Sunday, January 31, 2010

Understanding food

Nice column in the Oregonian about the gradual dumbing down of cookbooks. Here is an excerpt:

Bonnie Slotnick, a woman who owns a rare cookbook shop in Greenwich Village, was quoted in an article about the uptick in culinary cluelessness, saying:

"Thirty years ago, a recipe would say, 'Add two eggs.' In the '80s, that was changed to 'beat two eggs until lightly mixed.' By the '90s, you had to write 'in a small bowl, using a fork, beat two eggs.' We joke that the next step will be: 'Using your right hand, pick up a fork and. ...'"

The solution in the course is to bring Home Ec classes back to the schools. I think there is something to this. I certainly well educated by most standards but I can be flummoxed by some recipes. I just lack the education. The clear, educational cookbooks of Mark Bittman and those from the people at Cooks Illustrated, but I lack a certain foundation.

Thanks to the kindness of Neill, I now have a book I will be reading for a long, long time, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. This book explains the history of food as well as the science. You see, for example, where cheese comes from, how it is made and how it develops. This helps you understand how to better use it as well as how it might react when you cook it. This isn't the kind of book you sit down and read, instead you turn to it time and time again as you build your understanding of how to use food and to cook. There are a few books you keep for your lifetime, not for nostalgia or for their looks, but because you can use them, this is one.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Spinning my previous post

OK, I've tempered my enthusiasm for Game Change. I still think it is a great read, after all, I plowed through it in about three days, but I think the arguments of the haters have merit. I'll start with my complaints.

Where is the Republican story? The book is 436 pages long and the discussion about the Republican race starts at 271. In that last section, there is still plenty of coverage about the Obama campaign, so there is very little to say about McCain and his adversaries. Some of the complaints about the book, that is about anonymous score settling and that it is about gossip, are spot on with the Republican story. Giuliani appears and then disappears in a short set of pages. To be fair, the GOP race lacked the drama and tension of the ongoing Obama/Clinton fight, but there is just so little here. We don't learn much about Palin other than the McCain staff didn't like her and that she was maybe less aware of global affairs than we already knew.

Why did Obama win? It would have been nice to get more focus on why the authors thought Obama won. You can infer that Obama had the only campaign that wasn't a disaster. The series of mistakes by the Clinton and McCain teams are well laid out, but was there something positive that Obama's team did?

Can we avoid the cynicism? This is more of a meta comment. The view of the book is often cynical. Obama could get away with things Clinton couldn't because they didn't know how to deal with a black candidate. Team Obama ran into similar problems when they first faced Palin. It is a little dispiriting though to read how little issues and policies seem to matter in elections.

OK, now that I complained, what about the good stuff. Despite all I have said, this is still an entertaining, salacious and often sympathetic look at our prominent politicians. In this way, it reminds me quite a bit of Harrison's Salisbury study of the Mao and Deng era, the New Emperors, an out of print book that someone is offering for $99,999 (it's good, but not that good).

All the nasty details are here, including the terrible acts of Edwards and his attempt to somehow stay ahead of the news long enough to land a role in the new Dem administration. You see how much these people often disliked each other. This makes it all the more fascinating when they become public allies, as the Clintons did with the Obamas.

The central story of the book is the Obama-Clinton relationship. It would be a stronger book if the GOP story was simply left out and told only in relation to Obama and Clinton. Hillary, to my mind, is the most sympathetic person here. Ferociously driven and apparently hard to have as a boss, she appears to be what we want in a politician, a strong believer in her issues and in getting things done.

Her story in the book is tragic. She sees her dreams crushed for reasons she cannot fully comprehend and then does the right thing for the party and the country by supporting and then joining the Obama Team. The book end with Obama's reaching out to Hillary to become Secretary of State, something she did not want to do. I, for one, found their rapprochement touching and thought it helped dispel the slightly dirty feeling from the dirty stories and the sense that politics is just about winning.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Crime, crime, everywhere there's crime

Another day, another set of graphic novels. Now's it crime time. I recently picked up two books, Torso and Criminal: Bad Night by modern comic masters, Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker, respectively. These very different books illustrate what is possible in telling crime (true or otherwise) stories with the graphic format.

Torso is relatively old for a graphic novel, written in the late 90s. It takes it time in telling the story of an unsolved serial killer loose in Depression era Cleveland. These murders, terrible and grisly acts which left only a torso for the police to find, place on the watch of the man that took down Capone, Elliot Ness. The book uses experimental visuals and a long exposition to show how a man who could figure out how to deal with corrupt cops had a much harder time dealing with the novel idea of someone who killed frequently for non-material reasons. Having read up a smidge on the case, it seems Bendis sticks to the facts, including a shocking choice Ness makes in an attempt to break the killer. Much of the conclusion is imagined, but the end stays true to the facts.

Criminal: Bad Night is one of Brubaker's ongoing series of stand-alone stories of people who either through bad luck, desperation or bad choices, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. His use of browns, yellows and black hues and the haggard look of his characters gives the stories a grimy feel that is perfectly fitting the feel of the story. The ends of Brubaker's Criminal stories are what you might call twists, but really they are just the tragedies seem almost inevitable once you read them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

That new Mel Gibson movie

So Mel Gibson has a new movie coming out called the Edge of Darkness. It's based on a British TV miniseries and normally this would mean I would be running around with my hair on fire telling you to watch the TV series first. This is not because the Gibson version is totally badass, but because the highly praised miniseries is not that great. The TV show is about six hours long, but didn't need all that time. Unlike the BBC miniseries State of Play, in which every scene felt essential, this one has long passages devoted to nothing much, both from the initial viewing and from the end of the viewing reflection. Much of the downtime is given to Bob Peck's character. Peck is a cop whose daughter is gunned down by a Irish thug who ambushed them at his house. He thinks it is revenge for his time in Ireland, but discovers it may be related to her own activities in the Green movement.

