Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Fareed Zakaria 1, Norman Podhoretz 0. I especially like the line that "It used to be that one had to explain deterrence to the left; it has now become something the right does not understand." Text here.

Genius of America

In The Genius of America, Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes argue that a large part of America's success has been on a "Constitutional Conscience" and that since the Carter Administration this Conscience has weakened to the point of collapse.

This Conscience arose at the Constitutional Convention when James Madison and others crafted a series of compromises meant to protect the views and interests of both minority and majority viewpoints. The series of checks and balances and the belief in the political process as a means of solving problems kept the country growing and developing as well as laying the groundwork for the expansion of rights. The idea developed is that means are equal in importance to the ends, as policy that is crafted quickly and without care is very often worse than no policy at all (see, for example, Iraq.)

The first half of the book is of greatest value to those without a political science/government background, but the second is where the book shines.In the latter half, the authors identify a trend towards trying to circumvent the political process through a variety of means whether fully illegal like Ollie North, or legal like the use of propositions and referendums. The latter is pernicious because it requires only a straight vote of participants, and normally not even a majority of voters. And you can bet that few voters will go beyond the insipid TV ads meant to drive votes. A law on the other hand must survive committees in both houses and then votes in both houses. And there are trained professionals, the staff, who make sure that the interests and values they support are considered in the law.

In the Bush 43 years, we have the added problem of an rapacious executive branch grabbing as much power as possible and a Congress cowering and kowtowing like a weak spouse desperate to avoid a beating. The traditional role of oversight is finally re-emerging with the likes of Henry Waxman, but it will take more than that to revive the idea of the Conscience.

The authors do not deeply probe into how to fix it, but they do identify a problem at the education level. It's not immediately obvious than the means matter as much as the ends, especially to our impatient populace, but it is worth investing in understanding. It would also help if our popular historians moved to describe systemic issues as well as personal ones.

The authors will have a live chat with Larry Sabato today at 3PM EST on the Washington Post.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Camera got them images, camera got them all

What is a rockstar to do when the rocking is all done? You could combat global poverty, or perhaps submit to a reality TV show about shaping up. Not Dave Navarro, no sir. He's now entered the porn world, as a director. I suppose in about a decade, declining indie stars will make really awkward porn movies in which people get naked but never actually have sex.

Werner Von Braun

Werner Von Braun is a fascinating character. He managed the Nazi V2 program and later was a key member on the US side of the space race. Michael Neufeld of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum has a new book on the topic. You can hear Neufeld discuss Von Braun and the book here on Diane Rehm. Despite my high school German, I have always mispronounced his name.

Here is Von Braun on Disney's Man in Space. If you like this sort of thing, get a copy of Disney's Tomorrowland, which contains a number of 1950s Disney programs meant to excite interest in space.

Invading Mars

Science fiction stories rarely deal with the potential consequences of the events of the stories. Yes, it is great that the great alien invasion was defeated, but what would life be like afterwards? The classic Ender's Game is one look at what an Earth rebuilding from an invasion would be like. The War of the Worlds depicts an invasion of England by Martians and the Scarlet Traces graphic novels deal with life on Earth after the alien defeat.

I read Scarlet Traces: The Great Game and found it an entertaining, if rather short, science fiction story. The story concerns England's invasion of Mars some years after the War of the Worlds story. England took the technology left by the dead Martians and used it to become a global superpower, but is now mired in an endless war on Mars.

The book is loaded with intrigue as the British government is highly oppressive with historical fascist Oswald Mosley (note: that site run by a group called "Friends of Oswald Mosley") running a secret police. The Scots are trying to secede and the Dominions want out as well, so the government is getting desperate. A titled reporter heads to Mars and stumbles onto the government's wicked plans.

This is a very short book, coming in at just over 100 pages. The authors try to cram too much into it and the ending in particular suffers for it. If you like your graphic novels to be heavy enough to use as a weapon, as is the case with From Hell, then are you likely to be disappointed.

Bonfires burning bright

Halloween is as good a time as any to indulge in my love-hate relationship with horror fiction. This time I turn to short fiction and the first book up is 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. Like his well known father, writes great horror stories because he emphasizes the humanity of the his characters, which makes their eventual fates all the more compelling. The stories range from the challenges of living as an inflatable human to a tale where the jokey family myths about monsters turn out to be true. Hill's stories are not as brutal as those of his father, which make them even more appealing.

Since I have so enjoyed the Hill stories, I went out for a few more. The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates looked good and Dark Domain by Polish author Stefan Grabinski also caught my eye.

I will try to fit in a horror movie as well. It has been quite some time since I have seen Prince of Darkness (trailer here,) which surely has one of the finest endings in horror movies. The original Black Christmas (trailer here) is similarly excellent.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Keep

As a nerd* I would be remiss in not mentioning F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, after talking about Jennifer Egan's book. I quite liked Wilson's book when I read it back in the 80s. You may recall the film, directed by Michael Mann and starring Scott Glenn. As I recall, the movie was so-so.

