Friday, August 29, 2008

Cheap Trick

There are some bands you first encounter in their decadent phase, which can deny you the pleasures of their greatness. I suspect many a 20 something is astounded that REM is in fact one of the great bands. There are those that tell me that Journey and Rush have things worth owning, but they are wrong of course.

One bad I clearly have misjudged is Cheap Trick. In the late 80s they seemed to be a 70s arena rock band gone to seed. Well I was wrong. There are a lot of gems in their catalogue, filled with hooks and great lyrics. He's a Whore is a classic (compare and contrast with Big Black's cover and if you are familiar with the first Cheap Trick album cover, the Big Black single cover will crack a smile) Below I posted Auf Wiedersehen, a truly excellent song. And despite its incessant radio play, Surrender really is an amazing song.

Plane reading

I am off to Tidewater VA this weekend for a quick turnaround trip. I plan to bring the gigantic Wages of Destruction on the plane. Despite the books physical weight, I think the plane is the ideal place such an intellectually weighty read. These are the sorts of books that require long periods of concentrated reading and what better place than the airplane? Too much reading time is 10 minutes snatched here and 20 minutes there, ideal for essays, travel or other short light pieces, but not for something that requires a bit more engagement.

I could be wrong though. That's why I am packing a mystery or two as well.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dark times in Wales

Thanks to Philip Roth's the Plot Against America, the alternative history novel gained a bit more cachet and interest than it once had. This wasn't the first literary alternative history novel, you could certainly point to the Man in the High Castle or Pavane as literary works, but it is much more rare to see a non-genre writer working in alternate history. In his debut novel, Resistance, Owen Sheers approaches this genre subject from the literary viewpoint.

In the book, the female residents of an isolated Welsh valley wake to find their husbands gone. They soon realize they have taken to the hills to resist a German invasion. In his timeline, the war has gone the Germans way and now the French experience of occupation, including the murky choices of resistance and collaboration, is foisted upon the British.

As in the underappreciated A Midnight Clear, Sheers looks at people, German and British, who try to opt out of the war. As you might expect, this is more difficult that it seems and people on both sides make it more difficult for them to make their choice. Eventually the nastiness rolls into the valley and tragedy ensues.

I quite liked the lyrical approach to the writing and I read it quickly. Late in the book, one character experiences put the valley goings on in much different light that strongly highlights the challenges of resistance. This element is a bit underplayed and could have been made stronger. Hard core alternate history fans looking for all the points of divergence or plenty of military action will need to look elsewhere as that is not Sheers' focus.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I need covers, oh I need them bad

I think one of the easiest, and best, ways to cover a song is to slow it down and or go acoustic. This REM cover of the Editors's Munich is more fun than the original. And who doesn't love Evan Dando's sweet acoustic version of the Misfit's Skulls? In the same vein, check this cover of the Undertone's Teenage Kicks by the Snow Patrol.

If on the other hand, you absolutely must rock out, then listen to Kings of Leon's Sex on Fire.

You can never quarantine the past

Like a ex-smoker turned into a hectoring prohibitionist, my over-indulgence in the world of horror novels as a youth makes me attack them, out of shame I suppose. I once combed low rent paperback exchanges in hopes of finding the likes of Guy Smiths Crab series, which as you might guess was about giant crabs attacking various coastal locales. The US cover was relatively benign, but the more lurid British cover makes a nod to the pervasive prurience which no doubt appealed to my adolescent mind.

I generally looked for the more bizarre books. I eagerly read the likes of James Herbert (I particularly liked the Fog,) and Graham Masterson. Masterson's Devils of D-Day was quite something. It involved the US Army using demon controlled tanks to defeat the Germans.

