Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Morning items

I'm open to film adaptations of books so I am cautiously optimistic about another shot at a Dave Robicheaux. Maybe this time they can get somebody who can play Cajun, while also balancing between menace and teetering on the edge of collapse. Bruce Willis is a possibility, if he put on some pounds.

If you are a fan of Scream, you may well want to read Demon Theory. The book is presented as an academic study by a hip postmodern lit theorist of a horror trilogy. So you get three scary stories and a surfeit of pop culture references. It looks like it could be fun, as the author's Amazon blog shows he is ravenous consumer of horror movies.

The Booker long list is out. My take on the Booker is that the final winner isn't all that interesting. As often as not, I don't like the winner that much. The long and and particularly the short lists, on the other hand, will usually yield a few treasures. The Millions link I posted has the covers of all the long list winners. Take a look.

Are you a lefty that worries that your reading habits are not adequately preparing to further the Progressive Plan? Well, you need to lighten up, it's just reading. But if you must tie your pleasure activities to the needs of the Cause (Lost?) then by all means have a look at China Mieville's list of 50 science fiction and fantasy books ever socialist should read. The first book on the list, Use of Weapons, is in fact, the bomb. Not to leave the right leaning readers out, here is (libertarian-leaning ) Tyler Cowen theorizing as to why libertarians like science fiction.

And by all means take a look at "What 200 calories look like," which is photos of piles of items ordered by number of grams that provide 200 calories. Its topped with celery at 1425 grams and ends with 23 grams of canola oil. There are a few surprises.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Arbeit Macht Frei

I really hope the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick's new book title is either ironic or laden with disapproval. Otherwise, Making War to Keep Peace is the most Orwellian title of the year.

Three pop culture items

Three cheers for Shellac.

Have a looksy at the British version of the Mac vs. PC ad.

If you have young children, think carefully before exposing them to Star Wars. Our son first saw the films last summer and now he is beyond obsessed. He has a book called the Ultimate Visual Guide to Star Wars. The book goes beyond the movies to the tie-in comics, video games, cartoons and backs of cereals boxes. Our son studies it like a Zen initiate puzzling over his koans. He makes specific note of items not actually seen in the movies.

Grown-ups will enjoy this essay on reconsidering the original Star Wars in light of the prequels. The real heroes are Chewbacca and R2-D2. For our son, there is no difference in the originals and the prequels. Sigh.

Read this one

I am currently reading a shattering book called The New American Militarism by conservative apostate Andrew Bacevich. You can read this lengthy review from Anatol Lieven or this excerpt from the book.

This is a fluffless book in which the author lucidly argues that the United States has lost its way. The country has become infatuated with military power (while ignoring declines in economic power) while becoming separating overall society from military society. American policy swiftly moves to using military power at the expense of other less expensive and often more effective tools. This was cost free (for Americans) in the 90s, but has become disastrous for the world in Iraq.

I'm still in the middle of it, but I recommend it to everyone who cares about the country.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Eat and grow large with food

The NYTimes has a great piece by Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore's Dilemma. He claims the great disconnect that led Americans down the unhealthy eating path was the switch to discussing food in terms of nutrition rather than, well, food. He points to interest group pressure as one reason. The cattle industry was none too keen on the call to eat less meat, leading the government to call for eating less fat. Pollan ends the piece with a list of things to do, many of which, I believe, come from his book. Most are obvious, but the most interesting is the idea to spend more on less food. The local organic stuff is more expensive but it is better for you and you will be healthier if you eat less of it.

The cattle industry issue raises the question of interest groups. Interest groups get a bad name in US politics, which is unfair. People organize into interest groups to push their agendas. This is healthy as it shapes debate in the direction that people want. In almost every case, some other interest group or groups will join the debate. In a Hegelian way, the thesis and counterthesis will tend to move policy in the right direction. The one place this fails is when consumers are involved. There is no interest group to represent the broad needs of the consumer. So when the beef industry quashes an attempt to get people to eat more healthfully, there is no one to speak against the idea.

In a food related book story, I just started Heat, which is about a writer working in Mario Batali's kitchen.


Do you have this problem related by the Onion? If so, the Shia Revival is probably a good choice for you. The Shia-Sunni split is often compared to the Catholic-Protestant split in Western Europe. As the book shows, the analogy only goes so far. For one, the split took place twice as long ago and it is bound up not only in theological terms, but in socio-political terms such as how can be said to rule on Earth. The author, Vali Nasr, details the centuries long dispute and the frequent atrocities both sides committed against each other.

From a current policy perspective, understanding how the Sunni and Shia differ and how they interact is critical to understanding the state of Iraq and the great risks of conflict with Iran. The book is biased towards the Shia point of view, which you have to take in mind, but it is helpful to the Western reader as this sect is often demonized in the Western press. The book also helps explain the role of religous leaders in places like Iran and how politics differ in that country.

And if you really want some indepth info, check out this Brookings report on containing the Iraqi Civil War. It's sobering reading.

Crawling Chaos, underground, cult has summoned, twisted sound

I read a fun, little book over the weekend. It's called H.P. Lovecraft, Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq. With that heartwarming title you can get the idea that is not your average essay. Houellebecq starts out by saying that happy people do not read, they live. He argues that readers are trying to escape from the horrors of life, particularly modern life. He describes Lovecraft's work as a reaction against the meaninglessness of life and his reaction to New York. He also talks about the interesting fact that so many authors have picked up his mythology and tried to continue it. This has happened in the case of people like Tolkein who has been vastly copied. Lovecraft is different in that others write using his explicit names and words. After reading it I was desperate to go back and read some more Lovecraft. This was a simple task, as the book contains two Lovecraft short stories.

