Saturday, January 31, 2009


Morrissey looks surprisingly good naked.

This confirms I am a raging geek, but this opera/Wrath of Khan video made me laugh and laugh.

Speaking of nerds, even President nerds are sad when people miss their jokes.

Now here is a challenge. The Congo wars are a subject about which I feel I should know more. They are the deadliest conflict of our age, but I can barely name the participants, the geographies or the issues at hand. Here is a (rare) book about the very subject. Tyler Cowen really likes it, but a reviewer at the very good Small Wars Journal hates it. And the Journal writer explains why unlike Cowen. So I guess I will wait for more reviews.

Amazon has a spring book preview. Lots of good looking stuff here including a supernatural thriller by Robert Masello, a new Tom Ricks book, a true story about hunting for lost cities in the Amazon, and a crime novel by Denis Johnson. Then there are the old books, the White Tiger has been in paperback for awhile. I really need to read that one.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some covers

What better way to spend the evening that looking for covers?

Lily Allen - Straight To Hell. I don't know much about Lilly Allen, I am just happy she has recorded a cover of this lesser known Clash classic. And if you are curious, that is Mick Jones on backing vocals. Nice. I like that almost as much as Mick Jones playing a drunk biz traveller rocking the karaoke bar with Should I Stay or Should I Go in the movie Code 46.

Ian McGlynn - Mistaken For Strangers. A nice cover, but all the nicer for highlighting the lyrics. (Check the original - awesome song and video but it takes numerous listens to figure out what he is saying) This one takes the tried and true slow-it-way-down-and-play-it-acoustic approach. Don't mess with what works.

Hot Chip/Peter Gabriel - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. For Vampire Weekend fans only. This one contains the lyric "Feels so natural/Peter Gabriel too" (with a cheeky addition by Mr. Gabriel.

Ema and the Ghosts - Victoria. Ema rocks the ukulele on this one. I will always and forever love the Sonic Youth via the Fall cover, with its apparently drunken mistakes, but this one is a nice addition.

A hookah smoking caterpillar has given me the call

Today, I went on a field trip to the Northwest Children's Theater to see the trippiest program for children I am likely to ever see. It is a jazz interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. The narrative is true to the story, but there is all sorts of singing, dancing and peculiarity that I thought might go over my second grader's head. Apparently not as he talked all about it on the way home. So score one for the Northwest Children's Theater.

Anyway, with all the madness, I couldn't help but think of White Rabbit. The opening riff so wonderfully conjures up feelings of being altered. And the lyrics are great. Enjoy its psychedelic grandeur below.

On the Road

If you listen to NPR at all, you have probably heard the distinctive voice of Rob Gifford. He is now the London bureau chief, but for many years he was the Beijing correspondent. Before he left he wrote China Road, a travelogue and study of China based on a trip along China's Route 312. This road, which Gifford calls China's Route 66 begins in Shanghai, moves into the central farm country, to the historic city of Xi'an, and then through the desert to Central Asia.

There are many books about China, but this is an excellent introduction to country, as well as a great read for those more familiar with the Middle Kingdom. It's Gifford himself that makes the book most worth reading. His writing is lively, witty and self-deprecating. He also takes a balanced view of China, being generally sympathetic, but not afraid to point out flaws.

A main theme of the book is how the rise of China is affecting the daily lives of ordinary Chinese. Gifford is mostly positive about this, noting the incredible range of opportunity now available to the people. In the far West, he stumbles upon a local Amway salesman and is swept up in one of their sales meetings. There are plenty of sad stories as well, including the AIDS villages he encounters where government ignorance and cruelty has led to high incidence of AIDS with little if any treatment.

One of the principal questions about China is whether it can manage its transition to a more developed country or whether internal tensions will tear it apart. Gifford is optimistic, but he points to the death of traditional Chinese culture, tensions in the west and rural unrest as potential pitfalls for China.

China is one of the places (which include India, Iran, Russia...) that Americans need to know better. This book is an easy and entertaining way to learn more.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sad news for readers

First off, John Updike died yesterday. While he isn't one of my favorite writers, the Rabbit books hold a special place in my heart. I read them (except for Rabbit Redux, as I couldn't find a copy) during my stay in China. Living in an alien culture helps put your own culture into a new perspective. Reading one of the great books about American life (post-World War 2 life, at least) added to this. Michiko Kakutani has an appraisal of Updike up on the Times.

