Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Or think about San Jose, although I know it's not that pleasant

I haven't posted any videos in awhile so hear are some. I suppose the theme is songs that I have not yet over-played.

Cracker - Big Dipper. This one loads slowly. The Richmonders look back to Santa Cruz. An under- appreciated gem.

The Wedding Present -Brassneck. Another slow loader, but what a song this is. Such a crime it did not get more play. Perhaps the finest of break-up songs - "I was wondering if it could be like before, and I think you just made me sure."

Peter, Bjorn & John - Young Folks. The definition of infectious. Don't judge it by the Conan appearance. The studio version has the rhythm section way up front.

Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch. Wierd video, great song.

Decemberists - Cuyahoga. They cover one of the greatest of all REM songs. Remember that awesome poster Walked, Swam, Hunted, Danced and Sang poster? That's from this song. Just for fun here is Death Cab covering the same song.

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - Stand in Silence. Just a good song.

Shiny Toy Guns - Don't Cry Out. This one is borderline for me, but is working for now. It verges too close to dance music and I fear dancing.

David Cross - One Card. Cross covers the song that proves that Satan is winning.

I never thought you'd buy ice cream, since gelato is so passe

Living in the hinterlands, as I do, I look longingly to the trend setting metropoli for the oncoming food trends. Apparently, the new cool treat is froyo. Sounds ridiculous, but Pinkberry is all the buzz. Read here for more. I guess I will stay old school with Stacatto and Mio Gelatos.

In a similar vein check out the spat between the Rocco's Restaurant guy and a NYT restaurant reviewer. Be sure to read the review and the response. I don't find waygu all that exciting to begin with, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to eat under 2,000 Swords of Damocles.

Ben and Jerry's has released the new 2007 pints. Looks pretty good actually with Creme Brulee and Cinnamon Bun as stand outs for me.

This dude has the craziest blog banner I have ever seen. Actually the craziest banner I have ever seen. Also the worst name ever. The images....oh the images that are conjured.

Update: In the comments, Kevin has informed me that the disturbing blog title is a reference to his even more disturbing book title. Actually it looks pretty funny in a My Tank is Fight! kind of way.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Random crap to which I am linking today

Help for Obama.

This is creepy, the bees are disappearing.

Nastiest candy of the century.

And this is a bummer.

Via HLK, a veritable wealth of Star Wars goofiness.

And no foolin', read World War Z.

It's the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen

World War Z is a pure delight of a book. It has great scenes of action and pathos but manages to tell the story of an entire zombie war. The book is written as if it were an oral history of a global war against zombies, that starts in 2010 or so. At the end, author Max Brooks thanks his three influences, George Romero, Studs Terkel and Sir John Hackett. I am ashamed I didn't see the tie to Hackett's future histories of the Third World War in Europe, as this was one of my fave books of the 80s.

The overall war plays a bit like the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, with ignorance of intelligence, surprise, rout, turning the tide and then total war and final victory. The war is global and he reports it as such. He has vignettes from the US, Canada, the UK, Central Europe, Israel, South Africa, Chile, the Pacific Islands, China, Japan, India, Iran, Russia and even low earth orbit. A lot of thrillers try the multiple narrator approach while developing a few core characters. By eschewing any core characters, the author creates a series of tales that tell the overall story. Some work really well, like a pilot crashed in Zombie (or Zack in US military parlance) territory and trying to get out. Others are less effective, but who cares? The next one is only a few pages away.

The author works in a few jokes on celebrities and politicians. In a Masque of the Red Death like scene, wealthy New Yorkers debauch while the tide of death advances. While their sanctuary collapses, a thinly veiled Ann Coulter and Bill Maher get some just-about-too-die nookie. Illustrating the mass call up in the push to retake the Eastern US from the zombies, one character reports that he suspected Michael Stipe was in his unit.

The book pays more attention to how people react to the zombies than to the zombie attack, which is fine with me. There are only so many ways that you can write about attacking zombies. He does add a few new surprises to the mix, including zombies in the water.

While the book is about zombies nearly taking over the planet, it is also a critique of how the world would respond to a major problem like bird flu. The attack starts in China, where the government tries to suppress it. Refugees spread the virus. Profiteers take advantage of the situation and the rest of the world dithers until it is almost too late.

The book's website has a few points of interests. Some of the stories are available in abridged audio form. You can also calculate your chances of survival in the coming zombie war (only 40% for me.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Empire?

Chalmers Johnson, the less crazy Noam Chomsky, is on the very useful Open Source, talking about his new book Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic. There is way too much talk of "empire" and loose comparisons to the British empire. If you want to talk about empire, you have to define it, which he doesn't. I also don't buy his argument that the overseas commitments by themselves threaten democracy. A lot of what he says is true, but if you are looking for a critique of the overall policy assumptions of the US, I recommend you try Bacevich's The New American Militarism.

Thomas Barnett is also on the call, he is nice counterpoint to Johnson. I think Barnett came out a little better because of Johnson's tendency to overstate his case and use scare words. It's a pity as the country needs more questioning voices.

Some beasts are bigger than others

Check out this post on really big aliens on Nerd World. I was trying to recall other super large aliens/monsters to add, but was only able to come up with a good Lovecraft reference.

Can't we all just get along?

James Blaylock is an fantasy writer in the mold of Tim Powers. Both write fantasy novels where seemingly mundane events in our world are actually being guided by supernatural forces. Blaylock appears to have had less success than Powers as many of his books, including All the Bells on Earth, are out of print.

