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05-22-09: Victor LaValle Plugs Into 'The Big Machine' : The Voice of the World

Everyone's heard the Voice of the World, at one time or another. A quiet evening alone on the beach. The sudden silence in the shopping mall. Trapped in a stifling bus. There's a moment, and words enter your mind; did they come through your wears or via another mechanism? You just know what you heard, but then: the moment's gone.

But not for everyone. Some folks can hear that voice a whole lot better than others. Philip K. Dick did, and he called it VALIS, Vast Active Living Intelligence System. He wrote a novel about it, but the novel blurred life and fiction as Dick did so expertly. And he burrowed to the heart of an idea that has long obsessed us; if it's not God, the Sky Fairy, then what is it that makes us feel like God's talking to us?

Victor Lavalle's heard the voice as well, and his report therein comes in the form of the novel 'Big Machine' (Spiegel & Grau / Random House ; August 11, 2009 ; $25). Like Philip K. Dick, LaValle is enamored of the less fortunate among us. The meek may not inherit the earth, but they may get to meet God, or whatever passes for God, first.

LaValle is an engaging and very funny writer. His protagonist, Ricky Rice, is loser who was once a heroin addict but now scrapes by working as a porter in the bus depot. He's whisked away from all this and finds himself in a rural, remote part of Vermont, where he's inducted into the Unlikely Scholars, a secret society of black men and women who have at one time in their lives heard the Voice. Now they're tasked with finding the source, with investigating newspaper reports of disembodied voices and ghost-like manifestations, hoping to find that one place, that one way, where humans can at least perceive part of the Big Machine, which Philip K. Dick called VALIS.

'Big Machine' is indeed a book of Big Thinks, leavened by lots of great humor and a wonderful focus on the goofy, the grotty and the grotesque. LaValle takes humanity very seriously, so much so that he's able to invest low-life characters with charisma, grace and an intensity that rings true because the book is so damned funny. "Violet and I became close," Ricky Rice tells us. "She liked me. And it wasn't one-sided. A bookish little thing. In Cleveland she'd been an assistant librarian and a meth addict. She knew how to pack a pipe and carry a conversation. That is a well-rounded person." Unfortunately, there is more than one group hoping to be the first to hear the Voice, and Ricky Rice finds himself on the front lines of a very American Holy War.

There's a quality to this world, a sort of plasticity to reality that is ever obvious but rarely acknowledged, a surreal supernatural undertow that calls to all humanity. Some of us join the church, some of us meditate and some of us hear that voice command us to kill random human beings, just because. LaValle evokes that ever-present vision of the world with skill humor and sort of fury that is actually quite engaging. You may or may not feel like you're part of, or that you've heard from the Big Machine. But if you're not in church, not meditating and not loading a gun, then maybe just perhaps you;ve heard that voice – when you're reading.

05-21-09: Alastair Reynolds Doubles Up : Sub Press vs 'House of Suns'

It was really an impulse buy. I didn't like science fiction very much at the time. But for some reason, this title on the *.*uk website, blurbed, I suspect by none other than David Langford, sounded like a really interesting and well-written book. 'Revelation Space' by Alastair Reyolds turned out to be quite a bit more than interesting and well-written, though it was certainly both of those. I can sorta trace the origins of this website to Reynolds' first novel.

Reynolds' superb space opera, and many books that have followed, directly inspired me to write about them, to create a website that would point other readers such as myself, who had in the past enjoyed both literary and genre fiction, to books that might otherwise be missed but were well worth buying and reading.

Here I am some 7-plus years later; I haven’t given up yet, though times are indeed dire. But every time I decide to re-direct all my traffic to "," there's a knock at the door and the UPS guy or the Fedex guy or the mailman have left another envelope on my porch that keeps me going. No less a sage than Auric Goldfinger tells us that "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action." I think we're into enemy (or really, friendly) action here with the delivery of two or three, depending on how you count 'em, new books by Alastair Reynolds. Yesterday brought the first one/two, and what a delight it is. Subterranean Press knows genre readers. They apparently know our deepest souls, our deepest needs, our most intense affections. Only such knowledge could have led to the creation of the 'Minla's Flowers' / 'Thousandth Night' (Subterranean Press ; October 31, 2009 ; #35) deluxe, hardcover edition in an "Ace Double" format. I think for many readers, that says enough.

But I'll elaborate just a bit. Back in the formative years of science fiction, Ace Books used to regularly issue "Ace Doubles." These were mass-market paperbacks with two books in one; you'd flip the book over and instead of a back cover, you’d find the front cover of a second book, printed upside-down and backwards halfway through the first. They were weird, cheesy and not limited to science fiction, though the SF titles were the best known. And we loved them, every last cheesy bit. I mean check out the example; Philip K. Dick with a flipside of John Brnner. How cool is that? In retrospect, VERY.

