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02-13-09: Jay Dobyns is 'No Angel' : The ATF Infiltrates Hells Angels

When I go to Bookshop Santa Cruz, they have a sad little section right up front, where everyone can see it. The crushed hopes, the dashed dreams of hundreds of would-be criminals are reduced to tawdry mass-market paperbacks with covers that make this reader cringe. And forget about the criminals – the real criminal activity here is what happened to the writers, who must have seen years of hard work crammed into something their mothers might have to hide under the duvet when guests come to visit. The bright read and yellow lettering, the unseemly titles, all warn readers that when it comes to quality, True Crime writing does the limbo like nobody's business. But amidst the dross, there are often spectacular titles waiting. Take for example, 'Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,' the first book by David Simon. Or perhaps, the first book by Jay Dobyns (and Nils Johnson-Shelton) 'No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels' (Crown Books / Random House ; February 10, 2009 ; $25.95).

Perhaps the reds on the cover aren't bright enough, and there are no yellow letters, or exclamation points. The word "harrowing" in the extended-down-the-road title isn’t a lot of help. Why is it not in raised red foil? Whatever the case, something made me open the book. Turn it to the first page and start reading, and you might think you're in the wrong section. Isn’t this supposed to be "true crime," replete with windy set-ups and blow-hard come-downs? These guys talk and act like they're in a Charlie Huston novel.

And maybe they would have been, but 'No Angel' kind of makes that novel unnecessary. Dobyns and co-author Sheldon have laced up the tight, taut tale of a two-year undercover journey in which Jay Dobyns became Jay Davis — "'Good guy to know. Good guy to be known by." Dobyns' story is written entirely in the first person and it is pretty much a straightforward noir story with enough action, expletives and grit to keep fiction readers more than happy. It would be riveting stuff even if it weren't true. The truth is irrelevant to good, gripping storytelling, something that's reflected in the story itself because Dobyns has do plenty of story telling to avert a follow-up to the "My Sucking Chest Wound" chapter that begins the book. (After "The End," which actually begins the book. It may sound a bit overly complicated for True Crime, but that's what makes it true writing.

It doesn't hurt that there's a lot of action, or that the chapters are short, but in the end, it's Dobyns' life-of-lies perspective that is truly gripping. The moore immersed he becomes the more conflicted he becomes — "Almost." Dobyns and co-author Sheldon write as one; this is a seamless descent into the seamy. And if you like seamy, sleazy, drug-ridden, violent felons duking it up in bars across the worst parts of the Southwest, why then you're in for a reading feast. Bullhead City will never be the same; and to be honest, it didn't start very high up to begin with. I'm not convinced it couldn’t have had a better cover, one with raised foil and urine-yellow lettering proclaiming it to be "AWESOME!" — a quote attributed to, say, an Internet movie critic, just because one wouldn't want to presume the audience for the book to be too literate. But no matter. Here's a book with a chapter titled: "MOTHERFUCKER, IF I EVER SEE YOU IN THIS TOWN AGAIN I WILL FUCKING BURY YOU IN THE DESERT WHERE NO ONE WILL EVER FUCKING FIND YOU." What more can you ask?

02-12-09: Lalo Fiorelli Reveals 'Secret Splendors of the Desert : Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

When I hear the word desert, I think Lawrence of Arabia desert ... sand dunes forever and white-sheeted men stumbling in the heat-haze. But that's not at all the case, and 'Secret Splendors of the Desert : Anza-Borrego Desert State Park' offers a strikingly beautiful vision of just what comprises a desert. Fiorelli spent some fifteen years gathering the photographs for this book, and the landscapes you'll see feature only one set of dunes — with flowers.

Instead, what you'll see here are photos of mountains, rocks, glyphs, cacti, trees, flowers, a world of details and panoramas carefully balanced and beautifully shot. The contrast for this reader is fascinating, because each photo took less than a second to shoot; but the time spent finding the photo required in many cases years of exploration and patience, waiting for the weather and the light to reveal the perfect moments. And these moments are indeed perfect.

Fiorelli offers just enough verbiage to flesh out the bare facts behind the beautiful visions, but he doesn't claim or pretend to be an expert in anything other than photography. Some of the photos will remind readers of the work of Andrew Goldsworthy, geometrical patterns in crushed rock; others reveal the titular secrets that only appear when the weather and light are right. Patience of years condensed into a snapshot. Fiorelli's book offers readers a clear an unambiguous vision; there are still — and always will be — places on this earth that are more beautiful than you can imagine.

