Friday, October 30, 2009

Kids books at Borders

I went to the downtown Borders today. I like that one, the staff are friendly, there are some odd books to be found, and the coffee shop is nice. I went with my feverish daughter who wanted some books. I picked up three paperbacks and was amazed at how cheap they are, only four dollars a piece. Kids books have to be the best value in books today. Sure the dollars per word is crappy, but kids read them over and over again. One book can be weeks of entertainment. I am lucky to get a night or two out of a paperback, if only because I don't finish them all.

One we picked up is Horrid Henry, a series very popular in Britain about a nasty young boy. There is a similar series in the US called Horrible Harry. A Scots mother at our school put it this way. Horrible Harry really isn't that horrible (his horror rises to the level of enjoying bad smells), but Horrid Henry is apparently quite horrid. I am looking forward to reading more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Too much of a good thing?

Well, I wrapped up the epic From Colony to Superpower, George Herring's epic one volume history of American Foreign Policy. It is a the only thematic book in the Oxford History of the United States. I, for one, loved it. The depth of treatment on the 18th and 19th century was wonderful. As we got to the post-war era, my extensive reading in the subject made it less useful, but still good. Good God, though, is this book long. Thanks to the length, this book is for a select group of people. If two of the following make sense to you, then get the book.

  • Want value for your money. $35 for 1000 pages, a rare deal, this day and age?!
  • Are a Oxford University History of the United States completist (guilty!)
  • Want a single volume treatment of American foreign policy that doesn't ignore the 19th century.
  • Have lots of free time and can ignore the beckoning call of books from your reading pile.
  • Like large colorful volumes for the bookshelf.

Having made it through, and if you find you want something that is more analytical than historical, seek out H.W. Brands What America Owes the World and Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence. The Herring book, while filled with useful ways of thinking, is really about what happened. The Brands and Mead books will give more analytical frameworks for thinking about it.

A Tale of Two Schreibers

There are two horror novelists whose books I avidly await. The first is Sarah Langan and the second is Joe Schreiber. Both write spooky stories that disturb not by creating revolting images, but by creating moods and suggesting terrible things. They are young and have just a few (solid) books to their credit, but Schreiber has two new books out. The books are in different genres, so I expected some variation, but I found the differences between them to be startling.

One book, Death Troopers, has a immediately engaging concept, but a weak payoff. The other, No Doors, No Windows, has one of the most hackneyed of concepts, but is riveting throughout. In Death Troopers, an Imperial prison barge investigates and abandoned Star Destroyer and finds it occupied by space zombies. Sounds cool, but doesn't go anywhere. No Doors, No Windows is a haunted house story about a hard luck family and the gothic horrors of small towns. It's been done a million times, but Schreiber's characters, plot peculiarities, pacing and writing rise to the top.

Death Troopers has weak characterization, relies on the Star Wars universe to carry much of the background and is marred by far too much exposition. No Doors, No Windows has a number of interesting characters, some cliched to be sure, but symphatheically and often surprisingly handled. The difference in the writing is just shocking. It feels lifeless in Death Troopers, while vigorous in No Doors, No Windows. Sadly, I think that Death Troopers might be the future of Schreiber's books (he already has a prequel in the works.)

Death Troopers has a sales rank of 430, while No Doors No Windows has a rank of 89,965 (as of this writing). I can't blame him if he churns out more of these Star Wars books. My only hope is that the people who find him thanks to Star Wars move on (and buy) his much better horror books.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Orange crepe paper and Halloween candy

Thanks to some visits to Target, this year, I am getting a taste for some of the more off the wall Halloween candies. So far, most are less than awesome.

Jones Soda Candy Corn soda This one was tough. I poured out a few ounces for myself and the kids. My apprehension was such that it reminded of the first time I looked down at a glass of Everclear punch. The color is a bright, malevolent yellow. The taste is, well, extremely sweet. So sweet that the sweetness seemed to end, as if it had gone into regions that my tastebuds dare not follow. The kids loved it 'natch. Hats off to Jones for calling their Christmas coconut pineapple soda Mele Kalilimaka though.

Hershey Pumpkin Spice Kiss Overall, not bad! The bright orange color and close to too sweet flavor screams white chocolate, so beware if that is a deal breaker. Unlike regular kisses which I can consume with heedless abandon, I am done after two of these, which is probably a good thing.

