Friday, April 29, 2005

I'm going to have to change credit cards. MBNA is promising all sorts of unpleasant changes to the terms of agreement on the expiration of my current card, and the credit card company has been doing its best to whip-lash me with unpredictable payment dates in a fashion clearly calculated to harvest as many late dates as possible. Since their change of terms includes a tripling of the late fee, I'm starting to think that I can't afford to do business with these people.

Anyone have a favorite credit card company - one that doesn't believe the ambuscade is a legitimate business tactic?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Sorry about the long silence. My responsibilities at work have been somewhat expanded, and I have less time to putz around the internet. Except for moments like now, while I wait for a situation to resolve itself down the line.

I finished Beatie's first volume last night. Not much to report besides an amplification of my previous comments, which is to say that Beatie isn't exactly a sterling master of prose, but it doesn't get all that much in the way of the reading. His style is very anecdotal, stop-and-start, and he's easily distracted down long digressions, often in thick, meaty footnotes of dubious relevance. It's all good - he writes like a wargamer dabbling in history. It's comforting, in a way.

And how long has it been since it was acceptable to write actual, honest-to-God footnotes? They've been taxing my patience and my pinky-finger with those verkakte endnotes since the Truman Administration and I, for one, am tired of that shit. Let's hear it for old-fashioned, Gibbonesque, verbose, rambling, footnoting. Reminds me of the freshman summer I spent reading through Fall of the Roman Empire.

Surprisingly enough, given Dimitri Rotov's endorsement, Beatie is remarkably hostile to McClellan, Fitz John Porter and most of their works. The individual for which Beatie had the most unexpected praise, of a sort, was Simon Cameron, Lincoln's first Secretary of War, which he portrays as bumbling, ignorant, but well-meaning and terribly buffeted by the peculiar starts of the near-senile Scott. Previously, all I knew of Cameron was that he was a Pennsylvanian politician of importance, was known for remarkable amounts of corruption in the early War, and no-one had anything good to say about him.

Beatie's love for colorful stories tends to take him off on wild rambles through material that often seems a bit off the subject matter, but the color does offer some entertainment value, if nothing else. His extended discussion of the long formation of the First New York Cavalry Regiment, in all its comic-opera glory, is a particularly shining example of these digressions, both in its faults and its virtues. He spends so much time on the First New York Cavalry and its place in official early-war ignorance and hostility towards the cavalry, that we hear very little of the rest of the early cavalry regiments, which must have existed, given their later mention in the aggregate and a separate, smaller set of anecdotes about the excessively nautical First Maine Cavalry.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Huh. A pair of Altoona boys stopped two large suicide truck bombs the other day from crashing into a Marine base. Let's hear it for the home team.
Since it's been so dry and sunny recently, I went for a walk up Shinglestown Gap on Saturday with my copy of Beatie on hand. Shinglestown Gap is an unmarked, unadvertised little parklet off of Rt. 45 on Tussy Mountain behind Boalsburg. As advertised, it's a gap, a place in the mountain where a stream - Rocky Run - cut through the outer lip of the ridge on its way into the Spring Creek watershed. They've got signs all over the front of the gap warning against fires near the creek, and fires in general.

There's a tiny, half-hearted parking lot at the end of the road, and it was pretty full. Families like to take their dogs and kids on walks up the creekbed trail, which is kind of an ankle-turner, but relatively flat, and cool from the rapid-running stream even in the heat of summer. For some perversity of character on my part which I don't quite understand in its entirity, I tend to take the ridgetop path into the Gap, instead of simply following the families along the gap floor. The outlying ridge, or spur, between which and the main ridge the stream cuts a path, offers a fairly fine view of the valley between State College and Mount Nittany, as well as the Bald Eagles in the distance, depending on the air quality of the viewing day in question.

There's a sort of path up the leading edge of the spur, if you want to call it so. In its beginning stages, it's as much a rock-climb as anything else - a scramble up a two-fifths vertical collection of tumbled stone, boulders, fine pine-needle dirt, and the occasional tree. It's the sort of path on which I feel most comfortable on three points, as the loose pine-needle dirt and the occasional wobbly rock makes for uncertain footing along stretches where a fall could and would take you several hundred feet down a jagged slope. I almost never go with anyone else up this path, as those who are in worse physical shape than I would never make it, and the vast bulk of humanity which is in *better* shape than I would never tolerate the half-dozen breathers I have to take in order to make it to the top of the ridge.