02-11-09: Roundup '09-1 : Subterranean Press Titles

I want to believe in urban magic, in supernatural beings that intercede in our daily lives, in monsters and small gods, in everything denied by the humdrum pace of daily life. There has got to be something more to this life than what we see on the network and cables news, better lies than those so easily found on the Internet. Want to see the world and know there are layers I'm not seeing.

First off, you can go to the Subterranean website pronto to pick these titles off before they sell out rather than tearing your hair out afterwards. Moreover, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, they're giving away free ARCs to good homes. Sub Press makes great ARCS, and though you'll miss their fine book construction, you will at least get the words. That said, we're off.

First in my mind is the soon-to-be-sold out limited edition of
Dan Simmons' 'Drood,' ($80, Limited, $500 Deluxe hardcover) sporting the phenomenal art work of John Picacio. You've already heard about this book here before, so I shan't use my valuable space; frankly, new book by Dan Simmons should suffice. I can tell you I still remember the first time I met Dan Simmons, in a strip-mall bookstore in the city of Orange, California. That was back when 'Hyperion' had just come out. I never imagined the future that would follow. I would have told you it was an improbable science-fictional vision.

Now, let's jump forward not so many years to 1994, when I ordered a book out of the Mark Ziesing catalogue by a writer I knew nothing about named
Greg Egan. His book, 'Permutation City,' proved to be a rather ground-breaking work itself, and since we're now living in a world of virtual worlds, an appropriate work to follow up in his forthcoming story collection, 'Crystal Nights' ($35, Deluxe hardcover) and other stories. The title story takes care of some loose ends and un-followed, well — permutations from 'Permutation City.' Another easy addition to the Shopping Cart. (And let me assure you that some poor coder sweated blood over that cart.)

July 2009 brings
'Purple and Black' ($25, Deluxe hardcover) a novella by K. J. Parker, who writes down-and-dirty combat fiction set in worlds that might bear some semblance to what we generally call fantasy. But Parker has his own vibe and it is nothing, NOTHING like what gets shelved with the rest of the batch. Written as a series of military dispatches, published in two colors of ink, it seems like the perfect way to figure out if you want to venture into the darker worlds of 'The Company' and The Engineer Trilogy.

Wild Thyme, Green Magic' by Jack Vance (June 2009, $40 Deluxe hardcover) is a collection of short stories by the unequaled master of science fantasy. I'm pretty sure that genre appellation is not in vogue, but it is nonetheless perfectly accurate. You may, you should have some of these in your Terry Carr paperbacks, but this'll put 'em all in one convenient place. Vance's writing holds up well to our brave and generally-unforeseen-by-SF-writers world. And just imagine if someone making science fantasy movies bothered to film one of these.

And finally, we have more
Mike Resnick, this time, another collection of Lucifer Jones stories titled 'Hazards' (June 2009, $35 Deluxe hardcover). If you're looking for goofy, fun science fiction written in a time when the communication satellite was goofy, fun science fiction, then Resnick is your man. I, for one, find it hard to resist a book with a story titled "Carnival Knowledge." And it is s title that is quite indicative of the tone and content as well.

Well, you've made it to the end of the Subterranean roundup. I've pointed out some free ARCs, and hell, sent you out the door for under three hundred bucks. Heck that's like, what, three restaurant meals for two? Here's the deal; email me, and I'll send you some decent recipes that'll be just as good as anything you get, and you can now afford the books. Go forth to your independent genre bookseller, and directly to the publisher, and support local literary culture. Before it becomes an odd little footnote in an unforeseeable-by-this-book-lover future. (And write NPR to tell them you want to hear more content of the kind you find here in The Agony Column.)

02-10-09: Kate Griffin Books 'A Madness of Angels' : Lethal Litterbugs

I want to believe in urban magic, in supernatural beings that intercede in our daily lives, in monsters and small gods, in everything denied by the humdrum pace of daily life. There has got to be something more to this life than what we see on the network and cables news, better lies than those so easily found on the Internet. Want to see the world and know there are layers I'm not seeing.

