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07-17-09: Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco : Literature: Craft and Voice: Drama

It's one thing to craft a textbook of fiction, or poetry. Both can be presented in a short form, allowing a single volume to cover a very wide range. Drama, on the other hand, is not so accommodating. What can you expect to find in the third textbook by Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, focusing on Drama? And what drama, by inference, matters in this day of video game narratives and so-called "unscripted drama"?

What do we of the 21st century need to know of drama? We actually experience this form of literature more than any other, thanks to television and movies. This is not to say that the quantity of what we watch makes up for the lack of quality, which is apparent to anyone who chooses to spend their time watching TV or going to the movies. But the form itself, the raw bones and structure, we should know those, right? But could you really come to know what it means to be human if you were to live in a graveyard?

Textbooks and the literary canon exist for reasons beyond the need to perpetuate graduate degree study programs. The plays and dramas we regard as classic remain so because their appeal extends over the abyss of time. In many ways, they are the best evidence of civilization. Ants and termites make impressive structures just as we make buildings and monuments. But only humans craft fiction, poetry and drama. To understand the raging torrent of so-called drama aimed in our general direction, much of which exists only to move product, we need to ratchet back to a time when drama was the way we told ourselves stories about ourselves. It's essential, of course, to see these plays produced live. No matter where you live, the chances are you can. Here, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Cabrillo Stage, an American Conservatory Theater — to just grab some easy names out of the air — offer the chance to see these plays live. And that's always your first step in understanding them. Drama is performance.

But drama is also literature, the written word. And here's where a book like 'Literature: Craft and Voice, Volume 3: Drama' (McGraw Hill ; June 25, 2009 ; $65) by Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco comes in. Here are the written words, on the page, paired with analysis and assignments that will even lead those who don’t need to maintain a GPA to a better understanding of our current media-rich spew. If there are gems in the garbage, you'd be well advised to understand just what a gem looks like before diving into the muck.

'Literature: Craft and Voice, Volume 3: Drama' starts with the essentials — instruction in how to read and watch a play. If it seems obvious — it's not, and that's the first reason to buy this book. Cheuse and Delbanco wisely start with a trio of short modern plays; "Trifles" by Susan Glaspell, "The Wedding Story" by Julianne Homokay and "Zoo Story" by Edward Albee. Much of this material is accompanied by video interviews, and it's rather amazing, having lived with "Zoo Story" for as long as I have, to think that I can see a video interview with Albee himself talking about writing.

Alas this is not possible (yet) with Sophocles ("Oedipus the King"), or Shakespeare ("Hamlet," "Othello," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). But you do indeed, and amazingly to my mind, get to hear from Arthur Miller himself, as well as read "Death of a Salesman." Henryk Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson round out the modern drama offered in full; Ruben Santiago-Hudson's "Lackawanna Blues" is treated in terms of the recent film. Arthur Kopit, Joan Ackerman, David Henry Hwang, David Ives and Denise Chavez are offered as examples of Contemporary/Experimental theater. The selection is appropriately eclectic to a small degree. But read it through and you'll have a firm place to stand when you once again immerse yourself in the whirlwind of 21st media.

So this is your dramatic literature textbook, probably the only one you'll ever need. After all, with this presentation, with this guidance, you'll know the basics. You'll have a grasp on where we've been, on how we came to where we are now. The future is arriving faster every day, the stories are gathering with greater force than ever imagined by the first humans who gathered round a fire and decided to lie to one another. We still lie to one another, we still tell stories. You'll know how to listen.

07-16-09: Scott Rosenberg Says 'Say Everything' and Chris Anderson is 'Free' : Two From the Web

The future, apparently, will be free. According to Scott Rosenberg, author of 'Dreaming in Code,' bloggers are free to 'Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming and Why It Matters' (Crown Books / Random House ; July 7, 2009 ; $26), while Chris Anderson suggests that a good price for all that freedom is in fact, 'Free: The Future of a Radical Price' (Hyperion / HarperCollins ; July 7, 2009 ; $26.99). And if you want to read about all this freedom in the trusted hardcover first edition format, soon to become obsolete, then all you'll have to do is pony up fifty-something bucks — unless you buy online, in which case, you’re going to get a break. When one strikes vein of irony this rich, it's a never-ending source of bullets.

Forget the irony. It's over. Rising in the wake of the printed page, the broadsheet, the corner shouter, blogs have pretty much subsumed the world. I'll never forget a USENET personality named James KIBO Parry, whom I believe was the first to propose that soon everyone would have their own newsgroup; now, Rosenberg charts out how that has, in a sense, happened. 'Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming and Why It Matters' is a well-wrought and fascinating look at how blogs came to be, who created them, where they're going and — the nugget of every news story you'll ever hear, at least on NPR — why they matter.

