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12-05-08: Janis Bell Writes 'Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences' : Fun Rules

There's a delicate balance to be struck with a book on grammar. It's got to have the rules, right there in a readable fashion, but that's a lot harder than it sounds. Write up just the rules and you've got unreadable gobbledygook. Nobody is ever going to read your book, and they're not going be tempted to pull it off the shelf when they need it either. Write more than the rules, and it becomes hard to find the rules, so even if it does get read, it won't get used. What's a a English professor and writing consultant to do?

You can get a good idea in '
Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences' (W. W. Norton & Company ; September 2, 2008 ; $21.95) by Janis Bell. Here's a book that is entertaining when it needs to be — all the time — and informative when it needs to be — all the time. It's a pleasure to read and yet, if you need a quick rule fix, you can find it in a trice. I know because I looked up the single-quotes question in precisely one trice. My watch measures those. It's unusual.

Bell is very straightforward and quite organized, which is of course admirable in a rule book. After a preface which explains the layout and usage of the book, she starts out by defining the grammar terms she's going to use. Then you get 8 clean, clear chapters of writing HOWTO that will help anyone who ever has to write. It's a book that won't ever get in your shelves.

What Bell brings to the world of grammar is a dry wit that is ever enjoyable, which she deploys in a series of instructive and entertaining examples that demonstrate the Rules. From Chapter 1: Case, she explains that,

"Nouns don't change form when they serve as subjects and objects. Josephine, for example, remains
Josephine, no matter where she shows up:

    Josephine eats anything that isn't nailed down.

    Food is irresistible to
Each chapter concludes with a test, and they're as entertaining as the chapters. From Chapter 1, here's the first paragraph you're supposed to edit for case:

    "Dear Josephine:

    I just finished reading a chapter whose focus is largely on you. I feel I should know you well by now, but between you and I, you're still pretty much of a mystery to me."
    Click to see answer
That lighthearted light touch is just breezy enough to make this book a lot of fun to read cover to cover. (Looks up dashes, none needed.) But just as importantly, if you need to figure something out, you can easily do so, in yes — a trice. But you can only verify that it took a trice if you have my special watch. Bell's book is a lot easier to find, and ultimately, far more useful. You want to be a better writer. Put this book on your desk.

12-04-08: Steven E. Wedel Digs Up the 'Little Graveyard on the Prairie' : E-Bay Bookseller to Small Press Book Publisher

Funny how these things work out. A slim package arrives in the mail, and the book inside looks pretty intriguing. It's 'Little Graveyard on the Prairie' (Eclipse / Bad Moon Books ; December 2008 ; $50) by Steven Wedel. But wait — didn't I buy a book from a bookseller named "Bad Moon Books" back in the day? There's a URL on the colophon page — — which indeed is the URL for the one-time bookseller, now publisher, Roy Robbins. You read and hear about that journey in today's podcast.

I admit that I've sort of dropped out of the hurly-burly of small-press horror publishing. So it was especially nice to get a bolt from the blue, a new novella from an author I've not read. As you might expect, reading this has added yet another name to queue. Apparently, Steve Wedel has written some highly regarded werewolf novels, known as "The Werewolf Saga," which include 'Murdered by Human Wolves', 'Shara', 'Ulrik' and 'Call to the Hunt'. But this ain't that. 'Little Graveyard on the Prairie' is a carefully written ghost story about burial and revenge.

'Little Graveyard on the Prairie' begins with one of those nice heartrending scenes that could either be in a Hallmark movie or a horror movie. Harley Shaw is having reality problems, but they're the least of his problems. With his family gone, his hopes for big money from Big Oil down the toilet, Harley's made the unwise decision to turn his little family farm into an "all natural" graveyard. The consequences will be far more immediate than heartrending.

Wedel is a skilled, understated writer, who takes a fairly simple premise and plays it out with class and intelligence. He also writes with great economy, so that you only have 55 pages of heartbreak to endure. By making sure he gets the emotions right, Wedel can pull of a variety of surreal, horrific and hallucinatory scenes with aplomb. 'Little Graveyard on the Prairie' is a nice, clean horror-fiction reading experience.