That's too bad as All the Bells on Earth, at least, is a gentle and appealing book. The story starts out violently with two deaths and sets up a battle between the forces of good and evil. At first it would seem we are going to witness and Exorcist-esque battle between priests and minions of Lucifer. While this element remains, the main plot shifts to more of a domestic drama. The plot centers on a few citizens of a small town who are choosing whether to be selfish (evil) or giving and forgiving (good.) The shift in emphasis was peculiar, but worked out both thematically and actually made sense given the plot. It could be disappointing for those who want more of the fire and brimstone. It never quite goes away, but it is much more in the background.

On a separate note, the book was written in the early 90s and the weak economy and the weak housing market are key plot points. It's funny to think how quickly things can change.

Aspen

We spent 24 hours in Aspen this weekend. Lots of snow and wedding fun. I learned a new term at the wedding, cougar. It seems these are older women prowling for younger men at parties. I met one who took my drink and, after a pleasantry or two, asked if I was married. It's probably best she took the drink, I really didn't need a tequila anyway.

While I was perusing a few volumes at the bookstore I saw many references to the mystique of Aspen. There may be one, but on this and my previous visits I didn't see it. This isn't to say I don't like it, I quite like it, but what I have seen isn't that different from other ski towns. Certain places, and I think Aspen is one, are defined more by private spaces than public spaces. If you live there or visit with a native, you will truly experience it. Anyone can visit New York, London, Paris or other major cities and experience it via the museums, clubs, cafes and public markets and squares.

This is where a book like Ted Conover's Whiteout, Lost in Aspen comes in. Since you are unlikely to befriend a native or live in Aspen, books like that can give you an insight into what is so special about the place.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Potter, Beatrix that is

In a piece on the joys of the Times Literary Supplement, the Bookworld blogger reveals her ambivalent to negative take on Beatrix Potter. My kids were quite into these books in the 2004-2005 time frame, but seem to have grown tired of them recently. The stories do tend to add a bit of matter of fact ghastliness. In Peter Rabbit, we learn that Peter's father tried one too many times to steal veggies and ended up in a stew. In the Tale of Samuel Whiskers, young kitten Tom is captured by rats and very nearly made into a pudding. I think my kids just liked the pictures.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lost

Well, you had to know that after last week's return to first season form, ABC went and served up a fresh pile of dung for this week's episode. TMZ has an amusing liveblogging timeline of a group of friends watching this (and all other?) episodes.

Happier things

After discussing things I think you shouldn't read, here are a few I think you should.

You may have visited Lileks.com in the past. I had been away and I see there is new content. If you are unfamiliar with Lileks, he basically takes marketing materials from the 30s to the 70s and makes fun of them. Here you can see his guide to matchbook covers. Or you might like the Orphanage of Cast Off Mascots. My absolute favorite his mockery of a Phillip Morris cigarette ad from the 40s. One of his sections, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, has been turned into a book. This one makes fun of mid 20th century cookbooks and cooking guides. It's immensely funny.

I read the short Lovecraft book At the Mountains of Madness. It really is the best work of Lovecraft. In China Mieville's excellent although spoiler laden introduction, he shows the import of Lovecraft to fiction in general. Guillermo del Toro is trying to make a movie of the book. It will not be an easy movie to make, as much of the dread comes from a massive dead alien city and very little comes from action. In order to make it work, I think they will need to develop some nightmarish visuals. I wish him luck.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sending the pain below

Below, we discussed one's top ten books. Knowing the top ten books of your interlocutor is key when talking book recommendations. Given the Venn diagram overlap with your own preferences you can then determine the usefulness or lack thereof of that person's recommendations.

Equally useful is a list of the bottom ten, or the bottom nine in my case, as that is all I could recall. The other one is probably so bad that my subconscious has hidden it from me to protect my sanity.

Please note that I have avoided books that I thought over-rated, but included those that were disappointing because of their relationship to the author's other books.

Demons by John Shirley. Horror novels are, with limited exceptions, by definition bad. To make it into the bottom nine, the book has to take bad to a transcendent level. Since the book is about hell, maybe Shirley wants to make the book hell for the reader. Success!

Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. While this neverending series started strong, it slowly grew into an exercise in masochism. How about 700 pages of no plot development before anything of plot significance? That would be fine if this was great or even decent writing, but it's not.

The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy. Ellroy is one of my favorite writers, but he decided he was James Joyce with this one. I didn't like reading Ulysses and I didn't like reading the Cold Six Thousand.

The River Why
by David Duncan. If there is any genre which makes me want detonate explosives, it is the Life and How to Live It genre. In the most pedantic, insulting, and treacly manner possible these authors tell us the secrets of living in their novel-length homilies. River Why extends my distaste by adopting an awful cornpone "accent" for many of its characters. You have to deal with crap along the lines of "Seems like a body oughtta to listen to the little folk, let's see what lil' Herkey kin tell us."

The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville. Neville wrote one of my favorite books, the Eight, which may be the greatest of the smart person thrillers. The Magic Circle was a crushing disappointment. Its not a mildly bad book, it is so bad that by comparison Dan Brown should be winning Pulitzers. Check the Amazon reviews for the fans who refuse to face reality.

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Perhaps its is New Orleans thing and I just don't understand. Walker Percy's forward is charming, but I still dislike the book.

Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Here's a shocker, a bad fantasy novel. Will wonders never cease? So what sets this one apart? The hundred plus page S&M torture/love scene was really just too much. If you want that, go read Topping From Below.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. When I told Steve I didn't like the book he replied "It takes a cold hearted man to not like Owen Meany." That was going to be the name of this blog, but I chose another stupid one instead. BTW, I concur with the first line of the Publisher's Weekly review, as listed on Amazon.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. The worst of the worst. This is the worst book I have ever read and ever will read. If I read anything worse, my hate will become so dense that I will collapse into a black hole.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Early action

John Crace has a column in the Guardian called the Digested Read. For each book, he reads it and reduces it to a 750 word summary. They are generally snarky as hell, but he makes Geoffery Wheatcroft look certifiable in this one.

The Amazon blog has a number of employee top ten lists, many of which make me reconsider books I have spurned. Back in the 80s I was a big Pat Conroy reader, but I never read Beach Music. I saw that one on a list with which I generally agree. Then there is the Brothers K, about which I have heard raves. That book was authored by one of my bottom ten, The River Why (it burns, it burns!). So I am leery.

This is a good for a laugh, the Muppets manamana song mashed up with Star Wars. Don't watch with the glare, the editing is a bit subtle in places. Via SF Signal.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Love your television

Newsweek has a good piece on how TV is now better than movies. CG will counter that this is just because I have kids so I never go out. FALSE. When was the last time you saw a cop movie as good as the Wire or the Shield? Ok, there is the Departed, but what else? How about science fiction that can top BSG, Lost or Firefly (Serenity, but that doesn't count?) Comedy as strong as the Office or Arrested Development? Historical epics better than Rome or Deadwood? Action movies as good as 24? One of the differences is that it is the movies that are dumbed down compared to good TV:

The roster of channels has ballooned into the hundreds, creating a niche universe where shows don't need to be dumbed down in order to survive (because the dummies have their own channels). DVDs, meanwhile, have upended how we watch television, transforming shows from disposable weekly units into 8-, 12-, sometimes 22-hour movies.

This is not to say there are not great movies out there, but if I had to pick one or the other, I would pick TV.

Monday fun

Here is an article on Iain Banks (that's without the M this time) about his latest novel. It involves families, boardgames and big meany Americans.

Here is some President's Day fun from Reason.

Did you hear what Bush said about Osama? Be sure to enjoy the photo.

While HP Lovecraft gets all the love and attention, Clark Ashton Smith gets less recognition for his role in the development of horror/weird fiction. Michael Dirda has a review in the Post.

I just finished the Warrior Prophet, second in the Prince of Nothing series. If you don't like fantasy, stay away, but if you do, read on. The standard analogue for fantasy novels is medieval western Europe where princelings, emperors and some middle class interest groups vie with the declining Church for power. Sometimes the church is a magical guild, sometimes it is a religion.

Bakker sets his world in a analgoue to the ca. 1100 AD Mediterranean. The strongest power is a version of the Abassid caliphate, although it may be stronger than the historical version. The stand in for the Pope has raised a Holy War from the lands of the West (east in this case.) In the middle is the Byzantine analogue, which tries to use the Holy War as a means to retake its lost land. The fantasy element includes schools of magicians who are considered unclean but are too powerful to eliminate.

The Warrior Prophet is a monk from the north who is a Christ/Anti-Christ figure. It remains unclear if he will be a savior or destroyer. He is clearly undermining the established authorities and has his own mission, but he may be critical to the defeat of the Consult, the uber-evil and hidden demons of the world.

The book stands apart from other fantasy for its constructivist philosophy. Many of the characters including the Warrior Prophet see nationhood, religion and hierarchy as social constructs, which define thinking. The Prophet on the other hand is expert at manipulating the assumptions built into the constructs and in redefining them. Shades of the Bush Administration staffer who derided the reality based community.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Firefly

Firefly was a scifi TV show that lasted for one season and spawned a movie, Serenity. I watched the movie first, which is a bit like watching the Star Wars movies in chronological order. So many of the surprises are spoiled. It doesn't matter as the show's mix of humor and interesting characters make for a enjoyable time.

No doubt hoping for a fan-based revival a la Star Trek, you can find fan sites like Browncoats.com, Fireflyfans.net and Still Flying. Who knows, maybe it will work. I for one think the show is missing a key element required for current TV show success, grimness. The show is just to happy go lucky, even when they end up killin' those what need killin'.

The show is set in a star system settled by a merged US - China alliance. Originally it was a loose confederation, but the alliance imposed a strict federal system by force. Sound familiar? There is a definate reference to the U.S. Civil war with the future confederates as the freedom lovers and the federals as oppressive bastards. Joss Whedon makes even more of a connection with overt Western references (country music theme, guns for hire, train robbing.) The heroes, ex-soldiers from the losing side, are jolly robbers who steal from the bad and give back to the good. Really this is like the Outlaw Josey Wales in space, if Clint was a lot nicer.

In order to succeed in modern TV, the main characters have to face nasty moral choices, sometimes making good ones and sometimes choosing among bad ones. The Shield's Mackie is a rather nasty but occasionally likable fellow, a sort of Tony Soprano with a badge. The main characters on Lost have great sins on their hearts. BSG is one giant grimfest. Rome and Deadwood feature characters that are as violent as the worlds they inhabit.

I'm not saying I want the Firefly crew to roll into town and get all Peckinpah on whatever unfortunates stray into their path. But they are criminals trying to eke a living in a nasty corner of their universe. Yes, they are killers with hearts of gold, but they ARE killers. Again, I like the show and recommend it to fans of quirky scifi. But as the quirkiest show of all, Arrested Development, demonstrates, better to be grim than quirky if you want to stay on the air.

Misc.