The Beatie was for entertainment purposes while I laid panting on said breathers; however, the bugs and flies had had an early spring, and were quite unbearable in the afternoon sun. Why is it that gnats and flies seem to prefer sun-scorched, tumbled high rocks over the cool and moist air of the creekside trails? I suppose it might have to do with how much time you spend laying motionless in either space - you're not about to lie, exhausted, by the flat and easy stretches of the creekbed trail. At any rate, I was exhausted enough by the climb that I took the first trail off the ridgetop trail back down to the creek, and thus back to the parking lot. This was still a mile or so from the initial climb.

I had disturbed the birds of prey from their preferred roosts on the ridgetop crags. Hawks and turkey buzzards are alarmingly large from three dozen feet away; the thermals didn't get them far enough away from my exhausted perch, not far enough for them, and not far enough for I, for that matter. The exhaustion was such that I didn't enjoy the walk and the view as much as I normally would.

At least I called and told somebody where I was going before I went off to risk my neck on a high walk. At about the same time as my ridgetop climb, our county district attorney turned up missing. He apparently called off work, told his girlfriend he was going driving, and disappeared. They found his Mini Cooper a county over, on the outskirts of Lewisburg.

Nobody's sure where he is, but there's a terrible lot of speculation. Some think he's just gone on walkabout - he's done similar disappearing acts during baseball season in the past. But then why would his car be abandoned? There's some paranoid speculation about drug gangs and/or the Mafia. First of all, the Mafia doesn't have squat for organization in central Pennsylvania. Secondly, drug gangs have better ways to deal with prosecutions than stirring up a hornet's nest by killing or abducting an obscure country prosecutor.

Personally, I suspect he either had a heart attack on a walk, or somebody did a hit-and-run, and they haven't found his body yet. Shame - he wasn't a half-bad district attorney.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Ugh, the new Full Metal Panic sequel is a real sequel, and not another season of Full Metal Panic Fumoffu!. The author of that blog thinks this is a good thing. You wouldn't be misled if you took away the impression that I don't join him/her/it in such a sentiment. I thought the original Full Metal Panic was an unutterably cliched lump of undigested shit - nuggets of fish-out-of-water high school hijinks suspended in the midst of pseudo-Gasaraki mecha drama.

The half-sequel Fumoffu pretty much forgot about mecha melodrama, in favor of a true fish-out-of-water type of comedy in which said fish was unapologetically insane. This was Fumoffu's genius - that series refused to credit Sosuke with sane motives. He was a figure of chaos operating on his own, rigid, internal code of behavior - and that code was absolutely, objectively nuts. He made a perfect foil for Chidori's precarious straight-man routine. His lunacy was just operative enough to be horribly seductive - his high-explosives, heavily armed approach to high-school comedic problems *worked*, more often than not. And after all, every school girl must be tempted at times to spit on her hands, raise the black flag, and start slitting throats.

The original series, on the other hand, took Sosuke, and by extension, itself, seriously. We're talking about a teenaged non-com who grew up as an Afghani guerilla piloting a battle-mecha, for the love of Nagai. It surely didn't help that his main antagonist was killed not once, not twice, but three distinct times. The writers just resurrected him from the dustbin whenever they needed to re-start the melodrama machine. I don't *want* more of the original Full Metal Panic. It was a stupid show. I'd prefer more sequels which agree with me on the subject, like Fumoffu.

Oh, BTW? Use permalinks, people. Makes it a pain to link to you, otherwise.
Busy week - the spring planting season is well under way, and even up here in the valley, they're plowing while the sun shines, and Rockview has work gangs out in the fields, doing their annual rock-patrol in the fields. You'd think that after two hundred years of cultivation, the fields would be pretty well free of rocks, but you'd be wrong...

