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10-22-10: Belle Yang Writes to 'Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale'

Pictographic Memory

We meet Belle Yang as she lays on a hillside with an empty pad of paper in front her. "Baba," she tells us named her, "Xuan. It means 'Forget Sorrow.'"

That's a tall order, considering the life she reveals in 'Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale ' (Norton ; May 10, 2010 ; $23.95). Yang's graphic memoir is a mesmerizing mix of the personal and the political set against the backdrop of Chinese history few Americans have any real knowledge of. The intimate relations of a traditional family grab the reader's heart, while the grand-scale events that bring so much sorrow are made real by virtue of our emotional connection to Yang's family history. The graphic memoir format affords Yang a great means of telling these stories on a variety of levels.

Yang's illustrations have a rough-hewn feel that suits the raw nature of the story. They're simple and powerful, but feel personal. There's a sort of rush of emotion that seems to fill the illustrations, and they carry the reader's eye across the page and into the story effectively. The lettering, done in a computerized version of Yang's own writing, is easily enough read so as to keep the flow.

The page layouts and panels are nicely sized for reading. The density of the illustrations never overwhelms the pages, and even those unaccustomed to reading in the graphic novel format will find this book easily assimilated. The faces and figures we meet here are imbued with the complicated sentiments of a family. There is love, dissention, distrust, trust, compassion, anger, joy, and more — the actual emotions of a family embodies in a few careful strokes. It may look simple at first glance, but the characters are richly revealed.

Yang's story is light framed by a present-day narrative of reconciliation with her parents. The frame itself is multilayered and complex. It's a nice way to take readers into a deep past that is to many of us truly incomprehensible. Once we are in China, readers are swept into a family history that is no less than astonishing. Through multiple generations, through war where they live, which is almost comprehensible, to the Cultural Revolution, Yang explores her own background with stories, stories-within-stories and the bitter feuds that only families can achieve. Yang's work is pretty raw; the nature of the illustrations matches the nature of the story.

'Forget Sorrow' is not a straightforward family narrative, and the reading experience is an unusual combination of complex structure that is easily assimilated. The effect is not unlike reading a long unfolding scroll, with small friezes dedicated to sub-plots that are embraced by the larger narrative. Yang's story is like no other, and her presentation is just as exotic, while being immersive and accessible. For each of us, our families are our worlds. 'Forget Sorrow' reveals to us a family and a world like no other — but like every family, and every private world. Our own history seems clear to us as we are immersed in it. But eventually, we will be nothing more than a diversion, a brief slip sideways in time. Our reading lives can indeed expand ever outward — and inward.

10-21-10: Charles Yu Explains How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Measuring the Time of Life

Charles Yu has managed to effectively trap himself in his own novel, 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.' He imagines himself as a narrator in a universe where time travel is cheap and easy. It's so easy, he's got a simple diagram at the front of the book to help explain it. But those explanations, and the story that follows, that envelops the reader, are all made of words. You cannot read all the words at once, even though they are all there for you to read at once. You cannot experience the whole story at once, even though it is all there for you to experience. No matter how you approach this novel, the novel itself makes it quite clear. Living a life — reading a book —experiencing a story — all of them are forms of time travel.

Yu's novel may put the words "science fictional" in the title, and time travel certainly plays a key part in the novel. But this is no science fiction novel. It's a memoir that uses fiction and a few of the trappings of science fiction to explore how our most powerful emotions are informed by time.

Yu's novel may be a memoir, but it is also a novel, so you won't get any verifiable "truthful" facts. But readers will not be able to help experiencing the truth of Yu's emotions, and the way he gets at them is by cross-pollinating literary and critical theory with scientific literary style. Somewhere in this very odd and utterly unique mix, Yu explores the relationships between fathers and sons with undeniable and memorable poignancy and total originality.