Here is an amusing Newsweek piece on a new trend, expensive aged beer. This is surprising as beer is generally the relaxed inexpensive alcohol or as the author puts it"It is acceptable in certain circles to chug it, “shotgun” it or siphon it into oneself through a long funnel; the same cannot be said, sadly, for wine or piƱa coladas." So yes the article is a bit tongue in cheek. (thanks NBK!)

Some site, SF Signal maybe, re-linked to sf author David Brin's takedown of Star Wars as an elitist throwback, esp when compared to Star Trek. Its a worth a read. Also fun is this spoof Tie-Tanic.

Back in the day one of our favorite creepy sex songs was Soft Cell's Sex Dwarf. It remains creepy and this video adds to the creepiness. Fellow fan of deviant sex Trent Reznor covers the song here. (more thanks for NBK)

If you've not seen it yet, Steve Martin's 72 virgins is a hoot (thanks Sven.)

As a thank you to NBK, I give you Slayer in the NYT.

Finally, The Sterns of Roadfood send more love Portland way. Bakeries Saint Cupcake and Crema get reviews. We visited Saint Cupcake yesterday in hopes of finding the pistachio cupcake. No dice. I should've checked the schedule. I made due with the Red Velvet, which is a reliably delicious confection. As the NYT and myself are often in synch, they have an in-depth piece on the southern delicacy Red Velvet Cake.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

John Paul Jones

Evan Thomas's John Paul Jones is a good character study of America's first naval leader. Incredibly ambitious, Jones worked his way into the American Navy where, on the Ranger and Bon Homme Richard, he brought the war of indepedence to Britain and gave the US its first naval victory.

The book is a biography, so it isn't just naval action. Thomas portrays Jones as one of those who excels in one field, ship to ship combat, while failing miserably at others, like court politics. Jones alienated many of those around him, and his humble origins probably didn't help him at the French court. After the Revolution, Jones hoped to be the first Admiral of the US Navy, but Congress had little interest in a Navy at that point. So Jones went to Russia, where he won victories for Catherine, but made enemies at court and was ejected.

The battle scenes are excellent, with handy maps to explain the fight between Serapis and Bon Homme Richard. One sign of good popular military historian is the ability to describe the overall action without getting lost in detail. Evans presents these scenes in a clear manner and notes the debates about really happened at certain places. He is kind enough to name his sources in these debate. Moving from one of the smallest of military engagements, Thomas's current book is Sea of Thunder, which concerns the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Credit where it is due

In a piece about the decline of independent bookstores, Henry at Crooked Timber notes the passing of another sort of book shopping experience, the drug store book rack. In the old days, this was a random mix of trashy novels, classics and Ballantine War Books. Today it is just another version of the Airport Kobayashi Maru book buying experience, that is to say, racks of the same top selling crap.

Like Henry, my reading was really kicked off by the pulpy trash I could find down at the drug store, in my case People's Drug. In the my formative reading years (10-15?) I had to be an opportunistic book shopper and the trips to the grocery and drugstore were one of my best shots at getting a few moments to peruse the titles. The library was a possibility, but at that age I was intimidated by the library. While I am now a shout from the mountain tops fan of libraries, when you first visit, you really need a sherpa. The limited selection of salacious titles at the drugstore were just the gateway books I needed.

While the chance of me picking up a Casca, Night of the Crabs, Rat Bastards or a Shaun Hutson ( be sure to read the aptly titled Shaun's Shit) is close to nil, I must acknowledge my debt to these books. I'm just glad my tastes expanded, otherwise this blog would be called Shitty Books About Monsters and Guns Are My Only Friends.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dewd....

OK, so the righties are mad that left leaning Daily Show is popular. So in order to counter its influence, Fox has a new faux news show of their own. The libertarian Reason doesn't like it. The bits I saw are pretty lame. With the exception of Anne Coulter(!) gently mocking herself(!!!!), this bit is not funny. This bit is worse, which is bad news as it appears to be the lead comedy team. The dude attempts to model Jon Stewart's delivery. And fails to be funny. At all. The problem is that this team is putting ideology ahead of funny, which is wrong, so wrong.

It's unfortunate that the producers couldn't assemble the leading right-leaning funnyfolk, like PJ O'Rourke. Or Jonah Goldberg from the Corner. He's funny and he knows pop culture, which helps. Comedian Larry Miller, who has appeared in Christopher Guest films, is conservative and a comedian, hire him. The folks at Reason are quite funny, but also off the rez, so I guess they are not the right group.

Dogs and cats, living together....

Well the Bush administration's policies have created some strange intellectual alliances. Looking at the rogue conservative magazine, The American Conservative, I saw this positive notice of the strongly left The Nation! In another connection, we see Andrew Bacevich writing for both American Conservative and the Nation.

Speaking of rogue conservatives, I highly recommend William Odom's op-ed Victory is not an Option.

SF news

I think Lost is finally back on track. Last night's episode gets back to the science fiction story line that was sorely lacking in the prison drama that dominated the first seven episodes of the season. Judging by the episode scores on TV.com, I think the viewing public concurs. Hopefully a meteor will strike the Others island and we can pretend those first episodes never happened. I was close to giving up on this one.

SF Site has some interesting bits. There is an interview with Ken MacLeod about his new book, in the new field of "The New British Catastrophe." I must admit that his use of Castro-lover Phillip Agee as a source gives me pause. They list their top ten scifi books of 2006. The brief overview of David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer's new hard scifi anthology has moved it to my must purchase list.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Top Ten

Here is an interview with J Peder Zane, who interviewed major writers about their top ten favorite novels and then compiled them in this book. I, of course, began thinking about my own top ten and how it would be comprised. Selecting a top ten is no easy task. First you have to select a criterion or criteria for inclusion. I didn't want to build some model in Excel, so I just picked a range of books that I tend to recommend widely and/or frequently give as gifts. These are in no order.

