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09-03-10: The Eternal Youth of 'Madame Bovary'

"To be simple is no small matter."

OK, so there are plenty of big, rich novels about families out there, and you can read them till you decide that your hermit' cabin in the woods seems like the best bet for continued sanity. You know the excoriating tomes to which I am referring. They are indeed entertaining reading. But whether or not they will stand the test of time is another question entirely. Who will want to read of these tortured souls some one-hundred and fifty years hence? We don't know. We can't know.

But we can get to know one Madame Emma Bovary. Her mind, her life, the novel that bears her name capture some utterly human essence so perfectly that she seems to have stepped out of a Parent's Night at your kid's grammar school. She is specific and unique, yet she is symbolic and eternal. Reading Flaubert more than a century after her wrote of this woman is a contemporary, urgent reading experience. The world disappears, our world disappears, and that which replaces it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about itself.

The appearance of 'Madame Bovary' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; September 27, 2010 ; $27.95) on our shelves, as newly translated by Lydia Davis, is most assuredly something to celebrate, and if you're a contemporary writer, perhaps fear. After all, Flaubert famously succeeded at being simple, and produced a powerful reading experience as a result. It's packaged like a best-seller, has the subject of a best-seller, and is a taut, sparse, 300-something pages, like a best-seller. Here's a book I really want see become a best-seller, just because Flaubert damn well deserves it. Moreover and most importantly, 'Madame Bovary' is both a powerful piece of literary fiction and a toe-tapping page-turner. How could it fail?

Let me mention the prestige packaging here, which I think may make a big difference. The new Viking edition actually does look like a million other Flaubert wanna-be's out there. It has a historical setting, though it was actually written in that setting. This is an example of a hardcover novel that deserves the setting, and deserves the readability that it's been given. Viking has indeed made a wide choice here.

Then of course, there is the Lydia Davis factor. She's a National Book Award Finalist and an honored translator. Her prose translation brings Bovary to life, and makes it seem contemporary without imposing modernity. It's as if she's gone back and chatted with one or many of the women who claimed to be the inspiration for Bovary. She's managed to get inside Flaubert's language and find the heart, not just the gripping story. In writing terms, she of the sculptor mode, chipping away at the language until she finds the same economy in English that Flaubert brought to his readers. Whatever it is she does, it brings the book to life; you'll forget about everything else around you when reading this 'Madame Bovary.'

Obviously, Flaubert is the key. His novel understood what it was to be human in an intimate, immediate and powerful fashion. Once you've got that plumb line established, you can take the reader anywhere and they will care about your characters just as much as you do. Emma Bovary is not a perfect woman by any means, other than the fact she is perfectly human. That essence, the flaws, the hesitations, the yearnings and the daydreams of happiness are all so immediately familiar that any reader can become Madame Bovary in the reading experience. Whether Flaubert was being very modern or simply managed to draw a perfect bead on what it is to be human is to readers of this time irrelevant. By any measure, 'Madame Bovary' is an engaging, rewarding novel.

This edition is aided not just by the translation genius of Lydia Davis, but as well by excellent notes and extras that help set the stage and make our immersion more seamless. It's like begin given 19th century etiquette tips before being sent back in time. But reading 'Madame Bovary' is not about history or time travel. You're not being sent back in time. You are being sent outside of time. The human heart beats without regard to where and when. We breathe, and begin the next moment of our lives.

09-02-10: Collecting Philip K. Dick

The Books That Launched A Thousand Films

Yes, the people who are most likely to want these books are those who least need them. I am among those people. I already own them, but I am sorely tempted. My own copies are twenty-three years old. If this sounds like the confessions of some sort of addict, well that's not far off the mark.

Back in the 1980's Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller were publishing some of the most desirable books I could hope to own. They published huge omnibus hardcovers, each containing three "World's Best Horror" collections. In 1987, they published a legendary edition of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick; five volumes, no DJ, beautifully printed, and a limited collector's edition of 100 copies that included a signature from the late author. These books haunt their owners.

Since their release in 1987 in hardcover, they have seen innumerable paperback one-shots, as Dick's stories were mined for one bad movie after another. From Total Recall to Minority Report, from Screamers to Paycheck, the movies have mangled Dick's work. They've mired it in over-blown and quickly-dated unspecial effects, populated the films with stars and fueled them with scripts that had only the vaguest resemblance to Dick's original work, and reduced his theological, philosophical and literary imagination into drivel and tripe. And every stinker gets its own paperback with a terrible movie cover, a new title — and yet, inside, the words do get a chance to speak for themselves.

Yes, all the bad adaptations in the world don't matter one whit when you sit down to read Dick's work. The Underwood-Miller versions, now tagged upwards of $5K, reveal Dick to be a thoughtful, intelligent writer, who had concerns both large and small. The annotations at the back of each volume reveal a man who wanted to write and wanted to eat; these are not always compatible concerns. They reveal a man who thought about the implications of his work, and was nominated for awards. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis for the utterly terrible movie Total Recall, was nominated for a Nebula Award. Philip K. Dick wrote like there was no tomorrow, and he was right.

