Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A disappointing movie

I watched [Rec] last night. Ehhh. I was hoping for many more creepy scares. There were quite a few good ones, notably when a character is left to a terrible fate, but like the similarly shaky cam Cloverfield, the film had lots of slow parts. This though is a feature, not a bug. The sub-genre is tly called found footage which means it is supposed to be the footage found by investigators after the fact. The thing is, looking at clues like that is a job, not entertainment.

If you are not familiar with the story, a news reporter goes to a fire station at night to show what their nights are like. After showing the tedium of the job, they get a call to investigate a wounded woman. They visit an apartment complex, get attacked by the injured woman and then find the authorities have sealed off the building. This is of course bad news. The bad decisions pile up and so do the bodies. There is an interesting backstory that would have made for an fun movie on its own, but this is tacked on at the end.

This one isn't easy to see, you might just want to check out the disturbing last five minutes (below) or maybe see the American remake called Quarantine. Or maybe not. The people who liked [Rec] do not appear fond of the remake.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart is easily one of the best books I have ever read. So I am THRILLED that a collection of his writing called Stories Done has been released. The book is about the 60s, which sounds great, but from him I would probably read a book about visits to the nation's finest convenience stores.

The Times of London some time ago published this interesting Murder map of London of 1888, the year of Jack the Ripper.

Here is an article that will get you thinking and probably fretting. David Streitfeld writes about how the availability of low prices online continues to wear away at the bookstore world. I had no idea that Olsson's was gone from DC. I need to start spending more book dollars in town.

This on the other hand will make you chuckle, or perhaps just ruefully shake your head. Foreign Policy Magazine lists their top ten worst predictions about the year 2008. You just knew Jim Cramer would make the list.

Mark Bowden, of Black Hawk Down fame, has a long piece in the Post about Somalia and how bad it is there.

Monday, December 29, 2008

AA Gill is Awesome

There are some travel writers, like Rory Stewart of the Places in Between fame, who focus so little on themselves that they seem to vanish from the page. AA Gill is not one of those writers. His giant personality, opinion and humor threaten to crowd out whatever subject is at hand. When he is focused he can be quite acerbic, although generally in a witty manner. In AA Gill is Away, his takes on Japan (populated by aliens who are trying hard to look human) and Germany (the section is titled Hunforgiven) flirt with offensiveness, but the humor wins out.

You can tell when he is truly angry when the humor disappears. He thunders at the pharmaceutical industry for it's limited investment in tropical medicines as he watches a Ugandan girl undergo a spinal tap and a Uganda boy take arsenic based medicine to test for and treat sleeping sickness. This and his harrowing visit to a Sudanese refugee camp are highlights of the book.

It's not just multinational corporations that get his goat, it is also communism. While I have read of the tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea (bad economic policy managed to kill the fourth largest lake in the world,) Gill shows the terrible effects on the people still living there.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Gill also manages to convince a pornographic film company to let him write an adult film and goes to see it shot. The story is hilarious but also told quite straight. His treatment of the actors as real people alone sets the story apart.

This recent restaurant review will give you a sense of whether you will like his writing. Here are many more. Here is an enjoyable interview with Gill on restaurants and food.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Samuel Huntington RIP

Samuel Huntington is dead at 81. While he wrote a number of books that are highly regarded in the academic world, including the Soldier and the State and Political Order in Changing Societies, he is best known in the public sphere for his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.

After the end of the Cold War, one of the biggest questions in international relations was whether the evolving system would be more or less prone to interstate conflict. Huntington's thesis was that cultural differences among civilization groups would make the coming decades more rather than less conflict prone.

In the public space, one of the principal competing ideas was that a globalizing meta-civilization would be too focused on making money to allow for interstate conflict. The standard bearer for this argument was of course Tom Friedman.

This an argument that can and most likely will go on for decades. Both sides can easily say that we just don't know yet how things will turn out. The economic crisis will likely create new arguments as well. It's the rare big think international relations book that breaks into the public debate, so it is makes Huntington's passing all the more sad that we will not have any more of his provocative ideas.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cheating with conclusions

My enjoyment of two good books, Nobodies and Violent Politics, was marred by a frequent problem in nonfiction writing. In both cases, the authors tell one story in the body of the book and then use their argument to make sweeping, not entirely supported arguments in the conclusion.

In Nobodies, John Bowe shows how globalized labor markets have made possible work conditions that amount to slavery here in the United States. He then uses the conclusion to make a number of indictments about globalization as a whole. In Violent Politics, William Polk investigates a series of insurgencies from the American Revolution to the War in Iraq, arguing that insurgencies are principally wars against foreign invaders and that they nearly always succeed. Like Bowe, Polk has a larger agenda, arguing that the United States is about to find itself in multiple insurgencies across the world and must pull back.

In neither case does the author effectively make an argument, instead they merely state them. If the point of the Bowe book was the globalization is on the whole negative, then the book should have made that argument. If the point of the Polk book is that U.S. foreign policy is overly aggressive and tending towards imperial commitments, then he should have argued that in the book itself.

The most effective conclusions are in some ways boring. For me, the best use is a restatement of the argument and addressing some potential implications. At some level Bowe and Polk do this, but they venture to far from their subject matter.

This is not a terribly important complaint, really. Conclusions are usually boring recitiations of the book's arugument that let you get the gist of the book without reading all of it. These are both good books that are just a little better if you skip the end.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry merry

I hope all our enjoy time with their families these days. We used the pause in the storm to get to our destination. Take a look at's year in photos and the incredible Hubble Space Telescope Advent calendar.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A serial killer for Portland

Seeing as how winter has shut down Portland making it difficult to enjoy the season, it's a fine time to read a book about Portland, or at least a thriller set in Portland. Chelsea Cain's Heartsick is a solid, entertaining serial killer story set in Portland. You might think all the life has been squeezed out of the serial killer genre, but Cain manages to tell a new and engaging story. It seems someone is killing school girls and the police have to call up damaged cop Archie Sheridan to solve it. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, Sheridan agrees to be shadowed by reporter Susan Ward.

The initial set up is reminiscent of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, with a cop visiting the brutal serial killer he caught and who brutalized him. Cain is aware of this, even directly referencing the book, but she takes a different tack. Her killer is in some ways even more malevolent than Lechter and the cop here and the relationship between the cop and killer is more twisted.

I thought the plotting and the resolution of the plot threads were excellent. Cain does a good job in moving the story forward and in misdirecting the reader. The only thing I didn't like about the book was how she dealt with Portland. You can't go a few pages in the book without running into some kind of reference to the city, usually a place name or fact about the town. Susan Ward, who worked as a feature writer, is given to spouting random facts about the city when conversations run down. There is so much, it feels like Cain saw this as her one shot at promoting the city.

All this information is interesting, but doesn't create the sense of the city that someone like George Pelecanos does with DC or James Ellroy did with his (nightmare version of) Los Angeles. Cain has written a followup novel called Sweetheart and I hope she will write more. I also hope she dials back on the name checking and helps people understand what life is like here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another wasted spot in the Netflix queue

I can see how people didn't like the Ruins, the novel, as it was grim and depressing, but it is hard to see how anyone could like the Ruins, the movie, as it was a compressed version of the story with nearly all the best parts removed.

The book quickly got the characters to the titular Ruins where they find themselves trapped and then hunted, but a teasing, slow moving enemy. The best part of the book was seeing how these characters dealt with their impossible situation. The characters are trapped on the roof of a ruined Mayan temple with threats all around. The overall feel was one of horrid claustrophobia. While they may feel safe from the enemy outside, it is the one within the Ruins that is truly terrible. This foul enemy is quite cruel in the book as well, it is both intelligent and wicked in its taunting of the trapped tourists.

The movie, which finishes in an all too quick 90 minutes, has no time for characters or for atmosphere. Instead, the story barrels along showing us the happy tourists turned into trapped, scared and then dead tourists. We see some flashes of cruel menace in the monster among the Ruins, but for the most part, it is without character, and could be any other faceless killer.

