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06-06-12: Mark Valentine and John Howard Map 'Secret Europe'

Book Your Flight

Editor's Note: This review been a long time coming, but there are still copies available; as there are of the other book mentioned in the earlier roundup. This may not always be the case. This is a powerful book, well worth your time and well worth taking your time to read.
The power of a well-invented world to transport a reader into a different place and time is often seriously underestimated. 'Secret Europe,' a collection of short stories by Mark Valentine and John Howard is an astonishing work of fiction that effortlessly displaces the world we know with the world created on the pages we read. By virtue of strong, character-based storytelling, subtle prose and genuinely inventive strangeness, Valentine and Howard create a version of Europe that is not ours, but partakes of that which we know in such a manner as to be more powerful than what is real.

Ambiguity is one of the literary methods of choice that both writers use in the stories you find here. We're given a provincial perception of the matters at hand in stories like "The Silver Eagles," in which coins created for a new nation help define that nation. The edges of history that brush up against these coins don't quite jive with what we know, but they are familiar enough for us to build a vision of what transpires in the story on a personal level. The world we see through the narrator's eyes is both familiar and fantastic. The focus on character and the ambiguity of locations and dates allow the both writers to avoid the reductive feel of alternate history. 'Secret Europe' is far more mysterious and exotic than any "what if" scenario.

Though there are two writers at work in 'Secret Europe,' there's an amazing consistency to the prose, which has the timeless feel of the best work by Jorge Luis Borges. The stories are compelling and easy to read, but dense with atmosphere. Works like "The Other Salt" have hints of unease that shoot through gorgeous descriptions of landscape wrought with emotion. No matter what is happening here, not matter what the story, the writers manage to crank up the intensity without ever managing to sound histrionic. Simply put, the prose in 'Seceret Europe' casts a spell.

While the short story form is often a vehicle for ideas and action, Valentine and Howard, who have plenty of ideas, hold them in the background in favor of characters and perception. The result is that the stories — and the collection itself — have an emotional heft that drives not just reading, but re-reading. It's hard to imagine not reading works like "The Hunting Castle" or "A Lantern for Carpathia" twice. 'Secret Europe' creates a world so meticulously imagined, readers will want to return to the stories in fact and not just in memory.

Presentation is a key element of the appeal of 'Secret Europe.' The book looks like an artifact of the world in which it is set. By making the setting mostly in the recent past, the writers have wisely given themselves the means by which to write stories that are in fact timeless. But the physical book itself earns its high price tag, with a huge presentation, impeccable printing and top-notch design. To the degree that it is entirely hermetic, the design is all of a piece with the rest of the work.

With a limited (first) edition of merely two hundred copies, it seems likely 'Secret Europe' will go quickly out of print. It's sort of a shame, as it is quite easily one of the best books any avid reader could hope to buy, own or read this year. Those who own it and read it will quickly understand just how appropriate it is that it go out of print, though, at least, until, like the encyclopedia in Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," copies begin to pop up mysteriously in what was once the EU, there to create a new history for the current failed empire. Between these covers, the fall of one Europe and the rise of another is a thing of beauty.

06-05-12: Archive Review: Mary Roach 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers'

An Auspicious Beginning of the End

Editor's Note:I now restore this review to the arvhice, and long past its due date. Of course, since the book is about the afterlives of human corpses, maybe this resurrected review is all the more appropriate.
Non-fiction has to be more than an excavation of fascinating facts. In 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers', Mary Roach brings powerful and funny prose to her excavation of the facts about life after death. What Roach finds out about the uses for human cadavers is surely interesting enough. But it's the way she brings those facts to the readers that make this one of the best reading experiences this year. Roach's ability to synthesize a hysterical sense of humor and a controlled, respectful tone towards her subject is consistently amazing. There are very few pages that will pass without laughter. But Roach isn't making jokes at the dead's expense. She's reveling in the absurdity of our attitudes towards the death itself. It's this that allows her to be both funny and appropriately solemn at the same time. Her writing skill is every bit as amazing as the facts she unearths about the lives of the dead.

In 'Stiff', Roach profiles an array of possible post-mortem careers, including surgical practice, anatomical studies, impact studies, religious studies, and even less savory choices such as cannibalism. Readers should prepare to experience a bit of horror with their humor. Roach is not shy about asking questions that make the professionals she interviews uncomfortable, and they are bound to have the same effect on the reader. But even when she's asking hard questions, Roach's prose maintains a delicately funny sensibility.

"Upstairs is a working mortuary, and above it are the classrooms and offices of the college, one of the nation's oldest and best-respected*. In exchange for a price break in the cost of embalming and other mortuary services, customers agree to let students practice on their loved ones. Like getting a $5 haircut at the Vidal Sassoon Academy, sort of, sort of not.

"I had called at the college to get answers to questions about embalming: How long does it preserve corpses, and in what form? Is it possible never to decompose? How does it work? They agreed to answer my questions, and then they asked me one. Did I want to come down and see how it's done? I did, sort of, sort of not.

