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12-29-11: My Life in the Bush of Books

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn, Island of Vice by Richard Zacks, The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith and Iago by David Snodin

One of the reasons I like books as an art form is that there are plenty of great writers working right now, producing new books worth reading right now. What's more, you can find great books from all points of the spectrum; non-fiction, crime fiction, literary fiction and weird, weird fiction.

Let's start with 'The Dispatcher' (Penguin Trade Paperback Original / PenginPutnam ; January 7, 2012 ; $15), a smart, tight noir that begins when police dispatcher Ian Hunt gets a phone call from his dead fourteen-year-old daughter. She'd been taken seven years ago, declared dead four months ago, and now she's on the phone followed by the man who kidnapped her. Hunt heads off in search of her and into the heart of his own darkness and more than a bit of trouble. Jahn's novel is sparse and lyrical, even, no especially, when he is describing almost surreal scenes of violence. Clues and body parts litter the path that awaits him. Like Ian Hunt, you're well advised to clear your calendar when you pick this book up. If you're lucky, you will not see any small dogs while you are reading.

Swinging to the other side of the coming-soon spectrum, we have work of a very different sort about crime, in this case, True Crime from the last century. 'Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York' by Richard Zacks (Doubleday / Random House ; March 13, 2012 ; $27.95) tells the story of Roosevelt's time as the Police Commissioner of New York, and his quixotic quest to bring it to heels.

Tammany Hall, an army of prostitutes — what is not to like in this book that offers a non-fiction look at the times so captivatingly captured by Caleb Carr in 'The Alienist'?

Zacks takes a novelistic approach to his non-fiction and backs up his narrative with lots of notes. You can't have a better character to drive a non-fiction narrative than Teddy Roosevelt, and with Steven Crane, J. P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer in the cast, there's a lot of meaty history to enjoy as well. Books like this make you wonder why they didn't get written sooner.

And while we are careening through time and space, we'd be lucky to come upon 'The Coincidence Engine' by Sam Leith (Crown Books / Random House ; February 7, 2012 ; $23.99), a book made for those of us science fiction readers who cut their teeth on Stanislaw Lem, in particular his magnificent thriller 'The Chain of Chance.'

Lem, a statistician, took his probability rather more seriously than does Leith, who imagines those once-in-ten-trillion-trillion-trillion events coming to pass with a little help from McGuffin, and shortly thereafter, to the attention of the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable.

There's a fine line to walk with this sort of fiction; you can play it very silly and very satirically, a la Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut, or you can crank up the reality index, as Lem does. Leith strides a fine line between; there's a mordant sense of humor at work here, but he does take his premise seriously. Or at least seriously enough so that the laughter is earned. If you are low on weird, here's a fine way to find your way back to being utterly lost again.

And while you are winding back, you might as well wind all the way back David Snodin's 'Iago' (Henry Holt ; February 13, 2012 ; $28) a wonderfully dense literary and historical mystery. Iago is now locked up for the murder of Otello, the Governor of Cyprus, and his lovely young wife.

Il terrible, Annibale Malipiero, the Chief Inquisitor wants to get an early answer to the eternal question; was it a lone psychopath who did the deed? Or is there something more at play here?

Snodin was script editor for the BBC's series of Shakespeare's plays, and he brings that sort of dense, intense feel to his novel. Presumably, somewhere down the line, someone will write a non-fiction book about Il Terrible's years spent trying to clean up Venice. Until then, here's a novel that looks like it might bear a few re-readings, any time you are feeling short on the stain of human sin upon your soul.

12-28-11: Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem Reveal 'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick'

Science Fiction Testaments

We all live with the voices in our head. What we hear, what we listen to and what we say back to those voices helps us define for ourselves, who we are. The back-chatter narrative never stops, even at those times when we might wish it to. At night, awake, we tell ourselves the stories of our lives and if we are lucky, those stories let us sleep.

Philip K. Dick was brilliant, self-taught and deeply troubled. His voices would not let him be, and would not let him sleep; they demanded more. They asked to be written, to be hand-written, typed, to be recorded onto paper as the innate writer who knew his audience was to be but himself. Crafting novels architected on the joys and nightmares of the twentieth century at a pace so fast that he knew his work could not be sold with the serious intent that went into its creation, Dick's agile mind craved more. To speak and be heard, if by none other than itself.

I'll save you the trouble of looking it up; it's an analysis of texts, particularly religious texts. 'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick' is probably the most important American religious document to come out of the last century. Science fiction and religion have always been intricately intertwined, each seeking the infinite in the human and the place of the human in the infinite. They are quite wary of one another, with good reason. It is easy for perversion of purpose to creep in. There is no perversion of purpose in this book; this is a book of purity. That does not mean it's simple. 'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick' offers an in-depth look at our world through the eyes of a remarkably imaginative and intuitive individual who sought to see beneath every surface, to the heart of things. His own troubled heart informed his visionary writing.