The story involves a castle in Romania where occupying Nazis are being killed. Yay, right? No, turns out that the creature killing them is an ancient evil, never meant to be free. The forces of good rally to combat the wicked foe. Using this story and the follow-on, the Tomb, Wilson launched a two -track epic about a battle between good and evil that ends in a colossal Ragnorak-like battle.

The relatively brief Adversary Cycle consists of the Keep, the Tomb and six other novels. I recall the last three as being a particularly enjoyable supernatural end of the world tale. His other track is the Repairman Jack series, which currently stands at a staggering 10 volumes. And he isn't done. As he discusses on his website, the Repairman Jack books are integrating into the Adversary Cycle. So if you know how those books end, you know how the Jack books do as well.

Repairman Jack is one of those impossibly competent characters that populate the thriller genre. It has been awhile since I have read any of these books, but I recall them being compelling despite the unbelievability. Just to be sure, I bought Harbingers, book nine. Unlike fantasy series, you can hop around a bit with these.

*If I was being a true nerd I would have to mention B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which is the second D&D module I ever played.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Keep

Jennifer Egan's The Keep mixes love, ghost and Gothic stories into a fine literary thriller. While the book is a bit too self-referential to provide true scares or deep surprises, it manages to evoke dread and create suspense while spinning a story about the challenges of connecting with others.

The story begins in an unnamed Central European country where Howard invites his cousin Danny to come stay and work. Twenty years past, Danny was involved in a cruel prank on Howard, but now Howard is rich enough to but and renovate castles. Most of the castle is being repaired, but the keep, where the residing Baroness holds sway, is off-limits. Shortly after we learn all this, we are introduced to Ray, who is writing the story for his maximum security prison writing class.

The hazy line between imagination and reality is constantly tested. Howard believes that his technology free hotel will allow people to experience imagination as it once was, nearly a hallucination. Danny, with technology withdrawal, paranoia and other reasons to be hazy has a number of experiences that hard to explain. Outside of the story, the degree to which Ray is simply retelling or inventing his story isn't always clear. When you have finished reading the book, take a look at a faux promotional site for the hotel at the Keep. It clears up a few mysteries.

Egan balances the elements of Gothic and ghost in the castle story and awkward potential romance between Ray and his teacher quite well. Aside from a coda that doesn't really fit with the rest of the book, this is a stupendous read.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ok in OKC

The Flaming Lips get an alley named for them in Oklahoma City. Pilgrims should stop in Braums for a good ice cream.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Everything is cool in the mind of a blogger

NBK sent this list of the top ten rap songs white people love, and it is reasonably accurate. NWA is an strange miss and what about Jay Z's Big Pimpin'? For without the works of Mr Z, ninjas would not be the same.

Let's not kid ourselves, it gets really, really bad

Comic, serious novels are all too rare. Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of the finest, but even he focuses more on being serious in his other books. In Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris manages the trick of writing a funny novel that manages to tell a rather depressing story.

The major theme is the love-hate relationship white-collar Americans have with work. The first half of the book consists of anecdotes dealing with the mostly pointless activities that fill the day. Even though nearly all the action takes place in the work day, very little work is shown. Instead, the workers gossip, debate who will get fired next, plan pranks and otherwise fill their time. Which is really not a bad description of most companies I have seen.

Ferris presents the voice of the workers in a first person "we," that is never personalized, truly standing in for the group. This voice switches for two characters, both senior, that are never part of the group. Neither group is attractive. The mass of workers are implicitly and then explicitly compared to high school cliques and bullies, and the individuals voices shut themselves off from any observable real human interaction. Work seems to be killing them, figuratively and literally.

If the writing wasn't so funny, it would be a terribly depressing book. Fortunately the bleak message that work will rarely if ever be a positive element in life is presented in often hilarious ways. It's quite possible that I found it funny merely because it is so similar to places I have worked, but I think Ferris's observations go beyond that.

Eating up the eighties

Sometime in the early 80s I first ran into MTV and I became fascinated by the videos. Here are some key moments of the era.

Styx - Too Much Time on My Hands. I believe this is the first video I saw on MTV. I like the excessive gesturing and facial expressions.

Cheap Trick - She's Tight. At age 12 or so, I thought this was unbelievably dirty. Little did I know we were only a few years from the 2 Live Crew.

Billy Squier - The Stroke. At the time, I assumed this about some vile act beyond my ken. I still don't know what it is about.

Joan Jett - Do You Wanna Touch. Young teen Tripp enjoyed the unambiguous nature of this anthem.

Michael Nesmith - Cruisin. Awesome doesn't suffice in describing this one. It's a long way from Daydream Believer.

