Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two movies

So I watched two movie in the past few days, one pretty good and one disappointing. Let's start with the let down.

Fanboys is a movie that could have been much better than it was. It concerns a group of 20 something friends who plan to break into the Skywalker Ranch so that their friend can see Episode 1 before he dies. The problems are manifold. The main characters aren't interesting, seeming like shadows of characters that might appear in a Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow film. Perhaps recognizing this, the plot relies on a series of cameos. Hey look it's Billie Dee! and there's Ray Park goofing on Darth Maul.

This would be forgiveable if the writing were smart and funny, which it generally isn't. The Star Wars jokes are weak and the movie doesn't really capture why people are fans in the first place, or how far fans will go. Most of the talk of the movies is in opposition to Star Trek, but all of those jokes pale in comparison to the Clerks 2 LOTR vs. Star Wars scene. A movie ABOUT Star Wars fandom should be able to top that, but it can't.

Then the movie has to contend with the reality that Episode 1 is a shitty, shitty movie that crushed the dreams of millions. It acknowledges this at the end, but it could have been better incorporated. The last scene shows tons of cheering fans at opening night. I remember well hearing the opening blasts of the theme and a thrill that I have never experienced in a theater, only to shortly feel the air let out of my balloon. That has been best done in Spaced in this wonderful scene.

The Star Wars machine has grown so large that the original trilogy is lost in the clutter. Anyone who has shopped for kids toys knows that the Clone Wars dominate the merch now. What a bummer.

The King of Marvin Gardens
is a bummer too, but of the good kind. The slow, moody early 70s picture is set in off-season Atlantic City. The nearly empty town is the setting for brothers Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern to reconnect and attempt to reconcile after years apart. The bombastic and oily Dern has a real estate scheme in which he hopes to partner with Nicholson. The two brothers clearly love each other and want to work it out, but their differences keep getting in the way. The acting is great, the tone is great and it is well worth watching.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Interview with Laird Barron

Laird Barron is one of the most exciting new (well, new to me) writers I have encountered in years (thanks, Steve!). He writes horror stories, a genre I want to love, but so often loathe. Unlike so many others, his tales are psychologically rich, well-written, and filled with nightmarish images. His Imago Sequence collection includes the fantastic The Procession of the Black Sloth story referenced below. You can also find his stories in anthologies like Poe and Lovecraft Unbound. Don't fret if you have already greedily consumed all these tales and can't find more. Next year, Night Shade Books is publishing a new collection of his tales called Occultation.

I recently requested an interview with the author and he was kind enough to agree.

1) What is it that attracts you to writing horror stories? What can the genre offer that others can't?

Hello, Tripp, and thank you for the interview.

My tastes are eclectic -- I enjoy everything from Michener ‘s historical doorstops to New Wave science fiction. There’s a special place in my heart for procedurals and crime novels. Gorky Park, Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Robert Parker’s Spenser series are some of my favorites.

The thing horror offers is the frisson that comes with fear and dread and visceral shock; frightful imagery appeals to our lizard brain in a way that is profound and immediate. Horror is an important and vital art form -- it’s rooted in primitive emotions, the animal self that resists sublimation. We’ve not evolved sufficiently as a species to turn our backs on the lizard, the wolf, the ape. Our ineluctable fascination with the gruesome, the violent, the macabre, is a gentle reminder of that.

2) How do you account for the continuing interest in and exploration of Lovecraft's mythos? What is it like to write a Mythos story?

Lovecraftian and the best Lovecraft-influenced fiction explores a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The Mythos evokes a sense of wonder. Dreadful enigmas, the contemplation of cosmic forces, exploration of the Other at its most inscrutable and alien captivates us because of our relentless curiosity, our insatiable desire to see what vistas lie beyond the next curve in the road, over the next hill.

I’ve only written a couple of pure Mythos tales, but indeed much of my work has been inspired by Lovecraft’s cosmic horror as well as several authors who’ve contributed to the canon. It’s always enlightening to put together a Lovecraftian story. I dig deep into the subconscious well, stirring up the muck and the sediment, so to speak. There are ancient artifacts buried among the roots of the dreaming mind. I never know what I’ll uncover.

3) Your excellent story "The Procession of the Black Sloth" is driven by Asian myth, but also appears to be influenced by film. How does cinema influence your writing?

Yes, the story was inspired by Chinese mythology, particularly that of the Eighteen Hells. Cinema in general counts among my chief influences, especially aspects of cinematography and script. Asian cinema has been a revelation. Mood, pacing, dialogue -- the higher quality Asian films exhibit a rawness that Hollywood eschews. Takashi Miike, for example, imbues his pictures with edginess and a kind of tainted eroticism. He’s a master manipulator. He injects absurdity at precisely the right moment. Even at his darkest he’s playful after a macabre fashion and these elements complicate what are otherwise simple narratives.

4) In this age of smaller and smaller attention spans, do you think short stories will see a resurgence?

I don’t know. Novels reign supreme. Short story collections remain a tough sell in New York. Fortunately the independent and small presses champion the short form and there appears to be a loyal core audience, especially in the horror/weird categories. It’s also heartening to note that Ellen Datlow has steadily put forth anthologies from Dark Horse, Tor, and Solaris.

There’s also lot of great short work on the internet -- ezines such as Clarkesworld and Chizine provide high quality content. If not a resurgence, at least we’re witnessing a healthy status quo.

5) Who is the one author right now – regardless of genre – that everyone should be talking about but they are not?

Stephen Graham Jones. He’s written novels such as Demon Theory and All the Beautiful Sinners and appeared in more literary magazines than you can shake a stick at. His latest collection The Ones that Got Away will appear in 2010. His work encompasses a broad spectrum of genre categories, including the various manifestations of horror and dark fantasy. He’s a fantastic stylist. His stories are the kind that stick in your mind for weeks. Jones will shock and amaze you.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thanks for the propaganda!

True fans were probably well aware, but I had no idea that we have the British effort to pull America fully into World War 2 to thank for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. After being grounded as an RAF pilot thanks to injuries, he was sent to the embassy in DC where he eventually joined a group that sought to clamp down isolationist and anti-British sentiment in the USA. In her book the Irregulars, Jennet Conat details his adventures.

He came into writing due to boredom and a lucky encounter. CS Forester approached him to jot down some notes so that Forester could write an article about his RAF life. Not thrilled with his party circuit lifestyle, he wrote an entire article instead. Forester loved it and helped it get published. Soon, Dahl was working with Disney on stories about gremlins and his writing career was launched.

It wasn't all writing though. He worked with other spies (they preferred the term agent) like Ian Fleming and the legendary William Stephenson (known as the Man Called Intrepid). He formed a relationship with the Roosevelts and an intimate one with the married Clare Booth Luce, who used her position in Congress and her husbands Life magazine to push for a Pacific rather than a European focus. The dashing Dahl was ordered to sleep with Luce, the better to influence her.

I haven't finished the book, but I like how it both delights with little tales and that it educates with important reminders. For example, Britain and the United States were intensely close at this period, but even still they had crucial policy differences, because they had different interests. There is a sense today that we are not allowed to disagree with an ally like Israel, even when our interests are increasingly divergent.

I also like how the book shows how dis-united American public opinion was on how to conduct the war. If there was any war that you would think people would get behind it was this one, but even then there was intense disagreement.


I hope everyone had a nice Christmas weekend. Mine was relaxing, although festive. The egg nog finally came out last night and it was a delight. Thanks to some generally lackluster reading, I changed my book selection approach in the past few weeks. I have been reading books chosen more because I felt like i should read them rather than any desire to read them.. This has been all well and good, but I am focusing on reading the many books I already own. It has made a difference in the excitement already.

Anyway, here are a pair of interesting links.

