Monday, June 29, 2009

The Issues of Red Seas Under Red Skies

I'm in the happy position of owning a large number of unread very large fantasy novels. I've been watching the pile grow, but getting The Blade Itself for Father's Day made me decide I really had to tame the beast. I chose Red Seas Under Red Skies for the next one. Short review: Good read, but no Lies of Locke Lamora.

More on that later, but I have to mention a fundamental problem with these books. The main characters are thieves who happen to be as good with a weapon as they are with a cheeky quip. They are just too nice to be thieves in the nasty world that author Scott Lynch portrays. Lynch has a town where bored aristocrats pay money to watch the poor publicly tortured. Assassins are everywhere and the powerful are venal to a person. Danger is everywhere.

The thieves just don't act like the worn down people they would have to be. They regularly spare people, even people who were just trying to kill them. At one vexing point, someone tries to cut a rope that if cut, would lead to a violent death. They escape and let the fellow go, with a mild beating. This was done no doubt for plot purposes I have yet to see, but it is simply unbelievable. In another scene, a young man loses a contest and dies for it. Locke Lamora goes over to say a little prayer for him. Really? I know he wants us to like the guy, but come on.

It is like he wants a brutal world like China Mieville's while populating it with happy go lucky Oceans 11 characters. I felt the same way about the first book, but I was willing to let it slide because the plotting was so good. The less well crafted sequel makes the fundamental problems more glaring.

Anyway, it is good enough to continue. I will see if he can rescue the book.

Albums as set lists

Carrie Brownstein delivers the news that the Pixies will be playing Doolittle in track order in an upcoming tour. This follows similar efforts by Sonic Youth with Daydream Nation and Liz Phair with Exile and Guyville. I think that someone like myself, who missed the band in the heyday and really wants to hear a certain set of songs, is the target for these shows. This raises the question of which shows, prompted perhaps, by a need to pay for the kids's steep college bills, we would like to see. I suspect my top votes would be for Slanted and Enchanted, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Q:Are We Not Men A: We are Devo. I was going to say London Calling (impossible I know) but there is a bit too much fluff there.

A bad way to start your week

I've made no secret that good covers are among my favorite things on Earth. Some covers though are about as fun as someone vomiting directly into your mouth. The Spinnerette cover of Devo's The Day My Baby Me a Surprize makes the horrendous No Doubt cover of Stand and Deliver seem like Cash's cover of Hurt. In fact, pretend I didn't tell you about this Spinnerette garbage and just listen to the Man in Black instead.

Or check this TV special version of Cash's cover of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, with Jim Varney as an Army of Northern Virginia regular.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

You can come back Lizzie, indie rock never forgets

Liz Phair is to indie rock fans as Anakin is to Obi Wan at the end of Revenge of the Sith. As she turns to the dark side, we weep and cry out "You were the Chosen One!" Then we see her dispatched in the fiery lava of critical lambast. It is my hope that we may now be approaching the scene where she turns back to the Light and tells us "You were right, tell the fans, you were right."

You may have caught last year's re-release of Exile In Guyville, her epochal debut release. Last year she played a few shows during which she played only songs from Exile (I should have caught one of these. Oh well, I get to see the Pogues with Shane this year). She is now apparently working on a new solo record, which is supposed to be a return to the early sounds. The video below gives me some hope as she mocks her lost decade and her sex kitten reputation.

It's hard to overstate how much I loved this record when it came out. She brings so much emotional power to her lyrical short stories that I listened again and again. Haters will argue that the only reason indie guys like her is that she is A) hot and B) frequently given to dirty, dirty talk. Both of these things are true, and are in fact, awesome. This is certainly an element in her success, but without it we would like only slightly, only slightly less than we used to.

Still, the sex element can't be dismissed. You can point to her covering the classic ode to masturbation Turning Japanese, or lyrics as blue as "I want to fuck you like a dog, Ill take you home and make you like it." I still maintain it is the truth in songs like Divorce Song that makes her the special artist she can be.

So I await the new album with measured excitement. It could be something quite good, if she really is going back to the roots. Yes, she is working with Banana Republic, but indie gods Sonic Youth put out a hits ALBUM with Starbucks. So I am willing to cut her some slack there. Won't you?

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Back in the late 90s, we lived in Boston. Some of our friends regaled us of tales of bands we missed by getting there too late. One of them was Fuzzy. By the time we heard it, the band's time had passed. The alterna-guitar sound had moved into a quiescent phase. The band wasn't around for the return. Here is 4 Wheel Friend, my favorite from the self titled CD. You may find the singing a bit languorous, but it works for me.

