Thursday, May 29, 2008


I consider myself a fan of crime fiction. This year is the first time I have read Raymond Chandler, which makes me a stupid fan of crime fiction. Having just finished the Long Goodbye, I think I will have to lay off crime books as all will pale in comparison. This book has provided the blueprint for countless following volumes, but it is well written enough to appeal to those who normally look askance at the genre sections of the store.

I view the downfall of Chandler's followers as drawing the wrong lessons from his books. Everyone has hard drinking loner PIs who turn a critical eye at society and particularly the powerful, but Chandler's Marlowe, particularly in the Long Goodbye, has a strong moral code that isn't just character detail but is critical to the story and it's development. The inherent critique of society is all the stronger for the near complete failure of others to live to any code at all.

Chandler's vision of the world isn't as starkly dark as that of James Ellroy or Jim Thompson, but his characters tend to be as venal as any found in those more explicit authors. His world is more depressing as it seems more realistic.

For an interesting study of the creation of Long Goodbye, read this.

Some movies are better than others

American Beauty (the film, not the Grateful Dead album) always rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn't understand why until I watched Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Both films critique elements of American society, suburbia in Beauty's case and the media in Ace, but American Beauty allows the viewer to assume superiority while Wilder holds up a mirror.

American Beauty allows that there are many unfortunate people out there who follow some suburban dream, but rebels like Lester Burnham ( and by extension the viewer) don't have to put up with it. Viewers can even feel sorry for themselves as Burnham is martyred by the forces of hatred.

Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum is a hustler from the get-go who takes advantage of a human tragedy in order to create enough buzz to get a job at a New York newspapers. With just a few (generally pathetic and tragic) exceptions, every character in the movie is out to take advantage of the situation, whether to make money, gain power or to get a few moments on the radio. It is a ugly portrait of a problematic part of the American character.

You can argue whether or not the portrait is fair, or even if the naked pursuit of self-interest is all bad, but Ace in the Hole doesn't allow the viewer the opt-out of the criticism or to have knowing conversations about the horrors of the suburbs. So it shouldn't surprise that American Beauty was a hit, while Ace in Hole did so poorly that Wilder was docked pay on his next movie.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


YouTube is today's MTV, a place that actually provides music videos. And the new Weezer video is YouTube's Money For Nothing, a video that pleases the addict with its numerous references. My personal favorites are the inclusion of Miss South Carolina and K-Fed and the peanut butter jelly time banana. But there is so much more to enjoy. And yes, South Park made a similar joke, but this is better, as the YoutTube stars get in a few digs of their own.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A bit of this and that

This video is crude, vulgar and will probably offend people, but man, is it funny. Especially if you have already seen Downfall.

KNRK is playing this bit of pop pleasure, by the band Carolina Liar. It has that infectioness that will lead me to listen to it fifty times in next five days, after which I will put it aside. It will be fun while it lasts though.

Here is an interesting blog post that debates the pros and cons of African American Book sections at the bookstore. Borders seems to shelve black authors in this section. I went there looking for Edward Jones's Lost in the City (probably my favorite short story collection) and probably wouldn't have found it without the computer guide.

Check out Citizen Reader hating on the Randy Pausch book. As her commenters note, the book does smell of Albom.

The new Scott McClellan (if you have forgotten, a Bush White House Press Secretary) has a dishy memoir coming out. The Politico has a preview of the nastiness.

Speak about destruction

Back in the high school days, a teacher probably showed you a movie with car crash victims or some horrifying images of lesion studded genitalia to warn you of the dangers of bad driving and over-frequent sexual behavior. Like those teachers, Mark Lynas with his book Six Degrees is trying to scare you and your government into shaping up.

The book describes what would happen to the Earth as the average surface temperature increases, degree by degree (Celsisus.) Each degree presents a new list of horrors including rapid desertification, super storms, the collapse of food production, the death of the oceans to the possibility of mass extinction.

While the first few degree changes are merely terrible, Lynas notes that the shift in temperature can create positive feedback loops where the build-up of carbon allows for even faster accumulation of carbon in the environment. For example, as the temperature rises, sea ice will increasingly disappear. That sea ice reflects quite a bit of energy back into space, so as it goes, more energy can build up on the earth raising the temperature further.

The book is aimed at someone reasonably current on science, but who is not an expert. His emphasis is on the processes and then the likely to possible results of the processes. He does mention specific problem areas (Pakistan running out of water, Florida disappearing, the Sahara creeping into Iberia) but he doesn't paint lurid disaster scenes. So don't go looking for them.

