Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Half Empty

David Rakoff

The grizzled, cigar chewing editor, who bore a striking resemblance to Parry White, as played by John Hamilton in the 1960's TV series The Adventures of Superman, slammed his hand down on his desk and groweled "Rakoff, go find me another David Sedaris!" Young David Rakoff spent the next month hiding behind stacks of over the transom manuscripts, for which it was his job to write polite rejection letters, wondering where he could find another diminutive, gay, jewish writer of amusing vignettes, who arrived in New York from the boonies with stars in his eyes, only to find himself cleaning houses for a living.

As the deadline approached he grew ever more desperate. Finally one Thursday night, Rakoff, who was cleaning his closet, rediscovered a manuscript which he had written himself, when he first arrived in New York from his native Canada. "Hey, I'm short, gay and Canadian. Why can't I be the next David Sedaris?" he thought to himself. He had been so hopeful, expecting to make it big as a writer, just like Garrison Keillor, except short, gay, Canadian and without a radio show. The next day he slipped his manuscript into the middle of a pile of mediocre over the transoms, and brought them to Parry's office. Take a look at these, chief. I think there might be a Sedaris in this stack.

On Monday morning Rakoff crept into the office, filled with trepidation.  "Great Caesar's Ghost!" Cried the editor, "Bring me the author of this piece at once!" He was holding David Rakoff's manuscript in his huge, ham-like fist. "That's my work sir," said Rakoff.  "Well son, you're fired! And now you are an author. Here's your $100,000 advance," said the editor with a smile.

This is not how David Rakoff became a published author, as far as I know. At any rate Half Empty is his third book, he did labor in the vineyards of publishing for several years and he now claims to make his living by sitting up in his room scribbling away with a no. 2 pencil.

David Rakoff's philosophy of life, main source of comedic material and raison d'etre appears to be the power of negative thinking. This despite surviving a childhood as a "big fag" and two (or was it three?) bouts with cancer as an adult. He says that being kvetchingly funny was, and is, a survival mechanism. Now he gets paid for it, just like Woody Allen.

Half Empty is a series of stories from Rakoff's life, or a very small volume in a long autobiography, built on the new Mark Twain plan, in which the author goes off on whatever topic strikes his fancy until exhausted and then takes another tack. I found it to be quietly chuckling funny in many places and soberingly touching in others. His stories are both tongue in cheek and sincerely real.

As to the question of whether he is another David Sedaris I can only quote the elf in the Christmas gift factory at the North Pole, in The Polar Express, which I watched with my daughter over the weekend: "What are they, mishugenah?"

This post is in the 60th
Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Atticus Books.

keywords: memoir, David Rakoff, non-fiction

Friday, December 24, 2010

A little known work of literature

At the Blue Bookcase the question of the week is:

 What literary title (fiction or non-fiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated?  We all know about the latest Dan Brown, and James Patterson isn't hurting for publicity.  What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?

The most under-appreciated literary title I know of is  Princess, by Joe Richards.This is a memoir by an artist, who quit his job on Madison Avenue, where he designed newspaper advertising, in order to sail a friendship sloop, restored by his own hands, away from New York, to find an island where he could live happily ever after. By the end of the book he is married with children and living in Florida, still sailing and still fixing his boat. This, to me, is a metaphor for modern life. How many of us have run away from our mundane lives to live a fantasy and found our fantasy to be, perhaps more interesting, but still a mundane, existence.

You can read more about Joe and see some of his art at the website his daughter has set up. She has reissued the book as well.

Literary Blog Hop

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project
The complete and authoritative edition
Volume one

The long awaited first volume of Mark Twain's unabridged autobiography is a great fat doorstop of a book that the casual reader might avoid trying to tackle. In fact more than a third of the volume is taken up by various editorial introductions and explanatory notes that can be safely ignored in favor of the actual words of the great man. This makes it a much easier read than it, at first, appears.

Twain's plan for this autobiography was to dictate his reminiscences to a shorthand secretary. He allowed himself to talk about whatever subject came to his mind at the moment and put it into the book in just that order. It is just the plan that you use when you go after your grandfather with a tape recorder and demand that he say something for posterity. If you keep at it long enough you will have a vast collection of anecdotes which cover a good part of the old man's life and some of it will be true.  This is a good plan, a reasonable plan, which saved a great deal of effort on the part of the author. It makes it a bit hard for the reader, but if you've already read Albert Bigelow Paine's biography, Charles Neider's version of the autobiography or the new one by Fred Kaplan, or even Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It, you will get along just fine.
Twain says that he would like future autobiographies to follow the format that he has created for his. We may have to wait another hundred years to see if his advice will be taken.

The point of waiting a hundred years for the publication of this tome is to allow Twain to say what he really thought on any subject or about any person without fear of offending someone he knows. He must have thought it would take a century to cool down the public reaction to his views on religion, although there is nothing in this volume of the autobiography that comes close to what appeared in Letters From the Earth, which was published soon after his death.

I would like to quote Twain on the subject of Book Reviewers: "A generation ago, I found out that the latest review of a book was pretty sure to be a reflection of the earliest review of it; that whatever the first reviewer found to praise or censure in the book would be repeated in the latest reviewer's report, with nothing fresh added.  . . .  I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades and that it has no real value - certainly no large value." I came to the same conclusion about my second year as an English major. Somehow I persevered long enough to get a BA.

Now that I have written my piece I can go read Garrison Kiellor's pan of the autobiography in the New York Times. My policy is never to be influenced by other reviewers by the simple device of not reading them until it's too late.

This post is in the 59th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Colloquium.


News has reached me that NewSouth Books, a publishing house in Alabama is bringing out new sanitized editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the long controversial word "nigger" will be replaced with "slave" and in which Injun Joe will be referred to as "Indian Joe." The publisher's stated goal is to get the books back into classrooms in which they have been dropped from the curriculum due to complaints about the use of those terms.

