Required holiday viewing The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time
"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"
Sunday, December 05, 2004
Saturday, December 04, 2004
U2 back in bombastic form
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Universal, 2,548 yen
U2 returns to big, bombastic form with its first studio album in four years, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
The Irish quartet seem to have abandoned any pretense of trying to experiment or move in new directions and settled down to the formula that has always served them best: soaring anthems belted out over intense, echoing, layered guitar grooves backed by a whipcrack rhythm section.
The opening cut and first single "Vertigo" grabs the listener with a muscular hook and harrowing pace as Bono belts out some cliches about "swinging to the music." Despite the inane lyrics, the song serves notice that U2 is back and ready to rock in a way they haven't since Rattle and Hum.
The 24 years that have passed since their debut album have done little to diminish Bono's ability to go from a whisper to a scream, nor has his ego receded. As usual, the album winds up with the man who has the biggest collection of ugly eyeglasses this side of Elton John talking directly to God on "Yahweh." After that, the closing track, the Indian raga-tinged "Fast Cars" seems like a bit of an afterthought.
The death of the singer-lyricist's father in 2001 has obviously sparked a bit of reflection as parental love pops up as a theme on several cuts, especially the best of the album's ballads, "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own."
Bono's high-profile political activism colors much of the material here as well. Bumper sticker-worthy lines such as "Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die" in the song "Crumbs from Your Table" are hardly ambiguous. That is not to say that the message interferes with the music--far from it. The call to arms "Love and Peace or Else" rides the top of a dangerous John Lee Hooker riff that makes it one of the strongest songs on the album.
The Edge has plenty of echoboxes and digital delays and isn't afraid to use them. He and longtime producer have layered rhythm guitar tracks that propel even the more pedestrian tunes like "City of Blinding Lights" forward.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is everything a U2 album should be: Grandiose, pompous, loud, dynamic and driving. It is about as subtle as a sledgehammer between the eyes, and nearly as effective.
Warner, 2,520 yen
Dreamland supposedly marks Joni Mitchell's final retirement from what she has referred to as the "cesspool"--the modern music industry. The 17-track compilation showcases some of the best and worst of her eclectic four-decade career "stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song."
The best is very good indeed with jazzy gems like "Help Me," hits like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" and more recent orchestra-backed performances of her early folk classic "Both Side Now" and "For the Roses."
The worst comes in the form of the sweet-voiced songstress' ill-advised '80s duet with Billy Idol, "Dancin' Clown," though it is not wholly without merit, at least as a curiosity. Curiouser still are the sins of omission--no "River" or "Court and Spark" and nothing from the creatively brilliant commercial flop Mingus.
A good introduction to a complex and challenging body of work by a unique talent, but not much different in the choice of material from her Hits and Misses compilation of a few years ago
Sunday, November 28, 2004
The family that steals together, stays together
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By Peter Craig
Hyperion, 341 pp, 13.00 dollars
Fraudster, confidence artist, sharpie, flimflam man, grifter, hustler--call him what you want, but the clever guy who makes his living by pulling the wool over the eyes of his victims instead of pulling a gun on them has always been a popular cultural icon.
Never mind for a moment that the heroic thief of popular fiction, who robs exclusively from the rich and corrupt, bears little resemblance to the real crooks who line their pockets with the life savings of gullible seniors and struggling families. The guy who is able to cheat, lie, trick and fast-talk the hapless mark into handing over his cash is admired for getting something for nothing, using only his wits and a snappy line of patter.
Peter Craig's Hot Plastic shows us the evolution of fraud and credit card technology in the 1980s by following the growth of top-notch grifter from teenage tagalong to international pro, and also introduces a family of thieves whose sum is both greater and less than its parts.
Hot Plastic opens cinematically, with a man bleeding from a gunshot wound into a stolen coat in a stolen car being smuggled by his partner past the watchful eyes of the police, and proceeds in flashbacks tells us how he got there.
Kevin Swift starts out on the road with his father at age 12. His mother has just died and his dad is fresh out of prison. An obsessive kid with few social skills, Kevin has a number of personality tics, including a pathological need for rigid order in the matter of packing and unpacking suitcases and an insistence on eating nothing but pancakes and sliced oranges, that seem to be a reaction to the otherwise complete disorder of his life.
Kevin's father, Jerry, is a small-time crook traveling the United States pedaling fake credit cards with real numbers, running up huge charges on stolen card numbers and generally living off the land, stealing whatever he needs one way or another. At first, Jerry tries to keep his work a secret from Kevin, but by the time Kevin turns 15, the two are working partners. With Kevin laid low by the flu the day a major deal is to be made, Jerry is forced to hire a hooker to babysit. Colette isn't much older than Kevin and the boy develops a lasting crush on her even as she is falling for Jerry. The three start working together, with Colette teaching Kevin how to shoplift, a craft in which he eventually surpasses her--to the extent where he regularly steals the family groceries a cartload at a time.
After a few years, Colette falls out with Jerry over her ambition to move into more elaborate, lucrative and longer-term cons and he and Kevin settle down in Los Angeles with Jerry's new wife. Kevin, in school for the first time in half a dozen years, finds it a struggle, and eventually one of Jerry's scams blows up in his face, landing him in prison and leaving Kevin on his own.
A few years later, after his own brush with jail, Kevin flees to Europe with Colette. Eventually, the three are reunited for a final scam they hope will allow them to retire.
Each of the three main characters are drawn in detail with their unique voices and very real identities and motivations hidden beneath all their deceptions. The odd love triangle breeds divided loyalties and wholly believable conflicts that shape the fabric of the characters and story. Craig never cheats on plot details by pulling story elements out of thin air, but instead gradually, and with an enviable subtlety, develops his complex plot to its de rigueur, yet still surprising, shock ending.
Hot Plastic has all the Hollywood playfulness of The Sting compellingly combined with the dark grittiness of Jim Thompson's The Grifters.
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side
People outside the United States and many within it often look at the USA with its mindless fundementalist fanatics, daytime talk shows, tabloids, conspiracy kooks and Paris Hilton, not to mention the White House, and ask "How dumb are Americans?"
Well according to this basic scientific literacy poll done by the U.S. National Science Foundation the answer is "pretty frickin' dumb"
According to the survey:
- 65% of Americans either don't know or don't believe that Evolution is a valid scientific theory.
- 25% believe that the Sun goes around the Earth
- 52% believe that humans once coexisted with dinosaurs
- 46% don't know how long it takes for the Earth to go around the Sun
A little Kristmas music
Jesus was a capricorn
He ate organic food
He believed in love and peace
And never wore no shoes
Long hair, beard and sandles
And a funky bunch of friends
Reckon we’d just nail him up
If he came down again
'cause everybody’s gotta have somebody that they can look down on
Somebody they can feel better than at any time they please
Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on
If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me
Eggheads cussing rednecks cussing
Hippies for their hair
Others laugh at straights who laugh at
Freaks who laugh at squares
Some folks hate the whites
Who hate the blacks who hate the klan
Most of us hate anything that
We don’t understand
--Oil empire heir, Rhodes scholar, chopper pilot, studio janitor and Billy the Kid impersonator Kris Kristofferson
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Hardboiled detective strictly softheaded
Drop Dead My Lovely?
By Ellis Weiner
New American Library
277 pp, $23.95
By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
After falling off a ladder and under several boxes of books while searching for a Ross MacDonald novel, Peter Ingalls, mild-mannered recluse and bookstore clerk, wakes up a new man. He pockets a handsome insurance settlement, rents himself an office and puts this ad in the newspaper:
“Gumshoe…Dick…Shamus…Flatfoot – Put them all together, they spell Peter Ingalls, P.I.”
Thus begins Ellis Weiners’s Drop Dead My Lovely, a marvelous satirical homage to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and all their literary descendents in the hardboiled detective genre.
Speaking and dressing like Humphrey Bogart in the “The Maltese Falcon”, Ingalls can certainly talk the talk: All the “dames” he meets are addressed as “doll” or “angel” while the men are “soldier” or “chief” and the first person narration is straight out of cinema noir. Ingalls constant asides about “the code” and the importance of remaining loyal to his client are off-the-rack standard issue in hardboiled private eye fiction, but are presented here with a cockeyed touch certain to amuse anyone who has ever skimmed a Robert B. Parker novel. Like most of the people he meets, Ingalls secretary isn’t sure what to think of him.
