Friday, May 21, 2010


I am working on a new blog project about which I am excited. So excited that I want to completely focus on it. As such, this ole blog is going to take a break. I will update when the new blog launches.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A good Civil War read

My sister now lives in Atlanta, which means I visit fairly frequently. Not as much as I would like, but I have certainly spent some time there. On one of the visits, we traveled out to the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and learned about the precursors to the Battle(s) of Atlanta, but I had not seen anything in town about the fighting in and around Atlanta. As Russell Bonds notes in the beginning of his War Like a Thunderbolt, most people's (including my own) idea of the war in Atlanta comes from Gone with the Wind. Unlike Antietam or Gettysburg, there is no park or memorial to the battle of Atlanta despite its importance in history.

Bonds argues that without Sherman's victory in the four battles of Atlanta in mid 1864, Lincoln would have lost the election to McClellan and the Confederacy would have likely survived. The soldier vote was crucial to Lincoln's success and flush from the victory in Atlanta, the Army came out fully for Lincoln, which must have stung former General McClellan.

The book is part military history and part social history. Bonds makes good use of maps, which is always appreciated and keeps the narrative from becoming too bogged down in detail. I also appreciated that he let the soldiers speak, and didn't focus exclusively on the generals, as some historians are wont to do. On the generals side, we see the test of wills of General Sherman on the Union side, and General Johnston and then Hood on the Confederate side. Aside from one close run battle east of the city, Sherman's leadership was critical to the victory.

The question of Sherman in Georgia is of course a controversial one. He is still disliked by many in the South for the March to the Sea. Bonds take a even handed approach to the controversy. He points to his great success as a military leader, but criticizes many of his brutal actions, like shelling the civilian areas of the city for over a month, expelling the populace and then ensuring that the city was destroyed.

In Sherman, you can see beginnings of the idea of crushing an enemy by breaking the will of the civilian populace. The Germans developed this further by submarine warfare and the Allies in World War 2 took it even further by the bombing campaigns. It is easy to criticize these approaches, but they have a point. By ending the war sooner, do they save more lives than they take? The longer wars last, the more vicious they become, so there is some merit to Sherman's idea.

This is a long book so realistically, it will only appeal to people interested in the Civil War, Atlanta, or, at a stretch, the 1864 Presidential campaign. If that describes you, by all means pick this one up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book trade bonanza at Powells

Oh man did I score at Powell's yesterday. I brought in a stack of books and received just under $50 in credit. Having not bought books in awhile there were so many to pick up. Here was my haul.

American Rust by Philipp Meyer. This one gets compared to McCarthy and Lehane and also wound up on a number of best of lists for 09. Looks promising, in a bleak, makes-you-wanna-die kinda way.

Warlock by Oakley Hall. I've been meaning to get a copy of this and then all of a sudden Steve recommended it. It is currently in a NYRB classics edition, but lucky me, I found a used copy of an earlier edition.

Nightmare Alley by William Gresham. After Dirda gushed about it, I needed it. And there it was! The very last copy. I felt special.

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Supposedly the Vietnam novel. We shall see.

Cthulhu's Reign by collected authors. Yes, well, one of these things is not like the other, I guess. With all that literary goodness, I needed a little profane to balance out the sacred.

Why no love for nonfiction? I have SO much nonfiction out from the library that I am feeling a little under the gun on that front.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I must get my hands on this one

Silly me, I have been away from the Washington Post book reviews for the most foolish of reasons. I lost my RSS feeds and neglected to add them. Thanks to Omnivoracious, I caught this Dirda review of a NYRB Classics release of William Lindsey's 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. The man knows how to sell a book:

While I've known for a long time that William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" (1946) was an established classic of noir fiction, I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power. Why isn't this book on reading lists with Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" and Albert Camus' "The Stranger"? It's not often that a novel leaves a weathered and jaded reviewer like myself utterly flattened, but this one did.

How can you not want this book right now?

On the "huh, isn't that interesting tip" we have this:

Still, the most notable factoid surrounding him involves his wife, Joy Davidman, the dedicatee of "Nightmare Alley." She left Gresham, traveled to England and there met, and ultimately married, the novelist, scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Did Lewis, I wonder, ever read "Nightmare Alley"? His books frequently address the problem of human pain, of temptation and sinfulness, of damnation.

The Republic of Suffering

Drew Gilpin Faust's award winning The Republic of Suffering is quite the read. She looks at the Civil War, and by extension war itself, from the viewpoint of death. Each chapter in the book is concerned with a different aspect. In one she describes the "Good Death," that the soldiers desperately hoped to have. She details the challenges of burial, identification, mourning and making the right memorials.

Most Civil War histories discuss the belief of both sides that the war would be over quickly, won by their side of course. Faust explores what this meant for the aftermath of the bodies. Neither side was prepared to deal with the dead bodies. The systems in place to identify and properly bury dead soldiers did not exist. Civil society and capitalism in the North took advantage of their greater resources to step in where the could, but those in the South were less lucky.

Faust takes advantage of the fact that people of the 19th century were much more likely to write diaries, letters and memoirs than their 21st century counterparts. Much of the book is given to quoting the soldiers and their families as they wrestle with what the war wrought. She tells tragic tales of parents, siblings and spouses seeking out their lost loved ones.

The book ends with the problems of what to do with the dead. I was sad to read that one of the reasons for the construction of national cemeteries was to prevent the desecration of the dead after the war.

This is by no means a happy read, but it is an good one. Those who blithely cheer on when the threat of war is on the horizon would do well to read this book and ponder it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some nice looking scifi on the horizon

Amazon has a page of summer fiction treats up. It includes the new Mieville called Kraken, which looks great. This one is set in a version of our London, but with plenty of Mieville madness. If you haven't read him, definately give Perdido Street Station a try. Just hold your nose if the bug sex bothers you.

On the Kraken page, I see that Charlie Stross has a new Laundry book coming out. This one is called the Fuller Memorandum and I will be reading it for sure. The books read like a cross between the Sandbaggers and the Office and Stross brings it of perfectly.

William Gibson has a new one. I go hot and cold on Gibson, but I will keep my eye on it.

Now here is a book I want. Neil Gaiman gathered some of his story making friends to create an anthology called Stories. Writers the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates and Lawrence Block serve up some new tales. Two catch my eye. One is a tale by Joe Hill called "Devil on the Staircase" and Gaiman's is a skeery sounding one called " The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains."

Well that should set us up for most of the summer.

Steampunk zombies in Seattle

Well, I am slowly emerging from my reading funk. I had an opportunity to focus on reading yesterday. I managed a charity golf tournament, which mostly means waiting for the people to come back, so you can hand out prizes. Anyway, there was a lot of reading time. One of the books I read was Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. Her prior work has mostly been in Southern gothic horror. Here she takes a different tack with a steampunk science fiction tale.

If you don't know steampunk, it is a style of science fiction usually set in the 19th century that uses high technology based on the tech of the day. So there are dirigibles, babbage engines, and various steam powered mechanisms. Priest's tale is set in a Seattle devastated by a steam powered drill machine meant to explore for gold in the Klondike. The machine went wild one day and wrecked much of the city. Even worse, it released a gas, called the blight, that killed many and turned others in zombies. The outside world protected itself by throwing a wall around Seattle.

15 years later the son of the man whose Boneshaker wrecked the town heads back in to clear his name. His mom, with whom he has a tenuous relationship, chases after him. The two quests give Priest the chance to show off her creative world building, with Confederate (the war has been going on for nearly two decades) airships, cyborgs, hellish factories designed to bring clean air into the Blight-infected Seattle and all manner of odd characters.

In the end, I liked the world more than the story itself. I liked the plot of the mother seeking our her son, but thought the son's wanderings were less interesting. Priest is working on another book in this world, which I will most likely try.

By the way, the book had one very nice design element I appreciated. To give the book a nice steampunk patina, the text is printed in a sepia color. It is quite attractive and subtle.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another unfinished book

Man, I am having the hardest time getting into a read these days. I started a science fiction novel earlier this week and ended up putting it down. Allen Steele's Coyote is the first of (at least) seven of novels about interstellar colonization. The opening is fun. It starts in the late 21st century when an authoritarian government rules what is left of the United States (New England and the West Coast have split off.) The government is a spoof of the angry white male forces that were growing in strength in the early Bush years. Said nasty government plans to colonize the stars but a rebellion steals the star ship, even sneaking on some dissidents to start anew.

