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01-08-10: Catherynne M. Valente is 'Under in the Mere'

Prose, Poetry and Transcendence

There's always a mystery. How we get from one moment to the next, that thin, ethereal thread of perception, the light flitting across the dew on the lawn, the screech of tires before the terrible sounds of metal rending, the fleeting touch of a loved one, the lost memories of legends reborn; everything connected by a tissue of language. One word follows another and a story is born. A myth is birthed into this world, in this miracle of paper and glue and ink.

Your world may be littered with books, and your world may be littered with legends, but there is one more to add to your collection. '
Under in the Mere' (Rabid Transit Press ; 2009 ; $10) by Catherynne M. Valente is an unassuming book. It's nicely designed, to be sure, but it's no tome. You can read it in an afternoon, if you like, but afterwards, after you emerge from the dream, you'll feel like you've touched just a bit of eternity. Valente takes the high road, and weaves poetry, prose, and hallucination into a close approximation of eternity. She takes our fantasies and weaves them into her own words, turns our world into hers and hers into ours. 'Under in the Mere' is a crystalline voice singing in a lost wood.

This is a surreal, transcendent novella that reforms the Arthurian legends and refashions them in a remarkable feat of sustained beautiful language and unfettered imagination. Valente has published poetry as well as prose, and the language in this work partakes of both. This is a rich work, a fine wine that transports the reader into the heart of a legend. Valente goes beyond poetry to bring in vernacular and modern language in a manner that could, in lesser hands, fall apart. But here it rings true, makes the reading exciting. One moment, we're in a diaphanous otherworld, the next, we're being told to execute. Valente fuses past and present to create a true sense of timelessness.

As a literary work, this is a remarkable puzzle, criss-crossed with references that range from the expected — Tennyson and Malory — to Sun Tzu and the Tarot, Gawain in Golden Gate Park. Valente moves plot with the power of dreams, and creates a variety of voices to tell her story. Aiding in all this is a superb trade paperback production by Rabid Transit Press, with James A. Owen's and Jeremy Owen's lovely interior line drawings of the Tarot as transformed by Valente's words. Note as well that the folks behind Rabid Transit Press include
Alan DeNiro, whose book 'Total Oblivion,more or less' is certainly worth your time, and Christopher Barzak, one of the editors of 'Interfictions 2.' More fodder for the "there are no coincidences" file. This may be a book you read in an afternoon, but it will live in your dreams and the words will echo in your soul. Not a bad deal for ten bucks.

01-07-10: Howard Blum is Struck by 'American Lightning'

Detectives, Defenders and Directors

Our worst fears are not so far behind us. While everyone gets their knickers in a literal twist over the terror of the underpants bomber, while a forest of fingers go a-pointin', we neglect our own history — at our own peril. But that neglected past history can make for a toe-tapping, tension filled tale of terror. And perhaps, if we're lucky, offer some much-needed perspective on current events that will, in the fullness of time, become history as well.

From the "How did I miss this the first time?" file, we have Howard Blum's '
American Lightning: Terror, Mystery and the Birth of Hollywood' (Crown Books / Random House ; October 6, 2009 ; $15). And given the release date, you'll note we managed to hold on to it for a while the second time around. But 'American Lightning' is worth holding on to, and worth picking up in this second incarnation. Blum's found a great "crime of the century" story that is wildly resonant in today's world.

Just about 99 years ago, America was under siege. It started in 1903, when the National Erectors Union — Big Steel and Big Iron — embarked on a campaign of union busting by any means necessary, with violence as a first, second and last resort. They were successful, and in retaliation, the unions met violence with violence. Between 1906 and 1911, The International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers blew up 110 iron works, though without as much financial impact as one might suspect. They were trying to get the companies to come to the bargaining table, not kill people and destroy property.

