Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday night update...

Which I started by publishing just the title. This does not bode well.

Anyway, what I started to write was that it took me a few days after returning from the con to get back into reading mode. But I am back and finished Dexter Is Delicious this afternoon. Good book; relaxing fiction, if a little grotesque. If you've ever seen the TV series, you alraedy know that. I'll probably have more to say about this one soon, but it's late and I should be going to sleep soon.

The other update is that I was very good and didn't spend any money at all in the dealer's room at Gallifrey. This does not mean that I didn't come back with a book. I was given a copy of The Mythological Dimension of Doctor Who (2010, Kitsune Books; 248 pages), edited by Anthony S. Burdge, Jessica Burke and Kristine Larsen. It is a series of essays about the relation of the British television series Doctor Who and its spinoffs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It looks like it might be interesting and is definitely on my to-read list for the not-too-distant future.

However, I've got to try to finish up Claim of Privilege. I've also got to find some more fiction to read; it was a nice change of pace to read the Dexter novel. But, like I said, more about that later. Right now I've got a seven o'clock alarm waiting for me in the morning.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday Update

I've been meaning to update for a couple of days, but I've been getting ready to go out of town and I just keep not getting around to it.

I'm reading two books right now. First of all, I finally found something on the fiction shelves at the library that looked like it might be fun, and so I'm reading Dexter is Delicious (Doubleday, 2010; 350 pages), by Jeff Lindsay. This is the fifth novel in the series by Lindsay and the inspration for the Showtime TV series, "Dexter". In case you aren't familiar, it follows the adventures of Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami-Dade Police Department, who also happens to be a serial murderer. The hitch is, he only murders people who "deserve" it, bad people that society is better off without. I've read the first three books (the fourth wasn't available and this one was, and so far it doesn't seem to matter that I haven't read the fourth yet) and seen the first two seasons of the television series, and I honestly think it is remarkable that Lindsay has been able to take what should be an abhorrent character and make him a likeable, sympathetic character. I think much of this has to do that, both in the books and in the shows, we get to hear Dexter's inner monologue and learn exactly how he ticks.

In this book, Dexter has just become a father, an event that has him very surprised to be feeling what seem to be genuine emotions for the first time in his life. He is even considering giving up his extracurricular murderous activities, based on this new part of himself he has discovered. On the other hand, his brother, also a serial killer (but one who doesn't confine his urges to kill to the bad guys of the world) and presumed dead at the end of the first novel, shows up, likely with evil intent. There's also a crime to solve at work. I'm only about 90 pages in at the moment, but I'm enjoying the book very much so far.

The other book I'm currently reading is Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets (HarperCollins, 2008; 384 pages), by Barry Siegel. Much more serious reading than the "Dexter" novel, of course, and fairly interesting reading so far. It tells the story of the long quest by the families of some men killed in a military plane crash in 1948 in Waycross, Georgia. The families, of course, wanted to know what had happened to their family members, but the government wouldn't tell them anything, saying that the flight was classified. The families took the issue all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the information about the flight was, indeed, classified, a ruling which recognized the state secrets privilge formally for the first time in US history. But, I've gleaned from the flyleaf that the papers related to the crash were eventually made public, revealing that the crash was actually was a result of negligence on the part of military personnel, and the claim of secrecy was made to cover up the mistakes that were made that cost all but four of the flight's crew memberrs their lives.

The interest in reading this book, for me, will be to see how the legal issues involved unfolded and resolved. Knowing the general outcome won't, I don't think, detract from the journey of the story. That this is often the case, espeically in reading non-fiction, is something I've learned over the years, and I think it is an important point. Yes, it's cheating to look ahead to the last chapter or last page of a novel, but in non-fiction, the reader often knows the general outcome of the story the writer is telling in the book and it is how the author gets the reader from the beginning to the end of that story is the real issue.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book Review: "Exile on Main St.", by Robert Greenfield

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. Aside from their big hits, some of which I like very much, I really don’t know their music that well. I’ve never bought a Stones album, and I think the only single (that’s vinyl, for those of you who are younger) of theirs I ever owned was “Angie”. I’ve seen the documentary Gimme Shelter, about the Stones’ disastrous free concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969, but I’ve watched it more out of historical curiosity than anything else. When the Stones played a show at a venue a couple of blocks from where I was living at the time, I said that I wished I could have afforded a ticket, but only so that I could say that I had seen them live and not out of fannish devotion.

So, I’m not quite sure why I picked Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006; 258 pages), by Robert Greenfield, off the shelf at the library, much less why I checked it out and brought it home to read. No clue whatsoever.

