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02-26-10: Dan Simmons Heads for the 'Black Hills'

Unstuck in Life

The idea that we live our lives sequentially, one moment after the other in perfect order, is a false notion, and it's easy to believe. We certainly experience time as a series of sequential moments. But our lives quickly fall out of order. For an instant, we are a small child, looking up in wonder at our parents; then without pause, without cause, we are parents, looking down at our children in sorrow; looking back at our lives and wondering if and where it all went wrong.

Chronological order is important, yes. It's the law. But our minds have a different set of principles. We order time not sequentially, but emotionally. And our timelines are as fluid as our feelings.

Dan Simmons makes his connections on an emotional, character-driven level, whether he's putting us in the midst of a frozen wasteland in 'The Terror' or beneath the streets of London in 'Drood.' Simmons' newest novel, 'Black Hills' (Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown / Hachette ; February 24, 2010 ; $25.99) takes us into the mind and life of Paha Sapa, a ten-year old Sioux boy, touches Custer at the moment of Custer's death, only to find that Custer's soul has entered young Paha Sapa's body. Multiplying the misfortune, Paha Sapa finds that he can experience the pasts and futures of those he touches. His own life arc is thrown to the winds. From Custer's Last Stand to the dedication of the Jefferson face of Mount Rushmore, Simmons spins readers back and forth through, literally dynamiting our sensibilities.

Directed by David Fincher?
Readers looking for a novel that is both powerfully affecting and extremely entertaining need look no further than this, than their own lives. Paha Sapa is an astonishingly drawn figure who is very appealing, whose emotional connection to the reader allows Simmons the writer to pop around the timeline in a series of intuitive leaps. Simmons supernatural conceit is slyly ambiguous. We believe that Paha Sapa believes his visions, but we don't need to ourselves. Everything in the novel is grounded in character and emotion, so the plot leaps seem natural, like the sort of smile that can emerge after a good crying jag. Hell, you'd believe in all sorts of ghosts and visions had you been at Custer's Last Stand. Simmons knows how to use the archetypal powers of his characters to make us experience a life that is, as every life is, larger than life

He's also starting to reign in his storytelling range. Readers who have been with him his whole career will note that he's returning to a slightly tighter form than his explorations in 'The Terror' and 'Drood.' In those novels, the length really worked for the author, helping Simmons immerse us in his world, whether it is a frozen wasteland or a drug-dipped Victorian underworld. In 'Black Hills,' Simmons is working a much more familiar territory, and he tailors his approach accordingly. The monuments that loom over 'Black Hills' loom over our lives as well. Their power as symbols still speak to our secret psyches, and disorder our lives.

We like to think our timelines are simple and straightforward when we know that is not the case. Every day we wake up and order our day, preserve our simple psychological schedule. And every night we dream, we tear up our lives and throw the pieces on the floor, come what may.

'Black Hills' show us life as we live, as we remember and destroy memories. Bring dynamite, and a train. Blow it up and start all over again.

02-25-10: Henning Mankel Introduces 'The Man from Beijing'

Standalone Frozen

Readers who come late to a particular writer find themselves faced with a dilemma. You hear about a writer, like say, Henning Mankel, and what you hear if very good. But you look at the backlist for the Kurt Wallander series and go, "Whoa!" Do I really want to step back that far? Do I start at the beginning, or just jump to the latest and hope I can grok what the deal is?

It's frustrating, and generally, readers, or at least this reader, tend to just thrown the fish back in the sea and look at something more accessible. There are, after all, more than enough readable books out there, if you're willing to read beyond a single genre or type of book. Still, those writers with long series are very appealing.

Which is why a book like 'The Man from Beijing' (Knopf / Borzoi / Random House ; February 16, 2010 ; $25.95) is so welcome. It's a standalone novel, and even potentially, to my mind, at least, the beginning of a new series. But mostly, it's a great novel that has no predecessor. A good place to start reading a new author.

