Friday, February 27, 2009

Some weekend foreign policy reading

Foreign policy magazine has done a great job creating a stable of foreign policy experts who now blog. Their newest blog is called In Other Words which is a blog about foreign policy books. Be still my beating heart!

The initial set of blogs is a series of critiques of Tom Ricks's new book on Iraq called the Gamble. You can read Dan Drezner's take here, Marc Lynch's here, Christian Brose's here, Susan Glasser's here, and Stephen Walt's here. Then go to the top and read down for Rick's responses.

What is really exciting about this is having a group of smart people with deep expertise discussing a subject in a central location with the time and space needed to make their points. Individual blogs have been excellent for single viewpoints and the better news shows have been great at bringing people together, but this is the best of both worlds.

Block out an hour or so this weekend to read this. You won't come away with easy answers, in fact you will likely just have more questions, but you will have a much better understanding of what happened in Iraq over the past few years and what it means.

Some day a real rain will come and wash all the trash out of the corner office

Few books have made me want to scream as much as the The Smartest Guys in the Room. They story of Enron is so troubling and terrible that I had to put it down at times. The wickedness of the key personnel of the company is one thing, but their cancerous degrading of nation's trust in the capitalist system is even worse.

I knew at some level that Enron was guilty of accounting shenanigans, but I wasn't aware how large and widespread the problems were. The company was basically a Ponzi scheme where deals were made and years of revenues booked without any sense that these revenues would ever be realized. With these debts hanging over their heads, they constantly chased after more revenue, with each source being as ephemeral as the last.

The culture of this place was nightmarish. The place was run by brilliant narcissists who like many others in finance found rationalization for their evil in the works of Ayn Rand*. They created a review process that the employees viewed as a form of torture. They believed that all that mattered was making more money for the great organziation. One of the traders who purposely exacerbated California's energy crisis in order to benefit Enron said, in his defense, that his only concern was to make money for Enron. The complete absense of morality or connection to the nation ran through all of the company.

They may have been great at creative ways of moving numbers around organizations, but their management skills were below that of the average McDonald's store manager. Their mismanagement of nearly all their businesses forced them into deeper and deeper trickery.

Aside from the all people they screwed over directly, their greater crime was the weakening of the trust that undergirds the American economy. One of our strengths over those in other countries is our general trust that people will do what they say they will do. The outright lies and the corrupting of all those organizations and individuals that were supposed to keep track of them is incredibly disturbing.

So, read the book, but you will probably need to break it up with some other reading.

*If you find out that those in power at your company or organization are "Randians," then you must quit immediately. They will screw you one way or another, so you had best go somewhere where sensible people prevail.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No honor among thieves

I have little trouble keeping up with most genres. Literary fiction is small enough that you don't need to spend a lot of time learning about new releases. A visit to the new section of any bookstore is likely to clue you in regardless. With a little effort online, I feel I can identify what I want to read in science fiction, fantasy and crime. Comic books, or graphic novels if you prefer, are a whole other ball of wax. Whenever I think about picking one up, I head down to the comic shop or the comic section of the library and then I stare at the mass of colors and images. Despite reading a fair piece of them, my eye is untrained in spotting quality. For comics, I really do need a sherpa.

Thankfully, I have one in my friend Matt who put me on to Ed Brubaker's and Sean Phillip's Criminal. The story will be familiar to crime fans. A loner thief is recruited to help in a robbery, and not just any robbery, but an inside job pulled by crooked cops. What could possibly go wrong? The story, while good, is not the draw. Instead it is the bleak atmosphere. This is the anti-Ocean's Eleven. Instead of a bunch of happy go lucky wealthy scammers, we have a bunch of desperate people making bad choices because of their prior bad choices. It's not a pretty picture, but it feels realistic. The art is also excellent. The story is set in the modern era, but the muted colors give it a 70s feel that harkens back to the gritty movies of the time.

All on my own I picked up the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Black Dossier and I wish I hadn't. This one should have been great, set in a 1950s England coming out of the Big Brother years of 1948. Instead it is a jumble of texts, including an essay about Lovecrafts Great Old Ones and a comic story about Virginia Woolf's Orlando, that comprise the Black Dossier> There are all the references that made the earlier books so much fun, but overall it isn't terribly interesting. There is another book coming out soon, maybe that one will be as good as volumes 1 and 2.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kingmaking and author Q&A

In modern genre terms, the Arthur stories straddle two categories. With the magic, the Grail Quest and the Lady in the Lake, there are clearly elements of fantasy. With the semi-historical roots, there is also a basis in historical fiction. In her soon to be re-released Kingmaking, Helen Hollick shifts the story squarely into the realm of historical fiction. Not only has she dispensed with magic, she has also moved the story out of the chivalric age and into the original basis in the Dark Ages following the decline of Rome and the rise of the Anglo-Saxons.