David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes. So my favorite Bowie song. Soaring music, articulate and evocative lyrics and a super arty video.

Devo - Whip It. This anti-establishment rock has held up much better than hardcore.

J Geils - Centerfold. This song and video were unavoidable and planted the notion that someone you know might end up in a"girlie" magazine. 80s scholars are in agreement that Love Stinks is the superior song. The Adam Sandler version is funny.

Police - Don't Stand So Close to Me. Before Sting turned into a Very Important Artist, he had a good sense of humor as seen here.

The Producers - What's He Got. Most notable for the neck-strap keyboard and odd opener.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mearsheimer and Walt

Foreign policy books rarely cause controversy outside of academic or policy circles, but IR scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt ignited a firestorm with their Israel Policy and US Foreign Policy. The ADL's Abe Foxman wrote a book attacking Mearsheimer and Walt called the Deadliest Lies and essentially called them anti-Semites on Fresh Air. Other negative reviews come from the New Republic (via National Review!)

The author of my favorite foreign policy book, Special Providence, has a long review in Foreign Affairs, where he argues that the authors are not anti-Semites, but are wrong and have written a a bad book.

So what did they argue? I can't say for sure, as I haven't read it yet. As I understand it, they argue that a pro-Israel lobby forces the US into a relationship with Israel that runs counter to US interests. The heat seems to come from the first rather than the latter half.

If you like journal versions, read the London Review of Books article that serves as the basis for the book. I am picking up the book at the library today. They are speaking in Portland tonight, but you had to have bought tickets by yesterday to attend.


Alternate universes are a long standing comic book tradition. DC had so many parallel stories going that it launched the Crisis on Infinite Earths to reconcile them and have a universe. Apparently DC couldn't keep away from alternates since they launched the Elseworld line, which allows for things like Batman fighting Dracula and Superman landing in Soviet Russia, instead of the American Midwest.

Marvel off and on publishes What if?, which like Elseworlds, allowed for changes in the assumed history. Each issue asked a question like, "What if Loki found the Hammer of Thor?" Because the comics were one-offs and dead ends, the writers could be as dramatic as they like, killing whoever the liked.

In 2000, Marvel launched Ultimate Marvel, which had classic Marvel stories like Spiderman and the X-Men starting today, instead of the 60s. This universe is considered separate from the main Marvel universe, which allows the writers to go in different directions. Some changes are merely updating topics, as Spiderman is bitten by a gene-engineered rather than radioactive spider and some of the stories are a bit darker.

Set in the Marvel Universe and updating the Avengers, the Ultimates is one of the best graphic novels I have read in years. The Ultimates are a homeland security (via S.H.I.E.L.D.) team assembled to deal with major threats. Initially they are perceived as PR and bureaucratic politics play, but nasty things eventually show themselves. The book is excellent, because the characters are interesting, the violence has repercussions and the book balances action, drama and humor.

The book has many of the classic Avengers, but they have changed. Captain America is a true fish out of water, revived in 2001 from 1945. Thor is an anti-globalization activist (He's European you know.) The Hulk is pure murderous rage. When Hulk goes crazy, people die and the death and destruction is made much more clear. These sad moments, and others which include spouse abuse and alcohol addiction make the book a bit much for younger readers.

There is a weird fixation with pop culture in the book, which will make the book odd reading in ten years or so. Will people, for example, recall Shannon Elizabeth who makes an appearance? Hulk also expresses an urge to kill Freddie Prinze Jr. And Nick Fury looks exactly like Mace Windu. A small complaint which distracts but doesn't reduce the enjoyment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Claustrophobia, there's too much paranoia

Movies about the Cold War tend to focus on countries on failed wars or countries spying on other countries. The Lives of Others deals with incredibly invasive East German State and in particular the odious Stasi.

Adding German efficiency to Communist authoritarian paranoia, the Stasi used hundreds of thousands of informants to spy on its own citizens. A favorite tactic was to coerce people to spy on their friends and family. The mental anguish and psychological torture was widespread.

While the film focuses on a single case, it effectively shows the scale of the activities and the light-hearted view the agents take to their cruelty. One senior officer gleefully notes that dissident artists of a particular type tend never to create again after a certain form of isolation treatment.

The plot concerns a writer that is targeted because a government official lusts after his girlfriend. The Stasi is sent to listen in to find a reason to put him in jail. A suspenseful story develops as the agent's reactions to his assignment become precarious. All of the characters lives show the difficulty of remaining good in an evil system.

Tina Rosenberg wrote an excellent book on the dealing with the after-effects of so much oppression in the Haunted Land. The stories of broken lives in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia are tragic.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare

With the usual eloquently acid commentary you get at Belgravia Dispatch, Greg D takes on the new war drums.

