Thursday, October 27, 2005

48: Mighty War in the mind

I will fight anyone who does not love Jon Ronson.

With that out of the way, I thought that The Men Who Stare at Goats might make a good palette cleanser after all the girly time travelling my reading's been doing recently. And it does. It's only a short book - three train trips from my house to the city and it was gone - but there's a lot of information in it.

After the Second World War, the American army became more open to trying to new techniques to, well, control the physical and mental chemistry of its own soldiers and the enemy's soldiers in an attempt to either prevent a war or win one, depending on who was in charge of the military programmes at the time. Experiments included, but were not limited to, staring at goats and other animals to try to remotely stop their hearts, playing discordant sounds and music at the enemy to disrupt brainwaves, hypnotism, the administration of LSD, and so on. Some of these tactics are still in use. Some are credited with limited success while others are openly laughed at for several years, yet resurrected periodically when a new wave of commanders tries to revamp the army and its image.

Jon Ronson is a good journalist to have working on such a project. He is open and willing to be convinced, but not gullible. He is sceptical and grounded in reality, but not sneering and cynical. He doesn't reallly seem to have an agenda except to find out what's going on, maybe tell a few funny anecdotes along the way, but mostly get to the bottom of an interesting question.

As an atheist, though, it is refreshing to see someone make the link between the New Age hippy practices of spoon bending and remote thinking and mass prayer meetings. Yes, it's pretty stupid to think that you can stop a goat's heart from the next room just by staring at it. Is it any stupider than thinking you can influence some deity in the sky to make the Iraqis surrender?

I was also interested in the stories of collateral damage, of what happens when the easily influenced come into contact with military "experts" feeding them "facts" (step forward the Heaven's Gate crew, remember them?) and when people on the inside of these projects decide they want to get out.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to any ofyour paranoid friends though. If you think they were bad after reading Them, you won't want to go drinking with them after reading this.

47: Buckingham? Bummingham, more like

I know, I know I said I wasn't going to read any more Philippa Gregory after the awfulness of The Wise Woman, but I couldn't resist Earthly Joys, which is the first of her two books about John Tradescant, the great British gardener, and his rise to fortune during the fun and frolics of the reign and death of James I (except for viewers in Scotland, who were watching the reign of James VI) and the beginnings of rumblings of Mighty War.

Alert readers may notice that I read the second of these books earlier in the year and loved it, and that it was, in fact, the book that got me hooked on Gregory's own brand of research 'n' rumpo,. They are the ideal in historical fiction. The characters are more than just vehicles for her research, the stories are interesting, the historical backdrop is fascinating, and you can polish them off with amazing speed and feel you've learned a little something at the end of it all. Of course I now have to go and read some proper history books about the period in order to confirm some details. Did the Duke of Buckingham really sleep his way to the top by shagging not one, but two kings of England? Did the Duke's mother really poison James? I don't know. But I suspect C.V. Wedgwood probably does. I shall ask her.

Posted Oct. 27 2005, at 10:36 AM
Comments (2)
On Buckingham: I think so, but unfortunately CV Wedgwood kicks in after he leaves the scene so she can't help you. If you can track down the Pelican history of 17th-century Britain that'd be a good place to look.
Posted by wwhyte on Oct. 27 2005, at 2:21 PM Delete
We have a copy somehwere at home (if none of the animals has eaten it) but i can't remember it covering that.
Posted by Keith on Oct. 28 2005, at 3:59 AM Delete

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

46: chicky book alert!

About ten years ago I saw a sketch on a short-lived comedy show with an all-female cast. The sketch starred Terri Garr as the hostess of a book group that was getting together to discuss The Bridges of Madison County. Terri Garr wears a big denim shirt and a bandanna. She fusses about the livingroom. The other women in the book group arrive and they are also wearing denim shirts and bandannas. Not having read the book, I didn't quite get the joke, but it became clear as they discussed the book, with the whole thing degenerating into a fistfight over who was most like the woman in the book.

The Time Traveller's Wife is one of those books too, I suspect. Not satisfied with simply reading it, some women will try to find themselves in it because the lives of the people in it are kind of imaginable in the similarities to us, but impossibly remote and desirable in their differences.

And yes, it is a very chicky book. Which is not to say there's a lot of kissing in it (although there is) and nothing to interest the blokey reader. But it taps into exactly the same romantic desire as the film of Last of the Mohicans and Truly, Madly, Deeply - namely, the desire to have a man who will always find you. Who will always come back to you and do everything he can to make sure that you're okay, no matter what's happening or where he is. And if he ever can't get back to you, you can be damned sure that he is bloody well trying.