The book is the first of a trilogy and tells the story of Arthur's rise to power. His Britain is beset by numerous conflicts including the encroachment of Teutonic invaders on British lands and the conversion, resisted by Arthur and many others, of Britain to Christianity. Early in the story, Arthur is forced by circumstance to offer his allegiance to his enemy, the King of Britain. The King is willing to accept his help on the doctrine that it best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. As such the story is driven by political intrigue as Arthur and the King seek to undermine one another. As part of the political game, Arthur weds the Kings's daughter Winifred which of course causes problems for his relationship with the one he loves Gwenhwyfar.

The realistic treatment of the subject matter is what sets this book apart. For fantasy fans, Arthur is less Jordan's Rand al Thor than he is a lost cousin from GRRM's Lannister family. He is capable, ambitious, brave in battle and given to casual cruelty. He is what you would expect a Dark Ages aristocrat to be. The settings are also realistic, the battles are brutal and sad and Hollick's depiction of the sack of London by Saxons is appalling. Fans of historical fiction will certainly want to add this to their reading list.

Ms. Hollick was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, which you will find below.

1) The Arthur you have created is quite different from that of popular culture. How would you describe him?

Rough, tough, hard. The sort of man you either love or loathe. But he is also honourable, loyal to his men and intent on his purpose. Inwardly though, he is insecure and often doubts himself. He adores his first and only love, Gwenhwyfar, but as both of them are highly passionate people with volatile tempers, the sparks often fly. He is not always faithful to her, but he would die for Gwenhwyfar, not for any one else.

2) The Britain you describe is in cultural flux with the British fighting the Teutonic invaders and the Christian church seeking to supplant the old religions. Arthur is on the defense in both cases. Does that add to his appeal or create any challenges for you as a writer?

To me it is his appeal. This is Britain in the Dark Ages – the Roman Empire has just collapsed and the administration of government has been withdrawn – Britain was under Roman rule for over four hundred years, that left a huge power vacuum to be filled. The Anglo Saxons were settling along the eastern coast of what is now England, settlers from Ireland were pushing into Scotland; the Christian Church was young and not very dominant, certainly it was not powerful in the 5th – 6th centuries. Maybe among the elite, the nobility, but not among the ordinary farmers and workers who were close to the land who remained pagan – and not for many soldiers who still worshipped their war gods.

This is still a time when pagan was blending with Christian – when the Christian Church began using the pagan festivals; Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice was incorporated into Christmas; Eostre, the Spring festival was turned into Easter etc. How many of us realise that holly and ivy at Christmas are from the pagan beliefs – as are Easter eggs and the celebration of the renewal of life? The two beliefs blended so well and so easily.

I was determined to make Arthur non-Christian as I wanted to move entirely away from the idea of him as a Christian Chivalric King. I also wanted to create conflict with some of the other characters who were Christian (with his Uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus for instance.)

I quite enjoyed the challenge of combining the two in a believable manner – for instance, there is a scene in Pendragon’s Banner where a priest gives Arthur a brooch to wear to protect him in battle. It is of a woman dressed in blue. The Priest believes it to be the Mother Mary – Arthur accepts it, pins it on his cloak, and does not disillusion the priest by telling him that actually the portrait is of the pagan Mother Goddess. He sees quite clearly that to a pagan she is one thing, to a Christian she is another. Which is the whole point of the change between pagan and Christian in the Dark Ages, the one subtly blended into and gradually became the other.

3) In the book, you are not afraid to depict a moral universe quite different from our own. Did you make any changes or adjustments for the modern reader?

I suppose you could argue that maybe I have depicted Gwenhwyfar as a modern, feisty woman who had a mind of her own and was determined to get her own way – a feminist. BUT Celtic women were independent. They were not mere cooks there to fetch water and bear children. In Celtic times it was the women who taught the children to fight, they had a right to chose their own husband – could divorce if they wished. Saxon women, too, had a certain amount of freedom. Sadly it was the 11th - 12th Church that repressed women, when the Church was becoming more powerful and I have to say, greedy for supremacy, domination and wealth.

4) In addition to his bravery, Arthur's leadership is marked by his innovative use of cavalry. What led you to choose that particular innovation for him?