While we should have Ms. Kakutani's New York Times book section to enjoy for the coming years, the stand alone Washington Post book review is going the way of the passenger pigeon. In February, the section will be folded into the Outlook and Style and Arts section. The book section is one of the less profitable elements of the endangered newspaper business, so it isn't a huge surprise. It does mean there are fewer mainstream publications devoted to books. Now only the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle will have stand alone book sections. Perhaps with the migration of readership onto the web, the Post's online book section will continue there.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What would Obama read

Washington Monthly asked a range of writers, reporters and academics which books they would recommend to Obama. They make for a nice reading list for anyone looking for thoughts on how to get the country back on track. It is a list of policy big think books, histories, reports and literature. While it may be among the less pressing, I was happy to see that George Pelecanos recommended Edward Jones' Lost in the City, perhaps my favorite short story collection. Pelecanos wants Obama to remember that there is more to DC than the what goes on in government buildings and this collection is one to show that clearly.

I have seen this book in the remainder stacks, which is a shame. After the success of the Known World, I suspect it had a large print run, but didn't sell. Short story collections don't seem to appeal as much as novels.

James Fallows recommends a report called America's Defense Meltdown which highlights a number of defense problems with which Obama will need to deal in the coming years. It's quite long, but it is provided in PDF format.

Monday, January 26, 2009

More Dune

We have an ongoing discussion of Dune over here, but thinking about the book last night, I thought that three elements could be identified as essential to its success. The book has lots of ideas. It also has a richly developed background and history. Finally, it has an excellent plot. My question is, could the book have been as good without one of these elements or put another way, is one particularly important to the success of the book?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Goodbye Silver Jews

Bad news for fans of arty, folky indie rock. The Silver Jews are breaking up. That is sad enough, but the reason is even sadder. Based on this post at the Drag City message boards, the key member, Dave Berman, apparently viewed the Silver Jews as a sort of karmic bulwark against the evil perpetrated by his lobbyist father. It's a sad post on many levels, and feels like a rock and roll Star Wars where Luke gives up on Anakin.

Here are a few favorite Joos songs.

How to Rent A Room. A friend once complained that this song is adolescent, which I guess it is, but I think Berman is communicating the despondency that comes over people when relationships go disastrously wrong.

New Orleans. An early moody one, but so good. Lots of lyrical delights in this song. It is a bit sophmoric, but I can't resist "There is a house in New Orleans/Not the one you heard about/I'm talking bout another house."

Punks in the Beerlight. Compare the voice on this track made a decade after the prior one. The ravaged voice is reflected in this incredibly bleak track.

Wild Kindness. I am completely clueless as to what this song is about. That said, the music is lovely and I love the words he strings together.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Monsters in the closet

I just finished reading Lauren Groff's Monsters of Templeton and I found it a joyful read, which is odd because the closest comparison I can make is to David Lynch. It has all the oddity, absurdity and evil-hiding-behind-white-picket fences of Lynch, but has the malevolence is cut by a shrugged shoulders kind of happiness.

The Lynchian weirdness starts on page one where a large monster, to which the title alludes, dies and then surfaces in the lake at center of the town of Templeton. The town is surprised but moves on. You will be no doubt shocked to learn that the title has more than one meaning. The monster rising from the depths is foreshadowing for the various monsters Willie Upton discovers in investigating her family tree.

Willie is compelled to research her family when she learns that her mother did not fact get knocked up by her three hippie roomates back in the hippie days, but in fact, by someone in the town of Templeton tied to her own famous family tree. (The Templeton of the story is a stand in for Cooperstown, and one of Willie's ancestors is an undisguised James Fenimore Cooper.) This shocking discovery leads her to research her family, providing for all sorts of odd stories.

There are some truly dark tales in her family's past, including abuse bordering on rape, multiple murders and even a bit of the old supernatural. My favorite of these stories consists of a series of letters between two 19th century women that starts sweet and kind and then devolves into wicked depravity. Not all are this interesting, but Groff shows great talent in writing in a wide range of voices.