This limited edition hardcover includes two reprint of short stories, and a cover with the same qualities as the fiction; understated and evocative. Now at $50, it's a judgment call as to whether ot not you want to buy this. Wedel fans will certainly want this; and those who aren't but buy it are likely to become Wedel fans.

12-03-08: Nina Matsumoto Catalogues 'Yokaiden' : The Simpsons Pitch

Well, here we are, lucky again, having just (Johnny-come-lately) stumbled across 'Yokaiden' (Del Rey Manga / Random House ; November 18, 2008 ; $10.95) by Nina Matsumoto. There's more manga out there than I could possibly read in my lifetime, and most of the stuff I get or see is on Chapter 491. How can I possibly catch up? I can't, so, I don't. But when 'Yokaiden' #1 showed up, I had to take a look and damn — I'm glad I did. It captures the charm of my all time favorite animé movie, My Neighbor Totoro, because it's about the same subject — the critters of Japanese folklore. Let me translate that for readers: monsters. Lots of 'em, all quirky, intelligent, mischievous and full of entertaining character traits. But there's a lot more under the hood here than just monsters, even though that alone would be enough.

Let's ratchet back to the author, Nina Matsumoto, AKA Space Coyote. She was a high school student in Canada when she started working on a web comic, 'Saturnalia'. She's got five years' worth of comics up there and that should give you a good idea of what she's capable of. Set in the year 2999, it's a cop story with secret lives and suicidal robots. She worked on it during her free period in high school, starting out slowly as she taught herself to draw. Like many web debuts, it's one of those great stories of persistence that's pretty darned inspiring. But it's not that simple, either.

Having developed her own manga style, Nina, decided on a whim to draw the cast of The Simpsons in that style. She admits that she "knew the results would be frightening." Perhaps she underestimated. Give The Simpsonzu a place on the web and it will spread, and eventually the image ended up on cubicle wall of an employee of Bongo Comics, the folks who publish The Simpsons comics. As a result, she got a gig doing a Simpsons manga for Bongo, and eventually a steady job doing pencil work. I've seen her handiwork, as my son has a large collection of the comics bagged in plastic ensconced in a wooden box he built for them and hung on his wall. I recall well the weeks when I'd go down to Atlantis Fantasy World Comics and pick up the latest issue ...

All of which leads us to 'Yokaiden'. With Saturnalia and Simpsonzu in her portfolio, she pitched 'Yokaiden' to Del Rey and voila — issue #1. The first thing you should note is that this is paginated in American style, left to right and front to back as we expect. No need to turn to the back. After that, you're in a wonderfully researched series of Japanese-style folk tales that offer a glimpse at a fascinating world of monsters, demons, creatures and whatnots. The launch point is pretty simple; Hamachi can see the Yokaiden, and journeys into their realm. There he has adventures that find him encountering a variety of spirits. The drawings are alternately charming, sweet, scary and disturbing, covering a range of moods. This first book has seven "candles", that is stories, and between the stories are occasional entries into an intriguing 'Field Guide to Yokaiden'. Frankly, I'd love to see the hardcover version of this Field Guide, but I think we may have to wait a while. I also think it will be worth the wait.

12-02-08: Crimewave 10 : Now You See Me

If American pulp magazine publishers want to see what this reader would like to be the future, they need look no further than 'Crimewave 10: Now You See Me' (TTA Press ; December 01, 2008 ; £8.99 Single / £26.99 4/sub), both in form and content. "Edited and typeset in Warnock Pro by Andy Cox" is what the colophon page tells us. I've never heard of Warnock Pro, and I can only guess it's some Pagemaker-like deal. Whatever the case may be, the results are superb.

'Crimewave' is supposed to be a quarterly magazine, but it comes out with less regularity than many subscribers might prefer. I frankly don't care how often it comes out and in fact like not knowing. In between issues I sort of forget about it, and then like a bolt out of the blue it arrives and I wonder how I could ever forget. The content is king, of course, so let's deal with that first.

