Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

07-05-12: Lots of Time to Read

Reality and Fantasy

We so often told that reality and fantasy are diametrically opposed, that we immerse ourselves self in one to exclude the other. That's obviously not the case; we need both to remain human. And if remaining human is of no interest to you, then we still need them to keep our physical brains in working order. The easiest way to do so is with books, and both genres — though the terms reach far beyond genre — are well represented in the world of books. Of the (literally) hundreds that have passed through my hands of late, here are six that are clearly worth your valuable reading time.

I guess it makes the most sense to start with non-fiction titles set in what we like to politely call consensus reality. Readers who find themselves entranced with Hilary Mantel's 'Bring Up the Bodies,' might well consider 'Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel' (Random House; July 3, 2012 ; $35) by John Guy, a smart, exciting look at a complicated man known better for his violent death than his life. What you're going to get here is a main narrative that reads like an exceptionally well-written novel; 331 pages of gritty, intense Tudor history. Guy is smart enough to give us a character, a man we can care about. 'Thomas Becket' is written more from the inside out than the outside in; we see the psychology that turned a warrior into a priest. The issues are timeless, the surroundings dire and dark, the writing filled with the sort of details that bring scenes and yes, Becket himself to life. What you may realize as you read 'Thomas Becket' is that fiction and non-fiction are not all that different when done this well.

For those of us who spend the lion's share of our time immersed not in this world, or in one of some other's creation, but instead, in the circling maze of anxieties that our own minds are so facile at creating, 'Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety' (Simon & Schuster ; July 3, 2012 ; $25) by Daniel Smith will certainly convince you that you have at least one (non-imaginary) person who understands your plight. Smith's memoir is chock-a-block with epic embarrassments and hilarious prose — if, that is, you're not tied into fits of terror by his predicaments. From a family designed to create anxiety to sex, to sweat, to employment, Smith takes the reader on a journey into the heart of unease. The trick here is that it's actually bearable to read and, if you suffer, potentially helpful. One would have to be profoundly unanxious to suggest that Smith offers a cure, or even necessarily hope, but he will certainly succeed in making you forget your own anxiety as you read about his. And given that this is a book, meant to be read, Mission Accomplished!

And, just in case you are not among the anxiety-prone, here's a book that will help you achieve that desirable status, 'The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows' (Doubleday ;July 10, 2012 ; $25.95) by Brian Castner. The author tells us in a note that precedes the book that, "Nothing was changed to create a moral or ease discomfort." It's a fine example of truth in advertising. Castner served three tours in the Middle East, two of them as the Captain of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. These were the men who either drove robots to the IEDs in the desert, or if they failed, had to don a Kevlar suit and take the titular long walk to do the deed. He intersperses these stories with those of his life upon returning. The result is a hypnotic, intense look into the hearts of men, the heart of war and how one kills the other slowly if not in an instant. Castner writes with the kind of plainspoken tone that feels immediate. There are no barriers to protect the reader from what happens, and that, in non-fiction, is the point.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can journey back in history; not to the twelfth century, but to the twentieth, the late twentieth century and the glory years of the longest running science fiction television show, Doctor Who. The show's current run is strong, yes, but for a whole generation the iconic Doctor Who was the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker. And the episode that few of us will forget is The Pirate Planet, written by no less than Douglas Adams. All this goes as a preamble to help readers understand what they're getting in 'Shada' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 26, 2012 ; $25.95) by Douglas Adams, as novelized by Gareth Roberts. 'Shada' was written for the show by Adams, to star Tom Baker as the Doctor, but never produced, due to a strike at the BBC. The question potential readers are going want to ask themselves is whether or not Roberts is up to the very difficult task of novelizing an Adams script, and the answer, I am happy to say is a definitive "Yes," assuming of course, you like Douglas Adams, Doctor Who and silly British science fiction. 'Shada' is the prison planet where the Time Lords slot away all the conquer-the-universe wannabes. Skagra is the mind who wants to escape and bring his plans to fruition, but for the Doctor. The prose is the star of this episode, and that's as should be.

