Sunday, May 31, 2009

Whither the B-side compilation?

I threw on Dead Letter Office on the iPod today. Wow, that one still holds up well (and is only EIGHT dollars on Amazon.) When I first bought it (back in 87 or so) I thought it was a new album, but no, it was a B-side compilation, the first I ever bought. Collecting true B-sides (the song that got tacked onto a single, back when there were singles), alternate takes, live tracks, international releases, and studio throwaways, the B-side compilation brings all sorts of musical goodies together in one place. Dead Letter Office is one of the best ever made, or I suppose, compiled.

I don't know if it was the fact that it covers REM's incredibly fertile early period, but the quality on this one is high. The covers are great, exceeding both Aerosmith and Velvet Underground (not the biggest challenge...) but also serving up Crazy, a classic by the still little known Pylon. Then there is the amazing Voice of Harold, where Stipe reads the text from the back of a gospel album over the musical track of Seven Chinese Brothers. Then there is the loopy Bandwagon, at times my favorite REM song. I always like it when the southern accent creeps into his vocals as it does here. Who can forget Walter's BBQ, a little ditty written for GA BBQ joint.

This one is so good that it is worth more than many a REM studio album. Why don't we see more of these sorts of things? The Killers put one out a few years back. Pearl Jam has Lost Dogs, which suffers from the Sandinista! and Use Your Illusions problem of insufficient editing. Too long to recommend unreservedly, it does have No Lip, a rocker only surpassed by Courdoroy. It also has the oddly creepy Strangest Tribe, which is well worth a listen. Does Louder than Bombs count?

So that is some, but where the hell are the rest? Yes, I am aware that there are no more actual B-sides as there are no more 45 singles, but there are plenty of soundtrack cuts, one-offs, piss-takes, Japan-only tracks, Peel Sessions, ITunes exclusives, and Australian tour EPs out there for bands to fill up a nice compilation. Sure, we can probably dig these things up ourselves, but more likely than not, you won't find them on your own.

I suspect Pavement could have put out a humdinger of a compilation, but they took an alternate route. They are re-releasing each of their albums with another disc containing B-sides, concerts, radio shows and EPs. Of course, now the fan has to get all of them. Clever! One odd note on that. The version of Painted Soliders on one of the re-releases sounds a bit different than the one in this classic video.

Could it be that bands are not keeping the music? Or is the strategy to hold on for a post-breakup release?

Friday, May 29, 2009

You tell me you wanna be different

So I've only recently listened to the Modern Lovers, which I suspect makes me a bad indie listener. I found I prefer the Burning Sensations cover of Pablo Picasso (was never called an asshole) than the original Modern Lovers version. This may be due to the rule that whatever you hear first you prefer. Or maybe it is because the Repo Man soundtrack rules (who can forget Let's Have A War, Repo Man, TV Party, or the unbearable amazingness of Reel Ten (this was my 12 year old equivalent of drugs)).

All that said, the story of hippie Johnny and the ladies in I'm Straight is so fantastic that it makes listening to the Modern Lovers more than awesome. Now I understand from whence In My Eyes comes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Good or bad?

Hmmm, the trailer for Pandorum looks like the kind of thing I would like. Ship lost in space, terrible things afoot. It also looks like Event Horizon, the worst film of all time. Watch and decide.

The new Peter Hamilton

A friend lent me his copy of the new Peter Hamilton book, The Temporal Void. So kind was he! It is too expensive to buy and too long to check out from the library. So far, I am quite liking it. It isn't as good as Night's Dawn, but it is better than any of his other books that I have read.

A note of warning though. If you have not read the book DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT read the Publisher's Weekly Review. A massive spoiler lies therein.

Stand up, you don't have to be afraid

Growing up, I thought all the stories about Kiss were true. I thought that Gene Simmons did really chop off the hands of fans at shows with his giant teeth shoes. I also bought into the notion that he had a cow's tongue grafted onto his own. I also believed that it stood for Knights in Satans Service. I know, ridiculous, but come on man, I was eight, cut me some slack.

Anyway, I would have probably freaked out if these custom Kiss Legos showed up in my Lego box.

