Friday, February 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Steven Rinella is becoming one of my favorite nonfiction writers

After I gushed about Steven Rinella's American Buffalo, the wonderful Citizen Reader said the book was good and all, but I should really read the Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine. Well that surprised me as I thought it would be tough to top Buffalo.

Having now read the earlier Scavenger, I can see where she is coming from. I won't say I think it is better overall, as I think the books are both so good it is hard to say which is better, but it is built better in certain ways.

Buffalo is about Rinella's fascination with a buffalo, which leads him on a quest to learn more about them and eventually to hunt one. The bit about hunting will probably stop some readers in their tracks, but he convincingly argues that if you are going to eat meat, it is best to get it yourself rather than relying on industrial sources. He does an excellent job weaving in a variety of information but keeping the story focused on his hunt.

Scavenger benefits from Rinella's telling a variety of stories that range from madcap to touching. Having stumbled upon Escoffier's massive cookbook, he decides to create a feast out of the animals and animal parts that American tables rarely see. Not only will he serve them, but he will find them himself. Just as in American Buffalo, Rinella shows himself as a capable, but self deprecating hunter, not afraid to tell you of fears or his shame, as when wonders if he is too old to hunt frogs in a chilly marsh.

The stories are wonderful and I think they are better tales than the ones told in American Buffalo. His quest to capture and keep pigeons so that he can breed them and eat their babies runs into all the trouble you might expect including helpers that come to love the birds and refuse to give them up for butchery. Where American Buffalo rises above the Scavenger's Guide is in its' more thoughtful meditations on how we can stay connected with nature. Read both of these books, I have not seen their like.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Huston's new one is a departure

I don't blame you if you have started and put down Charlie Huston's Sleepless. Only my great love of his previous books got me past the challenging beginning? Challenging is a word you normally apply to thrillers, but this one qualifies. Although he does not make it clear until later, he has two narrators. Initially I thought you could tell the difference because one was written in first and another in third person, but it turns out one character is written in both while one is just first person. The occasional use of dates threw me as well. I thought maybe the two voices were the same person separated by time.

The dates caused another problem for me. The book is set in mid-2010 and the world has gone completely to hell. 10% of the population is infected with a disease that prevents them from ever going to sleep. On top of that, global warming has advanced and the economy has cratered. The poor areas of LA are now war zones and air strikes are common. So, I was quite confused. The world went this bad in six months?

Well as it turns out, the hell of the story actually starts in 2008. This book, mind you, was published in 2010. You don't learn when the troubles started until about half way through. Maybe the book was written a few years ago, but if so, why didn't they change the dates?

All this complaining aside, I really enjoyed the book. Huston is working towards more complicated stories with characters beyond his pulpy types (gay, aesthete assassin anyone?) He does keep his noirish attitude though. You can bet the Man is up to no good (is he ever?). There are plenty of inventive story lines, including how important MMORPGs have become in a world where people are afraid to leave their house.

So, if you like well written apocalyptic thrillers where the heroes are threatened more by other people than by the environment. If you are a fan, give it a chance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A small step in the right direction

When you call a book the Greatest Battle, you would expect that the book would tell the story of, well, a battle. I suppose if you want to get metaphorical this book is about a sort of struggle, but not a military one. Rather it is about the Russian's people struggle to get a war won while Stalin was leading the country. The lopsided emphasis of the narrative makes the subtitle Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, all the more inappropriate.

The conflict between Stalin and Hitler is less known in the West than the much smaller war fought in North Africa, Italy and Normandy. This is too bad, as the Red Army was essential to breaking the break of Germany (Lend Lease and the bombing campaign were also vital, but also lack the heroic luster of democratic soldiers fighting totalitarian soldiers.) This book is not the one to learn how the Russians succeeded, but to learn about how, thanks to Stalin's policies, they nearly failed.

Author Andrew Nagorski is principally about how a series of bad decisions nearly gave the victory to Germany. Stalin ignored intelligence indicating an attack was coming. He purged senior and mid-level military leadership, making it difficult for large units to function. He put in place political commissar units that killed soldiers that tried to retreat. There is very little about the actual fighting in his story. General Zhukov makes a few appearances, but Nagorski is mostly concerned with Stalin.

