Thursday, January 31, 2008

New Lost

Good episode and plenty of mystery for the start of the season, but my favorite thing is that Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels of the Wire) is now a character. He also had the best line of the show. I hope he becomes a significant character.

Trapped in ice

There are few if any writers who cover as many genres as Dan Simmons. While best known for his science fiction, he has also written horror novels, crime novels, and spy thrillers. Not content with success in all of these fields, he turned to historical fiction with the Terror. While this is a monster in this book, the book is best described as historical fiction with horror elements, rather than a horror novel set in the past.

It is worth emphasizing that this is not a horror novel as Simmons created one of the greatest monsters of all time, the Shrike. The monster in this book, while terrifying, is not as engaging as the Shrike and is not ultimately all that important. While the book couldn't end as it did without him, this would be a fine book without him.

The Terror tells the story of the doomed 1846 polar expedition of Sir John Franklin. Due to poor decision-making by Franklin, the ships Erebus and Terror become trapped in the ice. While they are provisioned for years, they soon find there are issues with their food, their heat supply and their scurvy-fighting asorbics. That is about the time the monster starts picking off the men.

The drama of the story is how the crew reacts to being trapped in the far north with dwindling chances of survival. The crew's ingenuity in dealing with the variety of challenges in living in the far north makes for some of the most interesting reading. Initially those that would respond with valor and with determination predominate, but as they die off, the venal see their chances.

Many of the people attracted to this book will already be acquainted with the story of the expedition and the mysteries surrounding it. Others may not be as ready for such bleakness. As Fergus Fleming discusses in his brilliant Barrows Boys, the story of British exploration in the 19th century is one of the arrogant and unprepared going to their unpleasant demise.

Simmons provides a hero, and the principal narrator, in Captain Crozier who is able to effectively lead where the hapless Franklin cannot. It would have been bolder perhaps, to explore the character of Franklin, who Simmons portrays as a fool, facing his folly, but Franklin is known to have died early in the expedition. Crozier represents the heroism of those who persevere in the face of all but certain doom.

This is a great story on its own, but fans of historical fiction will appreciate Simmons attention to the detail of 19th century social life and the life on a ship and in the Arctic. Simmons pays close attention to the mindset of the early Victorians and this informs the various reactions to the situation. Those who dislike historical fiction, for example those who find the detail in the Aubrey and Maturin stories tedious, will find themselves skimming sections of the book.

Reading on a jet plane

I faced my nightmare scenario yesterday; a long (20 hour) journey with inappropriate books. Three of the four I had didn't work out. While I usually quite like Charles Stross, his Accelerando didn't do much for me. I had Dorothy Dunnett's Spring of the Ram, but I think my brain was too tired for it. I know my brain my too tired for A Consumer's Republic. I suspect I will give the last two another try. I suppose there is a reason that books are called airplane reads.

The only book that worked well in the circumstances was Charles Todd's A Fearsome Doubt. On the plus side I actually slept thanks to Benadryl. Otherwise it would have been hours spent with films of the Rush Hour 3 caliber. I didn't appreciate the fact that the United Airlines hostess taunted we in the cattle car section with the much better film selection in business class.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I smell death and candy

Today I lost my innocence. Today I tried durian candy.

I knew I was in trouble when I opened the bag. The room was immediately filled with the barely perceptible smell of wrong. I almost threw away the bag at this point, but decided that would be the pussy move, so I went ahead and unwrapped one. The little yellow cube, advertised as soft and chewy sat on the hotel desk and mocked my fears. So I put it in my mouth.

In the first second, I thought it might not be as awful as I thought. Then the aroma of rotten eggs reached my nose and I nearly gagged. Upon chew three or four, I tasted the distinct flavor of green onions. Green onions that have been swimming in rotten eggs. I spit it out on second five and drank as much Pepsi Light as I could. I am lucky that this particular brand contains sugar. Had I faced 100% durian I may have vomited.

There is a numb spot on my tongue where it sat and I feel vaguely queasy. Apparently this nasty, horrible fruit is favored for its aphrodisiac qualities. If you need to eat this to get ready for business time, you should really just take up a hobby instead.