My only problem was that I found it a little hard to throw myself fully into the romance of it all because Henry (the Time Traveller), kept reminding me of Eoghan Barry at odd moments. The obsessive running. The playing of loud music. The wearing of t-shirts with band names on them. The love of spending hours in the kitchen making elaborate meals. The overachieving family. The swearing and drinking. You get the picture.

Still, don't let that put you off. Oh. It has. Well, if it has to be in my head...
Posted Oct. 19 2005, at 9:55 AM
Comments (6)
Read this one and really enjoyed it. Passed it on to Marshall who sobbed like an infant while reading it as we sat waiting for a flight to check-in. Chicky, yes. Thankfully our enjoyment was un-sullied by associating anyone we knew with Henry. I don't know any obsessive runners.
Posted by StevieB on Oct. 19 2005, at 10:29 AM Delete
There you are, you see. And Stevie is a boy, who likes football and everything!
I too had a big cry at various points throughout the book. I suspect this might be partly due to two external factors. One, my husband is away and I miss him. Two, I cry at bloody everything.
Posted by perfectlycromulent on Oct. 19 2005, at 11:56 AM Delete
That...could describe anyone. Well, almost anyone.

Mind you, Celeste loved it.
Posted by Eoghan on Oct. 19 2005, at 2:19 PM Delete
I read it and finished it, but I thought it was a pile of maudlin chickylit. For the reasons that you outlined. What is it about women that they need to have a man like that? We're not that fantastic that some bloke should spend his eternity looking for us. I wouldn't do it for a bloke. Having said that, I really liked the male character. Well written.
Posted by Queenie on Oct. 22 2005, at 2:07 PM Delete
Is it also like The Last of the Mohicans in that it features lots of lovingly rendered 18th century battles?
Posted by ian on Oct. 22 2005, at 6:33 PM Delete
Ooh, now we want a film with Alan Rickman in the role of Henry. I could take Sam to that and I'd be SO in.
Posted by Myles on Oct. 25 2005, at 11:05 PM Delete

45: I wouldn't wait underwater

Gun, With Occasional Music is a detective novel set in the near future. Do you like a bit of Raymond Chandler? Did you like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep but find it all a bit serious? Well then, this is the book for you. Funny and gunny.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The pope offers you this bounty

I forgot to take my camera with me to dinner on Thursday night, but here is a small photo of the Pope room in Buca di Beppo's, where Keith's manager, Russ, and all the other guys from his team brought us for dinner on Thursday night. It was your typical nerdy Italian dinner. We spilled food on the table and talked about beards. But no-one could escape the beady eyes of Pope Benedict in the centre of the table on the lazy susan, turning slowly and sweeping the table with his beams of holiness.

When we left, Russ gave us these lovely flowers as a present for our wedding. Bloody Googlers. They're just so nice.

Palo Alto United Methodist Church

Not merely the most interesting building I've seen on this entire trip to the south bay area (or whatever the hell they're calling Silicon Valley these days), but one of the best buildings I've ever seen. It looks like it should move around. Shame we weren't able to go inside.

In these days of having it your way

It's nice that there's one place that doesn't offer you chicken zinger ranch salad box options with low-fat carb free dressings or a piece of fruit for the kids. No. Hamburger, cheeseburger, or two cheeseburgers stuck together.

But there is a secret extra that they don't advertise on the board. Oh yes. The 4x4. You know it makes sense.

That's what a hamburger's...

...all about!

Sorry Stevie, it's all gone.

Posted by StevieB on Oct. 10 2005, at 9:21 AM Delete
but whitecastle have the best fries
Posted by on Oct. 21 2005, at 3:35 PM Delete
Ah-ha! Anonymous has issued a challenge. I've never been to White Castle, so I don't know.
Posted by perfectlycromulent on Oct. 21 2005, at 3:37 PM Delete

Thursday, October 06, 2005

43: No spice is worth this

At this stage I consider myself something of a connoisseuse of popular history books concerning ships and the sea, and Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg is right up there with In the Heart of the Sea as one of the best. Telling the story of the spice trade from the British point of view, Milton has great anecdotes about the beginnings of the wars between Britain and the Netherlands, the formation of both the British and Dutch East India Companies, the reasons for the high value of spices, and some lovely stories about the lives of the people who explored, fought over, and traded with the natives on these remote and hostile islands.

And yes, these books do follow a pattern, as the LRB says. They invite you to imagine a world without the thing the book is about, in order to build up its importance and make you believe that the main subject of the book (invariably some person of great character who has been consigned to the fringes of history in a way that makes you wonder about the fate of Neil Armstrong (especially given that there are already twenty year-olds who don't know who he is)) is a greater historical figure than Nelson or Magellan. Which of course they aren't, unless you're a chemist or a cartographer or lexicographer or whatever kind of specialist the author is.

