Friday, March 23, 2007

Getting your nerd on

Here is a fun science fiction/fantasy blog with a great name, the Darkness that Comes After. Lots of good stuff there, including a free online version of Blindsight, info on Malazan books and Terry Goodkind hating.

I'm crossing over county lines, I'm tired of drinking 3.2 beer

If there is any beer that fits the Samuel Jackson beer "It'll get you drunk" mode, it is Dog Fish Head. There are plenty of strong beers, but there are not so many that are delightful as well. Dog Fish Head makes potent, yet palatable beers. The 90 Minute IPA is a very strong 9% alcohol by volume, but is so tasty it is my go to beer.

I just tried the limited edition Burton Baton which is part 90 Minute IPA and part strong ale aged in oak casks. The oak brings a bourbon like sweetness to the beer that was quite nice, although I began to tire of it towards the bottom of the glass. I also noticed the alcohol (10% ABV,) feeling buzzed about 3/4 of the way into the beer. This one is interesting, but I'd rather to stick with the 90 minute IPA.

With their titanic amounts of alcohol, you won't find these beers in all states. A number require that beer be sold at 3.2% ABV, in groceries and markets at least. Here is an article from beer-hating state Utah which claims that the crappy 3.2 limit is good because it forces you to focus on flavor. Sure, and let's all drink decaf so we can learn all the subtleties of the coffee bean.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Opinions were like kittens, I was giving them away

I've just started Tom Holland's Persian Fire. This guy writes history for people who run screaming from history books. His Rubicon is in the top five (popular) histories I've ever read (dare I say top 3?). This one is about the Greco-Persian wars and is ideal for those whose interest in the period was whetted by 300.

So what is so nifty about the guy? He manages to balance a compelling narrative, use of professional historical sources, a connection the modern day and a cheeky sense of humor. This is tricky balance. Most people who tie to the modern throw an ideological bent to the text. Not here. Most people who aim for humor spoil the narrative. Not this guy. And the books are just the right length. I will say this. If you are enjoying Rome (the tv program) and have not read Rubicon, you should stop what you are reading and read Rubicon.

Part of his success may come from his experience as a fiction writer. In the 90s, he wrote books about Lord Bryon as a vampire. Here is an interview from before he started writing history that hints at the change.

Sadly this one is a tad large for my upcoming vacation, but I may need to make room. I would hate to put it down. So far the following books are coming: Ghosts by Noel Hynd (horror - risky!); Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling (Powell's recommendation); The Shield of Achilles ( I admit I will be skimming sections of that one); The Road to Verdun by Ian Ousby (should be uplifting!); Straight Man by Richard Russo (comes highly recommended by many) and Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller.

That is more books than I can read in the time frame. I always need a book hedge strategy. I might hate half of them, or simply not connect in the vacation context. Is there anything worse than being stuck somewhere and being out of books? . Not only will have to pick up something less than ideal, you will be placing something ahead of line of your piles and piles of anxiously awaiting books at home. Better to bring more that you can read.

A few things

Ahmed Rashid, author of a number of books on Central Asia and Afghanistan, has a disturbing column on political upheaval in Pakistan. There is a relative paucity of books on Pakistan, which given its potential future significance is also disturbing. Stephen Cohen's Idea of Pakistan is a bit dry, but worth reading.

Nerd world reports that the Library of Congress is collecting the ten most important computer games, as well as proposing his own top five. I would toss in the original Castle Wolfenstein and its 3-D successor. Also the King's Quest series. It's hard to beat that for puzzle solving.

France has made public its UFO files. Apparently 25% of encounters remain unexplained.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Zen fascists will control you

People need to stop indoctrinating their children. Or stop making books about it at least. Here is the latest, How to Raise an American. I am all for patriotism, but the book is clearly aimed at raising American Republicans. I have a horrible vision of being lectured by Wilford Brimley-Rush Limbaugh hell-spawn when I think of what reading this book must be like.

Since that one is aimed at parental readers, albeit ones hell bent on alienating their children, I find it a bit less irritating that Why Mommy is A Democrat, which is meant as a bed time tale. Of course it promotes the Us vs. Them mentality of the book above, but it does so in a scary paternalistic way. Have a look at these sample pages, "Democrats make sure we are always safe, just like Mommy does." So the Democratic party=your parents? This book may as well say "Democrats will think for you, just like Mommy does." If you want your children to get beat up, be sure to purchase a "My Mommy is a Democrat, Ask Me Why!" T-Shirt.

As manically ideological as these people (on both sides) are, they should start churning out propaganda posters like those found in Maoist China. I rather like this one which shows a gleeful peasant (in the middle of the Great Leap Forward, mind) saying "We sell dry, clean, neat and selected cotton to the state!"


If you like or listen to This American Life, this parody will make you laugh and laugh. It is perfect.

And if you have ever had to provide a service and discussed it over the phone, you will like this.

Put on your headphones for this one. It is a parody of car sales commercials.

Cold War movies

The Cold War inspired a number of movies that are under-appreciated today. Everyone loves Strangelove and the Manchurian Candidate, but there are others that remain to be seen. All the movies here are worth seeing, but a few (The War Game, the Fog of War and the Battle of Algiers) stand out.

Matinee: This comedy stars John Goodman as a monster movie maker trying to hit it big in the Florida Keys during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the setting is the main Cold War element, the movie is a celebration of monster movies, themselves a byproduct of the rise of nuclear weapons. It is also just a good funny movie.