This was all well and good, but there was a bit too much bloat in the writing for my taste. Many reviewers compare the book to Heinlein and Pournelle, which is apt. In that era of scifi, ideas counted more than writing, and that seems to be the case here. To be fair, this book is actually a collection of short stories, rather than a single work.

Reaction to these endless series is hard to judge. I love the overly wordy Malazan novels of Steven Erikson, but I completely understand why the books might put off some people. I might have been better served starting this book somewhere where I could give it more attention.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My musical obsession of the day

Sleigh Bell's awesomely electronic Crown on the Ground. Described by Brack as Tegan and Sara x DMX x My Bloody Valentine. Ideal for turning way up. I am blanking on the album cover they are referencing. Is it Bob Seger?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A little resurrected horror

The other day, while we exploring a used bookstore in Wrigleyville, Steve pointed at a paperback horror novel by Douglas Clegg and said, in jest, "look, your favorite author." Not a bad assumption on his part, horror in general and mass market paperback horror in particular is not a genre rich in glories. Back in the 80s, I adored the paperback section of the grocery store and drug store. That was where you would find all kinds of treasures. Trashy treasures to be sure, but treasures nonetheless. Today nearly anything in mass market is suspect. A book published in trade paperback is an argument that the book before you is worth a try.

I had read some Douglas Clegg before and enjoyed it. One of his earliest novels, Neverland, was recently republished in trade paperback, so I naturally took notice. It is actually a good horror read. It centers on a family vacation to a run down Georgia island where people who can afford to go elsewhere have done so. The action centers around a pair of cousins, the parents of whom are usually too drunk or in battle to notice them. The kids explore a place called Neverland where one claims he has met a god.

The best parts of this horror book are the non-horror elements. Clegg has made some very believable children. Given their terrible home lives, it isn't a surprise that they turn to make believe to escape what they have to endure on a regular basis. The horror is good too, especially in the early parts when it is mostly glimpsed.

It goes to show you that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but you may as well republish in trade as people will keep on judging.

Monday, May 10, 2010

There's no Carlos in Interpol

Seriously, this makes me wanna cry. Carlos D has left Interpol. The rhythm section is critical to the band's awesomeness. Where else where will the band find a cool looking aloof New Yorker bassist? Watch Obstacle 1 and pretend it isn't real.

The sorrow of Revenge of the Sith

For awhile now, I have been telling myself that Revenge of the Sith wasn't a bad movie. I didn't say good, mind, just not bad. Maybe this was in comparison to the first two cinematic horrors, but I have to say it is in fact crap. Our youngest kids really wanted to see it this weekend, so we let them. This meant we had to sit through it. Good gracious, it was all there, Padme's pouting, Anakin's glowering, Obi Wan's terrible dead pan puns. I only took pleasure in noting the care the designers took in making the equipment look like precursors to the equipment in the sequels. Oh well.

This morning my inner geek found solace in this story of a lavishly produced Lord of the Rings doll house . (via Vulture)

Friday, May 07, 2010

Takashi Miike on American TV?

Well it nearly happened. Showtime ran a series of one hour horror films by famous horror directors. The series was titled Masters of Horror. Miike got unlucky thirteen and his ended up going straight to DVD. Why you ask? Well for being himself. Miike is known for some over the top imagery and violence and he brings it here. We see a number of aborted fetuses floating down rivers, horrible torture via what look overgrown sewing needles, and a variety of human depravity.

It all takes place sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century Japan and mostly at a brothel run by the deformed. The main character is an American adventurer looking for his lady friend who he believes is now working in a pleasure house. Too bad he doesn't find much in the way of joy.

Short and nasty, I suspect fans of Laird Barron will find parts of this one interesting.

Paul Fussell's Wartime

Paul Fussell is a critic and essayist rather than a historian, which makes Wartime, one of his World War 2 books, quite different from the others you have read. There are no glowing portraits of military genius or campaigns well fought. Fussell is more interested in how much war sucks. To give you a sense of the book, one of the chapters is titled "Chickenshit, An Anatomy," which we now would probably call bullshit. It generally was used to describe arbitrary abuses of power by very small men. It could be at the level of annoying, if cruel, such as denying leave thanks to a poorly made bed, or it could be evil, such as needlessly sending a patrol to their dooms, because a commanding officer didn't care for their leader.

The book details all the little ways that war destroys civility, society and the individual. He describes the propagandizing that developed into the Greatest Generation concept. The public was rarely given the real story. He also argues that World War 2 was even more dehumanizing than the trench warfare of the First World War. In the second, governments went even further into dehumazing and de-indivualizing soldiers so that they became just another replacement part or machine.

This sounds like grim reading and it is, but Fussell's outstanding prose and lighter moments, like what books people read make it more bearable. He attributes the explosion in paperbacks after the war to wartime paperbacks distributed to servicemen. I will now need to read his Great War and Modern Memory, which looks at the literature of that war.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Another book that will be traded at Powells

I just started the Monster of Florence and I am not feeling it at all. The subject is interesting in theory. Douglas Preston moves to Italy and starts researching a crime novel. As part of the research he meets a reporter who covered an unsolved series of brutal murders. They start investigating and get into trouble with the fuzz.

It may be fine, but the opening bit of dialogue really put me off.

The man sat at the edge of Spezi's desk. "This morning I have a little appointment." he said, "She's not bad looking, married. . ."

"At your age?" Spezi said. "On a Sunday morning before church?" Isn't that a bit much?"

"A bit much? Mario, I'm Sicilian!" He struck his chest. "I come from the land that gave birth to the Gods."

Cue Dennis Hopper. Really though, I felt like I was in for 250 pages of Paisan! and Chianti. I had to put it down.

Waiting for the Gun

Man, looks like I live in the wrong Northwest city. Soundgarden got together (as Nudedragons) for a show in Seattle last month. I would have loved this cover of Waiting for the Sun. Here is the whole show. Gun sounds as fucking bad ass as ever.

I love these guys if only for being one of the best live shows I recall. My man Neill got kicked in the head by Chris Cornell on a stage dive and my ears took a few days to recover.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Most highlighted passages on the Kindle

One of the (purported) benefits of the Kindle is that you can highlight text. Big Brother Amazon is apparently aggregating this info, judging by this page of most highlighted text. Anyway, can you guess who is the Daddy Mac of highlighted text? William P Young, author of the Shack. Got-dam Shack readers love them some highlighting.

A few thoughts. Highlighting amazes me. Ann Fadiman described two kinds of readers, carnal and courtly. The former mark up, deface and tear apart their books. The relationship becomes physical. The latter treat their books chastely and like nothing more than a virginal book. I am all about courtly reading. I get upset when a tiny food stain winds up on a page. Unreasonable, as I am not hoping to sell them for a profit, but there you go.

Second, where is the dirty, dirty talk? Porn leads the way in the technology world, so where is it? I bet Amazon is suppressing some info here. I used to work for an online electronics store and we had a list of top 100 movies. Thing was, we had to hide the leading titles, which were nasty. One of the favorites was Ilsa She Wolf of the SS. That was one effed up movie. Anyway, I bet something like the Story of O has way more highlighting.

Finally what do people do with their highlighting? Besides note taking of course. Do people really go back and look at them?

Monday, May 03, 2010

A little old school scifi

The other day Harris wrote about books you are supposed to like but just don't. He was talking about literary fiction, but the same holds for science fiction. Two books (and series) I just could not get into were Zelazny's Amber books and Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle. The thing is, I love the giant multi volume fantasy novels, but I can rarely stick with multivolume scifi and these two didn't work at all.

Thanks to a Powells display, I did pick up a Silverberg book that I did like. The Book of Skulls is dated but reasonably well written and engaging. Set in the early 70s and populated by earnest philosophically minded college students, the book nearly collapses under the weight of bullshit. The short length and the tensions between the characters keeps it going.

The premise is that one of the four mismatched college roommates (one neurotic Jew, one mincing gay, one bronzed Midwesterner and one aloof aristocrat ---stereotype much?) discover the possibility that a cult can teach them how to live forever. The catch is that four men (and note the emphasis on men) can enter, but only two leave. One has to commit suicide and another must be murdered by the other two. Therein lies the book's tension.

