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02-19-10: Ralph Waldo Ellison 'Three Days Before the Shooting ...'

One Book, Many Stories

It's not quite a single novel, and yet it is so much more. A monument to a writer's life; and a monument to America itself.

The last century, unhappily wrapped in jazz-tinged prose that sings and soars but never, never, having taking flight, manages to touch the earth again.

Ralph Waldo Ellison, a writer's name for a writer, 'Invisible Man,' now visible. We can glimpse into the cauldron of creation.

Ralph Ellison always, really, sang for us. Alas, he completed only one song, 'Invisible Man,' a complex hymn to America, a novel about the power of perception upon those who have no power to be perceived as people. If that sounds like a study in self-contradiction, so, to be sure, was and is America, on the level that Ellison saw us. "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Ellison asked in the final refrain of 'Invisible Man.' Indeed he, and we are a complex and contradictory people.

Ellison began his second novel almost before he finished his first; and he spent the next forty-something years working on it. Ellison, born in 1914, died in 1994, with his second novel incomplete. John F. Callahan, had befriended Ellison in 1977, after writing an essay about the man and sending it to him, expecting no reply. After a very formal first meeting, the two became friends, and remained so until Ellison's death. Adam Bradley started working for Callahan as a student assistant. In 1999, 'Juneteenth' was published, extracted fro the clearest sections of Ellison's papers. Even then, Callahan and Bradley promised they'd publish the rest. It turns out to be a journey nearly as arduous as Ellison's, if not as long. But, like the work itself, the creation of 'Three Days Before the Shooting' (Modern Library / Random House ; February 2, 2010 ; $50) is a fascinating reflection of America in all its contradictions and complications.

Ralph Ellison
The book itself is comprised of three parts; the first, from early papers, the second, the most revised and polished portions from Ellison's work on a computer, which he bought in 1988; the third notes, re-writes and excerpts published by Ellison during his lifetime. What we have tells the story of Adam Sunraider, a light-skinned black man who becomes a controversial senator before he is assassinated. It's a multi-generational saga told as a deathbed-vigil. Parts are raw and unpolished, parts show clearly Ellison's growth as a writer since his first novel, and the whole suggests that Ellison was in the process of trying to transform both the novel and the nation with below-the-radar perceptions of the unperceivable. It is forty years of tragedy, trauma and brilliance, brilliantly curated by Callahan and Bradley.

This is not going to be an easy read. But it is an opportunity to plunge into an America in turmoil, to see the effects of technology on art, to understand, on the prose level with a writing genius, the incredible impact of the computer on how art is created. Callahan and Bradley help put forty years of work and an expansionary vision of the novel on some 1100 pages. This is a first, hardcover edition of what we genuinely know to be a modern classic. This is a transmission from the lower frequencies to your mind.

02-18-10: George Mann Scares Up 'The Ghosts of Manhattan'

Hard Core Pulp Action

I remember Doc Savage. The Man of Bronze, all those paperbacks at the Trader Joe's in Covina California, when I was a kid. Yeah, Trader Joe's used to sell books back in those days when grocery stores really pushed the pulps. Racks filled with Mickey Spillane, Doc Savage, Perry Rhodan. They all kind of creeped me out, to tell the truth. And then the magazine shelves at the liquor store, where you could find Vampirella. Oh my. Nothing to knock up the hormone count like Vampirella.

But really, it was Doc Savage who ruled the racks. And now that kind of slightly scary, pulpy action is back with a new veneer of class. We call it "steampunk" and attend conventions like Nova Albion, next month in Emeryville. Fortunately, the folks writing this stuff these days are committed to something other than the conveyor-belt technique of writing. For example, there's George Mann, whose novel 'The Affinity Bridge' was an early steampunk favorite.

Now George Mann is back, with his own take on the steampunk superhero in 'Ghosts of Manhattan' (Pyr / Prometheus Books ; April 2010 ; $16). But though the title character kicks up the action a notch, and the location has been shift across the Atlantic, you can expect the sensibility that permeated 'The Affinity Bridge' to make 'Ghosts of Manhattan' a detailed, enjoyable, quality reading experience. With George Mann you'll get your golems, but the characters, happily will not be made of cardboard or clay.

