Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I was completely taken by the trailer to the movie Surveillance. It made it look like a twisty crazy murder mystery. It's not. It's a fairly obvious strange movie about, I guess, the idea that we live in a world filled with predators and we are mostly screwed. It's not very good, aside for some truly left field perfomances by Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman.

The treatment of violence is peculiar. At first I thought that Lynch (the daughter, not the father) was going for a serious Haneke-esque lecture to comfortable middle class people about the dangers that await them. Later I thought it was going for a goofy Tarantino-esque use of violence to shock and titilate. Still later I think it was going for a horror film scarefest. None of these really fit the film and the slipping back and forth didn't help. Also, most of the characters are reprehensible without being terribly interesting.

The movie does have a few stand out moments. You will be shown an outre sex act you have probably never seen (nor considered.) If you are so inclined you can get a sense of what a crazy Bill Pullman O-face looks like. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

End of the re-reading project

Well that didn't take long. I got into the book and nearly all of it fell into place, including the memorable death of key character via farm equipment. Once the pieces started re-clicking, I sped ahead to the end to remember what happened there exactly. The siren song of unread books became too great and I put the book down.

The next song I am going to overplay to the point I stop liking it

I haven't paid much attention to the Black Crowes over the years. The new single I Ain't Hiding is awesome though. It's like Love is the Drug performed by the Some Girls era Stones. I guess I need to listen to the new album.

Here is the song

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


For the first time in, well more than I recall, I am re-reading a book. Sure I re-read plenty in school (thanks to the Jesuits, I have read Plato's Republic far more times than I would have liked), but I almost never re-read for pleasure. There are just too many good books to read to justify going back to spend time on a book I have already read. Amazingly, I justify keeping so many books, because I say I want to re-read or at least refer to them.

I am though re-reading Dan Simmon's Summer of Night, thanks to a chance conversation about the book A Winter Haunting. I had read Summer years ago and when I later read Winter, I had somehow missed that it was a sequel. Someone reminded me of it and told me it was better to read them closely. So I picked up copies of both and decided to try again.

So far I am ashamed to say that I am recalling each page, but I can't remember what is coming. Either that means the book is forgettable or I am getting forgetful. Neither is an attractive option.

Monday, September 28, 2009

No one knows what its like to be the bad man

Like Jim Thompson and James Ellroy, Charlie Huston writes beautifully dark novels about crime where the reader escapes despair through excellent writing rather than false hope of redemption. I've just finished the second Hank Thompson book which is titled Six Bad Things. We first meet Hank in Caught Stealing. In that book, Hank is a down on his luck guy who gets a bad case of the wrong place, wrong time syndrome. This should be a bore, but Huston delivers enough plot, violence and tight writing to make it sing. If you liked that book, read this one too.

Here be spoilers.

The second book is slower but more interesting. The trilogy would appear to be the creation story for a complicated villain. In the first one, Hank was a guy on the run who mostly had bad things happen to him, but who saw many of those connected to him die. In the second, he makes more of his own choices, delivers more of his own violence and becomes someone for whom violence is more natural.


It's a sad book, because his greatest victims are his parents. In trying to protect them, he puts himself on a course that leads to a Hamlet-esque body count. The darkness of the main character will put off anyone who frowns when they hear words like hard-boiled or noir. If you can get past that, look at the dialogue. His characters are great as well. He has a number of gems here including a pair of stoned surf killers, some whiter shade of trash vigilantes and a Elvis impersonating drug dealer with a dog named Hitler.

Should I read The Blade Itself?

I had heard all manner of praise for the fantasy novels of Joe Abercrombie, so I wishlisted and eventually received the Blade Itself. So far (page 40 or so), it feels pretty so-so. I am thinking of switching to the Name of the Wind. Good call or no?

The reading of a thousand page book begins with a single sentence

I am currently about halfway through George Herrings excellent From Colony to Superpower. It's a great read, useful to those new to American foreign relations and to those experienced, but I have to wonder how many people give up on it, or even more likely, never start it. With the annotated bibliography, the text is a thousand pages long. I found it a daunting to pick up despite my great love for the subject matter.