Chris Hayes went to China and wrote a sobering report about it.

I enjoyed this video, which shows what English sounds like to those that can't understand it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A last minute addition to my best of the year list

Stuart Neville's debut, the Ghosts of Belfast, is crazy good. It is the sort of book I kept nearby at all times, so that I can could read it when I found some spare minutes. It reminded me of first reading Dennis Lehane, although that is slightly unfair to Neville, as his debut is better than Lehane's. We are lucky indeed to have another crime novelist of this caliber.

The book's anti-hero is Gerry Fegan, a former IRA enforcer and murderer. Released from prison, he is going slowly mad from drink and from 12 ghosts that haunt him. His only way out is to listen to the ghosts and to kill the men that ordered or helped him to kill.

Neville's protagonist is nasty and so are the rest of his characters, it's no surprise that he considers James Ellroy to be the greatest living crime writer. The cruel mobster/terrorists of the IRA are now gussied up politicians, although they aren't afraid to dabble in crime to get a few more dollars. The British are manipulative monsters, willing to throw innocent after innocent into the maw in order to maintain their political objectives. Fegan gains our reluctant sympathy as he is the only one to recognize what he has done is wrong and to act on that understanding as well.

Neville could have written a simple, if exhilarating, revenge thriller, but he set his sights higher. The book pulls back the reality behind the ideas of nationalism and national security. The real bad guys of the book aren't the trigger pullers, although many are loathsome, but the people pulling the strings, who use happy concepts to justify the blood on their hands.

I can't wait for Neville's next book!

Monday, December 21, 2009

A re-read I enjoyed

I generally don't re-read books. Although I enjoy a good passage as much as anyone else, I don't often go back to savor them. Unless the writing is stellar, I focus on the fact that I know what is coming and wonder why I am reading the book again. Sometimes though, a book will call me once again. I re-read Dune this year and loved it. I just finished re-reading World War Z by Max Brooks.

The book is a speculative oral history set 10 years after a worldwide zombie plague has reduced humanity to a tiny remnant. This format eliminates any sense of character development, but it does allow Brooks to cram in an amazing range of ideas, from how the government would re-organize, how geopolitics would shift and the role of dogs. In a relatively short book, Brooks creates a richer world that is found in the thickest of fantasy novels. A dark and terrible world to be sure, but a fascinating one.

Anyway, it makes me think there are other books I could re-read and enjoy. I didn't find anything new by reading it again, but I did marvel at what he accomplished.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nice book for Christmas - nonfiction

If you have people on your list who still like to read about Iraq, consider David Finkel's Good Soldiers. It has made it onto more than one best of list. Finkel follows one small unit in Baghdad through 2007 and 2008. It reminds me a bit of Dispatches, in that it is quite literary, but it lacks the phantasmagoria of that book.

Here is a section where Finkel uses translation as a means to show the difficulty the Army had in working with the locals. The he is a Lt. Colonel who met regularly with leaders of Sadr City. I love the economy of language and the amount of emotion packed into this tiny bit of writing.

He learned to say habibi, which meant "dear friend."

He learned to say shaku maku ("what's up?), shukran la su' alek ("thank you for asking") , and saffya daffya ("sunny and warm")

He learned to say anee wahid kelba ("I am one sexy bitch"), which made people laugh every time he said it.

The months went by. The meetings grew repetitive. The same complaints. The same selfish requests. The same nothing done.

He learned to say marfood ("disapproved") and qadenee lel jenoon ("it drives me crazy")

June came.

He learned to say coolah khara ("it's all bullshit") and shadi ghabee ("stupid monkey")

July came.

Allah ye sheelack, he found himself saying. I hope you die. " May God take your soul."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

She was a bloody disgrace

Bodies remains one of the most surprising songs of the punk era. Coming from those that called the queen a fascist and compared her to a nuclear weapon, you wouldn't expect such an aggressively anti-abortion song. In the original Sex Pistols version, where the verses are hard to parse and the target of the sneering is ambiguous, the message is a not totally clear. I recall arguing with people as to whether the song was anti-abortion or perhaps about just being for the girl. The Veruca Salt cover brings the bloody imagery to the fore and I think makes the case for the song being anti-abortion. Either way it rocks, check it below.

Making the world go round

I have nearly finished Peter Maass' Crude World. Usually when I like a book, I say it is a "delight" or a "pleasure" to read. In this case, those words aren't really appropriate, what with all the terrible tales, but it is a great read nonetheless. Maass's book is a series of impressionistic essays about oil's impact on the world, particularly on the places where the oil is. It is not a happy story.

He starts off in Equatorial Guinea, a country with lots of oil and few people. It should be a little Singapore off Africa, but instead it is a kleptocracy with the leadership class flying jets while the people starve. They also coopt Western banks companies and politicians. Riggs Bank plays a particularly sordid role as the ATM for the despot. Then it is off to Nigeria where the populous Niger Delta, which should be a vibrant environment and living space, is a nightmare of pollution and random government destruction of villages.

Maass's argument is not with oil companies, although he is highly critical of them. Instead, his argument is that oil companies are in a business which by its nature provides incentives to be corrupt and shady. He says that if Apple had to go get its chips from under the ground of failing states, we would be bemoaning the horrible practices of Steve Jobs. This isn't to excuse the oil companies, but to refocus on the real problem.

This isn't the sort of book to help you understand oil's role in the economy, or the history of oil. I think the book for that is the Prize, a book I own but I have not yet read (this one joined the semi-secret pile of unread books on the play-room bookshelf. Not exactly secret, but covert so as not to showcase the growing number of unread books.) No, this is the book to read to go beyond the dry stories to see what is happening on the ground.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The best best of list I have read so far

It's not a huge surprise that I like Jonathan Yardley's list. For one, it isn't a list, but an essay. For another, I haven't heard of most of the books but want to read them all.

Tempered excitement

Ordinarily I would be quite thrilled about the new Douglas Preston thriller, Impact. For one, Douglas Preston writes thrillers that actually thrill. For another, the book appears to be a new take on the dangerously large object hurtling towards the earth story.

My only qualm is that the book is coming out on January 5th of next year. Why then? I imagine they could have rushed it to make it ready for Christmas. In the movie world, the early year is often the dumping ground for loser movies, is this true of books as well. Maybe they didn't want to compete with the new Crichton or King?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mocking adults who like kids books

The Onion has a nice one about adults going nuts over a picture book. A jab at those who read Harry Potter, Twilight and others no doubt.

Adults Go Wild Over Latest In Children's Picture Book Series

Two shows in two days

Yowza, am I tired. I think I may be too old to go to two shows in two nights. Thank goodness radio friendliness (the shows were broadcast on KNRK) meant they ended early. Otherwise I would probably still be sleeping.

Anyway, night one was Vampire Weekend, night two was Spoon. The big surprise was Vampire Weekend. As a newish band, I expected to them to not have their stage show or presence down. No such problem! They came out dancing and kept the show moving the whole (admittedly short) show. The banter and crowd interaction was great.

Spoon was good too, especially when the horns came out and when they really rocked. The best song of the night was a new one, which bodes well.

One weird thing was the heavy use of vocal effects by both bands. Not a huge issue, but it was a little odd. On the plus side, for both bands, you could understand all the words, even of the new songs. Yay!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Not Too Dense to Read

I've tried to read a number of books on the financial crisis and, I confess, I had to put a lot of them down. I have found that they assume more knowledge of financial instruments and the financial system than I possess. They are often laden with more jargon than I can handle. Part of it is interest level. I know I could understand it if I put more effort into to it, and given the importance, I know I should. But I should do the same for health care and plenty of other issues. So instead I get a surface level of information and focus on foreign policy, that which really interests me the most.

