Thursday, July 31, 2008


Today I love George Pelecanos even more than I did yesterday. For he has name-checked the Silver Jews on his playlist. Now we can quibble over the song selection (I would have gone with the Wild Kindness) but I am quite happy that they lead his list. He also has some nice crime jazz and Drive By Truckers on there.

The Man Booker long list is out. I don't have much to say other than the inclusion of crime thriller Child 44 is nice to see.

Here is Spoon covering the Stones Rocks Off.

You have almost certainly seen this, but if not, take a look at Feist on Sesame Street.

Don't let your babies grow up to be wrestlers

When people think of exploitative industries, the first that comes to mind is generally porn. According to Matthew Randazzo V in his Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit; the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry, one should think of pro wrestling in the same light. He portrays a world in which sadism, substance and steroid abuse and self-inflicted torture are not just tolerated but celebrated. Ranging from Canada's Hart House, with its Dungeon, to the yakuza managed New Japan Pro Wrestling league to the mania of the American wrestling scene, the book is a story of degradation where some, like Hulk Hogan, manage to make millions, while others die in their thirties from the physical and drug wear.

The relatively small Chris Benoit, who Randazzo portrays as both a cruel sadist and maniacally driven was about as small as someone could be and still work in pro wrestling. Of course he became an avid steroid user, and as was well publicized, he killed his wife and young son, using the skills he learned in the ring. The book though isn't a true crime book. The focus of the book is not Benoit's crime, which gets only a few pages, but the crimes of the industry as a whole.

Wrestling fans will likely either eat up the large amounts of industry gossip or be repulsed at the depiction of their favorite form of entertainment as a cesspool. Non-wrestling fans will find more reasons not to watch or attend matches. Befitting the topic, the language in the book is more than a little rough, so be warned.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You can't like everything

I don't have much luck with lyrical fiction. The Man Booker Prize winning the Sea mystified me and I just put down Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Like the Sea, this book is all lovely language and no story. If you are looking for beautiful evocations of life on a barren plain, then you are in luck. If you want some story, not so much. The thing is I really liked Gilead, her more recent effort. That book, also an exercise in precise and gorgeous language, I found to be much more emotionally engaging, although it could very well be that I more naturally sympathized with the protagonist, a dying father writing to a child.

Apparently Robinson has more to say about the Gilead story as she has written Home, a book which focuses on another household from that story. It comes out in September.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Some more ways to find a book to read

The folks are Barnes & Noble are boosting their website book content. The Barnes & Noble review now has a Guest Book feature where notable authors tell you what you should be reading. William Gibson picks out three speculative fiction books that I now want to read. Based on his picks, I am guessing that Dennis Lehane is going more literary on his upcoming book. There is also a series on five books from a genre, the Rome one is nice as it has the wonderful Rubicon as well as the Silver Pigs which I keep meaning to read.

Most interesting to our YouTube obsessed Internet is the Book files, brief videos on interesting book stories. The one below reveals that the perfidious Reds nearly stopped the publication of Animal Farm.

From Russia with Rubles

There are many different styles of spy fiction. Alan Furst creates moody tales of amateurs pulled into the shadow wars created by the rise of Nazism and World War 2. Charles McCarry writes what might be called intelligence procedurals focusing on the often dreary and morally ambiguous lives of the intelligence operative. Daniel Silva, who has eight novels featuring Israeli assassin Gabriel Allon, follows Ian Fleming in writing the spy as hero novels. Allon is a Cincinnatus like figure. He would be happiest if he could be allowed to restore classic works of art, but he keeps being called back into the field to face threats to Israel and to the West.

In his latest book, Moscow Rules, Allon is called to investigate a rogue Russian industrialist who is rumored to be selling rather nasty weapons to the enemies of Israel. His path takes him in and out of Russia as he tries to find a way to get close to this rather dangerous person. Silva is definitely taking the beware the new Russia line in this book, but you needn't agree with Silva's politics to enjoy the book. You do however have to enjoy cliffhanger adventure fiction.

Like the Bond novels, Allon's life and perspective changes over each book, so you would probably be wise to start earlier in the series or you will get a number of serious spoilers about the preceding volumes.

Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you

Wow, that Last King of Scotland is one hell of a movie. Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Idi Amin was gripping. His rapid switches from rage to joviality to concern were authentic and frightening. Showing the human side of a monster can't be easy, but Whitaker did it. His Oscar was well earned. It's worth pointing out that James McAvoy's performance was also notable. His Dr. Garrigan was an amiable fool, whose series of bad decisions leads to some unpleasant outcomes. He joins the likes of Holly Martins and Harry Angstrom as the ideal idiot protagonists.

One thing I rather liked about the movie is it's focus on the court of Amin. Garrigan ignores the violence in Uganda because it is so easy to do from within the elite circle. When he is confronted by what is really happening, he probably shouldn't be shocked but he is. The equally excellent Downfall makes this difference between the fantasy and real worlds more obvious, but it paints the same picture of wicked decadence.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Via Sullivan, here is a nice defense of Starbucks. I like Starbucks for the same reason I like Barnes & Noble and Borders. They take decent quality experiences to places that lacked them. Sure here in Portland I can go to Stumptown for coffee or Powells for books, but where I grew up decent bookshops and coffee used to hard to find. Not anymore.

George Pelecanos has a new book called the Turnaround. For a long time I thought we was on the showing-great-promise list, but the Night Gardener put him into great territory. Here's hoping he continues the streak.

Tom Friedman has a new book coming out on environmentalism. A lot of people hate on Friedman for his GWOT and globalization cheer-leading, but those people out to give his From Beirut to Jerusalem a try, that is one hell of a book. I suspect the haters are also fretting about global warming and they should be glad that an agenda setter like Friedman will be banging the green drum.

You may have seen that Pat Buchanan has a new book out on why the Good War wasn't a good idea. The American Conservative (which was co-founded by Buchanan) has a series of responses to the book, including a typically good one from Andrew Bacevich, titled "How Good was the Good War". The whole piece is excellent, but I thought this line particularly insightful

"Ripped out of context, the war, especially the struggle against Nazi Germany, has become a parable. Whatever their value as a source of moral instruction, parables offer less help when it comes to understanding international politics. Parables simplify—and to simplify the past is necessarily to distort it."

That is a very good critique of the use of history by most politicians and talking heads.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


So the Watchmen trailer is out, and it is very visual. The same director made 300. Like that movie or not, it reflected the source material, a brief action-oriented graphic novel. The Watchmen is a densely plotted, very long and thoughtful graphic novel. This comic is beloved by critics and fans, Time Magazine, in a fit of indie hipness, included it in its list of the 100 best novels of all time. This doesn't look like a long thoughtful movie, but it does look like an effects fest.

See what you think.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Now theres a way and I know that I have to go away.

One of the loveliest and saddest songs I have ever heard is Okkervil River's Savannah Smiles. It is sung from the perspective of the father of Savannah, a porn star who took her own life after a disfiguring auto accident. While people will likely be distracted by the porn thing, I think the song will touch any parent who fears losing touch and relationships with their children.

Here is a great live version. This has convinced me that I need to these guys when they roll into town later this year.

Thursday Next

If I have ever read a more raucous and joyful ode to reading than Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, then I have long forgotten it. Set in a fantastical alternate Britain, the series heroine is the titular Next who is a member of the Literary Detectives, a government organization that combats book crime, such as, say, the unlawful editing of books. How can such events occur? Well as it happens, what is written in books exists in it own dimension and if you were to enter that dimension, you could say, leech all the comedy out of the Thomas Hardy books and make them terrible tragedies, as some nasty did in these books.

Did that last bit make you chuckle or leave you confused? If it is the former, these books are for you. In addition to being entirely about books and reading, these stories are marked by an unrelenting tide of jokes. I can think of few books that I want to read that I can also call "madcap," but this is certainly one. One scene features a Beatrix Potter character conversing with a Ming the Merciless clone, over tea. It is a mark of Fforde's skill as a writer in that he can be so incredibly silly, while also sucking you into the (often nonsensical) story.

His latest book in the series, Thursday Next, First Among Sequels, may be his most enjoyable yet. Flinging from one crisis to another, Next deals with (as usual) threats to the BookWorld, the universe, declining read rates, her family and to her pet Dodo (genetically re-engineered, wouldn't you know). The pacing is among the most relentless in this volume, so that if one joke or encounter leaves you a bit dry, you will soon find another.

While I won't stoop to spoiling, I will say that this is a series that can read out of order if you so chose. Yes, certain personages fates will be known to you, but like as not, they have changed in bizarre ways, so that you will be surprised nonetheless. The fun here is in Fforde's seemingly bottomless invention and literary referencing. If you are an inveterate reader, then you need to try these books.