After a nice 50 page reading session, I put my book mark in place. I then closed the book to see how far along the bookmark appeared to have progressed. I might as well have read nothing as the mass of unread pages made me hastily put the book down. I also put the book in a slightly out of the way location. That way I wouldn't be constantly reminded of my lackluster progress, but I also couldn't ignore it.

Back in the 80s, A Brief History of Time was famous for being bought but unread. In that case, it was the difficulty of subject matter. I admit to not making it very far into that one (but I have the excuse of borrowing and not buying that one.) Today the problem is of reading opportunity cost. I have hundreds of books that I haven't read, many of which I probably never will read, so deciding to read a long book is also the decision to not read many other books. That's the intellectual reasoning, but the emotional reality is that I stare at all these other books and wonder what they are like.

My solution is to read the long book chapter by chapter, while also reading shorter books at the same time. It means the long book will take months to read, but it will get read.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Arena shows

I went to see the Killers last night at the Memorial Colosseum, the smaller of the two arena venues here in Portland. I'd last seen them at the Roseland, a smallish club, so I was worried the arena show would suffer by comparison. While the event lost the excitement created by the proximity, aural overload and close crowds of a club show, it was still quite fun and they spent a buck or two on pyrotechnics and visuals. They also played EVERY song I wanted to hear, so of course I was psyched about that.

The bummer is that I had to hang in the seats, which always suck. If you sit, you look like spoilsport dork and if you stand you are in an awkward position where you can't really dance and where you feel unnaturally close to your neighbors. Next time buy tickets early enough to get on the floor.

The band (judging by the choice to end the show with it) and the crowd (judging by the excitement) agree with me that their finest song is When You Were Young.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Only Yesterday

I have a bias against older nonfiction books as I don't think they age well. The evidence gets old, the arguments get settled or the style becomes out-dated and the read just isn't the same. Well, Frederick Allen Lewis sure showed me up. He wrote Only Yesterday in 1931 and it read like it was written last year.

Lewis was an editor at the Atlantic and I wonder if his style has influenced later writers there. He is crisp, funny and has a strong point of view throughout. I loved his description of the motivations of Klan members:

"...but it white robe and hood, its flaming cross, its secrecy, and the preposterous vocabulary of it ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places. Here was a chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire."

It doesn't hurt that the subjects feel particularly relevant today. Lewis covers racism, populism, and the infatuation with celebrity, sports, and trifling events, at the expense of vital issues. He describes the madness of the stock bubble and the shouting down of anyone who call into question the riches to be made. He also looks at the cult of business (the business of America is business, and all that) and at the how religion and business began to use each other's language. He describes a very popular book called the Man Nobody Knows which argued that Jesus was the founder of modern business thanks to his executive experience and his skills at advertising.

Reading this book, I was both happy and sad to see that we as a society have many of the same problems. On the downside, there are many problems that we have failed to conquer for so long. On the plus side, our time is not a uniquely debased one.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A song for your morning

I'm getting back into Pandora. If you don't know it, it is an online music service where you can create music stations based on bands you already like. The created stations serve all up all sorts of delightful songs of which you are likely to be unaware.

I have a few stations in place already (Drive By Truckers, Sleater Kinney, Wolf Parade, Franz Ferdinand and so on) but I recently created a Butterglory station. If you don't know the band, they were a mid-90s Kansas band that people thought sounded a bit too much like Pavement (That's a problem?!!) Check this video, complete with LARP and a hot drummer. Anyway Butterglory is a great underrated band, so just the thing for a Pandora station.

Today, Big Dipper came up on the station. Yet another band I missed back in the day. This late 80s indie rock band reminds me of the Pixies, probably due to the Boston connection and weird lyrics. Here is Lunar Module, a hooktastic treat for you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are big books doomed?

Matt Yglesias wonders if the giant novel is in fact dead in this world of multiple entertainment opportunities. He uses the example of his dissatisfaction with the very long Infinite Jest.

