heartedly recommend the first three books. They are short and bleak, a Nazi noir, if you will.

Nerdiest movie ever?

What do you get when you combine Veruca Salt's Dad, Thufir Hawat, Hannibal Lecter, Bilbo Baggins, Dumbledore, General Veers and Ad-miral Piett*? A sci-fi convention? No, you get Juggernaut, a goofy mid-70s British disaster film. It's not that great it most fun for seeing so many British actors you have seen elsewhere. There is some decent tension in the terror on the high seas parts. The movie is set on a British ocean liner going from England to NYC. From the get go, it looks like no fun. It's all drab and 70s looking. Veruca Salt's Dad provides the comic relief as the purser who tries to keep everyone entertained. He does poorly before and after we learn some baddie wants to blow up the ship. Don't put it on the top of your Netflix list, but if you are a disaster movie completist, you should probably watch it.

*All the Fett fans can stick it, the real deal is Piett.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Not this weird

People like to talk about "keeping Portland weird," but I hope it never gets this weird.

Update: Edited to remove my jackass spelling mistake.

Yet another top 25

Pitchfork has put out the top 25 Touch & Go albums of all time. You can argue with their list, but I bet you will want most of the albums on there. You can also go just to check out the album art. Third from the top is best cover that ever was, and ever will be.

Good news on new books

The new William Boyd gets what initially appears to be a damning with faint praise review:

William Boyd's ninth novel doesn't have the laugh-out-loud comedy of Stars and Bars or quiet verisimilitude of An Ice-Cream War or the intense poignancy of Any Human Heart. But it's a good, rollicking read.

But the reviewer goes on to call it "one of the better books" you will read this year. So instead of faint praise, it is quailfied praise. I can accept that.

Hmm, now I am much more interested in Robert Harris's Imperium. This interview/review in the Guardian makes it look quite good. Much will be lost on American readers as it there will be many allusions to New Labor politics. The interview is great with explanations of why there is no sex is his books, how he builds his characters and how he became a novelists. Very good reading indeed.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Meet the new boss

One of the more interesting questions in science fiction is what the next iteration of humanity will be. One answer is built around the notion of the Singularity, which Vernor Vinge explains here. Essentially, this human created machine intelligence arises from our technology. Some stories like the Terminator movies assume that humanity will be the enemy. In others, humanity is given the option of joining the new intelligence, or the new intelligence is an evolution of humanity. In still others, like Charles Stross's Iron Sunrise, the Singularity spawns a God-like new intelligence that toys with humanity for its own reasons. Further reinforcing the God allusion is the name of the new intelligence, the Eschaton. You needn't be interested in this sort of thing to like Stross's book, which is great so far, but this sort of speculation is one of the reasons I like science fiction so much. It used to be that novels asked great questions of society, and science fiction is one of the few genres that seems interested in the question of where society is going.

The Singularity is Near is a newish book on the subject if you want a nonfiction look at the subject.

Where have all the bad-asses gone?

Stephen Hunter discusses the drought of bad ass heroes in Hollywood.

Today's stars need love. They don't want to be feared, they want to be hugged. They want to be told, "It's okay, big fella." They don't want to shoot anyone, if possible; they certainly won't beat a confession out of a suspect or verbally rip the head off a kid who's new to the unit and trying hard. Their anger is well managed. They never get even, they don't punish, they see the folly of vengeance, they inflict pain only on special occasions. (Last year's "Sin City" was one such occasion, where the point of the film was its removal from a moral spectrum, thus allowing its brutish heroes the freedom to torture, as each did.)

This isn't totally true as seen in revenge flicks like Payback and the Denzel one where he goes after Dakota Fanning. But its true, in our post-modern era, we've gone all reflective. While this is probably for the best socially, it makes for not so great action movies.

That about sums it up

Was it just me, or did Labor Day get kind of weird this year? From a NYT article about the Yankees/Royals game and KS starter Luke Hudson:

Hudson had an appropriate first name. It was “Star Wars” night at Kauffman Stadium, with Chewbacca throwing out the first pitch and an Ewok dancing to “Super Freak” for reasons unknown.

Monday, September 04, 2006

And where I go, I hope there's Rum

So I am reading Fiasco, but I swear I can only take it in small doses. About every half an hour, I want do one of these, except with Rumsfeld, faith, Bremer or some other person as the object of my ire. So while it remains a truly excellent book, at this point the most indispensable book on the Iraq war, I can only take so much.

So I am cutting the sadness by reading a book about sweet, sweet booze. And a Bottle of Rum is an enjoyable read so far. The author tells the history of Rum through the ages with a different cocktail serving as each chapter head. He describes rum as the true American booze. Unlike bourbon, which is highly regulated and controlled, rum has risen and fallen, adapted with the times and changed its nature to suit the market. What could be more USA? As befits the subject, the writing is humorous as well, without being silly. More on the book later, but if your appetite is whetted, have a look at Spirit World's rum articles.