Two reasons; one I am a horse person, I started riding when I was 4 (I am now 56) and my daughter has horses. So horses are a subject I know a lot about. The other reason is that I became interested in Arthur because most of the legends say he used cavalry. My two interests naturally merged together. I also believe that if Arthur did indeed move around the country, fighting battles in different areas, he would have had to have used cavalry.

5) What is your favorite of the traditional Arthurian stories?

I don’t actually like any of them. I have never enjoyed the traditional Medieval tales. For one thing they are not real history – there were no knights in armour, towered castles, round tables or quests for the Holy Grail in Dark Age Britain. (Would anyone tolerate stories of Henry VIII living in a tower block, wearing jeans and driving around in a sports car? The Medieval stories are the same equivalent!) I dislike Lancelot, Gawain and the other knights because they are all so “goody goody” (give me a rough, tough, rogue any day – much more fun!)

Add to that these Medieval tales are Norman, and I’m afraid I am very much pro-Saxon, hence my novel Harold the King, the Battle of Hastings (1066) from the English point of view. The Normans had no right to England, William the Conqueror was a usurping tyrant…

The one story I do like is the “loathly lady” where one of the knights is pressured into marrying an old hag. It turns out she is actually a beautiful young woman, but she is under a spell and can only be beautiful by day or night, not both. The knight has to choose – would he have her beautiful to himself at night and ugly to others - hence shaming her in public. Or beautiful to others and ugly by night – not wanting her beautiful for himself. Frustrated he shouts that he does not know what to choose, and impatiently says she is to have her own choice. And the spell is broken for he answered the riddle – “what is it a woman most desires?” The answer, her own way!

This is actually a very old pagan-based story, and I decided to use it with my own twist for the characters. (You will come across it later in the trilogy).

Thank you for inviting me onto your blog

Monday, February 23, 2009

The sacred and the profane

Metric, one of favorite bands of this decade, will have a new album in April. Read the interview on Pitchfork. The new single is streaming on MySpace. Pretty good. See them live if you possibly can.

Liz Phair, on the other hand, is making ads for Banana Republic.

A useful revisionist look at American foreign policy

Much of today's foreign policy literature has argued that George W Bush's administration represented a shift away from American tradition. This view has been challenged by a number of writers, including Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson, but Christopher Layne's study of American foreign policy The Peace of Illusions is one of the best yet.

He builds on the work of William Appleman Williams and particularly on his Open Door theory. That theory argues that, at least partially, US foreign policy has long focused on making the world safe for American capitalism. The security element of the argument is that if the world became anti-capitalist and Eurasia were a unified power, the United States would move to a garrison state and the American Republic would end.

Expanding on this argument, Layne says that the US has pursued a policy of hegemony, ensuring that no rival power, friendly or not, rises anywhere in the world. He points to efforts to contain Europe with NATO and to the treaties with Asian powers to maintain American dominance.

The argument of the book uses quite a bit of international relations theory, which may sound dry, but I found it succintly and clearly written. Add this to your books to read when thinking about new directions in American foreign policy.


I started and abandoned not one, but two post-apocalyptic thrillers this weekend. The first was Algys Burdys's Some Will Not Die and the second was the Suicide Collectors from first time novelist David Oppegaard. Some Will Not Die was the least interesting to me. On the Amazon page, scifi writer says that it is an important work. That may well be, but overall I felt it been better done elsewhere.

The Suicide Collectors is more promising and bodes well Oppegaard's future works, but I kept comparing to the Road, which is bad news, as the Road is probably the best that single individual in a post-apocalyptic setting gets. McCarthy manages to bring his usual masterful style, while also dialing up the life sucks factor to 11 and beyond. I had been looking for more post-apocalyptic works, but I suspect that few will satisfy. I have already read, and loved, Oryx and Crake and the Cloud Atlas, so I may need to put this genre aside for now.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Peter Garrett

I think I knew that Peter Garrett was involved in the Australian Labor Party, but I had no idea he is a Minister in the Australian government. Why is this surprising? Before he became an MP, he was the lead singer of Midnight Oil. As you most likely recall, Midnight Oil was an intensely political, as well as intensely awesome band. Having the new Obama administration is great and all, but this is as if Ian MacKaye (what with his similar folical challenges) was now the Secretary of the Interior. Here are some Midnight Oils vids in order of favoriteness:

The Dead Heart


Forgotten Years

The opportunity cost of cheap books

I was down at the thrift store yesterday when I saw two Dan Simmons books. Simmons writes well across a number of genres including horror, science fiction and hardboiled crime. So I like to grab his books when I can. I saw Ilium, which despite some warnings from others, I wanted to try and I saw a Winter Haunting. Now, I have read a Winter Haunting and liked it. When talking about it with a friend, he remarked that it was a sequel to A Summer of Night, which I read quite a while ago. Which meant I missed something the first time around. So I am probably going to go get A Summer of Night as well.