The undisputed master of the disturbing is Shaun Hutson. These books are the literary equivalent of Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, or maybe even Salo, gleeful romps through torture, sadistic violence and sexual torment. Hutson is the sort of fellow who calls his blog "Shaun's Shit." His topics are wide-ranging from vampire zombie attack, killer slugs, druid evil, terrorists and so on. What sets him apart is his brutally vile depictions of death and destruction. I'd like to tell you that I was repelled in horror and went out and worked in a soup kitchen to repent. No, I gave it to friends who also ate them up. I can't really recommend these books to anyone unless you are a teen looking for something a bit (OK, quite a bit) more disturbing than usual.

Watch this Hutson interview (with a young Vinnie Jones) where he seems fairly normal.

A few bits

Over at Barnes and Noble, George Pelecanos picks three favorite books, none of which I have read, but one of which is on my shelf.

On the same site Ezra Klein reviews a book on immigration. There was a point where people were expected to be well versed in all major political topics, but I find it really hard to have reasonably well informed thoughts about all the world's pressing issues. Global warming, the national debt, trade, health care reform, immigration. Man it is hard, which I why I suppose politicians avoid detailed plans as you need some base understanding in order to digest what they say. The next immigration oriented book I will read will not be a policy tome but the nightmare travel book The Devil's Highway.

This is amusing. On a related note, the Watchmen trailer is much more impressive on the big screen that on YouTube. I suppose this could be said for every trailer ever made.

Dan Simmons follows up his recent historical fiction effort, the Terror, with the Dickensian Drood. This looks quite a bit like the glorious Meaning of Night.

I finally heard the Brazilian band CSS. This song reminds me a bit of Devo or maybe some other New Wave band which eludes. Now that I listen again, it is not Devo, but something else c. 1980.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New books for me

Oh my, it was one of those binge book acquisition weekends. In my defense, I spent very little money doing so, but now my neat shelves look crowded once again. First off I visited the local thrift store where I saw the last two volumes in John Birmingham's guilty pleasure series the Axis of Time. In these books, a multinational naval task force from the Year 2021 is catapulted back to 1942 where they cause all sorts of havoc. Pretty silly, but lots of fun. There was also the Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber, another entry in the literary thriller genre. I've heard mixed things, but I am sucker for this genre. If you haven't perused the local thrift store (and you live in a town with lots of readers) I suspect you will be surprised by what you find.

Then I sold quite a few books at Powells and had a lot of credit on my hands. Theoretically, credit is good for taking chances. It is a bit like free book money, so why not buy a bunch of wild cards that you may or may not like. What limits that behavior is the high numbers of books I know I want to read. This time, I acquired the following.

The White Man's Burden. The title is a tad off-putting, but the author, William Easterly, knows a thing or two about international development and I loved his prior book.

Brass Man
. I LOVED the last Neal Asher I read, so how about another? I purchased the blocky British mass paperback edition. The corners seem less rounded than ours.

The Unblemished
. Here is my wild card. This is a British horror novel that was on the scifi/mystery/horror recommended shelf (generally a gold mine). To be honest, it looks more than a little nasty, but what the heck?

Half-Life. Another Powell's recommendation. They generally know what they are talking about.

Sharp Objects. This one has some buzz, but reading the Powells review, I think it may be less that I was hoping. Thanks a lot Powells.

Then I went to the library and checked out Resistance, a literary alternate history novel (surely this is something new under the sun) and I am still plugging away at the titanic Wages of Destruction. Ah so many books.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More Bacevich

I finally watched An Inconvenient Truth yesterday. Sure, it's a slideshow, but it's a really good one. You've already read a thousand reviews. Suffice to say, it is good. There is one element worth mentioning. It reminded me of the recent Moyers interview of Andrew Bacevich in that Gore put a shared onus on the leadership and the people. We can blame Bush 43 all we want, but it is our behavior that is the problem. You can watch it here.

If you can't get enough (and who can?) here is an earlier (2005) Bacevich interview where he discusses American militarism.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ain't that America

Most books are best read from cover to cover, but there are those that are equally, if not more, enjoyable when read at random. Picture books, including this interesting one highlighted at Citizen Reader, cookbooks, reference books (I spent a lot of time reading Trouser Press Guides to Rock) and the like are obvious examples.

