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01-13-11: Kathryn Schulz Admits 'Being Wrong'

You Know I'm Right

Nobody likes being wrong. Our fallibility is the last thing we want to discuss. And so, we persist, we must persist in believing that we are right a majority of the time. We make the right decisions in life, we're doing the best we can. We went to war for a damn good reason. We invested in the right stocks. And no matter how much we are shown proof to the contrary, we still believe that we are ... mostly right.

But of course it's a matter of statistics — and common sense. If we were right most of the time, would the world look the way it does now? But the real question to ask is: "Do we want to be right all the time?" And after that? "Is there a right answer to that question — or any other?"

Kathryn Schulz tackles our understanding of error in 'Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error' (Ecco / HarperCollins ; January 4, 2011 ; $14.99). Here's a perfect example of a book that you see and wonder why nobody else has written on the topic. In retrospect, it seems like such an obvious concern. It seems like such an obvious book. There must be another book with this exact same subject, you think. But you'd be wrong. Fortunately, 'Being Wrong' will explain why that is a good thing.

Schulz's book is a fascinating and intelligent exploration of mistakes of all kinds in all arenas of life and of every magnitude. The beauty of this book is Schulz's excellent itinerary for our journey into our own fallibility. From the top level, the book is particularly well conceived. Schulz begins with a discussion of the idea of error, then moves on to what she calls the origins of error — that is, the ways in which we can err, and then talks about our experience of error, finishing up with a call to embrace error. This whole shebang really takes me back to one of my favorite writers, Stanislaw Lem, who found a similar joy and perception in statistics; he suggested that, "In a system of a million parts, if each part malfunctions only one time in a million, a breakdown is certain." Error is built in to our lives.

Given the smart setup, it's no surprise that Schulz's writing on the micro level is tremendously enjoyable. She takes readers through philosophers and popular culture with equal aplomb. She's a master of the non-fiction literary metaphor, with the result that you will find yourself reading parts of this book aloud to anyone in your general vicinity. Her arguments and narrative strategy are compelling, which means that she can write about mistakes large and small in a manner that makes for what can only be called page-turning reading.

'Being Wrong' is funny as often as it is profound, and often both at the same time. Schulz does something really quite remarkable in this book; she uses language to discuss language in an abstract manner and yet she brings in so many concrete facts, quotes and personalities that the book has a very grounded feel to it. 'Being Wrong' ultimately slots in with a larger theme; the concept of compassion, of acceptance. Schulz does us two huge favors with this book; she makes us think about our lives, ourselves and our world; but as well, she also introduces herself. This is a voice worth listening to.

01-12-11: Everything Old is Old Again

New Takes on Old Tropes, 'Wolfsangel' by M. D. Lachlan and Stina Leicht's 'Of Blood & Honey'

There's a temptation to declare new books that are good to be wholly original and unique. "You are a fresh flower bursting boldly into a hard world." Got it, right. But you don't have to be a fresh flower to be worth reading. The other side of that fresh flower coin is that there are no new stories. There are however, good stories; well-written books offering entertainment and some indescribable essence of more. More does not have to be new. It just has to be good.

Though fantasy is a literary genre where writers are free to improvise, in practice there is not a lot of improvisation going on. We are not done with werewolves and the fey, at least not while we have books as fine as 'Wolfsangel' by M. D. Lachlan (Gollancz ; May 20, 2010 ; £18.99 / Pyr/Prometheus ; March 22, 2011 l ; $16.00) and Stina Leicht's 'Of Blood and Honey' (Night Shade ; January 25, 2011 ; $14.99). Both offer well-written takes on familiar tropes. 'Wolfsangel' gives you deep history via werewolves, while 'Of Blood & Honey' makes the Troubles a bit more troubling. Craft, imagination and artistry are all that's needed. You can check originality at the door.

I'm glad to see that folks like Lou Anders at Pyr are on the up and up, promptly snagging Gollancz's 'Wolfsbane.' Here we have a first fantasy novel by British writer Mark Barrowcliffe, whose work heretofore has veered closest to genre when he wrote 'The Elfish Gene,' about his youth as a D&D dweeb. All that fantasy gaming really paid off, because 'Wolfsangel' is an exceptional historical horror-fantasy novel that has at its heart a character who is a werewolf. The novel kicks off with a Viking raid on an Anglo-Saxon village that nets twin boys and their mother; the Viking King Athun who leads the raid, makes sure that nobody else gets out alive. They're not just baby boys, and the novel is not just your everyday fantasy. One gets spoiled, but the other gets changed.

