Monday, December 31, 2007

Don't watch this trailer

As this Monsterfest blog post notes, here be spoilers for the film version of Scott Smith's the Ruins. If you watch you will learn a few too many things about the book, so do as Monsterfest suggests and just read the book.

This excellent horror novel suffered from overhype (notably from the Stephen write-up on Amazon,) but it remains one of the most distressing and disturbing horror novels in years. The book is not for most people, but for those longing for a horror story with a moral core, this is a good choice.

It has a genuine sympathy with its characters that so much of the torture porn that stands in for horror lacks. I suppose it is this complicity with the killers that Haneke is getting at with his controversial Funny Games. This sympathy for the devil is what spoiled the follow-ons to Silence of the Lambs and the rise of evil anti-heroes like Jigsaw.

The characters who find themselves trapped in a Mayan ruin are real and their suffering is often a challenge to read. It isn't a book for everyone, but if you want to see how regular people might face a fantastic doom, then this is your book.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I stayed the cold day with a lonely satellite

There are many in my generation ( the X one) that wish they had experienced the 60s, by which they either mean the Summer of Love or the political idealism. Well if you ask me, we have plenty of free love and political idealism these days, but what we don't have is the excitement of the space race. With that, we had a (brief) flourish of interest in science and in expanding the realm of humanity. Sure it was mostly pipe dreams and a cover for international rivalry. That said, it must have been both scaring and thrilling at the time.

In Red Moon Rising, Matthew Brzezinski tells the story of the start of the space race, the launch of Sputnik. His main areas of interest are the personal and bureaucratic rivalries that held the US back and helped get the Soviet Union ahead initially. He presents a clear picture of how policy is often accidental.

The story has been told before, but Brzezinski has the talent, like Richard Preston in the Hot Zone, to surface the thriller elements and to explain what makes each development so interesting. He begins the book with a detailed and almost breathless account of a V-2 launch against London and then the rush by the Western and Soviet armies to collect as many German scientists and V-2 technology as possible.

The book is short and the result is that there is not as much analysis as one might like. That said, this is a fun and informative read.

Friday, December 28, 2007

You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals

Here is a book that is going to get tongues wagging. Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies is the sort of title that screams moderation and careful argumentation. Not unlike his book from the 60s, The Law Breakers, America's Number One Domestic Problem.

Last pie of the year

So I finally ran into a pie from Ken Haedrich's super-fantastic cook book Pie about which I have ambiguous feelings. The Ivy House Sugar Cream Pie is strange. First it looks odd, as it is as white as snow. Then the taste is strange, sweet of course, as it is just sugar, butter and milk, but not overly so. It tastes like some form of 1970s candy which I can't identify. Of the five people I have given a slice, a few liked it, but most didn't, agreeing with a commenter on this site which called it yucky. I ended up with positive feelings overall, but it isn't nearly as good as the buttermilk or maple cream pies and as such will probably not get made again.

On the sugar cream front I tried Necco's Old Fashioned Cream Drops. Imagine ten times the creamy center from Goetze's Caramel Creams covered in drug store chocolate. Although it is of the class of circus peanuts, I found it oddly appealing, but I also think Cow Tales are fabulous.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A few sci-fi items

Here is Peter Suderman on the sad decline of Orson Scott Card.

Here is the entire first episode of the late lamented Firefly. This comes from Hulu, NBC's upcoming TV content site.

Here are the covers for the new Iain M Banks, Peter Hamilton and some other guy.


I find it hard to gauge whether people will like Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. I lent the first one friend who loved it and he sent it to another that thought it was among the worst books of all time*. I suppose it depends on what you want in a book. Child's genius is not in his style, in his characterization or in particular, his believability.

Instead he creates truly nasty bad guys given to inventive means of killing. He then puts them up against Reacher, a loner Ex-MP who is smart, cynical and willing and capable of delivering immense amounts of GBH. So, nothing deep or redeeming here. Instead, Child provides strange mysteries solved by a very dangerous person set in a world where institutions are highly suspect. Call it post-pulp-noir if you like.

I ended up putting down Tripwire, which I thought was bloated and unfocused. The follow-on book Running Blind (called The Visitor in the UK, which is a better title) is far more effective, with Reacher reluctantly working with the FBI on a case for which he was the initial suspect. The killer is vile as always and kills in a rather dramatic and bizarre fashion. The mystery isn't lock tight, I figured out the how about halfway through, but the who was elusive until the end. Child's improvement in misdirection is evident in this book.

Tripwire was burdened with excessive character development, in this case a love story, which took away from what we need in these stories, weird crimes and Reacher's inventive responses to them. I'm happy that Tripwire was an aberration, not least because I had already bought the next book, Echo Burning, in hopes that I would like Running Blind.

*I should note that I lent him what he considers the top worst book of all time. Michael Slade's Ghoul. He is right, it sucks, but it was 1988, so give me a break. This one was blurbed by Bruce Dickinson of all people.

Monday, December 24, 2007


I hope every one is enjoying Christmas. I made the family egg nog and although I dialed it back a bit, it remains best for those with at least a 16 Constitution.

This Sci Fi sound quiz is fun. I scored 85 out of 100. From the same site is news of another Dune movie.

One of the best named blogs of all time, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, has a number of posts on the dire effects of a decline in reading. They relate back to an article the blogger, Caleb Crain, wrote for the New Yorker.

Check out the vitriol in this discussion of creepy kids books.

The NYRB has republished Norman Mailer's reporting from the 1968 conventions.

The link to which is points is subscription only, but BookDaddy reports that the bulk of our knowledge of the Nordic gods comes from a single text!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Britt sings Bruce

Strange. I was just mentioning that one of my favorite Bruce songs is I'm Going Down and then I just found this cover of Britt Daniel singing it.

My mirrors are black for you

30 Days of Night was a okay horror comic. The story is simple, too simple. Barrow, Alaska, gets really dark in winter, which is ideal for vampires. So when the long night comes a bunch of vampires come eat the townspeople. Then the townspeople fight back. The End. The pedestrian plotline had a few mild surprises, but the art is the main attraction. The colors veer from shades of gray to wild reds and their mouths open like a sharks to eat the victims.

The sequel, Dark Days, is an improvement. There is an interesting story this time involving a human and a vampire seeking their own revenge for deaths in Barrow. The end works well and calls into question the motivations of some of the characters. Because there is a story, there is much less gore, although there is plenty still.

The Secret is another graphic novel horror novel, although it is less successful than Dark Days. In this tale, a group of teens make prank calls and end up calling the wrong person. A girl disappears and one boy is determined to find out what happened. Nothing good of course. The climax is exciting and well done, but the denouement is cliched.

It is much harder to make a good horror story in graphic novels, and movies than it is in books. A partially imagined fright is much worse than something on screen or in an image. Once you see it, you can categorize it and understand it. It is much easier to develop dread, fear and horror in words as your own brain fills in the terrible details.