Thanks to the brevity of Against the World, Against Life the publishers buffed up the volume with two short stories and an introduction by Stephen King. Now how much would you pay?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Teeth destroying goodness

As part of new year's resolution to eat more pie, I made a "fancy chocolate chess pie" last night. The recipe came from Ken Haedrich's Pie, a truly great pie cookbook. The only downside to this book is its thickness. I have the softcover which has to kept carefully open, lest the spine be damaged. Chess pies come from the American South and are custardy pies like pecan, but with other ingredients. Haedrich says that a key ingredient is cornmeal, but I have seen recipes that call for other ingredients. The name "chess" is a bit of a mystery, but I am partial to the unlike folksy explanation. In this tale, the creator of the ur-chess pie served it up and when asked what it was called said "It's 'ches pie" (imagine a country southern accent).

The pie recipe is called fancy because it has yolks in addition to eggs and calls for a higher grade of chocolate. There is another chocolate chess pie recipe in the book, but this one looked better. I also enjoy lemon chess pie so I was happy to see a recipe for that as well.

The result is a delightful dessert. The upper layer is a rich chocolate with a consistency somewhere between moist brownie and mousse. The lower layer is a custard like you would find in a pecan pie. Together they are quite good, if perhaps too sweet for some.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Oh happy day. The makers (director, writers, actors) of Shaun of the Dead have a new one. Do you even need more information than that? OK, it's called Hot Fuzz and is a comedic cop movie. With this and Grindhouse coming out, I should be good for movies in 2007. I mean with three kids, I will be lucky to get to two movies.

You mean you don't know?

OK, so editing down classic works of fiction so that ADD low to middlebrow types will read them is not ideal. But it isn't the end of civilization as these people seem to think. I, for one, will never read the edited version, because reading a shortened classic like say, Can You Forgive Her, is not reading Can You Forgive Her.

That said, what's it to me if the masses want to read the fake one? It's not like I'm going to get in a literary discussion with these people. I suppose you could argue that collective culture is wounded in some way, but I definitely fall into the more reading is good category. For some people, these books might serve as a gateway to heavier fiction. Others will happily enjoy the lite versions. Who cares? And the snobs will get yet another reason to look down on people, which is one of their favorite activities anyway.

The snobs remind me of another classic snob, the indie rock fan. You'll never be good enough to the indie rock fan, because you didn't track down the Croatian-only release vinyl single which has 10 extra seconds of feedback. You never obsessively collected every interview which explains the ironic nature of the artist's lyrics. Of course you will never weep bitter tears when a fave unknown band signs to a major label.

You're in suspension

Slate spits on the fresh grave of Ryszard Kapuściński. According to Slate, his books, which are sold as reportage, include "magical realism," or in other words, shit he made up. I am of two minds on this subject. If I know that he is making it up, I can accept it as novelistic. If it is supposed to be reality than I would be pissed. Dispatches, the classic Vietnam book, is similar. Herr "embellished" bits of that book. He revealed this only later, but before I read it. Had I read it as straight reportage and then heard he was an exaggerator, I probably would have not been psyched.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Should have checked the stable door, for the name of the sire and dam

You are probably well aware that for the price of a low end computer, you can get your crappy book published. Actually getting people to purchase your unpublishable-in-the-normal-market swill has gotten a little easier, now that an Amazon subsidiary is selling professional reviews. Cheekily, the review shows up in the Editorial section as says " As reviewed by New York Times best-selling author Ellen Tanner Marsh." Now, if you read that quickly you might read it as "As reviewed IN..." Oh the effrontery. At the end of the day, you can look at that suck ass book, and say, that is probably a suck ass book no matter what that review says. But they just might trick you too.

Another reason to take the Amazon reviews with a can of Morton's is the fact that many reviewers on Amazon have TERRIBLE taste. Often this is obvious, but you can run into danger when your taste overlaps with such folk. For example, I've quite enjoyed the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft. I'm not alone, French author Michel Houellebecq wrote a paean to Lovecraft's work and Lovecraft was recently inducted into the Library of America.

So whenever I see a reference that some author is "Lovecraftian," my interest is piqued. More often than not, my hopes are dashed upon the rocks of the reality of horror fiction. It sucks. All of it sucks. I need to paste this above my computer screen when I run into books like this, which the happy reviewers give five stars and say is "Lovecraftian." By checking the "read all my reviews" link I can see what other books they like. People who these modern Lovecraft rip-offs like John Shirley's Demons, which is easily the worst book I started in the 21st century.

It is challenging to capture the badness of Demons. For one, the writing would get a C in a 10th grade English class. Not only does it fall for the violence=frightening fallacy, but it also turgid with false import. You see, John Shirley, not only wants to scare us, he wants to tell us that it is human society that it evil, not these demons. Oh, say it isn't so, Mr. Shirley! Fill it with characters thinner than a ceramic blade and as real as your chances of winning the lottery and you have the worst of all worlds, schlock that thinks it is literature.

So friends, always check the other reviews, lest you purchase something on the word of someone who thinks that Danzig is profound.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I have only a vague sense of what Goth Rock is. I would say my basic definition is The Cure. I might expand that to spooky dance music. The folks at Rhino have an expansive definition as it includes the Misfits and Joy Division. Have a look at the Pitchfork review. I find the Rhino box sets to be good deals overall.