Now, historical werewolf novels have been done before and done well; Robert R. McCammon's 'The Wolf's Hour,' recently resurrected by Subterranean Press, quickly springs to mind. But Barrowcliffe, writing as M. D. Lachlan, brings just the kind of detail, imagination and plotting that make 'Wolfsangel' a delightful and dense reading experience. Here's that rare fantasy where you look forward, greatly to the serial aspect, because what the author does with the first book is utterly outstanding. He leads the way with gritty, overstated surreal prose style. While there is surely a historical aspect to the novel, it is fantasy through and through. The mythos that Lachlan spins is captivating and mysterious, more of a plot driver than the horror-ific monsters and violence, though those are plenty of fun. Lachlan's novel is shot through with horror genre touches that I found truly enjoyable. He doesn't hold back on the gore, but the gore is not the point. Lachlan's supernatural world is an immensely enjoyable spin on world history itself.
Stina Leicht takes a different setting but follows a similar recipe in 'Of Blood & Honey.' In Londonderry, 1971, Liam's face down on the sidewalk with a boot in his back, and a British soldier aching to put a rubber bullet in him. Liam doesn't know who his father was, and he's the kind of kid who finds trouble. There's a reason for this, and it's not just the Troubles. Events we know are shadowed by those we cannot see. It turns out that Fallen angels and the Fey have been duking it out for centuries. Liam's just the newest generation to get caught in the crossfire. Leicht's novel is super-gritty and has an immediacy that makes it feel like current events. As Liam learns about his father, we learn about the order behind that chaos, and more parts of the Catholic Church than they are willing to admit to. The prose here is more restrained, but the imagination is not, and Leicht really has a feel for integrating the supernatural into recent history. 'Of Blood & Honey' manages to be a satisfying novel in itself, but sets up a series that readers will look forward to.

Both 'Wolfsangel' and 'Of Blood & Honey' offer truly well-crafted and yes, original and imaginative takes on familiar tropes. They may not invent the werewolf or the Fey, or even re-invent them. What they both invent, quite superbly, are two great novels worth your valuable reading time. We tell the same tales forever and again, and call them myths, or in the case of these books, fine novels.

01-11-11: David Vann on 'Sukkwan Island'

Remote Relations

It does not matter how closely you are related. Even — especially — fathers and sons. Sometimes it is not possible to get beyond yourself, outside of yourself. The trap is that you might not know this. You might even be on an island, with your son, and not realize that you are an island, an uninhabited island. You might carry the mind-camera around, and do the things that keep you breathing. But you have long ago left the island that you are.

Father-son relationships seem to default to problematic. It would be nice to think otherwise, but the evidence does not support that perception. They're also the core of very powerful emotions that can pull you down into a maelstrom of doubt, terror and dark fantasy. Sometimes reading about them is therapeutic, cathartic. But it can also simply be depressing. The power of the prose is what helps a work transcend raw reportage into something more beautiful, more disturbing. From the first words you usually know. This will hurt, in the way that beauty hurts. We can see it out there — but never actually comprehend.

David Vann's 'Legend of a Suicide' (Harper Perennial / HarperCollins ; March 2010 ; $13.99) is a collection of linked short stories that center around the novella 'Sukkwan Island.' The novella, set on an island in a lake in Alaska so remote that it doesn't even rate a pixel in Google Satellite imaging, is the powerful, bleak and ultimately beautiful story of Jim, a father who brings his son Roy to this remote location for a year away from the world. But the wilderness does not keep the world at bay. Two troubled humans find themselves surrounded by themselves. And if they cannot escape from themselves, they cannot help one another.

Vann certainly has an interest in remote Alaskan Islands, as his forthcoming, and understandably anticipated first novel 'Caribou Island,' shares this setting. HarperCollins is currently offering an E-book version of the novella for free in just about every format you can imagine. It's a smart move. 'Sukkwan Island' can survive the translation to the electronic sphere with every iota of its inherent power intact. Vann is a remarkable writer, with a spare prose style that by being both engaging and off-putting, creates a propulsive reading tension. Sure, the novella is free. But it doesn't last long when you sit down to read it. There's something to be said for brevity when your story is so dire that it seems to come from the "slit your wrists and hope to die" school of fiction. And to be honest, it really doesn't matter. Vann's prose envelopes your mind. It's reading as a blizzard, one which you know you have no hope of surviving.

'Sukkwan Island' begins as Roy and Jim arrive, and it's clear from the get-go that this will not be a successful stay. Via Vann's prose, Roy's perceptions let us know that Jim, his father has sadly — and perhaps purposefully — underestimated the situation. Every bit of false fatherly cheer rings perfectly false, and every suspicious teenage intuition rings tragically true. The back-and-forth and the mental depression that lurks behind all of this is an inescapable gravitic force. Prepare to have our heart broken by a book, but be aware that the power of the prose and the story will give some compensation. Some.