While the possible futures are terrifying enough, the real shock of the book is that Lynas says we have about seven years to start curtailing carbon use. While this is meant to inspire us into action, my reaction is like that of Hudson's in Aliens. It is hard to see the world getting in line behind an effective response in that time line. Still, if you are looking for a reason to see why we should be talking about carbon instead of Iran, this book will do it.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Testament is a lesser known film that should stand with the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe and the War Game as essential films about the dreadful, yet fascinating, subject of nuclear war. Testament nicely complements these classics, with its focus on a single family.

The movie is set in a fictional San Francisco exurb, far enough away to avoid any blast damage, but close enough to lose family members and to fall under radioactive fallout. With the exception of a flash of light, we never see any of the physical effects of the bomb. Instead, the focus is on the emotional, as the radiation slowly kills the town. The movie is as understated as is possible. There are no explosions, no riots, and no (physical) violence.

Coming within a year of each other, Testament is likely to be compared to the Day After. The image I recall is the jogger vaporized by the atomic blast wave. From Testament, I will always remember a mother telling her dying daughter what it is like to be in love. The focus is entirely on the emotional and daily lives of the survivors. We see them as they face the realization that they are unlikely to survive, and they press on with what is left.

Unlike most nuclear war films, there is little to no suspense. There is no attempts to stop or mitigate the bomb damage. The war just happens and it is never clear why. In truth it doesn't matter. There is no horror either, at least, not psychological or physical horror. There is a kind of spiritual horror as the characters try to deal with impending doom.

While from a movie perspective, it is closest to On the Beach, I think it is best compared to Connie Willis's the Doomsday Book, another book which focuses on grappling with an impossible situation. This movie is recommended to all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Hooray for summer

Heed the words of Grandaddy.

Packer on Iraq

George Packer, author of Assassin's Gate, has an World Affairs article that is well worth your time. He argues that for those Americans who are not serving or do not have family in Iraq, it is entirely an abstraction and means to attack the other side. The most disturbing element is how people don't seem to want to understand.

The Iraq War had its share of bad or indifferent journalism. But there was a huge distinction between the failure to expose the administration’s falsehoods prior to the war and the effort to report the truth in Iraq once it began. The press redeemed in Baghdad what it had botched in Washington. If the names of the war’s best reporters aren’t widely known today and will never be recalled alongside their legendary predecessors in Vietnam, it’s partly because the public—especially the portion of it that generates and consumes opinion on a regular basis—is less susceptible to the power of complex facts than it was in 1963.

I am as guilty as everyone else on the last point. Too quick to jump to conclusions and unwilling to spend the time to digest all the information. It's unfortunate.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Anne Applebaum delivers a brutal dis to Nicholson Baker and his Human Smoke. She likens him to Dan Brown:

And the reader, both of The Da Vinci Code and Human Smoke, is duly flattered. Read Brown's book and you, all by yourself, can decide whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene! Read Baker's book and you, all by yourself, can decide whether World War II was worth fighting! You too can get the facts and make up your mind! And never mind that the facts have been chosen selectively, even randomly, by writers who do not understand the context in which they originally appeared, and indeed have deliberately tried not to understand it. Brown and Baker are not "experts," after all. They are, to put it politely, artistes.

What may be my least favorite fantasy novel, Wizards First Rule, will now be a full season series on ABC. I'm curious as to how they will handle all the S&M torture scenes. Not curious enough to watch, but still, that will be a challenge.

If you like thoughtful film criticism, what are you doing here? Read these takes on the three Indiana Jones films.

Chuck Palahniuk is upping his gross out ante with his new book, which features suicide via gang bang.

Speaking of fantasy novels, Steven Erikson's Reaper's Gale is a return to form after a disjointed volume. Which is to say, if you have gotten to the middle, keep going. If you haven't engaged by volume 2, pull out.

Barack Obama reads Fareed Zakaria...shouldn't you?

There are those who claim they love all chocolate, but can they handle the Belgian dark chocolate....anus? For a limited time only, also available in solid silver. For some thoughts on things you might actually want to put in your mouth, have a look at Joanna's take on our recent cherry candy tasting.