From first sentence of the new book by "
Kate Griffin" ("the pseudonym of Carnegie-0nomicated YA-writer Catherine Webb"), 'A Madness of Angels: Or, The Resurrection of Matthew Swift' (Orbit / Hachette ; April, 2009 ; $19.99) we know that we're going to see the skin of the world flayed away:

"Not how it should have been."

So funny, that, because the way things are in 'A Madness of Angels' is by my estimation, exactly how it should be. The world of Matthew Swift via Kate Griffin is shot through with magic that animates the many strains of soul that walk this earth, good and ill. Magic is everywhere, you just have to look for it. Of course it's easier to see if you're a sorcerer who has been killed — and then brought back to life.

Matthew Swift last remembers someone ripping a hole in his chest. This is not the sort of memory anyone want to wake with, least of all an urban magician for whom it might prove to be an unpleasant reboot. Set in a grittily-rendered London underworld, 'A Madness of Angels' follows Swift as he not-so-swiftly hunts down those who killed him as well as those who brought him back to life. While Griffin may only be moonlighting as a writer of adult novels, make no mistake that this book has the sort of complexity and depth that might be glossed over for a YA audience. There's a layer of viciousness at work here that marks this as not being a book one would be inclined to foist off on a precocious twelve-year old.

Griffin is adept at this new sort of fantasy, this urban wish-fulfillment that seems to grab readers with the intention of showing them that we're not through discovering our own world yet. Deep down, I suspect that all of this so-called "dark fantasy," "urban fantasy," and yes, let me say the verboten word, horror — appeals to the same emotional needs that lead us to believe in conspiracy theories. Surely there must be something at least interesting orchestrating all our misery. It can't just be random, the work of government dullards bent of funneling the last pennies of the poor into the overflowing coffers of the rich. Humans are not so diabolic, are they? Of course not. It is the work of magicians, of sorcerers, of fortune tellers, all this awfulness we awaken to each day. It is, as Griffin suggests, "A Madness of Angels." And like Matthew Swift, given that possibility, I'd prefer not to be resurrected. I'd prefer not to have a heart.

02-09-09: Nancy N. Chen Looks At 'Food, Medicine and the Quest for Good Health' : Closing the Spectrum

At the dawn of the 21st century, we're closing in on a synthesis of life, diet and health ... that we left behind perhaps some 21 centuries ago. In the past couple of years, I've interviewed a number of writers who are all approaching this topic from different directions, but closing in on the idea that our diet and our health — and our happiness — are inextricably linked. It seems obvious when you see it written down, but when you’re shopping for food, eating, or looking for medicine to cure an illness, the tasks seem all too discrete. Nancy N. Chen uses her childhood as well as her training in anthropology to look at 'Food, Medicine and the Quest for Good Health' (Columbia University Press ; November 21l, 2008 : $24.50) and offers readers a fascinating perspective of the spectrum from food to medicine.

Here in the West, the difference is encoded in the very words we use to describe how we consume food and medicine. We "eat" food. We "take" medicine. From that point onward, the chasm between the two widens, even if we eat certain foods because we perceive that one thing or another is, "good for you." Chen's book analyzes our cultural attitudes towards food and medicines, and looks at how other cultures perceive them. She traces our perceptions back to their roots and then brings them forward into a brave new world of food supplements, nutraceuticals and pharming.

In the first part of the book, she looks at "Food As Medicine," starting with the rice porridge of her youth. From Mandarin "food therapy" (shi liao) to the legend of Shen Nong to ginseng to SARS, she covers a range of history that is breathtaking — and concise. I was particularly pleased to finally make the acquaintance of Avicenna as well as Hippocrates and the isolated groups of centenarians whom you can find sprinkled around the globe.

The second part of the book looks at "Medicine as Food," both in the ancient sense and the futuristic sense as we enter the brave new world of genetically engineered food — which we find quite frightening, even though we're happy to swallow medicine derived from genetically engineered sources. Chen's prose is crisp and she has a great ability to draw together ideas and concepts that seem difficult to grasp alone but are crystal clear when put in her unique anthropological foodie perspective. If you're interested in what you eat and why, or in how you feel — and why, here's a book that take a variety of very complicated ideas, lots of bits of history, cultural learning from around the globe and fits it all together as if there were an ancient family recipe for good writing. 'Food, Medicine and the Quest for Good Health' is an excellent entrée into the new science of food and eating.

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