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01-30-13: My Life in the Bush of Books

Deep in the Printed Pages, Part 2

Editor's Note: We now return you to our previously scheduled round-up, which fell off the cliff last week while I was interviewing Tracy Kidder and then Ian Rankin. All the while new books were coming in, so we may follow this one up with another.

From where I sit, I can see my original, now 20-something year-old copy of Brian Lumley's 'Necroscope.' It was a hell of a good novel, combining a spy story with science fiction and way, way over-the-top gory, slimy alien vampires in a totally unique fashion and told in a prose style that was reminiscent of what you might expect your "bad uncle" to whisper when he's trying to give you nightmares. The name has since been trademarked and now is accompanied by an appropriately tiny, parasitic "®", clinging to it and trying to suck the excitement out of the stories. Maybe we should send it up against the Scientologists.

In the interim, readers should make haste to pick up 'The Mobius Murders' (Subterranean Press ; March 31, 2013 ; $35), a novella that plucks out a little bit of protagonist Harry Keogh's timeline to play out a nice little mystery involving inter-dimensional travel, murder, and, of course, eyeballs, fried and fresh, skulls in alien landscapes, parasites and the Great Majority (the dead), who whisper to Necroscope® Harry Keogh about all the things that vampiric, parasitic murderers do not want you to know. The impossible is always possible in Lumley's entertainingly topsy-turvey world. Count on Lumley to grimace his way through the story and Bob Eggleton to deliver a gorgeous cover with detailed interior line drawings and Subterranean Press to bring on a gorgeously-printed volume.

James P. Blaylock is not beyond eyeball frying himself, and it is quite likely that the eyeballs once in 'The Aylesford Skull' (Titan Books ; January 15, 2013 ; $14.95) his latest Langdon St. Ives steampunk adventure, were served crispy to a most unpleasant batch of pirates. He and I spoke about the novel last year. Grave-robbing and the angry but brilliant scientist D. Narbondo kick things off, followed by a bit of child-napping. Blaylock is, with good reason, called "The Steampunk Legend" on the cover of the book. His last novel, 'Zeuglodon,' took place in the vicinity of the evil Narbondo, but this installment is pure 19th-century boot-to-the-bottom adventure.

Blaylock knows how to have a good time on the printed page and he makes sure that his novels are something of a party for those who read them. If you are looking for derring-do, authentic, deeply-drawn mustache-twiddling villains, weird science, bumbling but well-meaning heroes, charming children and a dog or two, here's your best, probably your only bet. It will make the perfect follow-on to Barry, not just alphabetically, but in terms of pirate continuity, which, as readers should know, is critically important should one want to remain a responsible book-reading citizen.

Readers who enjoyed Laird Barron's "Hand of Glory" in 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All' (or its original publication) should run, not walk to pick up 'The Inventor and the Tycoon' by Edward Ball. Here you will find the true-crime story of Eadweard Muybridge, a brilliant man who was clearly not the coolest head in the house, and his relationship with Leland Stanford. Stanford made his mint as a ruthless railroad baron, and saw a lot more money in the unbalanced mind of Muybridge.

Matters of marital betrayal, jealousy, murder and more turn this atmospheric history into a page-turning thriller. Deep characterization, detailed prose, and a great sense of peeling away the layers of propriety make 'The Inventor and the Tycoon' (Doubleday ; January 22, 2013 ; $29.95), a delightful journey into the past upon which our present is built. It explains a lot, really, not much of it particularly flattering to past or present. Two brilliant, ruthless and rather bad men make good; it's the all-American story! Ball expertly finds the through-lines and story to make history into the stuff of a character-driven compelling page-turner.