As the novel begins, the narrator, Charles Yu, is locked in a small time-travel box with only a couple of electronic constructs to keep him company; TAMMY, the female software program that helps run his time machine and keeps him company and Ed, his ontological dog. Charles is a time-machine repairman in a "minor universe" where time travel is common, but used mainly to visit scenes of regret in one's life. But soon Charles finds himself in a time loop with potentially fatal results. In order to survive his own life, he's going to explore that life. Time travel of the literary sort will be required.

'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' unfolds as we the readers and Charles Yu the narrator get to know Charles Yu. Charles' father — who invented the time machine — is a difficult figure for Charles to know. Sure, he has all the memories, but putting them into not just chronological order, but more importantly emotional order, is something that cannot happen in an instant, and cannot happen without language. Yu's novel is chock-a-block with an abandoned appendix's worth of neologisms, which he deploys to add a lighthearted humor that offsets the more poignant memories of his father. The prose here is unique. It's funny, it's sad, it's rife with pseudo-linguistic and pseudo-scientific jargon, often all of these at the same time. It's an effective way to talk about 21st century men and their fathers.

For all the wildly imaginative time-travel trappings that this novel brings to the reader, the characters within are instantly recognizable members of a family that is not so unusual. Charles Yu the son looks up to his flawed father and feels the terror of his failings. This is a fairly simple story and straightforward relationship that is made unique and entertaining by virtue of Yu's virtuoso language.

'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' evades your expectations of almost any label you might care to apply to it. The science fiction is rigorously worked out but within literary parameters. The literary experimentation is performed in the name of old-fashioned emotions. The powerful feelings are explored with funny neologisms. And the funny neologisms explore some seriously complex literary constructions. 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' is a powerful story of a father and son written on a Möbius strip.

10-20-10: Felix Gilman Makes 'The Half-Made World'

One World One Word at a Time

If only our originality could be more original. Perhaps it's just perception.

Make no mistake, 'The Half-Made World' (Forge / Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; October 12, 2010 ; $25.99) by Felix Gilman lives up to the promise of his 'Thunderer' / 'Gears of the City' duology, and then some. It's relentlessly readable even when the plot seems to consist of a three-part guided tour to Gilman's wildly inventive world. But the book barely gets out the gate and already it's been tagged with the cool-label-du-jour. It's like throwing a burlap sack over a blazingly-bright cockatiel and shouting, "BIRD!" Who could tell, and who could care? It's just one more squirming sack.

Or perhaps you could take that lovely BIRD and dissect it live, right there. That'll tell you all about it. Turns out, it's just as colorful inside as it is outside. But a bit hard to put back together.

So, as much as I love to natter on about genre, I'm going go stick to the literary aspects of Gilman's fantasy, because there are plenty of those to recommend it. In 'The Half-Made World,' Gilman is once again creating the world anew. In quick chapters, we meet The General, who might save the world we're about to enter, then Liv Alverhyusen, a citified "east coast" psychologist, Creedmoor the gunman and Lowry the lineman. And thus the lines are drawn, and used to draw the reader into Gilman' latest creation.

Creation is the word to think about as you read 'The Half-Made World.' Gilman's world is literally but not literarily unfinished. That act of creation, which begins as you begin the book, does not let up for some 480 pages. Refashioning elements of the Gilded Age and Old West to his own purpose, Gilman's novel mimics our own act of creation as we read, or our daily experience as we burrow outwards into our world. Dan Simmons has written about this as well, the idea of experience as a wavefront. Simmons' novel used math, whereas Gilman uses magic, but both are really talking about language. It's an incestuous, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-boot-heels relationship. Gilman's novel creates the world, one word at a time, a world that itself is being created one step at a time as the characters blow through the Frontier.

Gilman's characters are classic archetypes; the drone, the gunman and the educated fool. Fortunately for the reader, Gilman is good at the details, and at the word with which he builds both world and character. Liv is the most familiarly human of the three, and the best rendered for purposes of helping those of us this world wrap their brains around the goings-on in Gilman's. She's pretty funny and easy-going. Creedmoor the gunman, in debt to his demonic weapon, offers readers the entertaining violence that wants you to think it is a necessary evil, while Lowry the Lineman offers readers the buzz of a hive-ish intelligence. As tour guides, they're lively and provide an effective contrast, a sort of character version of the RGB color palette. In terms of the word-creation at the heart of the novel, Lowry is the most pertinent, Liv the most genial and Creedmoor the most colorful.

