Thursday, June 28, 2007


You will probably know from the title whether or not you want to read Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that made England. I found it to be an enjoyable read that provided the historical and cultural context for the battle. Juliet Barker portrays Henry as a organizational and political genius who rebuilt and re-legitimized royal power in England. Most of the book is spent describing what Henry had to do to get an Army over to France in order to make claim to the crown of France.

Probably the most interesting thing that Barker makes clear is how little we know about the battle itself. She notes where she disagrees with other historians of the battle, including Anne Curry who published an Agincourt book around the same time as this one. Among the uncertain questions are just how the battle field was arrayed, what happened to the French archers and crossbowmen, how many Frenchmen were there (estimates range from about 15,000 to as much as 80,000,) and how many Frenchman died in the controversial denouement. Barker does a good job laying out her argument that poor French leadership led to the defeat of a force that should have beaten the English.

One area that remained murky for me was the French side. While I am reasonably well versed in British history, my French history is lacking. The contest between Armagnac and Burgundian factions was new to me, and I really wasn't clear on it by the end. The book is written for an audience well versed in both histories, so keep this in mind.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why oh why Interpol?

The people in my office don't care for Interpol. Philistines, I mutter, as they natter on about their faves. Maybe it is because they have seen this creepy video for the Heinrich Maneuver. It doesn't have nightmare-inducing puppets like the video for Evil, but the expressions on the people's faces and the wierd time disjoint just make me thing of wrongness.

While we are on the subject of the nattily dressed lads from NYC, why don't we listen to a cover of NYC by REM?

Because the night belongs to vampires

After watching this trailer for 30 Days of Night, I learned it is based on a graphic novel. It's a reasonably diverting comic, but it is hard to imagine stretching the story into a movie.

The greatest strength of the comic is the art. The vampires become truly twisted and the violence is shown as movement, which made for some great visuals. I can see how a number of the scenes could be become fairly tense and scary, but the story is fairly trite.

Vampires show up in a town north of the Arctic circle where it will be completely dark for 30 days. They kill most of the people. Then the married police couple organize a resistance. There are a couple of surprises, but they are minor. A decent read, and I will probably read one or two more, but unless there is magic afoot the movie would be a rental.

For a strong, emotionally resonant horror graphic novel, try From Hell. Since it is about ten times the length of 30 Days of Night, it can develop real characters and hence real emotional impact. I can still see the panels where a dying victim of Jack the Ripper thinks back to her carefree days as a child, running across green hills with her siblings. I think I may have even gotten misty-eyed with that one.

Potter and the kids

Michael Berube's new essay on the Harry Potter books covers their importance, how they helped him understand what his Down's Syndrome afflicted son was capable of and the overall power of narrative. Not bad for seven pages.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The great decisions we must make

Among the great challenges of vacation travel is the book selection. You must balance space and carrying capacity with insurance for poor choice. I like to bring more books than I can read, but not so many that I don't enough clothing for the trip. Yes, you can always buy more when you get there, but this is really a mark of failure and shame. After all, the vacation is one of the best opportunities to make a dent in your reading pile. Not that I can ever actually finish reading all the books in my pile. Anyway, here are some categories and the books for which I am bringing.

Classics: As a rule, classics are long and I am impatient, which means I don't read them very much. So much of my reading is done with stacks of other tempting books in plain sight, which means the poor lengthy novel often goes aside. So what better time to start the epic Palliser cycle with Can You Forgive Her?

The Genres: I suppose this is a fancy way of saying beach read. Really these are good everywhere so why not consume many of them at once? Spin is supposed to be top notch, so that's going. Bone Doll's Twin looks tasty, and why finish a fantasy novel series when I can start another? And now I am cheating, my Mom is bringing A Good and Happy Child, so I have a shot at that as well. Tears of Autumn may make the grade, maybe not.

Presents: I'm really bad about reading books I have received as gifts. Something from the Amazon wish list doesn't count so much as the carefully chosen volume, but still it is a gift. Luckily Bone Doll's Twin gets double counted in categories.

Big fat histories: I love these but I can't read them when commuting or sneak away on a lunch break for a 20 minute read. So I normally take one. Not this time. I am nearly finished with the excellent Fire in the Sky and I don't feel like bringing along that much book for only 100 or pages of actual reading.

Exciting nonfiction: This is essentially non-fiction beach reading. Next week's winner is Curse of the Narrows. Man, people who like disaster books should do read a lot of them. In addition to fires and shipwrecks, the Amazon "also purchased" links include a book about the great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

Obligation books: These are the books you barely want to read, but like having on your bookshelf. I'm not bringing any as I won't actually read them. The Shield of Achilles keeps coming on trips and keeps not getting read. It stays at home this time.


Here is an excellent essay on the Sopranos and the viewer's complicity. (via Matt Yglesias)

This one is even better than David Brin's analysis of Star Wars as a reactionary anti-democratic morality tale.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bad news Monday

If you like readable big-think pieces on the world order, I recommend Azar Gat's The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers from the latest Foreign Affairs. His notes we are now seeing the rise of authoritarian capitalist powers (China and Russia) , something we haven't seen since the 1930s. And unlike the 1930s, the aggressive powers are closer to the dominant powers in overall power. Gat points out that the authoritarian model may become more attractive than the democratic one, which could lead to a drop in global democracy.