Candy Corn Dots. Nicely colored with the traditional orange and yellow, but this one didn't work. The flavor is just like that of a regular candy corn but the gooshy mouthfeel of the Dot made me feel like I was eating really, really old candy corn. Once again, kids loved them.

Blood Orange Dots. In lovely black. These I liked. The flavor wasn't over done and I enjoyed the natural Dots chewiness.

Caramel Candy Corn
. Also pretty good, but not something I am going to munch like potato chips. The low end caramel flavor is stronger than the corn flavor although it hangs in there. My friend Joanna ate these while running a half marathon. Not sure what that says, but there you go.

Indulge Caramels. High end caramel. Ran into them at the Portland Nursery Apple fest. I was sad that they were sold out of the sea salt but picked up the cinnamon toast. Exquisite caramel, but not meant for the debauch of Halloween. I'm saving mine for the chill of November.

My big move on Halloween night will be to tax the kids of all their Tootsie Fruit Rolls. They don't like them anyway. I am the only person I know who does.

Blood's A Rover

So I've finished Blood's A Rover and I am happy to say that my initial enthusiasm carried throughout the entire read. I was so sad to see it finish, which is rare for a crime novel. While I tend to think the best crime novels are the equal of the best litfic, there are those that disagree. Genre snobs should consider the book a literary work and note that while its story line is like that of a thriller, the depth of character, the singular use of language and syntax and the emotional depth of the story will win over the more effete readers. Unless of course you can't stand the over the top vulgarity.

Past fans of Ellroy will note many consistencies with his earlier books. There are a pair of men with a complicated relationship who weave back and forth across the good and evil line. There is an unsolved crime scene around which much of the plot revolves, although it is often unclear why. There is the uneasy sense that the power structure is completely corrupt and there is little chance for hope for the good.

If you want to scare yourself this Halloween, but don't like traditional horror stories, you should pick this up. All the conspiracy theories that nagged you about the 60s and early 70s are true. What's more, in Ellroy's dark world, no one is truly innocent. The left is populated by the deluded, the self-important, the idiotic and the ineffectual. The right is populated by a range of terrifying monsters perfectly happy to grind up anyone in their path. The path chosen by the book's few survivors makes perfect sense after the hell they have been through.

My only regret after reading the book is my fear that Ellroy now has no place to go. He has completed his major work started with the Black Dahlia, the first in the LA Quartet and continued with the Underground America trilogy. His story line has been so epic for so long, I am not sure how he goes back to simpler plots or how he would continue this story. My only solace is that his creativity and vision are strong enough to do just about anything.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pendragon's banner

Helen Hollick's Pendragon's Banner is the second in a trilogy of books about King Arthur. Typically tales of King Arthur have some element of fantasy, like the Lady in the Lake or the magic of Merlin. These books though are written as historical fiction, so you will find none of that here. Instead, it is gritty portrayal of Britain in the chaotic fifth century.

Rome has left the island, although its influence, mostly cultural, remains. Although Arthur is King, his is no united kingdom. He is a Briton, one of the original pagan peoples of the island. His people are threatened by a tide of Germanic invaders. A canny politician as well as warrior, Arthur plays the various factions off one another, while he watches his back.

His greatest foe is Morgause, who harbors thoughts of revenge against Arthur. She comes closest to being a magician, although it is via seduction not spells. Her quest for vengeance shatters Arthur and Gwenhwyfar and makes the story often quite dark.

The grimness of the battle between Morgause and Arthur is matched by the grim reality of much of the book. This isn't the pomp and splendor of the traditional, medieval-based Arthurian stories. Instead it is the brutal time when an invading army might appear on your doorstep, kill you and take your children. Your enemies sought to poison and kill you whenever possible.

Arthur is as complex as the times. He is not chivalrous or noble, but a scheming politician of more than dubious morality. He loves his wife, but he also finds time for his mistresses. He plots wickedly and is willing to kill his opponents children if it is politically the thing to do. This feels correct, given the times, but it may be hard for some readers, especially fans of chivalric legend.

A lost opportunity

I'm a fan of covers, so of course I am interested in the new Killers/Rhythms del Mundo cover of Hotel California. I think its fine, but I am a moderate fan of the song, so your mileage may vary. The Ataris cover of singer Don Henley's Boys of Summer drives me into a frothing fury, partially because it sucks ass and partially because I adore that song.

