Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone.

In some parts of the world, it has already been 2011 for awhile. Here in California, we've still got a bit over seven hours until another year hits the history books for good.

I'm staying in and hiding from all the partiers myself. If you've yet to go out and greet the New Year at a party, have fun and be safe. And if you've already been out and the celebration is over, I hope you had fun and that the New Year holds only wonderful things for you.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I've been busy...

I tend to get restless during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. It's a week that tends to make me feel like I'm sitting, holding my breath and waitin for something to happen. It is not my favorite week of the year.

Well, this year I put some of that restless energy to work and started a brand new blog. It isn't meant to take the place of this one, mind you. It's just that I've noticed that recently I've been posting a lot of book reviews here, and I've been reading a lot more again. So, the new blog, which is called Reading With (an) Attitude, is now up and running, which means that I can get back to the various and sundry things I write about over here from time to time.

If you've a mind to, click on the title of the new blog in the paragraph above or click here, and come over and see what I've been up to.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry, Happy, Joyful, Wonderful, Excellent Holidays...

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The presents are open, dinner is in the oven, the (visitng) dog keeps coming by for tummy rubs, and I got to sleep in until 10:30 this morning. The latter is a good thing, since all of us adults in the house were up until 4 in the morning playing cards.

I hope all of your holidays, whichever ones you celebrate, have been and continue to be safe and jolly and full of love and laughter.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It isn't necessarily true that two heads are better than one...

Do you remember when, a little while ago, I wrote about how an auction house in Los Angeles is in the process of selling Lee Harvey Oswald’s original casket and then asked why anyone would buy the thing?

Well, that seems positively normal compared to a Reuters report I read on Yahoo! News today.

It seems that researchers have found the embalmed head of King Henri IV of France. It was probably, says the article, lost during the French Revolution, when being dead was not a guarantee of being left alone by the revolutionaries if you were an aristocrat. It seem that the graves of French royalty were broken into in 1793, and the remains were desecrated and scattered, with few of the pieces ever recovered.

The head has been radiocarbon dated to around the time of Henri’s death by assassination, but its features also are said to match the known characteristics of his appearance as well as his appearance in portraits.

As someone interested in history, I find this fascinating. The article points out that the head will be reburied next year in the cathedral where it was presumably stolen from. This is as it should be.


There is one thing in the story that really makes me wonder what some people are thinking. Regarding the whereabouts of the head for all these years, the article says, at one point, that the head had been “passed down over the centuries by private collectors”.

Really? Who collects heads? I can’t be the only one who can’t quite get my head (excuse the pun, it is entirely intended) around the idea that people kept a human head as a collector’s item.

Then again, there are persistent stories that someone has Napoleon’s penis out there somewhere. So, who knows.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book Review: "Blowing My Cover", by Lindsay Moran

Near the end of her memoir, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005), Lindsay Moran describes what the CIA does as “A little boys’ game that men continue to play as adults”, and then writes: “The CIA was, and still is, made up of men who are loath to give up playing their game.”

These were her thoughts near the end of her CIA career, which lasted only a few years, in the wake of 9/11 and as she tried to figure out why the United States didn’t know that the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. were coming. They were somber reflections for a somber time, and were part of what led her to resign as a CIA case officer after working in Eastern Europe for several years.

They were appropriate thoughts assessing a career that she had never been completely convinced that she should enter. After filling out her first application to work at the spy agency, she decided not to sent it in and only actually submitted an application a few years later. Even as she was undergoing training to be a case officer - those are the folks who work in other countries and attempt to recruit the real “CIA agents”, what they call assets, who they then encourage to discover and sell their own nation’s secrets, sometimes for a lot of money. She questioned, she says, why she should ask someone else to do something, betray their own country, that she was not willing to do herself. She doubted what she would be doing seriously enough that she discussed with her agency mentor the possibility for working for the agency in another capacity.

But if you expect to find only deep, soul-searching contemplation in Moran’s book, you’ll be disappointed or surprised, depending on your disposition, to find that Moran’s memoir has its share of comic moments, especially as she describes the long course of training she and her cohorts endured on their way to being spies. She spends more than half the book on the training period, which lasted over a year. For example, did you know that CIA trainees hold practice cocktail parties, where they try to recruit their instructors as spies. They also learn extreme driving, how to know when they’re being followed, and cross-country path finding, among many other skills. All of which make more sense to me than cocktail party practice, to be honest.