I know that this has been an issue decades. I have always thought that those who wanted to ban the books were ignorant people who had never read them or who were incapable of understanding what they read. I'm sure that am Clemens is spinning in his grave over this bowdlerization of his work. What do you think?

P.S. Do you suppose that this is where George Lucas go the idea for Indiana Jones?

Note: Even though this was posted in December of 2010, I cheated just a little bit and submitted this as my "best of 2011" blog post in the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup. Click the link and see what a lot of bloggers think was their best post of the year.
keywords Mark Twain, autobiography, memoir

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dissing Dan Brown for a Meme

I have dropped everything else while I read volume one of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. It's a big fat 700 page annotated scholarly work that somehow got filled with folksy anecdotes and irreverencies, vignettes about people like General Grant and Horace Greeley. I'm waiting for some shocking anti-religious diatribes but haven't found any yet.

In the meme-time here is the latest question from Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

"What very popular and hyped book in the blogosphere did you NOT enjoy and how did you feel about posting your review?"

That would have to be The Lost Symbol. I rather enjoyed reading The Davinci Code, but Dan Brown had jumped the shark in the sequel. I rather enjoyed skewering it in my review.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review Blog Carnival and an Experiment

The 57th Book Review Blog Carnival has been published at Reading, Reading & Life.

Be sure to stop by and see what the book review blogging crowd has been reading lately.

Book Review Blog Carnival Meme

I'm going to try a little experiment today and I hope you will join in. If you write book reviews on your own blog and didn't get a chance to participate in this week's carnival, or even if you did, take part in this Book Review Meme.

All you need to do is copy the code in the text box below, go to your own blog, choose edit posts and choose a book review - the latest one you wrote or one that you particularly like - and paste the code in at the bottom.

Then come back here and fill out this Mister Linky form, putting the URL to your post in the appropriate field. This will give your review a link from here and will link back, both to this page and to today's carnival from your blog.

This post is closed for new entries.

1. Necromancy Never Pays
2. The Life O' Reilly
3. Everything I Never Wanted toBe
4. Man of la Book - Book Review: Deeper than the Dead by Tami Hoag
5. SenoraG -The Lancaster Rule

Friday, November 26, 2010

Memeing Like Crazy

The Blue Bookcase memes have brought me so many new readers I just can't resist trying this one from Crazy for Books, too.

Book Blogger Hop

I'm studying up on the Mister Linky code right now. There may be a similar meme on this blog soon, as well. Stay tuned.

Edited to add: Crazy for Books asks "What's Your Favorite Book Cover?" To which I answer, you can't judge a book by it's cover.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another Blue Bookcase Meme

Literary Blog Hop

At this rate I'll never get another book read. This week The Blue Bookcase asks "What makes a contemporary novel a classic?
Discuss a book which you think fits the category of ‘modern classics’ and explain why."

Well I disagree. There are some contemporary books which are destined to become classic. The problem is in identifying which ones they are. A classic, in my opinion, is a book that has stood the test of time and is still read and still has relevance after the passage of decades or even centuries. People are not very good at predicting this and experts will disagree about which books those future classics are.

I would say that Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood is a candidate because of the universality of it's apocalyptic theme and it's use of language and character. Someone else might think not and give cogent reasons for that opinion. In 100 years we'll know.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is There Such A Thing As Literary Non Fiction?

A Literary Blog Hop post courtesy of The Blue Bookcase

Literary Blog Hop
The Blue Bookcase hosts a weekly "Literary Blog Hop," asking bloggers to answer a question of a literary nature on their literary blogs. Today's question is a no brainer: "Is there such a thing as literary non fiction.

Let's consider some examples. This week the first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain was published by the University of California. One might question how much of any autobiography is really non fiction but this is surely a work of literary value. My copy is on order. Look for a review on this blog soon.

I recently reviewed Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I wouldn't claim that my review is timeless prose, but I have high hopes for Theroux. He may make it as a writer some day. I'm not just saying this because his parents lived down the street from me when I was a lad.

Now let's take a look at John McPhee. After discovering The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed back in the dark ages of my youth, my next McPhee book was Oranges. Here is a man who captures the readers imagination, not just writing about a commercially failed amazing feat of engineering, but writing about agriculture, geology, long haul trucking and migratory fish. McPhee is a literary craftsman of the highest order.

What makes a book "literary" anyhow? I know it when I see it, yet can't define it. I don't think there is a genre that could not contain some work worthy of the name. Fantasy novels might not be considered literary, but what about The Lord of the Rings? Illustrated children's books? The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren or The Night Before Christmas. Graphic novels? Now there you've got me.

Perhaps you could suggest a graphic novel that you consider to be "literary." Leave a comment if you have a suggestion.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux

Reading A Dead Hand got me interested in taking another look at Paul Theroux's travel writing so I picked up this one, which was published in 2008. Theroux retraces his steps, as well as he can, of the trip he took for The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1978. Theroux's itinerary took him by train from London, through the chunnell, across France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Istambul. From there he went across Turkey, Gergia and Azerbaijan to Baku, on the Caspian Sea. In '78 he could go to Afghanistan and Iran. This time he had to detour through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Tashkent in Kazakhstan, where he hopped a plane to Amihar on the border of Pakistan and India. Turkmenistan gave Theroux ample opportunity to exercise his inner curmudgeon. His description of the gold statues of Turkmenistan's leader "Turkmenbashi" and the empty luxury apartments overlooking streets full of homeless Turkmen are priceless. His actual trip must have taken place before the death of the Turkmen president for life, in December of 2006.

The second leg of the journey takes him through India and Sri Lanka before jumping to Rangoon and visiting all of southeast Asia - Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand Laos and Vietman. He found Vietnm to be a very pleasant and well run country. None of the Vietnamese he met seemed to be angry at the United States for bombing them back to the stone age in the 60's and '70s. He even got a ride with a couple of former Viet Kong. Nice guys from his account.