On a similar note, have a look at George Packer's description of a book of photography from Iraq called, all too appropriately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Giving kids books

If you have nieces or nephews or friends with kids, you will probably be giving kids books this Christmas. Like any other form of gift giving, it is hard to know what to buy. Kids books are particularly hard since kids can easily consume piles of books at the library. Here are some good new books that they might not have seen.

Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems. This is the sequel to the excellent Knuffle Bunny , which told the story of a young girl who loses her favorite stuffed animal and because of it speaks her first word. It has great art and will make the kids laugh. The sequel tells the story of a girls first friend, which of course involves the stuffed animal.

Diary of A Fly by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss. Following Diary of A Worm and Diary of A Spider, Diary of the Fly presents the lives of insects in brief humorous anecdotes. The kids will request this one again and again.

Toy Boat by Randall DeSeve and Loren Long. An allegory for facing the sometimes scary outside world, this book tells the tale of toy boat that gets lost at sea. While the art can be a tad menacing, my kids loved it and I thought the story was charming.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

No Christmas cards to send

The Ramones heyday predated the MTV era, which means their video production was scant. Not only that, but the selection is peculiar. Why does Howling at the Moon have a video, but not My Brain is Hanging Upside Down? In any case, here are many if not most of the Ramones videos up to the late 80s.

I Wanna Be Sedated. The one Ramones song you have probably heard too many times. It's not to the point of Jane Says, which I immediately turn off, but like How Soon is Now, it is the only song from a huge catalog that radio seems to like.

Rock and Roll Radio. One of the early videos that simply features the band playing. Notable primarily for the Phil Spector sound and Joey's rhythmic banging on the TV.

Rock and Roll High School. A contemporary to the thematically similar Don't Stand So Close to Me ( a highlight of which is Stewart Copeland throwing a ball at Sting) This one has more narrative action than Rock and Roll Radio. From the Rock and Roll High School film, we also have I Want You Around, which is a film clip, rather than a true video. This is notable for having PJ Soles as well as being perhaps the only example of a successful Ramones ballad.

Howling at the Moon. I think this is the first case where Joey overtly states his leftist ways, no doubt to the consternation of rightist Johnny. Odd video.

Psycho Therapy. From the under-rated Subterranean Jungle, this is one of the harder Ramones songs. The video starts off fairly weak and then gets increasingly bizarre. Starring the same guy from the Howling at the Moon video.

Pet Sematery. Decadence has set in by this point, but bright lights remain like this one. When considering going forward, they might have considered Jud Crandall's advice.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

There is blog on our hands again

You may have heard of this horrific development. A man working on a book called Cannibal Instincts got a little too close to his subject matter. He is being accused of killing and eating at least three women. There are some gruesome details in the link.

Dumbledore likes the dudes. Those who already like the books will shrug and those that consider demonic will now start to froth at the mouth. Of course you think having no Potter is bad? Well, no Halloween either.

Have you wondered what it would be like if Vince Neill wrote a commentary on Marcus Aurelius's Meditations? Or perhaps you pine for Danzig's thoughts on the Tao Te Ching? While these treasures elude us, we can look forward to Gene Simmon's updating of Sun Zi's Art of War.

Interpol in PDX

Interpol played the Memorial Coliseum last night. It was good, but I really prefer the smaller venues. Seeing them at the 9:30 club was intense, sitting in a large arena, not so much.

Songwise, there was lots from the new album, including an excellent Pace is the Trick. The crowd was most excited for Antics songs. The singalongs were loudest for the likes of C'Mere and Slow Hands. Turn on the Bright Lights fans only got one or two, although I was happy that they played Say Hello the Angels. That is the one that sounds like a Smiths B-side so maybe it was a hat-tip to man about town Johnny Marr.

There was a synth, back-up vocals member in addition to the band regulars. He was wearing a Panama Hat which had me worried that they might cover Mambo No. 5.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Day of Battle

If you read books about the Second World War, put Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle at the top of your pile. If you don't, this is a great place to start. The focus of the book is on the American Army experience in Sicily and Italy from 1943-44. The British, Polish, Canadian, Free French, and New Zealand forces are also covered, but the emphasis here is on the American forces.

The book is admirably balanced between the problems of command and the daily lives and deaths of the foot soldier. Like in other wars, early thoughts of being home by Christmas were broken on the realities of the Italian terrain. The many hills and valleys, poor roads and the in depth German fortifications made the war primarily a slow moving and grinding infantry war. Allied commanders often seem like World War One generals, perplexed by the tactical problems facing them and limited resources at hand. The increasingly desperate situation of the soldier on both sides is a major theme as well.

The book covers the near-disaster at Anzio, where a large army held onto to a postage stamp sized beachhead and failed to break-out for months. A Nazi radio propagandist called it the largest self-run POW camp in the world. Atkinson goes into great depth about the Cassino struggle. The casualty heavy attempts by Allied Armies to break the German lines and the pointless destruction of Monte Cassino are heartbreaking.