Light posting

Blogging has been light due to work load (boo), cleaning the house to prep to sell (boo/yay!) and going to Crater Lake (yay!). If you haven't been to Crater Lake I suggest a visit. The wikipedia entry has a nice description of how the Lake was formed. My assumption has always been that it exploded, but actually it collapsed!

At this point I will note that if you want a good, intelligent war film, check out Band of Brothers. Or if you just like spotting interesting cameos, this one is still for you. Watch for Simon Pegg, Jimmy Fallon (!?) and James McAvoy among others.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The price of books

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland has been widely hailed as an excellent political book, so it is odd that his previous volume is so rare that it costs over $100 to get the paperback. Papercuts discusses the book's price as well as the phenomenon of expensive books in general. I admit I am rather tickled that I bought a copy at Goodwill for five bucks last fall. (via Amconmag)

Monday, July 14, 2008


It's one of those evenings, where the work has piled up and relief is needed. Thank goodness for iTunes which thoughtfully served up Built to Spill's fantastic Else, one of the most soothing songs of all time. Here is a good live version of the song. Here are a few other good songs for bringing down the stress that is work-related.

Soft Rock Star - Metric. Emily Haines is the most under-rated singer in rock. This one is one of her best. Don't shine for swine, indeed.

Steadier Footing - Death Cab for Cutie. A sad song about missed opportunity. So all the more appropriate for work.

I'm Your Villain - Franz Ferdinand. This one is for the petty disputes and bickering that make up many a work day. This should have gotten more airplay.

Don't Ask Me - PiL. The king of cynicism goes for out and out earnestness. I feel I shouldn't like this song and yet I do. I quite like the intro to the video.

Cruisin' - Michael Nesmith. So so good. Wait for Nesmith's freak out at the end.


My early take on Neal Stephenson's Anathem holds. This is top top-notch ideas driven science fiction that will appeal to fans of literary adventure and speculative fiction. The book's main characters are monks who study math and science without the benefit of much in the way of technology. The plot, which moves from medieval drama to adventure to classic science fiction, involves the interaction between the secular world and the cloistered world of math and science.

Stephenson balances his story between debates over the nature of reality, consciousness and the cosmos with political intrigues, coming of age tales and adventure stories. By lacing his most rarefied debates with humor and by walking people through the ideas, he makes it easier for those who need a bit more hand holding to enjoy them. As one of his major themes is the decline of thinking in the face of distracting infotainment, he is no doubt encouraging to use faculties that many readers have not touched since their college philosophy or math courses.

His story is driven by dialogues involving topics as dense quantum mechanics, so it is all the better that his prose is as light as it is. Despite the book's length (900+ pages) this is a brisk read, with many humorous interludes. There is an amusing joke for Star Trek fans tucked around the middle of the book and there is plenty for others as well.

In the review copy of the book, Stephenson provides a timeline of this world as well as some background for those less well read in science fiction. My advice is to skip it. Stephenson has taken great care in slowly revealing his world's details which makes for lots of fun guesswork and theorizing while reading. His use of dictionary excerpts is a particularly nice technique. Every 20 or so pages, Stephenson provides an entry from the world's encyclopedia. These entries provide context for earlier conversations as well foreshadow upcoming events. This avoids the often stilted explanatory text found in novels that devise an imaginary world.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The China question

Peter Navarro is worried about China and if you read his book, you are at the very least, you may well get concerned as well. The Coming China Wars details problems with Chinese production, quality control, human rights and environmental protection. He also points to Chinese foreign policy as an indicator that China is moving into peer competitor territory. Let's look at each in turn.

Navarro wants US consumers to limit buying Chinese goods, because it is not good for the American economy and because it supports bad Chinese work and environmental habits. He provides a number of cases of evidence for this, although some lean toward the anecdotal. Many times it is difficult to know the scale of the problems he is presenting. How much of the Chinese produced medicine is shoddy for example? I suppose the answer in that case is that one case is too many, but it can be hard to tell how serious the problems that Navarro presents are. His tone can reach the apocalyptic which reduces the appeal of his arguments to the unsure.

Quite a bit of the problems he relates call into question the ability of China to continue on its growth path. Internal divisions, more class than ethnic, are a problem. Environmental degradation is reaching critical levels and the wealthy classes will only go so long without a shift to a consumer culture. This is helpful, as most of the books you read tend to treat China's rise as inevitable.