Still, I keep reading these things, so there must be something to them. These graphic novels are like B-horror movies, but they have the great advantage that they take much less time to read.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Random items

The long delayed Cool Moon Ice Cream is open. Located across from one of Portland's great summer kid magnets, Jamison Square, it is too bad they opened at the beginning of winter. They serve the standard flavors but also things like "Unusual flavors could include avocado, candied ginger, Black cherry with chocolate and pine nuts, Campari grapefruit sorbet, and many others. Possibilities are only limited by imagination!" While there weren't that many off the wall flavors available when I walked it, there were enough to make the choice a challenge.

I tried butter pistachio and lemon ginger, which would have been better apart then together. The butter pistachio is an improvement over baseline butter pecan, as the pistachios deliver more flavor. The butter flavor unfortunately overpowered the ginger in the lemon ginger ice cream. The lemon ginger was quite tasty and is probably best had alone to savor the shift from tart to sweet.

The shop serves a wide range of sundaes and sodas as well. The staff is friendly and the shop itself is cheery. This is a good addition to Portland.

I saw the Jicks last night at the Doug Fir. If a band you like is playing the Doug Fir, go. The sound is great, the venue is small, there is a full bar in back and the tickets are inexpensive. The Jicks sounded great and continued in their jammy vein they have been exploring. This means the default indie dance mode of a barely perceptible head nod is giving way to a mode of dancing last seen on the HORDE tour.

Speaking of Portland and music, Carrie Brownstein is now blogging about music and other topics on NPR. Her pieces are thoughtful and well-written, have a look.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Turn and face the strange

Does all the Christmas cheer get you so down that you are looking for some adultery and murder, of the literary sort? Then Michael Dibdin's Dirty Tricks may be just your book. Dibdin is best know for his Aurelio Zen mysteries, but I think his stand-alones, like the Last Sherlock Holmes Story, are more fun.

This volume is a witty, acid look at the British class structure, including the Thatcherite nouveau riche, ca. 1991. The main character, Tim, undergoing an extradition investigation in a Latin American country describes his take on the crimes he is said to have committed. Returning to Britain after years abroad teaching English, the narrator Tim begins to connive his way into wealth via adultery and skulduggery. The twists and turns as he tries to maintain his position are the fun of the tale. And as it turns out Tim may not be the only one sleeping in the wrong bed. It sounds quite a bit like Matchpoint, but it is funnier and presents a broader cultural attack than the Allen film.

The narrator, who is a truly reprehensible person, is not unlike Tony Soprano. He is a likable person who occasionally reveals what a terrible person he is. The reader laughs along with his observations and then recoils at his actions or his often baldly stated cruelty. And as you might expect a predator like Tim forgets that sometimes they chase the wrong prey.

Best Christmas show

This is really, really late, but it is worth noting that this DVD collection collects a number of single Christmas DVDs into one of the better collections out there. You get the Grinch but you also get The Year Without Santa Claus (featuring Heat and Coldmiser,) and Nestor the Long Eared Donkey ( terribly underrated in my mind. Here is his song) and Rudolph's Shiny New Year. From the latter you may recall the Father Time Song. So it's mostly Rankin and Bass plus the Grinch, which aside from the Charlie Brown special, is all you need.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

From beanies and weenies to chevre

David Kamp's The United States of Arugula is the cheery, optimistic companion to the reflective, worried Omnivore's Dilemma. Michael Pollan's book focuses on the American food supply today, while Kamp explores how the US went from a country that made Dr Pepper-based olive jello molds, to one with dozens of pastas and cheeses in a non-specialty store.

Kamp identifies the beginnings of taste in American cuisine with the rise of the Big Three, James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. Claiborne created the serious food section and restaurant reviews at the New York Times, and may be less known that the others. These people built the world of food writing, which hadn't existed before in the United States.

The next sections deal with the rise of specifically American high end restaurants. Much of this section is devoted to the story of Chez Pannise, which emerged as a post-hippie idea that local ingredients were best. While the writers and the high end restaurants certainly motivated the elites, the related rise of the celebrity chef spread the foodie culture to a broader slice of society.

This is an upbeat book that views American cuisine and food culture at a high point and climbing. He points to the introduction of more options at fast food restaurants as a sign that tastes are changing at all levels of society. While Kamp may be a bit too optimistic, this is a fun read with amusing gossip and great stories about the world of food.

Through the storms and the light

FHM delivers their top ten sci-fi hotties, to which I say fie. Where is Col. Wilma Deering? Barbarella? Kalylee Frye? Jessica Six? Scully? I mean come on.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

An odd one from Bruen

Ken Bruen's Killing of the Tinkers is the follow up to his the Guards and feature the drunken ex-cop, Irish hepcat Jack Taylor. It's an odd book, billed as a crime novel but it is really more of Irish Bukowski set against a crime back-drop. Taylor isn't so much an anti-hero as he is a non-hero. He is a side character used for color elevated to protagonist. Taylor is asked to investigate crimes, but in this book even more than the last, the story is about his sorry life and the sorry decisions he makes.

It's an altogether strange book. Bruen has always been about dialogue and character, but that is all there is to these books. Even the turns and surprises of the crime case is really just a backdrop for the reactions of Our Jack. His American Skin will be more interesting to crime readers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A few covers

It doesn't reach the glories of Radiohead's cover Headmaster Ritual, which is the rare straight ahead cover that sounds better, but Velvet Revolver's cover of Bodies is great fun. You can find it here along with an oh so appropriate cover of Negative Creep. It sounds pretty much like you would think Velvet Revolver playing Bleach-era Nirvana sounds like, heavy and not-pretending.

And the Arcade Fire have a Smiths and some Clash covers over here.

Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is a compelling, rich study of how America gets its food that blends a John McPhee like personal journey with probing and difficult philosophical questions about how we should eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is what should we have for dinner. In the past, the choices were limited, but today they are close to unlimited. Pollan charges that we should understand from whence our food comes. To do that, he traces the food sources of four meals, a fast food dinner, an organic meal from a national chain, a locals-only meal and finally a meal personally hunted and gathered.

The key to fast food, and by extension much of the grocery, is corn. His exploration of the role of corn in the modern diet is good enough to warrant buying the book. He describes how policy developed to support low corn prices and the deleterious effect on cow and human health that results. He also explains why farmers are stuck with the system.

In the organic chapters, Pollan questions the extent to which Big Organic is really better than what Whole Foods would term conventional growing. He argues it is better, especially due to great reduction in chemicals, but argues that the overall environmental impact is similar. Virginia's Poly Face Farms is the hero of the tale. Through rigorous rotations, the Salatin family produces a wide range of meats for locals and does so in one of the most environmentally friendly ways possible.

Pollan is very much part of the story, buying a cow to follow it through the nation's beef supply and working on the Salatin's farm to understand how they differ. He briefly becomes a vegetarian to understand that approach. In order to complete his study of food, Pollans goes on mushroom hunts, forages for fruit, grows vegetables and then goes hunting for wild boar. Although initially skeptical, he comes to understand the hunting mystiques but believes it must be felt to be understood.