Seven Days in May and A Very British Coup. What is the Cold War without coups? In Seven Days, the lesser of these two movies, a military cabal plans to overthrow the US government due to peace treaty. This one feels more far fetched as the more extreme elements in the US government (Curtis LeMay aside) tend to be in the civilian ranks. It is still a good movie. The British movie is about conservative attempts to (illegally) unseat a strongly leftist Labour party PM. It's excellent, in that understated British way.

The Dogs of War: Why should the First World get all the fun? This early career Walken effort has our hero overthrowing a corrupt African government. Not the world's best movie, but a rare look at Africa in the Cold War. The author of the novel, Frederick Forsythe, researched what it would cost to actually mount the coup and some claim he was planning on actually launching it.

By the Dawn's Early Light: Most nuclear war movies focus on the after effects, this one focuses on the war itself. Rogue elements of the Soviet military launch a strike on a Russian city and after the mistaken attack on the US, the Soviet Premier and US President try to end the war. Not so easy. Good for international security students.

The War Game. Not the silly mad computer picture, but a 60s British documentary about the results of a nuclear exchange in Britain. Incredibly harrowing. Don't schedule anything fun the night you watch this one.

The Fog of War
: I tend to avoid political documentaries, as they are not trustworthy. The one-sided approach to argumentation and the reliance on image make me doubt their messages. Based on a recommendation, I made an exception for this one and I'm glad I did. The movie is a long interview with Robert McNamara about the use of force. It is one of the clearest and most dispassionate discussions of the topic I have ever seen. One of the key lessons is that policy making is incredibly difficult and any success is amazing. Watch this one.

The Battle of Algiers: An admirably balanced movie, for a communist director at least. The movie explores the wars of national liberation that characterized much of the Cold War. No good news here, but a compelling story and one of the best uses of music in any movie.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Say it loud, I'm a nerd and I'm proud

These two posts on the acceptability of scifi really got my goat. They reek of the general snobbery that fears genre fiction. Their loss, right? They are missing the likes of Banks, Elizabeth Moon, James Ellroy and Philip Kerr. What's more, I would argue that today's genre novels scifi and mystery at least are superior to literary fiction at social analysis. Whatever, we on the nerdy side are used to the disparaging glances of the cognoscenti.

No, what really is annoying is the emphasis on the likes of Vonnegut and Phillip K Dick. Yes fine, pick the more literary scifi novelists from 20-30 years ago. I suppose that every few decades a worthwhile item will beach itself on the banks of the fetid swamp that is scifi. There is more decent scifi coming out each year that one can reasonably expect to read. You better recognize.

Two videos

Check the R rated trailer for Knocked Up, by the director for 40 Year Old Virgin. Looks like it will be pretty funny.

I was looking for a video of Beulah's indie rock classic Silver Lining and I found this video of a dude dancing to the song. No foolin', I wish more people would dance like this at indie rock shows. All those nodding heads and tapping feet get a little boring. I feel self-conscious. FYI, there is a scary moment in the video where it appears the dancer is about to get sexy with himself. I assure you this is not the case.


I saw For Your Consideration, the most recent Christopher Guest film, this weekend. While I certainly enjoyed the satirical take on Hollywood, I thought this was the slightest of his ensemble pieces. The film hits a number of Hollywood targets including the power of buzz, the idiot producers, the meddling suits, the brain dead press (Fred Willard is the best part of the movie) and the rising and falling hopes of the actors. I certainly laughed, but not as much as in the earlier movies.

I also finally saw Little Miss Sunshine. I think it is a tad over-rated, not as over-rated as American Beauty, but I'm not sure it was Best Picture material. It is certainly more effective than the above film in skewering its target, the obsession with success in American culture. I was glad to see Carrell go in a completely different direction and the rest of the cast was excellent as well. I wish Hollywood would make more of this simpler pictures that emphasize dialogue and the human relationships.

Which takes us to 300. I've not seen it, but I thought I would pass on Sven's thoughts:

What I liked:
1) Leonidas' character was unequivocal. No wavering between bad and good. No moral choices. He's just pure bad ass. It's nice to see a hero that some pansy-ass screenwriter hasn't turned into a crybaby who weeps for mama and feels guilty about what he has to do.

2) Pure unadulterated ass-kicking once they reach Thermopylae. No question about who is winning. No one in the Spartan ranks quivering or crying in combat. Just mean s.o.b.s with a job to do.

3) Visuals are amazing. I generally find computer-generated stuff a little tiresome, but this is extremely well done. I particularly liked a scene involving a storm just before the battle begins. The whole thing is dark and foreboding.

What I disliked:
1) Too much reliance on the grotesque to get the point across about how naughty the Persians were. The guy who betrays the Spartans looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Persians have some giant they keep in chains, a guy with crab claws, etc. Xerxes is a little weird. They ride around on rhinos and elephants. Like the idiots who made Gladiator, they try to make it appear that in 500 B.C., armies had access to what amounted to grenades. I'd have much preferred a bit more realism from the Persian side, but maybe they were trying to
portray the Greeks as humans/humanizing and the Persians as representing barbarism. A little heavy handed treatment though. They make the point a little too much.

2) I suppose you have to accept that most viewers are around 17 and couldn't tell you where Greece is, let alone Thermopylae. But, I thought it could have had some references to Marathon or Salamis. They did mention Plataea, but unless you knew about the Persian Wars, you
wouldn't come away with any sense of anything other than this unnamed battle was truth, justice and freedom holding out against enslavement. I can't complain though. If they'd have bogged the thing down in details in order to be historically accurate, it would have been a
snoozer and people would have bitched that the details were even debatable.

