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03-19-10: Adam Nevill Inherits 'Apartment 16'

Home is Where the Hell Is

It is possible to lose track of writers unless they keep up with the relatively frenzied pace of modern publishing. One book per year is pretty much de rigeur. So how about one book every six years?

Adam Nevill's 'Banquet of the Damned' came out a little over six years ago, in a limited edition hardcover from PS Publishing. Looking back, it was a bit out of place. PS Publishing was, at the time, specializing in a series of novellas. A fat, five hundred page-plus horror novel did not fit in, other than by virtue of quality. And 'Banquet of the Damned' had that in spades. I could hardly wait for the next book from Adam Nevill.

Hardly wait or not, it's finally here. 'Apartment 16' (Pan Macmillan ; May 21, 2010 ; £7.99) is s perfect follow-up for Nevill's impressive debut. And this time around, Nevill is working in a world that seems to appreciate his sort of horror.

Like 'Banquet of the Damned,' you might want to describe 'Apartment 16' as the sort of book they don't make any more. Or at least not quickly enough, but then perhaps that's the key to the high quality of Nevill's work. This time around, Nevill has left Scotland behind to take readers to the heart of London, to find terror amidst the crowds. And this time around, the world is quite a bit more receptive to a thick, pacey modern horror novel.

'Apartment 16' is just another anonymous room in a Knightsbridge apartment block. Apryl is the lucky new owner; she's inherited it from her Great Aunt Lillian. Lillian's death was not a straightforward affair. As Apryl moves in and experiences Apartment 16 for herself, she begins to realize that Great Aunt Lillian's life was not a straightforward affair either. Her diary proves to be troubling reading — for Apryl as well as the reader.

Like 'Banquet of the Damned,' there's something sort of pleasingly old-fashioned about 'Apartment 16.' Nevill doesn't offer gratuitous gore or flashy weirdness. Instead, he builds terror brick by brick, with subtle intimations and well-orchestrated escalating strangeness. The cast of characters is small, and Nevill works them well, contrasting the lives of the lonely with the complexity of the anonymous crowds. Nevill is smart (and good) enough to make us want to read about Apryl and Seth and Lillian even without the supernatural intrusions.

These he layers on with just the right amount of history and hokum. Nevill keeps the reader uneasy with a backstory so involving that might almost be considered a story-within-a-story. With the characters, we read about the events before we experience them. When Apryl puts down her books and starts to explore, we won't want to put down this book. There's a delicious feeling of suspense watching Apryl slip into the surreal and the supernatural. The build-out sets the scene for a more believable evocation of evil in the novel's here-and-now.

While Nevill doesn't linger in the kind of gross-outs that can seem like set-pieces for a movie adaptation, he's certainly not afraid to scare you. He also knows how to keep the pace and tension high without the sort of artificial plot blinders that make readers want to just flip ahead to the end. This is the sort of book you don't want to end.

'Banquet of the Damned' finally made it into paperback in 2008, some four years after its original publication by PS Publishing. 'Apartment 16' is set to debut in a trade paperback format, though I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising small press eventually offers a limited hardcover. Neither of these books are available from a US publisher, but, as the popularity of the horror genre increases, that seems likely as well. 'Banquet of the Damned', like 'Apartment 16,' it's a thick, satisfying read that has some classic tropes unfolded and unpacked in a 21st century landscape. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another six years for the next novel.

03-18-10: Stephen Kessler Follows 'The Mental Traveler'

Bad Trips and Good Reading

Why it is that a bad trip can make good reading? It's not just schadenfreude. There's something more interesting at work here. When we read about a journey that goes awry we're in two places at once; still in our comfy reading chair, and simultaneously, immersed in the troubles of others to the degree that they become ours. I think there's a sort of reflective effect going on. Though we may be comfortable reading about the troubles of others, our own lives and troubles await us once we stop reading. The reading itself is a journey, from one word to the next.

Of course, we can read about trips that we simply cannot take. For example, few of us have the time and energy to explore 'The Lost City of Z' like David Grann. And even if time and money are not problems, the leeches may be. Then there's the sort of trip that poet Stephen Kessler takes in 'The Mental Traveler' (Greenhouse Review Press ; December 2009 ; $18). No matter how much you may want to do so, sometimes it is not possible to journey from sanity to mental illness — and back.

