Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The light behind their eyes blew each other's cover

Huh. I guess that video is what I might expect for a song called What What (in the Butt). Best parts? I can't decide between the flaming cross or the lascivious consumption of the chocolate. It reminds me of my favorite TV commercial of all time found below ( as NSFW as is possible)

Two flicks

If you are looking for an engaging atmospheric movie about murder and intrigue in 1950s Hollywood, watch something other than Hollywoodland. Goodness gracious me, this is one boring movie. The movie concerns the death of George Reeves, who played Superman on TV. After his death, lame PI guy played by Adrien Brody works to find out if the apparent suicide was actually murder. I gave up on this one at the hour mark. Ben Affleck was good as Reeves, but the story is boring. The PI investigation is without any interest and the PI character is cut and pasted right out of Noir for Dummies. He is a wash-out with drinking and woman problems. For once can we have a clean-living, family man PI or someone who doesn't rip off Phillip Marlowe.

While it doesn't live up to the hype, Cloverfield is a diversion for movie monster fans. It suffers from shallow, uninteresting characters, far too much exposition populated by said characters, nausea inducing shaky cam and holding back too much information. On the plus side, the terror and confusion (clearly nodding to 9/11) of the event are well portrayed and there are a few scares. The monster is ok, nothing special, but his path of destruction is one of the better ones depicted. Lower your expectations and this one may keep you engaged.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I was so wasted

This was my favorite song of 1993 and it still has one of the best names of all time...Talkin' About the Smilin' Deathporn Immortality Blues. This Flaming Lips video is not the strangest they have done, but I do like the guy who delivers the "ooo wop wop" parts. Watch for his chorus later as well. This is a song best played loud on a stereo in a small room, but it is fine in the video as well.

And Holy Smokes! Here is Frogs. Another great one, and the video features Wayne Coyne's dental work.

Cult books

Have a look at this list of the Top 50 Cult Books of all time from the Independent. The article states that defining that which makes a book a cult book is a challenge and they eventually fall back on Felix Frankfurter's definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. Very broadly, the books on the list of the kind that provide some sort of life lesson that may cause adherents to harangue their friends and neighbors about this great wisdom they have found. If you fail your savings throw, some of these books (Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Fountainhead, will immediately turn you into a pompous blowhard-jackass, so read carefully.

I consider cult books to be books that are intensely loved and revered by a relatively small readership. Like indie rock, there is an element of clubby exclusivity, but the ideas themselves or the expression of those ideas are unlikely to find mass appeal. HP Lovecraft (or if you desire greater obscurity Clark Ashton Smith) in horror, Phillip K Dick in scifi, and Edward Abbey in green literary fiction are all authors with dedicated fans, but the love of which befuddles many.

For many cult authors, including the three above, there is an implicit or even explicit rejection of elements of the mass culture. If a reader doesn't as some level share these underlying viewpoints and assumptions, much of the appeal of the books will be lost. This makes these cult authors a challenge to recommend.

Monday, April 28, 2008

In An Instant

Bob Woodruff, an ABC news reporter and soon to be anchor, nearly died when an IED detonated near his convoy. In An Instant, a book co-written by Woodruff and his wife Lee, describes the event and the struggle of the family to deal with the trauma.

The book starts with explosion and the phone call that the President of ABC made to Lee while she and the children visited Disney World. She knew it was bad because, as she notes, the President of the company doesn't call employees spouses while they are on vacation.

After describing the near miraculous survival, thanks to luck and the excellent medical care provided by the Army, and her trip to Germany to see her husband, the book jumps back to the 80s and begins to tell the story of their marriage and life together up until the time of the bombing. I initially thought this was just filler, it provides important context and reinforces the strong bond between husband and wife.

I had assumed that the best parts of the book would be Bob Woodruff's remembrance of the events and his struggle for recovery. While those sections are good, the best parts is Lee Woodruff's story. She presents a remarkably lucid and grounded description of an emotional roller-coaster. What could have been mawkish is instead a moving look at the toll the war takes on families.

The book can be read as one family's struggle, but it can also be read as part of a national tragedy as so many soldiers come home wounded to families with far fewer resources than the Woodruffs.

Takin a ride to nowhere, we'll take that ride

Every few months I stop by the Criterion Collection website to see which movies they are releasing and to look at the older ones. If you are unfamiliar with the series, the Collection releases high quality transfers of important movies, often with extensive extra material including documentaries. The definition of importance is fairly broad. It includes intrinsic value, but also the influences that a film had on the development of cinema and films of particular historic value. I've often used the collection as a short list of movies to find on Netflix, at the library or at Movie Madness.

Two Lane Blacktop is a movie I most likely never would have watched were it not for its recent release in a Criterion edition. It would appear to be a simple road movie involving a race between James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (the Beach Boy) and Warren Oates. It is actually one of the strongest movies about alienation in America I've yet seen.

These characters are almost completely without identity. Names are never used. Oates's character is known as GTO in the credits because that is what he drives. Taylor and Wilson are called the Driver and the Mechanic, while the girl who joins them is called the girl. Oates picks up a lot of hitchikers and tells a different life story to each. The road race he provokes with Taylor is just another story to escape whatever it is he is fleeing.