Monday, January 28, 2008

No future for you

In an interview with Powells (to which I cannot link as the Chinese censors are apparently not down with Powells), George R R Martin identified five novels which should have won the Nebula (or maybe it was the Hugo, I can't remember.) One of them was Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun from 1970. While I expect it made for a riveting read back in the Nixon days, today it reads as a dated tale of the apocalypse. Its quite good but is really meant for those whose reading tastes lean to the eschatological.

The book starts in 1978 where the Vietnam war continues at the ferocious level of the 68-70 period with China becoming directly involved. Crime has escalated to the point where trains are armored and the President is a tad wacky.

Super-smart, Bartlett's quoting Brian Chaney (who reads like a stand in for the author) is known for his Biblical writings about Revelation. The government asks him to recommend changes for the nation and he produces a creepily statist report (another 70s peculiarity) that calls for all kinds of paternalist stuff like banning emigration to California. Chaney is recruited into a time machine project along with a two military men. Unlike nearly every other time travel tale ever, they decide to go to the future rather than the past.

The crappy present of the book is just a teaser for a really crappy future. I won't spoil the surprises, as there are some bleak twists and a nasty little ending. The main problem is that the scenario created feels so far from today's world, that it will really only appeal to those who like to see different versions of how our world might end.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shopping for English books in Shanghai

When I was first in China, teaching English in Xi'an in 93/94, the English book pickings were slim indeed. The selection was limited to Signet and Bantam classics, and focused on books that called into question Western society. So lots of Dickens, but no Trollope. There were also copied versions of books that were bound like the coursework you used to get at Kinko's. There were so few books available that I believe my co-teacher and I bought all of them and still traded for them with other teachers and visiting back-packers.

So, the bookstores in Shanghai (Garden Books and the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore) look wonderful to me. Yes the number of volumes is about that of a 1987 Waldenbooks, but the quality of the books is quite high, with current hard-covers and trade paperbacks in abundance. And really, this is English bookstore in China, you can't expect Powells. I didn't purchase any as I brought more than I can conceivably read, but I was tempted by a mass market Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

What's that you say? Mass market? A number of books available in the USA only in trade can be had in the mass market format here in China, and other markets too I imagine. I suppose the publishers did the math and found that adding a third edition in the US would not adequately increase net purchase, but I for one would pay eight bucks for many books that I would not pay sixteen.

It is also worth noting that there is quite a bit of open-mindedness about the books available. There are a number of books that take a critical look at China, including the China Fantasy, that are readily available. So good for China.

Feed the tree

There are Tree of Smoke lovers and haters. Count me on the side of the lovers. The time shifts in the first section might make you think you are in for a trippy update of Dispatches, but the book quickly moves into a year by year account of the destruction of a number of American and Vietnamese lives.

The title represents a number of images and themes in the book. It references a verse in the Bible which a grizzled intelligence vet uses as a code name and a kind of mantra. The tree is used to signify ghosts, mushroom clouds, fire, threat and, I think, the potentially weak nature of family connection. Most of the characters wrestle with family members, some betraying and some trying to save, but nearly all lead to disaster. And like smoke, many find that their family is simply gone.

Religious imagery is also significant, with characters wondering just who the Judas is and what the nature of betrayal and redemption is. Again, it is primarily at the hands of family that the action takes place and when some are accused falsely it is terribly sad. In one case, people commit wrong to help their family, and the portrayal of it is morally ambiguous.

While this is a Vietnam novel, very little combat is depicted. This book is more in the mold of spy fiction with its exploration of the life of the operative and the Quiet American (which one character references more than once.) Ultimately it is about the human cost of war and it shows the cost is even worse than is usually shown.

There is a wide range of characters, including a Canadian nurse whose husband disappears in the Philippines, two working class brothers who experiences in the Navy and Army do not set them up well for civilian life, a Vietnamese Viet Cong volunteer who now doubts his choice, and the elder operative. The nephew of said operative, named Skip, is the core. He, and his uncle, ties the characters together and he goes through the worst of all of them.

The book's epilogue is a bit long, as it covers almost all of the surviving characters in 1983, but it helps wrap up the book. I had to re-read the opening section set in 1963, as it made little sense when first read, but clearly sets up the major themes of the book which include the possibility of spiritual death, betrayal, family and cultures which cannot comprehend one another.

Ignore the haters who, in my view, criticize tangential detail. My first reaction on closing the book was that I needed to read it again because I realized that I missed quite a bit. That is the sign of a great book.