Another place for parents in Portland

Portland is pretty kid friendly as cities go, but not every place in Portland is kid friendly. In many places you get a sneer when you bring the little ones. So I was happy when reading, um, Urban Mamas, and heard about Sip N Kranz. It's a nice coffee shop with its own baked goods, as well as some from Saint Cupcake and Black Sheep Bakery (which are vegan and hence, not for me.) They have a giant kid's play area, easily the biggest I have seen in Portland. But the most important thing is that is on Jamison Square, with the great fountain. It's a win-win, the kids get to play and the parents can get some food and drink, soon to be real drink as Sip N Kranz is getting a liquor license. They were very friendly and I thought the scone was very good. The crowd is a bit odd with parents and young kids as well as Pearl District yupsters. Still, a very good place.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Best beer

Portland Beer Blog lists the 25 best Beers in America, as taken from Men's Journal. The list appears to be unranked as there is no reasoning to say why #1 is better than #25. It's a good list with beers you should try if you have a chance. They list the 60 minute IPA from Dog Fish Head, but not the 90 Minute. Bah! Says I, the 90 minute is far tastier, while also more potent. They also list the Full Sail Session which is a sort of Post-PBR drink for the hipsters who want the next thing. The list is nicely spread across the nation too, so you should be able to get most of these, unless you live in South Carolina where the beer limit ABV is limited. You can buy your beer to the breaka breaka breaka dawn, but it can't be strong. Wierd.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Reading the reviews

Flitting about the web, I ran into a couple of interesting books:

Sea of Faith: This LA Times review makes me want to read this short history of Islam and Christianity in the medieval Mediterranean. This paragraph may help you decide if the book is interesting to you as well:

Yet this book also reminds us of the extent to which history and civilizations rest upon military foundations. "We take for granted the confessional geography of the Mediterranean, that is, which countries are, in their majority, Muslim or Christian," O'Shea notes. "Yet there was nothing inevitable about Turkey being overwhelmingly Muslim, or Spain being overwhelmingly Christian. This geography of belief was decided in the millennium of the Middle Ages, through the contingencies of battle and the actions of men."

Gallatin Canyon: The NY Times has a good review of this one. It's by Thomas McGuane, a author I associate with whacked out short stories that read like a cross of Cormac McCarthy and Thom Jones. The closing sentences might get you.

McGuane has driven so hard into the heart of a received wisdom concerning American manhood, otherwise known as American loneliness, that he has broken through to the other side. Like all serious fiction, “Gallatin Canyon” is hermaphroditic. Here’s hoping serious readers have the nerve to follow his lead.

Sold!

Here is an eye-catching opening to a review:

When future historians sift through the wreckage of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, they will rely in large part on a handful of books by brilliant reporters who watched the debacle unfold. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate is one such book, and Thomas E. Ricks's Fiasco is certain to be another. To this short list of indispensable accounts detailing how what was supposed to be a liberation became a quagmire, I would now add T. Christian Miller's Blood Money .

Robbed of my State Fair Treat

On a visit to the Oregon State Fair, I decided to try something that both intrigued and repelled me. The concession booths had all manner of junk food, but I saw something some think mythical, the fried candy bar. So I ordered one. My luck what it is, I found that the high schoolers running the booth had given me a fried Twinkee instead. Damn kids.

The Twinkee (or bar) is skewered on a stake, dipped in the cake batter and then fried. Now, it's not like I was expecting transcendence, but I was hoping my one million calorie treat would be far more interesting. The twinkee "material" melted into the dough and the white creamy stuff stayed around the stick. It could be I was totally gyped as this article says the candy bar version is better than love. Maybe. Also if I had accepted the proffered chocolate and powered sugar to grace the top, I would have had more flavor action. I can also go to the UK where they are deep frying Cadbury Cream Eggs.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Decline of western civilization, part 712

How did I not hear about this before now? I know certain parties would argue for 24 (with its teeny tiny protagonist, the almost ex-Mr. Julia Roberts), but Deadwood is the best show on television. Every one of the main characters (even - perhaps especially - the fat newspaper editor) would eat Jack Bauer for breakfast.

Man, first the Fat Boys break up, now this.

The last American statesman (?)

A good story about Rudy Giuliani here. I debated my mother in law recently (to the extent you can characterize hitting your head on a wall "debate") about whether any sane person could vote Republican in 2008, given the GOP's trip down the rabbit hole over the past 6 years. Rudy could be the exception but there is no way he will survive the primaries. At the rate we are going, the Bush junta will seize power under some previously unknown inherent executive authority in late 2007 anyway, so perhaps the issue is moot.

I never thought you'd be an addict because James Frey is so passe

Here is a well written and amusing post about being addicted to books about addiction. Nice line:

Frey has fatally undermined the sincerity and veracity of the whole genre for me. Not that it will stop me reading.

And she has a very good review of Black Swan Green.

Portland vs. Seattle

This weekend we have friends from DC visiting. They are trying to decide whether to move to Portland or Seattle. Trip Advisor has a few debates on the issue. For me, it's about family friendly livability. Portland has good (if imperiled) schools, is low (violent) crime and it doesn't cost too much to live close into the city. Added bonuses are better access to the beach (half as long to get there). And Powells. And Max.

Puget Sound totally beats the Williamette/Columbia combo I must admit. Boating is much more interesting on big water than on a river. Of course Mt. Hood doesn't threaten the metro with the mudslide of doom like Mt. Rainier does.

Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you

I just finished the Zanzibar Chest which I can partially recommend. The book has two alternating stories, one of which quite interested me, the other of which dragged. The first one concerns the author Aidan Hartley's life as war reporter in 1980s and 90s Africa. I liked it for two reasons. Hartley has wonderful descriptions of life as a stringer and then a full reporter for the news services. The life doesn't seem compelling, a bit like a bad metaphor for rock touring, you go out, get shot at, try to get something done, then go back tp a run down hotel for drugs, drinks and whores. Even more interesting is his depiction of the detail of Africa's crises that don't make the news. You hear about things so bad they don't go in the paper, and Hartley tells you about a lot of them. Anyway, it's all quite interesting.

The other story concerns the Zanzibar chest which contains the diaries of his father's friend Davey, who lived in Aden (which is Aidan's namesake). This part just didn't interest me that much, which is too bad. It is clearly of great import to the author. There were elements I liked, such as how his family's history of living and working abroad carried over to his own desire to live and work in Africa. He grew up there and felt more at home among Africans then he did among his fellow British nationals. Anyway, you can always just read the sections you like, the author splits them for you.