But in a fundamental sense it struck me as very unsatisfying. Not just in terms of the weird ending, but in terms of definitely not feeling like I got more out of reading it than I could have gotten out of reading three books that were one third the length.

I probably won't read Infinite Jest, for just the reason he lays out. I do think though that big book is doing fine. There seem to be more ginormous fantasy novels every day.

Do I have to stop liking the Flowers in Your Hair song?

Vulture has it right.

Have you had problems listening to R. Kelly ever since learning that he (allegedly) engaged in water sports with underage girls? Have you been forced to hit the fast-forward button on your Discman every time "Rock &Roll, Part 2" comes up while you're listening to Jock Jams, because of Gary Glitter's pedophiliac tendencies? Well, then, if you're a fan of the Mamas & the Papas (and who isn't?), we suggest you find something to do this afternoon that doesn't involve watching Oprah.

In case you missed it, John Phillips slept with his daughter MacKenzie on numerous occasions, including the night before her wedding! Clearly, you can't listen to songs by this evil bastard now, but what about songs he wrote, but didn't sing like San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair?) I vote a cautious no.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Serve Them All My Days

My views of British primary and secondary education are probably a little off. Like many of my peers I watched Pink Floyd's the Wall a few too many times and had it in my head that all the teachers were like the "Stand still laddie" guy in this clip from the movie. Thanks to my infatuation with the Victorian period, I'd gotten the sense that the public (private in the American sense) schools were factories for creating the foot soldiers of empire.

While Floyd made have overstated the case, the imperial duty awaiting the students is central to R.F. Delderfields To Serve Them All My Days. The main character, David Howlett-Jones, is invalided out of the British Army in the later years of World War One. As part of his recovery, he is sent to a small rural school to serve as a teacher. While he has little formal training, he has a background in history and soon finds himself deeply engaged in the role and in his students lives. He also finds himself at odds with some of his colleagues. David finds himself at odds with a jingoistic fellow teacher, who is all for the war, despite not serving himself. Some of the more conservative elements in the school also oppose his methods of teaching, which many label Bolshevik.

As in his other work, Delderfield takes his time in telling his story. His chapters are filled with details and asides although the various plots including David's romance, marriage and eventual parenthood. As time passes, he becomes more and more senior at the school and becomes a central figure to the community.

Hanging over the later half of the book is the coming of the Second World War. The school is haunted by the large number of dead alumni from the first war and the threat of new losses becomes nearly unbearable. It is David's quiet dignity that keeps it from becoming maudlin. The book concludes with an act that closes the circle opened at the book's start.

So many books today are written for the short reading blocks. In thrillers in particular, the chapters are usually only 10 or 15 pages, just the right amount for your subway ride. This book is meant for longer, committed reading times where you can really sink into the book.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Morning links (Neil Sheehan!)

How did I miss this? Neil Sheehan, author of the titanic A Bright Shining Lie, has a new book on the way. This one is called a Fiery Piece in a Cold War. Like A Bright Shining Lie, it has a little known figure, in this case General Bernard Schriever, who built the intercontinental ballistic missile system. The New York Times has a feature with this interesting quote.

Though Mr. Sheehan did not conceive of them in this fashion, the two books, the first beginning with a funeral, the second ending with one, are mirror images. “A Fiery Peace” is a success story, in which the military, or a part of it anyway, instead of becoming mired in a folly of its own creation, prevailed over bureaucracy and incompetence and probably averted catastrophe.

Sci fi guy and environmental crisis Cassandra Kim Stanley Robinson has an article in the New Scientist about British science fiction. He decries the genre ghetto and exhorts readers to broaden their reading horizons. The issue has eight (very) short stories from the likes of Justina Robson, Ken MacLeod and Stephen Baxter.

Check out this list of what classic books would be called if released today. The quality varies greatly, but there are gems like this one:

Then: Quotations from Chairman Mao (or "the Little Red Book")
Now: You're Telling Me Comrade! Hilarious but helpful sayings from China's Best Selling Author

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reading Only Yesterday

After finishing the Given Day, set as it is in 1919, I was inspired to pick up Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Twenties. I had read somewhere that the book, written in the early 30s as a reflection on recently past times, would be interesting reading in light of our current economic situation.