In Los Angeles, the owners of the Los Angeles Times, who were virulently anti-union, used the paper to spearhead an anti-union campaign. But the Iron Workers went on strike anyway, on June 1, 1910. On October 1, 1910, a bomb went off — 16 sticks of dynamite in a suitcase, unfortunately and unintentionally placed on top of a gas main, killing 21 people, who were burned alive.

Imagine the effect today. Terrorism one incident in hundred, but it brought the powers that be into action, including William Burns to find the perpetrators, and Clarence Darrow to defend them. Blum tells this tale with the verve of a novel, and won an Edgar Award for his work, which folds in D. W. Griffith and the inception of the movie industry. It's a big story, and highly relevant to a time when unions have once again been effectively busted and the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a chasm. And while this novel reads like a page-turning thriller ... ultimately it may prove to be a bit too disquieting to read on a plane. It depends what you have in your boxers.

01-06-10: John Burdett Meets 'The Godfather of Kathmandu'

Jitpleecheep Rides Again

Readers who are looking for some good news to start the New Year need look no further than Kathmandu. You'll find it proves to be a lot closer than your expected, since the newest novel by John Burdett, 'The Godfather of Kathmandu' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; January 12, 2010 ; $25.95) should be available quite soon. It's latest jape with Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is facing a Buddhist apocalypse only slightly less pressing than the murder of an American film director. Sawed-off skull, end of the world, no reason to be down. Everything is equally unreal.

If the name Sonchai Jitpleecheep seems strange to you, then you definitely have something to look forward to. I actually, surprisingly, found myself able to type it without referring to the book, no small accomplishment. But then, we have had three previous novel featuring Sonchai from John Burdett, all top-notch mysteries that, in retrospect, all perfect candidates the noird genre recently explored by China Miéville and Jedediah Berry. 'Bangkok 8', 'Bangkok Tattoo', and 'Bangkok Haunts' approach the noird from the mystery genre side of the equation but are weird enough to satisfy any fan of the noird. Sonchai Jirpleecheep lives in a surreal, supernatural world, haunted by ghosts and visions and informed by the Buddhist religion. Burdett is a master of the world-blur. His exotic location is wonderfully evoked and so damn strange that the real and the unreal seem pretty much on the same plane. Moreover, he brings this all off with a giddy sense of humor that makes reading utterly delightful.

Burdett's latest finds Sonchai tasked with investigating the murder of a farang film director and in direct competition with another cop, Sukum Montri. Fortunately for Sukum, Sonchai has given up on competition; on the other hand, Sonchai cannot help but display his supernatural competence. Of course, Sonchai's boss, the corrupt Colonel Vikorn has his own whole agenda for Sonchai. And he's been watching The Godfather, which can be nothing but bad news for Sonchai. There's a lot of heroin out there that needs to get sold and a new woman in Sonchai's life. She's nearly as close to the otherworld as Sonchai, which proves to be a mixed blessing.

Burdett's latest is no mixed blessing. The breezy, hyper-detailed, surreal prose will pull you into a real world weirder than most fantasies. Burdett's characters, even the most Evil, and there are some who are certainly capital "E" Evil, are compelling. His plots are twisted and quite weird. It really doesn't matter how you approach Burdett's Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels. If you’re a mystery fan, you'll sink into his exotic setting and the weird stuff just seems like jewels on the caskets. If you're a reader of speculative fiction, Burdett's surreal setting and supernatural vision, informed by Buddhism, will seem more inventive than any first- or second-world fantasy. And even if you just like to read, the prose and humor will take you to places you certainly could not imagine. If you’ve already read the first three, the newest is a no-brainer. And if you haven't, well you're lucky. A peculiar new world awaits you.

01-05-10: David S. Denby Comes Out Swinging Against 'Snark'

"It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation"? Tell us what you really think!