There it was. That “um.” I’d been hearing it all my life. The party of the second part was about to pop some frequently asked questions. “What? You’re on the air, kid.”
“Seriously. What’s up with you?”
“Come again, doll?”
“That. The way you talk. With all these ‘dolls’ and ‘angels.’ And these zoot-suity clothes. And the hat. This whole hardboiled thing. Are you serious or what?”
“Yeah, people ask me that all the time.”
“So? What do you say?”
“I say I’m just a guy trying to stay clean in a dirty world. I’m a professional, and wear what the professionals wear. Anybody who doesn’t like it can send an email to their congressman.”
Stephanie suddenly looked sly. She said, one con artist to another, “Come on, Pete. You can tell me. This is a put-on, right?”
“Lady,” I said, “you’re looking at a man who doesn’t do put-ons. Why? In self-defense. Because life as we know it is a put-on. The more you learn about the world, the more they change it into something else while you’re in bed reading The New Yorker. The more convinced you are that you know the score the bigger the pie they’re baking to hit you in the face with out on the street. All a mug can do in a world like this is be as deliberate as possible. In everything. Which brings us to the present conversation.”
She widened her eyes and recoiled a bit, and I thought, Well, well, Ingalls. Maybe you touched a nerve. Maybe this slice of the boss’s worldview hit home. Then she said, “Wow. You’re even more f----- up than I am.””
While Ingalls has the patter down, as a detective he is strictly softboiled, all fedora and no .45. He doesn’t seem to like he could detect water if he fell out of a boat – he constantly takes no for an answer, getting the brush-off from almost everyone he tries to question. He gets beaten to a pulp by a timid publishing executive and doesn’t recognize clues when he steps in them, thinking a pool of dried blood is brown paint. He consistently put two and two together and comes up with 22.
Fortunately for Ingalls, the aforementioned secretary, aspiring actress Stephanie Constantino, is a natural snoop and all-around busybody with investigative instincts worthy of Phillip Marlowe and a streak of Brooklyn toughness and foulmouthed vulgarity thrown in for good measure.
While much of Drop Dead My Lovely is given over to poking fun at the conventions of the hardboiled genre, it is also a clever murder mystery that hinges on Ingalls apparent cluelessness. All the standard Chandleresque plot elements - - greed, infidelity, seduction and betrayal – rear their heads as Ingalls stalks the mean streets of Manhattan, never quite getting it right.
Weiner has an obvious affection for the genre, and manages to remain respectful of its strengths while lampooning it. His knack for creating memorable supporting characters – loutish homicide cop Henry David Thoreau, television ranter Darius Flonger, his neglected manic-depressive wife Catherine and her man-eating friends – serves him well and prevents the book from becoming a one note joke along the lines of Steve Martin’s noir tribute “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” The mystery genre is home to many successful series and Weiner set himself up for a sequel at the end. With luck, Peter Ingalls next case will be as entertaining, ironic and sharp as his debut.
From the Daily Yomiuri, Nov. 14, 2004
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Flipping the bird
Bravo to the Mirror for such fine investigative reporting. Parrots really do live to ripe old ages
F*** THE NAZIS, SAYS CHURCHILL'S PARROT
Jan 19 2004
By Bill Borrows
SHE WAS at Winston Churchill's side during Britain's darkest hour. And now Charlie the parrot is 104 years old...and still cursing the Nazis.
Her favourite sayings were "F*** Hitler" and "F*** the Nazis". And even today, 39 years after the great man's death, she can still be coaxed into repeating them with that unmistakable Churchillian inflection......
Who said it?
"The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today, Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theatre, and in the press - in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past years."
- Adolf Hitler -
Monday, November 15, 2004
WHY MOVE TO CANADA?
(Why not, eh?)
Reasons to move to Canada, as cited by www.canadianalternative.com:
1. Canada has universal public health care.
2. Canada has no troops in Iraq.
3. Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol environmental treaty.
4. More than half of Canada's provinces allow same-sex marriage.
5. The Canadian Senate recommends legalizing marijuana.
6. Canada has no law restricting abortion.
7. Canada has strict gun laws and relatively little violence.
8. The United Nations has ranked Canada the best country to live in for eight consecutive years.
9. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976.
10. Canada has not run a federal deficit since 1996-97.
Monday, November 08, 2004
Hacking the vote
This is not just some tree-hugging nut job saying the vote was stolen, this Dick Morris. But does the so-called liberal media even care? No, they are busy telling us how Bush has a mandate because 51 percent voted for him "the largest number of people to ever vote for a president." Well guess what? The 48 percent that voted for Kerry also constitutes the largest number of people ever to vote against a sitting president.
These kinds of computer problems are unlikely to be isolated incidents
Saturday, November 06, 2004
Voting with your feet
We've already had one letter from an American blogospherian over at Atrios asking about immigration to the Great White North.
(See this guide and this commentary with its broad collection of excellent links and a questionaire on the idea)
This official government questionaire will help you figure out if you qualify as a skilled worker
While I heartily encourage all red-state (Jesusland) progressives to move to Canada, I think the best all around solution (barring a sudden epidemic of common sense among red state voters) would be for them to mover to Maine, Michigan or Vermont and demand seccession and entrance to Canadian Confederation.
Thursday, November 04, 2004
I must share this admirable concession one with you
Adam Felber concedes the election with admirable grace:
"I concede that I overestimated the intelligence of the American people. Though the people disagree with the President on almost every issue, you saw fit to vote for him. I never saw that coming. That's really special. And I mean "special" in the sense that we use it to describe those kids who ride the short school bus and find ways to injure themselves while eating pudding with rubber spoons. That kind of special.
I concede that I misjudged the power of hate. That's pretty powerful stuff, and I didn't see it. So let me take a moment to congratulate the President's strategists: Putting the gay marriage amendments on the ballot in various swing states like Ohio... well, that was just genius................"
What happens next
For my blue state friends and progressive and liberal bloggers trapped in the red zone, Slate has kindly published this timely and handy guide on How to Move to Canada
My suggestion is that Paul Martin ought to pick up the phone tomorrow and offer Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine a chance to join our Confederation as a single province. Next year we'll extend the same offer to Massachusetts and Minnesota,then Rhode Island, then Connecticut, Wisconsin and finally New York. Secession and assimilation into Confederation will have to be done slowly, a state or two at a time to allow them to get used to the shock of universal health care, properly run elections and currency that comes in more than two colors.
After being glued to election coverage on CNN and the internet(s) all day, I went to work the night shift at the paper. Our late Tokyo edition goes out at midnight and Ohio was still tied. I got home at 1:30 and turned on the TV and did what any sensible intelligent politically-aware individual anywhere in the world does the night of a U.S. presidential election -- I drank a half a bottle of irish whisky before the ice cubes could melt and muttered obscenities to myself while I watched the good guys concede "for the good of the country" so that the "healing could begin." Then I went to bed and tried not to cry myself to sleep.
Please tell me the fix was in
Tell me it was the Diebold machines, tell me it was missing absentee ballots in Florida, tell it was voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, tell me it was little green men from the planet Zorgo using a mind control ray. Tell me the election was rigged, because the alternative is just too depressing to contemplate.
The U.S. presidential election saw a record turnout of about 60 percent of eligible voters, nearly 115 million. This means that unless the polls were rigged, 59 million Americans are stunningly ignorant, easily-led, bloodthirsty reactionaries who believe God talks to George W. Bush.
This means that fear, superstition, knee-jerk flag waving, intolerence and blind faith trump reason, science and egalitarianism in public discourse and politics in America.
I'm a Canadian that lives in Tokyo. For me the Bush presidency has been like have a belligerent drunken hillbilly for a next door neighbor. He sits on the porch in his undershirt, spitting tobacco juice on your driveway while he cleans his gun collection and lets his pack of hounds dump on your lawn. The whole neighbourhood hates and fears him.
After four years of this a "for sale" sign goes up next door and you're overjoyed. A few weeks later, a guy comes to your door and says he's thinking seriously of buying the hillbilly's house. You chat and he seems like a decent, reasonable person. You begin to hope. Then a few days later, with a "yeehaw" the hillbilly sets fire to the sign and tells you he's decided to stay after all and proceed to tell you that you better take that durn fence down and move it closer to your house before he gets mad.
Monday, November 01, 2004
Election day is upon us - let the lawsuits begin
I am a lonely visitor.