Crossing over county lines

We just got back from a week long trip to Central Oregon. From my experience, when people think of Oregon, they think of Portland -- rainy, green and filled with beer drinkers and hippies. Central, and particularly eastern Oregon is dry, brown and sparsely populated. It reminds me of Utah really. Below is a photo of Ayers Rock/Uluru like Fort Rock which rises out of the flat desert. Highly recommended.

While out there, we visited the farming family of my wife's cousin. They do have neighbors, a handful or so within a circle of ten miles. So I am very pleased to be reading Michael Perry's Population 485, a collection of autobiographical essays about working as an EMT in a very small Wisconsin town. While the geography is different, I am looking forward to reading about life in small communities.

The book is part of Citizen Reader's upcoming book menage. Do participate, won't you? Also, congratulations are in order, as CR will be guest blogging on Book Ninja!

Monday, June 22, 2009

A bit of military history

There are a number of books that I want to read, but then I see them on the remainder table. More often than not, books on the remainder table are bad news, but sometimes bad luck or publisher overestimation of interest lands them in book purgatory. Stephen Budiansky's Air Power: Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk To Gulf War II is a book that interested me, but I saw it on the dread remainder table AND it had that word revolutionized in the title.

That word appeared to me, at least, to be code for the idea that Air Power had transformed warfare and made all other forms of power redundant. For the most part, the book isn't like that at all. Instead, it reviews the history of airplanes as a weapon from World War I all the way up to the Second Gulf War. Budiansky is critical of most of the leaders of Air Forces. He criticizes the World War 2 generals in particular for their single minded focus on strategic (read: city) bombing at the expense of tactical support of armies. These leaders became the leaders of the new Air Force who then built a bomber centric air force incapable of handling the tasks before it in Korea and Vietnam.

So far so good. Lots of critical analysis, the right balance between technology and application, a great discussion of airframes, and a number of great stories. It all falls apart in the last chapter.

In the last chapter, Budiansky seems to become a convert to the Air Power cause with the advent of precision munitions. He lauds the use of these weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan and notes that these weapons essentially won the war. Well, we now know they didn't.

These problems aside, the book is a good read for a narrow audience. For those who want to go beyond a basic understanding of airplanes as weapons, it is a good place to start. Many will find it too long. Those more deeply read in the field will dislike the cursory treatment given to many subjects.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Have you seen this ridiculously awesome looking trailer for 2012, Roland Emmerich's disaster movie? There are so many excellent scenes, but the aircraft carrier rolling onto the White House has to be one of the best.

Off to lovely Central Oregon

Back in a few days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I've tended to like Stephen Baxter's science fiction. He tends to go for truly epic scales and events. I particularly liked his Xeelee Sequence, which details a multi-millennium year long saga about the fate of the Universe. His most recent book is called simply Flood.

It's a bit odd. It starts off as what appears to be a global warming tale, what with rising seas, but then the seas keep rising. They rise far more than predicted by the global warming models. The characters feel a bit incidental, and are certainly uninteresting. Here Baxter appears to want to show how the world would react to a extraordinary crisis. For a novel about a world threatening crisis, the human element feels a bit lost as well. This is no The Road, to be sure. I think it is really best for disaster fans, but they might think it a bit slow and wordy.

Here, Baxter reviews a wide range of books and movies about the flooding of London. Worth your time.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mieville on Tolkein

Check out China Mieville on why Tolkein is awesome. Strange, I didn't think he liked Tolkein. Anyway, it's all good, but I particularly like the bit posted below. He hits the nail on the head that the partially described, vaguely nightmarish monsters are often the best.

3) The Watcher in the Water

Dude. That totally was cool. I mean, say what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now. And so on.

But the thing about the Watcher in the Water is WTF? Here the technique of under-describing, withholding, comes startlingly to the fore, that other great technique for communicating balefulness. We know almost nothing about the many-limbed thing in the water outside Moria. Some think it's a giant squid: me, I say not, given that it lives in fresh water, has too many tentacles, and that those tentacles have fingers. Which squids don't have. But we know three things. It is tentacular; it is badass; and it is weird. And that uncertainty is what makes it rock.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Well here is a place I need to visit, a hidden beer bar on NE Fremont. I am a tad ashamed that I live about 3 blocks from it and didn't know it existed.

Here is James Ellroy talking about something. Haven't watched yet myself.

Two beverages of note: La Folie from New Belgium Brewing, and Vita Coco. With its Fat Tire, New Belgium is the brewery that really won me over to American craft beer. I had since moved on to other breweries, but with the Lips of Faith program I am an avid fan once more. This one is not cheap at $14 a bottle, but it is a really special beer. Part of the odd sour beer family, this one is oddly refreshing with its cherry tang.