His eventual pro-hunting stance is part of the complex food view he constructs which argues for eating as locally and as environmentally friendly as possible. He ends up opposing animal rights as being fixated on the rights of individual animals without thought to ecology. He vigorously and convincingly argues against the industrialization of agriculture which primarily helps the companies involved to the great detriment of health and the environment.

This is an excellent read and you will find yourself wanting to pass on your copy. At the airport this weekend, a man saw my copy and approached me to comment that he had just started and wondered what I thought about the book. It is that kind of book.

Are you asking for a challenge?

Yessir, yessir I am.

Try this geography challenge. I made it to level 12, but have yet to defeat that level.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

He's gonna be your number one

Midnight Tides, book five of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, is another excellent volume in what may be the best fantasy series being written today. Although it is not categorically superior to Memories of Ice or House of Chains, it improves the series in a number of ways.

Firstly it successfully balances the series bleak tone with effective uses of humor, in particular the relationship between the oddly broke financial genius Tehol Beddict and his oddly knowledgeable manservant Bugg. Their schemes and manipulations are truly amusing, a feat Erikson hasn't really managed before. The humor is appreciated as Erikson continues to serve capital-E-epic tales of the destruction of nations and families.

In this case, a family of Tiste Edur, including a character who appears chronologically later in House of Chains, and a family of human Letherii tragically interact with each other. This being Erikson you know some of them are going to die, but the varieties of magic allow for peculiar fates. He weaves the small scale personal stories quite well into the overall political struggle between the Edur and the Letherii, again an improvement. In some of his other novels, many of the plotlines have been either tangential or set-ups for future volumes. This is probably the best integrated plot yet.

This is the second book in a row where Erikson moves the overarching narrative to an entirely new set of characters. At first this is frustrating, as you miss the earlier characters and have to work to learn new countries, religions and so on. This switching is one way Erikson keeps the books so fresh. He does create new characters, but eventually weaves them back into the major plotline involving the battle amongst the gods.

Also new is the political context of this book. At a certain point, I was wondering if I was reading a fictionalized account of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? The nation of Letherii is clearly meant to depict the flaws of 21st century America, notably hubris, an addiction to military power as a tool, an overemphasis on firepower, expanding inequality and a crushing load of debt. The treatment of native Americans is also figures importantly. This might get the fantasy haters interested, but they stopped reading this in the first sentence.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sci fi Indiana?

Now the very idea of an Indiana Jones IV may make people scream, but an Indiana Jones with aliens might make them scream all the more. I am all for it.

If you do like aliens, perhaps you will like the Star Wars toys that never were. I suspect the Owen and Beru would have been big hits.

Picking the next book

In looking at my next book to read, I have a bad habit of picking books I am less likely to enjoy than one I am likely to enjoy. A case in point in the Omnivore's Dilemma, which I am greatly enjoying. Despite my great interest in the subject matter (food and the American diet) and the great accolades accorded the book, I let it sit on my shelf while books I could have safely bet I would like less made it to the bedside first. Why?

I can point to a few reasons that lead to sub-optimal reading for me.

Gift or loan book: If someone gives or loans you a book, they expect to hear back about it, so these books tend to head to the front of the line. Sometimes they are in fact the best choice, as has happened recently with the Malazan books and Shot in the Heart. The better someone knows you, the better off you are.

Library books: I tend to check books out willy nilly. I can take the risk because there is no cash cost, although there is the reading opportunity cost to consider (which I don't usually consider.) Fortunately, this risk is mitigated by quickly dropping books I am not enjoying.

Finding the next great book: I have to admit a big part for me is my desire to tell people about some great book they haven't read or even heard of. This requires reading the lesser known and under-praised, and reading a lot of good if not great books. This generates lots of "I could have had a V-8" moments.

Pretty colors: I have a lot of unread books. If I had to guess, the number would in the low hundreds. So when I walk around the house looking at the various unread books, an attractive spine is more likely to catch my eye then a dowdy one.

So with all of that, it is a treat when I read something truly outstanding.

Update: I realized, after I posted, that this sounds whiny. Poor me, lots of books as gifts, wah! Really I was just getting at why does it take so long to read books you know you will like.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A good book

After fitfully reading two books that left me if not cold, then certainly chilly, I am completely engaged in Michael Pollan's the Omnivore's Dilemma. It covers some of the same ground as Fast Food Nation, but looks at all of American eating, not just the fast food. I found it almost immediately engaging. Read the introduction and first chapter here (note: it is a PDF if that is an issue), I expect you will be hooked.


There is a fine tradition of satirical Amazon reviews. For quite some time, fake reviews were posted for the various Family Circus books, but Amazon has deleted most of them. As this post notes they are related to the Dysfunctional Family Circus. There are still good ones out there though. The ones for Tuscan Whole Milk are truly great (via Andrew Sullivan).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Finishing the Wheel of Time

The Jordan books will be finished by Brandon Sanderson. Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist isn't psyched. At least this way it will be finished in a single volume.


Have there ever been good prequels? Really, I was trying to think of one and couldn't. I was thinking initially of the Dune prequels and of course of those movies, but other than that have there been prequels of value?

Ironic internet humor

If you miss MST3K, you might want to look at Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. The former is an upcoming series of downloadable/DVD-based shows similar to the original show. The latter is an ongoing series, by the second host, Michael J Nelson, of downloadable commentaries on more popular films. I would like to listen to the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Here is Chad Vader interacting with the RiffTrax.


Books like the Long Tail have popularized the shift from mass to niche culture. In Microtrends, pollster Mark Penn expands the topic area to politics and takes a data-centric view of 75 changes that spell business and political opportunity. The book's overarching thesis is similar to that of the Long Tail's arguing that as citizens and consumers, people are defining themselves in ever smaller segments. This will be tough for marketers, but far worse for political parties as they have to manage ever more diverse coalitions.

The specific nature of the 75 microtrends means that the interest in each chapter will vary greatly. Some will focus on the politically oriented trends and others will be more interested in the cultural ones. I found the growth in participation of individual sports like archery and kayaking and the decline of team sports like basketball and football to be interesting. At first glance it would look like validation of the Bowling Alone concept, but it could also be a reflection of increased access to less traditional sports. Much of the fun of the book is debating the underlying causes of the trends. On a book-related note, Penn notes that the average length of novels read is increasing.

You can read an interview with an author and download a chapter at the book's website. The site discusses a fair amount of the book's content and gives you a chance for a test drive.

Microtrends is published by the Twelve, an imprint that will publish only 12 books a year. It's a bit gimmicky of course, but the implication is that the books are good enough to sell. The latest is the Nuclear Jihadist, a book about AQ Khan.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Least favorite Christmas song

I quite like Christmas music, esp. the Bing Crosby sort. Listening to the Christmas station though, you run the risk of listening to some real horrors. Here are my least faves.

3) Christmas Shoes. An aggressively saccharine and annoying song that implies that God makes people sick and die so that better off people remember what Christmas is about. Here is Patton Oswalt hating on the song.