Once again he took a flight from Kunming, in southern China to Tokyo, where he visited a pornography superstore in the company of a famous Japanese novelist.  Theroux travels all over Japan by bullet train, which he finds much nicer than the trains in Romania or Uzbekistan.

The return trip was on the trans Siberia Railway. Theroux's view of Russia by rail is nostalgic for the good old Soviet days. He dedicates several pages to his visit to the city of Perm, which he was not allowed in on his first trip. The Permians he meets are proud of the famous writers and scientists that were imprisoned there by Stalin.

Theroux revels in the discomforts of travel by train through the third world. I'd like to read his take on Amtrack some time.

Keywords: travel writing, Paul Theroux, Asia, memoir

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Dead Hand

A Crime in Calcutta
Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is the well known travel writer who visits uncomfortable, out of the way places, riding with the locals on public transportation and writes unflattering descriptions of the places he visits and the people who live there. He has written 58 books, according to Amazon.com. About half of them are novels set in exotic places and A Dead Hand is one of those.
The protagonist of A Dead Hand is a hack writer of magazine articles about travel to exotic locations, someone like but not like Theroux himself. He uses this character to poke fun at himself and his reputation as a travel writer, showing that he has a fine sense of humor.

The book is written in the form a a classic murder mystery which starts of with his down at the heels writer receiving a hand written letter from a mysterious woman, delivered to him at the hotel he is staying at in Calcutta. Events proceed as expected from there, including a body found in a hotel room, a romance between the writer and the mysterious lady and a variety plot devices which lead to a denouement in which all is resolved though the clever investigation performed by the protagonist. I am trying not to release spoilers in this review, which is a hard thing to do. I found the plot to be rather thin and easy to penetrate anyway, but this did not reduce my enjoyment of the book one bit. Theroux was not trying to write a rip snorting who-done-it. He was parodying the form.

One unusual plot device, used to good effect, is to bring Paul Theroux, the famous big time travel writer into the book and have a meeting between him and the hack writer protagonist. This is written from the jealous hack writer's point of view and is there for no other reason that the humor involved in the situation and perhaps to poke a little fun at the post modernist, self referential novelists of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries (see John Barth) It also gives him more scope to laugh at Paul Theroux in a very self referential post modernist way.

This post is in the 56th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Keywords: crime fiction, Paul Theroux, travel writing, India

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review Blog Carnival at Proud Book Nerd

The 54th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival has been published at Proud Book Nerd. Somehow, I managed to miss submitting a post to it, even though it's my own carnival. Shame on me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

American Insurgents American Patriots

The Revolution of the People
T. H. Breen

I wasn't sure when I first picked this book up whether it was going to be a book of American history or a Tea Party movement manifesto. It turns out to be the story of ordinary Americans in the years 1774-1775, when what came to be called the coercive acts were imposed on the colony of Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party. An obvious connection could be drawn to today's Tea Party, one which Breen never mentions. The question sits behind his narrative, If then why not now?

Breen's contention is that people, through local committees of correspondence, committees of safety or committees of inspection, whichever title they chose, drove the process which led the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776. He sets up July 4th 1776 as a straw man, stating many times in the book in different ways that the revolution didn't start on the fourth of July - well duh!

The book starts with Captain Isaac Davis, one of my favorite people, who marched from Acton to Concord on April 19th 1775 and was killed by British fire at the old north bridge. Davis was an example of the "minute man," as I learned in school, (in Acton Massachusetts as a matter of fact) who was prepared to march with only a minute's notice to defend his country. The minute part is not really true, but he was an officer of the local militia, organized and drilled in order to resist an expected invasion of the countryside by British troops, who were stationed in Boston and who were there to enforce a complete embargo of trade with that city.

April 19th is a holiday in Massachusetts, Patriots Day, and each year on Patriot's Day I would walk the Isaac Davis trail from Acton to Concord and watch the parade and reenactment of the battle, with lots of colorful uniforms, muskets and cannon fire. Breen is correct that this happened 15 months before the Declaration of Independence. This is not news. Nor is the Boston Tea Party on December 16th 1773 or the Boston Massacre on March 5th 1770. In fact historians have documented that there were increasing tensions for years between tho colonies, particularly in New England, and the authorities in and from London, with incidents of violence, threats and acts of coercion, which led to a popular revolt.

Breen's other contention is that there was a strong Evangelical influence on the American Revolution, through the popular movement he details in his book. He states that and mentions the Great Awakening but then lets the subject drop without giving any evidence. In fact the population of New England was predominantly Congregationalist, while the southern colonies were mostly Church of England. In the mid Atlantic region freedom of religion was practiced, as there was no state sponsored church. Almost all were Christians of some kind, few were followers of George Whitefield, who held some amazing revival meetings in the 1730s throughout the colonies as well as in England.Those Methodists or Baptists who did exist were despised minorities until the Constitution enshrined their freedom to worship as they pleased.

There were those Deists among the founding fathers, still. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin.  John Adams actually became a Unitarian, along with many of his fellow New England Congregationalists. Their story is not Breen's, however.

Breen tells the stories of several local committees of safety and how they enforced the "association" an agreement to cease trade with Britain in response to Britians embargo of Boston.  This is the valuable and interesting part of his book. He shows, through the stories of several people who suffered the discipline of these committees, how close they came to mob violence, occasionally slipping over the line, and how the committees, for the most part, kept themselves and their neighbors within reasonable bounds, while punishing loyalists, through shunning, forced confessions and other tactics, which mostly stopped sort of those used in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Breen believes that the ideas of John Locke had penetrated to consciousness of ordinary Americans, even the many who may never have heard the name, John Locke. That the government gains its right to govern through the consent of the governed. This seems obvious to us, but it was revolutionary in the 18th century. I think that he overlooks the influence of Congregationalism on this attitude.
Congregationalists believed, still do, that each congregation should govern itself. They broke with the Church of England over this issue, and over the theological differences that their self regulation allowed to creep in, Calvinism and all that.  The people of New England were used to organizing themselves by congregations, and indeed by town meetings, and making decisions for themselves. This enabled them to break with Parliament and the King politically, as they had done generations before with their religious establishment.