3) The film reeks of manliness. One's testosterone increases while watching it. However, I thought they caved in to the apparent requirement that every film have a romance going on. There's a subplot occuring at the homefront in Sparta, but I thought that that element was
a bit weak. I guess it was necessary to make one sympathize with what they were fighting for, but it takes time away from the ass-kicking and I didn't pay to watch Love Story.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A new direction

In an interview regarding his next scifi novel, Richard Morgan reveals he is working on a fantasy novel:

The plan is to carry over the noir sensibility of the Kovacs novels into a fantasy setting, and brew up some old style sword and sorcery alongside, but in practice that's not quite as simple as it sounds. I have a lot of old stylistic habits to unlearn, and a fair few fresh tricks to learn.

Alright, stop. Collaborate and listen

Are you an at least 15th level very large fantasy novel reader? Do you own +3 Bracers of Ogre strength that allow you to hold massive books for hours on end? Do you always win on the Comprehend Labyrinthine Plot savings throw? If you still reading, you might like the Malazan Book of the Fallen Series. I just finished Memories of Ice and I quite like it. There are a number of reasons to like it, and a few that might dissuade you from picking it up.

There is little point in discussing the plot of this book, as it will give spoilers aplenty. The overall story is only becoming clear in this book, but the surface story is about the Malazan Empire's attempts to expand its control over the world. The book reads a cross between the Illiad and the Forever War. Almost all of the characters are warriors or those forced to fight. The battle is nearly constant. Many of the major characters are Ascendents, or gods. Like the Illiad, they are flawed, in conflict, meddle directly in human affairs and can be killed. The overall plot concerns the shifts in human and divine power and how these changes influence the other realm. The Malazans and the gods themselves are fighting wars all over the planet and the death toll is incredible. Imagine the Mongols invading every continent at once and you get an idea.

So what is to like? The action is excellent. Endless battle could be quite repetitive, but Erikson keeps it fresh by using multiple characters with different skills and powers. His varies the battles as well, with sieges, meeting engagements, ambushes, one on one super battles and so on. The action is an unglamorized as possible. It is brutal, bleak and destructive. There is comic relief but it is on the black side.

His world is immense and he has clearly spent time developing the many, many players. There are multiple states and tribes on the human side and a confusing array of divine powers. He provides a list of the dramatis personae, but I would have appreciated a bit more detail here.

The character development leads a lot to be desired. You won't find anyone as realized as Martin's Tyrion here. Or even half as realized. But Erikson makes up for this by surprising you with yet another incredible battle or duel of wits between an angry God of Death and wily wizard.

The book is also crazy long. The paperback is 900 pages long and it is part of a TEN book cycle. Unlike the works of the Betrayer, these books are filled with story for the 900 pages, but still it is 900 pages. That's three normal books, which means reading this is not reading three other books. And you are buying nerd futures for the other 8100 pages. So you have to keep that in mind. You may hit your end at the end and say "I could have read Remembrance of Things Past!"

Hey man, hey!

New Shellac record this summer. I've heard tell that Spoke might be on it. That's not bad sound, the lyrics are all gibberish. Here's another new one.

Fun with the New York Times

Are you one of the literati who does not get 300? Well, Neal Stephenson has some words for you.

A full kickin' member of the literati, John Banville, has written a crime novel. He has an essay on why he decided to enter the genre world. I was going to say that he was slumming, but that's not really fair, as he argues that mysteries, at their best, are art. He claims that in his crime fiction he tones down his trademark use of obscure words, but he slips "rebarbative" into the essay. And it really is a good essay, read it. (NYT connection: I saw an ad in the Book section)

The new Christopher Buckley novel looks interesting. If you've not read any of his nasty little satires, this one might be a place to start.

The Buckley book is the first effort by the creepily named imprint called the Twelve. They will only publish 12 books a year you see. I am most intrigued by the next one by Christopher Hitchens. Titled God is Not Great, Hitchens is setting himself apart from the tide of atheist books. The title might as well be Fuck All Y'All. A large slice of these athiest books take their biggest swipe at Christianity. By turning around a central phrase of Islamic praise, Hitchens is ecumenical is his disdain. The right will hate it, the left will hate it, for the left cannot abide criticism of non-Westerners. And the developing world is pretty damn religious. Anyway, I expect lots of ugly exchanges on talk shows.

The Terror gets a negative review (there is a major spoiler in the middle, so read the beginning and the end) in the Times. I hope this is another case of the snobs looking down on genre fiction, especially as his principal complaint seems to be that it is long. This last line was pretty brutal: But when a writer as canny as Dan Simmons can talk himself into something as foolhardy as “The Terror,” you know there’s a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Book blog

Nonfiction Readers Anonymous is written by a librarian and the author notes (his or her?) opinions on a variety of books. I liked this post where the author notes that some books remain unread because of the title alone.

Some comics

Graphic novels are sometimes transcendent, but more often they are pleasurable diversions, like a good mystery novel. I recently read 2 that were entertaining.

Fallen Angel. OK, this technically isn't a graphic novel (if I understand it precisely). Instead it is the first few issues of a periodic comic. Whatever. It is dark and nasty like many other graphic novels, so let's just pretend. This one is set in an American city called Bete Noire that is somehow without police but is managed by mysterious magistrate. He is given to mentioning that the whole world will end if Bete Noire goes crazy. The Fallen Angel is woman with powers not fully explained. Like Rogue, she is more or less invincible and she doesn't mind killing. She faces a bunch of nasties and a few moral choices. Like I said, nothing special, but fun. Of particular note to those looking for female bad asses.

