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10-16-09: Michael Keller and Nicole Rager Fuller Change the Book the Changed the World : Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' — A Graphic Adaptation

Books that change the world are, according to Stanislaw Lem, notoriously hard to find. The sheer number of books published each year assures us that the world-changers cannot be found, because they are buried amidst all the rubbish. This, he says, has led to the pericalypse, the apocalypse that nobody noticed in all the haste. Between the latest bs-historical-bestseller-that-need-not-be-named and the upchucked-anti-wisdom of television's stupidest commentator, this year's 'Silent Spring' this year's 'On the Origin of Species' are most likely to go unnoticed.

Fortunately, the first one did and it was indeed a world-changing event; I never knew exactly how much of a difference it made until I read Karen Armstrong's 'The Case for God.'. Darwin's treatise finally undid the last foothold of God's power in the world, un-tethering life itself from the divine. Armstrong does a bang-up job explaining just why Darwin and his work are so reviled to this very day.

Those who feel that way will not consider
'Charles Darwin's On the Original of Species — A Gaphic Adaptation' (Rodale Books / Macmillan ; October 27, 2009 ; $14.99) with text by Michael Keller, adapting Darwin, an illustrations by Nicolle Rager Keller a step forward in literary evolution. Even those who like the original 'Origin' may wonder a bit, and with good cause. Does this book need that treatment?

I have to say that the objections are most likely to be philosophical. On one hand, you might simply feel that Darwin is the root of all evil and that the mutation of the original work by Darwin into the form of a graphic adaptation is evidence of the Devil's hand. In which case, you’re probably right. But others who actually revere the original might also find this work an unacceptable mutation on philosophical terms, thinking that the original text is always preferable, and any derivation is by definition, inferior. I might resemble that remark, in fact.

But I have to say that given we're looking at a graphic adaptation of 'Origin of the Species,' it seems that literary evolution is doing its job. Keller and Fuller have not confined themselves to the 'Origin.' The graphic adaptation does include text from the original, as well as letters to contemporaries, sections about the primary research that led to the 'Origin,' the public response, and recent breakthroughs. It’s sort of the extended director's cut DVD version of Darwin's work then.

So much for the text; equally important are illustration and book design, and here's where evolution is most clearly in action. Fuller has created a lovely, likable immersive look for Darwin's subversive masterpiece. There's a flowing feel to the work, and plenty of space so that even when Keller is packing in the information, readers won’t necessarily know it. I'm a bit leery of the rather small font size, but perhaps that's only a function how much I need reading glasses. That said, the lettering is eminently legible and happily not all uppercase.

I think the real service that this book will provide is to pique readers' interest in the original, which to this day – as this edition demonstrates – has something to say to readers. This graphic edition is a fine addition to the Darwin canon, one that readers can and should take a look at, no matter what your take is on Darwin or graphic novels. Flipping through the pages has a tendency to erode your resistance.

10-15-09: Dean Francis Alfar and Joseph F. Nacino Chart The Farthest Shore : Second World Fantasy from the Philippines

Even our second worlds seem to come mostly from the first. I dare you. Just take a trip over to your local bookstore and see how many science fiction, fantasy and horror titles hail from countries other than the US, the UK, Canada or Australia. About as many as in any other section of the bookstore, to be sure, but in general, it's very slim pickings. Out on the web, though, you can find some work that comes from outside of the box. You need go no further than The Farthest Shore

Edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Joseph F. Nacino, The Farthest Shore is an online collection of second world fantasy from the Philippines, thus guaranteeing you a rather unique perspective in your second-world fantasy reading. Alas, we'd prefer a hardcopy trade paperback, printed by some enterprising and risk-taking major American publisher, but, we'll make do with what we have, which in this case is a nice selection of imaginative and unusual literature.

You'll find twelve stories on the website, each one readable on the web in one sitting. You'll find a nice variety here, ranging from magical adventure stories, to impassioned first-person narratives to horrorish-fantasy with witches and the devil. Now you could just whip through the whole site in a couple of hours, but I'd recommend trying just one a day, spacing the stories out, to give yourself a better sense of the work as a whole, because it really takes on a rather interesting form. Though all the writers are from the Philippines, what you'll discover is that second-world fantasy has a rather strong universality. All of us are on the outside of these second worlds, looking in. We all seem to visit the same dream-worlds in our writing and reading life.

