Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More Suite

So the story of Suite Francaise is interesting, but what about the stories in the book? They are quite good indeed. The first half, Storm in June, reminded me of the chaotic retreat scene in Atonement. It features a range of Parisians fleeing the German advance and as they flee, social niceties tend to fall to the wayside. Nemirovsky paints a dark picture of her fellow French. Few if any people do anything other than save their own skins. She puts a great emphasis on contrast between self-image and behavior. Among the most appaling people is the artist, who will happily take advantage of the downtrodden before reaching his comfortable coastal hotel.

The second half of the book is set in a French village where a German regiment comes to winter before the invasion in Russia. This story doesn't work quite as well as the first, but it also shows the varied reactions to occupation. The most insufferable are those who use the Germans to punish those they personally dislike. The aristocrats in the town are particularly odious. The tensions felt by the citizenry as the they try to get along without collaborating are treated well, with a good amount of nuance.

This end of the book is the set up for combining the characters from the two halfs in the unwritten third volume. The book contains Nemirovsky's notes about her plans for the book which make for interesting reading and day dreaming about what the book might have been.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Suite Francaise

My current fiction read is Suite Francaise, an unfinished book written in 1940s France. The book was never completed because the author was sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Her daughters went into hiding and happened to take along the manuscript for Suite Francaise as they went. The daughters assumed it was a diary and avoided reading it for decades. Once they summoned the courage to read it, they found it was a novel of France in defeat and occupation, or at least the first two fifths of one. The novel was finally published in 2004.

Hearing a book is unfinished is a red flag for many. I suppose one of the greatest unfinished books that people actually read is Dicken's Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is about half way done. I suppose this could either intrigue or vex a reader who can never know how it will truly end. Dan Simmons is going to take a crack at it with his upcoming book Drood.

Suite Francaise was meant as a suite of novels rather than a fully integrated text, which means the two existing stories (or at least the first, which is far as I have gotten) can stand independently on their own. So don't let it stop you from checking this one out. More on it later

Friday, September 26, 2008

A near miss

Doing my parental fund raising duty, I picked up some scrip for Powells last week (have you purchased yours?) I went down to the store and perused the new titles thinking of what fine new volume I should add to the pile of books I won't get to any time soon. I nearly picked up American Lightning, thinking it would be another Devil In White City sort of read, but hesitated. I'm glad I did as Yarley savaged the book in the Post this weekend.

My own hunch is that Blum thinks he's written a nonfiction variation on the themes played in E.L. Doctorow's celebrated novel Ragtime, but such magic as Doctorow managed to extract from the same point in American history is utterly absent in this contrived, plodding, self-infatuated "tome."

Ouch. The other one that looks good is State by State, where 51 authors talk about their state (or District in the case of Edward P Jones). It is the sort of thing that could really click or completely collapse. I think I will pick it up at some point, but I will also want to check out the Out of the Book film on the book, which includes enough authors that there is bound to be one you like.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Death is a highway

There are days when I think, hoo-ee, do I have it tough. Late meetings, tough deadlines, rush home to help the kids with homework/bike riding/piano lessons. And then I read a book like the Devil's Highway and I realize I am a great big whiner.

The book details an attempt to sneak into the United States gone disastrously wrong. In May 2001, an undermined number of indigent Mexicans were led by inept criminal coyotes into the Arizona desert, where they promptly became lost. As author Luis Alberto Urrea clearly and gruesomely explains, prolonged exposure to the desert is deadly without water and these men ran out.

The villains of the book are the coyotes, the gangsters that guide and often abandon their charges in the desert, while fleecing them of their money and subjecting them to crippling loan terms. The Border Patrol is presented in even handed terms, while Urrea acknowledges their violent reputation, he finds the officers he meets are humane and thoughtful people who tend to help those they are hunting.

In addition to nonfiction, Urrea also writes poetry and prose, so it isn't surprising that his descriptions of the desert and his character sketches are so vivid. This is highly engaging writing that reminds me of the best of John McPhee or Sebastian Junger.

Whatever your opinion on immigration and illegal immigration, our current policies are deadly and that needs to be addressed. Whether by tighter control, freer immigration or by making the border less deadly (as Urrea shows the Border Patrol is doing,) people should not be dying in droves on the border.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Stereogum has a new Vampire Weekend song, from an upcoming soundtrack. It's all kinds of catchy. I can't say the same thing about the new Killers song.

If the financial news isn't apocalyptic enough for you, take a gander at futurist John Robb's take. Bad news for non-members of the hyper-elite.

On the other hand, Daniel Larison cautions us not to freak out and allow some garbage relief plan to sneak past. His last line is great: I am not inclined to believe the latest batch of alarmists who once again clamor for us to give them vast powers and ask as few questions as possible.