I came too late to cause a stir,
Though I campaigned all my life towards that goal.
I hardly slept the night you wept
Our secret's safe and still well kept
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got
Traffic cops are all color blind.
People steal from their own kind.
Evening comes to early for a stroll.
Down neon streets the streaker streaks.
The speaker speaks, but the truth still leaks,
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got it,
The podium rocks in the crowded waves.
The speaker talks of the beautiful saves
That went down long before he played this role
For the hotel queens and the magazines,
Test tube genes and slot machines
Where even Richard Nixon got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got it,
Hospitals have made him cry,
But there's always a free way in his eye,
Though his beach just got to crowded for his stroll.
Roads stretch out like healthy veins,
And wild gift horses strain the reins,
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got
I am a lonely visitor.
I came to late to cause a stir,
Though I campaigned all my life towards that goal.
Sunday, October 31, 2004
Saturday, October 30, 2004
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Sunday, October 24, 2004
Saturday, October 23, 2004
The boy who cried wolf
This is real attack dog campaign advertising. Is is the best the republicans can do? (Ooooh scary puppies, nice doggie, nice doggie, go chase that congresscritter) It looks like a Greenpeace ad! Check out the truth from the pack themselves
Thursday, October 21, 2004
this just in
KERRY WINS GONZO ENDORSMENT; DR. THOMPSON JOINS DEMOCRAT IN CALLING BUSH "THE SYPHILLIS PRESIDENT"
"Four more years of George Bush will be like four more years of syphilis," the famed author said yesterday at a hastily called press conference near his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. "Only a fool or a sucker would vote for a dangerous loser like Bush," Dr. Thompson warned. "He hates everything we stand for, and he knows we will vote against him in November."
Thompson, long known for the eerie accuracy of his political instincts, went on to denounce Ralph Nader as "a worthless Judas Goat with no moral compass."
"I endorsed John Kerry a long time ago," he said, "and I will do everything in my power, short of roaming the streets with a meat hammer, to help him be the next President of the United States."
HST - Bush-Cheney worse than Nixon
The Good Doctor Thompson, one of our spiritual leaders here in the woodshed, has profferred his opinion on things political from which we quote:
"If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today -- and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don't rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd."
"Nixon hated running for president during football season, but he did it anyway. Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for -- but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him."
"You bet. Richard Nixon would be my Man. He was a crook and a creep and a gin-sot, but on some nights, when he would get hammered and wander around in the streets, he was fun to hang out with. He would wear a silk sweat suit and pull a stocking down over his face so nobody could recognize him. Then we would get in a cab and cruise down to the Watergate Hotel, just for laughs."
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
In your ear
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Sony Music Japan, 2,520 yen
He's been a beatnik piano balladeer, a channeler of Kurt Weill, a Dadaist antirock star and now a human beatbox and protest singer. Tom Waits has never been content to sit still creatively, and the latest effort in his 30-year career, Real Gone, continues to push the artistic envelope.
Waits barks, grunts, sputters, hisses and growls out a backbeat that clangs and booms like a trash can hurled down a fire escape on the abrasive, but compelling opening track "Top of the Hill." Just try to get it out of your head.
In many ways Real Gone picks up where 1999's Mule Variations left off, with Waits eschewing the piano for sparse blues and R&B guitar riffs, sheet metal percussion and sinister, often apocalyptic images to accompany his vocal rhythms.
Waits refers to his most recent work as "cubist funk" and songs like "Metropolitan Glide" and "Shake It" have a raw groove that gets into your bones. Others, like the quasi Afrobeat of "Sins of the Father" haunt the mind.
"Grim reapers or grand weepers" is how collaborator Kathleen Brennan classifies her husband's songs and Real Gone has plenty of both. "Green Grass"--a love song from a dead man urging his lover, "Lay your head where my heart used to be. Hold the earth above me. Lay down in the green grass. Remember when you loved me."--may be one of the saddest songs Waits has ever written, and they don't get any more grim-reaperish than "Dead and Lovely"
A spoken-word piece, "Circus," mines the familiar Waits enthusiasm for colorfully named dead-enders like "Horse Face Ethel" and "Poodle Murphy," who would "like to hammer this ring into a bullet."
But there's a new sort of song for Waits on Real Gone. "Day After Tomorrow" is a letter from a soldier who is coming home from war and Waits' first clearly political song, reportedly inspired by fears of a draft.
Waits is still the best lyricist this side of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, reeling off lines like "Night is falling like a bloody axe" and "Black cellophane sky at midnight" that paint a dark, gritty vision of a broken-down world. Real Gone is a shattered stained-glass window in a burned-out church.
His rusty-barbed-wire-and-whisky voice was never made for radio, but anyone who doesn't appreciate Waits as one of the most emotional, evocative singers around may as well stay in the shallows with the boy bands and Britney Spears. Real Gone is way out there in the deep water, where you can't see the bottom.
Universal Music, 2,600 yen
Mark Knopfler continues making movies with his fourth post-Dire Straits solo album, Shangri-La, his most narrative yet.
There are biographical tales about McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, boxer Sonny Liston, skiffle king Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley, a murder mystery, a look inside a strip club, a fisherman's lament and even a fugitive's "Postcards from Paraguay"
It wouldn't be a Knopfler album without some love songs, and we get two here, the simple waltz-time "All that Matters" and the downcast "Whoop De Doo" ("If I'm over the moon, it's because I'm over you").
While Knopfler's extended staccato guitar solos used to be one of the highlights of any Dire Straits album, he is considerably more restrained these days, opting for a warm, layered sound, while still providing some great chunky country-blues rhythms and jazzy riffs
Neal Stephenson vs. William Gibson
Regular readers will know that I admire both of these writers and for good reasons. Check out Mr. Gibson's blog - he's pretty political and have a look at this interview with Neal Stephenson in which he outlines his extremely destructive clashes with Gibson
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Things go Yeatsian for people like us
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
People Like Us
By Chris Binchy
Macmillan, 244 pp, 10.99 pounds
Chris Binchy's People Like Us, the story of a Dublin family's implosion, brings to mind the work of another Dublin writer, William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Living in a small house in Dublin, Paul Walsh and his family are driving one another to distraction for lack of elbow room. The three children bicker incessantly, Paul and his wife, Ruth, have no privacy, and 17-year-old Clare is sharing a bedroom with her 7-year-old sister, Louise, while brother Fin, the middle child, has only "a box" of a room to himself.
When Ruth suggests moving to a larger home in the housing estates on the edge of the city, Paul has his doubts, but since Ruth is the one who always seemed to know what was best for the kids and family, he keeps them to himself.
While North American suburbs tend to be the domain of the middle class, it is clear that to Walsh the move is step down the social ladder, to a place just a hair above the slums, not the sort of place for "people like us." Gangs of bored teens hang around the neighborhood with nothing to do but drink, fight and antagonize the neighbors, not at all the sort Paul wants his older daughter involved with. But as with the move, Paul is powerless to stop things once they are in motion and before long his daughter is moping about the house giving him the silent treatment, driving a wedge between her parents.
As things spin out of control, violence erupts, innocence is lost and Paul finds himself doing and saying things in anger he never thought he would, driving his family farther apart every time he tries and fails to make a stand, while Clare pushes him in all the wrong directions with the furious righteousness peculiar to teenagers.
While Binchy is no Yeats, his prose is not without a certain rough poetry of its own. He skillfully creates a mounting sense of unease, illustrating Paul's discomfort in his new surroundings. He takes the reader into the minds of not only Paul and Clare, but also Robbie, the budding psychopath who leads the local gang of yobs, and Joe, the slightly odd neighbor who is the target of much of Robbie's scorn.
In Paul, Binchy shows us a well-intentioned but weak man, who defers to his wife to avoid rows, getting up on his hind legs and speaking his mind at precisely the wrong time and in the wrong way. Paul's pent-up resentment leads to explosive anger the reader can empathize with even while it repels them.
His portrait of Robbie, a bored boy who delights in trouble if only to break the monotony, is a nuanced look at someone whose inability to articulate or examine his own feelings has made him brutal and ambitionless.
Clare, with her selfish emotional manipulations and indignant teenage outrage at her father's failure to trust her, also becomes in the end a "rough beast, its hour come at last."
