Friday, November 30, 2012

MST3K Friday: Turkey Day '92

OK, so I know Thanksgiving was last week, but there was no MST3K Friday last week.  When Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on Comedy Central, they had Thanksgiving marathons of the show.  The brains behind the show created bumpers to show between the movies and during commercial breaks.  Here are the bumpers for 1992's marathon.  Some of the movies shown in 1992 have appeared on previous installments of MST3K Friday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2004 In Books

Author's Note:  This is one of the earliest Year in Books posts I did on the old blog.  Anyone care to read what I thought of books back in 2004?

At the end of the year a lot of people put together their 10 best lists of the year (books, movies, music). Instead of doing that, I'm just going to give a blurb about each of the books I read during the past year. I still may try to put out full reviews of each book, but at least I can get my quick thoughts out. This may not be a complete list, but it has every book I've read since May 1st (I can't really remember what I read before that).

Personal Memoirs – Ulysses S. Grant: Grant wrote what some people call the benchmark that all presidential memoirs should be judged by. His style was very crisp and readable, which makes this a quick and informative read.

The Last Jihad – Joel C. Rosenberg: A geo-political thriller in the style of Tom Clancy (but without the military techno-speak). It had a very interesting premise and was well executed by the author. But there are some parts of this style that were a little distracting. He could go page after page of just dialog with no narrative whatsoever. Some parts (like his characters telling jokes) were kind of painful to read. With that being said, I’m still going to read his next book.

Theodore Rex – Edmund Morris: Biography of the presidential years of Theodore Roosevelt. I learned a lot I didn’t know about Roosevelt. Morris’s style is almost novel-like.

American Empire Trilogy – Harry Turtledove: see my review below. [SD: I'll post this review next week]

People Die – Kevin Wignall: a friend recommended this to me. It’s about a hit man who has the tables turned on him. The concept sounds like a typical action potboiler, but it’s mostly about character development with a few action scenes thrown in. I’m not sure if I liked it, but I’m going to check out Wignall’s next book before I make a final decision on him.

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett: The classic noir novel. I was somewhat disappointed by this one. I love the Bogart movie and that’s what you get with this novel. Hammett’s prose is very tight and masculine and the movie is almost a direct translation of the novel. Not that that’s a bad thing, but reading the novel doesn’t add anything new.

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler: Another one of the classic noir novels. Like The Maltese Falcon, the Bogart movie is a strict interpretation of the novel only diverging in a couple places. Chandler’s prose, however, is nothing short of genius. If I could write half as well has he could, I’d quit my job and write novel after novel.

Out of Sight – Elmore Leonard: The inspiration for the movie Out of Sight and the ABC show Karen Sisco. I was a fan show and had always heard about how good an author Leonard was. The dialog was very natural and Leonard has a very distinctive voice. There was just something about this book that I couldn’t get into. I didn’t connect with the characters while I was reading it. Even so, there were times weeks later that I couldn’t stop thinking about certain scenes in the book. I had to go out and buy a couple more Leonard novels.

The Mike Hammer Collection Vols. 1 & 2 – Mickey Spillane: very gritty, very noir. Spillane is the opposite of Chandler. Chandler’s prose has an almost literary style to it, while Spillane is more like a comic book. All the stories are pretty much the same: Hammer out for revenge. Spillane’s frankness toward violence and sexuality seem commonplace (and sometimes antiquated) today, but in the early 1950’s it was shocking. I found the stories entertaining, but definitely not for everyone.

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler: another genius Marlowe novel by Chandler. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

Get Shorty – Elmore Leonard: the basis of the movie. It’s not as funny as the movie, but still entertaining.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett: another disappointment by Hammett. The stories are interesting, but there’s something about his style that I can’t get into. I’m still going to read more of him.

High Window – Raymond Chandler: another good one by Chandler. He can just sweep you away with language. If you watch any noir picture of the ‘40’s and they say something like “he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”, that was inspired by Chandler.

LA Confidential – James Ellroy: another good detective story. I seem to have read a lot of those over the summer. There is a lot more to the story than what was in the movie.

The Bushes: see review here.

Never Dream of Dying – Raymond Benson: a James Bond novel. It reads just like one of the movies. The giant set pieces come at the exact same intervals as they do in the movie. Very entertaining, but not high art.

Executive Power – Vince Flynn: the fourth in Flynn’s series about spy Mitch Rapp. Not highbrow stuff, but very entertaining action that rivals the best Clancy. I don’t think it was Flynn’s best work, but it was better than his previous effort: Separation of Power.

Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy – Douglas Adams: the classic zany British comedy. I haven’t read these in about a decade. If you don’t know anything about it, you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years.

The Big Nowhere – James Ellroy: another part of Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The style is a lot more readable than the 2nd half of Confidential. Haven’t finished it yet, but I’m enjoying it so far.

Posted on the old blog 12/31/2004.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Song of the Week: Dance Me to the End of Love

It's become a cliche to compare Madeline Peyroux to Billie Holliday, but it is an apt description.  Billie is more raw and more heartbreaking, but both have a throaty quality you rarely hear with female singers.

From 2004, here is "Dance Me to the End of Love".

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty by Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer

Author's Note:  A very close friend and I have talked politics with each other since we were freshmen in high school.  We're on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we've always had lively debates and have never gone to the "Bush is evil"/"Obama is a socialist" level of discourse that stains our politics today.  Quite often, he and I exchange political books as birthday/Christmas gifts.  This is a book he gave me back in 2004 and I reviewed on the old blog.