In the multiyear gaps between Fire and Ice novels, George R R Martin has written a few short stories/novellas called the Dunk and Egg stories. They are set about 100 years before the series and involve a squire who impersonates a knight and a boy who befriends him. Marvel recently released the first story, the Hedge Knight, as a graphic novel. It is a small episode, probably worth one or two chapters in one of the novels, and I think some of Martin's detail may have lost in the transition. Still, the art is excellent, and the story has a few surprises. This one may come in handy while we wait for A Dance With Dragons.

I saw but did not pick up Testament, which is written as if Bible stories took place in the modern day. Lots of sex and violence (as one finds in the OT) so this one will be strange for a number of audiences.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Pillars of the Earth fans will have a lovely October. Follett has a sequel due to arrive that month. There is a bit more information here. The novel takes place 200 year after the events in Pillars and has the Black Death as its backdrop. If you haven't read Pillars of the Earth, you should pick it up. It is set in a 12th century English town and tracks the fates of builders and clerics involved in its construction. This may sound tiresome, but it is in fact excellent. For those seeking a broader canvas and more focus on historical accuracy, I recommend Sharon Kay Penman's Here Be Dragons. And if you are desperate for Pillars of the Earth action before October, why not pick up the Pillars of the Earth board game?

If you have been following the Cassini mission, this is pretty cool.

Fans of McCarthy's the Road will be excited to see the equally literary Jim Crace has penned a post-apocalyptic novel as well.

CG sent along this Q&A with Jonathan Lethem. I remain uncertain about his new one. She also sent this rather awful cover of Float On. To be honest, I say songs are IP, if you want to share it, go ahead. But that is objectively terrible.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My brain is hanging upside down

Rolling Stone assembled a panel of experts to talk about what is coming in Iraq. It's distressing reading to say the least. There is no good news or optimism anywhere in this piece. One that chilled me most came from Al Qaeda expert Michael Scheuer. He had this to say:

No matter what happens now, the Islamists will have beaten both of the superpowers -- first the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and now the United States in the heart of Islam. The impact of that in Islamic civilization is going to be enormous. We have made bin Laden a prophet: His organizing concept for Al Qaeda was "The Russians are a lot tougher than the Americans. If we can beat the Russians, then we can eventually beat the Americans." Even more important, Al Qaeda will have contiguous territory on the Arab peninsula to attack from.

I don't blame you when you piss and moan

Who pissed in Tom Disch's cereal? I've heard outbursts more rational than this when I tell my kids we can't have another story because we have to get to preschool.

Way out in the water, see it swimming

Pessimism, thy name is Canadian Science Fiction. Oryx and Crake, most of William Gibson's work (fine, he's American, but he has lived in Canada since 68), and a fair chunk of Robert Charles Wilson's work are exemplars of the downer angle that works it way into SF of the great white north. But those guys have nothing on Peter Watts. His homepage proudly displays this quote : "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts." This exaggeration is, no doubt, only slight.

With this warning in mind, I heartily recommend Watts' Blindsight. The basic story, first contact with aliens, is as old as SF itself. Watts adds a dystopian future where humans are retreating into a virtual reality heaven as AIs, cyborgs and vampires slowly take over the Earth. That's right, vampires. Watts has vampires as an extinct predator of humans gene-resurrected because of their hyper-intelligence (think about it predators are always smarter than the prey.) In order to investigate an alien presence in the Oort cloud, Earth sends a vampire, a cyborg with more than double normal human senses, a high functioning autistic who can read patterns, a super soldier and a woman whose brain has been cut to allow for multiple personalities. So it's aliens visiting aliens.

Watts is a hard science fiction writer which means an exploration of science is central to the book. In this case, Watts starts with brains and brain modification and then explores the relationship between consciousness and intelligence. The aliens brains are not built as ours are and this becomes quite important to the story. The science gets a bit challenging in places, but he weaves it well into the story. He embeds his politics and pessimism into the story itself rather than stepping aside to deliver a lecture. If you are a reader of scifi or have an interest in brain science this should be on your 2007 reading list.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

This and that

Though she has often been compared to Anthony Trollope, one astute reviewer has termed her "the love child of Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch." Well, that's a hell of a comparison isn't it? The subject of the comparison is Susan Howatch, who has written a series of book about the Church of England, one of which you can find here. A colleague recommended her to me.

I have a hard time believing this is real. Mylanta Ice Cream sounds like a frat boy initiation torture device.

Sven sends word that Iran is protesting 300. The battle of Thermopylae was 2,500 years ago! I think there has to be a statue of limitations on such things. And it actually happened! American Scene has useful thoughts. approaches the movie for it what it is, a comic book adaptation. Given the piss-poor state of knowledge about the classical world, it's worth pointing to Obsidian Wings which correctly notes that Sparta is not a great role model and that Salamis is where the Persians were truly defeated. Those who took IR classes back in the Cold War days will recall that Sparta=Soviet Union, Athens=United States. All this aside, I always enjoy a movie packed with lots of ass-kicking.

Maybe everything that dies, someday comes back

One of the greatest of rock documentaries is Some Kind of Monster. It paints a rich, if not always flattering portrait of the band, while also showing how the rock lifestyle can prevent the successful from ever growing up. That movie is so good, I would recommend it to people who couldn't care less about Metallica. LoudQUIETloud, a film about the Pixies reunion tour, doesn't reach that height, but it still a must see for the (non-worshipful) fan.

