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12-09-10: The Future Now

Books That Make Next Year Worth Living

So long as the autonomic nervous system doesn't go on the fritz, I presume that I shall keep drawing successive breaths. But I'm not holding my breath with expectations of 2011 being anything other than a big warm-up for the loony times ahead in 2012. You practically need a telescope to see across the luxury gap. Wealth is so tightly consolidated it threatens to collapse into the black hole that the Large Hadron Collider has yet to cough up.

But should you have some spare change to cough up, there are ways to brighten a present so bleak that it threatens to overwhelm the future. Sitting on top of a stack of books next to the computer I'm typing this on are yet two more ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) of books that could justify breathing until at least March of 2011. Both come from familiar authors whose work uses the tropes of genre fiction to some very unexpected ends.

Kevin Brockmeier managed to hit the big-time in a big way with his first novel, 'The Brief History of the Dead,' a rare instance in which a fine piece of literature written with lots of imagination and little regard for boundaries of genre was met with both critical and commercial success. It's not that what he did hadn't been done before. 'The Brief History of the Dead' works in the same space as the best work of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont or Rod Serling. But Brockmeier managed to write — and his publisher managed to publish — the book on its own terms. It was smart, classy and an engaging reading experience.

His new novel, 'The Illumination' (Pantheon / Random House ; February 2011 ; $24.95) work with a similar sense of the surreal and the supernatural. In the great tradition of tropes of the fantastic, Brockmeier's novel starts simple; Carol Ann Page accidentally cuts off the tip of her thumb. At the hospital, she sees a bright, white light leaking from the wound. She thinks it's a hallucination, but it is not. It is the beginning.

In Brockmeier's vision, pain suddenly becomes visible, a light leaking from the source. Science fiction, horror and fantasy have long made their bread and butter doing this, using the fantastic to externalize ill-defined inner states of being. Brockmeier does so with the sort of clarity that cuts through our literary perceptions. By keeping close to his characters Brockmeier cuts to the chase of the fantastic; the truth that we human beings are in every sense fantastic, and our perceptions are more so. Even the slightest tweak can wreak unthinkable change, and yet at the core we continue to be human. It's a very interesting paradox and as Brockmeier's engaging Americans face the weird, readers cannot look away for a moment. Brockmeier is an expert at everyday-ifying the uncanny. He re-creates this world as we feel it. It is not just stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know.

If the world is stranger than we can know, we can at least do something to mitigate our ignorance. We can explore. Exploration narratives are the heart of weird literature, from 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' to 'The Martian Chronicles.' One of the great worksof the weird that as literature is even now too weird to fit in is Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, 'The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.' It's a bizarre amalgam of faux-science, satire, and strangeness that still seems strange even more than a hundred and seventy years after it was written.

Mat Johnson's 'Pym' (Spiegel & Grau / Random House ; March 1, 2011 ; $24)is a good deal less mysterious, but just as bizarre as Poe's work. Johnson has written fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels. This time around, he sets course for the island of Tslal, with a meta-fictional novel that echoes and mirrors Poe's work. Chris Jaynes is a black academic who is hoping for tenure but finds himself fired instead. He tells the story of a man who will quickly endear himself to readers. "Because I had books. I had books like a lit professor has books. And then I had more books, finer books. First editions. Rare prints. Copies signed by hands long dead."

Unfortunately for Chris, one of the books that he has is "The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters, Colored Man as Written by Himself." It's a slave narrative that seems to suggest, indeed confirm that 'The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket' is not a bizarre literary experiment, but indeed non-fiction. Jaynes decides to put together a group of black men to go to the white continent, (with a dog named "White Folks") to find the apogee of black history, a lost world. He gets his wish, but it proves to be more problematic than he anticipated. He and his crew are enslaved by white monsters that live in caverns beneath the South Pole.