The first volume of Beatie's Army of the Potomac history arrived last week, and I've been cruising along when I have the time. It seems like my kind of history - not so much with the narrative, true, but more like an ambling series of anecdotes. Since I find the anecdotes amusing, it's all good, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

This sergeant has collected four Purple Hearts since 2002 and is almost certainly headed for a fifth, given that he's been shot again. Infantry armor has definitely been a blessing.

Looks like the Iraq Coalition Count page has added a civilian/police/Iraqi military section, now that foreign coalition and US casualties are trending strongly downwards. To be honest, they should have had it from the point that the Iraqi armed forces and police were properly re-formed. But that water under the bridge having flowed, the Iraqi military are definitely part of the "coalition", so I suppose it's all good.

Monday, April 11, 2005

I bought a half-off copy of Ikebukuro West Gate Park to fill out a credit card purchase at the Comic Swap which I didn't feel was quite justified by a volume of Bleach alone. The blogsphere reviews of IWGP weren't exactly compelling, and the general fanboy audience didn't exactly seem to rally to the cause, either, to judge by how fast said copy sailed into the cut-rate bin. I suppose the plastic-wrap didn't help matters - who wants to buy an obscure manga you've never heard of, sight unseen?

All that aside, it wasn't quite as terrible as I had expected. The story was passable, the sexual content largely unexceptionable, the art was plastic and rather manufactured in feeling and tone. Very over-inked, very generic. All that aside, the writing wasn't half bad, and the characters were kind of compelling. I liked it more than I thought I would. Not nearly as offensive as, say, Club 9.

Beautiful weekend, wasn't it? Saturday was a great day to spend at work, doing my taxes and catching the weekend planter-logging entry request rush. Sunday? I spent playing computer games.

I really am a hopeless, sunless urban mole.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Saw the end of Mai Hime the other night. Two words: "Reset motherfuckers". Bah. Comedy and high-drama tragedy/melodrama can co-exist - look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its salad days - but the writers have to be damned careful with the reset button. Mai Hime was a rather lack-luster fighting-girls comedy which developed a hard, harsh, nasty second half - and did well with it. Sadly, the last episode blew through that treasury of merit like a cardinal with an unlimited spiritual line of credit and an out-of-control faro habit. I'm not generally a tragedy kind of guy - I'm all for happy endings; I'm an American, after all. But certain story-lines demand bitter tragedy as a purgative, and Mai-Hime's emotional middle-late themes really ought to have been left be as-is. Fuck the reset button.

Oh, I thought this was amusing. It's apparently from the website for the new Victorian maid anime, Emma. I can't imagine what water could be drawn from that blasted heath of a premise, but it's getting good buzz, and the character-designs and backgrounds in the screenshots I've seen rather remind me of Witch Hunter Robin, which I'm fond of.

Bleach continues to rock sedimentarily, metamorphically, and igeneously, to steal a phrase. Volume 6 wasn't the pitch-perfect fighting-shounen-schoolkids brilliance that was volume 5, but it was still the sort of gemlike wonderful which leaves you buzzing and giddy afterwards. I've been warned that it gang aft agly after this volume, but I'll have to take that as it comes. For now - wooohooohohoo!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

But this book is not aimed primarily at fellow experts or readers of my previous books. I have intentionally and with substantial effort kept it very short in order to reach a new and, I hope, wider audience.

Preface, the Fate of Their Country, Michael F. Holt.

Goddamnit! I ordered the blasted thing in the hopes that it was an extension of his Whig study, the Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, since I haven't yet found a similar study of the early Republican Party that was worth a good goddamn. Instead, I managed to buy what the author himself identifies as a book with fucking training wheels.

Oh, BTW, Wen Spencer's Tinker is a bit of all right; she has the occasional issue with the limited-third-person, and it's essentially a wish-fulfillment escapist romp, but hey - that's what I live for, wish-fulfillment escapist romps. As rumor and possibly C.S. Lewis has it, the only people who oppose escape are critics and jailers. And hey - Tinker has elves in Pittsburgh. What's not to love? Other than the apparent fact that Spencer *was* working on a sequel, but seems to have dropped off the screen.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Lance Morrow's The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948: Learning the Secrets of Power was one of the books I ordered from Amazon the other week on a blog recommendation; it was also the first to arrive. When I ordered it, I had not noticed that the author was that self-same Time columnist whose work was part and parcel of the bland uselessness which has always kept me from reading the modern incarnation of that publication.