The subway is a porno, the sidewalks they are a mess

Like the Pixies, the Misfits, and the Ramones, The New York Dolls are a band that should have been more successful, at least judging by all the bands that cite them as an influence. The Dolls were unluckier than most given the early death of so many of their members. Johnny Thunders downward spiral is the best known, among the many songs referencing him is the Replacements' Johnny's Gonna Die. But drummers Billy Murcia and Jerry Nolan died young as well.

The documentary New York Doll tells the bittersweet story of bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane. This excellent film succeeds for two reasons. The first is that the story is one of the stranger ones in music history. The second is the tone that the film-makers set.

After the Dolls broke up in the 70s, Kane turned to alcohol and set himself on a path similar to Thunders. After losing his wife, Kane turned to the Mormon church. It not only became his lifeline but also his life. He became a file clerk at a Mormon genealogical library in LA. All those years, he dreamed of being back on stage with his band. In 2004, Morrissey promoted the idea of reuniting the Dolls for a London event. Kane was thrilled, he packed up his things and performed at a critically acclaimed show. He then came home to the library and two weeks later he was diagnosed with cancer. He died two hours later.

The movie's action takes place before, during and after the 2004 show. While Kane has most of the screen time, there is quite a bit of face time for rock stars, with Morrissey being the most prominent. The movie gives equal time to Kane's library co-workers and his Mormon spiritual advisers. Remarkably for a rock documentary, the movie is supportive, even celebratory about Kane's Mormon experience. The final shots are of one of his co-workers reflecting on his passing. While the rock stars tend to mourn the loss of the artist, his coworkers mourn the loss of the person.

Watching a movie like this makes you want to hear some of the music.

Trash - New York Dolls. The most exuberant of the Dolls songs. David Johansen sounds like he is from Baltimore on this one. This one is Morrissey's favorite.

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory - Johnny Thunders. A sad pop song, that is quite good.

Chinese Rocks - Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. Written by Dee Dee and eventually recorded by the Ramones, this little ode to heroin is a grungey delight.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Some things that look good

Here are a few upcoming books that caught my eye.

At the time of David Halberstam's death, he was working on a history of the Korean War. It seems he had finished the book which is called The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. There isn't a lot of info on the book, but it is Halberstam so I have high hopes. My kids gave me his The Powers That Be for Father's Day, so that one comes first.

It would appear that Rick Atkinson is continuing the metaphor with The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944, the follow on volume to his superb Army at Dawn. That link goes to the Powell's page, which shows for sale copies for eight bucks. If you have any interest in military history at all, or are seeking an accessible introduction to World War 2, this is an excellent choice.

Jasper Fforde has another Thursday Next, this time called Thursday Next, book on the way. These two lines from the Publisher's Weekly will give you a strong clue to whether you will like the book(s) "The fate of the world may lie in a Longfellow poem. Fans of satiric literary humor are in for a treat." Next is a member of the literary police in a world where people can enter books and cause a ruckus by, say, kidnapping a major character. This is silly stuff, but well written and quite witty silly stuff.

This is no doubt old news to comics fans, but another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collection is on the way, this one set in the 1950s.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mixed things

Looking at a new book that blames the hippies for the most catastrophic American foreign policy decade since 1805-1815, Kevin Drum predicts we will be seeing lots of stab in the back propaganda in the next few years.

You can almost smell the stink of desperation from the pro-war crowd. The next couple of years is going to be a nonstop frenzy of books, articles, TV shows, op-eds, radio segments, blog posts, and white papers about how everyone
except George Bush and his enablers were responsible for our catastrophe in the Middle East. Anyone will do, as long as it's not them.

Please do not let it be so.

Pop Matters has a series of articles on the DVDs every movie lover should own. This 70s list is spot on. It includes Chinatown, Dolemite AND Female Trouble. That's my kind of list.

Combining the bummer tone of the first item with the film theme of the second, do you know what Orson Welles' final film was? The answer will lead to tears in your beer.

Pop Songs 07 discusses one of my favorite REM songs, Untitled (and unlisted!) off Green.

Friday, June 22, 2007

red Circle

If you like intelligent crime films, then Le Cercle Rouge (the Red Circle) is for you. If you have seen it in the US before you may want to take another look. While prior US prints were 90 minutes long, the Criterion Collection DVD restores the film to its original 140 minutes. As in most cases, cutting the film cuts out its heart. This movie is about long, slow understated scenes. One of the first scenes introduces a police officer taking a criminal via train from Marseilles to Paris. By taking it slow, we see the tedium for the officer and the slow and deliberate attempt to escape. The director is perfectly happy to let five minutes go by without any dialogue. American crime movie directors would feel compelled to fill in the space with a voice over. The director is assisted by able actors who convey quite a bit in gestures and expressions.