This is not to say that Peck (best known by me for his role as the guy who says "Clever girl" in Jurassic Park) isn't great when the story is moving. He does an excellent job overall, but the grief scenes go on too long. The other great character is Joe Don Baker who plays a Texan CIA officer (who is also somehow a Colonel in the Army.) The relationship and conversations between these two are the highlight of the movie.

The movie is a cri de couer against the horrors of nuclear power. Coming at the second peak of the nuclear Cold War, it is understandable, but now it feels dated. Great exaggerations (one explosion is said to threaten the whole of Eastern isn't possible.) about the dangers of nuclear material (read Atomic Obsession to calm your nuclear fears) and a plot that twists itself into nonsense threaten to completely bury the excellent work of Peck and Baker.

I had read reviews about the mini series for years, praising it as one of the great miniseries of all time. It isn't. Part of this is because the Golden Age of Television is right now. The best TV shows and miniseries come from the past ten years, not the years beforehand.

For quite awhile it was only available on VHS in the US. Now, no doubt thanks to the publicity of the Gibson movie, it is on DVD. You may as well watch the Gibson one and see if the story is interesting to watch for six hours.


In the past few days, Howard Zinn and JD Salinger died. I am little surprised not to see more about Zinn in the news or in the lefty blogs. I am not a fan, but he is influential enough to note I would think. I am not really a fan of Salinger's either, but he seems to make the top ten books of people everywhere.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Have your cake and eat it too.

So my copy of Game Change showed up and I immediately read about a quarter of it. You are probably wondering if you should read it and the answer is yes, you should. There are some exceptions. If you are completely uninterested in the 2008 election, then you might want to give it a pass. If you hate swears, you will want to give it a pass. This is a book that quotes Obama using the word shit on the inside cover. While it isn't as profane as some make it out to be, you get the sense that knowing how to conjugate the word "fuck" is essential to running for President.

And oh, you better not believe these people are angelic. Obama? Cocky. Edwards? Cocky asshole. Clinton? Thinks only with the little head. And Hillary. Good God. I think the makers of the Hillary Downfall parody saw the research notes for this book.

I haven't even gotten to the Republicans yet. Can't wait to read about Palin! Really though, the book provides an extraordinary view into the campaigns and the decision making based on extensive interviewing. Plust lots of dirty stories to go with it.


There are a lot of books out there that are only for a small group of readers. For example, Special Providence is absolutely essential for anyone interested in foreign policy, but would not be worth much to people uninterested. Greg Kot's Ripped is similar. Kot is a music critic for the Chicago Tribune and this most recent book is about the transformation of the music business over the past 15 or so years. The emphasis here is on business, how music is sold, bought and consumed. If that interests you, pick up this book.

The book consists mostly of case studies that illustrate a change in how music gets to consumers. The book takes you from the years of high priced, crappy CDs up to the time of self released price tiered packages from the likes of Trent Reznor. You learn about how payola works and how the consolidation of radio stations into a few national companies created the terrible pap we have today. Kot details the impact of digitization, from Napster to Kazaa to the Ipod.

At one level,the book is about the transfer of power from a small group of record companies to the consumer and to the individual artist. As the book explains, artists tend not to make much money from record sales. They get paid by touring. It is now much easier for both new bands and for established bands to get their music into the hands of listeners. The hope is that they will be more likely to attend the next show. Consumers now have access to many more ways of getting music.

Kot's story isn't one of simple triumph though. The story of Pitchfork is shaded gray. It certainly shed light on worthy new bands, but Kot also argues it sheds light too early. Pitchfork heavily promoted Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a band whose live performances were not ready for prime time. In the past, bands learned to perform in smaller venues and built both reputations and skills. In the case of CYHSY, Pitchfork drove up excitement and watched as they crashed and burned in the attention.

While a number of genres are represented, what could be called indie, or simply less commercial rock predominates. There is hip hop here too, but not that much. All in all, a solid, entertaining and informative read.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A simple prop to occupy your time

There are certain movies I would never plan to watch, but would happily sit through if I was in a hotel with nothing else to do. I am thinking of most action movies here, or the occasional rom com. They are inoffensive time killers best used to while away lonely or waiting hours. Douglas Preston's lastest thriller Impact fits into that category for books. I wouldn't rush out to get it, but there worse ways to kill time.

Preston ably constructs a story using one of the most common plots, the Race Against Time. A young scientist working at a barely disguised Jet Propulsion Laboratory , a smart college dropout working as a waitress in Maine and Preston's recurring former CIA agent turned former monk turned back into agent begin investigating mysteries surrounding astronomical events. One of them realizes that the Earth might be facing a terrible threat, while a foolish action by one puts all their lives in danger.

The really strange thing is, the book almost ignores the more exciting existential threat to Earth storyline to focus on the danger to a few random people story line. Preston did a better job blending the personal story with the bigger picture in his last book Blasphemy. The disconnect makes the finale feel like an afterthought.

So, as I said, if you find yourself on an airplane and staring at that little map that shows the progress of your flight, this will while away the hours, but that is about all it is going to do.

Vive Le Rock

Last night I saw the French rock band Phoenix. Sure, you might expect some GBV-like deconstruction with a French band, but this was just straight ahead rock played with just the right amount of bombast. It's been awhile since I have seen some nice crescendoing jamming by a rock band, but they did it twice and it was excellent. The crowd went bonkers for the closer, 1901, and the band rewarded the excitement with an extended reprise of the song featuring with the singer at the bank of the venue. I like it when bands put the show into the show.

I thought they were a relatively new band, so I was surprised they played so confidently and tightly. It turns out the latest Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is their fourth album, so they must have lots of touring under their belt. They knew how to get the crowd engagement with lots of movement and keeping the tempo driving throughout.

The crowd was young, so young that lots of these people weren't alive when I began drinking legally. These youngsters move a lot more than the people at some of the more recent shows. It helped that I worked my way to the front where the people were completely psyched, but whenever I looked back, the sold out crowd was engaging in fist pumping action.