That said, while I no longer fear Kiss, I do fear the fans of Slipknot. The kids in this video look like the rampaging hordes that will drown the world in apocalypse.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The ends of the earth

For a generally sad book, Simon Winchester's The Sun Never Sets (recently republished as Outposts) is certainly a fun read. In the 80s, Winchester got the idea to travel to the remaining pieces of the British Empire. Most of them are nearly unknown (Trista da Cunha anyone?) and tiny. At the time, Hong Kong was a colony, but the remainder are small indeed, which makes for interesting stories of forlorn little places like St. Helena and, in some regards, Gibraltar.

What makes the book so enjoyable is Winchester's prose which swerves from nostalgic to wistful to acid. Here he mocks the Gibraltar Rock Apes, famous due to the legend that as long as they stay on the Rock, so shall Britain:

But here they still sit, begging for food on the Monkey's Alameda, swinging from wall to tree to tourist shoulder, spitting, lunging, hawking, puking, and displaying their unpleasant and oddly tailess backsides to the daily busloads of the curious. They are truly loathsome creatures, in a state of permanent distemper, ogrous packages of green and grey fur, all teeth, stale fruit and urine. How little these true barbarians know of the solicitous tendresse to which they are subject, or the colonial telegrams that have passed to and from the Gibraltar cable station, attesting to their contentment, or their decline.

Great stuff for travel fans, but Imperial fans in particular.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Shouldn't have to be so hard

I've listened to the Wilco album (helpfully titled Wilco (the album) and kicked off by Wilco (the song)) twice now. At the moment I am indifferent. This means one of two things. The hoped for outcome is that this is one that takes a number of listens to fully engage it. This happens all the time. Most recent was Wolf Parade. Less desirable outcome is that I just don't like it.

My stiff upper lip is stiffened by listening to the fabulous Shouldn't Be Ashamed, my most favorite of their songs.

Jay Bennett, RIP.

An Englishman in Dixie

I love the books of William Boyd. His Any Human Heart is one of my top favorite novels, up there with Kavalier and Clay, Atonement and Cloud Atlas. His Ice Cream War, set in the little known African theater of World War One, is among the finest of the war/imperial novels, right up there with anything by JG Farrell. A Good Man in Africa is right up there with Graham Greene's great ones. Armadillo is a well constructed examination of identity and the idea of Englishness.

Stars and Bars, which I just read, is not as good as those books. It has Boyd's trademark wit, but it lacks the deeper understanding of people that enrich his other books. The book is the closest thing to pure slapstick that I have yet encountered among his works. Henderson Dores is an Englishmen who longs to be American. The novel opens with him at work at an art house in NYC. He is sent into wildest Georgia to evaluate the collection of an elderly man.

Upon his arrival, he finds that most of the family is none too happy to see him. One son threatens to beat his ass with his head and one daughter is given to candid Anglophobia. He makes matters worse by trying to juggle two women, one of whose daughters travels with him to Georgia.

There are many funny moments, but the book just feels insubtantial when compared to the others. If this were one of his others, he might try to explore more of how Americans and the English interact. Here, it is mostly, if not entirely played for laughs. It isn't a bad book by any means, but don't expect something like his others.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A particulary geeky side of scifi

For me science fiction is a completely unguilty pleasure. In fact, if the cruel book gods one day forced me to read from only one genre, it would be science fiction. That said, there are some sub-genres about which I feel a twinge of regret about reading. Mostly because they usually aren't that great. Alternative history is one. It's sub-category of modern folks going back in time, accidentally or otherwise, always tempts but usually delivers so-so results. Although it was over-long, I liked John Birmingham's Weapons of Choice which features a fleet of early 21st century warships being flung into World War 2, the time line of which they immediately disrupt.

This sets it above the lame Final Countdown in which the USS Nimitz goes back to Dec 6, 1941 and decides to not intervene in Pearl Harbor. That movies reminds me of trashy bit of military scifi from the 80s called the Seventh Carrier. This one imagines that a seventh carrier was meant to participate in the Pearl Harbor raid but it got frozen in an iceberg (or some such). Freed in the 80s, it goes on to successfully attack Pearl Harbor sinking a helicopter carrier and damaging a battleship. Astounding to say, but the author was able to turn this into a franchise.