We're going to split the vote here, so to speak, because I'm sure a lot of readers are very familiar with Henning Mankel. And I will confess that I've known the name for many, many years. I bought my first Kurt Wallander novel — for my wife who is the main mystery reader in the house, so long ago ... I think it was when we were back in LA. I remember the store, with the stack of Henning Mankel paperbacks, and even then being daunted by the whole "middle of a series" vibe. She liked it, but we lost the thread.

Now, Mankel is back with 'The Man From Beijing,' a lovely complicated novel about murder and history. The setup is quite compelling. Nineteen people are massacred in a remote Swedish town. Judge Birgitta Roslin learns that ten of them were related to her, and finds a family diary. But like a blood-drenched late night commercial, wait — there's more.

The first Kurt Wallander novel
Mankel's pace is deliberate; you may find this shelved with the thrillers, but it is equally deserving of a place among the historical mysteries, and though it takes place in the present day, for the most part, it has the feel of a thought-invoking philosophical examination as much as a murder mystery. Roslin is a contemplative soul, at a point in her life when she's beginning to question the reasons for going on, for slogging through the day-to-day of being a Judge. Of course, when she begins to suspect that she might be the next victim, she's decides to take action. But there's a lot of consideration going on here, and research on the part of the characters.

Mankel's novel is ultimately extremely involving, and as far as that goes, the sort of book that will make you go out and search for his other books. But from my reading of 'The Man From Beijing', it seems that you'd be well advised to go back to the beginning of the Kurt Wallander series and start from book one. Yes, clearly Mankell will have grown quite a bit as writer since that book. But history, as 'The Man from Beijing' clearly demonstrates, lives with us, dies with us, perhaps might even kill us, if we're not smart enough, if we're not persistent enough, if we're not strong enough to bring it to light, and admit what has been done in our name.

02-24-10: Chaz Brenchley Stars as Daniel Fox in 'Dragon in Chains' and 'Jade Man's Skin'

Fantasy and Feudal China

One must wonder why, oh why, Del Rey chose to have Chaz Brenchley write 'Dragon in Chains' (Del Rely / Random House ; January 27, 2009 ; $15) and 'Jade Man's Skin' (Del Rey / Random House ; February 16, 2010 ; $15) under the name Daniel Fox. After all, writing as Chaz Brenchley, he'd received acclaim for his fantasy trilogy "Books of the Outremer." Well, it was a trilogy in the UK at least, but over here in the US of A, we had to shell out for six paperbacks.

Whatever! At least, they aren't splitting "Moshui: The Books of Stone and Water" into little bitty pieces, the better the squeeze readers for more money while altering the author's intended reading experience.

Brenchley's new fantasy series is set in a fantasy-drenched vision of feudal China. 'Dragon in Chains' fires things off with an emperor on the run, dragons breaking free of ancient bondage and not so happy, and magical jade that changes those who ingest it into something more and less than human. 'Jade Man's Skin' follows on directly, throwing a sea-goddess into the mix who may prove more lethal than the dragon. Generally speaking, the world is headed to hell in handbasket, fast. And entertainingly.

Brenchley, who started his career in the UK writing horror and suspense fiction, proves hismself to be quite a master so far as fantasy is concerned, and this from a reader who has no great love of the genre. Yes, it is true, one of the main reasons I like Brenchley's latest work is his ability to suffuse the world with the supernatural and the monsterific. But the world he is working with, feudal China proves to be a great starting point. In and of itself it seems fantastic to my sensibilities, so the elements of the fantastic added by Brenchley — assuming that dragons, magical jade and the assorted critters and demons aren't or weren't real — seem to fit in nicely. Brenchley has made himself a lovely world to work in.