For those wanting non-alchoholic refreshment, the Vita Coco drinks are hard to beat. Made of "coconut water," they sound more like a waste product than something that costs as much as a beer. The taste is like an incredibly clean and pure Gatorade. I find it addictive.

Oh my, covers of each song off of Doolittle.

Slouching towards Dachau

Mixing Logan's Run and Never Let Me Go, Swedish debut novelist Nini Holmqvist' the Unit, describes a future where childless elders are sent to clinical units for medical experimentation and organ donation. The elders (50+ for women and 60+ for men), called dispensibles, are taken away by efficient means and then locked away until death in brightly lit but isolated rooms.

The story centers on Dorrit, an underemployed artist who nevers has children, two strikes in the utilitarian, economic efficiency focused society Holmqvist depicts. The society above all values contribution to the group, and apparently art doesn't count. Sending people to these units is justified because they can no longer give to group economically, so they give their organs and their bodies for experiments. A major theme of the book is that value can't always be quantified and that life shouldn't be guided in that way. While I think the explanation of how the society got there could have been more fully developed, it is an interesting depiction of how the world could return to viewing some people as not deserving humane treatment.

There is a cool detachment about the operations that makes them all the more galling. Dorrit herself though is also so detached, until she meets the love of her life in the Unit, that she is not as compelling a character as she might be. Her seemingly bizarre decision at the end of the book makes some sense in light of the ethos of the society, but doesn't fit her exactly.

The book feels quite European to me. The cool, spare prose reminded me of other Swedish writers. The statist dystopia depicted is peculiar from the American viewpoint. With communities and alleigiances fraying, it is the absence of state power and its replacement by a collection of market and jurisdictional forces competing for loyalty and control that seem the more likely bleak future. Still, a good first effort and it will be interesting to see what comes next.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Best twelve dollars I ever spent

I went to see Shellac last night. I have wanted to see these guys for a decade, but due to highly irregular and little promoted tours, I haven't had the chance. Although Steve Albini is the best known of the members, this is very much an equal partnership. So much so, that the drum set was moved up to be parallel to the bass and guitar. While Albini does most of the singing, bassist Bob Weston does more of the banter, and these guys banter more than most, with a mid-show Q&A session a regular feature. Also no encores, which I quite like.

Here is a good live segment from Ireland. He was wearing the same T-shirt last night. Lucky tour T-shirt?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Awesome cover

While I am fine with a straight ahead cover, I like the experiments that reinvent the song. The shift from up tempo to downbeat acoustic is risky, but can pay off. Evan Dando's cover of Skulls is a good example. Even better is this Old School Freight Train cover of Heart of Glass. In the disco original, the sad lyrics were submerged in the dance beats. Here they are at the fore in this bluegrass version.

BTW, I was too young to be aware of the musical chatter, but I wonder how much flack Blondie took for switching from new-wave to disco.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Horse Soldiers

One of the more startling photos I saw in the early years of the Afghan war was that of a group of bearded American soldiers riding into battle on horses. In Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton tells the story of those soldiers, and others, serving in Afghanistan in 2001. It looks like a good read for those interested in military history. As in the media, Afghanistan has not seen as many books as the Iraq conflict. This is one place to start. You can read an excerpt of the prologue below:

Trouble came in the night, riding out of the dust and the darkness. Trouble rolled past the refugee camp, past the tattered tents shuddering in the moonlight, the lone cry of a baby driving high into the sky, like a nail. Sunrise was no better; at sunrise, trouble was still there, bristling with AKs and RPGs, engines idling, waiting to roll into the city. Waiting.

These were the baddest of the bad, the real masters of mayhem, the death dealers with God stamped firmly in their minds. The city groaned and shook to life. Soon everyone knew trouble had arrived at the gates of the city.

Major Mark Mitchell heard the news at headquarters nine miles away and thought, You're kidding. We got bad guys at the wire?

He ran downstairs, looking for Master Sergeant Dave Betz. Maybe he would know what was happening.

But Betz­ didn't know anything. He blustered, "One of the Agency guys came down and told us we got six hundred Taliban surrendering. Can you believe that?"

Surrendering? Mitchell ­couldn't figure out why. He thought the Taliban had fled from the approaching forces of the Northern Alliance to Konduz, miles away. American Special Forces and the Northern Alliance had been beating them back for weeks, in battle after battle, rolling up territory by coordinating airstrikes from the sky and thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers on the ground. They now stood on the verge of total victory. Konduz was where the war was supposed to go next. Not here. Not in Mazar. Not at Club Mez.

Besides, these guys didn't surrender. They fought to the death.

Die fighting and you went to paradise.