People Like Us is an insightful, engrossing examination of how things fall apart.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Common sense on the march
Jon Stewart is the best journalist on television today for one reason only-he speaks the truth. He is the little boy telling the realm that the emperor is buck naked. He also hates media whore pundits who wouldn't know the truth if it bit them on the ass. Take at look at this transcript and smell the fear in the heart of pundit land as
Jon Stewart hands Tucker Carlson his ass in bag or watch the video.
Meanwhile, veteran high-quality scribe Helen Thomas, who has covered more campaigns than some of us have had hot meals, has these words of wisdom about the use of the L word
Relax, everything is fine in Iraq
Soldiers are following orders, well most of them. The Green Zone is impregnable. And by invading, George W. Bush has made sure that WMDs, especially nuclear weapons, won't ever get into the wrong hands.
Meanwhile back in the US of A we are assured the votes will all be counted fairly
And that's today's news from Bizarro World. Hello!
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Democracy on the retreat
There doesn't seem to be any depth to which the pseudofacist thugs running the Republican party will not stoop, from shredding voter registrations by Democrats to denying blacks the vote and staging "Third Rate burglaries" - I wonder if they will find G. Gordon Liddy's prints ?
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Coming of age in Chicago
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
An Unfinished Season
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp, 24 dollars
There is a long tradition of coming-of-age stories in Western culture. Some are comic, some are serious and most deal with first or at least formative experiences with love, death, sex and finding one's way in the world.
In that sense Ward Just's excellent An Unfinished Season fits the mold, but his story of Wils Ravan's 19th summer is much more than a simple coming-of-age tale, adding to the above themes such topics as class and generational conflicts, loyalty and social conformity, with observations on the nature of the press and the exercise of power.
Underlying all this is an exploration of how different our individual subjective perceptions of reality are and how loose ends cannot always be tied up.
Setting his story in Chicago during the Red Scare of the early 1950s, Just paints a nuanced but carefully limited backdrop of the world of North Shore debutante balls, corrupt politics and gritty, chaotic newsrooms in the City of the Big Shoulders.
A war correspondent in Vietnam and a former Washington Post journalist, Just has a reporter's eye for detail and hasn't lost the knack for writing a great lead. An Unfinished Season opens with: "The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago."
Just loves to bait his hook with a whiff of mystery concealing a metaphor. Wils, narrating his own story from much later in life, notes that the newspaper story everyone was talking about at the time was "the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the Southside and taken at once to the city morgue, where an alert doctor discovered the faintest of heartbeats. She was revived, thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece of meat, and in the course of the subsequent examination was found to have so much gin in her veins that, 'Jeez, it was like she had swallowed antifreeze,' the doctor said."
The mystery of who the woman was and where she went when she left the morgue resurfaces at odd moments throughout the book.
Owing to a serious illness that kept him out of school for a year, Wils is a solitary boy, too much of a loner for his father, a self-made man who parlayed a college scholarship into a law career and a printing business. Teddy Ravan is secure in his knowledge of the world, and equally sure that things are going to hell--the workers at his plant are on strike, the country is being infiltrated by communists and his son isn't interested in team sports. Ravan senior takes the labor strife personally, brings in strikebreakers and has his childhood friend, the sheriff, tap the union's phones.
When the union pushes back with harassing phone calls, threats and finally a brick through the window, the pressure proves too much for Wils' mother, the daughter of Connecticut WASP gentry, and the marriage begins to dissolve. She goes east to care for her dying, perpetually disapproving father, leaving Wils and Teddy alone. Just explores a favorite theme of his--the close but tense relationship between fathers and sons--as Teddy spends lonely evenings trying to instill some of his life's wisdom into the admiring but contrary Wils.
Teddy and his wife reconcile following the death of Wils' grandfather, mainly due to Teddy's reluctant surrender. Just paints a spare portrait of Teddy as his varied fires are left to burn down to embers. He sells the business, lets his wife drain the pond he played hockey on all his life and agrees to take her on a second honeymoon to Havana. He even stops carrying the gun and generally loses interest in the Communists and almost everything else as his wife slowly comes to dominate the household.
With Wils' parents leaving the scene, the second third of the novel deals with his double life as a copy boy at a tabloid Chicago newspaper by day and a tuxedoed guest at North Shore debutante parties by night. Wils finds himself much in demand for his scurrilous tales about the real stories behind the headlines, but the debs and their parents look down on him for working where he does.
One party guest scolds: "Your father has a perfectly respectable business. Why would anyone want to be a newspaper reporter? It's so sordid, what you have to see and do. It's so...vulgar. That colored girl, for example. The stories about her throw such a bad light on things, accentuating the negative, makes us all feel rotten, as if we're being accused of something. I'll tell you this. I won't allow your paper into the house. I don't want the maid to see it."
In this social whirlwind, Wils takes up with Aurora Brule, the headstrong only daughter of a divorced Lincoln Park psychiatrist with an impressive circle of family friends. Dr. Brule won't talk about the wartime experiences that left him emotionally scarred, but upon first meeting Wils, he preaches him a sermon on how hate diminishes the human soul.
Until the novel's very end, the reader is left guessing as to whether the horrors of war alluded to by Jack Brule were committed against him or by him. He keeps a human skull in his office, one with a bullet hole in the temple. He dotes on his adoring daughter, who is waging a cold war with Dr. Brule's live-in girlfriend, a vivacious Greek nightclub singer. When the crisis in the Brule household comes to a head, Aurora demands that Wils choose a side, and his inability to see the situation from one side only dooms their relationship.
With summer drawing to a close, Wils finishes his work at the paper. When he tells the city editor he thinks stories like the tale of the frozen woman are the best type because they are mysteries that just can't be solved, the editor tells him he will never be a reporter: "You like mystery. You don't care much for the truth. But that's not what reporters do."
One wonders if the lecture is something out of Just's own past, as he seems to prefer leaving a few unsolved questions. A final chapter finds Wils in late middle age working for the United Nations. On a visit to Cyprus, he manages to track down Jack Brule's old girlfriend and get a few loose ends tied up, but the larger philosophical questions remain unanswered.
An Unfinished Season is serious, almost somber in tone. While at times nostalgic, even sentimental, it does not look back with rose-tinted glasses. Nor does the author distract with flashy postmodern techniques. He simply tells an excellent story. Just has constructed a mature novel of considerable depth and beauty with enviable craftsmanship.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Why Jon Stewart should be hosting Meet the Press
okay, it's from last week, but here is everything you need to know about the first presidential debate
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Ladies against women
ECHIDNE OF THE SNAKES tells us all about Mrs. Cheney and her "Ladies against Women" group is getting involved in the Iraq troughing.
thanks to Atrios at Eschaton for giving me the link to Echidine in the first place
"The U.S. Department of State has awarded a major grant to the Independent Women's Forum to promote women's political and economic participation in Iraq. Yet the organization, whose board emerita includes Lynne Cheney, the spouse of the vice president, is devoted to countering "the dangerous influence of radical feminism in the courts" and combating "corrosive feminist ideology" on college campuses, among other things, according to its Web site. "
Not such a minor goddess at all. She posted this one today
"The Fairness Doctrine in Media
One would think that the U.S. media is obligated to provide time and space for both sides in a political debate. One would be wrong. The so-called fairness doctrine was abolished during the Reagan years"
Monday, October 04, 2004
Looping, loopy novel takes quantum leap into metafiction
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Andrew Crumey has clearly taken the dictum "write what you know" to heart, and with his PhD in theoretical physics and job as literary editor at a major weekly newspaper, Scotland on Sunday, what he knows makes for a interesting mix.
In his fifth novel, Mobius Dick, Crumey combines quantum theory with literary and scientific history to produce an imaginative, erudite and playful novel of alternate realities peopled by such historical luminaries as authors E.T.A. Hoffman, Herman Melville and Thomas Mann, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composer Robert Schumann and scientist Erwin Schrodinger.
When Scottish physicist John Ringer receives a mysterious text message--"Call me: H"--on his new "Q-phone" he wonders if it could be from his former lover, Helen.Visiting a former student at a secretive research center, Ringer is offered a chance to work on a new kind of communications and computing technology based on quantum theory and meets Helen's double.
Things get progressively stranger and more mysterious for Ringer as coincidences mount and his memory starts to play tricks.
Ringer's story is intercut with excerpts from a metafictive novel supposedly published in 1949 by Cromwell Press in the British Democratic Republic. Heinrich Behring's The Angel Returns relates a visit by Goethe's mistress to Schumann in a mental hospital and a capsule history of Schumann and his wife, Clara, in which Brahms appears as Clara's lover.