Moreover, he's got a great sense of plotting and prose that both jive perfectly with his landscape and characters. There's a delicate complexity here. The plot and the prose are detailed, but not so thickly laid on as to seem opaque. There's a gentle sort of verve to Brenchley's vision that gives readers the exotic new world, layers of character and plot but somehow manages to sidestep the sort of writing that leads one to wish for a scorecard, a dramatis personae, a spreadsheet and a database. Instead we have a lush environment, strong characters and simple through-line. Or not through, as 'Jade Man's Skin' is only the second book in the series.

And here lies the question that readers must ask; will Del Rey see the series through? If the second book is in my hands, then the third book is likely close to done, or at least started. I've also go to suggest that Del Rey didn't do themselves any favors with the cover designs for these books. The prose is a lot classier than you might ever suspect. 'Dragon in Chains' and 'Jade Man's Skin' are powerful examples of great storytelling and mediocre story-selling. According to his website, Brenchley is "coming out" as Daniel Fox, and he'll be in the US next month; in fact, I'll be meeting up with him at SF in SF on March 13, and if you're in the Bay Area, you should as well. You can check out his schedule here. ( Buy the books. Immerse yourself in Brenchley's world. And then find all the jade you can to ensure that he gets the magic he needs to complete — and publish — the story.

02-23-10: Adam Haslett Knows 'You Are No Stranger Here'

Stories from Strangers' Shoes

We're always told how important it is to understand the lives of others, to as it were, walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Of course that proves to be a lot easier to say than it is to do. The best way to do this is to well-crafted non-fiction or fiction; it helps to explain the popularity of memoirs and biographies.

But memoirs and biographies can only go so far; that is as far as reality, or the writer's willingness to take a chance with their reputation, will allow them. But life experience is much more than facts, and that's where great fiction comes in. That's why you read a book like 'You Are No Stranger Here' (Anchor Books / Random House ; August 12, 2003 ; $13) by Adam Haslett.

Better late than never. I remember when this book came out and all the attendant hoopla, which, of course, made me deeply suspicious. I mean, a first-book collection of stories nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award? As usual, even if it takes me like, six and a half years to catch up, I do ultimately catch up. Sure, the arrival of Haslett's first novel, 'Union Atlantic' (Nan A. Talese / Random House ; February 9, 2010 ; $26) helps draw my attention. But the upshot is that I can tell hyou with confidence that if you pick up 'You Are No Stranger Here' you can read pretty much any story and find yourself engrossed, entertained and yes, transported into another world — this world, actually, but seen through the eyes of a human whom I hope is quite unloikely to be anything like you.

First and foremost, Haslett has a great sense of mordant humor, pitch-black and perfectly pitched by matchless prose. We've heard a great deal in the latter half of the 20th century, and in the first part of the 21st about what is generally called "transparent prose." This is prose that does not get in the way of storytelling, that has fewer words and often takes a few lessons from the prose of hard-boiled detective fiction. Haslett's prose is like that, only different.

Transparent prose, pared down and minimalistic, need not be without style. In fact, the style of transparent prose is often quite distinct and can seem rather mannered. When that happens, authors come the full circle and call attention to themselves. This is all well and good when it serves the fiction. But it doesn't always serve the fiction.

Haslett's prose always serves the fiction; it's easy-going and transparent to the degree that it doesn't get in the way. But it is also rather vernacular and quite funny. I don't know how to explain the difference, other than unlike some authors of literary fiction, Haslett's work reads as if it is sort of commonplace. And that's precisely why it knocks your socks off again and again, putting the reader into the mind of an old man, a young man, whoever — with such unerring accuracy and no pretense that readers really get the sense of another's life. And you know, no matter how tragic that life is, Haslett's prose, which is very funny, gets you into another life in a manner that makes you understand and enjoy their lives. Moreover, you can return from the story and enjoy your life as well. You'll have walked that mile in another's shoes — and enjoyed it, even if the walker did not.