Mitchell stood at the dirty plate-glass windows and watched. Here they came, a motley crew of the doomed, packed into six big trucks, staring out from the rancid tunnels of their scarves. Mitchell could see their heads over the barricade that ringed his headquarters, a former schoolhouse at the junk-strewn edge of the city. The prisoners -- who surely included some Al Qaeda members -- were still literally in the drivers' seats, with Northern Alliance soldiers sitting next to them, their AKs pointed at the drivers' heads. The prisoners turned and stared and Mitchell thought it was like looking at hundreds of holes punched in a wall.

"Everybody get away from the windows!" said Betz.

Major Kurt Sonntag, Captain Kevin Leahy, Captain Paul Syverson, and a dozen other Special Forces soldiers knelt behind the black and white checked columns in the room, their M-4 rifles aimed at the street. Behind them, in the kitchen, the local cook was puttering -- the air smelled of cooked rice and cucumber -- and a radio was playing more of that god-awful Afghan music that sounded to Mitchell like somebody strangling a goose.

He had been looking forward this morning to overseeing the construction of the medical facility in town, and the further blowing up of mines and bombs that littered the area like confetti. Each day, a little bit more of the war seemed to be ending. Mitchell had even started to wonder when he would get to go home. He and a team of about a dozen Special Forces soldiers had moved into the schoolhouse only forty-eight hours earlier. Their former headquarters inside the Qala-i-Janghi Fortress, nine miles off, in Mazar's western quarter, had given them the shits, the croup, and the flu, and Mitchell was glad to have moved out. It seemed a haunted place. Known as the House of War, the fortress rose like a mud golem from the desert, surrounded by struggling plots of wind-whipped corn and sparse cucumber. Its walls towered sixty feet high and measured thirty feet thick under the hard, indifferent sun.

The Taliban had occupied the fortress for seven years and filled it with weapons -- grenades, rockets, and firearms, anything made for killing. Even Enfield rifles with dates stamped on the bayonets -- 1913 -- from the time that the Brits had occupied the area. Before their hurried flight from the city two weeks earlier, the Taliban had left the weapons and smeared feces on the walls and windows. Every photograph, every painting, every rosebush had been torn up, smashed, stomped, ruined. Nothing beautiful had been left behind.

After three years of Taliban rule, there were old men in Mazar with stumps for hands. There were women who'd been routinely stoned and kicked on street corners. Young men who'd been imprisoned for not wearing beards. Fathers who'd been beaten in front of their sons for the apparent pleasure of those swinging their weapons.

The arrival of Mitchell and his soldiers on horseback had put an end to that. The people of Mazar-i-Sharif, the rugmakers and butchers, the car mechanics and schoolteachers, the bank clerks and masons and farmers, had thrown flowers and kisses and reached up to the Americans on their horses and pulled affectionately at the filthy cuffs of their camo pants. The locals had welcomed the balding, blue-eyed Mitchell and two dozen other Special Forces soldiers in a mile-long parade lining the highway that dropped into town out of the snowy mountains. Mitchell had felt like he was back in World War II, his grandfather's war, riding into Paris after the Nazis fled.

Now thirty-six, Mitchell was the ground commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group/Third Battalion's Forward Operating Base (FOB). It had been a distinguished nearly fifteen-year career headed for the top of the military food chain. His best friend, Major Kurt Sonntag, a thirty-seven-year-old former weekend surfer from Los Angeles, was the FOB's executive officer, which technically meant he was Mitchell's boss. In the tradition of Special Forces, they treated each other as equals. Nobody saluted, including less senior officers like Captain Kevin Leahy and Captain Paul Syverson, members of the support company whose job it was to get the postwar operations up and running, such as providing drinking water, electricity, and medical care to the locals.

Looking at the street now, Mitchell tried to figure out why the Taliban convoy was stopping. If anything went bad, Mitchell knew he was woefully outnumbered. He had maybe a dozen guys he could call on. And those like Leahy and Syverson weren't exactly hardened killers. Like him, these were staff guys, in their mid-thirties, soldiers who had until now been largely warless. He did have a handful of CIA operators living upstairs in the schoolhouse and eight Brits, part of a Special Boat Service unit who'd landed the night before by Chinook helicopter, but they were so new that they didn't have orders for rules of engagement -- that is, it wasn't clear to them when they could and could not return fire. Doing the math, Mitchell roughly figured that he had about a dozen guys available to fight. The trained-up fighters, the two Special Forces teams that Mitchell had ridden into town with, had left earlier in the day for Konduz, for the expected fight there. Mitchell had watched them drive away and felt that he was missing out on a chance to make history. He'd been left behind to run the headquarters office and keep the peace. Now, after learning that 600 Taliban soldiers had massed outside his door, he wondered if he'd been dead wrong.