*And, alas, one of the most expensive and least well-attended. In May, 2002, a year after I visited, it closed its doors."

Roach uses footnotes often and well. They're an integral and not-overdone part of her prose style.

Also important to the success of this book is Roach herself. She puts herself squarely in the middle of the action, and makes gentle fun of her reactions. It's all a part of her strategy to disarm the readers' natural repugnance for the subject of death. Roach is very much alive, those she talks to are very much alive, and this life infuses her book about death. As it should be, this work is a pocketful of contradictions.

While Roach's work is informative and filled with facts, it's not exhaustive or exhausting. She's learned the power of brevity and uses it relentlessly. No joke goes on too long and no distressing details are over-described. At 303 pages, the book is funny, punchy and very readable. Even though this short summary seems complete, though she does notably leave out any tales of corpsicles, those frozen folk who hope to be resurrected in a better world. It seems a bit of a shame, because there are so many opportunities for her to exercise her ample wit. On the other hand, the book itself feels utterly complete as it is.

'Stiff' is very possibly one of the best-written non-fiction works I have read in quite some time. Roach's control of her prose, her ability to balance on the knife-edge between compassion and humor are consistently astonishing. The style of her prose, the combination of delicious darkness with pithy thought, is reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk's fiction. This is dark stuff, and those who do not want to read descriptions of dead bodies or death are advised to read the book before buying it. But such is the strength of 'Stiff' that only the most squeamish will be sent away. Roach is a powerfully talented writer, and her prose will win over almost anybody who manages to pick up this book. Come December, 'Stiff' is going to be stiff competition in any year's best evaluation.

06-04-12: Leonard Mlodinow Goes 'Subliminal'

'How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior'

We'd like to think we know ourselves, and that we're in control. But a new wave of technology and experimentation has proved that alas, there is more of us to not know than we ever believed possible. Leonard Mlodinow's 'Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior' is an eminently entertaining look at the latest state of what we don't know about ourselves. It's one of those books that will without doubt change not just the way you see the world, but the way you see yourself, and the way you see the way you see the world. It is a literary hall of mirrors for the modern understanding of our minds.

Given that Mlodinow is going to go deep, it's important that he keep things pretty simple, at least on the surface. The book is organized into two parts; "The Two-Tiered Brain" and "The Social Unconscious." Each part is divided into chapters. The first part of the book essentially explains the latest models as to how we gather data, and what we can do with that data on two levels; consciously and "new unconsciously," that is, what happens without our being aware of it according to a new understanding of the unconscious. The second part describes how the data-gathering pipelines that lead directly to the new unconscious inform our behavior as social beings. It's a smart setup, taking the reader from the inner mind, to, as it were, the outer limits.

Mlodinow's strengths as a science writer are many. His prose is clean, but very personable. We have the sense of the man behind the words; there's a conversational feel to the book. He includes personal stories about his mother and his family to bring us close and keep things lively. And when he is writing about experiments, he manages to give the narrative a feel of urgency, as do the experiments themselves. They fall into two major types; those that are logic-driven and that that are technology driven. These are the wedges that have helped us to understand how much of ourselves we simply are not able to see or interact with on a daily basis; at least, not in the way we think we think we interact with others, for example.

Mlodinow is not the first to tread this territory, but he offers a rather different perspective that either David Eagleman in 'Incognito' or Michael Gazzaniga in 'Who's in Charge?' All three writers are circling around the same new technology and understanding of the human mind, and each has a great deal to offer. 'Subliminal' showcases Mlodinow's excellent storytelling skills, and his ability to divvy up a complicated process or experiment into easily comprehended bits of prose. He's also very present in the work.

Of course, readers are coming to this book, and those like it, to get a better understanding of what we understand about how our consciousness works, and Mlodinow succeeds admirably. The first part of the book, which explains our data-gathering and assembly machines, starts with a clear explanation of just what is meant by the "new unconscious," and helpfully, the history of our understanding of the unconscious. Here (and throughout the book) you'll find that there were lots of historical precursors to our current understanding who were basically ignored. Mlodinow's explanations of how vision works, and how the mind "models" reality, are compelling. He takes us through sensory input in all its forms, offers a fascinating look at memory, and leads us to the brink of our social mind.

The second half of the book uses the models we come to see in the first half to describe how much of our social behavior is not under our conscious control. Throughout this part of the book (and yes, the rest of the book as well), the descriptions of the incredibly clever experiments that have been performed through the years prove to we well-written and riveting to read.

The upshot of reading 'Subliminal' is anything but subliminal. As you read Mlodinow's smart prose, and hear him tell you his stories, as well as those of others, you'll find that your vision is tweaked at every level; what you see and how you see it will be transformed by what you have read. Obviously, this is a powerful and enjoyable reading experience. It's exactly why you read — whether you know it or not.

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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