Remember Faces of Death? It was faked.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

New iteration of a great book blog

Nonfiction Readers Anonymous is dead, long live the Citizen Reader. Nonanon was a great blog that covered only nonfiction, from a reader/librarian's perspective. The new site already brings the same goodness, but now with fiction! Add it to your RSS today.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reading older science fiction

I started reading The Mote in God's Eye, one of the best regarded space operas I have yet read. I have yet to get to the meat of the story (first contact) but there are a few distracting elements. For one, the book was written in 1974 and postulates a US-USSR union that eventually falls apart. Not a big deal, we can just pretend it is a US-Chinese union like in Serenity.

I find it a little more distracting that the space navy is clearly modeled on Horatio Hornblower stories. Crews are swapped higgeldy piggeldy, the most valuable crewmember is known as the "sailing master," midshipman start aboard ship in their early teens, captains can be 25, and the Captain goes around saying things like "Damn your eyes!." David Weber's Honor Harrington books must owe some debt here, although Webers books are even more Hornblower/ Aubrey-Matruin in space than Mote in God's Eye, which uses the material more as background.

Like some other authors from the period (e.g. Chester Himes) Niven and Pournelle want to use some swears, but apparently the eff bomb wasn't kosher. The frak solution was yet to be developed, so instead of saying "Fuck em," characters say "Rape em." This isn't a case of future speak since aside from technology, everyone talks like 19th century people, which makes me think they should have said "bugger them!" Fuck em, while clearly hostile is non-specific in its outcome. Rape em has a much more menacing connotation even than, say, go to hell, which is also fairly hostile.

Fortunately, all of this is background. The story itself remains excellent and worth reading, so far at least. Unlike mysteries, which are (usually) set in a current or historical setting, science fiction creates futures, and those futures can seem silly to later generations. I recall a Norman Spinrad novel, written in the hippie days, where one future rebel type goes around saying "Come the revolution!" I prefer the current manner of making future humans in many ways alien, as our society would appear to our ancestors.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Some book discussion

Good in the last few days. Peter Wehner talks to Steven Waldman, author of the very good Founding Faith about religion and politics. On a similar note, Cato Institute Libertarian talks with Jeff Sharlett whose new book the Family comes out tomorrow. The book, about a fundamentalist elite secretly guiding US policy looks like conspiracy theorist fodder, but the blurbs come from a number of reliable individuals and Sharlett presents his ideas well in the video as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

You can come back baby, indie rock never forgets

Hmmm, not only is Liz Phair working on a new novel, but Exile In Guyville is getting the re-release treatment and she is making a new album in the "DIY spirit" of her much loved debut. I am perfectly happy to pretend the last few albums were made by Bizarro Liz Phair and that we can get more songs like the one below.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hey, is Dee Dee home?

Among my books on deck (that is to say, not my next read, but the books vying for that coveted book after next spot) is Martin Torgoff's Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000. It will be a change of pace at the very least. In thinking about the book, I tried to think of some of the best songs about drugs and came up with the Lemonheads Drug Buddy and the Heartbreaker's Chinese Rocks. Neither paints a terribly attractive picture. Videos below.

Pennsylvania Avenue

John Harwood and Gerald Seib, who write for the NY Times and the WSJ respectively, have written a book called Pennsylvania Avenue, which provides a series of profiles about power brokers in todays Washington DC. The book's meta-story is that DC is intensely gridlocked and that certain actors like lobbyists, fundraisers and finally cooperative Congressfolk are finding ways to bridge gaps and get work done in the city.

The book consists of a series of profiles of actors who find ways to make things work. Some like Ken Duberstein are directly involved in policies and making them happen. Others like David Rubenstein, founder of the Carlyle Group and Lea Berman, the social secretary, show more of how things happen, as opposed to how compromise is found, in the City. The Rubenstein story is illustrative about how money has gained greater power in DC and the Berman story is centered on a state visit from China and the wide range of protocol and signaling that takes place in a state dinner.

The authors have a lot of experience in DC and clearly have a lot of access. They interview all of the people in the book and get their viewpoint on a wide range of issues. Reading Karl Rove's take on politics is interesting, and good to read in his own words. I also liked the optimistic stories of ideological enemies finding ways to work together in Congress. This book will have the greatest appeal to political junkies who want an insider's look at how things are actually accomplished in the city. Those with only a cursory interest will find less in this book.