There were also things in the book that, quite frankly bothered me. One was the confirmation of the idea I’ve had for a long time that at least a certain segment of the CIA community seem to see their activities as a game, something that makes me uncomfortable when you consider that this “game” of theirs sometimes costs real people their lives. And then there the story she told about one of the assets she tried to recruit near the end of her time in Eastern Europe, an individual who had previously been friends with some folks that most likely had ties to al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, she thought it would be helpful to get information from people who knew terrorists and might be able to report on their activities.

In the instance, however, headquarters refused her request and ordered her to cut off contact with the individual she was trying to recruit because he “may at one time have had terrorist ties.” As she asked a colleague, “And how are we going to find anything out if we avoid all the people with terrorist ties?” Which was exactly what I was thinking as I read that her request had been denied. Perhaps if the CIA really didn’t have any intelligence pointing to the attacks, that was the problem. Certainly, she had a point considering some of the people her superiors at the CIA wanted her to keep a relationship with, who clearly didn’t know anything of value and stood little chance of learning such information.

To be honest, I picked Moran’s book up off the shelf at the library primarily because the title interested me. That is, in fact, the way I’ve found some of the best books I’ve ever read. I didn’t really expect much of it, but found that it is compulsively readable. Moran is a good writer and balances the serious and comic aspects of her experience well. It probably isn’t a book that I would be inclined to re-read, but I’m glad I read it.


You know, I haven't meant to turn this into a book review site, and I don't intend to now. But I've been reading some good books lately and feel like sharing. I hope you all don't mind. I'm just glad that I've finally started finding books again that I'm interested in reading. For several months, I went through a period in which I started more books than I can recall and couldn't think of a good reason to finish any of them. Fortunately, I don't feel the need to finish a book I don't like just because I've started reading it.

My question to you is, do you feel free to put a book that you aren't enjoying down? Or do you feel obligated to finish a book once you start it?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book Review: "Laurel Canyon", by Michael Walker

I’ve been trying for several days to write a review of Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood (Faber and Faber, 2006), by Michael Walker, but nothing I’ve written has been anything I’ve wanted to put out into cyberspace for all of you to read. I think I’ve finally figured out why this is so: I haven’t been able to decide whether I liked it or not.

I think I finally have the answer. I mostly liked it, but I think that Walker came to some conclusions about why the Laurel Canyon neighborhood went from singer/songwriter heaven to infamy of a sort that are glib but way too simplistic. Basically, he blames Charlie Manson and the switch in drugs of choice from marijuana and LSD to cocaine. And I’m sure that both those factors had something to do with why the area transformed from a hippie-nirvana party central that was essentially open to all comers to something else entirely. But there were other factors, as well, some of them sociopolitical, some cultural, and some personal, starting with the fact that many of the artists who lived in the area in the sixties and early seventies got ambitious, then got rich, and then moved out for higher-rent areas of Los Angeles, literally and figuratively.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Laurel Canyon and its central role in the Los Angeles music scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a place that fascinates me, and not only because I’m a fan of so much of the music that came out of that time and place. I’m also interested in it because all that happened just 35 miles (less, after my family moved from Ventura County to L.A. County) from my doorstep, without my ever realizing it. I have always been attracted to the concept of how things of note can happen so close to a place I know and yet be completely unknown to me as they are happening. That is probably exacerbated by the fact that I grew up in Southern California, where lots of things of note, good and bad, seem to go on.

One of the things Walker does well in his book is to convey a sense of the geography of Laurel Canyon, probably because he lives there himself, and that it was, surprisingly, a neighborhood in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where pretty much everyone knew everyone and managed to remain on more or less friendly terms. In that place and at that time (late ‘60s/early ‘70s), the sometimes mythical idea that the creative and the famous know each other, hang out together, and are friends, wasn’t quite so much a myth. Walker tells stories such as the one about how David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills became Crosby, Stills and Nash because Cass Elliot brought them together because she knew them all from the Canyon.

