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08-05-12: Peter Bell Finds 'Strange Epiphanies'

Beauty, Strangeness and Charm

The past awaits us at every turn, threatening to topple the present. In the natural landscapes that have existed longer than humanity, in the houses and villages and towns and cities built by those long dead, in our own eyes, the past, filled with grief, regret, and sorrow, is willing to overwhelm us at a moment's notice. We only realize this when it is too late, when we find ourselves filled emotions we did not ask for and in lives we did not realize we were leading.

Peter Bell's 'Strange Epiphanies' is a masterfully written and beautifully published collection of short stories that distill the emotions we confront when the past returns into sentences and stories that do not themselves go so gently into the past. Gorgeous prose rises slowly, immersing us in the lives of those who learn too late the power of the past to annihilate the present. This is an outstanding book of "strange stories" that defies easy categorization.

The book consists of seven stories, two original to the volume, with many of the others substantially revised from their first appearance. Publisher Brian J. Showers, (author of the superb 'Old Albert: An Epilogue') provides a smart introduction that sets the scene but does not overwhelm the stories themselves. That would be difficult to do. Variety is a key aspect of the appeal of this volume. These are not all ghost stories, though you will find a ghost story here. The rest are merely ... strange, in the best of all possible manners.

"Resurrection" starts off the volume, and gives an idea of the appealing aspects of the other stories. Amanda, on holiday, finds that her refuge is fraught with unease. Bell's description of the town and the hotel are filled with marvelous details, and he explores the history of the village with precision to evoke a feel of mounting dread. There are passages of description that sing of lovely beauty, undercut by regret, grief and fear. It's really quite an amazing prose performance.

The rest of the stories live up to this high standard while evading almost any similarity. "M. E. F." is based on a true story and finds a grieving widower succumbing to the dark charms of the island of Iona. In "The Light of the World," a man imprinted by a powerful painting of Christ knocking at a door comes undone. An alcoholic woman on holiday manages to lose herself in "The American Writer's Cottage," while a most unpleasant doll speaks to a past best forgotten in 'Inheritance." Historical details and terrifying landscapes dominate "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians" while "Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy" bring a man back to the site of his childhood summers, much to his regret. Bell finishes the collection with "Afterword: Mary Emily Fornario, A Historical Note," a work of non-fiction that follows up on "M. E. F." with all the power of Bell's fiction. Don't be tempted to read it first; it's the perfect chaser for this fine collection.

The Swan River Press has done a fine job of designing and printing 'Strange Epiphanies.' The appropriately haunting dust jacket image is by Ray Russell of Tartarus Press, while Andrea Bonazzi's "Ramifications," the image on the bound book itself, is especially creepy. The whole package creates the perfect vibe to read the stories within. Peter Bell is a powerful writer, and this book is well worth far more than you're going to pay for it, if you can find a copy. 'Strange Epiphanies' delivers what the title promises, and more; memories, a new past that you won't be able — or want — to erase.

07-31-12: Charles Yu Politely Says 'Sorry Please Thank You'

Identity In Languag

In 'Sorry Please Thank You,' Charles Yu tells some utterly enthralling stories that seem quite unusual. Sure the subjects are a bit offbeat (a man who works for a company to which people can outsource unpleasant emotions, a letter to a self in an alternate universe), and the execution is occasionally unusual (an outline or a series of single-paragraph pages), but readers will in general find themselves in entertainingly familiar territory.

What makes these stories really quite unique is that Yu uses the written word and storytelling to do more than simply tell a story. The works in 'Sorry Please Thank You' use language to interrogate and calculate the limits of our identity. Each story is like an abacus of words. As we read, as we immerse ourselves in Yu's story-structures, the words channel our thoughts back into thought itself. The stories are a hoot to read; they're funny, touching and very weird. But they're also something very unique. They are not experiments in literature so much as they are using literature to enable the readers to perform experiments on their experience of identity, of self. That second layer of reading experience — on top of great stories filled with emotion and character — makes these stories particularly engaging.

The collection is divided into three sections (Sorry, Please, Thank You), with a coda (All of the Above). Each section includes a variety of stories. The book begins with "Standard Loneliness Package," about a man who works for a company that allows customers to outsource emotions they don't wish to feel to its workers. He soon finds himself with feelings of his own that could do with outsourcing. It sets a great tone for the works that follow. The language is sparse and restrained; it's very declarative. Yu uses that style create the weird backdrop with all its science fictional trappings and combine it with a powerful emotional foreground; and inverts them regularly. The result creates a sense of wonder intellectually as Wu explores the permutations of his concept, but also is deeply involving. The dissonance between the two effects is powerful enough to be a third force in the storytelling.

"First Person Shooter" is Yu's take on the zombie trope, as two bored workers on the graveyard shift in a mega-big box store deal with an undead customer. Like most of these stories, there's a sly, dark sense of humor at work here. "Troubleshooting" is a poignant story of regret framed by computer instruction manuals and self-help books. Here, Yu creates a vivid, emotional minefield and clever linguistic exploration of life and identity that works both as story and as a thought-provoking self-examination by language.