Ice Ice Baby

One sure antitote to getting pissy about flying overseas in a middle seat is reading about real hardship. I am about a quarter of the way through Dan Simmon's The Terror, which is a look at what may have happened to the lost Franklin Expedition. He does an excellent of job of describing the harsh and alien environment of the far north and the hard life facing those trapped there. The mixed reviews kept me away from this one, but I am glad I picked up. Those new to the crazed 19th century explorer genre should start with the nonfiction Barrows Boys.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I'm traveling to China tomorrow for work, so naturally I read a book about India this week. Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods makes for an excellent introduction of India. The book is organized thematically with each chapter covering a topic like the urban-rural divide, the role of Nehru-Gandhi family, the state of the caste system and the role of a rising India is national politics. Each chapter provides the basic context for the topic as well as illustrative interviews with political, business and cultural figures.

With each chapter, we see India as an immensely diverse country. While there are rural differences, the rural north is quite different from the rural south. Hinduism is the most significant religion, but Islam is also well represented as is Christianity. The importance of caste means that class based analysis will often miss the mark on understanding identity. The huge number of political parties representing all of the nation's interests makes governing quite a feat.
No single book will ever be able tell you all you need to know about a country. This one manages to clearly provide some key points and will provides a reader with the interest and confidence to read further.

You can read a Q&A with the author here.

Powells will grow

The downtown store will grow, absorbing the nearby technical store. That seems like a good idea. It wasn't that long ago that the Powells building loomed large in the neighborhood, but with all the construction in the Pearl, it now looks smallish. So, I say build away.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Trading in books

I received some Powells store credit for Christmas and, greedy bastard that I am, I decided I wanted to up the free book action by trading in some more books. While the end result of trading books is almost always delightful (I got how much for that?), I find the process a bit unnerving.

When you unload your books on the counter, the salesperson quietly sorts them into the keep pile and the no-thanks pile. Once my no-thanks pile was substantially taller than my keeper pile and I felt like someone in a Bible story whose offering was found wanting. Every once and again the salesperson will glance at you. I get the feeling they are trying to figure out what sort of person I am who would either own or return the books I am presenting for trade. It also doesn't help that you have to carry your loser unacceptable books back home.

I then a feel a little guilty about the books that didn't get picked. I will probably go ahead and keep Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater, as I don't have many books about that region. Others will hang around the house and then probably go to Goodwill.

The haul was rather good today, which is nice. I picked up the new Michael Pollan, Dan Simmon's the Terror, Ivan's War and a few others.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes

If you have half an hour to kill, read the Washington Post's Two Minute Man columns. David Malitz reviews the songs he hears on the radio during his two minute drive to the coffee shop. You get the videos and some hilarious commentary. Here he is on the Coachella-headlining Jack Johnson(!!)

The new single from this Hawaiian surf-rock dude is as good-natured and mellow as you'd expect. It's the most wholly inoffensive thing you could ever conjure up. Yacht Rock for the 21st century. The freshman girls rushing tri-delt will love

Less than meets the eye

The Transformers is about what you would expect a 80s cartoon would like it if it had a budget of $150M. Lots of CGI robots wrecking buildings, people in danger, but little to no onscreen death, despite massive carnage and an emphasis on explosions over story. There's nothing wrong with making movies about 80s cartoons, I think a Thundarr the Barbarian film would be fun, what with Ookla the Mok and all.

What I dislike about this style of movie is how so many action/scifi films reference the complicated explosions of Star Wars while forgetting it is the characters that draw people to those movies. Much more of that film is given to detailing Han, Luke, Leia and Ben than to showing prowess with effects. Even the droids are developed more fully than most characters these days. This is why Firefly is so appealing.

On the plus side, Peter Cullen, who worked on the original cartoon voices Optimus Prime. You may also recognize him as the most recent voice of Eeyore.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy

Arnel Pineda of the Philippines is the Rich Little of our times. His talent is mimicking the singing of a wide range of rock and pop acts. Here he is on Rush's Tom Sawyer. That alone is impressive, most impressive, but he is also strong on Steve Perry ( he nails this one), the Worst Song of All Time, Anthony Kiedis, and Bryan Adams. So yeah, there is the commonality of the high pitch voices, but he gets the styles so nicely.