Taylor and Wilson, while spending nearly all their time together drifting from race to race, almost never speak and when they do it is about cars and racing for money. Taylor is nearly always blank, unless he has to rile up a potential competitor. The girl blows in and then out of their lives as lost as they are.

The story plays out against Route 66 and other back roads. Most of the terrain is beautiful, but empty. The towns they visit tend to also be empty or they provide no human interaction.

Thanks to the near lack of dialogue, the movies message is not pounded into by soliloquy or fiery debate between characters. Instead we just watch the loneliness and emptiness on screen.

Friday, April 25, 2008

In the Woods

Tana French's In the Woods will appeal to readers who crave well-written, suspenseful, character driven police procedurals. It should also appeal to those people (like my colleague who recommended) who claim to not like police procedurals but love movies like Gone Baby Gone. It has two big mysteries, plenty of chilling imagery and balances pacing and plot well. And despite it being a debut novel, French is comfortable enough to put aside some of the genre rules.

The book is both helped and hurt by French's flouting of genre conventions. While the book is constructed in the classic buddy pair style, the relationship develops in an unexpected way and the effects of the changes directly play into the plot, which is nice.

On the downside, French invests quite a bit into an element of the story which she ultimately drops, in a way I thought perfunctory. She may be taking a page from Peter Robinson ( a writer from whom other writers ought to take pages) and be setting up a plot for a future book, but it didn't feel that way. Instead it felt like it could not be properly resolved into the structure of the book.

The book is set in modern Dublin and describes some of the cultural conflicts arising in this newly wealthy city. I suspect the future books will delve deeper into this city. There is nothing better than crime novels to get a feel for the socioeconomic map of a city. Or at least an author's perceptions of said map.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Drinkin' and readin'

Jacket Copy (the LA Times book blog) links to a Jeff VanderMeer post about which beers go with which books. Both are fun and are worth your time.

I was going to try to come up with a few pairings myself, but I realized that starting with beer 2, I really can't read any more. I can look at words and turn pages, but nothing sticks. So the only thing I can add is that the best beer for reading a book you don't like is the 120 Minute IPA from Dog Fish Head. After one of those you will be so polluted you won't care what you are reading. Not that you will remember anything.

Hyperbole should be used carefully

On the American Conservative Blog (which is well worth reading regularly), I saw this jaw-dropping opener from the Weekly Standard.

Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.

The article itself has an analysis that may be of value, but that first paragraph destroys the credibility of all that follows. There are so many problems here. The first the attempt to link past life and death struggles (US Civil War, World War for sure, Wars against Louis XIV maybe) with the current Iraq war.

Those supporting continuation of the war pitch it as a life and death struggle for the US, which is not, rather than a bad situation we created that may (or may not!) get worse if we disengage. The policy question is whether it is better for the US interest to leave or not, but people are uncomfortable with that.

Another serious problem with this statement is how we are told these generals are the Pattons of counterinsurgency and that mastery of large scale military operations is the secret to military success. The selection of the generals cited maintains the US fixation on short term military campaigns to achieve a total military victory.

As Brian Bond illustrated in his excellent Pursuit of Victory, the concept of victory is becoming outdated. Instead the focus should be on policy outcomes. In that case, our models are more likely to be Acheson and Marshall, those that helped put in place long term policies that succeeded, rather than looking for the short term and ultimately ephemeral military victory.

Finally, the authors have chosen some of the greatest military leaders of all time, who as I mentioned were engaged in titanic struggles. These are the sorts who will be studied for ages. No offense to Petraeus and Odierno, but shouldn't we wait and see how the war pans out before we award them their Triumph.

I am legend

I watched I am Legend last night. It's a decent night's entertainment, nothing special mind, but if you have been jonesing for a post-apocalyptic movie, this should should hit the spot. High points include Will Smith reprising Tom Hanks role in Castaway, deserted New York, and climactic battle. I would have liked a tad more back story added, but I could live without it. As the last man alive, the only history that really mattered was the history of the main character.

Although this is a largely faithful version of the book, fandom is mad that it isn't a perfect one. I am a huge fan of the book, but I think it is often better if the movie differs at the plot level, while maintaining the overall spirit and/or ideas of the book. This is a thriller and I want to be excited and surprised, so having a rote repeat of the book won't do. The theatrical ending of the film doesn't really fit the spirit of the book, but if you were to blend it with the original and deleted one, it fits much better. Not perfectly, but good enough.

My next movie is Cloverfield. It will be interesting to compare the two NYC catastrophe movies.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The power of John Eckhart compels you

I have a thing for devils and demons. For some reason, I find the thought of them quite frightening, much more so than other fantastic villains like vampires. Maybe it is the near omnipotence, or maybe it is watching the Exorcist at far too young an age. Whatever, I just like reading stories about them ( which explains my great enjoyment of A Good and Happy Child.)

Sadly, demon and devil books have a tendency to suck. John Shirley's Demons is easily one of the worst books I have ever read (see my spilt bile here). And even the follow on Exorcist books didn't do that much for me (although this scene from Exorcist 3 scared the piss out of me).