Next, in another narrative thread that could be part of Ringer's world, Behring's "reality" or another metafictive excerpt, we meet accident victim Harry Dick who may be suffering from false memory syndrome along with partial amnesia.
He meets a fellow patient named Clara and a writing therapist who has never heard of Mann or Gustav Flaubert.
Another supposed excerpt from a Behring novel Professor Faust deals with Schrodinger's sojourn at a Swiss rest clinic where he has come to meet his lover and search for a scientific theory that will make him famous.
Crumey shuffles these four threads until the cards blur together, handling the deck like a professional sharp. Themes examined include causality, dualism, the differences between what is real, what is remembered and what is imagined, and particle/wave quantum theory.
It sounds heavy, but the author leavens the heady mix of provocative ideas and twisting, tailswallowing plot with a generous measure of humor that runs from goofily sophomoric to cleverly self-referential. In the opening chapter, Ringer stumbles on a literary lecture titled "Vicious Cycloids" that absurdly cross-references Moby-Dick, the works of Schumann, Hoffmann and Mann. Ringer scoffs at the false significance given to coincidences in the arts, musing: "No doubt some imaginative novelist could conceive a logical scheme linking everything: Hoffmann, Schumann, Schrodinger, Mann. Some grand unified theory in which Helen and Ringer would be quantum resonances...a narrative inevitability."
Mobius Dick is a pleasurable paradox that leaves the reader smiling, if a little dizzy.
More media follies
This time at the Wall Street Journal, where they spell suspension "l-o-n-g-v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n" (thanks to War and Piece and Atrios for the tip off). Reporter's personal letter about what Iraq is really like gets passed around the internet, newspaper takes reporter out of circulation until after the election.
What is wrong with Amerika- part 57
When the posting of photos like these (warning -graphic depiction of consequences of 'pinpoint' smart bombing) gets the idiotic response it got, you know that some folks out there are swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool.
Evil or just plain stupid?
A question I often ask myself when watching the antics of politicians and my media brethern at the FOX 'fair and balanced' propaganda network. ("Murdoch decides, you do as your told"). Often when howling errors are made it is because someone is just too dumb to know better. Other times the mistake or omission is made to further an agenda. Take a look at these two cases and tell me whether they are evil or just plain stupid.
FOX pulls fake story off web site
Communists for Kerry
Oh sure, they apologized, they claimed the 'manicured metrosexual' story was just a joke by their chief political correspondent that wasn't supposed to be posted on the website. It was just an accident. Yeah, right. If I douse you in gasoline for a laugh and accidently drop a lit cigarette in your shirt pocket, I'm sure you'll forgive and forget. The reporter in question, Carl Cameron, should not have written the joke piece, but I can almost understand how he might have. I've written joke stories before (and they were much funnier) but I haven't passed them up the line to my editor. And if I did, he wouldn't print it. Carl has an editor too, probably several. He doesn't just post stuff on the FOX website without it being seen by somebody.
They knew they would have to pull it off the site in a matter of hours, and they knew the rest of the press would pick up the story of Carl's little joke and would repeat the little joke until everyone had heard that Kerry was effeminate. Bravo, Turd Blossom
Many put George W. Bush down for being an ignorant smirking frat boy, claiming he has the IQ of a piece of furniture. This is a mistake. George wants to be seen as dumb, so that people will give him the benefit of the doubt and not consider him the evil bastard he really is.
Friday, October 01, 2004
"Fruity, with overtones of Welch's, red Kool Aid and malt vinager. A delightfully pink wine that fits nicely into the paper bag and goes well with pork rinds"
I didn't write this, but I felt I had to pass it along. Any additions to the list would be welcome.
Some Walmart customers soon will be able to sample a new discount item -- Walmart's own brand of wine. The world's largest retail chain is teaming up with E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto, Calif., to produce the spirits at an affordable price, in the $2-$5 range.
While wine connoisseurs may not be inclined to throw a bottle of Walmart brand wine into their shopping carts, there is a market for cheap wine, said Kathy Micken, professor of marketing at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. She said: "The right name is important."
So, here we go:The top 12 suggested names for Walmart Wines:
12. Chateau Traileur Parc
11. White Trashfindel
10. Big Red Gulp
9. Grape Expectations
8. Domaine Walmart "Merde du Pays"
6. Chef Boyardeaux
5. Peanut Noir
4. Chateau des Moines
3. I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar!
2. World Championship Riesling
And the number 1 name for Walmart Wine ...
1. Nasti Spumante
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
One badass hamster
TOKYO — A man in his 40s from Saitama Prefecture fell into a coma after being bit on the finger by his pet hamster in February and subsequently died, his doctor said Monday. The man, who was asthmatic, fell into anaphylactic shock, — a life-threatening allergic reaction — after being bitten.
He bred hamsters over the past several years and was bitten several time, the doctor said. He is believed to be the first person in Japan to die from a hamster bite. (Kyodo News)
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Jillette socks it to readers
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By Penn Jillette
St. Martin's Griffin
228 pp, 12.95 dollars
From the first page, Sock pulls no punches. While some books seduce the reader with sweet prose and others entice with promises of a clever plot, Sock grabs you by the shirtfront, headbutts you in the face and throws you in the trunk of a stolen car before speeding off with the cops in hot pursuit.
First-time novelist Penn Jillette, better known for his inspired rants and carny barker spiels as "the larger, louder half" of comedy-magic duo of Penn & Teller, does not merely deconstruct the murder mystery, he pulls it inside out.
Sock has most of the standard elements of the genre--a big tough New York cop and his buddy breaking the rules to hunt a serial killer who murdered the woman he loves--but eviscerates the cliches. The tough cop is referred to as The Little Fool and is a sensitive, teetotaling, possibly bisexual police diver who gets pedicures from his buddy, a gay hairdresser, and gets fired for breaking the rules. The murdered woman was enthusiastically lapdancing her way through law school. And the narrator is a stuffed animal the hero has had since childhood.
Dickie the sock monkey is to Winnie the Pooh what William Burroughs is to A.A. Milne. A work sock stuffed with nylon stockings with the buttons off a gambler's sharkskin suit for eyes, Dickie is "the baddest wammerjammer monkey."
"Hustlers eyes, lumberjack skin, the heart of woman's legs and a grandmother's spoiling love. I got it all baby. I got it all, my little baby boy. Drool on me. Grab me. Carry me. Rip me apart. I'm a bad monkey."
Penn Jillette writes the same way he speaks on stage; with manic intensity. Sock has the energy of On The Road, the poetical outrage of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rhythm and animal sexiness of Mick Jagger circa 1972. He is wholly unpredictable, digressing into philosophical riffs on faith, sex, Ed Wood, death, Charles Darwin, strip clubs, grief, friendship, privacy and other topics too numerous to list.
Dickie is the Muhammad Ali of postmodern narrators, floating like a butterfly above the usual literary conventions and stinging like a bee with rapid-fire wisecracks. Virtually every paragraph ends with a line from a song, movie or some other cultural catchphrase. Dickie is a sock monkey who doesn't fear the reaper and loves the smell of napalm in the morning.
This is not a book for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Dickie is a delightfully, inventively foul-mouthed monkey and decidedly politically incorrect. Jillette has nothing but disdain for prudery of any sort and Sock is liberally laced with meditations on sex, some of them less philosophical than others.
Jillette plays with the medium as well as the message, injecting a few little doses of metafiction, occasional side stories, authorial asides, and a brief shift in narrative point of view.
Jillette's dark humor and flashy in-your-face stylistic bobbing and weaving mask a deep and often beautiful novel that takes on the big questions of the meaning of life and death without hedging.
Penn & Teller first hit the big time by confronting and criticizing what they refer to as fake magic. They constantly poked fun at the rabbit-from-a-hat, endless-rope-of-silk-scarves crowd and committed the cardinal sin of telling the audience how tricks were done.
Jillette shows the same sensibilities here. This book deals not with an imaginary action movie world, but with the real world. It farts and scratches itself and gets hungry, horny and tired. His characters screw up and suffer for it. The Little Fool teeters on the brink of a total nervous breakdown, gets fired for breaking the rules at work and for all his heroic qualities, exhibits the same moral and emotional weaknesses we all do at times.