While I think male readers will like the book, I think female readers will not. Most scifi of the period was male centric, but this one is is almost anti-female. Not because of the extensive focus on gay relationships, but because all of the women in the book are portrayed negatively or anti-humanely. The women serve only to hinder our heroes from gaining wisdom or as objects for their learning. Come to think of it, this might really put off male readers too.

The Third Rail

I am just back from Chicago, what a town that is! I am sure the winters are brutal, but in the nice weather, it is really something. The incredible architecture, cool neighborhoods, great food add up to a lot of fun. Being large of course, and with its reputation for shady politics it is also a great setting for a crime novel. Chicago's Michael Harvey's the Third Rail is his third book featuring Michael Kelly. The character may be a little too familiar (Irish, cop turned PI, problems with authority,) but the story isn't. It starts with random killings on the L trains and builds into a broader plot involving revenge, those nasty city politics and the lingering effects of a train crash.

This one is bleaker and nastier than the average crime novel. It feels like the mid period Lehanes in the level of violence and cruelty on the part of the bad guys. This is not a cozy crime novel by any means. It also pulls in quite a bit of the serial killer and thriller genres into crime picture.

The plot is fairly complicated and it can be a bit hard to follow, especially as Harvey intends the protagonists to be at a loss for the beginning of the book. Still, it is good to see new writers developing and taking the stories out of LA and New York.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Back from Chicago

Ah, now that was a trip. Of course it included trips to bookstores, including a very nice one near Wrigley Field. More on all of that soon, but take a look at the Edgar winners. I am thrilled to see that John Hart won (again) for the Last Child.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oooooo, new Interpol

You can go the Interpol website for the MP3 (as I did) or you can just click on the YouTube that someone immediately put up (could disappear of course.) This one is less about the hooks and more about the atmospherics, which means it sounds like Turn Out the Bright Lights. Good times.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Heading to Chicago

I will shortly be off to Chicago for the weekend. I will be meeting up with some good friends for eating, drinking, game watching and bookstore visiting. I've never been there so I am quite excited. Right now, I am wrestling with the dilemma of which books to bring for the flight. Right now I am thinking Fussell's Wartime, a creepy looking Robert Silverberg called Book of Skulls, the lovely Netherland (which I started) and Quietus, a book that I fear may be too long for its own good.

Since I am going to Chicago, I thought it fitting that I read the Third Rail by Chicago native Michael Harvey. More on that one later today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Say it ain't so Stephen

Well, he can't, as he is dead, but I am sad to hear allegations that Stephen Ambrose made up interviews with Dwight Eisenhower. These purportedly fake interviews were essential to his books on Eisenhower. The New Yorker has the details. Yahoo has an overview of the coverage. I imagine people will now pore over his books to find more examples of dodgy research. This makes me sad as I have greatly enjoyed many of his books.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A record speedy book abandonment

I usually give a book 50 pages to hook me (100 pages if it is a fantasy novel, for some of those the first 50 pages is the prologue.) I picked up the Raw Shark Texts and read this on page one:

The shudder-hacking violence of no air then too much knocked me dizzy, sent the floor tilting away under my fingers. Static behind my eyes bacteria-swarmed dangerously towards another blackout and, snow blind and shaking, I pushed my wet mouth down tight into the palms of my hands, trying to pull controlled, steady breaths through my fingers -

Done on page one. There is no way in hell I can stand to read that sort of cutesy playful language, especially when the book is at least partially inspired by one of the greatest waste of trees, the House of Leaves. As Harris noted earlier, the literary world is trying to convince us that purposefully obtuse writing is good and that if you don't like it, you just aren't smart enough. I'll just be old fashioned and look to writers like Ian McEwan who can actually tell a story and use language to communicate emotion and understanding, rather than over the top metaphor and pop cultural allusion.

NB, I also put down a genre book as well. CJ Cherryh's Foreigner. She really needs an editor on that one.

I just saw Kick Ass

It's pretty awesome. You get McLovin, Nic Cage doing his best Adam West, a filthy mouthed 11 y/o girl who is great with a knife and lots and lots of violence. There are no big thoughts in this movie, there are no lessons, no growth in character, no subtle commentary on crime, the media, our infatuation with violence and explosions. In fact, I imagine some will be repelled by the cavalier attitude towards mayhem, especially by the idea that a father raises his daughter by training her to be a killer to seek vengeance.

The movie is really two movies in one. It starts with a goofy guy who gets the notion that he should become a superhero. He has a rough go of it and comes to find he would rather be a regular guy again. Since the movie has promised us ass kicking, the second part of the movie involves a real superhero father and daughter team.

There are lots of fun little details, like the use of social media by superheroes and the idea that a popular hangout is a combination malt and comic shop. Essentially if you like cartoonish violence that is very well presented, you will like this movie. If you think violence has been made too easy in our times, watch out for this one.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The new Vampire Weekend single

I like it! More than the last one too. I guess I will see these guys live again. Check the video for Jake Gyllenhaal as a hard drinking tennis player and the RZA as a tennis judge.

When books are really cheap

My kids school held a library fundraiser this week. It works like this. The kids bring in books from home and when they get hit benchmarks they get a prize (200 books gets you a popsicle party, 500 gets you a bookmark and so on.) The books sell for a pittance ( $1 each) and all the cash goes to buy new books for the school library. So it was my parental duty to pick up a stack, right? I did walk away with a small amount. Just six books. I picked up Monster of Florence, a Bryson book on Shakespeare, a book about Frederick the Great, Jesusland and a few others.

Who knows when I will read all these books, but really that rarely bothers me. The number of unread books I own rarely enters into my buying calculus. The key factors seem to be my desire to read the book, the possibility of never seeing the book again (which includes forgetting to look) and the cost. A low cost, as in a dollar, means that I even the barest chance of wanting to read it will lead me to pick up the book. After all, if I don't like it, I can lend it to someone else or trade it in at Powells.

I like the idea of having lots of books from which to choose, but the reality is less attractive. I end up forgetting what I have already purchased and often just grab the nearest book on the shelf for the next read. I stuff books in various corners of the house and forget they exist. Some get hidden behind the latest acquisitions. And then the stack of library books beckons with its urgency.

The thing is I like buying books for the sake of buying. Just exploring the piles and stacks of books, looking at the covers, and imagining the read build up to pleasurable time spent. Buying cheap books is like buying a lottery ticket. There is chance (a better one that the lottery!) you will get something out of it, but in the mean time you had a little cheap fun.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reading the new Hampton Sides

The new Hampton Sides book, Hellhound on His Trail, is not only great, it compares well to his incredible Ghost Soldiers. His earlier book told a little known tale of a joint Army Ranger/Filipino guerrilla operation to liberate US servicemen from a Japanese prison camp. He took a fresh story and told it incredibly well. Hellhound on His Trail, also describes a lesser known aspect of a terrible event. His new book is about James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the center of the book and the driver of the narrative, it is a little odd that we do not see the name James Earl Ray until page 321 of the book. In his preface, Sides alludes to Shelby Foote's belief that historians should borrow the novelist's way of writing. Sides takes that advice and writes like the very best of the crime novelists. Ray, who Sides depicts as a criminal driven by his angry racism, his shattered family life and a peculiar desire to lead others on chases, was given to creating multiple fake identities. So for the first 3/4 of the book, Sides refers to him as Eric Galt, the name Ray took after breaking out of prison.

Sides' use of novelistic technique of pacing, and building suspense makes the non-reveal of Ray's true name feel like a big reveal. Reading how the FBI manages to piece together his history and his past, I felt a bit of vicarious triumph when they found out who he really was.

The other major character, of course, is Martin Luther King, Jr, who at the start of the book is flagging and flailing, looking for a way for the Civil Rights movement to gain momentum. He is anxious to being a poor person's movement in DC, but becomes involved in a garbage worker's strike in Memphis. Sides provides enough background to show the tensions within the movement without slowing down the brisk pace of the story. We are all aware of the terrible symbolic and social impacts of King's death, so Sides focuses on the things we might forget. With mounting dread, we see him joking with friends as he prepares for a dinner, all while Ray readies his rifle. We also see his young children try to grapple with what has happened to them.

The focus here though is on Ray. I was unaware of his flight across the country and then into many more. He was under the belief that he could find ideological sympathizers who would help him join up with the Rhodesian military.