Now that I know they have so many records, I think I need to go get them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The 33 1/3 books are for the music fans out there. Each book takes as its starting point an important pop/rock/rap record and then goes where the author wants to take it. Some, like Kate Schatz's book on Rid of Me, barely reference the album, but tell personal stories tied to the album. Others like Jeffrey Rosegen's Rum Sodomy and the Lash mix fiction and study of the album.

Compared to those, Ben Sisario's book on the Pixies break out CD Doolittle is fairly conventional. The narrative starts with Sisario going on a drive with Frank Black (AKA Black Francis and Charles Thompson.) Sisario tells the entire history of the band in the book, but focuses on the creation of Doolittle. He keeps coming back to his drive with Frank Black who with distance seems a bit mystified by the album himself.

There is lots of good analysis in this one. Sisario, a professional music writer, notes that everyone, starting with Nirvana, calls the Pixie an influence or a touchstone, but that almost no one sounds like them. He attributes this to much of rock, alternative or otherwise losing the sense of whimsy and the absurd that drove Frank Black. I would say that Pavement shared that lyrical approach although they certainly don't sound like the Pixies.

Below is Here Comes Your Man. It is the most poppy of all their songs, but they can't help but to tweak with the notion of videos here..

Friday, January 22, 2010

A not bad top ten books of the decade

Amazon lists its top ten books of the decade. I am apparently simpatico with the Amazon reviewers, as I love the majority of these books. Tana French is representing crime, although I would have picked the sorta sequel over the Woods. They also implicitly declare The Forever War to be the best Iraq war book. The freshness of it might make me give the nod to The Good Soldiers, but I have nothing but praise for The Forever War.

I am trying to think of my own selections for best of the decade. The word "best" here implies some mixture of quality, influence and timelessness. These would be books that people might still read in 2030. I am going to have to think of some others.

The best selling authors of the decade list is a bit of a bummer. The top book aside, I am not sure any of these books will be read in 2015, let alone 2030. Harry Potter takes the top, naturally, followed by the Twilight books. So far, so good. Then we start heading into CostCo book territory. Nora Roberts/JD Robb, the wicked James Patterson, Dan Brown, and Spencer Johnson of the horrendous Who Moved My Cheese Empire make most of the rest.

The one big surprise is Mary Pope Osbourne, the writer of the neverending (43 books and counting) Magic Tree House series. I guess it is the number of books, considering that everyone I know with younger kids has a couple of these lying around. It helps that kids books are still a relative bargain.

The Last Child

The Edgar Award (awards for the best in crime literature) list of nominees is now out and I was thrilled to see that John Hart's The Last Child is on the list for best novel. I am not sure if it reduces his chances, but his last novel, Down River, won the 2008 Best Edgar. The Last Child is a better book than Down River and it should be recognized.

The story takes place over a few days as young Johnny Merrimon marks the anniversary of the disappearance of his twin sister. He is becoming obsessed with looking for her, and has little help. His father ran off shortly after his sister disappeared and his mother spends most of her days drunk or in the arms of an abusive boyfriend. The cops think he is crazy, except for one that he doesn't trust. Things heat up when another child vanishes.

The plot is great and all, but the characters are fabulous. Johnny is a great hero as an outsider who both longs for community and is also a individual. The cops are also quite good. There is a subplot involving a potential crooked cop that keeps the story moving. There is a cliche about these sorts of books that the author keeps you guessing until the end. This is true in this case, Hart does a great job inserting shady characters and plot twists.

If I had to pick an author of whom Hart reminds me, I would have to go with James Lee Burke. You get the solid characters, the mature sense of loss and tragedy, the believable characters loaded with human frailties and the great stories. You even kinda sort get the badass friend to get the main character out of scrapes.

The one thing that bothered me a little and may bother you quite a bit, is the element of magical realism that creeps in towards the end. If such things make you throw a book across the room, then you might want to look elsewhere. I would add though that you are missing a hell of a book.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kindle lovers are on drugs

That is all I can think based on the many one star reviews of the book Impact. They've launched some kind of cry baby movement where they rate a book one star on Amazon if a Kindle version isn't available. Out of the 14 one star ratings, 13 are rants by Kindle loving losers. Apparently this is all due to the totalitarian ways of the book publishing industry. All of these people suck but the worst is the person who argues that the Kindle is better than real books because it has "better functionality." I would like to kick this person in the balls.

We can be like they are

Beat the Reaper is written by Josh Bazell, one of those hyper-capable people that might irritate you if they didn't do things so well. While he was in medical school, he came up with an idea for a comic novel about a doctor who is also an anti-healer, a hitman. I guess it helps that he was an English major in college.

Anyway, the book is great fun. We see former hitman Pietro Brnwa, now Dr Peter Brown in the witness protection program, go through his day as an intern in a run down Manhattan hospital. His days are rough enough, but get worse when one of his former colleagues from the Life surfaces and lets his enemies know where he is. Now he has to dodge assassination while saving lives in the hospital.

The book alternates between Peter's life in the hospital and Pietro's life as a hitman. At first, I thought we had some of the dread Killer with a Heart of Gold* here, and to be honest, it is still hard to believe that someone who takes money for murder is going to turn out to be a peachy guy who risks his life to prevent an unnecessary amputation. I accepted it here, because the writing is flashy and hilarious and because there is a life changing event for Pietro that arises from his life of crime.

There is so much to enjoy here, including all sorts of little nuggets about medicine. At the end Bazell puts in a disclaimer that the whole book is fiction, but I like to think there are some fun facts to be enjoyed.

*An example of a book that is killed by the Killer with a Heart of Gold is the Electric Church. Here again we have a supposedly hardened killer, who keeps claiming life is too hard to go easy on people, but who constantly finds reasons to do the ethical thing. Sorry, don't buy it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This book wil not leave you in stitches

David Small had a worse childhood than you did. Really. You probably got in more fights or maybe you lost a family member, but did your parents give you cancer and ignore the signs for years? I thought not. If you are not already terrified you should check out the graphic memoir Stitches, in which Small retells his childhood.