So to see a super-deluxe hardcover version is simply thrilling, and more so by virtue of the fact that Reynolds is a perfect choice for this format. Because, yes, Reynolds does manage to write whiz-bang, sensawunda, science fiction; his stories would have been a perfect fit in these books some forty, fifty years ago when they came out. Now, Reynolds adds a literary sheen to his work that takes it to another level than most science fiction. He can create characters, plots and detailed descriptions that compete with our best genre-less literary writers. But don't hold that against him! Subterranean gives you all the fun of two outstanding Reynolds' novellas in a to-die-for package. The first (going alphabetically), 'Minla's Children' brings back Merlin and offers him a dilemma worthy of his skills on a planet headed for oblivion. The flip side offers 'Thousandth Night,' which is the genesis of his newest novel from Ace; the aforementioned "enemy action."

That "enemy action" has a title, 'House of Suns' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 2, 2009 ; $26.95), and I trust readers will note the publisher. You see, we're well beyond happenstance and coincidence. And, incredibly, Reynolds continues to outdo himself on every level. As I noted above, I always loved that Reynolds could write real science fiction (he is, after all a working astrophysicist) that offered great science married to a great imagination. To my mind, much of the science fiction today gets by, fair enough guv, on just these two qualities. But Reynolds' prose, his writing on all levels; plot, characterization and prose, is to my mind exquisite. Here, he's at his best and most extreme. We have a vision of humanity and the galaxy six million years after space travel began. Reynolds can live up to that premise with intelligent speculation married to a fascinating imagination. Add to that some of Reynolds' best character work to date, immerse yourself in his fine prose, and I think you've a great reading experience. Three by Alastair Reynolds. Thanks, Al. The site lives on another day.

05-20-09: 'A Brain Wider Than the Sky' by Andrew Levy : Aura and Triggers

I'll never forget the advertisement for a pain medication that showed a man sitting in a chair with a hammer hovering over his head, pounding down, pounding down. "When was the last time you had a headache?" It was a silly, cartoonish image, but the implications were actually frightening. That kind of pain allows no respite, no remedy. When your brain hurts, what could possibly stop the pain?

What we call a "migraine headache" is to my mind not in the least bit similar to those poor pale cousins that take leave when you pop a couple of generic aspirin. Andrew Levy is a "writer's writer." This is to say that one of his previous books is 'The Culture and Commerce of the American short Story,' a book whose title gives away the plot, so to speak, but not the content, which offers a concise but thorough portrait of the import of the short story in American Literature. But like many among us, he suffers from migraine headaches, and when he hit a four-month stretch of daily migraines, he decided to do something about it — and started writing.

'A Brain Wider Than the sky: a Migraine Diary' (Simon and Schuster ; May 26, 2009 ; $25) is the book that resulted from Levy's experience. Levy starts with a migraine experience, and it's not just about pain, though there's plenty of that. What Levy experiences is not easily described. It's not stabbing pain, or an explosion within. Moreover, Levy is a sufferer whose symptoms include what is called an "aura." It's a disruption the senses, often vision, sometimes other senses, a hallucination; "...a curtain, drawing itself across my field of vision — wildly drawn, bowing out in the middle, its right fringe on fire, too, the curtain itself turning from translucent to gray, from an unstable twinkling to a calmer shimmer, as it moved left to right." Suffering daily, Levy found a sort of cure that might not have alleviated his symptoms but certainly alleviated the sense of helplessness. He began to research the cultural, personal and artistic history of the migraine. He also discovered the trigger for his own migraines, and it's fascinating.

'A Brain Wider Than the Sky' is your entrée into the world of the "migraineur." Alexander Pope cured his with coffee, as caffeine is one not-always effective preventive medicine. Levy's exploration of the art and artists who have suffered from migraine headaches is interwoven with his own experiences and the science of migraines. For those who are interested in art, neuroscience and the edges of human perception, 'A Brain Wider Than the Sky' offers a thought provoking vision of pain, science and redemption.

05-19-09: In Praise of Christopher Fowler : Black Static

I've written may times here about finding my first Christopher Fowler book, a collection of short stories titled 'City Jitters.' It’s one of those memories that shouldn't stand out, but does. Back in the days when drug stores had unique and interesting book selections, when a small, independent store could serve up surprises that one might not find anywhere else. The drugstore on Lincoln Boulevard in Marina Del Rey, just up from the Swedish smorgasbord, was a place I'd drift through now and again. Two long rows of wire racks on the early afternoon Southern California sun. 'City Jitters,' I never thought that book would start a run that would last hell, more than twenty years.

