Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another list

If you find yourself staring aimlessly at the bookstore or library racks, you should read New York magazine's Best Books you've Never Read feature. I've read only a few of them, including A Debt To Pleasure and the Amalgamation Polka. Most though are totally new to me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Arthur and George

I've not had much luck with Julian Barnes. I tried England, England and another volume with out much success. In this case, the third one was in fact the charm. I just devoured Arthur and George. Now, I must admit I am a fool for the setting, late Victorian to Edwardian England. The twin stories are what convince.

George is George Edjali, a man who just wants to live a quiet life as a Birmingham solicitor. No luck on that front, he ends up accused of animal slaughter. Arthur is a rather famous fellow, who deep in a funk, rallies to George's cause. Of the two, Arthur's is the weaker story. The details of his affair are well written, but certainly nothing we haven't read before. That said, they end up being of great import to the story. Be sure to read the author's note at the end about this. There is an unfortunate, but unsurprising sidebar.

In some ways, the two men are similar. Both are non-Englishmen who seek to be English. Society embraces one, but disdains the other. They both also have difficulty attaining their goals, a normal life for one, and literary stature for the other.

I found the critique of the English society well-balanced. While the coarser elements have their way, the better part of England pushes back and eventually makes right. To a degree at least. In the final resolution we see that perception rather than reality is more important for all sides. George ends up being the lonely voice for due process and reason, which I suppose is another level of Barnes's critique.

Themes aside, it is a well written story and portrait of the age. The parlor debate between Arthur and George's oppressor is excellent as are the descriptions of country life vs. Birmingham. This one was short listed for the Booker in 2005. That one went to the Sea, so it is fair to say Julian Barnes was robbed. If the Booker is true to form, his next novel will win to make up for this oversight.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Those days are gone forever

Yesterday was the non-official first of day of summer. What could be more appropriate than a pensive, reflective song to kick it off? Here is Don Henley's Boys of Summer.

Weapons of Choice

If your willing suspension of disbelief has been waning, you are going to need a booster shot for Weapons of Choice. The book starts in 2021 with a multinational force attempting to prevent the new Indonesian Caliphate from invading East Timor. A new high tech weapon goes haywire and tosses the fleet back to 1942. About half the ships survive the transition, after either being destroyed in transit or scrapping with the locals. Unlike the similar Final Countdown, the future people change the past from the get go, and they have no way back.

A weaker book would have posited superweapons in a World War 2 with a similar timeline. This one complicates matters by having ships and more importantly, knowledge of technology and history, fall into all hands. After Midway, the timeline diverges mightily from our own as the actors make very different choices.

Alternative history usually avoids sociological questions. When future people interact with past people they rarely differ in viewpoints. The 1942 Americans are shocked to see black and Asian senior American military personnel and the the future Americans don't take to well to the treatment of their shipmates.

A subtler difference arises over the time. The future Americans have been at war with Islamic terror for 20 years and the book hints at nuclear strikes, air crashes and multiple brush wars. The future Americans strike the past Americans as cruel, violent and emotionless. Certainly, 2021 Navy SEALS are the wrong people for 1942 sailors to pick on in a bar brawl.

Some will scoff that the lead ship is the Hilary Clinton ( her namesake is called the most uncompromising war President in history - and apparently assassinated to boot.) Those who find this implausible should consider that Gerald Ford is getting a carrier. So pretty much you just need to be President to get one.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Delicious goodness

I've had great luck with the victuals of late. Today, I visted Elephant's Deli as my parents are great fans. I was sent to find a tasty beverage for my dad. Thinking the best I could manage would be a micro cola, I was shocked to see Elephant's is now offering milk shakes based on Ruby Jewels Ice Cream. Yes, the makers of the world's best ice cream sandwiches offer milkshakes. It's a delight, so get over to NW PDX. Or come to Portland at the very least.

Having enjoyed the day, I thought we needed to savor some tasty beer. My normal stop is the Beaumont Market, and I was surprised to see the Dog Fish Head Red & White. It has a nice fruitiness to it, which makes sense as it contains Pinot Noir juice and orange. Its not overly sweet, but I can see people feeling that way. At 10% ABV, it has the standard Dog Fish high test masquerading as light beer effect. Beware, but enjoy it.

On the same visit to Beaumont, a representative from Chimes Gourmet was promoting their ginger chews. I doubted that a peppermint ginger chew or a peanut butter ginger would be tasty. I wasn't too keen on the peanut butter, but the cool mint played nicely against the spice of the ginger.

Amazingly the taste delights continued. Last night I tried the Lemon Shaker Pie with Meyer Lemons. The basic pie recipe calls for sliced lemons macerated in sugar. The bitterness of the lemon rind can be a turn off, but the sweet rind Meyer Lemon makes for a knock out pie. If I didn't have a Perry's Chocolate Chip pie waiting for tomorrow night, I would have wrecked that lemon pie. I really need a bike ride.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Is Fletch bad?

No, its not, although Reihan Salam of the American Scene argues that it is a case of liberal angst at the rise of Reagan. This is the base of his argument, that Fletch is a boor and a liberal one at that. He is not blinkered, as his favorite 80s comedy is an explicitly liberal attack on the military industrial complex. Still I didn't find his anti-Fletch attack convincing. Although perhaps we can blame it, along with SNL, for the rise of catchphrase comedy.