If you are hoping to see the genius that penned the classic Pixies songs you won't find it here. The story in this movie is that the Pixies are mildly quirky but generally normal people who are somewhat taken aback by their reception. Joey and Frank Black are family men earning for the folks back home. Kim is a recovering alcoholic who switches to caffeine and cigarettes. David Lovering's father dies while he is on tour and he turns to Valium and wine. The movie makers try to portray him as getting out of control, but in rock star terms, it isn't much. At one show, he keeps drumming far past the time to stop and he acts a bit manic in scenes. He then pulls it back together. For some this will anger, I found it endearing. These are normal people who create amazing work. If you come to the movie as a worshiper on a pilgrimage, you will probably be disappointed.

Since documentaries have to have an overall story, some stand alone annecdotes have be left aside. Thanks to the wonders of DVD, these are now available. There is awkward scene where the Pixies visit Sigur Ros at their Reykjavik studio and no one seems to know what to do. There is another where Kim is interviewed with Steve Albini. There is a brief, but funny bit where Kim visits a music shop. After handing over her credit card, the clerk lets her know that there is another Kim Deal in a band called the Breeders. Finally, Kim Deal's ex-husband (Mr. John Murphy) shows up and gives the band some archival material he was keeping.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A classic

Perhaps my most venal reading sin is spending so much time trying to get my hands on the latest and greatest. I'm so busy chasing 2007 that I've already forgotten 2006. Publishers like Persephone books remind us that the past has much to offer.

They have republished Little Boy Lost, which sounds like a dated melodrama, but is far from it. The story is set in post-war France and centers on a priggish British intellectual. He escaped the Nazis when they overran France, but his wife and newborn son did not. Now after the war, he learns his son may have survived. He then travels to France to see if in fact the boy is his lost son. Sounds as treacly as Christmas Shoes, but let me assure you it is not. Instead we have a man wrestling against his worse nature and a view of the desolation of France in 1945. The intensity of the novel will surprise you. Seek this one out, Amazon has some used copies. To learn more, read this review in the Spectator.

My kind of March Madness

The Post has a Beer March Madness bracket up on the website. The first round has been completed and Dogfish Head and Rogue are now going head to head. Amazingly Bud beat Victory Lager and is now going on to battle Rolling Rock. We all lose that one.

You can vote for the beers you think should advance. I bet Dominion Ale will get votes as the leading DC area micro. Here is a related discussion.

Gift idea

If you are seeking a special gift for your nerdy friend/spouse/S.O., take a look at the Subterranean Press. They produce high quality editions of classic works as well as limited print runs of original works. For example, here is Tim Powers novella , a John Scalzi novella, and a three hundred dollar version of Feast for Crows.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Oh well

Jonathan Carroll's Land of Laughs and White Apples were great novels. I wish Bones of the Moon was as good as those, but I can't say it was. It was similar to the other two in that it featured a person in the modern world who discovers that our world overlaps with a magic world. This time it just didn't work. The dreamworld theme was just too strange. Dreams of course do not make sense, and Carroll emphasizes this by throwing in terms and words he never explains. Had he added more description it might have been more intersting. I think he was trying to capture the strange insanity of dreams that we accept while dreaming, but make no sense later. Not quite interesting enough. And this critical. In the books I have read so far, the character has been important, but it is the character's interaction with the magic that makes the book.

This too would have been fine if the central conflict were more interesting, but it isn't. For some, the central conflict may be enraging. It revolves around a woman dealing with her abortion. I can see alarm bells going off in some people's heads already. Even if you aren't so ideologically inclined, I doubt you will be engrossed by her journey. It's not terrible it was just not as interesting as those in the other books.

This would not be the place to start with Carroll. Try Land of Laughs or White Apples. Here is someone who completely disagrees.

Sunday morning coming down

Wowsers! Read this and then listen in to a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming! It's a big MP3 file and the I was only able to listen by downloading. It's great to hear their voices and listen to two greats discussing their craft. I like the bit where Fleming asks Chandler how one arranges a killing.


Wonkette has an amusing piece comparing Brazilian protesters to US ones.

The Sunday papers have slightly changed my reading trajectory with two reviews. I had wanted to read Michael Burleigh's new book Sacred Causes. In his review Tony Judt closes with "Politico-religious zealotry is a timely topic, but anyone seeking a dispassionate account of it should look elsewhere. "Sacred Causes" is an ugly instance of its own subject matter." Wow.

Matthew Sharpe has a new book titled Jamestown, which is celebrating its 400 year anniversary. The Post review is intriguing. "This hilarious, poignant and often annoying novel reimagines the first permanent English settlement in America as a modern-day dystopia, an absurd hybrid of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Walt Disney's "Pocahontas."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Nazis and Pornstars and Gangstas, Oh My!

Louis Theroux apparently had a show in Britain on which he would interview bizarre subcult figures in the USA. Crazy Yanks and all that. He eventually followed up with a number of his subjects and collected his experiences in Call of the Weird. He does get a nice sampling of fringers, including Deep South Gangsta rappers, UFO cultists, Ike Turner, pornstars, prostitutes, Nazis of a few flavors, including teen sensations Prussian Blue, and pyramid scheme fleece artists. I'm sad he missed out on the eco-freaks of the Pacific Northwest and the cable access performers. Portland alone is chock full of nuts including the late lamented Jim Spagg.

The book could just be a cataloging of the odd, but this one works because of the vulnerabilities of the characters and Theroux's sympathetic treatment of them. Theroux clearly wants to find these people again and see what happened to them. In many cases, they have left their former trade, such as Earth Defender (vs. UFOs) or prostitution for new means of support. None of these people have particularly nice lives. Most people would consider the people he meets as freaks, but he helps us see them as people. Horribly deluded people in most cases, but people nonetheless.