Scott Smith, author of the book, wrote the screenplay which makes me wonder if the director ripped his screenplay down to the barebones or if he has a different viewpoint on what made his novel work. If you are considering watching the movie, don't. Read the book instead.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mixed scifi

It makes me happy that there is an entire blog devoted to the possible HBO series based on George R R Martin's Song of Fire and Ice books. Winter is Coming will have all your rumors, news, speculation and opinion that you need while you wait for A Dance with Dragons. There are so many characters and plots in the Song of Fire and Ice series that I really should start back at the beginning. That is really hard to do with Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Name of the Wind being so neglected and unread on my bookshelf.

Ultimate Iron Man brings two great nerd tastes together, the Marvel Ultimate universe, a reboot of the entire universe allowing for new origins, and Orson Scott Card, he of Ender's Game fame. Card takes the reboot charter pretty far and goes with his theme of powers and responsibility thrust on children. In this case, Tony Stark is not just a millionaire playboy, but a mutant millionaire playboy who gains super strength at birth. I was never a huge fan of Iron Man, so this didn't bother me. I can see how it might offend the fan base though. I enjoyed it. It is no Ultimates, but it is worth a read.

Star Wars novels, which bookstores segregate into their own subsection of the already ghettoized science fiction section, are not on the top of my reading list. They seem to focus on unnecessary backstory and gap filling. That said, when I see that horror novelist Joe Schreiber has a Star Wars (horror?) book coming out called Deathtroopers, well I admit I get a little excited.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Whole lot of shittin' going on

While mostly a laughing or smirking matter in the developed world, shit is a serious concern for many in the developed world. A sixth of the world population lacks what is called clean water, which is a nice way of saying that their water is polluted by human waste. This pollution kills millions of children each year from diarrhea alone. Rose George explores the world of shit management, or as it is usually called, sanitation in the excellent Big Necessity.

Rose is funny, she has a way with people, and she writes well. This helps explain why a book about something as potentially dry as innovations in sanitation is such good reading. She makes a strong case that access to waste free water is an important issue and that the way to do it is with low cost technologies suited to the local culture and economy.

The big story is that the developing world will need to find some other means that the flush toilet infrastructure of the West, and that, the West can learn a thing or two from the developing world. The costs and resource requirements of the Western system are impractical for most of the world and so a number of solutions have arisen. She does however talk about the highest end toilets, those from Japan. In the US, you can relieve yourself Japanese style with the Neorest.

In some cases, as in the Chinese night soil approach, the waste is used to grow food. George notes that China has managed to feed it huge population for four millenia without exhausting the land thanks in part to the rich fertilizer produced by people themselves. Another approach is the biogas digester which uses the methane produced by fermenting excrement to power villages. She also shows how disgust is an important tool in convincing people to adopt new means of dealing with waste. In India, promoters of new sanitation means helped the amount of shit deposited in a village each year. As the villagers worked it out, some vomited in reaction.

George occasionally gets a bit too detailed, but for the most part, she keeps the discussion at the right level and moving at the right pace. I suspect many people will buy this as a gag, but it is a serious book that makes key debates in development accessible.

Mean, nasty parents

In more ways than one. Every parent has stories of unfortunate kid's names from playgroups, the kid's museums or the grapevine. The oddest I have heard before was Forrest Jedi. I thought that kid was going to get razzed something serious. I think little Adolf Hitler Campbell takes the cake, or perhaps not, as his local bakery won't write his name on his birthday cake.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Separation

A good deal of alternate history focuses on wars ending differently. In The Separation, Christopher Priest also looks at a war, but in a most unusual way. Here Priest examines a pacifist alternate history and also questions history itself. Depending on your read of the book, you could argue that it is not an alternate history at all.

The book starts with at a slow book signing by a British author of popular military histories. He mostly writes about the "German War," which ended in 1941 with an armistice between Britain and Germany (the unfortunate Russians thereby bear the full Nazi effort). At this point, most alternate histories would have Britain falling directly under a Nazi heel or living under a quisling class of anti-Semitic Tories. Instead, Britain is prosperous and free. Priest constructs a reasonable reason for this that reminded me quite a bit of some Niall Ferguson's ideas from the Pity of War.

As the historian gets up to leave, a woman leaves a memoir that the historian is seeking . He is trying learn more about someone who appears to have been both a bomber pilot and a conscientious objector. As it turns out, the one person is two, twins, and each has a diary. Unfortunately for our historian, the stories tell very different stories of the war. In one, the war ends as it does in our world, in another it ends in 1941.

(Spoilers ahead)

At one point, one of the characters calls Churchill a master of the manipulation of history. The creation of history, both as actor and as interpreter, is a major theme of the book. The framing device is the use of history, the pacifist and conventional interpretations of World War 2 are set apart as separate realities. And the major characters are concerned about how they are impacting history. One interpretation of the story is that the time lines are creations that reflect the desires of the characters to validate their choices. Priest ends the book quite ambiguously, so other interpretations, including the intersection of universes are also possible. I think that Priest is also arguing that the quest to fully understand history is not possible and that interpretation and mystery will always play a part.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Anger is an energy

Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, is my favorite book of the year by far. It is a lengthy, detailed, yet entertainingly written account of the rise of Richard Nixon and his relationship with the "Silent Majority." Perlstein argues that Nixon recognized that many in the U.S feared the impact of black anger, changing sexual mores and the rejection of much of American culture by young Americans. Nixon stoked these fears and spoke to them. The Democrats tended to exacerbate these fears rather, playing into Nixon's hands.

One of the most interesting aspects is the intense anger that people on both sides felt and the alarming level of, and celebration of, violence as an extension of politics. Perlstein shows the frightening reaction to the Kent State and My Lai killings. As the word came in as to what really happened, many letter writers applauded the actions of the soldiers.

On the other side, the Yippies called for the murder of parents and at least one prominent leftist cheered the Tate murders, as the victim was merely a pig. Political enemies were viewed as essentially inhuman and not only should one not be sad that they died, but in fact they should be happy. While the demonization of political opponents is a problem that continues down to our day, we have nothing remotely similar to the broad acceptance of violence in today's political culture.

Be sure read to read Ross Douthat's conservative critique of the book. Here is author Rick Perlstein speaking with David Frum about the book on

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A few upcoming movies which probably won't be good

Hmm, the new remake of Friday the 13th (trailer here) does not appear to really be a remake of Friday the 13th. We have the mother's voice over but the killer of this movie does appear to be the killer of Friday the 13th. The original movie wasn't bad with a few good surprises and some good lines (Kill her Mommy!) And it has the best explanation for why the drunk, sex crazed teens must die in all horror films. Of course it is crazy person reasoning, but at least it has some logic to it.

The new Terminator might not be terrible. I would be mad if Christian Bale spoiled his good movie streak. The line about this not being the future his mother told him about is odd.

Given my never ending love for films with Satanic/demonic threats, the Unborn looks fun. The dog with the human mask is creepy as is the use of the creepy contortionist crawling taken from the Exorcist deleted scene. But my favorite part is that Stringer Bell is an exorcist. The end of the movie looks quite a bit like Prince of Darkness, which is a good thing.

Tropic Thunder

I watched Tropic Thunder for the first time the other night and thought it hilarious. If you saw it in theatres, consider getting the DVD just for the actor's commentary. Per his character's comment, Robert Downey Jr. stays in character through the commentary, to the surprise of Ben Stiller and Jack Black. See the fake ads for his character Kirk Lazarus for the best supporting actor.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gun Seller

Hugh Laurie is best known in the states for the TV show House, but his acting character began way back in the 80s. His comedic work in the likes of Blackadder and a A Bit of Fry and Laurie. So it isn't surprising that his only novel to date (another may or may not be published in 2009) is a comedy of sorts. The Gun Seller is humorous spy thriller. It is not a spoof in the Austin Powers vein, but it is more like an Ian Fleming story with a hero known more for his dry wit than his dry martinis.

