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02-22-13: My Life in the Bush of Books

The Deep Range

I just had to turn around to pick up a book that informed my reading as a youth; Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Deep Range,' a deep-sea version of the deep-space novels and stories that made him famous. By the time this novel was published, Clarke had already written some of his best-known works, including 'Childhood's End,' and become known for his ability to wrest a good story out of good science.

'The Deep Range' was one of the many gateway books that took me to where I am today, sitting in a room full of books, with a comparatively small pile of four books next to me, waiting for me to write about them. They too represent a deep range, and hint at the variety and quality one can find at the bookstore with very little effort.

We'll start out with a lovely little work of nonfiction, 'Spectrums' by David Blatner (Walker & Company ; November 13, 2012 ; $25.00). This is a book with a simple idea that's been done before, and will likely be done again. In 'Spectrums,' David Blatner sets out to give us an idea of the scope of the universe from the microverse to the macroverse, with a combination of text and graphics.

The layout is important here; the look of the book is extremely engaging. 'Spectrums' aims to suck you in if you pick it up, and in that is succeeds admirably. Better stillk, it will reward the time you spend with it as Blatner takes his readers on an entertaining tour of, well, everything you can fit 184 square pages. "...comparing what we humans do," Blatner tells us up front. He then goes on to slice up everything in terms of Numbers, Size, Light, Sound, Heat and Time, with lots of charts, illustrations and pull-quotes to keep our eyes light on the page. Yes, one of the pull quotes in the "Numbers" chapter does refer to the now (in)famous "googol."

For all the graphic design that makes the book such a great book, Blatner matches it with smart prose. He knows how to cross the line non-fiction to science writing without the reader being aware of the ascent. Given the divisions here, this is a book that you can read in discrete bits, any one of which might send father afield. It's also a book you can consult, with a good index, and enough starter ideas to get you writing a decent short story or novel, if you're so inclined. 'Spectrums' is the sort of book that makes you feel smarter the second you pick it up, and that feel is much more durable than you might expect.

On the other end of the book spectrum is Joyce Carol Oates latest novel, 'The Accursed' (Ecco / HarperCollins ; March 5, 2013 ; $27.99), a wild and imaginative novel with a historical setting — the author's home town, Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century — and a very Fortean mindset that views the world as a sprawling hive good, evil and weirdness — mostly the latter. Mixing characters from real life — Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, Jack London, and Mark Twain —with those of Oates' own creation, Oates has crafted her own version of the living hell that is Our Great Nation. Unhappiness is guaranteed.

But not for readers who are looking for another fine example of how our best writers can turn to the fantastic, the better to show us just how we live. One of the pleasures of historical fiction is period detail, and of course, Oates can write sentences that bring the past to life. But she's also focused on writing about interior details, those little eddies and currents of thought that damn and define us, the woolgathering that sets our minds on fire, the passions and pleasures that consume us and leave nothing behind but ashes.

Oates loves to play with the reader, and from the beginning you will be her willing toy. The "Author's Note is signed, "M. W. van Dyck II." He's your guide to the curse that hangs over the city, the demons and ghosts and vampires that haunt the residents. They'll have some stiff competition from the residents, who are doing a good job of damning and haunting themselves. The going will get weird; don't expect mere normalcy to reign over this world. Joyce Carol Oates has her own spectrum. To a degree it might be seen as bad to worse, but there is beauty in damnation. Joyce Carol Oates knows just how to find it and put it on the page.

Lawrence Norfolk is a name I could not forget; just as I could not forget his first novel, 'Lempriere's Dictionary.' Here's a reason to consult your local or independent bookseller, as I'd heard nothing about his latest, 'John Saturnall's Feast' (Grove Press / Atlantic ; September 2012 ; $25.00), until I stumbled across it at the Mark V. Ziesing website. If only I'd had the catalogue in my hands I'd probably have seen it earlier. Like Oates, Norfolk writes complex, brainy novels, and like Oates, this novel has a historical setting, seventeenth century England. Young John Saturnall has the unfortunate luck to be the son of a woman thought to be a witch.

