Thursday, January 31, 2008

Isaac's Storm

Title : Isaac's Storm (1999, Hardback, 273 pages)
Author : Eric Larson (b. 1954)
Genre : US History
Rating : A-

This Month I Read...
This book came recommended to me by my cousin (Thanks, Janet!), and is subtitled, "A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History".

The book tells the story of the 1900 Hurricane that ravaged the city of Galveston. This was before the Weather Service started assigning names to hurricanes, so it is only known as the "Great 1900 Hurricane" and several other monikers. To this day, it holds the record for the largest number of deaths in the USA by a storm. 6,000-12,000 people lost their lives.

What's To Like...
Larson weaves several engaging storylines together here. There is the account of the storm itself, of course. But there is also the biography of Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau's local man in Galveston in 1900 . In addition, Larson gives the technical science involved in the making of a hurricane. Finally, there is a narrative about bureaucratic incompetence and hubris.

Isaac's Storm also offers a pleasant glimpse into life in American at the dawn of the 20th Century. Telephones? Not yet. Automobiles? Nope. Radio? Uh-uh. But you get to see the sights, and smell the smells (even if they are often horse manure) of America in 1900. Having recently had the opportunity to see some of my Grandfather's photos from as early as 1907, Larson's descriptions here were really a treat.

What's Not To Like...
There are no pictures!! Larson recounts using a magnifying glass to look at a number of photos showing the storm's aftermath. Hey, Erik! Next time, put those pics in the book! Sheesh. Even the Wikipedia article on this hurricane, which can be found here, has some photographs.

Larson paints an unflattering picture of Isaac Cline. Apparently, in Galveston today, a lot of people take exception to that.

What Have We Learned in 100 Years?
Galveston got nailed in 1900 because it had a smug feeling that it could handle anything Mother Nature threw at her (they disdained building a seawall several years earlier); because the US Weather Bureau did a crappy job of predicting the storm's path (they thought it was heading up the Atlantic coast), because the bureaucrats in the Weather Service cared more about politicking than about putting out accurate forecasts (they jealously refused to listen to the Cuban forecasters' warnings); and because Science was used for political purposes (years earlier, Cline had written that it was meteorologically impossible for an Atlantic storm to ever hit Galveston).

100+ years later, in light of Hurricane Katrina, what has changed? The levee system in New Orleans was in gross disrepair (it failed in 53 places); the Weather Service (again) predicted the storm would move up the east coast of the US; we had a stooge heading FEMA ("Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!"); and a large segment of the dittoheaded US population still cannot grasp what the warming of the oceans (and the Gulf of Mexico) is doing to the strength of hurricanes (because, golly gee, Dubnutz, that might make it sound like Al Gore knows what he's talking about!).

But I digress. I enjoyed Isaac's Storm, even though I'm not a big reader of (non-alternate) History. I liked the intermingling of the various storylines (others might not). This is recommended reading for anyone living in Texas, or indeed, anyone living in a hurricane zone. We'll give it an A-, only because this book screams to have some photographs included.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Adieu, Rudy

Rudy "9/11" Ghouliani, the 9/11 hero of September 11th, who once saved 27 helpless firemen in the rubble of Ground Zero, announced he was dropping out of the 9/11 2008 Republican Presidential race today. The one-time odds-on favorite, whose favorite numbers are 9 and 11, managed to steer his campaign into a death-spiral, kinda like a 747 bound for ...well... you know.

So long, Rudy. I hope you got McCain to promise you a cabinet post in exchange for your 9/11 support. Politicos will spend the next few weeks (9-to-11 of them) trying to determine if there was any way you could've run a worse campaign.