The Little Fool wrestles with love, grief, Pascal's wager and the notion of faith in a very human way and makes a firm, unambiguous decision on the dangers posed by faith in imaginary friends.
In part an atheist manifesto and antihypocrisy screed, Jillette never gets annoyingly preachy or earnest, but constantly entertains, enthralls and challenges the reader.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
How to read a newspaper
Between the lines BBC political editor Andrew Marr has spent a lifetime reading newspapers. In an extract from his new book, he gives some tips on how to sort the facts from the froth
Monday September 20, 2004The Guardian
Know what you're buying
Reporting is now so contaminated by bias and campaigning, and general mischief, that no reader can hope to get a picture of what is happening without first knowing who owns the paper, and who it is being published for. The Mirror defines its politics as the opposite of the Sun's, which in turn is defined by the geopolitics of Rupert Murdoch's News International - hostile to European federalism and the euro and so forth. If it is ferociously against Tony Blair, this is probably because Number 10 has been passing good stories to the Sun. Its support for Gordon Brown was, similarly, driven by the need to find a rival when Blair courted Murdoch. It felt jilted. You need to know these things. You need to aim off.
Follow the names
If you find a reporter who seems to know the score, particularly in an area you know about, cherish him or her. In the trade we generally know who is good. If you are interested in social services and the welfare state, Nicholas Timmins, currently writing for the Financial Times, is essential. If you are interested in think-tank reports and the cerebral end of Whitehall then Peter Riddell of the Times is about the only reporter worth bothering with. But if you want investigative journalism that covers Whitehall, never miss David Hencke and Richard Norton-Taylor, both of the Guardian. Books? Robert McCrum of the Observer writes a weekly column that almost everyone in the publishing world will read. The funniest restaurant reviewer in London? Certainly, the Spectator's Deborah Ross. Best Northern Ireland correspondent? David McKittrick in the Indy.
In a crowded market, it is becoming harder to single out individuals since most fields, from sports reporting to the City or food writing, have two or three top acts. And everyone has their own favourites. But the point is, watch the bylines. If you find a friendly style, someone you grow to trust, treasure the name and follow it. My experience as an editor was that many readers were surprisingly attuned to the work of individual writers they knew nothing personally about. Bylines are often the only signal that gold, rather than dross, lies below.
Even when you read the same paper every day, be aware that reporters are now less embarrassed to let the bias show. This is rarely direct party-political bias, but you may find that a columnist is favourably inclined towards one politician - say, that Bruce Anderson of the Independent is generally in favour of the Tory leader of the day, whoever he or she may be; and that Donald Macintyre, of the same paper, scrupulously fair, is generally more sympathetic to Peter Mandelson than most of his colleagues; and that Paul Routledge has a powerful partiality for Gordon Brown. This is all completely legitimate, but worth remembering; it may also point to the source of the story. That matters too: no political journalist in the early 2000s would read a story by the Times's Tom Baldwin without wondering whether he'd been speaking to Alastair Campbell. Baldwin has many sources, but Campbell, in the days of his glory, was a key one, giving that reporter's reporting added interest for the Westminster villagers. Again, worth knowing.
Read the second paragraph; and look for quote marks
Surprisingly often, the key fact is not in the first paragraph, which is general and designed to grab attention. Look for the hard fact in the next paragraph. If it seems soft and contentless, there is probably very little in the story. Similarly, always look for direct quotation. If a reporter has actually done the work, and talked to people who know things, the evidence will usually be there. Who are the sources? Are they speaking themselves? Are they named? Generic descriptions, such as "senior backbencher" or "one industry analyst" (my mate on the other side of the desk) or "observers" (nobody at all) should be treated sceptically. They can be figments of the reporter's prejudices or guesses, rather than real people. If you keep coming across well-written anonymous quotes, be highly suspicious: these are probably crumbling bricks without the straws of supporting fact.
If the headline asks a question, try answering "no"
Is this the true face of Britain's young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have we found the cure for Aids? (No; or you wouldn't have put the question mark in.) Does this map provide the key for peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or oversold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means "don't bother reading this bit".
And watch out for quotation marks in headlines, too. If you read "Marr 'stole' book idea" then the story says nothing of the kind. If quotation marks are signs of real reporting in the body of a story, in the headline they are often a sign of failed reporting. That story may say someone else thinks Marr has stolen the idea for a book; but if the newspaper was reporting that this was really so, those giveaway squiggles wouldn't be there. As with question marks, headline quotation marks are mostly a warning sign, meaning "tendentious, overblown story follows ... " They certainly save my time in the morning.
Read small stories and attend to page two
Just because something is reported in a single paragraph does not mean it is insignificant. Busy subeditors, with their own blind spots and unexamined prejudices, and with limited space, often cut the most interesting or significant piece of news down to a few lines. And for reasons explained above, page two is often one of the richest sources of real, hard news. Here are the painstakingly researched articles and important tales suddenly stripped off the front page by a night editor in the small hours of the morning to make way for something "brighter" that may sell from the newsagent's counter.
Hundreds of dodgy academic departments put out bogus or trivial pieces of research purely designed to impress busy newspaper people and win themselves some cheap publicity which can in turn be used in their next funding applications. If something is a survey, see if the paper reports how many people were surveyed, and when. If the behaviour of rats, or flies, has been extrapolated to warn about human behaviour, check whether the story gives any indication of how many rats, and how much caffeine they were injected with; and then pause for a reality check. If someone is described as an expert, look to see who they work for - and ask, would a real world expert be doing that? Also ask whether they are a doctor, or professor, or simply, "researcher, Jeff Mutt ... "
Check the calendar
Not simply for April Fool's, but for the predictable round of hardy annuals that bulk up thin news lists. Anniversaries; stories about the wettest/ driest/ longest/ wannest spring/ summer/ autumn; the ritual "row between judges" stories designed to whip up interest before annual book awards, and the equally synthetic "public disgust" stories about art shows. Every year there is a slew of tooth-sucking stories about the Royal Academy summer exhibition being a bit disappointing; about the autumn TV schedules being dominated by bought-in US mini-series or reality TV shows; about the disgusting and inane finalists for the Turner prize. You have read this stuff before; you will read it again next year. On a busy day, flick on.
Suspect financial superlatives
Even if the underlying rate of inflation is modest, then in the ordinary way of things, prices for many limited goods - Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or seaside huts, or football shirts, are going to be "the highest ever". For the same reason it is completely to be expected that teachers will get "their highest ever pay deals", however excited the minister sounds about this; and that non-executive directors' earnings will be "the highest recorded", however outraged the minister sounds about that. What is interesting is how these raw increases relate to inflation, and therefore to other prices and to each other. Are Van Gogh prices increasing faster than Picasso prices? Are the superstore bosses being paid more than before, relative to their staff? An informative story, as against a merely sensationalist one, will tell you that.
Remember that news is cruel
Reading the awful things that people apparently say about each other, or newspapers say about them, can be depressing. Is life really so writhing with distaste, failure and loathing? No - only in the newspapers. Acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness and mere friendliness are hardly ever news; which is why there is a class of readers who turn their backs on newspapers and graze in the sunnier, gentler places of celebrity and women's magazines; or who obsessively trawl favourite internet sites and trusted periodicals to find news sources they feel they can trust, as they cannot trust the press.
Finally, believe nothing you read about newspaper sales - nothing Newspaper sales have been falling in Britain for a long time, and steadily. Yet every newspaper manages to tell a heartwarming story about how successful its sales are, almost every month. Work it out for yourself.
My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism by Andrew Marr is published by Macmillan at £20. To order a copy for £18.40 with free UK p&p, call the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875.
Saturday, September 18, 2004
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
The Big Mac as spy novel
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
State of the Union
By Brad Thor
Atria, 335 pp, 25 dollars
You can't eat like a gourmet all the time--sometimes you just need some junk food.
By the same measure, even the most highbrow readers usually like to leaven their literary diet with the occasional piece of genre fiction mind candy.
But there is good junk food and bad junk food. Some genre fiction, like a Wolfgang Puck pizza, rises above the status of junk food to become a gourmet delight--John Le Carre's better books, the complete works of Raymond Chandler--while other authors like Ian Fleming manage to concoct a quality cheeseburger that satisfies our cravings with perfectly prepared original ingredients. Then there are those hacks who slap a chunk of Spam between two slices of Wonder Bread, garnish it with liberal amounts of processed cheese and ketchup, and claim it's food.
