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05-27-11: Lisa Lutz and David Hayward Flip a Coin

'Heads You Lose'

Reading has many rewards. The process of looking at the words on the page and drifting into a story is unique, and rarely mined as effectively for entertainment value as it is in 'Heads You Lose' by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward. This hilarious, compelling and even affecting novel literally beheads any vision you might have had of the metafiction genre. After reading 'Heads You Lose,' you'll realize that metafiction means reading squared — and it's exponentially more fun. 'Heads You Lose' is a breeze to read even as it mines complicated literary critical analysis for easy laughs.

The conceit here is very simple. An "Editor's note" explains that Lisa Lutz decided to collaborate on a mystery with her current friend, and one-time romantic partner, poet David Hayward. She would write the odd-numbered chapters, and he would write the even numbered chapters. They would mail the book back and forth, and include brief notes to one another. These would be printed in-between the relevant chapters, as would the author's notes and comments one on another's portions, as footnotes. Lisa had already written the first chapter about brother and sister pot-farmers in northern California who find a headless body in their front yard. After the Editor's note, we read David and Lisa's opening letters followed by the first chapter.

Then the fictional — and metafictional — violence begins.

The mystery novel in 'Heads You Lose' is set in and near Mercer, an imaginary town in the rural boondocks of Northern California. Paul and Lacey Hansen are the brother and sister pot-farmers who find a headless body in their yard. They can't report it to the police, so they move it off their property, thinking it will be found soon and the investigation will take off without involving them. Unfortunately, the body returns (still headless) to their property, so Lacy and Paul find themselves thrust into the roles of amateur sleuths. Someone in Mercer is not who they appear to be, and it's not just Lacey and Paul.

Lutz and Hayward have way too much fun with their collaboration, and it's infectious. Lutz, author of 'The Spellman Files' apparently writes her parts with a fast pace and a sure hand. Hayward's parts supposedly focus on descriptive prose and goofy, oddball characterization. But the letters in-between the chapters reveal a different set of motives, and the reasons why the romance went awry. As the novel progresses, the writers compete with one another, bicker, kill off one-another's characters, and undermine one another's work. Chapters reach beyond absurdity into satire. The reader soon begins to wonder whether the novel itself is the true victim in this mystery.

The fact of the matter is that in 'Heads You Lose,' Lutz and Hayward make something remarkably sophisticated look dead easy. The letters and chapters that fire off the novel seem to be quite real. Perhaps they are. For readers the distinction soon becomes enjoyably academic. The lines between fiction and reality are blurred in a manner that is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. The mystery genre itself takes a few shots that one hopes it will survive. They mystery novel they write is funny and very satisfying in its own light.

But in retrospect, as readers, we can go back to our reading experience and truly enjoy the smart, twisty ways in which Lutz and Hayward have played with our concept of the novel. We get to think about proofreading, copy-editing and the revision process. The part played by selling novels struts its stuff. The letters are always a highlight, and rather than interrupt the narrative, they make it even more page-turningly compelling. The writers use characters to strike at one another. The plot itself is a device by which the one-time couple manage to create a whole new means of bickering. This is the battle between men and women taken to a very unique plane.

On one level it, you will read 'Heads You Lose' — and you should read it now, while it is in first editions — as a fun and charming mystery complicated by the authors' notes. It's a hoot. But there is a lot of there there. Lutz and Hayward know when to ham it up, they know when to back it off, and the layers of conceit are many. This book is a very un-serious but very smart dissection of the writing process. It's a funny, unusual mystery. It's the story of a romance that went bad for a lot of good reasons. This is metafiction, fun-squared. There's not much like this out there, and we can only hope that Lutz and Hayward's writing relationship survives to give us the many sequels we deserve. Literary criticism and the writing process are for the most part terra incognito in popular fiction. Lutz and Hayward prove you can be smart and funny.

05-25-11: Lisa Lutz Opens 'The Spellman Files'

Writing as Acting

Readers of this website might well think that I like every book that comes my way. But the fact of the matter is that I have a Sturgeonesque filter that cuts out a fair amount of wheat as well as chaff. I may have been sent all four novels by Lisa Lutz at one time or another, and knowing myself, I took one look at whatever the cover may have been and put them quickly in the "Not for me" pile.

But after reading her collaboration with David Hayward, 'Heads You Lose,' I sought out all of her books. The covers still induce a certain cringe factor. But her first novel, 'The Spellman Files' is a superbly-written example of writing as acting. With a wonderfully raw, funny, pitch-perfect voice, Lutz grabs our attention and makes us want to be with Izzy Spellman every reading moment. It's the written equivalent of a comedic command performance.

