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.