That is the level at which I liked Walker’s book. He tells good, interesting stories that are reasonably accurate when compared with what I’ve read and heard elsewhere about the Canyon. I think my favorite story is the one about how Jim Morrison was horrible and rude (he was apparently already drunk) to a waitress at one of bars near the Canyon that was frequented by the area’s musical community. She had had enough, and came close to beating the crap out of him with her tray. She stopped herself from hitting him only because she saw what she described as “terror” in his eyes. He demanded that she be fired and she was. However, six months later she got a call from him at her new job. It turned out that he had been looking for her all that time to apologize to her for what he had done. She read him the riot act about the crap that he had been up to, and then, apparently, they became friends. Which makes a certain amount of sense in light of other things I’ve read about Morrison.

The thing that I don’t like so much about Walker’s book, though, is the way he tries to explain how those years of sex, peace, drugs, and rock and roll in Laurel Canyon fell apart. As I said, he blamed it - after a stop at a comparison between Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway free concert by the Rolling Stones and others (some of them residents of Laurel Canyon), and how those two events a few months and a continent apart symbolized the end of the sixties and the beginning of a more violent and cynical time - on the murders ordered by Charlie Manson and on the change in the drug of choice among those in the music industry, which introduced the cocaine trade into the Canyon, culminating in bloody and violent murder on Wonderland Avenue in the Canyon (which event itself has been chronicled on film).

I’m sure that those factors had an effect on the changes that came to Laurel Canyon. I know, for example, that the level of paranoia in the wake of the murders of Sharon Tate and others by Charlie Manson’s followers went way up in Southern California. It did in my neighborhood, only a few miles from the Spahn Ranch, where Charlie and his minions were living at the time of the murders. Considering the fact that Charlie was at some of those parties in Laurel Canyon as part of his efforts to secure a recording contract, I can imagine that the revelation of who had committed the murders ratcheted tensions up there, as well, as it became harder to know who to trust and who to be suspicious of.

I leave it to you to decide whether Laurel Canyon is worth a read. If you are at all interested in the Los Angeles music scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I would recommend it as worth the time it took to read the book. If you are looking for a sociological analysis of that time and place, the book is probably not as valuable. While Walker makes a bit of a point of the fact that he lives in Laurel Canyon, he also admits that he didn’t move there until the early 1990s, long after most of the events in the book took place.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

You said you're going to buy what?!?

File this under, “People mystify me sometimes”.

I came across a brief news story on Yahoo!News today (which I won’t bother to link because their links are sometimes very transitory) which explains that Lee Harvey Oswald’s original coffin is about to be auctioned by an auction house in Los Angeles. Bids are already underway, and are now at $1000 for the plain pine casket.

The coffin became available when Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy, was exhumed in 1981 in order to put to rest a rumor that a look-alike was buried in his place after he was shot by Jack Ruby just two days after JFK’s killing. When Oswald was reburied after testing apparently showed that it really was his body, and not that of an imposter or a look-alike, a new coffin was used.

A representative of the auction house said that the coffin, which was underground for about 18 years, is in “worn condition” and not all in one piece, but that “it would be easy to restore.”

Cool. I guess.

But I really wish someone would explain to me just what kind of a person would buy a used coffin? I understand the historical significance and all. I really do. But the idea of buying a coffin in which a body…any body…had been in for nearly two decades is really beyond my comprehension.

I do understand that there are people who put great value on anything someone famous…or infamous, as in Oswald’s case…owned or had contact with. But a coffin. That someone was buried in. No. Just, no.

If you disagree, I’d really like to hear from you about why you think something like that would be on anyone’s to-buy list. What would you do with it? Turn it into a coffee table? Use it as a hope chest? Sleep in it? I suppose a museum might buy it and display it as an historical curiosity, but I tend to doubt that will happen.

As an afterward, and along these lines, if you’re interested in a meditation on the idea of items that have been possessed by famous people or that were involved in historical events gain extra value just by virtue of having those connections, you might be interested in reading The Man in the High Castle, a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. There are some interesting thoughts about this idea that come up in the course of the story.