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10-11-12: Worth Your Valuable Reading Time

Settle In For (Dis)Comfort Reading

It's a perfect day for reading; cold, gloomy and overcast. Better still, I have lots of great books in the hopper for just this sort of day; and you do as well! (In one case, you might have to move a bit fast, though.) Look, clearly, reading is the best use of your entertainment dollar; not just in the initial consumption, but more importantly, in the long-term memories that reading provides.

And just to get straight to the point, the new novel by Mark Helprin, 'In Sunlight and Shadow' (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ; October 2, 2012 ; $28) is the perfect example. I know that I am not alone in my ability to literally visit the places I've been while reading Mark Helprin's novels, in particular, his 1985 masterpiece, 'Winter's Tale.' In that book, Helprin evoked a New York laced with magic, just enough to remind you of the magic that everyone feels in New York at one time or another. There are sere winterscapes and emotional moments that are as vividly real to me as any I've lived.

Helprin's been around the world since in his literature, but with 'In Sunlight and Shadow' he returns to New York at a moment of balance, just as the Second World War has ended and soldiers are returning home. Harry Copeland, a paratrooper meets — just for a second — the mysterious Catherine before both are subsumed into Helprin's gorgeous world, that will, of course bring them together again. What happens after is the stuff of amazing storytelling and sumptuous world-building. Helprin creates the people, the places and immerses readers in the feel of an era now past. The pace is stately, and the impact is intense. If you want to forget where you are, let Helprin take to you where we once were. Helprin's 'In Sunlight and Shadow' is a reminder of just how wonderful and powerful humans, at their best and worst, can be.

Once you're feeling all comfortable, it's time to stir yourself up with Stephen M. Irwin's superb second novel, 'The Broken Ones' (Doubleday / Random House ; August 7, 2012 ; $26). Irwin's world is every bit as jarring and as immersive as Helprin's, to excellent effect. Irwin posits a "Grey Wednesday" in our future, after which all of us get our own personal ghost to haunt, horrify, depress and torment us until we depart this veil of tears. Oscar Mariani is a detective who investigates crimes committed by those driven insane by their personal ghosts. Mariani's latest case involves a mutilated body and occult symbols. It is not likely to end well.

Readers, on the other hand, are going to feel that 'The Broken Ones' is a great way to end the year. It's essentially a gritty detective story set in a world carefully built out from our own. Irwin is writing science fiction here, and he creates a complicated, believable world and complicated, believable characters to inhabit that world. Pretty much everything is broken; the economy has gone to hell in the aftermath of "Grey Wednesday," as society crumbles and technology proves less helpful than we might have hoped. Irwin manages to entwine visionary elements of the fantastic with the gritty detailed feel of a crime novel. It's an utterly convincing and imaginative Apocalypse in which the world has not quite twigged to the fact that it's over. 'The Broken Ones' is one of those books that you will stay up late to finish even as you wish it would not end. Not surprisingly, it will haunt you.

You may continue being haunted, if you hurry, by picking up the outstanding new novel by Stephen J. Clark from Egaeus Press, 'In Delirium's Circle' (Egaeus Press ; August 31, 2012 ; £30.00), a different but equally involving novel of life after World War Two, set in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. When William Fetch finds a letter in a book in a used bookstore, he's compelled to steal the letter. Fetch responds to the letter, and is drawn into a correspondence that soon becomes obsession, and perhaps, madness. There are worlds within ours that are hidden, and those who know them keep them so. As Fetch pursues them, he risks his heart and his mind; his life may already be lost.

Clark's vision of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is detailed, dense, bleak and involving. The novel intersperses letters, journal entries and gorgeous illustrations with first-person narratives to create an impressionistic, terrifying feel of the supernatural. Clarks is working in a style quite reminiscent of Stoker's 'Dracula,' with a conspiracy-laden vision of a supernatural world hidden within ours. Helping matters out is the book itself. The illustrations are truly creepy, like field notes from an expedition to the afterlife. The art, including, the full-color endpapers is the by writer. There aren't many copies of this being printed — such is the world we live in — so you're well advised to order directly from the publisher at

Debra Dean's 'The Mirrored World' (Harper / HarperCollins ; August 28, 2012 ; $25.99) transports readers to St. Petersburg in the 1730's to experience the life of St. Xenia. If it sounds straightforward, that both is and is not true, which is not a bad way to approach the book itself. A slim volume that can be read in a day, 'The Mirrored World' manages, in a short space to create a lush, fully-realized vision of the past. We meet Xenia in a dream; to a degree, she remains a dream through the novel, even as Dean brings her to fascinating life.

For readers who enjoyed the non-fiction biography of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie, 'Catherine: Portrait of a Woman,' 'The Mirrored World' offers a perfect counterbalance, a snow-ghost version and vision of a world that to us seems almost like that of a fairytale. There are princesses and princes and evil sisters who know how to fashion the ropes that society gives them into nooses for those around them. But Dean's characters have a lovely crystalline, fragile depth. When they shatter, the shards fall into our contemporary lives. Writing about a visionary takes the level of prose skill that Dean demonstrates again and again. She skirts the lovely surface even as she reveals the shadows that dwell deep within her characters. There is magic in this world, in these words. It is the power of the human story, of narrative as life, burning brightly with a fearful symmetry. To read any of these books is to leave this world behind for a better one, built one word at a time.

10-10-12: Ramsey Campbell Finds 'The One Safe Place'


Editor's Note: Ramsey Campbell celebrates 50 years of publishing this year; and thusly, I went out and unearthed my 2002 interview with him, and after a bit of processing, rescued it from RealAudio Hell. Yes, I remember the days just ten years ago when uploading an MP3 file of an interview seemed incredibly difficult. I really enjoyed my chat with Ramsey, and hope very much to do so again. In the interim, here's a review of a book that is still well worth your valuable reading time!