No matter why I did it, however, I’m glad I did. It is an absorbing book, which I finished off in two evenings’ reading. It ostensibly tells the story of the Stones’ period of tax exile in France, where they were to record the album that became “Exile on Main St.”, in the basement of the villa Keith Richards was renting in the south of the country. But not much recording went on, for various reasons, and the book becomes the story of Richards and his then-girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, of the rocky start to Mick Jagger’s marriage to Bianca rose Perez-Mora (her name is apparently longer than that, but that is how Greenfield reports that she signed the register at their civil ceremony), and of all the various hangers-on who spent most of several months there, mostly doing drugs, and each other, and trying, not especially successfully, to stay out of trouble.

It isn’t a pretty story. There are drugs, debauchery, and bad behavior of many different kinds. It’s a wonder, I thought more than once while I was reading, that any of them survived the adventure. It also occurred to me as I read that the book could be used as part of a Just Say No to drugs campaign. There is no glamorization of drug use here. Greenfield makes it very clear that drugs make people sick. It makes them do stupid things. Sometimes it makes them die. Clearly, Keith Richards is a sort of counterexample, but the one that proves the case.

But, while not pretty, it is a fascinating story, told in a unique way, by a man who was there for at least part of the events, as Greenfield went to the villa during that time to interview Richards for a story in Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout the first three sections, the bulk of the book, Greenfield drifts freely between the present tense and past tense. This should have annoyed me, but it didn’t. That manner of telling the story seemed natural in a way that it probably shouldn’t have. It was clearly a calculated strategy, since the final section of the book, an extended “where are they now” narrative, is written completely in the past tense. The effect of this gives that final bit an air of “it’s all over now”, in contrast to the first sections, which manage to give the impression that the action is somehow still going on in some time-look that has detached itself from the normal flow of time.

I saw an interesting point in the next-to-last section of the book, when Keith Richards is very ill and goes into an exclusive private rehabilitation clinic in Switzerland. Although he is eventually recognized by a young fan, great pains are taken to keep his hospitalization, and the reason for it, quiet. What a contrast this is to today’s celebrities, many of whom go in and out of rehab at the slightest pretext and often to repair their reputations more than to actually treat any substance abuse or other problems. This may not be a point that Greenfield was trying to make when he wrote, but it nevertheless provides a vivid contrast between the early 1970s, when the events in Exile on Main St. take place, and the very different celebrity culture that exists today.

My experience with this book also illustrates a point that I try to make as often as I can. Sometimes, my best reading experiences come from just browsing the shelves and the library and picking up a book I otherwise wouldn’t have and giving it a try.

Bookstores: Borders Books edges closer to bankruptcy

Reports are circulating that Borders Group, owners of the number two bookstore chain in the United States, could file for bankruptcy reorganization as early as next week. There are also rumors that the chain could close up to 200 stores and eliminate thousands of jobs. The company would not comment on the reports, other than to say that its goal is to “have a strong Borders for the long term” and that it would not comment on how it might reach that goal.

It was also reported recently that Borders was delaying payments to some vendors in January, including major publishers, most of whom were not shipping books to the chain as a result, despite a request from Borders to turn missed payments from December into loans. The company has also delayed payments to some landlords so that it could “maintain liquidity” while trying to find a way out of its financial bind. That statement came just days after it had secured a $550 million line of credit from GE Capital. In addition, there have also been reports that some publishers will not support a restructuring for Borders, which would force it to liquidate instead.

It isn’t a big surprise that this is happening. I’ve been seeing rumors about the bad state of Borders’ finances for months now. Most of the reports blame more online book sales, as well as more book sales at places like Wal-Mart, Target, and grocery stores. My own personal opinion is that this is only part of the story. I gave up shopping at my local Borders long ago, when they nearly never had what I was looking for and when staff were not helpful in aiding me in finding things that I could not locate. This is not necessarily true in other Borders stores I have shopped in while traveling, but the selection and service in my local store has been uniformly unsatisfactory almost since it opened.

The problem I found to be more widespread was the lack of organization at the stores. It is often difficult to find subject sections among non-fiction books, and within those sections there has often seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how books are shelved. I love bookstores, and I love spending time in them, but I don’t want to spend the majority of my time there having to scan every title in a section when looking for a specific book because the books are not organized in any meaningful way. Not alphabetical by author, not strictly chronologically in the case of history, nor by subject matter in the case of books on current events.

Of course, this is my own experience, and your mileage may vary. But the fact remains that I’ve often found shopping at Borders to be frustrating in the extreme, and I’m not likely to continue to shop at places where this is the case. It remains to be seen what will happen to Borders, but I’m not optimistic about the outcome of its current financial troubles.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thursday Update...

I finally gave up on Mirage Men. I just couldn't do it. The subject matter was interesting...I'm interested in belief systems, so I'm always interested to read about conspiracy theories (this one being that the CIA and other US secret agencies have been behind UFO activity, either through testing secret aircraft or through staging...really hoaxing...sightings, at least since the 1950s and perhaps even earlier), and so I'm always fascinated to learn why people believe the theories that they believe and why they reject the ones they don't believe. I really wanted to read this book.