You can listen to both of them talking to Diane Rehm here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How our food became bad

Fans of Fast Food Nation and the Omnivore's Dilemma will want to watch Mark Bittman at the Entertainment Gathering. Those who haven't read those books should watch the video and then go get the books. He provides a discussion of how our food became so bad for us.

I have Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which will open your eyes to the range of vegetarian choices. It will also tell you how to properly cook a number of vegetable you have probably turned into a bland mush

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Odds and sods

Here are a few links while I ponder Pennsylvania Avenue and Armageddon.

Walter Kirn's Up in the Air is being made into a film. Huzzah!

Bill McKibben says we better hurry with the global warming abatement or things are going to really start suckin'.

Speaking of suckin', take a look at the scary things one of John McCain's key advisers had to say about Georgia (Stalin's, not Jimmy Carter's.)

Do you want to hear more covers? Sure we all do. Have a gander at all these covers by Sonic Youth. The Beat on the Brat is quite good.

Good vid

I am really loving this Helio Sequence song at the moment. It makes me think of Wilco, the National, Band of Horses and maybe R.E.M. Bonus, the video is shot in many PDX locales. See what you can identify.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


There are so many books about the Second World War, it is difficult to know where to start. Max Hasting's Armageddon is a great choice for those wanting a serious, thoughtful book that isn't too dense for non-specialists, but is also takes strong stands that can inform those who are well-read in the subject. What will attract many is the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American, British, German and Soviet armies in 1944 and 1945. Also of great interest is the exploration of incidents that are not well known to Western readers.

Hastings constantly reinforces the scale and the intensity of suffering in World War 2. While we recall the Holocaust, we tend to ignore the full range of the horror of life in early 40s Europe. Hastings spends some time on one of the more controversial subjects, the sufferings of German civilians. The bombing of German cities does not generate the same level of controversy as the atomic bombing of Japan, and the wholesale rape of German (and Polish) women by the Red Army is practically unknown. The issue of collective guilt overlays this and makes it more difficult to discuss.

One incident that is well known in Germany and less known elsewhere was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. As the vengeful Red Army approached East Prussia, Gauleiter Erich Koch refused to evacuate civilians. Once the atrocities began piling up, the civilians began to be evacuated, but in much more dangerous conditions. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a liner loaded with up to 10,000 refugees when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There were survivors, but somewhere between five and seven thousand people drowned, making it the worst maritime disaster in history.

These deaths are but a small piece of the total loss of civilian German life. Hastings gives a figure of one million missing German civilians and a hundreds of thousands confirmed dead. Of course, the Germans had much more Russian civilian blood on their hands, a fact also little known in the West, but again, there is much more to this war than is commonly known in the West.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Been oversleeping on Monday, I don't care let's pretend that it's Sunday

Today I had jury duty, which I only remembered about 30 minutes before I had to be there. And I had to get three kids to two different schools and then run by work to pick up the summons. Needless to say I was late. I ended up being dismissed after a few hours. On the happy side, I read quite a bit of Max Hasting's astounding Armageddon.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan is one of my favorite writers, but thanks to negative reviews and the short length, I put off reading On Chesil Beach. Upon seeing it on the recommended shelf at the library, I took it home and read it an evening. While it doesn't stand up to some of his longer works, it delivers what I look for in McEwan's books, the intricate exploration of human emotion and relationships.

It is worth noting some of the reasons people dislike this book. This Guardian blog post nicely summarizes the main complaints. Set in early 60s English wedding night, McEwan made some anachronistic errors and many found the idea that this bridal couple could be so sexually inexperienced. To the first point, the book isn't historical fiction. It isn't supposed to immerse the reader in the era. To the second, the book does not seek to examine British society of that era, rather it uses the setting to show the terror of the wedding night for two people who don't really know each other.

McEwan ably depicts these two callow people who don't have the vocabulary or the assurance to express their feelings and find themselves making a series of bad decisions because they are too afraid or too unsure to do the right thing. There are a number of cliched elements, such as class differences, the possibility of abuse, in the story, but in the end, the story is worth reading to watch these two people try to connect. Our ironic generation doesn't do well with edifying stories of rectitude (aside, perhaps, from Goofus and Gallant,) I suppose we don't like to be told what to do. Instead we have stories which warn us about what not to do.

The most legitimate complaint is that this is a minor work. If you are expecting something with the depth of Atonement or the Innocent, you will be disappointed. If you want another tragic look at how people attempt to communicate with one another, then this will satisfy. And finally if you get cheesed off when an author says the Rolling Stones released a song earlier than in real life, maybe you should read a different book.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Speed Racer

Yikes, Peter Suderman really didn't like Speed Racer. But his review is entertaining at least. Read it instead of seeing the movie.

