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.

Best vid of the week

You probably have already seen it, but if not be sure to check out the Literal Version of A-Ha's Take on Me. Now hold on while I kick some ass with my own pipe wrench.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


MGM is remaking Red Dawn, which is....strange. David Plotz talks about the movie here. If you recall, in the movie, the Soviets and their Latin American allies invade the US. Yes, very paranoid and crazy, but at least the US and USSR were on a conventional parity at the time. Who is anywhere near conventional parity with the US at this time? China (no) Russia, (no) any country you can name (no)? Strange.

Check out Kevin Phillips, William Greider, Stephen Moore and John Makin (nice balance there) talk about the future of American capitalism on Diane Rehm.

I am reading Ron Suskind's new book, the Way of the World. If you are looking for more things to worry about, this is your book.

I love a good dis, especially directed at someone I dislike. Like say Naomi Klein. Peter Suderman nicely skewers her here.

Earlier this week, I was hating on the movie Less Than Zero. On the very much plus side, it did include Going Back to Cali on the soundtrack.

And in the spirit of yesterday's blog post, here is the Fear segment from Decline of Western Civilization (doubly apropos). It contains the classic hate-filled banter of the day.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I love livin' in the city

Where do you move after decades in the foreign press spent dodging bullets in Africa and losing a baby while covering violence in Chechnya? Why to West Harlem of course. Judith Matloff writes about buying a house on street given primarily to drug dealing. It is at once a story of figuring out how to live with dangerous people, how not to work on a house and how to keep a healthy marriage in a bizarre situation.

The center of everything is the house. As you might imagine, years of squatting has led to a house in less than ideal shape. Having never worked with contractors before, things of course go badly as when the contractor's window plans lead a wall to collapse. This is bad enough, but when your seemingly homicidal neighbor (known as Salami) threatens to take the house when he gets the chance, it is all the worse.

This makes the book sound rather bleak, which it isn't. In fact, it is rather cheery overall, in the sort of what-kind-of-crazy-thing will happen next sort of way. For the most part, the denizens of her street are colorful rather than frightening, from the realist drug lord to the literature loving homeless person.

Matloff is a professional journalist and she knows how to tell a story. While she will make you think about where you might want to live, she will also make you think twice about a remodel.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Oh now here is a book that will be a big gag (hee hee) gift of the season, a nonfiction study of shit and how we deal with all of it, called The Big Necessity. It has some big name blurbage, which must be take with a pinch of fleur de sel. It comes out in the US next week, but this British review makes it look good.

Reading science in scifi

So I finished Rendezvous with Rama and it was good! I have been meaning to go back and read the past Hugo and Nebula award winners and this one at least still holds up. Today's science fiction is dominated by space opera or by use of the political or noir thriller forms. Clarke's approach to scifi isn't one we see as much today, the scientific thought experiment. Clarke shows what it would be like to explore a giant cylindrical space habitat. The plot basically revolves around humans dealing with the physics of exploring such a giant space. There is a bit of politics as well, but that serves just to provide another lesson in the distances of space.

I've presented the book as didactic, which it isn't, to note that this book was written with an strong emphasis on science. There has been lots of handwaving about the American engineering and science base being under-invested just as the Chinese and Indian bases begin to take off. This book would certainly be evidence that in the past, the public was happy to read stories that explain scientific reality. I'm not sure if they still are.

Monday, October 06, 2008

See the tuna fleets clearing the sea

A few years back, Taras Grescoe wrote an entertaining travel/food book called the Devil's Picnic, which described his quest to try prohibited foods and beverages, including absinthe and raw milk cheese. His most recent book, Bottomfeeder, is just as entertaining, but also describes a serious global problem, namely, the devasation to the world's ecosystems caused by man's appetite for seafood.

Grescoe visits the home of many seafoods to show how the market for food is crushing seafood stocks. In the Chesapeake Bay, he notes how overfishing and environmental damage have destroyed oysterbeds. Around Marseilles, he shows how invasive plantsand overfishing are wrecking the habitats for the fish that define bouillaibaise. In one of the more disturbing chapters he visits the shrimp farms of India, where much of your bottomless shrimp plate most likely begins life. These places are cesspools of chemicals and disease and they tend to kill off the natural mangrove habitats essential to biodiversity and sustainable fishing. Throughout, efficient but destructive fishing techniques are smashing habitats.

