Thursday, April 30, 2009

The CIA is looking for detectives

There are some books that will distress nearly everyone that reads them. Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, the Legacy of Ashes is one such book. If he doesn't get you with the brutal effects of the coups in Guatemala, Chile or in Africa, he will get you with a vision of a country that has lacked an effective means of providing intelligence to guide decision-making.

Weiner's main argument is that an early focus on covert action, which was often bungled by poorly trained personnel or quickly compromised by the more experienced intelligence services of the Soviet Union, set the CIA on the wrong course, which was to collect intelligence and provide policy makers with an accurate understanding of what was happening in the world. The inability to provide clear assessments led to mistakes in Vietnam, relations with Russia and China, and perhaps most disastrously, the assessment of Iraq and the cultural support for covert action led to a focus on coups which distracted the Agency and created problems down the line.

Weiner takes a historical narrative approach, which means this is a quick, exciting (and equally depressing) read. You see the transition from the World War 2 OSS, focused on fighting in Europe and East Asia to an agency that expanded world-wide, with little to no oversight. The stories are detailed and loaded with attributed quotes from those who served in the CIA or worked with it.

This narrative focus on the CIA hides some of the important reasons for the problems the CIA faces. The problems are often described in terms of personalities instead of the organizational or systemic reasons for failure. I would argue that many of the CIA's problems and the failures in assessment, at least, were driven by systemic issues related to the policy makers use of intelligence and the war for control between the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence.

Readers less familiar with the intelligence community might miss some of the organizational issues, such as the problem of managing collection and analysis in the same Agency and the problems of managing the intelligence community. The book could have used an overview of the entire community. With that context, the shift to technical (signals, imagery and so on) collection versus human collection of intelligence that took place helps explain the limited funding and collapse of morale at the Agency.

So while this book will not provide you with all you need to know about the Agency, it is an excellent introduction for someone who doesn't want to read the specialist literature. If after reading this, you want to begin to explore some solutions to the problems Weiner raises, you should read William Odom's Fixing Intelligence, a pleasingly iconoclastic review of the entire intelligence community.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Does that make me crazy?

Between his first two zombie flicks, George Romero made a few other lesser known horror flicks including the Crazies. You are likely to hear more about this one, as it is being re-made for release this year. It has a similar feel to a basic zombie movie, where a terrible illness begins to spread and threatens to overwhelm the authorities, thanks to mistakes, human nature and the chaos created by the outbreak. In this case, the accidental release of a supposedly innocuous virus starts turning citizens of a small PA town into raving lunatics. Turns out the virus is an engineered super-virus for which there is no cure. Bad news for PA.

This one is fun, but not essential viewing. The pace is a bit off, as the terror of the situation is diluted by focusing on people who rather successfully hide from the authorities. There is a lot of blood and violence but it is cartoonish by today's, admittedly base, standards. I didn't love the ending, which equivocates between hope and despair, without really choosing. Realistic, but a bit unsatisfying.

On the plus side, there are some enjoyable grindhouse performances, including the pissed off scientist, the girl going crazy and the loony Dad in scene one. There is also a subtext of the violence wrought in Vietnam being revisited in the homeland. Apocalypse junkies can get their fix in a fairly fresh way here. Watch it now so that you can knowingly complain about how the old one is better than the new one.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Its a place to live your life

We went to see the new Disney documentary Earth this weekend. My wife and I debated whether it was really the BBC show Planet Earth cut into movie format. She thought it was, and I thought that was crazy! Well it was. The main addition is James Earl Jones on the voice over and the Year in the Life Of Earth theme.

It was nice seeing the footage on the big screen, so if you like the show or haven't seen it, it is certainly worth watching. The only thing that annoyed me was the occasional lapse into the old Disney True Life Adventure anthropomorphizing style in the narration. For the most part, it maintained the tone on the TV show, but it occasionally lapsed into a goofy element, with Jones talking in a sing songy voice about the little critters. It wasn't often but it seemed a bit odd. On the bonus side there is some nice making of footage in the credits that is worth a watch.

My question is whether the next Disney nature documentary titled Oceans is Blue Planet recut.

Deep in the heart of Texas

There are some areas of the country I find particularly interesting. Most I can attribute to a personal connection (VA, NC, CA), because of what happens there (LA, NYC) or some combination (DC). Others are just so peculiar that they make for fascinating reading. These tend to be on the geographical fringe; places like Alaska, Maine and Texas. Bryan Burroughs (co-author of Barbarians at the Gate) tackles some of the key creators of the modern Texas in the Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.