The problem is, these books are now going to take a space in line currently occupied by the seven or so unread books I received for Christmas, the 15 books I have checked out of the library and the dozens of unread books that lie waiting on my shelves. So we have the problem that these books are less likely to be read. It is in some ways even worse though. The time I spend browsing for new books could be spent reading the books I already have! I probably spend an hour or two a week looking for books. That's a half a crime novel, easy.

On the bright side, I like looking for new books. It's fun and and there is some truth in the saying it's not the kill it's the thrill of the chase. When you have a lot of books you have more from which to choose your next book and you have more books to loan to friends. Then they can tell you whether the book is worth reading or not.

Even more I like looking at a book case full of books I haven't read. Sure, a book case full of books you have read is all well and good, but even better is a wall full of possibilities. Looking at all I might read is so much better than looking at what I have already done. So I think I will go on buying.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

For What It's Worth . . .

Tripp and I were chatting via GMail and I brought up a fun little notion, which he said would make a good blog post. Possibly. So anyway, I was thinking how much I enjoy those songs whose titles appear nowhere in the song. For the listener, it's great on so many levels:

1. It gives you something extra to ponder, to-wit, the meaning of the song title, and how it ties in with the lyrics.
2. It allows you to assume a position of superiority to those who aren't in the know by either (a) mocking them when they call those song by its most oft-repeated phrase (as I did as a foolish freshman pledge at my fraternity, asking the guy at the stereo to play "Rollaway"**** by the Dead); or (b) asking them to play the song when you know damned well they won't know what song you're talking about by just the title.


So, for what it's worth, my fave is "For What It's Worth," otherwise known to my wife as "Stop, Hey, What's That Sound, Everybody Look What's Going 'Round."

How was that, Tripp?

*****Technically, "Franklin's Tower" does appear in the song. So this doesn't really count, but does do an excellent job of conveying that feeling.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Finally a horror novel I can love

Last year I read Sarah Langan's The Keeper and was quite taken with it. You can read my thoughts about that one here. That book was quite good, but I thought that Langan held back a bit in what she was writing. There is no holding back in her latest, The Missing. If you like supernatural horror with a sense of scale, this is your book.

The book starts with kids from the Corpus Christi, Maine school going a field trip an abandoned town. Now this was a tad unbelievable. I can't imagine parents signing off on a field trip pass to an abandoned town site that was recently investigated by the EPA. That momentary break in the suspension of disbelief was quickly overtaken by the pace of her narrative and the sense of impending cataclysm.

On said field trip, the trouble making kid avoids getting back on the bus and while investigating the ruins, uncovers something terrible. That terrible something then begins to threaten the town of Corpus Christi. As the evil spreads and consumes the town, we see the wicked ways of the all the town's social classes. Langan casts a fairly jaundiced eye on nearly all of her characters.

With her socially critical view, her suggestion rather than the depiction of violence, her Maine small town setting and her dark ending, you can't help but compare her to Stephen King. If you like the early, small-town-pays-for-its-wicked-ways novels of King, you will like and maybe even love this.

This is Langan's second novel and she has two more on the way. Right now it looks like she could be one of the greats.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I missed the Frontline show, Inside the Meltdown tonight. If you did too, be happy you can watch it online. So far it is an excellent review of how the economic crisis unfolded. The interviews are impressive, with Senators and CEOs among the participants. Watch here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

In honor of the beer I am drinking

Here is Devo's Blockhead.

The beer in question is Coney Island Human Blockhead.

Fun with international relations

I've just read Christopher Layne's Peace of Illusions and was blown away. It manages to be an invigorating read, while also being theoretically rigorous. If you are looking for a more theoretically grounded version of the recent Bacevich book Limits of Power, this is where you should start. (Please note, this is not mean to disparage the excellent Bacevich book nor to say he has not written more theoretical books.) Before I say what I think of the book, I will provide a bit of information to help you decide if you would enjoy reading a book about international relations theory.