Like many of the other great crime films, cops and criminals are presented in a symbiotic relationship in a world that appears to exclude civilians. They are the only people with more than a line or two. They all know each other by some means or another and take advantage of each other where they can. As it understates nearly everything, it doesn't make a point of this, except when the senior police officer notes that "no one is innocent, everyone is guilty."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mixed greens

Nerd World brings news of a potential Strong Bad movie. I haven't been into that web cartoon for some time, but I hold out hope. Of immediate interest in the same post is the joke trailer with Seth Rogen.

Here is a link to a paper that argues that Soviet economic policies brought them low.

Do you read Gideon Rachman's foreign policy blog on the FT? It's quite good. He is their foreign correspondent and was previously with the Economist. Check his profile on Christopher Hitchens that includes a vignette on Hitchen's idea of fun " Then, seeing that I was a little taken aback, he added: “No, I do understand.” But I could see he didn’t. The thought that anybody might not want to stay up all night, drinking Johnny Walker and discussing Oswald Mosley was all but incomprehensible."

He isn't impressed with Fred Thompson as a foreign policy thinker. He closes with this: "I find it hard - or perhaps just alarming - to imagine Fred Thompson as president. He seemed to me to be not terribly bright. Mind you, look at the current occupant of the White House."

Check out the first of the new Indiana Jones Lego figures. In our house, Lego kits are built once and then go into the giant bin of Lego parts. So it doesn't make a lot of sense to buy the pricey branded ones. Still that Indy is pretty cool.

And finally, here is my kind of blog, Naval Warfare. Each post covers a historically important naval vessel. Here we have the monitor Monadnock. This one ended up traveling all the way to Asia, which is a scary thought for a ship with a few feet of freeboard. I am happy to see that Mt. Monadnock got a ship, as I have climbed this mountain. This is no big feat, as you can easily walk to its approximately 3,500 foot summit. The New Hampshire park service says it may be the second most climbed mountain in the world (after Fuji).

Stacks of green paper in his red right hand

I recently saw Joel Townsley Rogers Red Right Hand on a list of forgotten classics. So I swung by Powell's and picked up a copy. While it won't win any literary awards, this is one of the best whodunits I have ever read. The narrator is a doctor who breaks down on lonely 1945 Connecticut road. Trouble is, someone was murdered on that same road at the same time and he somehow missed it. I can't say much else without spoiling the fun. I will say that I, rather smugly, thought I had it figured out, and I was completely wrong. And he pulls no tricks at the end, Rogers plays the reader fair and square. If you like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, you will enjoy this greatly.

I do wish there was a book that told the story of the Nick Cave song Red Right Hand. It would have to involve a Randall Flagg type character of course.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I want my thirty minutes back

Swerving from mild to complete disappointment, we have the Showtime movie Homecoming. Goodness gracious, was this weak. Now I didn't finish it, but it would have taken a hell of a turnaround to make up for the first half. The movie is part of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. The idea is that great horror directors will make new one hour horror movies, taking advantage of pay cable's liberties with the nudity and the swears.

This one is by Joe Dante and like the excellent Gremlins he has decided to go for humorous cultural critique horror as opposed to scary horror. Unfortunately he left out the humor and the trenchant cultural critique. The story is this, confronted by a grieving mother, a weasely Republican operative states that he wishes more than anything that her son could come back to life. After that dead soldiers start rising from the grave as zombies. And they want to vote for Democrats!

Again, the humor isn't very good, unless you think that simply acting like the odious Ann Coulter is funny. Bush bashing is like shooting a fish in a barrel anyway.These days you have to go a little farther than saying Bush and his team take advantage of the troops. If you feel otherwise, then by all means indulge.

I'm not giving up on the series entirely, but I am definately leery.

Spanish books, yo te quiero infinito

Ok, maybe not infinito. One of the nice things about translated books is that not only have they made the grade in their own country, but someone thinks they are worth the time to be translated into other languages. I've noticed quite a few good books coming out of Spain in the last few years. Arturo Perez Reverte has produced a number of literary thrillers and also writes a historical fiction series. Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is a delight, one of the best of the mournful literary thrillers. And while I didn't love Albert Sanchez Pinol's Cold Skin, it is one of the most intelligent horror novels to emerge in years.

So with all of this, I was excited to read Zig Zag by Jose Carlos Somoza. It's a thriller in the Crichton style, taking a bleeding edge idea, in this case, string theory, and describe the peril of going a bit too fast into the unknown. The books starts in 2015 with a lonely scientist who is a tad too smart to be at her provincial university. It turns out she is hiding in more ways than one from the results of 2005 experiment.

The first 2/3 or even 4/5 of the book are great fun. Slowly we learn what really happened on the island and why the surviving scientists are so frightened. Somoza flips back and forth in time, which keeps the story moving nicely. In addition to the scientific quest, we have a political intrigue subplot that keeps you guessing. Despite being long at 500 pages, the book moves quickly. Unfortunately the last bit stalls.

