Friday, June 27, 2008

Visiting Canada

I recently was in Canada for work and, as is my habit, I sought out books and candy. Sadly I had little success on either front (although it's not your fault Canada.)

On the candy front, most of the more regional candies like Coffee Crisp are already available in the US. Apparently this is big news to many, as it there was a petition going. On the plus side there was lots of good Cadbury action that we don't get that easily including the peanut butter caramel Wunderbar. My big failure was in seeing but not purchasing the bluntly named Eat More, a candy bar that proves the US is not alone in gluttony. Cybele at Candy Blog says it is OK.

On the book front, I kept looking for Toll the Hounds, a book by Canadian author Steven Erikson. The difficulty in finding it was probably related to the fact that it won't be published until next week. Whenever I visit out of the way used bookstores with low turnover I wish that I kept a list of authors of hard to find books. All sorts of treasures lurk in these places but I have to recall all the books, and in my dotage I have forgotten much. I did find the Drowning Towers by George Turner. This is a dark tale of 21st century Australia sinking into a Malthusian and rising ocean nightmare.

Makes a hard man humble

Poke Rafferty is probably the first mystery hero is also a travel writer. Following A Nail Through the Heart, Timothy Hallinan's the Fourth Watcher continues the adventures of the Bangkok based Asian-American. Poke who has succeeded in building a family finds himself in trouble with the Secret Service and unknown forces of the Bangkok underworld. Lucky for him, as part of research for a book he has been getting training from a former CIA operative in how to navigate the dark and secret corners of the town.

As you might imagine, things are more complicated that is immediately apparent. Turns out that multiple people are watching Rafferty and some have ties to people from nastier places than Bangkok. And some of them are after Rafferty for reasons about which he is unaware. The situation escalates and Rafferty ends up in a cat and mouse game with some unpleasant characters.

The obvious comparison of this series is to the Bangkok novels of John Burdett. While both are set in Bangkok, there is an important difference. Burdett's main character is Thai and the Thai viewpoint plays heavily in those book. Rafferty, as his daughter argues, is an American who wants to be Thai. That tension is a key part of his character as the various elements of his personality lead him in one direction or the other.

This book reminds me of the early Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke. Both feature a good hearted character who goes out of his way to help the weak, while making improbable threatening statements to very bad people. There is also clearly a focus on long term character development with a range of idiosyncratic personalities for Hallinan to grow before the reader's eyes.

(Possible Spoiler)I'm not positive about this, but I believe the title of the book is allusion to Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Third Man. In both cases the identity of the person is of great interest to the characters.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Coming straight out of Kansas

Because I am apparently a sap for marketing and other shiny objects, I gravitate towards new books. I am well aware of all the older books I have yet to read, but I still focus my attention on the new sections of the library and the bookstore. I really appreciate it when publishers reissue classic works that missed my attention the first time. So a hearty thanks to Picador for re-issuing the stellar Blackburn by Bradley Denton.

The story is a tragic tale of a creation of a monster, Blackburn, with whom the reader will find both sympathetic and repellent. Imagine a combination of Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Anton Chigurgh and you have Jimmy Blackburn. He starts life as a kind hearted boy in a small Kansas town who justs wants time to play with his family. His abusive father abuses him and schools him in the tools of violence. Unfortunately the other authority figures, including school and the law, destroy any chance that Blackburn will walk a legal line. Blackburn takes these lessons on the road where he identifies other liars, cheats and abusers and then kills them.

While the story is ultimately sad it also produces quite a few guffaws. Half of the chapters are titled with a victim number. In these stories, some terribly (or sometimes mildly) wicked person crosses Blackburn's path and Blackburn, generally reluctantly, decides they have to die. It his skewed views and often poetic means of dispatch that lead to the black humor.

The other chapters tell the story of Blackburn's life and how he came to be who he is. You witness the kindness morphing into a kind of vengeance that a real life Batman might employ. Blackburn's code is fairly simple (hurting the weak= death) is sometimes tested by complications. At one point he asks the unknowing victim of one criminal what would be the result of a hypothetical crime and the victim hyperbolically answers "He should be shot." You should avoid hyperbole with Blackburn as demonstrated by his near immediate execution of the offender.