Gilman's creation is of necessity large enough that just moving around in it provides a lot of the plot. In a sense, this is the world-building version of character as revelation. As the lines are drawn, we see the edges of the familiar, with apocalyptic weapons and competing ideologies. For all the utter, incessant and entertaining weirdness that showers upon the reader with each page, the story starts to fall out along lines that we've seen before. But all that incessant weirdness is not to no avail. For the first part of two, 'The Half-Made World' ends satisfyingly well, while it sets readers up for what will presumably be the world made whole.

Gilman is a smart writer. 'The Half-Made World' is a powerfully inventive wave of words, a literary exploration of the literary frontiers. Even as it demolishes those currently in fashion, it makes subversive use of those they demolished. In 'Wild Talents,' Charles Fort asserted, "I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while." That he manages to leave literature out of the equation is tribute to his faith in his own wild talent, writing. Felix Gilman has a similar confidence and it serves him well.

10-19-10: Heidi Cullen Researches The Weather of the Future

Describing the Irreversible

"By the time you see the weather, it's too late."

In 1970, I was all about science, science fiction and the future. I'd collected all of the articles from Life magazine about the science behind 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was a voracious reader of Willy Ley, George Gamov, and Arthur C. Clarke. There's one book I remember in particular that entranced me. 'The City in the World of the Future' by Harold Hellman was one of those rare hardcover books that I bought out of my own hardly-earned money. I'd pore for hours over the photo mock-ups of futuristic houses, certain that, by the year 2010, I'd be living in one.

That year has arrived, and as it happens, I live in modest suburban house built in 1969. My future has proved to look exactly like my past. It is my past. And, yes, I am still entranced with "the future." You put those words in the title of a non-fiction book, you're going to get my attention in a hurry.

Which is why 'The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet' (HarperCollins ; August 3, 2010 ; $25.99) by Heidi Cullen caught my eye. Of course, catching my eye and holding my interest as a reader are not equivalent, but Cullen's book is compelling, well-organized and different. You can guess that she's not an optimist, but optimism and realism in terms of our climatological future are pretty incompatible at this point. The real question is just how pessimistic should we be, and how should we express that pessimism in a manner that may prove to be of use to those in the present and of benefit to those in the future.

'The Weather of the Future' is divided into two major parts. The first part of the book, "Your Weather is Your Climate" offers a vision of global climate change as we know it in the year 2010. We get the history of climate change and the work that brings us to the moment of the book, this moment. It's not a happy portrait of a happy planet. We have made massive changes in the composition of the atmosphere in the past hundred years. The number she brings to bear are not good news. The real problem is that the climate has already changed.

But climate is not what we experience on a day-to-day basis. For all the convincing science and data she gives us in the first part of the book, the real punch is saved for the second part of the book, where she offers visions of the weather in seven specific areas; The Sahel Africa, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Central Valley of California, the Arctic — Greenland and Canada, Bangladesh, and New York, New York.

The specific visions of the future are quite alarming. Drawing on experts and informed speculation, they are the stuff of scarifying science fiction movies. Unfortunately, 'The Weather of the Future' is not science fiction, though it will certainly appeal readers of the genre by virtue of building a convincing vision of the future. Here's a book that uses the tools of genre fiction to create an effective non-fiction vision of the future. Cullen does not make the mistake of expecting any great technological advances. She assumes that the world some 40 years from now will look pretty much like today. And, other than the Internet, it seems to me that today looks pretty much like 1970. Housing, transportation, infrastructure — forget the jetpack, I'd be happy with a decent system of mass transit. Even if I really want a monorail.