Anyway, I really liked Too Big To Fail, because it focuses on the people, namely all the bankers and government leaders desperately trying to figure what to do as Lehman and AIG fall apart. It reads like a Bob Woodward book, with lots of detail, profanity and insider info. Andrew Ross Sorkin interviewed nearly everyone involved so he has the detail and he keeps the story rolling. My only complaint is that the book runs a bit long. I am not sure how much more I understand about the financial collapse, but I can see that lots of highly paid, intelligent people can struggle when the system is built to fail.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A book not to give this Christmas

I think at one point I liked Ralph Peters. His Red Army was a good NATO vs. Warsaw Pact novel, told from the perspective of the Soviets. Since he has moved on to a career as a jingoistic political commentator, it is no surprise that his books were heavy on the message. In this case, it was the US might just be able to eek out a win, unless the pusillanimous, pinko pussies in Europe screw it up. His next one, War in 2020, had another message, which was watch out cocky westerners, the tricksy Asian and wicked Muslim are coming to get ya.

Perhaps trading on his Fox News fame, he now has a new one called the War After Armageddon. I think he has a message, which appears to be that the evil Muslims will launch a wave of attacks leading to the creation of a religious state in the United States and the obliteration of ALL Muslims. So there, Islamic terrorists.

He gets points for making everyone, with an exception of those in the military, out as wicked, but loses points for the crappy writing. I suspect this one will be popular with those that like One Second After, the thriller about a particularly unlikely scenario, an EMP attack on the United States.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Best of the year

Wow, I have read a total of zero of the New York Times Book Reviews top ten books of 2009. I at least own Lords of Finance and have another coming from the library, but sheesh! I like the Atlantic Best of List, as it has many thick history books I have been seeking. Here are my top reads of the year, some of which were published this year, some not.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. This one recently became available in paperback, so it is sort of a 2009 book. Anyway, this is the move to literary fiction that he was shooting for in mystic river. You get the strength of character and plot from his crime novels while he writes on a broader canvas with much bigger themes. This one rocks.

Blood's A Rover by James Ellroy. This is his triumphant return and a capper to a series of seven semi connected books that started with the Black Dahlia. It's hard to state how much this one made me happy.

The books of Gillian Flynn. Ooooo, man can this woman do dark and evil. She writes books about damaged people dealing with even more damaged (and evil) people. Among her strengths are her cutting analysis of social groups and a way with words.

The books of Michael Perry. Yeah finally something wholesome and decidely unwicked. Perry is writer and occasional EMT and farmer living in the small town Midwest. He writes philosophical essays about life. Normally this sort of thing makes me vomit, but his physical connection to the subject matter and his attitude make him a delight.

Only Yesterday by Frederick Allen. This one was written in the 30s but feels like it could have been written last week. A model for presenting a wide ranging narrative for non-history readers.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Yet more Laird Barron

I have been pleased enough with the Laird Barron short stories I have read to go seeking more. Yesterday I read Catch Hell, Barron's contribution to the Lovecraft Unbound anthology. The story starts in a pedestrian manner with a couple in a dying marriage heading off to a strange small town in the Pacific Northwest. It seems like the classic innocents in peril scenario, but it turns out these two aren't so innocent. It would seem they are fated for their, um, sticky end. This one is right up there with the great horrific endings.

Today I picked up Poe, a collection of Poe inspired tales which has another Barron tale. This one is edited by Ellen Datlow, the same person who edited the Lovecraft book.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Shining sequel?

Stephen King is apparently sketching out a possible sequel to the Shining. Danny, the traumatized boy of the original book, now works in a hospice where he helps people get over the fear of death, while also making money at the track. Sounds potentially cheesy, but then so do many of his better ideas. There may be some overlap with Connie Willis' fantastic if overly long Passage.

On the subject of horror novels, I just read another short story by Laird Barron. This one called is called the Progression of the Black Sloth and man is it a nightmarish tale. The story, which concerns an investigator flying to Hong Kong creates the feeling of reality unraveling and the flash of terrible images that you see in movies like Angelheart, Lost Highway and Jacob's Ladder. Super good stuff. Here is an interview with the author where he talks about the influence of Asian cinema on the story.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Piano Teacher

There are few places in the world quite like Hong Kong. It is hard to think of a place that is more of a fusion of East and West. My two visits preceded the hand over to China, so perhaps it is becoming another international city like Shanghai, but I suspect it remains something of an amalgam. The historical legacy is less than pristine of course. The city that grew up around the harbor was a prize in a successful war between drug runners (Britain and its companies) and a state attempting to maintain sovereignty (China.) Not that the US can point many fingers have stolen a good chunk of land from Mexico and even more from the Native Americans. Anyway, this legacy and the decaying colonial society in the city make for an ideal setting for novels.

Janice Y.K. Lee well uses the complicated social structure of the city her subtle debut novel, the Piano Teacher. The story revolves around a pair of love affairs, one that starts just before World War 2 and the other in the 1950s. In the later affair, a English newlywed looking for something to do accepts a job teaching piano to the daughter of a pair of wealthy Chinese. She meets Will Truesdale and eventually begins a torrid affair with him. This gets her into the small society of the island, where she finds that the smallness makes it hard to hide an affair. What's more Will and her employers appear to be involved in the disappearance of valuable antiquities during the Japanese occupation. Flashbacks to the previous affair show a decadent social class ignoring the growing threat only to find themselves at the gentle mercies of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Lee's prose is descriptive and I especially like her ability to create so many distinct characters and her subtle ways of communicating character, plot and emotion. She can be quite indirect in her plot development, not in an annoying way, but certainly one that can be missed by an inattentive reader. The writing is evocative and engaging, balanced between description and moving the story forward. A fine read.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The trouble with short story collections

Oh, I do love a good short story and based on the one I have read so far, Laird Barron can sure write a scary, nasty one. I read Old Virginia (which you can read here) which features many of my favorite story elements: wicked scientists, the CIA, battered tough guys, an ancient evil and a surprise connection to a historical mystery. All of it written briskly and creepily.

Great that it started the collection the Imago Sequence. If he had led off with something weaker, I might not have persisted. With short story collections, I find that each weak story makes me read a little faster and I then miss the nuances and details that make short stories enjoyable, so I think a good story is weak and read a little faster. Pretty soon I have given up on the book. So what to do? In this case, Steve read it first and told me the stories to read and which to skip. That is my kind of friend.

Monday, November 30, 2009

True crime

The latest Book Menage has started at Citizen Reader. The topic is true crime with a focus on Rick Geary's true crime graphic novels and Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep. Check it out.

Finally back to scifi

Seems like forever since I have picked up a good mass market paperback scifi novel. I had been looking at Kay Kenyon's The Braided World for years and have owned for nearly that long. It was a great read and a nice return to science fiction. It is an anthropological/first contact scifi novel in the vein of Mary Doria Russell or Orson Scott Card in which a mission sent from a dying Earth hopes to find a means to restart the human race on a distant planet.

A rich former opera singer funds a mission to the planet based on a message which says that the planet has what they have what Earth has lost. The captain dies just as the expedition arrives (wouldn't you know it?), putting the whole thing in the hands of two junior officers. The planet is inhabitated by what looks like humans who call themselves the Dassa. Unfortunately, they have some peculiar habits including slavery for women capable of breeding in the human way. The political system is confusing enough to lead to miscalculation by the novice diplomats.

Kenyon is great at creating peculiar societies and here she has made a world in which the strange biology of the Dassa leads to a odd political system. The plot revolves around the attempts by humans and Dassa to use each other to get what they want. There are a few cliches here and there, but I really liked it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inflight reading - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Traveling solo with three kids normally means no reading. So of course, I ply mine with chapter books, crayons, sticker books, comic books, comic book compilations, Indiana Jones DVDs and whatever nature documentaries and Disney Treasures I feel like bringing. This means I get to do more than scan the Sky Mall catalog.