Johnson has a kick-ass comedic voice in Jaynes, wry, dour and darkly funny. He uses his trip to the unknown to talk about everything in the world he has left behind, and he's able to offer a perspective that is unthinkable back home. Readers looking for a novel that is weird adventure (with a few nods to Lovecraft as well as Poe), wild social satire, and entertainingly externalizes Things Which One Cannot Easily Say in Normal Social Discourse should make sure that they're first in line to pick this up when it shows up at their local independent bookstore.

Kevin Brockmeier and Mat Johnson both offer readers a couple of decent reasons to keep facing a world that makes the literature of the fantastic seem pretty mild by comparison. Of course, we can choose our fictional futures. That's a luxury the real world does not offer. Apparently, dystopia is non-fiction.

12-08-10: ARCS from the Future

Tomorrow's Books Today

The future looks pretty good, for a post Apocalyptic wasteland. Yes, the end came a couple of years ago, during a frantic weekend in which our economy was handed over lock, stock and two smoking barrels to Len Blankstein of Goldmanfinger. But it's never that tidy, Quiet Earthish everyone's just gone, or even the less tidy Left Behindish all the Chosen are gone. No, the damn world ends and we're all stuck here still. That's the real beauty of the End Times. The one thing that doesn't end is us.

So, in a couple of months, when we're still circling the drain, coming ever closer even as the black circle at the center falls ever farther away, well, we're going to need something to do to pass the time. Most of us won't have jobs. Libraries will become popular, and I'm here to give you a glimpse of what will be new there, or at the bookstores for the top 0.01%. There may not be much in your future worth living for. But there are some decent books on the way. Here are two.

We'll start with the fat and frothy, 'A Discovery of Witches' (Viking / Penguin ; February 2011 ; $28.95), by Deborah Harkness, 580-ish pages of vampires, witches, demons, grimoires, history, history and history. The premise is appealingly simple. Diana Bishop is a scholar in Oxford's Bodleian Library who in the first sentence of the book, unshelves the mother of all alchemical manuscripts. But she's renounced her own sorcerous heritage. She knows unnecessary danger when she sees it and wants nothing to do with this. Some books, however cannot be easily re-shelved.

'A Discovery of Witches' is a lose-yourself novel of supernatural intrigue, and Harkness proves to be a novelist of considerable talent. The trick with this sort of novel is to create a rich, complicated secret history, and Harkness, who teaches history at USC, is up to the challenge. The secret is the prose voice of Diana Bishop, the first-person narrator who tells the story.

Harkness is smart enough to make things easy on herself and her readers. By virtue of the fact that Diana hasn't pursued her own heritage, both she and the reader can discover the supernatural secret history that drives the story. Harkness uses her historical chops to inform her supernatural world-building, which lends it a nicely complicated feel. The frank, up-font nature about what's happening is a refreshing approach. Harkness doesn't mess around. Diana is a smart protagonist who probably knows as much about the supernatural as the average reader of supernatural fiction. The vampire protagonist, Matthew Clairmont, is equally well-informed. Readers may be able to see where the story is going, but it is told engagingly enough to make the high-page count turn at a rapid rate. Harkness will be touring to sign the novel in February, and it may be well worth your valuable time to pick up a copy, read it and get it signed.

Téa Obreht is the kind of writer who gets to run an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, 'The Tiger's Wife,' (Random House ; March, 20111 ; $25) in the fiction issue of The New Yorker. This could cut two ways of course, but in the case of Obreht, it's a very good sign for a novel about a woman who decides to pursue her family's folly.

Obreht's novel unfolds in a Kafkaesque landscape shredded by war. We're somewhere in Eastern Europe that is so discombobulated, so ruined, that it hardly matters what it is called. It is the place where our dreams are ripped apart, and it is where Natalia will search for her grandfather, his mad quest for an immortal, and her own family.

