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.