'The Weather of the Future' may or may not prove to be an accurate vision of the future, just as Cullen may or may not prove to be Cassandra. But the point of such work is that they not prove to be accurate. The point is that a reading experience in 2010 can lead to actions that will change our weather experiences of 2050, or 2060. The point of reading is not to ignore the experience. We read to embrace, to enrich and engage with the minds of writers who have put together words in their present — now our past. By the time we read the book, we are already in the future.

10-18-10: Karen Joy Fowler Reveals What I Didnt See

New American Mythos

The power of the short story is the power of myth.

The best short stories touch readers at a bedrock level, short-circuiting our perceptions of the everyday and the trivial. They bypass current affairs in favor of the timeless currents that underlie not just our culture, but all culture. The story-length is important. We need that confined space to heighten our sense of everything. Short stories can, at their best, create a unique reading experience.

Karen Joy Fowler is an accomplished novelist, but she is also that rare writer who can match the power of her novels with the power of her short stories. She works in the world of myth with great ease. We feel, reading her stories, that we are in our world, but some portion of it that connects vitally with everything else. What happens here is gripping, important, compelling, and often terrifying. Her new collection of stories, 'What I Didn't See' offers readers perfect renderings of a New American Mythos.

The book starts off unforgettably with "The Pelican Bar." Norah is an average, if trouble-prone teen celebrating her birthday. Her parents give her an unexpectedly nice party, and afterwards, she sneaks in two friends and they all have magic mushrooms. When she wakes up the next morning, still hallucinating, she is being borne off to a boarding school unlike anything you've ever experienced in fiction. Norah's trials there are the stuff of nightmare, but the sort of nightmare we can all too easily imagine. This story won The Shirley Jackson Award this year, and it is easy to understand why; it has all the power and menace of "The Lottery."

In this story, and others, including "The Last Worders," a more genial, but still creepy tale of two women traveling in "San Margais," Fowler expertly deploys a sense of dislocation. The world feels both familiar in the details that Fowler beautifully evokes (a set of stairs carved into the side of a cliff, a city with a famous dispute between two conflicting personalities) but unfamiliar as well, since all these details, which feel real, aren't in our history. For all the friendly camaraderie the two women in "The Last Worders" share, there's a pervasive sense of unease.

Two of the stories center around John Wilkes Booth; "Booth's Ghost," a poignant vision of Edwin Booth, (published here for the first time), and "Standing Room Only." Both are detailed with bits of history that engage and immerse the reader without overwhelming. Though we know the events of that night well, Fowler finds stories around them that are more compelling. It's a fascinating, low-key demonstration of her powers as a writer .

"The Marianas Islands" finds Fowler addressing family matters in a story that is amazingly imaginative even as it has the down-to-earth feel of kitchen-table fables. It's a nice counterbalance to the families we meet in the "Familiar Birds." Their kitchen tables are not such happy places.

Fairy tale motifs crop up often in Fowler's work. Both "The Dark" and "King Rat" play with the Pied Piper. "The Dark" takes readers to the tunnels in Vietnam, while "King Rat" explores the bowels of a science lab in a modern university. Fowler is attentive to the unsettling, unpleasant vibe of her inspiration, but finds her own evocative atmosphere. "The Dark" is best read in the light, while "King Rat" might fare well by a fireside.

"Halfway People" is a perfectly wrought example of the 21st century fairy tale, complete with kings, swans, transformations and economic despair. Fowler's characters ring true and themselves transform the magical elements into unfamiliar aspects of the mundane. The real magic here is in the powerful emotional arc of the story.

Fowler also uses the short story form to engage in conversations with other writers; Agatha Christie meets the mummy myth in "Private Grave 9," with a delightful but chilling resolution. "What I Didn't See" is Fowler's answer to "The Women Men Don't See," by Alice Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree Jr. In it, Fowler once again employs her powers as a writer of historical fiction, evoking the awe of early African explorations and the horror of easy exploitation. It's a good choice for the title story, as complex and compelling as any piece of short fiction. This is the sort of collection that gets regularly re-read, because Fowler's stories manage to retain their mystery and power even if you know what happens in the plot. These stories remain grounded in the reading experience, and make that experience consistently and repeatedly rewarding.

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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