Friday, November 30, 2007

Best read of 2007?

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kids Gift Idea: Gail Gibbons

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

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

Bad Book Gifts

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

Among the categorically bad choices are:

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NPR Music

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

Risen Empire

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fans of the Wire Gift Idea: Night Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kid's Gift Idea: SuperHero ABC

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

Friday, November 23, 2007

Best of 2007

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Looming Tower

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A spy in the house of chains

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

It's gotten easier, to be green

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nov 15 Love of Reading

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bloggers as book reviewers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love of Reading

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thom Yorke is on my side

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

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


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

Some interesting thoughts from Ross Douthot and others are here.

San Diego kids fun

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Call me morbid, call me pale

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

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

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

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

Nov 14-16: Love of Reading Online Book Fair

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

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

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

Brute Force

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Larry Sabato

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

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

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

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

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

Some books you just can't read

So you get what I had this weekend, when I tried to read Some Danger Involved, a Victorian mystery. Two things held me up, it didn't feel Victorian enough and the protagonist's boss (the narrator being a Watson figure) was just too competent. He reminded me of Preston and Child's Pendergast, only in a less engaging story. Oh well.

Monday, November 05, 2007

More Ultimates

If you liked Ultimates Vol 1, you will probably like Volume 2. If you don't know this comic, read this. This one features a more interesting final battle than that found in the first volume, involving some powerful bad guys. This is one of the few comics where an attack of sorts occurs on Iran, and there is a counterstroke, which ends up badly for all involved. The Hulk is limited in this one, which is too bad, as his maniacal dialogue is a highlight of this title. Also (SPOILER) these Ultimates don't mind killing bad guys, that's for sure.

The most inept that ever stepped

When you watch No End in Sight, a movie about decision-making in the lead-up and early days of the Iraq invasion, have some thing of small value at hand, because you will feel the need to smash something. While the movie will not tell anything new to the readers of such books as the Assassin's Gate or Fiasco, there is great value in hearing these people speak and seeing the disbelief in their eyes. The documentary format allows for powerful contrasts between the flippant press comments of Sec. Rumsfeld and the reality on the ground.

The central point the movie makes is that the main decision makers ignored the intelligence community (although it fails to mention that Douglas Feith's people in OSD went out and got their own intelligence when they didn't like what the CIA, DIA and others had to say) and the subject matter experts in the State Department and made decisions based on a fantasy-land, best-case scenario. The DC based decision-makers also operated in such an isolated manner that they failed to listen to their own teams on location that, for example, were telling DC to maintain the Iraqi Army right up until it was disbanded.

The movie is an excellent introduction to the human, policy and military catastrophe that is the Iraq war. If you haven't read them be sure to read the books mentioned above, along with Imperial Life in Emerald City. I've not Night Draws Near, but it has gotten good reviews for its description of life of everyday Iraqis.

On the topic of books, I wonder if Bremer, Rumsfeld, Feith or Wolfowitz will one day write their own In Retrospect-like mea culpa.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Books I will one day read

This weekend I am heading to the warm and sunny Oregon Coast where at the very least I suspect I will get into the new Larry Sabato book. While there I will do my best not to buy any books. Were I to do so, here are a few candidates.

Day of Empire - Amy Chua. I quite liked her prior book about how globalization and Westernization can exacerbate dormant ethnic tensions. That one generated a lot of heat, and I suspect her new one will as well. In it she argues that empires grow and prosper as they are tolerant and assimilationist and then contract as they become intolerant. This argument appears to similar to the one advanced by Henry Kamen in Empire, How Spain Became A World Power.

What Hath God Wrought - The Transformation of America 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe. This is part of the decades long effort to complete the Oxford History of the United States, which includes the classic Battle Cry of Freedom. That alone is enough to convince me to get it, as the other volumes have been excellent. Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker about how this volume argues against another book that was meant to fill the 1815 to 1848 space in the collection.

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race by Richard Rhodes. This is a follow up to his earlier books including the Making of the Atomic Bomb, which I still consider the best work of non-fiction that I have ever read. This one looks more political in nature, but I can't wait for it.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Don't tell him how to make a record, he was in Nirvana

Has there ever been a major label band in love with the cover as much as the Foo Fighters*? You've probably heard their cover of Band on the Run (with all its bizarre changes, it allows for all sorts of fun.) It doesn't reach the glory of Baker Street, surely one of the world's finest covers.

But that is just the start of the coverdom.I have a special place in my heart for the creeptacular cover of Gary Numan's Down in the Park. And who on Earth has ever covered Ace Frehley? The Foo Fighters, and very well I might add. And why not cover The Arcade Fire?

God bless you Mr. Grohl.

*Well, OK, maybe the Byrds.

With just a touch of my burning hand

Slacktivist, a site run my politically moderate evangelical has a years long project analyzing Left Behind, page by page, arguing among other things that it is both crap and not representative of mainstream Christian thought. I like LaHaye and Jenkins bashing almost as much as Ayn Rand bashing. Here is a sample:

Thus Tolkien, a devout Christian, is a "secular" writer. His great epic, which is infused with and shaped by his own Christian faith while incorporating aspects of the anything-but-"secular" Norse and Arthurian mythologies, is therefore -- to LaHaye and to Gates -- a "secular" book. It doesn't matter to them that some of its main characters, such as Tolkien's wizard Gandalf, are deities of a sort. When the gods themselves -- and the devil too -- are described as "secular," it's difficult to know what that word is supposed to mean. (Perhaps it means "well-crafted" or "entertaining.")

And more pointedly

But if the world is going to end, is it really necessary to tie up your money in a Roth IRA? Does Jenkins invest in 30-year bonds? What about his mortgage? (Is it ethical to sign a 30-year mortgage agreement if you're certain that Jesus is coming back before the house will be paid off?) And what about the children and the grandchildren? Have they started college funds?

Both from this post.

How long can you last?

As I noted here, the Marvel Ultimate line reboots classic Marvel comics in the 21st century. With the popularity and cross-over movie fame, the X-Men are an obvious choice. I just read Ultimate X-Men 1, which collects the Tomorrow People and Return to Weapon X story lines. While it isn't as compelling as the Avengers updating Ultimates, it's great fun, although maybe less so for the hard-core fan.

The hard core fan may or may not like the changes. Resetting the characters means they are teen-agers again, as they started before. In the early 60s, they were fairly straight-laced, but these 21st century teens look like 21st century teens. Marvel Girl/Jean Gray has short spiky hair and wears plenty of midriff exposing clothing. Storm is a goofy teen quite unlike the wise woman of recent years.

The political tone is ramped up right from the beginning. The Sentinels start out mutant hunting from the get go and the X-men outfits somehow mask the DNA signature that Sentinels hunt. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants hide in the Savage Land and only sally forth to commit acts of terror. Much of the story in the first two books concerns the intra-mutant conflict about how to deal with a humanity that violently opposes the existence of mutants. In the recent movies, being a mutant was a stand in for being gay (one parent asked "Have you ever tried not being a mutant.") and the reaction were primarily disdain. In the comics, humans try to kill the mutants they see or turn them into weapon systems.

The story is basically two big fight sequences, so don't expect a lot of character development. There is one surprise making of the beast with two backs, but for the most part, it is ass kicking.