Speed Racer opens with a shot of a boy, perhaps six years old, trapped in a school desk, anxiously tapping his foot while daydreaming of a racecar-inspired fantasyland. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this spastic display of multicolored auto-mania. The whole film has been designed to look like a Hello Kitty on bad acid — splashes and swirls of garish color fuel every frame — and all of it flies by with the painful rapidity of a machine gun. It’s not so much a movie as a barrage of computer-generated twitches stitched together for an audience that has trouble paying attention through an entire commercial.

It's not too surprising as there isn't a lot with which to work with Speed Racer. Much better would be a film version of Star Blazers.

Founding Faith

Founding Faith is BeliefNet founder Steve Waldman's cry of Time Out in the culture wars. Using a wide of scholarly and original sources, Waldman stakes a middle ground between the hardcore secularists and the theocrats, aruguing that the Founders, on the whole, did want separation between church and state, but they were also not, on the whole, Deists, but were people of varying degrees of spirituality.

He also describes the role that faith played in colonial and revolutionary America, showing that the religious plurality played a role in the development both of the revolution and the development of political openness. While the nation was initially founded to either spread Anglicism (Virginia) or to allow Puritanism to flourish (New England), immigration rapidly turned the country into a religiously pluralistic society. The need to address the desire of many constituencies and the oppression of religious minorities (meaning Quakers and Baptists, as well as Catholics and Jews) in both North and South informed the thinking of political leaders about the need to prevent any religion from becoming the national establishment.

Waldman examines the faith lives of many of the Founders and describes how it influenced their political views, particularly on the question of religion and the state. Waldman pays the most attention to James Madison, who fought hardest for language about the separation of church and state. What may surprise many is that he thought this would strengthen religion, as a connection to the state would enervate and corrupt religion. Independent American religions have certainly thrived.

The book's chapters are short and are well balanced between the thoughts of the Founders and Waldman's analysis. The book itself is well written and relatively short (about 200 pages) which makes it less daunting than many other revolutionary histories.

Written from a center-left perspective, the book will most likely appeal to centrists of all stripes and those with limited investment in the culture war. By making concessions to both sides arguments, he may get the more open-minded to consider the views of the opposing side. For all readers, it is instructive to see the role that religion played in the development of the country. Religion is a taboo subject for many Americans and the general lack of understanding blinds us to the importance of religion in our country but also of other religions in other countries.

Majoring in Ayn Rand

John Allison, CEO of BBT, is out to raise the profile of the philosophy of Ayn Rand. To do so, he is funding classes in Ayn Rand studies around the nation. Listen to the story here at NPR. While I agree that the majority of American students outside of business courses are unaware of the importance and value of business to American life, I don't think Ayn Rand is going to convince them.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Like, from the toilet?

Idiocracy is hilarious but slightly scary. The movie presents what five centuries of what Susan Jacoby describes in Age of American Reason might bring us. As a bit of subversive performance capitalism, Brawndo is now actually being produced.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Books to movies

I watched Gone, Baby, Gone last night. It's a good movie that readers of the book and general viewers should like. Quite a bit of emphasis is placed on the realistic portrayal of Boston, but it is also just a good, twisting tale. I am happy that we now have two (and soon to be three) Dennis Lehane movies, but I think we won't be seeing any more Kenzie Gennaro movies. While I slightly prefer Darkness Take My Hand as a story, Gone, Baby, Gone has much more emotional heft then the other bookds, and it is the climax of the Kenzie-Gennaro story arc. While I would happily watch adaptations of any of these books, I suspect many would feel let down by some of the others.

The counterargument is what happened to the James Lee Burke novels featuring Dave Robicheaux. The first movie came from an early book, Heaven's Prisoners, which was okay, but really a harbinger of greatness to come. That one fell flat and just now are we seeing another Burke movie. This time they are using In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, a much better story. The focus on race relations will give it buzz as well. In a bit of pop culture referencing, the character of Confederate General John Hood is played by Levon Helm, who sang (but did not write) The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down.

Burke is more prolific, and has been writing longer, than Lehane, so there are lots of books from which to choose. Black Cherry Blues would work and so would Dixie City Jam, which has neo-Nazis as bad guys. Everybody hates neo-Nazis, well, except for this guy running for office in Indiana.