Have a listen to Christopher Buckley talk about his new book and why he may well vote for Obama.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Did you work upon the railroad, did you rid the streets of crime?

Wow, I don't know much about his novels, but John Gregory Dunne could write a hell of a memoir. Harp, a mediation on how writers use their lives for their art, is brief but beautifully written. His subjects are writing, family and death, and they are often intertwined.

The title of the book is a reference to an anti-Irish slur and much of the book is about growing up Irish and how the culture shaped Dunne into who he became. While the Irish element is central to his character, we also see how living and working in Hollywood, life in the Army ( and a return to the base and a red light district some decades later) and the threat of an early death by heart attack affect the writer.

As readers of Joan Didion's the Year of Magical Thinking know, Dunne did in fact die of a heart attack, although it was nearly 20 years after he learned of his likely killer. The writing in heart chapters, where Dunne faces mortality were surely powerful when written (in the late 80s) but they take on an even greater power when read today.

Dunne's writing is so crisp and revealing, that I suspect if he chose to write about a visit to Denny's, it would be fascinating. Taking his powerful writing with such heartfelt stories makes this a must read book.

You tell me to practice peace, you just think it looks cool

This is the best thing I have seen in at least a week.

Sir Ben Kingsley STOMPS into the shoes of Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye from Mean Magazine on Vimeo.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Don't mind the maggots

The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx is the second in a projected five book dystopian epic about Robert Moses and an alternate history of New York City. In the prior book, the Swing Voter of Staten Island, Arthur Nersesian introduced Uli, an operative who discovers that what he thought was New York was a kind of refugee camp in the Nevada desert. The Bronx volume (Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn sure to come) concerns Robert Moses, perhaps best known from Robert Caro's the Power Broker, and his unfortunate brother Paul, constantly thwarted and betrayed by his younger (and more sinister) brother.

Paul's path is sad and a bit pathetic and his sad life leads to a catastrophic decision. The villain of the book is definately Robert Moses and the crime is the historical destruction wrought on New York neighborhoods. Nersesian is exploring it via science fiction, although the real life damage to neighborhoods is sad enough.

The NYT recently published a profile piece on Nersesian and, if you live in Portland, you can see him at Powell's Burnside on Sept 30 at 7:30.


Dexter Filkins has a new and praised book out on the Iraq War called the Forever War. I fully intend to read the book, but I found his new article talking about Iraq today very interesting. Essentially, things are a lot better than 2006. Depending on your view on the war, your reaction will likely vary.

Friday, September 19, 2008


So Oprah picked Edgar Sawtelle. This one has already gotten a lot of love, but the trustworthy Citizen Reader earlier said it was not good...at all. So I am going to stick with the wonderful and sad Suite Francaise.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fatal Vows

Writing books about unsolved crimes is tricky, what happens when the crime is eventually solved? Of course plenty of crimes are never solved and plenty of people like unsolved crime stories all the more. Fatal Vows tells the story of the unfortunate wives of police sergeant Drew Peterson and makes the case that the still missing Staci Peterson died at the hands of her husband.

This one is for fans of the genre, those that want to see the case made against the uncaptured villain. The story is of course terribly sad, not just because of the deaths (or assumed deaths) of these women, but also because it shows the very difficult lives led by many in our society.

Mommy, can I go out and kill tonight?

It's hard to beat the 70s for sheer nastiness in movies. Political films like the Conversation and the Parallax View, horror movies like the Exorcist, and dramas like Badlands took a much harsher view of the world and went to much darker places than most of today's films. The horror film the Other is visually bright and sunny but is a particularly dark take on the evil child theme. Set in a rural 1930s New England the movie is centered around the young twin boys Niles and Holland. Their father has died and they find themselves getting into trouble with the neighbors and their family. As it happens, bad things start happening around the farm and it looks like one of the twins is behind it.

The movie is fairly slow going at the start, involving lots of running to and from the swimming hole, the hidden area of the barn, the invalid mother's room and so on. Things start to get peculiar when the Russian grandma starts practicing what she calls the Game with Niles. It seems Niles has some psychic ability, and in horror movies, that is never good.

The end is where the big nasty comes as well as the big question as to what really is happening, a move so beloved by horror movie directors. You will probably call one of the twists in the first 10 or so minutes, but don't think that is all this moving is bringing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fifty thou a year will buy a lot of beer

I suspect that many got a chuckle out of McCain adviser Donald Luskin's unfortunately titled "Quit Doling out the Bad Economy Line," written the same day as news of the death of Lehman and the surrender of Merrill. That's all well and good, but I happened to be reading Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus, which John, "I bet you wouldn't pick lettuce for $50 an hour" McCain really needs on his bedside table.