Laurie keeps the humor verbal and observational rather than situational. He therefore is able to tell a straight thriller story, while also writing hilarious dialogue. The main character, Thomas Lang, is a former soldier who falls into a conspiracy involving drugs, weapons, the CIA, and global terror. The action is fairly cinematic sweeping from London, to the countryside to the Alps and farther on and involves a number of exciting action sequences. Laurie's use of humor also distracts the reader from the action and provides for an extra jolt of shock when the plot moves forward.

This is a spy story in the Fleming heroic mold, as opposed to the Ambler murky mode, or the Le Carre morally ambiguous mode, or the McCarry lonely spy mode. It's also a post-Cold War spy story, a period from which we haven't yet seen a really great spy story emerge.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Wow, this has to be the dirtiest skit ever performed on SNL. Not quite as funny as Dick in a Box, but still quite funny. Looks like SNL still has some spunk (sorry).

Stephen King has his list of the top books of 2008. He cheats a bit, especially with his number one, the novels of Robert Goddard, which stretch from 1986 to this year. Still, I am happy to see this under-rated novelist getting such high profile attention. The book pictured is In Pale Battalions which is excellent. I need to go get some more of these books. He also has Nixonland on his list, which you really need to read.

Foreign Policy has a story on the top ten news stories you missed in 2008. Mostly bad news of course, including the story that the production of solar panels is environmentally hazardous.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A mess o' graphic novels

I spent my reading time over the last few days on graphic novels. I quite like reading them, but I have a devil of time telling which ones to read. I have been relying on Amazon best of lists for awhile. I also have found luck with Powells end cap displays and the featured comics at the Multnomah County Library. Here are the recent reads.

Apocalypse Nerd by Peter Bagge. I know Bagge's work mostly from Reason magazine where his comics tend take potshots at both the right and left in an amusing way. This book is much darker than that work. The story focuses on two Seattle guys returning from a camping trip to find that Seattle has been nuked by North Korea. They quickly go into survival mode and find that morality is dependent on civilization. The light, goofy art is at odds with the subject matter although it helps lighten the tone quite a bit.

Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson. In this book, a 40 year old goes into hypnosis to stop smoking and wakes as a teen in the 1985. Once there he recalls that in 1985 he smoked his first cigarette, so that if he says no he will be cured. Of course, there may be other reasons he started smoking. I found the best parts to be the adult recalling with regret the choices made in high school.

Strangeways: Murder Moon
by quite a few people. This one is a werewolf story set in the post-Civil War Wild West. The art is black and white, which makes for some confusion in places, but is otherwise excellent. The story is underdeveloped with frequent unresolved allusions, but it should please horror fans.

Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill. The name is terrible, but this is a great graphic novel. It collects the first six issues of the Locke and Key comic, hence the subtitle. The art in this book is excellent with great transitions, horrific images and characterizations. Hill is an accomplished novelist and short story writer, so it isn't surprising that the story here is excellent. The final pages are clearly a set up for the next set of stories, but this is a complete, and satisfying, story in and of itself. The book has a trailer which you can see here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Life is fun and I wish you were here

Most crime series continue past their expiration rate into decadence. There are exceptions and among the most painful is the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. The original trilogy, now packaged as Berlin Noir, features Gunther as a PI in Nazi Germany and then in the immediate aftermath of the war. Kerr recently wrote another book and has another is in the works. What was particularly appealing about the first books was the claustrophobic feeling of dread creating by the Nazi backdrop.

In Child 44, Tom Rob Smith has written a similarly excellent portrayal of crime investigation in a totalitarian state, but the state in this case is Stalinist Russia. Leo Stepanovich Demidov begins the story as a war hero now serving in the secret police. When his superiors prevent him from investigating a murder of a child by pursuing someone he learns is innocent , he begins to question the state and pursue his own agenda.

Kerr's books emphasized the dread the state created and Smith serves up plenty of that, but he also provides an equal dose of terror. The state Smith portrays considers all they arrest to be guilty and they arrest quite a few people, often due to whim or grudges. Torture is a run of the mill activity. There is so much destruction it is a wonder there are any people left standing at the end of the book. Still it is a reminder of how horrid the Stalinist state truly was. The oppressive East German regime of The Lives of Others is the liberalized version of the liberalized version of the state in this book.

The book was long listed for the Booker which is a rare accolade for a crime novel. I suspect it was the depiction of the Stalinist era as well as the effect on interpersonal relationships that won him the honor. The relationship between Leo and his wife plays out quite differently than in other genre books as do the relationships between superiors and inferiors. Politics in the office are a tad more dangerous than in the LAPD. There is so much good about what Smith does that you can't really complain about the fact that the big reveal will be fairly obvious to crime novel fans. The final elements of the ending will cheer fans of the Berlin Noir series.

This is a debut novel which makes it all the more remarkable. We will have to wait for the sophomore effort, but it looks like we have a new author about whom to get excited.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

This is it boys, this is war

Happy news from Hollywood. Those making film treatment of World War Z will, as best as they can, maintain the unconventional structure of the book. The framing device of the book is the collection of first hand accounts of the Zombie war for a UN report. This means the story hops across the globe with essentially no character continuity. It works wonderfully, as author Max Brooks, has dozens of great ideas crammed into his skull, which he can develop for 20 or so pages before moving to the next. The script writers could have easily picked a few of the stories for an intimate zombie movie with doomed love stories, but instead they decided to try and show the global scale. Bully for them. (via SF Signal)

In an afterword, Brooks notes that he was inspired to use his approach after reading John Hackett's The Third World War. That book also tells the story of the war by moving from location to location in Europe to describe a potential war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Tom Clancy also adapted the approach and story to make the more successful, as well as better written, Red Storm Rising.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Butchery on Bond Street

The American 19th century, and particularly the crimes of the 19the century, is being revisited by a number of authors. The Devil in the White City, Sin in the Second City, and the Murder of Helen Jewett showed us their was more to pre-World War 1 era than the Civil War. In Butchery on Bond Street, former attorney Benjamin Feldman considers the murder of Harvey Burdell and the trial of Emma Cunningham for the murder.

Burdell and Cunningham were lovers, so she was quickly blamed as the killer. In detailing the lead up to the murder and the trail Feldman shows the unfortunate fate of women who lacked a husband or family to support them. When you add in the corrupt and often lawless nature of mid-century New York City, Cunningham truly had the deck stacked against her.

Feldman conducted extensive primary research which allows him to give a detailed view of the press and society frenzy that surrounded the case. His legal background serves him well here. This book will appeal to fans of New York history and to crime shows. It seems our national lust for crime theater, in art and in real life, is nothing new.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Books vs. music

I was enjoying a Rolling Stones murder song today and I realized how much my reading and musical tastes diverge. The murder song in question, Hand of Fate, is a terribly underappreciated Stones song in the vein of a Jim Thompson story. While there is this overlap, I am much more likely to listen to an arty rock song, like the almost unbearably arty Ottoman by Vampire Weekend (how much you ask? Just now I listened to that song four times. For real) than I am to a Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, DMX or Ice Cube song about killing.

What is the big deal with that? Well well over half (and let's be honest nearly all of my nonfiction) of my fiction reading involves killing. Give me James Ellroy at the top of his game over all of the Booker prize winners (except J.G. Farrell -- more killing!) any day of the week.

When it comes to music, I shun the violent for the erudite word play of Oxford Comma or the Morrissey songbook. Sure, I love Shellac, Slipknot, 1980s Metallica and the Misfits, but I would trade most of them for the witty and learned words of SM.

I can't really explain why I take such different approaches to these different art forms, but I do.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Bring on the body count

In first quarter or so of Ron Rash's Serena, I thought the book was over-hyped. Sure, the writing was good, and I thought the demonic Serena was fascinating, in the manner of a poisonous snake. These feelings fell away as I read late into the night and started anew Thanksgiving morning. I brought the book with me to my mother-in-law's, hoping I might steal away for some quiet reading time. No such luck, but just as well, as I would have distracted.