So far, I am finding the book amazingly current, in terms of style, attitude and approach. It reads as if it was written this decade. Reading it, I settled into a familiarity zone from which the odd anomaly jarred me. In a piece about the import of radio in the decade, Allen muses whether the day of the first radio broadcast would soon be a date of study in school. Another one made me wonder how much people will remember the supposedly unforgettable OJ murder case. Allen refers to the crime of the 20s, the murders of Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall and Mrs. James Mills through a series of key images from the case.

It was an illiterate American who did not shortly become acquainted with DeRussey's Lane, the crab-apple tree, the pig woman and her mule, the precise mental condition of Willie Stevens, and the gossip of the choir members.

It calms me to think that early 20th century Americans were just as prone to follow murder cases as latter 20th century Americans. Also the Pig Woman and her Mule should either be an album title or a band.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The War of the World

Niall Ferguson writes thick history books with controversial ideas. His argued in the Pity of War that Britain should have just sat out World War One and dealt with a German dominated Europe. In Colossus, he put forth the idea that the world needs America to be a real empire, but believed the country isn't up to the tasks. One of more recent books is War of the World which explores the incredibly violent 20th century. His argument is that the break up of empires and the expansion of the national/ethnic idea fuel the intense ferocity of century's killing.

So many American books about the war focus on the technology, whether it be aircraft carriers, tanks or planes. That's fine, it is how Americans tend to look at things. It also tends to make the conflict seem a bit more bloodless. This ship sank, forty planes were destroyed. We know that people died when we read this, but it removes the horror of it somewhat.

None of that for Ferguson. He goes straight down to the village level. He shows the remarkable breadth of the cruelty in the century. We've tended to focus all of our horror on the Holocaust. This makes sense as it is a uniquely terrible series of events, but our focus has obscured all else that happened and even the share of guilt in the Holocaust. Germans, naturally, get the blame for the Holocaust, but Ferguson shows the horrid but willing participation of many other Europeans.

He also shows the incredible terrors and evil of Stalin's regime, the terrors of bombing, the Japanese atrocities in China, the fate of African-Americans in the early 20th century and more. It makes for fairly grim reading. Thankfully, Ferguson is a strong and often witty writer, which alleviates the sadness quite a bit.

One strange bit is the subtitle. It is called the Descent of the West. He doesn't really support the declinist idea in the book, which is too bad, as it is certainly on the tops of peoples minds.

Thanks to that problem and a fair amount of bloat, I have to say that The War of the World isn't Ferguson's best book, but it remains a good, if dark, read.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

One of the craziest of the "lost" books

OK, it is not really lost, just rather hard to read. You have to get the manuscript at a library in Florida. Charles Willeford was a crime writer known for his character. He is considered one of the great hard-boiled guys although he hasn't gotten the attention of a Jim Thompson. One of his more popular books was Miami Blues. It was the first of a series of books featuring Hoke Moseley. Willeford, though, had a different plan. The second, unpublished, book was to be called Grimhaven and it featured Moseley killing his family and timing the murders to get the best death penalty possible. Lee Goldberg has the story.

Going back to the Gold Soundz

Start saving your money. Pavement is going back on tour next year. There will be much rejoicing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Map of Home

How many coming of age novels can our bookstores bear? Given the number published each year, the answer is apparently "limitless." Still, how can the reader choose which one to choose? Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home provides a number of reasons to put it on your reading pile.

Number one is the narrator. We've seen a wide range of narrators, but how about a Palestinian/Greek/Egyptian female? Nidali, named for an Arabic word for struggle, is born in the United States, grows up in Kuwait, flees the 1990 invasion via Iraq, moves to Egypt and ends up back in the United States.

Then there is the balance between humor and seriousness. Nidali's tale is told in a series of vignettes about her life. The first, about the day of her birth, is laugh out loud funny and shows that Jarrar is quite happy to work blue, a trait I always appreciate. She is just as capable of presenting subtle heartbreak. Her characters constantly uproot themselves and discard one set of dreams for another.