American Insurgents American Patriots is an interesting book of history even if it misses it's mark on a couple of key points.

This post is in the 55th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Keywords: American History, American Revolution

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mr. Peanut

Adam Ross

The copy of Mr. Peanut from my local public library has a green sticker on the spine that says "Mystery." One might conclude that the book was a story about who done it, but one would be wrong. The mystery in Mr. Peanut is "what the H. E. double hockey sticks is going on?" Which is not to say that it is a badly written book. On the contrary it is a highly readable literary novel that should not be put in the "mystery" ghetto.

The book does start out with the death of one of the main characters, an apparent suicide by allergic reaction to peanuts. Alice Peppin's husband, David, does have a fantasy life which revolves around her demise, either by murder or accident, and he is secretly writing a novel about it.This is the literary part of things - David Peppin's novel melds with Adam Ross's novel. He tries of various alternate endings and presents them to the reader in a serial menu of Alice deaths.

The entire middle part of the book is dedicated to Dr. Sam Sheppard and the murder of his wife, Marilyn in 1954. This is actually the part of the book that I found most absorbing. It was a well crafted character study of a man who had multiple extramarital affairs. The events surrounding the murder remain as murky as they were during Shepard's actual trial - although the boor reverts back to the present and the Peppin's long before any trial. There is no mention of a one armed man.

The novel then jarringly jumps to an earlier time in the lives of Alice and David Peppin, probably in the mid to late 1990's. Once the reader settles in to this section it becomes an interesting character study of these two young people, dealing with a miscarriage while on a flight to Hawaii . Then it jumps back to the beginning, I mean the end, where several alternative deaths are presented for Alice and a mysterious yet irrelevant person named Mr. Mobius is introduced.

In Adam Ross' fictional universe Sam Sheppard has become a police detective in New York and is part of the team investigating the death of Alice Peppin. This ignores the fact that the historical Sam Sheppard died in 1970. Since David Peppinis a successful designer of games, including massive multiplayer online games it's unlikely that the events in his part of Mr. Peanut take place in the late '60s.

I enjoyed, yet was frustrated by reading Mr. Peanut. It seemed to me to be an attempt to write a post modern, self referential, novel using perhaps the outward form and trappings of the popular murder mystery but without delivering any of the action moving plot techniques that are part of that genre. That would be hard to do, of course, when the course of the book jumps back half a century to people and events that have only a tangential, thematic, relationship with the original story. I think there is the beginning of a great piece of historical fiction in that middle section, waiting to be born.


This post is in the 53rd

Book Review Blog Carnival

Keywords: novel, literature, crime fiction, Dr. Sam Sheppard, the fugitive

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review Blog Carnival #51

Welcome to the 51st edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival. The carnival has appeared every other Sunday, somewhere in the blogosphere since September of 2008. If you write book reviews on your blog, you can participate in the second birthday edition by submitting a link to one of your reviews here. You can also follow the carnival by joining our Facebook page.


Lisa Sheppard won't tell what book ruined her summer vacation on her blog at Omaha.net - Local Writing from the Heartland.


Mark teaches us what a tie-in book is, in My Nightstand - August 2010 Edition posted at Random Ramblings from Sunny Southern CA.

JHS, of Colloquium, laughed, guffawed and snorted at Escapades of Romantically Challenged Me by Maya Jax.

Zohar, AKAMan of La Book, was thrilled (mostly) by the new political thrillerThe Confirmation by former Christian Coalition leader, Ralph Reed. Young Adult Fiction

Heather, at Proud Book Nerd, was not put off by the novel Glimpse being written entirely in verse.

Is something set in the mesolithic period historical fiction? Jim Murdoch ponders this question in his review of The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone, posted at The Truth About Lies.

The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina de Robertis tells the story of 90 years of the life of a woman in Uraguay.
Zohar reviews it at Man of La Book.

Crime Fiction

KerrieS saysTHE WOODCUTTER by Reginald Hill will make you think. Think about it at MYSTERIES in PARADISE.

GUNSHOT ROAD by Adrian Hyland is a murder mystery featuring aboriginal Austrailians, as suspect and victim as well as investigator. KerrieS reviews it at MYSTERIES in PARADISE.

Science Fiction

Jeanne, of Necromancy Never Pays, did not read the free ebook version of Arkfall. She read it the old fashioned way - on bound paper.

Izgad has this theory about salvation through Submission to Law that he believes he shares with Isaac Asimov and he usesThe Stars Like Dust too illustrate his idea.


"As a fantasy lover, this book, (The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima) makes me happy. (Although, a unicorn or two would make me even happier!", Says Heather, of Proud Book Nerd.

Short Fiction

Jim Murdoch taught me a new term in his review of The White Road by Tania Hershman posted at The Truth About Lies - flash fiction.

Audio Books

Mr. Audio Books listened to all 34 hours of Under the Dome, by Stephen King.

Non Fiction

Janna Voss is keeping a secret from us about Zeitoun, even though she reviews it at Primo Reads.

Zohar, Man of La Book, loves Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.

Zohar is a double agent. He also giving us his review of Son of Hamas by Mosab Hasson Yousef.

Rick Sincere mocks Paulina Borsook's 'Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech' in Book Reviews by Rick Sincere.

Persha Davis, of Dumped Days reviewed Michael Baisden'sNever Satisfied: How & Why Men Cheat. She says "I was left with the distinct feeling that there’s really no trusting anyone in this world, male or female!"

BWL will help teach you 100 Ways To Save and Grow Your Money at Christian Personal Finance.


Women's Eye on Media calls The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandel a graphic memoir.

Eric Gargiulo rocks out with Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir by Dave Mustaine, at CamelClutchBlog.com.