The book opens as Serena and her newlywed husband George Pemberton arrive at his North Carolina lumber camp. The arrival is a tad awkward as his pregnant former girlfriend is waiting for him, along with her furious father. The unhappy and violent results of the encounter sets the tone and the principal conflict for the book. The Pembertons rule the camp like feudal lords and have as much regard for their loggers as a medieval baron might for his cannon fodder. Whether by accident or by plan, the life expectancy in the camp isn't terribly high.

Perhaps because the death toll is so great, Rash avoids depicting all but the most important of deaths. Instead he uses a Greek chorus consisting of a few lumberjacks discussing lumber camp goings on, which include the latest victims of the Pembertons. This both keeps the plot movie and it allows Rash to concentrate on the warped Serena and the crumbling George. The character of Serena is nearly too much. She is part Ayn Rand wet dream, part Lady MacBeth, and part Keyser Soze. It helps that Serena is mostly spoken of, rather than shown. This helps prevent her descent into cliche.

Despite the period setting, the book is definitely of the moment. The Pembertons and their allies are racing to cut as many trees as they can before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is created. As that becomes more challenging, Serena turns her eye to the unregulated Amazon. The environmental message is clear, but so is the criticism of the market unbound.

Avoid reading the fly leaf cover. Far too many spoilers. Of course, I read it and still loved the book.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Do you remember, your President Nixon?

If you have a political junkie on your gift list, then consider Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. Yes it is expensive, but it is also long so your dollar per page is still decent. Having been just a baby in the Nixon years, I never experienced them, so it is fascinating to see how the politics of this time influenced our own.

I am only about a fifth of the way through, but Perlsteins amazing research, knack for telling a good story and for managing all the complex parts of the stories he tells are obvious. It helps that he has chosen such a fascinating person and question. His question is how did the US go from electing LBJ in a landslide in 1964 to electing Nixon in a landslide in 1972? The book is about Nixon, but it mostly about American politics and how Nixon's mastery of politics allowed him to direct as well as ride the national mood. For those looking for a deeper look at American politics, this is a must read.

Why can't we all just get along?

Much of the history of the 21st century will focus on Asia and Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, has written a primer for Westerners. In Rivals, he describes a continent with three big powers, China, India and Japan, that will be essential to the economy of the 21st century, and may well come to blows.

The addition of Japan is interesting itself as that country is nearly absent from most discussions of world power. Many commentators would be more likely to point to Russia, China and India as the Asian powers to watch. Emmott though is wise to include Japan, as it remains the second largest economy in the world, continues to lead in many areas of innovation and continues to move (albeit slowly) away from the pacifist approach to politics it took in the Cold War.

The first half of the book provides overviews of the current state of the three rivals. This is best suited to those less familiar with the region, although Emmott's writing and ideas will be appreciated by those already well aware of the situation. The rest of the book covers economic, environmental and political issues related to the rise of and potential conflict between these powers.

This is the sort of book that will whet the appetite to learn more about the region and is a great overview of the ground today.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Natural History

Justina Robson's Natural History is a mix of great ideas, cool creations and mediocre characters that was a fun read, but ultimately not terribly satisfying. Her book is set some centuries hence where humans have created the Forged, genetically re-designed humans made to excel at certain tasks. Robson presents a more interesting take on the Cylon problem, how does created life deal with its creators? In this case, one member of the Forged stumbles onto a new technology that both reveals a potential home for the Forged as well as providing a means of getting there quickly. Of course the technology is more than it seems.

Many of Robson's creations are astounding. Some of the Forged are giant, including living spaceships, hive minds and, most fascinating, the terraforming class. These giants crawl over worlds like the Moon and Mars and slowly convert the environments into ones habitable for Earth life.

The problem with the book is that the story isn't very interesting overall. There is a political drama but it is never fully developed. The ending is rushed and is wrapped up a bit too tidily. You could do worse than this book, as Robson is certainly creative and thoughtful, but I think you could do a lot better.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A few things

Enjoy the eating on Thanksgiving...and these links.

What goes better with big piles of food than the biggest beers in the US? The New Yorker has a lengthy piece on Dog Fish Head Brewing. Makes me want to drink a 90 Minute IPA, or maybe a Palo Santo or maybe a Raison D'etre...

Peter Suderman's concerns about JJ Abrams and Star Trek concern me now.

The New York Times has its best books of the year. I've read all of three of their non-fiction picks, although some are on my wish list.

There is a new Thomas Pynchon on the way. I haven't read the last one, so I am not all that excited, but maybe you are.

Idolator has the top Christmas songs you will be hearing for the next few weeks. I am astounded that Christmas Shoes is not on the list. It hasn't been inflicted on me yet, but I will not escape its foul touch, of that I am sure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some of my favorite political songs

Since we are entering an era of likely political ferment, I thought I would mention some of my favorite political songs.

Rolling Stones - High Wire. Who would have thought that the Rolling Stones of all people would offer such a direct criticism of US foreign policy? It may be the only pop song to ever reference the 82nd Airborne.

Midnight Oil - Dead Heart. I am generally leery of earnestness and Midnight Oil is as earnest as the come, but the chorus on this one is irresistible. This is my favorite indigenous rights song.

Pink Floyd - Waiting for the Worms. Anti-fascist anthems are a dime a dozen, but by taking the voice of the wicked, this one sets itself apart. If you simply must have a J'accuse style approach well there is the UK Subs' Police State.

John Vanderslice - Exodus Damage. 9/11 from the perspective of a conflicted militia member.

Scott MacKenzie - San Francisco. This is the hippiest song ever made. It makes American Beauty sound like a Slipknot album. Despite its near ickiness (and the worst breakdown ever,) this is about the only song that makes me kinda sad that I missed the hippie days.

Black Flag - TV Party/ Roger McGuinn- King of the Hill. Two of the better attacks on the America's overemphasis on money and pop culture.

A few gift ideas

Whilst perusing the featured stacks at the library, I saw a copy of the recently republished Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. This under-read book would be a great gift for new fathers. The main character escaped wartime France, but his wife and baby son did not. After the war, he receives word that his son may have been found in an orphanage. The story is about his relationship with the boy and the swirl of emotions in fatherhood. Sounds awful, I know, but Laski avoids the maudlin and tells a great, concise story that will stay with you for some time.

Whenever I read a good novel, I compare it to Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. I can't think of another novel that exceeds it in overall enjoyment. The characters are wonderful, the setting, World War 2 New York, is alive and the plot is wonderful. The final third is a bit weak compared to the rest, but Chabon is so in love with his material that it is hard not to be as well.

Chances are, you know someone whose life has taken a stumble or two in the last few months. Richard Russo's hilarious Straight Man is a fine book about dealing with life's many disappointments. Skip the self-help books and serve up this one instead. I hope Russo returns to the humor with his next one.

For the fan of horror that is also a fan of the English language, Joe Schreiber's Eat the Dark is great. Excellent pacing, the suggestion of horror rather than its graphic depiction, and the slow revelation of the story make this a rare gem.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Although it doesn't stand up to the incredibly funny (and vulgar) future SecState spoof, this use of Downfall for a real estate investor spoof is pretty hilarious. If you haven't seen Downfall, you really must.

Speaking of politically engaged films, I just finished the third season of Battlestar Galactica. I suspect that there is audience hungry for smart political TV that is skipping this show because it is scifi. BSG tackles fairly common issues like racism, but it also has intelligent looks at torture, the use of force, labor rights in a time of war, the legitimacy of suicide bombing and even a nod to Rwandas's Truth and Reconciliation efforts.

