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09-08-12: Worth Your Valuable Reading Time

From Unreal History to Our Uncertain Future

I know, and to a certain extent, I'm glad, that my peculiar reading tastes are apt to frustrate readers who may prefer that I keep my attention trained to one particular target or another. I do this because having read one type of book, I find that if the next is markedly different, I'm more likely to enjoy it. Still, I like there to be a throughline of high quality connecting the books, and something else; I'm not sure exactly what it is.

But I think there is definitely a throughline here, of how history connects and disconnects us from past to future. And of course, these books are all superb. They're well worth your valuable reading time, and if you read them all one after the other, I do believe that you'll end up with a more precise and yes, more entertaining perception of the world around you when you come up for air. You might want to buy two of each, since these are the sorts of books you're going to want to both keep and foist off on your friends.

We'll start back in history with Night Shade Books and 'The Constantine Affliction,' by T. Aaron Payton, (Night Shade Books ; August 3, 2012 ; $26.99) a superb steampunk novel that slips past the potential pitfalls of any ultra-popular genre entry with great writing and a great premise. Start with an experiment in a Victorian laboratory, add two female detectives, a disease that transforms one sex to the other, and a distressing murderer, and you have the makings of lost days and nights reading.

Payton is smart enough to put a mystery novel at the heart of his steampunk setting, with a tense plot and two enjoyable women of detection as protagonists. Pembroke Halliday (aka Pimm) is the aristocrat on an academic (read: crime-solving) sort of holiday, while Ellie Skyler (aka Skye) is the inevitably intrepid journalist. Mad scientists, monsters (thank you VERY much!) and some pertinent thought-experimentation about gender and identity create the rich sort of reading experience that makes you hope for more. 'The Constantine Affliction' is billed as "A Pimm & Skye Adventure," so that's probably the case, or at least, we hope it will be the next case about a year from now.

Next, we'll pull up to the present day or thereabouts, and 'A Working Theory of Love,' by Scott Hutchins, (Penguin Press / Penguin Putnam ; October 2, 2012 ; $26.95). "Not everyone's life will be a great love story," Neill Bassett tells us early on. He's newly-single, not-so-swinging, living in San Francisco and using his useless degree in business as he works for Amiante Systems. They're trying to create the bot that will pass the Turing Test, and using his father's diaries to do so. Neill might have some issues with this, but it's a job, right? It's life after his short-but-failed marriage, right?

Hutchins grounds his novel in the quotidian reality of the father's journals and everyday life in SF, all while quietly pursuing very SFnal notions about just what comprises intelligence and humanity and whether or not there is any difference by definition, between the artificial and natural versions thereof. Hutchins writes a novel that is fraught but not overwrought with real emotions and unreality that seems so grounded and commonsensical that you never think you're reading a very hard-science science fiction novel. 'A Working Theory of Love' manages to be a number of things at once, and ends up being none of them; it's simply original.

I've been on a Ken Macleod binge for years now. As it happens, my workstation is right in front of the shelves that hold true first editions of his first novels; 'The Star Fraction,' 'The Stone Canal,' and 'The Cassini Division.' His latest, out as a very nicely-done trade paperback from the smart folks at Pyr, is 'The Night Sessions,' (Pyr / Prometheus ; April 24, 2012 ; $17.95), a remarkably intelligent mystery set in a carefully created future where religion is shunned and robots are smarter than we are. This proves to be a tipping-point combination, and the tip is the bombing of a church and the murder of a bishop in Edinburgh. Adam Ferguson is the DI called in to investigate what looks to be terrorism, even though it's been a while since the world has seen such an event. It's a harbinger of worse things in the wind.

Macleod delivers a knockout novel on two very different levels; 'The Night Sessions' is a page-turning mystery, with a great sense of place, of clues, of details and detection. But the mystery of who killed who and why is matched by Macleod's perfectly-built world, a history-to-come that seems terrorizingly reasonable. How we got to the place that begins the book is just as compelling as what takes you to the end. Macleod makes you think on two levels at once, with carefully crafted characters, a lived-in world and more than enough sense-of-discovery and wonder.

And finally we look to the future in a slightly different manner with 'The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate' by Robert D. Kaplan, (Random House ; September 11, 2012 ; $28), a compelling look at how the past points to the future. The term "world-building," much beloved by students and writers of science fiction, here gets a real-world workout as Kaplan ruthlessly and entertainingly dissects how where we have been points to where we are going, and why. What this mostly boils down to, is as the title suggests, geography. As much as humans like to think themselves the masters and creators of their own fates, that's not-so-simply not the case — and Kaplan has the stories and storytelling skills to back that up.