Willie's search feels a bit like a framing device for presenting a mix of linked tales and according to the discussion guide, the book at one point was principally separate stories. By increasing the investment in Willie she also brings in some amusing side characters like the Running Buds, a group of men who are known for jogging together for decades. Their initial chapter is a delightful use of the first person plural.

Again like Lynch, Groff tends to take peculiarity to freakish extremes. The Buds are nearly always running, the librarian looks disturbingly like a goat, Willie's best friend is so small she is mistaken for a school girl and one of the sadder ancestors is alarmingly hirsute. Unlike Lynch, the book maintains a sunniness about life and the future, thanks mainly to Willie's mother. It is part of an impressive balancing act that Groff maintains througout and that which makes this such a compelling read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

End of the world tv

In 1992, there was a short lived post-apocalyptic comedy called Woops! (not to be confused with the British mini-series Whoops Apocalypse). It involved a house full of survivors of a nuclear holocaust dealing with the challenges of a destroyed world. It was a classic sitcom, with a stage set and corny jokes, but with plot lines like the survival of the human race. I liked it well enough at the time, but it is certainly dated.

The Remnants is an updated version of the show. Instead of nuclear war, we have an uncertain plague that creates zombies. The filming and the dark humor (and Justine Bateman) give it an Arrested Development feel. Right now the video (via the link) is just a short Web pilot. I really hope someone develops this into an actual show. It shows promise in its ten minutes.

Re-reading Dune

Dune is one of the books I remember loving, but I haven't read it for a number of years, maybe 20, so when a friend suggested we re-read, I thought it was a great idea. We will use this blogpost to talk about re-reading the book. At this stage, we have read up to Book 1. The discussion is in the comments.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Out in the woods

On July 21st 1996, my wife and I were headed off for my honeymoon. On that same day, back country ranger Randy Morgenson, a legend within the ranger community, left his Kings Canyon camp and disappeared. This coincidence probably added to the chill Eric Blehm's Last Season gave me, but I suspect any who love the National Park system will find much to like in this book.

The book is split between the story of the search and rescue operation started after Morgenson's disappearance and a biography of the man who disappeared. Raised in Yosemite National Park, he became a lover of the outdoors from an early age. The backcountry was one of the few places he found happiness and success. He failed as a student, as a husband and as a writer. Thanks to his father's position at Yosemite he struck up a correspondence with Wallace Stegner, who he clearly tried to emulate in his writing.

While he didn't succeed in that by which most lives are judged, he did succeed in helping to protect the wilderness and in helping others enjoy it. That explains the rigor and devotion displayed by the other rangers in their search and rescue. Blehm is excellent in explaining and detailing the theories, challenges and tools of search and rescue. While beautiful, the back country is a dangerous place that can kill or maim in a moment's notice.

Blehm alternates chapters between the search operation and the biographical background. I liked this format as both stories interested me, but it could put off some readers. The search story is all tension and excitement, while the biographical sections tend to the reflective. This can be jarring, especially for those looking for outdoor adventure reading. Morgenson's character is also more than a little imperfect. While he doesn't run over others lives to the exent of the subject of Into the Wild, he picks nature over family in most cases and the damage is apparent. Unlike that character, he also gave quite a bit back over the decades of his service in the wilds.

The book also highlights the service of National Park rangers, a group that is truly underpaid and treated shabbily, although one can say this about any number of government employees. While reading the book, I regretted that I was at the Oregon Coast and not in a National Park where I could hop on a trail and just start walking.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ghost on the beach

We went to the Oregon Coast this weekend. The coast in January is normally dark and rainy with some chilling wind for good measure. Instead it was sixty degrees and we spent hours on the beach. Bizarre. While the weather was more than we could have expected, a little of the old dark and dreary would have suited one of the books I read. Susan Hill writes ghost tales in the 19th century mold. Her Man in the Picture features dark alleys, ancient academic bachelor libraries, curses and English country homes. The focus of the story is a painting which brings horror to those that possess it.