International relations theory attempts to explain why states act the way they do. Some theories also try to help policy makers make better decisions. Many theories, including the one on which Peace of Illusions is principally based, are systemic theories. These theories focus on the system of states, rather than the states themselves. For many systemic theories the type of state, whether democratic or authoritarian is meaningless. What does matter is the absolute or relative power of the states and for some, the perceived threat of the state.

Another set of theories focuses on the nature of state. A relatively well known theory, popularized and adapted by Thomas Friedman as the Golden Arches theory, is the democratic peace theory which holds that democracies do not fight one another. This theory was popular in the Clinton and Bush the Younger administrations and partially explained their interest in democratization.

World War 2 provides a useful means of illustrating how theory makes for a new way of looking at things. Ask most people why World War 2 happened, and people will say a nasty man (Hitler) started it. Many, but not all, theorists would say that the weak, unprotected states between Germany and Russia made war likely, but that the domestic character of Germany made that war much worse than it would have been otherwise. If you are interested in foreign policy and this sort of argument is interesting, you will likely enjoy the Payne book.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

In War Times

Kathleen Ann Goonan is one of the science fiction writers I have been meaning to read for some time. I started with In War Times, probably because of the World War 2 setting. The book involves the development of a never fully explained technology that allows its users to manipulate time. It is designed as a means of dealing with Hitler, is developed in a race against Hitler and eventually comes to have an impact on the Cold War.

With its focus on the impact of technology on history, the book reads as an allegory about the impact of nuclear weapons. The World War 2 chapters show the peculiar life of soldiers involved in the development of secret weapons and much espionage is conducted to capture the technology. The device also allows for communication with alternate universes and the characters deal with a world where the Cold War doesn't happen and the investment in nuclear weapons (have a look here for some numbers) is instead spent on more productive technologies. As you might expect it is a much nicer place than our world.

There is a lot more going on in this book, including the idea the creation of jazz music shows the same new ways of thinking that make quantam mechanics understandable, or at least understandable to some. Given my limited musical theory understanding, much of this went over my head, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Goonan used her father's war time diaries to create her main character. She even uses them in the book, to great effect.

This was a good read, with the techno-optimism of science fiction combining with a humanistic belief that people can do better.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Good, but not great

Thomas H. Cook's The Chatham School Affair is one of my favorite suspense novels. Cook is particularly strong at setting up situations that lead to tragedy and then exploring the long-term damage of the tragedies. Anyone who likes suspense novels should pick it up. After reading it, I knew I wanted more. Cook has written a pile of novels so I picked up Instruments of Night more or less at random. Given my book buying to book reading ratio, I am getting to the book about a year after buying it. While it is good, it is not at the same level of Chatham School Affair.

The book's main character is Paul Graves who writes a series of suspense novels featuring a vile killer who is constantly one step ahead of his pursuer. You can tell something is amiss with our Paul as he is given to imaging dark backstories with every person he sees. He is highly introverted and it comes as no surprise that his books might arise from a horrific event in his past.

We watch him slowly come to terms with this event, as he explores an even older tragedy at the behest of the owner of large country estate. It seems her best friend was murdered in 1946 and the case was never resolved. In order give solace to the victim's aging mother, Graves agrees to imagine what might have happened to the girl.

This twin mysteries, what destroyed Graves and who killed the girl, are developed throughout the book. While I quite liked how the story progressed, I didn't like the resolution of either story. One becomes fairly obvious early on and one felt insufficient somehow. The best part of the book is Graves himself. Although he is not an attractive person, he provides some insight into how writers, or some at least, do their work.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. A friend recently visited the Memorial and, having not been in many years, was surprised at its emotive power. It is difficult to overstate his importance in American history Via the excellent Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, an essential military history blog, have a look at the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln (it appears to be popular, try reloading if it doesn't work) reciting the Gettysburg Address. It's cool.

With him (and the USS Lincoln) in mind, I will be starting Craig Symond's Lincoln and His Admirals. Lincoln's often tendentious relationship with his generals is well known, but his relations with naval commanders is relatively unknown. The reviews have been good, so I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Still more Dune

So I finished Dune (again) and it was much better than I had anticipated. I enjoyed about as much as I did the first time, which is quite something for a science fiction novel. My only complaint is that the ending seemed a bit rushed. The final battle was incredibly compressed and the fight with Feyd was given more pages than nearly anything else. Did anyone else find the ending a bit off?

Funny reading

I am reading John Hodgman's More Information Than You Require. It is a somewhat brazen follow-up to The Areas of My Expertise. I say brazen as it is a continuation of the first book with the page numbering starting where the first book ended up and with very similar jokes. Fortunately, the jokes are still funny. As seen on the Mac ads and on the Daily Show, Hodgman does an excellent job of seriously presenting the absurd.