Region by region, Kaplan looks at the world and makes everything seem new; "China's frontier with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is not so much incomplete as it is arbitrary, and there, to a degree, ahistorical." Power, wealth, the fate of armies and nations and peoples all hang in the balance here — and Kaplan makes it perfectly clear what tilts the balance one direction or another.

For a selection of books that started in the past and ended in the future, here is the perfect follow-up, a work of non-fiction that connects the past and points to the future. Kaplan knows just how much detail he needs to accomplish his goal; his portraits of past, present and future are informed by on-the-ground reportage and deep scholarship, illuminated by finely crafted arguments and prose.

It's not a stretch that you have here four books that could occupy your mind for years to come, even if they only take you days to read. That's the power of books and reading, not to be forgotten. Books live with and in you long after you have finished them. These books about history on a variety of scales will become a part of your history.

09-06-12: Archive Review: Tom Perrotta Sees 'Little Children'

Suburban Suspense

Editor's Note: As I read Laura Lippman's 'And When She Was Good,' I could not help but be reminded of this novel, and the mother of both, of course, Madam Bovary. Since this review was not in the current site, I've updated it and moved it over. Since I reviewed this book, it has been made into a well-reviewed movie. Readers can find my interview with Tom Perrotta, here, also updated into the current site.

From the outside, the suburban life is desirable because it lacks suspense. The worries imposed by life in the city or the country are lacking. There is neither the pressure of the crowds nor the vacuum of their absence. It's the best of both worlds; your neighbors live close enough to become your friends or far enough to remain anonymous, according to your preferences. Your very ability to afford such accommodations implies wealth that offers comfort but does not encourage carelessness. It's a little slice of heaven, except when it isn't. If only those pesky people didn't live there!

To write an effective book about such a setting offers a lot of challenges. There's a school of thought that says if Heaven is indeed perfect, it must be rather boring, and the same applies to the suburbs. How does the writer get to the core of the lives there without succumbing to the very boredom that envelops the characters whose lives you are writing about? Tom Perrotta does so by using language so transparent that it's analogous to the squeaky-clean windows through which he virtually peeps to show us the shenanigans of those inside. 'Little Children' is so effectively written that it seems more like a voice inside the reader's head than a novel written with words on paper. The novel shimmers and disappears, leaving the reader literary neighbors who quite fortunately do not live next door.

Perrotta's cast of characters offers a sly look at the Great Homogenizer. The twenty-first century finds Todd, a one-time jock who somehow managed to finish law school, married to Kathy, a documentary filmmaker, and the father of three-year old Aaron. He's not quite got round to actually passing the bar exam, however, and it doesn't seem likely that he's going to. Staying home to take care of Aaron, he's become accustomed to the pace of life in his little suburb, enamored of his trips to the playground where the stay-at-home moms call him The Prom King. Truth to tell, in a situation that would otherwise suggest maturity, Todd has managed to remain firmly immature. It's not something he's going to give up easily.

Sarah is a one-time college feminist who finds herself married to Richard, a bit older, well-enough-to-do to be able to own a house instead of renting like Todd and Kathy. When Sarah and Todd meet in the playground, circumstances maneuver them into a brief, playful, fateful kiss. It's one of those bad decisions that seem fine at the time.

Ronnie McGorvey is a convicted child molester, suspected of kidnapping and killing a little girl. Though the authorities were never able to charge him with that crime, it's well known that he was accused, and now, as he moves in to the same neighborhood where Todd and Sarah live, to join his aging mother, he's the target of a ruthless campaign of harassment.

Perrotta effectively puts the reader into the minds of these characters and more. 'Little Children' is filled with moments of wry humor and observations so clear they hurt, just a little. As each of the men and women who people Perrotta's town are moved forward — they rarely do anything on their own — the inevitable approaches with the powerful dread of an unavoidable automobile accident. Perrotta's characters aren't exactly likeable or sympathetic, but his language is so note-perfect that readers are dropped in to their lives, like them or not.

Perrotta has a lot to say about a lot of things, and he does so with the same economy and transparency with which he creates the characters. The logical endpoint of feminism — the stay-at-home-man — gets ample and not exactly flattering treatment. But Perrotta is as fair and he is skilled with his words. Readers go with his flow because he's never stacking the deck. He's like the most accomplished of magicians, who do not even appear to be performing until the performance is complete and the end is utterly, terrifyingly apparent.

Men of course, are only half the equation. Feminism, from Flaubert to Andrea Dworkin, gets a nice firming-up workout in 'Little Children'. Sarah dreams the dream, while Kathy lives it. Neither of them manages to be particularly happy in the process. Mary Ann, the unpleasant ringleader of the Playground Mom Mafia at least manages to offer a façade of happiness.