Don't look for conspiracy theories in the book. The only one of note is related to a St Louis lawyer named Sutherland who is believed to have put a bounty on King's head. Focusing on the Ray's actions leaves space for the conspiracy minded to fill in motive and assistance if desired.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The new Hampton Sides

So I started reading the new Hampton Sides book, Hellhound on His Trail, which concerns the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.* In a later post, I will talk about the book itself, which is great and stands up well to his prior work. At the moment, I want to mention how relevant the book feels today. King's killer appears to have been already damaged and filled with hatred towards King and African Americans in general.

It didn't help though that the Wallace campaign and it allies beat the drum of saving the country for the white man, all the while claiming that King was some sort of stooge of the Soviets bent on destroying the US of A.

The whole feel of the time is frighteningly similar to ours. The drumbeats of panic and fear pulsing from the Tea Partiers, with their outlandish claims about Obama and their over the top rhetoric remind echo what people said about King. You can't say that you are trying to help white America anymore, of course. Instead you say "real Americans."

My fear is that all of this atmosphere will trigger a reaction from some new James Earl Ray. This is not a new sentiment, but the book certainly makes it seem that much more of a threat.

*Full disclosure: The publisher sent it to me. Thanks!

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Hath God Wrought

I'm not well read on early 19th century American history. I've always vaguely thought of it as the "Age of Jackson" (thanks to seeing, but not reading Schlesinger's Age of Jackson, and kept it at that. Then the Oxford History of the United States put out What Hath God Wrought, the now penultimate release from the series. I adore these histories, the best known of which is probably Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the best histories I have ever read. My instinct is to buy these books as they come out. They are really a bit too long for a library check out and I like collecting them. Still, my limited interest in the subject matter left the book unread for a year.

Having some time on my hands, I picked it up last week and wrapped it up within a week. Like most of the other books in the series, the book is clearly written and engaging. They are written for generalist audiences by experts in their era. In this volume David Walker Howe takes the reader from 1815, as the War in 1812 ends as the time of the Founding Fathers begins to recede, up to 1848 with Polk's massive national expansion via war and diplomacy and the Seneca Falls Convention.

One of the things I have pondered is how the US of the Civil War, which seemed so big and complex, arose from the coastal enclaves of the Federalist era. Howe explains all this via the great debates of the era. One centered on the notion of internal improvements, which we might today call infrastructure development. One nationalist strand of thought argued that the US should invest in these improvements for security and economic reasons. Another, which focused on the cotton trade with England, fought vigorously against it. This group, of course, was also that which defended slavery. As Howe shows, the argument they made was not focused on states right, but on the desire to maintain a slave based economy, as it made owners of people quite wealthy.

There is a lot more in the book, particularly about how communications and transport technology made it possible for a country to exist over such a large area as the United States. Readers today will feel many uneasy comparisons with today's politics, especially comparing the Mexican war with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the role of regional politics in shaping and distorting national debates.

Like all giant history books, you still need an interest in the era to read this one. The reason I think this era is worth knowing is that it helps explain the road to the Civil War, the debates about how involved the state should be in the economy, how the country began its shift to diversity and how the national economy developed.

Authors sipping the haterade

Man, authors can be mean to each other. Here are the top 50 disses of authors by other authors. I disagree with this one, but I like how it is phrased.

4. Edgar Allen Poe, according to Henry James (1876)

An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.

(via Vulture)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Walter Kirn disses Ian McEwan

I haven't read Solar, although I suspect I will sometime soon. Walter Kirn, no slouch as a novelist, thinks I better not though:

According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad — so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed — that they’re actually rather good. “Solar,” the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good — so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off — that it’s actually quite bad. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.

That's either brilliant or nonsensical, I'm not sure which. The full review is here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Keep these Books Well Stocked Away

I am struggling through a book right now that I don't like and would like to put down but I can't. Not because I don't want to (as stated above, I do want to), but because I feel like I'm not supposed to. Or shouldn't.

Why? Because the book received such rave reviews that I feel like I must be a moron or missing something for not liking it. I'm scared that someone will see it on my shelf and ask me what I thought about something that occurred more than one-third of the way through, and I'll have to admit I didn't finish it and thereby be branded a rube.

I do this a lot. I find that I "like" something that reviews or public opinion or preconceived notions tell me I'm supposed to like. For example, the Mercedes SUV. I don't like its look and I doubt it holds enough cargo to be useful as an SUV. But I feel like Mercedes made it so it must be ME. Obviously, it's my personal shortcoming that prevents me from liking it. So I like it.

Ditto certain books. I guess I'm not ashamed anymore. So, the book to which I referred above is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Time magazine named it one of the most important books since 1923. First off, I find it a little too self-aware and self-indulgent and overblown. It's like the 915-page, literary version of La Villa Strangiato by Rush. Which could be the point, but I'm not sure that makes it better (I don't buy the "it sucks because it's parodying things that suck in this world, not because it actually sucks - you're missing the point"). I also find that the dizzying use of endnotes - purposefully, per the author, designed to break up the flow of the novel - irritates me. For the same reason - i.e., I guess I'm too dense to realize that being irritated is exactly the point the author was trying to make, and I should therefore appreciate being irritated and not enjoying the book. Finally, I'm not terribly impressed by the imagery anyway. Maybe it's one of those "I'm so dense that I think I'm smart but I'm actually dumb" things, but a lot of the presumably clever material is boring. Like the fact that the new North American mega-country is named the Organization of North American Nations. To me the ONAN part was apparent from the full name, but every chance he gets, he puts the acronym in the reader's face. I get it.

Anyway, I'm laboring through it and it's frustrating me. Any others out there?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Oryx and Crake Part Deux

A few years back, Margaret Atwood released Oryx and Crake, one of the greatest literary speculative fiction novels I have ever read. Last year, she put out The Year of the Flood, a book which features two minor characters from the first book. It is not a sequel, but takes place at essentially the same time as the earlier book. This sounds odd, and it is. Most people reading it will have read Oryx and Crake, either because they like Atwood or they learn this is a follow on book. So the ending is already known. You even know some of the characters.

Still, the book is different. The earlier book focused on intellectuals in the upper social strata. This one deals with people of faith trying to survive in an increasingly cruel world. The particular faith is a Christianity blended with nature worship. The saints are the likes of Dian Fossey and Rachel Carson, those that tried and sometimes did protect the natural world. The faithful, called the Gardeners, have a strict vegetarian and recycling lifestyle, which makes sense in a world where the most popular burger chain is Secret Burger. The name refers to the mysterious nature of the source of the meat.

To be honest, I wasn't much taken with the overall story. It was OK. What I did like was Atwood's writing, her portrayal of the characters, and the details of the world she constructed. The tone is a rebuke to our consumerist world, which pays little heed to the destruction of the environment, the peril of the growth of corporate power and our isolation from each other.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bacevich on Moyers

He is back on Moyers, talking about Afghanistan this time. He has a new book coming out this summer.

Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. McCarry?

One of life's minor pleasures is reading a book that has been on your shelf for years. I have had Charles McCarry's Old Boys for six or seven years. It's not that I didn't want to read it, but it was the first McCarry I acquired. Having bought it, I realized it was a series book and that I would have to go about purchasing the, then out of print and hard to find, earlier books. I spent some time tracking down used copies and then Overlook Press reprinted his books. So, I've now caught up and could read this one.

Reading these books in order is important. Even more than the Ian Fleming novels, there are important subplots that span the books that will be ruined if you read them out of order. The earlier ones you can probably read out of synch, but you should hold off on Old Boys, until you have read a few of the earlier ones.

McCarry's books are old school spy novels, which makes sense as he was an old school spy. The main characters are not Jack Bauers or even James Bond's, but instead are skilled in subterfuge and ferreting out information by means other than torture. The plots are often elaborate, and this book is no exception. There is so much going on that it might seem a bit much. The plot starts with one retired spy gathering some retired friends to find the missing Paul Christopher, the hero from the first books. Loose nukes, family history, terrorism and the new Russia figure heavily.

What also figures heavily is one of the better subplots from any of his books, and one of the cleverest conspiracy theories I have ever read. In addition to looking for Paul Christopher, the characters are hunting for a text which claims that one of histories great events was actually a covert operation. If you buy the arguments of a certain 18th century British historian, it would make for the biggest case of blowback of all time.

