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.