Just like the first book, I laughed out loud many times when reading this. Your enjoyment of this book will likely be similar to your enjoyment of this one. Essentially if dry, absurd humor laced with often obscure pop and literary culture references sounds good, you will probably like this. Speaking of somewhat obscure references, there is an art to making references that seem a bit obscure so that the reader feels a bit smug about getting them. Hodgman does this quite well.

Amazon's Omnivoracious has a podcast interview with Hodgman here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What a wicked game we play

If you are looking for a well plotted spy novel that isn't afraid to show the emotional and physical wear of espionage, then have a look at Alex Berenson's the Silent Man. This book is the third book featuring his super-spy John Wells and it will thrill readers who love action-oriented spy novels. The threat of the book is the terrifying possibility of nuclear terror and Berenson spins a riveting narrative about how terrorists may attack.

Nuclear terror is a challenging subject as the author has to be conversant in nuclear technology and has to spin a credible tale about how nuclear material/weapons might be acquired. In both cases, Berenson does an excellent job. The acquisition plot line is nuanced and brutal. He also makes what could be a boring lecture, how bombs work, into a key and exciting part of the story.

I liked that Berenson explores the idea that the life of a spy is not terribly attractive. John Wells is estranged from his family, cannot connect well with those around him and has made a number of powerful enemies. That said Wells is a bit over-powered. He is like a spy and special operations officer combined, capable of amazing physical feats. This is partially explained by his many years of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A bit less believable is his predilection for getting in the faces of his superiors, including the DCI. I suspect in real life his behavior would get him a job as Chief of Station on Vanuatu.

If this book were a TV show, it would clearly be 24, and one of the good ones, no cougar sub-plots here. It has all the excitement of the show as well as strong characters. Berenson takes presents a number of interesting characters including a pathetic Russian who helps the terrorists and a disgraced Navy Captain whose independence helps the attempt to stop the terrorists. The show has gone hill, but you can get your fix with Berenson.

Monday, February 09, 2009

More naughty

As I mentioned earlier, the Other Hollywood is a heck of a read. The book is an oral history, so it consists entirely of interview transcripts from key players in the world of adult film, including the actors, directors, the mob financiers, the FBI team that chased the mob, the girlfriends and the occasional tangential player like John Waters. On the face of it, this sounds like the authors didn't do much work, but the organization and selection of the interviews is excellent. You get a story from many angles and directly from the participants.

Many of the stories are quite amusing, many are more than a little shocking and quite a few are just tragic. The story of the famously well endowed John Holmes is a thread for much of the book. The character of Dirk Diggler in Boogies Night is at least partially modeled on that of Holmes. While Diggler experienece a rise and fall followed by a partial rise, Holmes's fall was uninterrupted. The robbery scene from Boogies Nights is based on a real robbery that ended in murder and questions remain about the role Holmes played. The Wonderland killings saw four people die as a result of being brutally beaten. Holmes certainly led the killers to the apartment, but may have even been one of the killers.

Then there is the story of Shannon Wisley who killed herself after she was injured in a drunk driving crash. The belief is that the suicide rose from her belief that her injuries would preclude her from working again. Okervil River wrote two songs about her, one from her father's perspective and one from her own. They are both great songs are terribly sad as you might imagine.

Savannah Smiles

Shannon Wisley on the Starry Stairs

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Bermuda Triangle

I was on a trailer site this evening, when I spied this trailer for a horror movie called the Triangle. It might be a good movie, but the trailer is chock full of spoilers. So full I will most likely now avoid watching the movie. No huge loss, as most horror movies are crap. What matter more is that the Bermuda Triangle may finally get its due in pop culture.

When I was but a lad, the Triangle was pretty big, or at least I recall it being big. Other kids may have loved Roswell or Bigfoot, but I loved the Bermuda Triangle. Coming from a Navy town, the fate of a missing Navy flight and the disappearance of a Naval vessel, were already fascinating, but then you add the pure mystery of it and it is so much more intriguing. Like the related Mary Celeste and the vanished Terror and Erebus, these are the sorts of disappearances and mysteries you can mull over eternally. They also make for great science fiction stories as Dan Simmons demonstrated with the Terror.

The 70s saw some books on the subject as well as a board game (scroll down) with a swirling magnetized cloud that stole your ships. If someone like Milton Bradley figures it makes sense to make a game about a subject, it has to be pretty well embedded in the popular culture. Alas that has now changed. Since then, aliens have completely displaced the Triangle. Why can't there be more space for mysterious phenomena in pop culture?