One book that can be approached either way is George Stewart's Names Upon the Land, recently reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics Line. The book presents the story of how the combination English, French, Dutch, Native American and other naming systems and approaches, as well as the impact of history, led to the way American places were named. It can get pretty detailed, including the reasons why southern states have runs and branches for river names while New England states do not.

This sounds a tad dry, but Stewart's love of language and a good story make the book an entertaining read. It is also fun to pick it up and read the stories of Cabrillo, whose names did not survive, and Vancouver, whose names did. I found it amusing that the great Puget sound was named for a junior officer on Vancouver's expedition.

If you have ever wondered at why there is a Berlin, Vermont or a Syracuse New York, this is the sort of book for you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Too much horror business

The vast majority of horror novels are not mediocre or even bad, but fully execrable. Given to the worst writing in nearly all of publishing, disturbing fascination with acts of violence and sadism and an utter disregard for a reader's intelligence, most people would rather pick up a Sweet Valley High story than anything found in the horror section. That's unfortunate because there are horror novels that don't make you hate humanity for allowing these literary abominations to see print. Here are but a few.

Stephen King, in particular late 70s, early 80s King. King's books are the rare airport reads that are worth a damn. Yes, they are stacked next to pages of airy nonsense, but his books are actually quite good. While his books are marked with graphic violence, the true focus and value of his books is the examination of the petty and not so petty evils lurking just below the surface of humanity and society. And they are very often great stories to boot. The Shining, Salem's Lot, and Pet Sematery are well worth any reader's time.

Eat the Dark by Joe Schreiber. This one is creative and frightening without a recourse to gross-out violence to make it "scary." I particularly like how the hints of nastiness he gives that create lingering feelings of dread.

The Ruins by Scott Smith. This one is controversial to say the least. Many people hated it, especially the way the victims fail to see ways of escape. I liked it as a grim picture of people slipping into despair.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub. If you ever go to those paperback bookshops that sell beat up copies of popular fiction, you will find lots of Straub. Despite his good sales, I think he is overshadowed by King and perhaps lumped in with Dean Koontz. Do not make this mistake. While I think Straub's books vary in quality, this one is every bit as good as the best of King.

Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge. Partridge has been writing horror novels for over a decade and this most recent one is quite strong. It is short, but it is an effective and nasty story.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mind the gap

While visiting the library this weekend, I picked up an entertaining and gorgeous book at the library called Transit Maps of the World. It provides historical and current maps of the world's mass transit systems. I've long been a fan of such maps. While was a backpacker I collected them and I continue to collect maps of all kinds, which has been handy for kid entertainment.

The book focuses primarily on the questions of design, as in how to communicate the necessary information quickly. There are issues as the importance of adhering to topographical reality, how to show changes and the importance of font. Before you scoff, consider the iconic nature of the NY Subway and London Underground fonts. A good font can make a real connection. One of my favorites is the one used in the 1930s National Parks promotion posters made by the Federal Arts Project. Here is an example.

The author posted a few blog posts over at the Penguin blog, which you can read here. Strange Maps has a promotional image which is a map of the world showing mass transit systems.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Check out Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers. It's a good interview. Early Word notes that shortly after the interview, Bacevich's new book shot to the top of the Amazon sales list. It is now back-ordered.

Wow, just finished watching, that is some television reporting right there. This is essential watching.


If you are looking for creative, colorful, violent, and frightening science fiction novels, then pick up a Neal Asher. In the past few years I read Cowl and the Skinner, and I just read his first, Gridlinked. His books are set in the shared Polity universe, generally set a few hundred years from today where human society is ruled by AIs, connected via instantaneous travel and beset by enemies like the crablike Prador and the human Separatists. Holding back these terrors is Earth Central Security and, in Gridlinked, the James Bond-esque Ian Cormac.

Cormac begins the book by nearly blowing a mission to uncover Separatist activity. His AI minders decide to delink him from the AI grid, telling him that his connection to the AIs has reduced his humanity and, by extension, his usefulness. He is then sent to investigate a act of terror on another planet.

