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03-05-10: Henry Porter Calls 'The Bell Ringers'

It Takes The Village

Here in the US, we have elections all the time, it seems, on some scale; local, state, national. And to a certain extent, the same is true for much of the English-speaking world. All this churn at the top levels of government leads us to feel rather secure in a weird sort of reverse logic — the thought being that nobody stays around long enough to establish the means by which to exert undue control over the populace.

If only that were the truth.

If only it were the case that our freedom was enshrined by the laws that are on the books, by the words, just like these words that are written on the papers in legal libraries and halls of justice.

Alas, that's not the case. The incidents attributed to terrorism have offered those in our own governments a remarkable opportunity to re-write the laws of the land. And those in power are not necessarily those whom we elect.

Henry Porter's 'The Bell Ringers' (Atlantic Press / Grove Atlantic ; February 2, 2010 ; $24) came out late last year in the UK as 'The Dying Light' (Orion ; August 6, 2009 ; £12.99), and though it is set in the UK of the near future, it's not science fiction. By slightly re-arranging the present, Porter re-imagines the UK as if it were The Village where Patrick McGoohan spent his time as The Prisoner, with omni-present CCTV replacing those ominous bouncing beach balls. All those anti-terrorism laws, passed in a rush of, well, terror, or more accurately, error, have been manipulated to enslave the populace. So, in a sense, it's non-fiction.

Not surprisingly, 'The Bell Ringers' starts with a death — David Eyam, the former head of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee is killed in a car bombing. Kate Lockhart, a former colleague, finds that she's the beneficiary of his will, but there are not a lot of benefits involved. The frameworks that have been set up to "protect" us have been turned against us. Lockhart soon begins to suspect that the right to privacy has been permanently revoked.

'The Bell Ringers' plays on and with conspiracy theory, paranoia and suspicion, using carefully crafted prose and characters to create a couple of layers of tension. On one hand, readers will simply want to find out whether or not the plot that is unearthed will succeed. Porter is skilled at architecting a crackingly good page-turner, with the right cuts and pull-backs that give an answer here and add peril there. It helps that the characters are rather more nuanced than one would expect. Simple greed sets things in motion and self-preservation threatens those plans. 'The Bell Ringers' is set in a smaller, but far more perilous-than-life-as-we-think-it-is world. There's more than a whiff of Orwell about.

And that's Porter's smarter move, to my mind. For all the plot machinations in the novel itself, 'The Bell Ringers' inspires readers to look around and wonder just how much of this stuff could be happening here and now. The rising levels of peril and paranoia in the novel are paralleled by rising levels of paranoia and peril in the readers' lives; the layers of tension in the novel give rise to layers of tension in the readers' perceptions of the world around them. It's a neat trick, and effectively unsettling. I don't suppose many readers expect to get blown up in a car bombing. But every time we swipe our debit card, every time we send an email or make a phone call, we leave a trail. After reading 'The Bell Ringers,' readers might well begin to suspect that someone is following that trail, and that their intentions are not to protect us from terrorism.

03-04-10: Jo NesbØ Earns 'The Devil's Star'


I've often written about the woes of readers who find themselves confronted with the latest novel in a series by a writer they've not yet sampled. In this regard, I'd love to say that readers should run out and buy and read 'The Devil's Star' (Harper / HarperCollins ; March 9, 2010 ; $25.99) by Jo NesbØ, but that's not completely true. Buy it, by all means, but salt it away. The reason for doing so rests on the sort of detective series that NesbØ has embarked upon.

Roughly speaking there are two poles for series mystery. At one extreme, you have a writer who uses a recurring detective character to solve one independent mystery after another. While the cases change, the detective does not. Sherlock Holmes is the gold standard here. There are some serial elements in the Holmes' stories; Doyle, after all, tried to kill off the character, so he could waste his talent writing literary fiction. But even the Holmes who emerged from a dip in Reichenbach Falls wasn't so different from the man who engaged in 'A Study in Scarlet.'

At the opposite pole, you have a detective series where the recurring detective character undergoes an evolution from one book to the next; there are many examples of these, and as it happens, Jo NesbØ's Harry Hole novels are among them.