2) Wonderful Christmas Time. This is one is godawful AND it is written by one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I suspect that McCartney figured he'd never write anything to equal Merry Christmas (War is Over) and decided to write the worst possible Christmas song.

1) Christmas in the Northwest. This one sounds like it was recorded in a car commercial session that got out of hand. So very bad. This one is only inflicted on those of us in the Pacific Northwest. Be glad if you live elsewhere.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Wire prequels

If you enjoy the Wire, then check out these short prequel films on Amazon. If you haven't seen the show, the prequels will give you a sense of the feel.

Gift Idea: For those who want to read one book on American foreign policy

Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence provides the cleanest, most comprehensive model that I have seen for understanding the sources of American policy. Many other accounts focus on the specific visions of presidents or the changes wrought by the end of World War 2. Mead argues that four traditions started early in the Republic and continue to drive foreign policy, albeit in differing combinations.

The first tradition, Hamiltonian, emphasizes policies that promote economic growth. The second, Jacksonian, is the populist and nationalist strand that makes the US an unpleasant enemy. The third Wilsonian is the strand that seeks to improve the world, sometimes through treaty and sometimes through force. The last, and often weakest is the Jeffersonian which seeks to make the country a model for others, but is largely disengaged. So for example, the Bush administration is strongly Wilsonian and Jacksonian, while the Clinton administration was strongly Hamiltonian with a less aggressive Wilsonian strand.

While there is an element of abstract analysis involved, the book is readable and fair. Mead is an engaging stylist, injecting humor and telling observations in his story-telling. He is center-right in orientation, so left-oriented people may disagree with some of his eventual prescriptions, but even those who disagree will find his way of looking at foreign policy to be helpful in understanding the cultural constraints and incentives in which American foreign policy is created.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Book related music

Tegan & Sara's addictive Back in Your Head starts out with "Build a wall of books between us in our bed," which got me thinking about book related tunes. Yes, yes, in the case of this song books are a symbol of a decayed relationship, but there aren't that many songs that tie directly to reading and books.

The erudite Morrissey puts out one of the most litero-centric songs of all time in Cemetery Gates. I doubt we will ever see so many poesy references in a pop song again.

For whatever reason, Sting caught flack for his Lo-lee-ta reference in Don't Stand So Close to Me. I suspect this was due to people thinking Sting can be pompous rather than for daring to reference a work of fiction in a pop song. And I think it is an appropriate reference in this case.

In the horror genre, Metallica's the Thing that Should Not Be is entirely about Lovecraft's Cthulhu. The even have an instrumental called Call of Ktulu, referencing Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu.

In Weezer's nerd anthem, In the Garage, Rivers Cuomo gives us not only Nightcrawler but also Kitty Pryde.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Like Classical Athens and Victorian London, Renaissance Florence is one of those peculiar places where greatness, artistic, commercial and political, congregated. Traci Slatton's Immortal explores the rise and fall of the city through the eyes of an undying boy, from an early encounter with Giotto to interactions with the various Medicis.

Like the city itself, the book switches from the potential beauty of the city, represented by the art, and the dark side, represented by the boy's often unpleasant life. The boy starts out as an abandoned street urchin and shortly becomes a imprisoned whore. His life gets better but his undying youth earns him enemies who bedevil him throughout the book until his final end. The boy represents the potential of Florence, as a fair republic and a sponsor of art, but the forces of reaction constantly threaten its destruction.

The book is aimed at those who enjoy historical fiction with a spiritual/fantastic bent. Not only does the titular character not age, but he has visions which provide him with a deeper understanding of how the world operates. Given this spiritual leaning, it is a little surprising how violent the book is, although this is part of the story Slatton tells. Some background in Florentine/art history will also help when reading the book.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Some stuff

This fake apocalypse movie trailer with Seth Rogan is fun.

Check out the destroyed cities I am Legend posters from around the world.

Joanna seeks and finds the best oatmeal cookie in Portland.

Its December and I have seen no Mallomars in Portland. I grow concerned.

The Guardian wonders if people have stopped reading Conrad. I for one still would like to read Nostromo.

Shot in the Heart

Did I say that Shot in the Heart was my top read for 2007? Silly me, this may be my top read of the decade. It is clearly going on my all time favorite list. As I mentioned before, this is the story of Gary Gilmore's family, and it is so rough (one brother executed, one dead far too young from fast living, one a shattered man floating alone and one a successful writer) that it isn't a surprise that author Mikal Gilmore thinks it would have been best if his parents never married and had children.

Gilmore captures the effect and range of powerful emotion with an impact greater than that of novelists, because it is real. The tragic nature of his family history means that two of the most significant emotions are loss and regret. His exploration of the choices not made and the relationships lost made me so reflective that I couldn't sleep for hours after finishing the book.

There have been many sad and terrible stories in the past, but Gilmore keeps the reader from becoming numb by changing the tone and the direction. He talks about the happy times the family had, if only to show what might have been. He also spends a lot of time on the family mythology. In some cases, there are actual ghost stories. In others, family members tell stories that are metaphorical or allegories to explain the terrible past. Gilmore notes where he cannot corroborate the stories, but the tales reinforce the omnipresent power of both family and the past.

Portlanders will be interested in the depiction of Portland from the 40s to the 70s with a brief visit to the early 90s. Most of the activity is in SE Portland and Milwaukee but the wild night life gets a nod as well.

Monday, December 03, 2007


The LA Times has an article on Powell's at its point of management transition. The article celebrates the store but notes challenges like a management transition, the drop in used book prices, a flattening of sales and the uncertainty of the book market. On the plus side, the article notes initiatives like the book documentaries.

Sometimes I take Powell's for granted, which I shouldn't.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Back to History Challenge 2008

Who can resist a good reading challenge? Shannon at the Back to History Challenge calls for people to read 12 history books in 2008. The following rules are provided:

A FEW RULES... All participants should try to mix up their reading choices. Please do not have ALL biographies, or ALL memoirs, etc. There is no limit on any sub-category, but remember...this is supposed to be a CHALLENGE. You should be getting out of your comfort zones and finding something new to explore. You should read one historical non-fiction, or historical fiction novel a month. Ultimately...let’s have fun!

My challenge will be making a dent in the piles of books I already own. My normal behavior is to buy new book and then get distracted by the latest and greatest. Here then are my 12 choices, with some possible substitutes

1) 1491 by Charles Mann. This is a history of the Americas up to the arrival of Columbus. An area of which I know little.

2) Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper. Despite the title, this is both military and political history.

3) Inside the Cold War by H.W. Brands. Brands is a favorite, which I suppose violates the comfort rule, but this is more academic, so I have to get points for that.

4) The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze. Lots of war-related items on this list, but this is primarily economic history, an area in which I am terribly under-read.

5) Queen's Play by Dorothy Dunnett. Her use of medieval idiom and vocabulary tends to befuddle me, but I'd like to give her another try.

6) The Gates of Africa by Anthony Sattin. A history of the search for Timbuktu.

7) A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne. The leading account, in English, about the French War in Algeria. The parallels to Iraq make it a all the more compelling.

8) Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000 by Martin Torgoff. A political and social history of drug use in America.

9) Rise and Fall of British Naval History by Anthony Kennedy. An early work by the prophet of decline.

10) Damage Them All You Can by George Walsh. A single volume history of the Army of Northern Virginia. If I am feeling particularly studious, I will swap this or follow up with Lee's Lieutenants.

11) A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen. The title sounds dreary, but it has a snappy cover image, and it is published by Vintage which is usually a good sign for history.

12) Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies by Robert Sklar. This one might require more work in the lingo of cultural studies.

Other options
1) India: A History by John Keay.
2) City of Nets by Otto Friedrich

Friday, November 30, 2007

Best read of 2007?

I can't say this for certain, as I am about 25% through it, but Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart is the leading contender for my best nonfiction read of 2007. Gilmore is is Gary Gilmore's brother, and the book concerns the astoundingly tragic story of his family. The tone is not one of absolution, but really an explanation. Gilmore explains the Book of Mormon's success as coming from its focus on two of America's favorite subjects, family and murder. The painful, honest look at family and blood is what makes this book so powerful.

This is the sort of book that lends credence to Helene Hanff's assertion that nonfiction is so good that there is little reason to read fiction. Many novels try to explain the profound impact of family on life, but I don't know that I've seen a novel that does it as well as this.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kids Gift Idea: Gail Gibbons

In her 135 non-fiction children's books, Gail Gibbons has covered a lot of subjects. Her recent books include one on snakes, dinosaurs, coral reefs, vegetables, galaxies and ice cream. Her books are great because they appeal to a wide range of ages. The youngest children (2-4) will like the playful images and the basic text. Older children (4-8) will enjoy the more-in depth information she provides about her subjects. She packs quite a bit into these books and she presents it so clearly that children will be eager to learn and read more.

One of our favorite's is Tell Me Tree, which provides a surprising amount of information. If you are looking for fun, easy ways for you kids to learn about science and the world, these books are great choices.

Bad Book Gifts

Books make fine gifts as, if chosen well, they are both reasonably inexpensive and personalized. It is always nice when someone takes the time to seek out a volume particularly suited to your interests and temperament. On the flip side, a poorly chosen book might be worse than no gift at all. We tell our kids "It's the thought that counts," but when the thought is "I was too cheap and/or busy to get you something you want to read," well, you are better off just getting a box of See's.

Among the categorically bad choices are:

The Book Club Selection You Failed to Return in Time: As a former member of the History Book Club, the Science Fiction Book Club, the Library of America and the Folio Society, I can say that sometimes I ended up keeping the monthly selection out of laziness. Only once though did I use one of these as gifts and, boy, did I pick a doozy. You can be assured that the recipient of the Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History saw through my ruse.
British Editions: This may be a Portland-only problem. If you receive a British copy of a book, your friend either recently returned from Britain, enjoys paying high shipping rates or picked up the book at the remainder section at Powell's. If you really want to rub in your cheapness, be sure to get one with a big black remainder mark on the bottom.

Your Favorite Book: If you give someone your favorite book, they are sure to hate it and will avoid you so they don't have to discuss the book. One of my favorite aunts loves A Confederacy of Dunces, which I couldn't finish. Thank goodness she didn't give me a copy because I can just pretend I haven't read it when she brings it up.

Children's Books You Fail to Read Beforehand: This one is avoidable as you can usually skim through a children's book at the bookstore. If you don't, you might fail to notice that the story talks about making sculptures with cat poo, having your head pop off and go on its own journey, or reveals the true nature of Santa Claus. Giving a child the last one is a quick way to get some egg nog thrown in your face.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NPR Music

If you haven't seen it, NPR has a new music site with plenty of content. I am listening to this recent Kevin Drew/Broken Social Scene show at the 9:30 club. The sound quality is great, and there is some excellent banter, particularly after a problem in Time=Cause. (via

Everyone's a secret nerd, everyone's a closet lame

This SF Signal article about Star Wars collections, including a $25,000 one up on Ebay is fun. Like the author I passed all of mine on to cousins. Foolish me. I used to carry them around in the Darth Vader carrying case and my favorite toy of all was the Death Star play set. The last link is from 12Back which has a crazy amount of information on Kenner Star Wars toys.

YouTube continues to generate lots of fun Star Wars content. Check out this touching father son moment. And here are two re-dubs of Vader with other James Earl Jones sound bites.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

D-U-M-B, Everyone's accusing me

I consider myself reasonably astute, but I astound myself with my cluelessness sometimes. Today, whilst returning from Trader Joes and savoring a flattened banana, I finally got what the Ramones were talking about in Howling at the Moon . Sha la las aside, here is how the song begins:

Ships are docking/Planes are landing/A never ending supply/No more narco/No more gangster/ Conservatives can cry.

Later in the song we hear: Keep it glowing, glowing,glowing/ I'm not hurting anyone

and in case we remain unclear we get Keep it glowing, smoking, glowing

No fooling, I thought this song was about economic redistribution. And since I first heard this song in the mid 80s, I have been thinking this for more than 20 years. My defense is that Joey is a well known old-school liberal and he talks about stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Incredibly weak, I know.

And your jokes are always bad, but they're not as bad as this

Instead of crappy reality shows, I wish our decade had crappy 70s-style variety shows, like the Brady Bunch Hour and the Carol Burnett Show. The jokes are terrible and the acting is wretched, but the crazy celebrity interactions are far more interesting than the egomaniacal scheming so common today. Yes reality shows were terrible, really awful, but in a bizarre rather than boring way. Despite the fact that the hideous Star Wars Holiday Special further grinds my love of Star Wars into the ground, there is something fun about the fact that something so silly was made at all.

I am fairly certain I saw the Star Wars show back in the day, but I am sad to say I missed Paul Lynde's Halloween Special from the same era. Newly released on DVD, it contains the same goofy jokes you would find on the Muppet Show, only with lots more gay innuendo. See for example Lynde's interactions with Kiss (!) along with some Solid Gold style lip synching by said band. More bad jokes here. Wow, if they were that lame, maybe I would prefer reality TV.

I'm a pie making star, I'm popular

On the face of it Buttermilk pie doesn't sound terribly tasty, but in his book Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie, Ken Haedrich proclaimed the buttermilk pie delicious and since it required simple ingredients (brown and white sugar, eggs, flour, buttermilk, butter and vanilla), I decided to try it. It's a interesting pie, a rich, not terribly sweet flavor which my daughter thought was like ice cream. In consistency it falls between a dense chess pie and a loose custard pie. This NPR story has a recipe similar to the one I used, although it used the less sweet option.

Haedrich's book is an excellent choice for those wanting easy to make, but tasty pies. In cooking, baking has traditionally been my Achilles Heel. I once made a cookie called the Christmas Jewels from the generally good, but occasionally overly retro Betty Crocker Cooky Book. The Christmas part came from the red and green candied fruit of the sort normally found in fruit cake. We put a plate out at a holiday party and found that only one cookie had been taken and whoever tried it took a bite and put it back. If I can make these pies, anyone can.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Risen Empire

Space opera is the form of science fiction that most people associate with all of science fiction. In movies like Star Wars, the emphasis is on adventure over scientific correctness. The emphasis is on story-telling rather than the exploration of science and the social ramifications of technological change. Space opera of the more epic sort, from the likes of Hamilton, Reynolds and Banks, tends to focus on periods of great galactic crisis where the fates of entire solar systems are in the balance.