The street bustled with beeping taxis; with donkeys hauling loads of handmade bricks to the city-center bazaar; with aged men gliding by on wobbling bicycles and women ghosting through the rising dust in blue burkhas. Afghanistan. Never failed to amaze him.

Still the convoy hadn't moved. Ten minutes had passed.

Without warning, a group of locals piled toward the trucks, angrily grabbing at the prisoners. They got hold of one man and pulled him down -- for a moment he was there, gripping the battered wooden side of the truck, and then he was gone, snatched out of sight. Behind the truck, out of sight, they were beating the man to death.

Every ounce of rage, every rape, every public execution, every amputation, humiliation -- every ounce of revenge was poured back into this man, slathered on by fist, by foot, by gnarled stick. The trucks lurched ahead and when they moved on, nothing remained of the man. It was as if he'd been eaten.

The radio popped to life. Mitchell listened as a Northern Alliance commander, who was stationed on the highway, announced in broken English: The prisoners all going to Qala-i-Janghi.

Remembering the enormous pile of weapons cached at the fortress, Mitchell didn't want to hear this. But his hands were tied. The Afghan commanders of the Northern Alliance were, as a matter of U.S. strategy, calling the shots. No matter the Americans' might, this was the Afghans' show. Mitchell was in Mazar to "assist" the locals in taking down the Taliban. He figured he could get on a radio and suggest to the Afghan commander presiding over the surrender that the huge fortress would not be an ideal place to house six hundred angry Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. But maybe there was a good reason to send them there. As long as the prisoners were searched and guarded closely, maybe they could be held securely within the fort's towering mud walls.

And then Mitchell thought again of the weapons stockpiled at Qala-i-Janghi, the piles and piles of rockets, rifles, crates of ammo -- tons of violence ready to be put to use.

Not the fort, he thought. Not the damn fort!

Belching smoke, grinding gears, the convoy of prisoners rumbled past the fortress's dry moat and through the tall, arched entrance. The prisoners in the trucks craned around like blackbirds on a wire, scanning the walls, looking for guards, looking for an easy way out.

In deference to the Muslim prohibition against men touching other men intimately, few of the prisoners had been thoroughly searched. No hand had reached deep inside the folds of their thin gray gowns, the mismatched suit coats, the dirty khaki vests, searching for a knife, a grenade, a garrote. Killer had smiled at captor and captor had waved him on, Tashakur. Thank you. Tashakur.

The line of six trucks halted inside the fort, and the prisoners stepped down under the watchful eye of a dozen or so Northern Alliance guards. Suddenly one prisoner pulled a grenade from the belly-band of his blouse and blew himself up, taking a Northern Alliance officer with him. The guards fired their rifles in the air and regained control. Then they immediately herded the prisoners to a rose-colored, plaster-sided building aptly nicknamed "the Pink House," which squatted nearby in the rocks and thorns. The structure had been built by the Soviets in the 1980s as a hospital within the bomb-hardened walls of the fortress.

The fort was immense, a walled city divided equally into southern and northern courtyards. Inside was a gold-domed mosque, some horse stables, irrigation ditches encircling plots of corn and wheat, and shady groves of tall, fragrant pine trees whipping in the stiff winds. The thick walls held secret hallways and compartments, and led to numerous storage rooms for grain and other valuables. The Taliban had cached an enormous pile of weapons in the southern compound in a dozen mud-walled horse stables, each as big as a one-car garage and topped with a dome-shaped roof. The stables were crammed to the rafters with rockets, RPGs, machine guns, and mortars. But there were more weapons. Six metal Conex trailers, like the kind semitrucks haul down interstates in the United States, also sat nearby, stuffed with even more guns and explosives.

The fortress had been built in 1889 by Afghans, taking some eighteen thousand workers twelve years to complete, during an era of British incursions. It was a place built to be easily defended, a place to weather a siege.

At each of the corners rose a mud parapet, a towerlike structure, some 80 feet high and 150 feet across, and built strong enough to support the weight of 10-ton tanks, which could be driven onto the parapet up long, gradual mud ramps rising from the fortress floor. Along the parapet walls, rectangular gunports, about twelve inches tall, were cut into the three-foot-thick mud -- large enough to accommodate the swing of a rifle barrel at any advancing hordes below.

In all, the fort measured some 600 yards long -- about one third of a mile -- and 300 yards wide.

At the north end, a red-carpeted balcony stretched high above the courtyard. Wide and sunlit, it resembled a promenade, overlooking a swift stream bordered by a black wrought-iron fence and rose gardens that had been destroyed by the Taliban. Behind the balcony, double doors opened onto long hallways, offices, and living quarters.