So, whilst perusing the new selections at the library, I spied a thriller set amongst the aristocracy of Hell, I picked it up but quite rapidly put it back. Could it be any good? Anyway, today I thought I would check the reviews at Amazon to see what people think.

All I could remember was the demon concept, so I tried that and got....John Eckhart's Prayers that Rout Demons. While it seems to lean metaphorical, it also seems like it may be a how to guide to battling the infernal. Personally, assuming demons are in fact real, I think a professional is warranted. I turn to a professional to get a wasp nest out of my eaves, do dealing with a beast that can rend my soul is really beyond me. After all, as seen below, even the pros have problems.

New crime book

I am in the middle of Tana French's In the Woods, which to my surprise is the beginning of a new series of police procedurals. I say surprise as the press I have seen tended to emphasize the suspense thriller elements, which are definitely present.

I am impressed that despite this being a debut, French has clearly already hid her stride. This is no mean feat as even the greatest take their time in getting it right. Peter Robinson had quite a few books under his belt before he took off. Dennis Lehane's first and the initial George Pelecanos books showed hope for future greatness, but weren't great in and of themselves.

So I guess French took her time with this one or threw a number of drafts and ideas away. If you like procedurals this one is for you. By the way, I realize I sound as if I like everything read I recently. Not so! I am actually tossing aside books I don't like so quickly I don't feel I can say anything about them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nature movies

The NY Times reports that Disney has created a new division to make nature movies. The plans call for a film called "Earth" next year, one called "Oceans," the year following and a one called Chimpanzee. The Times quotes the CEO of Disney saying they wish they had made the BBC Planet Earth series, to which I can only say hooray! It means there will be at least one movie to which I want to take the kids in the next few summers.

For those with old school tastes, Disney has released four DVD sets of Disney's True Life Adventures. I loved these when I was a kid. Or at least I recall loving them as a kid. They failed to enthrall mine I am sad to say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Stately homes for the lords, croquet lawns, village greens

Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night is fantastic. It mixes the Victorian novel with the noir crime thriller to make for a completely engrossing reading experience.

While the story never leaves England, it has an epic feel. It follows the cursed life of Edward Glyver from birth in Dorset to troubled academic career to fixer for a London law firm. The tortuous path allows Cox to describe a wide range of English scenes from the hellish London to the idyllic Evenwood, home to Glyver's greatest enemy.

Glyver is driven, to the point of madness, to take revenge on the one who caused all of his failures and setbacks in life. Glyver is no hero. In the first pages of the book, he murders an innocent so that he can be ready when it counts. While he pines for a high born love, he has a prostitute lover, and also sleeps with the lower rent hookers. He drinks to the point of passing out in ditches and is a frequent user of opium. And there is more.

Astoundingly, Cox has made this unlovable rogue largely sympathetic. Part of it is his eloquence, but it also the sense of righteousness he brings to his quest for vengeance. As we learn more of what his enemy has done, we become more and more invested in his story and how he might find redemption. While those well-read in the genres are likely to spot the plot twists, the story is so fast paced and well described, you won't care. Few will see how nearly everything mentioned eventually ties back into the main story.

I particularly liked how Cox paints a wide English canvas without building up the overlong subplots that weigh down Victorians like Trollope and Dickens. We see Eton, the dark part of London, the law offices, Dorset and country life without having to wade through excessive detail and oceans of characters. Those looking for the Dickensian groteques will delight in the likes of Fordyce Jukes, Glyver's downstairs neighbor and co-worker and source of constant irritation.

Amidst all of this, there is a question (SPOILER) as to how reliable Glyver actually is. He is clearly a paranoid maniac, but is he an Ahab or is he Verbal Kint? There are odd little elements throughout that might sway your opinion, I remain uncertain. (/SPOILER.)

This book has me all fired up for the unread Victorian homages on my shelves. Fingersmith and the Crimson Petal and the White, here I come.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

One about which to be hopeful

Charles Pellegrino, author of Dust, one of my favorite disaster novels may have one in the works. His website makes mention of a book called draculae(sic) an eco-thriller co-written by Bill Schutt. Schutt has a creepy looking book on the horizon called Dark Banquet - Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood Feeding Creatures. So, I take it he likes interesting subjects.

Dust is out of print, but is available for a penny (plus shipping of course) at Amazon. There are lots of haters amongst the reviewers, but I quite liked it. It is a story of the global ecosystem collapsing, and as you might guess, this can't be stopped, only survived. It's not a happy book, but it left me wanting more.

Pellegrino has a history of books filled with nastiness. His collaboration with George Zebrowski, the Killing Star, is a tale of first contact gone really, really bad. It also presents a theory as to why no alien broadcasts have been found.

Next book

I had planned on my next fiction book being Douglas Preston's Blasphemy. His last book, Tyrannosaur Canyon, was a lot of fun, so I expect this one will be too. I am going to push it down the list aways as my most recent read, The Meaning of Night, is likely to put in a bad light. This excellent book has among its many virtues the excellent use of language.