Brothers Karamazov: War and Peace is close behind, but this philosophical novel is my fave of the big fat 19th century Russians. It's a massive work of philosophy and psychology. And the devil makes an appearance!

Atonement: Rarely have I been as emotionally engaged with a story as with this one. The retreat to Dunkirk is a standout section, but I love everything about this book.

Kavailer and Klay: Here's hoping his upcoming book is as good.

Barchester Towers: I was once reading this book in Logan airport when I was approached by a member of the Trollope Society. This would be the only time I have been approached about a book I was reading at the airport, and I bring a lot of books to the airport. People who like Trollope, really like Trollope.

American Tabloid: Ellroy is the master of modern noir fiction. His LA Quartet is phenomenal, but when he expands his canvas to early 1960s America, he really takes off. The book is like a firehose full of bile hitting you square in the face, and I loved every minute of it.

Song of Fire and Ice: Wha? Not Tolkien? Of course I love Lord of the Rings, but I think Martin brings a much more sophisticated political understanding to his, as yet incomplete, epic.

Consider Phlebas: The greatest of the space operas. In a genre that tends to bloat, Banks crams five books worth of inventiveness into a reasonably short volume. This one might have been beat by the Reailty Dysfunction, were it not for the length and the weak ending of the trilogy.

Possession: My favorite of the smart literary mystery genre.

Watchmen: I have to represent. At least one nerd book needs a mention, and this remains my fave graphic novel, even over Dark Knight Returns.

The Cruel Sea: While most historical fiction serves to explain history in a literary format, this one explains the life of British anti-submarine sailors in an exciting and moving way.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I had seven faces, wish I knew which one to wear

I am so happy about Charles McCarry. If his other books are as good as Secret Lovers , then my faith in spy fiction is redeemed. With the exception of Alan Furst, and back cataloging with Eric Ambler and early John Le Carre , I had more or less written off the spy genre. Fool!

There is much to like in this book. The plot I have discussed below. Of course we get the Cold War atmosphere, but this book nicely ties in the events that helped shape it. Many of the characters in the novel, set in 1960, are veterans of the idealism-shattering Spanish Civil War and others are emotionally crippled by the life of spying. The details of tradecraft are wonderful. McCarry doesn't become overly fascinated with it, and even has some of his characters becoming frustrated by less experienced operatives fixation on proper spy tradecraft.

I especially liked the main character, Paul Christopher. He is a keen observer, maybe a bit too keen. His sense of smell superstrong and he plays close attention to human reaction. This is key to his job, a recruiter of traitors. He is a master manipulator of his subjects, but perhaps because he wants to separate his job from his marriage or perhaps because of his constant cloaking of the genuine, he is unable to communicate with his wife. While his disintegrating marriage seems at first to be a subplot designed to show the stress of the operative's life, it is eventually revealed to be part of the book's theme, the sheer destructive pleasure of hiding things from others and creating new identities.

Finetune

I hope you are checking out the Finetune playlist located in the right nav. I've loaded about 95 songs into it. If you dislike whatever song comes up, you can there is a next song button hidden in the right side.

One of the nicer treats in there is the Cold War Kids Hang Me out to Dry.

NBK says I am busted for liking Radiohead's There, There despite my complaints about Radiohead. No lie, that song rules.

Amusement

Enjoy this joke clip about tech support for new readers.

For a fine example of political foot in mouth, take a gander at this.

And, oh my word, be sure to read about ghost ridin' the whip, the most flat out stupid thing you will read about this year. (thanks NBK)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Secret Lovers

You've probably seen the story that the CIA had a hand in getting Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago published. The CIA didn't push the Nobel Committee to award the prize to Pasternak, but helped the book jump some hurdles to being available for the award. If you have read the book or seen the film, it embarrassed the Soviet leadership with its depiction of life under the Red Banner.

This was in the back of my head as I started the wonderful Secret Lovers by Charles McCarry. The novel was written by ex-CIA operative McCarry in the mid-70s and is set in 1960. The story concerns a CIA team that is working to publish a Soviet dissident's novel in both Russian and French so they can humiliate the Soviet regime. Looks like McCarry's experience may have played a hand in this one.

One of the joys of reading is discovering an author all of whose books you immediately want to read. Doing this would have been difficult as most his books were long out of print. Overlook Press has been re-publishing them, although so far only in hardcover I think. If you pine for Cold War novels that equal or surpass the Nazi era books of Alan Furst, you need to find one of these. This interview with McCarry is excellent. It's lengthy, filled with detail on the books and life in the CIA. Like me, he adores the spy short stories of Maugham:

I am a great admirer of Somerset Maugham. His Ashendon stories are the very best writing about the actuality of intelligence work ever. And also I like the directness, the way he approaches the subject. Of Human Bondage, for example, published in 1915, pretty much was the first modern novel. Maugham said, “I wanted to send a long telegram to the reader.” And the telegraphic stylists who followed, Hemingway being the primary example, absorbed that clearly. Because no one had written like that before, that I know about. And I also liked his cynicism, or what was mistaken for his cynicism, [which] I think actually was a kind of realistic full-hearted acceptance of human nature.