The book reads like an MR James story with a mix-in of the 70s trippy horror movie Don't Look Now. It feels like it could have been written by James, but it has a peculiar and mysterious ending that feels more modern. The ending itself is a question mark. It was possible that one of the narrators was lying or that the curse itself had changed by the end. Or maybe the evil was much darker than I understood. The book is short at 150 pages and will be popular with those who long for an old school ghost tale.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Close your eyes, can't happen here

Earlier I gushed about the British TV spy drama the Sandbaggers. I am about to wrap up the second season/collection and I was just blown away by the episode titled "It Can't Happen Here." This episode takes the 70s paranoid style to a new level. Spoilers ahead, so stop reading if you haven't seen it.

The episode starts with the assassination of an American Senator. The London based CIA chief of station thinks it is the FBI, since they did the Kennedy and King jobs after all. Burnside thinks King, Kennedy sure, but Hoover is out, so no more dirty tricks, yes? Not so much says CIA guy. Burnside is aghast and is happy it can't happen in the UK. Famous last words of course. Turns out a highly placed British Cabinet Minister is in bed with the boys from the Lubyanka. Try as they might, the SIS cannot dislodge the Minister who merrily goes on his way. Burnside tells his allies that it is better not to go around assasinating politicians in your own country, but then tells one of his staff something a bit different. The last line is an absolute classic.

What is astounding about this episode is that it agrees with the paranoid style films of the 70s that rogue government agencies are taking the law into their own hands, but also that this is in fact a good thing overall. Amazing!

But you take what you should have left and leave what you should have grabbed

Jonathan Ames is a novelist and essayist who is not unwilling to write graphically about the sexual and the scatological. He is also, apparently, not afraid to rake himself across the coals. His graphic novel the Alcoholic is a remarkably clear eyed look at a life constructed out of bad choices. The main character is one Jonathan A. who discovers the joys of boozing as a teen and carousing becomes a central facet of his life.

The tone of the book is a mix of humor and reflective horror. Jonathan damages the most important people in his life, not in a dramatic Lifetime fashion, but through solipsistic neglect and crazed infatuation. The drugs and alcohol take a toll on his health as well. He also has a eye for the bizarre. In the opening panels, Jonathan wakes up in the front seat of a car next to remarkably short elderly woman with a frightening seat of teeth. She remarks it has been quite some time since she has gotten any action and gets ready for some. These off the wall encounters happen throughout.

Dean Haspiel drew the art and it works quite well. He is adept at portraying emotion as well as the farcical, as when Jonathan A gets a bad case of the runs in France and makes a unsuccessful dash for the facilities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A few

Ricardo Montalban has passed. In his honor, please enjoy this Trek moment.

What may be a bigger foreign policy issue than Pakistan? If Barry McCaffrey is to be believed, it could be Mexico.

I'm glad to see that Charlie Huston's new book is getting some big buzz. I have yet to read one of his books that wasn't excellent entertainment. Early Word collects some of the love.

Criterion Collection is back in the business of in depth picture heavy reviews of Criterion Collection films. Brian De Palma's Sisters is up this time.

If you are curious just how bizarre comics can get, read this blog post. It does contain the most astounding sentence I have seen since I can recall. Not really work safe. (via Vulture)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Crime in past times

Crime fiction fans are most likely already familiar with Sarah Weinman, who writes the Confessions of Idiosyncratic Mind blog. It is your one stop shop for crime fiction reviews and news. She currently has a four part series on the Barnes and Noble review highlighting historical crime fiction. We have ancient crime, medieval crime, Victorian crime, and now inter-war crime. The prolific mother and son team that goes by Charles Todd is covered as in Rennie Airth. I like the Todd books and have two or three on my shelf waiting to be read. Airth writes at a much more leisurely rate. In the past 15 or so years, he has published two novels, but Weinman reports he has a new one coming out this summer.

If you like crime novels, you will find a number of good recommendations in the essays including one of my favorites, the Meaning of Night.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The smell of death is all around

I have been looking for some new horror writers, and on a recommendation I tried Jack Ketchum. I read his short story collection called Closing Time and I thought it was pretty good. Ketchum is best known for ultraviolence and his fans are especially enamored of the Girl Next Door, which is based on the real life murderer Gertrude Baniszewski. Closing Time is more subdued, although the stories frequently revolve around the sudden shock of violence in ordinary life. I liked quite a few of them and will be looking for his Peaceable Kingdom, another short story collection.

