Tag Archives: Books

To Reign in Hell

So, I see they’ve greenlighted a film based on Paradise Lost.  I suppose it might be pretty good but (and I’m ashamed to admit it), I was never able to work my way through Milton’s work and worry that given they’ve decided for it to be”crafted as an action vehicle that will include aerial warfare, possibly shot in 3D.” the heavenly hosts might, in fact, demonstrate their wrath upon the human race.

If you’re going to go that route, I’d recommend a film adaptation of Steven Brust‘s To Reign in Hell.  It’s a clever update of the story of the Battle for Heaven with lots of room for action and (if the film makers decide to go totally edgy) a good plot with interesting characters.  Since they won’t do that, check out the book, it’s a lot of fun.

What would have happened if Stieg Larsson hadn’t died…

…and kept the Lisbeth Salander character going forever?  Maybe plot lines like this

A 102-year-old woman in Halmstad in southwestern Sweden wants to get rid of the legal guardian that the municipality arranged for her against her will…

Of course, the dramatic fight scenes would have to be toned down and the courtroom battles might have to change focus a bit but there’s no reason they couldn’t keep on with the ‘edge of your seat’ suspense:

“I cannot hear what you are saying,” Fagerberg answered in a loud voice to the first question asked to her in the courtroom this week. “But I’ll slap my hands on the table like this.”

Weekend Reading – Free dragons!

Barnes and Noble offers a free eBook every friday.  This week they’re offering His Majesty’s Dragon, which is the first in the Temeraire series which is historical fiction set in the Napoleonic Age…only with dragons.  Novik writes exciting, fun prose and her inserting of dragons into the early 19th century doesn’t feel forced or artificial.  She clearly thought about not only the variety of dragons which she wanted to exist throughout her world but also how they would interact, affect and be affected by different cultures around the world.

She’s created such a rich world that throughout the series she takes readers beyond European shores to China and Africa with the upcoming book (released this summer) going to Australia.  Based on a few dropped comments throughout the series, I’m eagerly awaiting her foray to American shores which should be a lot of fun.

I usually blow through these books in a frenzied weekend and immediately want to dive into another (sort of like Ring Dings) they’re so much fun.  There’s talk of a movie but I’m a bit dubious.  What should be a Master and Commander type film will probably end up looking more like Harry Potter…

In any case, you can get the first book in the series here (although I think you might have to register with Barnes and Noble).

Was Steig Larsson a secret neo-con?

I just finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, Larsson‘s second book in his Millennium trilogy. Both books are quite good as suspense/thrillers but the second has intrigued me in a way the first didn’t.

Spoiler alert:  This post features some minor plot points in the second book (so minor in fact that two our  of three fellow readers I discussed them with forgot them).

While these books feature murder, corruption and misogyny the second book is a bit darker than the first in that one of the main characters (Lisbeth Salander) demonstrates a much greater degree of sociopathology than in the first book.  As Wikipedia says:

He continues the debate from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of how responsible a criminal is for his or her crimes and how much is blamed on upbringing or society.

And here’s where Larsson is quite good.  He creates a sympathetic character and then makes her do distasteful or horrendous things, I suspect to see how much we’ll forgive or demonstrate how much our morality is situational.

For example:  In the beginning of the book, Lisbeth (a new found multi-millionaire do to some Robin Hood-esque stealing form the criminal) takes a trip around the world and eventually finds herself in Grenada for several weeks.  While there, she engages in a primarily physical relationship with a poor, local 16 year old boy.  When she’s ready to move on and return to Sweden, she leaves without so much as a goodbye and, apparently, without a further thought of the boy.

Now, I wonder how such a character would be interpreted if the gender roles were reversed.  Imagine a rich European adult (I believe she’s around 30) arriving in a poverty stricken country, picking up a teenager and engaging in a relationship with them (in which all the decisions and power are with the adult) and then abandoning the girl when he’s had his fill of her.  Is that really different from the sex tourism that creepy men engage in all over the world?