Isabel Spellman is the oldest daughter in the Spellman family detective agency. Her older brother, David, who is by her admission, perfect, is a lawyer, while her much-younger sister, Rae, is problematic. Perhaps not so much as Izzy, but it's a contest to be sure. Their father, Albert Spellman, was once with the San Francisco Police Department — a family tradition — until an injury sidelined him and sent him to meet his wife, Olivia and eventually start the family business, Spellman investigations.

Enough history.

This is not a historical novel, nor is it a murder mystery.

'The Spellman Files' is an amazingly clever comedy that explores the underbelly of the average American family with a smart voice that is a joy to read. As Izzy, Lisa Lutz tells her story in an engaging, frank prose style that is compulsively readable. Izzy is a character whom you just want to hear talk, and it really doesn't matter what she is talking about. The opening portions of the novel lay out the family history as they introduce the mystery. Lutz is a master of sidelining the reader, and her storytelling is similar to a set of nesting dolls. She starts with one scene, then delves into just a part of that scene. You can't help but turn the pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

The star here is Lutz's prose voice. Forget about the goofy or girly packaging. Izzy is a rough and ready protagonist, prone to ill-advised aggression, which generally gets her in trouble. The novel is all-attitude, and it's an attitude with a wide appeal. Yes, the language here would earn the movie an "R" rating. That's a big plus. Readers who prefer "a bit of the old ultra-violence," as Anthony Burgess put it in 'A Clockwork Orange,' will find that Lutz delivers in the feel of violence without tankards of blood. Lutz pumps up family dynamics into a Battle Royale. It's all a lot of fun, with a sharp edge of honesty that makes it sting just enough to feel emotionally true.

But Lutz also knows how to deliver a good story. The mystery that unravels in 'The Spellman Files' is every bit the match for Izzy's voice; perfectly so, since this is a story about a family. Lutz is willing to put her characters in peril, and even if the only danger is that someone might wake up in an embarrassing spot, well, Izzy's voice makes sure we feel that keenly. She conveys the kind of brusque affection in a tight family with the kind of funny dialogue that real families use to evoke deep emotions. She makes this all look easy, and that is the best marker of her skill

In 'The Spellman Files,' Lutz effortlessly combines high quality sass with a low-key approach. She tosses off snappy dialogue as if she were pitching paper airplanes from the nosebleed seats in Candlestick Park, and smart remarks like paper sacks full of peanuts. 'The Spellman Files' is a smart, sweet surprise. You'll finish this book and be glad there are three sequels. Give yourself a rest between books, and if we're lucky there will be even more.

05-24-11: Clive Barker is 'The Painter, the Creature and the Father of Lies'

Non-Fiction for the Odd, the Off-Kilter and the Threatening

It's truly an illumination, a bringing of the light. We read the work of a writer, in this case, Clive Barker, for 27 years. We immerse ourselves in the fiction, and in Barker's case, the movies, and return from them with a sense of his sense of the world. That sensibility, that vision has but one source — fiction. Our experience of Barker is by and large based on the stories has conjured for us, threatened us with, sickened us with, those tales he has written to show us the secret insides and the secrets inside we wish to ignore.

But of course, this is not all that he has written, and now he brings us 'The Painter, the Creature and the Father of Lies' (Earthling Books ; July, 2011 ; $35), edited by Phil and Sarah Stokes, a collection of his non-fiction works gives readers a very different perspective on Barker and his vision of the world. This is Clive Barker, Illuminated.

Following a "Foreward" by Barker and an insightful Introduction by Phil and Sarah Stokes, Barker's book of his own blood is divided into two parts; "Complementary" and "Complimentary." Very clever, that. The first, and longest portion, is as described, complementary, that is, a complement to his fiction, essentially, Barker on Barker. As in the rest of the book, the works here are all over the map. And while there is a great variety, Phil and Sarah Stokes do a superb job selecting and assembling the final result. This is a carefully curated autopsy, not the scene of an accident where a body fell to the ground and exploded.

There are some short pieces that are almost prose poems, there are longer more "composed" pieces of self-criticism and history, and there are bits of fascinating flotsam and jetsam bumping up against reminiscences that chill and thrill. There are substantial works of literary criticism ("Regarding 'Imagination as Metaphor'"), mood pieces that served as introductions to other people's collections ("Taboo"), and many pages of wonderful black and white illustrations in Barker's inimitable style.