But I know what your problem is. It's your attitude. You're the 9/11 spitting image of...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Moonsorrow - V. Havitetty

Artist : Moonsorrow (1995 - present)
Album : Viides Luku Havitetty (2007)
Genre : Metal (take your pick for a sub-genre)
Rating : ***** ** (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Moonsorrow is a Metal band from Finland. They have been tagged at various times as Folk-Metal, Black-Metal, Pagan-Metal, Prog-Metal, Epic-Metal, and Viking-Metal. All the descriptors have equal merit; reinforcing my theory that discussions such as "Is it Black-Metal or Pagan-Metal?" are merely pseudo-Mensan hogwash.

V. Havitetty ("Chapter 5 : Ravaged") is their latest CD, and they have a 2008 release in the works. V.H consists of two tracks only, each about 30 minutes long.

What's To Like...
The studio engineering is complex; with at times as many as 10 tracks being mixed at once. There are some decent riffs and "folksy" metal; and both tracks have a nice continuity to them - slowly building in intensity over the course of a half-hour.

What's Not To Like...
The mixing may be complex, but it's not excellent. The guitar-work should be more prominent. The "prog" changes aren't all that substantial. The guitar riffs are okay, but both tracks cry out for some extended, rip-snortin' guitar solos.

Finally, the screeching vocals are just plain silly. I cringe to think what Moonsorrow sounds like live.

The Spirit of Vinyl is Alive and Well...
For a 2007 release, this sure has an "LP feel" to it. Two tracks at 30 and 26 minutes in length, respectively. Can it be that vinyl still influences the track-length of CD's? LP's are making a comeback. More and more artists are doing limited issues of new music on LP's. And I can attest that the price of used vinyl is on the rise. About all that remains in the $1 bargain bins are Jane Fonda's Workout Double-LP, and Jackie Gleason's Greatest Hits.

But I digress. V.H is a good (albeit not great) effort, and is said to be more Metallic, and less folk-oriented than Moonsorrow's previous albums. If so, I may have to give those a listen. It definitely is a unique direction for this genre (name any other metal album that consists of two half-hour tracks), and one can only hope that Moonsorrow continues to evolve, both musically and in song-composing. Hey, maybe they can even find a decent singer and do away with the screeches.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Success !!

As you can see from the CNN clip above, the (future) plans for California to secede succeeded mahvelously. We hired undocumented workers to do the digging along the Arizona and Nevada borders. And in a pleasant surprise, the state of Oregon volunteered to do the digging along their border with Calif.

The USA claimed that the name 'California' was copyrighted, so we decided to call the newly-formed island nation 'New Austria'. The Austrians will probably claim infringement also, but who cares? They're in no position to invade.

Things are (will be) different here in Arizona. Lake Havasu City needs a new name (no more lake!). And now that I have time-warped back to (what you consider to be) the present, I intend to be one of the founding fathers of the Yuma Yacht Club.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Out of Town

Here's where I'll be for the next three days. I'm actually time-warping there to the future to help with a secessionist movement. I'll be back to this time-space continuum Friday night, with an update on our progress.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

RIP - John Stewart

John Stewart 1939-2008

John Stewart, American singer, songwriter and folk guitarist, passed away today from either a stroke or an aneurysm.

His initial fame came as the 1961 replacement for Dave Guard in The Kingston Trio. He stayed with them until the group's (first) disbanding in 1967. He has been a solo act ever since. IMNSHO, he epitomizes the phrase "American Folk Singer" for the time-period from 1960 onward.

The critics loved him; but for the most part, his albums were commercial disappointments. The one exception is Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979), the album cover of which is at the top of this post. He followed this in 1980 with Dream Babies Go Hollywood, which was just as good as BADB, but which inexplicably failed to sell well.

I have 3-4 of his CD's, and about 6-8 of his LP's. His 1987 release, Punch The Big Guy, is fantastic. But that could be said about all his albums. He had a sweet baritone voice and his songwriting is as good as it gets. I am at a loss to say why he toiled in relative obscurity, while lesser talents like John Denver achieved fame and fortune.