In fact, neither will the golems in this supernatural crime thriller that pushes every geek button there is, several times. Let's start out with an alternate history that has America in the middle of a cold war with Britain — in the 1920's. Coal-powered cars and monsters are everywhere, so with the monsters, you've got me. Holograms and holotubes, a proto-Mafia allied with supernatural forces, and of course — The Ghost, a vigilante who, with Mann's excellent prose-writing skills, executes some of the smartest and best-written scenes of action you're likely to have unfold on the Big Screen in your mind.

All of this could come off as awfully pastiche, a guy version of paranormal romance at its worst. But George Mann has the writerly chops to bring this all off, to make all the action happen, but to offer as well, a detailed, refuse strewn textured world that reads like Blade Runner rolled back a hundred years. Mann has a distinctive and enjoyably clean prose style that rumbles around in our collective unconscious and stirs up the archetypes that power our reading.

He also knows how to put together a plot that is intricate and exciting but coherent and believable, within the confines of his re-made world. That world is described in such a manner as to seem much larger than what we see in this agreeably brief book. Readers will get the sense that there is a lot of world for The Ghost to explore that is currently off the page. This reader, at least wants to see those elements put on the page, so that they gut a gangster or two. Pyr is publishing this one as a trade paperback, with a restrained, tasteful cover that may be too restrained, given the wild lands beyond. While there is no specific indication that more are to come, or that the character is going to be sharecropped out to a stable of writers vetted by Mann himself, I can easily imagine the paperback racks in The Ghost's world, filled with lurid paperbacks that imagine his exploits. I wonder who, in that world is taking the Mickey Spillane role, writing stories that require covers featuring scantily-clad women in alluring poses. And Vampirella ... the gorgeous, sexy, kinda-sleazy monster waiting to eat the souls of eager young men who just want to read.

Note yellow stickies and worn bookmark
02-17-10: Thomas More, Clarence Miller and 'Utopia'

Politics » Satire « Fantasy

We like to think that every damn thing we do is so original, so modern, so "five minutes from now." The thought that a political satire could be utterly modern, utterly relevant, compelling and funny five hundred years after it was written is itself almost the stuff of satire. The civilization that could find a work that old relevant must be at least as stagnant as The Bog of Eternal Stench.

Take a deep breath, folks. That is the smell of our civilization. Just about five hundred years ago, a then well-known English lawyer, scholar, and yes, he was even a Saint — had our modern misery pegged, nailed and skewered in an imaginative blend of fantasy, reality and philosophy. Thomas More brought us 'Utopia.'

If readers are wondering, what, pray tell directed my attention to Thomas More's 494 year-old work, it was just that sort of simple, stupid, question-asking curiosity that can really get one in honey-jar trouble. Having read 'Sleepless' by Charlie Huston and 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron; by Jasper Fforde, I was thinking about dystopias. It struck me that the concept of a "dystopia" had to have followed on from the concept of "utopia," which I knew to have originated with that word, at least in the work by Thomas More. So, I decided to do a little lookup and see what precisely More had done, to understand how he had defined "utopia" in fiction so that I'd have a better bead on what dystopias were really all about.

That was when I stumbled on a little book titled 'Utopia' (Yale University Press ; March 1, 2001 ; $8.95), by
Thomas More, translated by Clarence Miller. Yes, once again, with the translations, this time from Latin, and once again, the translation style and approach proves to be quite critical. Now, at the time, I frankly knew nothing about the book 'Utopia,' and given the age of the work, I expected it to be a honking tome, with prose the approximate density of lead-laced concrete.

Nothing could be further from the truth, which proves once again that it is ever helpful to ask questions one might consider stupid.

So, here's the first deal about the book 'Utopia': it's short. It consists of two parts. The first part is a philosophical dialogue that is a lively and pertinent conversation about the means of governing a nation. The second part is a fantastic travelogue to an imaginary island, Utopia. The name itself gives a lot away. It can be construed to mean "no place" or "good place." I hope readers can see the mirrors More captures in a single short word. It's indicative of the nature of this single, short work, which clocks in at an impressively short 173 pages. That includes Miller's introduction, an extensive index, and extensive notes. There's a reason why this work has lasted as long as it has. More uses politics and fantasy as opposing poles between which he conjures up an eternally relevant satire — or thought-experiment. However you classify it, it's a hell of a good read, funny and thought-provoking.

Which brings us to the contributions of translator Clarence Miller. Miller's introduction is a jolly good read itself, offering a nice pocket history of More and 'Utopia,' as well as a fascinating vision of the Latin prose from which Miller translated. You see, translation is a complicated business, and More's 'Utopia' is a pertinent case in point. I suppose I can give readers a brief setup of the book without spoiling the reading experience. But I will plant a name in your brain which is unlikely to go away.