You won't get much information about the actual fighting and you don't get much information about the Nazis or Hitler either. The latter is excusable in that anyone reading a history book is going to be well versed in Nazi atrocities. They may not know about the einsatzgruppen, which Nagorski does detail. It does, though, make the titles misleading.

The number of popular books written about the Eastern front is pitifully small compared to that of the Western front. For that fact alone, this one has value. It just isn't what it could be.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The other day, Powell's was kind enough to have a sale on NYRB classics. Steve had wildly praised John William's Stoner, so this seemed like a good time to pick it up. The book reminded me a bit of Any Human Heart, and I wonder if William Boyd thought of this book as he wrote his.

The book is the life story of William Stoner, a farm boy who goes to college to study agriculture but falls in love with teaching and with literature. At first his life would seem to seem to be a series of disappointments. He loses touch with his farmer parents, who seem closer to the hired hand than they do to William. He marries poorly and enjoys a loving relationship for a brief period. He fails to develop a full relationship with his only child. He publishes very little and it is only modestly received. His career is constantly hobbled by a vindictive superior.

With all that though, William's still argues this life as a good one. Stoner pursues his career well and remains a teacher dedicated to his work, despite his limited career progression. The book shows that doing a job well should be just as lauded as rising to the top. More broadly, He essentially argues that all lives have their disappointments, but we would be better to focus on what went well and what is worth celebrating than dwelling on what went wrong.

I think this book is particularly helpful to the sort of American who wants to attain perfection in all aspects of life. Seeking complete perfection in all aspects of their life, Americans tend to seek optimization, without finding contentment in what they have achieved.

The book comes from the blessed time when novels were relatively short and still packed with meaning. He also works just as well at detail level as he does at the high concept level. William's character portraits are wonderful and help create a vivid world in the small Missouri college in which the book is set.

Back from DC

Well, I had a successful trip to Washington DC. Successful in that I had many meetings and was not lost in a terrible snow bank. One thing about DC, for one the mass transit works really well. If you need to get around downtown, mass transit is almost always better than a car.

I also managed to read a fair number of books, although I ended up buying or borrowing even more. It's tough to say no to free (from friends) and insanely cheap (from Arlington Goodwill) books. So I didn't.

Lastly, I saw more Kindles in DC than I have ever seen in my entire life. They were everywhere I went. The best use case was travel, as the thing doesn't weigh very much. Anyway, just an observation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Engage, Maverick, Engage!

So I read The Name of the Wind, a recent highly promoted fantasy novel. I will dispense with a review, if you like very large fantasy novels, and especially if you dislike the darker trend of recent fantasy novels, you will enjoy this one. The plot moves in unexpected ways, and with one glaring exception, is expertly done.

Still, I have some complaints of which I think you should be aware. Biggest is the notion that the book somehow reinvents fantasy, as some of the blurbs say. This one is about as templated as you get. Young, poor guy discovers great destiny and faces adversity. That's it. Sure, there is a framing device where we learn our hero has withdrawn from the world (at the worst possible time!) but we have seen that before as well. It's well written enough that you don't care, but don't expect mind blowing originality or deconstruction of archetypes.

OK, maybe this is a bigger deal. Where are the monsters? There aren't any good ones. On the human side, the main foe is a limp rich guy/Trickster figure. Boring. On the animal side, we have an angry herbivore. Scary! Yes, it is the first of the trilogy, but Tolkein gave us the Balrog AND the Nazgul in his first book. Mieville only had one in Perdido Street Station, but that was the slake moth, which is better than most.

Sure, sure, there are no monsters in the Martin books (or almost none), but the villains! Oh they are so good. What's more, it may be that they are really the heroes, at least in Jamie and Tyrion's cases. The villain here is mostly his circumstances, which are fine, but not that exciting.

I have complained a lot about this book, because it lies outside my fantasy novel sweet spot (realisitcally bleak society, monsters, evil) but it does what it does well. Aside from a bizarrely weak finale, the story is very well told.

Philip Kerr is back

For a long time, I thought Philip Kerr was like Weezer, starting off the career with the best work and then slowly deflating. Well, Weezer came back and so can Kerr. I devoured A Quiet Flame, the second in his Bernie Gunther after the war series. I worried that these books would suffer from missing the oppressive atmosphere of Nazi Germany. This book is set in Peronist Argentina and with Nazis on the run and an efficient police state of its own, this book has plenty of dark atmosphere. I could tell the book was going somewhere when Gunther is traveling on a boat with an unrepentent and completely repellent Adolf Eichmann on the way to South American exile.