If you disdain the music of the 80s, then watch some Enon instead.

The night they drove old Dixie down

Weep and rend your clothing, former, current and future Georgetown students. For Dixie Liquors is closing. So many evenings were powered by their products. No doubt another chain store will take its place. On the positive side, it should make that intersection less of a pain as people will not be pulling in and out for kegs.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What I'm reading

I'm reading an excellent book at the moment (so far Dec 06-Jan 07 is a banner period in my reading history.) It's called The Ghost Map and it is about a cholera epidemic in 1850s London. The author, Steven Johnson, is fascinated with systems and he shows how the emergent urban systems led to the plague. Powell's has a good interview with him here.

I am also reading the Stress of Her Regard, a Tim Powers book about romantic poets and vampires. It's out of print, which is odd, as so far I find it as good as most of his other books.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Feeding the disease

Wow. The Borders Express (formerly Waldenbooks) at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland is closing on Jan 26. Everything in the store is 40% off. I spent more money than I intended. The acquisitions include:

Persian Fire by Tom Holland. His last book, Rubicon, was one of the best books I read in 2005.

Dresden. A controversial book about the Dresden bombing in 1945. I suspect it will go well with Armageddon which I also purchased.

Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt. It just looked fun.

1491 by Charles Mann. Not to be confused with 1421, a book about Chinese exploration of America, 1491 details what life was like in the Americas before Columbus showed up.

Who knows when I will actually (if ever) read these books. Sure I saved some cash, but from a time value of money perspective, if I spend money on an asset I won't use until a few years hence, I probably didn't save anything. Such is the life of a biblioholic.

If the people stare, then the people stare

There are those who think that the quintessential Smiths song is "How Soon is Now?" Those people are wrong. The song that best defines the Smiths is clearly These Things Take Time. You get the whole Smiths package in that one. Alienation, clubby exclusion from broader society, horror/fascination with sex, celibate agony and, of course, self-loathing. It also has many of the best lyrics. "I'm the most inept that ever stepped" is a classic, as is the "you said I was ill and you were not wrong."

The version in the video is from Hatful of Hollow. You might look at the track list and say "I have all these songs already." Hold back that thought. Many of the tracks are from BBC radio shows and are new takes on your faves. The version of Still Ill for example is easily the best you can find. So it is for fans, but only fans will think of it anyway.

On the subject of bands with obsessive fans, take a look at these two live Silver Jews tracks from Asheville, NC. Here is How to Rent a Room, one of the best ever songs about suicide. And here is Buckingham Rabbit. Unlike most of the live videos on YouTube, these are clear and easy to understand, as it does not appear to have been shot on a cell phone.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Things remain, unexplained.

Graphic novels are rather pricey items, given that you can normally polish one off in a lazy afternoon. Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained! is a relative bargain at $9.95. It is purported to be about Charles Fort, who was fascinated by strange happenings. There is a bit of a subcult around Fort, with the magazine Fortean Times serving as real-life X-files.

The comic has its flaws. It is a bit short, and rather quickly turns into a standard action/chase story. Still, I found the black and white art engaging and I happily read the tale. This is nowhere near great graphic novel status, but it is a pleasant diversion.

It is worth noting that despite the title, all major elements of the story are in fact, explained.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Saturday bits

(via candy blog) Have a look at the results of Gourmet's milk chocolate taste test. Ghiradelli came in dead last. I'm not surprised, that chocolate is dime story candy masquerading as a boutique delight. I have a soft spot for their ice cream shop at Ghiradelli square but I pass on the candy bars.

If you like comics at all, read this, if only to see which superhero asked Dr. Doom "Where's my money, honey?"

This orange cake looks incredibly tasty and will be next attempt after the Bittersweet chocolate turtle pie in Pie.

Yet another the reason the war is going badly, the CIA can't operate in Baghdad.

The new Dan Simmons, for which I have been desperately waiting, gets a positive review in the Post. Curious as to what the book is about? Try the reviewer's description "a sort of Patrick O'Brian meets Edgar Allan Poe against the backdrop of a J.M.W. Turner icescape."

Friday, January 19, 2007

One of these things just doesn't belong

Can you guess which of these statements about renowned literary authors is not true?

A) Thomas Pynchon has a niece that directs "adult" movies.

B) Ian McEwan's mother gave his older brother away at a railway station in 1942. McEwan learned of this in 2002.

C) Margaret Atwood's brother was arrested in the 1970s for attempting to overthrow the government of Guinea-Bisseau.


American Skin

Ken Bruen's American Skin is a hyper-violent noir novel that defies the traditional narrative structure while telling a compelling story about trying to escape one's past. The title is a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song, but the book could also be called Irish Skin. The main character Stephen is trying to escape Ireland, and the stereotypical Irish problems of poverty and drink, by running to America. He actively tries to become American and at the end Irish people say he sounds American.

America is not held up as an icon though. The principal American characters are psychopaths. One is ex-con who models himself after Terry O'Quinn's character in The Stepfather. Another is a coal miner's daughter who started killing early and turned up the crazy dial once she found drugs. Stephen's main antagonist, Stapleton, revels in being one of the darkest forms of Irish nationalism, the IRA terrorist. Stapleton killed Stephen's best friend in a robbery and now wants the money that Stephen has.