Now, that part of the story occupies about the first 30 pages of the book and has no direct connection to the rest of the story and doesn’t really provide any insight into Salander.  So, assuming Larsson wasn’t getting paid by the word, why put it in?  Is he trying to explain under what circumstances adults could have ‘acceptable’ intimate relations with teenagers?  Is it OK since it’s the woman in a position of power rather than a man?  Larsson is generally silent on this although he does write Salander in a more positive light than one could imagine doing with a male character in these circumstances.

I’d argue it was to parallel the male villains in the book that engage in a more blatant (and vicious) form of human trafficking and exploitation.  Coincidentally, the female victims are the same age (around 16) as Salander’s boy toy and come from economically depressed areas.  But here it seems clear that Salander isn’t an innocent defender of the exploited.  She exploits in her own way, even if she doesn’t think so.  And of course, her limited abilities of empathy prevent her from even thinking in such terms.

The other point, and reason for the title of this post, involves her behavior in a couple of scenes.  Salander engages in behavior which anyone would (ok, maybe Theissen wouldn’t) regard as torture.  In some cases this activity is directed as the ‘guilty’ who both need to be punished AND have information which she wants and threats of torture are reserved for ‘innocents’ who have information she wants.

Now, as I was mentioning this point to three people who read the book (2 women and a man) both women, independently replied with “Yes, but you have to remember what she suffered through.”

That struck me as odd, because that seems to be the same position of people who want to excuse torture by U.S. personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba or those ‘black sites’.  Their argument is that 9/11 so traumatized the powers that be that they felt they had no choice, were terrified, and had to do whatever it took to prevent more evil from happening.  Does torture in this circumstance (done by a female…against such criminals…etc) become, if not acceptable at least understandable?

Clearly Larsson is on the left side of the political spectrum so is Salander a lefty version of Jack Bauer?  I know virtually nothing about Larsson but I’d like to think he was a bit craftier than that and actually presented people with an image of how things like vigilantism and torture could be made attractive to people under the appropriate conditions.

The Soviets in Afghanistan

I just finished listening to the audio version of Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble which covers the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.  It’s not in the pantheon of great books but it’s still pretty good and the dearth of material on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan makes this a solid contribution.

The book tries to cover the whole canvas of the conflict from the activities within the Politburo to individual soldiers and so the book does suffer from a general lack of focus.  Feifer’s writing is so good though, and the subject matter so interesting that rather than wanting to edit this down to a slim volume I’d prefer if he bulked it up so he could discuss the activities at these various levels in more depth.

I suspect the publishers, in an effort to make this work more ‘sellable’ to the public, tried to make the case that learning about the Soviet experience could provide America with lessons for our own war there.  I (and the NY Times) don’t think he pulls it off, but, in his defense, he doesn’t really even seem to try expect for the epilogue.  Of more importance is the fact that the book doesn’t need it and so doesn’t suffer for the lack of explicit ‘lessons learned’ for America.

I thought I heard a couple of minor errors in the audio version that I’m not sure are in the printed version (I thought they said Kabul was west of Herat, for example) but it only caused a moment of mental dissonance.

The brutality of the Soviets to their own troops remains shocking to read even though it’s been public knowledge for quite some time.  The practice of dedovshchina is completely foreign to me both as a soldier and a leader.  In what world would someone think that’s good for unit cohesion?  But, that wasn’t the extent of the problem.  A broken logistical system (even if it wasn’t riddled with corruption) meant that soldiers could not consistently count on being supplied the food, equipment or weapons that they were needed.  Discipline, training and standards were lax among many units forcing command to continually put the few good units in heavy rotation for combat missions.

One of the striking parts of the book was the recounting of the battle of hill 3234 which sounds like it deserves a book length treatment in its own right, in which a company of the 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment (about 40 men) fought off an attack by a force 5-10 times larger.  The mujaheddin made 12 assaults upon the Soviet position before eventually retiring.  The Soviets were almost out of ammunition and 34 of their 39 men were either wounded or dead.