Thomas More
'Utopia' is a peculiar combination of faux scholarship, philosophy and fantasy. More himself is a character, and that distinction is important; the character does not always peak for the man. He relates how, in the midst of activities you probably dozed through in history class, he met a man named Raphael Hythloday. Miller informs us in the introduction that this combines "Raphael" == "messenger of God" and Hythloday == "purveyor of nonsense." (More was ground up and eventually beheaded in the midst of the conflict between the Catholic Church and England; he worked for Henry VIII as well as God.) Hythloday lives on a happy little island called "Utopia," and, after wrangling with More over the philosophy of government in the first half of the book, he describes Utopia in the second half.

What grabbed my attention, thanks to Miller's erudite translation and introduction, was More's extremely sophisticated and entertaining use of language. He was very much "in-your-face," tailoring his words and shaping his sentences (in Latin, remember) to move his message. Marshall McLuhan would be proud. In some cases, Hythloday goes way over-the-top in Latin, writing sentences that are 464, then 926 words long. But in other cases, Hythloday speaks in the most simple, clearest sentences ever used to obfuscate the truth and avert questions. Miller discusses this and captures it beautifully in the narrative. Miller's translation is a very breezy read, given the source and the subject. He gets to the heart of More's language and ideas without tweezing them beyond the original intent. He captures the universality of More's thought. What's more, More himself turns our notion of 'Utopia' upside-down. It happens that in many ways, the original Utopia is in fact a dystopia. And I'm sure many modern Americans at least, would consider More's socialist, communist state a nightmarish concoction.

That doesn't make it any less relevant, or entertaining to read about. More just lays out the faux facts, and lets the readers make the judgments. And the complicated thoughts here are at the heart of what roils our minds now; women's rights, colonialism, and religious pluralism. More manages the matrix of satire that lies between politics and fantasy with ease. Alas, we shall never manage the reality of politics with equal ease. Perhaps, if we spent more time considering More's fantasy, we'd be less worthy of satire.

02-16-10: Patrick Lee Steps Through 'The Breach'

American Cheese Done Right

Let's get this straight from the get-go, to avoid the hand-wringing excess that has greeted my use of the phrase "American Cheese" in the past. I love a good, sorta-pulpy, paperback original. And it doesn't have to be 'Crime and Punishment.' It has to, at the very least, prevent all rational thought while I am reading it. It's nice if it is inventive, and has some hints of originality, but you know, sometimes both of those qualities aren't exactly what this reader is looking for.

But I do want it to be weird, in some way. I'm not so keen on the kind of books that get made into Harrison Ford movies but seem like they belong on the "Men Are Pigs" channel. I'm not asking for a lot, I don't need herds of monsters. (I'll take them, though.) All I need is just a hint of strange, something that you will probably never read about in the San Francisco Chronicle or see on CNN or The NewsHour.

I'm really hoping that nothing like what's up in 'The Breach' (Harper / HarperCollins ; December 29, 2009 ; $7.99) by Patrick Lee is in the offing, but I have to admit it is one hell of a lot of fun to read about. And Lee is really a canny writer. He knows how to hook you from the title onward. He knows what to put in and what to leave out.

I'm going to leave out any of the blow-by-blow descriptions of the plot you can read elsewhere, because otherwise, what's the point of reading the frigging book? The setup is pretty sweet. Travis Chase, whose parents read lots of thrillers and comic books and wanted him to have the right kind of name, is an ex-cop, ex-con — how cool is that? — taking a break from life in general by hiking in the remote Alaskan wilderness. There's a boom. Then he stumbles upon a downed 747, which despite some Very Important Bodies, is apparently not being searched for. There's a secret involved and you can damn well bet it has a lot to do with the title.

So, let's start with the title, Lee's first really smart move. 'The Breach.' Here's book title that tells you a lot about the book without really telling you anything about the book. What it tells me, inveterate (not invertebrate) reader of science fiction that I am that some sort of SF-nal premise is at work here. It is a breach between dimensions? Has something (italics mine) escaped? No matter what direction this story might take, you can tell, from the title, there's going to be a bit of weird going on, and I'm here to tell you won't be disappointed, so long as you keep your expectations the realm of paperback originals. This is not Dostoyevsky writing under a pen name, nor is it Miéville writing under a pen name.