The book ends with a brief discussion as to whether the Italy campaign made sense at all. Atkinson briefly argues that it did, but the grand strategic context is not the heart of this book. It is instead a warning and a memorial about the costs of war.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Nerd World has an anthology of the use of the Wilhelm, a distinctive scream first used in a 50s Western.

This movie looks fun, a bit like a evil Groundhog Day, but the trailer appears to give too much away.

Give this Killers cover of Joy Division's Shadowplay a try.

Here's a book for all your scatological gift giving needs.

Too much horror business

I chanced upon Then We Came to the End at the library today and my resultant cackling must have disturbed the other riders. The novel is a hilarious (and also existential angst inducing) look at office life. I generally don't do snippets, but this one is too good not to do it. This may only appeal to office worker types, but give it a try:

Ordinarily jobs came in and we completed them in a timely and professional manner. Sometimes fuckups did occur. Printing errors, transposed numbers. Our business was advertising and details were important. If the third number after the second hyphen in a client's toll free number was a six instead of an eight, and if it went to print like that, and showed up in Time magazine, no one reading the ad could call now and order today. No matter the could go to the website, we still had to eat the price of the ad. Is this boring you yet? It bored us every day. Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die.

Open up the seven seals, the beast has come to claim our youth

The Internet has something for everyone. If YouTube is too worldly for you, then perhaps you want GodTube. There is a good deal of diversity, as you can watch Creed videos, but you can also catch this guy drinking the Creed Haterade. Sadly, I could find no Danzig hating, maybe that is considered too easy.

This play on the PC/Mac commercials shows what evangelicals think of mainline protestants.

If at first you don't succeed

Reading the Day of Battle with its stories of mishaps at Anzio, Salerno and other Italian locales, I recalled a book that has long sat on my wish list, America's First Battles. The book looks at the first land battles of the US Army in conflicts from 1776 to 1965. In each case the first battle, such as Kasserine Pass, Manassas and Long Island, the US Army fared poorly and eventually developed into an effective force for that particular conflict. The book examines why this is the case. Iraq would make for an interesting inclusion in a future addition. In that case, a spectacular initial battle was followed by years of falling behind.

On the topic of Manassas, it is a little strange that the US Navy has a USS Chancellorsville, named after one of the greatest victories of the CSA over the USA. It's hard to think of other circumstances where the losing side is so honored. This site mentions that Churchill wanted an HMS Cromwell, but the Crown wasn't keen. Cromwell had to make do with a tank.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bombing Bari

I tend to wrongly think that all the interesting World War 2 stories have already been told. In the Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson describes the German bombing raid on Bari which should get one of those wartime disasters treatments like the Curse of the Narrows or Halsey's Typhoon. The basic format of these books is that a combinations of mistakes, bad decisions and bad luck lead to horrific disaster and heroic response.

As this article describes, the Luftwaffe, considered a spent force in late 1943 Italy, managed a raid on the southern Italian port of Bari. Thanks in part to lax air defenses, the Germans bombed and sank a number of Liberty ships in the harbor. One of these ships was loaded with the chemical weapon mustard gas. The Allies wanted a retaliatory weapon in Italy in case the Germans went chemical. No one told local authorities so many died or suffered until the local medical crews understood what was happening. The port itself was flattened and many service- and merchantmen and civilians were killed or injured.

There is an out of print book on the subject, but this is a story that needs a new book.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I haven't finished the book yet, but I can say that if you have any World War 2 readers on your holiday list, then Rick Atkinson's the Day of Battle is a great choice. The author's clear, prose and focus on people as well as a avoidance of jargon and technical minutiae will help those with limited knowledge of the war enjoy the story. Those who've read more deeply will appreciate his exploration of the inter-service and international rivalries, the challenges of command and the story of an Army learning how to operate.

The development of the Army starting in North Africa, moving to southern Europe and then on to Northern Europe is the major story line of Atkinson's book. He pays a lot of attention to the senior and mid-level generals of the Army, emphasizing their leadership or lack thereof. This emphasis is nicely balanced by frequent discussion of the foot soldier and civilian view.

The book is a follow up to Army of Dawn and describes the American war in Sicily and Italy in 1943 to mid-1944. The other Allied forces in Italy are not ignored, but the emphasis here is on the American effort. I'll have more to say later, but this is a can't miss book for anyone interested in World War 2.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hey Wow

The other day I visited a friend's house here in Portland and I was surprised to see a Connells poster. I associate the band with the 1980s Southern Alternative Rock scene that centered on IRS period REM, not so much in the Athens sense, but in the broader jangle guitar rock sound. Apparently they are still involved in said southern rock scene, as here they are playing my very own Norfolk's Town Point Park in 07. Equally strange, the drummer married one of childhood babysitters. Here is an actual video I missed for 74-75. Not my favorite, but reasonably representative.