Collected, edited and trimmed, annotated and assembled by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, 'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick' is a remarkable document and a brilliantly put-together book. Pamela Jackson wrote the dissertation the kicked off the study of Dick's exegesis, "The World Philip K. Dick Made." Jonathan Lethem curated the recent Library of America collections of Dick's best novels. Together, they've gone through mountains of writing, typewritten, handwritten, and even some drawings to put together a remarkably cohesive work. Of course, cohesive is a relative term. The writings are presented in chronological order. You might suss out a bit of a novel here, or a bit of autobiography there. But you will never forget for a second that you are reading the words of Philip K. Dick; not will you ever doubt the peculiarly pertinent perceptions he transcribed of our troubled past.

'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick' is not a book that you really could read cover-to-cover, and it could be argued that you could never really read it at all. Every sentence rewrites its own reality as well as yours; every insight annihilates the eyes that perceive it. If, and I do believe this to be the case, 'The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick' is a truly religious document, then it is also a transformative document. First and foremost, it transforms itself, as Dick dives deeper into a worldview informed by his own altered perceptions. You can choose your change agent; mental illness, drugs, or the school of hard knocks. Dick experienced them all at a level of intensity we can clearly see in these pages. Whether he is describing humanoid aliens or biological machines, the intricacies of literary presentation or the ecstasies of religious exaltation, Dick writes with a seriousness and a sublime aplomb no matter how odd the messages he's receiving and transmitting may be.

How then to read this; why, then to buy this? Imagine the Holy Bible, hot off the press. A collection of writings old and new, from disputed sources purporting to be the wisdom of no less than an omnipotent God, but steeped in bloody family feuds and self-contradictory visions. Dick himself was steeped in Christianity, and you'll find all cults and references and blessing from Jesus in a manner that may disturb and upset those who admire his science fiction. To a degree, this is a book that is best left on your bedstand, or on the table next to your reading chair. I let myself be immersed at random, compelled by this powerful voice from a powerless man. You must buy because you must read, and this must be read in a book, in the manner of the 20th century in which it was born. The publishers have done a wonderful job at making this a readable, durable testament, and are to be commended.

You are living this moment with the voices in your head. They whisper, scream, promise, lie, cajole and draft every moment of the life you will live. Immersing yourself in the voices heard by Philip K. Dick is exactly what you would expect it to be. Weird, disorienting, exciting, confounding, creative, profound, inane, insightful. A revelation.

12-27-11: Archiving 'Chronic City'


Editor's note: I realized that I'd never properly archived the review I wrote back when I read Jonathan Lethem's 'Chronic City,' so I'm remixing (and re-cycling) it here as I continue to bring the archives in sync. Here's a link to the interview where we talked about 'Chronic City.'

How many love letters can Jonathan Lethem write to Manhattan? And how different will each of them be? His newest novel, 'Chronic City,' is more likely to elicit questions than answers. But they're the kind of questions that readers love, the kind of questions that keep us reading. And Lethem is uniquely talented in this department. He'll get a regiment of angels to dance on a pinhead and only when we as readers have recovered from the sheer joy of his skill do we realize that all the whys and wherefores we ask the writer are more fruitfully directed at the readers — our own bad selves.

Back a while, when the world was young and wooly mammoths roamed the American tundra, an upstart young Lethem wrote his heart out with 'The Fortress of Solitude,' a powerful nostalgic and evocative look at his youth in Brooklyn and beyond. The novel existed in a moonshine shimmer of unreality, in which light it brought to life the soul of the writer — or at least one side of what is proving to be a very complicated man. 'Chronic City' finds Lethem back in New York, in a sort-of near future and in a much more antic mood. While 'The Fortress of Solitude' gave us a boy growing into a young man, 'Chronic City' gives us a young man who is still a boy at heart.

From the get-go things take on an odd combination of mundanely realistic and surreally inventive — in the opening pages. First we get these names; our protagonist is one-time child star Chase Insteadman, and he rapidly meets Perkus Tooth. What the heck? But wait, it gets better and better. Chase's fiancée is trapped in the International Space Station; and that's the realistic portion of the narrative. No, what will get you going is Lethem's ruthless inventiveness, because the question this book asks, and the questions you're going to be asking yourself very, very soon is an essential tool for living. What is real?