Asher's creativity is immense. Even is his asides he spins up bizarre biologies and technologies. Weapons fetishists will love his many ideas and the rest will appreciate that many of his ideas are tied back into the story.

Some readers will note similarities to Ian Banks and Richard Morgan (whose novels were published after Gridlinked.) The Polity is somewhat similar to the Culture and the AI led ECS is certainly similar to Special Circumstances. The Polity's world is generally grimmer than that of the Culture and the ECS agents tend to be more happy in their roles compared to those of the often self-doubting Special Circumstance agents.

Asher and Morgan make for an interesting comparison as Asher leans right and Morgan leans left. For the most part this does not impact their narratives although it does impact their emphases. Both authors, for example, deal with the possibility of bodies having new psyches implanted within them. For Morgan this is a story of the powerful crushing the weak. For Asher, it is a case of justice, those who are removed are hardened criminals that society doesn't want to pay to house.

Don't take the political orientation as a guide to whether you should read either author, you should read both if you read science fiction at all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beach house books

I visited the lovely Kiawah Island last week for a family vacation. The house in which we stayed had the usual line-up of books, a few Grishams, a few Pattersons, a few Reader Digests Condensed Books. The owners were more wide-ranging than most in their selection. There were a few mysteries, one or two scifis and a fantasy for those that didn't want to go with airport books. I left my copy of Damage Them All You Can in case a Civil War buff stays there at some point.

While there, I wondered to what extent the books represented the reading tastes or habits of the owners. Were other renters like me and given to leave (and perhaps take) a volume? If they were the owners books, were they favorites or the cast offs that otherwise would have been donated, sold or lent out with little care about a return? I admit I would be torn between the reality that any books I leave would be more or less gone from my collection and the desire not to be judged by my books.

Being a beach vacation, with very long flights, I managed quite a bit of reading. My dent into the reading pile was reduced by my purchase of John Julius Norwich's survey of the Mediterranean, the Middle Sea. At this point I have given up on ever reading all the books I own.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Damage Them All You Can

One of my books for the Back to History Challenge is Damage Them All They Can, a history of the Army of Northern Virginia by George Walsh. The book is centered on the leaders of the Army, with particular but by no means exclusive focus on the likes of Lee, Jackson, the Johnstons, the Hills, Longstreet, Ewell and Early. There is some discussion of life in the Army and the experience of the soldiery, but this is of decidedly secondary importance to the book overall.

The focus on the leaders makes the book's chronological approach problematic. The development of each leader is of keen interest to Walsh, but it can get lost in the shifts of time. I think the book would have been stronger if the book had been thematically or biographically organized ( as I believe Lee's Lieutenants is actually organized.)

While I was reading the book, I was hoping for more of the approach of Rick Atkinson in his Liberation Trilogy or Eric Bergerud in his Touched with Fire. These books tell what happened in the wars they describe, but also provide some understanding of the experience of these wars. Those looking for a good introduction to the Civil War in Virginia will find a lot to learn here, but they may get lost in the detail of brigade commands.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cake gone wrong

I am shortly off to vacation, but I invite you to visit Cakewrecks, a site about rather bizarre cakes. This one is rather nasty (don't look before eating). (via Jezebel)

Darling don't you go and take that drug, do you think it's gonna make you change?

Novels, or modern ones at least, are very often negative forms of self-help books. While self-help books promote means of finding happiness, novels more often than not show how choices lead to bad outcomes. The reader hopefully will take the lessons and adjust their lives accordingly. I think a very good novel will often lead a person to reevaluate choices and consider how they might treat others better.

In Dirk Wittenborn's Pharmakon, the questions of happiness and the treatment of others are front and center. At the dawn of the pharmacological era, Dr. Will Friedrich, a psychologist with plenty of emotional issues of his own ambitiously pursues a plan to cure sadness with a substance distilled from a tropical plant. Things seem to go swimmingly and then they don't. The aftermath of the experiment leaves a path of destruction through two generations of Friedrichs.