Given the name, you'd expect a sort of British version of Ellery Queen or a crime fiction version of F&SF. The latter is probably closer, but know that for the most part, 'Crimewave' stays on the literary side of crime fiction. This is not to say this is exclusive. Joel Lane's superb "Even the Pawn" reads like a gritty bit slice of low-life, but Lane gets to twist the knife in a manner you won't see on Law and Order. On the other hand, Lisa Morton's "Unlucky" is exactly what you might see on that show, but written in bullet-spitting prose that sears the soul with a delightfully profane outlook on life. A dark one. Morton's work reminds us why we read, as do the rest of the crew. Steve Rasnic Tem offers a nicely mischievous paragraph that does the work of a longer piece without breaking a sweat. The names here lean towards less-well-known if you're not reading must-read stuff like Interzone or Black Static. But the stories are good enough that you'll be both glad and unsurprised that the writers are generally listed as having first novels in the hopper; in this issue that's the case Kay Sexton, who keeps up the grit and humor in her story "The Montgolfier Assignment".

The hallmark here is consistency of tone and quality. The stories in 'Crimewave' all have this feel of ... dirt ... of filthy reality ... of hardscrabble lives lived on the edge. They're not samey, really, but as I say — consistent. And if you like that sort of British gangster feel to your reading, you're going to find them all enjoyable. They're pretty bleak, sure, so you may not want to sit down and do a read-through. But you might have a hard time stopping yourself.

Finally, there's the look of the book — here my word choice should give you a clue. 'Crimewave' pure fiction and contains no advertising. It is for all intents and purposes a quarterly (or so) anthology of fine crime and literary fiction. The cover image gives a great idea of what to expect inside in terms of tone and content. But for this reader, a critical fact is that the book looks so damn good in the inside. Layout, font and production values are absolutely top-notch. It's a pleasure to read, which is good because the scenes it will create in your brain are pleasurable only in aesthetic terms. This is a dark brutal world, and we can be thankful it has given a magazine that is dark and brutal — but still beautiful.

12-02/08 10:00 AM PST UPDATE: Editor and publisher Andy Cox tells me: "...Warnock Pro isn't some nifty new DTP package but the font used. ;) (CW is supposed to be biannual — twice a year that is, not once every two years, otherwise I'd be just about ahead of schedule ;-)..."

12-01-08: Cold Comfort : H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth 'The Watchers Out of Time'

I don't always want to read the best thing in the world. Sometimes, I want to read the most familiar thing in the world, to dip my toes in known waters and read words I've read before. Sometimes it's Stanislaw Lem's 'A Perfect Vacuum', sometimes it's Italo Svevo's 'The Confessions of Zeno', or as it is now titled, 'Zeno's Conscience'. (I actually prefer the former, only because it is a dog-eared, underlined college paperback, even if the more recent William Weaver version is a better translation.) But as I trust readers can tell, those are both pretty well-written books. When I talk comfort reading, I want something a little less ... complicated. I revert to my pulp beginnings, to H. P. Lovecraft, but, but ...

When even Lovecraft offers too high-quality a ride, when the mind is shattered and just wants Love, so to speak ,with all the Craft .... There's
'The Watchers Out of Time' (Ballantine Books / Random House ; October 14, 2008 ; $14). It' not as if I don't have the stories in here, scattered across moldy paperbacks and precious Brodart-wrapped hardcovers. But with this nice little trade paperback, I can settle down and, well, if not exactly enjoy, at least, lose what's left of my tiny mind, in stories that I burned into my brain as a gaping adolescent, convinced beyond reason that Here Be Literature.