02-22-10: Graeme Gibson's 'The Bedside Book of Birds' and 'The Bedside Book of Beasts'

A Feast for Your Mind, Your Eyes and Your Mind's Eye

Here's that rainy day. I have lots, and I must say, lots of feature-length interviews I hold in reserve, for those rainy days. Too many, to tell the truth, and perhaps I should clear out the reserves. But last night I spent some time again with two of those books you really never stop reading. You know, the books that you can pick up any time and just be floored, at the visual or prose imagery within? Some books are so much books that they really seem to have a Platonic aspect. These books are not shadows of the perfect book; they are shards, if not the real thing, brought briefly into this world.

The two books that caught my attention last night were both by Graeme Gibson; 'The Beside Book of Birds' (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House ; March, 2006 ; $29.95) and 'The Beside Book of Beasts' (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House ; March, 2006 ; $35). Yes, they're a bit pricey, but totally, totally worth it. These are the kind of books that someone will ask to borrow — and you should expect to remind them that you want them back!

If you like books as a form, as something to hold, then you really can't do much better than Graeme Gibson's 'The Bedside Book of Birds' and 'The Bedside Book of Beasts.' From stem to stern, from cover to cover, these books deliver pretty much everything a book can deliver, with a quality level that is beyond amazing.

Fiction. Poetry. Non-fiction. Philosophy. Memoir. Art. Illustration. Layout. Overall, over-arching themes that speak to both the moment and to eternity. These books are everything a book that is not a novel can be. For thirty, thirty-five bucks? A steal.

The Bedside Book of Birds' and 'The Bedside Book of Beasts' are both miscellanies. Graeme Gibson plays the part, I guess, of host and curator. In many ways, both books are literary cabinets of curiosities, stuffed the gills with all manner of writing and art pertaining to a certain subject; birds in the first book, "beasts" in the second. Gibson discovered the form, really in 'The Bedside Book of Birds.' He tells us that he came to birds "late in life," and in the manner of a true compulsive, set out to collect facts, fictions, art and illustrations about the critters that piqued his curiosity. You'll find poetry, fiction, prose, folklore, fairy tales, anecdotes, legends, memoirs from Gibson and others, artfully sequenced and lavishly illustrated.

'The Bedside Book of Beasts' follows the same format, but focuses on beasts, that is, predators, primarily. Most are real, but some are merely legends. They're all brought to life in this book, with no prose or poetry in either book running longer than four pages. You'll, find authors you've never heard of but will want to investigate further jostling next to writers who bored you in high school but here turn in riveting, to-the-point pieces that will re-invigorate your interest in reading them again.

Gibson's scholarship and taste are peerless. Every piece seems perfect in its place, and every piece he includes, especially those he writes himself, can be easily plucked forth for reading off-the-cuff. His ability to unearth the sort of writing he finds, to choose the right passages of the right length, is unerringly faultless. Poetry, prose, you name it, he has it. You can read from cover-to-cover, or dip in and out of Gibson's ocean. Either way, as a reader, you will be richly rewarded.

But these aren't just books of random bits. Each book is more of a richly orchestrated symphony, with themes and sub-themes, builds and bridges and breaks, each one carefully constructing a vision of humans, birds, and beasts, and how all of us manage to form something richer, vaster and more involving than the individual bits. You can easily get swept away in Gibson's world of nature.

Because these are books, the quantity and quality of the illustrations, the layout, and the design are critical. All of Gibson's archival work, all his careful choices and considerations are matched by lovely illustrations published and printed and produced in a top-notch format that is easy-to-read, and more importantly, easy to immerse one's self in. Nan A. Talese and Random House have spared no expense in bringing readers a knockout reading experience. They have all the quality of a limited edition, small-press publication — but are relatively ultra-cheap in comparison. Looking for a great book that you can share with or give to anyone, anyone at all, and they will thank you? Give youerself 'The Bedside Book of Birds' and 'The Bedside Book of Beasts' first. That way any gift copies you buy will be more certain to reach the intended recipient.

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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