The topics won't appeal to everyone. The porn chapter is a bit explicit, but what will really get people are the full kickin' racists. These aren't the casual racists that tell a rude joke when drinking, but the kind preparing for the race war. Theroux lightens the mood with humor, ( one of the skinheads has a bumper sticker that says "My Boss is an Austrian painter"--- sure it's evil, but I laughed.) but humor only goes so far with people with views this repugnant.

All in all, a fun read for those fascinated by those who follow REALLY different drummers. Europeans may shake their heads and mutter about Americans, but come on, there are 300 million of us. There have to be some outliers in there somewhere.

Fire, I'll teach you to burn

So Heat is an excellent read. This is hardly a controversial stand, as metacritic indicates it was the second highest scoring non-fiction book of 2006 (slightly edged out by the Looming Tower.) Anyway, the story is pretty well known. He meets Mario Batali and asks him to teach him how to cook. So he gets a job at Babbo, which is a bit like a weekend league baseball player getting a spot on the Yankees. The book then becomes the story of the author, Bill Buford, learning to cook at one of New York's great restaurants with side trips to Italy to learn how to make pasta and to butcher livestock. He also provides the stories of the people with whom he interacts and they are quite something. Batali's story is an interesting one, but even the line cook's tales are diverting.

So what set's it apart? For me it was the general humility the author brought to the story as well as his generous treatment of all of those around him. It could have devolved into a horn tooting exercise, but instead it was an penetrating exploration of the life of the restaurant worker. Buford, by the way, is a writer for the New Yorker. Earlier I mentioned a few reasons not to read a book, but author-regularly-writes-for-The-New-Yorker is a great reason to try a book.

Music funnies

I would think that getting Arcade Fire tickets would be a challenge, but not so much to warrant this spoof. (via CG) Still, it is based in New York and clubs there are the same size as most other towns, which must make it harder to see the shows you want. If you think Neon Bible is getting too much love, you will find this funny too (via Matthew Yglesias).

No Direction, Period is a brief parody of Bob Dylan's ridiculous productivity. High-larious.

And this will at least warrant a giggle.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Two reasons to drop a book

There are certain signs that indicate you shouldn't read a book. One is the use of an ellipsis in a blurb. For example, PW had this to say about Natural Selection: "this Michael Crichton adventure wanna-be suffers from other odd plot elements, unconvincing romance and pedestrian prose, but it might make an awesome beach read." As you might guess with ellipsis the cover said " awesome beach read." Evil and wicked, that one.

Even that trickery is better than just plopping the publicity photo on the back. I suppose there are enough brand loyal people who turn it over and shout "Say! I didn't notice the letters spelling Dean R Koontz on the front, but who can forget that photo!" Its not surprising that at least half of the books at an airport stall will be emblazoned with the smiling mug of the author. When the marketing staff doesn't even bother with the enticing copy on the back, I have to give it a pass.

I place the blame on the worm in the bottle

These days, I have a mixed drink about once a quarter. If I am going to drink, I'd much rather have a beer or a glass of wine. It doesn't take much to give me a hangover, and with the kids getting up early whether I am hating it or not, I really can't take a hangover.

Still, I am always interested in learning about booze, so when I saw Straight Up or On the Rocks at the library, I picked it up. The book is a history of the development of the cocktail, from the colonial times to the modern world. There are some good stories in here, but the book is pretty slight with only 100 or so pages of story. The rest is a best-of cocktail recipes. Read this one for anecdotes, but don't expect depth.

One of the more interesting stories concerns the Mint Julep, a tasty southern beverage. Apparently newspaper editors in Virginia and Kentucky used to debate which state owned the beverage and bourbon itself. The VA argument was that when bourbon was created, what is now KY was still Virginian territory hence it is Virginian! Tricky, that. Anyway, Mint Juleps are delightful, and if you like Mojitos you will like a Julep. Unfortunately, they are both a pain to make, and if you screw it up, it won't taste great.


Tyler Cowen gives his take on Pynchon and which novels ( if any) to read. I concur with his take (read Gravity's Rainbow and V.) Mason & Dixon left me cold.

Freedom of choice, is what you got

This is a test to see whether you can identify a number of political and pop culture figures. Based on how well you do, it tells you whether you should vote or not. I did pretty well.

Tunes for you

Apparently the world needs more ELO, or so say the members of LEO. Instead of covering ELO, this band has decided to make songs that sound like songs ELO would have played. The Myspace page has lots of neo-ELO for you to enjoy. It really does sound like ELO.

Listen to Jeff Lynne explain that little "Bruce" sounding word in Don't Bring Me Down.

What's that? It's the mid-90s you miss, not the early 80s? May I suggest Silversun Pickups? Click on media.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Happy and sad

Arlington, VA drinkers must be sad that Dr. Dremo's is on the way out. I will shed a tear for it. My fave 703 beer purveyor, Lost Dog, remains strong. I've yet to make it to the sister restaurant, the Stray Cat.

In much closer ( as in three blocks as opposed to 3,000 miles) to my house news, Foxfire Teas get a review on Roadfood. The folks there are very nice and they have great tea. My only complaint is that they serve beer (Dogfish Head on tap!) but close at six. That's barely enough time for me to have a sip.

I tried trivia last night at the New Old Lompoc. It was pretty good, although there were too many hints. Also no trivia in the summer! And it starts at 7:30. I remain uncertain.