Witches are always convenient scapegoats when times are bad, and it does not take long for John and his mother to be exiled. Eventually John ends up in what might best be described as an "Arabian Nights of cooking" problem. As the foods grow more intense and complex, so do the characters. England is on the verge of war. Life within is manifested across the ugly landscape that surrounds John.

Norfolk writes dense, intense prose, and he's never afraid to journey into the fantastic if that's what it takes to tell his story. 'John Saturnall's Feast' is a richly textured and detailed novel, but not beyond the pale. Grove has sought to leaven the story and they've done an incredible job. The book is filed with finely-done etchings by Andrew Davidson and printed throughout in two colors. It's every bit the equivalent of many highly-priced small-press books. It will create a world for you and let you live there for 410 pages, and do so with enough detail that you'll be able to visit it in your mind. It's a 17th century vacation without the time machine.

It's just an accident of placement, but Warren Fahy's 'Fragment' lives right over my computer. That novel was a chock-full-of-monsters ripping yarn, and smart enough to make its monsters smart. 'Pandemonium,' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; February 2013 ; $24.99) takes up the story of Nell and Geoffrey Binswanger just a few months after they escapes from Hender's Island, with the intelligent earth-aliens, the henders, in tow. The Binswangers have barely finished the "I do's" for their marriage when another ecosystem is unearthed — literally, under the Ural mountains of Russia. And yes, here be monsters.

Lots of monsters, just as fantastically imagined and described as those in 'Fragment,' are the stars of 'Pandemonium.' Fahy is relentless in both his pacing and his logic, willing to kill humans as casually as, well, we are willing to kill one another. 'Pandemonium' has fun so fast that you don't really think of how much of a bloodbath it all is. What makes Fahy's novels so much fun is the care he puts into the critters. Fahy crafts them not just as individual monsters, but as facets in a well-conceptualized ecosystem. The result is that they come to life, which, depending on how you feel about seeing nature at its bloodiest, makes for book with an admirable depth to its horror.

Fahy matches up his monsters with those of the human persuasion, and he gives those monsters the kind of heavy metal that demands its own description. The upshot is that you're likely to spend a day and a night with this one clutched in your hands, hoping that when they get around to adapting it, they do it well. But even if they do, it won't have the bite of the novel.

When we read a book, we are always immersed in the present of that book, no matter when that present might be. Even in a non-fiction work, like 'Spectrums,' we're immersed in what we know right now. But books linger in our minds because we have to build them out as we read. Moreover, they linger on our shelves and in our minds as reading experiences; we can remember where we were when we read them. That kind of cross-hatching connects our past to our future. Between the two, we need but take the time to read.

02-21-13: Archive Review: Lawrence Norfolk Opens 'Lempriere's Dictionary'

Cross Worlds

Editor's Note: Looking at Norfolk's latest made me think about his first novel, which I read more than ten years ago. I remember it vividly; it was dense, tangled, weird and unforgettable. Here's my review, updated from the perspective a reader who looks back at a reading experience with great fondness.

Darkness falls; we cannot see far beyond the windows of our own lives. But it's easy to sense that all of us, connected to those we know intimately, are connected to others in a fractal pattern that could unfold in our own minds to encompass first the world then the universe, had we but time to accumulate the facts, make the connections. Good fiction shines a light out over a few more degrees of separation. Great fiction plugs an electric cable into the reader and illuminates the whole grid.

'Lempriere's Dictionary' is great fiction. It wants to plug the reader into a grid reaching back hundreds of years, across reality and fantasy as if they are one and the same. Just as some mountaineers make it to the top of Everest, some readers will find that 'Lempriere's Dictionary' provides precisely that experience. It illuminates the grid. Other readers will themselves stranded in base camp, sick and exhausted. How much of an effort are you willing to make to achieve the view offered by Norfolk's first novel? Having made your best effort, will it even be possible for you to see as Norfolk sees? And does he actually see a Grand Design in his sea of words? These are important decisions; consider them carefully before you buy this book, and once again before you start reading. The effort is considerable, but so are the rewards.