Second-world fantasy is pretty easy to think of as the ultimate escapist literature. The writer creates a world that is not ours and gives it a few rules. These rules are both wide-open and yet rather closed-in. You might have a story set both in our contemporary world and a secondary world ("The Just World of Helena Jimenez" by Eliza Victoria), or you might have a tale told within a very Robert E. Howard-like world ("Strange Weather" by editor Dean Francis Alfar) or you might have a yarn from "a poor, conservative fishing village at the northeastern tip of Kuz," ("Wildwater" by Crystal Koo). There's something here to suit most every taste in fantasy; some readers may find themselves more enchanted by one story than another, but the level of quality is clearly up to what you'll find amidst the bookshelves of your local independent bookstore. What I find fascinating is that for all the imagination, all the emphasis on the unfamiliar, there is as well a sense of familiarity, almost of coming home.

As I think of the literary space defined by "second-world fantasy," it strikes me that all of us, readers and writers, are standing on an open plain, a flat surface comprised of layers of words, gazing inward at a sphere. The sphere is very small, perhaps just a point, but it is also infinite; within is the perfect second world and indeed, all second worlds. Some of us hail from moth-eaten suburbs on the California coast in the 21st century ... some of us hail from England in the years after the First World War ... and some us hail from the Philippines. We're all looking at the same place and all seeing the same thing, but with very different eyes and minds, all surrounded by the same words and different words. These are the words of those who would look within to see that outside of themselves. We all live in our own secondary-world fantasy; not surprisingly, those who choose to write of second worlds seem to be seeing the same single world, from a variety of personal perspectives.

10-14-09: Kit Whitfield and The Fortean Times Ride the Next Wave of Genre Fiction : Mermaids 'In Great Waters'

So here's the lineup; vampires are so over. With the release of the teeny-kissing second movie in the Twilight saga, their cultural checking account gets seriously overdrawn. It hasn’t had a positive balance since Buffy left the airwaves. There were still airwaves to leave back there! Zombies, of course, are on the rise (no pun intended), what with Zombieland garnering good reviews and box office; on the literary side S. G. Browne's 'Breathers' has been snapped up by Diablo Cody's movie company. But look on the horizon and you'll see another genre trope coming down the line at you.

Yes, it's mermaids and not the cute little girl type either. The Fortean Times this month takes a look at mermaids real, imagined and even constructed in a very entertaining issue. FT is to my mind one of the greatest resources for genre fiction writers you can find, as well as a thoroughly entertaining boon to readers. Their real asset is their willingness to explore every side of a phenomenon; in this issue you get four pertinent articles. In the "Strange Days" collection of oddball news articles, you get two bits, one about a dolphin with a prosthetic tail paired with the story of a New Zealand woman who, having lost both legs, had the special-effects masters at Weta make her a functional mermaid's tail. There are two feature articles; Paul Chambers' "Fishy Tales: An Unnatural History of the British Mermaid' and "Mermaids in Myth and Art" by Gail-Nina Anderson. And just in case you needed to know, Alan Friswell gives makers a step-by-step method to create your very own replica of the infamous FeeJee Mermaid fake made famous by PT Barnum. It's a pretty gruesome sight, and requires more than a little skill. That said, it’s really cool. And there you have it, the mermaid world covered by The Fortean Times some years before we start seeing the feature films based on the fiction that is just now hitting the bookshelves.

For example, take a look at Kit Whitfield's
'In Great Waters' (Del Rey / Random House ; October 27, 2009 ; $15), a nicely-textured alternate history in which the wars of Europe's past are complicated by the presence of a race of mer-men and women who can interbreed with humans and offer a strategic advantage in naval warfare. Whitfield's first novel, 'Benighted' was a well-received take on werewolves (scheduled to become oh so yesterday soon!), raised up a few notches by virtue of good prose and intricate plotting and world building. She brings those same skills to her tale of a half-breed merman destined for greatness but hindered by circumstance. Readers who enjoy Naomi Novik's Temeraire series will find something to like here. Whitfield knows to create a world, and in this case the wide-screen Europe she depicts really has the texture and feel of a movie. The mer-folk trope is expertly developed in terms of both character and culture, the plot is almost by definition a ripping yarn, and pace is captivating without being overbearing. And you have to give Whitfield — as well as The Fortean Times — credit for stepping outside the bonds of yesteryear's genre fads. I'm just hoping that Lovecraftian monsters get in the queue sooner rather than later.

10-13-09: Kurt Vonnegut Says 'Look at the Birdie' : Unpublished Stories, Unstuck in Time

Yes, I started my journey to science fiction with the classics; H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. But I started my journey to serious literary science fiction with Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark sense of humor and ability to coalesce brilliantly imaginative ideas in entertainingly hilarious plot points made it possible for me to write about him in high school literary essays. It was pushing the envelope and testing the patience of my teachers, but I think that is precisely what Vonnegut wanted. He was one of American literature's finest patience testers ever.