Literary vs. genre

Thinking about the Yiddish Policeman's Union, I was trying to understand why I considerate it a literary novel that uses the detective form, as opposed to a literary detective novel. While the distinction may seem subtle to the point of triviality, it does make a difference.

In the latter case, if someone tells you the ending, it may not be worth reading the book. In the case of the Chabon book, you would certainly lose the pleasure of guessing, but the main point is the characters and their reactions. For straight up mystery novels, keeping the plot a secret is essential. As an example, Rennie Airth's River of Darkness has some of the greatest surprises I have ever read. Few books elicit actual outbursts of surprise, but this one certainly did. But if someone were to describe the plot of the book to you, I wouldn't recommend reading it.

Of course literary books have plot points you would rather not know. In the case of Atonement, there are some real shockers that are best experienced by reading. That said, even if you know the surprises, there are chapters that are well worth reading. The Dunkirk retreat was astounding and could be read as a standalone story.

I am not defending spoilers, as spoilers are evil, but noting that certain books, once spoiled, are truly not worth the time, while others provide value despite the revelation. I think this is one dimension of a literary book. One fellow who certainly agrees is Anthony Trollope, who in the midst of one of his books asks the reader if he or she thinks so and so will marry so and so. And he tells you yes they will so stop worrying and just enjoy the story. That is someone confident in his writing.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


The Yiddish Policeman's Union is another great book from Michael Chabon. It works very well as a literary novel, and reasonably well as a mystery.

Like other literary mysteries, the story is not the main point. Instead it is about a person, Detective Landsman, who acts despite apparent futility of action. He works in the Yiddish District of Sitka, an autonomous region of Alaska given to European Jews in the 40s, which is now reverting to Alaska. And the locals are looking forward to the Jews leaving. Landsman pursues a case, despite being told to drop it. His friends and family's experiences nicely tell the story of an people out of place, trying and occasionally succeeding in making a home.

My main complaint is that it suffers from some of the problems of the mystery genre. In more mysteries than not, good ones included, once you learn what is happening, it all seems pedestrian. Once the plot behind the murder is revealed, it does feel a bit like a let down. It also feels a bit tacked on. You can argue it makes sense in the political context established in the book, but I thought it was dissatisfying.

Like the great mystery writers of the 50s, Chabon is taking a much more stronger political stance than I have seen in his other books. I thought this worked well and made perfect sense. The fate of the minority in an alien society is front and center in this book. Middle Eastern and by extension American politics creeps in slowly over time. He has a jaundiced view of it, which he makes clear in the end, particularly in the closing paragraphs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It used to be Espana Nuevo, it used to be Navajo

This brief review isn't strong, but you have to give a book points for having a title like A Cow is Too Much Trouble in Los Angeles. From, Reading California Fiction, another pleasing theme blog.

Here is a MP3 of John Hodgman describing Powell's in 30 seconds. I still turn to Areas of My Expertise whenever I need a laugh. His site links to Bruce Campbell singing a fave early 80s song for Old Spice. Awesome.

Click here to determine which historical lunatic you are. I am Charles VI, also known as the Mad, of France.

Here is a new candidate for GOP nomination that I can get behind.

Orion has caused a stir by producing edited versions of classic texts. Those wags at the NY Times asked a number of writers which books they want edited. My love of Christopher Buckley reaches new heights as he chooses Ayn Rand. Ann Patchett says that the famous Orwell books suck.

Oil, the national turmoil

If you need inspiration to conserve, or better yet, to become more educated about energy, then you should probably watch A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash. Like nearly every documentary, this one has a strong point of view. The thesis is that global economic and population growth has been fueled by oil and now the oil is running out. The range of interviewees is impressive. We go from a political scientists, to an oil minister in Azerbaijan to a Bush energy adviser. While Americans dominate, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela and Britain are also represented. As the new super-consumers, India and China are missing, as are viewpoints that argue against the thesis.

Despite that, the movie is not alarmist. The tone is very calm, with the exception of the survivalist guy. The most effective interviews came from Matthew Simmons, the former Bush energy adviser and investment banker. He explains the concept of peak oil and describes the global decline in production lucidly and persuasively. I was less taken with the political scientist who took a reductionist approach to oil and foreign policy. This may be driven by the films editing, as context appears have to been dropped in a few cases.

On the subject of oil, I am reading the End of Oil. It's a very readable summary of the major issues in the energy economy including alternatives, legislation and global warming. After watching Matthew Simmons, I would like to read his book Twilight in the Desert, which I had seen as being overly technical.

For a look at the possible geopolitical effects, take a look at Michael Klare's Resource Wars. One of the classic, if a bit dated, studies of the oil industry is the Prize.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I always come back to you, I'm just a bad penny

My rock movie and book kick continues apace. The most recent item is DiG!, a documentary about seeking success in rock music. While this sounds like a Behind the Music episode with swear words, it is quite a bit more.

For one, the documentary follows two frenemy bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. The band members are like siblings from a broken family. They can't stand each other, but can't seem to stay away either. They play pranks on each other and torment one another. With the first burst of success, the Dandies go to the BJM flophouse early in the morning for a surprise photo shoot. The crazed leader of BJM, Anton Newcomber, responds by penning an anti-Dandy song and then mailing the group with shotgun shells with their names literally on them. The period covered is nearly ten years and the back and forth continues over the same period.