On the foreign policy side, he portrays Chinese as a rapacious neo-imperialist creating new outposts places as far from Beijing as Central Africa and Latin America. This shouldn't be unexpected. China is growing more wealthy and powerful and as such it is spreading its wings. In few ways does this threaten the United States in any meaningful way. The Chinese Army, Navy and Air Force remain far behind the US and would not fare well in any conflict and the Chinese are sure to know this. Navarro strains credulity when he suggests Chinese anti satellite facilities on Cuba might lead to a new Cuban missile crisis.

So take a look at this book for some reasons to reconsider your shopping and for reasons to think that China's rise may stumble, but don't over-react.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cover songs are a hell of a tester

Anathem is taking all my book energies so let's talk covers. The Web continues to serve up some good ones. Here's an odd one. Bonnie Prince Billie/Will Oldham singing Big Balls. If you are in the mood for something more conventional, here is Spoon playing Panic. Britt Daniel's distinctive voice sounds great hear and he plays it straight, even getting the "hang-a the DJ" at the end. Here is My Morning Jacket playing Across 110th Street, which is fun. This will either thrill you or leave you scratching your head. Colin Meloy playing Neutral Milk Hotel's King of Carrot Flowers. If that band is unknown to you, check out this Slate piece, which describes the singer, Jeff Magnum, as the JD Salinger of indie rock.

Or just watch this video for Holland, 1945. The music is upbeat, but as you might guess, the lyrics are not.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Nice guys finish last

If you're looking for a satire of the office place, and you don't mind a little ultraviolence (or I suppose if you are seeking ultraviolence, and don't mind the satire) then you should have a look at Duane Swierczynski's Severance Package. The concerns a group of co-workers trapped in a Philadelphia high rise as they find that their boss is planning to kill them all. Turns out they are a civilian intelligence contractor and they are to be liquidated.

So the theme of the book is that the modern office is a Darwinian nightmare, a place where strength weeds out weakness and morals have no place. While it definitely takes a few jabs at the culture of work, as in the case of the striver who thinks his killer is trying to test his loyalty, it quickly moves to an escalating series of sadistic murders. The killer is particularly inventive in this story and particularly cruel. If you are looking for that sort of read, you have found it.

My major complaint about the book is with the core character, the killer. This person is calculating, incredibly astute, amoral, and yet also supposedly given to bizarre affections and delusions. I just didn't believe in the character and I suspect the complications were put in place to allow for the gotcha ending that Swierczynski has in store for the reader.

In both the good and bad sense of the word, the action is cinematic. It flows with rapid speed and well described detail. As in an action movie, the action itself rather the themes take over the story. Swierczynski makes good use of visuals in the book, which isn't surprising as he also works in the comic book world. For the right audience, this book will be a hit, others will be less than pleased.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The new Stephenson

Neal Stephenson writes learned, lengthy novels, featuring great technical detail and set in eras other than our own. Cryptonomicon, a very large book, explores cryptography in World War 2. His Baroque Cycle, set in 17th and 18th century Britain continues to daunt me with its 3000 pages. If anything can get you to attempt these mighty books, John Derbyshire's review is the thing for it. Thanks mostly to length I haven't read these books, I read and loved Snow Crash and the Diamond Age, books that I suspect Stephenson considers learning projects as both are listed under "other works" on his books page. These books are also more explicitly speculative fiction as they are set in the future and feature all sorts of technical toys

His upcoming book, Anathem, takes the speculative element from his earlier books and the philosophical exploration elements of his more recent works. It is set on a planet much like Earth where a group of monks are starting to interact with the secular world. These monks are a little peculiar as they seem to be math monks, dedicated to the study of math rather than the glory of God.

So far ( I am about a third of the way through) it is an excellent read. The philosophical debates and political conflict among the cloister's various factions are fun to read, the characters are interesting (the main character's story is a classic bildungsroman) and Stephenson's humor is well used. He pokes fun at IT, modern culture, and modern politics in a way that fits in well with the story. One of his themes is similar to that of Susan Jacoby's Age of American Unreason, which argues that modern culture is anti-learning. The learning centric monks looks quite different than the entertainment addicted proles who dominate the secular world.