Like nearly every thriller you can read, the end is a let down. Yes, we learn what happen. If you read the information on string theory Somoza provides it will be better as he manages to tie it into the resolution quite well. I have no idea if he represented it correctly, but it makes internal sense. Without revealing the ending, it is nothing you haven't read (or perhaps seen) a few times before. There is a lot here to like, although there was quite a bit more in his Athenian Murders, so I will continue to keep my eye on Somoza.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More RSS

Amazon now has set RSS feeds for all reviewers, from Harriet Klausner all the way down to single post reviewers. Although I see limited application for this, it could still be fun. For example, I am going to set one for John Hodgman in the (forlorn?) hope that he writes another review. And of course, you might want to catch up on the prolific Newt Gingrich. And if you like security, and particularly intelligence topics, then you should be checking out Robert Steele. OK fine, so it's useful.


Booksprice is book (and other entertainment media) search tool and price aggregator. You search for a book and it will list availability and prices. The website selection is deep, with the obvious big names (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell), but also smaller specialty sites, like ecampus. That will make cash strapped students happy, as they can evade insane college bookstore prices.

For my needs, the most interesting sites are the Amazon marketplace, Ebay, Alibris and the foreign Amazons. With these sites included you should be much more able to get your hands on a hard to find book. I searched for the hard to find Rules of the Game: Jutland and the British Naval Command and I found quite a few reasonable prices. As many of the sites are overseas, there is shipping to consider, but the overall price is still reasonable.

It has some other useful features as well. If you just want to look at a few sites when you search , you can exclude those you don't want to see. Once you find some books you can like, you can set up an RSS feed for the book, to allow you to easily check up on the prices. This would be helpful with new books that you suspect will hit remainder pricing in the coming weeks or months.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Nor the nails of the cross, nor the blood of Christ can bring you hope this eve

Colossus: the Forbin Project is sits with one foot in 60s science fiction movies and another in grim early 70s thrillers. On the one hand you have bright sets, crew cuts and swinging high ball parties. On the surface this is another low budget Cold War science fiction film. The heart of the movie is, on the other hand, much darker. This is a bleak story with an A+ ending.

The movie requires a jaw-dropping suspension of disbelief. An untested super-computer is given complete control of the nation's military and then sealed to prevent any way of disabling it. One you put this aside, you can enjoy the attempts by the scientists, the military and the CIA to prevent the computer from taking over the planet. As you can guess, the computer is a wily and rather dangerous foe.

The efforts to stop the machine are led by Dr. Charles Forbin, who is played like a smarmy, cocky Dr. Clayton Forrester. I recognized the actor, but couldn't place him until I realized I had seen his face in the checkout line. Actor Eric Braeden has earned his keep on the Young and the Restless since 1980. His Shatner-esque cheesiness in Colossus must have impressed the soap opera execs.

Pop culture aficionados will like this movie. There are familiar faces all over the place. Not only do we get Mrs. Cunningham and Webster's mom on Team Science, but we also get the Chief as the leader of the military effort to take back control of the nation's missiles.

I suppose this movie is about hubris with Forbin as Icarus. It can also be read as a critique of technological optimism, which was near its peak at the time of the movie's launch. As such, I think the movie is a legitimate science fiction film, if dated and a bit garish.

Best scifi

Internet entrepreneur Marc Andreessen lists his top science fiction novelists of the decade. Like I do, he puts a lot of emphasis on the British writers. Canadian Peter Watts makes the list, thanks to Blindsight. Chris Moriarty, the only woman on the list, is one I have been meaning to read. I have her Spin State around here somewhere. He has very high praise for the newest Vernor Vinge, which I had put in a future maybe state, but now he has me thinking again.

One commenter notes that Robert Charles Wilson is missing. I like his books, but I often feel let down by the endings. I have Spin, which everyone says is crazy good.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Moz

Like most people of my generation, get a few beers in me, and I will break into a Morrissey impression. Judge your own against the real thing in a video for Last of the Famous International Playboys. This is the full kickin' Morrissey.

Morrissey has apparently selected his grave. When the dread day comes, the Hollywood Cemetary will no doubt need guards to shush away middle-aged mourners singing this one.

Friday fun

You know, while I remain skeptical that Hollywood can pull off a film version of I am Legend (and yes I am counting Omega Man) , I must congratulate the trailer team for making it all set-up. This is what a trailer should be. We get a very scary opener and then an empty Manhattan. If they can sack up and use the book's ending, then more power to them. The new Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks pretty good as well.

One of my least favorite historians, Howard Zinn, now has a book for teens. Walter Kirn has unkind words for it. (via Reason) Have a look at a severe critique of Zinn's book from the left. I'm rather taken with this line, "But to make sense of a nation's entire history, an author has to explain the weight and meaning of worldviews that are not his own and that, as an engaged citizen, he does not favor. Zinn has no taste for such disagreeable tasks." If you are seeking a left of center history of the US, I recommend you try American Colonies.

Why check the calendar, it's Corpus Christi, time for the Devil to jump over some babies!