Gunther feels a bit more like a Chandler character than I remember, maybe that is because I have read more Chandler since reading the Berlin Noir trilogy. His pulpy language goes over the top at times, but I thought he pulled it off well. What does go over the top, for some potenially, is an assertion he makes about Argentina in the 40s. Yikes is all I will say about that.

If I was smarter, I would have started with the One from the Other. The conclusion of that book explains how Gunther ends up on the run with Nazis. Oh well, I will still read it, but it won't be quite as fun.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Weekend links

Here's one for those Americans who constantly bemoan how ignorant their fellow citizens are, especially when compared to the wise and learned Europeans. Well, judging by their reading habits, the English at least are right up there (or is it down there?) with the Americans. Care to guess who the most popular author (holding three of the top four slots) is among British library borrowers. None other than James Patterson. Follow the link for Tyler Cowen's thoughts. Here is the full list of the top 250 for 2009. I am amused that that top children's book is a Horrid Henry story. There is a series of American kids books called Horrible Henry, the titular character of which isn't really horrible. Horrid Henry is truly Horrid.

In seeking the right sound for the Wolfman movie, the movie team brought in Gene Simmons to howl.

I like this idea of a naval National Park in the Bay Area. The area already has a battleship rotting nearby and a carrier isolated at Alameda. They also have a liberty ship, a destroyer and a submarine. It could be quite the park and be unique as well.

Here is another from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. If there is anything this guy knows it is food. He has claimed to have found a candidate for the best BBQ in the US of A. If you live in Missouri, you should probably check out Lonnie Ray's, which an awesome name.

Finally, via SF Signal, is the awesome wacky 60s action show version of the Lost opening credits.

Two Gotham stories for you

2010 is really about the comics for me it seems. Over the past few days I read the first two volumes of Gotham Central and movie director Kevin Smith's foray into the world of graphic novels, Cacophany. I didn't love the Smith comic, but I like it more than the Amazon reviews. You really notice the Smith touches in places. His movies are about man children who realize the love of their lives is right in front of his eyes, sometimes too late, sometimes just in time. His scripts are over flowing with words about the nature of love and relationships. In this book, Smith shows Batman as obsessed with Joker and he comes off a bit whiny in places. I suspect some are put off by that. Some more are probably surprised by Smith's take on Joker. He is the usual homicidal maniac, but he is also gay, which allows Smith to indulge in his penchant for sex jokes.

The star of the book is a new and nasty villain called Onomatopoeia, who breaks Joker out of Arkham for his own reasons. Smith has another Batman book going and I hope he includes this guy.

Gotham Central, on the other hand, is flat out fantastic, although poor sales eventually killed it. The book is set within a special crimes unit of the Gotham Police Force, special in that they deal with the crimes of supervillains. Creators Brubaker and Rucka could have taken a tongue in cheek approach or a gonzo violence piece, but instead they went the Wire route. The story lines are dark, the police flawed and the infrequently seen Batman is a source of both tension and relief for the police. They resent how they are not part of his world and how his actions can cause them harm.

The stories are sometimes obviously comic book, like when Mr Freeze ambushes a pair of cops and they try to pick up the pieces, literally. Other stories like the one where a cop deals with here parents and fellow officer's reactions to her outing as a lesbian are just straight up drama. Either way, they are great.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mixed for the day

Alan Wolfe has a doozy of a negative review up at the New Republic. It starts with:

Let’s get my judgment of Thomas Sowell’s new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages.

It doesn't get any nicer.

This is cool. A Striped Armchair blog has a map of all the places the blogger has visited this year, via books that is.

This is fun. Rick Perlstein talks with Gary Wills about his new book on Presidential power and how it got so out of control. Wills believes it started with Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project. He traces the massive, and as he argues extra-constitutional, national security state to this period. You have to register to read it, but you probably should anyway.

Also at Bookforum, there is word of a new Peter Straub. When he is good, he is really good. Here's hoping.

Judge a Book By Its Cover has an interesting one up, namely Razor Wire Pubic Hair. The description is just amazing.

Another entry in the why the Kindle may a good thing fight

Here is an argument for the Kindle I haven't seen. Henry Farrell talks about the economics of the book industry which leads to standardization of book sizes. Essentially, for production reasons, book sizes have to fall in a certain range. His thinking this lies at the root of the flabby book problem. He indicates that hereads a lot of books that are expansions of journal or magazine articles and these books really are flabby. They just restate the argument and add some more examples.