Screw Cloverfield, I want to see Season 4 of Lost. Check out the trailer. I had forgotten how much I love this show.


Long serving diplomat, member of the Clinton administration and President of the Brookings Institution Strobe Talbot has a new big think book called The Great Experiment. The experiment is global cooperation in the face of major problems like global warming or the proliferation of nuclear weapon. This can take the form of global governance or cooperation through diplomacy.

Given his ties to the Democratic party, the book is probably a look at the philosophical underpinnings of a Clinton or Obama Administration. Listen to Talbot on the Diane Rehm show. The focus is more on the current international system than the book, but it will give you a sense of his views and approach to international relations.

This will be a big year for books about where American foreign policy should go. Not only is it an election year, but very few people would argue that the current course should continue.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

16 Blocks

When I visit the library I usually swing past the DVD section. Normally I am looking for something way down on my Netflix list (like The Passenger, which I picked up last week,) but I will also pick up a title that someone has mentioned. Someone out there told me to see 16 Blocks so I did. For what it is, a chase thriller, it is a reasonable night's entertainment.

The movie starts with Bruce Willis's aging cop taking Mos Def, a witness 16 blocks to a hearing. It turns out someone wants Mos Def dead, and as you might wager, even a tired, alcoholic, broke-down Bruce Willis isn't going to stand for that. The movies moves across New York as Willis and Def avoid their numerous and well armed pursuers. It moves along predictably enough and ends about as you might expect.

Despite having seen similar things before, the movie has some nice moments of tension, one interesting plot twist and generally moves at a pace fast enough to hold interest. Just like there are times when you want to read a simple mystery novel, there are times when you want a thriller that doesn't require deep thought or that leads to quiet reflection. This is that movie.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


The thoughtful science fiction film is all too rare. While science fiction books are evenly split between action-oriented books and more cerebral fare, the movies slant heavily to the flashy lights and explosives. If you look at the top 20 IMDB sci-fi films, only one or two isn't action-oriented. Even the Guardian's list is mostly action. It's understandable as even the slow paced science fiction films require special effects and are therefore expensive. The sci-fi equivalent of You Can Count on Me would probably lose a lot of money. This isn't to disparage space opera, but only to wish for more movies like the books of Hal Clement or the Speed of Dark.

So it is nice to see that a movie like Sunshine was made. The movie centers on Icarus II (Icarus I didn't make it), a ship carrying a bomb meant to re-start a dying sun. The first two thirds of the film focuses on the psychological, social and technical problems facing a eight person crew on a lengthy and possibly suicidal mission. The ship's psych officer is fascinated by the sun and goes right up to the edge of safe exposure to its light. The engineer is the hard nosed realist who would do well in the Cold Equations. The crew's captain reminded me of Dallas, which bodes poorly for him. The principal character is the physicist who designed the bomb. He is given to indecision and doubt.

As you can imagine thing begin to go wrong on the Icarus II, and as Apollo 13 showed us, errors in a environment like space lead to more errors, often worse than the initial ones. The film switches to danger/action mode at the end, but I think it does so without sacrificing the general tone of the film. I really liked this movie and hope it leads to more like it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This day anything goes

Like Joe Schreiber (nice Lovecraftian blog post here) , Norman Partridge proves that it is possible to write good horror stories. His Dark Harvest is a tale of quiet Midwestern farm town with a unpleasant means of testing its youth. Each year on Halloween, the male teens must hunt and slay the October Boy, with the killer's family getting great rewards. With a ritual as odd as this one, you can suspect there is something peculiar about this town.

Like other great horror writers, Partridge doesn't explain everything. The ending is left a tad unclear, the source of the ritual is hinted but not explained. It reminded me a bit of the ending of Russo's Ship of Fools, where something disturbing and difficult to understand is happening and the only real choice is to run. Partridge handles the balance between mystery and revelation nicely.

On the downside, the book is really quite short. It is a novella rather than a novel, so it is pricey for its length. On the plus side, it could make a really enjoyable film.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Finishing 1491

As I mentioned, I am reading 1491. Having finished it, I highly recommend it as a way to reset your understanding of the Americas. Author Charles Mann's purpose is to debunk three commonly held ideas about the Americas before Columbus: that the continents were sparsely populated, that the social and technical development was limited and that the locals left the environment untouched.

