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05-10-12: Ross Jackson Will 'Occupy World Street'

Gaian World Order

If you think we're living in a world of hurt, then Ross Jackson has a concrete plan that will certainly interest you. 'Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform' begins with a straightforward, well written analysis of the problems that confront us. It's rather amazing — and depressing — but that's the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do, or even if anything can be done. Jackson has that covered too, and he's pretty convincing. 'Occupy World Street' seems like a fine focus for the demonstrations that call themselves "Occupy." We might not all agree on all the details, but Jackson's layout is impressive, concise and clear.

If you're going to propose a solution, then you need to describe the problem, and Jackson's descriptions are well thought out and very organized in approach. There are seven parts, with each part divided into chapters. The ecological challenges are covered in "Planet Under Siege," the economic challenges in "Drivers of Destruction," and the political hurdles in "The Empire." Jackson writes with passion and precision; he doesn't mince words, he borrows from smart established thinkers and he knows how to get the reader "het up." He's a great guide to the edge of the cliff.

The worth of this book is that Jackson has a set of ideas and plans to get past the cliff without exactly jumping. He's the founder of the Gaia Trust, so the plan has a Gaian outlook, which should tell you a bit about both where Jackson comes from and where he is headed. The three remaining parts of the book map out the underlying philosophy in "New Values, New Beliefs," set out some basic organizational tools in "Towards a Gaian World Order," and then lay down concrete steps of how to achieve the Gaian World Order in "Getting There," with what he calls "The Breakaway Strategy," the title of the final chapter and the culmination of all that has preceded.

Here's where Jackson sounds up all the pieces and gives readers a quite doable, concrete plan for getting from the current mess to a world that is sustainable and fair. Of course, different readers will have different views of the "doability" of Jackson's plan, which involves forming a new set of world bodies to manage the environment and the economy. His plans don't involve raging down the street and breaking the windows of those unfortunate enough to be located there.

It is utterly and consistently clear that something is really wrong today with the way the world is being run. The "Occupy" protests have done a fantastic job at focusing our attention on the problem. 'Occupy World Street' gives us a solution — if not the solution, certain a great set of tools with which to talk about any sort of solution. There's a web site you can go to, but the book is going to be your key. Ross Jackson good questions, good answers and writes them well. With 'Occupy World Street,' reading becomes an action — but only the first action. The rest is up to you.

05-08-12: Archive Review:Clive Barker 'Abarat'

Reading in Color

Editor's note: Editor's Note: Talk about lack of fanfare... there's a new Abarat book out, 'Absolute Midnight,' and it's been out since last year. I've finally got it (it weighs like, a ton). But I looked back and realized my other 'Abarat' reviews weren't in the index and now have set about correcting that. My conversation with Clive (Part 1, Part 2) remains among my most memorable. In the interim, this review will have to serve.

Some books arrive with so much advance notice that by the time they are actually published, readers have almost forgotten about them. I'd been hearing about Clive Barker's 'Abarat' so much for so long that I was close to believing that it would never be published. When it was published, I wasn't eager to read it, though I popped down to the bookstore and bought it almost immediately. It was hard to resist a book so thoroughly well-produced and art directed. 388 pages of heavy glossy stock, lots of color paintings, made sure I would at least look at it, something I can't exactly claim I did with other recent Barker books I've bought. It's not that I didn't think Barker is a good writer. It's just that the books were so long, and while buying seemed like a good idea, the actual thought of reading seemed to be something of a chore I could never get round to doing.

However, I'm currently on a quest of my own. I'm not hoping to find a sword, only a cheesy little column about fantasy and it only seemed right that I should read Barker's book of no-blood. Well that assumption turns out o be something of a mistake. There's more than a little blood in 'Abarat', certainly enough to keep its teenage audience fixated. And there are (according to the cover blurb) over 100 paintings that will also keep the kid's eyes on the page and adult eyes as well. But this sunny-looking book was remarkably easy for this adult to read. The more I read it, the more I liked it. What I thought might be a chore turned out to be a pleasure. Clive Barker's 'Abarat' wears its outrageousness on its sleeve, but the pleasure it brings comes from concentrating on the basics of good book production.

Barker's mind is as fertile as a cow field after the rain. 'Abarat' is populated with a bizarre menagerie of creatures, many of which are brought to life in illustrations by the author. The layout of the novel and the generally light colors used in the paintings give this book an airy feel. It's very easy on the eyes and easy to read. Barker's painting style is primitive and simplistic. If he's painting a picture of a monster of a character, it tends to be on the garish side. Some folks may find the style is ugly; I've something of two minds on the subject. However, when Barker opts for painting a beautiful landscape, his command of colors is really evident. In general the illustration lift the book a level beyond the usual illustrations in a children's book. The illustrations and layout serve to make the book a lot more appealing to anyone of any age.