The structure is unlike other noir which tends to set up the target and finds the characters fighting their way towards it, with a major clash at the end. Here, the story is about Stephen trying to become something else and losing much in the process. The climax comes at the very end of the book and is an unfinished afterthought. That's OK, because the story is about Stephen, not the money.

I will say that about halfway through I wondered where Bruen was going with all of it. The crazy American male named Dade, made little sense for most of the book, but I think is tied into the narrative by the end. It's nice to read something that doesn't play out as you expect.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Another year, another friend or foe

I always consider myself reasonably wise in the ways of tunes, and then I learn I know nothing. For example, I quite like Mission of Burma's Wounded World. Little did I know that this is a rerecording of the same song by No Man. It's not a cover as both bands featured Roger Miller, the song's writer. Check the video of the original version and then listen to the new version. I prefer the harsh irony of the newer vocals, but I am probably biased since I heard that one first.

Mind the gap

Thanks to NBK for pointing out the Gapminder, a fascinating tool for exploring economic development or undevelopment. Click a country and then hit the play button. Countries like the US, China and India track slowly upward (which means life expectancy and per capita income are increasing.) Countries like Macedonia show a retrograde path on income while holding flat on life expectancy. Botswana is a sad case, it tracks along nicely and then gets walloped by AIDS. Rwanda gets clobbered as well.

The year bar can be used to take a look at the relative position of all countries as well. Lots of good information on that site.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Nerd news flash

I'm not sure if this is the worst or best entertainment news of young year 2007. It seems those TV show geniuses at HBO are going to do...A Song of Fire and Ice. Each book will take a season. Giant fantasy stories are not all that easy to pull off. For the single success (LOTR) we have Beastmaster, Dungeons and Dragons and other insipid horrors. Still this could actually work. The HBO folks do dark and nasty pretty well, and those books are nothing if not dark and nasty. And the source material is of course brilliant. Will the second best fantasy story of all time get the same treatment as Lord of the Rings? We can only hope.

According the GRRM website, they are only at the discussion level, but this could be very good news for the many fans out there.


When talking about why he spent so much effort fighting Chinese communists while Japanese troops pressed deeper and deeper into the Chinese heartland, Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi in pinyin) said that Japan was a disease of the skin, while the Communists were a disease of the heart.

I thought of that quote when I heard about Dinesh D'Souza's new book on terrorism. You see, Al Qaeda is attacking us because of the "cultural left." Rather than read the book take a look at this Washington Post review which ends thusly: "This time, let's just not bother with the flap; this dim, dishonorable book isn't worth it."

Speed of Dark

I know a few people who just can't get into science fiction. I don't know if it is the underlying geek association or the frequent bad writing, paper thin characters and overemphasis on technology and action.

The 2003 Nebula award winner, Speed of Dark, is a science fiction novel for those who disdain the genre. There is little in the way of action, the writing is crisp and the characters, in particular the autistic Lou Arrendale, are fantastic. The science fiction elements are three. It is set in the future and assumes a few societal changes. It also assumes that some treatments have been developed to lessen the effects of autism. Finally, the story is one of alien interaction. The autistic and normal humans are different enough that they are effectively aliens and have the resultant communication problems.

The plot of the novel concerns a group of autistic people being given the option to completely eliminate the effects of autism. It is being forced as a cost measure upon them and this provides the overt conflict of the novel. The subtler conflict surrounds Lou's internal debate about whether he wants to stop being autistic. He likes his life and his condition is part of his identity. What's more, his brain wiring allows him to spot patterns, in chemical reactions and in fencing, that non-autistic people cannot see. So he has it helps at his job and in his hobbies.

Lou's character is amazing. The author, Elizabeth Moon, has an autistic son herself, which must have helped her develop and comprehend Lou. We constantly see how the autistic view certain forms of behavior. For example, the autistic do not do well with nuance. So if something is bad, it is bad, if it good it is good. When someone who is supposed to be good does something they shouldn't, it is difficult to process. Moon does a great job exploring human interaction through these uncomprehending eyes.

The ending isn't perfect, but I think it fits within the overall philosophy of the story. Even with an imperfect ending, the book is one of the best science fiction stories I have ever read.


I tend to avoid the political back and forth, but when someone manages to make fine literary allusion while belittling their foes, I take notice. I'll be surprised if you can't guess who Kevin Drum is discussing when he says:

"I swear, he can hardly open his mouth these days without saying something so dumb and tin-eared it just makes your jaw drop. It's like reading the second half of "Flowers for Algernon."

And yes, the quote is ridiculous enough to warrant the comparison.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Why not just snuff it man

Slate has an extensive article on different types of beef and beef sources. They end up finding that the cows fed non-disgusting diets make the tastiest steaks. After reading Fast Food Nation, I am generally leery of the nation's beef supply, so it is nice to hear that the most enviro-friendly steaks are the most yummy. The article also validates my belief that Kobe or Waygu beef isn't that big a deal, aside from the cost. The two times I tried it, I couldn't tell that much difference.

As a thank you to NBK for the link, I give you the Ewok Yub Yub Song as sung by a barbershop quartet.

Lighted, lighted, laughing in tune

Walking aimlessly around the Atlanta airport yesterday I realized the books on hand would be insufficient to keep from going crazy on the flight home. I considered picking up Stephen King's short and somewhat controversial Colorado Kid. Fortunately, my eyes fell upon The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Last fall, I chuckled my way through this chat with Hodgman on the Post website. Suffice it to say, if you giggled in that chat you will guffaw while reading the book.