At each end of the fort's central wall, which divided the interior into the two large courtyards, sat two more tall parapets, equally fitted for observation and defense with firing ports. A narrow, packed foot trail, about three feet wide, ran around the entire rim along the protective, outer wall. In places, a thick mud wall, waist-high, partially shielded the walker from the interior of the courtyard, making it possible to move along the top of the wall and pop up and shoot either down into the fort, or up over the outer wall at attackers coming from the outside.

In the middle of the southern courtyard, which was identical to the northern one (except for the balcony and offices overlooking it), sat the square-shaped Pink House. It was small, measuring about 75 feet on each side, too small a space for the six hundred prisoners who were ordered by Northern Alliance soldiers down the stairs and into its dark basement, where they were packed tight like matchsticks, one against another.

There, down in a dank corner, on a dirt floor that smelled of worms and sweat, brooded a young American. His friends knew him by the name of Abdul Hamid. He had walked for several days to get to this moment of surrender, which he hoped would finally lead him home to California. He was tired, hungry, his chest pounding, skipping a beat, like a washing machine out of balance. He worried that he was going to have a heart attack, a scary thought at age twenty-one.

Around him, he could hear men praying as they unfolded hidden weapons from the long, damp wings of their clothing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shutter island

The trailer for Shutter Island is out. It is based on one of Dennis Lehane's non-series novels and I quite liked it. It has similar emotional heft to Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, the two other books of his that have been made into films. I am hopeful for Darkness Take My Hand, but I may be waiting a while.

While Gone Baby Gone was a top rate crime procedural and Mystic River is a classic, Irish Gothic tragedy, this one is a straight up thriller, with secrets piled on secrets until the big whammies. I have high hopes.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Big bads

Borders now has a scifi blog. The posts are VERY short, but still worth checking out. Right now Brian Sanderson, best known as the one chosen to complete the Wheel of Time, is writing. Here he asks people to name their favorite dragon. That's a good question. I am little more interested in the notion of favorite big scary monster. I think for me it is either the Shrike (he's made of razors!) or the horrifying slake-moth from Perdido Street Station. Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Who invented cartoons, I'd like to shake his hand

I've spent the past few weeks working my way through Neal Gabler's massive Walt Disney biography. It took this long not because it was boring or too dense, but because it deserved close reading. The book tells the story of Walt from his ancestors up to his death from lung cancer.

Although I considered myself familiar with the story of the studio, I really wasn't. I thought it was an upward trend of success from day one. In reality the studio teetered on the edge of disaster for much of its earlier years. The creative drive of Walt and the business acumen and diplomacy of Roy Disney kept the studio alive.

Gabler portrays Walt as the sort of person that most technology executives that I have met think they are. They bear the burden of his negative attributes without the countervailing positive attributes. Disney was monomanical, tough on employees, paranoid and given to ignoring any viewpoint other than his own. On the other hand, he was truly a creative genius completely dedicated to creating new popular art. I've tended to see him only as an overseer and while he was a visionary he also developed new technologies, stories and key scenes for the movies. Some companies would have turned out the same with different leaders. Not Disney.

The book has me digging up all sorts of Disney movies I haven't seen. There is for example, Make Mine Music, a sequel of sorts to Fantasia. This one came out just after World War 2, when the company was trying to rebuild itself after years as a government film factory. Rather than the cohesive work that is Fantasia, this one was cobbled together from bits and pieces. It would take a number of years before the company found its footing again.

As much as I liked the book, I can only recommend it to those with a strong interest in movies, pop culture or Disney himself. It is a long read for those with a tepid interest.

One for the Pavement fans

If you troll the music or Matador sites you might have seen the Date With Ikea contest. Essentially you proposed why needed it and then you got a trip to Ikea. This is to promote the re-release of Brighten the Corners in the Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Ed. Like previous re-releases it has a disc plus of B-sides, live tracks and desiderata. If you have a lot of money to burn, consider the gatefold LP version which has yet more songs.

Anyway, Stereogum linked to this video of Bob Nastanovich taking the nice young winner to Ikea. Seems a friendly sort, no?

Brighten the Corners is not always on the list of latter day fans. Here is Shady Lane which has my absolute favorite Pavement lyric:

Monday, June 08, 2009

State by state

I picked up State by State this weekend. This is not the sort of book you read all at once, but might make for a great going off to bed book. It consists of 50 essays (and one interview with Edward P Jones about DC) about each state. In each case, the writer is given a small amount of space to write something about an entire state. Not easy!

I've been looking at the states with which I have a personal connection first, which means I have read VA, NC, and OR so far. I liked that tack that the VA and NC authors did, which was to explore an important element of the state's culture. In the case of VA (drawing no doubt on his Confederates in the Attic research experience) Tony Horwitz talks about Virginia's fascination with it's, often bloody, past. In the North Carolina section, Randall Kenan talks about hogs, which allows him to get to farming, the environment and BBQ. Well done. I was less taken with Joe Sacco's Oregon piece. For one he uses a comic format. Given the space available, you can't do much with a comic. Then he focuses on Portland. Portland is great and all (I live here, so I better like it) but Portland is to Oregon, as New York is to New York State. Not terribly representative.