This book is a fun, but serious, read. It covers four families, the Hunts, the Cullens, the Murchisons and the lonely Sid Richardson. None of these names were terribly familiar to me, although I had a vague sense that Hunt=money at some point. Through luck, smarts and willingness to take risks continually, they built independent Texas oil fortunes in the 20s and 30s. Through their extravagant living, they created the idea of the insanely rich Texas oil tycoon and the culture of conspicuous consumption that lives on in Texas. Some of them were at least partially responsible for the rise of the Radical Right in 40s and 50s, although others were behind the rise of the greatest liberal of the second half of the 20th century, LBJ.

The stories follow a familiar pattern, but they are no less enthralling for it. Young penniless man takes a number of risks (including bigamy in one case) and then hits the jackpot. Newly rich man throws around his weight, gets burned by it and then lives to see his family decline as the scions make huge mistakes or battle viciously amongst themselves. Burroughs keeps the narrative moving quickly and his sympathetic look at these peculiar characters and their strange histories makes for good reading. It isn't just these families that make an appearance. We see a number of lesser (financial) lights, including the Bush family, who have oil to thank for their success.

In the conclusion, Burroughs notes that the time of the oil man has passed and the new Texas is a more cosmopolitan place, that doesn't have much time for poorly educated big hat oil men. It would be interesting. The place where you might find them still is China. In cities like Shanghai, the culture of mass consumption and sudden wealth is taking off. It will be interesting to see how they try to impact the power structure as the Texans did.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Charity book sales are the best

I hit two charity book sales this week. The first was at my kids school (it can raise a few thousand if you plan it correctly.) This one was given mostly to children's books, but I managed to find a few novels I wanted as well as a history of the Sicilian mob. More exciting was the Spring Friends of Multnomah County Library Sale.

This one is always busy, but this one felt like a mob scene. The space was tighter than usual, but I wonder if the depressed economy made cheap books (base rate was $1.50) all the more enticing. The new age book scouts, who use scanners to quickly identify the books that can make a quick buck, were working the room and rapidly depleting the sale of its choicer volumes. I initially despaired of finding anything I wanted, but I left with five books, so I think I did OK.

The first find was David Weber's By Schism Rent Asunder. This was a bit of risk, as I have, but have not read, the preceding volume, in this sequence. Weber writes military, some might say militaristic, scifi and is among the best at it, so I feel confident.

I then found a Pico Iyer book that looked good. I have been meaning to read him for some time. Next up was the Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I gave this one to someone and wanted another copy. I may read this one again, as it is the sort of book that would grow with re-reading. There was a beat-up copy of Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo, which I couldn't resist.

I was most excited by my final find, Jan Morris's Venetian Empire a Sea Voyage. The Venetian Empire is one of the less discussed of the world's empires. It was small, to be sure, focused only on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but it fascinating that a single city could have such an impact. Add to it that it was written by the excellent Jan Morris and I was all over it.

I had no idea this last book existed and this is among the reasons that the Internet will never replace bookstores for me. Finding little treasures like this one seems to happen more in person, probably because excellent recommedation engines online are still based primarily on books in print.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sometimes old school just seems old

I finally got my hands on a Matter for Men, the out of print, but much loved start to David Gerrold's unfinished War Against the Chtorr epic. I am quite mixed on this book. On the one hand, the sci-fi ideas in the book are great. It is an alien invasion book, but the tack Gerrold takes is novel. Rather than land in ships with tanks ablazing like World War 2 from space, this war is approached more in a guerilla fashion. The aliens impose their ecosystem on earth, slowly taking over niches so that become integrated into the ecology and that much harder to uproot. Its a neat metaphor for insurgency warfare and it isn't surprising that the initial forces sent to deal with them are Special Forces.

The political world he creates is equally fresh. In his world, the US is the 21st century Weimar, held down by the other nation's who fear its use of military power. The other nations have come, as was the case in the 1930s, to resist any call to use military power, which causes conflict in how to deal with the Chtorran invasion.

The story itself makes for great scifi reading, but the characters and the dialogue made me grit my teeth. Gerrold dedicates the book to the Heinleins and he is clearly emulating Heinlein in the book. He shows the growth of a young man into a key leadership position, but I didn't find this character development terribly convincing or interesting.

Gerrold devotes long chapters to Socratic dialogues where, for example, the main character receives his political education at the canny hands of a grizzled vet teacher. Later his gains knowledge from a series of military and political figures where he goes through the cycle of FNG rejection, to grudging respect, to eventual team membership. More than once the "I don't know whether to shoot you or promote you" cliche is rolled out. Our hero doesn't want to listen to the Man's rules or orders you see, yet he is in the military.

Then there is the depiction of women, rarely a point of strength in science fiction, but pretty bad here. We have the ice-cold leader types and the screaming hysterical types who can only speak in stream of consciousness self loathing emotionalism. The latter are particularly annoying. To be fair, the main character is given to emotional outbursts himself, but he also has a bit more nuance.