As one of the principal themes of the book is math, I suspect many will be leery of starting it. Don't be. He approaches the subject almost entirely from a non-quantitative way (although for the curious he provides some narrative proofs in the appendix) and the debates are understandable and interesting to a non-specialist (note: my math grades were my lowest in school).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy Fourth

In celebration of the birthday of the USA here are two interesting books I have come across.

I just picked up a copy of George Stewart's The Names on the Land which was recently re-issued by the New York Review of Books Classics line. The book is a thematic exploration of why American cities, states, rivers and mountains have the names they do. There are also a few maps including the distribution of "burgs" and "villes." I've only read a small bit but it has been fun so far.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest I learned there was an attempt, in the competition with perfidious Albion for the Oregon Territory to rename all the Cascades after US Presidents. While we did end up with Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Mt. Adams, Mt. St Helens and Mt. Olympus avoided becoming Mt Van Buren and Shasta is not Mt. Jackson.

For the smaller set, I highly recommend Go Go America by Dan Yaccarino. The book is framed by a family's cross-country trip and focuses on entertaining details of each state including bizarre laws, inventions and historical events. It features Yaccarino's standard cheery graphics with a splash of retro.

And what better what to celebrate the US on a book blog than with the Library of America? Check out this volume on American environmental writing. And wow, does this noir collection look good.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Barnett Rubin points out that Ahmed Rashid has a new book on US policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. Rashid's Taliban was excellent and I am sure the new one will be of value to anyone seeking to learn more this critical region.

Citizen Reader has a nice post on traveling and reading, specifically whether you read about the place to which you are traveling before or after going.

The good folks at Orbit have been republishing the works of Ian M Banks in the US. Consider Phlebas and Player of Games have been out for awhile and I am thrilled to see that Use of Weapons will be out later this month. Use of Weapons is probably his cruelest work, but I really quite liked it. I've started Matter which is a fun read so far.

Speaking of master science fiction writers, I just received a copy (via Harper Collins First Look -- which you would be crazy not to join) of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which comes with a CD to which to listen while you read. Funnily enough, I don't think any of my favorite music would go with any of my favorite books. I am trying to think of what would go with Kavalier and Klay or the Road and can't think of anything appropriate.

What's the best Pavement song you don't know? This one.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Simplicity itself

In the late 80s, James Gleick wrote Chaos: Making A New Science, an entertaining book that described the rise of the study of chaos. The book also helped popularize fractals. I recall going to an early 90s Lollapalooza where a fellow attendee pointed to a fractal t-shirt and said "woah, chaos theory." In Simplexity, Time science writer Jeffrey Kluger aims to repeat Gleick's success and detail the rise of a new line of inquiry that explores the inter-relationship between simplicity and complexity. While the book tells a number of entertaining and enlightening stories it does not weave these into a strong, compelling thesis. Do not expect the kids at Bonnaroo to get their heads blown by Simplexity.

The principal idea of the book is that defining something as simple or complex is not easy. He gives the example of the pencil, which appears to be terribly simple, but in fact is a complex assemblage of materials from around the world. Much more interesting is his study of how this is manifested in real-world situations. He asks about the complexity of jobs including truck drivers who have to gauge the reactions and behaviors of other people, the status of his machinery, the effects of weather and many other exogenous factors. The highly paid Wall Street analyst running a series of financial models may seem less complex by comparison.

The book is best seen as a collection of a science author's short pieces. The individual chapters are interesting, but they do not build to an conclusion. There is never a clear use of the idea of just what complexity and simplicity are. We just know that when you look at a problem or a system at one level it is simple and at another level it is complex. It is hard to know what to do with this information. Those interested in learning more should turn to the Santa Fe Institute, where as Kluger explains, much of the research in this field is being done. You can read more about its complexity research here.

God speed all the bakers at dawn

Lifehacker asked its readers to identify the books that changed their lives. Results are here. No huge surprises, the books fall out into religion (the Bible and perhaps Ayn Rand?,) political/philosophical (Orwell, Dawkins and Rand) and geeky (lots of sci-fi). I have nothing against any of these books and have read many of them, but it would be another thing to say they changed your life. I've always been befuddled by the notion that a book might change my life. Never had I read a book that would fundamentally change my life and send me on a course I had not intended. I suppose there is the idea of inspiration, which many of them contain, but that seems to me to be the activation of latent tendencies.

Generally speaking if someone says to me "Read this book, it will change your life," I try to avoid it reading it all costs. For one, it sounds culty. For another then I have to talk about it with them and they will try to gauge if my life has in fact changed.