Another band I associate with this scene is the dBs, and here is Amplifier which remains an excellent song and a decent video to boot. The very good Like This has been reissued which has Amplifier and my other fave Spy in the House of Love.

Ok, so I made up the category of southern alternative rock, but that is how it is organized in my head.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Very Large World War 2 Histories

I have Max Hasting's Armageddon on my bookshelf and I plan to read it soon. On the World War 2 front, Rick Atkinson's Day of Battle is first in line, so Mr. Hastings will have to wait. I can see my Very Large History pile growing as Hastings has yet another one coming called Nemesis, the Battle for Japan 1944-45. It's UK only and the Antony Beever (Stalingrad, Fall of Berlin) review is one of those that talks about the subject matter instead of the book itself.

More Chiang

When it comes to buying, some books are for true fans only and Ted Chiang's The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate qualifies. Now this is a great story, that I think most short story readers would like. So why can't I recommend it for purchase? Because it is 50 short pages at $25. You can read it in about 15 minutes. Of course, this puts it in graphic novel territory, so maybe that price is reasonable to some. The book is published by Subterranean Press which specializes in creating lavishly illustrated editions.

Chiang's short story is out of print, so if you can get it at the library, then by all means do do. It is a story about fate and attempting to manipulate time to get what you want. It is about as good as the stories found in Stories of Your Life And Others, but it doesn't exceed them. Given that Stories is one of the finest short story collections available, this isn't a bad thing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We sell them guns, we sell them tanks

I had heard that Charlie Wilson's War was being made into a movie (trailer here), but I didn't know it had Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. All the better to get people into a foreign policy movie. While Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is the definitive book on American involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 to 2001, the late George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War is one of the most entertaining books about foreign policy that you will ever read. The trailer will give you a sense of the oddity that was Rep. Charlie Wilson.

Seeing the Light

There are some books where it is easy to identify why you like. In Berlin Noir, Philip Kerr builds claustrophobic feelings about life in Nazi Germany. In Straight Man, Richard Russo manages to be hilarious while providing deep character studies. It's much harder to pin down what is great about M John Harrison's Light.

It is pitched as space opera, but it isn't really a space opera book, despite a few well-written space battles and a wild future frontier built around a singularity. It is much more about three characters and their struggles to deal with themselves. None of them is particularly appealing, one is a serial killer, one is emotionally stunted personality integrated into one of most powerful warships in human space and the third is a virtual reality junkie.

The serial killer exists in 1999 and the other two stories are told in 2400. The connections between the three are slowly revealed and are not obvious. Harrison is not one to spell things out for you. He leaves much unclear, about the people, the future and even the state of reality.

It is Harrison's abilities as a stylist that sing here. He is as excellent describing a lonely beach as he is at aliens, and he is just as happy to write as each. The ideal audience for him is a relative rarity, appreciators of good writing who are comfortable reading science fiction. Mainline science fiction fans may balk at his many diversions, while sci fi hating lit readers will have a hard time getting past the space scenes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A really good cover

I gave a few songs from Guilt by Association, the indie rockers cover 70s-80s tracks album, but none have grabbed me like Mike Watt's Burnin' For You. The 70s guitar sound (yes I know the song is from 81, but it may as well be from 76) the over-the-top rocker singing style and most importantly the Petra Hayden back-up vocals make this a can't miss cover.

As deep as any ocean, as sweet as any harmony

My school's acronym was SFS, which people joked stood for Safe From Science, due to the lack of any math or science requirement. So I took few science classes then, aside from a course on nuclear weapons technology. I regret this, as I find science fun and enriching, but I do have trouble finding books that aren't geared towards specialists or written at too basic a level. I've just started Natalie Angier's The Canon, which is meant to provide an understanding of some core concepts of scientific thinking and learning. This got me thinking about the science books which do speak to the educated non-specialist. Here are some that I found enlightening.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. A brief explanation of evolutionary theory. Told remarkably well and without the heavy anti-religious tone that has dominated some of his recent work.

The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. This one is about sociobiology which is where evolution crashes into sociology.

The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris. This is a lucid book about a challenging topic, cosmology, or the study of the universe and how it began and operates.

It feeds the rich while it buries the poor

If you want a crisp look at the moral and political challenges of living with terrorism, then read Marvel Comics Civil War. Every few years, the major comics companies shake up their lines and provide a macro-context with a major event. These are generally said to change everything, and sometimes they really do.

In this case, a superhero vs. villain battle leaves hundreds dead, and in response the government wants to register all superheros. Some go along and others resist the increase in state power. The choice is that between security and freedom and it is not obvious where the line should be drawn, in real life or in this comic. As in real life civil wars, the conflict becomes increasingly violent and each side takes measures they wouldn't consider in peacetime.