Something was missing though as I read. I realized that I kept waiting for the supernatural elements. When I look at the horror novelists that really grab me, like Lovecraft and King, they all focus on cosmic or supernatural horror. My favorite horror movie? The Exorcist. I am clearly an escapist when it comes to horror. Ketchum is focused on the evil that men do. For that sort of thing, I tend to prefer crime novels. Still for those wanting a close look at cruelty, Ketchum is a good bet.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

USS Franklin

I was out searching for aircraft carrier videos to entertain my aircraft obsessed son, when I stumbled upon a documentary about the USS Franklin (CV-13). The Franklin was an Essex-class carrier that was severely damaged by Japanese aircraft, but heroic efforts by her crew got her back to the States. The ship was rebuilt and then left in mothballs waiting for a conversion that never came. The shame is that when she was broken up in the 1960s, she was one of the last US Navy carriers that looked as she did in World War 2. The other Essex class carriers that have been made into museums, the Intrepid, the Yorktown, the Lexington and the Hornet were all updated and are really Cold War carriers in their preserved state.

There is at least one book about the ordeal of the Franklin, called Lucky Lady. The documentary below consists mostly of veterans recalling the fight to save the ship. They tell the story of the ship well. There is also great archival footage in the documentary. The opening and closing shots show the ship being taken apart just a few miles downriver from where I grew up. The video below is part 1, the other parts can be found here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


David Sanger of the NYT has some great articles this weekend. His Saturday piece on the Israeli attempt to get bunker busters from the US is amazing and his Sunday piece on the Pakistani nuclear program is frightening.

Here is Charles McCarry, of the excellent spy novels, writing in the WSJ about the CIA.

Yardley talks about the new Barry Unsworth novel, which he adores.

Nerd World links to a great Flickr photo set consisting of young Star Wars fans in the late 70s and early 80s. There are some great photos in there and they remind me of how much my own kids love Star Wars, and now, Indiana Jones.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Burger book

Despite quite liking them, I haven't given much thought to the making of hamburgers. I tend to throw in a few odds and ends and then cook them. This is probably why my hamburgers are crappy. With a non-beef eating spouse I don't get to make them that much anyway. Still, I would like to make one that I would want to eat. John T Edge has quite a few ideas on how I might do that in his Hamburger & Fries: An American Story.

While there are quite a few recipes here (one of which calls for beef tallow!,) the book is mostly about the great diversity in hamburgers found throughout the United States. There are the unfortunately named (and apparently none too tasty) slug burgers of the south, which use crackers, flour or other filler. There is the Jucy Lucy (sic) of Minneapolis*, so named because the man who first asked for one apparently said "That is a Juicy Lucy!" Then there are the loose meat sandwiches of the Mid-West. I meant to try these on my last trip across country but failed to stop at an appropriate restaurant. Now I can just make my own.

Edge loves food, but he also focuses on the people making the food. He is interested in how these different burger traditions arose and that is often the best part of his many stories. I like also that he is honest about the burgers he tried. He flat out disliked the slug burger and he thought the Jucy Lucy was interesting, but not as special as advertised. He still provides recipes for both, as your taste may differ.

Edge writes for the Oxford American and has a number of other books, including ones on Apple Pie, Donuts and Fried Chicken. I will be reading more of them. I will also be looking for burger spots on the Portland Hamburger blog. Next stop, Jim Dandy.

*Apparently there are some Jucy Lucy haters out there, have a look at this Wikipedia controversy page.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

This is for the People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for her Civil War book, the March. In that book she imagined what happened to a character in Little Women who went off to war. In her latest novel, People of the Book, she imagines what happened to the Sarajevo Haggadah, a sumptuously illustrated Jewish religious text that was created in Spain was passed to Italy and then to Sarajevo where it was protected by Bosnian Muslims.

The principal character is Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator who is asked to examine the text in Sarajevo. As she finds bits in the book and in references to it, she begins to tell the story of how the book survived as so many Jews did not. It is usually the bravery of an individual or sheer luck that sends the book along with refugees to the next location.

Almost all of the stories are tragic with the deaths of many innocents. I thought one of the best was the story of Lola, a young Bosnian Jew, who escapes the Nazis to join a partisan band made up of children in the woods. When that goes wrong she is protected by a local Muslim family who save the Haggadah as well. This is a side of World War 2 that is rarely seen in Western books and I found her story particularly touching.