Zohar, Man of La Book, was uninspired by American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood by Marc Eliot. Perhaps the term rebel needs a new image.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cyber War

The Next Threat To National Security And What To Do About It
Richard A. Clarke

Richard Clarke was the go to guy for counterterrorism on the National Security Council from the time of George H.W. Bush through the Clinton years and into the George W. Bush administration, which then made him their cyber security guy and ignored his advice. Cyber War is his attempt to tell the Obamanites and the general public what is at stake online and what he thinks should be done about it.

So what is at stake? According to Clarke, the entire electrical grid, including nuclear power plants, the telephone system, air traffic control, railroads, Wall Street, the U.S. Army, Navy Air Force and Marines are all vulnerable to attack via the internet. What he means is that every account in every bank could suddenly be reset to zero dollars; power plants could be made to overload themselves and break down, or melt down; aircraft could be made to collide in mid air; our hyper technological stealth aircraft could fall like stones from the sky; ships could become stranded, dead in the water.

Many countries have developed the ability to attack the infrastructure of potential opponents through respective internet systems. Clarke claims that the U.S. is the world leader in the development of offensive cyber weapons. The problem with that is that the U.S. is also the most vulnerable to attack by the cyber weapons of other nations and lags far behind countries like China in cyber defense capabilities, and some countries- North Korea springs to mind -  have hardly any dependence on the internet at all, yet are capable of devastating attacks on us. Because of the openness of our internet infrastructure and our ever increasing dependence on it for commerce, communication industry and even the military, we are sitting ducks.

The Defense Department has developed some capability to protect it's systems from attack, however, because it uses the trunk lines of the civilian internet to connect it's world spanning operations, those systems are still vulnerable. There is no one in government who takes responsibility to defend the civilian internet from attack. The FBI investigates some cyber crime, after the fact, and prosecutes some criminals, when they can be found. Businesses are supposed to provide their own protection. This includes even the Federal Reserve.

Clarke suggests a three pronged approach to hardening the internet in the U.S. First the major, trunk ISPs should be required to monitor traffic for signatures of cyber attack, using a "deep packet inspection system"; second, the electrical power grid should be secured, using a system parallel to the internet, but not connected t it, to control power stations, third, harden the systems of Department of Defense, using separate infrastructure and encryption to prevent interferance with our military capabilities.

Federal regulation would be needed to enforce compliance by the major ISPs and electrical systems. The political ramifications of additional Federal regulation of anything make all fo this a difficult sell, to say the least. Clarke wrote Cyber War in order to move the U. S. in this direction. Only if citizens are informed about the danger and the need for action, can politicians do what needs to be done to protect us from the possibility of a devastating attack. Good luck with that.

This post is in the 52nd

Book Review Blog Carnival


Labels: internet security, cyber war, Richard Clarke

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

Seth Grahame-Smith

What do you do as an encore after writing a bestseller and trend setter like Pride and Prejudice and Zonbies ? Seth Graham-Smith has turned from Jane Austen to Abraham Lincoln.

The premise of the book is that Lincoln has been spending his nights, since the age of 12, when his mother was killed by a vampire, hunting and destroying the undead. Somehow nobody ever noticed all the corpses with wooden stakes through their hearts or their heads chopped off lying around Indiana, Illinois and up and down the Illinois, Ohio and Missippi rivers, all the way to New Orleans.

Vampires are also held responsible for slavery in the book. It seems that slave owners have been making a profit selling their excess, old and infirm or simply weak slaves to vampires for consumption. In fact some southern plantations are owned and occupied by vampires. You can tell them by the parasols and the dark glasses, which they wear to protect themselves from the sun. In this book vampires fought in the Confederate army and John Wilkes Booth was a vampire.

August is traditionally silly season and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is a silly book. It is also well written and entertaining in it's own silly, if gruesome, way. Thanks to Graham-Smith, we now can enjoy titles like  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombies, The Undead World of Oz, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mansfield Park and Mummies, Emma and the Werewolves and Android Karenina not to mention Zombie Economics, Zombie Capitalism. We have also been treated to op-ed pieces like All The President's Zombies, in the New York Times and Night of the Living Wonks in Foreign Policy (soon to be expanded into a book) When Will It Stop?

Friday, August 6, 2010

In Big Trouble

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is a reliable novel producing machine, turning out a book a year, year in and year out and her Tess Monaghan series of crime novels never disappoints. It is a stoke of luck that Lippman has a backlog of Tess Monaghan stories that were originally published only in mass market paperback and which are now seeing the light of day under hard covers, effectively doubling her published output.

In Big Trouble is one of these. It fits in chronologically between Butcher's Hill and The Sugar House and helps to cement Tess' relationship with her musician boyfriend, Crow Ransome.  Crow has left Baltimore and gone  to Texas to pursue his musical ambitions in the thriving Austin music scene.

The novel draws Tess away from Baltimore to San Antonio, Texas, where Lippman worked as a journalist before returning o Maryland to work at the Blight, I mean the Sunpapers.  This gives Lippman a chance to show off another city that she knows well.

There are a few small bobbles, plotwise, in the book. Tess is drawn to Texas by a mysterious envelope containing a picture of Crow cut out of a newspaper with the words "In Big Trouble" printed over his head. It turns out hat this is part of a publicity shot for his new Texas band, which has left Austin for San Antonio. Who sent it and why? Late in the book Lippman flatly states that Crow did but gives no explanation, yet this is the impetus for the entire string of events. He couldn't write and say, hey we've got a bit of a problem here? It's not even clear that Crow wanted Tess' help. 

The San Antonio police have a warrant for Crow's arrest at one point but the only evidence they have is a shotgun tat the find in an illegal search of his room after they execute the warrant. How did they get the warrant?

Despite thes errors in plotwriting, In Big Trouble is an enjoyable read. You are unlikely to guess who done it. Actually, as in many of Lippman's books, you are unlikely to gues what was actually done.