Not that he tested readers' patience, no; rather he tested the literary tradition, gleefully conducting one experiment after another, experiments so polished and readable that few realized just how literarily forward-thinking he actually was. As was Billy Pilgrim in his classic 'Slaughterhouse Five,' Vonnegut's fiction was unstuck in time. He truly understood that he needed to use the tropes of science fiction to write not just about the present, but about the eternal human condition, about our ridiculous place in this comic cosmos. Not surprisingly, he didn't manage to publish everything he tried to publish. Editors are understandably (but unfortunately) often sensitive about fiction that deliberately steps outside the norm. The result is that well into a 21st century he helped to define, we're lucky enough to get
'Look at the Birdie' (Delacorte Press / Random House ; October 20, 2009 ; $26), a collection of unpublished stories that live up to his reputation as an iconic meta-science-fiction humorist.

So here's what you get, and it's more than you’d expect. There's a lively forward by Sidney Offit that sets up the collection and puts the work in perspective, both in American literature and in Vonnegut's canon. This is followed by a superb reproduction of a letter Vonnegut wrote to Walter J. Miller, in which Vonnegut talks about writing for Atlantic, Harper's, or the New Yorker — "I'd give my right arm to be enthusiastic." The letter concludes with a peculiar illustration of a pinched face, and: "yours truly, Kurt Disturbed personality." Then you get fourteen short stories, all illustrated by Vonnegut himself, who also provided the cover image — to give you an idea of what to expect. The stories are vintage Vonnegut — I'll let the titles do the talking, from "FUBAR" to "The Petrified Ants." This may be the last new Vonnegut fiction you'll ever see. Read them and weep; with joy, with sorrow, with anger that the world hasn't moved in the fifty-something gods-damned years since he wrote them. Check your mind as you read and you may well note that you, too have come unstuck in time.

10-12-09: Taylor Branch Unspools 'The Clinton Tapes' : 'Wrestling History With the President'

Hindsight may indeed be 20/20, but only if you've got twin recorders — as well as access to the President of the United States of America. From 1993 to 2001, Taylor Branch had both. History generally unfolds on a grand scale. But it also progresses intimately, in single rooms, one minute, one second at a time.

Taylor branch captures those intimate moments in the grand scale of recent history in
'The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President' (Simon and Schuster ; September 29, 2009 ; $35), a gripping and compelling page-turner based on hundreds of hours of tapes he recorded with and for President Bill Clinton, as well as his own dictated recollections. Yes, you were probably shot-gunned and inundated with all these events, drowned in the details of a 24-hour cable news cycle that was feasting on the rotting corpse of the American experiment. Yes, you might think that you know not just the beginning of this story, but the middle and the end as well. But with powerful, tense prose, Branch turns the story you think you know into an almost terrorizing story of suspense. You may know the ending, but the power of Branch's work is to keep you reading, one day, one page at a time.

This is in fact a superb example of historical non-fiction, demonstrating a talent that is rare. Branch has the ability to immerse us in events we experienced from the outside as seen from the inside, from inside the very rooms where he sat with Clinton and talked late into the night. In so doing, he wipes the slate of what we think we know clean and gives us a fresh perspective on events that shaped the world we currently live in. From the time Clinton verbally cleaned Bill Grieder's clock in a Rolling Stone interview to the moment that Monica Lewinsky began to bring down his presidency, Branch writes with the immediacy and suspense of a first-rate literary thriller. This is a book that will keep you up as late at night as Branch and Clinton in their recording sessions.

'The Clinton Tapes' is obviously not a trivial reading experience. It's over 700 pages, indexed. But it reads like lightning, and as it happens the events of the Clinton presidency cast a terribly pertinent light on what is happening now, at this moment, in American politics. Still, for all the relevancy and pertinence and obvious importance of this work of history, the real draw is Branch's ability to explore and evoke the characters who surrounded him, his ability to erase our vision of the past as we read and re-invent it, to make the known events of history fresh and exciting. We think we know what happened. But perhaps those who write history are condemned to re-write it until we get it right. We can only be thankful as readers that we're offered the opportunity to re-read history from a new perspective, to experience the past as if it were the present. Perhaps, with a little luck, we'll be able to return from reading 'The Clinton Tapes' and experience the present as if it were still the future, waiting to unfold.

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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