As you might guess, the whole thing is grim. The tone is oppressive and you feel terrible for the little boy, who appears mostly to be a hindrance to his parents. Even the art is grim, which isn't so much black and white as it is ranges of gray.

The art though is what makes the book work. Small does a great job capturing the wandering attention of a child and the child's need to play. This happy moments are contrasted by the terrible visages of his relatives. At the most benign, his father's expressions are hidden behind his glasses and his pipe. His mother's face is contorted by her resentments and her rage at her situation. His grandmother, whom he fortunately rarely sees, is marked by fits of sadism and madness.

How he gets the cancer will be fairly obvious early on (his father is a radiologist) but how his parents deal with it is shocking. It is another doctor that calls attention to the growth on his neck and his parents constantly attempt to deflect attention from it.

It's terribly sad and well done, which means the critics love it. It's not for everyone, but I found i haunting.

A new Bacevich on the horizon

Andrew Bacevich, one of the strongest critics of American foreign policy under Bush and Obama, has a new op-ed in the American Conservative about how America is great at starting wars, but not so great at finishing them. It's a good piece, but my favorite part was getting to the bottom and finding out he has a new book coming out this year. It looks similar to the New American Militarism, which is fine with me, that's one of the best books I have ever read.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The trouble with the term graphic novels

I am on a real roll with graphic novels. Right now, I have one about child abuse, one that tells a noirish crime story and one involving the downfall of a superhero. In the past few weeks I have read plenty more. The wide range in styles and subject matter are starting to make the term graphic novel confusing and even meaningless.

When Maus, an allegory of Nazism and prejudice using animals, and other serious books came out, it was obvious that calling a serious book that uses cartoonish drawings, speech bubbles and frames a comic book didn't seem right. So we started calling them graphic novels. As time went on, superhero comics became more serious and were also bound in trade paperback form giving them the look and, often, the heft of the more realistic and literary works.

Now there are as many types of graphic novel as there are novels. This makes recommendations tricky. Saying you might like Shaun Tan's The Arrival, since you enjoyed Ed Brubakers Criminal series is like saying you might like Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Klay because you liked Tim Power's Declare (by the way, this amazing book is somehow out of print. MADNESS). All four are wonderful, and if your tastes are wide enough, you are sure to like them all. The thing is, not everyone's taste is that wide, so saying something is a great graphic novel doesn't help that much.

I suspect that as graphic novels gain more acceptance they will be broken out into categories just as novels are. For now, I will try to explicit about the types of graphic novel I am discussing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

So many books to throw on the ground, like this one

James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise is a book that could have been quite good, and perhaps even important, but it isn't. Instead it is a maddening, bitchy book that attempts to reassess Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy. Bradley's thesis is that the American ruling class had an ideology based around an Aryan ideal of the Anglo Saxon. Raising the Anglo Saxon above all others, the US felt free to trample across anyone in its path. The US recognized the Japanese as almost Anglo Saxons and gave them the nod to occupy Korea. This occupation led to the growth of the Japanese Empire, Pearl Harbor, the rise of Communist China and I suppose everything else that happened in Asia in the 20th century.

Where to begin on the book's problems? First is the relatively insignificant one. Bradley really dislikes Roosevelt and his Secretary of War William Taft. He goes out of his way to show that Roosevelt really wasn't much of a Westerner and was basically an upper class sissy. He makes sure we know that Taft was overweight, even calling him Big Bill with regularity. Is this necessary to support his argument? No, but it reveals the contempt for the subject which weakens and cheapens the book.

The bigger problem is with his idea that racism inspired and allowed the cruel Japanese occupation of Korea and created the path for the tragedies of the 20th century. Firstly, what on Earth could the U.S. (or anyone else) do to stop Japan from taking Korea? Russia and China were down for the count, England was retreating to Europe to face the Germans and the United States wasn't strong enough. In 1905, it is hard to imagine the United States managing to fight the Japanese Army and Navy thousands of miles from major bases (Yes, it did to Spain a few years prior, but Spain was on its last legs.)

What's worse though is the idea that it was the United States rather than Japan's own domestic path and the prevailing norms of the great powers that led the country to imperialism. His argument implies that the Japanese were the simple puppets of the United States rather than a state setting its own priorities. If the U.S. had somehow kept the Japanese from taking Korea in 1905, they would have taken it in the next few years and certainly would taken it in the chaos of World War One, just as they used the opportunity to seize all of Germany's possessions in Asia.

This book is a lost opportunity. Clearly racism played a role in American foreign policy throughout the world, but how important was it? Did it cause the United States to neglect certain material interests and focus on others? You won't learn anything like that in this book. If you want analytical revisionism, go read Chalmers Johnson or Andrew Bacevich.

If you are looking for an Ian Fleming/HP Lovecraft mashup

I recall someone, I think it was Bob Baer describing the new hire experience at the CIA. He said new recruits go expecting James Bond and find Dilbert. Charlie Stross has a series of novels and short stories that start with Dilbert and end up in Lovecraft. His spies are IT workers and mathematicians who use their craft to battle other spy agencies as well as dark horrors from deep space and other dimensions. The most recent book is the Jennifer Morgue. It is a somewhat unfortunate title since it refers to one of those meaningless code names governments and corporations use to hide the true nature of their activities.

This particular novel is a send up of a Bond story, and Stross's characters are explicit about it. At one point, his hero, Bob Howard, muses whether his demon possessed American counterpart is a "good" Bond girl or a "bad" Bond girl. Which way she falls will determine her fate, he tells her with a hint of sadness. He is also to given to all sorts of jokes like naming a government agency TLA. If this sort of self aware meta humor is your thing, you will get a kick out of this book. Most of the fun is with Stross playing with many genres, from the spy novel to the horror tale.