Best-selling thriller author Brad Thor hasn't quite sunk that low, but his by-the-numbers State of the Union bears an uncanny resemblance to a fast food chain burger: Both are bland, standardized and unoriginal, but having taken that first bite, you will finish quickly and feel briefly satiated, if a little queasy.
State of the Union is the kind of book that exists not to change the world or inspire the human race, but to fill time in an entertaining way on a train or airplane, occupy the mind while sunning oneself at the beach or while stuck inside on a rainy afternoon. It makes no pretensions to literary greatness, nor should it.
Thor's recipe mixes equal portions of Tom Clancy's technophilia, John Woo's cinematic action, and George W. Bush's worldview, spiced with brand names, lame banter and misplaced travelogues, potboiled to reduce humor and served half-baked.
State of the Union is Thor's third chronicle of the adventures of Scot Harvath, former U.S. Navy SEAL, ex-Secret Service agent and all-American he-man. Like all the other characters in State of the Union, Harvath is straight from central casting, despite attempts to add depth with a cliched backstory about how he feuded with his father--also a SEAL--because the two were so much alike. After his father was killed in a training accident, Harvath followed in his father's footsteps. Was it out of a desire to please his father or was it out of guilt or a sense of duty? Thor gives the reader little reason to care.
The author thanks more than a dozen former and active soldiers, law enforcement officials and technical experts for their assistance at the end of the book and painstakingly details all the standard tactical maneuvers, operating procedures, structures and protocols used by the alphabet soup of government security agencies that figure in the book, often sounding like he's cribbing from a training manual.
At other times, the book reads like an catalogue. Harvath doesn't just use a flashlight, he shines the 225-lumen beam of his M3 Millennium SureFire flashlight. He doesn't carry a switchblade, he carries a Benchmade Auto AXIS folding knife. Not a single weapon, aircraft or piece of gear is mentioned, without being described in the most exhaustive technical detail. Thor has definitely done his homework, but homework makes for dull reading.
The plot hangs on the idea that those old reliable bad guys, the Russians, didn't really lose the Cold War but have just been playing possum all these years. An overbearing, ruthless Russian general, oh-so-inventively nicknamed Rasputin, has smuggled a bunch of suitcase nukes into the United States and built an impregnable and totally unexplained air defense with the intention of blackmailing Uncle Sam into withdrawing from the world stage.
The president seems more concerned with the economic effects this could have on the nation than the prospects of mass death, but his first priority is to find a way to strike back against the godless commie reds. Further Republican values are evidenced by Harvath's reluctant and embarrassed visits to a whorehouse and a porno film studio in which virtually nothing of a sexual nature is ever mentioned and by the good guys' willingness, even eagerness, to use torture and violence in pursuit of their goals.
Add to this the obligatory gorgeous blonde Russian spy trying to head off the fiendish plot for the sake of the motherland and her dead father's good name, the sinister German torturer, the abducted father-figure suspected of betraying his country, all related in Thor's tepid, overdramatic, irony-free prose and the result is a something that reads more like a summary of an action movie script than a novel.
In his defense, Thor does manage to keep the action coming at a steady pace and the set pieces push all the expected buttons.
While never quite reaching the comically overwrought level of cheesiness found in such action pulp Spamburgers as the Mack "The Executioner" Bolan or Death Merchant books or the films of Steven Seagal, Thor's Scot Harvath series does give the impression that it should come wrapped in waxed paper with a side order of greasy french fries.
Not recommended for those watching their diets, but sometimes you just want a hamburger. And it's probably no worse than the in-flight movie.
Friday, September 10, 2004
Surfing the web's tsunami
Wrong way Dubya and the big Dick
Good piece in Slate and a great picture of the always lovely and diplomatic Dick Cheney
and my new favorite site to check regularly - Disinfotainment Today - with Paul Krassner columns, hilarious images and harsh political rants.
Tuesday, September 07, 2004
'Twas Gimli and the slimy orcs Did battle and grumble in the way All flimsy were the Hornburg doors And in the end, they gave. - Lord of the Rings as written by Lewis Carroll -
I do not want your bread and jam. I'm busy being mad at Sam. He likes to sneak. He likes to spy. Ill grind him up for hobbit pie!
FRODO: Oh, do not grind him up for pie! He is a pretty handy guy. He mows my grass. He paints my gate. He is my friend. We both are straight.
- Lord of the Rings as written by Dr. Seuss -
Monday, September 06, 2004
Roots of modern world twine through a gripping adventure
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Confusion: Volume Two of the Baroque Cycle
By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 815 pp, 27.95 dollars
Fully understanding the history of the 17th and 18th centuries is like trying to pick up a handful of mercury. Like the art of the period, the events of the Baroque Era are extremely complicated, intricate, and often baffling. As such, it is an apt setting for Neal Stephenson's three-volume Baroque Cycle of aptly titled novels: Quicksilver, published earlier this year; The Confusion, recently released; and The System of the World, due out in October.
Quicksilver set the scene and introduced the principal characters: Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, and his soldier brother Sgt. Bob Shaftoe; Eliza, a former Turkish harem slave rescued by Jack who goes on to become a financial prodigy and duchess; natural philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, the son of a puritan firebrand and college roommate and intimate friend of Isaac Newton.
The Confusion spans the years 1689 to 1702 and comprises alternating sections of two novels. The first, "Bonanza," is a swashbuckling caper in which Jack is miraculously cured of the syphilis that was slowly stealing his sanity in Quicksilver and hatches a plot with a multiethnic gang of his fellow galley slaves to steal a shipload of Spanish silver. The second, "Juncto," concerns the political, sexual, and business intrigues of Eliza, Bob Shaftoe's quest for revenge on the Earl of Upnor for enslaving the love of his life, and Waterhouse's various tribulations.
With a fittingly Baroque set of storylines that defy summary, and at times comprehension, Stephenson manages to deftly illuminate the beginnings of modern economics, science, politics, currency, information technology, trade, religion and cryptography. He also packs in more action than the combined works of Alexandre Dumas and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Jack Shaftoe in "Bonanza" circumnavigates the globe, robbing treasure ships on Spanish rivers, fighting marketplace battles in Cairo, buying mercury in Japan, selling his blood to feed insects in Ahmadabad, building ships in Luzon, facing the Inquisition in Mexico, concocting phosphorus for use as a weapon in Hindustan and even spending a few years as the appointed king of a small realm in the Indian hills. Stephenson crams in so much action that many significant events are merely alluded to or mentioned briefly by characters as the smoke of the latest battle clears.
"Juncto" moves at a slightly less breakneck pace, but with infinitely greater complication as Eliza loses and rebuilds her fortune, invents currency speculation as a way of getting revenge on the man who steals her first-born son, gives smallpox to a rapacious German prince and helps polymath Gottfried Leibniz develop his theories on information storage and calculating engines. Daniel Waterhouse is introduced to the bloody world of post-Restoration British politics in which gentlemen members of Parliament bite each others' ears off in coffeehouse brawls, and tries to convince Newton to abandon his alchemical work on atomic physics to take over the Royal Mint.
Much of "Juncto" takes the form of letters between Eliza and various characters ranging from Leibniz to the treasurer of France to legendary French privateer Jean Bart and often requires the reader to exercise a bit of deductive reasoning to read between the lines.
The Confusion, like Quicksilver, often digresses into lengthy explanations of banking systems, aristocratic genealogy and mathematical theory among other things, but Stephenson has a knack for making even the driest topics fascinating while rending the most complex subjects understandable. His attention to detail and relish for providing historical context provide the attentive reader with a liberal education, while his imagination and humor delight.
It is a rare feat to produce an 800-page novel that provides the reader such a feast, yet leaves them starved for more. Stephenson has done it twice and The System of the World is awaited with hungry anticipation.
Friday, September 03, 2004
Scumwads of a feather feather their nest together
Not that anyone should be surprised these two Great Men of Destiny (tm) were formally in cahoots, but it is nice to see one's expectations confirmed that they are both inept, corrupt crapulous fools. Read the excellent, life-affirming article in Slate.
The Curse of Black's Perle
According to the Hollinger report, Conrad Black and Richard Perle richly deserved each other.
By Daniel Gross
Posted Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004, at 1:44 PM
Sunday, August 29, 2004
sometimes headlines just suggest themselves, no matter what you do to try to drive them out of your head....