Denton plays with the reader a bit. At one point, Blackburn meets the author of a book about a killer with a moral code. The author is a misanthropic drunk who hates that people idolize his creation. This is a bit of a tweak on the nose for readers cheering on Blackburn, but Denton is not a cruel didact (like Michael Haneke can be) seeking to shame or convert the reader. This is a story about a youth crushed by authority figures.

The story of his life is a story of the decay of the American dream. In that it reminded me of Jack London's story of a wrecked youth, the Apostate. In both stories, circumstances difficult to address crush a boy and it has terrible effects on the family. This is the finest crime novel I have read in years.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hey, you got your AI in my dogma . . .

Should you wish to grapple with the interplay between science and religion, in the words of Tony Soprano, "you got options." You could TiVo "Faith and Reason" on PBS, ponder some Betrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton (which – like duct tape and a universal remote – no home should be without), or crack open Dan Ronco's Unholy Domain. I've gone with door number three, and I've gotta say, it ain't half bad.

Unholy Domain opens in a dystopian, not-so-distant future, in which the world's political and economic systems are gimping along in the wake of the PeaceMaker, a mess-you-up-like-bad-chicken computer virus. It appears that this piece of sunshine was unleashed, for reasons unknown, by the ubertalented and correspondingly erratic programmer Ray Brown, essentially taking down Teh Interweb. As a result of the devastation wrought by PeaceMaker, the federal government has banned all but the most miniscule advances in technology and devolved into corruption and incompetence. *cough, cough *

Against this backdrop we find the Church of the Natural Humans, a sect of anti-technology nuts whose vestments include shoulder-holstered gats and whose theology puts the Luddites to shame, locked in a clandestine war with The Domain, a cabal of black market tech peddlers (imagine the Illuminati recruiting at MIT and bringing on some temps from Blackwater) to be Lords of All We Survey.

Cut to college student David Brown, whom we accompany on his quest to discover the truth about his father Ray and the PeaceMaker virus. What follows is a fast paced techno-thriller that would fit well between a beach chair and cooler of Red Stripe. Some of the prose is somewhat clunky, but Ronco does a great job of drawing out relationships between his characters that seem more fully developed than most genre authors tend to produce. Moreover, the fundamental questions raised by Ronco about the roles of science and religion in the arc of human development are ones worth considering, even if it's while sitting on the beach with a bronson. Perhaps especially then.

If Dan Simmons' Endymion got you all freaky and hot in the ass, what with its time travellin' spikey robot, the AI TechnoCore and the Galactic Catholics, then Unholy Domain will be right up your alley. On the other hand, if you like your discourse to be more elevated, then go get a Mother Jones. And put the beer away.

Your Government Failed You

Richard Clarke worked for decades in the United States government's national security world. He reached the upper levels of government serving as an Assistant Secretary State and as the chief counter-terrorism official. He left government in 2003 over his disagreements overIraq policy. Shortly thereafter he wrote Against All Enemies, a memoir of his service, as well as a sharp critique of the Bush Administration's terror policy. In his latest book, Your Government Failed You, expands his critique from the personalities and policies of the Bush Administration to the structure and culture of the national security apparatus.

There isn't much that escapes Clarke's scrutiny. The Defense Department reforms meant to avoid another Vietnam failed to prevent Iraq, but helped make it worse. The turf wars, resource allocation and hiring practices of the intelligence community fail to prevent strategic surprise. The Homeland Security Department is described as a underfunded, sum weaker than its parts agglomeration that serves more as a new spoils system than a provider of security.

What is particularly challenging about fixing the issues laid out is the great difficulty in fixing them. In many cases, major legislation will be required and the necessary compromise will take quite a bit of time to implement. More worrisome is whether any single Administration can tackle all of these things in a single or even two terms.

Topics like defense reorganization and the role of the National Guard might be rather dry, but Clarke is writing for both the lay reader and the policy wonk. He provides specific detail about what to fix, but does so in an fashion that doesn't require subject matter expertise. I am particularly happy that Clarke includes global warming (and cyber-security) as a national security issue and that it be treated with the same urgency as issues like terrorism. In terms of threats to the homeland, global warming is probably the worst of all.