If you come looking for actual horror, there isn't any, really. The cosmic baddies are here, but the emphasis is one humor. The same goes for the action. Howard is thrust into situations for which he is unprepared and is saved by luck, friends, and his smarts.

The book goes on a bit too long for my tastes. It's light entertainment, so the brain won't be too taxed as you giggle through the pages.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I seem to be reading a lot of graphic novels lately

I read the great Dark Avengers and the so-so Ultimatum (best if you want to see lots of carnage and deaths of major characters.) I also just picked up Torso, a true crime graphic novel by Brian Bendis.

As the intial book in a new imprint called Vertigo crime and authored by crime writer Ian Rankin, you might expect Dark Entries to be a crime novel. You would in face be wrong. It is a John Constantine story, which means it is a supernatural tale. Constantine is hired by a TV crew to help out on a reality TV show with problems. The cast live in a faux haunted house, but begin to experience strange events the TV crew aren't manipulating. The crew calls in Constantine to investigate. Things then get strange.

While I enjoyed the story, it may be because I am neither a Rankin nor a John Constantine fan. If you are a strong fan of either, the story may vex you. The Amazon reviews (which you should not read as they are spoiler-laden) seem to indicate that long serious Constantine fans may not like the direction the book takes. Similarly, Rankin fans, who might expect his gritty, but realistic stories may be surprised that he has made what might pass for an X-Files episode.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A childhood nerd dream come true

When I was but a wee lad, I read a lot of Justice League of America. Looking back, sure the stories are goofy, but my own kids love them now, so I suppose I wasn't too far off the mark. Having read a lot of them I eventually got to the point where I wanted the bad guys to win. Not temporarily, in a way to be overturned in the same comic or in the next, but for a long time.

My forlorn hope has finally come true in the Dark Avengers story line. It is now complete but it lasted for over a year. You can read the first few issues in the first trade hardcover. If you are curious about the backstory you can follow the convoluted Civil War/Skrull Invasion story line, but what you need to know is that the major heroes of Marvel are discredited. Norm Osbourne, the former Green Goblin and chief baddie of the first Spiderman movie, creates a new Avengers team out of the mentally unstable and wicked potential heroes. Hence the idea of the Dark Avengers.

Now, this could have devolved into lots of hand rubbing and "mwu ha ha ha" laughing, but it actually works quite well. It plays like an Avengers story where the bad guys are running things. The bad guys either want to be good guys, believe they are good guys or just appreciate the opportunity to wreak havoc on the government dime. It helps that Brian Bendis writes the stories. Along with Ed Brubaker, he is one of the greatest comic writers out there today.

This is just the sort of thing to bring a lapsed nerd back to the church of comics.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Baltimore, a vampire tale

Baltimore is a gothic tale about vampires sweeping the world during World War One and the one man who the vampires fear, Lord Baltimore. I had somehow gotten into my head that this was a graphic novel which it isn't. There are illustrations, but there is one in every five pages, not on every page.

You might think the book we be like Kim Newman's vampire stories. The feel though is very different. Newman's books read more like an alternate history. They take a question, what would it be like if vampires existed in the world, and then tell a story in a speedy thriller way. The humans in those worlds make peace with the vampires in their society. This book is much more dark. The world depicted is dimly lit with all sorts of terrors in the shadows and humanity may be on the way out.

Most of the book features characters other than Lord Baltimore. At the start of the book, Baltimore has summoned three men to aid him. While they wait, they share tales about their own experiences with the supernatural. Combined with the over arching tales of vampires and plagues stalking the land, the stories paint a picture of a troubled and alien Earth. The ending of the book is great as well.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The 24-Weezer connection

Remember when Weezer was awesome? When you couldn't get over how great the records were? Nowadays you are excited when the singles are pretty good, but there was a time when they knocked it out the park with every track. The last time was Pinkerton in 96. One of the many excellent tunes from that one was Good Life. I didn't recognize it at the time, but one of the stars of the vid was Chloe O'Brien as a pizza delivery girl.

Another one I didn't finish

CG is going to be pissed at me, but I put down the Abstinence Teacher. I generally like me some Tom Perrotta, but this felt a bit too much like Little Children Part Deux. Once again we have the unlikely couples coming together while learning of the travails of bourgeois suburbanites. Not that I have anything against bourgeois suburbanites, being a bourgeois urbanite. Perrotta's observational humor is in full effect, but I wasn't in the mood I guess. I jumped into the heady genre pleasures of John Hart's the Last Child (the library is going to freak as I spilled a ton of Pad Prik King all over it) and the Dark Avengers.

Thinking about this made me muse about the nature of entertainment, which of course led me to That's Entertainment. The original version by the Jam is all well and good, but I adore the Moz cover below:

More questions with Laird Barron

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Laird Barron, a writer of thoughtful, dark horror stories. You can read that interview here. He was kind enough to allow me to ask some follow up questions, one of which came from a reader comment. His answers are below.

On a side note, I wanted to mention that Sarah Langan, one of the other great horror writers of today, had good things to say about Barron's upcoming collection Occultation.

1) I am curious if you have to change your writing approach when you incorporate Asian mythology into your stories, as you did in the "The Procession of the Black Sloth." When using familiar myths, like the Christian idea of the devil, or even the Lovecraft Mythos, the reader brings a background which will enhance their reaction to and experience of the story. As Asian myth is alien to many Western readers, my guess is that the prose has to do more work. Did writing "The Procession of the Black Sloth" lead to any peculiar challenges like this?