Farewell, John. Perhaps you can team up with Dave Guard and Woody Guthrie now, raising the consciousness of heavenly spirits.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Robert Harris - Fatherland

Author : Robert Harris (1957 - )
Title : Fatherland (1992, 377 pages)
Genre : Murder-Mystery (Alternate History)
Rating : B+

This Month I Read...
Robert Harris is a British novelist, with five published books to his credit. The first, and evidently his most famous, is Fatherland.

The plot is fairly standard forMurder-Mystery. A high-ranking political official is slain, and a low-level, disillusioned police detective doggedly strives to solve the crime.

What's To Like...
What makes this book so unique is the underlying Alternate History involved. Fatherland is set in 1964, 20 years after Nazi Germany won World War 2, and on the eve of The Fuehrer's 75th birthday.

England has been turned into a puppet state; and the US appears to be an implacable rival (in this timeline, the US still defeated Japan). The rest of western Europe (with the exception of Switzerland) is part of the greater German Empire., as is Poland and the European portion of Russia. The latter may have lost WW2 in 1943, but it still exists east of the Urals, and is engaged in a never-ending guerilla war there, supported by American arms.

Robert Harris paints a believable picture of life as it would have been in a victorious Nazi world. It is a terrifying combination of George Orwell's 1984; and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The hero, Xavier March, runs into increasing resistance and ill-will from the authorities as he continues an investigation into a murder that nobody in the upper echelons of the Nazi government wants solved.

The plot is good; the ending is somewhat unexpected; and there are no dull spots in the book. What more could you ask for?

What's Not To Like...
Some feel that the characters are stereotyped, and I think that's a valid assertion.

Others find it unbelievable that the "secret" that Xavier March uncovers (that the German government exterminated the Jews), would have stayed covered up for 20+ years. Personally, my read of the "secret" here is that the US knew about the Holocaust, and had a wink-wink relationship with Germany to not reveal this truth.

Oh Brave New World, That Has Such People In It...
Given the immense and lasting popularity of dystopic works like Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, Ape And Essence (my personal favorite Aldous Huxley novel), and Fahrenheit 451; why is it that no new best-sellers in this genre have been written? All of those books are from when, the 1940's and maybe early 1950's?

Yes, we have the Alt History genre now. But the works I've read in AH (Stirling, Turtledove, and Flint) are mostly action stories set in another timeline. The Dystopia genre seems to not have any major additions to it in more than half a century. Why? I can't believe that all the good 1984-ish ideas have been used up.

But I digress. Fatherland is a good story, with a superbly intriguing setting. The characters may be stereotypical, but your focus will be on the Alt-Hist, with all of its horrors, and you'll keep turning the pages to gain more insight into that alternate dimension.

Friday, January 18, 2008

RIP - Bobby Fischer

Robert J. "Bobby" Fischer : 1943 - 2008

Bobby Fischer passed away today at the age of 64. Cause of death was said to be kidney failure, and fittingly, it is rumored that he refused to be treated for his illness because he didn't believe in Western medicine.

Fischer's life has the feel of that of a mythological Greek tragi-hero.; something akin to the stories of Sisyphus and Tantalus. The Gods, in their humor, granted him the greatest chess-mind ever; then cursed him by leaving him utterly unable to comprehend anything beyond the 64 squares of the chessboard.

He will be remembered for his total commitment to trying to win chess games; for his unsurpassed performance on the road to winning the world championship in 1972; and for his contributions to theory in the Najdorf Sicilian (for both Black and White),the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation; and the King's Indian Defense.

Alas, he will also be remembered for his anti-semitism (even though his mother was Jewish); his xenophobia; his paranoia; and his lack of caring about anything and anybody other than himself and chess. Although my taking up the games of chess coincides with his ascendancy, I can't say he was ever my hero or my inspiration.

There is a theory that Fischer was the reincarnation of another American world chess champion & nutcase - Paul Morphy. If so, then like the Tibetians and their Dalai Lama, we Yanks await the next incarnation of this troubled spirit.