With Jo NesbØ, you're pretty much in luck, so far as the evolving series character goes. 'The Devil's Star' is the third book in the series, so you're not too far behind. But Harry Hole is a wonderfully cranky and complex character. If you start in media res, you're going to miss out on a lot of the nuances of this novel. So let's rewind, and take a look at recent history. There are a lot of reasons to be very enthusiastic about 'The Devil's Star.' It's definitely worth buying. But wait to read it.

The first novel in the series is 'The Redbreast,' (Harper / HarperCollins ; November 20, 2007 ; $24.95) which introduces Harry Hole via World War II and Neo-Nazis. It's available as a trade paperback if you don't want to try to scare up the first edition hardcover, which isn't easy. (Looks like it'll set you back between $20 and $60.)

The second novel in the series is 'Nemesis' (Harper / HarperCollins ; January 6, 2009 ; $25), which cuts between a series of vicious bank robberies and Harry's increasingly problematic life. The enemies he has made in his own police department, the criminals he's pursuing and his own alcoholism are all out to destroy him. You can now get a $14.99 trade paperback copy of this, but hardcover firsts are readily available on the used market as well.

Given all the setup in the first two books, to my mind you really don't want to read 'The Devil's Star' without reading 'The Redbreast' and 'Nemesis' first. That said, if you pick up 'The Devil's Star' you'll see why NesbØ is now such a front-and-center author.

Along with Henning Mankel, there seems to be a real Norwegian Mystery Front rolling into America, and for that we can be thankful. NesbØ's work is discursive and gritty, building layers out of sewage an sediment to create a rich, complex vision of Harry Hole and his utterly screwed-up life. We've seen lots of alcoholic cops, but few who are so close to the gutter as Harry Hole. And his world is equally screwed up by criminals who have no code and cops who are often less scrupulous than the criminals.

'The Devil's Star' begins with a very serial killer-style murder; a second murder is even more so. But Hole has more than murder to contend with; he's paired with his nemesis, Tom Waaler, a cop Hole is pretty sure is dirty. The thing is, when you start the book, neither of these is in evidence; what you have instead will give you as a reader a good idea of whether or not you'll like NesbØ's style. This isn't stripped down noir. NesbØ writes complex stories whose characters happen to be cops. Oh, there's plenty of ugliness and crime on display. NesbØ is not afraid to thrill and terrify his readers. But that's not the only thing he is about.

Now, the really good news. Let's presume you think these books sound good, and that you like the through-line, get the first two books in whatever format best fits your compulsions and budget, and pick up 'The Devil's Star' as is. There are two more books in the series — 'The Redeemer' and 'The Snowman' — that are currently available in UK translations, and presumably lined up for the next couple of years here in the states.

That makes Jo NesbØ's Harry Hole series both easy to catch up with and a known quality so far as the future is concerned. You do not want to read 'The Devil's Star' until you've picked up and read the other two (and many readers will have done so). But when the time comes, it's well worth the wait.

And there's more to come. Harry Hole hasn't hit rock bottom yet. Interesting that his trajectory is the precise opposite of Jo NesbØ, his creator. How low will Harry go — and how far will he take Jo NesbØ?

03-03-10: Underland Press & Joe R. Lansdale Present 'The Complete Drive In'

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You

Some books you read.

Some books you re-read.

And some books you continually read. They're almost like reference books, even if they're fiction.

Some of the first and foremost books on my reference shelves are those well-known works of mimetic realism, 'The Drive In' and 'The Drive In 2' by Joe R. Lansdale. I bought the original mass-market paperbacks and the British hardcovers. They're always close to hand for easy reference. They're chock full of useful information which one can use to help one confront everyday problems like, "What do I do if I'm trapped in the drive in with cannibalistic zombie-humans and some weird, mind-fuck of a thing that calls itself The Popcorn King?" In this day and age, this is a common problem, and Joe R. Lansdale's instructional work of the imagination offers some innovative solutions.

Lansdale was a busy man back in the heyday of "splatterpunk" and not surprisingly, he's still busy. Back then, he was one of the ringleaders of that splatterpunk thing, what with "The Night They Missed the Horror Show" (which I believe debuted in the David Schow-edited anthology 'Silver Scream') and "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert, With Dead Folks."

