Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Three Stations - Book Review

Martin Cruz Smith's Three Stations is his latest Arkady Renko novel and finishing it catches me up with the series. (Though I still think I need Red Square to be complete; I've no desire to go back that far in the series. Famous last words, though, so you never know.)

This one's as good as any of them. A remarkably fast read - well, that's because it's shorter by about 50 pages - involving another Russian landmark or location. (Three Stations is, well, three train stations located next to one another, where a mass of Russian humanity boils with their coming and going.) An intertwined storyline that, though not quite Dickensian, does involve street urchins and the tired trope of a serial killer. But plot isn't really important in Smith's Renko novels. It's the portrait of modern Russia that he creates of a tired, worn out country with a long, frequently dark past, trying desperately to keep up with the modern world and not quite making it. And the characters, of course. Always the characters.

Another great installment in this fine series.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Moonlight Mile - Book Review

Dennis Lehane's latest, Moonlight Mile, is a sequel of Gone, Baby, Gone, a book I didn't read but a movie which I enjoyed (and didn't, alas, review.)

The players from the earlier book are all here but it's 12 years on and once we get caught up, Lehane takes us through an intriguing yarn involving identity theft and the Russian mob. Ah, the Russian mob. Once they're on the scene, you can be sure of some cold-blooded killing. And, in this case, comedy. Despite myself, I liked one of the chief Russian baddies and his stilted English. It all gets resolved in the end with a nice twist near the end when you believe there's no way out for the good guys. Which might be the only real flaw of the book - spoiler alert! - our good guys make it through but thanks only, really, by the good graces of the bad guys and not from their own actions.

But, otherwise, Lehane handles the chores of this latest installment in his detective series quite well. I've read only one other of the series - I've read his Mystic River and Shutter Island, and thought they were very well done - and at the time I didn't think the series was worth pursuing. After this, I may fill in the missing pieces.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wanda Jackson to Rock Bonnaroo

The coolness of Wanda Jackson is boundless:
Wanda Jackson, 73, has been selected to play the celebrated Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this summer in Manchester, Tenn.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is part of a prestigious and eclectic lineup that includes Eminem, Arcade Fire, Robert Plant and Band of Joy, Lil Wayne, The Black Keys and Loretta Lynn.

The 10th annual Bonnaroo is set for June 9-12 on the 700-acre farm it has called home since its 2002 debut.

A Maud native and longtime Oklahoma City resident, Jackson has been celebrating a career revival since she partnered with rocker Jack White, who produced her new album “The Party Ain't Over.” She and White promoted the January album release with performances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Conan,” and Jackson and Weatherford band Green Corn Revival ripped through a packed hometown show at the ACM@UCO Performance Lab in Bricktown.

Summer Morning, Summer Night - Book Review

While browsing recently, I came across Ray Bradbury's Summer Morning, Summer Night, a compilation of old and recent stories and recent sketches with the shared theme of Summer in his beloved Green Town. A chance to revisit the Bradbury country depicted so well in my favorite Dandelion Wine, I grabbed it and chewed my way through it when it arrived.

The older stories were familiar and comfortable and well done, perfect demonstrations of Bradbury's artistic power; the more recent stories were less so but worth reading nonetheless. The sketches were obviously filler, with most not really worth the effort and probably better left unpublished. But it was a reason to read Bradbury again and I was glad to have it. There was a time when I read him for the seasons - Dandelion Wine for Summer and, well, the rest of his work for Autumn but I've allowed that tradition to lapse. Too bad for me. I need to see what I can do to change that.

Anyway, this slim volume was the perfect antidote to the snowbound few days we had here recently. A brief glimpse of the promise of Summer.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stephen Hunter - Why 33 Rounds Makes Sense in a Defensive Weapon

Writer Stephen Hunter - Hey! I was just talking about him the other day! - explains why an extended magazine makes sense for a self-defense weapon:
(E)xtended magazines are rarely featured in crime - and that awkwardness spells out the magazine's primary legitimate usage. It may have some utility for competitive shooting by cutting down on reloading time, or for tactical police officers on raids, but for those who are not hard-core gun folks it's an ideal solution for home defense, which is probably why hundreds of thousands of Glocks have been sold in this country.