Speaking of books and movies, why, why, why are there no Alan Furst movies? People still like World War 2 and spies don't they? It's true, left-leaning European intellectuals are not that popular in Hollywood, but these are usually Nazi-fighting, spy left leaning European intellectuals. I suspect the main problem is that the books are so heavy on atmospherics and light on plot that they would be hard to translate. I wish someone would try.

Impacted on the surface

I had seen a lot of Internet buzz about Scott Sigler's Infected, so I put a library hold on it. Sigler started as a horror story pod cast author and Infected is his first dead tree book. While I will give a book I purchased or was given about 100 pages to prove itself, library holds get 50 pages at best. I gave Infected about 50 and put it in the back to the library pile. While it has some inventive and gag-inducing gore scenes, the writing is middling (which puts it ahead of most horror, admittedly) and the characters are uninteresting. This one may please gore-hounds, but others should look elsewhere.

Another reason I put this one down is that among the opportunity costs was holding off on reading the second half of Steven Erikson's mammoth Reaper's Gale. If you have been anxiously checking the Web for updates on the next George R.R. Martin, you should give Erikson a look. While his books lack the characterization of Martin and the byzantine political machinations, they are better on exploring the role and uses of power. And there is lots more ass-kicking.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Top kids books

A company called Renaissance Learning surveyed 3 million children to find out what they are reading, the Post reports. The story quotes some analysts that notes that the children prefer classics and that non-fiction rarely makes the list.

I would think that non-fiction is relatively specialized and it is a rare book that will rise to the top overall. On the other hand I have a hard time remembering non-fiction books I read as a child. Today, I (slightly) prefer nonfiction over fiction, but as a youngster it was mostly fiction. I am not sure if this is a demand or a supply issue. I tend to think it is a supply problem as writing for this age group has to be hard, and will probably leads to howls of protest from some interest group or other.

Here are the lists for each grade level.

Sometimes a fresh start helps

The other day, my buddy Matt and I were discussing various graphic novels we liked. Had he read Ultimates 2? Yes. Had I read Ex Machina? No, but I will. After touching on the likes of From Hell and Powers, he asked if I had read the New Frontier. When I said I started it, but put it down, he looked at me as if he never really knew me.

After that, I had to go back and try again, which I did yesterday. After the kids went to sleep I picked up the Absolute Edition of The New Frontier at the library. I then sat on the couch and read it cover to cover. I suppose the oddly angular 50s style of the art initially put me off, but once I tried again I loved it.

The story is about the genesis of the Justice League of America in the late 50s. The story includes the fall of prior heroes, McCarthyite persecution of super heroes, Superman and Wonder Man in Vietnam (shades of the Watchmen there,) the rise of John Henry to fight the KKK, secret government projects and much, much more. There are references aplenty, many of which are described in the notes to the Absolute Edition.

This one has something for everyone. Starting at the tail end of World War 2 and extending to the election of President Kennedy, the story paints a complex picture of life in the 50s; it brings in a huge number of characters; it has huge action scenes as well as interesting character development. Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman serve as story elements for the likes of the Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern, two characters who are central to the story.

If you can find it, read the Absolute Edition, otherwise the story is collected in two paperbacks.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Linky links

This is fun. SF Signal asked a number of scifi/fantasy authors which genre books had the best and worst endings. I have to go with Player of Games by Iain M Banks for best and Naked God by Peter Hamilton as the worst. It is still one of the finest space operas of all time, but that ending...sheesh.

The Guardian UK asks "Why are all the good historians right wing?" The focus of the article is the excellent (and to some) infuriating Niall Ferguson. His War of the World is sitting with a number of equally tantalizing histories on one of my shelves. He returns to his roots as an economic historian with his upcoming Rise of Money.

Do you enjoy disturbing videos? Well here is one, a particularly nasty scene from a Japanese horror movie. It is not safe for sanity.

Here horror novelist Joe Schreiber reflects on True Romance. If you haven't read his Eat the Dark, then by all means do so.

Tyler Cowen points to an interesting book on museums.

The Edgar winners have been announced. It went to John Hart's Down River. I find the Edgar to be a reliable award (although I really didn't like Jan Burke's Bones) and the book is set in North Carolina, a state to which I am partial.