So this is a tough one. For those who can look past the warts, there is some great stuff here. Just beware.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I got a sickness, sweet as a love note

Among genre fiction, vampire fiction sometimes get a better reputation than others. This is due to the common understanding that there is a subtext of sex, power, disease or other social issues lying beneath the stories. Vampires can even be grafted into other genres, as seen in Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt series, which is really noir social criticism. If you like noir and vampires, you need those books. I limit myself to one of his books every few months so that the pleasure of reading them doesn't end too quickly.

Sometimes though, vampire stories are just tales with really nasty monsters. 30 Days of Night was a graphic novel (since followed by sequels and stories set in its universe) that told of a tribe of vampires descending onto an Alaskan town in sunless depths of winter. I thought it was good enough to read some more, but not the best thing I have ever read.

Perhaps my moderate expectations helped here, but I thought the film version was a decent bit of bloody, violent entertainment. The violence in the comic was so stylized that the victims seemed a bit faceless. Here the cruelty and wickedness of the vampires is emphasized and the film is more frightening for it. The longer build-up and the plight of the initial survivors gives the film quite a bit more tension than the comic. There are a few changes of note from the graphic novel, but readers of the comic shouldn't expect great shocks.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bungle in the jungle

The Perfect Storm was one of the great nonfiction reads of the last decade. The quality of the writing was critical to the success of the book, but so was Junger's choice to tell multiple interconnected stories with a focus on the most mysterious and tragic story and his judicious use of background information to provide dread and to make the central story all the more compelling. While it doesn't reach the scream from the rooftops Everyone on Earth Must Read This quality of Junger's book, David Grann's The Lost City of Z is an excellent read that shares the qualities that made the Perfect Storm so good.

The central character of the story is Percy Fawcett who disappeared, along with his son and the son's friend, in the 1920s looking for the city known as Z, supposedly located in the depths of the Amazon. He was a hard driving man who appeared to be largely impervious to the physical hardships of the jungle. He successfully explored many of the unknown areas of the Bolivian/Brazilian border region and was known for a much friendlier relationship with the local tribes than was current at the time. He was also quite hard on those who didn't meet his sky high standards.

Grann tells the story of Fawcett's life interspersed with the stories of those who tried, and failed, to determine what happened to Fawcett. He even travels himself to Brazil and meets with the locals and anthropologists that live among them. He brings some new information to light, as well as bringing in some insights popularized in 1491.

One of the great temptations of nonfiction writers is to use research regardless of its value to the central thesis or story. Grann resists this well, presenting a range of extra information, all of it used to support and enrich, rather than distract from his overall points. He tells of the brutal exploitation of Indian tribes for rubber. These horrible tales are used to explain the hostility of the Indians to outsiders. His stories of the parasites (including the nightmarish candiru), snakes, diseases and worm infestations could simply be lurid terror stories, but Grann relates how explorers on the expeditions regularly experienced them. The descriptions make the tales of exploration all that much more enthralling.

The books closes about as well as it could, with some revelations. Don't come looking for final answers, but do come looking for an amazing story.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters

Somehow or the other, I put the Tale of Two Sisters (trailer below) on my Netflix list. I think I was looking for more Korean genre film after watching the excellent monster movie, the Host, and the brutal revenge pic, Oldboy. This one is straight horror in the Japanese mold, complete with creepy female figures crawling around with long hair covering their faces. There are a number of good scares, including a disturbing ghost entering a room scene, but the mystery elements are probably better. The peculiarity of the dialogue and the character's strange behavior is unsettling, but makes sense by the end of the film. I didn't like this one as much as the Host or Oldboy, but it is worth watching.

This was recently remade as the Uninvited.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A few comments on my current reads

Every few weeks I realize I have too many books checked out from the library. I say too many because they are holding me back from reading books I own or recently bought, but more importantly because many of them are due back at the same time. So, I picked one of them up thinking that I would skim a bit and return it to the library. Daniel Bergner's The Other Side of Desire, an exploration of outre sexuality and what it means to live with desires that society finds bizarre or even repugnant was just sitting there and nearly got the axe. For some reason I thought it would be dry (who knows why), but instead I found a sympathetic account of a shoe fetishist that has an attempt to capture his sexual worldview, (skip to the next para if you have a deliciate sensibility) a description that ended with the neologism "footcunt." Goodness gracious me, I can't possibly put it down now.

My sci-fi read is the out of print Matter for Men. I know sci-fi tends to attract the boys, but could he have picked a less obvious title? Anyway, the set-up is great, Earth is devastated by a series of plagues and horrible, nasty worms from space have come to gobble up the remaining populace. So far I quite like it, despite a clear lift from Starship Troopers's wise veteran schooling the callow youth scene. The major downside is that this is an incomplete series that may never be completed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Make up your mind, decide to walk with me

I have a love-hate relationship with horror novels. It is mostly hate, as it is a debased genre, but I keep trying. I saw a fair bit of notice about Robert Masello's Blood and Ice, and I somehow got it into my head that it was a bit of supernatural horror along the lines of the Relic, a book mostly and unfortunately known for the bad movie version. That is not the case.