IOC pulls gold medal from Annus
Anti-doping officials unable to find Annus with Booth, Hans
ATHENS, Greece -- Hungarian hammer throw champion Adrian Annus was stripped of his gold medal on Sunday for failing to take a follow-up drug test, an International Olympic Committee executive board member said.
Annus passed his drug test after winning the gold on August 22, but failed to show up for another test Friday in Hungary. Refusing to take a drug test is considered the same as testing positive.
The IOC took the medal away following a disciplinary hearing Sunday, the executive board member said.
Annus did not attend the hearing. IOC anti-doping investigators Henry Booth and Fritz Hans were to administer the second test but could not contact Annus. (Okay, so I made that last part up. So what?)
It was the sixth medal -- and third gold -- revoked during the Athens Games because of doping. Japan's Koji Murofushi will get the gold for hammer throw, Ivan Tikhon of Belarus moves up to silver, and Turkey's Esref Apak gets the bronze.
Although Annus' event had been over for several days, the IOC has the authority to demand another drug test before the end of the games.
Annus passed his test after the hammer throw, but the IOC wanted another one to make sure he didn't try to circumvent the drug testing system, as his teammate Fazekas was accused of doing.
Fazekas lost his gold in the discus after Olympic authorities said he failed to provide enough urine for a drug test, a charge Fazekas disputes.
Pal Schmitt, head of the Hungarian Olympic committee, said Annus' doctor would not let him travel to Athens for Sunday's hearing because he was in bad shape psychologically.
Schmitt said Annus did not show up for the follow-up test because he thought the police station designated for it "was not an adequate place to maintain his dignity" and to ensure the integrity of the test.
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Bob Dylan to publish first vol of his memoires
Agence France-PresseNew York, August 26
The first volume of US folk singer Bob Dylan's memoires will be on sale from October 12, publisher Simon and Schuster said on Wednesday.
Chronicles: Volume One, the first of a series of books written by Dylan, will be 304 pages long and will cover the period of his early career in the 1960s.
The book's first edition will have a run of 250,000 copies.
Soon after an updated version of the book Lyrics: 1962-2001, with the words to virtually all of Dylan's songs, will also be published.
Dylan, currently on a US tour with singer Willie Nelson, had originally planned to publish his memoirs in late 2002. There was no reason given for the delay.
"We wants it, oh yes we does. Its our precious"
Sunday, August 15, 2004
Our spiritual leader of the moment: Pete Seeger
Since this newspaper doesn't archive stuff and this editorial will disappear in a day or two, I will post the whole thing in the interest of stirring debate and shining a light under the rock at the revisionist who run the Japanese media. I will try to comment at length and add links later
Class-B, -C 'war criminals' should never be forgotten
For Japan, today marks the 59th anniversary of the end of World War II. The occasion offers an opportunity to pay tribute to all those who were killed in the war and renew our pledge to pursue eternal peace.
Under international law, however, Aug. 15, 1945, did not mark an end to World War II for this nation. Article 1 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty states that a technical end to the warfare between Japan and the Allies took place on April 28, 1952, when the pact went into effect.
During those years, 25 Japanese wartime leaders and others were convicted as so-called Class-A war criminals in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, known as the Tokyo Trial. Of the 25 convicts, former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six others were sentenced to death by hanging.
After the conclusion of the trial, Dutch Judge B.V.A Roling visited Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, the chief intelligence officer at GHQ, to bid him farewell before leaving Tokyo for the Netherlands. In his meeting with Roling, Willoughby is said to have denounced the Tokyo Trial as the "worst hypocrisy" in legal history. The GHQ officer told Roling that he would even ban his own son from serving in the army.
The episode symbolizes the nature of the Tokyo Trial.
Meanwhile, about 5,700 Japanese and others were tried at 49 military tribunals at home and overseas on charges relating to the violation of wartime laws, including the mistreatment of prisoners of war and the slaughter of civilians. A total of 920 convicts, including Koreans and Taiwanese, were executed as Class-B and -C war criminals.
Undeniably, the Imperial Japanese Army's conduct was marked by such barbarous acts as the abuse of POWs. Given this, it was correct that those involved in these atrocities were tried as Class-B and -C war criminals.
But questions must be raised about many cases involving those tried as Class-B and -C war criminals.
The Allies hunted for suspects mainly on the strength of testimony taken from former POWs. But many Japanese and others were arrested and executed for crimes they had nothing to do with. Judges at those military tribunals were often careless in examining items presented as evidence. In some cases, defendants were never given the opportunity to state their cases.
It is said that the Dutch military tribunal in Indonesia was egregious in this respect. The tribunal was set up by the Netherlands, which invaded Indonesia two years after Japan's surrender to the Allies in 1945.
Two Japanese military officers were put to death as Class-B and -C war criminals for "competing to see which would be able to behead 100 Chinese with swords" during Japan's incursion into Nanjing in 1937. The accusation must be dismissed as fictional.
In 2003, the families of the two officers filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court, seeking to restore their honor by proving that the accusation against them is groundless. The case is being heard at the district court.
Some rank-and-file soldiers were sentenced to death for executing POWs under orders issued by their superiors.
This is in stark contrast to the failure to dispense justice by trying Allied soldiers who visited atrocities on Japanese civilians. No one has been tried for the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the U.S carpet bombing of Japanese cities.
On the contrary, the Allies tried a jurist of the Imperial Japanese Army for allegedly mistreating a U.S. pilot who was taken prisoner after his plane was downed. The jurist had sentenced the pilot to death for carrying out indiscriminate air raids on a Japanese cities.
Experts have said that the decision by the Allies to try the jurist was made because there were defects in procedures carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army in sentencing the pilot to death. Still, the trial of the Japanese jurist should be deemed to be retaliatory.
U.S. soldiers have drawn international condemnation for abusing Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Graib prison. Reports have said that victims include those who were ordered to stand on small boxes with electric wires tied to their fingers and toes. Other victims were forced to go naked and form human pyramids. Some female prisoners allegedly were raped. Reported cases also include some deaths of prisoners.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has acknowledged that some methods employed by the U.S. forces to interrogate Iraqi prisoners violated the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
If the standards applied in trying Japanese Class-B and -C war criminals were applied in the prosecution of the U.S. soldiers involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, then it follows that they should receive the death penalty for committing such atrocities. We are interested to know what the United States will choose to do.
'Criminals' died for country
On May 30, 1958, the final 18 Class-B and -C "war criminals" were released from prison. This was six years after the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect.
In 1959, those executed as Class-B and -C war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of the war dead rest in peace. In 1978, the executed Class-A war criminals were enshrined at the Shinto shrine.
China and South Korea have reacted angrily to visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in recent years. These nations defended their attitude by emphasizing that the shrine hosts the souls of the "Class-A war criminals."
Neither China nor South Korea have yet issued official comments critical of Japan's decision to enshrine the Class-B and -C "war criminals" at Yasukuni Shrine.
But what will China do if the Japanese government gives in to Chinese pressure and relocates the souls of the Class-A "war criminals" from the shrine to another facility? There are concerns that China and some of Japan's other neighbors could point a finger at Japan's decision to enshrine the Class-B and -C "war criminals" at the Yasukuni facility when they deal with issues involving their relations with this country.
Concerning the issue of paying tribute to the dead, it is a cultural tradition in Japan for everybody to be treated equally once he or she has passed away. In this sense, no "war criminal" should be excluded from the list of those to be honored at an annual government-sponsored memorial service for the war dead.
A bronze statue stands near the Marunouchi south exit of Tokyo Station, with its arms spread toward the sky. The statue's pedestal bears an inscription that reads "Love."
The bronze was erected in 1955 by an association called Sugamo Isho Hensan-kai, which hoped it would symbolize its members' earnest wish for world peace. Proceeds from the sale of "Seiki no Isho" (Wills of the Century)--a collection of essays written by the executed "war criminals" and later published by the association--were used to build the statue. It is a pity that this fact seems to have been forgotten.
"Seiki no Isho" contains about 700 essays and other articles written by Class-A, -B and -C "war criminals." The book shows that many of these "war criminals" quietly accepted their destinies as they looked toward their nation's future, although they insisted that the trials conducted to judge their wartime conduct were unfair.
No one should forget that Japan's current peace and prosperity have been made possible through the contribution that about 3.1 million Japanese killed in World War II and other wars made to their country.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 15) Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nanjing and other atrocities