I for one had to suppress my laughter lest I overly concern Gene, the person sitting next to me on the plane. I was less considerate of my fellow Popeye's patrons back at the airport.

I own very little in the way of humor books, at least if humorous novels don't count. I have a few PJ O'Rourke's, a collection of humorous essays by Christopher Buckley and the Modern Drunkard. Funny writing is no easy thing and a hundred plus pages of laughter is even more challenging. Aside from saying "he's funny," its not easy to pinpoint why this book works.

The book is a fake almanac so has bizarre sections like 700 hobo names, submarine crew slang and other items. The diversity helps, but so does the repetition of certain jokes. The mock seriousness helps as do the little cultural references that make the reader feel smart. Making people feel smart makes them like you.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Fans of 24 will really enjoy this list of Jack Bauer facts. I found them funnier than the well known Chuck Norris quotes as they tied to the show. Spoilers aplenty including a crucial must avoid one from season 1. Seriously don't click if you haven't watched but plan to do so. You will berate yourself (and me) most severely.

This one is appropriate:

Jack Bauer once forgot where he put his keys. He then spent the next half-hour torturing himself until he gave up the location of the keys.

Everything seems to be up in the air at this time

Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity is a great big novel blending elements of the new and old schools. As is popular today, the book's thematic focus is perception. Unlike today's exercises in solipsism, the book has a plot and the author is interested in society. The basic plot is simple. A depressed, cashiered teacher spots the son of a former girlfriend. He thinks he can save both her and him by kidnapping the boy. The boy is unharmed, but the ripple effects of the kidnapping are harmful to all.

One of the blurbs calls the book Rashomonian, which isn't quite correct. Yes the story is told from seven different perspectives, but not in the Rashomon manner. In that movie, four narrators discuss an incident and give four versions of what happens. The ambiguity in the movie is about events. There is some ambiguity about events in this book, but the bigger issue is that few, if any, of the characters really understand what motivates the others. For example, Joe, stockbroker father of the kidnapped boy seems himself as a maligned spouse, a good business partner to Mitch and a hardworker. Others see him as withdrawn spouse, a manipulator of business partners and a violent man. What makes it interesting is that none of the people have it quite right. There is some truth in all of the descriptions, but Perlman shows the full picture to be more complex. This is one of the better explorations of the limits of self-awareness and the ability to know others.

If a 600 page novel took seven perspectives on a day's events, as Rashomon does, it would end up boring. While all the stories are tied to the weekend of the kidnapping, they are much lengthier and in-depth. The stories allow Perlman to explore his other themes, which include the parlous state of civil society in a globalized era and the damage that parents do to children.

Unfortunately this is one of those slow starting books. I found the first of the seven perspectives, that of a psychiatrist, to be the least interesting. In the grand scheme, his story is important, but this is not apparent in the chapter. If you are bogged down in this section, by all means press on.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Late night items

Here are a couple of items from the Amazon blog.

Funnyman John Hodgman wrote a review for the new Neal Pollack. Oh, let this be a trend. His Washington Post chat from last year slayed me.

The same blog has a review roundup on Vikram Chanda's Sacred Games. There is too much dissension for me to commit to a 800 page novel. Of note is the fact that many of the review copies came in a slipcase with six volumes. The Amazon blogger asks if this would be a good publishing move. For me, no. For one, you would have to wait for the next mini-volume to emerge, which would drive me nuts. For another, you know the publisher will jack the prices so you end up spending fifty bones to get the whole book. Eff that noise.

And something not from the Amazon blog.

If you have somehow missed the Cadillac ad, I suggest you listen to this Teddybears track. It has guest vocals from Iggy Pop that are excellent.

So sick

To call a candy disgusting is a strong statement. After all, most people will choke down any mainstream candy if they need a quick fix. Even the Take Five with its waxy "chocolate" isn't really disgusting, it's just bad. Candy Addict has a list of 10 candies that are actually disgusting, either by flavor or by the images they bring to mind. For example, how about a dippin stix type candy where the dip is sugar in a toilet while the stick is a lolly pop that looks like a plunger. I myself had the misfortune to try the Harry Potter themed Bertie Bott's Beans. Some of these are innocuous, but others are vile, including vomit, which tastes like vomit.

The number one choice (which you will have to click to see) is inspired. Not only is it conceptually highly nasty, but others will see you eating it, spreading the disgust.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Thinking about Americana and why it didn't work for me, I realized it belongs to a class of book that almost never works for me. The non-fiction compilation nearly always disappoints. Sometimes the book seems to be a nearly random collection of essays, as in the case of John McPhee's Irons in the Fire. In other cases, such as the popular and ever-expanding (up to nine titles now) Best American series, the books have thematic coherence, but uneven quality.

I am reading another one of McPhee's compilations called Uncommon Carriers. It is a series of essays about people who work in the transportation system whether by truck, train, ship or plane. The stories are well written, with McPhee's excellent combination of simple clear style with a expert reporter's way of getting the most interesting and descriptive information from his subjects. I like the stories, but I don't like how the stories switch without any transition. Is there something larger McPhee wants to tell us? Are there interesting connections or an interesting lack of connection? These are the sorts of things that frustrate me about collections. They purport to tell a larger story when they really tell lots of individual stories.