Relic is all about creepy atmospherics, a terrible nasty beasty and then a bit of mystery as well. Blood and Ice has two good spots for atmosphere, 19th century Crimea and modern day Antarctica, but this book is really an adventure story, where the characters face a series of challenges and deal with them down quite nicely. Masello tells the 19th century story and the modern day one in alternation, and while the initial mystery isn't really much of one (if you can't the nature of the problem by page 5, you haven't read many of these books), there are a number of small ones. It also has a bit of romance, where lost love is healed. If it had been tightened up by about 100 pages, it would be just right for the adventure story fan.

Well, I am not an adventure story fan. When I read these sorts of thrillers, I prefer psychological breakdowns, horrific circumstances and environments and muddled endings where the meaning of victory and survival is not clear. So this one wasn't for me. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tom Ricks is great

Tom Ricks' The Gamble is an excellent book about the Surge, a subject that was largely discussed in terms of the Presidential debate. Ricks doesn't ignore that context, but he is more interested in how it happened and what it means. His takes a mixed view. He argues that the operational goal, the stabilization of the situation, worked, but the long term goal, creating a means for the US to exit, did not. If you are interested in the subject, then you really need to read the book. Rather than talk about the book itself, I'd rather talk about what makes Ricks writer on the topic.

Bob Woodward is justly known for his contacts within DC. His books are filled with insights gained from a series of interviews that few can get. Ricks has similar connections within the military leadership. Woodward's book on the surge tells the story from DC, Ricks tells it from Baghdad.

Despite this deep integration into the military he remains analytically distant and keeps the writing at a level understandable to a reasonably educated reader. Someone as plugged into his subject might come to avoid criticism. Even when praising his subjects, he takes time to show those that have a different view. Maybe even more impressive, at the end of the book he questions whether everything he has been telling you really matters.

Despite talking almost exclusively about military operations, and in particular counterinsurgency or COIN as it is known, Ricks keeps the language at a level you might find in a newspaper, instead of a specialty journal. Makes sense, as he made his living as a newspaper reporter, but it makes the book so much easier to read when you don't have to wade through jargon and inside baseball.

It is unfortunate he no longer works as a reporter, but if we can get more books like his Iraq books, I think it will be a good trade.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview with Kamran Pasha

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers. You can see my review of the book below this post. I recommend it to all historical fiction readers and to those who want to learn more about early Islam.

1) For what reasons did you choose Aisha, Muhammad's wife, to tell this story?

I have always been fascinated by Aisha. She single-handedly shatters every stereotype of the oppressed and submissive Muslim woman. A scholar, a poet and a warrior, Aisha led a life that is comparable with the most remarkable men in history. She was a passionate and fiercely intelligent woman who changed the course of human civilization, yet has received almost no attention in Western literature. In writing Mother of the Believers, I wanted to bring Aisha to life for Western readers who have never heard of her and who would be fascinated by her incredible story.

2) As the story progresses, Aisha's actions become controversial. How is Aisha viewed in the Islamic community today?

Aisha remains a controversial figure today. Most Muslims revere her as the Prophet’s beloved wife, and respect her scholarship and contribution to Islamic law and theology. Aisha recounted thousands of hadith, or oral traditions, about Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings, and her service in preserving Islamic history is admired by most people in the community. But her later actions, specifically her military activities during the first Islamic civil war, remain problematic for many Muslims. Aisha led a battle against Ali, the Prophet’s cousin who had been elected Caliph, or leader, of the Muslim community.

As I recount in my novel, Aisha had a long-standing personal grudge against Ali and refused to accept his legitimacy as the new leader. Her agitation against Ali ignited the civil war and led to the split of Islam into two sects, Sunnis (Muslims that believe the leadership of Islam should be chosen by consensus) and Shia (those who believe Ali and his descendants are the only legitimate leaders of Islam).

The Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority of Muslims, rarely talk about Aisha’s role in the civil war, saying at most that she was mistaken in her political activities, but generally forgive her participation in the conflict. The minority Shia have a more negative reaction, as Aisha’s actions are seen as a direct affront to their beloved leader Ali. Some Shia go as far as to vilify Aisha and view her as a sinner and a curse on the Muslim community. And as we see tragically in modern Iraq, this ancient dispute from Aisha’s time continues to lead to bloodshed today between Sunni and Shia.

3) Do you expect that people in the West and those in the Islamic world will react differently to the book? Are you trying to communicate different things to these two groups?