Farewell, Bobby Fischer. May your soul find peace and rest after a lifetime of turmoil.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Korpiklaani - Tervaskanto

Artist : Korpiklaani (2003 - present)
Album : Tervaskanto (2007)
Genre : Polka-Metal !!
Rating : ***** ***½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Tervaskanto (Finnish for "Resinous Stump") is the 4th, and latest, studio album from those Finnish Polka-Metal masters, Korpiklaani. This is the second one of their albums I've managed to find. The first, Spirit of the Forest, was reviewed here .

What's To Like...
As with any Korpiklaani album, Tervaskanto starts out with a drinking song, and continues at a rousing, upbeat pace throughout the 11 tracks. If this CD doesn't make you reach for a pint of good, European, dark beer, you're probably a teetotaler.

The musicianship is again superb. The Folk and the Metal portions are blended together perfectly. And did I mention, there is a bunch of Polka-Metal here.

What's Not To Like...
Unlike SOTF, where the lyrics were all in English, most of this one's in Finnish. That's not a big drawback; if they ever did a concert in Phoenix, I'm sure we'd all just grunt along.

There's not a lot of new directions here. Of course, how many "new" sounds can you give to Polka? It's less musically-diverse than SOTF. And it's only 42 minutes long. C'mon guys, unless you also plan to release this on Vinyl, there's no excuse for anything less than an hour's worth of music.

A Yoiking We Will Go...
Korpiklaani seems to put out an album a year. They already have one ready for 2008, "Korven Kuningas", due out in March. The photos at their website have me convinced that as good as their albums are, they are probably even more fun in concert. Alas, it doesn't appear that they'll be doing a North American tour in 2008, so I s'pose I'll just have to talk Liz into vacationing in Helsinki this summer.

But I digress. Tervaskanto is another fine release by the Yoiking Finns of Korpiklaani. We'll give it 8½ stars, and save up our money for their 2008 offering.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Giants 21 - Plowboys 17

As a Redskins fan, I should be neutral when two of our divisional rivals slug it out. I should be. But HALLELUJAHTHE STINKING COWBOYSLOST!!! There. I feel better now.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Xmas Afternoon (a)

The last few pics from Christmas. The main afternoon activity by the bipeds was sitting out on the back porch, discussing literature, music and politics. The main quadruped backyard activity was chewing on treats that Santa brought, and half-heartedly (with one exception) chasing the ball.

Xmas Afternoon (b)

Jynx chased the ball hundreds of times that afternoon. The guest dogs were happy to run along with him, but none of them had any idea as to why they were doing that.

Xmas Afternoon (c)

This is Bailey, one of Michelle's two dogs. The Christmas highlight for him was sitting by the dinner table, and having a whole slice of ham drop on the floor right in front of him. He had it devoured before the "three seconds on the floor" rule could go into effect.

Xmas Afternoon (d)

And here's Echo, Michelle's other dog, perched happily on the couch with Jason and Michelle. He's not really as tall as them; he's sitting on the couch arm.

Xmas Afternoon (e)

Echo was also happy to keep company with Ian.

Xmas Afternoon (f)

Honeybee and Yours Truly, relaxing while watching Kobe Bryant and the Lakers out-hustle our Phoenix Suns. Funny thing, I couldn't find one Christmas photo that didn't have a dog in it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Arch Oboler - Drop Dead!

Artist : Arch Oboler (1909-1987)
Album : Drop Dead! (1962)
Genre : Spoken Word, Comedic Horror
Rating : ***** ** (out of 10*)

This Week I Converted...
    Arch Oboler was old, even when I was young. He was a writer, producer, and director in the 1930's-60's, working in TV, movies, and radio. He is best-known for his performances on early radio. ANAICT, he only ever put out one LP album - Drop Dead! in 1962. I became acquainted with it in 1969, when a friend at college occasionally played it while we sat around and ...erm... drank and partook.

