Tag Archives: Books

Ten books…

I was recently wasting some perfectly good time on Facebook, when I saw one of those ‘answer a question and pass it along’ things that bounce around there with incredible frequency.  This one, however, seemed rather interesting.  It asked participants to name ten books which have ‘stuck’ with you.  They need not have changed your life or been classics, but rather ones that you’ve returned to either in terms of rereading or thinking about for one reason or another.

So, without further ado, here are my ten 1 in no particular order:

  1. The Prince – Machiavelli - The first political book I ever read and it blew me away as a 15 year old.  In the intervening three decades I’ve always had a copy close by and it’s usually the first thing I download when I get a new electronic device.
  2. Othello – William Shakespeare – Again, something I was introduced to while I was a teenager but the character of Iago remains completely fascinating to me.  His motives seem just out of reach and one feels there is an answer to why he does what he does if only you look closely enough.  I simply never get tired of the story.
  3. Earth Abides – George Stewart – I didn’t like this book when I finished it but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I just kept turning it over in my mind until I realized that my discomfort with the story was due more to the fact that it refused to conform to my expectations.  It’s now a favorite.
  4. The Plague Dogs – Robert Adams – A book I will probably never read again but continues to haunt me.  We don’t really need fiction to tell us about the horrors we visit upon animals every day but this is excellent story telling.  I’m no John Boehner but this book had me seriously weepy.
  5. The Problem from Hell – Samantha Power – An amazing account of American responses to genocide over (roughly) a century.  Reading this does make it difficult to say that America is ‘exceptional’ when you see what sort of legal, rhetorical and military gymnastics we went through to prevent, stop or condemn genocide.
  6. The Norton Book of Classical Literature – Kind of cheating since this is a collection of works but there’s just so much here that resonated with me that I have to include the whole book.
  7. To Reign in Hell – Steven Brust – I suspect I like this book as much as I do because it has similar themes to Othello.  It’s sufficiently different, contemporary and well written to justify it’s inclusion on this list however.  I’ve probably read this book four times and thought about or referenced it too many times to count.
  8. The Art of War in the Western World – Archer Jones – Clearly written and comprehensive, I can think of few other introductions to warfare that could compare to this work by Jones.  Simply brilliant and I can only say a number of his points and descriptions came to mind during my 20 years with the Army, helping me to better understand and put orders into context.
  9. War Letters – Andrew Carroll – While learning about strategy and looking at big arrows sweeping across a map is fun and can make every man a general, we must never forget that each one of those lines is made up of thousands of individual human beings.  Andrew Carroll’s collection of letters from soldiers in Americas wars is simply awe-inspiring.
  10. Buddhism Without Beliefs – Stephen Batchelor – A slim volume which does an admirable job of reconciling core Buddhist beliefs with modern life.  No need for a sky daddy, magic powers or inexplicable miracles.
  1. Didn’t I just write a polemic against top ten lists? Ah, well.  I’ll hoist myself on my own petard later.

A break from reality…

I’m also listening to the audiobook of The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century.  I’ve missed all of these stories before but even if you are familiar with them you should consider picking this up if, for no other reason, for the reading of Terry Bisson’s ‘Bears Discover Fire‘.

You can watch the first four minutes of Iron Sky which everyone here at TwShiloh (by which I mean, just me) has been quite excited about ever since the first trailer was released these many years ago.

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If you haven’t seen the BBC remake of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (names, appropriately ‘Sherlock‘), you’re really missing a treat.  The show brings Holmes and Watson up to the 21st century (with Dr. Watson being a military doctor recently returned from Afghanistan) and updates a lot of Holmes’ quirks in some very clever ways.  Watching the series makes one realize just how disappointing the recent movie reset was which is a huge shame since it had so much raw talent involved.  Anyway, here’s the trailer.
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The horror! The horror!

Well, at long last a movie maker is going to use Chernobyl as a backdrop for a horror movie.  The trailer for ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is out it looks like it’ll be pretty good.

There’s also a game coming out based upon the comic/TV series ‘The Walking Dead‘.  There’s a trailer out but it doesn’t reveal much of anything.  The website, however, has some interviews with the developers and you can begin to piece together a bit of what the game looks like.  They’re explicitly avoiding the typical zombie shooter in exchange for an episodic story game.  They’re planning on releasing interconnected episodes every couple weeks with each to be playable within a couple of hours.

Mrs. TwShiloh and I finally got to see the Swedish 2006 Frostbittenvampire movie Frostbiten. While it doesn’t break any amazingly new boundaries it was quite well done and took some interesting twists on the vampire story. It isn’t everyday, after all, you can encompass SS operations in the Ukraine AND a high school party in one vampire movie. If you can find a copy with subtitles, check it out.

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I also just finished the 2010 ‘zombie’ novel The Reapers are the Angels. Pick this up now! Definitely not the traditional zombie hack ‘n slash, the book takes place roughly 25 years after a zombie apocalypse and focuses on a young girl who’s on her own and traveling throughout what’s left of the Southern U.S. It reminded me of the book Earth Abides (which you really should read as well) and a bit of Grapes of Wrath with of course, zombies and the occasional mutant. It’s so much more than a horror tale and is more a story about how people interact with a world they got rather than one they expected or were promised. This will be one of the few books that gets into my ‘reread’ pile.

Finally, Mrs. TwShiloh and I caught Tucker and Dale Versus Evil which is a romantic-comedy/slasher film.  I can only describe this film as totally charming and a ton of fun.  In stark difference to some of the other mock horror films, you actually like the characters in this one and I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing them in a follow up provided they could come up with a clever enough script.

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Kvick Tänkare

Andrew Sullivan does a nice job of taking the pro-torture nuts to task by comparing their quotes with those from George Orwell’s 1984.  I recently had a marathon length debate among some friends in which I was the only person who saw waterboarding (and torture more broadly) as problematic.  I found it both amazing and disturbing that a couple of my friends made a case that the teachings of the bible (Old and New Testament) actually endorsed such activities.

The meek may inherit the earth but if they don’t do what you tell ‘em, feel free to cut off body parts, electrocute, or drown them.  Just don’t enjoy it too much.

I always knew I liked the Secret Service

Earlier today, posted on the @SecretService account: “Had to monitor Fox for a story. Can’t. Deal. With. The. Blathering.”

Jon Ronson has a new book out called the Psychopath Test.  He takes a humorous look at what can otherwise be a very serious subject.  In the past it was conspiracy theorists or attempts by the U.S. to develop secret weapons and this time (as the title may suggest) he talks about psychopaths.   Check it out.

I find this strangely alluring.  Is that weird?

…it’s an all-female roller derby match between Malmö’s Crime City Rollers in their first ever “bout”, against their rivals from the capital, Stockholm Roller Derby.

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Changing topics completely, researchers have found the remains of an ancient battle site in Germany that dates back to 1200 BCE!

The injuries to the skulls suggest face-to-face combat in a battle perhaps fought between warring tribes, say the researchers.

The injuries included skull damage caused by massive blows or arrowheads, and some of the injuries appear to have been fatal.

One humerus (upper arm) bone contained an arrow head embedded more than 22mm into the bone, while a thigh bone fracture suggests a fall from a horse (horse bones were also found at the site).

The archaeologists also found remains of two wooden clubs, one the shape of a baseball bat and made of ash, the second the shape of a croquet mallet and made of sloe wood.


Still have room in your nook or kindle?

Apex Publications is offering a free eBook anthology of their horror writers.  All you need to do is tweet an announcement about the book.  I haven’t’ read it so can’t comment on its quality but for the price you really can’t go wrong.

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).