You may or may not agree with the premise of 'Snark,' which is that, well snark is bad. But we dont need to agree with everything we read, and going against the grain is not such a bad idea, especially when the dosage is small. 'Snark' is 125 pages of non-stop invective about non-stop invective, ever present in, "the new hybrid world of print, television, radio and the Internet." New to Denby, apparently, though many of us have been dabbling in these for nigh on thirty years, a full human generation.

So you can sort of forgive Denby when on the second page, he makes sure that we don’t confuse snark with hate speech. It's repellant to do so, and unnecessary. I could make lots rude analogies but shall spare you the imagery. Denby should have as well. And when he describes "internet trolls" as, "technically enabled young men, part hackers, part stalkers, who pull such pranks as teasing the parents of a child who has committed suicide..." While Denby might call such a person a troll, I would call them an abhorrent, unfeeling jerk. Internet trolls are of a rather different character, one, to my mind, not unlike that Denby takes on in 'Snark.' That is, one who starts an argument with folks who are rarin' to argue. "Bring it on!" we might say, to quote another, less eloquent speaker.

And so on.

What Denby does quite well, even when he's misinformed, even when he splits hairs — for example giving Stephen Colbert a high-five while devoting an entire chapter to excoriating Maureen Dowd — is to write the sort of entertaining rant that one finds more often on the Internet these days than between the covers of a book. His dissection of what he calls snark is quite elegant, his insults snappy, and his writing always seems filled with energy, shall we say, as opposed to seething with anger. He keeps things short and to the point, but is not too shy to point fingers or get personal, which seems a bit out of keeping. His arrows may not hit the target, but they're nice arrows.

Denby does offer up Nine Principles of Snark, with lots of fodder from wait for it, here it comes, yes — the Internets. All of them, apparently, since the Internet he seems to frequent is nothing but teenagers and smart-asses trying out-insult one another in a race to the bottom that is won by the first contributor who finds something better to do — including reading Denby's book. 'Snark' may just piss you right off, it may make you smile, you may find yourself in agreement with — or disagreement with — everything between its two trendy covers. (I've really had enough of the pixilated rip-offs of "Nuclear war — there goes my career!") But one thing you will find; twelve bucks, just a shade under ten cents a page, think of that in web hits, if you were paid that .... why a writer on the Internets might be able to make enough to buy a decent breakfast now and again. Even a book reviewer.

01-04-10: A Review of 'Shades of Grey' by Jasper Fforde : Pass the Red, Please

Since his debut in 2001, Jasper Fforde has become something of a comfort to readers. Just about every year, we could expect another entry, or as it were, entrée into his outré universe, where readers could actually enter books. Arguably, we can enter books, but Fforde put a unique literary and fantastic spin on that idea. Last year, however, we missed Mr. Fforde, but he's back in a new decade with a new series — set in a new world. Or rather, a very old one.

'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' certainly has the ffeel of a Fforde novel. In the opening paragraphs, we're instantly plunged into a unique and kind of silly version of our world, where color perception helps determine class. But unlike the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime novels, this is not set in a world entirely apart from our own, and strictly speaking, it is not a fantasy in the manner that Fforde's other novels are fantasy. Yes, it does ffeel like the old Fforde, with engaging characters and wonderfully silly humor. But there's something very different going on. 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is a meaty, smart bit of science fiction. It is in fact a gritty dystopian tale told in a cheerfully, almost mad voice. Mad like a Hatter, really. Imagine what you might get if the Red Queen decided to pen a sequel to '1984' and you'll get an idea of what Fforde is about with his new novel.

The trick here for the reviewer and critic is to describe the strengths of 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' without giving away much of the plot. I'm the sort of reader who deliberately does not read dust jacket verbiage, and I trust that my readers shall avoid it as well. The world that Jasper Fforde creates in 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is too much fun to explore with a fresh eye. And in fact, the particulars are part of not just the plot of this novel, but a larger superstructure as well. Here's my review of 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron,' which I trust will have you running out to buy the book without really knowing why. Fun stuff, that.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 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 2015 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

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