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04-21-11: READ Part 4

Taking the Cheap Seats

I've been writing weekly about reading in the abstract, deliberately trying to step back from specific titles. It's time to bring this home, at least for a few moments, to books you can buy now. I'm going to fly in the face of my own advice. I'm going to suggest you take the cheap seats.

My preferred plan for buying any book I'm pretty sure is worth my valuable reading time is to buy two copies of the first edition hardcover. Both get a Mylar cover. One gets read and loaned to friends while the other gets shelved in the library. The loaner gets lovingly read by more than one person and can be passed along without worry. With good taste and good luck, the library copy turns out to be an analogue of a first edition hardcover 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' A signed copy of the first printing of this book goes for $25K. Not a bad best egg! This is a winner for both reading and the reader. I think this is the best plan one can have.

But two first edition hardcovers and the material to cover them will set you back at least $50 these days, and that's (part of) a tank of gas, or a couple of dinner's worth of groceries. And meanwhile, in the final analysis, you are better off reading, without worry.

The trade paperback format is a fine way to read if you're not putting together a loaning and archival library. They're about half the price of a hardcover, and though they (generally) get published a year after the original hardcover release, who really cares? There are more good titles than there is time to read. Yes, that's just a symptom of this unjust world. But we live with it, so long as you can pick up a crop of trade paperbacks as strong as these, which have recently come in over the transom. The bonus is that some of the authors are touring again. And the perspective one gains a long time after having read these books allows me to give you an idea of why they were good in the first place.

John Le Carré's 'Our Kind of Traitor' (Penguin / Penguin Putnam ; April 26, 2011 ; $15) is the venerable writer's take on the causes and ripple effects of the financial crisis that gripped the world a couple of years ago. While it may seem like things are better now, for many they are not, and this book is a wonderful evocation of the front lines of a new war being fought not so much between nations as between competing international financial empires. We might have thought that the age of imperial conquest has passed, but it has instead simply been "modernized." Or, as it were, purely monetized. Le Carré manages to write a novel that is a compelling, intense tale of economic morals on an individual and global scale. Needless to say, it is more interesting and more relevant than ever. You can find my conversation with Alan Cheuse about 'Our Kind of Traitor' here and my review here.

Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' (Anchor Books / Random House ; March 22, 2011 ; $14.95) is a time-splintered vision of life in the last part of the last century and in the first part of this one. Egan's story of an extended group of friends united by punk rock is never less than brilliant, and always exotically entertaining.

She slices her plot into gorgeously architected shards and builds an imaginative spire from the past into the future. Most importantly, Egan is keenly aware of the pleasures of reading, and knows how to provide jaw-dropping joy. You can find my interview with Jennifer Egan here and my review of 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' here.

Egan is not the only smart, literary author to make use of the elements of the fantastic and genre fiction to create something utterly new. 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet' (Random House ; March 8, 2011 ; $15) looks and feels quite a bit like a well-wrought historical novel – at first. But Mitchell's language is exquisite and his ability to create a historical place and time is reminiscent of the work of the best fantasists. This is wonderful world-building.

But the perspective a year provides is this; during his interview with me, Mitchell let it be known that this is the first of a triptych of novels. One of the characters in this novel has an unusual relationship with time, and he'll play a major role in Mitchell's next novel, the second panel of the triptych, which is set in the present. The third panel, Mitchell's following novel, is set in the future, and once again features this character.

It looks like Mitchell is taking some parts of the structure of 'Cloud Atlas' and working over this triptych of novels. This immersive historical novel is literally a fantastic first step. You can find my interview with David Mitchell here and my review of 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet' here.

China Miéville's 'Kraken' (Del Rey / Random House ; March 15, 2011 ; $16) was a gift to his readers. It took the feel of his fantasy novels set in Bas Lag and gave us a plot set in our world, with squabbling gods and competing Apocalypses.

There are moments of superb character-driven humor, surreal horror and everything in-between. Miéville's imagination knows no bounds. He's keenly aware of how to undermine our sense of what is real and possible at a prose level.

'Kraken' will re-create the world around you as you read. It will, of course, leave you utterly unprepared for his forthcoming novel, 'Embassytown' (Del Rey / Random House ; May 17, 2011 ; $26 : Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; April 28, 2011 ; £17), which is his first science fiction work. You can find my interview with China Miéville here and my review of 'Kraken' here.

And finally, who can resist a 'Super Sad True Love Story' (Random House ; May 3, 2011 ; $15) and coming on tour to give it the hard sell, the author Gary Shteyngart? Shteyngart is practically a stand-up comedian when he gets going, and his latest is a dystopian tale of a world addicted to the electronic instant. So it's appropriate that you are reading this on the Interwebs. It's also the story of a world so dumbed-down that today looks like up to me, a world where reading is rare. You can find my interview with Gary Shteygart here and my review of 'Super Sad True Love Story' here.