Those looking for a bit of the fantastic and more than a hint of history need look no further than the sequel to 2011's 'A Discovery of Witches' by Deborah Harkness, 'Shadow of Night' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; July 10, 2012 ; $28.95). Harkness is more than up to the difficult task she sets for herself; she's timewalked Oxford scholar and witch Diana Bishop and her vampire, Matthew Clairmont back to sixteenth century England to find the mysterious alchemical manuscript Ashmole 782. I will admit to being a bit dubious as to whether or not this would work for me as a reader, and I am happy to report that Harkness absolutely nails the perfect attitude and approach. Diane finds herself the historian who has to live history and it is for readers a totally entertaining learning experience. The supernatural shenanigans are appreciably complicated as are the relationships. There's a lively, fun feel to the prose as Harkness offers up Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and a host of others as daemons, vampires and other critters in her supernatural pantheon. 'A Discovery of Witches' is required reading. Harkness picks up where she left off in the last book and runs with it. As a reader, you'll be glad she did.

As it so often happens, Harkness is not the first to tread the stage boards of historical fantasy. One of our greatest veterans of the genre, Mary Gentle, author of the incredible novel 'Ash' is back with 'The Black Opera' (Night Shade Books ; May 2012 ; $15.99). I'd highly recommend this to anyone who enjoyed the first Harkness novel. 'The Black Opera' of the title is to be sung in a 19th century Naples where holy music can perform actual miracles. Alas, the Black Opera has been written to empower Satan, which is not likely to be music to the ears of the masses. And only music can stop music. Conrad Scalese has been hired to write a counteropera, in a mere six weeks. Gentle knows how to create a detailed historical backdrop (so detailed that you could probably write a thesis based on the research she does), but more importantly, she knows how to tell a ripping yarn where the history peels away into an equally detailed world of magic and the supernatural. Gentle's works do well in the UK and we're lucky that Night Shade has brought us her latest in a timely manner and an affordable but nicely packaged manner.

And thus do fantasy and non-fiction find a footing in this reality, creating something new for the reader. Because, obviously, all reading is a form of fantasy. For the most part, we should be glad, because in truth, few readers would make it out of any of these books alive were the reading experience itself to be anything other than the most persistent and most important aspect of the fantastic in out cultural and historical lives.

07-03-12: Archive Review: Mark Bowden 'Killing Pablo'

Top Secret Histories

Editor's Note:Mark Bowden writes non-fiction that is more exsciting than most fiction. Here's a review of a title easily found used or in TPB that is poerfectly thrilling summer reading.
With the US government going after bad guys as if the world has turned into one giant James Bond/Tom Clancey novel, — and clamping down on information as to how we're doing so — it's something of a surprise that they let 'Killing Pablo' into print. Of course it was there about four and a half months before the destruction of the twin towers. The genie was out of the bottle. It's a pretty exciting genie. As was 'Black Hawk Down', 'Killing Pablo' is a non-fictional look at the US involvement in warlike situation that isn't, strictly speaking, a war. Since that description might well apply to our War Against Terrorism, 'Killing Pablo', the story of the US part in the tracking and killing of Colombian drug lord supreme Pablo Escobar, retains its current events-driven appeal. But even without that appeal it's a gripping read. Bowden sets up the history, then follows events as they unravel across a variety of theaters. I can't claim to have read Tom Clancey, but I suspect that this volume has much of the same appeal as Clancey's work, but Bowden's pictures of the real personalities involved are detailed, compelling and documented.

Bowden starts out a bit dryly as he recounts the history that led to the situation the US had to deal with in the late 1980's and early 1990's. He covers the history of Columbia from 1948 to 1989, and gives a clear picture of how this nation could be sold to bought, and resold to the criminals in charge. Readers may find themselves wondering if they're in for the same kind of thrilling ride that 'Black Hawk Down' provided. It will come, and the setup will help inform what follows. It's worth reading closely, even if it feels like you're wading when you expected a speedboat. When the speedboat comes, if you're not prepared, you'll get mowed over. Even when he's setting the scene, Bowden is confident and often thrilling. The story of Pablo's rise to power is filled with violence and death, most of it orchestrated by Pablo himself. He wasn't particularly good at anything except sheer, utter ruthlessness. At bloody violence, he excelled.