In this case, I got through a good piece of the awesome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. Biskind gives you everything. Your high minded brain gets the history of the revival of American cinema in the early 70s, capsule histories of key films, a sense of how movies get made, and a sense for the titanic amounts of money that slosh around. Your low minded brain gets the salacious details of life in Hollywood. You learn about Dennis Hopper's insane relationships with his wives (handcuffing them to keep them from leaving is a short term play at best) and others. The wild sex lives and the casualness with which they treat other people will shock.

One revelation, among many, is that the great directors of the 70s (Coppola, Scorsese, Friedken, Polanski, etc) were nearly all complete and total bastards. If they weren't stealing your wife, they were stealing your money and burning your career down to the ground. They rode over anyone in their path and they expected a thank you or a blow job as payment. I'm having to do some serious separating the art from the artist stuff in my mind. Otherwise I may have to go break some DVDs. That just wouldn't do.

Great book. Read it immediately if you like movies.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Listening too long to their songs

The Foo Fighters used to be my standard for awesome videos. You had the Evil Dead/Sid and Nancy referencing Everlong (still the most awesomely badasss video of all time) and the Mentos ad mocking Big Me. But I have come to realize the champs are the New Pornographers. These fine Canadians (plus a Yank) have a potentially off putting name, but their songs are poppy, indie rock gems. Unlike so many of their American counterparts, they are unafraid to ROCK while they bring their harmonies, clever lyrics and hooks to the listener. This is the band that Rivers Cuomo wants to front. Amazingly the videos are equally great. Behold the wonders:

Your Daddy Don't Know. This is a cover of an 80s hard band rocker. The band dresses accordingly. Neko's hair is great, as is her head shaking. She looks like the lost sister from Heart. The band plays it straight, but there is another piece about a chair jumping contest that is awesome. I just listened to this one four (now five) times in a row.

Mutiny I Promise You
. An impossibly addictive bit of pop rock. The video is actually part of a comedy series by . The video features the two ladies of the New Pornographers, one of whom is naturally gorgeous and the other is hot in an awkward indie way. You can't go wrong.

Sing Me Spanish Techno. Is this the best song of the decade? Rhethorical question, the answer is clearly yes. The video is good enough to match the song. The story of transvestite karaoke is awesome, I particularly like the first stage show.

The Laws Have Changed. Great song, but the least of the videos probably. It references an art film and has Callie from BSG standing in for Neko Case.

Pity there is no video for the End of Medicine as that songs rocks. Seeing this guys live is my great desire (maybe I will get an ELO cover?).

Nukes not a big deal?

I've been in a reading rut of late, nothing has been clicking. I put down Neuropath, I put down a horror novel I was excited about, I thought the Amazon praised Crazy For the Storm was pretty good, but not great.

John Mueller's Atomic Obsession broke the bad spell. The concise, well argued book is a direct assault on all the received wisdom about nuclear weapons. Mueller argues that nuclear weapons are not as dangerous as people think, that proliferation is less likely than people think, that nuclear terrorism is far more difficult than people think and that much less attention needs to be paid to nuclear weapons in general.

He blows up the right and left in this book, but mostly he is taking aim at the foreign policy establishment for whom nuclear weapons remain a core concern driving a sizable chunk of US policy. This one is well worth reading just to reconsider your assumptions. His argumentation is strong, although you are unlikely to buy everything (or even most) of what he has to say. I imagine those nodding their heads at the sections that talk about how the fixation on Iranian nukes is bad for America will blanch when they see him note that using atomic weapons to access resources and to call for the ramping up of nuclear energy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


A Navy destroyer, the USS Lassen recently visited the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. Not a huge deal anymore, but interesting. Much more interesting is that the commander of the ship left the very same city in 1975 as a child refugee.

Nice Bacevich and Frum on Bloggingheads. One conservative apostate and one conservative trying to save his side from creeping madness.

I watched the cartoon New Frontier with the kids. Based on the excellent Darwyn Cooke comic, it tells the story of the formation of the justice league with a close look at racism, McCarthyism and domestic policing as well. Its a bit dark in places, starts with a suicide, Wonder Woman helps a group of Vietnamese women get bloody vengeance, but you can skip parts if needed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Some scifi for your 2010

io9 has a list of upcoming scifi titles for 2010. I am most excited for the Connie Willis time traveling book, although I wonder which road she will take. Her Doomsday Book, involving time travellers going back to the middle ages, is one of the biggest bummers of all time. Then there's To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is light hearted romp by comparison. The new one is called Blackout and it involves trips to London during WW2. Should be good. Can't say I am all that amped for any of the others, but you may get a charge.

Off the list, there is a new Alastair Reynold on the horizon, another far future one.

Dare we hope for Dance with Dragons? Related note: Will the Game of Thrones HBO series top the Wire?

Oingo Boingo on the Gong Show?

I recall watching the Gong Show back in the 70s. Mostly people getting gonged. Here though we have art rockers Oingo Boingo (known then as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) performing. The celebrity guests are just as interesting, including a bowl cut wearing Buddy Hackett, a young looking Shari Lewis and Bill Bixby.

I like them better doing Private life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Scott Bakker is best known for his constructivist fantasy series called The Prince of Nothing. I liked the books at first, but thought they were too slow moving and was more interested in cramming critical theory into fantasy novels than in writing a story. Also, I couldn't stand weepy one of the main characters became.

Still, I think he is quite talented, so I picked up his first thriller, called Neuropath. I didn't make it too far, as the main character drove me nuts and it looked like more of the things are not what they seem. In the fantasy novels it was all about how love, society, religion and so on are social constructs to be exploited by those who see clearly. In this book, love, society, religion and so on are creations of the chemical reactions in our heads, and they can be exploited or something.

Anyway, a bad guy starts making people do evil, hideous things and it turns out the cocky protagonist used to know him, so the Feds bring him in to fight him.

Anyway, wasn't for me.

More random

I loved Green Apple Books yesterday, but I love them a little more today after I read their plans for the profits from sales of the Palin book.

Not sure that I would follow the advice necessarily, but I love this article on making pie crust and how you are whiny if you won't make one.

Check out this fast food restaurant decision tree. Note the mocking of Arbys.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fourth star

The Iraq books keep coming, despite the public's waning interest. The Fourth Star, subtitled Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the Army is a book with the Iraq war at its center, but it is quite a bit more. It follows the military careers of Generals Abizaid, Casey, Chiarelli and Petraeus, all of whom recently became four star generals, the highest rank in the Army (five star generals exist, but the rank is an honorific)

The parts I liked best were those that preceded the Iraq war. It shows the often peculiar and roundabout paths that military careers take. There is the constant desire, for those who want promotion, to take positions in charge of military units. In many cases, the Generals in the book despaired of every getting promoted. General Chiarelli found himself teaching at West Point and became known as an egg head. General Abizaid nearly took the career limiting move of becoming a Foreign Area Officer, or one who spends his career in liaison with other militaries. With the exception of the ultra-driven Petraeus, few seemed to be working their way to the top of the Army.

Most of the stories about their careers are fresh and they tell the story of the Army's near destruction in Vietnam, the slow rebuilding in the 70s and 80s, the victory of sorts in 91 and then the challenges of an Army using the wrong tactics in Iraq. The civil-military leadership in the Iraq war is the flip of the Union's situation in the Civil War. In Iraq, incompetent civilian leaders hobbled the general's war effort, just as incompetent generals hobbled the civilian leaderships efforts in the Civil War. Authors Jaffe and Cloud are withering in their treatment of the civilians in the books (as well as towards the self congratulatory Tommy Franks.)