But that's not why I'm linking to his article. Forget Hunter's subject; admire his style. Here's why I like him as a novelist, as a movie reviewer, as a columnist:
Guns were the software of the 19th century; the most dynamic age of development was roughly 1870 to 1900, when the modern forms were perfected. Two primary operating systems emerged for handguns: the revolver, usually holding six cartridges and manipulated by the muscle energy of the hand, and the semiautomatic, harnessing the explosively released energy of the burning powder to cock and reload itself. Since then, design and engineering improvements have been not to lethality but to ease of maintenance and manufacture, or weight reduction. A Glock is "better" than a Luger because you don't need a PhD to take it apart, nor a fleet of machinists to produce the myriad pins, levers, springs and chunks of steel that make it go bang. Moreover, you can lose a Glock in a flood and find it six months later in the mud, and it still will shoot perfectly, while the Luger would have become a nice paperweight.

Black Swan - Movie Review

It's the time of year where there's precious little to see at the movies but since it's Oscar season and there remains a Best Picture nominee or two we haven't caught, we saw Black Swan. No, we didn't expect a behind-the-scenes look at the grueling work that goes into a ballet production but we hoped for a little more than what we got. Oh, stylish, for sure, but can we do away with the jittery hand-held camera for a while please? We get it, the POV is up close and personal because this an up close and personal kinda movie so no need to hammer us over the head about it.

Natalie Portman is suitably hysterical but that's all she is; I hold with the reviewer who suggested a more interesting movie would have been about Mila Kunis' character trying to find her light side rather than Portman's character trying to find her dark side. (And Kunis steals the show, for my money. She's got that look. You know what I'm talking about, right?) And you gotta give the producers some props: a movie made for a $13 million pittance, it looks impressive.

A nightmarish movie with some technical flair that saves it but that's about all there is here. Not a real contender for Best Movie.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Latest in Beer

I tried a wheat beer several years ago and didn't like it. Tasted like water passed through a bag of lawn clippings and not very recent bag of clippings at that. I never tried another again. Time changes things and with this little homebrew hobby of mine, it looked like it was time to try it again. I'd tasted a good wheat beer at a restaurant and found it as advertised: citrusy, spritzy, just the thing for a sunny Spring day.

Of course, in home brewing, if you want to have a beer now, you'd better have started brewing it three weeks ago. So I did exactly that and though it's still winter and there's snow on the ground, I have a batch of wheat beer that's ready for the warm weather:

Not quite as good as the one I had at the restaurant but it's light and fruity and has a good creamy head. Success!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Brian Jacques Dies

Children's author Brian Jacques passed away over the weekend:
A former merchant sailor whose children's books sold millions worldwide has died aged 71.

Brian Jacques' Redwall series of books were translated into 29 languages and sold 20m globally.

He first wrote the series, set in an abbey populated by animals, for children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool.

When Rachel was still in elementary school, she came home one afternoon to excitedly tell me Brian Jacques was making a personal appearance at a local bookstore. Rachel had never heard of Mr. Jacques before that afternoon - I had only a passing acquaintance of his work - but her English teacher had told her how great his books were and that if she had a chance, she ought to go see him. I was early into my stay-at-home-Dad career so we had that chance and off we went.