The book is a bit sprawling, but bits like the covert op make it a lot of fun.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

How did I not know Hampton Sides has a new book.

I love, love, love Hampton Sides' books. Ghost Soldiers is the sort of war book that people that hate war books will love. Blood and Thunder is a bit more dense but still great. His latest, Hellhound on his Trail, is about James Early Ray, his pursuit of MLK and then the FBI's massive manhunt for Ray. Must read this.

Never tell our business to strangers

America loves crime stories. If you ask people which is the finest movie ever made, they are likely include the Godfather as a contender. Crime novels are well represented in the 2009 bestseller list as well. I don't think that America likes criminals as a group, but, as Walter McDougall argues in Freedom Just Around the Corner, America does like hustlers. The sorts of people who bend the rules to make a buck. Whether a criminal is appealing depends on the crime. An artful theft excites many, and so does vigilante justice.

In her memoir, Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, New York Times writer Jennifer Mascia talks about coming to terms with her family's criminal background. Her family moved a lot and she had a vague sense of what her father. He eventually went to jail, and she learns that he was involved in both the drug trade and in killing for the Mob.

The parts I liked best where those where she wrestled with who her parents were. How her mother could stay with someone who she knew was involved in terrible crimes. Her mom, by the way, like others used the Schwarzenegger defense, he only killed bad people. The main thrust of the book is how she finds her path to reconciling her love for her parents with her own moral code.

On the downside, the book is a little long and those who aren't looking for family stories to go with their crime will need to be patient. Thanks to Blue Dot Literary for giving me the chance to read it.

The next big book that will annoy many and please many

Tom Clancy has a new one coming out. It's called Dead or Alive and, according to the Amazon blog, is about terrorism. I'm sure the pub date of December 7 is significant. Anyway, it could be good. I still think Red Storm Rising is one of the greatest hypothetical war books ever.

The book has a co-author as well, which makes you wonder how much of it is Clancy. Clive Cussler has done quite a bit of this lately too, as has James Patterson. It's like Rembrandt and other painters who branded paintings their own, when they were principally painted by studio painters. I don't mind it really, as long as the book is good. The authors have an incentive to maintain the brand, so they should be able to keep the quality up. That said, I suspect the farmed out books are precisely tuned formula machines designed to please the fanbase. Not that people go to people like Cussler looking for literary experimentation, but it can be stripped so thin that you can see all the moving parts.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Chabon's essays

I am reading Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. Of course, it is wonderful. You get the excellent essay, the Wilderness of Childhood, on kids and the need to have creative space. He talks about relationships, being a parent, defends a more Christ-rich Christmas and has lots of other takes. He has an absolutely wonderful piece on Legos, at once prosaic and thoughtful.

There are few better stylists out there today, but reading these makes me wonder where the next novel is. I should be grateful for the ones we have, I know, and I can always re-read Kavalier and Klay, but damn it would be good to read a new one of his.


Wow, that some Lost episode last night. When it is Desmond-centric, it will be awesome, that much is clear. It is also clear that I should probably not fire up Fringe on DVD right after Lost. Even though the quality of the show is improving, (I'm on season one) it's no Lost.

Check on this spot on video critique of Attack of the Clones. It's made by a mumbling angry fan, but he has REALLY thought about it. By the way, this is part of nine part video rant series. This one is about how Lucas ruined lightsabers and the Force.

I've given up on Wolf Hall. It is a wonder of research and detail, but I just can't find myself engaged.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Trying out Fringe

One of the weightiest decisions of our era is in which TV on DVD sets to watch. The time suck is tremendous, but the payout can be excellent. Some shows are obvious. I would include Band of Brothers, the Wire, and Lost. Depending on taste, you can add Deadwood and Battlestar.

Thanks to my love for the late lamented X-Files (the early years at least) I decided to try out Fringe. I just finished episode six and I can tentatively vouch for it. If you are not familiar with the show, it is about a team employed by a shadowy arm of the Department of Homeland Security, that investigates "fringe science" which is part of something mysterious called the Pattern. Like the X-Files, each week there is mysterious activity, which the team investigates. Unlike the X-Files, so far at least, EVERY case is tied back to the Pattern. That irritates me a little.

JJ Abrams is the producer so he has brought some Lost formula to the show. Like Lost, it keeps piling on more questions, with nary an answer in sight. You can tell they are going to drag out just what this Pattern is forever. It has Lance Reddick (yay!) For the fantasy nerds, you get Denethor (AKA John Noble) On the whole, we don't get the character standouts we got with Lost.

It also differs from the X-Files. While that show's boogieman was a government-led conspiracy, this show's, appears at least, to be corporate, which fits the times of course. Much of the fun of the X-Files was in the way that it used urban legends. I was so happy when they based an episode on La Chupacabra. Lost gains much of its power from its teasing ties back to mythology. With this show, you get a bunch of ideas that sound like weed induced brainstorms.

All that said, I enjoy it. The stories are peculiar, but I like them. The characters aren't great, but they work. The show is set in Boston, which means we aren't looking at New York, Vancouver or LA yet again.

Formulaic, but tasty nonetheless

I've come to think that formulaic is not a terribly useful descriptor for books. You can be formulaic and terrible, like say James Patterson, or formulaic and awesome like James Lee Burke. Burke's formula is fairly simple. Hero Dave Robicheaux faces a mix of crooked New Orleans cops, mobsters, arrogant rich people, and the odd crazed right winger. These folks are screwing over the locals and Robicheaux investigates, usually beating down three or four people, with the help of his violent friend Cletus. It takes awhile for him to figure out what's up and he generally gets a decent, if flawed, resolution.

That said, his books are wonderful reads. Half of the books are invested the side stories of his characters. The relationship of Dave with his wife and his adopted daughter are real and are integrated into the plots. His bad guys are perfectly sleazy, the kind of people that drive you up the wall, but in this case are also deeply engaged in crime. Burke's portrayal of Lousiana is part a love note to a people and a place and part a lament at what they have let happen to it.

Over the weekend, I read Purple Cane Road, one of the later books in the series, in just one or two sittings. This is one of his better ones overall. It is fairly lean with a straightforward plot. While trying to help out a woman on death row, Dave hears bad stories about his long missing mother. Namely that after she left him and his father, she became a whore and was killed for it. This does not bring out the best in Dave. Blocking his path to the truth are a bizzaro hit man, the Mob, a passel of old enemies and maybe even leading politicians in the state.

Friday, April 02, 2010

A little late, but here are some Easter books for the weekend

If you are looking for a good Easter book to share with the kids, here are two our kids like. Just the thing for a last minute Easter basket gift.

The Easter Egg - Jan Brett. Brett already has an pile of Christmas books, so how about Easter? You get the usual touching story, along with all the additional stories going on in the side panels. We have read this one every day this week.

The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes by Dubose Hayward. An oldie (1939) but a very goodie. This one tells the tale of a young mother bunny who longs to be one of the five Easter bunnies. By raising her 21 children well, she demonstrates she has the character to be the Easter bunny, more so than the flashy bunny aristocrats. The art is lovely as well.

I do believe it was a horror film

If you like horror movies and want something a little different, Dead Birds might fit the bill. The title is a little odd. At one point the camera zooms in on a dead crow and the screen goes red. This one works on the victims kinda deserving route. The movie is set sometime in the Civil War, somewhere in the fairly deep South. The first establishes the protagonists as a nasty lot. They ride into town and rob a bank, in a particularly brutal manner. This scenes also lets you know that the director likes him some gore.

The group then goes to their hideout, an abandoned house deep in the woods. The leader knows its abandoned because the soldier than owed it died. Turns out terrible things were afoot at the house and the story takes a turn to the Clive Barker. Things get sticky and icky and there are even a few nice little scares. The Civil War setting was novel and allowed for a few nice diversions and character touches. I thought the ending was a nice touch as well.

If you don't like horror movies, skip it, you will be bored and/or disgusted.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


I have a friend who works in the intelligence community. As part of her job, she testifies to Congress. She moans about the crazy questions, but I didn't get a good sense of how crazy. This story paints quite the picture. Great response from the expert.

This is one of my favorite bit's of comedy. Jay Mohr doing a Walken impression about dogs. It's old and everyone has a Walken impression, but it is among the funniest things I have ever heard. Better even than this Walken and Nicholson doing Willy Wonka.