Song quality aside, the bummer is that what the Killers should be doing is making a poetically critical song like Hotel California, not a cover of it. If Southern California was the center of American decadence in the 1970s, then the Killer's Las Vegas is the center today. Nowhere else (ok, maybe on Wall Street) is avarice, self-promotion and gluttony so nakedly embraced as in Vegas. The mindless expansion of real estate without environmental consideration is evident to anyone flying into Sin City. Now that the market has crashed, it is time for a song of wistful regret and who better than Las Vegas's own to do it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Anyone like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

I was on the return flight from Atlanta yesterday when I started the much lauded Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I made decent headway into it, but put it down mid-flight. It was clicking. I'm not sure it was the book's fault as

A) I had just finished Blood's A Rover and loved it. The style of that book is so particular that it may have spoiled crime novels for a week or so.

B) I was tired. I was in a car for six hours and then got on a plane. The brain was not firing on all cylinders I assure you.

C) I was uncomfortable. The person in front of me kept adjusting her seat and the person next to me needed more room than an economy seat provides. I became more acquainted with the side of the plan than I would have liked.

So, I am thinking I should maybe try the book again. Any advice would be appreciated.

Visiting Lynchburg

I'm back from a lovely visit to Virginia and Georgia. I attended my cousin's wedding in Lynchburg, VA. There weren't any events scheduled for Saturday, so my parents and I visited Appomattox Court House and Poplar Forest, which despite the name, is one of Jefferson's houses. As with any trip, a highlight was visiting a new bookstore. Lynchburg isn't a big town, so I didn't expect a whole lot, but Givens Books and Little Dickens delivered. The format is a bit odd. The store is set in quarters. One has new books, one has used. Another has toys and another has teacher supplies. There is also a coffee shop.

The number of used books wasn't huge, but the quality was high and the prices were low. I picked up a used hardcover copy of Almost a Miracle for less than ten bucks. If you are in town you should definitely stop in for a look.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Iain M Banks on the big screen! But.....

It's a short story, not a novel. Since much of the joy of his work is his profusion of creativity and spectacle, most of which is found in his novels, not his short stories, I am not all that excited. Our best hope is that the movie makes insane cash and producers fall all over themselves trying to make the next one.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The new Ellroy and why I like it

Man, am I loving the new Ellroy* I'm sure you're all, whatever dude, you like it, that's cool, but this really matters to me.

In the late 90s, there was no author I loved more than Ellroy. I could not get enough of him. Then I read Cold Six Thousand and I felt like my a close friend had betrayed me. The book did not work for me at all. I didn't speak of his books for years and didn't recommend them. Now the new one feels like an old, but wayward friend showing up with tickets to London to see the reunited Pavement along with a tour of Irish pubs with the Pogues. All is forgiven.

Anyway, I was trying to think of why Ellroy, Thompson, Lehane, Kerr and other authors stand out for me. It comes down to world view. Many crime writers (and nearly all adventure writers) assume that the world is basically good. Their stories tell of evil aberrations brought down by shining exemplars of good. Once vanquished, the world is returned to its rightful, cheerful, sunny state.

Not so for our Ellroy and his ideological brethren. In their novels, the world is evil. The power structure exists to extract, exploit and exterminate, all the while proclaiming its goodness. The heroes in these books are damaged people who rise above their baser instincts and carve some out some small victory, often at terrible cost.

The treatment of violence in these books is markedly different. In the sunny novels, an act of violence by the hero is normally clean, and shaming. He won't be sadistic or attempt to levy justice. Violence is clearly the wrong path in these books. In the darker books, violence is righteous, cathartic and, in its own way, uplifting. The philosophy underlying these books is that some people need a beatdown and the books give us that beatdown.

The best books of the dark side nearly always have some moment where violence is meted out to those who deserve it. The scene in LA Confidential where Bud wrecks the crooked lawyer is an example. Joe Lansdale has a patient man taking an axe handle to a pair of racist fucks. Dennis Lehane's Prayer for Rain has a notable suggested beat down that had me smarting. Deep down, there is a part of us that wants to

The subtext is that the world is terrible and we can't really hope to change it, but we can make some of the jackals and vampires pay, and pay dearly. The funny thing is, for the most part I am an optimist and think most things are just peachy. When I see that view reflected in fiction, it seems mawkish and foolish, and I recoil. Some deeper part of me suspects that the world is not as nice as I hope.