You can find another Bermuda Triangle (in Afghanistan!) themed movie here. Maybe it is coming back?

Naughty, naughty

I've been reading lots of heavier things of late, so I thought it was time for a change of pace. My current read, the Other Hollywood, The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry is certainly that. I recall an article, written during the demise of the dot-com era, which talked about former dot-commers taking office jobs in the adult film world, figuring it couldn't be that different. Thing is, it is that different.

The stories this book tells are astounding, but one that sticks in my mind involves a porn star calling up another for help. She goes to his house and finds that he is holding up another porn star, who's head is stuck in a toilet. Seems they had some really outre action going and her head got stuck. He couldn't free her head as he had to balance her and continually flush the toilet so she could breath.

This is an oral (hee, hee) history, so it all direct quotes well organized by the writers. Some of the quotes are genius, like this one from Eric Edwards.

I didn't know Annie at the time, but I did know Paula, Gerard Damiano's girlfriend. I worked with her. I love that term, "Worked with her."

You know, everyone says that in this business. "Well, I worked with so-and-so, and I worked with so-and-so."

"Oh, you mean you fucked them?"

"Well, yeah, that's what it boils down to."

Friday, February 06, 2009


I don't read a lot of business books, but I do love business histories. Ron Chernow has written a number of great books about finance and the families that built financial empires. A friend just lent me The Smartest Guys in the Room, a story about the Enron debacle.

One book that looks fascinating is the Big Rich, a story of four of the great Texan oilmen. The author Bryan Burroughs was on the Diane Rehm show recently. Listen here, it will is a great interview.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Some really sad stories

What do you get when you put Winesburg, Ohio , a bevy of Jim Thompson characters, and the songs of Big Black and the Drive By Truckers in a blender? You get the brief, brutal and sad stories of Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Pollock was born in the actual town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, a town which may have named after a fistfight. The citizens do their best to live up to their town's heritage by filling their days with casual violence, thoughtless sex and a wide range of substance abuse.

It sounds like tough reading, and it is. Some of the stories are tragic as in the case where a mentally damaged recluse stumbles upon a brother and sister rutting in the woods or in the case where a boy tries to earn his father's love by viciously beating another boy. Others are merely sad as when a moves in with one of the town's many brutish thugs in hopes of finally finding a friend. In all these cases, things end poorly.

So why should you read these stories? If you can stand the sadness, it is the characters. Pollock has a real sympathy for his characters, probably developed in working thirty years in a paper mill. He has a clear-eyed view of the lives of the marginalized and the daily challenges they face. He doesn't provide much, if anything, for hope or redemption and even makes a point of the same sad stories repeating across the generations.

This book was short and theoretically you could knock it out in a evening. The stories were just too intense for me to do that. Depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad. My vote is good.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Old Disney movies with the kids

My five year old daughter recently told me that she was feeling too old for cartoons, which is too bad for the large stockpile of cartoon DVDs, we have accumulated. In order to please my newly discerning offspring, I have been renting live action Disney movies for the little ones. Here are the results.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea: Still a good movie, but slow in parts. The kids loved that the Captain was named Nemo, the Whale of a Tale song (beware, it is sung incessantly in the movie) and of course they loved the squid fight. They didn't get the political context, and thought the undersea scenes were boring. Also a tad long, so consider the skip feature.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The kids liked this one quite a bit more. The use of cartoons was hilarious to them. Like Mary Poppins, the characters frequently break into song, such as Portobello Road with its parade of Royal subjects dance. There is something in this movie for everyone, with silly jokes, Nazis, ghostly knights, cats, singing and Roddy McDowall as a gold digging cleric.

The Black Hole. The surprise hit of the bunch. I think they just like the visuals as they don't really appear to be paying attention to the story. This one holds up surprisingly well, as a kids movie. Although it was clearly a reaction to Star Wars, it feels more like a 50s science fiction film with 70s swinger clothing. The kids also liked that the Captain looks like Captain Nemo.

Can I hear the echo from the days of 39?

Although books about World War 2, fiction and non-fiction, are a dime a dozen, books about the critical predecessor, the Spanish Civil War are few and far between. This may be due to the limited participation of Americans and British, but I suspect it also has to do with the murkiness of the conflict. While there is a strong element of heroism in World War 2, the Spanish Civil war was marked by class warfare, atrocities, factionalism and authoritarianism on both sides. This confused picture makes for a great setting for a spy novel, which CJ Sansom has used to excellent effect in Winter in Madrid.