Kessler's first novel — he's written 8 books and chapbooks of original poetry — is a literal trip down memory lane, and not on the sunny side of the street. Unfolding over six or so months starting at the end of 1969, 'The Mental Traveler' is a picaresque about a married, cheating poet living in Berkeley who watches his marriage, then his mind go down the toilet as the worst events of the 1960's come to pass. From Altamont to madness. It's a pretty short journey, really.

For readers, it's a rewarding slice of fictionalized autobiography. Kessler's attention to detail in his previous works of poetry actually pays off in prose. He writes very well, but not too much. His sentences flow as his character slowly slips off the deep end with a nicely evoked combination of too many drugs and a psychotic break from reality that probably would have happened anyway. Kessler gets beneath the reader's skin, evoking sympathy, then distaste then helplessness. Is he mad, or is the world out of kilter? Or worse, are both true?

Kessler shows us a side of the 1960's we don't see very often. It's not a pretty picture, but it is engaging, as are his characters and their adventures. As the novel progresses he journeys not just up the coast but deeper into mental illness, into a world of his own that he does not share with the rest of us. It's unpleasant to the narrator, but a fantastic read, surreal, disturbing and often very funny. Peace and joy and the Summer of Love are happily absent, pushed into the background by sometime-justified paranoia, fear and feelings of helplessness. Even as the world tears itself apart at the seams, there's the sense that a cosmic bureaucracy is slowly grinding its gears, and the humans who fall between them. As entertaining as the hallucinations and actual events that transpire in 'The Mental Traveler' are, they're certainly better experienced in prose than in person.

03-17-10: Ted Chiang Charts 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects'

Joshua Blue, Digital Chimps and Lives in Flux

We grow up more slowly than we suspect, and we don't always grow in one direction. The general idea is that as we get old, we mature and take on a more responsible outlook. Even the form of the word "mature" tells us something. We're expected to experience it first as a verb, then as an adjective. On the other hand, we're only expected to start out as the adjective form of immature. Nobody is supposed to immature. But it is something that seems to happen as often as the opposite.

Likewise, software is supposed to "mature." In my experience, this means it gets more useless features, more complicated and less reliable. Perhaps that's a good description of the human version as well.

This all leads to the problem of General Artificial Intelligence, which in its original conception was supposed to be "Einstein in a box." The version of Einstein that would end up in that box was of course be the mature, problem-solving genius. Not the child who was born with that name. And thus, the first inception of General AI never got anywhere. That's what led to Sam Adam's ingenious "Joshua Blue" project, the attempt to create an artificial toddler first

Toss these ideas in the general direction of Ted Chiang, and you get 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects' (Subterranean Press ; July 2010 ; $25), the longest work yet by this talented short story writer. Of course, Chiang has a lot more going on than fictionalizing digital toddlers. Chiang writes about the non-digital humans who will see to the education of such a being, about a present that has already happened and left many of us behind. Just what is science fiction these days, in this environment of shockingly accelerated change? Can fiction science fiction "mature"? Can literary fiction "immature"?

Chiang's latest is strikingly engaging. Ana Alvarado is looking for a job, and not having great success. It's only after we're involved with her search that we realize she may be living a bit in our future, because she's doing it all online. Or she may simply be someone whose lifestyle is out on the cutting edge. She gets a job, of course. It's in the world of software development, sort-of, and the experience they find relevant is her work at the zoo. And just as she is immersed in online reality, so we, too, readers, are soon immersed in her reality. Perhaps immersive virtual reality has been around a lot longer than we realized.

Welcome to 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects,' where reality, virtual reality, literary reality, science fiction and literature dissolve in a reading experience that is only possible in the 21st century. The plot of Chiang's story swirls round a world digients, digital online intelligent beings that users can shape. These are sorts-of virtual Joshua Blues, set up and sold in online realities. Chiang knows how to develop his technology well, but it's the human development that makes 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects' so compelling; even the non-human-humans, the digients, are creations we care about, almost as much as if they were our own. When his characters sit down to compose a message or for an online interview, readers can feel the ring of truth. These are the words that science fiction makes as it matures, that literature makes as it immatures. This is the literature of the 21st century, opening its eyes, waking up — coming to life.

03-16-10: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Seven Deadly Pleasures' by Michael Aronovitz

Dark Mainstream

I'm not a fan of monolithic anything, unless it's a large slab of black, iridescent intelligent marble that is fond of teaching apes how to pound the shit out of one another with primitive weapons. With regards to the content of this website, I know that my straying across lines both literary and political might on some occasions frustrate readers and listeners who's prefer things to more on-message — whatever that message may be!