The NY Times Book Review has a blog now. Check it out.

Here is an interesting example of how the current perspective can differ greatly from the historical perspective. Airminded reviews press clippings from the time of the Battle of Britain and compares them to our current understanding. It's worth considering as we read the current press. I am by no means claiming for example, that Iraq is going well. Rather it may be that what is really driving the Iraq war will become more clear to the general public some years hence.

Here is an interview with the editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series.

The humor in the lolcats craze has largely eluded me. Somehow this one clicked. There must be something wrong with me as this one is making jokes about a potentially disastrous event.

I've been walking these streets tonight

The 33 1/3 project is a fun, if occasionally frustrating, reading experience. Each slim volume relates to a specific, seminal album. In Let it Be, Colin Meloy of the Decembrists writes about the intense joy and excitement that music brings in the teen years. For Meloy, one of the most important bands was the Replacements. If you want to learn about the making of the album or anything much about the band, look elsewhere. I really liked it, but I can see how people might feel misled. The volume on Exile on Main Street is much more about the making of the record itself.

Eric Weisbard's book on Use Your Illusion I & II is about GNR's place in the rock world. He notes that the Illusion records were among the last of the blockbuster records. Rarely today do you see people lining up for a new record release, and rarely do you see giant sales either. When Weisbard debates the relative impact and import of the early 90s alternative scene with that of GNR, the book really sings. I enjoyed the cultural analysis of populist vs. elitist rock, as indie eventually became. A good portion of the book is a study of Axl Rose, which I found less interesting. I quite enjoyed the song by song analysis of the record which came at the end. This one is really for fans of the band, but that is true of the entire 33 1/3 series.

As to the GNR albums themselves, I bought them in the first month of my junior year abroad in London. For quite some time they were the only recorded music I had. In listening, I experienced a bit of the Phantom Menace syndrome. I wanted so much to like it, that I did. I didn't come full circle as I did on Phantom Menace, but as Clash fans did with Sandinista!, I ended up making a mix tape of my favorite songs from both albums. I would be hard pressed to fill up a mix tape these days. I still like the more over the top numbers like Coma, but a lot of it leaves me cold today.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


If you live in Portland, you should block out Saturday night for Blumesday. Yes, I know I can barely spell, but this is not a celebration of the Irish exile, rather a celebration of children's author Judy Blume. A number of local writers, led by Heather Larimer and Joanna Miller, will read from the Blume oeuvre and share their own experiences with growing up with Judy. As it is being held at the Bagdad, you can have a pint while you enjoy the show.

You can make a day of it by visiting the Judy Blume map at the Hollywood library and by reading some of Blume's books next to the Ramona, Henry Huggins and Ribsy statues at Grant Park.

Update: Thanks to Joanna for politely reminding me that Ramona and friends are Beverly Cleary characters. It's the lack of coffee, I swear.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Odds and ends

Sorry for the lack of posting, work has been really cutting back on my reading time. BLAST. Anyway, I started the very first Aurelio Zen novel, Ratking. It was a tad slow to start and it nearly made a premature visit to the goodbye pile, but I stuck with it and I am now quite entertained.

Did you know that Oregon=Israel and Virginia=Austria? In GDP terms at least. Check this awesome map posted on the Foreign Policy blog. It's part of their regular Tuesday Map feature, which is a treat for cartophiles.

Via Sarah Weinman, news that Stephen King is publishing a novella in Esquire.

Well I should have known that Christopher Hitchens would have something interesting to say. In this Powell's interview about his new book on religion the talk gets around to archetypes, which compels him to say "I wouldn't fuck Elizabeth Taylor with your dick." I of course have selected the most outrageous and least representative quote from this fascinating interview, which is really about religion and its place in society.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

World War 2 books

If you are an Atlantic subscriber (or have access to Academic Search Premeir) , be sure to read Stalin's Gift in the May 2007 issue. In it Benjamin Schwarz's review of a few World War 2 books, in particular Norman Davies' Europe At War 1939-1945 and Stalin's Wars by Geoffrey Roberts. Both books point out that World War 2 was won by the Red Army and both argue that Stalin did not hold back his generals, but truly became a master strategist over the years. The great irony that the authors and Schwarz point out is that Stalin's gift was making the world safe for democracy.

In the same review he calls out Thunder in the East as the new standard history for the Eastern front. Looks like I need that one. He also tips his hat to the insanely prolific David Glantz.

On the World War 2 side, I am reading the wonderful Fire in the Sky by Eric Bergerud. It is a history of the air war in the South Pacific from 1942 to 1944. Unlike other military histories, which tend to narrate progress and focus on individual battles, Bergerud is interesting in analyzing why the war turned out like he did. So he starts by talking about the geography and how both sides chose and developed bases. He then talks about how they operated and how they designed their planes. Then he goes into the analysis of the planes themselves. It's so dense, but in a very good way.