The overall theme of the stories is the notion of home. Is it geographic, cultural, personal? The characters wrestle with all of these and with the the home they never reach, Palestine. The characters have so many homes that all of them blend in to create a home in the head.

The language may be a bit salty at times for some readers (not me!) but I suspect that most will find this an engaging read.

The new Dennis Lehane continues to rule

The first 50 or so pages of the Given Day were great, top shelf reading for certain. Then it leaps into classic territory. He hits all my buttons on this one. It has a huge civic canvas (Boston 1918/1919). It has morally ambiguous characters, your opinion of which Lehane carefully guides. The plotline shifts constantly but in completely fair ways. He plays few favorites, but I think Lehane has no love for the fervent certainty of the ideologue. Two of his more repellent bit characters are super-righty J Edgar Hoover and supreme leftie Eugene O'Neill. It might still crash and burn but I seriousldy doubt it.

As a long time fan, I worried that Lehane, on his road to literary fiction, might discard his trademark acts of badassery. No worries on that count.

Check out Jonathan Yardley (but skip the spoilerish last few paras) on the book. He doesn't like it as much as I do, but he still finds it strong.

Dan Brown's Day

Today is a nice day to own a bookstore as the new Dan Brown book is out. Janet Maslin of the New York Times is happy with the book. Lev Grossman has a review at Time, he thinks it works too, although he says the ending is weak. It looks like if you liked the last one, you will like this one. As lots of people liked that one, I bet sales will be through the roof. I am sure I will read it at some point.

Apparently, the Masons are at the center of this plot. Going from the Catholic Church to the Masons is a bit like going from the Empire to the Trade Federation, but at least they are cloaked in some level of mystery. Jay Kinney has a new book called the Masonic Myth that hopes to burst the conspiracy bubble. It lays out the history, the activities and the future of the Masons. Kinney's book is dispassionate, but I bet conspiracy theorists inspired by the Brown book will enjoy trying to read between the lines and to know the real truth.

On the topic of Masons, if you ever visit Alexandria, VA, you should stop by the giant George Washington Masonic Temple. Well worth your time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Curse you Ayn Rand

So you've started work at a new place and you want to avoid hanging out with douchebags. Sometimes they are easy to spot. In the work place, unfortunately, they often hide their ways until it is too late. I have identified a simple way to determine if you are a dealing with a douche. Look at their desk. If they have a copy of Clausewitz's Art of War (and this isn't the Pentagon or an IR department) or any book by Ayn Rand sitting prominently on the desk, you have to avoid this person at all costs. In the former case, the person is likely a pompous ass, in the latter he or she is likely dangerously deranged.

While those willing to wade through cumbersome Teutonic prose can learn a lot about war from Clausewitz, the books of Ayn Rand are like the unholy texts in HP Lovecraft stories. Just a few pages and you go nuts.

Jonathan Chait has a review article about Rand and her nefarious influence on the ideology of many on the Right. If possible, I dislike her even more now.

Random items

Check out this literary map of San Francisco. It consists of thirty-ish quotes from literary fiction about San Francisco. Where possible, it even sites the quotes in the appropriate locale. Pretty cool.

So I am reading the massive From Colony to Superpower, the only thematic book in the Oxford History of the United States. I am quite enjoying it and anyone who wants to look at the grand sweep of American foreign policy would do well to read the book. I am up to 1898 or so and I was a bit surprised to see that the author refers to War of 1898 saying that it was once called the Spanish-American War. When did this name change happen?

Nina Siegel has a lengthy essay on the bestseller lists and what it says about literacy in America. She brings in arguments from Chabon and Franzen about how people might start reading decent books again, instead of 17 new books from James Patterson.

The New York Times reviews a great looking book about Paul Nitze and George Kennan called the Hawk and the Dove. The title simplifies their viewpoints, but these two men are central to the Cold War and international relations.