Another one of my issues is that I don't read this books correctly. They are not designed to be read from cover to cover. Instead, like the magazines from whence their pieces arise, they are meant to be picked up, flipped through and to offer the chance of the serendipitous find. When I pick up a book, I a slowly building urge to finish sets in. If I read the book quickly, it is no bother, but the longer ti takes the more it grows in strength and I can become absurdly anxious. When I see a partially read book beside me, I wonder just when I am going to get that thing finished. I really should just subscribe to the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Half the pieces in any compilation come from those two magazines anyway.

Hampton Sides

I continue to enjoy Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder. Sides' skill is not in reframing our understanding or unearthing new information. Instead he is storyteller and in this he succeeds brilliantly. He provides excellent descriptions of the land and the environment in which his characters live. You can really feel the change in the land as Kearney's army marches from Missouri to New Mexico to California.

He also provides engaging character sketches. Like HW Brands, Sides uses a few individuals, in this case Kit Carson, General Kearney and Navajo leader Narbona to tell the overall story. There is a downside to this approach. It overemphasizes the role of a few individuals in the overall story and underplays social, political and economic trends. Sides balances his character focus by providing frequent context. Still, it wouldn't be surprising if some readers took away the idea that none of this would have happened without Kit Carson.

Sides keeps the reader engaged with detailed action scenes. He will quickly move the action from the overall story to a minute by minute account of a battle or massacre (and what is amazing is the general level of atrocity.) His description of the small battle of San Pasqual was a highlight.

I think this book is even better than his excellent prior book Ghost Soldiers. That book has a simpler subject, the rescue of American Bataan Death March survivors in 1945, but has the same level of intensity and excitement. I was less enthused by his Americana. That book is a collection of his writings for Outside, NPR and other outlets. These compilations feel like the bloated multi-CD collections that exploded in the 90s. You get a few hits, a number of items included for historical reasons and lots of filler. I liked some of them, but gave up on the book overall as too many weren't working for me.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

And they all want to love the cause

Hmmm. I know lots of people who argue the nation has been taking it in the caboose thanks our leadership, but I don't know any people who actually WANT that to happen to themselves. If you know someone who does, you better bid on the Bushplug. You will no doubt be pleased to hear that it is dishwasher safe.

On my bedside table

I am reading a crackerjack book called Blood and Thunder. The author, Hampton Sides, uses the life of Kit Carson as a means of exploring the impact of the European/Eastern American incursion into the American West. The Native American side is told from that of Narbona, the Navajo leader who tries to hold back the tide. Sides does an excellent job describing the life, environment and culture of all the parties, including the fur trappers, the Navajo, the Mexicans and the US Army. His descriptions are riveting. I am only about a third through, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about how the West was won.

I am also reading Seven Types of Ambiguity by Australian author Elliot Perlman. It's a big fat novel with a Rashomon structure. The basic story is that a laid off teacher thinks he can help his long lost love by kidnapping her son. Full of wisdom, this guy. The story is told from the perspective of many people involved and eventually asks the question just what can we truly know about other people. I've been reading this late at night, which is the wrong time to do so. I'm going to save it for an upcoming plane ride.

Monday, January 08, 2007

They've found some kind of sanity in this ink, blood and noir on their hands

You may have heard about the horrible early life of James Ellroy. His mother was murdered and he became a petty thief and speed freak. Well he is not the only noirish writer to turn to words to escape the darkness. It seems Ken Bruen had an incredibly brutal experience in Brazil that writing helps alleviate. I recently picked up a copy of American Skin at the library and I devoured Vixen, one of the DS Brant novels. Excellent stuff, which I recommend to all lovers of crime fiction.

Tricksy ice cream makers

I tried the new (in packaged form at least) American Pie ice cream from Ben and Jerry's. It's not bad. Mild apple flavored ice cream with apples and pie chunks. I know some for whom some form of chocolate is an ice cream requirement . If that is the case you won't like this one. I put some Penzey's Ceylon cinnamon on top and it made for an excellent treat.

My enjoyment was tempered by an annoying rhetorical trick from the Ben and Jerry's people. The ice cream is called American Pie and it shows a chart of discretionary spending. The Defense Department comes out way on top. Now, I am not going to argue that there are items in the Defense budget that can probably be dropped. The F-22, the DD(X) and the Virginia class submarine are all high ticket items that are less obviously in need if potential conflict is in places like Iran, North Korea or the waters off Taiwan.

What gets my goat is the use of the word discretionary. There are very large budget segments, like Social Security and Medicare, that are similar to or even larger than defense spending, but are non-discretionary. As the government is required by statue to spend the money, it has no discretion on whether or not to spend it, hence the name. Take a look at the top five items in the full US budget. Yes defense is big and number 2, but it is surrounded by 4 very large social programs. To me, the most horrific figure is the interest on the debt (number six) , which is $243B!! Imagine seeing that on your credit card statement.

Because the folks at Ben and Jerry's want to make the argument that since we spend more on nukes than on kid's lunch programs, we should dial back nuke spending. While it seems like a minor detail, it is head in the sand thinking which doesn't consider the full range of budget problems that the country faces. You could turn that around and say we give social security payments to everyone, regardless of need, while our National Parks starve for funds. This is not a useful policy tool, but it makes for nice political rhetoric.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Short but sweet

I am currently reading Userlands, a compilation of little known writers. The same editor released a similar volume in the 1990s that included future success stories like David Sedaris, the very angry Dale Peck, and Dorothy Allison.