Children of Dust

There are plenty of books out there aimed, at least in part, at helping Westerners get a handle on Islam. Many are designed to whip up fear, uncertainty and doubt. Others, perhaps trying to offset the pernicious effects of the haters, refuse to acknowledge the harsh elements of religious practice. In his memoir Children of Dust, Ali Eteraz portrays Islam as a vast, complex tapestry with beautiful and terrible elements, just like every other religion in the world.

Eteraz, born in Pakistan and now living in the United States, is told early in his life that he is destined for Islamic greatness and spends much of his life pursuing the idea of how to be a Muslim. He studies in a madrassa, moves to the United States, becomes a fundamentalist, then unbecomes one and makes peace with the West. In the US, he trains as a lawyer and becomes a writer.

Eteraz's skills as a writer sets the book apart from similar works. He writing is lyrical, funny and evocative. He handles difficult material, including some occasionally disturbing sexual material quite well. He is best at describing his religous experiences. Far from being a mindless adherent, his relationship with the faith is constantly in flux as his understanding expands.

Although it is not the focus of the book, the early sections on Pakistan are especially valuable today. Despite it's massive importance to the world today, Pakistan remains little known to American readers. His stories of growing up in a small village will give readers a sense of what the life in this vital place is like.

Empire of the Passion

There can't be a lot of movie plots that hinge on the shaving of pubes. OK, maybe a adult movie with twins and a wacky Three's Company-like misunderstanding plot, but not mainstream movies.

Empire of the Passion, submitted for Japan's shot at the 1978 Academy Awards no less, does have a plot where a few thoughtless moments with a razor lead to madness and death. The movie was made by Nagisa Oshima, director of the 1976 In The Realm of the Senses. Like that movie the plot centers on an illicit liaison, but lacks the In the Realm's pervasive nudity and explicit sex. So no, you do not get to see the shaving.

In the movie, a layabout soldier seduces a rickshaw driver's wife and then declares they must kill the husband. If he saw that she was shaved, there would be no end of it. Turns out killing him leads to more trouble.

To be honest the movie is slow moving and may not appeal to everyone. The ghost of the movie is disturbing, but not really scary. The rising madness of the adulterous, murderous couple is the drama of the second act. There are some good scenes and I like how the village slowly turns on the couple as rumors and suspicions grow.

Overall, I would say that Asian horror fans looking for the roots of the modern movies would like this one. Otherwise, it is just too slow.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Adventure books are not for me

Robert Masello got a fair amount of buzz for his recent Blood and Ice, which I read. It was pretty good although twice as long as it needed to be. I decided it was good enough to give him another try so I picked up his earlier Bestiary. This one involves a family of Iraqis who guard an bestiary of ancient and mythical beasts. Thanks to a crack down by Saddam and the invasion of Iraq, the bestiary is now located in the US, but the animals are dying. A restorer of ancient texts, her paleontologist husband, an Army vet and a bunch of right wing whackos clash amid the threat of the beasts escaping.

Its not a bad book by any means. There is plenty of action and inventive situations. It is overly long with action and character scenes that don't really add to the overall experience. This one avoids the general pitfall of making a tight plot that could be cut and pasted into a movie script, but falls into the other problem of more text means more story. The subplots felt like they were bogging down the narrative. I didn't get that have-to-find-out-whats happening feeling, as it was evident where the story was going. I suppose what I really look from these books is being surprised and they so rarely deliver.

Truth be told, I don't think I like adventure novels. Movies do a better job creating the scares and pace, at least in most cases. I loved Jurassic Park and Relic, but those books created a sense of suspense and excitement that I haven't found in many other adventure books. I think I will avoid these in the future unless I get a spectacular recommendation.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reading the new James Ellroy

Blood's a Rover. yowza. I am about 50 pages in and I am hooked. The writing style is singular and will put off lots of people. It is terse, brutal, abrasively musical, and filled with emotion, mostly negative. The odd thing is, it didn't really work for me in Cold Six Thousand, but it is working now.

I was listening to an Fresh Air interview with another favorite, Michael Chabon, who said that good writing should make the author and the reader uncomfortable. If that's the case, then Ellroy needs to take home the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. Ellroy puts his dark characters through hell and takes the reader through the worst of America. One character is a heroin dealer patricide with a hand in the MLK assasination, and he is one of the good guys.