'The Tiger's Wife' keeps the reader close to its heart, to Natalia's heart, which is a place as hard as the country she finds herself in. Obreht writes in the kind of clipped prose that lets in the darkness between the cracks. There's a very intense feel to this novel that threatens to burn the reader; we're always just a step away from a rocky gorge into which we may fall eternally, bouncing off the jagged edges. Obreht manages to write in a very subjective manner while offering a patina of objectivity. The paradox of her approach keeps the novel in surreal suspense; we literally never know not only what is going to happen, we are pretty much in the dark about what can happen. Obreht's novel incorporates hardcore realism and focuses through a lens of the fantastic.

Of course, both novels will have a tough time keeping up with our post-Apocalyptic reality. Drive across America today and you can see the billboards announcing that the end will come on May 21, 2011. If that's then you'll want to pick these books up early. There's nothing worse than a second apocalypse where you're in the final pages of a good book.

12-07-10: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010' Edited by Paula Guran

" know it when you read it."

Review by Mario Guslandi

Editor Paula Guran has joined the Year's Best Horror club (so far constituted by veterans Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones) by delivering a first, massive anthology devoted to the "best" dark fiction published in 2009, for a total of thirty-eight stories and 544 pages. The TOC of the volume shows only four overlaps with the Datlow volume (stories by Michael Marshall Smith, Norman Prentiss, Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, Suzy McKee Charnas) and two with Jones' Best New Horror (Michael Marshall Smith and Ramsey Campbell).

Guran appears to be more eclectic in her choices and that's probably the reason also of the higher number of tales she has selected under the label "dark fantasy & horror".

In her Introduction Guran tries to explain what she means by those two terms, but in the end — and rightly so — she concedes that dark fantasy is a bit like pornography : you know it when you read it.

I must confess that, as sometimes the case with the Datlow and Jones Year's Best anthologies, I don't agree with a fair amount of Guran's selection. We have different backgrounds, different tastes and are coming from different subcultures, so what scares and unsettles me can be different too.

On the other hand, as a long time reader and humble reviewer of supernatural and horror fiction, I must say that when a story is really good everyone should be able to recognize it. Once again: you know it when you read it. And in the present volume there are plenty of stories (some that I already knew, others that I discovered therein for the first time) which are truly excellent, first off all Norman Prentiss' outstanding "In the Porches of My Ears" firstly appeared in issue 18 of the PS Publishing Postscripts series.

The story is a veritable gem ,an insightful, moving piece starting out with a whispering voice in a darkened cinema and ending up in a sad life tragedy.

Another exceptional piece is "Vic" by Maura McHugh, an obscure, enigmatic , atmospheric piece of rare beauty featuring an ailing boy, an ambiguous mother and an irresolute father. Behind all that, a dark mystery lies.

In the superbly told "Certain Death for a Known Person" by Steve Duffy the hypothesis that another person's destiny could depend on one's casual choice is developed with unexpected results.

A kid game gone wrong ("Monsters") offers Stewart O'Nan the opportunity to draw a convincing, captivating tableau of daily life in a small community.

Joe Lansdale's "Torn Away" is a strange, fine story about a man deprived of his shadow, while Marc Laidlaw's "Leng" is a fascinating tale about unearthly meditation and spirituality, set in Tibet among monasteries and rare, alien mushrooms.

In the splendid "The Brink of Eternity" Barbara Roden provides a charming account of the dangers and the irresistible appeal of the arctic explorations.

Robert Davies contributes "Bruise for Bruise", an offbeat tale set in a weird town , featuring a weird goodness-like girl who finally meets love and Michael Marshall Smith "What Happens When You Wake Up In the Night", a deliciously creepy tale exploring the possible effects of waking up in the night in total darkness.

Gemma Files displays a solid narrative style in the perceptive "The Jacaranda Smile" addressing the complexities of some family arrangements, while Sarah Pinborough disquiets and upsets with "The Nowhere Man", where the apprehensions of a young boy with a dying mother and a missing sister become terribly real.

"Respects" is a typical Ramsey Campbell story squeezing horror from the events of ordinary life, where the family of a deceased young thief stalks a blameless woman.