And the speedboat will arrive, have no doubt. Once Bowden has properly set the scene, he's off to show how the US didn't just get involved, it sent military units in-country, though there was not proper war at the time. In other times, it could have been a rather wild accusation, though few would argue with the idea of snuffing out this ruthless (you'll hear that a lot in this book) bastard. Still, the idea that we simply sent in the troops is a bit disturbing. But those troops! Once you see four men with briefcases, totally anonymous, step into the camouflaged spy plane, open up their briefcases to reveal laptop, and plug them into the alcoves that look to conceal nothing more than toilet paper, there's no way any reader will be putting this book down. James Bond is a poof next to these guys.

However, MI6 isn't usually shown to be prone to the kind of in-fighting that Bowden captures. Every US agency involved has an agenda, and few of them are particularly congruent. As the heads and staff of the various units involved duel in administrivia, Bowden keeps track of things on the ground. He also keeps a careful eye on the Colombian side of the equation from the corrupt powers-that-were to the brave but often deceased powers that-that-tried. His revelation of the connection between US forces and the gangsters who opposed Pablo Escobar's monopoly on all things may not turn your hair white, but his in-country travelogues will certainly keep the pages spinning. It's often said that spy thriller fiction is going to be hard pressed to surpass the reality of today's conflict. Bowden's telling the truth of ten years ago, and it's already much more exciting than any fictional version.

07-02-12: Anthony Swofford Visits 'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails'

Away to Home

Anthony Swofford's first book, 'Jarhead,' brought him the literary equivalent of the Triple Crown. He received critical acclaim, it was a best seller and it was adapted into a major motion picture by Hollywood that also achieved critical acclaim. His follow-up, the novel 'Exit A' was well-enough received, but did not get the Triple Crown. Still, Swofford, both an ex-Marine and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, was seriously wealthy. A trip with his father in an RV was meant to help them reconcile, but it had more of the opposite effect. 'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails,' gives a pretty good idea of where he went next.

Swofford's new memoir is intense even if the only battlefields he traverses are those afforded by family and friends. Those prove to be quite deadly enough to the young man who was suddenly swimming in money. 'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails' is about as jangled as the nerves of the man who lived it. Swofford is all over the map as he glosses past his many assignations, his drinking and drug abuse and hones in on the relationship that seems to be at the core of his melting world. For all the dissolution that money can buy, and it's a lot, nothing can match the way our parents brought us up in terms of messing us up. 'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails' are all places other than home.

As we watch Swofford's world go to hell, he brings us into the two-character play at the core of this memoir; himself and his father, John Howard Swofford. The elder Swofford was a vet as well, of Vietnam, and the experience didn't do him any favors. Upon his return from Vietnam, John Howard turned down the chance for psychological help, as if he were pulling the wool over the eyes of a watchful nanny. In retrospect, his son thinks, his father probably should have sought help. The memories that Anthony Swofford explores; his own childhood, the death of his older brother, whose funeral his father did not attend, "curse letters" sent to Anthony by his father, and a belated, ungainly attempt to "pal around" with his son as if they were friends, do not make for comfortable reading. But it's classic, well-written American family drama, complete with a list of chores from hell.

Swofford tells his stories in a variety of fashions; straight-ahead memoir, tit-for-tat letters, anecdotes in and out of chronological order. The prose is clean and strong. It's a manly book about the not-so-hot relationships that men, stunted both by the expectations of family and society, manage to form with one another and with the women in their lives. It's not like we grow up and mature by the reasonable age of say, twenty-five. It's quite possible to kick the bucket and still be acting like a teenager. But it is not necessary.

'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails' eschews self-pity and is pretty moderate so far as self-laceration goes. Swofford offers up the fact of his life, including his emotions, in a terse narrative bracketed around two RV trips with this father. This is not to say that everything turns out hunky dory. But that muscular prose takes us on a journey that has its own iconic power, as Swofford learns to see himself and his father as humans, with frailties and faults that can hold you back — or be overcome, sometimes. 'Hotels, Hospitals and Jails' do not at first seem to be desirable destinations. They are not the usual endpoint of the Hero's Journey. The joy of Swofford's story is that heroes can be revealed to be human, but no less heroic.

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

Commentary & Podcast Archive
Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us