While this all sounds terribly tragic and sad, Brooks keeps coming back to the understandings and goodwill between Jews, Christians and Muslims. She holds out hope that despite centuries of conflict and terror, goodness can still return.

I saw some comparisons to the Da Vinci Code and the literary thriller genre, probably because the story involves a mysterious book. Keep in mind there are no hints of the supernatural or grand conspiracies in this book. Instead you have a hopeful story that something good can survive what seems like the end of the world.

A necessary evil, I suppose

Here is a random video for you. It's Aqueduct's Growing Up with GNR, which I love for the song title alone. Beyond that it is a great slice of indie pop. The video does feature excessive cheesecake in the video (there is more female skin time than in a Warrant video,) but it does make some sense in light of the lyrics. The best part is checking you can check out lead singer David Terry's rock star moves. It is a cross between Jack Black and Robert Pollard.

Most wanted

Here is a cool post from Short Stack, the Washington Post book blog. It lists the top five most wanted out of print books in 2008, from It is quite a diverse list, with a book of dirty photos, a book on carpentry and a book on running. Here are some books I am looking for at the moment.

David Gerrold A Matter for Men. I am a sucker for both apocalyptic and alien invasion novels and this one combines the themes in one book. Huzzah! I'm not sure how I missed this one, but I will be getting it soon.

Thomas Schatz The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmaking in the Studio Era. Although I love movies, I have done little reading on the making of movies. This one is supposed to be great.

Algys Burdys Some Will Not Die. More post-apocalyptic reading.

Simon Winchester The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire. Winchester is great. I love British Imperial history. Wistfulness always get me. So this one is bound to be good for me.

Angela Thirkell August Folly. Thirkell uses Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire to write English similarly rural focused novels but this time in the early 20th century. Since I like Trollope I think she is well worth a try.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

It's 2AM the fear is gone

Although spy novelists, like John LeCarre and Charles McCarry, tend to show the drudgery and internal politics of espionage, film and TV typically do not. The Bond films make the stories even more action oriented than the novels and while 24 has some backroom elements, it is primarily action oriented. The British 1970s television spy drama the Sandbaggers is a wonderful exception.

The Sandbaggers of the title are a small group (three at the start) of special operatives that report directly to the Director of Operations, Neil Burnside. While they do go abroad, to the likes of Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Kola Peninsula, they spend an equal amount of time in the office puzzling out what to do and how to avoid trouble from their rivals at MI-5, their friends at the CIA and from the elected government.

The internal politics of government is the central drama of the show. Burnside can be read (as of season 1 or maybe just "Collection 1", which I have watched) as a committed careerist who plays every more to advance into intelligence leadership or as someone with total devotion to the team. There is evidence for both and Roy Marsden plays him in a reserved style that makes it hard to sell. Probably a mix of the two of course.

There are a few reasons not to watch this. If the description above sounds a bit boring, it probably will be. Also the quality of the film stock is poor, if you are one who must have HD quality in everything, you will be disappointed. Spy novel fans who are looking for something similar on TV will find a treat. I just found the second collection at the library and will be starting it soon.

I'll be you

Tana French's the Likeness stars off slowly and I nearly boxed it off for a friend, but I stuck with it and ended up thinking it superior to her Edgar winning In the Woods.

Her first novel focused on a fairly typical murder investigation. This one has an undercover operation at the center. The title refers to a corpse who looks almost exactly like former undercover operative Detective Cassie Maddox (one of the detectives in the first book). The cops suspect a group of peculiar college students with whom the victim lived. Cassie's former boss Frank Mackey wants her to impersonate the victim and live amongst the students to find the killer.

The opening section deals with the preparation and is slow, but once Cassie is in the house, the book is completely engaging. While there are similarities to the Secret History, the focus here is more on the challenges and tensions of being undercover as well as the slippery definitions of identity. Cassie is able to assume the identity of the victim Lexie Madison with relative ease, but finds her own identity mixing with Lexie's. Lexie, though, had a history of creating and destroying identities, but to her friends she is very real. On a larger level, French looks at the the creation of group identities at the local and national level. This plays into the climax nicely.