A lot of crime novelists have supposedly evil characters. Usually this means they are amoral killers who have no mercy on their victims. Ellroy goes a step further with people who use hate to guide society and politics. These are the real monsters. Here he describes the art collection of the country's leading creator of hate pamphlets:

Fine oils. The masters reconsidered. A Van Gogh lynching. A Rembrandt gas-chamber tableaux. Matisse does Congolese atrocities. Paul Klee does Martin Luther King charbroiled.
Crutch scoped the walls. Man Ray did Bobby Kennedy dead on a slab. Picasso did Lady Bird Johnson muff-diving Anne Frank.

My reaction to that last one was the same as the character Crutch, a disbelieving "fuck......" The book is like a fictional, conspiracy theorist version of Nixonland. It shows you the horrors behind the smiles. Oh man would it be fun to read those two books together. You'd need a few weeks to recover, but what a ride.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I love Britain, but...

Really I think the UK is tops (I even lived year for a year!) The books, great! The beer, great! The use of mass transit, great! The people, great!

The only thing I dislike is the idea, which really comes from the US, that the British are somehow more highminded than Americans. That they have their eye on the important things (page three girls apparently.) I have always suspected that they were just as celebrity addled as we are, and the Guardian UK gives a bit of evidence today.

What is the most viewed world news story by Guardian readers today? Why it is news of People magazine publishing photos of kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard.

Beautiful books are waiting for me

Yesterday featured my finest visit to the library in weeks, nay, months! I had four excellent holds awaiting. The only question is whether I can burn through them in the next few weeks (in one case I will probably eat the fine.)

Here they are:

The Dead Hand by David Hoffman. This one is about the end of the Cold War, the legacy of WMD and DOOMSDAY MACHINES!!!! Check out this article by Hoffman about the Soviet doomsday machine that may still kill us some day. PD Smith, who covered this topic in his own book, Doomsday Men, has another good piece on the subject.

The Hawk and the Dove by Nicholas Thompson. This book looks at the Cold War through the lens of the great realist George Kennan and the creator of the national security system, Paul Nitze. The reviews are gushing on this one and the subject matter is perfect for me.

Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber. If you want to bum out your lit fic friends at the bookstore, make them come into the scifi section with you. There will be plenty of eye rolling and mockery of book covers. Sci fi fans themselves will do the same to the little section of Star Wars and Star Trek novels tucked away at the back of the sci fi section. I am often one of those eyerollers.

I make an exception for this book because of the author. He is one of the few horror writers, Sarah Langan also comes to mind, that I think are fabulous writers in a debased genre. Anyway the story is about zombies attacking a Star Destroyer and a prison barge. We shall see.

Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy. This is the one I am most excited about. No one writes quite like Ellroy, but he require some concentrated reading time. I need to go hide somewhere with this one. If you don't know him, his hard bitten style has morphed into a speed freak translating jazz numbers in words approach. He is all dark underbelly, all the time. It has been a long, long wait for the novel and maybe you have worried that perhaps he has gone soft, fear not. Part one of the book is titled Cluster fuck. In all caps mind you. So excited to read this one.

Adventureland returns me to the rock of the 80s

I watched Adventureland last night. The director's previous work, Superbad, was a bawdy comedy. This one is a much more low key story of awkward young love at a theme park, peppered with comedic sets by the likes of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. It is certainly worth your time.

The movie is set in 1987. The most notable nod to the 80s is the heavy use of 80s tunes. The theme park workers are tormented by Rock Me Amadeus, but find solace in the Replacements, and for some reason Lou Reed. I guess liking Lou Reed = arty outsider status. They could have used something more contemporaneous like Big Black, although that would connote vaguely dangerous outsider status. My vote would be for the use of the Dead Milkmen, specifically Punk Rock Girl. That one has young rebel couple all over it.

Mostly though, I just don't get Lou Reed. Not even Black Francis proclaiming his love can convince me to like Reed or his over-rated band the Velvet Underground. I do like the chorus to Satellite of Love, a little, but for the most part I could never listen to another song.

Fortunately all this Lou Reed cluttering my head is easily dispatched. A visit to the 120 Minutes Archive can clear away the most unforgettable of bad songs. 120 minutes (one of college roomates inexplicably pronounced it one twenty minutes) was a late night MTV show about "altnerative music." Back in late 80s high school days, I drank lots of coke to stay up late and watch. The best/worst part was hoping they would finally play the band you liked.

You might not get the exact song, but you could got plenty of good ones. Here is a Ramones hosted show with Interesting Drug, Dominion (one of my earliest band lady crushes was on the woman in this vid - wow I forgot they shot the video at Petra), and Never Say Never. Of course you had to suffer through Concrete Blonde. There is always a price.