In discussing scholarly debates on these subjects, he convincingly argues that the population, before the decimation of disease, was quite high. The debate is just how many people there were rather than whether the continents were pristine unoccupied lands waiting for the taking. The major factor here is the spread of Old World disease.

On the question of social and cultural development, he argues that Peru and Mesoamerica should be counted among the birthplaces of human culture. While they didn't develop in the same way as Asian or European societies, they represent great achievements that best took advantage of their situation.

His final point is that the locals were extensive modifiers of the environment. In fact he goes so far as to say that the Amazon as we know it is the result of thousands of years of human engineering.

All of these arguments have their foes and Mann gives them room in the book as well. It's a fair, easy to read book that will likely educate and entertain all but specialists.

A really good cover

The Beatles playing Led Zeppelin? OK not really, but a very good Beatles tribute act playing Stairway to Heaven is almost as good as it gets in cover terms. Thanks HLK.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I had originally planned to see Grindhouse in theaters, but I have children and I never see movies in the theaters. Having watched both Deathproof and Planet Terror on DVD, I also think that the movie would have been too long for the theater, for me at least. That said, I thought both movies were effective as entertainment and send-ups of the bad movies of yore.

Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, is a play on the gory zombie films of the 70s. What I liked best is how the actors, many of whom are quite good, manage to act as if they were C-movie hacks who are trying really hard to be serious. This isn't like the jokey scenes in a Kevin Smith film, but the true cheese of the creature features. I thought this one was quite funny, as long as you took it for what it was. It is worth the time just to Naveen Andrews with his testicle removal device.

Death Proof, directed by Quentin Tarantino, goes on a bit too long, but the second half makes it worth it. The movie focuses on girls and cars, and what could more grindhouse than that? The biggest surprise is New Zealand stunt woman Zoe Bell who plays herself. Her car scene will have you covering your eyes out of fear. I wasn't aware that she is a stuntwoman and I was shocked when it was obvious she was doing the scenes. Tarantino works his dialogue magic in a number of scenes, but it gets a bit self-indulgent as many of these scenes are long. Still he manages to deliver some shocks.

These movies are for people who grew up watching a lot of bad movies, but now like good ones. One of the classic Onion headlines is Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore, but fortunately these movies escape the trap by doing bad well.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Someone took in these pants

Eric Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman's Fattening of America looks at American obesity from the economic perspective. That is to say, what incentives have made us eat poorly and get less exercise than is needed to stay fit. The incentive approach is often valuable as it lowers the heat in political arguments, and it has some value here as well.

Food in America is cheap, really cheap. While in the 50s, food expenditure was a fifth of total income, it is now just 10%. This is because the prices have fallen dramatically, often for lower quality food. Just over 40% of food expenditures are eaten away from home, which also contributes to overeating.

This would all be well and good if we were a nation of ditch diggers who burned 5000 calories a day, but sadly many of us only get out of the chair to eat the free food left in the company kitchen. Labor saving devices have proliferated to the extent that it is hard to find ways to exercise.

All of this is well and good, but it is also well-covered, often more in-depth as in Fast Food Nation and the Omnivore's Dilemma. We don't learn a lot more about why we have become such a weight challenged nation in this book. There is more value in the discussion about what to do about. As a committed free marketer, perhaps it is not surprising that Finkelstein's answer is not much of anything.

The book argues that the costs of obesity are overstated, they are counterbalanced by the economy that supports the obese and that any attempt to reduce obesity rates would eradicate any savings. Instead, the economy should focus on providing incentives to be thin rather than fat, creating more parks for example. For kids, it is less market driven, about providing more information to kids. I would have liked to see more policy recommendations about incentives. It is not easy, so more discussion would have been valuable.

Finkelstein has a blog, and a website, where you can get a good sense of his argumentation. This post in particular is useful.

Big red tree grew up and out

Richard Preston came to national prominence with the Hot Zone. At once introducing Ebola to the American public and then telling the tale of how the horrific disease nearly broke out in the DC area, the book was a huge success, got the attention of President Clinton and briefly raised consciousness about public health.

His new book, the Wild Trees, has a much happier topic, although it retains the emphasis on danger. The narrative follows twenty plus years in the lives of people fascinated by trees, particularly the Redwoods of Northern California. Most of the book is about tree exploration. To call it tree climbing minimizes the danger, the wonder of discovery and the passion these explorers experience.