I think that there are two kinds of people inside both communities – those who see Islam as a religion of love, and those who see Islam as a religion of hate. Among the latter, you have the Islamic fundamentalists and the anti-Muslim bigots who share the same distorted vision of Islam, the vision that is often pushed by the media, of a religion that is steeped in extremism. One group embraces that interpretation of Islam, and the other vows to fight it.

But neither group understands the true Islam of love, compassion and human brotherhood, which is the religion Prophet Muhammad taught, and the religion I follow, as do the vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. My book is not written for Islamic extremists and their Western counterparts, and neither will appreciate my efforts to portray Islam as a deeply human faith, a religion founded on love by spiritual but fallible human beings. But that vision will appeal to everyone else. I believe Muslims who are secure in their faith will find my book to be inspiring, while others who want to learn ore about Islam will find it enlightening.

4) What lessons do you think the story of Aisha has for today's women?

Aisha shows all women, Muslim and non-Muslim, that they can have a powerful impact on the world if they follow their hearts. Aisha was a strong woman who refused to be intimidated by men and forged her own destiny. And she made mistakes along the way, but she kept learning and growing throughout her life. In that respect, Aisha led a truly human life and her example is an inspiration for both men and women throughout the ages.

5) How would you compare the interest in historical fiction in Islamic countries as compared to the United States?

I think the market for historical fiction in the Islamic world has been smaller primarily because few authors have written books targeted to the Muslim community in the first place. That is one of the reasons I wrote this book, to show Muslims that they have incredible stories from within their own historical tradition. I hope that my novel inspires a whole new genre of historical fiction set in the Muslim world. I think at this moment in history, such novels are needed to build bridges of understanding across civilizations. Despite our differences in religion, language and culture, we all share a common love for great storytelling. Stories are the ultimate bridge between worlds.

6) Which, if any, historical figures would you like to portray next?

My next novel, Shadow of the Swords, is set during the Crusades, and follows the conflict between King Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim leader Saladin for Jerusalem. But at its core, it is a love story, which shows how the human heart can survive even under the shadow of war and destruction. It is a story that I hope will heal some of the wounds that have poisoned the relationship between the West and the Islamic world since the Crusades.

Mother of the Believers

There are lots of excellent books about Islam and the Middle East available to the Western reader today. Depending on your political bent you might prefer Karen Armstrong or Bernard Lewis, but regardless there is a book for you. The problem is that many readers just do not like nonfiction. They would rather read a shorter piece somewhere like the Atlantic or the New Yorker, but big histories are not their thing. Unfortunately, when trying to learn about topics as large as entire cultures, magazine articles probably won't cut it.

Historical fiction has plenty of great books about European, American and Western history. Most of my understanding of the English treatment of the Welsh comes from Sharon Kay Penman. The historical fiction looking for the depiction of the Islamic world, from an Islamic perspective, has not had much to choose. With his new Mother of the Believers, Kamran Pasha is giving Western readers an opportunity to learn more about early Islamic history through a narrative novel, rather than a history book.

The titular Mother of the Believer is Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives. Her story begins in Mecca, where her father is an early adherent to Islam. At that point, the religion was a despised minority often abused by the powerful clans of the town. The story then follows the Muslim flight and eventual return to Mecca thanks to the diplomacy of Muhammad and the dedication of the devoted Muslims. After Muhammad's death, Aisha became involved in politics and in some of the early stirrings of the Sunni - Shia split, much to her eventual dismay.

Pasha does an excellent job maintaining the narrative drive. Despite our knowledge of the eventual outcome, the story of the early Muslims trial in Arabia is nail biting as it seems unlikely that they could survive the range of tribulations they faced. Those familiar with early Christian history will see similarities in the trials of the early adherents and then the rise of politics as the religion gained power.

As noted in the interview posted above, Pasha is working on another work of historical fiction. This one will be in the time of the Crusades. Let's hope his work opens the door to more.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blueberries for Sal back

I had no idea, as we already have a few copies and aren't looking for more, but Blueberries for Sal has been unavailable for a year thanks to a dispute between the estate of Robert McCloskey and his publisher. It's such a nice book, I am happy to know it is available. The new edition will apparently have "bluer" blues which may require a new copy. He has many great books, but I especially like Time of Wonder, about a summer spent on an island in Maine. The art is gorgeous and captures the magic of childhood summers so well.

Frenchman's Cove

Daphne Du Maurier is best known for the novel Rebecca, but she actually wrote a number of novels, plays and screenplays. While much of her work has been in the shadows for years, we are starting to see a bit more of her. Sourcebooks has recently republished her Frenchman's Creek. Fans of Rafael Sabatini and other romantic period adventures will be quite pleased with this book. Set in du Maurier's beloved Cornwall in the Restoration era, the restless and unhappily married Lady Dona St Colomb finds herself captured and eventually joining forces with a pirate.