I think I'm going to die today, and everyone that hurt me is going to pay

Vengeance flicks are surprisingly idea driven. Many dwell on the idea of justice as Deathwish and its cartoonish sequels show. Last House on the Left and the Hills Have Eyes take a nihilistic view that there is no justice and that all people are essentially beasts that prey upon each other, whether they be criminals or the bourgeois. For me the most interesting movies put the idea of justice idea aside and take the Count of Monte Cristo* approach.

That book argued that vengeance destroys both the original criminal and the original victim. The outstanding and incredibly violent Oldboy is a great example of the type. A step or two down from that level is the British Dead Man's Shoes. Paddy Considine plays a British solider whose mentally retarded brother is tormented by small town hoods, while he is away on the service. He comes back to deliver a little payback. Considine plays the role well, becoming increasingly menacing as the story progresses. The tormentors are presented well too. With a single exception, they aren't evil, they are just stupid, normal people who go too far. And it is this that drives the avenger crazy.

*If long 19th century novels or their film adaptations aren't your thing, consider Stephen Fry's Revenge. In his amusing afterword, Fry notes that about halfway through writing his book he realized he stole the whole thing from Dumas. As in the entire plot.

When I die, I expect to find him laughing

When you peruse the apocalyptic fiction aisle, do you pine for a leftist satirical take on the Left Behind books? Well maybe you should take a look at Matthew Moses's Anti-Christ. For all the try before you buyers, he is kind enough to provide the first three chapters free.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I just need to admit I want sugar in my tea

Harold Bloom has apparently read every significant book, in the whole world. Now it's just re-reading for him I guess. While we may tsk at his snobbery, he at least will avoid mistakes like Natural Selection. This clunker involves a newly evolved ray ( The Demonray!) that is super smart, and can FLY. That's right, this amphibious manta ray comes out the ocean to hunt arrogant humanity along the coast of California. I was hoping for giant ray vs. Apache helicopter scenes among the B of A and TransAmerica towers, but no suck luck. Instead the demonrays hunt paper thin characters out at sea and in the woods. Or something. I'm not sure because I just read the first forty or so pages and then flipped through looking for anything interesting. No luck.

You might ask yourself, why put yourself through it? Why read these when you have so many good books at hand? Well, as the song goes, you never can tell. The Sea, was awarded one of the highest of literary prizes and I didn't like that. Also, the well-written monster book, as epitomized by Jurassic Park and Relic, is some of the purest escapist fun imaginable. And there is great pleasure in the hunt. I will fully admit I love bringing a new treasure to my friends. Unfortunately I find far more pyrite than gold.

Left unmoved

I am feeling rooked. I made the mistake of reading last year's Booker Prize Winner, The Sea. It starts out rather nicely, with superb use of language. At a number of points, he captures the feelings of memory and how it can almost overwhelm you. He also does some, but not enough, work on how memory can trick you, how the little details are filled in after the fact. And that's pretty much it. There is a story of sorts. The main character's wife has recently died, so he travels to the seashore where he passed an idyllic summer, and where another inexplicable tragedy happened.

And that is a large part of the problem. The tragedy is random and the results are unexplored. So why does he include it in the book? I suppose it is about dealing with grief and how you never get over certain things, but I didn't think it worked at all. He mulls over the memories of the past, but the tragic element is tacked on at the end. I guess you could argue that we don't like to face the awful, and instead surround it in the happy, but even so, I don't think that worked. Curse you, Booker Prize Committee.

I shouldn't be so mean to the Booker Prize People. Looking back at the prize winner's I have read, I like far more than I dislike.

2005 The Sea by John Banville (thumbs down)
2004 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (Rather enjoyed it)
2002 Life of Pi bby Yann Martell (Quite liked it)
2000 The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Great book)
1999 Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee ( it was OK)
1998 Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan ( not his best, it was OK)
1997 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (OK)
1996 Last Orders by Graham Swift (Loved it, like I do most of his work)
1995 The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (so-so)
1994 How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (I've not read it but I should mention this is my wife's least favorite book of all time. I think she is down on the Booker thanks to this one)
1992 Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (co-winner) (Too long, but overall excellent)
1990 Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (Super fantastic)
1989 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (So much reading fun that some buzzkill somewhere has probably banned it)
1988 Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (Great)
1983 Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (Pretty good)
1981 Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (Not my favorite)
1978 The Sea, the Sea by Irish Murdoch (Definitely not my favorite Murdoch who I tend to like)
1975 Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (OK)
1973 The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G Farrell ( A wonderful book)

Monday, March 05, 2007


Ken Haedrich's Pie Cookbook is a five for five winner. This weekend I made the chocolate custard cream cheese pie and the Creamsicle pie. I think I may have made a mistake on the chocolate by using bittersweet chips instead of semi-sweet chips. In most circumstances, I prefer bittersweet, but the cream cheese taste was a bit more than I would like. The semisweet may have been a better counterpoint. People cleaned their plates so I suppose it was good enough.

The Creamsicle was a big winner. It's a simple assembly. First you press orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream into a graham cracker crust. Then you whip some cream, add orange juice concentrate, vanilla and confectioner's sugar and add the whipped cream to the pie. Freeze and serve. My kids couldn't get over this one. Even the adults were surprised by how much they liked it.

Only 295 pies to go.

From bad to worse

Samantha Power has an op-ed on reducing the chances of genocide in Iraq. If you've not read her outstanding A Problem From Hell, now might be a good time.

By the way, when I recommend policy books like this one, some people seem to think they need to read the book as closely as they would their favorite novel. Ideally you would, but given the number of books necessary to be informed, this isn't alway feasible. Read the introductory chapter, the conclusions and the chapters that interest you. Perfect, no, but as the Happiness Project reminds us, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Procastinating while I should be fixing my bike

This is good for a laugh, if you like Star Wars and conspiracy theories.