Wittenborn is interested in the quest for happiness, which he makes out to be as elusive as the quest for Middle East peace. Nearly everyone in the book ends up compromising and settling for something they don't want. With more than one character given to abusing drugs and alcohol, he nicely compares legal means to find happiness with drugs to illegal ones.

The ending isn't terribly satisfying, but I enjoyed my journey with the characters. While much of the story is quite sad, or even tragic, the writing is crisp and often quite funny. Those looking for a skeptical look at the American Dream will find it here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

NYRB sale

The New York Review of Books is having a summer sale. If you are not familiar with their books, then by all means rectify the situation. A select group of individual items are on sale for 25% off (which after shipping isn't all that awesome) but a number of collections are on sale for 40% off which is actually awesome. A few of their collections are particularly appealing.

For those wanting a subtle critique of the Imperialist mindset, look no further than the Farrell and Flanagan collection. I can't speak to the Flanagan, but J.G. Farrell's books, which feature British citizens facing a crumbling Empire in India, Singapore and Ireland are fascinating.

The Science Fiction Collection has a Christopher Priest book, with which I am unfamiliar, but it's Priest so it is probably good. There is also a book by Ernst Junger called the Glass Bees, which looks quite good. Finally there is an edition of the War of the Worlds with Edward Gorey drawings.

Finally if you liked Blood Meridian, this pair of revisionist westerns might be up your alley.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Odds and sods

This is potentially nifty. Random House is releasing Karen Marie Moning's Dark Fever as a free podcast. On the book's website you will get a few chapters per week You can find it here. I don't know a thing about the author, but I like that publishing companies are finding new ways to try before you buy. The podcast approach is nice as well, as you can create chapters more easily on your Ipod or other listening device. Here are a couple of links on how to make CD based audiobooks more manageable on an Ipod. I remember lugging around 24 tapes of the Making of the Atomic Bomb. It would have been much nicer on the Ipod.

Check out this map of the world with country size determined by number of Olympic medal winners. Both Cuba and Australia look to be doing better than their populations would suggest.

Here is Pavement doing Cut Your Hair on 120 Minutes.

Carter Beats the Devil, reviewed here by the Williamsburg, VA regional library blog (which is quite good) is a book I quite liked, but was overshadowed by Kavalier and Klay which I read shortly before it. Like Klay, Devil is set in the early 20th century and tells a well written funny and sad story. I can't say why, but the two seemed quite similar. I should probably take another look now that it has been some years.

Over at Barnes and Noble Paul Paul DiFilippo has a review essay on the peculiar genre known as dark fantasy. I believe James Blaylock writes in this genre. I have a few of his books lying about the house waiting to be read.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Peter Hopkirk

I've rarely enjoyed a book as much as I did Peter Hopkirk's the Great Game. Written in a adventure novelistic style, it tells the story of 19th and early 20th century British and Russian adventurers who risked life and limb as they tried to win Central Asia for their empires. The stories are nearly incredible, with very young men traveling under amazingly harsh condition and with little background. Not surprisingly, they often died whether at their imperial opponents hands or at the hands of the locals, who more often than not, weren't all that interested in being part of an empire.

Hopkirk followed up these books with Setting the East Ablaze and Like Hidden Fire, books about Soviet and Ottoman/German efforts to up-end the British Empire in Asia. Like the Great Game, these are adventure stories, real-life ones, but adventure stories nonetheless. And they are filled with all the twists and turns of a novel.

I've just read his Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, which is also about European competition in Central Asia, but instead of political control as the focus, it is Buddhist art. The part of China now known as Xinjiang, but formerly known as Chinese Tartary or East Turkestan has the brutal Taklamakan Desert at its center. During the Tang Dynasty the area was home to a number of trading towns that featured a particular variant of Buddhist art. As the Tang fell, the towns and the art disappeared under the sands.