Woah, the new Nick Cage movie looks pretty good.

If this were real, it would be totally sweet.

Nicholas Sparks=Tucker Max

Nicholas Sparks, noted author of shitty books, thinks there is someone you just gotta read. Who? Nicholas Sparks. Promoting the latest of his books to be turned into Hollywood dreck, Sparks lays it on the line for USA Today.

Whose books are most like Sparks'? Hmmmm, how about that journalist fellow who spent time in Cuba?

Sparks pulls the one beside it off the shelf. "A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That's what I write," he says, putting it back. "That's what I write."

In case you are thinking he misspoke, he also compares his work to that of Shakespeare, Austen and Sophocles.

You know who sucks? Cormac McCarthy.

"Horrible," he says, looking at Blood Meridian. "This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written."

Let's get real. Not one of Sparks' books is good enough to wipe McCarthy's ass. The hubris is astounding, but he's not done.

Sparks' favorite tale of youth? "I think A Walk to Remember," he says, citing his own novel. "That's my version of a coming-of-age." He pauses and adds: "You have to sayTo Kill a Mockingbird is an all-time classic." (emphasis added)

The man is without shame.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bryson in Australia

Citizen Reader has a book menage (that is to say, online book club/discussion event) kicking off next week. The theme is travel books and up for discussion are two Oceani- related books, In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson and Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. I had both of these books in my house, so I was quite happy to have an incentive to read them. The Bryson book has been sitting around here so long I had forgotten and picked up the book at the library.

I was quite taken with the Bryson book. He is as much a humorist as he is a travel writer, reminding me of PJ O'Rourke from his Holidays in Hell days. He gets a lot of mileage from the deadly fauna of the region and the Australian nonchalance towards the creatures, aside from crocs which apparently scare the hell out of them as well. The northern part of the country is famous for odd characters and Bryson finds them. Friendly and odd in Queensland, rude and odd in Darwin.

He also makes me want to go to Australia, badly. He paints a picture of a place with friendly people, incredible sights, beautiful cities and nature has to be seen to be believed. I wasn't aware that there are plants in the northern Cape York peninsula that have long been thought extinct. One was found when it was sickening cattle. Contingency has played a part in the natural history of Australia as well. He tells the story of one scientist who stopped for lunch and stumbled upon a fossil that filled in a vital gap in the historical record. Australia is so big and empty that much else is likely still to be found.

Bryson had a lot of time in Australia and that (and the cost of course) is one thing that holds me back from going. I could see myself getting a week there, which would mean I would most likely be spending it in and around Sydney. A great city, from what I can see, but it doesn't seem enough to get me to take the 24 hour plane ride. I would however be keen on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, as long as my dive boat didn't leave me out there.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reading Wolf Hall

I am about 100 pages into Wolf Hall and I am of two minds. I had expected the usual historical fiction problem of overly ornate and archaic language that makes reading a slow process. There is none of that here. The language of the book feels quite modern, not in an anachronistic way, but in a fresh way, like Robert Fagles's translations of Homer.

What does make it hard in places is the in depth history. The book is set during the English Reformation. The main character, Thomas Cromwell, is an adviser to Thomas Wolsey, the archbishop. Both are trying to get the King what he wants, Anne Boleyn. Damn it is complicated though. So much politics and intrigue. That is what makes it slow going. I find myself worried I am missing things.

Anyway, I don't know how I feel about the book at the moment, but I am going to keep reading.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How does it feel to be hunted?

Is there any sub-genre more played than the serial killer tale? Hard to think of any. One way around the deadness is to write a serial killer novel that is less about the killer than it is about a suspect/potential victim. Andrew Pyper does that in his riveting Killing Circle.

The book is filled with stories, story tellers and thoughts about stories. The main character, a widower named Patrick has two loves, his son and his writing. Unfortunately his writing has devolved to writing a column about tv shows for a Toronto news daily. He spots an add for a writer's group and decides to join. The group is filled with oddballs including a comic geek, a graphic horror fan, the hot alterna-girl, the mobbed up divorcee and the creepy lecher who guides the circle. One of these people tells a gripping story about a bad man called the Sandman. Soon, they begin to fear that the character is real.

Patrick eventually finds some success which allows for much musing on the nature of writing and reading and what writers have to do to succeed. The killer, it seems, is fascinated by the nature of story and what it means to have a story.

Pyper doesn't let this get too weighty though, he's too wise for that. One of his characters remarks that all the symbolism and ideas in the world won't matter if the story itself is bad. The story here is excellent, with nice shifts in direction and a nice amount of mis-direction as well. There is just enough grisly for those that want it. Pyper doesn't revel in it, but he does threaten it. I also like what he does with Patrick, a character that becomes increasingly unhinged by the idea that he is being pursued by a character from a story.

Lucky Day at the Kenton Library

Multnomah county citizens are wise enough to fund bond measures for libraries. I suspect that is why we keep getting refurbished libraries, like the small but very nice branch in Kenton. It's bright and open and is quite well laid out.

The most exciting thing though is the Lucky Day program. This program makes books that are normally buried under hundreds of holds available for checkout immediately. I saw the new ones from Crichton, Lethem, Russo and many others. The only rules are you can only check out two and you only get three weeks.

I went for Wolf Hall (which recently won the National Book Critics Circle award, having already won the Man Booker), a book I suspect I will like, but I am a little leery as at least one person I thought would like it is finding it a slog. Hitchens' review in the Atlantic makes me think it is probably great, but I worry it may require a knowledge of English history beyond my own.

In any case, I will now be adding the Kenton branch to my regular library visits.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Can you dig it?

If you are a fan of blaxploitation films, you need to see Black Dynamite. It's played straight, which means it is ridiculous and also hilarious. The music, the editing mistakes, the dialogue and the look are all perfect. The characters are also great. Black Dynamite is a Shaft like hero with great kung fu, money, a street rep and a way with the ladies. My favorite though is Bull Horn who is Rudy Ray Moore reborn. This is the most entertaining comedy I have seen in a long while.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

He's done something wrong again, he ain't been the same

Ooooo. Somebody put Big Black's Crack Up on You Tube. From the otherwise forgettable God's Favorite Dog comp, this track is for noise rock fans.

Joe Hill's new one is good

I started the new Joe Hill scary book last night and I will likely finish it today. He's no one hit wonder, although anyone who has read his short stories or his graphic novel work is probably wise to that already. The new is called Horns and the weirdness starts on page one where Ig Parrish, who drank too much the night to forget the anniversary of his girlfriends murder the year before, wakes up to find that he grew a pair of diablolical horns overnight. Seeking help, he quickly finds, to his dismay that everyone with whom he speaks reveals their darkest and basest thoughts and look to him to see if they should go through with it.

When you find a good horror book, an all too rare occurrence, you should savor it. It isn't totally clear to me what makes a good one though. I would suggest a few things that might help identify them.

The judicious use of violence. I can't imagine a horror novel without violence, whether it be physical or psychological, but there are plenty of authors that paraphrase Twain and seem to think that too much violence is not enough. In my view, if a horror book has too much violence, it quickly becomes a comic story and loses its impact. A few small acts, whether anticipated, or dwelled upon are much more effective and often much more shocking.

Strong characters. Not a huge surprise, who doesn't like strong characters? Also, there is the obvious benefit of sympathizing with the hero(es) and with admiring a particularly well made villain. More importantly, I think it goes a long way to increasing the believability of the story. The Torrances make the Shining. Without them it would be a decent ghost story.

Social criticism. If spy novels are about betrayal and crime novels are about power, horror novels are about human behavior. The better ones deal with the bad behavior of everyday people. Sure, a serial killer or psychopath is scary, but few are ever going to meet one. Novels that show how close regular folks are to cruelty are much more disturbing. King's best work emphasizes the nastiness behind the smiles of people.

Citizen Reader asked for horror suggestions on her blog and the readers delivered. Check the comments.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Too much horror business, flying deep in space

Pandorum is a surprisingly not bad sci-fi movie experience. I am always leery of deep space missions gone wrong scifi/horror movies, thanks to Event Horizon. Renting that movie is the cinematic equivalent of letting someone sleep over at your house and finding out they shat the bed. What's more, same dude directed both movies!