It is an immensely dispiriting book, in that it portrays the majority of Americans in thrall to a lie about the American dream, but it is wonderfully written and one of the few books that actually writes about the life of the rural poor.

And on the America is really hosed front, here is Andrew Bacevich on NPR.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

They live inside of my head

I've just finished Peter Hamilton's The Dreaming Void and I have to say I am pleased as punch. Is this book as good as the Reality Dysfunction? No, but it is superior to Pandora's Star, which should make his fans rest easy.

Backing up a moment, if you are a fan of titanic space opera, involving massive perils to the universe, myriad subplots, outlandish characters and inventive action scenes, you really have to read Reality Dysfunction (don't read any of the reviews- really). Also, unfortunately, you shouldn't read anything about the book, otherwise you will spoil one of the great surprise plots in all of science fiction. You can find the book easily enough in a two part mass market, but a combined trade paperback is coming soon as well.

Pandora's Star took Hamilton's creativity too far. He spun plotline after plotline and the book became leaden. While the overall story was interesting, you had to wade through far too much detail too get to it.

The Dreaming Void, set in the same universe as Pandora's Star, is a far more streamlined book. This is a relative term as the book still has twice the plot of an ordinary space opera. You may wonder what is going with the apartment redeveloper and her multiple (in more ways than one) sex partners. This is the only case of Hamilton's frequent trick of hiding an important development in an apparent side plot. The majority of the book is spent on fast paced chapters involving agents of rival elements of post-humanity. The future direction of human evolution is at stake and a dream worshiping religion threatens to hasten the conflict.

The Void of the title is an impenetrable and deadly hole in the middle of the galaxy. Every once and again it expands, destroying all it touches. The dream worshippers believe heaven is on he other side of the event horizon and plan to go in. Others believe this will destroy the galaxy. All manner of hijinks ensue.

Hamilton's space opera is in the mold of the optimistic science fiction of the 50s and 60s. The threats are huge, but there is a sunniness to his books completely lacking in Banks, Morgan, Asher or other contemporaries. This is not to say that they read like throwbacks. There is frequent and often peculiar sex in these books and the violence is often alarmingly casual. Reading his books is the closest things to finding the next Star Wars, pure science fiction entertainment in which to fully immerse yourself.


Sad news, David Foster Wallace has died, reportedly by his own hand. I have not read his books, but his Infinite Jest is a great favorite of many people I know.

Friday, September 12, 2008


General William Odom died earlier this year. He had a long and distinguished career in the US military and government serving in Vietnam, as defense attache in Moscow and ultimately as the Director of the National Security Agency. After retirement he taught and was a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Odom was iconoclastic which shows as he was recently praised both by the American Conservative and also by Harvard's Nieman Watchdog.

Like Andrew Bacevich, Odom was a conservative anti-imperialist. As long as it didn't cost the country too much, as in the 90s, it wasn't a problem, but in the Bush years it has clearly become a problem. Odom's in testimony to Congress and in the op-ed pages called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq for years.

His stance on Iraq is admirable, but his older books should also get a look. His Fixing Intelligence is one of the best books on the intelligence community for the lay reader. His America's Inadvertent Empire argues that it is institutions rather than military power that makes the US strong. And while I have not read it, his Collapse of the Soviet Military is highly regarded.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sing this reunion to me

Here's a retread show I didn't expect. The Sisters of Mercy are playing Portland on Nov 22. Andrew Eldritch is now bald, but I am sure his voice is as deep as ever. The heavy use of drum machines and synthesizers don't say "rock show" to me, but who knows maybe it will be cool. Best track? Probably Temple of Love. I do like Lucretia, My Reflection as well.

I suspect people are most likely to recall This Corrosion, if they recall the band at all.

Muslim Next Door

New immigrants tend not to have very nice anywhere, and the US, while better than most, is no exception. The Gangs of New York gives a taste of the reception of the Irish (and by extension, Catholics in general) in 19th century America. Of course, the sunny side of the story is that the US is particularly good at assimilating people and customs, the practically national status of St. Patrick's Day is a testament to how far the Irish have come.

In the Muslim Next Door, Sumbul Ali-Karamali is doing her part in hurrying along the integration of Muslim America into the broader national fabric. The book is written for non-Muslim audiences who want to understand the basics of the religion and its practice. It is also written from a practioner's, rather than an disinterested observer's, perspective. As such fans of Tim LaHaye on the one side, and Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris on the other, will not be pleased with this book.

