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.