Preston is a great thriller writer, but he is no stylist, and in the afterglow of the Meaning of Night, I am likely to notice the use of language. With a few book's distance, I am likely to notice its strong points as well.

You might ask why I read read thrillers at all. Like the times when you want to eat comfort food, there are times when you want comfort books. For me this is a wide range of escapist fiction, that includes thrillers, horror and giant fantasy novels. You just can't read these alone or you like your body, your mind will get flabby.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Something for your nightmares

Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy has a new book on the poor state of the American economy. Bad Money is subtitled Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism. Give a listen to his recent interview on Diane Rehm.

The complaint in the book is a systemic one, rather than one targeted at President Bush. Like Michael Scheuer's critique of the American foreign policy establishment, this book appears to be a critique of all of American economic policy for the last few decades. This makes it all the more frightening, as it will more than the departure of Bush to save us.

Indie man got a lot of problems, but he don't mind saying fuck

Brack sent over the new Weezer single Pork n Beans, which is not about Rivers' favorite food, but instead is about trying to please the label and one's fans. It's a hooky, reference-laden, funny treat and I hope it gets some play. The chorus undermines the song a bit though. At the close he states "I don't give a hoot about what you think." A hoot? I know he is a Harvard-educated braniac, but this is hardly the verbiage of the rebellious rocker. I'm not sure he is really feelin' it here.

Contrast with Sleater Kinney's Entertain, the theme of which is similar. Carrie doesn't mind laying down the eff-bomb where appropriate. For a happier version check out B.A.D.'s Looking For A Song.

Ole Ole Ole for Mulholland

Mulholland Drive was originally the pilot for a TV series for ABC, and was clearly a few years too early. Had it come out in 2004 or 2005, it would have been seen as the next Lost. Oh well. I knew this going into the movie the first time and I figured most of the oddities in the movie were loose ends from the pilot. Having seen the movie for the second time, many of these apparent sidetracks make much more sense. I recommend watching the movie again if you it only once and found yourself puzzled.

Have a look at this fan site which collects a number of theories, some convincing, others not. The same site lead me to this analysis which is quite close to how I saw the film. This analysis is excellent. They are both worth reading, but of course only if you have seen the movie.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coming down the mountain

In 2006, 11 people died while trying to summit Mt. Everest. One death, that of David Sharp, made headlines because forty climbers passed him as he was clearly in distress and many noted he was dying. Nick Heil's book Dark Summit explores the question of why this happened.

He begins with a lengthy, and engaging, discussion of how Everest was initially explored and conquered and how the commercial climbing industry grew over time. Heil keeps the pace moving, but clearly demonstrates the extreme physical toll and inherent danger of climbing the mountain. Temporary blindness, frostbite, and the loss of appendages are reasonably frequent outcomes of a climb. Everyone's blood thickens, slowing them down mentally and physically. The experiences fever dreams of Lincoln Hall, who came quite close to death but eventually made it down, are frightening.

Heil makes clear that it isn't just altitude that is difficult, the actual climb has its challenges as well. For some reason, I had pictured a basic trail winding its way up the mountain. Silly I know, but I don't climb mountains. While they are mentally and physically impaired that have to navigate a series of steps that require technical rock climbing.

After presenting the general experience of the climb, Heil eventually comes to argue that Sharp probably could not have been saved. He collapsed in an area where the climbers were already weak and they still had some treacherous terrain to navigate in order to return to safety. He notes that people could barely move themselves let alone a partially frozen one hundred and eighty pound man. This is quite convincing, although Heil also more disturbingly notes that people might not want to help because they would be giving their own chance to get to the top.

The point of the book is not to condemn or defend the commercialization of Everest, and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough to argue either way. People want to climb it and going with a commercial group is probably safer than going alone. The bigger mystery, which Heil, a climber himself, cannot explain, is why people put themselves through so much misery for such a goal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Some sci-fi goodness

John Clute's essay on Peter Hamilton's new book, his take on space opera and the experience of reading space opera and very large fantasy novels is well worth a read.

Sandstorm reviews gives the new Richard Morgan fantasy novel high marks. I saw somewhere else that this book would shake up the typical fantasy reader. Maybe it is the gay characters? Not a lot of those in fantasy novels. Anyway, this one is now on my must read list. It must wait behind the massive Reaper's Gale, next on my giant fantasy book reading list.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Covers are fragile things you should know by now

I've been a bit whatever about the new REM release. The acoustic cover below of the Editor's Munich is solid, which makes me feel a little better. On the downside (or is the upside?) Peter Buck looks like Jerry Garcia.

Back in the day, REM was known for its covers, rocking with some Aerosmith, Pylon, Velvet Underground, Roger Miller, and CCR. Dare we hope for more? Box of Rain perhaps?

A Voyage Long and Strange

In his latest travel/history, A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz explores the paths of the explorers and would-be settlers and exploiters of North America as well as how the current populace sees and uses the past. The historical elements of the book provide a basic history of people and experiences with which modern American readers should be more familiar. While most of these people were at least somewhat familiar, some were completely new to me.