The book begins in the late 80s when college student Stephen Sillett, now a professor at Humbodlt State, feels compelled to climb a Redwood, something no one had done. He discovered that there was an unknown ecosystem at the tops of these trees and that he personally would devote his life to understanding them. Much of the book is given to his and to his eventual circle of friend's discovery of the tallest trees in California. Like many explorers in the past, these people are outsiders if only because their passion makes them and their choices peculiar to others. One of the greatest discovers of tall Redwoods was careful when he talked to botanists because he didn't want them to know he was a grocery clerk.

Sillett came close to dying once or twice in his first climb and a good deal of the book is about the danger of tree exploration and the development of equipment and techniques to make it safer. The experience of a survivor of a 100 foot tree fall (50 feet is normally the guaranteed death height) is brutal in it's detail. Preston seems worried that this book will inspire unready people to climb. He does make tree climbing sound exhilarating and worth experiencing, but he won't say where the various trees described in the book are and states that much training is required.

Preston writes for the New Yorker, which is a signal that he is one of the great non-fiction writers. His ability to communicate experience is put to great use in this book, as the exploration of giant trees is far beyond the experience of most readers and is not obviously interesting. Preston makes it intensely engaging by capturing the thrill and the almost religious elements of the activity.

The book is marred by being a tad long, despite being a short book. After a while, the stories of exploration become a bit similar and the emphasis shifts to personal relationships and the author's own tree climbing. These chapters aren't quite as interesting, but with that in mind, this is an excellent read and a reminder that there is much left to be learned about the Earth. Here is an excerpt of the book.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some songs I like of late

Here are the songs I am soon to no longer like because I will have overplayed them.

Band of Horses Is There a Ghost. In general these guys seem to be a little indie rock, a little alt-country. This one is almost all indie rock. Here the band's Ben Bridwell answers a few questions for Pitchfork. I concur with his assessment that Powderfinger has one of the best opening lines in all of rock. I was also happy to see that his favorite club in which to play is Portland's Crystal.

Okkervil River Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe. The album got a lot of buzz when it came out, but I just got it. Very nice one.

Metric Love is A Place. These guys are generally more a New Wave rock outfit, but this one is more mellow.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The next George R R Martin

We have to wait a tad longer, Fall 08 at the soonest. Oh well, if you are pining for epic fantasy, try Steven Erikson.

Random bits

MTV's Subterranean blog resurrects the excellent Oingo Boingo video Private Life. This one came out as grunge arose and probably didn't have a chance.

Check out these steampunk Lego Star Wars creations.

Fun with Shatner.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In, In Dear Spot

The Penguin Blog reports that Eric Hill, author of the Where's Spot books, has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to Britain. While I can't speak to the movies, my kids loved the books in their toddler days. The top favorite is probably Spot Goes to School. The books are light and cheerful and they make frequent use of the lift the flap (according to Penguin, Eric Hill created the lift the flap book in fact), which in our house means the books have a short life expectancy. No matter, they are worth it.

Monday, January 07, 2008


As part of the Back to History Challenge, I am reading Charles Mann's 1491. His goal is to popularize new ideas about pre-Columbian America, including how many people lived here, the extent of cultural depth and diversity, when people got here and how they interacted with the environment. So far (50% through) he succeeds wonderfully.

I think people stay away from new subjects, especially history, because they don't want to feel stupid. Any new subject is difficult, but when you are asked to learn about different political, economic and political systems and the various key personalities, it can be daunting. Mann avoids this pitfall by writing about themes and global concepts. He doesn't ignore particular information, but he doesn't overload it either, making it easy to digest.

If you would like a taste of this excellent book, read the Atlantic article that served as the launching point for it. He lays out his major ideas here. You can see if they interest you and if you like his prose style, which I suspect you will.

How could we know that promises end

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises had good critical buzz, but not too many people saw it. I thought it was an excellent small picture, lasting just long enough to tell a good story, deliver some shocks and give us a peek at the Russian mob. Viggo Mortensen plays a Russian chauffeur for Vincent Cassel, the drunken heir apparent to a London branch of the mob. Naomi Watts is a midwife who delivers a baby to a dying teenage girl who leaves behind a diary. When she reads the diary, she gets noticed by the nasties.