It takes a certain kind of writer to work this subject, to traverse the minefields of overstatement, and excessive research, to pull out a human story while still offering a Big Picture. Rosenberg, the co-founder of Slate, is uniquely placed to do just this. He understands the technology at an instinctive level as a manger and user, so he can write about without affect. And if his work as co-fonder of Slate didn't qualify him enough, he spent a couple of years as a fly on the wall writing 'Dreaming of Code,' immersed in the culture of free software developers. The result is a book that gives readers great characters and great stories as part of the Big Story of a Big Idea. It's the triumph of true anarchy.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson looks at the pull of the same forces in a different environment. 'Free: The Future of a Radical Price' starts off with a rip-roaring bang (Monty Python versus YouTube) and never lets up, arguing that the freedom of the web can only result in a new sort of economic model where the definition of product and the definition of sale are being radically revised almost on a daily basis. What Anderson does, to put it in a context that readers of this column will most quickly grok, is to create a non-fiction version of Cory Doctorow's "Themepunks," to show how the future described by Doctorow has already arrived. We already live in a reputation economy, and a "thing's" "value" is as infinitely malleable as the word "thing."

Anderson's book is compulsively readable, as he (and the reader) tear through the very meaning of the word "free" and then explode into the unlimited sea of possibility that has been realized as the "Internet." What it was when I typed "Internet" is something different from what it will be when you read "Internet." Wait, it's just changed again. Anderson uses some smart graphics and snappy organization to enable readers of books printed on paper to understand a world where nothing need be printed on paper. It's all bits, including those speeding towards your retinas as you read this.

I must admit that the pairing of these books was at first glance a coincidence. I popped 'Free' on the shelf next to 'Say Everything' in a desperate and usually unsuccessful attempt to keep up with the influx of books I get. But in a truly anarchic universe, everything will eventually come to pass, and given the energy that goes into the Internet, it's not surprising that they showed up side-by-side. What is surprising however, is the power of an enduring invention, that, like the Internet, had the power to change the world. For all the foofaraw about free books online, about the problems of software pirates and the so-called challenges to the so-called laws of what we like to think is "intellectual property," there's a bottom-line power in the ancient — five hundred years old — technology of the printed page, in books. Yes, there's a bit of irony in the fact that these two books about the freedom of the bit are both for sale as hardcover books. But that's just because freedom finds a natural outlet where it can. This is the place where economy, ecology, evolution and technology become as one. Say everything — free.

07-15-09: Charles Stross Goes 'Wireless' : Message for Bunker Dwellers

It's kind of odd for me to write about Charlie Stross, because I've written about him a million times now, it seems and so has everyone else. But I won’t let that stop me from at least making a pro forma reminder that the talented writer has yet another collection of shortish stories out. With the so-called crash of the publishing industry, they've loosened the reigns, it seems on what was once a stricture that confined writers to one book per year. Neal Asher gets away with it and so does Charlie Stross.

Besides, I haven't written about any hardcore science fiction recently, and it's time to get back to my roots. I'm really glad that publishers have finally agreed to let prolific writers like Stross and Asher out of the gate, especially if the book is something like
'Wireless' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; July 7, 2009 ; $24.95), a collection of stories that are not exactly short — and this is a big plus in my book! I do feel a bit sheepish flogging another book by Stross, because you know, if you read science fiction and you haven’t yet read Stross, then I think you must have been living in a bunker for the past five years or so. I mean the sheer number of books by this talented writer, and the huge variety thereof pretty much ensure that you should have heard of him. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that some seven or eight years ago, when it appeared that the Republic was in danger (you pick the cause, coup from within, threat from without), you decided to make use of that bomb shelter in your back yard. Now, make no mistake, you missed a lot of good books. But if you've been out for even a couple of day, you should have heard of Stross.

And if not, 'Wireless' is a great place to start. You'll just a get a glimpse of his space-opera-ish stuff in "Trunk & Disorderly," but if you like that, then run, don’t walk and pick up the real-deal 'Saturn's Children' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 30, 2009 ; $7.99), now available as an appropriately cheesy mass-market paperback. Stross, science fiction — check! For your New Weird horrish fix, how about the latest Bob Howard story, 'Down On The Farm'? Stross, New weird / Horror — Check! And if you haven’t had your fill of post-millennial (I'm calling it) cyberpunk (kvetch until the Singularity arrives, human), how about a collaboration with Cory Doctorow titled "Unwirer"? Stross, cyberpunk — check!