None of these issues will be easy to fix and fixing any will be made all the more difficult by the change in the people doing the work. The ideal of government service has certainly faded in this country. Kai Bird, in his masterful the Color of Truth (which, if you can't guess, is gray,) describes the noblesse oblige that led the privileged like the Bundy brothers to seek government service. This is gone, but the government hasn't helped the cause either. On the one hand it continues to outsource key jobs, which may save a bit of money but also fails to develop long term leaders for the government. Then it makes the hiring practices overly long, complicated and demanding and provides pay scales that often require great sacrifice of those who might serve.

In the book, Clarke lays out a number of policy prescriptions to fix the problems he addresses. The most critical one has to be the human resources question. If the government doesn't have the right people to do the work, all the other fixes will come to naught. It is here that Clarke provides the hope that his list of changes might actually be achievable. When the government has the right people in place, it can work wonders.

Monday, June 23, 2008

But I remember everything

Sam Taylor's the Amnesiac tells the story of Jim Purdew and his realization that he cannot remember anything from his college years. His growing fixation on this fact slowly kills his relationship and sends him back to his old college town to try and uncover what he forgot. Along the way Purdew mediates on the nature of memory and identity in a way I found quite engaging.
The novel eventually enters a murky dreamstate, where the lines between reality and imagination are unclear. The story often teeters on the edge of nightmare. Not the nightmare of fright, but of an strangeness, the sense that thinks are just slightly off kilter.This can become rapidly silly, but I think Taylor does a great job with Purdew's wrestling with his memory. I especially liked his use of peculiar manuscripts that Purdew finds and writes himself.

The book lays it on a tad thick with its Phillip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges references. Labyrinths are everywhere and a character appears who claims to have inherited Larkin's memory! I am poorly read in both artists, so I don't know how someone better read would react, but it might grate.

Taylor well balances his tasks of keeping the story moving and exploring his themes. Purdew, and other characters, are fascinated by detectives and detective fiction. Purdew even calls himself a private investigator at one point. Purdew, towards the end, wonders if the best mystery would merely give clues to the story and end on an quite ambiguous note. This is quite the tease by Taylor, who manages to add some additional tension to the end with this move.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Angels take their time in falling

The United States is occasionally beset by moralistic crusades that sweep up the guilty and the innocent. Prohibition, the satanic abuse scare and the Hollywood black list vary in their extent and their severity, but they reflect a righteous tendency that exists in America. Of course there is a countervailing trend that opposes such efforts, and our arts serve to remind (and occasionally to rub our collective faces) in our collective bent towards social zealotry.

Karen Abbott expands the discussion with her Sin in the Second City, a story which sets a pair of enlightened madams against the forces of moral certitude and reform. The madams ran the pseudonymously eponymous Everleigh Club, a club known for the most extravagant epicurean delights as well as the most lovely of women. As opposed to the competition in turn of the century Chicago's Levee District, the Everleighs treated their employees well, limited violence and substance abuse and established a business as civilized as was possible in their trade.

About the same time of the rise of the Everleighs, the nation became fixated on the white slave trade. This was the idea that young women were tricked into becoming harlots through kidnap, rape and drugging. Like their abolitionist predecessors, the anti-white slave trade advocates rallied the forces of society and government. Abbot shows how their crusade helped in the creation of new institutions like the FBI and continued to build our sex-obsessed culture.

There is much for the reader to enjoy in the book. Those seeking salacious detail will get their fill. Those who look for extensively researched period detail will not go wanting and those who just want a good political story will also be pleased. While it is not the core of the book it is about the trade in flesh for sex, one that in Chicago in the early 1900s was not a terribly safe or rewarding career choice. The stark realities occasionally rear their head, but the reader could be forgiven if they lost sight of it themselves.