Anyway, this one is fun. A couple dudes wake up on a ship with the last humans in the galaxy only to find the ship is overrun by evil bipeds with a taste for human flesh. It's basically a chase film for the first 3/4 as one of the survivors works his way to the reactor to get the ship moving on to its destination.

The baddies are well used. You see them mostly via strobe like effects and they act like a combination of the wicked monkey of Indiana Jones and Jet Li. The pace of the movie, with its constant running and fighting, does a nice job of spacing out the question of what really happened.

This got me thinking about science fiction books about generation ships. These are the great arks that some think humanity will use to colonize other worlds, or to escape a dying Earth. My absolute favorite of the genre is Ship of Fools, a book, like those of Maria Doria Russell that manages to blend questions of faith into a science fiction base. The genre is fun as you get the paranoia of noir, the science of hard scifi and usually a bit of the old ass kicking. The movie gives you a little of each.

Monday, March 22, 2010

One for your brutal review file

Have a read of Jane Mayer's scathing review of Marc Thiessen's torture book which she calls the "the unofficial Bible of torture apologists."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ian McEwan saves the day

The earlier part of this week, I couldn't engage with anything I read. Glancing at my wall of unread books, I spied Ian McEwan's Saturday and decided to give it a try. I started it some years back but thought it seemed a bit slight compared to the mighty Atonement. I am glad I tried it again. The events are less cataclysmic, much more pedestrian (the book takes place in a day,) but McEwan brings an abundance of psychological and social insight to the story.

The story follows a neurosurgeon named Henry on a Saturday shortly before the start of the Iraq war. His day is focused on preparing for a important family dinner, where his daughter, living in Paris will return to the family and, Henry hopes, will reconcile with her maternal grandfather, a man Henry dislikes. Henry's blues musician son and lawyer wife will also be there. Like most modern folk, he wants to cram more into his day that just the party so he tries to get in a squash game. His reckless pursuit of the game in a city clogged with war protesters leads to a confrontation with many consequences.

McEwan does a wonderful job in creating Henry who balances career and family better than most, but is beset by many minor devils, like his petulant treatment of his opponent in the squash match. His reactions to a violent encounter are unexpected and the conclusion speaks particularly well of him. McEwan's heroes are always reflective, with rich inner lives, but I think he does an excellent job with Henry. He weaves in incidents from the past that quite naturally inform his behavior and thought.

On the social level, McEwan rebukes the selfish mindset of the "not in my name" protester class, but also the paranoid, vengeful GWOT worldview. It is the latter that concerns him the most and Henry's minor transformation of the day is to reject the negative view and to take a positive view of the world. This book is an accomplishment, quite different from Atonement, but great nonetheless.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some grindhouse for your weekend

If you ever wished for a non-campy, non-over the top, classic 70s/80s style horror movie made in our time, then House of the Devil is for you. It's a classic tale of a young college girl who finds herself agreeing to something silly because she needs the money. In this case, she agrees to house sit while a creepy couple goes out. The title gives you a hint of what might be afoot, as does the text which prefaces the film. Just how it will play out is what gives the suspense.

Not only does it take an 80s theme, but it is set in the 80s, before the dawn of connectivity. The high jeans, feathered hair and giant, to our eyes, Walkmen give it the right feel. Nothing much happens during the film, but the director does a good job playing on expectations. The climatic scenes hold a few surprises and get the balance of tone right.

All in all, a good way to scratch the horror itch.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's a mirage

This is one of the best mash-ups I have seen in awhile. Someone has taken the time to edit BSG scenes to resemble the classic Sabotage video. Click here for the comparison (via Sullivan)

In a non-reading funk

No books seem to be clicking this week. Even ones I think I would like aren't happening for me. Here are some I have put down.

Ordinary Thunderstorms - William Boyd. I know! On Monday, I was all excited. For naught, it seems. I just couldn't get into the characters. Oh well.

Moneyball - Michael Lewis. I heard such good things, but then I remembered that I really don't care about sports and even a really good sports book is unlikely to get me excited.

German Way of War - Robert Citino. My inability to get into this one proves I am in a funk. I usually love this sort of thing, but I wasn't enjoying the detail.

So what to do? I guess watch movies. I picked up the British one season (does that make it a miniseries) Ultraviolet. It's about a squad of British secret service officers who battle vampires (although the word is never used.) It's like a more somber X-files. I nearly gave up on the first episode, but found it improved. Wire fans will be excited to see Idris Elba in action.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Another book I will have to read

James Hynes, of the astounding Kings of Infinite Space, has a new one. If you are like me, that is all you need to know. If you want more, the book is called Next and you can read more here.

Yesterday, I picked up my holds at the library and there was the new William Boyd! Ok, I knew it was there all along, as I obsessively check the website, but there is still a thrill when you find it.

Less exciting was my visit to the Friends of the Library Bookstore. I saw a copy of the new Stephen King in hardback for six dollars. Score, right? Well, I bought and then realized I had purchased the large print edition. I've never read one of those, but trudging through 1000 pages of it as my first try is daunting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Going back to King

I was an avid King reader back in the 80s and 90s. I adore a good supernatural tale and there are nowhere near enough good supernatural story tellers. In the late 90s, King seemed to drift away from horror in order to flex his literary muscles. The thing is, in the days when he was hopelessly gore, I just liked him more.

Anyway, I picked up the Duma Key as I heard it was a return to the style I liked (lots of evil) and he certainly delivers. The book starts out with his excellent characterization, but slowly adds the supernatural to the mix. The main character, a former builder who lost his arm in an accident, moves to Florida and takes up painting. He soon finds he is good, like, impossibly good. You can bet there is a downside. By the end, we have a classic rag tag gang of heroes entering the dark lair. Don't roll your eyes, it works.

On a related note, I traded in a pile of books the other day at Powells. There are few things more exciting than a bunch of credit there. You can go wild. I didn't though, I picked up one of the two Library of America books on supernatural fiction. I went for the post-1940 collection. I was tickled to see that King was included here. He does deserve one of those collected novel volumes (with say, the Shining, Jerusalem's Lot, Pet Sematery and the Stand) but I suppose they will wait until he his dead.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The most surprising book I have read in awhile

Surprising, in that I loved it, when I HATED the last book that I read by the person. In most cases, one book is enough to tell if I will like or dislike the author's other books. Even with a weak book, you can identify the signs that give hope for improvement. John Banville's Man Booker prize winning The Sea is one of my least favorite books ever. The book goes absolutely nowhere and in getting there you have to swim through the most opaque vocabulary imaginable.

Thanks to many reviews, personal recommendations, a nice article I saw he wrote about noir, and the fact that I picked it up for three dollars, I read his pseudonymously published Christine Falls (He goes by Benjamin Black, Black like Noir, get it?) I am SO happy I did. It is an A effort that any crime fan who likes the grimmer sort of books will love.

It would appear cliched at first. His hero, the amusingly named Quirke, is a drunken loner type with a single light in his life, his niece, who finally begins to see the truth about the world around him. The book is set in post-war Ireland, with the all powerful Church behind nearly everything. I liked how Banville/Black goes against the form of the noir tale, while remaining true to the overall spirit. Like nearly all noir heroes, ours gets a beating. Banville lets him fantasize about physical vengeance, but it's never in the cards.

The story, while very Irish, tells one of the basic crime novel tales. The powerful are corrupt and their corruption takes many forms. Not all will escape, but some small speck will be chipped away from the imposing edifice.

So what do I take away from this? Should I try again the authors, like John Irving, who vexed me so much that I never picked up another volume? Maybe, but the main lesson is probably not to write someone off for a single book.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Here's an odd little book

I read David Thompson's The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock taught America To Love Murder today. It's a decent read, done quickly and well written, but that subtitle is a killer. This short is mostly a close analysis of the scenes of the movie. The teaching part, and hell, even the Moment part don't really fit the book. Instead you will get pages about that opening scene, where the two lovers sit in sordid post-coital bliss in a squalid hotel room in a run down city. Then you go on to the theft, the running, the murder and so on. All quite interesting and a good analysis that film fans will enjoy.

Thompson spins some theories about how the movie made it OK for people to watch murder on screen. He argues, with less analysis than is deserved, that Hitchcock showed us his own voyeurism and made it OK for us to do the same. Hitchcock apparently had a twisted relationship with his actresses that made him and Thompson's thoughts on how later movies owe much to Hitchcock.