Keywords: crime fiction, Laura Lippman, Tess Monaghan

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Game Change

Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
John Heileman, Mark Halperin

I have to be just a bit suspicious because this book confirms all of my own impressions of the candidates in the 2008 Presidential election, which I garnered from watching their antics on television. Are the Clintons as strange as they appear to be? Is Sarah Palin, in real life, so much like her portrayal by Tina Fey? Is John McCain really as reckless as he seems? Is Joe Biden genuinely a lovable, stumbling pompous ass? Does Obama actually walk on water? According to Game Change, yes. After doing countless hours of interviews with campaign staff, family members, fellow media folks and such of the principles as made themselves available, Heilman and Halperin have confirmed all of the stereotypes that developed in the media about the candidates, with the addition of some juicy inside stories, never before revealed.

I usually don't read political campaign books or candidate memoirs but I made an exception for Game Change because I heard the authors being interviewed on NPR. John Heilman and Mark Halperin are engaging personalities who know how to tell a story. They make the inside dirt on the 2008 campaign sound very interesting indeed.

One of the most interesting things revealed in the book is the state of disorganization, nay chaos, within both the Clinton and the McCain campaigns. I could not have imagined that Hillary Clinton would tolerate the level of infighting, backbiting and intrigue that went on in her campaign, referred to as "Hillaryland" by the authors. According to the book she practically encouraged this self destructive behavior among her staff. McCain, on the other hand, hired seasoned advisers and then refused to listen to their advice, again, according to the authors.  The book makes a good case that McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate at the last possible moment, only because his experts finally convinced him that choosing Joe Lieberman would cause a rebellion among the Republican faithful.

Barack Obama appears to be a calm and unflappable in Game Change as he does on TV, except that he is often quoted as dropping f-bombs to emphasize many of his points. Actually, so are Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This leads me to the conclusion that the political class in America needs to read more literature in order to build a greater vocabulary of colorful language.

Keywords: politics, 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

Stieg Larsson

The last book in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy is a full out thriller from the first sentence. It begins in the emergency room with Salander and her father, Alexander Zalachenko, who were both critically injured while trying to kill each other at the end of the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire. It ends in a grimy abandoned factory with a confrontation between Salander and her brother, the giant, Ronald Niedermann. The action never stops until the end of the final page. Larsson packs more plot twists into this final volume than in either of the two previous books.

I found myself wholly engrossed in the lives of the characters in this series. They are interesting and fairly well rounded, although Salander, herself, is more than a bit odd.  She shows symptoms of asperger's syndrome, or perhaps a bit farther down the autism spectrum, is withdrawn and uncommunicative and prone to violence. At the same time she is into casual sex with people of any gender and likes to wear black leather and display her tattoos. I like her a lot as a fictional character, I wouldn't want her to show up at my house.

There a a couple of loose ends that Larsson never addresses. One is the relationship between Salander and Niedermann. He is a German, neither Swedish like Salander, nor Russian, like her father and, I believe, was presented in the second book, as the apparent heir to Zalachenco's  criminal empire, like a son but not actually one. Unless I missed something, there was not physical relationship with either Zalachenco or Lisbeth Salander's mother, yet in this final book, Salander believes, but never reveals to anyone, that he is her brother. Secondly, Salander has a twin sister, who is mentioned several times throughout the series, yet this sister never appears, nor is she particularly important in advancing the plot. Checkov's gun on the wall principle would dictate that the sister should not be in the book at all.

Please, please, please read the three books in order, starting with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or you will find yourself irretrievably lost. No attempt is made to help the reader catch up with the action. Larsson wrote the books assuming that they would be read in series.

Parents should be aware that there is a considerable amount of violence,  kinky sex and use of four letter vocabulary in this series of books. Teen readers will love it for those reasons if for nothing else.

This post is in . . .


Book Review Blog Carnival


keywords: thriller, crime fiction, Stieg Larsson

Monday, July 5, 2010

Last Night in Twisted River

John Irving

This is a big, sprawling, undisciplined seeming novel by the author of The World According to Garp, which follows the lives of a lumber camp cook and his son, a famous author of literary novels. It starts near, but at, the beginning and skips around to various parts of the central characters' lives, in no easily discernible order. It is a bit disconcerting at first.
The reason the book skips around in time like Billy Pilgrim is that, unbeknownst to the reader until very late in the book, all or part of what you are reading is actually the text of a novel being written by Daniel Baciagulpo, AKA Danny Angel, the famous writer, who is not John Irving. It is tempting to attribute this to the influence of Kurt Vonnegut.

Irving writes about writers writing in a more subtle and less obnoxious way than John Barth has done in his last forty eleven books. Irving's fictional author, at least, has a name, and a pen name, and spends an seemingly inordinate number of hours rewriting.  He is human, insecure, unsure of himself and - oh yeah - on the run from a homicidal maniac.

Some, but not the most outlandish, details in the book are similar to events in Irving's life. Both attended Philips Exeter Academy, both were students of Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers Workshop, both taught at Mount Holyoke College. I doubt that John Irving ever killed his father's Indian lover with a frying pan at the age of twelve, though.

One of the themes that runs through the book is the difference between using detail from real life and writing autobiographical novels. Neither Last Night in Twisted River nor any of the fictional fiction written by Danny Angel and described in the book is autobiographical. Both use stuff from real life, transformed into imaginary scenes with fictional characters. Danny Angel has the advantage, though because, being fictional, he has had many outlandish things happen in his life, or maybe he just made those things up. Since you may actually have been reading his novel all along, you'll never really know.

This post is in the 48th

Book Review Blog Carnival


Keywords: novel, fiction, literary fiction, John Irving

Saturday, June 26, 2010


The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen
Christopher White

Skipjack is one of a growing genre of non fiction books in which the author does something intersting for a year or so in order to write a book about it. Christopher White, a native of Baltimore, MD, moved to Tilghman Island, on the Eastern Shore, and sailed with, sometimes working as a crewman, on some of the last working skipjacks.