    It has eight tracks, each a different type of horror story. You have a psychopathic cannibal ("I'm not psychotic, I'm just hungry!!"); a car stuck on the railroad tracks as a train's a-coming; a creeping darkness that turns humans inside-out ("organs hanging"); and a proto-Crichtonesque science-gone-awry tale (a piece of chicken-heart that doubles in size every hour). You won't find Drop Dead! on CD; and you will probably never find it at a Used Record store.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find out my friend still had the vinyl, and I coaxed him into letting me convert it to CD. For a 45-year-old record, it's in excellent condition, which is not surprising, given that its owner is an audiophile. There were no skips or warps; just a bunch of small scratches that are inevitable on any used-LP. I edited most of them out when converting it.

What's To Like...
    DD! is a glimpse into old-time radio. You have a team of people doing the voices; and a whole slew of innovative sound-effects to add to the story. Think of it as a trip to Universal Studios, but in audio format only. The stories are not particularly scary, but there is a subtle humor underpinning the whole album. The sound-effects are amazing. One of the "team" on this album was Bea Benadaret, who shortly after this was to star as the mom on the TV series Petticoat Junction. You say you never heard of that show?! (Heavy sigh, look of nostalgia). Whippersnapper!

What's Not To Like...
    At 37 minutes in length, the whole album is short, even by 1960's LP standards. If you don't have an active imagination, you might find DD! to be a trifle tedious. And as with any spoken album (even when it's hilarious satire, such as Firesign Theatre), it may grow boring after a few listens.

Why should I care about an old fart like Arch Oboler?
    For starters, radio shows are a lost art-form. You can get an aftertaste of it in modern stand-up comedy, particuarly if the comic makes use of sound-effects. But that's a pale shadow of radio shows in their heyday. More importantly, Arch Oboler was one of the first to tweak the noses of the establishment. His plays and films were downright weird. Read, for instance, Wikipedia's recap of his 1956 play, Night Of The Auk.

    Wiki also relates an anecdote about a radio skit that he wrote in 1937 for the Chase & Sanborn Hour. Performed by Don Ameche and Mae West, it was a take-off on the Garden of Eden story, with Ms. West supplying a plethora of double-entendres. The sketch created an uproar, resulting in West being banished from further radio performances, and NBC even blacklisting the mention of her name. Oddly, it wasn't the content of the skit that infuriated the Fundies way back then; it was the fact that C&SH had the audacity to broadcast it on a Sunday afternoon.

    But I digress. Arch Oboler is a forgotten artist, in a forgotten medium. Drop Dead! is great, clean, tame-by-today's-standards fun; good for a listen every so often, especially around Halloween. Long before Lenny Bruce and Norman Lear were breaking out of the stale confines of mainstream comedy and Puritan morality, Oboler was there blazing the path. If you run across it at the used record store, buy it (price is usually around $5). If you don't have a turntable anymore (what's a turntable?), come by my place and we'll share a glass of wine and listen to it on CD.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Harry Turtledove - American Front

Author : Harry Turtledove (1949 - )
Title : The Great War : American Front (562 pages; 1998)
Genre : Alternate History
: C

This Month I Read...
The Great War : American Front
is the second book in an 11-volume opus by Harry Turtledove; covering a timeline that initially veered off with the South's winning the Civil War. Book One, How Few Remain, deals with a second conflict in the 1880's, also won by the South, and featuring "alternate lives" for a bunch of famous people such as Samuel Clemens, Teddy Roosevelt, James Longstreet, Frederick Douglass, etc.

TGW:AF picks up the storyline with the outbreak of World War 1. The Confederacy sides with England and France; the USA with Germany. It is the first book of a WWI Alt-Hist trilogy and goes to about the end of the summer, 1915.