The focus though is on the generals. Casey and Chiarelli eventually took the top two spots, respectively in the Army, but felt that they had been demoted in a sense for their handling of Iraq. Abizaid retired to the Sierra Nevadas and Petraeus continues his quest for glory.

The book is a good quick read, loaded with fascinating stories and analysis. It doesn't quite reach the level of the Thomas Ricks or Dexter Filkins books, but it does give more insight than those books into the Army as an institution.


Here is one for Steve. Five pages of why it it hard to translate Beowulf. Includes exercises! Via McCardle.

Ken Ober of MTV's Remote Control has died. So young, so sad. How I loved Remote Control back in the day, with the Stud Boy and Dead or Canadian?

I have been away from the food blog world for awhile, but I saw a link on Marginal Revolution to a guide to buffet eating. I expected a few bullet points, but found a treatise. It's a bit insane. Nice blog though.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is your day going a little too well?

No need to read a weepy Russian novel, that takes too long. Just listen to Mariah Carey's cover of I Want To Know What Love is. There are few bands worse than Foreigner and few Foreigner songs worse than I Want To Know What Love Is, but Mariah brings her special brand of suck to the party. Enjoy, or, don't.

What happens to scrapped ships

I grew up in Tidewater Virginia, which meant I was surrounded by ships from birth. I was, and still am, attracted to naval vessels. The increasing standardization of the US Navy and the disappearance of the old ships means there are fewer odd ones to spot, but as a boy there were plenty. I even managed to visit two Soviets ships that came to town at the end of the Cold War.

My fascination with warships extends to their scrapping. It's a sad affair. Scroll down to the see the Spanish Dedalo, the former USS Cabot, sitting in a ditch in Brownsville, Texas. Many would prefer that ships have the fate of the USS Oriskany which was sunk to make a barrier reef. Here is a video of that ship sinking.

Anyway, sometimes they just get scrapped and I wonder what happened to them. The old answer was always, they get made into razor blades. Apparently though you can still touch parts of the German battleship Tirpitz, which was sunk in 1944. Parts of the ships armor are still used in Norway as temporary road patches. Images here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

If you have seen a Kevin Smith movie, you know what to expect from this Zack and Miri Make A Porno. It will have tons of sex jokes and unbelievably bad language. Jason Mewes will be crazy (in this case, crazy and naked.) The plot will revolve around a working class guy (and possibly gal) who takes for granted the great relationship staring them in the face. The only question is whether they will screw it up or not.

This one is a comedy so you can guess how it will turn out. Seth Rogen is sad sack Zack and Elizabeth Banks is Miri Linky (formerly called Stinky Linky). Best friends and roomates, they are always a step away from eviction. When things get really bad, they decide to film a porno. With a group of similar outcasts, including a character played by Traci Lords, they decide to film a porn film. Will Zack and Miri realize what they have in each other? Again, fairly obvious, but still cute.

Best parts of course are the over the top jokes, like Justin Long as a gay porn star who likes to talk about his work. If sex jokes make you uncomfortable, stay far away from this one. If you do watch, enjoy the Pixies on the soundtrack and wait for the bonus scene after the credits.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Went to Beaumont Market and picked up a Buckbean Original Orange Blossom Ale. Quite orangey, not in a nasty puckerish way, but in a yummy way like Terry's Chocolate Orange. I wouldn't spend an evening drinking them (but then again I am a switch it up kind of guy) but I will drink it again.

Did you know Johnny Marr has joined the Cribs? Here is Cheat on Me from the new record. It has quite a different feel from the almost snotty Our Bovine Public (a song I adore). Anyway a nice move forward.

I saw this post on i09 about haunted house books and I was amazed to see that Sarah Langan has a new one out! Since she is a horror writer she is still published in mass market, so I saved a little cash when I bought her new one today.

I've been coming back to Andy Samberg's I Threw It on the Ground. Watched it three times today. It's a concept that really shouldn't work, but he builds it just right.

In the department of wierd but effective covers, here is Of Montreal covering the Misfits Where Eagles Dare. There is a clear dissonance in the Danzig nonsense lyrics "the omelette of disease awaits your noontime meal, her mouth of genocide seducing all your glands" being rocked out in house music style.

Feeling tragic, like I'm Marlon Brando

The Iggy Pop version of China Girl came up on my Ipod today. If you don't know it, give it a listen. It has a far dirtier 70s sound (surprise!) than the early 80s Bowie version. I like them both quite a bit, although I find the Bowie video dubious. The story behind the Bowie version is interesting. They wrote the song together in the 70s and then Pop recorded. When Pop was in a bad place in the 80s, Bowie recorded it, knowing Pop would get some cash from the song rights. Nice guy! Without the song, Pop might never gone on to make Candy or go on his duet/guest singer binge with the likes of the Teddybears, Ida Marie (awesome song, check it out), and Jemina Pearl. The latter one is great fun. Called I Hate People, the video hates on hipsters and features Thurston Moore as a diner owner.

Anyway if the music thing didn't work out, he could have been a pornstar. Can't find it online, but the guy could give John Holmes a complex. For real.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nitze and Kennan

The Hawk and the Dove is one of the most accessible and enjoyable books about the Cold War to come out in quite awhile. The book's biographical studies of Paul Nitze and George Kennan makes the story engaging and easy to follow. The idea that Nitze was the hawk and Kennan the dove makes stark a more muddled picture, but their relationship nicely highlights philosophical differences in the Cold War. Nitze often pushed the hard line and the militarization of containment, while its author Kennan thought that most military activity was wasteful and unnecessary, although he had a virulent hatred for the Communists.

The book is also concise. The Cold War is a big story, but author Nicholas Thompson (who is related to Nitze) doesn't feel compelled to pad the book with excess background information about the Cold War. He tells what needs to be told and then moves on. Having a background in the subject will help, but it is not necessary. The focus on philosophy also helps.

I really liked the book. There are wonderful anecdotes and it the focus on the perspectives of the two men is illuminating. Although both men are legend in international relations, neither was ever really satisfied in their career, feeling they had been shut out of where they should be. There is sad moment where Nitze thinks he will get a plum spot in the Carter administration only to find himself without any job at all. All in all, a great read. Watch out, though, for the occasional lapse into conspiracy theory. Thompson mentions a number of mysterious deaths that surround the making of foreign policy. It is by no means the focus of the book, or even of a given chapter, but it pops up in odd places.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finishing the Prisoner

Oh man, the Prisoner has to be the most singular, peculiar TV show ever made. It is part spy drama, part science fiction, part late 60s head trip, part political statement and all around entertainment. How odd is the show? Well for one, there is great disagreement about the order in which to watch them. The main character is never named, but keeps only his number 6. 6 is played by Patrick McGoohan who had a great amount of creative input into the show. He was at least partially responsible for the heavy use of symbolism. For example, the use of the antique penny farthing bike supposedly is there to represent McGoohan's concern that technology is outpacing man's ability to use it. The tension between the individual and society is played out in many different ways, including the whacked out finale.

Speaking of the finale, fans apparently came to McGoohan's house to yell at him after it was made. It is really quite something and is not easily digested. Lock your doors if the Lost people try something this off the wall. There may be riots.

The show itself starts out in a conventional serial method but becomes increasingly odd. 6 resigned from the British secret service and a series of wardens, known as 2 try to figure out why he did it. Their methods grow increasingly bizarre and serve to comment on the oppressive sense of entitlement of the state. The last few shows are just crazy. One starts off in the old West and it is not clear where the hell it is going until the end. The Girl Called Death is a send up of spy shows and is quite funny.

AMC will shortly be presenting an updated Prisoner miniseries. Jim Caviezel is 6 and Ian McKellan, surely the god of all scifi movies now, is 2. There are only six episodes, but before you shout LAME!!, recall that McGoohan originally only wanted the Prisoner to be seven episodes, so it could very well be in keeping with the original.