I conducted a significant amount of research regarding the physical and historical geography of Hong Kong and the Eighteen Hells, or Diyu. Getting these aspects right presented the greatest challenge other than formulating the novella itself. Procession of the Black Sloth is an homage to horror in general, but most especially to Asian horror cinema, and as such, I've found the great body of world literature and film has prepared Western audiences to receive the material. Koji Suzuki's Ringu cycle and films such as Uzimaki, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Ju-on are examples of work that has penetrated Western consciousness and reshaped the imaginative calculus. And of course, anime and manga are powerful and prevalent forces here in the U.S.. In any event, Sloth deals with the reciprocal nature of the universe, a concept that transcends East-West artistic traditions and gets to the root of human fascination and dread, the heart of spirituality we all share in one guise or another.

2) In your answer to why you write horror (see prior interview), you noted that horror reminds readers of their own animal natures. You also mentioned that you enjoy crime fiction, which, at its best, is often a form of social criticism. How important is criticism to good horror, even if that criticism is muted?

An aspect of social or cultural criticism is simply another layer of the cake. I value complexity and nuance, I like the idea of creating a piece of art that provokes and incites, although as an entertainer, my first loyalty is to the object itself -- the characters, their circumstances, the impending or ongoing conflict.

I'm fascinated with the Judeo-Christian influence upon, and the criticism and conflict inherit in, a good deal of Western horror literature. However, I resist applying conservative religious ideology to my fiction as a statement of morality, or as a code for how one should interpret the text. I believe in good and evil in a broad sense, but I've lived too close to the bone for the simplistic criticism implicit in routine Western horror to hold any appeal, or frankly, any credibility for me. Many of my characters are seedy according to societal norms -- drug abusers, adulterers, petty criminals, drunks and assorted debauched types. While these activities and lifestyles generally exceed my personal comfort level, I don't punish the characters who are slaves to their vices. People often come to a bad end in my stories, but it's not because I've lowered the Hammer of the Gods on them for their promiscuity or doping, it's because the universe is a meat grinder. Those who dwell beyond the societal norms often find themselves exposed to predatory forces. Ultimately, I prefer to depict people as I’ve known them; I prefer to serve as a reporter of events and let the reader draw his or her conclusions. Questions interest me far more than my own limited wisdom to provide answers.

As a coda to this topic: I'm pretty frank and rather offhand regarding my depiction of carnality and the use of drugs and alcohol. This characteristic of my writing reliably touches a nerve of a subset of readers, which I think is understandable given our social upbringing and the sheltered nature of the typical person in our culture. Nonetheless, I confess amusement when the criticism of a protagonist's drug or alcohol use is that it seems too excessive, that it is unrealistic. To those gentle readers I can only say, you need to spend some time on a fishing boat in Dutch Harbor, or in a trapper’s cabin in the Alaskan bush, or among refugees from the hard lights of Vegas, or roaming the mean streets of Anchorage, or Fraternity Row in Seattle. I might actually be guilty of understating the case in regard to the debauchery and eccentricity of people I draw my characters from.

3) From a blog comment : "I note that the author grew up in Alaska (according to the interweb, anyway), which seems like fruitful ground for artistic inspiration. I would be interested to hear if there were any specific personal experiences that LB has had - in Alaska or otherwise - that have shaped him as an artist."

Which leads into the reader question (and thank you). My youth in Alaska was formative. I’ve endured poverty on a scale rivaling rural Depression Era existence. I’ve starved, frozen, survived cancer (thanks to the Elks Club) and routine illnesses that were left unchecked because my family lacked the means to pay for doctors or dentists. Alaska can be a rough place and life in Alaska as an impoverished kid is a nightmare. If I had a dollar for every fistfight or scrape I got into during my first twenty-odd years, I’d be able to treat myself to a royal steak dinner.

Alaska is dark and ancient and when encountering the vastness of its seas or the awesome trackless wastes of its interior, I’ve frequently come to grips with my mortality, my flea-ish aspect. The climate is extreme and savage. I’ve probably logged around fifty thousand miles riding or running behind teams of huskies across some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. That’s a lot of time to dwell upon one’s thoughts, to provoke the demons and the devils of the subconscious.

Because of the particulars of my upbringing, I had a lot of experiences with the raw and criminal elements of society. I’ve spent time in various circumstances with Hells Angels and drug dealers, arm breakers and thieves and the wealthy individuals who acquire the services of said drug dealers, poachers and arm breakers. When I write about somebody getting knifed or sticking a needle in their arm or discussing the brutal or debauched routines of their lives, it’s something I’ve seen or trod entirely too near.

Live and let live is a survival trait one acquires in such conditions. I may not approve, but unless I’m depicting a psychopath, I err on the side of neutrality and the old proverb, There but for the grace of God go I…. Certainly a consequence of provenance.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mixed linkage

With their oceans of content, it is not surprising that the Library of America is putting out a story of the week. I am happy though that the most recent is a relatively off the wall choice, Luella Miller by Mary Wilkins Freeman. It is from their American Fantastic Tales collection, which I dearly want.

The WSJ gives us a preview of some of the big new books coming this year. I am excited about the new Iain McEwan and the new Jennifer Egan. The big story is a book called the Passage by Justin Cronin. Cronin is a litfic writer who is turning to genre, in particular postapocalyptic vampire tales.

Here is an interesting interview of James Ellroy by David Peace. In it you can learn interesting things like the surprising fact that Ellroy is not a liberal (or doesn't consider himself one.) (via Sarah Weinman)

Here is a fun photo site dedicated to kids dressing up as superheroes. (Via Sullivan)

Woah, Tunnels just came up on Pandora. I forget how fucking awesome it is. Neon Bible is forgiven.

Monday, January 11, 2010

American Buffalo

American Buffalo is such a great read that I am surprised I haven't heard of it sooner (presumptuous of me, I know). The book is part memoir, part meditation on the American relationship with nature, part social commentary and part outdoor adventure tale. It takes quite a writer to weave that many strands together in a short book without derailing the narrative, but Steven Rinella makes it look easy.