Short story anthologies are a challenge. Very rarely will you like every story. I for one will drop a story if I dislike the voice or the direction. Short stories have to work a lot harder than novels. You can forgive a 30 page digression in a novel, but everything has to work perfectly in a short story. But even the best falter. My absolute favorite short story collection has a few clunkers in it.

This is all to say that I am not shocked that I don't like all the stories in Userlands. Some of the writers just seem too green and inexperienced to have a whole lot to say. Others don't say it very well.

I was going to say that some of the authors are too young, but one of my favorites was a story about the downward spiral to suicide. That one was written by 20-year old Mike Kitchell. The concise descriptions and key repetitions made it seem like a Neil Young song. I also quite like a story called Three Untitled Stories About Smoking. This one had a Carver like capture of the emotional moment. Another standout told the sad story of the angry Barnes and Noble clerk and his battle with the customers. Sure, it is a Clerks re-tread, but it is funny nonetheless.

So, if you are tired of the same old, same old you might find something to your liking here. There are some really good stories from interesting folks.

Color me impressed

Bookdaddy has this to say about Sacred Games.

but it is a landmark work, a novel so ambitious and fully achieved it makes most American crime novelists -- the Lehanes, the Pelecanos, even the Ellroys -- seem naive and timid by comparison.


Update: Jonathan Yardley calls bullshit on that. Whom to believe?

Another book I can remove from my list

I earlier stated my cautious interest in Chris Hedges's American Fascists. Rick Perlstein has drained my interest. This paragraph was enough.

Hedges’ conclusion: “The crowds are wrapped in the seductive language of violence, which soon enough leads to acts of real violence.”

To reach it, he relies on a body of thought devised long ago to explain the rise of totalitarianism in the middle of the previous century — ideas about how alienation, economic dislocation, the deformation of language and exploitative authoritarian leaders become both the necessary and the sufficient cause for imminent purgative violence. The problem is that he can’t point to any actual existing violence among the people he’s reporting on. This is an argument in the subjunctive mood.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen

Things are a-changing in Iraq. Gen Petraeus will be leading the effort there. In the same article, Michael Gordon reports that Gen Odierno will be just below Gen Petraeus. Those who have read Gordon's Cobra 2 or Tom Ricks' Fiasco will be intrigued. Petraeus is often portrayed as the philosopher general who best understands counterinsurgency warfare. The areas under his command were among the safest in Iraq. In the two books mentioned, General Odierno's 4th infantry division is portrayed as pursuing a more aggressive insurgency-causing warfare. These two are polar opposites, as portrayed in the press. I think Gordon and Ricks are excellent reporters and writers and I voraciously consumed their books, but I always keep in mind the adulation of Gen. McClellan in the early half of the Civil War. So I am willing to see if these supposed opposites can work together. I thought it interesting that Gordon's article had no comment on this possible juxtaposition.

The article also describes the plan shift which is to send small units into neighborhoods, as opposed to being bunkered in fortresses and emerging only for heavy patrol. It may well work, but it sounds like it will also increase casualties, something for which the US has little stomach at this point.

And into the blackness of your new soul, you must descend

Neil Marshall has followed up on the promise of Dog Soldiers with the excellent The Descent. I originally thought the movie was based on Jeff Long's book, but that is not the case (if you are a fan of the Long book, you will want to read this interview about it).

The plot of the movie is straightforward. A horrific accident wrecks a woman's life. Her friends try to rally her by planning a spelunking trip to an Appalachian cave. The caving doesn't go as planned and it turns out that something wicked lurks in the depths. While the plot is nothing special, the core character feels real and her evolution is fun to watch.

Marshall uses the cave and darkness very well in the movie. There are genuine scares, but also great feelings of claustrophobia and nervousness as much of the screen is either dark or poorly lit for much of the film. The film takes a long time to build to the crisis, which allows him to suck the viewer into this dark place. You won't be surprised that this becomes a metaphor for our main character. You may be surprised that a horror director does this well. Speaking of that subject, he has a number of films coming up including a scifi disaster picture, a Roman war movie, and a zombie movie. He has this to say about the zombie movie. "There will be some fantastic nudity in Outpost, I am devising a zombie sex scene that will be quite unique." Lovely.

Note to Americans who watched Descent in the theater. The DVD has the UK ending which is better. So rent the DVD in any case.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Everybody reads, everybody talks

The Library has laid down the law. Everyone in Portland must read Midnight at the Dragon Cafe. If you fail to do so, everyone else will point at you like Donald Sutherland(spoiler alert) at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Just kidding, Multnomah Public, you know I love you. And that reading promotion is a fine thing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New books for the new year

2007 will see a number of exciting new history books. Like condoms, history books come in two sizes, big and really big. So one must careful how one proceeds.

If you like your history books magnum size, then check John Julius Norwich. The abridged version of his Byzantium trilogy is over 500 pages long. This year he is dropping a big fat history on the Mediterranean. Before buying this, I should at least give a go my unread copy of Braudel's study of the Med during Philip II.

The author of a recent, successful bio of Cicero, Anthony Everitt, comes back with a book on Augustus. Thanks to the power of visual media, I have tended to view Augustus as the amiable fellow at the end of his life, as portrayed in I, Claudius. The TV series Rome gave us the view of the very young Octavian, young, intelligent, politically astute and cruel. And a bit of a pussy. Somewhere in between we have the father of the Roman Empire. Let's hope Everitt gives us the whole picture.