Anton Newcombe is too crazed (and too little known) for a Behind the Music episode. He proclaims his revolutionary character and his hit making prowess, but squanders it in drug use and abuse of his bandmates and the audience. Documentaries can lie through selective use of footage, but at the very least Anton had some career limiting behavior. Getting in fights with bandmates when the labels come to see you is not the wisest of courses.

While those interviews talk about making music and incredible live performances, the focus is much more on the process of music making. We see touring, recording, writing and excessive behavior including the consumption of much cocaine. What we don't hear is a lot of music. A failing of the movie is that we are told that BJM is one of the greatest bands you have never heard, but none of what we hear or see validates this claim. As one of the movies theses is that success is as much about luck and not being a jackass, I think this is OK.

The DVD has commentary from both bands and it is well worth listening for context.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Smart people, please breed faster

After watching Idiocracy and reading How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, I thought it the tides of ignorance may well be rising. Now, learning that three of the leading Republican candidates for President don't believe in evolution and then seeing this, I fear the levees may soon break.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Thematic blogs

Well here is something fun. This fellow is reading all the Hugo and Nebula award winners and blogging about it. He's just gotten started, but it looks like it will be worth watching. I quite like these theme blogs. One of the best is the Criterion Contraption, which provides lengthy reviews of Criterion Collection DVDs. Another great one is Pop Songs 07 which is a review of REM songs. Did you know "Hyena" is about US foreign policy? Neither did I. Lots of good comments on that blog as well.

I suppose I could write about all the Bookers, as I have already read quite a few. And it is fun to have a reading list. I just went through one of my ritual library books purges. My standard behavior is to keep checking out books until I see I have far too many. Then I take them all back.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Three cheers for Charlie

I'm in the definite minority as a non-Charlie-hating Lost watcher. I even kinda like him. So I really liked this week's episode. And one of the finest Lost commentators, who blogs for the Houston Chronicle, has a truly excellent review of the episode and the thematic issues.

Faerie stories

Ask a reasonably open person about the music they like and they probably say "Oh I listen to everything. Except country." The country music of books is fantasy. While the haters will occasionally dip into the the more literary scifi like Jonathan Lethem, Philip K Dick or Kurt Vonnegut, fantasy is the undiscovered country.

Raymond Feist's Faerie Tale is one the haters should consider. Feist is best known for his never-ending Riftwar books, but Faerie Tale is blissfully standalone. The plot involves a modern American family moving to a rural house in upstate New York. Unfortunately for them, the nearby wood is connected to a Celtic tinged faerie land. The family children are slowly drawn into a not so friendly and oh so alien world.

I suspect that part of the appeal is the compact nature of the story and the connection to the modern world. If there is a gateway book to fantasy, this one could well be it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Here we have ten books that, if seen in a rider's hands, would make you change trains. I've never seen anything truly disturbing on Max train in Portland, just a few novels. The Metro in DC was all programming books and policy books. (via lgm)

One of my top reads of 2006 was Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea. That book was about Irish and English people fleeing the Irish Famine of 47-48. His new book concerns Irish Americans in the US Civil War. The Scotsman has a profile on O'Connor here.

If you like food writing, this book looks like a must.

Robert Kurson had a hit with Shadow Divers, the story of the discovery and exploration via extreme diving of a Nazi U-boat. His new book is also about pushing physical limits. In this case, the book concerns an experimental surgery to bring eyesight back to the blind. The book is about learning to see again.

It's hamburger month. Portland is about to get Mark Lindsay's Rock and Roll Cafe which is to feature Yaw's burgers, a popular burger from the baby boomer days. The Hollywood burger bar owners across the street probably won't be too psyched.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The triumph of evil

No, I'm not talking about Alberto Gonzalez, but books in which evil wins. I just finished Empire, a graphic novel in which a Doctor Doom-like character called Golgoth, rules the world (except Greenland and a few other spots.) It is a good graphic novel, but I wish it had it explored the process by which the destroyer becomes the manager and the defender of the new status quo. Or, using Qin vs. Han dynasties, or Caesar vs. Augustus, as a template, showing how he violent usurper is followed by the pragmatic reformer who creates an empire which can be maintained.

In the end, it is a book about a world ruled by evil. There aren't a lot of books like this around. Most books describe how an evil force is defeated as opposed to life under evil. William Barton's When Heaven Fell explores the moral compromises of living under totalitarian (alien) rule. The Devil's Day is another one. I suppose people would prefer more uplifting material.


I am about 1/4 of the way into the new book and it is great. There are lots of nods to mystery plots, the main one is that the detective can't leave well enough alone and is investigating a crime no one want investigated.

The book is also an exploration of different sorts of Jewishness. I think Chabon is arguing the classic loose cannon detective is similar to a certain kind of secular Jew. In particular his character notes that his people (although he is speaking particularly of himself) can't leave well enough alone and act out spite more times than not. That is a good description of a detective in a mystery novel at least.

The Post had an online chat with him yesterday, the transcript is here. There are lots of interesting bits about his writing, but I was also pleased to learn about a fourth His Dark Materials book and to learn about writers Chabon considers under-recognized. Of the six, I had only read two (Furst and Elmore Leonard's Western novels,) so I am happy for new books to seek.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

We don't need another hero

Now I like 24 as much as the next action show junkie. The first and third seasons were fantastic and I am enjoying the fourth as well. However, I am well aware that this is a TV program and not a thoughtful source of policy guidance. This is apparently lost on the Republican Presidential field. Reason has a disturbing piece on the apparent confusion. Key line:

"What's it say about the GOP field that they're more comfortable answering hypothetical questions about a terrorist plot on a TV show than answering questions about the Iraq War - which, you know, actually exists? Nothing good."