Jim Butcher's Stormfront : book one of the Dresden Files was one I long hesitated to pick up, mostly because of the prominence of the "Dresden Files." I have an aversion to series books that is based less on experience than it is a kind of fear that the books will be formulaic dreck. There may be a connection to the genre once called men's adventure in which an endless series of crypto-sexual (his gun spat hot lead at the Cuban) tales were presented to reader.

Anyway, the book turned out to be a lot of fun! The main character, Harry Dresden leans a tad goody goody for my taste, but I found him appealing nonetheless. I was also pleased that Butcher made Dresden inept with women. Main characters are often alter-egos for authors and far too many of these sorts of characters end up being hyper-studs.

The plot is nothing special, and won't surprise crime novel fans, but the story elements are a lot of fun. Butcher, in this first book, has laid quite a bit of groundwork for an interesting system of magic based in our modern world. He has a few surprises with the nasties he deploys and I even liked what he did with the ending, which is often a let down in suspense tales.

With the intersection of the supernatural and a thriller/crime novel plot chassis, these books are like Charles Stross's Atrocity Archives tales and Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt stories. They are just a lot less grimy and wicked. I like all of them, but depending on your tastes you might want to go one way or the other.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evil will triumph if good men do nothing

The Mist is one of the better Stephen King movie adaptations, from one of my favorite Stephen King tales. It features two of King's great strengths, the disturbing gross out and a jaundiced look at the thin line between civilization and barbarism. Between the two, this is really a monster movie, so don't go looking for life lessons.

The monsters are vile to the point that you can overlook the CGI. King frequently looks at how people can slide from decency to mindlessness, in the case at the hands of a religious zealot. The movie's ending is a bit of a shock, although I think Ross Douthat has the (spoilers aplenty) right take on it.

Still there is something to be said for the ease by which civilization decays, as George Will points out in his excellent critique of McCain's response to the Guantanamo decision.

And no, I am not trying to quote Edmund Burke, but rather the Newton Neurotics:

Monday, June 16, 2008

I just got back from a dream attack

The last Silver Jews record opened with " Where's the paper bag that holds the liquor?
Just in case I feel the need to puke
," which set the tone for a dark, wonderful album. The new album is much more upbeat and is streaming at this MySpace page. It has the bigger band sound of the last album, but a bit of the gleeful humor of Starlite Walker. I've just had a listen so far, but it sounds good.


Bookstorm reminds me that today is Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce and his book Ulysses. I was actually in Dublin for Bloomsday 92, but celebrated the liquid rather than the literary treasures of Ireland. I don't know if it is worse or better that I was reading the book at the time. Despite spending much time and treasure on books and reading, I haven't done much in terms of actually celebrating them. I did consider signing one of my kids up for Middle Earth camp, but since he hasn't read the books yet, I didn't do it.

The end of the world as we know it

Fareed Zakaria's new book, the Post-American World is a book I hope both presidential candidates read. It is a brief book that tells Americans we need to re-think our view of the world. We need to jettison the idea of the world's policeman and hyperpower and replace it with the world's trusted third party. In this his says we need to be less Britain than Bismarck, which I rather like. We need to de-emphasize military power and re-consider economic competitiveness. We need to spend less time worrying about Iranian nuclear weapons and more about how to work with India and China.

It is the briefness that will irritate the foreign policy specialist readership and attract the casual but interested reader. Unlike other international relations big think books, this one does not provide a vigorous examination of the global system. It also does not provide much in the way of policy guidelines, aside from a shift in resources away from primacy and towards a focus on domestic policy.

For those who are looking for help in trying to understand how the world works today and the US can best deal with it, the book will be of great value. Zakaria provides a high level overview saying the superpower era is over, and is being replaced by a multipolar world and one for the first time with non-European powers as the majority of leaders. He surveys China and India and then describes the US's fit in the new world.

Like a number of useful books, this one will have you wanting to read more, about how the US can change its ways and more about modern China and India. This would be a good starting point for the dispirited American wondering where how we should start over after eight less than ideal years.