There is also a great short story out there, maybe by Clarke or perhaps Asimov, which has a US soldier stationed in Iceland transported back to the Viking days. He sees himself as superior to the locals, but finds he has no skills for the time and is promptly killed when he runs out of ammo. Nice twist on the superiority of current civilizations.

Anyway, I have been intrigued by the Destroyermen series. In these, a World War 2 US Navy destroyer enters some sort of worm hole and goes to a Harry Harrison like world where the dinos never died. It has all the preposterousness that can make for good adventure scifi. I nearly grabbed it at the library but a friend has lent me the latest Peter Hamilton doorstopper and I should really read that first.

Friday, May 22, 2009


With the end of the Bush administration and the coming economic crisis a number of formerly hot topics have gone rather quiet. Iraq, terrorism, Islamic-American relations and Islam itself have largely subsided as topics for conversation. Part of it is the rise of the latest and greatest crisis story and increased (but not enough of an increase) of attention paid to global warming, but there is also a sense that now that Obama is in office, everything overseas will just be dandy.

Just because we are not paying attention doesn't mean things still aren't happening though. We should all listen to the debate surrounding Ed Hussain's the Islamist, Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw and Why I Left. Originally published in Great Britain, the book caused quite a storm of controversy. A number of the center and right papers wrote positive notices, while the major left paper, the Guardian, and a number of others had less positive things to say about it. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the arguments.

One of the major arguments is over whether his depiction of the state of militant Islam in modern Britain is accurate or not. That will take someone more learned in the subject to say. What I can say is that the book provides a personal view of how militants (of all stripes) recruit, manipulate and use young people to build dangerous movements. It isn't as if Hussain lacked positive role models. His had a loving family, a solid education and a mentor in a socially and philosophicaly oriented rather than politicaly oriented Islam.

Americans will of course be interested in whether the aggressively anti-Western Islamic movements of Britain could arise here in the United States. Hussain addresses this in an afterword for the US edition. His answer is that the short term looks good, because American society is more inclined to assimilate newcomers than Europe but long term risky, as the Wahabists are beginning to make inroads.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A cover you need

Ooooo, someone has posted one of my favorite covers, Lucinda Williams singing Positively Fourth Street. This site has a passel of covers by Lucinda, including the Dylan cover. She doesn't really do anything new with the song, except to bring her incredible voice to the story. Her voice is so rich with emotion, so it works with this Dylan classic.

Here is a favorite or two

Essence - a take on the classic sense of sex as a drug. Probably the best use of "fuck" in a country song as well. (OK, fine, David Allan Coe fans may disagree. If you do not mind utterly tasteless tunes, then compare against this song. NSFW!!!)

Car Wheels on the Gravel Road
Including Lucinda pitching the reissue.

Summer book

I'm generally a huge fan of the New York Review of Books Classics line, but I have failed to grok Tove Jansson's the Summer Book. Consisting of a series of vignettes, it tells the story of a young girl and her aged grandmother on a island in Finland. The praise for the book is effusive, see for example this blog post, but I am just not seeing it. Of late I have been a bit agitated so I haven't been able to sink into prose and I suspect that this book requires lots of quiet and lying somewhere like a hammock. I actually bought this copy so maybe I will go back to it later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Suspicion torments my heart

One of my favorite crime thriller writers is Thomas H Cook. He isn't flashy, but he keeps churning out these meditations on the long term, emotional effects of the impacts of crime. I may have read his best, the Chatham School Affair, first. The ones I have read since are good, but not quite at the same level. The latest though, is the best I have read since.

Red Leaves is short and begins with someone looking over family portraits, rarely a good sign in crime novels. The main character Eric Moore is trying to get a sense of what happened to his family. The bad news all started the day after his teenage son returned late from babysitting a young girl named Amy. The next day, Amy's parents call looking for her, as she has disappeared. As the days grow, suspicions grow and relationships fracture. The conclusion is tragic in a typical Cook way, which is to say a sense of waste and regret hangs over it.

This one is shorter and tighter than some of his other books, so you can blow right through it. The characters are all so flawed and the overall feeling so sad, that this is probably for the best.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rock for the day

Here is Portland's own Thermals bringing the rock on "Now We Can See," which seems to be about thoughtful barbarians. The lead singer Hutch Harris looks like a younger Stephen Malkmus and sounds a bit like John Linnell (of TMBG) making him a yin/yang of indie rock.