These stories weren't just gory and outrageously over-the-top; they were then what we'd now call now transgressional fiction. They looked at any bounds of taste and standards and then after stomping them into a bloody pulp, pissed all over the whole shebang.

'The Drive In' did that in a tight little novel that was all over the genre map; garish horror, super-B-movie science fiction and a soupcon of holy-shit!-inducing sex. 'The Drive In 2; upped the ante. Both were, and still are, for that matter, laugh-out-loud, read-out-load funny. In fact, I would hold that the opening of 'The Drive In 2' is one of the best ever, period. I just never get tired of reading it, and every time my eyes light on the words, I want to read them aloud, in front of a crowd.

UK hardcover first edition
Now, just when you think it's safe to talk to Rick Kleffel again, along comes 'The Complete Drive In' (Underland Press ; May 2010 ; $16.95). Complete? I ask. Yes, complete, in that there's a third book included here, which extends Lansdale's oeuvre in yet another direction, that being Tall Tales and Road Trips, no drugs required, because as readers might guess, Lansdale himself provides all the psychedelia using only the English language.

There's a lot to like in this edition. You get some nice introductions and commentary from Joe R. Lansdale the-man-his-own-self, and his buddy Don Coscarelli, who directed Bubba Ho-Tep. You get some artwork, and you get yourself some not just, one, not just two, but three Drive In novels to twist your tiny brain like a pretzel and lead you down the path of un-righteousness to a life of crime poverty and non-stop pleasure. Hedonism gone wild, because you can just sit on your keester and read. How's that for easy-lovin'? No effort required; well, you might have to crack a beer or two, but where I come from that ain't effort, it's exercise.

Trade paperbacks are apparently the new equivalent of mass-market cheese-factor fiction, and frankly, since the price of almost everything has doubled since 'The Drive In 2' came out, this is really an entertainment bargain. Mostly because, like the characters in the books, once you pull into this Drive In, you ain't likely to leave, ever. Just steer clear of the Popcorn King if you can.

03-02-10: Stephen S. Hall Exhibits 'Wisdom'

From Philosophy to Neuroscience

I had my doubts. Stephen J. Hall writes a book called 'Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience' (Alfred a. Knopf / Borzoi / Random House ; March 9, 2010 ; $26.95), and my first reaction is, well, prove it.

Prove you can write a book about wisdom that seems both wise and readable. Of course, there's just one way to figure that out, and that's to sit down with the book read it from the beginning. A non-fiction book about wisdom, one thinks is not going to be overly compelling, and thus, point proved. On to the next book.

Or in this case, the next page, and the next. Stephen Hall not only knows something about wisdom, he knows how to write about it. My advice, wise or otherwise, would be to start this book when you have nice chunk of free time ahead of you. Stephen Hall writes a compelling book about wisdom.

Readers deserve the pleasure of reading the beginning of this book themselves. Suffice it to say that Hall knows how to hook a reader, set up his subject, and most importantly, follow through in a smart, entertaining manner. 'Wisdom' is pretty straightforward, but always engaging and entertaining. Hall starts matter with a three part exploration of just how we might define wisdom; in general, philosophically and psychologically. It's a short journey from Heraclitus to speculations about putting Buddha in an MRI, a concept that is as disturbing as it is intelligent — and that gives you a good idea that Hall knows what he is about. Having defined wisdom ("Sort of," he says — smartly), Hall goes about discussing the "eight neural pillars of wisdom," which, I must admit, I like a lot because it sounds like something out of Frank Herbert's 'Dune.' All of this is run through the Stanford filter, so to speak, as he looks at what is actually happening in the brain, so far as current imaging machines will show it.

Stanford's optodes
The eight pillars are: emotional regulation, compassion, moral judgment, humility, altruism, patience, sound judgment and "dealing with uncertainty." As you can see, it's no easy feat to even list them, let alone possess them, let alone write well about them. Hall manages this quite neatly, intertwining science reporting, philosophy, and just plain great writing to make readers feel, if not wise themselves, then at least, as if they understand what wisdom might be should they encounter it in the wilds. And to my mind, understanding if and when you are in the presence of wisdom is a pretty good deal. Of course, we all want more. We all want to become wise.