Rinella's tone is that of a self deprecating conversationalist. He hops from topic to topic with ease, which lets him bring in a number of interesting asides about the buffalo. When it really won't quite fit, he isn't afraid to break out a half page footnote (which you should read, as they are uniformly excellent.) Many writers of adventure books puff up the exploits of the author. Rinella's excursions into wildest Alaska are amazing and would probably kill me, but rather than brag, he talks about the difficulty and the mental challenge of it. This also helps bring the reader deeper into the story.

Rinella's encounter with the buffalo began when he found a buffalo skull in Montana. His research into the animals leads him to a lab in Oxford, museums in the United States and eventually to a park in Alaska where he hunts buffalo. This part may shock readers to whom hunting is completely alien, but the care he takes in the hunt and his discussion of the history should assuage everyone who lacks a PETA membership.

This is just a fabulous read which I recommend to everyone.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dewey Cox

The reviews convinced me not to see Dewey Cox when it came out, but my brother in law put me wise. It's a funny send up of rock and rock movies. While it uses Walk the Line as the basis for its narrative, the jokes are wide ranging from Jack White's cameo as Elvis to a all star comedy Beatles joke to a play on Brian Wilson's Smile madness.

At one point in the movie, Dewey Cox's career has cratered and he is on a TV variety show. There is a quick clip of his disco cover of David Bowie's Starman. The full version is below. So good.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Devil of Nanking

I had heard that Mo Hayder was one of the top writers of grisly horror-thrillers, so I was on the lookout for her books. I found a copy of Pig Island and gave it a try. I wasn't impressed. The writing was great and the book was bloated. Friends assured me that The Devil of Nanking was worth it. So I picked it up and it is.

The book ties (a bit improbably, but whatever) a young damaged British woman and an old damaged Chinese man. The man is rumored to be in possession of a film of an atrocity from the 1937 Rape of Nanking. The woman is obsessed with that act, for reasons she doesn't fully understand herself (but the wise reader knows she will learn.) Chasing the man down in Japan, she finds herself wanting work, which she finds as a hostess in a shady nightclub. Shady, because many of the guests are yakuza, Japanese gangsters. As it happens, all of these people are tied together.

While this book is a sort of thriller, it isn't one that keeps you guessing. About a third of the way through, you will be nearly certain how the book will end. That's fine, the punch of the book isn't in the guessing, but in the dread and tension that Hayder creates. Her characters remind me of those that Gillian Flynn creates, that is to say damaged and twisted. Rather than the middle American types we get in Flynn's books, here we have the oddballs of the expatriate community.

The terrible events of Nanking, which remain criminally little known in the West are at the center of the book. Hayder dedicates the book to Iris Chang, the Chinese-American writer whose book on the subject is a must read. Like Hayder's book it isn't very popular in Japan.

Friday, January 08, 2010

It's tough to be Hungarian

Back in college, we had a requirement to take a year of history of a non-Western region. Given later interests, I probably should have gone with China, but at the time I was open to whatever. I had heard the Eastern European history class was interesting. Rather than reading nonfiction narratives, we read novels as a way of understanding Eastern Europe. So we read Bridge On Drina (our professor tended not to use articles) to learn about the intersection of Christian and Islamic Europe in Bosnia. We read the Good Soldier Svejk to learn about the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire. And so on.

We didn't read a lot about Hungary though. I wonder if my professor, if he is still teaching (note: he is!) would include Miklos Vamos's The Book of Fathers on the reading list. It can be a little tough going, but it does shine a light on the often dark history of Hungary.

Vamos did some research on his own family in Hungary and came up with the idea of a history of a family passed down generation to generation by in a book (naturally the Book of Fathers). There is a element of magical realism in that the as they die, they become connected to the generations before them through the book. The deaths are important, as the chapters almost always end with the death of the main character. Since they are Hungarian Jews, the deaths are often less than pleasant.

In his notes at the end of the book, Vamos notes that Hungary has lost every war it has fought after the 15th century. So many of the stories involve terrible fates at the hands of invaders. As such it is not a terribly happy read, but it is an educational one. Thanks to Blue Dot Literary for the book.

A- Team trailer

This may not be up for very long, so watch it if you can. Two things to note, Liam Neeson(!) saying he loves it when a plan comes together and a truly inventive action sequence at the end.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Last Winter

Despite initial interest, I read some bad reviews about The Last Winter which gave me pause. My reaction to director Larry Fessenden's The Wendigo, which I thought was OK, reduced my interest further. Then I saw this list of top ten wintry horror movies and decided to give it a try. It's actually pretty good!

It's a horror/science fiction hybrid. The pacing, acting and narrative are low key and subdued, but there is an undercurrent of disquiet and tension that kept me watching. It is set in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at a potential site for drilling. The oil company who has the lease has hired some environmental experts to review the site and give it the OK. Strange warming in the area makes it difficult or impossible to bring in the gear and the experts advise against proceeding. This sets up a conflict with the roughnecks.

The movie sets has a pair of conflicts that slowly escalate. One is between the red and blue staters (much more subtle than in the Wendigo) and the other is the conflict between the environment and the humans. The Arctic Circle is a dangerous place and it might be even more dangerous than we suspect. Fessenden keeps both conflicts going and it is hard to tell which is going to be the bigger problem.

The end will be a problem for some. I loved it, but it may come as a disappointing surprise to some. This is the first bit of science fiction about global warming that I have really enjoyed.

Glass Room

Simon Mawer's The Glass Room was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker along with the likes of AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and Sarah Waters. The prize went to Wolf Hall that year, but Mawer's book, like most Booker short listers, deserves attention as well. Sometimes the Booker committee goes for dry, overly literary (See for example the brutally boring The Sea) books. The Glass Room is literary but it is also grounded in popular fiction with plenty of sex, violence, familial discord and history.

The main characters are Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a pair of wealthy Czechs who make the aquaintance of a famed architect on their honeymoon. The meeting leads to more and the architect eventually designs a house made of glass for them. The story then revolves around the house as the the family is thrown from the house and it is taken by the Nazis and eventually the communists. The story is framed by Liesel's return during the Prague Spring and other visit after the fall of the communist state.

