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03-20-09: Mark Rudd Emerges from 'Underground' : Which Way the Wind Blows

Has it been five years since the PBS Documentary on 'The Weather Underground'? I just looked it up and yes, that's the case. I thought the story was fascinating on film, and it's even more involving, shocking and thought-provoking in Mark Rudd's 'Underground: My Life with the SDS and the Weathermen' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; March 24, 2009 ; $25.99). Rudd is clearly not writing this book to Win Friends and Influence People. Rather, he has something to say, and even if he is damned; he says it.

"The closing images of the movie show me as a befuddled, gray-haired, overweight middle-aged guy observing thirty years later I still don’t know what to do with my knowledge of who we are in the world; then the film cuts to aerial shots of carpet bombing in Vietnam, and, finally, to a close-up of a skinny twenty-two year old kid, the same guy, with the same grief-stricken look on my face."

No, Mark Rudd is not going to make a lot of friends with this book. He's going to anger lots of people, who are, alas, already angry and rarin' for a reason to be more so. 'Underground' tracks an eighteen-year old reader who starts at Columbia College and just wants to get laid, then follows him through a life of burning intensity and passionate disaster. From the Independent Committee on Vietnam to the Students for a Democratic Society, Rudd blazed a path through a country that was tearing itself apart without the help of an International Economic Crisis or two wars that have already outlasted World War Two. "Your cry of 'nihilism' represents your inability to understand our positive values," Rudd wrote in a letter to the president of Columbia University. "You are quite right in feeling that the situation is 'potentially dangerous.' ... There is only one thing left to say. It may sound nihilistic to you, since it is the opening shot in a war of liberation. I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don’t like a whole lot: 'Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick up.'"

Rudd is a wonderfully complicated and self-confused figure, but he's a good enough writer to give readers a raw perspective on these events. You'll understand what it was like to be intelligent, white and radical during the 1960's and 1970's. You may not like what Rudd has to say, and he's not happy with everything he did either. That's what makes this such a fascinating, compelling book to read. Rudd didn't just live through history, he helped make history. But he's not entirely pleased how it played out, and he's willing to admit it. Rudd writes about his experiences from the inside with a surprisingly balanced approach. He describes the Weather Underground as not just a failure, but a tragedy. 'Underground' is not a simple book with a straightforward conclusion. It's a life lived, if not well, at the very least, with passion. Mistakes were made, and cannot be unmade. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can learn.

03-19-09: Whitely Strieber Achieves 'Critical Mass' : Unsubtle Consequences

Nobody ever accused Whitley Strieber of being overly subtle. A glance at 'Critical Mass' (Forge / Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; February 17, 2009 ; $24.95) should reassure readers that this continues to be the case. Strieber's latest follows up on the promise he made to me back when I interviewed him late in 2007. Part 1, Part 2 'Critical Mass' is a novel wherein a terrorist nuke is employed on US soil. If I recall correctly, in '2012', Strieber blew up not one, not two, but three, count 'em, three earths. Now he's going for a fourth. I'm beginning to think he has a grudge.

OK, so the premise of 'Critical Mass' isn’t subtle. That's a good thing. When it comes to nuclear terror, subtlety is an overrated virtue, even in the realm of reading experiences. So you've got the wind-up, here's the pitch. James Deutsch is a sort of everyman-meets-every-super-spy-you-ever-read about. His specialty is nuclear terrorism, and he's the guy who finds out that someone has moved weapons-grade plutonium over the Mexican border. And while Deutsch is resourceful, probably beyond the bounds of reality, he's not able to stop events long ago set in motion.

Now here's where Strieber really nails the reader to floor, the wall and parts of the ceiling. Forget about the occasionally clunky prose and the fact that Deutsch is one red t-shirt shy of being able to fly. Strieber, with the aid of lots of research, struts forth into the barren reaches of his readers' minds and makes them think the Unthinkable. He forces readers to confront fear and prejudice side-by-side, and rubs our noses in the mess he makes of our country — indeed, the world. 'Critical Mass' is a rip-roaring (cheesy) thriller with Apocalyptic consequences and no mercy for any readers' sensibilities.

The devil, in this case, is in the details that Strieber offers. From the workings of terrorist cells to the dangers of utterly unsupervised nuclear materials and national borders, Strieber hammers on our sense of safety, seeking and succeeding to undermine any confidence we have that we're going to be able to avoid an incident of nuclear terrorism. He also imagines the upshot and consequences in a manner that is (un)fairly shocking. But by this juncture, as the only nation that has detonated a nuclear weapon as part of a war, we're going to have to relegate "fair" to the dustbin. We're not putting this genie back in the bottle; we're inviting it to spend some time here.