It being a Cronenberg film, there is some grotesque violence, starting with a brutal murder in the first few moments. The importance of that killing is not apparent until later, but it ties into one of the most excruciating fight scenes ever filmed. The participants truly suffer in this one and it will have you wincing. The ladies will want to keep their eyes open as Viggo plays this scene buck naked.

Aside from these two, the tone is less about violence than it is about menace. Watts's character learns a bit too late that she should be careful about how she investigates the girls past. The godfather of the family is particularly threatening and his scenes with Watts are decidedly creepy.

While it sounds like yet another crime picture, the acting, the direction and the Russian elements add up to a much more interesting story. The plot is also surprising as the interplay between the girl, the mob family and Viggo doesn't play out as one might expect. And to put the icing on the cake, there is no wasted screen time. Keep Cronenberg working and watch this one on DVD.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

We want, we need, we take it

Mixing Goodfellas with the Gangs of New York, the Brazilian film City of God depicts life in a Rio de Janeiro slum known as the City of God. It is a horrid place and what economists would call a poverty trap, where there is no incentive to invest or improve economically as the local criminals and/or the corrupt elements of the state will simply take any wealth or goods people can accrue. Instead, life is governed by criminals who take what they want. At the end we learn the only way to get a better life is to leave, as the narrator does.

The narrator is a poor boy named Rocket who grew up with the leading criminals of the City of God. Using frequent in-depth flashbacks, we see one generation of hoods replaced by the next, often at a very young age. Rocket's attempts at work, a half-hearted attempt at crime and his love-life serve as comic relief for the brutality of everyday life in the City of God.

The main villain is Lil' Ze, a power-mad criminal whose lusts lead to eventual downfall. He alienates friends and recklessly creates enemies. In the movies most disturbing scene, one that will make a number of viewers stop watching, he presents a difficult choice to a young gang applicant. After capturing members of the Runts, a gang comprised of kids under the age of 9 it seems, he forces the new kids to shoot one of them. The younger looks like he is five and is in mortal terror. It is horribly unpleasant, and again turns out to be a bad choice for Lil' Ze.

If you can stand that level and intensity of violence, then you will likely appreciate the intricate story-telling and excellent craft of the director. Aside from the one scene, the movie suffers from being overlong by at least 20 minutes. Lil Ze faces an inevitable gang war that goes on far too long. Despite this it will appeal to fans of serious crime dramas.

George McDonald Fraser

The author of the Flashman novels has died. I had a bad reaction to the first Flashman book, apparently because I took it too seriously. I thought the main character was repellent, but perhaps I was in a poor mood? As BookDaddy notes, the book's thesis is that the Victorian world rewarded bad behavior and punished the good. More reactions are here, here and here. I am tempted to think that I gave up far too early on these books and should read them with a much more ironic eye.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Water Horse

Those looking for a family film should consider the Water Horse. Set in World War 2 Scotland, the movie concerns an introverted boy who finds a strange egg. Soon the rapidly growing Water Horse, which is clearly the Loch Ness monster, bond withs Angus and helps Angus come out of his shell. Crusoe, as he is known, becomes a challenge for young Angus to hide and the hiding is the main plot for most of the film. Complicating matters is the arrival of a British Army unit and that of a mysterious handyman. While the trailers show quite a bit in the way of hi-jinks, there are a number of scary moments that sent one of my kids under the seats for quite a few minutes at a time.

It will be obvious to those who have read the book that the film differs in a number of ways. Written by the author of Babe, the book is a gentler tale with much less of the touched upon adult themes. The book is set in the 30s and the movie moves the story to the war. In the book the father is away on a merchant ship, while in the movie his naval ship was sunk and he was lost although the boy won't accept it. There is also a romantic triangle that is handled appropriately, but is presumably there for the parents.

If the kids don't mind some scares, including danger to both the boy and the Water Horse, then this would be of great entertainment value.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

This is England, this is badass

The New York Review of Books Classics imprint is one of the great treasures of the reading world. Whether it be by introducing new authors to the American reading public or by republishing great out of print works, the NYRB line dramatically increased the average quality of available books. As an added bonus, they have consistently engaging artwork, which you can see on the imprint's blog.