Lethem has a ball in this novel, with a non-stop assault of dry humor as he tells lies that sound like the truth and truths that sound like outrageous fabrications. He employs a very light touch here, and as well a sort of heavy-handed sense of the imagination that is really fun. Everything is happening at once in Lethem's literary Manhattan; it is truly a city of synchronicity and chronicity. Chase finds himself aswirl in events that seem to be meaningfully connected. And there is meaning to be found in all that chronicity, which I'll define as simply as events passing at the same time, related or not. The trick is to start asking the right questions. Once you get that down, the right answers will follow. The problem is that synchronicity can lead you ask the wrong questions, with results that do not swell your bank account, your sense of personal worth and satisfaction or alarmingly, your life expectancy.

One of the most interesting questions to be asked is quite simple; who is telling the story? Lethem gives us Chase Insteadman as a protagonist, and he's the written voice, but this is clearly a bit of literary ventriloquism by Lethem himself as he looks back on his own life. Readers can and should triangulate this work with 'The Fortress of Solitude,' a work at once more magical and more somber than 'Chronic City,' to get the full effect. Throw in a dash of his non-fiction and you get the written equivalent of three-d.

This is Jonathan Lethem where, to my mind, his most ardent readers most enjoy him. He's at play in the fields of The Man, off on a lark where reality, the present and future fall together and apart at the same time. It's wave-particle literature, science fiction one second, literary humor the next. Here's where the Heisenberg principle gets a literary application, since the work itself, the 'Chronic City,' changes every time we ask it another question — and realize those questions are best directed at ourselves.

12-26-11: Jonathan Lethem Enjoys 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.'

The Non-Fictional Storyteller

Reading is a peculiar experience, one that consists entirely of thought but during which we do not experience thought; instead, find ourselves immersed in and directed by the language of another to follow where their language leads our thoughts. The words may be "mere entertainment," personal philosophy, or new facts that we can then employ to manipulate the world around us — once we stop reading.

Jonathan Lethem knows exactly what his words are capable of doing, and he deploys them with deft expertise to make 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' a superb, rich and rewarding reading experience. You may think, you will be entertained and you may learn a thing or two you can use after you finish the book, but Lethem's synthesis blends genres usually seen as incompatible into a work new and unexpectedly exciting.

'Ecstasy,' which lives up to its title, begins with a scene-setting "Preface" that is best read before any other part of the book. In it, Lethem himself suggests you can wander through the rest of the book in any order that suits you. But more importantly, he points out that every time he sits down to write, he takes on a new persona.

The upshot is that even what looks to be "non-fiction" has a sort of fictive content, a perceptual bent that results when Lethem slips into the self required to write the piece. Even though the title suggests you're getting some sort of grab-bag of reviews and essays, 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' is in fact a sort of meta-fictional short story collection, written by the flesh-and-blood Jonathan Lethem in a chorus of voices all claiming to be "Jonathan Lethem," all of whom are but pretenders to the throne.

That's his story, or at least a story. Readers can take it any way they want, but it gives us just a hint of where Lethem is capable of going. After that, you're on your own, at least until you start reading each piece and get lost in Lethem's enjoyably blithe and pithy prose.

'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' includes reviews, essays, memoir, arts criticism and hairy-eyed weirdness; for example, the central essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism," that forms one of the major theses of this work of meta-fiction. In it, Lethem goes mano-a-mano with the cult of the Creative Individual, the "man in the wilderness" who crafts out of whole cloth something never before seen in this world and brings back that work of art to a world stunned by its originality.

Hogwash that is, a rare example of anything pure and unadulterated in this copycat world. We are born into a world of art and culture that marks us from day one, and we're better off admitting our unoriginality and reveling in our influences rather than trying to hide and deny them.

Lethem's essay is a brilliant exercise in combining opposing notions, an original work comprised entirely of rip offs. In a digital world where anything can be copied by merely pressing "CMD-C," then edited and tweezed into something new — or not — the ecstasy of influence is an essential tool to understand the creative process. We can no longer hide behind tools and processes that allow us to claim originality, not in this copy-and-paste future that has, without our noticing, become the present, and now even the past.

Lethem the character pulls off lots of fun in this collection, whether he's meeting Bob Dylan, reviewing J. G. Ballard, hanging out with James Brown, remembering his feckless youth as a used bookseller or writing, I guess I am going to be forced to call it, "real fiction," as a response to visual art.

And so the review of the book of book reviews and other non-fiction finally finds itself consuming its own tail. With one suggestion, Jonathan Lethem cleverly transforms collection into a complicated work of fictional non-fiction, a single-author anthology written by a chorus of Jonathan Lethem characters. Reading is, after all, a peculiar experience.

New to the Agony Column

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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

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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)

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]

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08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

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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

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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 : 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

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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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