Burn After Reading

I ignored Burn After Reading when it came out, as the reviews were weak. My love of the subject matter (spies in DC) finally pushed me to rent it. It's certainly not in the top tier of the Coen Brothers movies, but it is better than the average comedy for certain.

This one is all about the goof-ball characters, nearly all of whom are numbskulls. Brad Pitt's gym instructor is the most obviously dull, but even the supposedly whip-smart CIA analyst played by John Malkovish is a buffoon. In the extra features, the Coens say they came up with the characters and then the story and that shows. The plot is mostly an excuse to have the characters collide in crazy ways. The best character, to my mind, is George Clooney's sex (and jogging) obsessed US Marshall. He moves into a parody of the main characters of political paranoia films that is great fun to watch.

I suppose my biggest complaint is that it can't decide if it wants to be a black comedy or not. It starts out mostly as farce and then slides into a farcish black comedy that doesn't get really dark until the final moments. At that point it felt out of synch with the rest of the movie.

If you don't mind spoilers, not that they are that important, here is every line by John Malkovich in the movie. The number of eff bombs is impressive, most impressive.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another great one from HBO

If you wanted more of Band of Brothers, you got it. HBO now has a show set in the Pacific coming out.

Annie's Ghosts

It's amazing how many mystery stories revolve around family secrets. One of my favorites, Thomas H Cook, has built a career writing books that deal with the emotional toll of family secrets and family history. Writers as diverse as Harlen Coben and Edgar Allen Poe have used the hidden history of families to tell their sorrowful tales.

Of course, real families have secrets too and Steve Luxenberg, of the Washington Post, found a doozy. Late in life, his mother, who had always made a great deal about being an only child, revealed that she actually had a sister. Digging further after his mother's death, Luxenberg learned that his unknown aunt had been committed to a mental institution in her late teens and that she had lived the rest of her life there. In Annie's Ghosts, Luxenberg has documented his quest to learn who his aunt was and why his mother hid her from her children.

Luxenberg has structured the book as a mystery story, with false leads, missing documents, bureaucratic blocking, and the uncovering of additional mysteries, such as the true story of his father's service in World War 2 and the dire tale of his mother's cousin who escaped death at the hands of the Nazis by posing as a German and working for the Wehrmacht. Although the stories in and of themselves, which include the shifts in the mental health industry, the Holocaust in the Ukraine and immigrant life in 20th century Detroit are interesting, the suspense driven narrative greatly enhances the read.

Although his story is personal, Luxenberg does note that thousands of people disappeared into homes because they were considered different or even shameful. In not all cases were they erased from family history, but in many they were. This opens up all of the other reasons people were hidden, some of which he explores on his blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Visiting a bookstore

I was down in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland on Friday. I like the area quite a bit, but I don't find myself going very often. My most frequent reason to visit is to get my hands on some Salvadoran food. El Palenque's fried plantains are certainly worth the trip.

This time I drove past Wallace Books and, since I had the time, I stopped in for a good browse. Wallace is a new and used bookstore of the kind that is disappearing. The building is a converted residence, so the store has a warren like feel that the modern stores have eschewed. Thanks to a dedication to organizing, the store gives the feel of a place where you might find a lost treasure, but you can also search alphabetically if you choose.

The science fiction section was particularly nice with all manner of out of print treasures. Few things date as quickly as science fiction, but the selection was attractive. I picked up Resume with Monsters, a strange sci-fi book by William Browning Spencer.

Over in history I found a copy of Only Yesterday. This one, about the 1920s, was written in 1931, giving it, I hope, the feel of a book about this decade written this year. It had an inscription, which usually gives me pause. I worry that it was some spurned peace offering. In this case, the original owners seems to have written when they bought it (2001, in case you are interested).

Lastly was Lost at Sea. I had a spell where I read piles of adventure/disaster books, but I then had my fill. I suppose I am getting back on the horse.

What I like about visiting stores like Wallace is that I buy books that I otherwise wouldn't (whether I read them is another story). While I appreciate all the Internet can offer for the directed search, the browse is something that the Web still can't do very well.