Scott Westerfeld's epic space opera The Risen Empire moves away from the bloat of recent space opera novels delivering a brisk adventure story set a few thousand years from now. The titular Risen Empire is one of a number of intersolar polities that sprang up from Earth. The Empire's greatest foe is the Rix, humans that serve planet wide AIs and eventually become one with some kind of datasphere. The Risen Empire is run by a immortal emperor, such technology coming from symbiosis with exotic biotechnology. The Empire rewards loyalists with a form of immortality as well.

The story is broken into an action segment involving a hostage rescue that requires all sorts of advanced technology and a political story in which the background of the world is developed. Westerfeld develops a number of cool weapons and intelligence systems. Many of these seem like extreme developments of weapon systems we see today. The political story is a bit less interesting, but provides enriching context.

The downside of the slimmed down approach is that the world creation is limited. We learn about a variety of political parties and a few civilizations, but the background is limited. Some authors take this too far, but I think Westerfeld under does it.

Another more serious issue is that this book is really Part 1 of a single book. The story ends with major actions about to commence. There is nothing wrong with this, but it should be more clear. The Reality Dysfunction was split in two, but this made apparent by the Part I and Part II in the titles.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fans of the Wire Gift Idea: Night Gardener

For the longest time, I thought George Pelecanos was on the cusp of becoming one of the great mystery writers of the day. I thought his early books, set in DC and its environs, were good, but not great. The Derek Strange books were the first books of his books that really showed his capability and his work on the Wire has been excellent. Those who like the Wire would be well advised to read his Night Gardener, which is one of the best mysteries in years.

Like a season of the Wire, the Night Gardener follows a few apparently unrelated police, criminal and civilian subplots that converge in tragedy (another Wire trademark.) The main story line focuses on the possibility that a series of unsolved child murders, by the Night Gardener, has started again. The main characters of the story were on the scene of the final murder and work to see if the killer is indeed back.

Pelecanos has always focused on the everyday residents of DC and the terrible effects of crime on their lives. He is more effective than usual here with more than one sad story of bad decisions leading to worse ends. While not letting criminals off the hook, in fact they nearly all end badly, Pelecanos emphasizes that the society plays a part in people turning to crime. He also takes a few swipes at the drug war, another theme from the Wire. He isn't a polemicist though, he is much more interested in how people try to hold their lives together in a violent place.

Pelecanos is fascinated by vernacular and the meaningless conversations people use to kill time and to hide from their problems. This has always been a factor in his books, particularly debates about music, but here it feels more natural than it has in the past. This could grate for some readers and it may seem pointless.

As an added bonus, the book is out in mass market paperback, making it as cheap as some socks and a much more exciting stocking stuffer.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kid's Gift Idea: SuperHero ABC

Bob McLeod, a comic artist with both DC and Marvel experience, extended his art experience to the world of young children with his comic-like book SuperHero ABC. The text, almost entirely alliterative in the action comic tradition, includes the heroic but emphasizes the humorous. L is represented by the Laughing Lass who Laughs Loudly at Lawbreakers! Text bubbles inform us that she is Loony. Given his history, it is not a surprise that the art is fantastic. You can see many examples from the book on this page. While kids familiar with comic books might get the most out of the book, even those who have no exposure will laugh at the images and text.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Best of 2007

With book buying sure to jump with the holidays, the top of 2007 lists are proliferating. I am a little depressed that I have read only four of the hundred New York Times best of the year books. To a degree this is a reflection of my tendency to wait until paperback, but is also a reflection of my attraction to horror, science fiction and mystery books. Like the New York Times list, the Amazon best of 2007 is an excellent source of gift ideas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Kettle Chips has another People's Choice chip contest and this one is called Fire and Spice. Everyone go and vote for Mango Chili. Also get out into the stores and try all the flavors up for the vote. Prior Peoples' Choice got us the lovely Thai Spice, so vote responsibly.


Zodiac didn't fare so well at the box office, which is too bad. It's a thoughtful, beautifully crafted film about a police detective' and, in particular, a cartoonist turned writer's obsessive quest to identify the Zodiac killer. The murders, committed in the 60s remain unsolved, although the movie has a thesis about the killer's identity. That's because the movie uses the works of the cartoonist turned writer Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as important source material. Don't click through if you want to maintain the suspense.

The movie isn't a serial killer movie, there is in fact only brief moments of violence or even action. The movie is much more about the search for information by Graysmith and police detective David Toschi, supposedly the model for Dirty Harry. This is probably what kept people away. What makes it much more interesting is the slow deterioration of the reporters and police involved in the case. The failure to solve it destroys much of their lives.

Aside from the character studies the period detail that David Fincher applies is fantastic. In an opening shot of San Francisco, the skyline has been altered to remove buildings constructed since 1968 and the Embarcadero Freeway is digitally added. Even backdrops of key scenes were digitally altered to make them as they were.

Emphasizing the long, drawn out impact of the obsession, Fincher shows the TransAmerica tower under construction as means of time moving and he also uses musical cues to the passage of time. You know Graysmith has been on the path for awhile when Baker Street is playing.

I have one complaint. There is a good deal of argument out there against the thesis that Graysmith lays out, but the film doesn't address these arguments. It is only a movie of course, and it does not explicitly say this person is the killer, although it effectively does so. In so doing though, it helps extend Graysmith's obsession to the viewer. As soon as I finished the movie, I read the Wikipedia entry and read about the many theories.


If you haven't been to a theater or if you have just watched a crappy cell phone capture on YouTube, you will want to see this trailer for Cloverfield. Although the monster itself is a little less interesting, perhaps, the movie looks great. This is a movie I want to see on opening night.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Looming Tower

Perhaps due to GWOT overload, I put off reading the The Looming Tower, despite the high praise and the Pulitzer award. Don't make my mistake, move this one to the bedside table right away. This is the sort of non-fiction that keeps you reading way past a reasonable hour. The book is a personality driven history of the development of Al Qaeda and, to a much lesser degree, the people who tried to warn the US about it.

The main body of the story concerns the intellectual, political and murderous development of Osama Bin Laden and the lesser known but equally important Ayman al-Zawahiri. The two men were competitors for leadership of a Pan-Sunni Islamic movement, but circumstance, and poor decision-making on Zawahiri's part, brought them together, to our despair. Bin Laden comes off as a desert visionary, with little in the way of realism, but with great PR skills. Zawahiri brought the operational focus and helped developed the rationale for mass murder. Author Lawrence Wright clearly describes the philosophical shifts from trying to create more just regimes in the Arab world to a brutal nihilism that made 9/11 seem correct.

