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04-02-10: John Banville As Benjamin Black

'Elegy for April'

"Stopping drinking had been easy; what was difficult was the daily unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wished to avoid." The once-drunk detective who suffers the indignities of sobriety while trying to crack a case is the stuff of legends. In the right hands, that is.

The virtue of genre fiction, in this case, mystery fiction, is that the confines of the genre offer set limits for a writer. John Banville is a writer who easily steps beyond the limits of fiction itself, with books like the Booker Prize-winning 'The Sea' or his most recent novel under his own name, 'The Infinities,' which brings the Greek gods down to earth for yet another remix. But as Benjamin Black, Banville knows the limits and works them to his advantage in his latest novel featuring Quirke, the now-sober pathologist who sets out to find his daughter's missing friend in Dublin of the 1950's.

John Banville has a pretty straightforward relationship with his alter-ego, Benjamin Black. On his website, Banville confronts Black, and the latter concludes, "...your books think, mine look, look and report." That's a nice distinction, and it goes a long way towards explaining why Banville's work as Black is so appealing. As Black, Banville lets the reader do the thinking. But Black is a cunning writer, and what he chooses to see and report clearly involves a great deal of thinking on his part. The manner in which Banville uses the mystery genre to become Benjamin Black in no way limits the quality of the writing. It just changes the focus.

Benjamin Black's latest novel is 'Elegy for April' (Henry Holt ; April 13, 2010 ; $25), and it picks up as Quirke tries to re-build his life sober — and as he looks into the disappearance of his daughter's friend and finds that Dublin of the 1950's is every bit as complex as a literary novel, and a good deal more violent.

Black knows how to construct a tight novel that looks deep into the damaged hearts of humans trying to scrabble through the grit of Dublin. Quirk's daughter, Phoebe Griffin, has begun to get very worried about her friend, April Latimer. She's the do-gooder black sheep of her family, working at as a junior doctor at a local hospital. Her relationship with Nigerian Patrick Ojukwu has angered her straight-laced Catholic family. Now she's been missing for a week, and while it could be just another example of her wild streak, Phoebe doesn't think so and neither does Quirke.

Black works the mystery genre's conventions, but he does so with a sense of style and reportage that emphasizes the mystery not just who did the deed, but why, who those people are and how they became that way. He evokes the subtle influences of a city's social environment and weaves them into the lives of his characters and thus into the plot, always into the plot. 'Elegy for April' ratchets up the tension of emotional interplay, between Quirke and his daughter, between April and her community. She is a child of Dublin with a relationship every bit as troubled as that of Quirke and Phoebe. The consequences of who we are become as important as the consequences of what we do.

This is true as well of Benjamin Black and John Banville. Each man is a writer, and often they are the same man. But writing as Benjamin Black, Banville is forced to face not just his work as Benjamin Black, but also as John Banville. Black looks; Banville thinks. When Banville writes as Black, the consequences of who he is are in fact what he does. He thinks; looks; writes.

04-01-10: Tom Rachman Reports on 'The Imperfectionists'

Today's News is Tomorrow's Sorrow

I'm a subscriber, so I know whereof I speak. The newspaper, as she is these days, is worth something beyond the costs of the product. Whatever it is that holds a newspaper together, holds much more than that newspaper together.

I guess I'm lucky, because I subscribe to a great newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which has just undergone a makeover to a full-color printing process that results in what is very nearly a slick magazine dropped on my doorstep at oh-dark hundred every morning. When you think about it, it's a remarkable accomplishment for them to be able to do that. What kind of people work there? Here's a hint; Tom Rachman, who worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, calls his novel 'The Imperfectionists.' (Dial Press / Random House ; April 6, 2009 ; $25).