My only complaint with the show is that it, like Lost, has to fit the long 20 episode season of regular TV. It is hard to maintain a single major plotline over this length of time, so stand-alone (read: filler) episodes bulk up the season. If they could take the HBO approach and limit the show to 10 or 12 episodes per season, it would be far stronger and have an even better reputation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Musical regrets

In terms of overall suckage, right behind getting into bands that have already broken up (Big Black, Pavement, and the Misfits are all particularly painful examples in my case) is getting into bands that now only play large venues. Interpol is a great case in point. I saw them at the reasonably intimate 9:30 Club and thought it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I saw them a year or so later at the Portland Rose Garden and thought it good but not even great. Shows are just better in small venues. Not better for the band really, but certainly better for the listener. The sound is better, the audience is usually feelin' it and you are crammed up against a bunch of excited people. More fun for eveyone.

I am feeling this pain especially at the moment as I failed to secure tickets to the upcoming Vampire Weekend show at the nicely sized Crystal Ballroom. Next show will no doubt be at the Rose Garden.

Anyway, Vampire Weekend gets a lot of play in the family vehicle and the kids seem to dig it. They REALLY dig Oxford Comma and have even taken to singing the lyrics. All well and good you say, except that the first line (which is repeated) is "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma?" So far they haven't sung this line and I wonder if it because they no better to drop an eff-bomb in the minivan, or if they just don't like the line.

A few items

Apparently the fans are not digging the new Smashing Pumpkins show and Billy Corgan has taken to lecturing the audience. Pitchfork has the details.

Nice bit in the WSJ about the value of book editing and how it shows when it is lacking.

Here is Mark Bittman talking about kitchens. Apparently people were shocked at the sight of his.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On second thought, do fear the reaper

My mom gave me her copy of John Connolly the Reapers, saying she didn't finish as it was too dark and violent. Well, that was all I had to hear (OK, I also read a positive notice somewhere, maybe the NYT). The book centers on Louis, a retired assassin, who still feels rage from the lynching murder of his (probable) father. This is part of the effort to make this fairly nasty person, who after all killed whoever, women and children aside, his bosses required him to kill, sympathetic. If you find that sort of thing odious, you will find this book odious.

Having dealt with that, this is a very good thriller, with an unorthodox plot structure, a range of (generally wicked) characters and some truly great scenes. Connolly is also a skilled writer, which greatly enhances the read. Speaking of the plot, DO NOT read the copy on the inside of the cover, it is spoiler laden. Really, take the cover off before you read it.

The Reapers of the title are a gang of assassins, led by a private citizen with ties to the government. It is hinted that the hits are actually sent by the government to this team of subcontractors, but the business side of the Reapers is left a bit murky. Louis is retired from the Reapers, but one never seems to be able to escape one's past, at least in thrillers.

I wasn't aware that this is a series book, until I confirmed it by checking the author's website. That said, as I was reading, I noticed a number of what appeared to be allusions to other stories. I appreciate that Connolly did not fully reveal the plots or endings in these allusions, as some authors do. I would like to read more of his books and it would be too bad if I knew how they all ended.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oh you found another home, I know you're not alone, on the nightshift

I usually have a good sense of what a book will be like before I read it. That's because I read a review, know the author or got a recommendation which led me to pick up the book in the first place. Sometimes I completely miss the mark, as with Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. I went in thinking it would be a light, funny novel. Not the case at all. A great book, but neither light nor funny.

I just had a similar experience with Sarah Water's the Night Watch. Probably because another literary British writer, William Boyd, put out a thriller set in World War 2 at the same time, I thought this story set in World War 2 would be a thriller. Nope.

Told in reverse chronology (1947 to 1944 to 1941), the story follows four Londoners in the grey London homefront and aftermath. The reverse approach may seem gimmicky to some, but I liked it. Waters sets up these characters as clearly marked by their wartime experiences and we slowly learn why. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but in some sense it made me think of how we learn about people in real life. When we meet someone as an adult, they have histories about which we sometimes get glimpses. When we later learn more about them, their current behavior or personality often makes more sense.

None of the principal characters in the book are in the military, but all are affected by the war. In most cases, the war damages them, although one, who served on the Night Watch as an emergency responder, thrives. Waters, whose claim to fame is showing the hidden world of lesbian Victorian England, here shows us the horrors, large and small, visited on civilian Londoners.

While I thought the book was both too long (in 1944) and too short (in 1941,) I enjoyed it overall. I suspect it will benefit from a re-read, at the very least the initial section.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Barnes and Noble interview

The Internet has been very good for readers. Bookstores have nearly limitless inventory, used bookshops across the globe are open for inspection and perusal and of course you have blogs. Finding like minded readers is another way to take advantage of the Web. I recently corresponded with Kevin Ryan, Vice President of Social Media at Barnes & about their own community effort, the Barnes and Noble online book clubs.

How does the online book club experience compare to the offline model?

The online book clubs at Barnes & offer readers maximum flexibility, ease of use and access to quality discussions on dozens of books, genres and literary topics.

The breadth of our program ensures that readers can find the kind of discussion they’re looking for while also meeting readers – and writers – who share their interests. And because our boards never close, participants can join the conversation when it suits them, whether it’s morning, evening or the middle of the night.

Under the hood, our online discussions are a lot like the discussions that take place in offline book clubs. Our participants are serious readers who enjoy digging in to the recommended texts, but who also bring enthusiasm to the various “off-topic” threads that naturally develop over time. And, of course, the public nature of our forums means that our conversations can draw in people with diverse points of view and from varied backgrounds.

What do readers get from the book clubs that they can't get elsewhere?

The strength of the Barnes & Noble Book Clubs is the participation of our readers, who come from all walks of life and are hungry to learn and share. Our access to the publishing world means we can support the conversation with reading guides, related books, and the participation of literally hundreds of authors every year. These author visits – ranging from the weeklong conversations in Center Stage to ongoing participation in our genre forums – give readers access to the brains behind the books, and foster some lasting connections between reader and writer.

How does First Look work?

The First Look Book Club is a wonderful program where we partner with publishers to distribute hundreds of free advance reading copies to Barnes & Noble customers -- typically four to five months before the books are released.

First Look readers sign up at to reserve an ARC, and gain access to an exclusive discussion with the writer, the editor and others involved in the book. We expect participants to post their reviews at, and to participate in the discussion, though we know that the most active readers are also discussing the books on their own blogs and elsewhere in their online and offline lives.

What kinds of books are best suited for promotion via First Look?

We look for books that hit the book club sweet spot -- books with strong characters, a good story and exceptional writing. We've had success with new authors, with celebrity authors and with authors published many times before. The key is finding a writer and a publisher willing to engage with readers ahead of time, giving them a sense of ownership in the overall success of the book.

Has peer opinion trumped expert opinion when it comes to trusted sources for which books to read?

There’s no question that readers have more opportunities to influence book selection than ever before. Online retailers like Barnes & have had customer reviews for years, and our Book Club readers have a long history of recommending books to each other here, on their blogs and in the various social networks they belong to.

But TV appearances and traditional review exposure continue to have an impact on sales. At Barnes & Noble, we recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the Barnes & Noble Review, an online literary journal featuring criticism and content from some of the finest names in the business. The Barnes & Noble Review helps to fill a growing void of literary criticism in the more traditional journalistic venues.

Do you anticipate expanding the technology used to connect readers at, or beyond,

We’re always looking at ways to enhance the experience of shopping at – and participating with – the site and our stores. A prominent example of this work is the recent launch of My B&N, a social feature that lets customers build and share a digital representation of their life in books, music and DVDs.

My B&N users can build a virtual Library, share their favorite titles, authors and genres, create multiple wish lists, and track events at their local Barnes & Noble stores. They can email their selections to friends or share their content on various social networking sites. And all of their contributions – from their lists to their customer reviews to their book club posts – can be unified under a single pen name and avatar.

What has been your favorite book you have discovered through the process of managing First Look?