For me, however, it's important to contradict myself regularly, to vow and disavow, to say never, then find first one, then a host of exceptions to never. We evolve as I remember and forget what I can and cannot do, what I do and do not want to do. And if I can't contradict myself, I can bring in Mario Guslandi, who is quite adept at offering his own opinion on the at-best eclectic list of titles I manage to get sent his way. And, I'm pleased as punch to offer his take on 'Seven Deadly Pleasures' by Michael Aronovitz. It's a grand tonic for my original review.

One of the reasons I started this site was so that I could review books I wanted to read, instead of those that were merely sent my way. But this puts me on the sending side, and I'm happy to send books to Mario Guslandi, though an arcane but occasionally workable system that results in actual reviews. Mario's style of writing and tastes are rather different than mine, which is refreshing to me!

And so I present Mario Guslandi's review of 'Seven Deadly Pleasures' by Michael Aronovitz, and you can tell from the get-go that he has a different take on than did I. While I won't discuss the particulars of his review, what I will say is that I found it really interesting that he dubs the book mainstream fiction, whereas I would classify it as horror first, fantasy, second, science fiction third, and finally what I call "general" (that is, non-genre) fiction. Hippocampus Press is definitely doing something right, in my mind. They're pushing out some great trade paperbacks, nicely produced by some high-quality writers who deserve recognition. I will say this much about Mario's review — I do agree that whether you call it mainstream or horror fiction, Aronovitz's work is certainly dark. You can read Mario's review here.

03-15-10: Elif Shafak Reveals 'The Forty Rules of Love'

Intimacy and Centuries

Human connections are beyond the ken of those who make them. They may happen in seconds, over years, across centuries. A man and woman may live in the same house for years and never connect. A man and a woman may live on separate continents most of their lives and in two heartbeats — one from each heart — they may find lasting love.

Our emotions do not avail themselves of reason. You can't argue a man in love out of love. You can't un-break a heart with logical arguments. You cannot wear down the resolve of woman with all the riches in the world; but a smile may suffice. The only rules are that there are no rules. There are, however, many modes of loving anarchy.

'The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; February 18, 2010 ; $25.95) by Elif Shafak captures in words the motion of emotion, the back-and-forth, the instant connections and aching disconnects, the chasms and chaos that may lie between two hearts. But while this is a novel of the heart, it is written for the mind. Where it perceives chaos, it does so with clarity. Shafak is a major figure in her native Turkey, and given the quality of 'The Forty Rules of Love,' it is easy to see why. This is a novel that makes the complex seem simple, that fearlessly explores regions of our lives we prefer not to acknowledge.

The novel has a deceptively simple story that unfolds in series of fractal writings. Ella Rubenstein is a bored Jewish housewife who is unhappy in her marriage. Just north of forty, the kids out of the house, she takes a job as a part-time reader for a literary agency, and is handed her first manuscript, Sweet Blasphemy, the work of one Aziz Zahara, who lives in Amsterdam.

Sweet Blasphemy is the story of the Sufi mystic Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. As Ella reads their story, their time begins to pervade her mind. Aziz Zahara seems to have found a means of freeing Ella Rubenstein, though they have never met. He might as well be a character in his own book, transported to the 21st century. Life mirrors fiction, which is drawn from life.

Shafak is an amazingly talented writer on all levels. She pours forth sentence after perfect sentence, the sort of prose that I, at least, love to read aloud. Her characters come to life with an effortless ease, a natural grace that one can imagine is born of feeling right within the world. Moreover, she's a chameleonic master of voices.

While much of the novel is told from Ella's very 21st-century American perspective, an almost equal portion is devoted to the novel-within-a-novel, Sweet Blasphemy. This novel, written by Aziz Zahar, is of course a means of creating his character. Not surprisingly, he's as talented a writer as Shafak, and the voices he creates, Rumi, Shams, prostitutes, drunks, students, unfold in an astonishing variety of written styles. And each gem-like vignette, each episode, is another thread in the larger tapestry of the novel as a whole.

Ranging from lyrical Americana to straightforward, blunt recitations from the 13th century, 'The Forty Rules of Love' manages to keep the reader utterly engaged with two entwining, unfolding stories, each made up of more stories. This is truly a reader's book and a meta-fiction lover's delight.

What's more, Shafak's structure and style echo her intent to examine the human heart. In an instant, a bond can be forged between two humans who might never have met in person. And it takes no longer to dissolve a lifetime of habit. Love is an unpredictable quantum force that can connect and divide in the same moment. It is love that allows us to be two people, two places at once.

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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