The most interesting thing about this book, though, is that it starts off being about one thing and ends up being about something else entirely. And for once - hats off to Sceptre for this - the blurb on the back doesn't give away the whole point of the book, so there is actually a nice surprise at the end. Top notch.

Please upgrade me to a better film

Fair fucks to Jodie Foster. At an age when many women are moaning about there being no decent roles for them in Hollywood, she's reinvented herself as an action hero. Trouble is, this is her second maternal protection mayhem movie and neither of them is a patch on Aliens. And this one isn't even a patch on the last one. The description of the story as being Hitchcock on a plane is a good one, but what that doesn't tell you is that it's one of the ridiculous twist-turny Hitchcocks that just has you saying "what?" and "why don't they just..." all the time.

The film tried very hard to distract you from this with lots of footage of Jodie climbing around the insides of a superplane, so that you think you know how a plane works. And the music helpfully tells you from the very beginning that something very bad is about to happen. But this is a slight film and even at an hour and a half it seems too long.

Good thing I bunked in to it and didn't pay. Man, it's so easy to do that in the US.
Posted Oct. 06 2005, at 6:37 PM
Comments (1)
OHMYGOD is that Sean Bean in the photo?
Posted by Queenie on Oct. 12 2005, at 3:41 AM Delete

My gangster's got no nose

I did just type in a proper review of this film, but then stupid blog thing gave me an access denied message, so I'm not doing it all over again. Here's the picture again for Queenie's sake, at least.

Okay, let's try it again. Because I can't be bothered to type it all again, let's just say that the violence is bone-crunching and seriously non-cartoonish and the whole film is dispatched cleanly and efficiently. Like, er, a good contract killing.
Posted Oct. 06 2005, at 6:27 PM
Comments (1)
Gee thanks

I don't like his look in this much. Except for his nice 'smile lines' around his eyes. I think he's the only person in Hollywood that hasn't had surgery.

Although I like some bits of him in the film!!! noo-nee-noo-nee-noo, tum-ti-tum

Posted by Queenie on Oct. 12 2005, at 3:45 AM Delete

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

42: Don't die, poor brown dog!

No Great Mischief is one of those books that's often knocking about in our shop, looking like a quality modern literary read, but not really exciting much interest among the punters (including me). However, since my trip to Nova Scotia I've been actively seeking to keep the spirit of Canada alive in me and so I sought out this story of Scottish immigrants and their experiences in the land across the water.

It's a beautiful book, dealing with a wide range of subjects including family, oral history, dogs, cars, racism, the decline of the agrarian way of life, the camaraderie of men who do impossible jobs, the borders between countries old and new, and the dangers of alcoholism.

And it has a bit with a brown dog that caught me completely by surprise and made me cry on the train on the way into work one morning.

I will certainly be reading more of Mr. McLeod's work.
Posted Oct. 04 2005, at 12:03 AM
Comments (2)
I don't remember any of that and I have that book and that edition (wot you have on blog). very annoying will have to read it again.

Am reading the Deptford Trilogy at present. Early twentieth century Canada. Very funny, and very very illuminating about the Canadian soul.
Posted by Queenie on Oct. 04 2005, at 4:54 PM Delete
Is that Robertson Davies? Those books come into the shop a lot too. Must look out for them.
Posted by perfectlycromulent on Oct. 04 2005, at 4:59 PM Delete

Monday, October 03, 2005

It's the place to stay in Mountain View

This is the hotel where Keith is living during his six weeks in Mountain View, and the room really does look like this. I think it's great for him to be staying in a hotel room that looks like the kind of studio apartment you'd actually look forward to coming home to, instead of a crappy beige standard business hotel room. And there's an excellent bus service, and an Albertsons right across the road and an In-n-Out Burger just up the road. All in all, it's a good spot to be in.

There's also a very swish looking hi-fi lounge full of the kind of furniture I WANT TO HAVE. We discussed the fact that we're just not collectors. We don't have the stick-to-it-iveness that accumulating collectables requires. If we did, we would have bought that wonderful 1950s table and chairs in Halifax for $150 and paid to have it shipped back home. But we didn't.

Maybe I can get Queenie to do it for me.

Posted Oct. 03 2005, at 11:54 PM
Comments (3)
In-n-out, In-n-out, that's what a burger's all about. I hate you both!
Posted by StevieB on Oct. 04 2005, at 9:31 AM Delete
I saw it the other day I think! So it's still in the shop. I wondered at the time why you didn't buy it, but you were busy.

I'll do it for you no probs if you like.
Posted by Queenie on Oct. 04 2005, at 4:56 PM Delete
I know exactly where the hotel is.
Posted by Columbo on Oct. 27 2005, at 7:11 PM Delete