AMC has all the original shows available to watch online. So what are you waiting for?

Monday, November 09, 2009


What is with the new box set releases? I suppose some fans have plenty of cash to burn, despite the downturn. AC/DC has a reasonably priced (<$50) box set out there, but who wants a boring old box set, when you can get one HOUSED IN A WORKING AMP. This version of the set will set you back two hundred bones, but you do get an amp with it. I can't wait to see what you can get when cloning technology is perfected.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Well, I saw it last night. Great movie, you can kinda sorta believe the hype. If you go in with the belief that it will Change Everything and be The Scariest Movie of All Time, you will be disappointed. If you want to experience slow burn dread and good scares, you will be happy.

If somehow you don't know about the movie, it get its buzz from the fact that it was made for less money than most new cars (and has already grossed $16M ) and that it was a huge hit at Sundance. Like Blair Witch, it has few actors and they are all unknowns. Most of the acting is acceptable but Katie Featherston does a great job of portraying an escalation of fear.

Katie, her character is also named Katie, was haunted as a child by a spirit. Her techie boyfriend decides to film the house so they can catch sight of the spirit. The exposition just starts to wear thin when the haunting picks up. The initial actions of the ghost are creepy, but in a way that gets the boyfriend cackling, rather than concerned. As you might guess the haunting get worse, much worse.

The last five or ten minutes are great, in particular a disturbing little bit that went by too fast. I will have to watch it again.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Random links of the day

Here is Carrie Fisher sunning on the barge with her stunt double, both in slave gear.

If you haven't seen it, John Stewart's impression of Glenn Beck is very good.

Speaking of Beck, you may have seen the NYT story about his becoming the new go to person for thrillers. Sarah Weinman expands on it.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Portland is getting a train museum, or park or something. They city owns three steam locomotives and has entered a partnership with the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation to set up some sort of facility near OMSI. My kids will be tired of trains by then, but I will probably stop visit. For now be sure to visit the giant railroad set at the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club. They are only open on November weekends, so do it soon!

Have a look at this local TV station animal visit gone wrong.

Fun at vegans expense.

Q: Are we not men? A: We are Pearl Jam

Covers make me smile. They let you ponder just why it is you like songs. Is the band, is it how the song is played, is it the singer? While I adore a recorded cover, I get even more excited for a live one. Even at the best of shows I leave with a twinge of regret if there was no cover on the set list. The ultimate is when bands dress up for their covers. Sadly I have never seen such a thing myself, but the Internet is there for us. It's not a cover, but here is Stone Temple Pilots playing in Kiss makeup. The greatest example I have heard of is Shellac, joined by David Yow, coming onstage as the Sex Pistols and playing a set of Pistols songs. That transcends epic.

Although not quite as good as an entire show, I quite like how far Pearl Jam went on Halloween night in Philadelphia this year. They came on stage in full Devo gear and played Whip It (note that Eddie has an actual whip, as well as the robotic entry). That would have been something to see in person. Video below.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

It's a long way back from hell

I guess I went into Drag Me to Hell with expectations set too high. It's the sort of movie you expected Sam Raimi to make 20 (or even 30 years) ago. You get the gonzo funny gore, like a demon puking up a kitten, and the unstoppable evil, as in Evil Dead. It just doesn't add up to much. Justin Long is in it and I have a hard time watching him without expecting John Hodgman to show up. And he doesn't.

For some real horror, here is Shakira and pretend Danzig singing Hips Don't Lie:

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A song for the afternoon

It is rare when scifi geekiness and indie rock come together. Usually one must turn to the Pixies or early Frank Black for such things. Fortunately there are a few others. Butterglory, an underrated 90s band, has the Skills of the Star Pilot. It really just uses some scifi imagery, but I will take what I can get. A nice low key tune.

Gillian Flynn puts on her pants just like the rest of you, except once her pants are on, she writes great crime novels

I used to have no taste in books. It's true! I liked the worst of the worst British (and there are no worse) 80s horror novels. I once gave a friend Michael Slade's atrocious Ghoul, which he rightly hated. The book is notable for a profusion of gore and also a blurb from Bruce Dickinson (yes, THE Bruce Dickinson) He said "Slade is warped and I love it!" The twisted characters in Gillian Flynn's two excellent novels make me wonder about her daydreams, but I will say I love her books but not for the reason Dickinson praised Slade.

Slade like the torture pornographers that dominate horror movies believes that gore and physical torment is scary, or, worse, entertaining. Flynn is more interested in social cruelty and psychological torment. Her first book, Sharp Objects, featured an emotionally shattered outsider who returned to her hometown to cover a brutal murder and to confront her unspeakable family.

Her newer book is Dark Places. This one dials back the social critique a tad, but features a dual timeline story in which the only survivor of a 1980s home massacre finally comes to terms with it. Libby was seven when her family was killed and she helped put her brother in jail for her life as the killer. She becomes a violent withdrawn person herself and makes it to her thirties living off donations. When she runs out of money and choices, she helps out some bizarro murder fetishists who believe her brother did not commit the crime. Not believing them, but needing money she becomes involved in their investigation.

The flashbacks to the 80s depict a small town awash in fears of Satanists (remember that? I recall reading a book cashing in on the hysteria called Say You Love Satan!). The town looks down on Libby's family, as they are barely holding their heads above water. Libby's brother is poor and awkward, which makes him doubly suspicious in the eyes of the community. They are all too happy to demonize him as the story progresses.

The story itself is much better in this book than in the first book. As much as I loved that book for the characterization and writing, the ending was fairly clear at about the midpoint. In this case, you get the gimlet eyed writing, the weak, bitter, but still sympathetic characters, but you also get a story that keeps you uncertain until the end.

I can't wait to see what human ruin Flynn creates next!

Monday, November 02, 2009

King in the New Yorker

I am pretty excited for the giant new Stephen King novel. He is not universally loved, but I love how he made horror novels work. There is a new short story, not explicitly horror, although it is horrific, in the New Yorker. Read it here. I've not read them, but here is a new Lethem and a new Saunders.

Dead Hand

Depending on when you call it, the Cold War may have ended 20 years ago (could have been in 86 at Reykjavik or in 91 when the Soviet Union collapsed). Maybe it is for that reason we are seeing a surge in Cold War books. Last year we saw the angry Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes, this year we have a new one from Neil Sheehan called a Firey Peace in a Cold War (just started it, great so far). Take a look at this review essay from Philip Zelikow for a number of books on the era.

In the Dead Hand, David Hoffman of the Washington Post covers both the East and West, but sheds a lot of new light on the Soviet side. He shows both the good, the realization that the nuclear arms race could end the world, and would certainly crush the Soviet economy, as well as the bad.

The bad is pretty grim. He spends quite a bit of time showing the rise of the Soviet biological weapons industry. The US, viewing bio-weapons as a strategic liability, signed and adhered to the Biological Weapons Convention and killed the offensive bio-weapons program. The Soviets feared the US was cheating, so they built a secret program with all sorts of horrors like smallpox bombs and new two punch viruses with an initial bug to weaken the immune system followed by a knockout punch bug.

Hoffman also shows the effects on international relations of the terrible management and maintenance practices, secrecy and the use of poor technology. The decrepit system allowed for the penetration of Soviet airspace by a young German in an airplane, Chernobyl, the anthrax outbreak of 79 and the shoot down of KAL 007. Recent history has tried to pin the blame on the US for this. Hoffman shows that the weight lies heavily, if not completely, on the Soviets.

Hoffman also discusses the post-war period where unemployed Soviet scientists sat in rotting buildings with weapons materials stored in filing cabinets. He reveals more about the US efforts to get weapons materials out of the newly independent republics.