And there is then, of course, the tiny but beautiful mind-bending chaser that is 'Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony' by Gheorgie Sasarman, and translated by no less than Ursula K. Leguin (Aqueduct Press ; May 2013 ; $16.00). If you are reminded of Italo Calvino, then you are on the right track, but Sasarman has his own smart visions to offer readers. The brief excursions into the fantastic cities described here will trip anyone's sense of wonder even as they cause readers to glance at the world we find at our doorsteps with new eyes. These cities are really enjoyable to read and re-read about as Sasarman spins off allegory and innuendo to imagination with remarkably clean language as translated by Leguin.

Any one of these stories will craft in the reader's mind an entire world, a society, a country and then slowly but surely transform that imaginary way station into a refracted aspect of what is happening here and now, and ever and forever. This is the sort of book that is well worth seeking out, as are the cities of the imagination it creates for us. Of course all books create the world for us anew in our imaginations. But only when we help, when we take the time to sit down and read.

01-28-13: Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd Write 'Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction'

The Story of Writing

It's easy to think that 'Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction' by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is yet another writer's manual, a collection of rules, back-patting and proscriptions assembled to offer would-be writers the equivalent of literary tech support. But the first page of the book belies this notion. Kidder and Todd begin the book saying, "We met in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly."

With an ease so seamless as to be invisible, the authors create present themselves as characters in their own creation. Kidder is a green writer, willing to do whatever it takes to get himself published. Todd is a patient, visionary editor who sees some worth in encouraging Kidder. They will have to learn to work together. What they learn — their story — is compelling and even essential in what we call the Information Age. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have spent the last 40 years gathering information from the world around us all and presenting it in a manner that allows them to communicate to their readers what it is they have learned. They have learned to tell the story of what they have learned. With 'Good Prose,' they tell the story of how they learned to tell stories. It's a literary Möbius strip.

'Good Prose' is not mere memoir. Kidder and Todd let their subjects lend structure to the stories they tell, while the stories give the subjects verve and vibrancy. Having introduced themselves as characters, we start at the beginning with a section about beginnings. They style here sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's informal, with italicized first-person stories from TK or RT leading into more expository sections that analyze quoted passages and the authors' own experiences. Often, the authors offer guidelines, but there are no bulleted lists to be found until the very end when the authors offer what they call a "style guide." 'Good Prose' is built with the tools of the title.

One of the great strengths of this book is the authors' easy, understated sense of playfulness and humor. Kidder makes fun of himself and in particular his early, first novel. He's not alone; Todd does as well. But it's done with a sense of generosity that really informs every word in the book. Given that the two have worked together for so long, they've done a superb job of editing both themselves and one another. The periodic stories we glean from their long association are engaging, interspersed with wry commentary and analysis of good prose. A brief examination of the general admonition against using the passive tense and the verb "to be" goes gently against the general grain. It's fun to read, a rather incredible accomplishment that is easily missed.

While the title might suggest that 'Good Prose' is aimed only at writers of non-fiction, it's actually just a work of non-fiction about writing good non-fiction, which is not at all the same thing. Kidder and Todd spend a fair amount of time talking about and to readers. If you enjoy reading, this is definitely a book for you. Moreover, no matter what sort of writing you do, from grocery lists to office memos to Christmas letters to desk-drawer science fiction space-operas, the effect of reading 'Good Prose' will make your job easier. The authors have managed to write prose that will make you think about reading prose and writing prose with a new sense of clarity and purpose.

As characters, Kidder and Todd are an enjoyable pair to hang out with in these printed pages. Their stories and voices weave through smartly organized sections on Beginnings, Narratives, Memoirs, Essays, Accuracy, Style and Commerce, culminating in a chapter about "Being Edited and Editing." The narrative is never too dense or too chatty. While the friendship between Kidder and Todd is important, it's not overplayed. 'Good Prose' is, after all, a work of narrative non-fiction, a genre it analyzes thoroughly and entertainingly.

The subject of 'Good Prose' is writing, but the authors are quite clear that this book is for reading. We meet them in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly, and follow them, immersed in their words and their world. We can close the book when we are done reading, but the vision of how one word leads to another lingers with a new confidence and clarity.

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