In 2005, the Russians made a movie loosely based upon the battle called the 9th Company which I also just finished watching.  It’s not a great war film, but it’s not bad either and given the paucity of films about war in Afghanistan (yet again, Iraq gets all the attention) it’s worth watching.

I’m not sure if it’s the movie or a cultural thing but it’s interesting to compare this with American war films and the differences are striking.  Even in conflicts where we haven’t done well there’s an obligatory ‘hooah’ scene (usually with a hard rock track) and the movie end with a ‘we’ll never be defeated’ message.  Not here.  The music is orchestral soundtrack and disturbingly dirge like.  There’s not a lot of redemption or hope at the end (although there seems to be an attempt to do so that might resonate more with a Russian audience).

The Man who Hates Women

This weekend I finished the book and watched the movie ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson (the title of the post is the name of the book/movie in the Swedish original).  I have to admit I’m not a usual fan of mystery novels but I did enjoy this quite a bit.  I found that as a bit of a surprise since none of the characters are really sympathetic.  Rather, they just sort of grow on you over time.  It takes place in Sweden and immerses  the reader in some uniquely Swedish characteristics:  it’s ambiguous relationship with Nazism, class conflict and distrust of unbridled capitalism, fuzzy gender roles within relationships and the Swedish love for good murder mysteries.

The book has a couple of robust storylines occurring simultaneously, which I enjoy as well.

I would recommend reading the book before watching the movie.  Both are quite good but the book, which clocks in at over 550 pages couldn’t fully fit in a movie (even a 2 1/2 hour one), and you’ll be able to fit what was cut from the film without feeling cheated.  Also, there are some derivations from the book plot that were made in the film in order to simplify the storyline.

The movie has a strong cast (the movie is subtitled, I know that’s a deal breaker for some) and I now have a new crush on the actress Noomi Rapace who as Lisbeth Salander was able to rekindle my inexplicable weakness for goth chicks.

Kvick Tänkare

The Swiss stole my heritage!  It should be a ‘Roman’ army knife.  Hey, is that the thanks we get for civilizing you mountain dwelling primitives?  (Only kidding.  You guys make great chocolate. Just don’t shoot me.)  Now, tell me this isn’t an amazing marketing opportunity.  How many of us wouldn’t buy a working, functional replica of this?  H/T Kotare.

Lunghu has an amusing chart which riffs off of our brilliant color coded threat advisory system.  How would such a system look if developed in other countries?

Usually when someone dies from a heroin overdose, demand for that brand spikes (‘That guy died from it?  Must be good shit!)  Well, in either an attempt to kill off heroin addicts in Britain or just give them a new kind of rush, heroin is found to be laced with Anthrax in the U.K.  The public health system has put out the following warning:

“Heroin users are strongly advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services. This is a very serious infection for drug users and prompt treatment is crucial,” he said.

Yeah, anthrax in their heroin is going to be what makes them finally see the light and kick their habit.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw this link (mea culpa!) but it was so crazy I had to include it here.

A British company called ATSC are selling a device which can detect guns, ammunition, bombs, drugs, contraband ivory, and truffles…The ADE 651 uses “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” and can detect these things from a kilometre away, through walls, under the ground, underwater, or even from an aeroplane 5km overhead.

No police force or security service anywhere in the developed world uses them. But in 2008, the Iraqi government’s Ministry of the Interior bought 800 of these devices – the ADE 651 – for $32m. That’s $40,000 each, rather brilliantly, and they’ve ordered a further shipment at $53m. These devices are being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq, to look for bombs.

Well, I think it’s safe to leave Iraq now.  Clearly, the inmates are running the asylum.

Maybe it’s because I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but this sounds eerily like a Scandinavian murder mystery…


I just finished this fantastic book by Jeff Janoda who took one of the Icelandic Sagas (specifically the Eyrbyggja Saga) and fleshed out the characters and plot to make it more palatable for us 21st century types.  The story reminded me a great deal of a tragedy in the Shakesperean tradition where you have people of power to think they can shape their own destiny yet find that fate takes them down paths they could never have imagined (usually to terrible consequences).