However, the writing was not stellar, to say the least. The author seemed to feel free to be snarky about people and events he didn't like or believe. It was just too negative an experience all around that I wasn't motivated to continue.

So, that's two books I've given up on so far this year, compared with four read since the beginning of the year. Not a very good ratio, I suppose.

Giving up on that book opened up time to begin another book, and so yesterday afternoon I started reading Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell With The Rolling Stones (Da Capo Press, 2006; 258 pages), by Robert Greenfield. I'm already nearly halfway through it and finding it a good read. It revolves around the time in the early 1970s when the Stones were tax exiles in France and working on the recording of "Exile on Main St.", considered to be one of the band's best albums.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An epic sigh of frustration, or, Sunday update

I've completely given up on Mercy, Mercy Me. I just can't make myself read any more. I'm very disappointed, but at this point, I will not finish the book. Maybe I'll give it anoter try sometime. It wouldn't be the first book that it took more than one try for me to get thruogh. Dune took three or four tries, for example.

And then there's Mirage Men. I've been attempting to continue with it, and I'm a third of the way through it now. At that point, I feel some obligation to finish it, having spent as much time on it as I have. I'm intrested in the material. I certainly wouldn't put it past some of the alphabet agencies to manufacture UFO sightings for their own edifcation and enjoyment. I'm not convinced that this completely expains the UFO phenomenon...the author reports that this may have been happening since the late 1940s or early 1950s, and I'm not sure why they would be continuing to do such things sixty years and a little more down the road, and goodness knows such sightings are still being made. Just in the recent past, I've seen headlines about reports in places like China and Jerusalem. Haven't those agencies got more important fish to fry?

But, even though I am interested in the material, and even though I'm still trying to stay with the book all the way through, I'm still not sure I'm going to be able to stand it. I'm not especially impressed with the author's ability to present information. I keep thinking, as I read, how does he know that the information he has been given...after all, someone he mentions as having "ties" to some of those alphabet agencies sent him off on at least one tangent of his research...isn't disinformation, and that he isn't being played by someone? How can I know that he isn't part of the very kinds of information manipulation he has been saying agencies like the CIA and the NSA has indulged in, in the past?

It's like trying to follow most conspiracy theories, one of which is what his book is mainly proposing. At some point they just become too convoluted to follow, and finally, the reader has to throw up her hands and say, "Enough. This doesn't make any sense any more."

So, one down, the victim of over-analysis, and one still in progress. How much longer I'll keep reading, however, is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday Update

I'm at a point where I'm not really happy with either of the books I'm reading at the moment. I'm still trying to make my way through Mercy, Mercy Me, but I'm finding that some of the analysis of Marvin Gaye's music there, both by the author of the book, and by others, which the author reports, has a lot more to do with who they think Gaye was or who they wish he had been, than it does with who he actually was and what his motivations were for what he recorded and how he recorded it. That's making it difficult for me to get excited about continuing to read.

The other book I'm currently reading, Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010; 338 pages), by Mark Pilkington, has the potential to be interesting. I hadn't meant to read another UFO book so soon, but I happened on it in the library while I was reading Sight Unseen and thought a different point of view would be fun.

I'm not very far into Mirage Men yet, but the author's thesis seems to be that most, if not all, of the UFO phenomenon is a construct of the CIA and/or other US alphabet agencies to either cover up things they've done and want to keep secret or mistakes they've made that would be a PR nightmare if they got out. Either that, or the stories were made up to make the enemies of the US, in the Cold War and afterward, think the US might have capabilities that are far beyond convention technologies. The implication, I suppose, being that the US had procured a saucer and had reverse-engineered it and made use of the technology.

Fun, right? Well...I'm finding that Pilkington's writing just isn't engaging me. So, we will see where this goes and how long I will stick with the book. Because, you know, there are too many interesting things to do in the world to read a book you aren't enjoying just because you started it.

I did read a book review online this morning that has convinced me I need to read the book reviewed there, Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences (Icon Books, 338 pages), by Cordelia Fine. Judging by the review, the book is a pretty scathing critique of scientific claims that gender differences between men and women are significant and are hardwired into our brains. Sounds interesting. I've seen reports of some of the studies that claim to prove this idea, and I haven't found them convincing.

The problem here is that the review, which I found via Arts & Letters Daily, appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the book might well not be available in the US. I will be finding out. And perhaps asking a friend in the UK to send me a copy.

As an aside,, the comments that accompany the review are interesting and, I think, point out that gender is a highly polarizing subject and that therefore it is entirely possible that scientists studying it and its implications might find what they want to see in the evidence, perhaps even despite aiming at an objective interpretation of that evidence.