Sure Subterranean Press published "Missile Gap" a while back, but not everyone got to buy it, so seeing this Alternate History story here let's us check that category off the list. "MAXOS" knocks off the "flash" (read really, really, really short) fiction category. "Palimpsest", original to this volume (though you can probably find it somewhere on the web), goes back in time to slay the grandfather of all time travel stories, thus eliminating even the need for that category, so hey check that one off as well. There are more, but you know I hope to hell you get the pitcher. And once you've had the first round of fine ale from that pitcher, you'llk be able to go back, look at the book and take note (with great happiness if you're me, that is) that most everything in here comes pretty damn close to novella length. These aren't just short stories, they're real worlds for you to visit. And the best thing is, if you've just come out of your bunker, there's a bunch more Stross out there for you to get, along with a lot of other stuff as well. Welcome back, here's your book. Come back when you're done, and we'll see if we can find a few more.

07-14-09: Novella Carpenter Goes To 'Farm City' : 'The Education of An Urban Farmer'

It's one thing to plant a garden. No pressure, just pop some seeds in the ground, or in pots, and water 'em regularly, and chances are your garden will grow. You can have a garden anywhere; indoors, outdoors, in the kitchen of your double-wide trailer or on the deck of your sumptuous mansion. A farm however, is a different animal.

A farm is a very different animal indeed, especially if you decide to start one in your apartment in the Oakland ghetto.
Novella Carpenter was at least smart enough to make that decision before she chose her not-so-sumptuous living arrangements. In 'Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer', (Penguin Press /Penguin Putnam ; June 15, 2009 ; $25.95), Carpenter stakes readers on her journey to create a farm in the midst of what could best be called urban squalor. Her story is funny, odd and makes compelling reading out of bees, pigs, geese, goats and a collection of neighbors just as unusual as the animals they surround.

Carpenter's decision to create a farm in the midst of the Oakland ghetto began when she chose her apartment. She needed something close to an abandoned lot, because that's where the "farm" as such was going to start. Once she had that nailed, the rest was just mail order and elbow grease, along with a high tolerance for manure in all its wonderfully odiferous variety.

'Farm City' is a fascinating book. It's not exactly a how-to, though you'll certain learn how Novella went about setting up an urban farm. But it's not exactly a memoir, because she really keeps the focus on the matter at hand, that is, all the things she did that were concerned with getting an actual farm going. What's fascinating, and what makes this book such a lot of fun to read, is that a lot of the work had to take place within her Novella's noggin. Urban farming, it seems is as much attitude as aptitude, and that can-do, will-do attitude makes for exciting and inspiring reading.

Whether she's wrangling bees, geese, or beans, Novella faces her tasks as if they were one part adventure and two parts divine commandment. A vegetarian though high school and college, when she decided to raise, as she calls them, "meat birds," she had to make a conscious decision that they were simply for meat and nothing else. She didn't name then, well, except for Hal, the turkey. There's a story there ...

In fact there are stories everywhere in her website, Ghost Town Farm, and Carpenter captures them with an easy-going style. This is indeed an urban farm, and her neighbors are great characters. So are her animals. Indeed, the real gift here is Carpenter's vision of a world you can go right out into and start rebuilding, one bee at a time. Well, maybe more like 30,000 bees at a time, but the UPS guy delivers just one package. I'd get the book before you buy the bees, or especially the pigs.

07-13-09: A Review of 'City of the Sun' by David Levien : The Power of Precision

You might very well have missed the first Frank Behr novel by David Levien. In the flood of books that get dumped on readers and booksellers, it’s hard to tell what’s the what. But Levien's 'City of the Sun' (Anchor Books / Doubleday / Random House ; February 24, 2009), now out as a mass-market paperback, is pretty damn special. If you as a reader have to exercise your book-finding skills with the same precision as Levien's detective, Frank Behr, do so.

'City of the Sun' is an extremely focused novel. It's going to introduce the reader to Frank Behr, an ex-cop who now works cases as a private investigator. It's going to offer a fairly straightforward crime; a missing boy. And if you like your crime fiction stripped-down, precise and well-written, it’s going to impress the hell out of you.

Here's my advice. Don’t read the jacket flap verbiage and especially ignore the blurbs, which to my mind set up expectations for one sort of fiction when you’re really getting a very different sort. I wouldn’t exactly call this book a "page-turner" in the faux-suspense mode that so often gets tagged with that line. I'll try to tell you enough to give you an idea about what's good in this book so that you'll know if you should read it, if you just follow the link to this review.

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

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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

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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...

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

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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

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

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