Lee's second smart move is Travis Chase. Look, it's better than Remo Williams, as I mean, you know, I've never met a Remo. I have met a Travis or two — case closed. Lee's setup for Chase — the whole good & bad, wrapped into one — is a pretty neat trick that he doesn't over-work. In fact, nothing gets too much of a workout in 'The Breach,' except the tips of the readers' fingers, which will be flipping pages at a brisk pace. There are damsels, of course, and yes there is a villain, but I can't recall any scenes that involve actual mustache-twiddling. There's even, Cthulhu love it, a mythology, a yes — backstory — that isn't overworked, but that might serve as a nice superstructure for Travis Chase II.

And action, yes, this is a book, so you can thankfully forget the lights and camera and the eye-blindingly white smiles of the middle-aged men with abs of steel, but damn, there's some nicely written and orchestrated action scenes in 'The Breach.' Writing about gunfights and shootouts and Chase's chases may not seem exactly like an art form, but, if the author manages to make you forget about everything ecept getting to the next chapter, and then sets you up with enough momentum and no groan-inducing cliffhangers, then hell, who needs the movies? I say, hit up your local In-n-Out, get yourself a double-double with onions, a shake, and fries. Hunker down at an all-plastic table, peel back the anonymous cover and tuck into two great examples of American Cheese in the same moment. It's no crime to read a book like this. In fact, avoiding these sorts of books is a self-imposed punishment. Bring on the cheese!

Subterranean Press Edition
02-15-10: 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded' by John Scalzi

A Decade of Whatever

Yeah, you read that right, "Whatever." That is, John Scalzi's pretty much world-famous, top rated, ultra-hip, been there, done and had the T-shirt printed on a three-d printer from Make magazine, blog turned ten years old back in the day. Funny how that works. It's 2010 and already 2008 seems like, so twelve hours ago. Don't worry. Scalzi, as we all know, lives about ten years in the future, so he's good. Just these crushed-log publishers have to take their time.

Not so long ago, I wrote about David Denby's book 'Snark,' which calls itself a national bestseller. Denby laments the ascent of what he calls "snark," suggesting it's one of the four horsemen, joining pundits, cable television and enjoyable sex on a fast track to Lucifer's lair. The lament itself may be damned. Here's a chunk of pretty much pure, undiluted snark that's twice as thick as Denby's screed against it.

OK, so Bill Schafer over at Subterranean put it out first — in 2008, but this 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; February 2010 ; $14.99) is a handy companion volume to Scalzi's other stuff from Tor, and more importantly, a perfect piece of reading for your family restroom, coffee table or kitchenette. Wherever snark is missing, Scalzi can be imported, to make sure that the world-wide snark shortage is fought at every front.

The appeal of Scalzi's blog, and his book of blog is quite simple. He's a good prose writer on the sentence level. These blog entries are the perfect sort of interstitial reading, and believe me, as readers, we need these sort of books very badly. Let's just say, that you've finished up reading Charlie Huston's 'Sleepless,' and the next book in your queue is Japer Fforde's 'Shades of Grey.' You know that there's a pretty significant tonal difference between the two books, even if they do both deal with dystopia. You need something to smooth the transition, to take you out of the intensity of 'Sleepless' and into the very-different intensity of 'Shades of Grey.' Here's what you do.

You can really turn reading 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded' into a sort of drinking game, or a chocolate ice cream game if that suits your temperament better. If Scalzi mentions stuff that seems like ancient history at this point (Clinton's impeachment), take drink (have a cone). If he mentions writing, take two, of, naturally — whatever. And so on. Basically, Scalzi travels all over the map in this book, but he does so one sentence at a time, and I gotta say, snarky or not, those sentences are all pretty damn impressive.

This is because Scalzi is not a one-note blogger. He can write mischievously, but he can also write emotionally. You'll get to know his family and his family life, as well as the things that peeve him. You'll also get a lot of advice about writing, from a man who had made it his life and earns a more than decent living doing so.

You probably won't read this book cover to cover, and you probably shouldn't. But it is definitely addictive as a literary swimming pool. Once you start dipping in, you won't want to stop. And yes, you may have a certain snide, even snarky tone of voice in your mind. Listen; learn; and be entertain. The fours horsemen are headed to hell, Let's hope that once they get there, they decide to stay a while.

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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