Two videos one happy, one sad

I ran into these tonight. The first one is Weezer covering MGMT's Kids. Pretty fun, aside from the unfortunate "T-Mobile in the house!" shout out by Rivers Cuomo. It was a T-Mobile Party, but still.

Then we have the Road Trailer. Looks about as dark as the book. It looks like we get more of an idea of what happened to end the world. The action to lonely survival ratio looks different than the book, but that is probably part of a desire to excite the viewers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Girl's Guide to Modern Philosophy

Charlotte Greig is a folk singer and music writer in the UK, but back in the 70s she studied philosophy at the University of Sussex in Great Britain. In her first novel, A Girl's Guide to Modern Philosophy, she uses that experience as a basis for the story of a girl with a dilemma. Her main character Susanna is involved with a neglectful older man. Thanks to her dissatisfaction with that relationship, she begins a relationship with another student, but her concerns about the new relationship prevent her from officially ending her earlier one. Then she finds out she is pregnant and her problems get worse.

This could be the start of an excruciating Lifetime movie. Instead, this is a lively novel that places the emphasis on characterization and story telling, rather than message hammering. Greig does a good job in creating her setting in particular the student lifestyle. Coming at the end of the 60s era and, in the more leftist UK, the student world here is one in opposition to society at large and Susanna's uncertainty of where she fits is a key part of the drama. The characters felt real and Susanna in particular felt like a young woman struggling to overcome her youth with intellectual tools she had developed.

While the philosophy studies initially provide mostly for establishing the character, they come to be at the center of the drama. As her situation becomes increasingly dire, she finds that her philosophy studies have become quite pertinent. She uses what she has learned to have a dialogue with herself about what she wants and what is best for her. While she nods to the political, Susanna is more interested in the individual and the personal. The treatment of sensitive issues is well handled.

I enjoyed the book and look forward to what Greig does next. I hope it takes advantage of her years in the music scene.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yay, a new band to follow

Man, I like the songs from the Heartless Bastards. Sadly, Portland is not on the schedule. Click here and listen to Out to Sea and, in particular, the Mountain. Is is automatically alt-country if it has a slide guitar?

Complaining about GRRM

Neil Gaiman has words for those who are mad at George R R Martin for not yet finishing the next Song of Fire and Ice Book and those are words are GRRM is not your bitch.

Viddy well, little brother, viddy well

There are some songs of which movies have permanently altered my perceptions. I cannot help but think of AirCav assaults whenever I hear "Ride of the Valkyries." I am even given to muttering "This is a Romeo Foxtrot, shall we dance." Sometimes I have a false association, I tend to think of the Omen when I hear O Fortuna, although it was never in the film.

Another such song is Singing in the Rain, forever, tied to the rape scene in Clockwork Orange. I was a little concerned when I saw that one of children's classes would be singing it at the school music show. Fortunately, any associations were swept away by the audience participatory dance segment. It's hard for the mind to wander when you have to pay attention to the next dance step.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An odd read

Among my Christmas gift books was House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs. The civilization, as you might guess, is the Anasazi. Having visited Mesa Verde some years back, I wanted to learn more about what may have happened to them. So far, I am learning a fair bit about it, but I am learning lots more about Craig Childs. The key word in the title is TRACKING. Some writers barely make an impact in the story they tell. Not our Craig. For every page about the Anasazi, there are five about Craig looking for them or exploring. He spends a lot of time alone out in the desert Southwest and he is given to odd behavior like hopping into a flash flood and riding it and hiking through neighborhoods hiding from dogs. This doesn't make it bad, but you should be aware.

My faith in the Man Booker restored

Well, it looks like I need to start paying attention to the Man Booker Prize again. Aravind Adiga's White Tiger won the 2008 award and it is flat out awesome. It manages to be both a hilarious and troubling meditation on the brutal inequities in today's India.

The White Tiger of the title is Balram Halwai, a murderer, former servant and now an entrepreneur, as he puts it. His dark story is told in a series of letters written to the premier of China, coming to visit India. In these letters, he slowly reveals his experiences, including his crimes and then his surprising fate. It is the story of one who escapes the Chicken Coop, where Halwai says, the vast majority of Indians live. Like chickens waiting for slaughter, Indians accept their unfortunate lot in life while the rich and powerful torment, abuse and steam roller them. As white tigers are rare, so is the entrepreneur like Balram who breaks free.