The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, written by Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, is not so much about the Bush presidents as it is about the remarkable family that spawned them.  Starting at the turn of the century with the stories of Samuel P. Bush and George Herbert Walker, the authors chronicle the rise of the Bush family that almost mirrors the American story of the 20th Century.  The patriarchs of the Bush and Walker families worked very hard to make their fortunes, but in very different ways. SP Bush was a cautious investor, rarely taking risks, and slowly built up his vast fortune.  Herb Walker was a gambler.  He would make and lose vast amounts of money over the course of the year, but would always wind up ahead.  Following the stories of the Bush and Walker clans, you can see how they have influenced both Bush presidents.  George H.W. Bush was a sober, responsible man: like the generations of Bushes before him.  George W. Bush is more like a Walker: brash, headstrong, and adventurous.

Apart from the fascinating story of the Bush/Walker rise, the book is sprinkled with a lot of interesting historical tidbits.  One of the amazing characteristics of the Bush family is the ability to make and keep close friends.  When George H.W. was running his oil company in Texas, he took W. on a couple business trips with him.  During one of these trips, George and W spent time at the home of Jimmy Gammell, a Scottish investor with a major stake in Bush’s Zapata oil company.  While his father spent time going over finances and discussing their contract with Kuwait Shell Petroleum Development Company, W became friends with Gammell’s son, Bill.  Several years later, Bill Gammell went off to boarding school and became good friends with future Prime Minister Tony Blair.  After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Gammell would solidify his relationship with W by convincing Blair that Bush was someone to take seriously.

The Bush family can count 17 Presidents among their members (3 in direct blood line, 14 through marriage).  They are George Washington, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and both Bush presidents.

The Schweizers did a good job of balancing the book.  It is not dry and academic, but reads almost like a novel.  They don't take a pro- or anti-Bush stance, but let the narrative speak for itself.  There are some parts, to be sure, where they gloss over some of the negative details of the Bush family history. If you are a Bush basher, you will probably not enjoy this book. If you are a supporter or open-minded person, there is a lot to be gained from reading this account of one of America's most influential families.

Posted on the old blog 11/11/2004.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Song of the Week: If I Needed Someone

Despite what I always say about Paul McCartney being my favorite Beatle, I've grown to be a huge fan of George Harrison.  I've recently made it a rule that I listen to the entire Beatles catalog at least once a year and I've discovered a lot of my favorite tunes are Harrison tunes.  This week's song is "If I Needed Someone" off of Rubber Soul and it has the distinction of being the only Harrison composition played by The Beatles during any of their tours.  (Side Note:  The Hollies recorded their own version of this song about the same time as The Beatles).

Bonus:  Eric Clapton played this song during the Concert for George.  I am continually struck by how much Dhani Harrison looks like his father.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

No More Heroes by, Ray Banks

Here's the thing - I've been trying all this time to live up to that f---ing label they gave me, so I reckon maybe it's time I either live up to it or die trying.

The history of the private eye genre is replete with heroes who wax on about the corrupt system and how one man can't make a difference.  These tarnished knights still try and usually succeed in bringing about some kind of justice, even if the official line covers up some of the more egregious sins.  Ray Banks falls squarely in the new tradition of noir which fully embraces the nascent nihilism of the genre.

Private investigator Cal Innes has fallen pretty far from when we met him in Saturday's Child.  He and a fellow named Daft Frank perform evictions for slumlord Donald Plummer.  No More Heroes opens with an eviction gone wrong and Cal getting the crap kicked out of him.  The following day, Cal and Frank visit another house which promptly bursts into flames.  Cal rushes in and rescues a trapped child.  The newspapers make a hero out of him and the newfound notoriety, plus the accumulated physical abuse, makes him quit the evictions job and put up his PI shingle again.  His first client is Plummer, who wants Cal to find out who burned his property.  The search takes him back and forth between student protesters and the English National Socialists (think Aryan Nation).

From the various injuries sustained in the prior books, Cal has a bad back, a drinking problem, and a growing dependence on codeine.  Like all addicts, he things he has it under control, but the repeated beatings he suffers in No More Heroes have him upping his dose so much he's popping painkillers like breath mints.  The physical abuse takes it's toll on Cal to a devastating result.  The climax of the novel takes place during a race riot between the ENS and the local Arab immigrants.  Cal must collect evidence from a car right in the heart of the riot, but he's felled by a stroke before he can get it.

The accumulated toll of violence is one of the aspects that puts modern writers like Banks apart from his predecessors.  PI's have always been punching bags, but few carry their injures from one novel into the next.  I'm curious to see how Banks incorporates the stroke into Beast of Burden.

Another thing that sets him apart is the complete embrace of the genre's bleakness.  Like I stated in the open, the official story might not be the whole truth, but the victims usually get some kind of retribution.  Innes and a reporter found who burned down Plummer's properties, but it was easier for the reporter to blame it on the ENS.  Much to Innes's dismay, the arsonists get away with the crime.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Banks doesn't wallow in violence.  The beatings Innes takes are brutal, but they're not meant to titillate, shock, or disgust.  You feel each bone-crunching blow and sympathize with Innes.  The violence happens for a reason and is executed by people who feel they have no choice, not because they like inflicting pain.

Banks's bleak tone and stripped down prose neatly convey what working class life in various parts of Britain must be like.  He is an author who deserves much more attention than he gets on either side of the pond.  I count myself as a fan.

Banks and the Cal Innes series are recommended.  Start with the first book to get the full impact of the series.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

MST3K Friday: Best of, vol 11

"Scrubbing bubbles! Scrubbing bubbles!"
"That's always nice, Sampson. Just torch everyone."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Song of the Week: Refugee

Like most of the Garden State, my area was hit hard by "Superstorm" Sandy.  Thankfully there wasn't any major damage to my area, but there were a crapload of trees down and power, cable, and phone service suffered major disruptions.  I personally was without power from 8pm last Monday until 6:30pm yesterday; nearly a whole week.

Now that power has been restored, I "don't have to live like a refugee" anymore.