By the time we got to the bookstore, a small crowd had already gathered. Knowing how these things are supposed to work, I bought a volume for Mr. Jacques to autograph for Rachel and we got in the lengthy line. Things moved along quite well - we were told that for the sake of efficiency, Mr. Jacques could not personalize his autographs and because of laryngitis he wouldn't be able to speak much, if at all. Cynical Dad saw this as a ploy to keep the fans moving through the line and the purchasing of books unheeded but by the time it was our turn, Mr. Jacques was quite charming. He made a subtle show of being taken in by Rachel's fresh-faced looks and he asked her her name in a hoarse whisper (Take that cynical Dad!). He leaned close to her, repeated her name in a low growl, rolling his r's and dragging out the last syllable in his Liverpudlian accent. Rachel smiled, he smiled back, signed, her book, and gave her a nod, his eyes twinkling. Rachel was enraptured, even though until a few hours before, she had no idea who this man was. And it didn't hurt that he looked a whole lot like Grandpop Pete:

Rachel has never been the most rabid reader in the world and I don't think she ever got past the volume we bought that day but Mr. Jacques gave her, and me, a warm memory of an afternoon with an author who took just a few seconds from his book tour to acknowledge a new fan. I thank him for it.

Flash forward to a few years later and Emily became of reading age. She picked up the volume from that afternoon and was instantly hooked. And, as is her habit, once she gets her reading meathooks into a series, she has to read them all, and in order. And so began a literary love affair for Emily as she marched her way from one end of Mr. Jacques ouvre to another. I remembered the time when books enraptured me, when I could get lost in their worlds and not become overly aware of what the author was trying to do. Mr. Jacques gave Emily quite a reading experience and I thank him for that, too.

In this digital world, it's rare that good writers come along and create a body of work that will last. Though I've never read any of his books, from personal experience and reports from the field, he managed to do just that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Oklahoma's Number 7!

In sales tax rankings, that is. Via
TaxProf Blog, I can't import the data table but here are the top 10 rankings:






New York





I'm sure if we tried harder we could beat New York. California, too. But it'll take some doing by the Legislature to overcome Tennessee. I don't doubt they'll try.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Reversal - Book Review

It's been over a year since I read anything by Michael Connelly and even then I wasn't too impressed so I'm not really sure why I picked up his latest legal thriller, The Reversal. I was at the library and it was available and it was his most recent so, well, why not?

I admit, it was a better read than the first in this series - the problem of the legal thriller being bogged down by the time constraints of the legal process was solved by having the main character, Haller, be appointed as independent counsel in a re-trial. Opposing counsel wants a quick re-trial so things move along lickety split. But there's the same problem I have with Connelly's prose style - for a journalist, he's merely OK - and instead of relying on an intriguing case playing out in the courtroom, he ends things with a contrived bang, as if he didn't trust his own material or skills to keep our attention. And I've yet to get a feel for Southern California as a setting which is odd since Connelly's been touted as being in the same league as Hammett. Obviously I'm missing something.

I did enjoy this one better than the first one though I have no desire to pick up the one that just preceding this in the series. I've given Connelly a fair shake and it's time to move on; I don't plan on coming back to him. Uh, unless I come across another book of his in the library. You take what's available.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I, Sniper - Book Review

I've long been a fan of former Washington Post movie reviewer Stephen Hunter - I link to one of his reviews in this post - so you'd think I would've picked up one of his Bob Lee Swagger novels before I, Sniper and you'd be right. I'd read one of his several years ago and wasn't impressed enough to continue with the series. As a thriller writer, I thought, Hunter made a great movie reviewer. But I see he's gotten along quite well without me and his series has grown and I can't ignore him anymore, not if I'm wanting to find another genre series to get immersed in.

I, Sniper's a fine one to get re-introduced to the character. Hunter's at the top of his form, much better than I remembered. Plenty of nuts and bolts about sniper guns and the manly art of sniping as well as a highly effective scene of waterboarding that reaches the height of art. And I'm not kidding. The Wikipedia article I linked to describes his prose as almost lyrical and though that might be strange for the thriller genre, I think it's spot on. Overblown in parts, sure, but you can tell Hunter is passionate about his subject and I like passion. He takes a few sly potshots at the media and liberals, too, so that's an extra bonus if you're looking for that sort of thing.