I have a few minor complaints. The title is a bit of a dodge. The Dead Hand of the title refers to a Soviet Doomsday machine that would ensure that the missiles would fly even if the Russian leadership perished. Hoffman uses it as a metaphor to describe how the WMD is still out there even if we have forgotten about it. If you are expecting a book that focuses on doomsday machines, look elsewhere.

There are also times where Hoffman has done so much research that it starts to take over the narrative. The level of detail becomes a bit much and bogs down in a, fortunately very few, places. Overall I found it an engaging, well-written and informative read.

Take a look at this WaPo Q&A with Hoffman where he addresses these issues and more.

Terror strikes the land

A fell wind blows from Detroit. It has been twelve years since the dark tide of Tuesdays with Morrie nearly crushed the spirit of America. We rested too easy while Albom was quiescent, but now the stars have re-aligned and he has returned with Have A Little Faith. This time the topic is interracial, interfaith relations. I suspect the glurge dial will be set to 11. Hug your children while there is still time.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ia ia Cthulhu fhtagn!

One of my eldest son's favorite board games is Arkham Horror. In what other game do you get to fight eldritch terrors at the risk of going insane, or worse, being devoured? Not every child is ready for the terrible weight of knowledge of the Great Old Ones, so make it easy for them with this handy video.

(via io9)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Kids books at Borders

I went to the downtown Borders today. I like that one, the staff are friendly, there are some odd books to be found, and the coffee shop is nice. I went with my feverish daughter who wanted some books. I picked up three paperbacks and was amazed at how cheap they are, only four dollars a piece. Kids books have to be the best value in books today. Sure the dollars per word is crappy, but kids read them over and over again. One book can be weeks of entertainment. I am lucky to get a night or two out of a paperback, if only because I don't finish them all.

One we picked up is Horrid Henry, a series very popular in Britain about a nasty young boy. There is a similar series in the US called Horrible Harry. A Scots mother at our school put it this way. Horrible Harry really isn't that horrible (his horror rises to the level of enjoying bad smells), but Horrid Henry is apparently quite horrid. I am looking forward to reading more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Too much of a good thing?

Well, I wrapped up the epic From Colony to Superpower, George Herring's epic one volume history of American Foreign Policy. It is a the only thematic book in the Oxford History of the United States. I, for one, loved it. The depth of treatment on the 18th and 19th century was wonderful. As we got to the post-war era, my extensive reading in the subject made it less useful, but still good. Good God, though, is this book long. Thanks to the length, this book is for a select group of people. If two of the following make sense to you, then get the book.

  • Want value for your money. $35 for 1000 pages, a rare deal, this day and age?!
  • Are a Oxford University History of the United States completist (guilty!)
  • Want a single volume treatment of American foreign policy that doesn't ignore the 19th century.
  • Have lots of free time and can ignore the beckoning call of books from your reading pile.
  • Like large colorful volumes for the bookshelf.

Having made it through, and if you find you want something that is more analytical than historical, seek out H.W. Brands What America Owes the World and Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence. The Herring book, while filled with useful ways of thinking, is really about what happened. The Brands and Mead books will give more analytical frameworks for thinking about it.

A Tale of Two Schreibers

There are two horror novelists whose books I avidly await. The first is Sarah Langan and the second is Joe Schreiber. Both write spooky stories that disturb not by creating revolting images, but by creating moods and suggesting terrible things. They are young and have just a few (solid) books to their credit, but Schreiber has two new books out. The books are in different genres, so I expected some variation, but I found the differences between them to be startling.

One book, Death Troopers, has a immediately engaging concept, but a weak payoff. The other, No Doors, No Windows, has one of the most hackneyed of concepts, but is riveting throughout. In Death Troopers, an Imperial prison barge investigates and abandoned Star Destroyer and finds it occupied by space zombies. Sounds cool, but doesn't go anywhere. No Doors, No Windows is a haunted house story about a hard luck family and the gothic horrors of small towns. It's been done a million times, but Schreiber's characters, plot peculiarities, pacing and writing rise to the top.

Death Troopers has weak characterization, relies on the Star Wars universe to carry much of the background and is marred by far too much exposition. No Doors, No Windows has a number of interesting characters, some cliched to be sure, but symphatheically and often surprisingly handled. The difference in the writing is just shocking. It feels lifeless in Death Troopers, while vigorous in No Doors, No Windows. Sadly, I think that Death Troopers might be the future of Schreiber's books (he already has a prequel in the works.)

Death Troopers has a sales rank of 430, while No Doors No Windows has a rank of 89,965 (as of this writing). I can't blame him if he churns out more of these Star Wars books. My only hope is that the people who find him thanks to Star Wars move on (and buy) his much better horror books.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Orange crepe paper and Halloween candy

Thanks to some visits to Target, this year, I am getting a taste for some of the more off the wall Halloween candies. So far, most are less than awesome.

Jones Soda Candy Corn soda This one was tough. I poured out a few ounces for myself and the kids. My apprehension was such that it reminded of the first time I looked down at a glass of Everclear punch. The color is a bright, malevolent yellow. The taste is, well, extremely sweet. So sweet that the sweetness seemed to end, as if it had gone into regions that my tastebuds dare not follow. The kids loved it 'natch. Hats off to Jones for calling their Christmas coconut pineapple soda Mele Kalilimaka though.

Hershey Pumpkin Spice Kiss Overall, not bad! The bright orange color and close to too sweet flavor screams white chocolate, so beware if that is a deal breaker. Unlike regular kisses which I can consume with heedless abandon, I am done after two of these, which is probably a good thing.

Candy Corn Dots. Nicely colored with the traditional orange and yellow, but this one didn't work. The flavor is just like that of a regular candy corn but the gooshy mouthfeel of the Dot made me feel like I was eating really, really old candy corn. Once again, kids loved them.

Blood Orange Dots. In lovely black. These I liked. The flavor wasn't over done and I enjoyed the natural Dots chewiness.

Caramel Candy Corn
. Also pretty good, but not something I am going to munch like potato chips. The low end caramel flavor is stronger than the corn flavor although it hangs in there. My friend Joanna ate these while running a half marathon. Not sure what that says, but there you go.

Indulge Caramels. High end caramel. Ran into them at the Portland Nursery Apple fest. I was sad that they were sold out of the sea salt but picked up the cinnamon toast. Exquisite caramel, but not meant for the debauch of Halloween. I'm saving mine for the chill of November.

My big move on Halloween night will be to tax the kids of all their Tootsie Fruit Rolls. They don't like them anyway. I am the only person I know who does.

Blood's A Rover

So I've finished Blood's A Rover and I am happy to say that my initial enthusiasm carried throughout the entire read. I was so sad to see it finish, which is rare for a crime novel. While I tend to think the best crime novels are the equal of the best litfic, there are those that disagree. Genre snobs should consider the book a literary work and note that while its story line is like that of a thriller, the depth of character, the singular use of language and syntax and the emotional depth of the story will win over the more effete readers. Unless of course you can't stand the over the top vulgarity.

Past fans of Ellroy will note many consistencies with his earlier books. There are a pair of men with a complicated relationship who weave back and forth across the good and evil line. There is an unsolved crime scene around which much of the plot revolves, although it is often unclear why. There is the uneasy sense that the power structure is completely corrupt and there is little chance for hope for the good.

If you want to scare yourself this Halloween, but don't like traditional horror stories, you should pick this up. All the conspiracy theories that nagged you about the 60s and early 70s are true. What's more, in Ellroy's dark world, no one is truly innocent. The left is populated by the deluded, the self-important, the idiotic and the ineffectual. The right is populated by a range of terrifying monsters perfectly happy to grind up anyone in their path. The path chosen by the book's few survivors makes perfect sense after the hell they have been through.