Rachman's novel looks at a newspaper that sounds very much the one he worked for; it's a scrappy English-language paper based in Rome that is small but quite respected — and in deep trouble, not the least of which derives from the cast of characters who work there. Rachman peoples his newspaper with some of the most flesh-and-blood, fully realized folks who have ever hidden behind the headlines, and he reveals them to the reader in a series of linked news stories-cum-short stories that slowly reveal a larger story. None of the stories are particularly happy, but Rachman's witty writing and cruelly realistic characters will keep you riveted.

The structure of 'The Imperfectionists' is inviting and inventive; this book is sinfully easy to read. You get a headline: "EUROPEANS ARE LAZY, STUDY SAYS" or "GLOBAL WARMING IS GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS." They're evocative and funny and just off-kilter enough to set a mood. And each is attributed to the character who drives the chapter, offering a look at a very different aspect of the paper. After each chapter, you'll find a short interlude; these tell the story of the paper itself, from its creation in the 1950's by a peculiar millionaire named Benjamin Ott — to, well, what becomes of the paper in the present day.

Rachman really shines in his ability to write a variety of visions, for example, the sweet-and-sorrowful humor of Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent, who goes after one sort of story but winds up with a very different one ("BUSH SLUMPS TO NEW LOW IN POLLS"). Kathleen Solson, the Editor-in-Chief ("US GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR"), who finds herself pondering her husband's infidelity in their open marriage while giving a speech on the rosy future for her paper, finds her own future ... not so rosy. Oliver Ott, the publisher, the heir to this magnificent tiny empire, is concerned mainly with his dog, Schopenhauer. As one who has had many conversations with his dog, I can attest that this aspect of character is quite well done.

As the stories progress a larger picture emerges, a sort of pocket history of newspapers, and the power of the people in them, the manner in which the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts, but also perfectly equivalent. The newspaper is a human creation, and it is not just the sheets of paper that you get each day. It's a hive organism, a collective intelligence, a fractured vision of the world that is somehow more than the whole world itself. The daily race, the gallows workplace humor, the torrid affairs and peccadilloes of people in close proximity, the things we say that come back when we least expect them ... we are all, in our own way, imperfectionists, producing each day another story of our lives. When the newspapers fold, when that lovely organic machine can no longer survive, what will become of us? Our stories are written each day. And we await the reader, with fear, with longing, with hope.

03-31-10: The Great Christian Corruptor of Youth

Thomas Bulfinch, Sex, Monsters and Myths

We set out to accomplish one thing and end up doing something quite different. One write who hopes describe the present ends up creating the future. A writer who hopes to cleanse the past and edify the children turns out legions of sex and monster-obsessed permadolescents.

William Gibson wanted to try to describe the place where video game players were trying to go when they pressed their bodies against the game consoles of yesteryear. In so doing, he helped create a world in which readers could find the work of Thomas Bulfinch online, for free, in a variety of formats.

Thomas Bulfinch only wanted to make sure that the Average Joe of 1855 would understand allusions to Zeus and Juno and monsters and perversions of the Greek and Roman myths. In so doing, he churns out one generation of boys after another with visions of loosely-clad women and scaly monsters mish-mashed together in archetypal adventures.

You can argue that Greek Myths were the first re-mixed literature. Long before the existence of bestseller lists, let alone the mash-ups that mach across them, Thomas Bulfinch, a merchant banker in pre-Civil War Boston, decided that he was going to make the world a better place. This is a decision that inevitably goes awry.

Bulfinch was not the product of the wealth and privilege. His family wasn't rich, but they weren't poor. He worked at the Merchants' Bank of Boston and dreamed of a world where everyone would understand allusions to classic Greek, Roman and even Arthurian mythology. He wanted to raise the standard of discourse in his world, and he thought to do so by revising the Greek myths to make them — gasp — enjoyable! Imagine that. He also sought to remove what he considered offensive, which did not include the constant philandering of the gods, the implications of lots of sex, or their many pet monsters. Bulfinch, alas, would not be able to imagine the effect his work would have on readers more than a century and a half after their first publication in 1855.