Ramsey Campbell is best known for his novels of supernatural horror. He has a fine ability to evoke the ineffable with carefully controlled prose and an eye for the surreal. But he doesn't limit himself, and 'The One Safe Place' is a work of straightforward crime fiction that is genuinely terrifying without ever having to leave the province of the daily newspaper. Campbell is smart enough to leaven his terror with wonderfully morbid bits of dark humor, even as he ratchets up the tension to a nearly unbearable level.

As 'The One Safe Place' begins, the reader is introduced to two very different boys and their families. Marshall Travis is the twelve year old son of Don and Suzanne Travis. She's a lecturer on film violence at a college near Miami, her husband is a bookseller, and their son is being terrorized by the local teen-age hoods. He barely escapes, only because his family is moving to Manchester, England, where his mother has assigned to teach a special course abroad.

Darren Fancy is his British counterpart, a fouteen year old thug with no conscience whose mother is a prostitute and father is a violent petty criminal. He lives in a room full of stolen VCRs and computers, and keeps watch as his father and uncles move stolen goods in and out of the house. There's an organic, textured feel to his dialogues, internal and external that breathes a fascinating, darkly satiric life into Darren and the Fancy family. It's a riveting unique piece of criminal characterization, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell or the criminal families found in John Mortimer's Rumpole stories.

Of course, their paths cross when the Travis family moves to Manchester. Campbell's plot is a brilliant stitchery of everyday events that escalate from misunderstanding to argument to deceit to violence so smoothly, the reader will start to wonder when the story is going to appear on CNN. Campbell goes one better when he moves the story into a visionary prose tour of London as a suburban nightmare and re-assemble the familiar into a weird landscape as seen though his characters' eyes.

He underwrites his absurd visions with a clever turn of the plot, and through it all, the characters grow more and more real as the Fancy and Travis families are irrevocably changed by their encounter with one another. 'The One Safe Place' is a slyly humorous, darkly horrific look at the strengths and weaknesses of the family that will rivet and repel the reader long after the last page is turned.

10-08-12: Robert D. Kaplan Fights 'The Revenge of Geography

Past, Present and Futurology

The world is too much with us. Overwhelmed by the minutia of ever-present news, stepping back to see where we've been becomes incomprehensible, even as it becomes ever more indispensible. The instant fix lasts just about an instant — if you're lucky. But Robert D. Kaplan's engaging, intense and compelling book, 'The Revenge of Geography' is a perfect example of how the act of reading induces the necessary state of mind required to achieve any understanding of the increasingly complex historical narrative in which we are enmeshed. Kaplan looks carefully at the past, steadily at the present and offers essential insight about our potential future — or lack thereof.

The premise of the book is captured in the title; the conflicts of this world are shaped by the shape of the world itself. Kaplan's explication of this involves an exploration of geography, history, politics, technology and philosophy. But the book itself is a personal work, based on Kaplan's own realizations and experiences as a foreign correspondent in the Iraq war. Having supported the war going in, he found himself on the ground with a battalion of men making their way across the desert. It was clearly a life-changing moment, and Kaplan lets us follow his journey from the distant past to the near future. Suffice it to say that it's not going to get any easier particularly soon.

Kaplan's book is entertainingly organized and written with a personal through-line; it's Kaplan's journey from time immemorial to a future that's — to be honest — looking pretty bleak. The book is smartly split into two parts, "Visionaries" and "The Early Twenty-First Century Map." The first part looks both history itself and the men who wrote about it, from Herodotus to Marshall Hodgson to Halford J. MacKinder, as the definition of geography itself shifted from a wider focus on the land and those who lived there to maps and mountains.

Kaplan's history and his history of the historians is fascinating and always relevant. He seamlessly weaves in his own experiences and leads us towards the current and future events he discusses in the second part of the book. In "Visionaries," he looks at historic migrations and how the landscape affected them, while simultaneously looking at the works of his predecessors. Combining these with his own experience, he does no less than build this world for the reader, as if it were an alien planet. 'The Revenge of Geography' is an impressive and important work of history.

But Kaplan is not content to discuss just the past. The point of understanding the past, and how it helped to create the present, is to give his readers a deeper understanding of the potential for the future. In "The Early Twenty-First Century Map," he explores the implications of the first part of the book, and builds out the world with a better understanding of how the world itself shapes the civilizations that crawl across it, and the feedback loops that arise between different powers, the places they originate in and the places they migrate to.

Kaplan's prose is a marvel of clarity even as he explores the densest parts of the historical narrative. He maintains a high degree of tension with an expert eye on the present and the future. He's been pretty much everywhere he talks about, and has the sort of personal experience to empower and inform his vision. This is a book that changes the reader by changing their vision of the world. It's very engrossing; hard to put down and hard to forget. It also has a multiplicity of uses. On one hand, it's a book that most who read it will think should be stapled to the foreheads of those who are attempting to run the governments of this world. It's an essential tool for those who live in the world, should they wish to have a clue of what is driving the bigger forces that shape our everyday lives. And it is a book that will be an incredible aid to anyone who wants to write about this world — or any other, in that Kaplan manages a marvelous feat of world-building.

Ultimately, however, what is most interesting about 'The Revenge of Geography' is how much of a book it is. That is, it offers us a reading experience that cannot really be duplicated in any other way. Kaplan's manner of turning the world into words — and then turning those words back into this world — is unique. History is generally thought to refer to the past; but in Kaplan's book, history becomes a clear vision of the present that sets the stage for a visionary exploration of the future.

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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