Either the Amazon software is evolving into Skynet or someone is taking hits from the bong over there. As I was perusing the new histories section, I saw this which is neither new nor a history book.

Chris Hedges, author of the stupendous War is A Force that Gives US Meaning, lays his cards on the table with his new book. Not content to title it American Fascists, he has to toss in The Christian Right and the War on America. I would think he was swerving off into Chalmers Johnson territory if I didn't like his other book so much.

I Wish I Thought of That, Part 714

There is a lit-crit term for recognizing yourself in art that is escaping me, because I am stupid and stayed up until 1 a.m. watching basketball and reading Claire Messud's new novel (pretty good, by the way). Whatever you call the literary version of deja-vu, I got it in spades reading this post on 75 books NOT read during 2006. I could have written that, if I were funny and smart.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


The Guardian has a column on guilty pleasure reads, which the author defines as books you hungrily consume while denying any interest in public. It is an interesting concept. While I certainly have guilty pleasure listens (such as) I don't really have guilty pleasure reads. Instead I have books which I don't want to be seen reading, although I will own up if asked. Fantasy novels are the obvious candidate. See here for a lengthy description of how to get your art published on a fantasy novel. When discussing the books you can talk plot instead of thinking about covers which can be described in this way:

This figure is sexy, strong, and in command of the situation without being obviously posed strictly for titillation. Royo explores all kinds of dark and erotic themes in his personal work but, for his book covers he is able to pull back a bit for the more conservative book publishing market.

When I take the light rail to work, I of course scan the books of my fellow riders. And I presume they are scanning mine. So I'd rather not have something with dark and erotic themes. I'd feel like one of those creepy guys looking at porn at the library.

They have to cut down on the Kool Aid

You may have seen the story about the Fairfax County library system and its culling of classics. I think Tyler Cowen has the right take. If you want libraries to keep the canon, change the incentive system. The most annoying response to the article was on National Review. His logic can be described. A library system in one of the 3000 plus counties in the United States is stocking books based on consumer interest. That's how bookstores choose which books to sell. Ipso facto, we don't need libraries, anywhere in the United States. Capital! Next we will hear that a county somewhere in South Dakota is using private security services to patrol public land. We can therefore get rid of all police departments.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Opportunity Cost

One of the biggest chafes in all of reading is the book that is just good enough to prevent you from putting it down. Its like when you are talking to someone attractive and thinking "Maybe I'll get some play tonight," when the smart part of your brain is saying "Dude, give it up, you're not getting any play tonight, go home." But, being the jackass you are, you stay anyway.

Such it was with Boris Akunin's Turkish Gambit. Set during the 1877 Russo Turkish War, the novel gives us Varya, a wanna be feminist, who serves as a romantic Watson figure for hero Erast Fandorin. She stands there being astounded by his wise ways and how he manages to uncover the plot to break Russian power. I'm annoyed because I really liked the Fandorin character in Murder on the Leviathan.

It's not really a bad book, but as I said, it is merely decent, and in a world with too many great books to ever read, it is a poor move to read a decent book. Much as it is to look for Aphrodite on a barstool.

Always look on the bright side of life

Well my mood has improved. For most of the day it could be described thusly. I just read this rather heartening piece on the long term decline in violence. And while my mood isn't quite this, it is better.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Dying embers stand forgotten

If you want to cut through the unending tide of Iraq talk, I suggest you read Every War Must End by Fred Ikle, a Reagan era defense official. In concise words and pages (it's only 120 pages long) Ikle explores how leaders fail to plan how to end wars, and worse, once the war is launched leaders tend to find reasons not to end it. For Ikle, the key question is what is in the nation's interest. Would the nation be better off in the long run if it finds a way to end the war now or if it prolongs it? He condemns the English, French and Germans for wasting a chance to end WWI in 1916 and lauds Lenin for giving up much to the Germans in the Treat of Brest Litovsk in order to maintain the Bolshevist state. He also gives great acclaim to the first Bush team for ending the first Iraq war as well as they did.

Ikle has harsh words for those who label political opponents traitors for wanting to end wars early. He notes there are true traitors who seek personal gain at the expense of the nation, but that most of those trying to end wars early have the best interest of the nation in mind. He laments the lack of a like term for those who prolong wars to the deteriment of the nation. He says the best word we have is adventurer, but it fails to be adequately condemnatory.

The appropriateness to the Iraq debate is telling. We are told that we have to persevere as it would betray those who have died. How is it in the nation's or the living members of the armed services to do that. The key question is what is the best strategic position we can hope to attain in post-war Iraq. This is unclear and is dependent on the actions of others. Ikle also has a good discussion of how those seeking to prolong wars have an overestimation of their own side's stamina and an underestimation of their opponents. Here again, the yearly refrain of the insurgency with just a few more months in it comes to mind.

This book will lead to much thinking and make you despise the talking heads so much more.

I love Paris in the springtime

It's been awhile since I've read a truly great new kid's book. I think Adele and Simon fits the bill. The story isn't much, older sister Adele takes Simon home from school in late 19th century Paris. At each stop, around well known Parisian attractions, he loses something he is bringing home.

What makes it great is the artwork. Like the excellent Crossing, the art will keep bringing you back. The pictures are filled with period detail and sly allusions like a troop of girls from the Madeline books, and artists aplenty. Somewhere in each image you can find Simon's missing item, which makes for even more fun for your kids. Check this one out.