One of these was the sad story of the brief Huguenot colonization of Florida, which met its demise at Spanish swordpoint. Fleeing general persecution in Europe, the Huguenots were found, ejected from La Caroline (near Jacksonville, FL.) The Spanish then founded St. Augustine nearby. Horwitz meets a evangelical who seeks to drive out the spirits of the Spanish evil, as well as National Park staff who find that the local right-wingers get upset when they find that the cool sounding Fort Caroline park, in fact commemorates the French. This book is in some ways the opposite of Confederates in the Attic. That book dealt with history that is still lived today by a wide swath of people, while this one deals with history that is nearly forgotten or grossly misunderstood.

Horwitz closes with a discussion about national myth and how we remember what fits the myth and not what doesn't. Because so many of the stories in the book don't jibe with the hard-scrabble story of the hard-working Pilgrims, they are ejected from the national story. Of course as the national self-image changes, it is possible that the stories of Cabrillo, John Smith and Jamestown and the French and Spanish colonization of Florida will become more important stories for everyone.

Horwitz introduces his book and its genesis on He seems a rather cheerful fellow, which may explain his apparent ease at meeting and bonding with locals. He talks about his participatory history where he tries to get a feel for the past by direct experience, including his joining up with some Spanish conquistador re-enactors. While it isn't as extensive as his re-enactor writing in Confederates in the Attic, it is quite funny.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A pair of good movies

One of the (admittedly minor) upsides of never seeing movies in the theatre is that I am no longer the fall guy for movies. By the time it gets to DVD, I have heard from plenty of people about good and bad movies. I also know who to ignore by this point. So my most recent viewings had high marks from people with reasonable rating histories.

Michael Clayton follows a few well worn Hollywood paths, but it has such fine acting, pacing and construction that in the end I really enjoyed it. I've tended to view Clooney as playing a similar character in many of his movies, but he plays a burned out lawyer well here. Tom Wilkinson is great, as is Tilda Swinton. The plot twists are interesting, so try not to read too much about the movie. Some may question whether the ending fits the rest of the film, but I accepted it. There is something to be said for avoiding the new and doing the classic very well, that is what director Tony Gilroy did with this movie.

Despite the exotic setting and use of Mayan language, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is also a particularly well crafted chase film. The movie was overshadowed by his drunken anti-Semitic rantings, but if you can put that aside, you have a good movie on your hands. Newcomer Rudy Youngblood is excellent as Jaguar Paw, a forest dwelling Mayan whose village is attacked by city dwelling Mayans. The contrast between bucolic and urban reminded me of the Tolkein anti-industrialization message in Lord of the Rings. The city is a complex and cultured place, but also one where the effete elite titter while their functionaries commit brutal acts. Jaguar Paw manages to escape and is led on a not so merry chase that ends poorly for many. The film has a reputation for violence and it should. That said, it is no more violent than films like Eastern Promises and is similarly serious about the violence.

The oddest show on television

While there are plenty of shows that can lay claim to be stranger than the norm. Few come close to the sheer oddity of Fishing With John. Although it is played 100% straight as a fishing with the stars sort of thing, it is actually an odd piece of performance art complete with narration laded with false facts ("How deep is the ocean? Nobody really knows for sure.") Aside from the strangeness of the narration, we have the generally reluctant celebrities going on fishing trips. Have a gander at the first part of episode one, which involves Jim Jarmusch fishing for sharks. I like this bit from one with Willem Dafoe going ice fishing. The last line is classic.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

An embarrassment of riches

I am in the middle of three great non-fiction books at the moment. This is generally SOP for me, but I am switching off chapter by chapter with these it seems.

Illicit by Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim is a international relations big think book that I am surprised hasn't gotten more play. You could call it the Things Thomas Friedman Leaves Out when he talks about trade and globalization. The book is about how criminal networks and enterprises use the liberalized trade system to move nuclear technology, slaves, body parts, drugs and other things that should not be traded easily throughout the system. I've only read the few chapters, but it is already an perspective changing book.

Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange is yet another excellent blend of education and humor. He follows the paths of the lesser known explorers (Viking, Spanish, and French) who visited America before the coming of the Pilgrims. I particularly liked his coverage of De Soto, whose destructive path serves as proof point for Black Legend proponents. While trying to find the actual path De Soto took, he finds that multiple paths have been claimed despite no evidence that DeSoto ever visited. I suppose the Washington Slept Here syndrome is more wide spread than I thought.

I was a tad concerned about the subtitle of Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season. Being unaware (aside from Into Thin Air) about any controversies regarding climbing on the mountain, I worried the book might be too specialized for my tastes. Instead it presents a study of the people who run the commercialized climbing of Mount Everest as well as a neatly encapsulated history of the sport. I haven't gotten to the controversy part, but I find that author Nick Heil has written the book without excessive jargon and with a mind to keep the story moving.

Only the lonely can play

I finally saw No Country for Old Men and I was surprised at how much I liked it. I thought the book was okay, but marred but an overlong and out of place philosophical ending. I'm not a McCarthy hater, I loved the Road and Blood Meridian, but this book just didn't work for me.