I suppose I wouldn't be spoiling any expectations by noting that I was less than impressed with Best Year of Their Lives. I had ordered it sight unseen because the idea sounded promising - a treatment of the freshman class of 1946 in a pivotal political year. I suppose I expected a detailed historical narrative demonstrating political and intellectual connections in that no-doubt epochal period. That's what I get for having expectations, no?

What was delivered was not that promised book. Instead, the UPS deliveryman deposited upon my doorstep a sattershot, dizzy, dazzled, addlepated tangle of loosely connected anecdotes and great heaping piles of amateur psychoanalysis at a distance. The author demonstrates the patience of a hummingbird, and the attention-span of a sugar-addled ferret. He is incapable of maintaining a thought for more than a page at a time, and is fully capable of dropping a line of argument in mid-sentence for yet more pages of ill-considered, highly redundant, airily comparative psychological guesswork. At one point in an otherwise narrational passage, he drops the first part of a fact - something about Elizabeth Bentley's testimony before HUAC - and goes haring off on a five-page biographical diversion about Whittaker Chambers. He never returns to the subject of Bentley's testimony. The reader is left ignorant of what she told the Committee. Such abandonments of actual informational explanation in favor of psychobabble absolutely litter the text.

The book is supposed to be a treatment of why the year 1948 was so terribly, terribly important in the formation of the political characters of the three primaries - Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson. The fact that all three became presidents seems to be the only reason behind this grouping of subjects. Kennedy and Nixon were essentially comparable political characters - freshmen Congressmen of the 80th Congress, recent Navy veterans, debate partners, clashed over the Taft-Hartley Act, knew each other socially, etc. Johnson, on the other hand, was a very veteran legislator of a previous generation, whose only wartime service of note was a sickening showboating joke which resulted in a utterly unearned Silver Star. Johnson didn't apparently socialize with either Nixon or Kennedy.

Even so, the author at least makes a case for the year 1948 being of some political importance for Johnson. I still don't know why Kennedy was a principal in this narrative. To judge from what is given in the book, he lost a sister, nearly died, and had a debate with Nixon in McKeesport. Every other word in the book on the subject of Kennedy is dedicated either to a very short (if interesting) passage on the social scene in Washington, or to Kennedy's interior life. Kennedy acted as Nixon's foil. That's why 1948 was important to him. Oh, and he almost died the year before. Not in 1948, mind you - 1947.

Most of the book is dedicated to endless ruminations upon the impenetrable psyche of Richard Nixon. Some parts of these digressions are actually interesting, in brief passages and interludes. When, that is, the author isn't chasing off after long, belabored allegories derived from various films. I wish I could say "various films of the year in question", but Morrow's lack of discipline betrays itself once again, and much chatter is spent on out-of-period pieces like Around the World in Eighty Days and Blazing Saddles of all goddamned things.

Really, truly, the Best Year of Their Lives can only be described as a comprehensive failure. Its best characteristic is that it is a very quick and easy read, if you don't destroy the binding from one too many high-velocity discards at the nearest vertical surface.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Stross's the Atrocity Archives await, and I really must say, that I heartily wish I had spent my Sunday afternoon reading that book, than wasted my weekend with Morrow's indulgence.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Ben talked me into going to see the Sin City movie last night. It was a rather unexpected experience. Another guy from work described the film as "terrible", and while he did mean that it had bad elements, he also meant it in the sense of "Ivan the Terrible".

