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10-20-11: My Life in the Bush of Books

Dr. Rick Wilber, Jonathan Lethem and Art Spiegelman Edition

As a reader, your greatest and most likely problem is that you're going to get in rut. When we discover we like one sort of book or another, the temptation is to keep reading that exact same book, over and over. It's not surprising.

Consider what happens when a certain book or movie bursts onto the scene. Generally, these works get noticed because they are different. Afterwards, the market is flooded with books or movies just like the one that made a splash — precisely because it was different. The follow-ons are the same concept, tweezed and recycled, and they never achieve the level of artistic or commercial success. Worse still, they don't satisfy the audience. Publishers and producers never seem to twig that what excited the audience in the first place was the difference.

As a reader choosing books, you can keep yourself out of the trap of "more of the same" by deliberately inducing the different. Think of these works as palate cleansers, if you like. But what you will find is that each of them is so different from the usual, from the fiction and narrative non-fiction that dominate our reading landscape, that they stand out in their own right. You will find that self-induced difference is still different — and just as exciting as swallowing the next big (or small) thing.

Moreover, two of these books lend themselves to being read in pieces, asynchronously, out of order. You might just find that selected non-fiction is the new page-turning, pulse-pounding bestseller you thought you were looking for. When you return to fiction, or narrative non-fiction, you'll do so refreshed, informed and with a sense of newness. Everything will be different.

In terms of auto-buy, Art Spiegelman's 'MetaMaus' (Pantheon / Random House ; October 4, 2011 ; $30) is certainly the perfect candidate. Obviously, Spiegelman's 'Maus' is a modern classic, a work of genre fiction (the genre being the graphic novel) that is such a commanding accomplishment it leaves genre far behind, and succeeds in changing audience expectations for what can be achieved. 'MetaMaus' is no less than Spiegelman's look into his creative process and the events that inspired 'Maus.'

Every question you could ask, he does, of himself. The answers are as raw and powerful as you would expect. The organization is amazing. Immersing yourself in 'MetaMaus' is a ravishing experience, a long conversation with one of the greatest storytellers of this or any generation — telling the story of how he created what is arguably his best story. It earns its "Meta."

Beyond the written content, there is a wealth of wonderfully reproduced and art-directed illustrations. This is a book that is as engaging to the eye as it is to the mind. The illustrations and clips draw you in and enhance the world of Spiegelman's masterpiece. And if this is not enough, which it is, the book includes a DVD reference version of 'The Complete Maus,' with links to audio interviews, notebooks, sketches — a new world of media integration that alone would be worth the cover price. Here is a world that you can explore for years to come.

The media environment will shift and shimmer around you as you explore 'MetaMaus,' and you could hardly ask for a better guide to that shifting environment than Dr. Rick Wilber's 'Future Media,' (Tachyon Publications ; July 15, 2011 ; $16.95) which offers a wildly eclectic collection of fiction and non-fiction about the media of the future. Since the past has something to say about this, count on an excerpt from Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451,' looking over the shoulders of James Patrick Kelly's "New Brains for Old" to jostle up against Nicholas Carr's excerpt from 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?'

Here you'll find Marshall McLuhan hanging out with Timothy Berners-Lee, and an excerpt from Norman Spinrad's iconic 'Bug Jack Baron.' I remember reading this book when it first came out and the literally mind-boggling future it presented, one that has largely come to pass. That's just one Robert Sheckley away from 'Sex, Death and Machinery', an equally mind-boggling essay by Alluquére Rosanne Stone.

Wilber gives us biographical bits and pieces that help bind the work, which is a reminder of something that is not at all intuitive. Yes, we all know that the past is ever with us; but so is the future. It pays to think ahead, and as a reader, you will find these pieces bind your reading in a fascinating, intelligent and engaging manner.

Jonathan Lethem has had a firm hand in the future for most of his career, and his new book 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc' (Doubleday / Random House ; November 8, 2011 ; $27.95) offers readers of not just his fiction, but any fiction, a wealth of utterly engaging essays and true stories that shed light on the lies we love to read, as well as those we love to tell.

Book reviews, memoirs, rants, all centered on the north pole of the amazing title piece, make this a perfect gift for readers to give themselves, a means of sorting out thoughts scattered by too many books, too many influences and too many means of expression. What makes all this so delightful is the light but wonderfully intelligent and engaging prose that Lethem brings to bear here. For those who have enjoyed his rather chameleonic fiction, this collection is a chance to put together the pieces; and if you've never read his work, you're going to still enjoy the hell out of this book, shortly before you seek out everything else Lethem has written.

Put all these books together and you have a passel of interspersed reading that will take you away and bring you back, leave you feeling refreshed, informed, and engaged in reading itself. You will find that the books you read between the books you read will be as important as the books you read. You'll find out that change is a decent means of choosing what to read next.

10-19-11: Lisa Goldstein Visits 'The Uncertain Places'

Social Surrealism from Another Direction

Stories can overpower those who dare to tell them. Caught up in narrative, we become our own invention. The stories of our lives, those we know, hold us in their sway. But it is the secret stories, the hidden histories that truly rule our lives, that in fact move us in mysterious ways. Stories can be hidden for a variety of reasons. Shame will lead us to circumvent the telling of tales. But power can as well. Often is seems kinder, wiser, gentler to suppress the truth. By protecting others from the knowledge that haunts us, we can keep the lives of those we love free of spectres. Until the tale is told; because it will be told. Words can be hidden, but stories have a way of escaping into the world.