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is about a series of explorers, representing Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States who sought to capture the archaeological glory of uncovering lost cities, manuscripts and art. Like in the prior books, the explorers were exposed to harsh conditions, although fewer met their end on these quests.

While I liked this book, I didn't like it as much as the Great Game related books. That is quite possibly personal bias, as I quite like political stories and don't have nearly as strong an interest in Buddhist art or archeology. Those with strong interests in these fields will find much to enjoy and even those who don't will likely appreciate Hopkirk's vigorous prose and nose for a good story.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Fallen Idol

Having just read and adored Our Man in Havana (which for some reason I picked up three or four times before fulling committing --- a bit weak given its short length,) I was thrilled to hear a movie, made by none other than Carol Reed, existed. I was then crestfallen to learn that it is only available on VHS (in the US at least) ! Here's hoping the Criterion Collection fills the gap.

Reed and Greene's best known collaboration is the Third Man, one of the greatest movies of all time, but they also worked together on Our Man in Havana and the Fallen Idol. While I can't say I enjoyed the Fallen Idol as much as the Third Man, fans of that film will want to seek out the Fallen Idol.

The movie centers on the relationship between a lonely Ambassador's son and the British butler who runs his household. The boy idolizes (but also patronizes) the butler, calling him Baines (his far more formal wife is always Mrs. Baines). When the boy witnesses something he doesn't understand, he commits error after error that puts his friend in great peril.

The movie is both visually and thematically similar to the Third Man. Reed focuses in on faces and the faces communicate as much if not more than the words. He revels in shadow and large empty spaces, as in late night streets and unoccupied embassies. The themes of betrayal (sometimes two way) and the breaking of innocence are essential in both films, although this one is a bit gentler than the Third Man. If anything this will movie will prove that Reed was much more than a one trick pony

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sent to spy on a Cuban talent show

Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana is a delightful farce that manages to be serious and laugh out loud funny at the same time. It follows the unfortunate Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana whose shortage of funds finds him willing to accept an offer to join the British Intelligence Service. As a generally inept and careless person, he can do any actual spying, so he ends up sending fake reports back to London so that he can use his expense fund to pay for his daughter's many expensive needs. It all goes swimmingly until his reports begin to create crises.

The book reads as a humorous novel. The spy characters are nearly all idiotic buffoons who can't see Wormold's creations for the poorly assembled tales they are. There is intrigue all around Wormold who is incapable of seeing it correctly. There is also plenty of domestic farce as his daughter leads him into a series of misfortunes.

The book can be read just as humor, but Greene has more to say than that. On the personal level, Wormold is the sort of weak person who takes the wrong path because it is easy and available. Most (if not all) of the tragedy in the book is a result of his careless approach to life. What's more, despite being a spy story, it's message is that the intelligence world is a world filled with fools whose damage far outweigh any benefit they provide. At the end of the book, a few characters explicitly reject the Cold War, but the book is an implicit rejection of the conflicts that grind up individuals for some higher purpose.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Uh oh

The Washington Post has a profile on George Pelecanos who wonders if he has said all he needs to say about crime.

Pelecanos, who is 51, told me: "Sometimes I think 'The Wire' said it all, and I might as well not write any more crime novels. I can feel my energy beginning to dissipate. One thing I didn't realize about this business when I started was that it could be my job to write a novel a year, but it's also my job to take a walk and think." He owes one more book to his publisher, and the contract specifies that it be a crime novel and that it be delivered by the end of the year, but he's not sure in what direction his writing will go after that. Working in the overlap where the crime novelist meets the literary novelist, Pelecanos has always been willing to push his heroes, his city and his storytelling craft through difficult changes.

I am of two minds. He is clearly at the top of his game right now, so maybe it is time to switch games. We don't want to see the slide in quality that we saw in Chandler or in all the sci fi authors who churn out books far longer than they should. On the other hand, even a so-so Pelecanos is better than most everyone else out there and he is one of the best of writers of DC, the other being Edward P Jones. So hopefully he will switch to politics or some such.