There is always the middle path. The bands that aren't great, but also aren't gratingly terrible. The rock wizards at Clear Channel have apparently decided to revive Billy Squier, who is now nearly unavoidable on the classic rock station. He reminds a bit of what Foreigner might sound like, if they had ever decided to stop being shitty. The one song that I think is not so bad is My Kind of Lover. The lyrics, though, give me pause. He sings to his love "you give me something way beyond revenue." Is he a pimp?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Life in the fast lane

When they work, I really like books about jobs and what it is like to experience thsm. As someone who has worked almost entirely in offices, I don't have a good sense of what a day is like for a fire fighter or a park ranger. Two books that managed to explain a job while also telling good stories are the Last Season, a book about backwoods rangers, and Book, a collection of essays about life in the book trade.

Just as entertaining and informative is Richard Polsky's I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon). Polsky is an art dealer who writes about the big business that contemporary art has become. The principal change was the switch from dealers selling most of the art to the auction houses creating market frenzy.

Polsky moved from representing artists to brokering deals between sellers and the auction houses. Over the years he watches as the prices move from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions. While the increase means the commission on one deal can be quite significant, it also means that he is now priced out of the market. He began his career in part to spend time with and too own art. Now owning the ones he loves is just about impossible.

In addition to his art work, Polsky is a journalist, which shows in the quality of his writing. It is breezy, funny and on target. He maintains a good natured air throughout even when he is getting squeezed out of substantial amounts of money. This one will be of particular interest to anyone interested in the business of art.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Well, I'm glad I didn't spend any money on Pixu: Mark of Evil. For whatever reason I am drawn to both horror novels and horror comics so Pixu, a hardcover graphic novel no less, seemed like a good choice. It seemed a bit too short to buy, so I went to the library. Good for me.

My main complaint is how insubstantial the story is. If you your focus is on the pictures (or art if you must) you will get more mileage than I did. I however want story and there isn't much. Here it is. Five people live in a spooky apartment building. Only one is a good person, some are OK and some are evil. Bad things happen to them quickly, but we don't care a whole lot because they aren't developed.

The authors, mostly artists, would rather communicate with images than words, but in a book this short, nothing really cohered. There are some unpleasant themes as well, mostly child abuse, but the authors went a little too far in the direction of suggestion. There also a sense of unreality about the entire thing, that was probably meant to be creepy but ended up making it less engaging.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do you know what your leaders are reading?

The always excellent George Packer looks at what the leaders in the Obama White House and the Pentagon are reading and comes away concernded. It is well worth reading, but these last two lines are great:

The rule for Administration readers should be: no books that you already know will confirm the views you already hold. If that’s asking too much, at least the advisers and officers should be required to exchange volumes, and read what their policy opponents are reading, before the book group meets and decides the fate of the world.

What are the good myth books?

My eldest is becoming more and more interested in myths. He loves the Greek myths, and now thanks to the Avengers and Marvel Comics, he is becoming interested in Nordic myths as well. I wanted to get him some books on other mythos, but I can't think of any to get. Most I have seen are either too simple or way too academic. The only things I can think of are the two D'Aulaire's myth books. Those are great for my children, but I want something aimed at the adult as well. What I want is something like Robert Graves' Greek Myths, but for Mesoamerica, India or China.

I am trying to remember how I learned about the Greek myths. I think it was a combination of Clash of the Titans (and the rest of the Harryhausen movies), the D'Aulaire book, and Deities and Demigods. There are probably other influences, but I am drawing a blank.

Rocking out with the Pogues

Sweet Jaysis, the Pogues can put on one hell of a show. Yes, it was the Roseland, where everyone sounds good and yes the crowd was filled with maniacal fans, but they really brought it last night. A few things set the show apart.

First of all, ShaneMotherFuckingMacGowan. Good Lord, how is that man alive? The entire band was assembled on stage ready to kick off Streams of Whiskey, and about a minute later he wandered onto the stage looking like a man who just wrapped up the Circle Line Pub Crawl. His banter was completely incomprehensible, the only thing I caught was "Portland, you're fucking wonderful." Spider Stacey encouraged the crowd to yell approval, and eventually everyone cheered whenever he dropped a few phrases. He knew the words to the songs, and while his voice has lost, shall we say clarity, he still has the shout and scream.