What's To Like...
This is "pure" Alt-History. No shifts in the time-space continuum (such as Flint's 1632 series); no visits from extraterrestials to alter History (which technically wouldn't be Alt-Hist anyway).

As usual, Turtledove tells his story from a dozen or so perspectives. Each "glimpse" lasts about 2-5 pages; then he jumps to another person's story. There's a good balance in the people he chooses - Yanks, Southerners, Canadians, men, women, blacks, whites, rich folks, poor folks.

What's Not To Like...
Unlike as in How Few Remain, Turtledove chooses "unknowns" to follow in TGW:AF. That makes it tough to follow. Was Arthur MacGregor a Yank, a Reb or a Canuck? What front and what side was Reggie Bartlett fighting on? Teddy Roosevelt and George Custer carry over from HFR, but are no longer followed in detail. Following these unknowns is not nearly as interesting.

The action is basically a clone of what historically happened in Europe in WW1. You have trench warfare; poisonous gas attacks; the evolution of of air fighting; and there even is the repeat of the "Christmas Truce", something that took place in Europe during the first year of the war (The History Channel has an excellent episode covering that). The trouble is, that ain't Alternate History; it's just transplanting the events from one continent to another. One expects more divergence in an Alt-Hist story.

Finally, there isn't any climax to this book. The story sashays along from page 1 to page 560. In the last couple pages, the blacks of the South are seen to rise up in a coordinated worker-socialist revolution. No details are given; this is an obvious hook to get you to buy the next book. Since this is a trilogy, one can predict that the next book won't have a dramatic climax either.

Robert Jordan Syndrome is alive and well...
This is the first book of a trilogy; but it is also Book Two in an 11-volume opus by Turtledove that starts in 1880 (in the storyline. Book 1, HFR, came out in 1995) and goes for another full century. Book 11, "In At The Death : Settling Accounts" just came out in hardcover last July. Reportedly, it is the end of the saga, but there are enough loose ends left over for Turtledove to pen Book 12 if he wants.

This means you better be prepared to spend a lot of hours reading a lot of pages in a lot of books about this alternate timeline. Well, I did that with Jordan's "Dragon Reborn" series, and he up and died on me before finishing the final book (#12). I don't intend to get sucked into that again; not with Turtledove's North/South narrative; not with Eric Flint's 163x series.

One wonders where this Robert Jordan Syndrome will end. Time was when a trilogy was considered the literary limit. An intriguing beginning; a tedious middle; and a thrilling end. Hey, it worked fine for Tolkien.

Now we have someone ghost-writing Book 12 in Jordan's Wheel Of Time; and Turtledove one novel away from tying that mark. You just know some other author will make it his goal to write a 13-book epic. It's getting to the point where Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will be relegated to the "Short Story" section of your local library. Whoodathunkit?

But I digress. TGW:AW is a decent book, but How Few Remain was better. The characters are not sufficiently engaging to warrant me committing to reading another nine books about them. We'll give it a C rating, cuz it isn't bad, and get our next Alt-Hist fix from one of S.M. Stirling's books.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

NCAA Football Championship

This is why I prefer to watch football games on TV rather than going to see them live. And you know those two OSU fans on the left were just as obnoxious to the jerks in purple during the first few minutes of the game, when Ohio State jumped out to an early, but short-lived, 10-0 lead.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Gathering - Mandylion

Artist : The Gathering
Album Title : Mandylion (1995)
Genre : Prog-Metal
Rating : ***** *½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
The Gathering is a Dutch Prog-Metal band. Formed in 1992, they put out two nondescript, non-prog Goth-Metal albums, then in 1994 brought in Anneke van Giersbergen to be the lead vocalist. Their next album, Mandylion, was a ground-breaking effort in several respects.

It is reportedly the first Metal album to showcase a female lead singer. It also was the first Metal band to heavily incorporate synthesizers into the music; the end-product of which has been called "Atmospheric Doom" Metal. They even wove some audio clips from HG Wells' The Time Machine into Track 1; then followed it up with someone reading a Tolkien passage in the awesome Pink-Floyd-meets-Metal-sounding track, "Sand & Mercury".