For many, these tales are the perfect gateway drug to the subversive world of science fiction. Or at least for me, that was the case. These tales of high adventure and otherworldly retribution set the scene for much of the reading that followed. While there are many moral lessons to be learned here, one of them is that the gods aren't all that moral. That whole "in his image" idea works more backwards than forwards. Gods tend to have the same flaws as humans, only they can do a lot more damage. That makes human flaws seem, by comparison...petty. And, if not acceptable, at least, tolerable.

And the monsters? Then as now, they serve as externalizations of the things we'd prefer not to see within. What sort of terror stops us in our tracks? The Medusa, of course. What happens to those who would try to hide their raw greed and hunger? Why, they are trapped in a maze with that greed and hunger personified. By personifying the ineffable awfulness inside us in the form of fantastic creatures, we can start a dialogue about our flaws without having to fess up. And, just as importantly, we can entertain the hell out of ourselves in the process.

Bulfinch was all about entertainment. He explicitly stated that he wasn't writing scholarly works. He was writing for Everyman, but even so, I doubt he thought he'd be writing for Everyman a century and a half hence. But that's the case, and the manner in which his works can be found speaks to the power of the cheaply printed word.

One of the reasons that the publishing world has seen such a wind-down is that cheap books are no longer so cheap. A mass-market paperback will set you back seven or eight bucks. But a sturdy trade paperback Dover Thrift Edition of 'Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable' (Dover Publications ; April 18, 2000 ; $3.50) will set you back a mite less than a Happy Meal. And it is so much more nourishing of the sort of dissent that will keep the young minds it indoctrinates well away from Happy Meals! This is truly a pocket book, if you have big pockets. But a great way to read the Greek Myths.

Or you can just download them for your iPhone from the Guttenberg Project or The English Atheist. No matter how you slice it, this is classic literature with one intent that these days accomplishes something quite different, though happily, it does still accomplish the goal of keeping the world abreast of who's who in the world of Greek mythology. That's actually kind of nice. Bulfinch's mythology may, these days, breed surly readers of science fiction and fantasy. But it still makes the world a more civilized place. Just so long as the gods don't decide to meddle; though looking at the state of civilization, perhaps that hope is indeed forlorn. Flies, boys, men, gods; everyone has a good deal to worry about. And lots of great reading to distract our minds from those worries while preparing our minds to solve the problems behind them. I guess we'll just have to put the gods in their place; our back pockets and cell phones.

03-30-10: Paolo Bacigalupi Winds Back the Reading Clock

'Ship Breaker'

Bookstores are your friends — in many ways. As a reviewer, I get sent more books than I can possibly read. For every book you see on this site, there are probably fifteen that I decided weren't worth my time to read, let alone write about, and another five I would have liked to have had the time to read and write about. The upside of there being so many books published is that if you've got a good eye and a good idea of what you want to read, then there are plenty of fine books around particularly if you cast a wide net with regards to content.

But for all the book I get in the mail, there are still some I get the old fashioned way. In this case, one of the fine folks at Capitola Book Café took me aside before the Jack Bowen interview — I'd actually managed to arrive early! -- and said, hey Rick, have you seen this book? No, I hadn't, and I probably would not have had she not sent it my way. After all, 'Ship Breaker' (Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group ; May 2010 ; $17.99) is a young adult title. I'm not so fond of lots of YA fiction. But this book got into my must read queue, because the author is Paolo Bacigalupi.

So let me give thanks where thanks are due; Melinda of Capitola Book Café, thank you. With 'Ship Breaker,' Paolo Bacigalupi does something very interesting. By winding back the reading clock and writing a novel for young adults, about a young adult, Bacigalupi also writes a novel that is a perfectly appropriate introduction for adults to his brand of dense science fiction.

Here's a novel that can sway not only the impressionable adolescent boys so necessary to science fiction, but bring in adults who find the world-building aspect off-putting. Bacigalupi uses an adolescent perspective to address a very adult world that we adults are in the process of creating. Your baby may end up in a world like this — and so may you.