The dogged determination to destroy is surprising given how poorly Bin Laden and Zawahiri fared early in their jihadist careers. Their activities in Afghanistan were laughable in their ineptitude and their actions in the 90s almost always went sour. Their persistence and improvement led to the embassy bombings, the Cole and of course 9/11. This strong drive to survive, recoup and destroy is worrisome, because the organization still exists despite being relatively quiet in the past few years.

On the US side, we see the conflict between the flamboyant FBI agent John O'Neill and the aggressive CIA man Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris and other books. The personal conflict between the two is tragic becuase together they might have been able to prepare fror 9/11. Given the organizational conflicts between the FBI and the CIA, which range from legal to cultural, real cooperation might have been impossible anyway.

There are many books about 9/11 available today, but The Looming Tower is probably the best for most readers. The Age of Sacred Terror provides a much richer view of the US governmental response, but is geared towards a more educated audience, and it is quite a bit drier. Ghost Wars is an excellent book, but is focused specifically on Afghanistan and requires more dedication. Ideally you would read all three, and those that have read the latter should also read The Looming Tower, if only to get a better idea of the internal activities of the organization.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A spy in the house of chains

If you are debating whether to start Steven Erikson's epic ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen (the meaning of that Fallen is not completely clear, but I now have a strong guess,) then you should know two things. The first is that these books are not cross-over fantasy novels. This is not George RR Martin. These books are only for those who place a high value on extensive world creation, often as the expense of pacing, who don't mind grim depictions of war and violence that include the deaths of many main characters and enjoy storylines that take many books to complete. The second thing to know is that as of book four, the House of Chains, the quality of the books remains high and in many ways they are improving.

One of the improvements is more attention paid to character development. As part of his keen focus on world creation, Erikson develops a wide variety of nations and races and tends to include characters from each. The dramatis personae section of his books goes on for three or four pages. In the past, this has limited the time spent on any single character. In this book, the barbarian Karsa Orlong becomes a quite interesting character.

Orlong is a victim and eventually a danger to the many gods of the Malazan world. In these books, the divine world is as active and as in flux as the mortal world. Gods can lose their roles, die or become even more powerful. They directly manipulate the mortal world, for reasons that become more clear as the novels progress.

At least one friend dislikes this book because a number of the characters are so powerful that they brush aside nearly any resistance. While there are many of these characters, they are actually less important than they seem. While their impact is huge wherever they are, they tend to act alone which limits their overall impact. It is the organized and the competent that have the greatness impact.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It's gotten easier, to be green

If you read a lot of books, you might fret about the many trees that died to bring you the information. The folks at EcoLibris have some ideas for you. Go to the library, lend your books to friends or use an online sharing service. But hey, if people are going to keep writing books, someone is going to have to pay for them. EcoLibris offers a way to plant trees to offset your book reading. Here they are making an offer to plant trees to offset the production of the new Oprah editions of Pillars of the Earth. Here are the details:

If you buy the book and you want to help the environment, please send us an email to with your address and the first sentence of Chapter 4 (just to show us you bought the book..). Eco-Libris will balance out the book for the first 50 people who email us with the right sentence.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nov 15 Love of Reading

The Love of Reading Book Fair continues today, and I am one of the official guest bloggers today. Click here and check out the others. If you like Crime fiction (and who doesn't?) then take a look at Material Witness. Policy wonks should look at the website for Larry Sabato's A More Perfect Constitution. You can vote on a variety of proposals to adapt the political system. Go take a look!


I am happy to see that the latest Oprah pick is Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. The story spans the decades it takes to build a cathedral in a 12th century English town. It will be too long for some, but it is in some ways like Lonesome Dove. That book is probably the only Western that many people read, and Pillars is probably the only medieval tale for many people. In both cases, the authors tell a complex story with compelling stories in a well described setting.

For those looking to get a little more medieval, Sharon Kay Penman's Here Be Dragons is an excellent choice. She uses historical personages for her main characters and I haven't the slightest idea if it is accurate or not. I can say that it feels real and it is an excellent story.

And if your interests lean to the game side, then why not pick up the game version of Pillars of the Earth? I haven't played it yet, but I think I might tonight with my game group. So I'm in a game group and a large portion of my reading is given to science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels and military history. I may as well start LARPing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bloggers as book reviewers

The toughest choice facing the avid reader is choosing which books not to read. There are more great books than one person can possibly read and more come every year. Readers can get a sense of what is right for them from friends, but friends can only read so many books themselves. So, to varying extents, we have to rely on book reviews to identify the books we, individually, should and should not read.

The best book reviews credibly explain who should a read a given book and why. A reader should be able to decide whether a given book is right for them after reading the review. Ensuring a good review requires credibility and a well stated argument as to the best reader of the book.

Blogger book reviews face an immediate credibility hurdle. Thanks either to renown or association with known media properties, professional book reviewers are assumed to be credible. Any review is strengthened when the reviewer proves his or her opinion is grounded in some knowledge or experience.

Establishing credibility in a book review can be achieved in a number of ways, but relatively easy methods include linking the reviewed books to like books, comparing the thesis to a contrary one and showing expertise about the genre and subject matter.

Showing expertise can be taken too far, and this happens as often in professional as it does in blogger reviews. Here historian Antony Beevor (Stalingrad and Fall of Berlin) shows his understanding of World War 2 in the Pacific, but provides little to no guidance as to value of the book he is reviewing.

There are few, if any, books that are well-suited for every reader. Books from the same author might even differ. John Lewis Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment is for readers well-read in international relations, while his Cold War is written for those who want an introduction to the topic. Making the distinction clear will save people a lot of time.

Unlike many professional reviewers who, when choosing which books to review, must balance importance with a broad level of interest, bloggers can concentrate on their specific areas of interest and can therefore expose readers to a wider range of books. As long as they adhere to basic standards, bloggers can stand with the professional reviewers.

Love of Reading

The three day Love of Reading online book fair has started, so head on over. Check out the guest blogs. Vote for your favorite book jacket ( my vote is for Look Me in the Eye.) Take a listen to the author interviews, which include David Kamp, Rick Atkinson and Hanna Rosin.

The forums have a variety of questions, including the first book you remember reading. I have to admit that has me flummoxed. I would guess something from Richard Scarry, but my Mom insists my early favorite was the Perfect Peach. I am vaguely sad that I can't really remember my early reading favorites, although at least I can recall my first library.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thom Yorke is on my side

I generally am none too keen on Radiohead, but I heard this cover for the Headmaster Ritual and thought it was A+. Great job on the non-obvious cover.

This raises the long standing question of the ultimate Smiths song. Despite love for This Charming Man, I vote for Cemetry Gates.


I find my reaction to the death of Norman Mailer to be similar to that of NonAnon. I haven't read any, although thanks to Brack I have Ancient Evenings waiting on my bookshelf. While I haven't read it yet, I plan to read Shot in the Heart instead of Executioner's Song. To be honest, his books have always seemed really quite big, and I haven't had anyone telling my I had to read it regardless, as I did in cases like Pynchon or Barth.