For a crime novel, the book verges on being overly long, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Although I did my typical check the bookmark to see how much further I had to go, I didn't try to hurry it up to get to the next book. The characters are not the stock cops and thugs we see time and again, but are novel and multifaceted. There is lots of talking in this book, which highlights French's skill with dialogue.

In this interview, French reveals that the narrator of the her book will be Frank Mackey. I like that she is using the same universe (what she calls a clump of characters,) but isn't sticking with the same narrator. This gives some continuity while allowing the author to explore a new character and will hopefully prevent a slide into decadence.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Bin Ladens

Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is one of my favorite nonfiction books of the past decade. It details CIA activity in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to 9/11. His follow up book, the Bin Ladens, is related in subject matter, it is quite a different book. Unlike Ghost Wars which deals mostly with governments and guerillas in conflict, the Bin Ladens reads like a tragic family story. Imagine reading Ron Chernow's House of Morgan, with the addition of a rogue scion who turns anarchist and tries to blow up Wall Street.

While the Bin Laden name in the West is associated almost exclusively with Osama, in the Arab world it is equally known for wealth and connection to power. Mohammed Bin Laden, father of 50+ children, formed the Bin Laden construction company and became a partner with the House of Saud in building the country. With the relationship came money and an expansion into other businesses.

The book's subtitle is An Arabian Family in an American Century and a key element of the book is the split in the Bin Laden family (representing in some sense a tension in the broader Arab world) between those who wanted to take advantage of the freedoms of the West and those that rejected the West and sought to live a pure Islamic life.

While the book is a tad too long, it reads well. In addition to the challenges of being Islamic in an American world, the Bin Ladens were (and are) fabulously wealthy. Coll details the unbelievable lifestyles, which included a fixation on aviation. That family trait would be taken up by many, including of course Osama.

While the book is in one sense a business family history, it is also the story of Osama. Coll discusses him here mostly in the context of the broader family. Given the huge number of children, it isn't too surprising that there would be outliers, but messianic mass murderers are in a special class of outlier.

This is a book well worth reading, but don't expect a lot of action. While the Afghan jihad plays a part, there is much more on business deals, airplane lessons and trying to be both Islamic and Western. I guess this one didn't sell as well as was hoped, as Amazon has the hardback for seven bucks. What a bargain.

Foreign policy reading

If you are at all interested in international affairs, you should add the new Foreign Policy blogs to your RSS feeds. They've got Dan Drezner (formerly of the eponymous blog) who is an international political economy expert. They've got Tom Ricks (formerly of Washington Post) who has written extensively on the GWOT/Long War/BushWar and whose Fiasco belongs on every bookshelf. They've got realist scholar Stephen Walt who was attacked when he co-wrote a book on the influence of the Israel lobby on US foreign policy. Then there is Shadow Government written by a group of Republican policy experts. There is quite a bit more as well, so be sure to visit.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Mmmmmm, Shai-Hulud

As a non-cat lover, I can give much of the Lolcats stuff a pass (Lolmetal on the other hand is always welcome), but this one make me laugh.

A friend wants to restart Dune for discussion and I think I will take him up on it. That is such a fun read.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A few items

One of the downfalls of military histories is maps, or the inadequate use of maps. To be fair, many of the battles in history are so complex that one map won't due. Most military campaigns lack the cartographic simplicity of the Battle of the Bulge. For those interested in the Civil War, Civil War Animated is of great help. The site uses maps and succinct descriptions to show the situation in which a battle developed and how it happened. I can't speak to the accuracy of the detail, but it looks great, you see how the regiments moved in relation to one another. I was always confused by the description of the battles of the Seven Day's during the Peninsula Campaign but this animation made it much more clear. (via Tocwoc)

The kids have spent the past few Fridays watching the Indiana Jones films. We've been slightly uneasy with the body count in the movies, but we are the more uneasy about the Indy play acting. The kids sing the theme song all day long and have been attempting Indy like moves, including jumping down the stairs to grab a raincoat and swing to another step. Still I have to admit that the new Indy Legos, like this Flying Wing, and especially the computer game are a lot of fun to play with the kids.