Further stories featured in the anthology will doubtless captivate other readers and please different reviewers, because in such a huge book, offering such a wide selection of tales, anyone fond of good fiction will find material well worth reading.

12-06-10: A 'Last Call' for Re-Reading Tim Powers

A Time to Cast Away Stones
Subterranean Press and Charnel House

I'll never forget the first time I re-read Tim Powers' 'Last Call.' Sitting on the edge of Pinecrest Lake, I was immersed in nature and un-nature. The beauty of my surroundings informed the supernatural expertise of Powers' prose. The sheer weight of the Charnel House limited edition, the care with which it had been put together, made it clear to me that I was engaging in an important spiritual exercise.

But of course, there was only a Charnel House edition of that book, and the two that followed — 'Expiration Date' and 'Earthquake Weather' -- came out in versions that were all over the map. I read the UK editions, which were, if I am not mistaken, somewhat longer than the US version. Collectively they came to be known as "Fault Lines" or the "Fisher King Trilogy," even thogh they had n ever been published as such. I always longed for yet another version of the books, which, while I was sleeping or busy elsewhere, came out from Subterranean Press. I can only wonder under what conditions I will re-read then again.

The other Charnel House limited edition novel by Tim Powers novel that I own — 'The Stress of Her Regard' — has never been followed up. Until now.

The coming year may be a big deal for Tim Powers. If so, it is long overdue. Powers is a major American author. His work captures the unique combination of imagination, practicality and spirituality that are the hallmarks of the best America has to offer. And there's a great place for readers devoted to a deep, intense reading experience to start with Powers; the Fisher King Trilogy, as released by Subterranean Press.

The Fisher King Trilogy re-invents the famous myth in a surreal, supernatural Western American landscape. From a magic-ridden Las Vegas to the haunted poker palaces of southern California to the graveyard city of Colma, Powers' story unfolds with a practical supernatural grace. Powers takes us everywhere we have been before and makes us see those places anew. But at the same time, he reaches back to what we feel we already know. This is the art of a writer who knows how to connect with a reader.

The Fisher King Trilogy from Subterranean Press

The Subterranean Press version of Tim Powers' Fisher King Trilogy makes that connection significantly easier, stronger and richer. It's obvious from the get-go; the J. K. Potter covers and design unify the three books. With their connection to one another clear, the reader is more easily able to connect to the books on a serial level. Now, I'm a J. K. Potter fan from a long way back, so seeing what is effectively a collaboration between Potter and Powers — Potter worked on the Charnel House version of 'Last Call' — is a sort of completion of the journey started long ago.

I own the trade editions, which are signed by Powers and Potter. Now, in general, I've backed off from my earlier, rabid interest in signed books. Slightly. But in books like these, the presence of an actual signature is to a certain extent a follow-through from the supernatural and spiritual themes in the books themselves.

From Last Call
Each volume also includes illustrations by J. K. Potter beyond the cover image and amazing endpapers. If I had my druthers, there would be a lot more illustrations by Potter, but perhaps sparser is better. These are not graphic novels; they are books and what they, especially in these editions, provide, is a reading experience. An immersion in our world as if it were another, slightly to the left and right at once.

Powers' work should get a boost from the upcoming movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which takes at least the title from his novel 'On Stranger Tides.' That may bring him into the spotlight enough so that readers contemplating whether or not to pick up the Fisher King Trilogy should consider doing so sooner rather than later.

And while they are at it, there's a new Powers novella out from Charnel House, 'A Time to Cast Away Stones,' which, alas, is already sold out in the less expensive edition. Here, Powers returns to the settings and characters that made 'The Stress of Her Regard' so memorable.

But it is not just the settings, the writing, the prose or the plot that make these books so compelling. They can sit on the shelves all day and all night long with all those words on the pages. What makes all this important to readers is the act of taking them down, to read —and to re-read.

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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