Overall all though, I think that most good, and that is an important distinction, books are about the length they should be. Having a device that would make it easier for books to find their natural length sounds good, but I would just like more good books, thanks.


Khhaaaaaan pitches the Cordoba. (via Megan McCardle)

No more talk, put 'em in the dirt instead

I thought I was more or less done with single volume treatments of the First World War. I read Tuchman, Keegan and the Ferguson books and have I a few more specialized works on the shelves. Well, it seems there is room for another single volume treatment, namely GJ Meyer's A World Undone. For most readers, I think it is one of the best, if not the best book to read on the war.

Among it's great selling points is that the book assumes little to no knowledge of military affairs. While this may disappoint some, most readers will be thrilled not to read page after page of corps and army movements requiring constant checking of maps. There is some of that to be sure. You can't understand the drama of the initial invasion and the Miracle of the Marne without the troop movements, but Meyer keeps the discussion at the level of what you need to understand.

Meyer also allows for those readers who have been away from European history for awhile. Between each chapter, he includes a mini chapter on a background topic. These include the rulers of Germany, the Hohenzollerns, the role of women and the Cossacks. This allows him to keep his narrative going at full speed and still provide additional context for those that want it.

You'll come away from this book understanding how the alliance system helped start the war and how it made it difficult to prosecute it effectively. On the Entente/Allies side, the views of the Russians, for example, prevented a quick and easy defeat of the Ottomans, while the Germans were constantly vexed by the plans of the Austro-Hungarians.

Like any popular history, I think it pays too much attention to the role of individuals. Meyers mitigates this by including discussion of factors which limited the actions of the powers, such as the pernicious effect of propaganda.

The book's length may daunt, but fear not, it is an easy read. Go get it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Efficiency and Progress is ours once more

So I was at the library and saw a comic called Ball Peen Hammer. The cover features a black clad gask wearing, pipe wielding chick. That boded well. Sadly, it was not a reflection of the quality of the comic. The book is an incoherent mix of the Talking Head's Life During Wartime, Mad Max, and the paranoid early 70s ravings of Phillip K Dick.

The story is fairly simple. Two dudes are in a shithole and are forced to perform bizarre and evil acts. One dude longs for this chick he met one night. As it happens she is looking for him. They both see how terrible the world is and little is resolved. The other dude is a writer who wants to document what is going on, but is too shocked to do it.

The thing is, what is going on makes no sense. Some terrible disease is ravaging the arty part of town so something called the Syndicate has quarantined them. There is awful acid rain. This is all terrible of course. The men though are called to go find black children, hit them on the end and bag them. Then this giant of a man comes and takes them away. This last bit is strange, as we never see non-whites.

Who is it that is being oppressed by the Syndicate, or shall we say, The Man, is never made clear. It may be minorities, as these dudes are supposed to kill them. It may be the poor as everyone here looks poor. It may be the art class, as in a bizarre piece that made me think of that awful orgy scene in Matrix: Part Suck. Apparently, all the artists and hipsters were totally chillin' and lovin' in some underground party space when the Man came and kicked them all out and then filled the place with concrete.

I think the circumstances are supposed to be unclear and generalized and that we are supposed to see that good cannot thrive while evil reigns. The problem is the moral choices that are somewhat presented are meaningless when they are set in a nonsensical background. Who cares what they do in a silly story. Sophie's Choice is powerful because something like it probably did happen and the moral weight is terrible. This book is just silly.

One small thing that stuck in my craw. The forces of oppression use AK-47s. What the hell? The AK-47 is the symbol of rebellion the world over. It's on the flags of Hezbollah and Mozambique. If Franz Fanon was a weapon, he'd be an AK-47. Of course, the reality of the gun is different, but from a symbolic perspective it is clear, the left uses the AK, the man uses some high tech guns.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A bit of this and a bit of that

Steve sent along the best tumblr I have seen in awhile. It relates to the New York Review of Books Classics line. I don't want to spoil the title, so just click through. I am sure you will agree. These books are so lovely and so great, I would love to have a row of them on my bookshelf.