The novel is set in 1940, with Britain greatly worried that the Fascist Franco might join with his ideological ally Adolf Hitler and seize the strategically vital Gibraltar. Invalided soldier Harry Brett is recruited to spy on his former classmate Sandy Forsyth (a character with more than a dash of Harry Lime) whose gold mines may help Franco escape Britain's limited leverage over Franco. Another former classmate Bernie Piper, who volunteered to serve with the Republicans, rots in a prison while his girlfriend Barbara Clare seeks him out. Complicating matter is that Barbara now lives with Sandy.

Harry is a less than ideal spy, breaking secrecy more than once and missing the political under-currents in Madrid. The political picture is not obvious. The British seek to support the right wing Monarchists, who oppose the right wing Falangists, in hopes of reducing the possibility of war expanding into Iberia. The more experienced diplomats have an amoral realist view of British policy that doesn't really consider the Spaniards at all, which appalls Harry.

Sansom paints a suitably grim picture of Spain under Franco, but also leads one to believe that life under the Soviet-controlled Republicans would have been little better. It would just have meant a different group of people would have been tortured to death. Sansom leans towards a realist policy that would have supported the Republicans before they took their extremist turn under the Soviets.

For a spy novel, this book is quite long and the plot can be meandering. This lack of speed and direction plays into his overall theme of ambiguity and paranoia, which I quite liked. Sansom writes principally about 16th century Britain, but I hope he returns to the modern era as he does it very well.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The problem is you

Andrew Bacevich is one of the great influential critics of American foreign policy today. His critiques of American consumerism and foreign policy are not too distant from those of leftie giants like Chalmers Johnson, so the left-leaning find it easy to like him. On the other hand, he says out front that he is a conservative and revives an older tradition of conservatism that opposes growing government power and entangling overseas adventures, so the right can be comfortable with him as well. Too bad the subject of his new book is quite uncomfortable.

His new book is The Limits of Power and it is a wake-up call to the American people. There are many who seem to think that the departure of W means that, economic troubles aside, the US can breath a sigh of relief. While he harshly condemns Bush for his many failures, Bacevich argues that Bush is merely the most fully developed of a tradition of Presidents acquiring more power and using it to pursue adventures abroad in the name of American exceptionalism. He also points to a self-pertuating national security infrastructure and culture that fails to serve the American people and an Empire of consumption that requires a huge share of the world's enegy to be sustained.

What is worrying is that all of the problems he identifies are systemic and are therefore difficult to solve. The economic crisis we are currently facing may give Obama the opportunity to effect major changes in society, but it is sure to be painful regardless. What's more it will likely require a national lifestyle change for which few are ready.

Away from the sadness and back to the book. In this book, Bacevich writes with a sort of peaceful outrage. He is harshly critical, but remains measured and analytical throughout. This does the book and reader as real service as he doesn't fly off the handle or digress into vitriol. If you haven't already, be sure to watch this video interview of Bacevich by Bill Moyers.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

How do you solve a problem like Iran?

Robert Baer has an answer for you in his latest book, the Devil We Know. The good news is that he has a good, if difficult to achieve, answer. The bad news is that he often buries it with digressions and some sweeping assertions. Still, he has proposed something I doubt the Obama administration will do, but I greatly hope they consider, which is to ally with Iran.

Sounds crazy, yes? Baer spends a good number of pages arguing that Iran is not some addled theocracy run by maniacs, but is in fact a forward looking, modern society that is ruled by pragamitists and not the delusional madmen we are led to believe. He also argues that it is the dominant power in the region, thanks to our activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, and that it will only get stronger. Confronting them will be costly and will likely fail.

So the realpolitik answer is simple, alleviate their security concerns with the United States and become a partner, or even an ally. This will ensure that the oil supply remains protected, which is the principal interest of the United States in the region. To do so comes with costs, such as letting Iran run, behind the scenes at least, Iraq and most of the Gulf States. He also argues that they should be allowed to become the stewards of Mecca and Medina, which sounds fine except that it means the abandonment of the House of Saud.

The tricky thing with all of this is that it will make all but our closest allies believe that we are unreliable. As Baer notes, this happened before, when the US dumped Taiwan to start a new relationship with Mainland China, and it was a challenge, but it was done. Baer lays out a rather grand plan to ally with Iran that comes with quite a few costs. The US should mend relations with Iran, as it gains little from opposing it, but should try to do it for less than Baer asks.