Greg Djerejian discusses the whole-hearted candidate enthusiam for Gitmo. I suppose the US global position isn't tarnished enough for these people.

They've got me feeling deluxe, for just a couple of bucks

I take immense pleasure at finding books at out of the way used bookstores. Since you can get most items via abebooks or Amazon used books, you don't even need to go digging. Still the pleasure of the hunt and the discovery are hard to replace.

I stopped at one recently and found a few great treats. The first is Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry. McCarry was long out of print, although he is finally back on the new shelves. This one looks at the Kennedy assassination. Yes, its been done too many times, but I suspect that in McCarry's capable hands it will be a winner.

I also found John Dickson Carr's the Burning Court, which came highly recommended on one of Michael Dirda's chats. This one is riskier as the prose is dated, and I don't always deal well with that.

Then there was Fire in the Sky and Risen Empire, which weren't all that exciting since you can probably get them just about anywhere. I suppose there is something hideously pathetic about taking such pleasure in finding cheap books. It's better than having a smack habit.

The world begins to disappear

Pakistan is looking more and more troubling. To be fair, Pakistan always looks troubling. Pakistan and Israel are the only countries founded on an idea. In Pakistan's case, it is the idea that South Asian Muslims need a country of their own. And maybe the idea is not enough to hold the country together. The only strong institutions are the Army and the intelligence service, and right now they are battling nascent civil society movements as well as specific ethnic groups. This matters of course as Pakistan has a number of nuclear weapons.

The frightening possibilities in the future make John Robb's book, Brave New War, The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization seem all the more important to read. While globalization appears to be unstoppable today, it also did in 1913.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Are we not men? We are Devo

Mike Judge had great success with the cult hit Office Space in the 90s, so it is a little surprising that Fox gave zero promotion to his recent Idiocracy. It could be that he hits too many targets (including Fox News) a little too closely.

This is a nasty satire of modern life in the form of a sci-fi comedy. Luke Wilson plays Joe, a shiftless Army private, chosen to participate in a one year test of suspended animation. Things go wrong and he is frozen for 500 years. When he wakes up, he finds that humanity has devolved, growing more and more stupid with each passing year. By the year 2505, Joe is now the world's smartest man, and his test-mate, the world's smartest woman.

Judge attacks the cultural fixation with base humor, mindless violence, the creeping commercialism of daily life and the replacement of thought with entertainment. In do so doing he uses the crass humor he attacks, but I do think he is asking us to laugh at it, rather than with it. For example, in the future, the most popular TV is called Ow! My Balls! and is nothing but an endless stream of shots to the sack. This of course is similar to America's Funniest Home Videos. The most popular movie is called Ass, and is 90 minutes of an ass that occasionally farts.

Judge hits Fox News with an idiotic correspondent who seems like a mildly less intelligent Nancy Grace. My favorite moment involves Joe trying to convince his eventual colleagues of a solution to a national problem. Unfortunately, this conflicts with an ad slogan, and the cognitive dissonance is too much too bear. It's quite funny to see their confusion, but I swear I am going to do my best to forget ad slogans.

I loved this movie and wish it got more play. If you don't mind the crass humor (imagine the devolution of burger joint Fuddrucker's name) you should actually find it stimulating.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

It doesn't mean they're not after you

Thomas H Cook's The Chatham School Affair is one of my all time favorite mysteries. Yes, the plot is excellent, but unlike so many other mystery stories, it is emotionally resonant as well. I saw good notices for his newest, the Cloud of Unknowing, so I gave it a shot. In the book, a mentally ill boy drowns and the mother suspects the father. Complicating matters is that grandfather was a paranoid schizophrenic and the mother's brother suspects she is becoming unhinged as well.

I liked rather than loved this one. Cook provides all kinds of tension with a two track narrative. Long flashbacks are broken up by an conversation, which may be an interrogation, of the brother by the local police detective. This provides the dual tension as we follow the original death and the subsequent tragedies.

Cook is interested in how families can bend and break under pressure and this book is no exception. The inter-relationships of the family members provide a few very good emotional wallops. They don't have the gut punch that the Chatham School Affair's do, but they are still terribly sad.

I've heard that Cook's Red Leaves is an equal to the Chatham School Affair, so I plan to give that one a try.

Friday, May 11, 2007

When I was just a lad

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley is a brief, lyrical look at growing up in a Depression era North Carolina town. Each chapter shows Jim learning how to make friends, dealing with fights, understanding his family and the people around him. In other words, the pedestrian things that make up growing up. Earley does a good job of showing how adolescents wrestle with learning to see thing other people's way and dealing with shame.

As to the shame, it is quite basic. He feels he let down his uncles by not working effectively enough on his first day in the fields. Most writers would have him tormented/conflicted sexually. Walter Kirn in the NYT notes that " his year-in-the-life story of a rural boyhood unmarked by parental abuse, erotic turmoil or domestic dysfunction seems strangely brave and new." How many books/movies about country people involve some terrible event in the past that haunts them to this day? Part of this is the urban disdain of the rural I suspect. On a similar note, Earley doesn't talk down to his characters. Rural people are often shown as stupid or with exaggerated accents. Here they are treated fairly.