One of their newest releases comes from 1939 England. Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male tells the story of a English hunter who decides to see if he can get a very difficult prey in his sights. While traveling in Poland he lays in wait and stalks an un-named "great man," who is clearly Hitler, and is then captured by said great man's secret police.

The story of is of his escape from and pursuit by the secret police. The story of the hunter becoming the hunted is cliche, but it is so well done here. The un-named hunter takes on the characteristics of both a predator and prey at different times in the story and notes the at time superior predator behavior of his pursuers.

What I found most appealing about the narrator is that it is a reasonable portrayal of a highly competent hero. There are many characters in fiction and thrillers in particular who are above average at everything. They can woo anyone they choose, they can use weapons better than trained soldiers, they can fix any mechanism and they can pick the best pairing of wine with squab.

The un-named hunter knows hunting and the outdoors very well and is at his best in that element. Outside of it, he makes mistakes. Household portrays him as wonderfully even-keeled and with a unaffected nonchalance. In the first few pages, we see a perfectly understated description of his wounds from torture and that tone carries throughout the book.

This story proves that it is possible to write engaging thrillers. I wish more of today's writers would read it and take it to heart.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A fantasy book trailer?

Well Felix Gilman's Thunderer is certainly getting some buzz. The Amazon Blog noted that three fantasy sci-fi behemoths were approaching in 2008. Two of themhave numerous classics under the belt, Iain M Banks and Peter Hamilton, and the third is debut novelist Felix Gilman. And now it has a book trailer. At the very least I will look to my fantasy book fall guys to tell me if this one is worth reading.

Some books that have me excited about 2008

I hope everyone had a lovely New Year's Eve. I normally abstain, but Camper Van Beethoven was playing, and we couldn't miss that.

It being the New Year it is a fine time to look at some fine sounding books that are to be published in 2008.

The Better Angels by Charles McCarry. This is cheating, I suppose, as this is a re-issue of an out of print book from 1979. It is interesting for two reasons: Charles McCarry writes stupendously good spy novels and this particular one involves a bitter Arabian aristocrat who decides to wage a war on the United States using passenger airplanes as missiles. This OpinionJournal article has a nice round-up of McCarry's books.

Marching Towards Hell: America and Islam After Iraq by Michael Scheuer. This one would earn points for the title alone, but it is the author that really caught my eye. Scheuer is a former CIA operations officer who ran the CIA's hunt for Bin Laden and has been fiercely critical of the Bush Administration on the air and in books like Imperial Hubris. He also made an appearance in the Looming Tower.

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston. Part of the Preston and Child writing duo, Preston goes it alone in this thriller about a supercollider that may reveal how the world was created. And lots of people don't like it. Preston will release another book about a real life murder in Florence.

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. This looks like a doom-laden account of what a tip in average temperature could do to the world.

A Slave No More

Much of the popular histories of the Civil War treat the slaves as objects, either to be liberated or as background for the eventual battles. In A Slave No More, historian David Blight tells the stories of two men who freed themselves during the war years. He chose these two men because their journals have recently become available for study.

The two narratives are included, as originally written. While they are certainly worth reading on their own, Blight provides valuable context and background that makes up the bulk of the book. He tells the individual stories of each former slave, which include repeated attempts to escape and the subsequent punishments. He also tells the stories of their lives afterwards, which contrast so greatly from the live of slavery.

Beyond the stories of the two former slaves, Blight discusses the general life of slaves, the effects of the internal trade of slaves and the myths of the happy slave. These elements will not enlighten those well read in slavery, but will be helpful for the rest. Blight also blends this context into the stories of the men which means that those who are more aware won't get bogged down.

While the book is primarily focused on the particular lives of two successful self-emancipators, it also serves as a solid introduction to the subject of slavery in America. You can hear Blight discuss his book and the men in this NPR story.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

House of M

Graphic novels are in many cases just a series of comic books republished in hardcover. That's fine as that can make the experience like watching an HBO series on DVD. You get a great story line that you can consume at your pace rather the publication schedule.

The House of M is one of the better storylines out there. Something goes wrong with Magneto's powerful children and the next thing you know, mutants run the Earth under the not so benevolent lead of Magneto. Only Wolverine is aware of the true past and he tangles with past friends and foes to set the world right.

This one ends with a big bang of which many will already be aware. If you are not then you are in for a treat.