Check this lengthy, hilarious review of one of John Ringo's books. I had thought the men's adventure genre had died a deserved death.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Back to History Reading Challenge

The year is 1/3 over and I am just 1/6 of the way through my Back to History Reading Challenge books. Whoops. I am hoping to get to most of them this year, but I am also going to swap some titles. One on my list is Dorothy Dunnett's Queen's Play*, and I am just not that into it. So I am going to replace it with Steven Waldman's Founding Faith, which I am very much into. Waldman starts from the premise that the left and right today misunderstand and misuse the faith lives of the founding fathers. He also discusses how the changing mix and character of religion in the colonies influenced the eventual Revolution and the formation of government. It is an well-written book that clearly explains the subject. So after this I will be 1/4 of the way there, yay!

*Speaking of Dunnett, a few years back, I picked up ten or so of her books at the Arlington (VA) library for about a quarter each. They had been taking up space for some time and I didn't think I would ever get to them, so I took them into Powells for trade. Along with a bunch of other odds and ends, I managed to get enough credit to buy a new copy of the boardgame Railroad Tycoon. Yahtzee! As if I didn't love Powell's enough already.

Free comic book day

Today is Free Comic Book Day, which means your local comics retailer has some free comics and maybe a few other things. Things From Another World had a stuffed version of their alien mascot. I picked up Ultimate Human, as I like the Ultimates universe as well as Pigeons From Hell. I'd like to say I bought it because Joe Lansdale adapted the story, but mostly I like the name. Comics are damn expensive these days ($3!) but they are fun.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Library of America Sale

The warehouses must be getting full over at the Library of America. Check out their sale, I picked up the Writing Los Angeles and the American Sea Writing anthologies for ten bucks each.

Forgive Us Our Debts

Among the nation's many problems, the national debt is one of the easiest to ignore. The consequences, although severe, are many years away and the news, cultural business, and political cycles tend to work in three months (at most) increments. In Forgive Us Our Debts: The Intergenerational Dangers of Fiscal Irresponsibility, Andrew Yarrow argues that we need to start fixing the debt problem now to avoid bequeathing our children a badly hobbled economy and decline in living standards.

Yarrow begins the book by describing how the United States shifted from a frugal nation to a spendthrift one. While many would look to the New Deal, Yarrow points to the deficit spending of Kennedy and in particular Johnson as starting the debt accumulation train. And, with the brief Clinton exception, the debt has continued to pile up. Making matters worse, the per capita Social Security burden is increasing and Medicare costs are exploding. So why do we care?

As Yarrow notes, the debt payments suck capital out of the market that could be invested in new businesses, new technologies, new infrastructure and other means of improving the overall economy. It is also leads to lower priority government spending, like National Parks, to decline with all of the attendant negative effects. What's worse, the debt will grow faster with the rise of other costs leading to severely compromised future for the next generations.

Many would simply say, take money away from the Pentagon. Yes, defense spending is high, and should be cut, but even taking it to zero would not be anywhere near enough. Defense is discretionary, meaning the government chooses to spend it or not (although the latter is a rarity) while Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are non-discretionary meaning they must be paid by statute. This chart shows that half of the spending by the government is non-discretionary and with a growing elderly population and with exploding health care costs, either the share is going to get bigger or taxes are going to go up.

Yarrow gives two alternatives: either the country wakes up now to make changes, or it will have to make emergency measures when the economy comes close to collapse. He lists a number of solutions, including tax reform, improved tax collection, heath care reform and political reform meant to lead to better budget decision-making. Given the scale of programs necessary to correct the problem, it seems more likely that the people and the leaders will react only when things get truly bad.

This book is a good starting point for understanding the problems at hand, while providing some potential solutions. The book is a concise survey, so it will not provide the final answer on how to fix health care, but it will educate the perplexed and help them to read further. The book will also force American readers to take a critical eye to our overwrought consumption and short term outlook.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Assorted fun

Happy May/Loyalty Day!

Richard K Morgan's Thirteen won the Arthur C Clarke Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel. Huzzah! You might want to put prior award winners on your science fiction reading list.

Beautiful Swimmers is a book I remember seeing on my parent's bookshelves, but never read myself. It concerns the blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay, a species gravely imperiled today. Some of my favorite memories of living near the Bay are of catching blue crabs off my grandmother's pier. The author, William Warner, died this week from complications related to Alzheimer's. Now would be a good time to pick the book up.

Here is a creepy story about a possible serial killer spree.

Not all nerds are like this, I swear.