Life is just a bookstore

We stayed on the Oregon coast this weekend. It being Oregon, it was cold and damp, so we did visit a few sites, and were surprised to see the Coast Guard Training ship the Eagle in Astoria (worth a visit if you are in the area.) And of course we hit some bookstores. Astoria has a decent number for a small town and in one of them I heard a flash of a Jimmy Buffett song. The people at the attached coffee bar began to wonder aloud just who the singer was. After a few names were bandied about, one fellow remarked that it could be Jimmy Buffett, although he did not pronounce it to rhyme with that which Miss Tuffett sat on. Instead he pronounced to rhyme with the decadent French dessert.

At first I approved thinking he was mocking Buffett, but then he repeated it a number of times and I realized he thought this was the correct pronunciation. I considered mentioning the true way to say it, but decided against it as A) it would be terribly rude and B) it would reveal my all too great knowledge of the singer and his oeuvre. The song, you see, was My African Friend, one that only those who have spent far too many hours listening to Buffett will recognize.

Anyway, I bought quite a few books at the coast. I found a used copy of McCarry's Second Sight, one of the few Paul Christopher books I have yet to read. I also found a copy of Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns. I've not read any of his books, but the blurbs looked good. And it was only two dollars.

Whenever I am at the beach I stop by the Book Warehouse, a place where unpopular books go to die. This is a store of all remainders, so many of the books are not of interest. Whenever I stop by, I find a gem or two. In this case, there was this biography of Chiang Kai Shek as well as Kevin Phillip's the Cousin's Wars, which I am quite excited to read.

Since I read only two books over the weekend (one of which was a library book,) my book stack is now three books higher than it was when I started.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A case where the "for the articles" excuse works

Sarah Weinman reports that Denis Johnson's new crime novel will be published in Playboy. I though the Tree of Smoke was great, so I look forward to this one. While I initially thought that the Chandler/Hammett reference to which Weinman reacts was OK, I do think she is right. The more obvious reference is to John Banville/Benjamin Black.


Last night, I was rather disturbed when I watched the Prestige. Not because of the movie's content, but because I could not recall any of the basic plot developments of the story. This upset me because I read the book in the mid-90s and quite liked it. I liked it enough to send it to a few friends. But as I watched the movie, it was as if I had never read it! This is no slight against the book, thinking of other favorite books that I read back then, like the novels of Robertson Davies, I suspect I would hard pressed to describe the goings on.

The movie is great, with excellent acting all around, but particularly from the two leads, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. A number of reviews have complained that the movie doesn't play by the rules it establishes, which I think isn't quite right. While the movie appears to be about stage magic, I think it is more about art and obsession, although the technique of misdirection clearly plays a role.

Having watched the movie, I now want to turn back to the books of Christopher Priest. He is a writer of speculative fiction, which is to say books both literary and geeky. This is a tough spot to be in, as any whiff of genre can send the literary types running, while the limited use of technology and action curtails the science fiction side of things.

Having read the Prestige, I went on to the Extremes, a book I found decent, but not worth recommending. From what I can tell, that book is not considered his best, so now I am going to look for his better regarded books, including Inverted World which is about to be re-issued by the New York Review of Books Classics line. I've also ordered the Separation, a book that plays on some of the same themes of dualism that the Prestige does.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

All the animals come out at night

I once had the belief that American history wasn't very interesting. Although I am mostly to blame for this misapprehension, my schooling had an impact. The teaching in my primary and secondary years, while great in many respects, wasn't illuminating in regards to US history. I went to college for a international relations degree, so I learned more about Polish history than American history, domestic at least. With this in mind, I rarely picked up American history books for pleasure reading.

This was of course a mistake. US history is immensely fascinating and engaging and writers like Erik Larson, Tony Horwitz and now Karen Abbott have succeeded in making it even more fun by bringing our national obsessions of sex and violence into the mix. I'm reading Abbott's Sin in the Second City, which is set in turn of the century Chicago, where prostitution thrived and angry reformers sought to shut it down.

Abbott's focus is on the Everleigh sisters whose Everleigh Club served the wealthy and powerful with all manner of sensual delights. Unlike the other houses in the Levee district, the sisters also treated their women well. Abbott contrasts this desire to create a more humane prostitution system with the crusaders who attacked the horrible abuses of how it was normally practiced. It's a very fun read so far, with much period detail.