Kirn also points out that the novel makes use of the magical negro, in the form of a farm hand named Abraham. It's not an egregious case, but it falls a little flat. Abraham speaks words of wisdom and actually gets Jim out of a tight scrape at one point. Its not a fatal flaw, as he remains a tertiary character.

By making the story basic and simple, Earley has made it real. Most people will be able to recall their own first encounters with friends, the first toys that really mattered to them, when they started understanding their parents and relatives as people rather than as icons.

More science fiction books

Orbit, a science fiction imprint from the UK, is coming to the US. They list the books they are planning to publish in late 2007/early 2008. Some of them look quite good. It mentions a new book called Matter. Cheekily, the acting title for his last non-sf book was also Matter, apparently he like to play some jokes. The Orbit site also says that it plans to republish Consider Phlebas and Player of Games, both of which are must read science fiction novels that have been long out of print in the US.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Episodes 3.3 and 3.67

George Lucas says there will be two more Star Wars movies. Before you get excited (or roll your eyes) you need to know that each one will be one hour, appear on a TV network, and have none of the Skywalker family. I think that might actually be a good idea. Do we need to see a little Luke who will only remind us of Episode 1 Anakin? No.

We could get Admiral (Ensign?)Piett, the early years. Or perhaps they could just let the people who make the Knights of the Old Republic games make the movies. They tell a better story than Lucas anyway.

Who let all this riff raff into the room?

So reviews of the Yiddish Policeman's Union can be boiled down to "I guess the writing is good,'s a detective story." The most blatant and bizarre case I've yet seen is on Slate where Ruth Franklin claims "Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it."

Hmmm, right, serious literary writers have no truck with genre fiction. I suppose we'll have to overlook Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning The Road, which is a science fiction novel about the apocalypse. And shoot, I guess we have to lay aside Jim Crace's new one. Crace's, read exclusively by literary enthusiasts, newest book is, well, a science fiction novel about the end of the world. Does Margaret Atwood count as literary? That Oryx and Crake book smelled rather heavily of speculative fiction.

And, oh bother, what to make of John Banville? If Banville doesn't count as a writer of serious literature, then the Earth is bereft of writers of serious literature. Here, under a thin pseudonym, Banville has written a crime novel. And this isn't some lark or bet, or a joke on the rubes, Banville is planning to make it a series! Thanks to the pseudonym you might think Banville is embarrassed by his descent into the genres. If so, he probably wouldn't publish an essay on the Attraction of Crime Novels.

He closes his exploration of the subject with appropriate words for Ms. Franklin "And is it art? That is not for me to say. But if it is art, then it is so by accident. And anyway, what does it matter, art or otherwise? For oh, dear, what fun I am having."

Rockin was nowhere in sight

After reading Rip It Up and Start Again, I decided I needed to read more books about music. Instead of asking friends or finding good reviews to create a potential reading list, I just picked some possibilities up at the library. With a reasonable frequency, I find decent books this. That didn't happen this time.

I first picked up Nirvana, the Stories Behind Every Song, hoping to learn things like Come As You Are, is about Cobain's My Pretty Pony or something surprising of that nature. No luck. I should have been warned by the back cover which posed the idiotic question "Who is the Floyd in Floyd the Barber." Fine, maybe you don't remember him from the show, but when the lyric "Opie, Aunt Bea I presume, comes up," you don't have much of an excuse. The book presents a basic and all tool adulatory account of the band's history with the songs serving as milestones. Yes, there is something to be learned, but skimming reviews will get you all you can get here.

I then took a chance on Fool the World, and lost once more. Following the success of Please Kill Me, the authors took the oral history approach. Unfortunately it reads like a bunch of unedited notes. There may be some genius here, but I wasn't willing to swim through a bunch of mush to get to it.

I suppose what I was really looking for was a dispassionate, analytical account of these two bands. I want someone to do the thinking and then present a thesis they can back up. And tell a good story while at it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Some new books on the way

Here are a few books that have my eye at the moment.

Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. I am generally predisposed to comparing the American state of dominance to the British Empire, but that is primarily in foreign policy terms. It appears that Murphy does blends both domestic and foreign concerns in his book. There is an summary article in the June Vanity Fair, if you are interested.

In the Ruins of Empire by Ronald Spector. I know quite a bit about World War 2 and the Korean War, but I don't know all that much about what happened in between the conflicts. This book covers that era with attention paid to the Chinese Civil War, Malaya, Korea and Vietnam. It looks rather good.

Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw. This looks like it could be one of those books that argues if Hitler had preferred sausages to spinach, we would all be speaking Serbo-Croatian now. Based on Tony Judt's comments, it is more of a study of how states make decisions and the consequences of decision making styles.

Encyclopedia Prehistorica Megafauna by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Sure, this is basically more of the same from these two, but who cares? These books are awesome.

Chabon in PDX

I went to see Michael Chabon read from his new book. I stood in line to get my book signed. Make a note if you visit Powells for a book signing I find these encounters a bit strange as I don't know what to say to the writers. I managed a random question about the Escapist.