So in a way, this is the band that blazed the path for groups like Within Temptation, Lacuna Coil, Leaves Eyes and Nightwish.

What's To Like...
The tracks range in length from 5 to 10 minutes. No radio-play drivel here. The compositions are multi-layered and well-crafted. The drums and the synthesizers are outstanding, but no apologies are needed for any of the musicians.

The historic impact of this album should not be understated. After 20 years of inertia, Metal was finally branching out in new directions, and Mandylion provided three or four of those new paths.

What's Not To Like...
As usual, the studio mixing could be better on some of the tracks. All the tracks on "Side A" (so to speak) have Anneke sounding like she's singing in a brick warehouse.

The guitar solos are well done, but they aren't high-energy. I suppose that's why they call this stuff "ambient", but I usually associate Metal guitars with lot more speed and va-va-voom than what is found here.

A Tale Of Two Sides...
The first four tracks are more metallic, and are strictly adequate. The last four tracks are all quite proggish, and are masterfully done. I won't try to predict which will be your favorite Track, but I will say that it will be one of Tracks 5 thru 8.

So we'll give Side A a 5-star rating and Side B 8-stars. That averages out to 6½ stars. One could justify a higher rating due to the historical influence this album had on Metal, but we'll settle for giving The Gathering a heartfelt "Thank You!" for delivering us from 20 years of snarling.

It is said that each one of The Gathering's subsequent albums represented a new direction and a maturing and refining of the group's musical proficiency. If so, I'm looking forward to finding more of their stuff. It should also be noted that Anneke left the group in 2007 to do her own projects (under the band name of Agua de Annique), so we can expect The Gathering's next album to also be something quite different from past efforts.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


If Arizona is a desert, why am I up to my neck in leaves? This is 48 hours-worth of them. I've been cleaning 'em up every other day since New Year's Day.


Both trees contribute to the mess. The one on the left has pretty much dumped its load. The one on the right looks like it still has half its leaves. Which means I'll be doing this $^%#@* task for another week or so.


Both trees were eunuchs when we bought them. Or something like that. They stayed that way for a dozen years or so. Then, about 10 years ago, they must've watched Jurassic Park, cuz they suddenly sexed up. Which means I will have to repeat this chore in a couple months, except that it will be a zillion seed-pods, instead of leaves.


Halfway done. I've "mowed" the leaves on the lawn. That's easier than raking them. Now for the driveway, the street, the bushes, and the gardens.


Finished at last! At least until I get home from work on Monday. And don't look under my truck.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Henning Mankell - Faceless Killers

Author : Henning Mankell
Title : Faceless Killers (280 pages; translated into English 1997)
Genre : Murder Mystery
Rating : B-

This Month I Read...
Henning Mankell is a Swedish crime fiction author. Faceless Killers is the first in a series featuring Kurt Wallander, a burnt-out detective whose life's a mess, and who needs to solve several high-profile murders before anti-immigrant hysteria grips the area.

Faceless Killers was written in Swedish in 1991, and translated into English in 1997. The Kurt Wallander books are Mankell's most popular series, but he also writes children's stories.

What's To Like...
It's nice to have an anti-hero for a change. Wallander is recently-divorced, drinks too much, has lousy dietary habits, and has to cope with a father and a daughter who frankly don't like him. He makes a pass at the comely (and married) prosecutor, who rebuffs him; then has to worry about her filing a complaint.

You also get a look at the "real" Sweden. Most of us think the essence of Sweden is ABBA, Volvo, prime ministers who get assassinated while walking home from the movies, and svelte blonde ski chicks who all have silicone implants.

The Sweden that Mankell presents is a place overrun with immigrants, where everyone drinks too much, and the only change in the long winter months is whether or not you'll have to deal with snow in addition to the ever-present harsh, windy cold.