The criticisms of India are myriad. The value and reality of India's democracy is called into constant question. Adiga certainly seems to argue that the downtrodden have no rights in both India and China, but at least in China their living standards are improving. There is also the notion that one must be an extreme rule-breaker, as in Balram's case, to actually change your lot in life.

All that makes it sound a bit, or even quite a bit, heavy. Not the case! Despite the subject matter, it has an almost breezy feel, as Adiga pulls in slapstick and observational humor. Despite being wicked, his narrator is quite amusing and his takes on the ruling class of his village are acidly funny. Also, this book is short. I really appreciate someone who can tell the tale in under 300 pages. All in all, a great book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Captain America

I grew up as DC kid. I read mostly Batman and Justice League comics (looking back at the Justice League covers, man are they goofy). I suspect this was due to the influence of the Superfriends TV show, but it may also have been to my neighbors who had the comics I was reading for free. I did have a friend who had a lot of Marvel collected in books, and I read those, but I never really read the comics. One of the characters I considered completely uninteresting was Captain America. He seemed like he was just a really strong guy with a Dudely Do-Right sort of persona. Oh what a mistake.

I've just finished reading the very large Captain America Omnibus (pricey! You might try the library) and the follow on Death of Captain America trilogy. Although it covers over 30 issues, it maintains just a few story arcs over that entire period. There is little or no episodic story telling, instead we get a long, grim fight against terrible odds and with innumerable setbacks. The story includes Captain America's exploits in World War 2, the Cold War and a long simmering revenge tale. Yes, it is a comic book story, but it is a very good one.

Really, the characters are important here, but I think the most important part of its success is the writer. Ed Brubaker wrote this one and everything I have read by him is excellent. If you go visiting the comic shop, his name should be enough reason to try something out.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Four Corners of the Sky

You may not have read any of Michael Malone's novels, but you have probably seen one. The covers of his novels are particularly eye catching with great use of color. The cover of his latest novel, the Four Corners of the Sky, features a girl running and carrying an airplane on the cover. That little girl is Annie. At age seven, her father abandoned her at her aunt and uncle's farm, leaving her only a beat up airplane as a remembrance. As a child, the girl was a metaphorical flyer, fleeing from place to place with her con artist father. As she grew, she started flying for real, attending Annapolis and becoming a Navy pilot. At age 26, her father contacts her again, promising to finally give Annie the name of her mother if she will come to his deathbed...with one or two items he left behind.

Against her better judgment she goes to find her father, starting a loopy quest that brings in all manner of odd characters, including Cubans, the Feds, local Miami police and Brad, the husband Annie is trying to divorce, but can't quite seem to shake. Malone is a native North Carolinian and he is clearing working in the tradition of the Southern tall tale. The characters are often over the top, including the foul-mouth disabled pilot who teaches Annie to fly and assists in her quest and the Shakespeare loving con who helps her Dad on one last giant con. The story gets increasingly wild with multiple people chasing Annie and her Dad for differing reasons.

You don't need to have read any Baum, or even to have seen the movie, to note that the story is heavily influenced by the Wizard of Oz. Annie lives in Emerald, flies her rattle-trap plane into a tornado, nearly loses her dog, and does her fair share to help the cowardly and the broken- hearted.

Not that you need to be a fan of Oz to enjoy this book. Malone's background includes writing for soap operas as well as crime novels. The Four Corners of the Sky has elements of soap opera, with heavy doses of romance, and crime, with crime at the center of the plot, but really this is a big book about families and the odd people in your family. This is one for those who want a giant, crazy story in which to sink themselves.