Grescoe isn't all doom and gloom. He does point out solutions that might improve things. He notes that product labeling in Japan is excellent, describing the source and the means of catching. In the Chesapeake Bay, he shows that farming oysters just might bring them back. Finally he notes that there are plenty of seafoods available that are not destructive.

The title of the book comes from what Grescoe believes we must become if we are to prevent the elimination of whole swathes of sealife. He argues that by going down the foodchain to the lower forms, including sardines, shellfish and, yes, jellyfish, we can get the health benefits of seafood without wrecking the environment at the same time. McDonald's gets a rare pat on the back when Grescoe notes that the highly sustainable pollock is the source for the Filet o' Fish.

I have picked up and put down a number of books on the state of seafood in the past year, but this one is a winner. Grescoe combines the amusing stories of travel, a strong love for food and a study of environmental impact that make for a great read.

Less than entertaining

The other day my wife mentioned she never saw the film Less than Zero and that we should Netflix it. I recall enjoying the book and the movie in my teen years, but man is this a bad movie. As you may recall, the story concerns three scions of LA hyper-wealth who live in an amoral and sensation obsessed world. Drugs are omnipresent and become a particular problem for Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr. Downey does well as the collapsing Julian, but there is something a bit disturbing about watching his performance given his later experiences.

The main character, Clay, returns from college to help his drug abusing friend. Andrew McCarthy is amazingly wooden in this role. On watching, I wondered if this was an existential statement that drug abuse and going clean are supposed to be presented as equally hellish choices, but I doubt it. Those looking for reasons why James Spader is known for oily, evil characters should watch his drug dealer character in this film.

All in all, it isn't very good. I suppose it is supposed to make us view the wealthy as decadent and twisted, but it is mostly just boring.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Sometimes two flavors of nerdom is better than one. Check out this article which debates the naval tactics of various science fiction films. Short answer Star Wars and BSG=World War 2, Star Trek= World War One.

Cambridge's Harvard Bookstore has changed hands. It's a great store, but what I remember most about it is that I put my business card into one of those drawing bowls there and actually won. Free books is about as good as it gets. Also they are neighbors with a branch of the unbelievably good Toscanini's ice cream. Visiting the site, I see that Gus, the owner, has a short Amazon book about the ice cream world. About ten years ago, I took a Chinese class with Gus and he brought a bunch of ice cream after class once. That was awesome.

Here is your gloomy blogpost for the day. I suppose we should all be reading up on Weimar. . .

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Reading older scifi

I am reading an older scifi classic, Rendezvous with Rama, and while I am enjoying it, there is an element of irritation that comes with most scifi from a time other than your own. Most science fiction writers seem to write dialogue that sounds like people from their time. So these futuristic people we read about in Peter Hamilton's Dreaming Void sound a lot like ca 2008 Westerners. This is all well and good, but is jarring to read 22nd people talking like early 70s people in Rama. Not enough to make me stop reading, but enough to catch my eye and derail my reading experience.

Rama isn't terrible about it, but it remined me of Norman Spinrad's the Men in the Jungle, written in the 60s and set some centuries hence. In that book, the main character is given to shouting such 60s slogans as "Come the Revolution!" which really shuts it down.

On the (plus or minus, depending on your viewpoint) side, Rama, like many of the earlier science fiction books is really short. If you are not familiar with the book, it involves a giant alien artifact that arrives in the solar system and is explored. It takes Arthur C Clarke about 20 or 30 pages for the humans to discover, approach and enter the space craft and he wraps the story up in under 300 pages. For more than a few of today's writers, the plot doesn't really start for 300 pages.

I think this is because science fiction writers have discovered character and adopted the kitchen sink world creation model of the fantasy writers. And now I am think I am trained to look for it in science fiction, as I keep wondering why Clarke isn't doing it. Anyway, still a good read so far.