Vann's writing is understated and roughly eloquent. When I first started reading, my father handed me everything that Jack London had ever written; so one of my first reading experiences was "To Build a Fire." Reading "Sukkwan Island," I could not escape the chilly parallels. If Vann were not such a skilled writer, this might all be too much, and for some readers, it may be so regardless. There are parallels between Vann's life and his fiction, but it is clear that what we have in this book is fiction. It's equally clear that it needs no associative boost to be powerfully affecting. The pull of Vann's writing is like the terrorizing tug of a mirror; we might see reality just a little too clearly.

'Sukkwan Island' is your chance to see if you want to venture to 'Caribou Island,' which looks to be perhaps slightly less dire, if equally powerful. Readers owe themselves the chance to venture to 'Sukkwan Island,' and HarperCollins deserves credit for making this work available at no cost; at least at no financial cost. This story will, however, take a small bit of your soul, and hold it up to a very cold mirror. What you see may not make you happy; but it will be perfectly true.

01-10-11: Chuck Palahniuk is a 'Tell-All'

Emotion Picture

With distance comes perspective. That's the Big Picture, the Emotion Picture, what we choose to remember as we write the screenplay that is our lives. We're ruthless editors, who care not a whit for the truth of the matter. Not the factual truth, at any rate. The emotional truth, or at least how we would have preferred to have felt, now that matters. We all want a character arc we can be proud of.

But what if you wanted what was not possible, and in some ways, not desirable? Imagine you want the factual truth and the emotional truth, but also something that was entertaining? How many layers of text and context would you need to internalize to tell a painful story, to show a painful truth, to speak to the heights of the intellect while keeping the gutters flowing freely?

Chuck Palahniuk packed more punch, more complexity and more lurid fun into 'Tell All' (Doubleday / Random House ; May 10, 2010 ; $24) than you'd expect to be possible in such a short book. At 180 pages, it might be called a novella if it weren't for the fact that there's more there there than in many 800 page opuses. 'Tell All' deftly combines the lowest of the low and the highest of the high so organically that it might take months for the reader to unpack. In fact, it's the sort of novel that you could read three or four times and never remember as even being the same novel you had read before. And no matter how many times you read it, it never screams, "I am a novel by the guy who wrote Fight Club." Unless, of course, the guy wrote 'Fight Club' has been transformed by aliens into a fairly batty maid who is tending to a rapidly declining ex-movie star.

That maid would be Hazie Coogan, who somewhere in all the layers of 'Tell-All' is our narrator, the woman who is indeed telling all. But readers should get this straight coming out of the gate; nothing in 'Tell-All' is anything like what it either seems it is, seems it should be, or seems it wants to be. The novel is awash in post-modern meta-fictional layers slathered on so thick that being lost means you're right on track. In fact, it's not a novel either; it's more of a movie for the mind, an emotion picture of a mind that is fragmenting because it has been assembled badly from fragments of other people's minds.

The prose in 'Tell-All' is unique and challenging. Palahniuk writes the novel as if the entire story were a gossip column, complete with bold-faced proper and product names. From the get-go, the hype level is insanely over-the-top. It's a distancing mechanism, one that gives the reader a perspective all right, but a skewed and weirdly distorted vision. Reading 'Tell-All' is sort of like taking LSD and watching "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on a cheeseball local TV station that interrupts the movie every 60 seconds or so with amped-up, ramped-up infomercials. But there's a distinct method acting to the madness.

The method acting comes via Palahniuk's three characters, Hazie, the maid, Katherine Kenton, the actress and Webster Carlton Westward. If they are all mad, then so are we. Hazie and Web are writing dueling books, and Katherine is the subject of both. Or at least purportedly the subject, because everyone is awash in fantasy and celebrity worship, so lost in glitz that everything that matters gets pretty blurry. Until, of course, things start to take darker and darker turns, as the plot seeps upward, like blood rising magically from the floor in a horror flick.

Palahniuk's novel is superbly plotted. It's twisty and dense and subtle, under a veneer of the obvious and crashingly loud. As the layers of lies peel away, another character leans hard on the "truth turns to fiction" button and we're in another story, alone with considerably more peril than we expected. It's not supposed to be unusual to live in a state of heightened emotions. But the result is an unreality that can become treacherously dangerous. Palahniuk's treachery is our treat; he eviscerates his readers with the sort of glee that is usually reserved for his characters.

It's true that 'Tell-All,' now long in the teeth in book-event terms, is nothing like what many of Palahniuk's fans think they want. But it is also true that the novel offers pleasures that one can discover only on repeated readings, that it rewards reading and re-reading. It's an oxymoron, a novel written for readers in the form of a film about those who make films. It is a Möbius strip comprised of Möbius strips. Every twist leads to a new twist, and back on itself. It's a nose-pore revealing close-up from an infinite distance.

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