The plot is typical adolescent fantasy. Candy, a dis-empowered teenage girl lives a dismal life in Chickentown. One afternoon, she walks out into a field and before she has a chance to click her heels together and say 'There's no place like home, she's whisked away into the archipelago of Abarat. Barker shamelessly plagiarizes some of the notions from 'The Thief of Always' his other children's book. In that novel, each quarter of the day in the 'House of Always' symbolizes an entire season. Here, an island symbolizes each hour in the day. It's a formula that Barker works well however. He's so utterly in his element here that he seems to shed the drag of expectations and plunge himself into his art.

'Abarat' benefits most from characters that are easy to grasp and easy to like. That's because, from the beginning, it's apparent that Barker likes everybody he's writing about. He's generous to all the characters, even the antagonists in the story. Everybody has an interesting backstory that doesn't annoy, but seems buoyed up by Barker's sunny visions. I expected that it would take a week or more to read this novel, but I zoomed though it a couple of days. As the starter for a series, I thought Barker hit it just right, drawing readers into the action, but not leaving them on such a cliffhanger that they'd be waiting another four years for the next book.

'Abarat' is set to become its own industry, as Disney and Barker wind up for a series, a movie and who knows what else. It's easy to see the appeal of this book to a merchandising giant like Disney. The doll designs are right out here on the cover. Sweep that and any other expectation aside. Enjoy this book for the nice light ride it provides. Hope the next ones are as good, and one hell of a whole lot more timely. This is the start of a series I actually find myself looking forward to.

05-07-12: David Vann Digs Up 'Dirt'

Tragedy, Terror and Laughter

Personal gravity trumps that of stars, galaxies — even universes. Give a mind enough rope and it will tether itself down into an abyss wherein it will pretend to self-discovery while indulging in self-importance. And once that mind has taken the plunge, the ego becomes a veritable black hole, a singularity. No feelings for the outside world, no perception of external reality will make it over that event horizon. The only ingredients required to create such a mental vacuum are puberty and bad philosophy. These are the makings of the implosion that drives 'Dirt,' David Vann's hilariously bleak comedy.

To be sure, 'Dirt' is humor of the slash-your-wrists-and-hope-to-die school. The worst aspects of human nature are garishly lathered in the make-up of amazing prose and asked to stagger for a horror that must surely edge into laughter, lest we lose our minds, or see ourselves in this funhouse mirror. 'Dirt' is chock-a-block with life so real you can't help but flinch. It's sickening, really. Laughter is the best, the only medicine. Flip-flop back and forth between humor and horror as you read 'Dirt' and you should make it out mostly unscathed.


Setting is key to Vann's novel, because the nature outside of us makes such a fine mirror for that within. 'Dirt' begins on a run-down walnut orchard just outside of Sacramento, California, in 1985. It's a filthy, decaying, weedy and reedy oasis in a sea of sterile suburban development. Galen, Vann's 22 year-old protagonist, is engaged in a co-dependent relationship with his mother. Homer, chronicler of the travels of Odysseus, would be proud. Money's tight, and there's a lot of unspoken tension to fill the awkward silences. "The mafia," that is, Galen's 17 year-old cousin Jennifer and his Aunt Helen, come to visit his mother ("Suzie Q") and Galen. There's a trip to chat with Grandmother, and a trip to a remote cabin. But wherever this family goes, they bring their own personal hells along for the ride.

All this may sound quite unappealing, but Vann is a brilliant prose stylist who makes reading this a page-turning, terrorizing and hysterical delight. In spite of its title, 'Dirt' goes down smooth and easy. Vann's stripped down, sinewy sentences are filled with urgency, and the short chapters are filled with drama. 'Dirt' is tense and really quite exciting, in a deeply disturbed manner.

Vann's characters are all too realistic. We totally believe that people like this exist. We just hope that we don't know them — or, that we are not them. Vann's psychological examinations of this unpleasant family are spot-on and couched in a sort of seriousness that only serves to emphasize the hilarity. It's possible to read this novel without twigging to the humor, and to enjoy the acute, intense characterizations, but the humor is there and Vann does have a lot of fun. He's not afraid to use repetition and riffing to go for the easy joke, and he is not afraid to have his characters stare into the mirror until their minds snap. But his smart prose makes all these brutal characters slide from poignant to disturbing to hilariously obtuse in the span of a couple of pages.

Be careful when you pick up 'Dirt.' Once you settle into a chair on the porch, you're not going to want to leave until Galen has gone through his whole catalogue of New Age obsessions, run every self-serving trope into the dirt he loves so much. Never has the novel of passive aggression been managed to this level of hideous, humorous perfection. Fiction this wonderfully cringe-worthy is rarely so well-written. You may well find yourself washing your hands afterwards — and avoiding the mirror. These are instincts that, in David Vann's world, will serve you well.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

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

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

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]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

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

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

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

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

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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