Portland in the NYT

Another day, another article about Portland in the NYT. This one is pretty good though as it is about cheap eats. I am so glad that Tabor got a mention. The schnitzelwich is the best sandwich in all the land. I might have to go get one tomorrow. Very nice to see that the strip club Acropolis got a mention, not for the ladies, but for the cheap steaks. Locally sourced, don't you know. Beers got mentioned, which makes sense. Only bummer is that the local chocolate and dessert folks got no mention. Next time, I suppose.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I've seen those vampire dramas too, they're cruel

So it has been vampire movie season at my house. Among my most recent movies have been three vampire movies (and an awesome low-key French film -- more on that later.) The first one was 30 Days of Night, which is happy to remain true to its comic book origins. It is somewhat Carpenter-esque in having a small group of people dealing with an enveloping tide of evil. In this case it is vampires, and an unpleasant, almost animalistic bunch they are.

If you want your vampire movies steeped in tradition, even if not vampire tradition, then Near Dark is a good choice. The movie was apparently originally written as a Western, but was repurposed as a vampire movie when it seemed no one wanted to go to Westerns anymore. It's set in the southern plains and has the dark, depopulated feel of the early Coen Brothers movies. Like Blood Simple, the characters, including the vampires are a bit "country" (as we say in the South). It puts a nice spin on the Southern gothic tale and a hint at what drives the violence in the backwoods. I also loved the casting of Aliens alums Bill Paxton, Lance Henrikson (imagine his character in Pumpkinhead turning wicked) and Jenette Goldstein as vampires. Their visit on an unfortunate roadhouse is worth the price of admission alone. Unlike the cruel animals of 30 Days, these vampires have distinct and distincly unpleasant personalities.

Most recently I watched Let the Right One In, which seems the most closely tied to the original psychological nature of the vampire story. In this subdued Swedish movie, the two main characters are lonely children. One is the sad child of neglectful divorced parents. The other is a vampire. They find each other at night on a empty playground as the boy, Oscar, fantasizes about hurting the bullies who torment him. Eli, the vampire, is the only one to support him and he slowly turns the tables on the vampires. The ending is quite ambiguous, as it points to the possible creation of a key archetype in the vampire mythos, but also appears to be quite happy about it. This movie takes an ambiguous view of the vampire, sympathy sing with the situation but not ignoring how they feed. There is are so many great details in this movie, including some banal killings, the terrible sounds and shifts in face when Eli attacks, and the sadness of poor Oscar.

So while the first movie is for fans of the genre, and the second is ideal for those who like the only the best of schlock, the last is a great movie on its own.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek

As everyone who has been near a TV or a movie theater knows, Star Trek is opening this weekend. I am hoping to take my eldest soon. He has seen all the Star Wars movies, so the violence shouldn't put him off. We can also then begin the debate as whether Star Trek or Star Wars is the better franchise (this form of debate has already started. 2 out of 3 offspring agree that Indiana Jones > Star Wars.)

Although I don't watch a lot of Star Trek today, I preferred it to Star Wars when growing up. This is a bit like the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, you don't dislike either band, but you like one better. My preference is not based on David Brin's argument that Star Wars is aristocratic while Star Trek is democratic. No, I think Star Trek just hit a different set of geek buttons, specifically the technology buttons.

Star Wars is justly lauded for creating the look of a worn down universe, but the technologies aren't terribly memorable. Characters yes, but the technologies no. Trek is much truer to the speculative nature of science fiction playing with transporters, genesis devices, cloaking devices, weapon systems, and the like. The ships were also much more varied on Star Trek, although this was less the case initially. As in navies today, there are ships with different roles assigned to them, instead of the very big ship vs. fighter that plays out in Star Wars.

The two major space battles in Star Wars are essentially the battle of Midway played out where an overwhelming naval force (the Japanese) is destroyed by a small group of fighters (US). Star Trek has no fighters, which is a little strange, but then the overall feel of its navy is that of the Napoleonic period. Roughly equal navies patrol vast distances and chance upon one another. The actions are quick and fierce, but rarely decisive. In such a universe, fighters might make less sense. Or maybe the designers just didn't want to make any.

Anyway, I suspect the movie will be a lot of fun, if this Onion News Video is to be believed.