Having just read one book about the effects of moral crusades on America, it will be interesting to get more of Abbott's take on the crusade against white slavery, as it was called and how it might compare with the anti-communist, anti-slavery and anti-drinking crusades that swept the country.

Just a pepsi, and she wouldn't give it to me

Thanks to the marketing, I assumed that William Friedken's Bug would be another horrorfest like the Exorcist. Not the case. This movie is a claustrophobic study of madness. There are a few of the typical horror movies scary elements, including a stomach churning scene in the middle, but the movie's threat doesn't come from the typical monster-victim relationship. Instead, the movie features two damaged people who reinforce and catalyze each other's paranoias and delusions.

The movie is based on a stage drama and it still feels like one. 90% of the movie takes place in a single set of room. This makes sense thematically as the madness severs connections with reality, including other people. The movie is also dialogue heavy and the characters often fall into the affected, overly articulate mode of stage dialogue. The final third of the film when the madness is filled with over-the-top jibberings that will either fascinate you or have you rolling your eyes. I thought the escalating madness was great.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Us Vs. Them

I am currently reading J. Peter Scoblic's Us Vs. Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security, and I'm surprised I have not heard more about it. It one of the most readable, while at the same time intelligent books on modern American foreign policy I have read in quite some time. Even more impressively I think he does a better job of fairly critiquing policy than Richard Rhodes did in his similar recent book Arsenals of Folly.

Scoblic goes back into the Cold War to argue that Bush's foreign policy is not something new under the sun, but is actually the full fruition of a movement that previously had been checked by other foreign policy viewpoints. He argues that Bill Buckley and other writers of the 50s laid the groundwork for a full throated rollback position in the Cold War that sought to defeat communism using military means and believed that nuclear weapons were war fighting rather than political weapons. This viewpoint grew in power when it merged with the neocon stream that believed that US power should be used to spread democracy via violent means.

The title of the book makes it sound both more partisan and less analytically nuanced than it is. Scoblic, who is left in orientation, is fair to many on the right, having many kinds words for Presidents Reagan and Nixon. He also notes that many people that the average reader would consider conservative, including people as diverse as Pat Buchanan and George Schulz adamantly opposed the trends he calls conservative. I wish he had found a term to better differentiate. One of his points is that the neocons didn't so much hijack policy as ally with other flavors of cons, but there are still other flavors that didn't want to play ball.

Still, the book is a pleasure to read and will appeal to those looking for a survey of Cold War policy debates on the right as well as another analysis of the Bush administration foibles. Scoblic's background is arms control, so there is predominance of arms control and other nuclear issues and less about Iraq and Vietnam.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I miss the innocence I've known

I've never read a Chuck Palahniuk novel (and I live in Portland!) so I have no dog in this fight, but I love how the hate of this review cannot be contained and expands to attack the culture at large. (via Suderman)

Check out Tried to Rock, a blog that catalogs the bands that never made it. (via Brownstein) Here is my favorite band that never made it.

Do you recall the news of some years back that Ian McEwan has a long lost brother born of McEwan's parents, who eventually but were then adulterous lovers? The brother, Dave Sharp, has a new book on the way. McEwan wrote the forward, but his name is on top of the cover.

The NYTimes has a nice feature on Lee Child, the author of the Reacher books, one of the world's great not so guilty reading pleasures.

State of Play

One of next year's big political movies is State of Play, which starts off with a pair on seemingly unrelated deaths that begin to undermine a rising politician's career. Rather than wait for the two hour version, I suggest you invest six hours in the original BBC miniseries.

One of my major worries about the film is that it will by necessity remove a number of characters, plot turns, and developments that make the miniseries so much. With the series you get backroom political deals, fascinating shows of the media at work uncovering stories and people sleeping together that shouldn't. Watch it on DVD before the movie reviews spoil it for you.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A pleasant diversion about the end of the world

In discussing the Ultimate Galactus trilogy, I was going call it a graphic novel, but really, it is just a very attractive comic book. Shaun Tan's gorgeous (and wordless) The Arrival, a depiction of the wave of strangeness and confusion in the immigrant experience, is a graphic novel. Ultimate Galactus is a bunch of super heroes fighting a really powerful bad guy. The story is set in the Ultimates universe, a reboot of the universe that moves the origins of heroes up from the 60s to this decade. The battle with Galactus was an early Fantastic Four story, but in this new Galactus trilogy, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Nick Fury and the Ultimates/Avengers battle each other and then Galactus.