Jim Carroll RIP

Poet Jim Carroll died Friday. He was 60. I wasn't a huge fan, but there are few songs that blew me away like People Who Died. I heard back it back in the day when you couldn't just go to Hype Machine or Google and find the studio version, a cover and your choice of live versions. I spent weeks tracking down the singer and the song. Buying the cassette (that's right) felt like a triumph.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I'm totally not reading the Krakauer book

Damn, I was excited for the new Krakauer book about Pat Tillman. Now the New York Times and the Washington Post reviews say not to do so.

Dexter Filkins, who knows a thing or two about war zones, essentially calls the book boring. The key line is "With Tillman, you would think he’d have all he needed to fashion an epic narrative. Unfortunately, he fails to pull it off." Filkins complains that very little of the story is about Afghanistan and that the book is plagued by digressions.

Andrew Exum, author of This Man's Army, is a bit harsher arguing that Kraukauer doesn't really know his subject matter. He ties the friendly fire death of Tillman to the evils of the Bush administration rather than to the mistakes of the local commanders. His final paragraph captures the mistake that outsiders make of many organizations (notably corporations):

An Air Force officer I know likes to say that whenever one seeks to understand an epic failure of our nation's military, one must first draw a line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" at one end and "buffoonery" on the other. Those who have spent time in the military and have seen it struggle not just with war but with everyday barracks life tend to err on the side of incompetence, while those who never have -- such as Krakauer -- tend to suspect conspiracy.

Disappointing indeed, but at least I can keep plugging away on the massive George Herring book I am reading.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The new Lehane

I finally picked up the Given Day. After the first chapter I was amazed that I hadn't started it sooner. If it continues to be as good as it is now, this is probably his best book, which puts it above nearly everything else out there. The book reminds me quite a bit of James Ellroy's LA Quartet books. While they have their basis in police work, they are really stories of the City and the political and social fault lines in those cities. More on this great one later.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Another good movie to be remade

I saw the Spanish horror film The Orphanage the other night. It is totally awesome. The suspense is slow-building and rewards patience. This one isn't about the fake shock every ten minutes. It is about anguish, pain and possible madness. Belen Rueda is fantastic and more or less makes the movie.

Which is why, I think the American re-make will probably be a disaster. Although director Larry Fessenden is also known for understated horror movies, I suspect we will have more scares, more gore and less acting in the new one.

The Wheel of Time rolls on, and on, and on....

Back in the early to mid-90s, I could not get enough of the Wheel of Time series. Sure it was a Tolkein ripoff, with small town heroes emerging to fight a nasty Sauron like dark force, but it was a story well told with its own flourishes. Hey, why not bring the Fremen like Aiel into the picture?!

Then the books kept coming and the story got thinner and thinner. By the time I stopped reading them, the plot had moved forward an inch in about 700 pages. No thanks.

Robert Jordan died before completing the series and Brian Sanderson was brought on board to wrap it up. For some reason I had it in my head that he would just write a single volume, which would be fine with me. Nope, he has THREE more books for the series, which will bring the total to FOURTEEN books by the end. Yes, yes, Patrick O'Brien had more than that, but those were models of concision by comparison.

Anyway, the first one comes out next month and has the first chapter available online. You have to log into the site to read it. also has a guest blogger writing about the series, chapter by ever-loving chapter. So far, the blog is through the still readable volumes. Soon, the hell begins. How will the blogger deal with it?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Books for your wishlist

An article in the Wall Street Journal recently listed major book releases for the fall. The Dan Brown book will drown nearly everything else, (613 holds at Multnomah County Library!) but there are plenty of other exciting books to be found. There is a new post-apocalyptic book by Margaret Atwood called the Year of the Flood. This is great news as her Oryx and Crake remains one of my fave post-apoc novels of all time.

Kazuo Ishiguro has a book of short stories/novellas called Nocturnes coming out. The connection between the five stories is music. His mastery of the understated study of emotion should be interesting in short story form.

Jonathan Lethem's newest is longer and larger in scope than his last book. This one is called Chronic City. Chronic does appear to be used as Dr. Dre used it, but I imagine it has other meanings as well.

John Irving has another one too. Ho hum.