"Hero Absorbs Major Damage" is set in a videogame, where Yu's declarative prose is part of the world-building. "Human for Beginners" plays with relationships by way of instruction manuals, using the format and language of business to examine family. "Inventory," a story of emotional fragmentation, also works as both an interrogation of the reader's self-perception and a not-so-straightforward look at a breakup. In "Note to Self," Yu explores quantum fiction as he sets up a hall of narrative mirrors. It's funny and excitingly odd.

"Yeoman" is a tribute to the "red shirts" of Star Trek, the ensigns who were destined to die on an away team. "Designer Emotion 67," framed as a speech to shareholders, mines territory familiar to readers of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem with a nice new twist and Yu's pitch-perfect prose. With "The Book of Categories", Yu uses the MS Word Outline format in a devastating examination of grief. "Adult Contemporary" is a psychedelic examination of the stories we construct for ourselves, and the final story in the volume, "Sorry Please Thank You," speaks to what we have not done.

Throughout these stories, readers will find an impressive, stripped down prose style that is almost alarmingly easy to read as Yu slips through narrative knots that are charmingly complex. There's a liveliness to everything in here, emotional and intellectual that elicits the best aspect of science fiction — that "sense of wonder" — without ever resorting to the usual means of getting there. 'Sorry Please Thank You' is also handsomely designed. It makes a difference. Charles Yu is a precise writer. Every word matters as much as the figures in a sum, as the beads on an abacus. It all adds up to very much more than readers have a reason to expect — a genuinely new and engaging narrative voice, asking and answering the oldest questions.

07-30-12: Deborah Harkness Lifts the 'Shadow of Night'

Alchemical Marriage

Historical fiction and non-fiction both face the same difficult task. It all comes down to the details. Any writer will aver that research is immensely enjoyable and that it's easy to accumulate a wealth of minutia about any given particular period of history, no matter what the scope of the work is. The difficulty comes in deciding just which details make the story work and which, no matter how intrinsically intriguing they are to the writer, must be jettisoned to streamline the narrative.

In 'Shadow of Night,' the sequel to 'A Discovery of Witches', Deborah Harkness finds a unique solution to this problem. In the first novel, Diana Bishop, an Oxford scholar who studies alchemical manuscripts, requests an obscure document that leads her to discover her own heritage as a witch, as well as to uncover the existence of "creatures," primarily vampires and demons who live among us, unbeknownst to most humans. She falls in love with a 1,500 year-old vampire, now a genetic scientist named Matthew Clairmont. In order to pursue the manuscript and the mysterious origins of the "creatures," they use Diana's power to "timewalk." 'Shadow of Night Begins' an instant after the first book ends, as Diana and Matthew find themselves in late sixteenth century Oxfordshire, on Matthew's estate. The historian now must contend with actual history.

'Shadow of Night' is an outstanding, engaging sequel that successfully changes direction and ups the ante of the first book. Harkness is really in her element writing historical fiction, and her maguffin — that Diana has time-traveled from the 21st century to the past — allows her to have all sorts of fun playing what Diana thinks she knows about history against the everyday reality of living in a historical time. But this is only the first layer of plot. Diana and Matthew must also contend not only with their foes in the world of creatures, but also with those in the politics of sixteenth century Europe, England and the court Queen Elizabeth. It's a complicated and often thrilling mix.

Harkness has developed her characters carefully, particularly Matthew Clairmont, who is based on a real-life figure named Matthew Royden. This puts Diana and Matthew at the center of the School of Night, a group whose members included Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh. Harkness takes a lot of chances by turning these historical figures into creatures that fit into her shadow universe, but they all pay off. A large part of the fun of this novel is discovering Marlowe, who proves to be a real jerk, as a demon, and Raleigh, a vampire, as a crafty master of Realpolitik. Harkness upends our expectations and keeps the novel refreshing and fun.

The prose here is colored largely by Diana's perceptions and her misplaced expectations. Harkness works a sort of science-fictional slant into the mostly supernatural fantasy she's crafted, playing with alternate timelines and ripple effects in the future of this novel — our present. The details are plentiful and new enough to be entertaining, but never overwhelm the narrative of character arcs. Harkness has a deft, light touch that lets her write about dire events without succumbing to the gloom she's describing.

'Shadow of Night' does not pretend to stand on its own. Readers definitely want to start with 'A Discovery of Witches,' and by the time you reach the end of 'Shadow of Night,' you'll be anticipating the sequel. That said, Harkness keeps her story tightly reigned in and focused on the past in which it is set. It feels just right to read on its own. By having her main character, Diana Bishop, the historian, become trapped in real history, Harkness manages to multiply the pleasures of historical fiction by the pleasures of historical non-fiction. Readers will be happy to make a deal with the devil in the details.

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

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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

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

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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

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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

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

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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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