The movie though works almost perfectly. Javier Bardem is astounding in his protrayal of the wicked Chigurgh, but I really liked the movie's emphasis on loneliness. Josh Brolin Llwelyn starts alone in a vast West Texas desert, but he becomes truly alone once he is pursued by Chigurgh. Wherever he goes, even within cities, the scene is devoid of people, or quickly becomes devoid thanks to Chigurgh. The final lines of the movie reinforce this as well. Such a good movie.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A really good song

Did you know that British super-DJ John Peel had a favorite song and that he loved it so much he had a lyric engraved on his grave stone? Said song is Teenage Kicks by the Undertones.

Are you kidding me? You must be kidding me.

Mother of Moses, there is a Ayn Rand dating site?!?! This is probably all for the good, as now they can date each other and not bother regular people. Being more open, I like the idea of a book related dating service, just not a crazy book date service.

On the site, the Objectivists proclaim their joy that Atlas Shrugged is ninth on the list of our nation's favorite books, according to Harris Interactive. Most interesting, and perhaps strange, is that our nation's favorite novel is Gone with the Wind. The Bible takes the top spot, natch.

But back to Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged is on the list of favorite novels? I can't decide if it is worse that the Da Vinci Code is on the list. I suppose Atlas Shrugged is better as it is a novel of ideas. Crazy, bad ideas, but ideas nonetheless.

The rest of the list is no surprise as it includes Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

This via Megan McCardle who also links to the even more crazy Vegetarians Are Evil. Be careful, every moment spent on this site makes you a little bit less intelligent.

Monday, April 07, 2008

New Ellroy?

It would appear that the third and final volume of James Ellroy's American trilogy will see the light of day this summer. Called Blood's A Rover, it will be set from 1968 to 1972. While I adored American Tabloid, I found his writing style in the Cold Six Thousand to be a bit hard to take. In any case, I can't miss a new one by Ellroy.

The LA Times has a piece on his varied luck in Hollywood.

It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid

Liz Phair is writing a novel?! I saw her book review in the NYT, but I missed that this was the beginning of her new career in letters. Well, she is certainly well capable of capturing some incredible emotion in her work, let's see what she can do with the written word.

A missed opportunity

Greg Bear's Quantico is a quick, frightening read which is actually a little hard to recommend. It is a cautionary tale of politics, laced with near future science fiction technology aspects crammed into a thriller framework. The first two elements are excellent, while the thriller element is strong, but suffers from the common pitfalls of thrillers.

As I noted earlier, the book paints a disturbing picture of the escalating technology and practice arms race between counter-terror cops and terrorists, as well as the resultant decline in civil liberties. It also has a number of fascinating ideas for future counter-terror weapon systems. For these reasons the book is well worth reading.

On the downside, it is forced to meet the needs of the thriller genre, which include missed opportunities to stop the nefarious plot, our heroes placed in danger and a conclusion with a race against time and even greater dangers (this particular conclusion featured one very cool weapon though.) Now Bear does a decent to good job with this. He successfully cloaks just what is going on for most of the novel, but his climatic action doesn't rise above the pack.

This would have been a far stronger book if it had dialed down the action and focused on how an extended domestic anti-terror campaign affects those that fight it and the society in which it is fought. As it is, thriller readers will want more thrills and those looking for social analysis will flip ahead to get past the action.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


I'm sad to see that translator Robert Fagles has died. I thought his translation of the Odyssey was excellent. I'd like to read his other translations of classical works.

Simon Winchester has a new book coming out about Joseph Needham, the English historian of Chinese science. His multi-volume Science and Civilization in China always caught my eye in the used bookstores. There are few books so epic in subject and length. Procuring it new is none too cheap. Each of the seven volumes will run you $100 to $200 on Amazon. For those with short attention spans, Robert Temple has a single volume (and much cheaper) version.

NPR has a funny story about Eric Cartman. I still think the Cartman-centric Scott Tenorman must die is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. And it has Radiohead in it.

Bob Segar's Still the Same would make for a good unironic indie cover. So would Against the Wind, although we already have the excellent Highwaymen version.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

There's a roadblock on the corner, they put from time to time

I am in the middle of Greg Bear's Quantico and I wonder why I haven't heard more about it. It is a bleak techno thriller set in the second decade of the 21st century with a US chastened by the Iraq experience and now trying to deal with multiple terrorist organizations, both domestic and international, within its borders.

Maybe it will go horribly wrong in the back half, but so far I find a scary look at a possible future. It is more frightening than the Execution Channel because that one seems a bit more over the top. Bear's protagonists are FBI agents, who have as much trouble from other government agencies as they do from the terrorists. The principal plot concerns biological weapons and involves right wing abortion clinic bombers and radical Islamists.

What I like best is how Bear quietly shows the creeping authoritarianism that results from the counter terror war. Agents make offhand references to the mandatory shutdown systems that police cars can use to stop any vehicle, the official hidden prison system in the US, the increased use of renditions and other little signs that all is not well in the Republic.

Techno-fans will love all his ideas about new training at Quantico, the arms race between criminals and cops that includes robots (like this one?) and of course biological weapons.