Strieber is an interesting writer. He's an equal opportunity offender, willing to upend the pet beliefs of anyone in his general vicinity. 'Critical Mass' is an inherently political novel, but he manages the pretty neat trick of keeping his own politics ambiguous, or rather, irrelevant. Who cares what party you belong to when the country is a smoking cinder? Who cares what country you're a citizen of when the world is a smoking cinder? For all the world destruction he unleashes, Strieber is a canny guy. Maybe, just maybe a few eyes will be opened wide enough to make the people we pay to think the Unthinkable actually get to the point where they wrap their brains around it and lift the fingers required to make the minimal efforts. Or maybe readers are just getting warmed up before they get blowed up. You may or may not want to read 'Critical Mass.' But you sure as hell don’t want to live through it.

03-18-09: Barbara Vine Opens 'The Birthday Present' : Not Being Careful What You Pretend to Be

For insight into the way the human mind actually works, stringing together thoughts that seem good in the moment but lead to irreparable harm, nobody beats Ruth Rendell, especially when she's writing as Barbara Vine. As Barbara Vine, Rendell explores mysteries in a generally untraditional manner. While her Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford novels are solid, intriguing detective stories, her Barbara Vine books are often simply replete with unpleasantly believable evil.

Evil, of course can take many forms. It's rarely that cackling bad guy who reveals his plans just in the nick of time for them to be foiled. Those guys are generally boring old sots any way you slice it. Nor is evil the drooling cereal killer, for example, who leaves a trademark box of Cheerios at every crime scene because of an unfortunate incident in his youth. Evil, more often than not, is banal.

Labour-leaning Vine's doesn't waste time in 'The Birthday Present,' (Shaye Areheart / Crown / Random House ; March 10, 2009 ; $25), her take on political shenanigans. Ivor Tesham is a politico with a good future but a bad habit. When he takes up with Hebe Furnal, their mutual interests prove to be disastrous. Role-playing sounds like a lark, especially a sexy curbside kidnapping. But this is Barbara Vine, and things go very wrong. And then they get worse.

In many ways, what Rendell writes as Vine might be apprehended as horror fiction. Not because it's particularly bloody (though it sometimes is), and not because there is any hint of the supernatural (there never is). No, Vine writes what I might call horror because, like Del Toro and Hogan, mentioned last week in my article about their vampire novel 'The Strain,' Barbara Vine knows how to create an aura of dread. She does with this knockout plotting, superb prose and cringe-inducing characterization that puts readers behind the eyeballs of some of the most misaligned characters every to crawl off the page and burrow into your psyche.

As you read further into a Barbara Vine novel, you can sense that even if someone doesn't peel off the skin of several living humans and bathe in their blood, well, they might like to. She makes the most horrific actions one can imagine possible, and thus, need never actually describe them. The cajoling, whinging, sniveling, self-important apologies of some of the most unpleasant people you'll ever meet in print serve only to ratchet up the tension in such a manner that while, from the outside, what you're reading might otherwise be termed a "thriller," from inside the reading experience, there's a whole lot of horror going on. Barbara Vine employs finely crafted literary fiction to make your skin crawl right off your musculature so no psycho need do the deed.

'The Birthday Present' is no exception. As the tension rises and the peril plays out, Vine succeeds turning the characters' weaknesses into the readers' weaknesses. We all fall, we all fall down.

03-17-09: Believe It or Not : Zoe Heller's 'The Believers' and Stacy Horn's 'Unbelievable

Accept something as true. Have trust. Believe.

It cannot be avoided; it must be accepted. Not any single belief, but belief itself. It is the means by which we put together our lives, the mental tool we use to assemble sensory data into our experience. And not surprisingly it gets mixed up with the things in which we believe. It has the connotation of faith in the invisible, of knowledge of the unknowable. When you get two disparate books in the same envelope, one titled 'The Believers' (Harper / HarperCollins ; March 3, 2009 ; $25.99) by Zoe Heller and the other titled 'Unbelievable' (Ecco / HarperCollins ; March 10, 2009) by Stacy Horn, it's hard not to believe that there's an invisible reason. We want to have trust. To believe.

What we believe about ourselves can be transformed in an instant or over a lifetime. Families in particular are transformative laboratories of belief, microcosms in which shared experiences create visions of the invisible. Born in language, taking life in the words we speak, novels about belief and those who believe are inherently involving reading experiences. Zoe Heller captures a family in the midst of transformation in 'The Believers,' plunging readers into the world of a decaying New York family.