And that's the view from the cheap seats. I would be remiss to mention how many of the world's top authors are using genre fiction and elements of the fantastic to tell their stories. It seems as if 21st century literature will finally accept works that use fantasy, science fiction and horror into the literary canon. But from the cheap seats, what this means is that there is top-quality, wildly imaginative reading available everywhere. It's not the death of books as so many would have you believe. Books are only beginning to get a foothold in our culture. Reading transforms the reader. It's not surprising, then, that what we read is being transformed as well.

04-20-11: Teju Cole Walks the 'Open City'

Closed Books

Ultimately, we are all alone. No matter how many surround us, no matter how close our friends and family, it is our voice and our voice alone we hear. Teju Cole, in 'Open City' (Random House ; February 8, 2011 ; $25) manages the difficult feat of creating an entertaining, engaging character who is intent on hearing and recording his voice. Julius is a half-Nigerian, half-German doctor with an eye for internal and external detail. He is also is a flaneur, a man who strolls through the city, with apparently little to do beyond observe those around him and muse on their lives, his life, and the moment.

Cole uses language to unite the inner and the outer worlds of a man in his time, in this time. The trick is that we as readers are the creators of Cole's creation. The narrator, Julius, may find a mirror for his own soul in the streets of New York. The reader makes that mirror and becomes that mirror, and in it we can see ourselves as well.

If this all sounds a bit on the literary side, the real discovery is that Cole's novel is a delight. Julius has just ended a relationship, and he seeks therapy in walking the streets of New York. As Cole records his thoughts and perceptions, he beautifully captures the hamster wheel in all of our minds. By showing us a lonely man, we are made to feel less alone.

Cole is a smart writer, who generally holds back from anything that might seem too precious or overtly literary, but is still able to slip in the sweet solace of skillfully wrought prose and storytelling that keeps the reader interested. The plot is not a series of events that happen to the character, nor is this the sort of novel where an inner discovery turns on a giant light bulb that changes the character and his life. Cole is too smart for that. Here is a book about the little things, all the gears within that turn and keep us alive one day after the next.

Julius, the narrator, is a smart man, and this helps Cole keep the reader in the pages, in the language and on the story. The novel unfolds over the course of a year, from 2006 to 2007. His restless feet are matched by his restless mind. From the art of the Netherlands to Mahler to bedbugs to Octavia Butler, Julius immerses the reader in the immediate and the abstract in a manner that only fine prose can carry off with such aplomb. But Cole is careful to ensure that he never lets himself get carried away with the sound of his language. This is a novel that is focused on being, on seeing, on the streams of words that ultimately define each one of us to ourselves.

To be sure, there are revelations of plot and life and character. This is New York. Violence is never far away. But it is equally true that Julius is a man, and violence is never far from our hearts, either. We might try to keep everything at bay with words, to use them as a shield that protects us from ourselves. But ultimately, we will be alone and then will come a time when all there is for us to do is listen. 'Open City' is a compelling listening and reading experience. It is a about a man walking alone, mostly. But ultimately, when you read it, you not feel alone. You find the heart of a good man, and know this time in his life, this time in your life was well written and well spent.

04-19-11: Jeff VanderMeer Befriends 'Monstrous Creatures'

Essays in Oddness

If Jeff VanderMeer has a lot to answer for, then here are some of the answers. 'Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy through Essays, Articles and Reviews' (Raw Dog Screaming Press ; March 11, 2011 ; $14.95) lives up to its title and author. The writings here touch upon the monstrous (or out and out grope it) and often themselves are monstrous, at least for examples of modern literary criticism. VanderMeer's perspectives on literature — and the literature of the fantastic — are entertaining and often as outré as their subjects.

When you see the label "Literary Criticism" on the back of a book it is often a good reason to put it back on the shelf. That's not the case with 'Monstrous Creatures.' It's a great collection to cozy up to while you're trying to decide what to read next. No matter what title you pick, one of the pieces herein is likely to cast light — or darkness — upon it.

VanderMeer begins the book with a classy look at the term "monstrous," seeking and succeeding to suggest that it means not simply ugly or scary, but rather, to dig into layers of unusual and entertaining. For VanderMeer, monstrous is a good thing. I suspect that many of his readers will be ahead of him, but his eloquence on the subject is certainly welcome.