On the nonfiction side, John Krakauer has a new one called Where Men Win Glory, about Pat Tillman, the football star turned Army soldier. There are few nonfiction writers that can enthrall like Krakauer.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Death in the ice

I am all for a little mindless monster fiction every once and again. Or every week if it is any good. Lincoln Child co-created one of the great modern monsters with Relic and his latest Terminal Freeze is good fun as well.

This one will immediately remind you of Who Goes There/ The Thing with a far North scientific expedition uncovering what seems to be a saber tooth tiger in the ice. Not long after that a Discovery Channel-like documentary crew helicopters in and takes over the exhibition. They are such total bastards that you wonder if Mr. Child has had some run-ins with Hollywood in the past. A couple are so eggregious that they may as well be wearing I Am Going to Die....Badly shirts.

So it isn't exactly original and it telegraphs some of the bodycount, but it is still a good read. Child knows how to build and sustain tension and he gives just enough detail and background to enrich the story without weighing it down. Some times he moves a little too fast, there is one sub-plot that he seems to have felt needed extra tension, but it felt like a throwaway.

The monster is cool, especially in his gruesome attacks. For most of the book, when asked to describe it, survivors just started gibbering and going mad. I thought he was going to go down the too-terrible-to-describe Lovecraft path, but worry not, he eventually reveals and I think it works well.

A great intro

Ah the first day of school. Things were quite hectic at Skyline when I dropped off the kids today. Sad of course that I have less time with them, but now I have more time for weighty matters, like blogging.

I was in the used bookstore the other day when I found one I thought might be good. The book is called Boonville, and I couldn't remember if I had read good things about it, recall driving through the town of the same name or just remember the town's beer. It is always a risk, so I decided to try the first page test. Having read it, I took the book straight to the register.

I repeat, this is a work of fiction. I tried my best to get at some "higher truth." It think we all know the inherent problems in that undertaking. So, any of the local residents who can read, and do read this novel, and take offense at the descriptions or content, instead of sucker-punching me while I'm in town trying to buy groceries with my wife and son, let me just buy you a drink and we'll call it even. As for the hippies in the county who may be upset at the depiction of hippies, I say "Tough shit, hippie." Anyone willing to identify themselves as a hippie here in the 21st century has their head up their ass and gets what they deserve.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A vexing question regarding bands

I listened to Kelly Clarkson's Since U Been Gone last night. I love that song, but nothing else I have heard. That got me thinking about other bands I dislike with songs I like. Does one good song redeem a bad band? Or does it just provide a silver lining?

Take the aggressively bad band Bush. Oh how they plagued alternative rock stations for years. That said, they gave us the awesome Swallowed.

Does this redeem the band?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Continuing to binge on graphic novels

Thanks to the riches of the Multnomah Public Library and Cosmic Monkey comics, I am continuing my comic book binge. I read issues 2 and 3 of Unwritten and will shortly be getting the rest. It's a fun story of characters from books coming to life and has lots of jokes about horror stories.

Hack/Slash is a tongue in cheek horror comic about a pair of sword wielding misfits who hunt slashers. In this world, serial killers and mass murderers are often a form of undead that Cassie Hack and her hulking partner Vlad dispatch in often gruesome form. If you enjoy horror movies, and particularly if you like loving send-ups like Scream, this one is for you.

Ex Machina is super dee duper awesome. It is written by the same dude who penned Y: the Last Man and has an equally novel story. It is a superhero book of sorts. Thanks to a strange accident with a mysterious, potentially alien?, technology Mitchell Hundred gains the ability to communicate with and control machines. He becomes an underground hero and, thanks to heroism on 9/11, gains enough stature to win the office of Mayor of New York. So it is a comic about politics, with superhero and sci-fi elements. He weaves in stories about gay marriage into ongoing political intrigue. This one is awesome.

I wish Point Blank were as good. The book is an early Ed Brubaker comic set in the same universe as the superior Sleeper and Incognito comics. This one though lacks the stream lined plot and tight writing of those later works. I think Brubaker also created unnecessary confusion with his dream vs. reality plot.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

God is an Englishman

It is a generalization to be sure, but today's literary novelists work with a much smaller scope than those of the past. The books are generally shorter, with a focus on fewer characters and on a less complex story. There are great exceptions, like Chabon's Kavalier and Klay, but overall, the focus is more on the intense examination of character.