The art in the book is excellent and I thought the characterization was good, but I am not an avid comics reader, so I have little opinion on the specifics for each character. It was fun to see the battles between Iron Man and Captain America, the leaders of the opposing camps. There are a number of tie-in stories which provide more context to the overall story and I will certainly be reading them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Books at the airport

If you are stuck in ATL, as I was this last Sunday evening, might I recommend you head to Terminal B? The bookstore there has an extensive selection, so you won't have to read John Grisham or flip through magazines for hours on end. If you go to the other terminals you are likely to read Grisham or one of his grocery store rack friends. ATL's no PDX with three Powell's locations, but it's good you can find something decent.

This blog post notes the airports, including Portland, where you can find used books. There aren't too many. I have been to the one in Raleigh Durham, which is quite good.

In the shadow of the moon, Hollywood Station

Joseph Wambaugh served as a LA police officer was one of the first writers to use a more realistic approach to writing about police work. His newest book, Hollywood Station, is his first book in ten years and it is a well balanced mix of black humor and suspense.

The story centers around the LAPD Hollywood Station and it has a mix of colorful policeman including two surfer-cops, the grizzled sexists serving with female cops, the wannabe actor cop and the over his head newbie. The first half of the book is made up of alternatively humorous and grim stories of life on the police force. This is something Wambaugh emphasizes, when the police go on a call, they don't know if someone is going to try to kill them or present them with an outlandish situation. He also uses this section to detail the effects of Federal oversight on the post-Rampart scandal LAPD.

Just as the book seems to be little more than a collection of anecdotes helping us to understand the world from the cop's point of view, Wambaugh rolls out a tightly constructed suspense plot line involving meth addicts and Eastern European gangsters. Wambaugh toys with the reader, setting up tense situations only to release and then finally hitting the reader with the finale. This reminded me how little suspense is created in modern mysteries, the emphasis being more on creating gritty realism, providing surprises or further developing characters.

A number of mystery writers, especially the gritty and LA-centric ones, cite Wambaugh as a key influence and this book is prove that he still has it.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Global warming should be an ideal topic for science fiction. For one, science fiction does a nice job of talking about extreme events and the possible preventative action, consequence management and recovery. For another, science fiction does disaster quite well. And finally, science fiction writers love to show scientists as interested, committed, world-changing people.

With all of this I had high hopes for Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Days of Rain. While it had good parts, the author's tone was off-putting, to the point of my actively disliking the book. This is an impressive achievement as the author was trying to make points with which I basically agree. He promotes the value of public service and of science and he says we need to actively work on preventing and/or mitigating global warming.

His tone is hectoring, condescending and patronizing against nearly everyone (aside from Buddhist monks) who decide not to be scientists. Rather than trying to convince anyone, Robinson just slings a lot of mud. And then he has long passages to show how wise scientists are, only to wonder why everyone can't be like them. The writing in general is weak and the story is a bore. Stay away.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

She keeps nagging at ya night and day, enough to drive ya nuts

In The Devil In White City, Erik Larson told the story of a brutal serial killer living amongst the splendor of the World's Columbian Exhibition. In Thunderstruck, Larson uses the same template, telling the tale of Marconi's development of an usable radio system counterposed with the story of the murderer Dr. Crippen. While the stories are considerably more related in this book than in Devil in White City, they themselves are a bit less compelling overall.

The story of Marconi's radio is like that of a dot-com engineer/entrepreneur. Equipped with great intelligence and daring, but limited social skills, Marconi ignored prevailing scientific theory and tinkered with radio until he got it to work. Having gained fame and fortune he then attempted something even more difficult, the transmission of radio across the Atlantic. Most of his story is centered on this, and while it is well told, Larson struggles a bit with keeping the story going over the number of pages he gives it.

I found the Crippen story to be a bit dry, especially when compared to the gruesome tales in Devil. Essentially it is the story of a unhappily married couple, with a bad end. Again, Larson is a skilled writer who gives excellent detail about life in Edwardian England and the social circumstances in which the Crippens lived. I found myself anxious for the action to begin in this story.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I am hesitant to recommend it. It is so similar in organization and theme to Devil, that if you have that book, it is likely to disappoint and if you haven't, I would steer you to the prior book. If you like Larson's engaging story telling style and you have an interest, but not a specialization, in Edwardian England, then it may be right for you.

Friday, October 05, 2007

If you have five seconds to spare...

I'd run into the name Ted Chiang on science fiction sites for many years, all referencing his Stories of Your Life And Others. I'm a bit leery of short story collections as I don't think the best means of reading them has been invented yet. Then I saw it a copy at Powell's and I went ahead and got it. I'm happy to say the advocates are right, this is a great collection.