It’s hard to pick a favorite book because they’ve all been wonderful titles and great successes for us. We’ve been thrilled with the publisher, author and reader support of the First Look program. There’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you see the serious, enthusiastic conversation develop among people who might not have otherwise selected a book – and you know their positive word of mouth is going to further the cause.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not much fun

Well, it had to happen sometime. The little recommendation tags strewn about the stacks of Powells have always pointed out winners, but the highly recommended Conrad William's the Unblemished didn't work for me. I never got to the apocalyptic part, which means I have may missed some great bits, but I doubt it.

While the characters, aside from a particularly nasty pair of villains, aren't terribly memorable, much of the imagery is all too memorable. I thought I had read all that was possible in terms of violent human depravity, but Williams serves up some of the most horrific images I have ever encountered. If you are looking for this sort of thing you will find it here.

My interest in horror has been revived by the likes of Joe Schreiber and Sarah Langan, but this one deflated my enthusiasm a bit.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Check out Chris Hedges (War is a Force That Gives us Meaning) leading an web discussion with Andrew Bacevich. (via Steve Clemmons)

Now it's lend me ten pounds and I'll buy you a drink

No doubt due to the vaguely illicit nature, there are far more good books about eating than there are about drinking. So I was quite happy to stumble upon Kingsley Amis's Everyday Drinking at the library. It's not everyday that we get musings on drinking by major literary figures. It reads like a serious, if still funny, version of Modern Drunkard. This is the sort of book you flip through and immediately fall upon a gem, like his description of the metaphysical hangover, which I quote below:

When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (the two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilled milk.

It's about 200 pages of that. It's not all, or mostly drunkenness though, it is about the enjoyment of drinking, a pleasure many are loath to fully embrace. It (and I should mention this volume is a compilation of three prior volumes) is written as a guide for the uninformed. Amis advises us to favor quantity over quality arguing that people prefer two decent drinks to one exemplary one (a point with which I completely concur.) He also notes that the wine trade has erected a vocabulary and set of rules that make people nervous about what they are drinking. He argues, you should find things you can afford and that you like and to drink those.

I probably need to buy a copy of this one, it is just too much fun to pick it up and read a page at random.

Since I started it with the Pogues, I should probably end with them as well.

Friday, November 14, 2008

We Interrupt this Broadcast

We Interrupt this Broadcast is less a book than it is a multimedia package. Consisting of three CDs and a companion book, it provides the initial press reaction to key, generally tragic, events starting with the Hindenburg disaster and ending with the Virginia Tech Massacre. Most of these events fall into the remember-where-you-were-when-you-heard it category. For some this is about revisiting. For other , the events will come from before their media memories and it provides a insight into what it was like to experience something now historical.

Some of the audio files are fairly well known, I for one have heard the "oh the humanity" radio broadcast of the Hindenburg a few times already and the announcement of the death of the Israeli athletes at Munich was revisited in the Spielberg film. Many others were shocking. The assassination of Robert F Kennedy was on air and you can hear the shots in the background. It makes for terrifying listening.

While some manage to capture the event itself, other of the clips focus on the reaction. Living on the West Coast, I missed the disbelieving initial reactions to the 9/11 attacks. By the time we were up, people understood what was happening. So it was fascinating to listen to the shifts in understanding.

You might question some of the inclusions. Does the death of John F Kennedy Jr represent an important event as the Challenger explosion? Not really, but the news focus was probably similar and it is representative of our pop culture-obsessed society. Remember all the talk of how we were to be a more serious, non-ironic nation after 9/11? How long did that last?

The book serves mostly to provide context for the audio clips. It is helpful if you don't recall the specifics of the event or didn't experience it, but I suspect most will want to listen to the files and flip through the book. This would make a nice gift for fans of history who want to hear how events were first experienced.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New bookstores

I meant to link to this story some time ago, but didn't. So now I am. It is a lengthy piece about new independent bookstores in Texas. As the headline says, it is a cause for celebration. I know I love having Powell's in town, so I am sure the folks in Texas will love their new stores. Here's to hoping that more new independents can open. In these economic times, it does of course seem dicey, but books are pretty cheap entertainment.

San Diego

So we are back from San Diego, which I recommend to all people who live in cold, rainy places like Portland. I don't recommend returning to the rainiest day of the year. While there we visited Legoland, which is one of the best places for kids 5-9 I have ever seen. Seaworld was a bit much on the other hand. Fun, but it is hard to do two amusement parks in a row. One of our favorite places is the stunning Torrey Pine Reserve, located just north of La Jolla. Despite its proxmity to a busy road, it is feels like a remote National Park. Definately visit if you are in town.

While there I finally tryed Woodford Reserve Bourbon, which seems to be making a splash in whiskey drinking circles. It still has a way to go though. As of this moment, Woodford Reserve has 968 fans on Facebook compared to Maker's Mark which has 3,177. I liked the drink (or two) I had. The flavor lay between the smoothness of Maker's and the harsh power of Knob Creek. It's worth a try if you are looking for a new spirit.

NPR had a story today on the book Girl with a Dragon with Tattoo. The story was about the challenges of marketing a book by a dead guy from Sweden. Apparently the publisher did OK as it already on at least one bestseller. I noted the story because I saw a few people with the book around the hotel pool!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Michael Crichton

I was to sad to hear that Michael Crichton died at the young age of 66. Through his books he has been a great populizer of scientific ideas (although the anti-global warming crusade is a bit of an issue there) and he of course created the genre of the techno-thriller. One can argue about the merits of that genre, but there are gems in there to be enjoyed. Despite the crappy movie, Congo was an enjoyable book and of course Jurassic Park is the ne plus ultra of the genre. It has been awhile since I have been excited about his new books, but I have to tip my hat at someone who helped engage me as a young reader.

is Peter Suderman on his books and here is James Fallows on Crichton as a person.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I hate to say it, but Alan Furst's the Foreign Correspondent is not exciting me. His stories are often loose, but while some manage to coalesce around an atmosphere, this one just feels disjointed to me. There are enjoyable bits, especially dealing with Italian refugees of the Mussolini regime in the pre-war years, but overall it doesn't thrill like prior volumes.

Forever War

I suspect that Dexter Filkin's Forever War will continue to be read when other excellent books about the Iraq War, like Fiasco, Cobra 2 and (to a lesser extent) Imperial Life in the Emerald City will be replaced by works from later authors. These books tell a slice of the macro story, particularly how policy makers in DC and generals on the ground made mistakes that led to the horrors of the Iraq War. Some years from now, we will have more complete macro histories, perhaps by the same authors that will provide the story from beginning to end.

Filkin's book, which stretches from pre-9/11 Afghanistan to Iraq 2006 is focused on the stories that took place at the ground level. He tells the stories of Iraqis trying to survive the insurgency and American soldiers trying to fufill their missions with a lack of Arabic, insufficient cultural information and orders that don't help. The majority of these stories are tragic, but Filkins wisely laces the sadness with humor, although typically of the absurd sort.

His stories are so vivid and perfect that you don't want the book to end, despite the horrors that he is showing. If you are tired of Iraq books, consider going back to the well for this one.

Reading this recent interview you will see that things have changed dramatically in Iraq, although not completely as his last paragraph indicates.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Requiem for a cookie

Tragic news (OK, three weeks late) from Oakland. Mothers Cookies, makers of Circus Animals, the animal cookies with white and pink frosting are no more. Here is a T-shirt for remembrance. I was in the market the other day and I saw a cookie that looked a lot like a Circus Animal. Maybe someone is trying to cash in.

More on American Rifle

Alexander Rose's American Rifle is subtitled A Biography. While this is a bit odd, it makes sense as he focuses on a centuries long tension in the development of the rifle in the United States. In it and the country's youth, the focus was on long range accuracy. The idea was that a single well trained marksman would be most effective against the hordes of, generally poorly trained, enemies the young nation would likely face.

As time and experience wore on, the idea of mass firepower, expressed in less accurate automatic fire came into conflict with this approach. Some, including the National Rifle Association thought the move towards shorter range, semi-automatic weapons was an attack on the individualistic ideal that the marksmen represented. This idea carried as far as World War 2 with the Marines who kept a nearly 50 year old rifle rather than adopt the less accurate M1 Garand that the Army was using. They changed this approach once they started fighting in jungles, where firepower was of much greater import than single shot sharpshooting.