If you've never read the Frank Miller comics of the same name, I suppose I should explain that they were a harsh, indie sort of affair, inked heavily in stark black and white outlines. In fact, the artwork of the comic was more bodies of black with blank default-white slashes and subtracted areas, than an additive accumulation of inked lines. Sin City art is instantly recognizable as such - very distinctive. It was suited to the material, the black and white slashings evoked the grimmest of noir atmospherics, of vast darknesses defined by unnatural lighting. The writing was overripe, apocalyptically cynical, and overwrought. All of the heroes were more properly anti-heroes - white, male, violent, and borderline sociopathic at best. The action is typically brutal, vicious, and savage. The overarching theme could be described as romantic nihilism - of an earth-bound masculine hell redeemed solely by the love of an idealized, hyper-sexualized young woman, and that only occasionally. The comics were stylistic landslides, all faults of writing and characterization and world-building buried under by the sheer artistic force of will. Miller's Sin City comics crushed all critical response under an avalanche of visual excess.

Robert Rodriguez's film adaptation of the comics are exactly the same. And when I say "exactly", I mean that the end product is clearly the result of a deliberate and awe-inspiring dedication to the perfect translation of the source material to another, somewhat alien medium. Miller was somewhat controversially given a co-directing credit, and the reasoning behind this credit is almost certainly that the actual director had used the comics on a panel-by-panel, page-by-page, layout-by-layout basis as storyboards for the film direction. The film seems to have been scripted almost entirely from four sections of the comic, from dialogue to voiceover to imagery to color-control to blocking and even camera placement. Somebody literally set out to recreate the comics in their complete affect, insomuch as that was conceptually possible. I don't think I've ever seen so perfect an act of mimicry. The result is uncanny.

The result is also horrifying, hilarious, sickening, and utterly impossible to ignore. The four portions of the comic replicated in the movie were as follows: the original volume (which has since been given an actual name, but which I can't help but remember simply as "Sin City"), the Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard, and a short bit which I kind of remember as a bit of filler on one of the other volumes, which was used as the pre-title bumper sequence. Now, these sequences were clearly chosen for their violent and purient pulp qualities.

The part of the movie which works the best is clearly the early-middle third, starring an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as a monstrous, troll-like, nearly indestructible, sociopathic force of nature named Marv. After he's framed for the murder of a call-girl named Goldie, we follow his quest as he murders his way to the truth. It's something of a shame that that particular story wasn't long enough to sustain an entire picture, because it works. Like a house on fire, really. The middle-late segment starring Clive Owen as a slightly unhinged knight-errant for the whores of Old Town, is pretty much Kill Bill Lite, and is easily the most laughable portion of the movie. Miller's vision of an armed People's Republic of Prostitution, a sort of Whore's Soviet, was borderline ludicrous even on paper; the scenes as filmed and the lines as spoken out loud elicited more than the occasional snicker and guffaw among those in the opening-night audience. The final section, continuing the initial story starring an aged Bruce Willis as the disgraced police detective Hartigan, is sort of a repeat in a lesser key of Marv's story. It's easily the most maudlin and underwritten of the three sections.

Sin City is definitely an exciting movie, and it's the sort of thing which you can't turn away from, even if you might wish to do so, really, honestly. The comics were sort of half-parodies of hardboiled detective stories, and noir. That sort of half-parody which is also half-dead-serious - where the style is ladled on so thickly and comprehensively that it blows past contempt right back into the intent of the original material. The sort of high-mannerist stylism where style supplants story and substance and becomes a sort of substitute substance of its own. Some of that stylism collapses into a sort of music-video silliness when brought to life on celluoid, and this rather keeps the movie from being something I'd call truly great. The script is, if anything, too loyal to the writing of the comics - there were a lot of lines which could have done with a bit of editing, or at least, re-writing. The rubbish about "valkyries" in the "Big Fat Kill" sequence, most especially.

I suppose I ought to emphasize for the record just how exploitative the movie really is, since I seem to have underplayed that a bit. Lots of people die. On screen. In graphic, pulpy, savage fashion. At great length. Characters are chopped to pieces. Eaten alive by dogs. Impaled. Eviscerated. Tortured. Decapitated and used as bookmarks. Hanged. Mounted like deer's heads. It's about as brutal as you can really get within the bounds of stylism. I mean, it doesn't have the impact of, say, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but then, Sin City is a sort of cartoon, and that tends to buffer the sensibilities in a fashion that a straight-forward war movie is simply incapable of providing.

Oh, and there's a lot of nudity. That seems to piss off more people than the evisceration and the cannibalism. God knows why.