He read for about 20 minutes. Part of the reading including a list of the places the hero had sex with his ex-wife. This elicited a loud "Oh my goodness!" from one older audience member. He took a number of questions including one about an article about Yiddish. The questioner asked if it influenced Chabon. He responded that he actually wrote it.

Anyway, the whole event got me excited for the book.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Strong words in the staff room, the accusations fly

Oh man, I so wish I was still at the SSP at Georgetown. Then I could witness some academic fighting even more entertaining than in Russo's Straight Man. Douglas Feith and George Tenet are both teaching at Georgetown and are telling very different stories. It is part the battle between policy and intelligence but it also about assigning blame to the war that may well cripple American influence in the 21st century.

What I had not seen is this review of Tenet's book by Feith. You can summarize it as "Fuck you and the book you rode in on." Don't believe me? Read this:

Fairness, evidently, was not Mr. Tenet's motivating impulse as an author. His book is defensive. It aims low--to settle scores. The prose is humdrum. Mr. Tenet includes no citations that would let the reader check the accuracy of his account. He offers no explanation of why we went to war in Iraq. So, is the book useless? No.

What it does offer is insight into Mr. Tenet. It allows you to hear the way he talked--fast, loose, blustery, emotional, imprecise, from the "gut." Mr. Tenet proudly refers to the guidance of his "gut" several times in the book--a strange boast from someone whose stock-in-trade should be accuracy and precision. "At the Center of the Storm" also allows you to see the way he reasoned--unimaginatively and inconsistently. And it gives a glimpse of how he operated: He picked sides; he played favorites. The people he liked got his attention and understanding, their judgments his approval; the people he disliked he treated harshly and smeared. His loyalty is to tribe rather than truth.

Oh, I cannot wait to see the riposte when Feith's book comes out!

Even if we knew which way to head, but still, we probably wouldn't go

I just finished Zbigniew Brzezinski's Second Chance, which reviews the three post cold war presidents and grade their performance (grades, C, F and B, can you guess who got which?) I think his grading is spot on, and his states his reasoning well. At a high level, none of the post-cold war presidents did a good job of adjusting policy to reflect the new realities. They had their success (well, two of them did) but they also failed to set the US on the new course.

Those well read in international affairs will breeze through the background on the period, but will be interested in his take on the Presidents. For those less well versed, it provides a nice context for evaluating the Presidents as a group. He then has a discussion of the means of salvaging American global influence. I saw some overlap with Charles Kupchan's under-appreciated End of the American Era. He starts from the position that the US has a long uphill battle to become legitimate again, which is a position that needs to be discussed more frequently. And it is difficult to see anyone pulling this off well.

If you are interested in Brzezinski's prose style, have a look at this. What I like about his approach is the combination deep policy knowledge, strategic approach and a no fear of calling bullshit when he sees it. Unfortunately, pundits have a tendency to be either so polite as to avoid discussing the obvious or to be so polemical as to appear purely political. Like William Odom, Brzezinski presents a nice balance.

On the international relations front, be sure to read this interview Alastair Horne, author of A Savage War of Peace. The interview covers the book as well as comparisons to Iraq and thoughts on the Bush and Blair administrations.

They fight the law and they win

While it is certainly derivative of Tarantino, I found Lucky Number Slevin to be a quite fun crime picture. I expect there is a high correlation between liking pulpy crime novels and movies of this sort. Certain crime movies like Pulp Fiction and Usual Suspects manage to appeal to a broader audience that a movie like Lucky Number Slevin is designed to attract. So if you like Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Jim Thompson or Chester Himes stories, you will be more likely to enjoy this one.

The plot is fairly simple. Josh Harnett, in smart mouth doofus mode, is mistaken for someone else and forced to do work for two rival crime bosses. To talk much more about plot would break the spoiler rule. Let it be said, I wager you will work most of the movies secrets by the half way point, but this won't bother you but so much. While the critics have been disdainful, I thought the dialogue was solid, the comedy/violence mix was appropriate to the genre and the acting, particularly on the bad guy side, quite good.

In happy crime movie news, one of my favorite Elmore Leonard books is getting the cinema treatment. Killshot is straightforward and simple, but it works, I think Mickey Rourke in his new bad guy mode will be excellent.

Monday, May 07, 2007


I can't decide if my dislike is greater for the books of Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan. On the one hand, Jordan's started out quite well before the later books made me feel like I was wasting a lot of time. Goodkind's started out piss-poor, so I didn't get any further. I now have good reason to assign the greater dislike to Goodkind, he is a fan of Ayn Rand and his novels are designed to promote Objectivist philosophy.

Sandstorm reviews collects a series of parodies of Goodkind, many in the form of mashups with more capable writers. Having cleansed my brain of Goodkind as best as I could, it is really only the parodies of other authors that I found funny. This one on R Scott Bakker is great, as in this one on Robert Jordan.

Deep Storm

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have had great success in the thriller market. Starting with the quite good Relic, they co-wrote a number of stand-alone novels before fixating on the continuing adventures of their Special Agent Pendergast. Over time, I have become disenchanted with this character as he moved from quirky to bizarrely knowledgeable. His is simply too good at physical combat, psychological manipulation and deep knowledge of esoteric subjects.

While I am less enamored of their group work, their solo novels are picking up. Last year I read Preston's Tyrannosaur Canyon, which was quite fun. This weekend I finished Child's Deep Storm which is about as a good a mysterious artifact exploration thriller as you will find. This one succeeds where books like Black Monday fail because of its focus, its deception and its pace.