A Skipjack is shallow draft wooden boat, with center board and a single mast, sloop rigged, with an enormously long boom and an immense spread of sail. By law, they have no engine on board, but use a small push boat, which is carried on davits at the stern and lowered into the water when used and is operated from the stern of a skipjack. Imagine an eight foot rowboat with a huge V8 truck engine in it, tied to the back of a 40 foot sailboat and pushing it along. Skipjacks lower dredges to the bottom and scrape up oysters which are dumped onto the deck and sorted by hand. Maryland law allows dredging under power only two days a week, so most days dredging is done under sail.

White did an excellent job of capturing the sound of Eastern Shore speech. Dredge is pronounced "drudge" oysters are either "orsters" or "arsters," depending on whether the speaker is from Tilghman or Deale island. Fish are "feesh" and "either" is a multi-purpose word. "We lose a couple of drudge boats either year" he quotes Wade Murphy, captain of the Rebecca T Ruark, a skipjack built in 1896 and still sailing, now taking tourists out for short cruises. At the time of White's residence on Tilgman, in the 1990's, Murphy was still dredging with Rebecca and White crewed with him often.

Chesapeak Bay oysters are under assault from two diseases, MSX, which kills oysters in the more saline waters of the lower bay and Derma, which thrives in the brackish waters of the upper bay. Losses due to these two diseases are aggravated by over harvesting as watermen try to stay in business with a declining resource, using power dreding and "patent tongs," a kind of marine steam shovel. To extract as many oysters as they can before they all die. In the spring and summer, oystermen are hired by the state of Maryland to plant oyster shells and "spat," larval oysters, on the depleted oyster beds.

Skipjack does a good job of capturing the flavor of life on the Eastern Shore, the language of it's people and the difficulty of making a living in a dying industry. I have lived on the Shore for the past 27 years and seen it change from a land of independent working watermen to one of pleasure boats and condominiums. I even built some condos myself. I must be getting old, because I long for the good old days.
This post is part of the 58th Book Review Blog Carnival, hosted by The Book Frog. You can still be part of the fun if you have a book review you would like to share.

Copy the code in the text box below and go to your blog's edit tab. Paste the code in at the bottom of your book review post and save it (publish). Then enter the URL of that post, along with it's title and you blog's name in the form here. The ferris wheel graphic will appear on your post with a link to the carnival (and one to this blog) and your review will be linked from this post. I'm still working on a way of adding a Mister Linky script to the hosting blog.

Book Review Blog Carnival Meme

This post appears in in the

Carnival of Marylandl

keywords: Skipjack, Eastern Shore, Chesapeake Bay, watermen

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Routes of Man

How Roads Change the World and How We Live Today
Ted Conover

One might expect a dull, academic, sociological treatise based on the subtitle but fear not, The Routes of Man is a collection of road trips made by the author over the years, magazine article assignment reworked into a fun, informative and easy to read book.

Conover begins the book with a ride over the Andes mountains in Peru in the cab of a truck hauling mahogany logs. They also carry passengers on top of the load. The highest part of the mountain road is unpaved, filled with switchbacks and unguarded dropoffs and single lane encounters with vehicles coming the other way. Peru is building a modern highway to connect the Amazon basin and Brazil with the Pacific coast, which will make this trip much faster and easier and help to denude the rain forest even faster.

Conover takes a walk on a frozen river in Kashmir with a group of Kashmiri outh who are headed to boarding school. Walking out on the ice is an annual ritual for people from these remote villages, near the Tibetan border.  India is slowly building a road, which will eventually allow the villagers to walk down from the mountains without fear of falling through thin ice. That's a good thing, except that it will also bring the Indian and Pakistani armies closer together, right in their home.

He then takes a ride from Mombasa, Kenya into Uganda, also on a truck. This is the route famous for spreading aids across east Africa. The driver and his "turnboy" are willing participants in this process.

He then visits the West Bank, where he goes through several Israeli army checkpoints. It's easier for an American journalist than for a Palestinian college professor to go through them.

Conover takes a ride on new Chinese superhighways with a "self driving" club.

The road trips are interrupted by a chapter on the evolutionary growth of Broadway, starting with a Wickquasgeck Indian foot path.

Finally, Conover rides with an ambulance crew in Lagos Nigeria. A Lagos ambulance is sort of a mobile first aid station, as people have no other access to medical care and the roads are so congested that they can't get anyone to a hospital anyway.

In each chapter there is a bit  of discussion about how change is inevitably coming down the road.  This is news?
This post is in the 47th

Book Review Blog Carnival

keywords: memoir, journalism, travel

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Carnival of Maryland Visits a Book Blog

I'm taking a little detour from my usual course, today, to host the unofficial blog carnival for bloggers in my home state of Maryland.

Politics, Hon:

According to John Frenaye at Eye On Annapolis, Annapolis Housing Authority chairman, Carl Snowden Arrested For Third DUI Offense.

OM, of Insane Baltimore, thinks that Café Hon and the Remington Wal-Mart may not be a match made in Heaven.

Mad Anthony respectfully disagrees with Richard Florida of the Wall Street Journal. Correlation vs. Causation, or why home ownership isn't wrecking the economy....

Red Maryland points out the shortcomings of political polling using the recent Rasmussen poll on the Maryland Governor's race as an example.

Budget woes have put a stop to zoning ordinance revisions in Prince George's County, according to Creating a Jubilee County.

What's Happenin':

Soccer Dad is missing his ferret but I do not wish to find it. Maybe it's with the snake.

J.C. Nemecek's flower garden has been received a surprise gift .

Bar Bitch Talks Tips at Eye On Annapolis.

The Shores of Delmarva has a list of 18 newly discovered laws of nature. "Anything is possible if you don't know what you are talking about."

Maybe You Should Try This:

Heading out to BWI for your family vacation trip? Travel Musings has a few tips for Air Travel with Kids and Pets.