Finally, Mankell strews a bunch of red herrings in amongst the "Cold Case Clichés". Wallander has to sort the false leads from the real clues, and this is mostly a matter of tracking them all down and seeing which ones pan out.

What's Not To Like...
Although FK has the feel of "true" detective work in solving the murders, not everyone is going to like the unspectacular storyline. The gruesome murders of an elderly couple on a farm takes up the first 25 pages. The rest is plodding and dogged investigation.

This isn't the kind of story where you try to guess the "who" of the whodunit. And the ending leaves a lot of loose ends dangling out there. Is this "real" detective life, or a sloppy ending to a novel?

WTF is a Cold Case Cliché?
Cold Case is among the better TV series on today (when the writers aren't on strike), but it's very formulaic, and once you realize this, you can solve each case in the first 10 minutes.

It always hinges on one seemingly irrelevant sidetrack (SIS) that usually occurs early in the story. The Cold Case team will spend the next hour interviewing all sorts of people and unearthing all sorts long covered-up dirty laundry. Then at the end, they rediscover the SIS, tie it to one of the suspects, and voila!, the case gets solved.

Example #1. A girl gets murdered a long time ago. The case is re-opened; the chief briefs the CC team on the details, then adds parenthetically, "Oh yeah. Forensics found some black powder at the murder scene way back when. They couldn't identify it then. See if yooze can get somebody to analyze it again".

Solution #1. After 50 minutes, the lab report comes back. The mysterious powder is ID'd as a friction-minimizer used by people in wheelchairs, and of course one of the suspects is a paraplegic.

Example #2. Two young boys get murdered. While interviewing one of the suspects, a junk peddler; one of the detectives asks if she can buy a small bling dangling on the peddler's cart. "Oh no," says he, "that's my special key to happiness".

Solution #2. The bling of course turns out to have belonged to one of the boys, thus tying the peddler to the crime.

This happens in every Cold Case episode. Just look for that SIS written into the script, then match it up with one of the suspects. The writers only have 60 minutes (minus lots of commercials) to present an interesting, complex case. They don't have time for irrelevancies. Anything that looks like a tangent; isn't.

But I digress. Faceless Killers is a good book. There may be a Cold Case Cliché in there, but you have to separate it from the other half-dozen false trails. The glimpse of the real Sweden, and a detective with all sorts of character flaws are the real strong points of the book. Alas, it feels sometimes like Mankell put more thought into the setting and Kurt Wallander, than into the plot itself. We'll give it a B-, and hope that the next seven books in the series have better storylines, and aren't just rehashes of Sweden's social problems and Wallander's personal ones.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Christmas 2007 (a)

This is actually from Christmas Eve. Mr. Jynx is in his favorite rocking chair, guarding the (main) Christmas tree, and waiting for Santa.

Christmas 2007 (b)

A nice portrait of Mr. Jynx.

Christmas 2007 (c)

Pops and Huxley were also waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Christmas 2007 (d)

Christmas morning has arrived, and our 'princess', Honeybee, is snuggled in her blanket, waiting for the opening of the presents to begin.

Christmas 2007 (e)

At last it's time to open presents! But first, everyone gets to open their stockings, including the dogs.

Note that our house's decor is wall-to-wall Christmas. It takes Liz a week to decorate every square inch in the house for Christmas. And a couple days to take it all down again.

Christmas 2007 (f)

Jason was over for Christmas, along with his dog, Preacher. Santa also brought Preacher a stocking. All our dogs know that on Christmas morning they can rip into their stocking's contents and not get in trouble. Preacher is learning this custom as well.

Christmas 2007 (g)

All the dogs also got to open the rest of their other presents - literally. Preacher was a quick-learner! We had guests over for Christmas dinner - both 4-footed and 2-footed. We'll post some pics of them next time.