In thrillers like this one, all that matters is the characters interaction with each other and the chase after the secret/problem/whatever. If we get long asides about the character's past or families the novel loses its pace and our attention.

It is also helpful for the book to hold out its secret for as long as possible, for once we know what is going on, most of the interest is lost. Writers can salvage this with a surprise ending, but generally the last section of these thrillers includes the race against time element. This book has that too, but it also has a spooky ending and enough deception and red herrings to keep you guessing.

Obviously pace is key to prevent you from spotting plot holes and generally ridiculous behavior or ideas. This one keeps up the action with short chapters and lots of action. This doesn't approach literature, but it is great fun.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A few diversions

The Guardian has a roundup on recent Falklands War books. I wager this will be hard to find in the US.

Have you got a lady and you want her gone, but you ain't got the guts? Or maybe you just want to get those unwanted houseguest out a little earlier. Well just lay a few copies of the Big Coloring Book of Vaginas on the coffee table and you should be all alone in minutes.

Here is an older (2005) interview of Neal Stephenson at Reason. In it he explains the varying philosophies behind his novels and how he got to the titanic Baroque Cycle.

Here is a positive review of the new Richard Morgan.

The NYT has a negative take on the new Nirvana bio, although the review itself is worth reading for an interesting overview on the story. In the same paper, this history of smoking and American culture looks fascinating.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Done it before, probably do it again

Well, I picked up another weak thriller at the library. Black Monday has an interesting premise. Some nefarious force has released a plague which destroys oil products, so cars stop working, planes fall from the sky and so on. Like the incredibly silly Natural Selection before it, this one has annoying characters.

As often found in such works, the hero is all too powerful (these people need to look at the amateurs in peril in Alan Furst's books). He is smart, wise and capable of anything. He is also a great big sweetie who adopted kids from Sao Paulo slums and Sudan. And he and his wife play this game while having sex. Whoever achieves the petit mort (as the French say) first, makes dinner the next night. Something tells me brotherman cooks a lot of meals.

My principal complaint is that there is just not enough carnage. If the world is crashing down, we need more crashing and less focus on a wicked assassin sent to derail the government's attempts to save the day. This is less a complaint of the book then of the genre of save-the-world-books.

I much prefer end-of-the-world books to save-the-world ones. For one, we get lots more carnage. For another, we get less unrealistic characters. And in end of the world books the focus is on survival and/or facing Kobayashi Maru scenarios. Which is more interesting than reading about second rate Jack Bauers.

One of the older, but still excellent depictions of the end of the world is Lucifer's Hammer, which tells the tale of a comet crashing into the Earth with resultant destruction. Jack McDevitt normally writes Asimov-esque tales of future archaeology, but he also wrote Moonfall, in which a comet hits the Moon and some of the debris gives the Earth a bad time.

Anyway, I keep picking up trashy thrillers in case I find a really good one. Sometimes I actually do.

Friday, May 04, 2007

But if I only drink diet coke, why should I care?

Those who crave old school sugar soda may soon have their urge in the icebox. Mexican Coca-cola has been spotted in California Costcos. You see, in Mexico, as in other lands, Coke is still made by cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. Michael Pollan argues that HFCS is one of the greatest evils of the day. This may be true, but it is also supposed to taste better, so it really is a win/win.

If you get your sugar in more solid form, and are spending any time in NYC, look out for the new gelato place described in this NYT piece. Its owned by successful gelato purveyors from Turin, and I must say they look like a jolly pair. I am keeping my gelato radar tuned to Vivoli, finest gelato ANYWHERE. Sadly, as the website says, you may only taste Vivoli in Firenze.

In further bad for you food news, I think my chocolate loyalties are shifting from Valrhona to Endangered Species. Not because I am a hippie or anything, but the bars with fruit pieces or essence are really quite amazing.

The end

While it is certainly not enjoyable, Downfall is well worth seeing. The movie takes place in the last 30 days of Hitler's reign. Most of the action is in the bunker, with occasional flashes to the chaos in Berlin. At first, Hitler appears level-headed (if evil) but as the approaching doom becomes more apparent he becomes more and more unhinged. He berates his generals for being unable to stop the Red Army with their scattered and outnumbered armies. He notes that all the destruction in Berlin is a good thing, as it will make rebuilding the city so much easier after the Germans win. Eventually he turns on German civilians, arguing they didn't win so they don't deserve to win.

The horrid fate of ordinary Germans is made clear without excess pathos. Hitler won't allow the Army to evacuate civilians, right wing death squads knock off remaining enemies while there is still time, and children are conscripted to fight the Russians. The movie rarely shows the Russians and few of the Germans shown killed are killed by Soviets. Instead they are executed by other Germans or kill themselves. There is a frightening amount of suicide due to not wanting to live in a world "without National Socialism." Ian Kershaw, a historian of the Third Reich, wrote an interesting review about what this German movie means for Germany today and its relationship with its past. As Kershaw notes, this is the first German movie in which Hitler is portrayed by an actor.

Those familiar with the Nazi leadership will not be surprised at the oily, vile Goebbels, who along with his spouse, takes some of the most reprehensible actions in the film. What is slightly surprising is that the more conscientious (if not necessarily good) people tend to be SS as opposed to general Army. This may just be random and based on a few people, but I definitely took note.