I've just started on William T. Vollman's California section. It has a humdinger of an intro.

It says something about our changing America that once upon a time, an art-friendly governmental organization commissioned one volume about each of our fifty states; whereas this book, inspired by the WPA's example, has been commercially published and allows each state only a few thousand words. Fortunately, mass culture, with its big box warehouses of the landscape, language and mind itself, has already destroyed so many differences, there is less to say anyhow. Of course, the ambiance of Florida still varies from that of Montana, Hawaii's from Alaska, but aren't their television programs the same? Accordingly, I dare to hope that a generation or two from now, if a sequel to this sequel comes out, its writers will have life even easier.

Ouch, that's the way to start an essay! Keep in mind he has just written a thousand page plus book on the Imperial Valley alone, but it is distressing for fans of regional diversity.

The Powells version comes with a new Out of the Book Documentary of the book.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Fun timewaster

Strange Maps has a fun map this week. It shows the US with each state shaded in with a flag of a foreign nation. The foreign nation has a similar population to the state its flag covers. See how many you can get(note this link is to the full picture which is covered on the blog). Avoid the comments.

Old school Trek with the kids

As part of my never ending quest to help my kids appreciate their nerd heritage, I showed them Star Trek The Motion Picture this weekend. Yes, the movie is as ponderous as the title suggests. Still, the story engaged them and I do appreciate that is an actual science fiction story rather than a straight up space opera. This clip illustrates my two least favorite things about the movie. The many minutes too long fly-by of the Enterprise provides a great time for a bathroom break, but little else. I am all for starship porn, two of my fave scenes of all time being the Enterprise vs. Reliant in Star Trek 2 and the climactic battle in ROTJ, but this is just a static trip to show off the model. Boring.

Worse though are the hideous uniforms. They are all off whites and browns, as if to say that the movie is as lifeless and pallid as the clothing. The worst of all though is the strange little short sleeve shirt that Kirk sports at one point. It's like he had a tee time, but got called to the bridge at the last minute. I much prefer the bright red, militaristic wear of the follow on films.

It could be worse though. In the mid-70s, there was a plan for a new show called Star Trek Phase II. The uniforms for that one were all Logan's Run swinger wear. (check about 2:41 in this documentary)

Because the Internet can bring everything back, Star Trek Phase 2 is back in a new form. This show is released online and has appearances by some of the original cast.

Friday, June 05, 2009

GBV cover

I love an unexpected cover. I am listening to So Divided, by .....And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead. They have a non-low fi cover of Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory. Here is the original for comparison purposes. A nice odd song, just right for a cover.

Another fantasy giant gone

Via Citizen Reader, I see that David Eddings has passed. While I would not rank him with my favorite fantasy novelists today, he is the author that hooked me on fantasy novels*. I gobbled up the Belgariad in middle school and high school and then followed it up the Mallorean into my college years. Looking back, I am surprised that the last one of those came out in 1991. By that point, I thought I had transistioned my loyalties to the initially thrilling, but ultimately disappointing Wheel of Time saga. Looking back, the Belgariad, while more understated, is probably the more successful series as it manages to tell its story without collapsing under its weight.

Thinking of Eddings and 1980s fantasy novelists, I thought of Terry Brooks known for the Sword of Shanara and many follow on novels. While nearly all fantasy novelists (excepting of course Tolkein hater China Mieville) borrow from Tolkein, Brooks seemed to cut and paste directly from the Lord of the Rings. The book concluded with a battle that may as well been called the Battle of Minas Tirith. It sold fine, so I guess fantasy fans don't mind, but I am curious if people still read Brooks.

*Lord Foul's Bane was my first fantasy novel but that one didn't work for my pre-teen self.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

WSJ Summer reading list

The Wall Street Journal has put out a summer reading list. Unfortunately you have to click through their interactive piece to see them all. Not a huge deal, but I like to skip around and the navigation gives titles but no authors! All is forgiven though, because they bring news of a new Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel! His Shadow of the Wind was a fantastic literary thriller and I had despaired of seeing another by him. Holy smokes and one by Rafael Yglesias (he of the wonderful Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil. -- Note, this book is bizarrely expensive new, but Powells has a few used copies for under $10.)

Richard Russo has a new one too. It's called That Old Cape Magic, but I can't find out much about it. I would be jumping up and down, but my wife, who is probably a bigger fan than I, thought his last one was a yawner. So I am wary.