I suppose it could be that this is a thriller and Bear is a science fiction author, so his typical audience just wasn't interested. Or it could be it is too dark. I guess I will wait and see.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Ain't nobody that spies like us

Larry Devlin is a retired CIA official, who was Chief of Station in the Congo in the 1960s. As such he saw the rise and death of Patrice Lumumba, the Civil War, the Katanaga Crisis and the Rise of Mobutu. His recent book Chief of Station describes his time there. He does provide his viewpoint on a number of pressing issues including the death of Lumumba. He says DC ordered his death, but the local US presence resisted and eventually local rivals assassinated him. On Mobutu, he discusses how he helped Mobuto rise to power.

Given the disastrous reign of Mobutu, it is somewhat surprising to hear that Devlin thinks he was the best possible option. Devlin is an un-apologetic wide focus Cold Warrior believing the US had to fight the Soviets wherever they expanded. This viewpoint is worth exploring and understanding and it is the ancestor of the view that the US must take action wherever possible and ally with bad people to serve larger policy goals. Reading this provides context for thinking about the relationship with Pervez Musharraf.

While his views on the major events make for interesting reading, much of the book consists of dry accounts of how CIA operatives went about their business. While at first this is fascinating, it becomes a bit tedious as the book goes on. This makes the ideal reader for the book difficult to determine. Those with a keen interest in international affairs are likely to be well read in intelligence operations, so they may just want to hear Devlin's views on what happened in Congo. Those looking for true life spy stories will find value, but may tire of the repetition.

Devlin discusses the book here on NPR .

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Making nerd boys sad

Given that science fiction novels nearly always make silly movies, a neophyte is at the helm and they plan to squeeze two novels into a single movie, I have little hope that the upcoming Hyperion movie will be any good. I will watch of course, and maybe weep. Seriously, is there anyway the Shrike is going to look cool at all? And yes, LA Confidential proves you can reduce a book to its philosophical essence, but TWO of them? I doubt it.

Interview with Pamela Druckerman

I recently interviewed Pamela Druckerman, author of Lust in Translation. In the book, she examines how people in different cultures and countries cheat, and how they and their spouses feel and react to adultery. I reviewed the book here.

What was the greatest challenge in researching adultery?

Not having an affair myself! Seriously, my biggest problem was finding
reliable sex statistics. There are a lot of bad statistics out there - put
out by condom companies, women's magazines, and self-described sex-experts. Most of these numbers have no statistical significance, they're really just for fun. I had to search very hard to find scientific data. And even those numbers are suspect, because you can never be sure people are telling the truth about what they do in private. And in many countries, including most in the Muslim world, there are no statistics whatsoever.

You note the different approaches to adultery found in different cultures. Has the reaction to your book differed in different countries as well?

Because the book is about infidelity, a lot of Americans assumed it's a self-help book, and were disappointed to discover that it's more of a neutral, sociological look at the topic. Reviewers on posted warnings like, "PLEASE do NOT look to this book for help...DO NOT TRUST Pamela Druckerman." At book readings, women asked me how to find a partner who'll be faithful. (I suggested avoiding traveling salesmen and men from Togo, which has the highest known level of male infidelity).

Outside the U.S. there wasn't even a whiff of moralizing, and no one seemed
to expect the book to guide them in real life. An Argentine reporter wanted
to know if there might be a link between adultery and global warming. A
British newspaper labeled me "Mrs. Infidelity" and had me pose for glamour
shots. There was a lot of interest in Ireland, because I think people there
are really eager to talk about their new sexual freedom. People everywhere
also wanted to hear more about our odd adultery culture in the U.S. I think
the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal created an appetite for this.

Was there any sense that any globalized sexual culture is emerging?

I did notice some trends, but they don't always apply to even the middle
classes in every country. In Asia I noticed a Western-style shift to
women wanting (and sometimes even getting) more equality in their
relationships. This was particularly true among university-educated
women and those with professional jobs. In Indonesia I had dinner with
a group of early 30-something women who model themselves on the women
from Sex and the City. They definitely looked the part and had the
right handbags. But in the course of the meal, it emerged that one of
their worries was that their husbands or boyfriends would become
polygamists. I think there are some shared ideas floating around, but
they bend to meet the local rules too.

The wide variety of countries and cultures in the book made for greatreading. Were there any cultures or countries you hoped to cover but could not or ones that ended up not making the cut?

I didn't go to India or Brazil. If there's a part-two, I'll head to those places first. I couldn't go everywhere, so I tried to find a good mix of countries. I also went to places where I had friends or contacts, or where I could at least get by in the local language. I hadn't been back to Japan since I studied abroad there while I was in college!

Did any of the other countries show the range of sexual cultures you identified in the United States?

All of them did. Sexual cultures change according to age, social class, profession, ethnicity, even neighborhood. I spent some time trying to carve this up and understand it in America, and I could have done the same in Russia, England, China and elsewhere. But to make the topic manageable, and to make sure my samples of people around the world were comparable, I mostly looked at middle-class people in cities. Believe it or not, not that much had been written about these populations. Anthropologists studying sexual cultures tend to look at college students or native peoples, not dentists.