That the debate was often focused on philosophy rather than purpose is not terribly surprising. As Antulio Echevarria argues here, American thinking on the use of force has tended to focus on capabilities rather than political/strategic outcomes. Debates about military power have tended to be disconnected from what we want to achieve from their use. Debates about Iraq still tend to avoid the basic question about the strategic gains and losses from continuing the war. American politicians have tended to be squeamish about this. In the past it was considered European and now the utilitarian viewpoint is associated with the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign policy, which doesn't have too many adherents.

Rose targets his story for the interested generalist. There a fair amount of technical detail about the development of rifling technology, but his focus is more on the personalities and forces that drove the technology. This is appropriate, as technology rarely drives itself, but is instead the result of a mix of political, social and economic factors. Rose does well in presenting this story.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


It being Halloween weekend, I needed to watch at least one horror film, so I picked Deathwatch. Set in 1917, it concerns a lost British patrol which stumbles upon and quickly captures a German trench. There are a few Germans still there, but they appear to be frightened of something in the trench. Then things start heading into Twilight Zone territory as strange deaths occur.

I enjoyed the movie well enough, but then I like spooky horror films. There are some great visuals in the movie and a nice sense of claustrophobia as the British find themselves trapped in this strange place. This was Jamie Bell's first movie after Billy Elliot and it represents quite a switch. Andy Serkis plays a Comedian-like maniac who finds that a war zone is just the place for him.

The movie is a tad long and you have a good sense where it is going about two thirds into the film. The ending is effective though and I am glad I watched this one. There is lots of grimness and grime and if horror movies aren't your bag, this won't be either.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween fun

I was going to say a bit about scary books in relation to the day, but instead I will mention two seasonal beers worth drinking. Most pumpkin beers are not so awesome, but there are a couple I have liked this season. The Dog Fish Head Punkin has hints of pumpkin pie and is quite a treat. It's not weak, at 7% ABV, but it won't knock you on your ass like some of the really big beers they male. I tried Elysian's Night Owl last night and thought it was great. The spices are understated and there is a light, pleasant pumpkiny flavor throughout.

Here are some fun links. Homestar runner has a yearly Halloween cartoon. 2002 is still my favorite.

SF Signal has the Orson Welles War of the Worlds Broadcast.

Horror novelist's Joe Hill's graphic novel Locke and Key looks great.

If you are looking for a scary game to play, I recommend Arkham Horror.

Hee hee

Check out this Watchmen/William Carlos Williams/Kid's book mashup.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Video goodies

About four years after YouTube became the source of all videos ever, MTV has come out with a music video site of their own. It is a mix of music vids and music related content. It appears to still be getting off the ground. There is but one Adam Ant video, but thank goodness it is Stand and Deliver. I personally would want to see lots of hard to find videos and there are some. The REM content for example is great. Take a look at this live version of Cuyahoga, the video for Electrolite, and their goofiest video, Can't Get There From Here. A sad note about that song. The "lawyer Jeff" refers to Jefferson Holt, their manager who was eventually dismissed for (it is rumored) sexual harrasment. They also changed the lyrics to Little America which referenced him. So sad.

This is also fun, MTV visits the Portland music scene.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Against Harry Potter?

The Selfish Gene is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, but man, Richard Dawkins is turning into a complete ass. First he harangues us with his God Delusion, and now he is campaigning against Harry Potter (and children's fantasy in general)! Apparently all this magic nonsense is turning them away from science. As Alan Jacobs argues, this is suspiciously like the argument of the fundamentalists against whom he regularly fulminates. Jackass.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

American Rifle

I am currently reading Alexander Rose's American Rifle: A Biography. While on one level it is one of those history books that shows the impact of a small corner of history on the broader canvas, it provides a in-depth look at the development of rifles over time in the US.

For some it might be too detailed, but for those interested in how technology develops, this is a great and engaging study. Some view technology as a natural progression of increasingly improved devices. Development of the rifle in the was shaped by social factors, including the Westward spread of Europeans, political factors, including the sudden popularity of Daniel Boone and philosophical factors, including whether the ideal rifle should focus on accuracy or firepower.

This last debate is central to Rose's narrative and he nicely shows the shifting perspectives. Even as the larger debate might shift in one direction, powerful people at the Bureau of Ordnance could stall or quickly shift actual development another way.

More later.

Monday, October 27, 2008


I was in Bend/Redmond this weekend and saw that one of the downtown bookstores had closed. They have moved to being a virtual business, which probably makes a lot more financial sense, but it is less fun to wander Bend's downtown now.

Barnes and Noble's Five Book feature is on Ghost Stories. One of them is Susan Hill's Woman in Black which I have been itching to read for a while now. It is considered a Young Adult book, but that shouldn't stop you.

Many kids have dinosaur phases and construction equipment phases. I went through a cruise ship phase. I was fascinated by the golden age of liners. I suspect part of this was the ghostly presence of the SS United States in my hometown (now in Philadelphia). In any case, I was a trifle sad to see the final American voyage of the QE2, which I used to think was so cool looking. The WSJ has a nice video story on the departure. Take a look at this picture of the QE1, which burned and partially sank in the Hong Kong harbor.

Shelob strikes!

Friday, October 24, 2008

A new Iraq book you really should read

I thought I was tired of Iraq books. I read most of the War Within and some of Tell Me How This Ends, but couldn't muster the full engagement. I thought it was Iraq book fatigue and very nearly took Dexter Filkins Forever War back to the library unstarted. Good choice on my part.

Most of the Iraq books I have read have been DC or CENTCOM focused. Filkins reports from the ground and very often from the Iraqi viewpoint. His stories are mostly tragic, but occasionally comic. He relates one short lived but successful tactic for clearing weapons. This one unit had an attractive blond female soldier. She would poke her head out of Bradley while someone else shouted "Blond for sale!, Blond for sale!" All the men on the village would run to the Bradley and start bargaining for the woman. While this was going on, other soldiers snuck into the houses and took away all the guns. They did it three times before the higher ups said to stop.

On a (much) more serious note, he notes that the Iraqis from the beginning told American what they wanted to hear and then helped the insurgency. It is not a happy read, but it is a good one so far.

A nice read for the kids

Today was a kid day. The kids had no school so I took them off to Ape Cave at Mt St Helens. The best part was the nearby lave tube through which my eldest crawled. Unfortunately, Don's Donut Depot had sold out of doughnuts, so the way back was less fun than it could have been.

All this kid talk has me thinking of the latest fave kid books in my house, the Cat Club books by Esther Averill, recently re-issued by the New York Review of Books. The stories tell of the lives of cats in New York City. Given that I am at best neutral towards cats, it is quite something that I find the books charming. The kids find them hilarious. I'll have to get a hold of the Halloween volume before next Friday.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Drowning Towers

Me oh my oh, the Australians know how to show the slow slide into apocalypse. Mad Max shows a world not too different from our own, but terrible in its changes. In that movie, the changes are never really discussed, but they are the subtext of the film. Australian author George Turner's Arthur C Clarke Award winning Drowning Towers (known as the Sea and Summer in the UK) tells a similarly bleak tale of life after the decline of civilization.

The book is framed by a story of the Autumn people (so called because they await the coming of the new Ice Age or Long Winter) who live some centuries from now in Australia. Much of the coastal cities are now submerged under the risen seas. The Autumn people are disdainful of the Greenhouse people who failed to stop the sea from rising. An artist among them using diaries to try to reconstruct how the Greenhouse people live.

The Greenhouse people story centers on a "Sweet" family that has fallen among the "Swill." The Sweet are the tiny upper-class, generally state workers, who have health care, jobs and live cleanly. The Swill are the underclass who live in squalor in towers that are routinely flooded by the seas. Much of the story is a political drama involving this family.