Last year there was a spate of literal versions of videos. As you probably recall, the singing is dubbed over with a description of what is actually happening. The greatest was Total Eclipse of the Heart, but I just came across a version of Journey's Separate Ways. It isn't as consistently funny as the Bonnie Tyler one, but it has some excellent moments. Separate Ways is one of the worst videos ever, so they have a lot to work with.

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum calls for people to read more nonfiction books or risk being uninformed. Its a good piece.

Remember the what's your porn star name game. Well how about the STD name game!

A movie or two

I got Taken from Netflix last night. Hey, it isn't bad. Mostly because Liam Neeson is just awesome. In his review, Roger Ebert gets it just right, if the movie description (former spook Neeson flies to Paris to rescue his estranged daughter from white slavers) sounds good, you will like it, if you are rolling your eyes, avoid it. There is definitely some Jack Bauer action, but I greatly enjoyed Neeson's cold determination and his positively frigid dispatch of his foes. His dismissive line to a betrayer is a classic.

In other film news, Steven Soderbergh is making a plague movie with some big names.

Monday, February 08, 2010

If you are thinking about looking in that mirror...DON'T

Check out this compilation of scenes from horror movies in which something scary is in the mirror.

Death comes ripping

Debut novelist Robert Jackson Bennett has gotten some buzz for his Mr. Shivers. I'm not quite sure what I make of it. Set in Depression America, it features a determined father named Connelly seeking vengeance for the death of his daughter. A man the hobos call Mr. Shivers is responsible, and Connelly follows Shivers into the Hoovervilles, the hobo camps and the desolate and abandoned dust bowl. He winds up joining a small band of men hunting the same man.

Thanks to the setting and the escalating sense that all is not what it seems, the book is called a marriage of Steinbeck and King. I think it is closer to Cormac McCarthy and a certain James Blish novel. I tend to think of California when I think of Steinbeck, whereas the wild, Biblical West is McCarthy's territory. Bennett's writing is also McCarthy like, with lengthy and symbolic descriptions of the barren landscape. He goes one better than McCarthy by pushing past the metaphor straight into reality.

Some of the scenes in the book are great. I particularly liked one where Connelly and his gang of vengeful seekers follow Shivers to an empty down about to be consumed in a dust storm. Bennett creates a great sense of dread and makes a pristine house particularly disturbing.

So why my hesitation? I think the prose weighs down the story of Connelly's dark quest of vengeance. His transformation from grieving father to vengeful destroyer didn't quite work either. Some of the mythological elements also felt a bit forced. In the end, I would recommend it to horror fans who like their books well written and their plots large scale.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Young punk had to pay

There is a MUST-READ discussion of bad asses over at AV Club. Like the inspiration of the story, I had to go with the Wire's Omar, but there are arguments for many others over there. Not sure about the best bad ass on film, but this scene from of Terrence Stamp in Limey is the probably the most bad ass scene ever filmed (you may know it as the "you tell him I'm coming" scene.

I wonder though who the greatest badasses in fiction are? Any number of James Ellroy's doomed heroes will do. Dwight Holly in the most recent book certainly counts. I think my absolute favorite is Takeshi Kovacs, at least as he is portrayed in Altered Carbon. Like Terrence Stamp, he takes a licking and then delivers a much worse one. Even better, he is loaded up with all kinds of special forces biotechnology making him even nastier. He doesn't want to kick your ass, unless you make him. Readers like it better when the people getting beat down bring it on themselves. It lets you enjoy it without the guilt.

Crime fiction also has plenty of sidekick badasses who let the hero bring or threaten the pain on people without doing it themselves. Scary Bubba from the Dennis Lehane books or Mouse from the Mosley novels are good examples of these, but main character bad asses are far more interesting.

I've got links, piles and piles, so many links that they're wastin'

Did I already post this list of Pavement B-sides? It's worth your time, especially since they nod their heads to Kentucky Cocktail, which is awesome. Can't find an original, but this live version is fairly sweet, the hook comes through perfectly, if some of the vocal goofiness is lost. Only problem is there is no Harness Your Hopes, which is easily as good as your favorite Pavement song. Why Malkmus is not better acknowledged for his guitar work and hooks is beyond me.

Speaking of the Nicene Creeders, check out Carrie Brownstein's letter from Portland, which ends with a Box Elder aftertaste.

Via Am Con Blog, check out Utne Reader's story of the Iraq war told via magazine covers.