This sort of thing is not for those who want a diverting narrative, but for those looking to understand the underlying causes for the direction of the war, this is flat out excellent.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I'm tired

So I started reading the Italian Letter, but I have grown weary and I stopped reading. I must be suffering some degree of Bush/Iraq fatigue. I mean if Cobra 2 , the One Percent Doctrine and Fiasco weren't enough to give me pause, I really shouldn't bother reading. I think the Italian Letter story is part of the overall theme of Hubris, which I plan to read at some point.

Anyway, after such serious Bush critiquing I was dismayed to see this headline from a Q&A with author Pete Hammill: "[Bush and Cheney] didn't grow up in Brooklyn, where you know if you punch a guy in the mouth, he's going to come back with three other guys and punch you back." He goes on to say that because Bush and Cheney grew up rich, they just don't get such things.

Amazingly, I wager that thousands of people read this and thought this was an intelligent thing to say. I'm not sure which is worse, the casually made link between background and foreign policy or the annoying trait of New Yorkers to think that we all care about Brooklyn.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Decline of Western Civilization

Is captured here.

Well I know it might sound strange

Scholars of REM-iania continue to debate the relative merits of early and late period IRS, but the cognoscenti all agree on this point: Rockville is the best REM song. Few REM lines have ever come close to this one: "But everybody else in town only wants to bring you down and that's not how it ought to be."

What may be less known is that Mike Mills is the key lyricist of this song. While you ponder this, and wish for more Mike Mills penned songs, watch this video with a blond Michael Stipe.

Friday, June 08, 2007


Ok, this story isn't all that interesting. It even states that it isn't. I'm just glad there is a Civil War blog to take note that the National Archives issued a press release about Henry Halleck.

For the parents out there, Harry Potter theme park on the way.

OK again, not all that interesting, but the propaganda picture in this post is 1000% awesome. Also the subtitle of the blog is Airpower and British Society 1908-1941 (mostly) which is also probably the most awesome thing you will see all day.

Check out this Amazon post on under-promoted books getting new life from special imprints.

Bulls on a sad parade

Either you like police procedurals or you don't. These sorts of mysteries put as much emphasis on the lives and jobs of the cops as they do on whatever crimes or sets of crimes define the plot. For my money Peter Robinson writes some of the best. His Alan Banks novels follow the rise and fall of Yorkshire police careers and the (generally negative) impact on family life. I just read his Aftermath and quite liked it.

The book starts where many a novel would end, with the capture of a serial killer. Two cops investigating a domestic disturbance report run into a killing chamber and in the process capture a serial killer. From this a number of question arise, did the arresting officers apply too much force? What was the role of the serial killer's wife? The woman who reported the disturbance causes problems for the investigation by intervening with the media and the wife.

The storyline progressions are excellent, with good surprises. Long time readers will appreciate the waxing and waning fortunes of the police officers. Robinson has created a realistic, evolving set of characters that rarely see a happy day. Throw in a plot about dead teenagers and you don't have a terribly uplifting book.

As I said, if you tend to look askance at the mystery section, you will not like this book. If you have been trying to find a good series, this is it.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Noise rock alert

Pitchfork doesn't really like the new Shellac (that's right. . . THE NEW SHELLAC,) but as they cheekily note:

You're not even really reading this. Why would you? I could rate this album a 12 divided by Q or say it's on par with seven ham-and-cheese Hot Pockets and it wouldn't matter. Anyone who cares has already marched to their nearest independent retailer and purchased Excellent Italian Greyhound, laughed aloud at the dog picture, shook the unmarked CD from the gatefold cover (because Steve Albini hates digital recordings-- and you), and spun the vinyl with warm, grating satisfaction. The reviews are irrelevant, and one from Pitchfork probably means even less to Shellac listeners than most.

Note the subtle hint of general Pitchfork irrelevancy. Touching.

By the way, as a nod to the band, I was going to call this blog The Blog Against Itself. My wife that was stupid and didn't mean anything. So instead I picked a name that makes me look like a loser jackass. Truth in advertising, I suppose.

Update: I just listened to the new version of Spoke. It lacks the visceral madness of the Peel Session version, but the goofy intro is excellent.

I'm watching my back, I'm awaiting my visitation

I know a movie Alan Furst certainly watched, probably many times. The late 60s French film, Army of Shadows, is a bleak realist look at life in an underground movement, in this case the French Resistance. Like Furst, it creates a feeling of great tension of against the cruelest regime in history. A number of Resistance team members are captured, some escape, some don't. At one point, the Germans line some prisoners up in a long hall. At one end is a machine gun. They are told if they can make it to the other end, they can live another day. They will just get shot later.

Unlike Furst, the movie takes a bleaker view of the undercover life. In one scene a traitor is executed. In another, a beloved comrade is shot because the Germans finally found a weakness. And none of the overall fates is good. Some of the best parts involve characters feeling out other Frenchman to see where their sympathies lie. When speaking to the wrong person can mean death, it pays to be cautious.

The movie is understated, with only a few scenes qualifying as action scenes. Most of the action is spent avoiding police or trying to find just the right moment to act. There are lots of meaningful glances and stares. At one point, a resistance officer visits London and is clearly unable to take in the difference in the cities. While he fights a quiet war of shadows, the hot war sailors and soldiers enjoy active R&R.