Swamp Thing, of the River Mud Blog, takes you on a fishing trip somewhere in northeastern Maryland.

Susan Coghlan recommends birth charts as baby gifts on RedWrites.

The Carnival of Maryland is looking for participating bloggers and hosts for future editions. Our next carnival will be hosted by J.C. Nemecek on June 27th. You can submit a post to the carnival by clicking on this link. Send me an email at the address in the sidebar if you would like to be a carnival host.

keywords: blog carnival, Maryland

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Look At The Birdie

Unpublished Short Fiction
Kurt Vonnegut

When I saw Kurt Vonnegut's name in the new fiction section I couldn't resist taking the book home. Overall, despite being a posthumous publication, which often means writings dredged up by a publisher from an author's dregs, Look At The Birdie does not disappoint.

The stories in this collection would not be considered science fiction for the most part. There are no toilet plunger shaped Tralfamadorians, no time travel, no outrageously simple but impossible inventions. Kilgore Trout is not mentioned once. In fact the book is quite refreshing. The stories are set in a vaguely in the twentieth century, or, in one case, the great depression. Vonnegut goes for the O. Henry ending in most of these stories.

Each story is accompanied by one of Vonnegut's pen and ink drawings, which are interesting, but at the same time, it's probably best that he didn't try to make his living as an artist. Vonnegut would have sold used cars all his life if that were the case.

keywords: Kurt Vonnegut, short stories, short fiction

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Geographer's Library

Jon Fasman

This book just does not work. Fasman has tried to write a Dan Brown novel, using a cub reporter on a local weekly paper in rural Connecticut and cutting back to a medieval Arab scholar, with Antiques Roadshow like vignettes about items supposedly stolen, found, missing or something, which never gel into a coherent whole.

It is also the second book in a row that I have read that makes reference to Hermes Trimestres. (Hermes Trimestres figures in the plot of S. J. Parris's Heresy), a fact that Dan Brown would have taken and run with. In Fasman's case, I just don't care. The narrative about the mysterious death of an Estonian history professor at a Rhode Island college, being investigated by a small town Connecticut reporter keeps being interrupted by these short pieces about coins, amulets and other objects that are never relevant to the plot. Some of them may have been stolen from the geographer mentioned in the title, but others are from a much later period. Regardless, the stuff doesn't figure in the story at all. It's annoying.

As the denouement approached I came to the realization that was supposed to swallow the premise that an immortal alchemist is responsible for the murder, attempting to protect his secrets, and that the kid reporter was able to bean the alchemist with a baseball, thereby changing his mind about murdering him, too. Implausible? No, ridiculous. I'm sorry if this spoils the plot for you but it is already spoiled by being so badly made.

It's too bad, because the characters, the dialog ,much of the plotting, in fact most of the book is pretty good. Jon Fasman could do well as a novelist if he finds his own voice and stops trying to be Dan Brown. Hell, Dan Brown could write a pretty good novel if he stopped trying to be Dan Brown.

This post is in the 46th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Maryland Bloggers and a new Carnival of Maryland

The Carnival of Maryland, a blog carnival with a Free State theme, has been revived and the first new edition posted at ROTUS. Go see what's cooking in Maryland these days. (Hint: it's soft shell crab week) This blog will be hosting the next edition on June 13th.You can submit your Maryland related blog post at Blogcarnival.com.

Along with the carnival there is a new Facebook group, Maryland Bloggers.

Did I mention that I am the person doing all this? What was I thinking?

keywords: blogs, blogging, blog carnivals, Maryland

Thursday, May 27, 2010


An Historical Thriller
S.J. Parris

Stephanie Merritt, who unsuccessfully hides her real identity under the pen name S.J. Parris, used the visit of Italian astronomer, philosopher and radical thinker Giordano Bruno to Oxford University on 1583 as the setting for a story about religious persecution, murder and the role of women in Elizabethan England. Bruno is transformed into a spy, working for Queen Elizabeth's spy master Francis Walsingham, and a detective, solving the case of a series of bizarre murders done in imitation of the martyr stories in John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs."

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were suspected of treasonous conspiracies. It was believed that they were plotting to bring Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne, to replace Elizabeth and restore Catholicism as the established church. Although Catholicism was officially tolerated, in fact, to be Catholic was to be suspected of treason. One thread in Heresy is the uncovering of a Catholic cell in Oxford, and the priest that they were hiding.

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, for his heretical, pantheistic, views, including his theory that the universe was infinite, with an infinite number of suns and infinite worlds. Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolved around the sun was not yet accepted, Bruno was a contemporary of Galleleo Gallelei, who would receive a much lighter sentence, house arrest, for his observations which confirmed Copernicus. Bruno was centuries ahead of his time in that regard. Heresy touches on his, at the time not fully formed, thoughts. Bruno finds himself in an internal conflict, working for Walsingham to root out heretical (in Elizabethan England) Catholics, while holding heretical (to everybody in that time) beliefs of his own and being under threat from Catholic authorities in his own country.

I found one character to be a bit disappointing, Sophia, the daughter of John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, who was educated along with her brother, a frequent user of the college's library and who took an interest in Bruno's esoteric knowledge. It turns out that she is looking for a love potion! What a let down. Her love interest is important to the plot but jeez, what a cheesy way to use her. Merritt/Parris touches on a kind of Elizabethan woman's liberation theme when she is first introduced but then backs way off. Historically that is probably for the best, though.

Underhill, Bruno, Walsingham, Philip Sidney and several other characters in the novel are real people, used for Merritt/Parris' own novelistic purposes, and Bruno did visit Oxford to lecture and unsuccessfully apply for a teaching position. John Foxe's book is real and was popular among the more radical "Puritan" protestants in England at that time. Heresy blends history with fiction in a believable way.

Oh, and the book gives Stephanie Merritt's real name in the "about the author" blurb. Why have a pen name then?

keywords: history, Elizabethan, crime fiction,Giordano Bruno