Of course, the problem with entering a series in the latest installment is that the author has to bring new audience members like me up to speed with his character and, having done so, there's little reason to read the prior books other than for the sake of completeness. Still, that doesn't mean I might not visit those earlier books and get caught up on what I've been missing.

Librarians, Budget Cuts, Assumptions

As a response to a rash of budget slashing to public libraries, Wil Wheaton posted about how he thinks librarians are awesome. It's hard to argue with that premise; libraries and librarians are, indeed, awesome, and you'd be a fool to say otherwise. Who among us reader-types doesn't have a heart-warming memory of libraries and librarians, like Mr. Wheaton? It's part of why we became readers in the first place. Good for Mr. Wheaton for staking a controversial claim.

But then Mr. Wheaton spoils a perfectly lovely remembrance by ending it with this bit of straw man nastiness:
Libraries are constantly under attack from people who fear knowledge, politicians who think guns are more important than books, and people who want to ensure that multi-millionaires pocket even more money.

Ah, of course. The culprits to these budgets cuts are obvious. Knowledge fearing people, gun-clinging politicians, greedy millionaires. The usual suspects. It's so obvious.

Only it's not so obvious. Mr. Wheaton offers no proof of his assertion because I guess it just pretty much goes without saying: anyone who wants to cut library funding must be evil and conservative and not good and liberal like, say, Mr. Wheaton himself. There's just nothing left to say. Which is fine; it's Mr. Wheaton's blog, after all, and he can say anything he wants bno matter how ridiculous and without proof. That's the way blogs work.

His commenters are quick to agree on the subject of librarian awesomeness - and quite a few let Mr. Wheaton know how awesome he is for thinking librarians are awesome - and barely pay attention to his claims about the causes of library extinction. Maybe it's a given for them, too. I clicked through to some of the links posted by the commenters to other articles that bemoan the demise of libraries and nowhere did I see anything about knowledge-fearing, gun-clinging, tax-dodging people and politicians being behind this flurry of budget cuts. In fact, in Mr. Wheaton's own California, the culprit is the recently elected liberal Jerry Brown. And in Los Angeles, no one must be behind library budget cuts because the mayor and a good chunk of the city council have thrown their support behind Measure L, which, if passed, will give libraries a bigger guaranteed chunk of the city's general fund. (An increase from .0175 to .03 share of the general fund may seem minuscule but that's a 170% increase; you wouldn't turn down a 170% increase in your salary, would you? Didn't think so.) I guess that means the mayor and city council are powerless to stop these budget cuts without a vote of the people. If true, exactly what role do Los Angeles elected officials have to play in the spending process? What do they do, exactly?

I clicked on through to some of the related articles and learned this about library budget cuts. Hey, things are tough all over! Who knew?

I make a brief appearance in the comments pointing this out and Mr. Wheaton was kind enough to rejoin that the problems aren't limited to Los Angeles and California, completely ignoring my point. I countered that likely what holds true for Los Angeles and California holds true for the other areas quoted in the linked articles, that budgetary crunches call for cuts across the board and politicians of all stripes are likely behind them. Mr. Wheaton leaves that alone, content, I suppose, to continue to believe the narrative that all bad things come from stupid people and all good things come from people like him.

I'm not advocating budget cuts for libraries. I, too, think libraries - and librarians! - are awesome. Government should do what only government should do and maintaining a library system accessible to all seems like a role for government. (Though the Internet fills at least part of a library's role quite nicely without government intervention.) (And could we do with a little less easy access to porn, libraries? Keep the experience more family-friendly? I mean, I know all about the 1st amendment and everything but come on. Show some judgement.) But budgets are tight, spending has to be cut, and it all finally comes down to whose ox is being gored. If you don't cut library budgets, what do you cut? Police and fire protection? Sanitation? Road maintenance?

Government budget cuts mean tough choices. That's what politicians are elected for; that's the democratic process. Don't like it? Vote someone else in who'll do the job you want. But leave the straw men aside. That doesn't help.