Subterranean Press is now stepping up to re-issue of 'The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick,' beginning with 'The King of Elves' (Subterranean Press ; December 31, 2010 ; $40), which they're renaming from the Underwood-Miller set; for that set, the title of the first book was "Beyond Lies the Wub," the title of Dick's first published story in Planet Stories magazine. At $40 a pop, that brings the Sub set in at $200, which is quite a deal. And it gets better.

Subterranean has scared up two new stories and, more importantly to me, more story notes. As much as I like the Underwood-Miller printing, I can't help but note that the Sub Press typesetting is more expansive, and easier to read. So far as I can tell, there are only going to be "Deluxe hardcovers" going at that bargain price of $40. But at this stage I wouldn't rule out anything. You know that the material in here is top-notch. The presentation is top-notch. Just think, only $200 to keep your hands off the Precious. A god deal, as these things go, until of course these editions become the Precious. In any event, you can always read the paperbacks. No matter what goes up on the screen, the words on the page remain unchanged.

09-01-10: Tim Pratt Finds 'Sympathy for the Devil'

"...Hell for the company..."

It's always about character, especially when it comes to storytelling. So if you're going to tell a story, why not start with the best, the original, the first and last Evil Overlord, ol' Scratch himself, Satan? And why haven't there been more collections like Tim Pratt's 'Sympathy fore the Devil' (Night Shade Books ; August 2010 ; $15.95)? Could it be that perhaps a certain character does not want his character known? After all, it is often said that the best trick the Devil ever played was to convince folks that he did not exist.

Well, of course exists, and of course he wears man fictional faces. Leave it to Tim Pratt to gather (I almost mis-typed "father," and perhaps that equally applicable here) a very eclectic and wonderful selection of stories that hail from all parts of the literary timeline.

The Devil, or as he is known by Dante, Lucifer ("bringer of Light") is always the most interesting man in the room when he is in the room, which if more often thank you'd expect. Tim Pratt is a writer equally welcomed by the literary world and the genre fiction world, and that gives him a reason to put together one of the most interesting collections of stories you're going to find thus far this year. 'Sympathy for the Devil' isn't just a gathering of genre fiction favorites, but a book you could legitimately use as a textbook for a college English course. It's thorough and literary, and all the more entertaining as a result.

Now, you will find a great selection of top-notch fiction in this book, including some hard-to-stuff that might be worth the price of admission alone. For that, go not father than Jonathan Carroll's "The Heidelberg Cylinder," with one of the weirdest and most unsettling evocations of Satan you're likely, or rather unlikely to encounter. Previously available only in a very limited edition, this story justifies the cover price. But there's a lot more in the genre vein, including Jeffrey Ford, two by Neil Gaiman, Andy Duncan's "Beluthahatchie," "Snowball's Chance" by Charles Stross, "The Goat Cutter:" by Jay Lake and "Details" by China Miéville. This is a partial list of what's there and a list that again, alone, makes the collection buy-worthy.

John Collier and Michael Chabon front the modern literary contingent. But for this reader, the ties that bin, the stories that take this collection to a higher level are those from history. If you've never read Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Browne" is the first step down a path of addiction. Hawthorne is a masterful writer and there's a Lovevraftian sense of menace here that is chillingly palpable. And the collection ends with the best, the first, the only — Dante Alighieri, Canto XXXIV of The Inferno.

Here is a glimpse of why to this day, we are ever fascinated with evil. This is the abyss that looks back into you, and this is the monster you hunter that turns you into a monster. It's important, I think to note the title of the collection is evokes sympathy, not empathy. If we feel sorry for the Devil, we may understand him, but still feel superior. Empathy for the Devil is a bit more dangerous. I won't call this collection a mirror; that's for you to experience. We might only know we have a soul after we have sold it.

08-31-10: Peter S. Beagle Reveals 'The Secret History of Fantasy'

Telling Lies for a Living

Peter S. Beagle doesn't mince any words in 'The Secret History of Fantasy,' (Tachyon ; July 22, 2010 ; $15.95) which begins: "I have written elsewhere that there was a time when all literature was called fantasy."

This is an important point, which I have heard expressed many ways. Laurie R. King is always reminding me that writers lie for a living. I think I prefer the term fantasy, but you get the point.

They're all making this stuff up.

But fiction that falls under the rubric of "fantasy" is too often seen as consisting only of the xth iteration of 'Lord of the Rings'-style fantasy adventure. Beagle knows that there is more to it than this. He not only wrote the introduction to the original Bantam Paperback publication of LOTR, he also wrote a classic anti-fantasy fantasy himself, 'The Last Unicorn.' Ah, would but that were to have been true!