The book then divvies up into a series of sections, and while you can easily read (and review) them in sequence, they're also perfect for reading in whatever order suits the reader's tastes. The first portion is "Monstrous Thoughts," which steps back from the weird and works well as outsider literary criticism. These are the pieces that you read to wrap your brain around the kind of books we discuss here regularly in a more general sense. The concluding piece in this section is his introduction to the New Weird anthology, a piece which should be pretty familiar and gives a good idea as to where both this book and the author are coming from.

In between the main sections are print interviews with China Miéville, Margo Langan and a capybara. That's right, a capybara, a good interview with a large rodent.

The second section, "Appreciations of the Monstrous," consists of essays that focus on one author or segment of fiction. Those appreciated include Prague, J. G. Ballard and Beer, as well as VanderMeer's "Love-Hate Relationship with Clark Ashton-Smith." These are in contrast with the work in the section "Interrogating Other People's Monsters," which are book reviews. Many of the titles will be unfamiliar, and even if they aren't, VanderMeer's mostly concise thoughts are worth reading. The book concludes with another series of essays, "Personal Monsters." These include "The Hannukah Bear," the novella and hiking. Leave it to VanderMeer to make all this work.

As the title suggests, 'Monstrous Creatures' is a pretty odd work, and more entertaining than literary criticism has any right to be. VanderMeer completists need no review, just a name on the cover. But for anyone who likes to read, this book is a two-fold guide to reading, providing both suggestions for what to read and how to read. Any literary criticism is monstrous. VanderMeer just has the good grace to wear his monstrousness on his sleeve.

04-18-11: Paul McComas is 'Unforgettable'

Blow it Up and It Can Never Go Back Together

Paul McComas is my kind of writer. 'Unforgettable,' (Walkabout Publishing ; January 28, 2011 ; $29.99) yes, but more importantly to me — Paul McComas is uncategorizable, and that is a virtue never to be underestimated. He just wants to tell stories, lots of them, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to make that story work for both himself and his reader. He not afraid to be really, really weird, but he's not stuck on it either. He might just churn out a novel like 'Planet of the Dates,' a simple, sweet and unflinching look at Those Tumultuous Teenage Years. Then again, he's also co-writing, with the iconic William F. Nolan, 'Logan's Journey.' And yes, I am talking about a new novel set in the world of 'Logan's Run.' Of course, youth is a through line between the two, and to a degree, the through line for all of McComas's work. Every day, every story is new for Paul McComas.

Let me make it clear, 'Unforgettable' has, coming out of the gate, something for everyone; screenplays, stage plays, short stories, song lyrics and giant spider-oriented excerpts from the forthcoming Logan novel; no matter where your taste runs (or leaves something to be desired), McComas has something for you. 'Unforgettable' is huge (490 pages, with illustrations and lots of verbiage from the author). It earns the hefty price tag, not just with quantity, but also with quality. McComas takes his craft seriously and his stories seriously, but not himself. This collection is pretty much wall-to-wall fun, so long as your definition of fun includes your own shed skin cells gathering themselves together to visit you.

McComas writes in every genre. In 'Unforgettable,' you'll find science fiction, fantasy and horror all represented. But he approaches them all with the same smart sensibility, combining the logical extrapolations of science fiction, the free reign of imagination in fantasy and that dark anatomical sensibility of horror. Plus, happily, lots of this collection is funny, which really helps. McComas is not trying to offer readers a slab of stories that ache with meaning and literary angst. He aims to let us have fun, and that is a welcome goal.

As I mentioned, you'll find lots of forms in here. The entertaining introduction sets up his unpretentious literary game plan. It's smart and fun to read, plus you get to see a photo of the author in Star Trek: The Next Generation costume. Fictionally, ten solo stories open the book, followed by stage plays, followed by a series of collaborations. In the solo stories, check out "The One That Got Away," a kick-ass fishing story written as a monologue. Here's a little sub-genre that really needs to get more work, and McComas steps up with a wonderfully funny story. In the collaborations, you get the aforementioned giant spiders with William F. Nolan and, with his wife, Heather McComas, "Collies in Space."

McComas also offers a bevy of screenplays. Do NOT expect The King's Speech. DO expect "Blood of the Wolfman" and "Spaceslime!" McComas even has the yarbles to offer up stories he wrote in his teenage years, as well as "Songbook Sinistre," song lyrics that make you want to hear the music. Next time, he needs to give us a CD with the book, or it's never too late for him to post some of the songs on his website. He finishes the collection with another ten stories that lean towards the short, sharp shock and joke variety. Chock-a-block with illustrations, interludes lots of author intros a la Harlan Ellison (who seems to be a muse here), Paul McComas' 'Unforgettable' lives up to its title even by virtue of the titles of some of the stories. I mean, who can forget a title like "Collies in Space"?

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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

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08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

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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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