Du Maurier clearly loves the region in which the book is set. She does an excellent job describing it and the action sequences. I suspect that most readers enjoyment will hinge on their reaction to Dona. Those looking for vicarious escape from their own troubles will take heart in her rejection of her circumstances and her place in society as she finds true love and her hearts desire at the side of a pirate. Others may blanch at her carefree rejection of parental and marital responsibility.

Reviewing her background on Wikipedia, there is the possibility that the book served as a form of escapism for Du Maurier herself. She believed that she had two personalities within her. One was a loving mother while another was a free spirited artist. There is also the question of whether her own marriage was happy or not and. I suppose that most novels can find their roots in the persona lives of their authors, but it remains interesting.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting geeky with it

Man that BSG is good. I rapidly burned through Season 4 the first half on DVD only to find that no longer has the second half on-line. So I suppose I have to wait. This show has had some serious ups and downs, but this season is really quite something. The end of the season was completely awesome in a classic sci-fi way. Avoiding spoilers for the second half is going to be quite difficult.

Per a friend's recommendation, I picked up the Walking Dead again. This is a grim as hell graphic novel about life after the rise of zombies in the US. I had the rest the first book and it felt fairly pedestrian. It showed a group of people banding together, then meeting other people and falling into conflicts as they tried to survive constant zombie attacks. Fairly common zombie fare. The later books bring on the dreadful notion of trying to survive long-term in such a situation. The mental and physical strain becomes worse for all involved and the carnage and cruelty levels get upped with each issue.

The book's art is black and white which has its pros and cons. On the up side, the violence would become a bit much in full color. On the downside, most of the characters devolve into scraggly looking younger guys and scraggily looking older guys. It can hard to tell them apart.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Some books I am reading at the moment

I am nearly done with Tom Rick's The Gamble, his follow up to the magnificent Fiasco. Although you could certainly read The Gamble without reading Fiasco, it would be a waste not to read them both. Fiasco is longer and much bleaker focusing on how the war became such a clusterfuck. The Gamble is about the coming of the surge and where we are now. While you are reading the Gamble you will want to go read the various smarties over at In Other Words (including Ricks himself) talk about the book.

I'll have more on it later (short answer: it's awesome, go read it) but most readers of the books will note the difference in the portrayal of General Raymond Odierno,the current commander of US forces in Iraq. He came out rather poorly in Fiasco. In the initial invasion, he commanded the 4th Infantry Division, which had a reputation for excessive force and was criticized by Ricks for contributing to the rise of the insurgency. In the Gamble, he is one of the great heros, taking a careful counter-insurgent approach and winning the trust and support of the pacifistic Emma Sky.

So the question I have is whether Ricks got it wrong in the first book, perhaps overemphasizing the force used by the 4th ID, or whether Odierno truly changed his approach to warfighting. I am having a hard time thinking of any other senior military leader who made such a sea change.

I am about to start the Lost City of Z, which sounds awesome. It concerns a real life Indiana Jones explorer who was lost in Brazil in the 20s. What is interesting is the blurbage firepower on the back. There are multi-sentence blurbs from Erik Larson, Charles Mann, Malcolm Gladwell, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Hampton Sides. The author, David Grann, is a New Yorker writer, which I suspect gives him great pull, but sheesh, that is the nonfiction big think bestseller crowd coming out in force.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


I feel pretty guilty about not saying more about the No Doubt cover of Stand and Deliver. It is pretty terrible and you shouldn't listen to it. Perhaps if we all perform the proper rituals, the radio gods will listen and keep this song off the airwaves. For much more entertainment, please watch the video below for the New Pornographers Mutiny, I Promise You. Things for which to watch: Neko Case giving instructions on knife fighting, crazy horse dancing and an homage to the Shiny Happy People video that is much better than the original.

This is probably the nastiest thing I have read all year. I was all set to drink a nice Dog Fish Head Palo Santo Marron. Guess I will wait until tomorrow.

Take a gander at Stephen Walt's top ten books for international relations students. The last word might scare you away. Consider it a list for people interested in international relations.

How Reacher came to be Reacher

Lee Child's Jack Reacher books tend to elicit extreme responses. (Boy, that website is something, note how the smoke moving across the page flows from the cigarette of Child on to the nearly shirtless Reacher actor. Steamy!) Anyway, people either love the hard-boiled prose, the violence and the twisty mysteries, or they view the prose as overly staccato, Reacher as an unrealistic superhuman and the violence as disturbing. I count myself in the former group, but I can see how it isn't everyone's cup of Double Bergamot Earl Grey.

I've just read the Enemy, which is a sort of Reacher Origins story, to take a comic book concept. The year is 1990 and Reacher is still an MP. On New Year's Eve, he is called in to investigate the death of an Army general found naked and dead in a no-tell motel. As soon as Reacher tries to investigate he finds himself stymied and in danger, grave danger. The story shows a little of Reacher's family history as well as the starting point for his departure from the Army.