The big writers of the 19th century, from Melville to Trollope to Tolstoy wrote giant novels with epic lists of characters and stories long enough to sustain months of reading. There are downsides of course. How many high school students think of Moby Dick with little more than bitterness at the lengthy asides about whale parts and the business of whaling? My 11th grade teacher was kind enough to let us skip many of those sections, but the book still felt interminably long.

That said, I have had years of enjoyment out of the likes of the Chronicles of Barset or the Pickwick Papers. The usual phrase is that you get lost in these books, which makes them quite like fantasy novels. Fantasy novels create worlds in which you temporarily take residence. Their breed of escapism is one of immersion and the big fat story telling literary novel is the same.

While modernism has dominated 20th century fiction, story tellers held their own as well. Englishman R F Delderfield specialized in the story-telling novel. Out of print for many years, his God is An Englishman is available once again. It is the first of a trilogy of books about Adam Swann, a soldier turned businessman in Victorian Britain.

The story starts after a battle during the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Indian Independence if you prefer) with some jewels falling into Swann's hands. He returns to England with vague plans of becoming a tycoon, probably in rails. His second bit of fortune is his meeting with a station master who tells him the opportunity is in transporting goods where rails can't go.

On a scouting expedition, he meets Henrietta, the daughter of a small town mill owner. She is driven by a desire to escape and she finds it with Swann. The novel is about the rise of his business and the development of their romance.

Delderfield spins his tale slowly and relishes the little details. We hear for example, about how some of Swann's operators won over locals with the capture of an escaped circus lion. Where most authors would be happy for a paragraph length aside to describe the goings on, Delderfield spends a number of pages to relate the humorous anecdote.

If you have an interest in British history, this book will be particularly interesting with its picture of bustling London, the railroads, the smog-covered Lancashire and the still green countryside. Even those who don't will likely appreciate Delderfield's story telling abilities.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

This is a writer's life

I suspect that many of us envy the idea of a writing life. Lots of contemplation, musings, and being one's own boss. The ultimate life of thinking leisure. Mine would involve sipping sloe gin fizzes and Pimm's Cup while resting at the Lodge at Torrey Pines.

The reality of course is often far different. For many it means taking a series of soulless jobs, facing years of rejection and living with an odd mix of relationships. In Beg, Borrow or Steal, novelist Michael Greenberg describes his writers life from his early, striving and starving days to his recent successful ones.

The book consists of a series of short essays, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, built around an anecdote from his life. They range from the tense, as when he and his wife have a run-in with the military government of Argentina, to the comic, as in his failed attempts to pay the bills working as a waiter and his visit to a polyamory group. While the subject matter varies, there is a calm sense of reflection about them that makes each of them a great pleasure to read.

Greenberg has spent most of his life in New York City and its environs so much of the stories focus on the City. You'll learn for example about the giant potter's field located not far from LaGuardia and as well as the "Negros Burial Ground," the earliest known African-American cemetery in the United States. Greenberg also writes about Jewish life, including the role of circumcision. His principal subject, though, is writing, including the perils of screen-writing and the role his writer friends and mentors have played in his life.

The essays here are remarkably concise, but are still meaningful. They are strong stories well worth reading.

A few links for your morning

Here is Alan Jacobs writing on Michael Chabon in an essay called Jews with Swords. It is about Chabon's journey as a writer: "Chabon insists that he doesn't repudiate any of that work. He just wants to contend that it is perfectly reasonable for him to do what he did in writing Gentlemen of the Road: take off "in search of a little adventure."

The Musical Pairings blog has a pile of Spoon live covers for your enjoyment. The cover of Panic is one of the finest Smiths covers I have yet heard. It captures the wild exuberance of a band that many tend to think of in morose terms. There is also a cover of one of my fave Springsteen songs, namely I'm Going Down.

Pitchfork has a list, with videos, of the top music videos of the decade.