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

And I'm all out of bubble gum

Steve send this Flickr image list of Republicans in clown makeup. He compared it to the clown monster from It, which is sure to generate nightmares. I am going to start seeing Cheney in my storm sewers. Looking at it again I'm reminded of the classic John Carpenter film They Live, which argues that our society has been made materialistic and anti-intellectual by a bunch of aliens. Watch Rowdy Roddy Piper as he learns what is really going on in the world.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Fun with grammar

As ways to fill your free time online, is one of the better choices. If you are unfamiliar, each show brings together two people, often on opposite or conflicting sides of an issue, to talk for about an hour using computer video cameras and telephones. Unlike TV, the format is given to long form, loose conversations, which means it isn't great for soundbites or quick watching, but it can be an engaging thought-provoking listen.

One of the great benefits of the series is watching authors and thinkers explain and unpack their ideas, without the watering down and excess caution you see with tv pundits. One of the people I was happiest to discover via Bloggingheads is John McWhorter. He combines subject expertise, a strong point of view and a personality that makes him seem like an ideal dinner companion. You can see him here talking to Glenn Loury about torture, Obama, and other issues of the day.

So I put his latest book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, on my wish list and my wife bought me a copy for my birthday. It is a small, somewhat odd, but completely enjoyable book. McWhorter is a linguist and in the book, he takes aim at a number of theories about English, none of which were known to me beforehand. One of the biggest is whether Celtic languages impacted the development of English. The CW is no, and McWhorter argues strongly for their impact.

Another interesting section is based on his skeptical take on the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. His doesn't buy the idea that a language's grammar sets the parameters for how one understands the world. He points out that counter-examples are often left out of these supposed grammatical drivers of culture. For example, he notes "As towering a mind as literary critic Edmund Wilson, for example, thought the reason Russians seemed unable to keep a schedule was that Russian isa language where future tense is indicated largely via context- but then Japanese is like that, too, and the Japanese never seemed to have any problem with schedules."

McWhorters prose style is both erudite and conversational. His sentences are geared toward the interested layman, being neither jargon laden, nor condescending. It is these qualities that make a book that could so easily have been a challenge, a fun read that, while not easy, provides great stimulation. I will be reading more of these.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

An exciting milestone in my NPR life

This weekend, for the first time ever to my knowledge, I ate at a restaurant discussed (gushed?) by the Sterns on The Splendid Table. The place was Norma's Ocean Diner in Seaside, OR, a town not known for its food, but then again those are the places the Sterns like best. The restaurant prides itself on its clam chowder (which I didn't have) and its fish and chips, which I did. In addition to the traditional cod, they offer albacore, halibut and salmon fish and chips. I had the salmon and it was quite tasty. The strong flavor of the salmon stands up well to the beer batter, which is pleasingly dry.

You can listen to the Sterns talk Norma's here. Whenever I hear the show, I want to go to the restaurants, so I am so happy that it finally happened. I almost went with the petrale sole. Listening to the radio spot, I wish I had. Next time I suppose.

It was a lovely food weekend as the BBQ place I thought had closed was in fact open and my favorite baked good provider was open as well.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sci-fi books that I want to be movies

I hope the new Star Trek movie does well. For one, I love the franchise and hope it can be revived. I am going to start showing the movies to the kids and see what they think. For another, I want more science fiction movies made. There are so many great stories from which to choose and sci-if provides all the spectacle you could want. Here are the books I would most like to see on the big screen:

Blindsight by Peter Watts. This one has a great scale for the movies, with a strange crew going to the edge of the solar system to investigate a UFO. This one has bizarre characters, truly alien aliens, and a dark backstory that could be handled in 2 hours. This one would be a moody, character drama in the Solaris vein.

Liege-killer by Christopher Hinz. This unjustly forgotten action classic may have suffered from the Matrix effect. The follow on volumes are not as good, but technology has finally caught up with this one. The book is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where the remnants of humanity rebuild in orbital habitats. Into this fragile world, a forgotten weapon is released to terrible effect.

Sparrow - Maria Doria Russell. Here is one for the haters. Russell writes both science fiction and literary fiction, so this one is reflective piece about the relationship between religion and science, from a perspective sympathetic to both. This is a first contact story that focuses on the philosophical challenges and our inability to understand other cultures.

The Night's Dawn Trilogy - Peter Hamilton. OK, OK, this series is about a million pages long and has as many plots and sub-plots all the books published in the last month. That said, long books have condensed before and this story is awesome at the Star Wars level, except for the end, but then again the Star Wars end is pretty weak itself.