We learn that Reacher's military unit is a special police unit that is set outside the normal military chain of command, so that it can better investigate anyone up and down the military hierarchy. This helps explain how the lone wolf Reacher of the books set later in his career could stand to work for an organization like the Army.

Child is particularly good at misdirecting the reader, an essential trait in a mystery. While I had a sense of where things were going, he managed a couple of nice surprises. I also quite liked the Army setting. We get a nice does of intra-Army politics and infighting as well as life on the base.

I didn't love the ending I have to admit. I liked the very end, as the darker Reacher finally emerges, but the climatic revelations went on a bit long. The ride beforehand is great though. This book could even be a reasonable entry point to the series as it is more reflective of the style of other books in the series than the ghoulish Killing Floor, the first book in the series.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bummer cover

No Doubt is covering Stand and Deliver, and it is sad. Sad because it slaughters a perfectly good song and because No Doubt is capable of so much more. It is not the best match as the original so nicely balances irony and a desire for pop success, and No Doubt doesn't go for irony. Generally speaking, slowing the tempo is a good way to go in covers, but not in this case apparently.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Hooray for Canada

Oh happy day! Metric is coming to Portland on June 5th! KNRK is giving the original and acoustic versions of Help I'm Alive a fair amount of airplay which I suppose means I should buy my ticket early. Here is the video for the new song "Gimme Sympathy." The apparent Stones reference is born out in the lyrics:

Thinking about Metric, I realize that most of my favorite music of late has come from Canada. Here are some examples:

The New Pornographers - Spanish Techno. Maybe my favorite song of the century, definitely my favorite video of the century.

Broken Social Scene - Almost Crimes. Nice showcase of Leslie Feist on this one.

Wolf Parade - An Animal in Your Care. I'm still mad I didn't go see these guys the last time they came to town.

Do you remember, your President Wilson?

By now, surveys of Imperial America are a dime a dozen, but they tend to focus on the Cold War years or on the Bush/Cheney years. In the 70s, the late Walter Karp wrote about the relationship between domestic politics and aggressive foreign policy in the era of the Spanish American war and World War One and it may surprise many readers who view the era as a sleepy one.

In his book, The Politics of War, Karp argues that America switched from an isolationist to an imperial policy as a means of deflecting cries of reform from the populist and progressive political forces. Specifically, fears in both the Democratic and Republican parties of overthrow by new rising parties led them to both support foreign adventures. He argues this was a decisive break with the small r republican views of the founding fathers. This support for overseas adventure provided an underlying cause of the Spanish-American War and American entry into World War One, while the personal drives of Presidents McKinley and Wilson provided the proximate causes.

Although his view of McKinley isn't rosy, Wilson is Karp's great villain. He sees the beginnings of excessive executive power that eventually rose in the likes of Nixon (and now Bush) in the actions that Wilson took to suppress any dissent to his policies. He also views the rejection of the League of Nations, typically discussed in an foreign policy context, through the lens of domestic politics. He portrays the American political class and populace as entirely disgusted with Wilson and wanting no part of his plans.

I think Karp overstates American isolation before the coming of McKinley. The US went to war with Britain in 1812 in hopes of grabbing Canada. It invaded Mexico in 1848 to seize California. So I have hard time seeing the Phillipine land grab as out of character as Karp does. That said, I found his analysis of the domestic sources of foreign policy fresh and relevant to our politics today.

It is still a common op-ed trope to bemoan the united front the US people supposedly had in the Cold War. This is usually prefaced with the idea that, back then, politics ended at shore of the country. It's nonsense, of course, throughout the Cold War there was vigorous disagreement about how to deal with the Soviets, the Chinese, the Europeans and the Latin Americans. This book provides more evidence that domestic politics and foreign politics are very much tied together.

Some excitement

Tom Holland's popular history Rubicon remains one of my favorite history books. It tells the story of the last decades of the Roman Republic in an informative, but entertaining way that had me fixated for days. I thought that his next book, Persian Fire, was less successful, but still quite good. So I am still quite thrilled to see he has another on the way. He has moved closer to the modern era with another broad topic, the Rise of the West. The book is called The Forge of Christendom. This one will be going to the top of the pile.

While not as personally exciting as a new Tom Holland, I am happy to see that Arthur Phillips has a new book out. I loved the Egyptologist and I hope this new one matches that one. For a sense of his style, read this guest post at the Amazon blog Omnivoracious.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Essays vs. Short Stories

Citizen Reader had a book reading menage last week that compared essays and short stories. The books under consideration were Dangerous Laughter by Stephen Millhauser and The Braindead Megaphone by George Sanders. I preferred the Millhauser short story collection over the book of essays, but the discussion over at Citizen Reader got me thinking about short pieces.