Oh pale imitation of intellect! Oh presumptuous, pretentious young man, Rick, Rick ... "The Shuttered Room" is not literature. It's barely even fiction, and this not because it contains any grains of truth. Nor because it adapted into a Bad Movie. (And I'm not talking about a good bad movie; I'm talking about a Bad Bad movie. NWYVT.) The rational brain can speak to me every truth worth telling in the most compelling voice it can conjure. It can suggest Dickens, Poe, it can whisper Arthur c. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. And such is the strength of my conviction that those words will fall on deaf ears, on ears hammered from metal more lifeless than tin. Because sometimes we don't want to read the best. Sometimes, we want 'The Watchers Out of Time'.

The stories in the volume, most of them completed, (other than those where the narrator is snatched by a Nameless, Faceless terror before finishing the final paragraph) are August Derleth's revisions and completions of fifteen stories by H. P. Lovecraft. They're not Lovecraft's best work, by and large, though they all have the cold comfort of Lovecraftian fiction; predictable journeys of discovery and horrific revelation. In a way, you may not be able to go right — but you can't go wrong.

OK, sure, I'm having fun here; the stories within this collection haven't survived for mumble-mumble years for no reason whatsoever. But a firmly believe, that at least for me, the ear exposure to this sort of writing is probably the only reason I continue to return to it. Once an addict, always an addict, I suppose, but I'm not going to make any excuses. One's literary interests and tastes are as susceptible to lacunae as one's memory. And no, this is not a guilty pleasure, because I assure you, I feel no guilt. Only pleasure. And there are some readers out there who feel exactly the same way, I wager, and for you, this very day, I suggest – give in. Give in to yearning to feel as if you know it all. Give in to the knowledge that your take on this book is right in the face of so much ... underwhelming response. Who cares? If reading is a pleasure, I'll take my pleasure where I can find it. Here, now, and then, there. If I am reading, I have not a care in the world.

New to the Agony Column

04-29-13: Commentary : Ben Katchor Catalogues 'Hand Drying in America' : Subversive Cities of the Heart

Agony Column Podcast News Report : : A 2013 Interview with Ben Katchor : "...people are hesitant to make their own building into a ruin..."

04-28-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: : Time to Read Episode 95: Ben Katchor : Hand Drying in America

04-27-13: Commentary : Mark Morris Introduces 'Toady' : A New World of Horror

Agony Column Podcast News Report : : Thomas Frank from The Easy Chair and Harper's Magazine: TV's DC Fantasies : "... basically, everyone is corrupt ..."

04-22-13: Commentary : Danielle Trussoni Maps 'Angelopolis' : The Afterlife of Angels

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with Danielle Trussoni : "I wanted it to be accurate...absolutely accurate."

04-21-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 94: Danielle Trussoni : Angelopolis

04-17-13: Commentary : How Not to Leave the House : Reach for the Recycling

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Matt Richtel, Sophie Littlefield and Terry Bisson at SF in SF on February 9, 2013 : "You cannot do this all day long." Sophie Littlefield

04-16-13: Commentary : Stephen Kessler 'Scratch Pegasus' : Lens of Language

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with Stephen Kessler : "..knit a formal coherence by way of sound and rhythm..."

04-14-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 93: Stephen Kessler : Scratch Pegasus

04-09-13: Commentary : Paul McComas & Greg Starrett Sew Up 'Fit for a Frankenstein' : Hands All on Gretl

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Matt Richtel Reads at SF in SF on February 9, 2013 : "I'm much more interested in the mental miasma..."

04-08-13: Commentary : Ruth Ozeki Clocks 'A Tale for the Time Being' : Reading is the Future

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with Ruth Ozeki : "...through the act of writing, she would somehow conjure the reader into being..."

04-07-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 92: Ruth Ozeki : : A Tale for the Time Being

04-06-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 91: Lawrence Wright : : Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

04-04-13: Commentary : Danielle Trussoni Excavates 'Angelology' : Gothic Girl

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books With Alan Cheuse : : 'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki, 'Odds Against Tomorrow' by Nathaniel Rich and 'Pandemonium' by Warren Fahy

04-02-13: Commentary : MacKenzie Bezos Sets 'Traps' : Need to Know

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with MacKenzie Bezos : "...without intention or recognition, we're playing important roles in the lives of other people..."

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