I've seen lots of best of beers lists in the past few weeks. Most of the time, I look at them and get the same feeling I do when I drop by Pitchfork, namely, what the fuck is all this? I like this list from Wine Enthusiast, since it includes bottles that cost about as much as a six pack of crap beer, along with the $25 bottles from Russian River.

Check out the world's largest book.

Hee, hee Lost vs. Avatar in the LoLcats style.

Tyler Cowen doesn't like the new Henry Paulson book.

Looks like the Spanish are trying to out-weird the Japanese in game shows.

A new Boyd is here

I adore William Boyd, one of the finest of Britain's literary writers. His Any Human Heart is just fantastic, right up there with Atonement and Kavalier and Klay in my book. An Ice Cream War is one of my favorite war novels. In his last book, he took a turn into genreland, with his spy novel Restless. His newest, Ordinary Thunderstorms, makes me think he likes the genre fiction. Hey, so does Chabon. This one is a thriller (!) about climate change set in London. Sure, climate change is topical, but I would at least try anything he wrote.

NYRB does scifi

The New York Review of Books Classics line is so good that I will often pick up a book just because they published it. I'll do the same with few others ( Black Lizard and the Library of America come to mind, but the LOA books require a significant time investment.) So, on the rare occasion that the NYRB puts out a scifi book, I get pretty excited. It's such a joy to get my nerd on, while also basking in the glow of the annointed. Inverted World is an early (1970s) novel from Christopher Priest, best known for the Prestige.

The story is set in a bizarre city that rolls down a set of rails on a bizarre planet. The rails are limited, so one set of people takes up the old ones and another sets them down as the old ones come up. The residents of the city do this thanks to a peculiar geophysical effect on their planet. The city is ruled by guilds of engineers that manage the cumbersome process of moving the city. The story is told from the perspective of Helward, a young guildsman. Using a coming of age scifi storyline, Helward, and the reader, slowly comes to understand what is happening to this world and he eventually faces two great crises that threaten to destroy the city.

It's a great adventure tale and it is well told, but this is Christopher Priest, who likes to play with narrative and the ideas of reality, so you know something odd is afoot. As the afterword by John Clute notes, Priest was critiquing the prevailing style of American science fiction at the time. I am happy this was included as an afterword, rather than as a forward, as it is spoiler rich. I don't want to spoil it either, but I do say pay attention to the changes in narrative mode and keep the peculiar introductory chapter in mind. You can enjoy this as a straight scifi novel, but I suspect you will appreciate it more after you read Clute's piece.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Slipping into Fanboy status

I think I am becoming a Ed Brubaker fanboy. I know because I just bought issue 4 of the new Criminal Tale, The Sinners, even though I have purchased, but still not read issues 1 through 3. Why am I doing this? I want to be able to sit down with all of them and read them all at once? I made a mistake with Incognito, where I went back for more and they were sold out!

I read the first issue of Incognito when it came out and it didn't quite click. I then went back for number two and it sat on my shelf for months. Then I read and loved it! That's when they were all sold out. Fortunately the trade just came out.

The story in this one is great. A supervillain is put into a witness protection program, but he finds he can't stop kicking people's asses. He tries to be covert by stopping criminals and finds he likes it. This gets the ire of his former employers, a none too nice group of folks and he also manages to piss off the a secret superhero-staffed version of the FBI. Bad times all around.

The book is great because it infuses the superhero story, with its constant, but generally nonconsequential violence, with the depth of a crime story with its very consequential violence. People die in this story and they tend to die badly. Now in a realistic crime book, there would be one or two terrible acts, but this is a superhero book so the chaos is constant.

The only reason I was happy it ended was the hint that there is more to come. Now I have to get a hold of his Gotham Central which tells story's of Batman's city from the perspective of the town's cops.

Pixies fans, say goodbye to the next hour

Sound Opinions is the one radio show I wish my local NPR station carried (at a reasonable hour -- Saturday 11PM may as well be in an alternate universe). Co-hosted by Greg Kot, the author of Ripped, a book I recently reviewed, the show covers the world of popular music, especially rock music.