The fans were quite something else as well. There was a neo-hippie element of camraderie on the floor. There was lots of stranger hugging and swaying (someone tapped me on the shoulder and said "this guy wants to hug you.") On the other hand, there was more moshing than I have seen since a Helmet/Jesus Lizard show back in 92. It was "I love you man, can you hold my beer while I go slam into those guys?" Irish, I guess.

The crowd appeared to know all the words, so there was lots of audience participation. I think the highlight was Philip Chevron stepping to the mike to sing Thousands Are Sailing, a song he wrote. If you don't know it, it's a song about Irish-Americans and their relationship with Ireland. Chevron sings about Irish-American life in the 20th century and then questions why Irish Americans love Ireland so with these words:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Where e'er we go, we celebrate

The land that makes us refugees
From fear of Priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies
And we dance

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Conquistadors who took their share

Hey remember that French jackass, Frederic Mitterand, the Culture Minister of France who called the US all sorts of bad names for catching that rat bastard Roman Polanski? Well, apparently Mr. Mitterand was just standing up for a fellow pedophile. He wrote a book that described his love of trolling for slave boys in Thailand. If you think slave goes a tad too far, here is what he wrote:

"All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market excited me enormously... the abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire."

Apparently he doesn't think it is such a big deal. The sense of entitlement these people (Hollywood, politicians, the mega-wealthy) have never fails to astound.

A remembrance of things past

I've been going back to my local video store Movie Madness lately. Partly it is because I want to support local business, but also because I end up finding things I don't think to put in my Netflix queue. The latest trip led to a terrible mistake.

I had recalled a list of horror movies with great endings from Ten Bad Dates with De Niro. One was the excellent Sleepaway Camp, which does in fact have a jaw dropping finale. For some reason I had it in my head that The House on Sorority Row was on the list. I later realized the movie I was thinking of was April Fool's Day, which probably sucks as bad as the movie I watched.

The movie I saw lacked any reason watching. The acting was piss poor. The story is ridiculous and obvious. Sorority house mother has bad birth experience and when sorority sisters think they have killed her, someone starts killing them. Whatever, why am I bothering? It is shitty like all the other movies of its ilk, the terrible stalker film of the 80s. I watched til the end, which was an uninteresting rip-off of Black Christmas. Bad, bad, bad. I should have watched another episode of the Prisoner.

What is more interesting is why these movies were popular. It is as inexplicable of as the popularity of hair metal. Why did such utter tripe make so much money? Later the same night I watched a little of The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. It made me dislike these movies all the more. It reminded that one or two (Halloween and Black Christmas) are worth a damn, but I took from it that people just wanted to see people die in different ways. Lovely.

There really isn't much else to the movies, but many of those interviewed tried to dress them up as art or expressions of the time, blah, blah, blah. They are just friendlier versions of Salo.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I watched Transsiberian last night. This one came out last year, but didn't get a lot of buzz. Too bad because the direction is awesome, the movie is crammed with great actors and performances and it looks great. The movie is centered around Roy and Jessie, an American couple in Beijing for a church volunteer mission who decide to go home via the Siberian railroad to Moscow. Roy, played by Woody Harrelson, is a earnest fan of trains but wife Jessie, played by an absolutely fantastic Emily Mortimer, is a former wild child. She is tempted by a roguish Spanish traveller, although she also befriends his young American companion.

The movie is slow moving, but you can feel the walls closing in around Roy and Jessie even when they don't see it. Ben Kingsley's shadowy Russian policeman complicates their lives and they find themselves way over their heads in backwater Russia.

The director, Brad Anderson, also made Session 9, a horror movie I also adore. Both movies share a wonderfully tense build up of suspense. This one is happier in many ways that the bleak Session 9, but both are better than most films out there.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The next Dennis Lehane

Well I was hoping for another Given Day, but it looks like Lehane is finally going back to Kenzie and Gennaro. His next book is a sequel to Gone Baby Gone. The book takes place 11 years after Gone Baby Gone. The young girl of that story is now a teen and has disappeared....again. I'm a little sad that we won't get a new Given Day (yet!) but I am also happy to see Kenzie and Gennaro again.

Where white America is going

Every once and again, a friend will mention some great new place they have discovered. Usually it is on a beautiful beach, near gorgeous mountains or on some amazing fishing river. Out here in Oregon, Bandon is getting as hot as the overheated Bend. Back east, Florida panhandle developments like Seaside in Florida keep getting hotter. After you note the great places to eat, the natural beauty, and the nicely ordered streets, you will note the people. They will be quite open and friendly and, almost to a person, white. Rich Benjamin, who is black, explores these places in his book Searching for Whitopia.