The WSJ is kind enough to throw the genre fans a bone with Fragment, a sort of Jurassic Park story where researchers stumble on an island, the ecology of which has followed a different evolutionary path.

What to do with books you've finished reading

I saw in the Oregonian today that the level of donations for the Fall Friends of the Multnomah County Book fair is lower than expected. Who knows why, but I suspect that more people are selling their books rather than donating them. The line at Powell's is always long for people selling or trading. I realize I do not donate much because donation is the last choice on my book funnel.

The books I like best I keep and put on my shelves. In nearly all cases, it is nonfiction that I keep. I tell myself that I want to keep books in certain subject, in case I need to look something up. I don't think this has ever actually happened, but in case I need to at some point, I am ready. With fiction, I quite often send it off. I only keep them in case my wife might want to read it. If not, it is usually gone.

The ones I think are good, or that I am not ashamed that I read, I tend to loan out or give-away to someone to read. I used to want them back, thinking I would loan them out to others I know, but I am just as happy to have people pass them on to someone else. The same people will usually share their books with me, so everybody wins. If I don't think my friends will want it, I go ahead and trade it in, usually at Powells but sometimes at the local paperback exchange. I like to help out the little guy, but man, having some credit at Powells is like a ticket to Willy Wonka's factory.

By the time I have loaned out or sold my excess books, I don't have a lot left to donate. I've come to recognize the books that Powells and the paperback exchange don't take. Out of convenience some of these go to Goodwill and others go to schools for fundraising. I am slightly ashamed of the books that I hand over to the school. I want to attach a note that these aren't my regular sort of books, no, no, no, but then I would have to admit they are third in line for books.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

They went through me like a pavement saw

I listened to the noise rock of Big Black quite a bit back in college. I didn't branch out into the rest of the noise world (no Einsturzende Neubauten for me, thanks) mostly I suspect due to my interest in the bizarre subject matter of Albini's lyrics. They combine elements of some of my favorite literary genres including noir, true crime and Southern gothic. The songs are little horror stories about sex murders, people who like to watch at abattoirs, assasins, and the rantings of bitter redneck drunks. Back in the record store days, my local store, Peaches (or maybe it had changed to Mothers at that point) had a section called "Difficult Listening." I'm pretty sure these guys would have been shelved in that section.

Anyway, I liked these guys enough that I thought I had tracked down nearly all of their output. I picked up Crack Up by buying God's Favorite Dog, on CASSETTE no less. I found a copy of Sound of Impact at some point as well. I thought I had pretty much tapped this band out.

Not so! Someone has posted Newmangenerator from the unreleased Big Black Peel Session. It sounds like a creepy Atomizer outtake. So far, I would call it OK, but maybe it will improve with listens. On the immediately appealing side, we have Big Black's cover of Rema Rema. Good luck finding a physical copy, apparently just 500 were made. Not much on the lyrics side. It is mostly "Rema, rema, ha, ha, ha," but the hooks are nice.

The sad truth is that when I finally discover a lost gem, my peak enjoyment of the band is since passed. For me, music is tied to periods of time and there is often something missing when I come back to it. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy it, just that it has lost much of its power. Hence the unbridled excitement I would have experienced in 1994 upon finding these is now just a moment to smile.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Domino Men

I've just finished an odd sort of book. Domino Men is Jonathan Barnes follow up to Somnambulist. I say follow-up rather than sequel as it is set in the same universe as the prior book but doesn't continue the story or use many of the same characters. Overall the book is weaker, with less interesting characters, increased pointless violence (if you recall the jarringly brutal execution of the first book, expect a lot more in this one) and a tighter, if less interesting story line.

In this one we find that the shadowy government organization the Directorate is fighting a surprising enemy for the life of London. Those familiar with English political history will have some inkling as to who that enemy might be, but I'd rather not spoil it all the same. The main character is a milquetoast loser whose claim to fame was his youthful stint on a sitcom where he always uttered an inane line. His filing clerk days fall behind him when the Directorate swoops into his life.

Barnes is Oxford educated and writes for the Times Literary Supplement. Nothing out of the ordinary about that, but little literary jokes in the book make me wonder if this book isn't meant to be a joke, or at the very least a turning of the tables, on genre fans. He sharply contrasts the humor of his deft use of language with terrible images and little hope for his characters. I get the sense that he is asking if readers of escapist, apocalyptic fiction really enjoy it. It reminds me of Joe Hill's excellent "Best New Horror" short story which indirectly asks fans of horror why it is they like this stuff.

Clever bit of literary theater or not, the book is fun to read for most of it and then becomes less so. The last few sentences of the book imply another in the sequence, but one that would be futuristic in nature. I am quite curious to see where he takes it next.