The huge number of heroes is one of the problems with the story, there are just so many in there, along with some other cameos, that no character gets much chance to shine. The bigger problem is that the final battle is a bit abrupt. The opening chapters should have been trimmed to allow for more action at the end.

On the plus side, it is an action-packed story that nicely updates a few characters. The old Galactus seems a bit off these days. First of all his name sounds Roman and he is a giant human-looking biped despite being an ancient alien. The new version makes much more sense, and they even make his name more reasonable. They also manage to carry forward elements of the old one quite nicely. The Silver Surfer is quite different, and may displease fans, but I liked it.

The Ultimate universe makes for good reading, and this book is no exception. It is not up to the level of the Ultimates 1 & 2, but those are among the finest super hero stories I have ever read, so that isn't surprising. If you want another take on the superheroes get together and fight an implacable alien foe story, read DC's the New Frontier.

Given the short reading time and the fairly high cost, these sorts of books are ideal for library check-out. At $30 and about one hour of entertainment, the price/time ratio isn't very attractive. For the best ones, of course it makes sense, but you can run out of reading material lickety split if you buy a lot of these.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sacred Causes

Michael Burleigh's book Sacred Causes, the second in a trilogy about the intersection of religion and politic in Europe, focuses on the 20th century, with emphasis on how the totalitarian regimes battled religions. This book will remind readers that Osama Bin Laden didn't introduce religion to modern international politics, he merely drew our attention back to it.

As a historian of Nazi Germany and someone clearly well-read in religious (particularly Catholic) history, Burleigh is at his strongest when he describes the inherently religious nature of totalitarian regimes like those found in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy. These regimes took many of the artifacts of religion including martyrs, holy texts, elite orders, divine leaders, and the belief that a perfect society awaits. A key difference in the religious and totalitarian viewpoint is where the perfect society existed. For the religious it awaited after death. For the political, it could rise here on earth, although it would takes lots of death and suffering to achieve it.

Given the desire to completely replace all individual identity with a state defined identity, it is no surprise that these regimes sought to co-opt or (more frequently) cripple religious groups. Religious groups were able to nibble at Nazi and Fascist evil at the fringes, but they managed to directly confront the weary Soviets and Poles in the early 80s. Against John Cornwell, Burleigh argues that Pope Pius XII's did about all he could given the relatively weak influence of the pre-war Vatican and the willingness of the Nazis to kill just about anyone.

The book feels a bit thinner, and the viewpoint begins to trump the analysis in some of the book's other sections. His chapter on Ireland certainly shows that both sides (of the Northern Irish) committed horrendous acts of murder and atrocity and Burleigh clearly wishes Britain would wash its hands of the place. While in other parts of the book, religion is a force for good, Burleigh does not present it as such here. As a part of the narrative it serves as a way to consider the rising Islamic populations and whether they their enclaves will prove as bloody as the northern part of Ireland. Some readers may be put off by his tone in both of these chapters. To be fair, the Irish and Islamic stories are ongoing, while the Nazi and Communist tales are more clearly in the past.

Perhaps because Burleigh is not afraid to let his opinions and viewpoint be known, his prose is particularly vigorous and engaging. At times he selects the five dollar word where a one dollar word might do, but for the most part he constructs lovely sentences that tend to deal with unlovely subject matter. American readers, used to neutral prose, may be taken aback by Burleigh's strong Tory views, but I found them bracing and found it easier to understand the context from which he was arguing.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

So let it be written, so let it be done

While I ponder Sacred Causes, have a look at these.

Wow, I somehow missed the fact that the Silver Jews have a new album on the way. This blog has the first new song called Strange Victory, Strange Defeat. Perhaps an allusion to the dueling histories of the Fall of France? Perhaps not. This blogger has the fine sense to post both New Orleans and the Wild Kindness, songs you really need.