Benjamin argues that wittingly or unwittingly, whitopias are created by fears of immigrants and terrorists and a desire to create comfortable, expensive playground cities. These places are too expensive for most minorities, and even for poor or middle class whites. They allow for like minded people to segregate themselves. Fans of books like the Big Sort will enjoy this aspect of the book.

Race is a touchy subject in America (to be fair, where isn't it a touchy subject?) but I think Benjamin handles it exceedingly well. He is not interested in attacking people, only problems. He genuinely likes the people he meets in these white enclaves. He has few if any personal beefs with them. Instead he wants the government to look at the policies that encourage the development of segregation. A tall order and one that requires resetting the national conversation.

The United States needs a new approach to race, Benjamin argues. For one, people, including whites, need to be able to express all their concerns and needs, without fear of being labeled racist. Equally problematic though is the adoption of identity politics based entitlements thinking by many whites.

The book reminds me of those of Robert D Kaplan, if generally cheerier than his books. The combination of travelogue and policy analysis makes for a engaging way to deal with this topic.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The remake that will probably be more fun than Attack of the Clones

People love some Star Wars, despite George Lucas neglectful parenting. Is there any other cultural phenomenon that could produce the Flickr group Growing Up Star Wars 1977-1985, where over 1,200 people have uploaded their images from before the dark times (here is one I really like)?

You can't keep the fans down and now there is Star Wars Uncut, an effort at collective film making. Fans claim 15 seconds of the movie and reshoot it anyway they like. Here is the trailer. The selections range from cartoon to live action to surreal madness like this one where all the characters have been replaced by babies:

Star Wars Uncut - Scene 328 from M. Schramm on Vimeo.

Deadly meat

Everyone once and again I think about cutting off my kids from beef. Stories like this one in the New York Times, which details how beef containing E.coli led to paralysis in a young woman, certainly add fuel to the fire.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Prisoner

My buddy Neill is just now watching Lost. Lucky him! Talking to him about seasons one and two reminded me of how much I have loved the stories built into the show. He may suffer plot whiplash with all the twists and turns in the seasons to come, but he will also not have the agony of the wait.

The Prisoner is an 60s British paranoid spy drama that is often called an influence on Lost. I started watching it recently and expected it to be the loopy island drama. While it does have a person trapped in a remote area and plagued by shadowy forces, it is quite different. For one, it is much more episodic than Lost. There is apparently some debate as to the true order of the shows. In many cases you rearrange them and watch them in the order you like.

I tend to dislike episodic shows, but I have come to quite like the Prisoner. The main character is a British spy who has resigned. He is knocked out at his house and wakes up in a strange place called the Village. The residents act, dress and talk strangely and no one has a name. The main character is known as number six. He is constantly tested by a series of people known as number two.

Among the series's themes is the idea of the individual against the collective. The great powers of the Cold War, the state, the nation and the Party are shown as destroyers and grinders of the individual. Number six is one of the few willing to stand up to them.

It isn't like Lost or 24 where you feel compelled to watch as many shows as you can stand in a sitting. Each show is independent and the mood created is more one of reflection than excitement. Well worth it, if you know what you are getting into.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Another reason to love Powells

Whenever I am near a Powells location with some time to kill, I stop in for a visit. With the huge number of used books and excellent recommendations, I nearly always spot a surprising find. The remainder section is surprisingly good as well. In many other stores, the remainder books are stale popular fiction novels of the James Patterson variety. Most there are are out in paperback already.

Not at Powell's. You will find a number of very good books that didn't sell quite as well. There is lots of serious history, literature and science fiction available. Even better they have piles of British editions of books on hand. Much of the time all you get from the British editions are different blurbs, spellings and crappier paper. Sometimes though you get a paperback edition while the American edition remains in pricey hardback. Other times you get a gem like I found today.

George R R Martin, author of the cruelly incomplete Song of Fire and Ice, is a prolific writer of short fiction. His short works were collected in two hard covers called Dreamssongs. I wanted to buy them when they came out, but they were too expensive. I would have gone to the library, but they aren't the sort of thing you read at once. It is for picking up as the whim takes you.

So I was thrilled that a combined British edition was on sale at Powells for ten bucks. Now if I can just find the time to read it.