The political story drags a bit, but Turner's point is that people focus on these short term, often political, issues while ignoring the larger problems around them. The State is entirely focused on dealing with economic issues when the environment is about to make all of them irrelevant.

The slow Armageddon of the book (written in 1987) will disturb modern readers. The global capitalist economy falls to pieces (thanks to failures of the emerging economies) and the rising sea slowly eats the world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

October tales

James Hynes, author of the wonderful Kings of Infinite Space, has a post about scary stories for a scary month. They are mostly a bit older, but he points out where to find them. (via Bookslut)

I adore Kings of Infinite Space, which is a kind of scifi Then We Came to the End, but not nearly as scifi as the Atrocity Archives. It is a wickedly funny take on the suspicion that your bosses are trying to kill you. They are.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Chuck E Cheese is one of the great banes of existence for parents of preschoolers. Thiskiddie Vegas serves up bad food, flashing lights, incessant noises and a thirst for the little tickets. The games of skill and provide tickets which allow your kids to collect plastic crap that you will end up digging out from under the car seats and couch. The kids love it, so you have to go, of course.

Visiting a weekend birthday party at a local C E Chesse, I was surprised to hear Turning Japanese on the stereo. When I looked at the video screen it was actually a parody called Turning Chuck E Cheese. Although the band denies it, Turning Japanese is widely held to be a song about masturbation. Given that most of the parents in that room are of the right age to remember the song, many are likely to know the rumors as well. These are not the sorts of images one wants at a kid's party.

You can kinda sorta hear the song here. It is recorded on a camcorder with the ever-present background noise.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A book perhaps best not written

Katherine Neville's the Eight remains a personal favorite novel. It is one of the finest literary thrillers of all time, so it is unfortunate that her major follow up, the Magic Circle, may be the worst book that I read from start to finish. The book is so seriously painful to recall, that I shuddered when I saw she had a new one and it turns out that it is a sequel to the Eight. The Post doesn't care for it. So I will stay away.

Living the dream

I've always considered Larry McMurtry to be a prolific writer of Texan stories. I had no idea he is a former book scout and a bookstore owner. His Books: A Memoir is a peculiar but entertaining book that bibliophiles will enjoy. The book tells about McMurtry's experiences with books starting as a boy where a cousin off to war dropped off a box of books that began a literary career. Each very short (1-3 page) chapter tells another anecodote or development involving the book trade, types of books, and bookstores.

The bookstore section was particularly poignant for me. He mentioned the 70s as a great die-off period for bookstores and Holmes Books of Oakland as the last of a generation. I was living in Oakland at the time and was just getting to know the store when it closed. I'm spoiled in Portland with Powells and a few other good secondhand shops, but it is sad to think of the second shop as a dinosaur. The internet is all well and good, but there is nothing like spending an hour or two looking for a treasure

The mess we're in

Reading Ron Suskind's the Way of the World and Bob Woordward's The War Within helps show the extreme difficulty of being a policy maker in Washington. Suskind's book shows how far off the rails US policy has gone. Train wreck is insufficient. Chemical train wreck with chlorine cloud descending on town with the broken emergency alert system is more like it.

The War Within though shows the other side of the coin. Policy makers know the US in a bad place, but what should or even can they do about it? It is easy for those outside of government to advocate withdrawal, but how exactly do you do it without creating more havoc. The War Within shows a number of very smart and dedicated people trying to wrestle with the issues and finally settling on the surge.

What will be interesting to see is the eventual book on Paulson and Bernacke in 2008.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life feeds on life

Do you like your novels bleak? Well then pick up Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks which is about as bleak as they come. The book tells the story of a nine year old boy who has to quickly learn how to provide for his family as his father has been sold as a temporary indentured servant. There is no shame in this, as most families in this dirt poor village end up sending off a family member or two to earn a bit of extra money. Much of the book is about the deprivations faced the villagers and the difficulty they have in finding food. They all hope for O-fune-sama, a sort of gift from the gods. This gift has a great moral cost, as the O-fune-sama refers to wrecked ships which the villagers lure to the reefs through the use of fire. As you might guess, bad things eventually come of this.

The cover blurb says the book is like an old Japanese film and I think it is, although you could also compare it to a classic Ingmar Bergman film. It is purposely slow, as these lives are almost absent of event or detail, and it highlights the importance of the O-fune-sama. Morality (or its absence) is a big theme in this book. The characters in the book have become predators, although they don't see themselves as such and they act charitably and correctly towards each other. Considered in that light, the book shows how easily it is to adhere to different standard for those in-group and those out of group.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I am reading Bob Woodward's the War Within at the moment. This is the fourth of his Bush books and it is already the most critical. In many ways, the book's seem to capture the national mood about W, that is to say, an initial rallying and fascination with his direct approach, a move to concern that maybe a little nuance would be helpful, a further shift to incredulity and outrage followed by a final lurch into stunned disbelief.

His early books will probably fall into the books-Bob-Woodward-will-come-to-regret category, which may include Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom. The sentiment now is that Greenspan is in fact become Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds. His oddest book is Wired, The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. That one is his only foray into the entertainment world. Given that one of his greatest strengths is uncovering incredible gossip from top sources, entertainment makes sense for him, but I am glad he stuck with politics afterward.

Speaking of gossip, there is an great section in the War Within which details Colin Powell's testimony. Apparently he went off talking about things were completely wrecked by Rumsfeld, how Rice was ineffectual and how no one listened. After all of it, Jim Baker noted that he would have a great book to write. Once he left Baker said something to the effect of there went the only person who could have stopped all this. Ouch!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Troubled times had come to her hometown

I'm a sucker for the doom befalling a town story. They provide the author with the chance to showcase humanity's good and bad sides, although horror novelists love to emphasize the latter. So the Keeper was on my try list. I'd seen Sarah Langan promoted at Powell's which was a good sign. Like science fiction it is difficult to judge a horror book by its cover or by its blurbs. The spine of the book said it was suspense rather than horror, which I also took for a good sign, hoping it was code for well written horror.

The story isn't terribly original, in fact it reminded me quite a bit of the Shining, but I enjoyed reading it. The story is set in a decaying Maine milltown know as Bedford. The most peculiar resident is Susan Marley, a nearly mute local beauty gone to seed. She both methaphorically and eventually actually is the the nexus of all the town's misfortune and bad deeds. She is tied to the closed mill, scene of a number of crimes and host to the town's dark memory.

This is supernatural horror, a type I tend to prefer, but if you dislike ghost stories, this one is most definately not for you. While the story follows King in a number of ways, she ends the tale with a much more hopeful than King. In his stories, good never triumphs, it merely survives. Here we have a more optimistic take.

I am trying to think about why I liked the book and it came down to the basic sense of wanting to know how it ended. Langan populates Bedford with a number of (mostly weak and doomed) characters and I wanted to see how they fared in the coming doom. Langan also draws out the conclusion which kept the read interesting. I plan to read the follow up book.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Watching the world descend into history

So I am reading Suskind's The Way of the World and it is one of the strangest nonfiction books I have read in quite some time. While the macro story is the interaction between America and the Islamic world, it is told in a series of seemingly unrelated tales including the final year of Benazir Bhutto, the tale of a Afghani exchange student, a Gitmo prisoner and those trying to help him, CIA operatives terrified of potential nuclear terror and the British spies who knew for sure that Saddam had no nukes before we went in.

That last bit pops out in between stories the rest of the stories and then disappears . It is a fairly gigantic finding, and Suskind names his sources directly. Still, if you were skimming, you would miss it. It made me sad that it didn't surprise me.

Anyway reading this and starting America and the World, I feel freshly aware of the scale of the foreign policy damage done by the Bush Administration. People zero in on Iraq, but it is so much more than that. I am also scared to start the new Bob Woodward.

As a reminder, here is the way things were not so long ago. It was possible to write a successful pop song about how international relations were going really quite well thanks.