Blood Brothers

You may recall the Iraq story of Michael Weisskopf, a 50 something Time magazine embedded reporter. While riding in a Humvee with some soldiers he saw an object land in the back. It was a grenade. He picked it up and threw it out, and it blew up in just outside the truck. He lost the hand, but saved everyone in the Humvee. That part of the story got a fair amount of coverage. He wrote a book called Blood Brothers about his recovery and the recovery of three soldiers in Ward 57, the amputee wing of Walter Reed Hospital.

The book is focused on military medicine and recovery. He writes about the great improvements in survivability of combat wounds. The new body armor, rapid mobility and high levels of training for combat medics have dramatically decreased the chances of dying from a combat wound. The higher survival rate has also meant a higher amputation rate. The book details the way in which Walter Reed, the Army's DC hospital, has responded.

Weisskopf's focus on the four recovery stories makes for a harrowing read. He details the intense physical and emotional pain and the stark choices presented to amputees. They often had to undergo further amputation in order to be fitted with limb replacements. The emotional recovery was worse. For many of the younger soldiers, the loss of limbs meant the loss of their identity. One, who lost both hands, was a helicopter mechanic and an artist. He also can't recall if he was to blame or not for the explosion that wounded him and killed another.

The book is more about war and the physical costs of war than the Iraq war. Although the author states his general opposition to the war and relates the soliders' support, that is incidental to the story. It does raise the issue as to how well society takes care of those who fight in its name.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Misc.

I hope you made it to the New Season's chocolate tasting, assuming you live in Portland. It was mostly Dagoba, Green & Black's and Endangered Species brands. I liked the spicyness of the Green & Black Maya Gold. The kids really quite liked the Green & Black Mint. My favorite was from Endangered Species Chocolate. The milk (!) chocolate with peanut butter brittle. Cybele notes that it tastes more like toffee than brittle, which was my thought as well. Seek that one out.

Here is an amusing article about a book that helps you talk about books you haven't read. Hmm, that's easy, read two or three good reviews and you can easily sound like you read it. Still the article is funny, especially when the author pines for a book about how to not talk about books you wish you hadn't read.

The Sterns of Roadfood fame promote two Portland places on their site. First is Ristretto Roasters, a coffee shop just down the street from here. Beans are roasted on site, and the baked goods come out of the owner's home kitchen. This place rocks. Nick's Famous Coney Island is also newly reviewed. While talking Roadfood, they also have bits on Voodoo Donut and Annie's Donut.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Saturday bits

Today I realized I was under the spell of a (not terribly significant) urban legend. There is a suspension bridge in northern Portland, called the St. Johns Bridge. Its quite eye catching but is off the normal tourist path. The commonly held belief in town is that it was designed by the same person who designed the Golden Gate Bridge. Ask a Portlander and they are likely to add that of the two, the designer preferred the St. Johns. Trouble is, the bridges were designed by different people and besides both being West Coast suspension bridges, they are unrelated. Again, hardly the end of the world, but I wonder what other facts we know that are in fact, untrue.

We watched Johnny Cash - Ridin' the Rails last night. If you have kids who are interested in both railroads and music, this would be an entertaining movie. It was a made for TV special from the mid-70s. It is the story of the railroad with railroad related songs (like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, City of New Orleans (this vid is from Ridin The Rails) and John Henry. Cash gets really into a few of the re-enactments, particularly the driving of the Golden Spike. This is most certainly not for everyone, but again, with the right kids, you will get accolades. Speaking of the kids, if you or your kids are interested in railroads and you find yourself in Baltimore, do not miss the B&O Railroad Museum.

Here is a roundup on the reaction to preorder rush for the final Harry Potter novel. I was chagrined to read the last comment. The writer indicated she was recommited to reading classics and is very happy she has. I don't necessarily need to read classics, but I would like to up the overall quality of my reading. For every Atonement, I read far too many Dan Browns (yeah, I'll own up). I think I am too susceptible to marketing and the buzz of the brand new. Its not as if I don't have at least 15 very high quality books awaiting. I really should get started on Can You Forgive Her?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Horror fiction's paid off well, but now I'm bored and old

I was reading this bit about the popularity of horror fiction in Britain when I saw a reference to Stephen King's son and his books. Wha? King has a son who is also an author? Apparently so, and he tips his hat to Cobain in his book about a rockstar seeking immortality.

No Dominion

I generally don't like vampire novels. Like most fantasy novels, the same elements are constantly recycled and revisited. You have the warped relationship with sex, the fear of the Other and so on. Charlie Huston has taken vampires as a subject and placed them in a noir context. I prefer Noir's social emphasis over the straight horror approach of most vampire stories. His No Dominion, a sequel to Already Dead, is a hardboiled mystery that doubles as a societal critique.

The vampires live in modern day Manhattan. Nearly all are affiliated with a Clan, which mirror existing socioeconomic groups. In the North, the Hood dominate. In Midtown, the Coalition rules. The South is a hodge podge but includes the idealistic Society. The Clans help get blood to the vampires, as they don't want human society to know they exist. A large part of the novel involves the power relationships between Clans and the lengths to which they will go to maintain and preserve power.

His main character, Joe, is a nearly a caricature. He is a rogue vampire, unaligned with the dominating Clans. Immune to pain and threat, his only weakness if for his HIV-positive human girlfriend, who doesn't know he is a vampire. So he really shouldn't work. The quality of the writing helps, but so does the fact that Joe tends to survive by being a bit smarter than a bit tougher.

The plot of the book involves a drug which actually affects vampires. The virus that causes vampirism tends to destroy toxins and other viruses, so this new drug sets Joe off on the normal noir path: 1) investigate, 2) cross the wrong people, 3) get ass kicked, 4) find resolution (which involves cathartic other people asses' kicking), 5) understand what REALLY is going on. The fact that the book can be formulaic in this way and still gripping is a testament to Huston's skills as a writer and the strength of his insights into power relationships.