The things we take for granted in adult novels of the future are open to be questioned in 'Ship Breaker.' Nailer is a scavenger who roams through grounded oil tankers in a parched, poverty-stricken future that seems far too close for comfort. What looks to be like a life of unceasing, unchanging drudgery turns into an opportunity when Nailer discovers a rather different sort of ship after a hurricane. That's when the blinders are lifted, and the self-imposed limits begin to fall away. That's when choice rears its ugly head.

Bacigalupi knows how to write an immersive future. You know, as a reader, no matter what your age, the he's got this world down, that it exists for him to the point where you might think he's bringing up the CNN website fro some mumble-mumble years in the future. With that sort of self-assurance, Nailer comes to life within that world. He's not got a lot of experience of any world, and that rawness reflects back on the reader. There's a great feedback loop in this book, as we watch Nailer learn and learn ourselves. Adults, and young adults probably know some of the lessons that Nailer learns, but as he makes choices good and bad, we get to explore his world. The character is learning one half of the equation, the reader the other half. That sense of completion makes 'Ship Breaker' an engaging book to read.

The stripped down expectations of the protagonist help as well. Nailer's not a bad kid, but he get the thoroughly adolescent education in guilt at the hands of a world we, the readers, are guilty of creating. We're well down the path already, but if Nailer can make choices, then so can we. It's quite simple. We can choose to read, to explore not only those books that come our way, but to go out and find new and unexpected reasons to read. We can put ourselves between the world we live in and the world Nailer lives in. It is never too late to make a brave choice.

03-29-10: S. T. Joshi Flies on 'Black Wings'

Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Black Wings' by S. T. Joshi

There's something strangely comforting about a collection of Cthulhu Mythos stories — even if the editor of the collection is trying to rinse the Cthulhu from the Mythos. In that sense, the new collection by S. T. Joshi echoes one of my favorite lines from another purveyor of cosmic horror (of a very different sort), Flannery O'Connor, when her character Hazel Motes promises and threatens to form, "..the church of Christ without Christ ... where the blind don't see; the lame don't walk; where what's dead stays that way."

Maybe not so much in 'Black Wings' (PS Publishing ; March 2010 ; $40), where Lovecraft is not so much removed as updated and transplanted. If you pulled some strands of DNA from the body of the Mythos and Lovecraft himself, then gene-spliced them into the world of modern short stories, you'd be lucky to get 'Black Wings.'

I do find it odd about myself that I find comfort in discomfort. Lovecraftian collections aim to discomfort the reader, to displace us from our seat at the crown of creation and put us in our place, which according to Lovecraft if closer to primordial slime that we'd prefer to believe. I guess the comfort in discomfort comes from my familiarity with the precise sub-subgenre that is the Cthulhu Mythos. I've been reading these sorts of anthologies since I was a teenager. I know that sure as shootin', here be monsters. And moreover that said monsters will pretty much deliberately avoid the stereotypes that are now so overworked.

For me, a collection like 'Black Wings' instantly moves into the must-buy column, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, you know you can trust S. T. Joshi to bring a truly Lovecraftian feel — in the best sense of the word — to the proceedings. Joshi is the premiere Lovecraft scholar. I spoke with him at the World Fantasy convention (you can hear that interview here), and he's much more, however. He employs the same intellect to writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith and H. L. Menken. The fact that he gets outside the genre suggests that his tastes extend beyond when he's looking within the genre. Here's a man who could if he wanted become the First High Priest in the Church of Cthulhu Without Cthulhu.

This book is quite a bargain; the comfort level generated for long-time Mythos fans is matched by the number of stories. There are even enough stories so that Mario Guslandi can fill up a review covering just the good stuff. You can find Mario's review here, until that is, the stars arrive in the correct position and the Mythos are transformed into the what, — the Realos? What will happen to humanity on that day? I just trust it will include a lot of reading, and, I'm inclined to think, not a lot of comfort.

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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