All of which informs Lisa Goldstein's excellent examination of magic, stories and family, 'The Uncertain Places,' a perfect example of social surrealism that approaches the fairy tale as a hidden family history. Goldstein uses all the tropes of genre with a deft, light hand to spin a story that crosses generations and steps lightly through history and worlds to subsume the readers' vision of reality. In Goldstein's world, those uncertain places are just as often internal as external.

Will Taylor, a pretty levelheaded guy, tells the story, which begins with his journey to wine country with his roommate, Ben. Ben's in pursuit of Maddy Feierabend, the latest generation of a family that has run a successful winery for generations. Will falls for Maddy's sister, Livvy, but in doing so, he finds that the stories in her family a bit more complicated than most. A fairytale suppressed by the Brothers Grimm seems to speak to their fate, and it doesn't have a happy ending. Will's story becomes increasing dreamlike and surreal as he finds own life increasingly immersed in the world as described in so-called "fairy tales."

The key to Goldstein's powerful and immersive narrative is her prose, the first-person storytelling voice of Will Taylor. Goldstein grounds her main narrative in a gorgeously-described California, a reality that already seems to evoke more than a soupcon of the supernatural. Will takes the reader one step at a time away from the world we know to the world that stories create, as he searches for the real reasons why the Feierabend family seems odd. Goldstein's masterful evocation of social unease with those unlike us makes the supernatural stories that slowly lead Will away from this world come to life. The stories of lives overpower the lives in which they are told.

'The Uncertain Places' is at turns wistful, sweet, funny and quite disturbing. Goldstein has a talent for conjuring stories of the unreal that read as real, and for a plot that creates real tension. Goldstein's ability to weave stories within stories gives the novel a rich, full feel, even though it is comparatively short. Still, like the fairy tales it so powerfully evokes, a few pages spent in 'The Uncertain Places' offers readers the feel of whole lives lived well, of magic brushing up close before pulling away, of our world, enchanted for just long enough to know what it is missing.

10-17-11: Russell Banks' 'Lost Memory Of Skin'

Social Surrealism

The Kid lives under the Causeway in a colony of homeless sex offenders, but he doesn't seem like such a bad fellow. He's innocent and wry, uneducated and under-socialized. Eventually, the Kid meets the Professor, a shambling, morbidly obese academic who hopes to study homeless sex offenders, and asks to interview the Kid.

Readers want to find out the same information the Professor seeks; who is the Kid, and what did he do to end up here? By the time we begin to learn the Kid's history, it is clear that the Professor has his own secrets. 'Lost Memory Of Skin' by Russell Banks is an extended exercise in cognitive dissonance, with mystery and sympathy persuading the reader to enter perspectives and worlds that might by definition seem repellent.

Banks manages to turn the Kid's story into an engaging and even compelling novel by employing precisely honed prose in the service of what might best be described as social surrealism. He portrays people, landscape and social conditions with a gritty sense of detail that puts the reader right on the ground. But he avoids giving his characters proper names. Instead we get to know them by nicknames, and this unusual combination lends the whole reading experience a sheen of archetype and fairy tale. 'Lost Memory Of Skin' is brighter than life, but no less real.

Prose and character are closely merged in the novel, told mostly by the Kid, but as well by the Professor. Banks' prose is so lucid and so limpid, that there is a truly visual, almost visionary feel to the book. The Kid may not be very bright, or at least he's clearly unschooled. But he's clever and witty. He views his situation with a resignation that brings with it a very dry sense of humor, and reading his portions of the novel, watching his mystery unfold, is truly a page-turning pleasure.

The Professor is no less enjoyable to follow, but he's a very different kettle of fish. He's a gourmand, an over-consumer of every aspect of his own life, from the food in his super-sized refrigerator to the wildly unreliable web of relationships he claims to have. Banks is superb at upending our expectations of both characters. Moreover, his supporting cast is equally memorable and perfectly integrated into the character-driven plot. This is a book where every scene is a good scene.

Banks is a smart writer who uses the archetypes and folk-story motifs here to give the hard-as-nails specifics a softer tone that suffuses the interwoven character narratives and an accessibility that they might not otherwise have. There's more than a touch of 'Treasure Island' here; it's referred to in the story and the Professor uses promises of treasure to keep the Kid engaged. For readers, the folk-tales and archetypes add what can best be described as a sort of joy to a story of Internet-tainted innocence cast into an uncaring world. There is not a word in this book that is dour, even if some members of the supporting cast are truly chilling folks.

Banks knows that his hard conditions needs must bring about hard endings, and as the pasts unravel, lives do as well. The mystery at the heart of the novel — How can we know just who those around us are? — gets grounded in some unique and memorable scenes. The title of the book is no accident. Banks, by providing the reader with visionary, archetypal perspectives, explores the memories of his characters and how their stories define their lives even as those stories enter our memories.

Readers will not remember reading this book so much as they will remember what they read, as if it had somehow happened to them. They will be reminded that there is good to be found even in places where our hearts tell us it cannot exist. We can look at every human being we meet, and think we know them. But when we hear their story, when we listen to their story, when we experience their story in words, it is the language that will make the story real.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

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