None of the ideas of the book is really developed, as this is an essay length book. If you want some interesting thoughts on how a particular movie was made, by all means check this out. Don't go looking for big ideas about movies.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dense reading of late

Much of my recent reading hasn't been easy to blog. I am trying (and succeeding) to read more international relations books and they are fairly narrow interest. Good books, but not for everyone to be sure. They are part of the broad category of nonfiction where good writing isn't enough for someone to read it. Certain authors, like John McPhee or Ted Conover or anyone who regularly writes for the Atlantic or the New Yorker, write thoughtful pieces and books about subjects that most people would find interesting.

If you are interested in national security policy making, then you will probably find Ivo Daalder and IM Destler's In the Shadow of the Oval Office a good read. The book is a study of evolving role of the National Security Adviser. The first was McGeorge Bundy, a fascinating character in himself and the subject of Kai Bird's fantastic Color of Truth. The initial role was strictly that of adviser, but it came to be associated with the National Security Council, an initially partisan group, but one that became more professionalized in the Bush 41/Clinton years. Thanks to its extra-constitutional status the role has morphed over the years and sometimes caused more trouble than good. The book assumes you are conversant with Cold War and post-Cold War politics and international relations.

I am slowly working my way through the Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. This one is only for people quite interested in a detailed study of how counter-insurgency campaigns are waged. Kilcullen is a soldier and an academic so he combines rigor with on the ground experience. That experience includes work for Central Command in Iraq and Afghanistan and worked for the Australian military throughout South East Asia. The man packs more information in a paragraph than most writers pack in a page.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Zombies in Britain

I am not the biggest Austen fan, although I do love zombies, so I dithered over whether to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Austen/Romero mashup that got a lot of press last year. Then FSB Associates was kind enough to send me a copy of the newest book, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, a prequel to the first book.

This book focused on the Bennett family and in particular Elizabeth who is a natural born warrior. She only learns this when her father dispatches a zombie, or as polite society prefers, a dreadful, and then begins to teach his daughters the art of monster slaying. His training is superseded by a young master who seeks to hone their skills further, and eventually, to win Elizabeth's heart.

Part of the greatness of the book is that it isn't just a zombie story transposed to the early 19th century. It is a Austenian comedy of manners set during a zombie holocaust. We have various bizarre suitors trying to win the girls' hands. The girls' mother frets about her daughters chances of matrimony as they take up the use of various Eastern weapons.

What makes the book great is just how giddy it is. The writing is funny, thanks to attention to period detail and tone and to pacing and story telling. What should be ridiculous is actually hilarious. The drawings of bloodthirsty zombies in understated black and white are nice touch as well. You can learn more at the publisher's site.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

This one will be topping the stolen from the library lists

Graphic novel versions of novels are the new thing. I read the (OK) Shutter Island graphic novel a few weeks back, but I am not sure if I can pick up the graphic novel of the Story of O, the tale of a woman who is sexually tormented and abused, but kinda digs it. Slate has the details.

Series fiction

There is a nice discussion of series fiction, with a particular emphasis on the Aubrey-Maturin books, over at AV Club. This led me to think about crime novels, which seem to only come in series. At least when authors find a good character, they tend to drive that character into the ground over a long series of books.

There are upsides to this. Peter Robinson has done a nice job developing his the universe of Inspector Banks and his fellow Yorkshire police. Having many characters aside from Banks, Robinson is also free to kill some off or introduce new ones. I think he is the exception though. In most cases, we watch a hard boiled detective grow ever tougher and more weary. Here I am thinking of Harry Bosch whose character is as worn thin as the increasingly short and brisk novels.

The Bosch example highlights the downsides. The author doesn't need to embellish the character as we have met him (it's nearly always a him) in many books before. Coupled with the need to make the book fast to appeal to the airplane crowd and the Hollywood agents, you end up with speedy books that leave no lasting impression.

That's fine, if that's what you want. Based on what authors write, I suspect the public wants , or at least the publishers think the public wants, series books. Series books rarely pack the emotional or critical punch of non-series books. The books of James Ellroy do, but that is more a group of linked novels than a series of books centered around a character. Dennis Lehane's series books are great, but the Given Day is far better. The truly great crime writers have broken free of series. Down that path lies only the career of James Patterson.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters is a slippery one. She makes you work a bit to see what is happening in her novels. Not in a set fire to the book way, like the House of Leaves, but you can't really breeze through her books. She got started with Victorian fiction and then moved on to World War 2 with the Night Watch. Her most recent book, the Little Stranger is set in late 40s England, but feels like a Wilkie Collins novel right out of the Victorian era.

The book centers on a decaying country mansion in Warwickshire. The estate is dying thanks in part to the squeeze of the Labour government, but also thanks to the decline of the Ayres family. With an elderly matron, a war wounded son and a homely daughter resigned to spinsterdom, they don't have much to which to look forward. A country doctor, a local poor boy made good, becomes involved with the family on a housecall. He has good memories of the house from a childhood visit, and finds himself drawn into the doomed household.

A series of terrible events plague the household and one by one they start to blame the supernatural. The doctor will have none of it of course and does his best to do what he thinks is right. What is actually happening requires close reading. Waters never comes out and says it, but the last line is a big clue.

Like the Victorian novels, this one proceeds at an often languorous pace. She takes her time in establishing mood and character. If you aren't up for a read that demands attention stay away.

Friday, February 26, 2010

You're So Vain is about David Geffen?!!

It is at least about someone named David, not Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty, CNN reports. I really love this song, with the bass intro, the bitter lyrics and the guest vocals. Check out this cover with Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet (they screw up by bringing Sweet in on the first chorus, it is supposed to be a bonus surprise, as when Mick came in towards the end of the original).

Anyway, it got me thinking about songs that I have continued to like over time. Those for which my enthusiasm hasn't waned. There are plenty of songs I love for the first 20 listens and then I can set aside. There are some bands which are eternal and among them I number the Smiths, REM, the Misfits, the Pixies, Pavement, the Ramones, Big Black, and the Dead. The songs of my youth in other words.

Aside from those there are some songs I just adore and will always adore. Here are some of them:

Joanna Newsom - Emily (skip the first link, which is live). Probably the newest of the bunch and definately the one the least like the others. The song is 12 minutes long and features a harp and Joanna's odd lyrics, which in this case refer a odd pastoral scene and a discussion of the differences between meteors, meteoroids, and meteoroids. The song gets better with each listen. Also, my daughter's favorite song.

Adam Ant - Stand and Deliver. I can't imagine anyone writing a song today that starts off with "I'm the dandy highwayman you're too scared to mention." I know Johnny Depp references Keith Richards for his Jack Sparrow character, but I think he grabbed a bit from Mr Ant's metrosexual brigand character (watch the video.)

Greg Kihn - Breakup Song. I was going to say that Wilco's Shouldn't Be Ashamed is my favorite breakup song, and from a lyrical perspective, it is superior, but this one holds a special place in my heart.

Don Henley - Boys of Summer
. Saying this I feel like a loudmouth at a shitty bar, but I believe this is the best song and video ever made.

Smiths - Cemetry Gates. Pretty much everyone who grew up in the 80s with dose of alienation has a bad, drunken Morrissey impression in their closet. This one comes out the most frequently for me.

Interpol - Obstacle 1. A great song to be sure, but made better for a moment at what may have the best show I have ever seen. Packed crowd at the 9:30 dancing like crazy and next to me a gorgeous woman pantomiming the "stab yourself in the neck."

That Dog - Never Say Never. Being a lady-driven post-Weezer alt rock act in the time of Limp Bizkit cockrock couldn't have been easy. This song never got the love it deserved.

Cypress Hill - How I Could Just Kill a Man. As a fan of Morello and of heavy riffage in general, I have love the Rage version, but this one gets big points for because I think that Cypress Hill might actually kill a man.

Sleater Kinney - You're No Rock and Roll Fun. Another one from a band that has not gotten its just due.

Silver Jews - New Orleans. It's impossible to pick a favorite Joos song, but this one is near the top of any list. The weird guitar interplay, poetic lyrics from Berman, ghostly backing vocals from Malkmus and creepy evocation of the South that mark their work is her in abundance.

Dead Kennedys - Holiday in Cambodia. A lot of punk songs don't hold up to multiple listens, probably because they are actually terrible. This hyper political number will last forever. This is the less sneery version that I prefer.