My only regret after reading the book is my fear that Ellroy now has no place to go. He has completed his major work started with the Black Dahlia, the first in the LA Quartet and continued with the Underground America trilogy. His story line has been so epic for so long, I am not sure how he goes back to simpler plots or how he would continue this story. My only solace is that his creativity and vision are strong enough to do just about anything.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pendragon's banner

Helen Hollick's Pendragon's Banner is the second in a trilogy of books about King Arthur. Typically tales of King Arthur have some element of fantasy, like the Lady in the Lake or the magic of Merlin. These books though are written as historical fiction, so you will find none of that here. Instead, it is gritty portrayal of Britain in the chaotic fifth century.

Rome has left the island, although its influence, mostly cultural, remains. Although Arthur is King, his is no united kingdom. He is a Briton, one of the original pagan peoples of the island. His people are threatened by a tide of Germanic invaders. A canny politician as well as warrior, Arthur plays the various factions off one another, while he watches his back.

His greatest foe is Morgause, who harbors thoughts of revenge against Arthur. She comes closest to being a magician, although it is via seduction not spells. Her quest for vengeance shatters Arthur and Gwenhwyfar and makes the story often quite dark.

The grimness of the battle between Morgause and Arthur is matched by the grim reality of much of the book. This isn't the pomp and splendor of the traditional, medieval-based Arthurian stories. Instead it is the brutal time when an invading army might appear on your doorstep, kill you and take your children. Your enemies sought to poison and kill you whenever possible.

Arthur is as complex as the times. He is not chivalrous or noble, but a scheming politician of more than dubious morality. He loves his wife, but he also finds time for his mistresses. He plots wickedly and is willing to kill his opponents children if it is politically the thing to do. This feels correct, given the times, but it may be hard for some readers, especially fans of chivalric legend.

A lost opportunity

I'm a fan of covers, so of course I am interested in the new Killers/Rhythms del Mundo cover of Hotel California. I think its fine, but I am a moderate fan of the song, so your mileage may vary. The Ataris cover of singer Don Henley's Boys of Summer drives me into a frothing fury, partially because it sucks ass and partially because I adore that song.

Song quality aside, the bummer is that what the Killers should be doing is making a poetically critical song like Hotel California, not a cover of it. If Southern California was the center of American decadence in the 1970s, then the Killer's Las Vegas is the center today. Nowhere else (ok, maybe on Wall Street) is avarice, self-promotion and gluttony so nakedly embraced as in Vegas. The mindless expansion of real estate without environmental consideration is evident to anyone flying into Sin City. Now that the market has crashed, it is time for a song of wistful regret and who better than Las Vegas's own to do it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Anyone like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

I was on the return flight from Atlanta yesterday when I started the much lauded Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I made decent headway into it, but put it down mid-flight. It was clicking. I'm not sure it was the book's fault as

A) I had just finished Blood's A Rover and loved it. The style of that book is so particular that it may have spoiled crime novels for a week or so.

B) I was tired. I was in a car for six hours and then got on a plane. The brain was not firing on all cylinders I assure you.

C) I was uncomfortable. The person in front of me kept adjusting her seat and the person next to me needed more room than an economy seat provides. I became more acquainted with the side of the plan than I would have liked.

So, I am thinking I should maybe try the book again. Any advice would be appreciated.

Visiting Lynchburg

I'm back from a lovely visit to Virginia and Georgia. I attended my cousin's wedding in Lynchburg, VA. There weren't any events scheduled for Saturday, so my parents and I visited Appomattox Court House and Poplar Forest, which despite the name, is one of Jefferson's houses. As with any trip, a highlight was visiting a new bookstore. Lynchburg isn't a big town, so I didn't expect a whole lot, but Givens Books and Little Dickens delivered. The format is a bit odd. The store is set in quarters. One has new books, one has used. Another has toys and another has teacher supplies. There is also a coffee shop.

The number of used books wasn't huge, but the quality was high and the prices were low. I picked up a used hardcover copy of Almost a Miracle for less than ten bucks. If you are in town you should definitely stop in for a look.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Iain M Banks on the big screen! But.....

It's a short story, not a novel. Since much of the joy of his work is his profusion of creativity and spectacle, most of which is found in his novels, not his short stories, I am not all that excited. Our best hope is that the movie makes insane cash and producers fall all over themselves trying to make the next one.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The new Ellroy and why I like it

Man, am I loving the new Ellroy* I'm sure you're all, whatever dude, you like it, that's cool, but this really matters to me.

In the late 90s, there was no author I loved more than Ellroy. I could not get enough of him. Then I read Cold Six Thousand and I felt like my a close friend had betrayed me. The book did not work for me at all. I didn't speak of his books for years and didn't recommend them. Now the new one feels like an old, but wayward friend showing up with tickets to London to see the reunited Pavement along with a tour of Irish pubs with the Pogues. All is forgiven.

Anyway, I was trying to think of why Ellroy, Thompson, Lehane, Kerr and other authors stand out for me. It comes down to world view. Many crime writers (and nearly all adventure writers) assume that the world is basically good. Their stories tell of evil aberrations brought down by shining exemplars of good. Once vanquished, the world is returned to its rightful, cheerful, sunny state.

Not so for our Ellroy and his ideological brethren. In their novels, the world is evil. The power structure exists to extract, exploit and exterminate, all the while proclaiming its goodness. The heroes in these books are damaged people who rise above their baser instincts and carve some out some small victory, often at terrible cost.

The treatment of violence in these books is markedly different. In the sunny novels, an act of violence by the hero is normally clean, and shaming. He won't be sadistic or attempt to levy justice. Violence is clearly the wrong path in these books. In the darker books, violence is righteous, cathartic and, in its own way, uplifting. The philosophy underlying these books is that some people need a beatdown and the books give us that beatdown.

The best books of the dark side nearly always have some moment where violence is meted out to those who deserve it. The scene in LA Confidential where Bud wrecks the crooked lawyer is an example. Joe Lansdale has a patient man taking an axe handle to a pair of racist fucks. Dennis Lehane's Prayer for Rain has a notable suggested beat down that had me smarting. Deep down, there is a part of us that wants to

The subtext is that the world is terrible and we can't really hope to change it, but we can make some of the jackals and vampires pay, and pay dearly. The funny thing is, for the most part I am an optimist and think most things are just peachy. When I see that view reflected in fiction, it seems mawkish and foolish, and I recoil. Some deeper part of me suspects that the world is not as nice as I hope.

Children of Dust

There are plenty of books out there aimed, at least in part, at helping Westerners get a handle on Islam. Many are designed to whip up fear, uncertainty and doubt. Others, perhaps trying to offset the pernicious effects of the haters, refuse to acknowledge the harsh elements of religious practice. In his memoir Children of Dust, Ali Eteraz portrays Islam as a vast, complex tapestry with beautiful and terrible elements, just like every other religion in the world.

Eteraz, born in Pakistan and now living in the United States, is told early in his life that he is destined for Islamic greatness and spends much of his life pursuing the idea of how to be a Muslim. He studies in a madrassa, moves to the United States, becomes a fundamentalist, then unbecomes one and makes peace with the West. In the US, he trains as a lawyer and becomes a writer.

Eteraz's skills as a writer sets the book apart from similar works. He writing is lyrical, funny and evocative. He handles difficult material, including some occasionally disturbing sexual material quite well. He is best at describing his religous experiences. Far from being a mindless adherent, his relationship with the faith is constantly in flux as his understanding expands.

Although it is not the focus of the book, the early sections on Pakistan are especially valuable today. Despite it's massive importance to the world today, Pakistan remains little known to American readers. His stories of growing up in a small village will give readers a sense of what the life in this vital place is like.