On the subject of Nazis, have a look at this Disney produced propaganda short (Education for Death) from the war years. It is immensely effective and terribly sad, as it shows a sweet young boy turned into a cruel robot sent to a terrible fate. It serves as an excellent critique of Nazism, but also of us. vs. them ideology.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Criterion movies

The Criterion Collection has a new two disc version of the Third Man on the way. As this is my favorite movie, I am considering picking this up despite already owning the single disc Criterion edition. There is quite a bit of new content included related radio stories and documentaries. One fun feature in both editions is the ability to compare the British voiceover and the American one, performed by Joseph Cotten. I am a fan of Cotten, but the British intro is head and shoulders superior to his. Fans of the movie should read Philip Kerr's homage A German Requiem.

Criterion releases movies of historical import and one key trend of the 70s was the shocking art film. That has to include Sweet Movie, the description of which contains this line: Sweet Movie tackles the limits of personal and political freedom with kaleidoscopic feverishness, shuttling viewers from a gynecological beauty pageant to a grotesque food orgy with scatological, taboo-shattering glee.

I am most excited about Army of Shadows, a movie about the French Resistance in WW2.

What's vexing me at the moment

Among the most pressing issues of the day is whether or not the new Interpol album will blow us away. My initial take on the first song Heinrich Maneuver is, like Caesar's "Nice, nice, not thrilling, but nice." To be fair, my initial reaction to Slow Hands was similar, and I now LOVE that song. On the other hand, like all people of wisdom, my reaction to Obstacle 1 was one of stunned disbelief at the wonder I beheld. So what does this mean for this summer's new release?

While you ponder, might I recommend you listen to Aqueduct's Growing Up With GNR?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Missile Gap

I just read Charles Stross's brief Missile Gap. It is difficult to describe the story without revealing much, but suffice it to say that the story involves the earth being pulled out of its existence in an alternate Cuban missile crisis and lain flat on a giant disc in the Magellanic Clouds. That should make it clear that this is not cross-over science fiction, but is one for the geeks.

If you are sufficiently geeky, you will most likely enjoy it. It has many of the elements of the wackier science fiction tales and has a number of fun cameos including Carl Sagan(!) and Gregor Samsa(!!) and maybe some visitors from other Stross books, although that is hard to say.

You can read the story electronically here for free. Hats off to Multnomah Public Library for picking up this rather pricey volume.

I can't stand those useless fools

If you are looking for a rollicking snarky take on many forms of BS that beset modern discourse, then you will probably quite like How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (AKA Idiot Proof). A few things must be said straight away. The first is that the "how" question isn't really addressed aside from a few references to Mencken. The second is that the author, Francis Wheen, is in some ways unfair. He simplifies a number of arguments and fails to surface the nuance in some positions.

Those qualms aside, his book is nasty fun. He starts by saying that the Enlightment spirit of rational inquiry is dying amidst the intellectual muck of the latter 20th century. His targets include: free market evangelists of the 80s, deconstructionists, conspiracy theorists, New Agers, creationists, Princess Diana cultists, self-help books, pro-globalization pundits, anti-globalization pundits, and big idea academic turned pop historians. So, as you laugh at the buffoons, it is not unlikely that you will find some of his critiques hitting close to home.

The prose style is waspish, spiteful and superior, in a way British writers tend to pull off better than American writers. The closest American writer in style would be PJ O'Rourke. And while he is unfair in his simplification, he is fair in his targets. Despite his left leaning credentials, he is quite hard on the left as well.

While the book will have you laughing, there is a element of creeping horror. Have people lost the ability to think? Or more appropriately the ability to think without ideological blinkers and a need to feel good? Or was the Enlightenment always limited to a few people? There is little comforting here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


The only mildly famous person with whom I went to high school was the red haired kid in the Forever Young video. Former CIA Director George Tenet can tell a better story. He went to school with the Hedgehog. I wonder if Amazon will start cross-promoting their books.

Marginal Revolution debates the merits of long books. Included is a link to someone blogging the reading of the new Pynchon.

Joanna posts a bit on"brown candy." My mental image is unpleasant.

Mitch Albolm is mercifully unknown in Britain, and this leads to the question as to whether British and American literary tastes are the wildly different. At the moment, Harry Potter, the new Tolkein and a book called the Secret are both popular, based on respective Amazon top listed books. I suspect when restricted to literary books, the lists would be even more similar.

China Mieville wants more agitprop in kid's books. It sounds more reasonable when he says he just wants a strong point of view.

Check out these amazingly detailed Russian cakes. Thanks HLK.


Primer is a fun movie which combines the mind-bending plot of Memento with the realistic style of a Chuck and Buck. The story is about discovering the ability to travel time. Two friends are using their spare time to experiment in their garage. Their approach is to find something new and then look for an application. They stumble upon the ability to move briefly backward in time, which they of course use to make money. When they start trying other things, the multiple timelines will start to spin your head. I'm not really sure what happened in the last third of the movie, but it was fun to watch.

The movie was shot for less money that a good used car, but it doesn't really show. It looks quite good and most of the action consists of conversations between the two experimenters. You have to pay close attention to apparently insignificant conversations as major plot developments are often mumbled or thrown in as an aside. There is for example a bad event the heroes try to prevent, and you could easily miss the point at which they discover it will happen.

This is certainly one of the more entertaining ones of the genre I have seen.