Reading these essays, the author speaking on his own work or others in general, in the midst of the always-intense illustrations, one realizes that all the emotional heft of Barker's work, all the soul-searing terror, is the result of intellectual self-interrogation. The effect of reading his non-fiction is to realize that his ability to make us feel comes as a result of careful thought.

The second portion of the book collects more art and essays on works that have inspired Barker, including paintings, soundtracks, Ramsey Campbell, Edgar Allen Poe, movie makeup, even a letter written in concert with PETA. Here once again, you'll find angles on Barker's fiction that you'd never have reading just the fiction.

But even if you've never read Barker's fiction, and are not inclined to do so, given the gruesome reputation that it justifiably carries with it, you're quite likely to find something here that is well worth reading. Barker is a talented writer, and he knows how to entertain his readers. He's able to do so even when he is not literally going for the jugular vein.

While this is probably not a book you are going to want or need to read cover-to-cover (like a novel), it is a book you can enjoy in just about any moment and at just about any length. Barker is a powerful artist because he's not limited in his tastes or visions. His fiction tends towards horror and the fantastic, but his non-fiction is simply smart, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Sure, there are razor blades here. But if you're looking to avoid them, then the fact of the matter is that you'll probably find them more enjoyable than you'd suspect. Everyone, every once in a while needs to bleed. Barker's sharp wit cuts more often than his sharp knives — and deeper, though perhaps with no less pain involved.

05-23-11: E. L. Doctorow Finds 'All the Time in the World'

The State of the Situation

We experience life as a narrative — and we're our own protagonists. That sense of struggle separates us from our surroundings, but it is difficult for us to see that separation even though we experience it every moment of our lives. E. L. Doctorow provides the writer's perspective in the stories we find in 'All the Time in the World,' and allows us to perceive what he describes as, "...a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it."

Doctorow's collection of short stories explores our world — and some similar — with precise prose and elegant, extended structure. As readers we can, as he puts it in the Preface, "...home in on people who, for one reason or another, are distinct from their surroundings — people who are in some sort of contest with the prevailing world." And while we may not be these characters, Doctorow's clear visions cannot help but give readers insight into their own struggles with the world.

Doctorow is something of a chameleon, or an invisible man. The stories here show a wide variety of styles, and examine characters who are wildly different. No matter what style he adopts, it is the style that best serves the story he is telling. He does not seem to be writing these stories so much as channeling them. The book begins with "Wakefield," a creepy, funny, sweet — you name it, you'll probably find the emotion here — story of a suburbanite who, disrupted form his routine, falls out of his life. How this happens, degree by degree, is fascinatingly believable. How Doctorow handles the story, playing with entropy and order, is remarkable. He manages poetry not just of prose, but plot, as events play out with an almost melodic feel. He leads you to the precipice and then launches you over the cliff. It's exhilarating reading.

This is true for the entire collection, with a wide range of styles. "Edgemont Drive" is a story told in entirely and only in dialogue, with a certain creep factor, about a man who returns to what he claims was his childhood house, now owned by a bickering couple. Stories like "Assimilation" and "Jolene: A Life" manage to have the full feel of a novel, and tell a big story with splendid economy. As readers, we can sense that there is a world, a life, before and after the words we read.

Some stories, like "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate," and "Willi," read closer to prose poetry than straight fiction. The prose voices carry and convey elements that, in other stories in the collection, are handled in plot. Even when he's writing in this style, Doctorow has a light touch. The prose transports us because it is transparent.

With the exception of "Willi," and the title story, these are all quintessentially American stories, and readers will be hard-pressed to escape Doctorow's searing visions. "Walter John Harmon" puts us inside an all-American cult, with the intelligence that lets us understand how seemingly bright, normal people can fall for charismatic charlatans. "A House on the Plains" is dark, stark and casually brutal even as it keeps every bit of good, old-fashioned American violence offstage. Equally disturbing, and entertaining is the title story, "All the Time in the World," which offers life as a fractal dream, a future that re-invents itself with every advancing second. Doctorow knows how to pare the words out of the world, and in so doing, he gets uncomfortably close to consciousness.

Taken as a whole, 'All the Time in the World' peels back layer after layer of life, of struggle, of who we are in a series of worlds that reach well beyond the domain of each story. Doctorow lets us get inside the lives of his characters but outside of their perspectives. We can triangulate within these stories to see what lies beyond the edges of what we can read, and in those moments, with that knowledge, see our own struggle, get a measure of our own separation from the world we live in. It's just a moment — and just a world — in that moment, our world.

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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)

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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