In the final segment of the book, Hall addresses this head-on, looking at the rebelliousness of youth (and cranky old men), the wisdom of age (and young smart-asses), wisdom on a daily basis, and the future of wisdom, which, when one dares to just look around, seems potentially quite dim.

'Wisdom' may or may not impart wisdom to the reader; and it may or may not add to the wisdom in this world. What it will do is engage readers; it will keep you reading and thinking at the same time; focusing on the book, but also on your own life. Reading this sort of book is a divided experience. Even as you read Hall's words, and about his thoughts, you experience your own. Every sentence here has a place within the book, but they also have places in your life.

Reading 'Wisdom' you can't help but try to make a connection. Of course, you can always connect with Hall's wisdom at his website, where he runs a "Mindwise" blog. Reading 'Wisdom' happens twice, even if you read it just once. It's a chameleonic prose map, with impeccable internal logic and the ability to adapt itself instantly to your life, to make sense of your circumstances. To get you from where you are to what will inevitably seem to be a better place.

03-01-10: Adam Haslett Invests With 'Union Atlantic'

Abstract Power Abstracts Absolutely

I'll always remember the first lessons I learned in science class about the simple machines, most importantly, the lever. A rigid object is used with a fulcrum to multiply the force that can be applied to another object; it's an example of the principle of moments. The lever is no longer just a physical machine, a stick on triangle. The sticks have become a communications network, and the fulcrums are computers.

Yet it is still only men, sometimes a single man who wields the lever; and the object to which the force is applied may be the economy of an entire nation, may affect the lives of millions of people, who are unable to even perceive the stick, the fulcrum or the man. And yet, he is nothing more than a single man.

Adam Haslett has a knack for putting readers into the minds of his characters. In his first novel, 'Union Atlantic' (Nan A. Talese / Random House ; February 9, 2010 ; $26), Haslett offers a collision between two wonderfully complex characters, and explores the minds of the men and women who pull the fiscal levers that literally drive our world. 'Union Atlantic' is a symphonic creation, with stripped-down, compulsive prose that's both delicate and driving. We see the details and the late-night office stays, we know the souls of bankers. And yes, they do have souls, crystalline, complex, but human. But they have the strength and the will to work the machines whose effects echo through all our lives.

'Union Atlantic' plays out in a simple, accessible conflict that is rendered with complex, nuanced characters. We meet Doug Fanning in the Gulf War, then years later, when he's become an iron-willed trader working for Union Atlantic, a mega-bank that is building out just one step ahead of deregulation. Fanning may have a soul, but he doesn't have much of a conscience. For personal reasons, he builds a monster house in Finden, a well-to-do suburb of Boston. Unfortunately for Doug, he buys and builds next door to Charlotte Graves, a forced-to-retire history teacher who occupies a run-down, rotting family manor and a world of her own internal dialogues. She sues as Doug re-writes the rules of international finance to suit his own needs. As their lives become entwined, the simple machines exert their inexorable effect. Lives are changes, and not for the better.

Make no mistake about it, 'Union Atlantic' is its own carefully conceived machine. It is both a prose-driven character piece about the men and women who pull the levers of international finance, and a compulsively readable toe-tapping tale of economic and sociological morals. The characters and character moments are unforgettable. The late-night scenes will haunt your dreams, forever. It's likely that you'll find yourself reading Charlotte's rants out loud, and grinding your teeth as Haslett ratchets up the discomfort level with Doug's actions. But though these two are the primary characters, this is really an ensemble piece, with a large cast each of whom is perfectly realized. It's best to go in to this one cold, because finding out who these people are is just as compelling as finding out what will happen as a result of their actions.

'Union Atlantic' also boasts an impressive display of technological description. Haslett manages the unique trick of bringing the reader seamlessly into the world of high-tech finance. You get all the geeky gadgetry of the quants in an extremely satisfying manner — as a consequence of actions that matter in the lives of characters you care about, even if they're sort of repugnant. Haslett brings a sense of urgency to events here that are literally world-changing, but this always seems like a novel of economic mores. You're likely to stay up late reading 'Union Atlantic,' and have the chilling experience of understanding just what keeps those in the novel up late. Welcome to the end of your fiscal world. Unfortunately, there is a day after this particular Apocalypse.

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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