In some ways, you can look at 'The Secret History of Fantasy' as absolutely, without-a-doubt, the best textbook you could ever hope to have assigned to you. I'm recommending that you assign it to yourself, and studying will be a pleasure as you enjoy not only Beagle's insightful and concise opening essay, but as well the nineteen stories that follow, and the two essays that complete the collection. Beagle has set out to rewrite our concept of fantasy, and with the help of some of the world's best writers, succeeds admirably. There's a good reason that the cover illustration is an upside-down dragon.

'The Secret History of Fantasy,' through Beagle's canny story selection, offers a vision of "fantasy fiction" as much more than mere guys-on-a-quest fiction. With writers like T. C. Boyle and Yann Martel set alongside Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, it's much easier to understand that fantasy fiction simply involves an element of the imagination, not a secondary world-setting with magic and critters.

Beagle's selections emphasize the imaginative, with works like Jeffrey Ford's "The Emperor of Ice Cream" and Stephen Millhauser's "The Barnum Museum." None of the titles are new, but the placement together is new. Juxtaposition is everything. Beagle does an outstanding job at bringing together writers from both inside and outside genre fiction, so the chances are that readers on any side of the equation are going to find the unfamiliar, and of course, that is the point. The cultural dominance and penetration of Tolkien's seminal work has actually done a fair amount of harm to the term fantasy fiction. It has become the de-facto definition of fantasy, and Beagle is here to show us that fantasy is not the familiar, men-on-horses quest story, but instead, true stories of what is in the human heart.

The two essays — by David G. Hartwell and Ursula Le Guin — that complete the volume offer a more formal vision of fantasy fiction, and a scholarly approach that is engaging because the subject itself is engaging. Le Guin is very funny as she talks about the genre she helped to shape, and Hartwell offer a pocket literary history of how we got to this point. Together, their non-fiction casts a very different light on the fiction that it follows.

We are not rational beings and our hearts and feelings do not operate by the rules of logic. Fantasy fiction is indeed the best means of externalizing our emotions and capturing them in stories so that we can get of grip on who we really are. The history of fantasy may indeed be a secret, but our hearts need not be.

08-30-10: David Doubilet Captures 'Water Light Time'

Painting with Pixels

The equivalence between pictures and words is greatly overstated. There is no measure in one to capture the other. A single sentence can conjure endless images and conversely, there are images that no words can corral. For longer than many could imagine, David Doubilet has been capturing such images — under the water.

Doubilet has been paid for his underwater photographs since he was fifteen years old, and in that span of time he has learned to capture more than mere imagery. When I asked to speak to him for the Blue Ocean Film Festival, I asked to see some his books, and he sent 'Water Light Time' (Phaidon Press ; March 15, 2006 ; $29.95), 'Fish Face' (Phaidon Press ; November 1, 2003 ; $19.95) and 'Face to Face With Sharks,' co-written by Jennifer Hayes (National Geographic Children's Books ; February 10, 2009 ; $16.95). They were rather shocked I even asked, but I'm certain much less so than I was stunned by the imagery I found within.

For a book that you can spend endless hours literally immersed in, nothing can beat 'Water Light Time,' which instantly reminded me of two other books in my library, boith different from one another and from Doubilet's masterpiece. (And it is a masterpiece, make no mistake.) Readers probably have not heard much about my art-book buying career, but I do have some, and one of my favorites is Andy Goldsworthy's book, 'Time,' and Andrey Tarkovsky's 'Sculpting in Time.' The titles are the giveaway, but the common thread is clear in the imagery of each artist. There is a sense of time in these images that Doubilet captures; in fact there are many senses of time to be found in this remarkable collection.

Photography by definition captures a single moment. But Doubilet's works, not surprisingly, since he is an underwater photographer, capture a flow of time as well. We can feel the moment before and after these images, and in fact, the millennia that went into the creation of the images. In 'Water Light Time,' you'll find a variety of imagery, from portraits of fish (these are the sole province of 'Fish Face') to painterly images that almost defy the viewer to believe that they could have been photographed.

Doubilet is a master of underwater photography, but the technical expertise that certainly went into the creation of these images is by and large not on display, or, I suppose, not really assertively a part of the composition. Instead, Doubilet manages to create indelible visions that, by virtue of composition, color and reproduction literally immerse the reader in the ocean, in ways we have not experienced before. His half-and-half shots are the most striking example of this, but there are many others that do so as well; sharks streaming by the camera with remoras clinging to their side seem almost impressionistically rendered. You'll see this technique in his photos of squid as well.

But Doubilet is also quite handily capable of photographing creatures we've seen with a precision and accuracy that is clearly of scientific as well as artistic value. 'Fish Face' is the ultimate example of this, while 'Face to Face With Sharks' offers more action=-packed fare for younger readers. Of course the latter might give these same readers nightmares, or at least inspire second thoughts before plunging into the open ocean.

Doubilet's work is nothing short of art, nothing short of the finest prose fiction you can read. How many libraries are there in 'Water Light Time'? How many novels? There is at least one story per page. But there is no equivalent for any of these images; no words will suffice or summarize. You can only enter the flow, and emerge, speechless wordless, immersed.

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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