Perrotta's suburbs are seething with quiet perversion. The Internet plays no small part in accomplishing the work of the Great Homogenizer. Perversion is a point of view, Perrotta quietly observes; witness the thoughts of Larry, the ex-cop now leading The Committee of Concerned Parents. But in Perrotta's novel, you don't witness anything; you experience it. And experiencing the thoughts of child molester Ronnie McGorvey is not exactly a comforting encounter.

Perrotta moves his plot and characters with a light, sure hand and quickly creates the suspense that the suburbs are supposed to lack. The compulsive nature of the novel cleverly parallels the characters who people it. There's a great deal of humor to be found here, the kind of smart writing that doesn't call attention to itself until the reader steps outside the novel to experience life without the intermediary brilliance of Perrotta's prose.

The importance of the prose is brought home in the conclusion of the novel. But that conclusion becomes a back door, through which we can re-enter Perrotta's world and re-experience the lives of quiet — and not-so-quiet — desperation of Perrotta's characters. Perrotta wrings suspense out of character, out of language, out of life, life unadulterated by the intervention of extremes and excesses. Each day offers the chance for transformation and the chance to reject transformation. Our little dramas make up our lives, and our decisions make up our days. Interrupt the flow of your life by reading Tom Perrotta's 'Little Children' and you're not likely to see it in the same way afterwards. Suspense will find a way to creep into your life. Viewed through the lens of Perrotta's language, your life may seem a bit clearer as well.

09-03-12: Laura Lippman 'And When She Was Good'

Economic Genre Fiction

Tension and suspense seem so simple on first consideration. It's only in reflection that one might realize just how slippery our notions of these literary experiences can be. At the core all literature must employ them. But how they are used, how they are created and how they are maintained throughout a narrative becomes less and less clear the more one explores the best examples. Laura Lippman's 'And When She Was Good' is a great example of suspense at its best. But it is also a very low-key, realistic story about life in contemporary suburban America. That Lippman manages to get both in the same novel is as surprising as the events within the novel.

Lippman's premise is not necessarily promising. We meet Heloise in a coffee shop, reading about a suburban madam who has committed suicide. She swats down another customer who makes disparaging assumptions about the woman in the headline, for a reason. Heloise is herself a suburban madam. She's either successful, a smart businesswoman or a criminal mastermind — or both, depending on your perspective. When we turn the page, we meet her again in 1989 as Helen, whose unemployed father is cheating on her mother. Helen will become Heloise. We're instantly and totally engaged in Heloise / Helen's increasingly complicated life.

For all the familiarity of the situation, Lippman's precise prose and her clear conception of the character swiftly dispel any doubts as to quality. 'And When She Was Good' ratchets up the tension relentlessly within each timeline and between the two, mostly by carefully creating a cast of characters who have the textured feel of people we might actually know or meet. Lippman's realistic portraits of urban, suburban and exurban life feel like stories you might overhear in your own coffee shop — or tell yourself. Helen / Heloise is a superbly nuanced work of character, a sort of suburban Madam Bovary, willing to do anything to protect her child's so-far normal experience of growing up in an American suburb. Lippman's transparent prose renders Heloise's every decision not just sympathetic, but reasonable, logical — the best choice in a real world that doesn't serve up a great deal to everyone.

As Helen's past comes back to haunt Heloise's present, Lippman's plotting skills become increasingly apparent. This is a novel with an implied backdrop of sex and violence which mostly eschews both but in doing so keeps the focus on danger — but not physical peril as much as lifestyle peril. Heloise has a son, who does not, cannot know about his mother's secret occupation. How can she reinvent herself in this terrible economy and keep her comfortable suburban life? That Lippman can make us care, and care deeply about this is a rather incredible accomplishment.

Part of the fascination of what Lippman does is her ability to imagine the way that Heloise runs her business. For readers who enjoy the technical aspects of a crime novel, 'And When She Was Good' is a feast of fascinating creation. But Lippman does a lot more than work out the business plan for her suburban madam; she makes this a crucial plot detail, an economic tipping point. Heloise's business reflects her character, but when Heloise has finally created her business, she realizes that she could and should be much more than what she is. Her success leads her not to self-satisfaction, but to strive for both less and more. Lippman pulls off the duality of Helen's and Heloise's lives and their economic fates with an astonishing ease.

'And When She Was Good' offers readers a gallery of great characters, from Helen's father to the cop who helps keep Heloise out of harm's way. Audrey, Heloise's right-hand girl, is a particular delight. Lippman has a real feel for American suburban life and a knack for wringing suspense out of everyday events. The level of detail, the smart plotting and the nuanced observations about the people who surround us come together effortlessly. Lippman never judges, nor does she encourage her readers to judge. She simply gives us life as we might live it. Just as we go from one day to another, never stopping, Lippman keeps us going from one page to another, never stopping. It is, after all, suspense and tension that get us from one moment in this life to the next.

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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