Take a look at this back and forth on why science fiction novels are so long. Peter Hamilton aside, I think scifi novels are a fine length, but that could be my exposure to endless fantasy series. Still they did use to be shorter. I recently read Rendezvous with Rama and was amazed at the length.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Reading resolutions 2009

Well I didn't do very well on my one reading resolution for 2008, taking part in the Back to History Challenge. That called for reading 12 specific books, of which I read about half. I started some others that didn't take (Dorothy Dunnett and Can't Find My Way Home, for example,) but essentially I didn't make it. So this year I will pick a number of vague goals with as few metrics as possible.

Goal # 1: Read more books I received as gifts. I did better in 2008 that I have in years past, I think there are only 3 or 4 books that I have received as gifts in 2008 that I have yet to read. That said, I have over a foot of new books on my shelf. In fact I have placed them in their own special section so I can be reminded that I need to read them.

Goal # 2: Read more science fiction. I LOVE science fiction and yet somehow didn't read much this past year. While not as challenging as keeping up with music, I feel like if I take my eye off the genre it runs away from me. Time to get my head back in the game.

Goal # 3: Make progress on fantasy novels. I am currently midstream on the Song of Fire and Ice, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, and the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, as well as a few more I am probably forgetting. As far as I can tell, if you write fantasy novels you have to write as many as you can and they must have a grandiose overarching name.

Goal # 4: Find another horror novelist that I like. In the past few years I have read a fair bit of horror, most of it not to my liking. I did find and quite enjoy Joe Schreiber and Sarah Langan. Here's hoping another will appeal.

Goal # 5: Support the local book culture. Buy at the local shops, attend literary events, support the library by boosting circulation numbers as high as I can.

These are open ended enough that I should be able to spin whatever I do into a success story, or so I hope.

Getting one's drink on

After this week's social events, beer is probably the last thing on your mind, but if you like beer and spend time on the West Coast you need to take a look at the Good Beer Guide: West Coast USA. Written by two British beer writers, they had the good fortune to tour the Western US to visit brewpubs, breweries and bars and provide exhaustive coverage of the beer drinking opportunities out here.

While I have dabbled in the delights of the West Coast, I know the Portland scene fairly well and they have it beautifully covered. They rightly point out the excellent Concordia Ale House as a highlight and also provide indepth reviews of the local majors like Deschutes, McMenamins and Bridgeport.

The writing is funny and enthusiastic, these guys really do like beer quite a lot. If you drink beer (decent beer that is) and spend time on the West Coast, this is an excellent investment.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Six Frigates

In Six Frigates, author Ian Toll ably presents the story of the creation of the American Navy. The book balances narratives of naval action with the political battles that decided where, how and if a Navy would be built.

Building the six initial frigates was an challenging endeavor. Joshua Humphreys designed the ships to be both more powerful and more sturdy than their European counterparts. Toll describes the difficult process of building and arming the ships, including the harvesting of live oak trees, which were located on malarial islands. Although the design was incredibly successful in battle, it had its difficulties. They were initially loaded with too much cannon which limited their effectiveness. The ships took longer to build than hoped and had trouble being launched.

While construction had its own problems, politics was an even more important factor. The decision to build a Navy raised critical issues for both the Federalist and Republican parties. The Federalists were convinced that the European states and the Barbary states would continue to prey on American commerce until the United States was able to defend it. They also believed that the country needed unifying Federal institutions if it was to survive. The Republicans on the other hand feared that the Navy would cost far too much, give the Federal state far too much power and lead to unnecessary wars with foreign powers.

Toll closely examines the shifting political winds as well as their effects. The political rancor was so heated it could even lead to violence. One of the leading newspaper editors of the day was viciously beaten when he visited a frigate under construction in Philadelphia, no doubt due to his vociferous opposition to John Adam's policies.

Ultimately, it was foreign action including the XYZ affair, Barbary piracy and the British practice of impressing American sailors into British naval service that led to continued investment in the Navy. Toll is as strong at describing action at sea as he is in detailing political back and forth. He also helps show how different the navies of that time were from our own. After having been beaten in single frigate engagements by the US Navy, the British were eager to defeat one. The captain of the HMS Shannon sent a note to the captain of the USS Chesapeake noting that he had sent the other ships blockading the port in which the Chesapeake lay. Given the now even terms, would the American like to come out and fight?

This is an excellent read for the fan of naval history but it also useful for reading for those interested in the development of early American institutions and the debates that continued past the Constitutional convention.