But the latest version of 'Black Static' (TTA Press ; May 2009 ; £3.95) offers readers a double dose of Fowler. We start off with "Piano Man," an excellent example of the sort of unassuming horror story that Fowler excels at. I'll not discuss the plot except to say that it unfolds in New Orleans and lives up to its title. Fowler has a manner of writing gripping, easily-read stories that seem both fun and truly disturbing. When you read Fowler's work, it almost always seems like a thing of the moment, a sort-of throw away that you can therefore really relax and enjoy. There's no pretending and no pretension in his writing; he serves up clear characters who walk into something increasingly unreal and increasingly unpleasant, with a little whip tail that stings. But the result of what might at first glance seem to be Fowler's lack of ambition is that his writing has a real and lasting impact. You know going in that there won’t be much to remember, but once you’re done with the story, you're left with something you can't quite manage to forget, an atmosphere of joyous dread, a clear-eyed vision of the visionary hallucinations that border our lives. Fowler's stuff is not just fun to read, it's fun to remember, and re-read.

Fowler is a regular in 'Black Static'' but usually he doesn't write fiction. He writes movie reviews and does so quite well, and in this particular issue, he offers a wonderful tribute to "B Movies," which, he says, "instead of residing on the lower halves of fleapit go to DVD after a cursory single week's screening to qualify for that all-important 'cinema release'." It's no accident, I think, that Fowler pays tribute to the B movie genre. He gets it totally, and understands not just the successes, but the failures as well: "Two of the least amusing Bs ever made are Sex Lives of the Potato Men, about stupid people delivering chips and the appalling Three and Out, which has Mackenzie Crook trying to drive his tube train over a tramp to qualify for early redundancy." Fowler's essay is utterly entertaining, reminding us of his prolific work as a novelist. And he goes to the heart of the understated appeal of his own fiction, which is A-list quality served up as B-list horror and cheerfully fun mystery fare. Now, that just gets you to page 12 of the current issue of 'Black Static' ; it's what, maybe ten bucks American? There's a lot more to it than Christopher Fowler, but I'm here for this writer, for the pleasure of reading, for the pleasure of discovering that importance is will always be in the mind of the reader. We remember our drugstore days with pleasure.

05-18-09: Mark Arax Ventures 'West of the West' : 'Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State'

You might think that if, for example, you own a house, you own the land. That's never the case. The land owns us. The places we live shape us, shake us, take us apart and put us back together as different and not always better people. The relationships between people and the places they find themselves living are complicated and contradictory. Exploring that relationship in prose is a difficult proposition. Trying to get at the truth, the facts leads one to the lies and deceptions, and further leads, one to lie and deceive one's self as well as one's audience.

Mark Arax's 'West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State' (Public Affairs Books / Perseus ; April 13, 2009 ; $26.95) takes readers to a place that's not on any map; Teddy Roosevelt's, "When I am in California, I am not in the west. I am West of the West." Exploring California, Arax takes an idiosyncratic, personal approach that focuses on specific, personal experiences to evoke a startlingly universal vision. He uses every approach in the journalist's literary toolkit to craft a book of separate essays that coalesce into an intuitive, unified vision. He lets himself be moved by what he sees and manages to touch deep chords in the reading experience. 'West of the West' is sunset on the California beach, sunrise in a deserted boom town, the failures of struggling immigrants and the sweet stories of their loves, it is all the people and all the places through specific people clinging to certain places.

Arax's essays are gorgeously written, poignant and funny. There are nine stories in here that offer a variety of visions, from the immigrants of "The Last Valley" to the Conspiracy Con attendees of "Eyre of the Storm." Arax puts himself in every story, offering the reader context and vision, exploring the lies and deceptions and questioning his own vision. "The Agent" tells the often funny and equally disturbing story of the Lodi Al Qaeda cell, which of course is largely fiction, at least, according to the top FBI agent who was silenced by the judge presiding over the trial. Arax is Armenian, and the complicated relations within his own community power "The Legend of Zankou," a story of ethnic success and murder that ended up in 'Best American Crime Reporting 2008.'

Arax manages to move from the powerful tragedy of "The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman" to the complicated social comedy that has turned the "Highlands of Humboldt" into an economic nation unto itself. Wherever he goes, Arax takes a remarkably crafted personal prose vision. It's a pleasure to read, the written equivalent of a fine wine sipped on a beach at sunset. 'West of the West' is a prose map of a part of the world that exists not on any map, but as an entanglement of human souls scattered across time and up and down the wrong side of the place where the continental plates grind against one another. The conflict of the earth against itself, of the small humans with grand visions, wrangled into words.

New to the Agony Column

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Erik Larson : " "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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