Don’t stop me if you've heard this before, because you have. The American Family Saga is practically a genre unto itself, a genre that gets periodically reborn. In 'The Believers,' Zoe Heller takes readers into the Litvinoff family. The patriarch, Joel, is struck down by a stroke, and without his mind and his story to protect them, the rest of the clan crumbles. His wife Audrey, the bad-son Lenny, the distant daughters Karla and Rosa are forced to re-define themselves without the safety net of Joel's beliefs. It proves to be an uncomfortable process. Heller's previous novel, 'Notes from a Scandal' (in the UK, re-titled in the US as 'What Was She Thinking? Notes from a Scandal' because what were they thinking — US readers need a longer title to believe it's worth buying, I guess) was big-deal movie fodder. But it was also a slicker, leaner novel than 'The Believers,' which does, however keeps it's almost Dickensian goings-on to a trim 300-plus pages. That title is not there for nothing;
Heller's characters find them selves surrounded by beliefs that threaten their own beliefs about themselves. It's a complicated, bustling book that is not without similarities to Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections', though I do believe that Heller night welcome the O stamp.

On the other side of the world, Stacy Horn's 'Unbelievable' chronicles the history of Duke Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University. The brainchild of J. B. Rhine, Duke's lab spent fifty years studying the unbelievable; ghosts, telekinesis, ESP, poltergeists — the stuff of a thousand bad movies. Fortunately, whether or not you believe in such phenomena is irrelevant to your ability to enjoy Horn's book. It's an exciting, immaculately researched, complicated answer to a question that has no simple answer: "Do you believe?"

Readers with an interest in matters Fortean will enjoy the almost novelistic style and Horn's extensive research. She's refreshingly without agenda, and offers up lots of fascinating details about the longest and perhaps best study of the "paranormal." It's easy to relegate such beliefs to tabloid BS; quite a bit harder when they strike close to home. The problem arises not because of what you believe, or don't, but why.

03-16-09: Subterranean Press Shines with Stories and Novels : Lewis Shiner and Peter F. Hamilton

What used to be called the small press is stepping up in a big way. No longer small, they call themselves independent and the many gaps in the New York publishing model are becoming easier and easier to fill. So, here's Subterranean Press with some very nice offerings; 'Collected Stories' by Lewis Shiner (Subterranean Press ; November 30, 2009 ; $40) and a deluxe hardcover edition of 'The Reality Dysfunction' by Peter F. Hamilton (Subterranean Press ; November 30, 2009 ; $60).

I guess it all comes down to hard numbers; if they result in finely-crafted hardcover novels, then I'm all for them. The two books being discussed here could not be more different; a never-before published collection of short stories and the hardcover reprint of a novel whose hardcover first editions will set you back some five or six hundred dollars. But what they share is the fact that they're quite desirable to a certain audience that's willing to shell out the money for hardcover books. New York may not know or believe that audience exists, and even if it did, it may not be able to pull off the publication at a profit. But so long as Subterranean Press is around, readers who value and prefer the hardcover format for reading will have a source of precisely the sort of books they desire.

'Collected Stories' by Lewis Shiner rounds up 41 stories by one of the contributors to the original cyberpunk explosion, the Bruce Sterling-edited 'Mirrorshades.' In fact, Shiner's story, "Mozart in Mirrorshades," is arguably what the replicants in Blade Runner call the incept point. But 'Collected Stories' virtue is not that is contains a classic cyberpunk short story; instead, the main attraction is the breadth and depth and variety of Shiner's writing. In a sense, Lewis Shiner writes in no genre, every genre and in one genre: Lewis Shiner stories. You might find a hard-boiled detective story, or a gentle nostalgia-gone-sour musical meditation, or a weird piece of monsterizing. Since the stories cover a long career, readers are going to see an evolution, as Shiner teaches and finds himself. The common thread is Shiner's prickly prose, which has the same grit and feel as one finds in home-made videos from the 1980's, before we uploaded everything to the web. 'Collected Stories' is very nicely designed; it looks like what it in fact is, a selection of fine literary stories by a superb writer.

I read the first 50 or so pages of 'The Reality Dysfunction' by Peter F. Hamilton in the US mass market paperback edition, then set out to buy the UK hardcover. It wasn't easy — and it wasn't cheap — but whenever possible, I prefer to read in hardcover. Along with Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space,' this book was for me a re-entry point into space opera science fiction. It's a hell of a memorable read, and in the currently available mass-market paperbacks, very difficult to read. Subterranean's new hardcover makes all the pain go away, and offers readers a chance to immerse in comfort at a bargain price. Hamilton's epic is the sort of book that gets better on second reading, so my suspicion is that a lot of readers who had to suffer through those paperback versions will want to get on board and take a second tour of our introduction to the Confederation Universe. Know as you do the background, the details pop out at you more forcefully. Hamilton's writing is blisteringly intense — it's far more powerful that the generally stupid space movies we get. And with releases like these, Subterranean doing something that seems almost absurdly obvious, but is really quite brilliant. They're making books that provide a terrific reading experience on the level of both content and presentation; what more can readers ask for? After all, we read because we like to read. It's a smart and profitable idea to make that experience as fine as possible.

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