Some interesting thoughts from Ross Douthot and others are here.

San Diego kids fun

We just got back from a weekend in San Diego and I would like to mention both Legoland and the San Diego Zoo.

Legoland is a theme park geared to the under 10 set. It's probably best for kids 4-10 or so, but it has rides and activities for those older and younger as well. The rides are often scaled down amusement park rides, but they are tied to Lego themes, like castles and pirates. There are also Lego creations everywhere. The Safari ride is filled with Lego animals; the streams have Lego salmon in them; there is a test drive area where you build and race Lego cars; there is a factory display showing how Legos are made and there is the miniland. These impressive structures are giant dioramas of key features of American cities including Washington DC, NYC, Las Vegas, New Orleans and San Francisco. The buildings are highly detailed as are the people. The New Orleans Mardi Gras attendees even have beads.

If you don't like zoos, the San Diego Zoo won't convert you. If you do like them, you will be surprised by the size of the facility and the rarity of the collection. Any zoo can have a golden or bald eagle, but how many have harpy eagles or stellar sea eagles? The lizard house had an appealing number of Australian and Chinese snakes and lizards.

The most appealing aspect of the zoo was how they mixed species in habitats. One watery monkey display was also home to river otters. While we watched, a young monkey played chase with a pair of otters in and out of the water. I'd never seen the like.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Call me morbid, call me pale

Eric Nuzum's The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula is an odd book. Less a book about vampires, it is a book about researching a book about vampires. In this Adaptation of the Undead, Nuzum learns about vampires by drinking his own blood, trying to land a coveted vampire role at the local haunted house, hangs out with self-proclaimed vampires and goes on vampire tours in England and Romania. Yes, you will learn about vampire lore as well as get a sense about vampires pervasive influence on pop culture, but the focus here is on the author's misadventures.

This could make for a boring book, but Nuzum's writing is both funny and engaging. His bio notes that he has worked for both VH1 and NPR and his humor nicely balances the sophomoric and the erudite. If you are looking for long, boring deconstructions of the sexual symbology of vampirism, look elsewhere, but if you want a funny book about vampires, this is it.

You can get a sense of his style by reading his blog or the blog about the book.

If you have a fever and the only cure is vampires, then consider the finest portrayal of vampires since I am Legend. In Peter Watt's Blindsight, humanity has genetically rebuilt vampires, along with other new versions of humanity. In the book's world, vampires are ancient predators of humanity and are hence considerably smarter and stronger, which makes the crew of a space ship captained by a vampire altogether nervous.

Nov 14-16: Love of Reading Online Book Fair

BAMOF is pleased to sponsor the second annual Love of Reading Online Book Fair. The Fair provides an opportunity for readers, writers, publishers, and bloggers to interact and to find out about new books. The Fair is hosted by FSB Associates, creators of the excellent Liberation Trilogy website. Like that site, the Fair uses the Internet to create new connections to books and to fellow readers.

I will be guest blogging at the fair on November 15, but you will want to visit on all three days, to see the other guest bloggers from sites like Elegant Variation and Cup of Books, to listen to podcasts from the likes of Rick Atkinson, to participate in forums and roundtables and, no doubt most exciting to you, the hourly raffles of three books.

There are also Readers Choice Awards, which will, among other things, give an award to the best book cover. Somehow I doubt my current read, the House of Chains, will take that honor.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Don't touch me, I'm a real live wire

If you are in the market for a novella length Stephen King style spooky story, then Chasing the Dead might be your cup of chai. The story starts off with a child-kidnapping and the mother of said child given a set of instructions by the kidnapper. She is sent on a strange trip around rural Massachusetts, that becomes creepier as it goes along. Author Joe Schreiber nicely strings out the revelations, and the overall story and ending are odd and creepy enough not to disappoint. The author has an Amazon blog for those interested.

Brute Force

In his classic Why the Allies Won, Richard Overy argues that that Allies beat the Germans because they did a better job of mobilizing their resources and the superior use of air power. In his decidedly bleaker Brute Force, John Ellis argues that the material superiority of the Allies allowed them to adopt an attrition strategy that was wasteful, overly violent and likely lengthened the war.

Ellis is disdainful of the operational and tactical skills of the Allies, noting that in North Africa, the British consistently failed to apply combined arms tactics and lost against the materially inferior Afrika Korps. Only the constant reinforcement of the British, and the long supply lines of the Germans, prevented defeat. Finally at El Alamein, Montgomery, one of the great villains of the book, pummeled the Germans with artillery. Having done so, he failed to destroy the beaten Germans. Patton by the way doesn't come out wonderfully either. His backhand compliment is that Patton was probably the greatest military traffic coordinator, but not very good at fighting.

It is this failure to complete the job that infuriates Ellis. German forces escaped destruction in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Sicily, in Italy and in Northern France. Unlike the Russians in cataclysmic battles like Operation Bagration (also known as the Destruction of Army Group Center,) the Allies focused on hammering the Germans and then gaining ground, which allowed a relatively small group of German divisions to slow Allied progress in West.

Ellis is equally disdainful of the air wars against Germany and Japan. He argues that the Allies became enamored of the destructive power of bombers but eventually just focused on burning down cities and killing civilians.

Ellis is not saying that these tactics weren't successful, they were. He does argue that focusing on destroying the German Army would have saved more lives in the long run and perhaps avoided many civilian deaths. More importantly, one can see a starting point for the disastrous tactics employed in Vietnam, where the US used free fire zones and airpower in an attempt to defeat an insurgency.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Larry Sabato

Fans of Sunday morning political talk shows will be familiar with analyst Larry Sabato. Those with a greater thirst for political analysis may also subscribe to his Crystal Ball emails. His new book, A More Perfect Constitution, is aimed at the politically aware and focused individuals interested in government reform. Sabato argues that the current government structure limits effective governance, gives too much power to incumbents, provides too much power to small states, and fails to adequately unify the nation, among other problems.

As the title suggests, Sabato proposes a total of 23 reforms to the Constitution to make a more perfect Union. These range from the uncontroversial, as in banning faithless electors in the Electoral College, to the popular but perhaps not popular enough, like Universal National Service to the highly controversial, including the addition of Senators, Representatives and Supreme Justices.

The chapters are organized around the branches of the government and then issue areas, like the presidential electoral process. For each, Sabato outlines the pros and cons of each proposal and then makes an overall recommendation. I tend to like this even-handed approach, but those wanting a more strongly normative viewpoint may tire of the back and forth.

Individually Sabato's reforms could be passed as laws, but he argues that a new Constitutional Convention would be required to adequately reform the government. He believes this would provide a renewal of the national spirit as well as launch a new level of political engagement. Because this task is more than a little daunting, Sabato spends quite a bit of time talking about the process and prospects of a new Convention (in case you are wondering, there has only been one).

While I can only recommend this book to the heavily politically engaged, I was surprised how open it made me to the ideas that the Constitution can be safely adjusted to meet the needs of today's nation. Even if only small changes came of it, a new Convention would serve to rebuild civic awareness in the US.