Both Viktor and Liesel become dissatisfied by their marriage and launch on affairs, one straight and one gay. The ins and outs of these relationships lead to plenty of trouble but are well portrayed. Thanks to Blue Dot Literary for providing a copy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Thanks to the strong recommendation of Citizen Reader, I picked up the Bookshopper over the weekend. The author, Murray Browne, has lived a life of books, as a reader, a book reviewer and most important to this book, as a person who shops for books. If you are the sort of person who longs for a few spare hours to wander unrushed through a bookshop looking for just the thing, you will enjoy this book.

The book is discursive, hopping from topics like the unpleasant nature of bookstore owners, the books that indicate whether a store is worth perusing, giving used books as gifts, how to arrange books and how to dispose of them. The essays are short, so if you find your interest waning, you can skip ahead, as Browne even advises you to do in his preface (titled About the Author)

Throughout the book, he has little asides about favorite books and authors and how they have influenced him. He mentions one called Heroes in Blue and Gray, which he says isn't necessarily great, but was important in making books come alive for him. I have a similar experience with An Album of Dinosaurs. You can see examples of the amazing pictures from the book at The Haunted Closet. This book enraptured me as a child and I was thrilled to see that my parents kept my copy allowing me to give it to my kids. Powells has a few copies, go get one!

I enjoyed this book as it made me think about my own relationship with books and I liked hearing about Browne's. There are some practical things, like the defense of giving used books as well. I am perfectly happy to get a used book as a gift, if it is well chosen, but I fear looking like a cheapskate if I give one. Browne helped talk me through that.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Shutter Island is now a graphic novel

I was going to warn potential readers of the graphic novel that they may want to pick up the non-illustrated version first, but Geoff Bucher puts it perfectly in the LA Times.

Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Paramount Pictures are bringing “Shutter Island” to the screen (finally) on Feb. 19 and a discerning consumer of culture might reasonably ask if it’s worth investing his or her time in a novel, a graphic novel and a film version of the same tale. The answer, so far, appears to be a resounding “yes.” One word of warning, however: The ending of “Shutter Island” is so jolting that any second-time encounter with the material (no matter the medium) will have a hard time matching the payoff of the first visit to the island. Choose your nightmares carefully.

The novel is the probably the fastest read Lehane has produced. It is almost as if he wanted to do the ultimate stay up all night thriller before staring in on the gigantic brooding, seething The Given Day.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Another one I couldn't finish

I tend to like David Morrell,but I couldn't finish The Brotherhood of the Rose. There is a lot of love for this book, on Goodreads, at least, but a few things killed it for me. One was the idea that all the spy agencies got together in the 30s and decided to create safe havens for their agents where no one could harm one another. That sounds nutty today but even nuttier back in those days. Then the writing got me down, including some just plain weird stuff, as in the time when a Chinese assassin refers to "what you Westerners call dignity." What the Chinese have no concept of dignity?

Those annoyances aside, I just didn't care that much about it. There are twists and turns, but it just didn't grip me. Anyway, if you want a tale of assassins fighting their masters, that is what you get.

Getting the band back together

It was rumored, but now it is confirmed. Soundgarden is returning. I am less excited for new material (the last studio Soundgarden was so-so and recent work is, err, not fabulous,) but I am psyched to see them live again. I only saw them once. My friend Neill was hit by Chris Cornell's boot when he stage dived into the audience. That was on a tour with Danzig.

Speaking of Danzig, I finally saw the Hangover, which is hilarious. That's not the only reason to love the movie though. For one it is packed with Daily Show correspondents. For another, it kicks off with a Danzig song. One of the slow spooky numbers, which are the only good ones from the later years I think.

Searching for a distant star, heading off to Iskandar

Are you ready for some live action Star Blazers? I'm not I am either. Still, the video below (via Techland) gives us hope with the BSG looking space battles. This made me think of Battle of the Planets, the show I watched when I couldn't get any Star Blazers, which was most of the time. Wow, does it have a terrible intro.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

9 Dragons

Michael Connelly's 9 Dragons was better than I hoped. I liked the early Bosch books, but I felt that got a bit samey over time. The subject matter (Chinese gangs in LA and Hong Kong) and the fact that my Mom gave me her copy convinced me to give it a shot. I ended up reading it in an evening. This speaks both to the engaging plot and the brevity.

The story is a definate strength of the book. It moves fast, even a touch too fast really. It lurches from plot development to plot development at such speed that there are few lulls that would lead you to take a break. On the downside, the speed sacrifices character and the full exploitation of the Chinese subject matter.

I was suprised that Bosch didn't seem as tired as I thought he would. Yes, he has the cliched relationship issues and the love of jazz records, but he fallible, often terribly so and he avoids screeching into Jack Bauer amoral superhero territory.

Still, I was hoping for a little more background on China. Rather than give us a feel for Hong Kong, we get a list of place names. The bad guys are conveniently strewn across the territory. The characters are also terribly thin.

There are, I think, at least two kinds of good crime novels. One is the thoughtful, and often lengthy study that mulls over the grey emotions, like regret and remorse. Then there are the sorts that get the pulse racing. They both serve a purpose. What I do dislike about the new thrillers is how efficient they have become. Nearly everything other than plot is cast aside in order to hurtle the reader down the track. It's a fun ride, but when its over, it is more often than not forgetable.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

Let's hope it is a good one. Here are some links to divert on this lazy (wet in Portland) day.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf discussing why the Cheesecake Factory is such a bad place.

Did you know there is a group of civil peace protesters trying to raise awareness about Gaza? Neither did I, but Stephen Walt is on the case.

The NY Times has a nice round up of people discussing which books they are discarding. This is useful to me now, as I am unloading a large number myself.

And I know Paul Krugman isn't for everyone, but he is wearing his economic, rather than his political hat in this great piece on China.