Here is a long piece about the rise of the respectable graphic novel. Just another sign of Nerds Rising.

In food news, another reason to go back to Fast Food Nation.

Long piece on the Arcade Fire in the NYT. I have yet to decide where I stand on Neon Bible, but the inclusion of No Cars Go deserves applause.

Today is James Ellroy's birthday. Check out this piece, which has this great line: He gives us American history as a pulp history of organized crime, tabloids, corruption, bureaucratic tyranny, disordered desires, and the eternality of vice. His books, in total, present for us a stylized and staggering master view of the dark heart of mid-20th-century America. That sounds about right.

Lev Grossman has a review for 300. Makes we want to see it even more.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

I'm a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am

Yesterday, while gathering my library selections, my eyes fell upon a book that seemed out of place. It looked quite like the pulpy volumes you used to find at five and dimes. Take a gander at the cover. Not only does the cover feature garish colors and explosive action, but the two esses in the author's last name are styled like that of the Schutzstaffel, Waffen no doubt. Now, Nazi imagery is often used in book marketing, but it is often used as a threating icon. In this case, the Nazis are associated with the author's name.

What makes that all the more peculiar is the the author, a Dane who claims Eastern front experience, may have been a member of the Gestapo! According to reviews, his books take a anti-Nazi, anti-war line (to a point, of course, people read them for the battle action) so I wonder if they are meant to atone for prior sins.

I remain amazed that there are people who take a murky approach to the Nazis. Here we have re-enactors of the first SS Panzer division, a unit of which perpetrated the Malmedy massacre. The we have books like Watch on the Rhine. In this book, aliens invade Germany, so the leadership decides to reanimate the Waffen SS, to fight the aliens. Personally I think reanimating Blucher or Moltkes the Elder's armies, since they actually won wars, without perpetrating mass atrocities across an entire continent. But that's just me.

Friday, March 02, 2007

They keep calling me

A visit to the library is a trip to Trader Joe's. You have one thing you really need (ok, you really want) and you leave with five more. At least with the library the only cost is an opportunity cost. Given that I would be grievously wounded, if not crippled, if all my unread but owned books fell on me, one could argue that I should just read the books I have. I reject that sunk cost argumentation.

The Devil of Nanking - Mo Hayder. Hayder's reputation is for hyper-violence, but I hear she toned that down and upped her writing game on this one. I'm also a fan of the region, so I am all the more interested.

States of Mind - Jonathan Yardley. One nice thing about libraries, is that find lesser known volumes like this one. Yardley grew up in Virginia as a transplanted New Yorker and the book is his adult exploration of the middle Atlantic. Given Yardley's erudition and my historical, personal and familial ties to Virginia (home state) , NC and DC, this one looks like a winner.

The Wrong War - Jeffery Record. Record is an admirably analytical and non-ideological writer. He recently co-wrote a study on Iraq vs. Vietnam arguing they are very different. I imagine most of the argumentation will be familiar, but I think it is useful to revisit Vietnam to understand elements of the Iraq failure.

Embers - Sandor Marai. I'd like to say I randomly select slim volumes from Central European novelists, but really my uncle just recommended it to me.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Last night, he could not make it

Here is a pro take and a con take on last night's Lost. Taken by itself, the episode was fine, nothing special but enjoyable. In the context of the season, it was more disappointing. The producers have to make up for the disaster that was last fall.

A former Canadian Defense Minister is calling for governments to use their secret UFO technology to fight global warming. No foolin'. I guess he fell for the same op that Bush 41 used on Carter.

The readers of SF Site have voted for their top ten nerd books of 2006. As a lover of nerd books and Pavlovian slave of book marketing, I am generally aware of all the books that would appear in the list. I was quite surprised that the number one choice, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was completely new to me. So, I guess I should check it out.

I am checking out a site called Shelfari. It is billed as a book lover's community site. It seems to combine the book cataloging features of some sites with interactivity. Anyway, I am trying it out.

That's when I reach for my gigawatt plasma rifle

Back in the 60s, Harry Harrison wrote Deathworld, a trilogy of books about a planet with exceptionally dangerous native life. British scifi author Neal Asher has taken the concept and added his vision of evolved humanity to the mix. His book, the Skinner, is a wild tale of vengeance and interstellar politics.

The planet, Spatterjay, on which the story is set has a strange ecosystem. Large leeches have evolved a viral symbiont which confers high survivability and potentially immortality on its victims. The advantage to the leeches is that it can eviscerate a victim and eat it again later after it recovers. Humans that are bitten become nearly immortal (there are thousand year old characters) and super tough. If they fail to take in human food they eventually become a leech themselves (mmmmmmm, Shai-Hulud.)

The author uses the planet's environment and its effects well (a case of a human ultimate fighting match is rather nasty), but the focus of the story is on a number of characters who have come to Spatterjay. One is an agent of the Hive, the intelligent group mind of hornets. One is a 700 year old reification, a dead man walking who wants vengeance. Two more are war criminals working together for opposite ends. All of these are being watched by the Warden, an AI that represents the largest human government. It eventually plays out in classic scifi manner, the battle of the badasses, but it is very well done.

If anything suffers, it is characterization. With ten or more point of view characters and action on multiple fronts a number of characters that appear to be central end up being tertiary. The main character, if one can be said to exist, is not quite as developed as I would have liked, but the book is well worth reading despite it.