Plethora of delights

Did you know Paramount has been digitally enhancing Classic Star Trek episodes? Don't worry it is far more tasteful than the "enhancements" to Star Wars including Greedo firing first and the new singer in Jabba's Palace. Instead they make the ships look a little more realistic as in this example.

Haters like Steve won't care, but Philip Pullman's Golden Compass is available in a 10th anniversary edition. In the new DVD extras style, the book comes with some new content and art.

Here is a piece that complains a bit too much about the commodification of books, but makes a palpable hit on the topic of criticism. There is a strange sense that a negative review is something only be written in the most dire of circumstances. Let's face it, if you picked a book at random, you won't like it. Critics need to be free to be honest.

Here is a long piece by Jonathan Lethem on literary influence, intellectual property and like subjects. I confess I haven't read it, but the Lethem name will be enough for many of you. The minireviews of his new book are not that good. "The result is lithe and perceptive but a b-side nonetheless. Comparing this effort to, say, Motherless Brooklyn (1999) is like comparing apples to skyscrapers. Lethem's capable of entire skylines, and when was the last time you were really wowed by a piece of fruit?" Speaking of which, if you have not read Motherless Brooklyn, you must rectify the situation.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

I love it when some jackasses get together

Looking at our apparent drift to war with Iran, I wondered if the real US Cabinet driving foreign policy was composed of Black Manta, Zod, Great Cthulhu and Lenin. Really, we just have Darth Cheney. And the reality is that the pro-war commentariat is getting crazier by the day. The cognitive dissonance must be pushing them over the edge, judging by one of their latest heroes.

One of the truly wacky sites out there is the Northeast Intelligence Network. After looking at it, you can be forgiven if you think it is a parody site. They even play out an old Chris Rock routine. Chemical spill? Must be the Muslims! Hold up on the border? The people who say no to pork! My checks are bouncing? Bet it's the Sunnis (sorry, that presumes they understand there are intra-Islamic issues.) Anyway, the site is playing up the latest star of Goebbels radio.....Murdoch from the A-Team. Has to be a joke, yes? No. It's like the right wants to out-crazy the left. I see your Cindy Sheehan and I raise you a member of the silliest TV program of the 1980s. Wasn't it supposed to be a flaw of the anti-war side that Hollywood types were on that side?

I realize there are smart people (a few left anyway) defending the Bush administration's foreign policy. The NIN fools are about as smart as you are after five absinthes and three hits from the bong. Check this quote:

Discussing our handling of the situation in Iraq, Mr. Schultz (Murdoch) offered this well-reasoned analysis :"We are doing precisely what our enemies want us to do, and the more we do what our enemies want to do, the more emboldened they are going to become and the closer we are going to come to the homeland attack – the big one. And that’s my great fear. And its not fear mongering…it’s reality."

Sweet Jesus, these people have drunk so much Kool Aid that they must bleed the stuff.

Scary

One of the fun parts of science fiction is to explore how changes in technology might impact society. The growth of transportation networks created conditions for the US into turn into mobility culture. Of course, it didn't create the idea, but it allowed an existing idea (Go West for new opportunity) to become inexpensive and safe. Here is an article about the Internet is allowing the young (born in Reagan era or later) to change their identity. Again, technology is enabling the extension of the concept of rebirth and recreation, but in a big way. Oh man, I can't wait to see what the kids will be up to when mine are teenagers. (via the American Scene.)

It's incredible, it brings out the animal in me

Some books have a long and winding path to publication. Pynchon certainly puts some hours into each of his phonebook sized volumes. Few take quite as long as Donald Kingsbury's still unpublished Finger Pointing Solward, started in 1972 and perhaps to be published in 2007. Kingsbury even wrote and published a prequel, called Courtship Rite, to explain the background of one of societies in his unpublished book.

Courtship Rite, which was nominated for a Hugo, is out of print, but is rabidly popular with its fans, as the Amazon reviews demonstrate. You can easily find one on Amazon or you might get lucky nosing around the used bookstores that trade in scifi, usually the mustier ones. The fans claim that the book is even better than Dune in presenting a new and alien human society. That is going a bit far for my taste, but it is certainly a peculiar vision.

The book is set on an arid planet called Geta, which is marginally supportive of human life. Some Earth plants grow, but they often die off. Thanks to genetic differences, most of the native life is inedible and even poisonous to human life. Shipwrecked human survivors turn to genetic engineering and eventually cannibalism to survive. Both become ritualized and part of the new society's religion. The way in which cannibalism is approached divides the ruling cliques and drives some of the plot. Overall, people are ranked by their genetic fitness to survive. If you are low on the, you will be dinner come famine time.

Kingsbury describes his thinking here, where he also brings up another peculiarity, group marriage. Instead of marrying in couples, people marry in groups. There is some logic for survival here, but Kingsbury shows his rather outre views of marriage in the interview. Americans will be surprised to learn that they are unique in following serial monogamy. I guess the rest of the world is really swinging.

Its a good story if a tad too long, but I will certainly be interested in Finger pointing Solward, should it ever find a place on bookstore shelves.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I hear hearts beating, loud as thunder

So much of the current writing on China is at the macro level. There are plenty of books about the rise of China, like the Writing on the Wall and China Shakes the World. Then we also get fear mongering about the (marginal) Chinese military threat to the United States.