The LA Times interviews Alan Furst. He admits plot is not his genius:

Because I'm incapable of creating a plot. So what I learned to do early was to find some particular operation done by one of the secret services in one of the countries and make it my plot, and that's basically what you have in "The Spies of Warsaw."

Huzzah for Bob Barr! Unlike Libertarian Ron Paul, Barr has returned funds from the notorious Nazi site Stormfront. In honor of his telling the Nazis what for, here is Jello Biafra doing the same.

Grow large with food

The Onion has done the nation a valuable service by pitching a satirical product the fast food industry is probably contemplating. It's may be too late for the adults but we need to get Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman in front of more impressionable youth.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Ross Douthat wrote this nice piece on Robert Jordan, his former favorite author. Jordan is also a former favorite of mine, although my fandom persisted through my twenties. Despite greatly preferring the George R R Martin and Steven Erikson fantasy series, I have not been able to generate the same level of excitement that I felt over the Jordan books.

It may be the Harry Potter effect. Back in the 90s, nearly every one I knew was reading the Jordan books at the same time and it was a constant source of conversation. With the Martin book and Erikson books, I haven't enjoyed the same shared experience. As Sam Anderson noted about the move to DVD on TV, we have left the era of simultaneity, where we all watch shows on our time. This was almost always the case with books, which makes the rare cases of simultaneity all the more exciting.

One I wish I had missed

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a number of science fiction novels which I fondly remember. The Legacy of Heorot tells the story of colonization and the perils of misunderstanding xenobiology. Footfall is an exciting update on the War of the Worlds. Lucifer's Hammer concerns the collapse of society in the face of a comet impact on Earth. My major issue with Lucifer's Hammer, bloat, is a much bigger issue in highly regarded Mote in God's Eye.

The bloat issue is gigantic here. The first 150 pages are boring exposition filled where we meet the stock characters (engineer with Scots accent, plucky female aristo along for the ride, young dashing military commander) and learn about the painfully uninteresting world of the future. Once we meet the aliens, known as Moties, it takes many more pages before we learn anything about the society. There are many portentous allusions to things the Moties don't want the humans to learn. It takes so long to get to the revelations, that I really didn't care once I read about them.

All this padding would be fine if Niven and Pournelle had provided a rich world to explore. No such luck. While the initial concept is interesting ( US and USSR unite, colonize space, have a civil war, new empire tries to pick up the pieces) it quickly devolves into cutting and pasting from 19th century Britain. The navy is straight from Horatio Hornblower, with officers named sailing master and teenage midshipman running crew sections.

The Church (which is Catholic, a bit odd given the leading space powers were largely Protestant and Orthodox) is clearly more powerful, without serving any narrative purpose. Has the Church followed its social justice wing or become a rival power center to create challenges for the elite? Has the theology created cultural restraints on the development of technology or society? No and No. All the more galling the Church apparently hasn't changed much at all in a millennium.

There is a decent story about alien contact amongst all its problems, but it is such a short part of the book, it is probably not worth working your way through to find it. As the humans encounter the Moties, they learn that the society could threaten human society. The debate concerns the means by which they must deal with it. The viewpoints expressed nicely describe the classical realist view of politics. Alien first contact follows similar rules and problems as seen in foreign relations. What makes a country a threat? How do you manage threats? What is the purpose of interacting with other societies at all? The book has some interesting, if one-sided, things to say about this, but you have to wade through hundreds of pages of crap to get there. If you are looking for a classic to discover, beware this one.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A few items

Steve Clemons posts a small excerpt from General Ricardo Sanchez's new book. It's so sad, but Bush sounds like General Buck Turgidson.

Ian McEwan has a two part piece in the Guardian on apocalyptic thinking.

I am in the midst of Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes, which is an excellent choice for those interested in religion's role in 20th century politics. His blog will give you a taste of his deep erudition, beautifully acid style and his Tory politics.

On the geek front, if you are looking for a way to survive those tedious conference calls, may I suggest Mabiweb?