Chiang's stories are well constructed tales generally about perception or the mind. They also ask odd questions like what if the Biblical view of the world was correct or what if angels came to Earth in all their terrifying splendor. That story Hell is the Absence of God is a wonder. People joke about God acting in mysterious ways and he certainly does here. In that story as in others, Chiang shows a mastery of the hint and turn of phrase that leads to great surprises.

While the stories are full of wonder, the prose is spare. When describing the fantastic, Chiang describes it matter of factly, the better to examine what it would mean, for example, to be able to use more and more of one's brain.

I expect this volume would appeal to short story readers in general, as the science fiction elements are downplayed quite a bit. Haters will of course continue to hate.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


(via Pitchfork) Have a gander at this trailer for an upcoming movie about defunct indie rock band Silkworm. And I just realized the Pitchfork page has the trailer as well. Silkworm is one of the most under-rated indie rock, and I do mean rock, bands. The band broke up after their drummer died in a car accident.

Fans of hooks backed by thunderous rhythm sections need to own Firewater, which came out just as rock was taken over by the dread rap-metal fusion. Repent for your failure to recognize this one at the time by purchasing it now.

The song you hear in the trailer is Wet Firecracker, which is on Firewater. Touch and Go has MP3s as well.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

And there stands REM

Stereogum lined up indie rockers to cover Automatic for the People. These aren't the play faster and less well covers we so often get. You may not like them, but at least they put some thought into them.

Speaking of music, I caught the National the other night. Mistaken for Strangers, Fake Empire and a number of songs that were new to me got the crowd going. I would say that it was a decent, but not great show. The stage presence was inward without the intensity of Interpol and a bit chaotic, not unlike the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene.

The National is part of the welcome trend of multi-instrument bands that create, as NBK puts it, distinct moods. While I like a straight ahead rock song as much as anyone else, the current crop of indie mood rockers are so much more engaging.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

God's Harvard

While the media attention on evangelicals and politics has declined along with Bush's approval ratings, it would be wise to continue to study this highly organized interest group. In God's Harvard, Hanna Rosin takes a close look at Patrick Henry College, the mission of which is to develop Bible-centric political leaders to change the DC, and the broader, culture from within.

Unlike many ideologically-incompatible reporters studying the evangelicals, Rosin avoids direct criticism, fear-mongering or caricatures in her writing. Instead, she lets her subjects, which include discontented as well as dedicated students, the visionary Chancellor and the staff speak for themselves. One of the strongest believers, the kind and thoughtful Derek gladly reveals viewpoints that would strike mainstream American readers as strange or even disturbing. His inability to see Bush as a potential political liability as well as an asset is odd, for a politics major, while his casual homophobia gives hints of pogroms.

A key tension that Rosin identifies is the desire to participate in and influence mainstream political culture, without oneself becoming influenced and changed. This plays out on the individual level, as students find life on the Hill to be less ideal than they hoped and on the institutional level as the school tries to balance intellectual rigor with Biblical orthodoxy. Like the Communists of the Mao era, the schools leaders move towards a degree of small "l" liberality only to swing rapidly rightward and expel any apostates.

One of the more interesting characters is a charismatic professor who clearly believes in the school's mission, but whose Jesuit-like intellectual challenges prove too much for the leadership. It's a testament to Rosin's skills that I felt great sympathy for a man whose views are most likely opposite my own pursuing a mission I oppose.

For those interested in the interplay between politics and religion, a story which isn't going away, this is an excellent read.

Book marketing

Rick Atkinson's Army at Dawn is one of best written and accessible accounts of the Americans at war. That book covers the War in North Africa in 1942-42. So I am thrilled about the good press for the follow-on volume, the Day of Battle, is getting. The book has quite the promotional website, with a trailer, and interactive maps of North Africa and Italy.

The maps are particularly helpful for military history. For non-specialists, the descriptions of multiple units moving across wide swaths of land is hard to comprehend without maps to detail the action. It must be expensive as far too few books in this category come with adequate maps.


In discussing the inevitable 00's retrospectives, the smart and funny Reihan Salam posts his candidate for the best advertisement of all time.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Short stories

Stephen King looks at the state of American short stories and calls it alive but not well. His solution? Buy the book he just edited. He notes you can also subscribe to the various journals and magazines that publish short stories, but this is an expensive proposition.

Short stories are a tough sell, as the authors are little known and reading short story collections is tough. Most include different authors and the switch of voice can be jarring. In the case of a single author collection, the range of quality tends to be a problem. I don't mind skipping a story or two, but if it gets too much, I put the whole collection down.

Internet journals that can maintain strict quality control may be the best means of distributing short stories. The costs to the publisher and reader are minimal and the short duration makes reading them online tolerable. At the very least it can help these writers develop some name recognition.