That aside, Ali-Karamali does a good job of explaining the basic religous practices in terms understandable to those with Christian or Jewish backgrounds. Her main point is that Islam is a religion with a set of beliefs that are essentially democratic and egalitarian and hence well suited to the political culture of the United States. The violence and repression that we see in the media are outliers like 17th century Salem, MA or the Florence of Savonarola.

All in all this is a good introduction to what will continue to be a growing part of the American cultural landscape. It is in everyone's interest that we understand one another and avoid the tensions that plague Muslim populations in Europe. Reading this book can certainly help.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Vampire Weekend

You know I resisted it for awhile, but now I realize I quite like Vampire Weekend. It's no Turn on the Bright Lights, but A-Punk (seen below) is a lot of fun even the song reminds me of something (General Public?)

This in studio version of Oxford Comma.


Anthony Bourdain lists his top three books on BN.com. Two of his picks were not surprising, but I was quite intrigued by Friends of Eddie Coyle, which he calls the "truest of its genre." I've come to the crime genre much later than say, science fiction, so there remain many greats unknown to me. So it is always nice to hear about the likes of this.

Reporter Dexter Filkins has a new Iraq book coming out called the Forever War. It looks rather good, but I am happy to see a geek reference in a serious work of non-fiction. While clearly a response to Vietnam, Haldeman's novel is even more appropriate for Iraq, where servicepeople are being called back again and again.

Stephenson's Anathem is now out and you should check it out. Here is my take.

Did you know that Roald Dahl was a spy in World War 2, and that he was in the same unit as Ian Fleming? Jennet Conat has the details in the Irregulars.

When she wants something, she don't want to pay for it

Check out this odd video of Chuck Palahniuk showing both how to shoplift and which books are likely be shoplifted. Some nice book references including Day of the Locust. It's from the fine folks at Borders.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Write about destruction

Oh my, Adam Tooze's Wages of Destruction is quite a book. It an economic history of Nazi Germany and it provides economic reasons for Nazi policy making. This alone should raise interest (or potentially hackles). The discussion of lebensraum is illuminating. Most texts write this off as sheer propaganda or delusion, but Tooze shows that the German economy of the early 20th century was actually quite behind a number of competitors and that the very large agricultural work force was difficult to employ, hence the interest in stealing others land.

Tooze argues that there were other economic choices available to the Germans including taking a classically liberal export oriented approach, but that ideologically and politically this was a non-starter thanks in part to the inward turn of the United States in the early 30s. The Germans saw their future as that of an economic satellite of the United States or as the leader of a united Europe. They chose the later course, to the world's great dismay.

Too often analysis of political choices, at least in American writing, ignores economic influences. If they are identified, it is usually on the basis of nefarious special interests hoping to get their narrow agendas satisfied. It is much more rare to see an analysis of the economic situation facing leaders and how this constrains their behavior. Tooze explores how the balance of payments in Germany greatly influenced its foreign policy throughout the 30s. Today, you can't examine the US-China relationship without looking at the economic aspect. We need more books like Tooze's that examine these things.

The horrors of the Holocaust and the other other German atrocities also have economic underpinings. Most importantly, there was not enough food for everyone in Europe, at least with all the resources going to war making. Couple this with the extreme racism of the regime and the wholesale slaughter of Eastern Europeans and Jews by starvation and then mass murder becomes a policy choice rather than a fit of insanity.

This is a very large book that takes close reading. The subject range is massive, including an assessment of Albert Speer's economic wizardry, technology investments by the German military, relative economic strengths of the various powers and average farm size in 1930s Germany. For many readers it will be too much. For those of whom that is too much, consider picking it up and reading the introduction and the conclusion, which is easy enough. If you think you have read all you need about World War 2, think again.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Wrapping things up

I've clearly stated my love for Charles McCarry's Paul Christopher novels, but I have to say Second Sight is a hard one to recommend. Set long after the disastrous conclusion to the Last Supper, the book reads like a collection of deleted scenes from the prior books roughly connected by a thin plot. The book consists of a series of flashbacks of various characters from the Christopher world. In many cases, we learn the fates or the unsuspected connections between characters. If there were any dangling plotlines from a prior book that you wish had been resolved, then chances are you will find resolution here.

The multi-decade connections often strain credulity, but the book remains a strong read if you can put these qualms aside. McCarry's general even-handness and realism break down only when he deals with the media, personifyed in a womanizing, hypocritical limosine leftist who dogs Christopher and his people. Written at the end of the Cold War, there is a sense of sadness at the close of an age. My paperback copy has the subtitle of The Last Paul Christopher novel, which turned out not to be the case, as McCarry has written two more since.

This book should only be read by those who have read all the proceeding novels. If you've committed yourself to those, you probably will enjoy this one as well. If the earlier ones didn't work for you, give this one a pass.