In your epilogue you raise the hope that the U.S. might learn from other countries to make adultery less traumatic. Do you think the marriage industrial complex will help or hinder such a shift?

Most therapists aren't really moral innovators. They reflect the biases of
the culture in which they work. For instance, they're often comfortable with
the idea cheating will end a marriage, whereas a therapist in another
country wouldn't accept that idea so easily.

There's even a movement now in American therapeutic circles to identify
therapists who are specifically pro-marriage, rather than agnostic about
whether the couple stays together. The idea is that couples in crisis need
someone to give them hope and guide them toward the light, rather than
having a neutral arbitrator. But that's a small group.

Finally, you note that the post-World War 2 generation had a much different view of adultery than which prevails today. How do you see it changing in the next 20 years?

I think Americans are becoming more accepting of the idea that it's natural
to be attracted to someone other than your spouse, and that this doesn't
mean your marriage is flawed, or that you're slipping down a chute toward
adultery and divorce. After all, idea that cheating automatically triggers
divorce is new. It only really started in the 1970s, when it got easier to
divorce, and women started working more. By the 1980s divorce was really out
of control. We're cooling off from that period, and realizing that it's
possible to work through even really big problems. We've seen the
alternative, and it's often worse.

Spin State

Spin State is proof that you don't have to be British to write great science fiction today. Chris Moriarty's book is set a few hundred years hence with Earth largely abandoned due to environmental collapse and humans being joined by genetically engineered humans and AIs on the various colonies and stations. The book initially appears to be similar to Altered Carbon, with a bio-engineered soldier attempting to solve a mystery.

While Altered Carbon became a California hardboiled mystery, Spin State is more Le Carre in space. The main character, Catherine Li, is sent by the commander of the UN military to investigate the death of the UN's leading scientist. Li is worried because the scientist died on her homeworld, a world where her secrets might cost her job. What's more, she finds the planet a hotbed of intrigue with an AI, the communitarian Syndicates, space Wobblies and mining companies all trying to win her allegiance. Much of the story involves Li going on clandestine missions or trying to negotiate with parties that may be trying to kill her. It makes for engaging reading.

While readers can probably guess the various alliances at play and who Catherine's ultimate allies will be, the final revelation of the dead scientist's plan is a surprise and it neatly ties into what we know about the world that Moriarty created. One downside to the novel is that she leaves some interesting questions unanswered. For example, the lingua franca in this future is Spanish. Ok, why? The U.S. took a shellacking in the environmental crisis, but why not Mandarin? A number of details are introduced but I suppose answers will come in future volumes.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


This post is for Misfits fans only. Using the lounge track versions of Misfits songs by Sam Elwitt and the Nutley Brass, a fellow with the YouTube name Stigsneddon sings along. For those familiar with the band, this is pretty amusing. I've posted Some Kinda Hate below because it is the Misfits tune that is already almost a lounge track. If you want more, here is Astro Zombies, Last Caress, and Hate Breeders. His Hate Breeders has strange echoes of Baltimora's Tarzan Boy.

Another one for the pile

Nonanon loves the Meaning of Night. This is one of those books that I pick up every time I see it, read the back and the blurbs, ponder and put back. Super-dense novels always give me pause, but her review has me excited to read it now.

I could have had a Chandler!

Despite loving hard-boiled detective stories, I didn't read a Raymond Chandler novel until last week. I had always assumed that the novels would be great from a historical perspective, but would feel creakily out of date. That was my experience with Erksine Childers Riddle of the Sands, which probably launched the thriller as a genre.

Man, was I wrong. Farewell My Lovely stands up next to any crime novel written, today or sixty years ago. After reading it, I see that nearly every PI crime writer has tried, and few have mastered, the cynical voice and outlook of Chandler.

His wonderful style allows you to look past some issues with his plots. While the book's overarching narrative made sense at the end, a lot of the detail was bizarre. At one point, PI Phillip Marlowe puts himself in a extremely dangerous position merely to pass on a note. Part of Marlowe's character is his dubious decision-making, but what started as an evocative scene fell a little flat.

I now think back on all the second-rate novels I read instead of Chandler and wonder at my book selection process. On the upside I still have a number of great books ahead of me.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Maybe he's caught in the legend

There are some good looking books on the horizon.

Steve Coll, author of the indispensable Ghost Wars, has a new book out on the Bin Laden family and Saudi society. Called the Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in an American Society, I hope it gets more coverage than previous books on the Saudi-American relationship did. If you have any interest at all in the US relationship with Afghanistan, then Ghost Wars is a must read. If Bin Ladens is half as good it will still probably be one of the best international relations books of the year.

Michael Chabon, one of my favorite writers, appears to reference my favorite REM song with his latest Maps and Legends. The book is a defense of genre, for which I can only say, huzzah!

Foreign policy writer Fareed Zakaria has a new one called the Post-American World. This would be interesting to read along with Parag Khanna's recent Second World. Fans of declinist literature will have their hands full.

Finally, Neal Stephenson is going back to classic scifi. There is not much information on it, but Nerd World has some details.