He tackles the difficult problem of explaining the numerous traditions and beliefs that ruled 10th century Iceland without drowning the reader in exposition or watering down the concepts to the point where the setting becomes generic.  Most of the concepts are placed in a glossary in the back with the list of the dramatis personae in the front.  In no time even the most unfamiliar names and similar sounding characters distinguish themselves as separate entities (not easy when you’ve got characters named Thorfinn, Thorgils, Thorleif, Thormod, Thorodd, and Thorolf).

Usually, books I finish either are given away because I know I’ll never crack them open again or they might go back on the shelf with the intention to enjoy them again after the passage of time erases all but the general flow of the story.  Rarely, I’ll finish one and want to start right back at the beginning because I enjoyed the story so much and Saga easily fell into that category.

I’m not sure what (if anything) the author is working on next (his website is maddeningly out of date) but a sequel or retelling of another one of the stories would certainly worth while.  Unfortunately, too many examples of literature that are cornerstones of our (or other) civilizations are being lost because they just aren’t accessible to the general population  (the Iliad, Odessey, Aeneid, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, etc., etc. etc.) but work like this can really help to make such works relevant to new audiences.


Buckle up…

I’m getting ready to take a vacation to the land of the Great White North…no wait, that’s Canada.  I mean this frozen northern land with a brief excusion to Estonia.  Therefore I won’t be blogging for awhile but, due to the wonders of WordPress, I’m going to try to make a virtue out of necessity and get a few weeks worth of blogging done tonight.  I can then arrange to have my posts published every so often so that it will seem like I’m still actively writing while I’m actually stuffing myself with Surtromming (or maybe just having a nice meal in Stockholm if I can’t find the required HAZMAT suit).  This plan will hopefully catch me up on everything I haven’t blogged about but wanted to recently.

So…first things first.  I know I’m not giving you a lot of time, dear readers but I’m packing and need to select what book(s) to bring with me on my vacation.  My only requirement is that it must be in paperback and ideally in pocket size since I hate packing extra weight/bulk.  You’ve got about 36 hours to make your recommendations so get cracking!

Books reviews

I just finished reading/listening to the books above and they made an interesting trilogy.  Legacy of Ashes was a phenomenal book which traced the history of the CIA from its origins until 2007.  I found it particularly interesting how, from its very inception, the agency was characterized as one that saw any sort of control (from the President, congress, or the constitution) as interference.  The inability of the agency to voluntarily stay within the limits of its charter raises serious questions about the wisdom of having a secret agency whose central function requires deceit and subversion in an open democracy.

I have to admit, I’ve bought into the myth of the CIA as much as everyone else so it was a bit of a disappointment to hear the numerous instances where intelligence and analytical work was shoddy or took a back seat to political considerations or cowboys who decided they knew what was in the best interests of the U.S. and did their own thing.  It was that covert action, usually done with no consideration of possible consequences that has to make one wonder if we wouldn’t be better off without such an agency.

A good (semi) counter point would be Robert Baer’s See No Evil which is a brilliant description of the CIA from a covert operators point of view.  After reading his book you do kind of think that perhaps Baer (and those few like him) really does know what’s best for the country and should be allowed to just ‘get on with it’.  I’ll have to spend some time trying to reconcile those two accounts.  Both books do seem to agree, however, on the idea that the CIA is hobbled by a new wave of inexperienced analysts, agents as well as a glut of bureaucrats.

State of Denial doesn’t really tell you anything you don’t already know providing you haven’t been in a coma during the past five years.  Still, it just lets you know that the gross incompetence is a well documented fact and not just a strong suspicion.

Armed Madhouse is great because its one of those books that gives you an alternative narrative to what’s going on today in America’s political landscape.  I’m not entirely convinced that Palast is providing the best explaination for what’s been going on in America since 2001 (when a book tries to question so many closely held assumptions like this one does, it would be a big help to provide links to supporting evidence) but it does get you to think.  I found his defense of Hugo Chavez particularly interesting.