I tend not to read a lot of essays and short fiction. For whatever reason, I tend to read any book from start to finish. When I run into an essay or short story that doesn't work, I tend to skip to the next and read a bit faster. After a couple misfires, I am flying through the book, racing to the end, feeling generally dissatisfied. Usually one or two stories will stand out (sometimes an entire collection as in Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life and Others or Edward P Jones's Lost in the City) but my reading style means I often miss the gems or give up on a collection early in the book.

The Millhauser book is organized by theme which helped another problem I have with collections. In many cases, the shift in subject matter, tone, voice or other changes is so jarring that I end up putting the book down. I thought this was particularly the case with the Saunders book where he hopped from angry polemic to humorous travel writing in a few short pages. I usually liked the essays, but I didn't care for the transitions.

Making matters worse is that I hate to have any book in an unfinished state. The only worse than looking at all the books I haven't yet read is seeing a book that I still haven't finished. I realize that I this is entirely wrong-headed thinking, but I always consider the opportunity cost of each read and the perception that reading a book of of essays and short stories will slow me down usually prevents me from starting.

Revisting songs

Every few months, the radio behemoths resurrect an oldie and give it a sudden burst of airplay across their numerous radio properties. Despite it's awfulness, Jane's Addiction's Jane Says is sure to pop up every few months. I've been disturbed to hear Cake's cover of I Will Survive more than once in the past few weeks. Sometimes they get it right, as in the revival of New Moon on Monday last summer. We can only hope for the likes of Oingo Boingo's My Private Life.

I keep hoping that I will rediscover one of these songs and realize I how much I should have loved it back then. One song that has rocketed from admiration to all time fave status is Don Henley's Boys of Summer. The video (below) remains one of the greatest and is what first brought it to my attention. In my teenage Misfits addled mind, the undeniable catchiness warred with the desire to not like anything by a former Eagle.

It doesn't take a doctorate in philosophy to note that a song that so perfectly captures the notions of regret and nostalgic loss will be much more appealing to a person in their late 30s than to someone in their early teens. It does raise the possibility that there are other songs out there that might have surprising resonance. I just hope it isn't a Kansas or Boston song.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


A few years back B.R. Myers made a splash with an attack on what passed for greatness in literature and on the literary elite that sets the standard for taste. In a Reader's Manifesto, he includes his original essay along with criticisms of the essay and his response. In occasionally waspish but just as often exasperated tones, Myers attacks the prose style of Proulx, DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, Moody and others. This means you might, as I did, laugh at some of these sections and feel sheepish in others. I nodded vigorously at his attacks on DeLillo (he uses White Noise which I thought was flat out terrible,) but then got into a huff about his review of McCarthy whose prose I do like.

His attacks on the weakness of the prose (over-wrought, meaningless, retreads of better recent works, humorless and so on) are entertaining, but they do not provide the heart of the book. The main target of the book is the world of the literary review, which praises this prose and heaps scorn on those that don't disagree, essentially using the "they don't get it" argument.

Like the foreign policy and finance establishments, the elites are careful not to be too critical of their review subjects, as they often are hoping for good treatment themselves. The critics publish novels and hope for nice notices and the novelist becomes critics themselves and further praise their friends.

Myers would have readers read the books they like and feel free to call crap crap. He paints the modern literary world as a throwback to the medieval church, where the mysteries of the texts could only be deciphered by the literary priesthood and the readers should just read as they are told. Myers notes an infuriating exchange between Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison where Winfrey says she had to re-read and puzzle out certain paragraphs, Morrison replies that she is describing "reading." Myers counters that what she is describing is "bad writing." If you have been flummoxed by seemingly opaque prose, then you will likely enjoy this book.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Terrible news

Michael Cox, author of the Meaning of Night, has died of cancer at 60. I've not read his latest and last, The Glass of Time, but I will be sure to savor it.


I was all excited for Jeffrey Ford's the Shadow Year, but I am giving up on it. Set somewhere in late 60s, early 70s Long Island, it is a coming of age tale with elements of the supernatural. There are some really great scenes in the book including a crazy Halloween night, where the kids hunt one another with eggs and the dreaded Nair Bomb and odd grotesques as the protagonist comes to see the fallibility and weakness of those around them. All the while, a prowler and a figure in white haunt the children of town. That said it didn't seem to be going anywhere so I am moving on to something else.

While reading the book, I thought it would be nifty to listen to the Killing Moon for its sense of dread (I can thank Donnie Darko for planting that in my head.) This lead to the thought that a nice use of the Kindle would be an addition of an author selected soundtrack for a book. It could be chapter driven or just play along as background. It would need a number of features, but it would also make Kindle books more attractive and unique.