They recently talked to Frank Black (AKA Black Francis and Charles Thompson) about Doolittle. It's great fun and any fan will dig the interview. The hosts know and love the music and they talk to Frank like you would if you were there.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Q&A with Joe Schreiber

I used to think of him as one of the great new voices, bu you can't call Joe Schreiber a new horror writer any more. He has four novels under his belt, with another on the way. He is perhaps best known for his Star Wars novel Death Troopers in which dark things happen upon an abandoned Star Destroyer. My favorite is probably No Doors, No Windows, a story about a very nasty haunted house. In his responses below, Schreiber hints that King is his greatest influence. His novels remind me of the early King novels with their flawed characters, excellent use of the supernatural and flat out creepiness. You can follow him at his blog The Scary Parent.

1) What do you think makes the difference between a good horror novel and a bad one?

The same thing that differentiates any novel, I think: the characters and quality of writing. Losing yourself in a work of fiction -- any work of fiction -- requires a certain degree of confidence in the writer. As a reader, you can usually tell in just a few pages whether you trust the guy in the driver's seat, or whether you'd rather get out and walk. At least I can.

2) Your books consistently evoke feelings of dread and fear in me. I particularly like how sometimes you merely suggest what a character sees, letting the imagination fill in the details. How do you decide when it is best to suggest and when it is best to explicitly describe what is happening?

When in doubt, leave it out. Seriously. If you've done your job developing the tension and atmosphere along the way, you can absolutely step out of the way of your own prose and let the reader's imagination do the heavy lifting. It's the most powerful tool in the horror writer's toolbox -- it's working even when the reader's not actively reading the book.

3) Your Star Wars novel, Death Troopers, blends elements of the science fiction and horror genres. Did the science fiction setting lead you to write this book differently than you did your other novels?

Not really. If anything, I had to resist the temptation to "write different" and focus on getting myself involved in the story. As soon as I was there onboard the Destroyer with my characters, I relaxed, because I was having fun.

4) Eat the Dark is set in a hospital, a setting you are familiar with thanks to your work as an MRI technician. Does personal experience inform any of your other novels?

My first horror novel, Chasing the Dead, was based on some very uncomfortable days as a 30-something dad returning to school so I could support my new family. I got up very early in the morning, when it was still dark and cold, and drove a half-hour to radiography school and work, and drove home in the dark sixteen hours later. If a cold dead hand had reached up from the back seat of my Olds 88 at any time while that was going on, it would have made perfect sense, in a horrible sort of way.

5) What would you say is your favorite book and how, if at all, has it influenced how or what you write?

It's probably safe to say that, without Stephen King's The Shining, I would probably be writing greeting cards, if anything.

Some restaurants are more equal than others

I'm not much of a fan of McDonalds (Minty Patrick's Day Shake and McRib aside) but I love this promo photo of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first McDonalds.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Stray thoughts about Inglorious Basterds

Finally saw the movie. Loved it, of course. Everybody wins with this movie. You get lots of dead Nazis, which everyone enjoys. You get that wild ending. You get the dialogue and pop culture references. 1940s references but still.

I do wonder if Tarantino is trying to wave his magic wand of star creation again. Will Mike Myers be the next Travolta? Reading this old EW profile makes me think he is screwed. Still I would love to see all those awesome German and French actors in movies over here.

I think I need to go back and watch all the others again.

Superman didn't get into heaven, saving the world for Marx and for Lenin

I've been introducing my kids to the What If? Comics from Marvel. They are wacky takes on what would have happened to classic Marvel story lines if some bit of history had been altered. One classic has Spiderman stopping the criminal that would have gone on to kill Uncle Ben. So instead of changing his ways and becoming a crime stopper, he just stays an entertainer. A lot of them are tongue in cheek like that.

DC, generally the lighter in tone line, has a darker set of alternate universe books called Elseworlds. One of those tales is called Red Son. It's big twist is that instead of landing in Kansas, the young Kal-El lands in the Ukraine and Superman grows up to be a Hero of the Soviet Union. This is not good news to the US, but they can rely on their own super-power, the brain of Lex Luthor. The Russians have their own home grown threat, thanks to the callous murder of dissident parents before the eyes of their child.

This could have been played for laughs or made into a simple role reversal, Mark Millar makes it a study of tyranny and the perils of pursuing complete security. In the US, Superman took on the American ideals, in Russia, he takes on the communist ideals. Everyone must be safe, equal and obedient. This leads to a Welcome to the Monkey House state in Russia, that comes to dominate the entire planet.

The book has an excellent finish as well. It's a nod to many other science fiction stories as well as being true to the Superman lore.