According to the Ebert review, the movie was unpopular upon release because the prevailing leftist viewpoint found the film pro-DeGaulle and hence rightist. From the American 2007 viewpoint, it is difficult to pin any political stance on the film. The ideology appears to be resist Germans (despite fleeting chance for success) and the film has communists and royalists contributing and dying for the cause.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Read this one

In 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff noted that she only read non-fiction. She could get all the drama, comedy and tragedy she needed out it, with the added satisfaction that it truly happened. There are a number of authors, like Hampton Sides and Sebastian Junger, who can make a historical event far more exciting than any thriller. Working in nonfiction allows you to tell an exciting story, but to also connect it to larger issues. James Swanson's Manhunt is an excellent example of this.

The book subtitled the 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer and it really is about the day of the assassination, the twelve day chase and the aftermath for those touched by the chase. While it starts off a bit slow as it introduces us to John Wilkes Booth, as soon as Lincoln arrives at Ford's Theater, the book becomes intensely gripping. Swanson makes a point that Booth was an actor, and that he acted theatrically whenever possible, even to his great detriment in his attempted escape. After one Virginian doctor refused to give him shelter, he took the time to pen a flowery letter condemning the doctor for his treachery. He did this with the cavalry hot on his trail.

The dramatic theme extends to the book's structure which switches from Booth and his naive crony David Herrold, to Secretary of War Stanton who led the chase, to the various seekers, to the conspirators and to the people Booth met along the way. Swanson highlights the near misses and the dramatic details. We see how Booth talked his way past the guards of the bridge out of Washington, how he hid in the woods and how he got lost on the Potomac River.

Those who helped Booth didn't turn out so well. One who helped him was Maryland Southern sympathizer Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd vacillated between helping someone with whom he supported and the protection of his family. He was eventually jailed on a isolated fort in what is now the Dry Tortugas National Park. Swanson notes that Mudd's family began a propaganda effort to say he really didn't help Booth at all and was mistreated. As I recall, the Park presented the Mudd family view. Swanson argues that Mudd actually tried to help Booth, but then realized this would cost him so concocted a story to clear his name.

This is the most entertaining book I have read in a long time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nerd power

Sorry, I have been crazy busy these few days. What little social time I possess has been spent on board games. Yes, it is nerdy, but it is better than sitting along and reading a fantasy novel (which I probably would have been doing otherwise). And drinking a few beers while playing games looks a lot better than drinking a few beers while reading a fantasy novel. Anyway, here are a few winners;

Twilight Struggle: Oh my goodness, is this good. You get to fight the whole Cold War in about three hours. There is little actual fighting just the spreading of influence through diplomacy and covert action. There is a fair amount of luck, as all the action depends on the cards you hold, but it is a wild ride. If you were an international relations major, you really need this one. After you play you will spend hours thinking of ways to keep the US or the USSR out of the Middle East.

Puerto Rico: If direct conflict isn't your bag, you might like the economic conflict in Puerto Rico. Each player is a Spanish colonial magnate trying to develop land and then ship products back to Spain. There are multiple strategies to win and you can learn the game in about 15 minutes. Super fun.

Ticket to Ride: Marklin edition: Ticket to Ride is about connecting train routes on the United States. You can learn in minutes and even play with your kids. The Marklin edition is set in Germany and adds an additional challenge, getting passengers to the big cities. This small change makes for much more decision-making. Like the other two games, there is a wonderful tension throughout.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Closed sign swinging in the window of the liquor store

There is a new band with the name Suburban Kids with Biblical Names. Those wise in the ways of music will recognize the name from a Silver Jews song. If I had my way, all band names would come from Silver Jews songs.

The morose emo bands could take names like "Chalk Lines Around My Body." Country bands could take "Sometimes I dream of Texas." Daft-Punk technocore types could use "Windex tears flow down the robot's face." Seriously, there is no need to go anywhere else for inspiration.

On the subject of music, if you like the Strokes you will like this solo song from band member Albert Hammond Jr.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Another book sale windfall

I considered not attending this weekend's Friends of the Multnomah County Library Book Sale. This is the small Spring event to help clear inventory ahead of the big event in the Fall. I'm glad I went as I quickly hit my more-books-than-I-can-uncomfortably-carry limit. Among this weekend's finds (all either new or in close to new shape) and for $24.

Lee's Lieutenants. To be fair, this is a book that I want to own, on the very off chance that I will ever read it. I picked up Stephen Sears's abridgement of Douglas Southall Freeman's epic three volume monster on Confederate Army officers. Since I probably won't read it, you might ask why I didn't look for the three volume edition. I'd rather have a book I probably won't read over one I most surely won't.

The First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge. I've been eyeballing this one for some time. I believe he ties this into the overall Christendom vs. Islam story without being a 21st century finger-wagger.

Running Blind by Lee Child. I loved the first two Child books, but put the third one down. I like to give a man another chance.

Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth. Unsworth is one of my favorite contemporary British writers (and I like a lot of them.) Tie that into my love of naval history and I think we have a winner.

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin. I like to read mystery novels in order, and I decided to skip ahead on Rankin. I figure his later ones are better anyway.

Son of the Morningstar by Evan S Connell. This is a history covering Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Connell is an excellent writer so I can't wait to see how he handles this one.

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell. A nice brooding mystery author. When I took my stack up to the cashier the sale volunteer wailed that he wished he had seen this one. The volunteers get the first look and descend on all the choice books I take it.

UPDATE: As all know, I love both Multnomah Public Library and the Friends of the Library, so I did not mean to disparage, merely to kid. Sorry!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

What the people paid to write are reading

The New York Times has a long piece asking well known authors about what they have been reading lately. Slow review season I guess. Gary Wills, author of a Pulitizer Prize winning book on Lincoln's speechwriting, deserves credit for describing another author thusly: "The master of Lincoln’s mastery over the word."

But then I got to Edwidge Danticat. Now Ms. Danticat may be the best author on Earth, an author who could lead me to openly weep in public places, but I will never, ever, know. You see, I have this friend who manages to tell his Edwidge Danticat story almost every time I see him. Apparently, said friend went to see Ms. Danticat speak. The author, who is Haitian, said that she was writing books for all the little Haitian girls who couldn't look up to an author like themselves. The first few times I heard this story, I thought how very nice. As the cascade of repitition continued I began to quite dislike hearing her name. At this point I have to avert my eyes at the bookstore. The only thing worse than being recommended the same book, over and over again, is being told the same story about an author, over and over again.

People dressing up in bags, directing traffic, some kind of fashion

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 94-97 and at that time the historically Italian North Beach didn't seem very Italian. At best, it was a strip of Italian restaurants and a few churches surrounded by an expanding Chinatown. Domenic Stansberry's Last Days of Il Duce is set in mid-80s San Francisco when North Beach was in its last gasps as a ethnic Italian neighborhood.

The main character Niccolo Abruzzi Jones represents the neighborhood. He was once a successful lawyer, but is now a bag man for a local Chinese power broker/gangster. His is only part Italian and has mostly given up any ties to things Italian. The only Italian elements left are the old people, many of whom long for the rigorous days of Il Duce. As it turns out, we later learn the older Chinese take the same view of the younger Chinese.

Nick's brother is killed and he wants to find out why. He also feels guilty that he can now have a relationship with his brother's ex-wife who has he loved since childhood. There are a few other complications as well, including the return of a man Nick suspects of having an affair with his mother.

The mystery itself isn't all that mysterious. The emphasis here is on doomed characters in a doomed community. San Francisco itself is portrayed not unlike the 1970s NYC of the Stones Shattered. Sex, drugs and violence appear to be the only activities of choice in Nick's town. So if you are looking for big surprises look elsewhere, but if you want some San Francisco noir, this would be a good choice.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Oh my, oh my. So funny. Be sure to watch the Tea Partay.

Speaking of New England blue bloods, Mark Mills, author of the New England set Amagansett, has a new one called the Savage Garden. He moves the action to Tuscany and throws in some medieval intrigue. I loved the first book, which reminded me of the wistful literary thrillers of Robert Goddard, the writer, not the rocket guy.

Michiko HATES the new Ian McEwan. "After two big, ambitious novels — “Atonement” and “Saturday” — Ian McEwan has inexplicably produced a small, sullen, unsatisfying story that possesses none of those earlier books’ emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity of detail." Got-dam, that is some heavy hating.

Update: Jonathan Yardley LOVES it.

Alien fun

I rewatched Alien (in Director's Cut form) last evening. With its unfortunate franchise, I expected to be unimpressed by the original, which I have not seen in years. It remains as excellent as my memory told me. It takes the slow paced claustrophobic 2001 approach as opposed to the frenetic Star Wars approach. This was an excellent choice. The slow moving Nostromo appears all the more huge, the slow approach to the planet is all the more forbidding and the alien ship is particularly odd. Had there been all sorts of distractions, the power of these images would have waned.

The cast is also excellent. I like that the crew of the Nostromo are battered working class types, the kind you would expect that would sign up for a long haul cargo trip to the edge of space. It also makes sense that they are completely unprepared for the coming of the alien, which makes their attempts to stop it all the more compelling.

Having rewatched Aliens recently, I still enjoyed the Hudson dialogue, but found the emphasis on special effects dated the film quite a bit. Having more people die also limits the impact as we spend little time with each of them. I still enjoyed it, but I don't think it holds up as well.

I appreciate the fact that the franchise took an entirely new direction with Alien 3, but in the end I found it far too somber for my taste. The shift of Ripley to a symbiotic relationship with the Alien which didn't really work for me. And with the exception of the swimming aliens, Alien 4 was pretty weak.

Still, if you are able to put the follow-ons aside, the first is worth a visit again. If only to see Bilbo Baggins as a young mysterious science officer.