Peter Hessler's River Town is about China at the micro level. He writes about what it is like to live and work, as a teacher, in a small (by Chinese standards) town on the Yangtze. This sort of book can easily become narcissistic. Fortunately, Hessler does an excellent job of using his experiences to describe Chinese life. I also taught English in China (in Xi'an) and his descriptions ring true. The strong nationalism of the students, the annoyance and fascination with America and the challenges of really standing out are well depicted.

One welcome trait of Hessler is his balance of the Chinese and American viewpoint. He points to cultural differences and analyzes them without bias. He notes that the Chinese have a mythical view of Tibet, but so do the Americans about Thanksgiving. Where appropriate, he is highly critical of the Chinese as in their ducking of the issue of the Mao. Instead of criticizing specific policies, they use the party line that he was 70% correct and 30% wrong. Hessler would test them by saying Mao was in fact 67% correct, and his Chinese interlocutor would correct him. These rigidities weakened when he interacted with the common people, or old hundred names, as they call themselves. Unlike the elites (such as students) they are less constrained by the need to conform.

There is quite a bit to enjoy in this book. If you want to read about life in China, or just see an excellent stylist in action, this is a great place to invest.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Evil of all sorts

NBK reports some fine news. The Coen brothers are directing No Country For Old Men. Now you are probably thinking, T, you didn't like No Country For Old Men. Not totally accurate. I didn't like that last third. I think the Coens could work some magic with this one. The eeeevvvillll Chigurh is portrayed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem who will also be appearing in a movie version of Love in the Time of Cholera and Killing Pablo. The latter is an excellent if very dark book about the tracking and killing of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Not the best

So I finished Tim Power's Stress of Her Regard and it wasn't easy. I love Powers but if he has an Achilles Heel, it is that he stuffs too many ideas into his books. The basic story of the book is about people entangled with vampires. In this book, vampires have been on earth longer than people but are dormant. By placing a ring on a statue, an unfortunate doctor "marries" one of the vampires. Upside, eternal life. Downside, the jealous vampires kill everyone else that loves you. Our poor doctor flees England and becomes involved with the similarly afflicted Shelley and Byron. And then lots of other things happen that could have been related in 75% of the pages. There are lots of cool details in those many pages, including a nasty interlude where the doctor, having given up on life, has loaned himself to blood drinking "neffers," mortals who seek contact with the vampire world. And we learn that the fate of the Hapsburg empire is tied to the vampire vs. human conflict. Among other things.

The bummer is, I liked the story but I don't think I recommend the book. This is an early Powers novel and over the years he became more adept in cramming in detail without overburdening the story. Try Declare which remains one of my favorite scifi books.

American Beauty 2?

Kate Winslet and husband Sam Mendes are considering making a movie of Revolutionary Road. This is fanstastic news as the novel is excellent and, I think, a good candidate for a movie. There are four principal characters, both married couples. The timeline is short. The drama, the reaction to all of them that they realize they have exchanged their dreams for what society terms success. So there won't be the challenges of condensing material, but there will be the problem of portraying inner turmoil. Good acting should help. This could be the movie that American Beauty wanted to be. Which is what worries me. Sam Mendes directed American Beauty. One hopes the source material will prevail.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Saturday items

Now here is an encouraging story. Civic leaders in a large Mexican city are using books as a means of improving the image and the conduct of their police force. Other cities around the world are expressing interest. It seemed odd to me at first, but then I recalled how much reading can help you understand the perspectives of people different from yourself. It can also provide exemplars for behavior. So good show Mexico.

Powells has a review of My War Gone By, I Miss it So, one of the best books I have ever read.

Many have noted that the world is rapidly moving away from the tank/division based warfare seen in the 20th century. Former British Army General Rupert Smith's new book, The Utility of Force, explores what war might mean in the 21st century and how militaries might be used. Big thinker Niall Ferguson has the NYTimes review.

Check out this Nick Cave/Shane MacGowan duet.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Thumbs up and thumbs down

Here is a treat for readers. Michael Chabon writing a praising New York Review of Books piece on The Road. (via Book Daddy)

If you are in the mood for negativity, here is James Wolcott going all DMX on Adam Gopnik.

Why Harry Potter?

Here's someone who wonders why Harry Potter is so popular, mentioning a rather bizarre theory about the "in-crowd" pushing people to read the books. I have this image of groups of glasses wearing bullies teasing the jocks for not reading Harry Potter. Sci-fi writer John Wright has an extensive reply explaining why(scroll down). For me it is the fantastic world creation, but for the kids it may be the ability to identify with either Harry, Ron or Hermione. There is so much to like about them and ways to engage the books, it is no wonder Rowling is now a billionaire.

If kid's lit is not your speed, how about this video of John Waters describing the songs on his Date with John Waters CD. Very funny, but turn down the volume at work. (via stereogum)

I'm not the only one

I love Reason. The combination of pop culture and political snark is wonderful. What's more they share my love of bashing Ayn Rand. Here they point out fans of the Fountainhead have been inspired to commit acts of political violence and indulge in rape fantasies.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Embracing yourself

As one who enjoys boardgames like the not so geeky Ticket To Ride, I frequent game stores. These game stores usually have tables set up so that gamers can set up and battle little armies consisting of Tolkeinesque creatures. Upon seeing those folks, I always thought "What sort of person plays those games?" Well apparently, me. Of late I have been playing Battlelore, an addictive game where armies of medieval soldiers and....Tolkeinesque creatures do battle.

It has all the hallmarks of a great game. It's easy to learn, you can play a game in under an hour and as soon as you are done you want to play it again. If you want to learn more, watch the video review of the game on Boardgames with Scott.