'Lempriere's Dictionary' is Lawrence Norfolk's first novel. Like many first novelists, he apparently wanted to say a lot, and unlike many first novelists, he has actually managed to do so. Young John Lempriere watches as his father is attacked and killed by a pack of dogs. Lempriere is in love with the dog owner's daughter. He's also tied to a "vast, right wing conspiracy" (well, that's what they call it today) that involves hidden cabals, immortals and angels. How he muddles through all this angst and still manages to write a famous precursor to 'Bullfinch's Mythology' comprises the scope of the novel.

Of course, such plot summaries rarely do books justice, or even a decent favor, and in this case that's more true than usual. Norfolk is working on a novel for the ages that spans the ages, includes lots of real characters and providing deep insight into creativity, love and reasons to live and live well. He casts his net wide and pulls deep. This book is a vacation, a complete and utter escape into a carefully constructed hermetic universe based on the complex history of our own world but informed by a visionary fever on the part of the author that exceeds any of those considerable visionary fevers he portrays in his characters. 'Lempriere's Dictionary' is intricate, surreal, supernatural and scholarly.

The novel is passionate, full of the sound and the fury that signifies a Great Deal. The very passion that informs the writing, the intensity that Norfolk seeks and finds, combined with the complexity required to reveal his thoughts, tend to make their comprehension elusive. Characters blur and fade as required by Norfolk's positively precision-oriented plot-machine. Plots unravel across time and in the reader's mind. Here's a novel that cries to be published in a hypertext version, so readers can twig to every allusion, so that every carefully constructed connection comes to light. Of course, this also makes 'Lempriere's Dictionary' the sort of novel that you can read and re-read. There's no doubt that each reading will be more enjoyable, more revealing than the first. Assuming that first reading is enjoyable, 'Lempriere's Dictionary' may be one of the best book purchases you ever make. If it doesn't imprint itself on your wall, there's little doubt it will imprint itself on your mind.

02-19-13: Word for Word Stages 'You Know When the Men Are Gone'

Beyond Adaptation

In adapting books and short stories for the stage or screen, the author's words are the first casualty. What we read is replaced, necessarily, so we are told, by something else. At best, the result is entertaining and offers some version of the author's vision. You can hope for a few snippets of dialogue, or perhaps a voiceover, to rescue some fragments of what you read. But the reading experienced is erased, and the joys of the text are lost.

San Francisco's Word for Word Performing Arts has, for some twenty years now, taken a different approach. In 1993, Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, decided to stage short stories and preserve the entire text. The staging is intense, physical and dynamic, and the performances of the text by a small ensemble live up to the name and offer the audience what proves to be a living, breathing three-dimensional reading experience.

In a Word for Word adaptation, the entire text of the story is performed by the ensemble. Actors speak the dialogue in character and perform — they don't recite — the narration of the story. The audience experiences the story by experiencing the performance of the text. By keeping the language intact Word for Word expands the range of the theater experience to include the immersive aspects of the reading experience.

The current show runs through February 24, which does not leave you much time, but if at all possible, make the effort. Readers can see the Word for Word versions of two superb stories from Siobhan Fallon's collection, 'You Know When The Men Are Gone,' "The Last Stand" and "Gold Star." Seeing a story presented in this format is really quite a revelation, one that enhances the original reading experience and makes you want to go back and re-read the original story.

If you've not read the stories, seeing this performance will send you to the bookstore; and if you have, it will send you back to the book. The performance itself will manage to be as indelible as the reading experience, a surreal memory full of emotions that you create, just as you do when you read. It's the difference between showing and telling.

Two stories are adapted for this performance. The first is "The Last Stand," directed by Joel Mullennix. This is the longer and more complex of the two, as the story features several scene changes and a rather large cast of characters. It takes a moment of two to adjust your expectations for a dramatic performance as the show starts. Hearing actors on stage deliver the narrative is something that you've not seen before unless you've seen another show. The key here is that both directors make sure that every word is delivered. For a stage play that follows the words precisely, the work that goes into getting those words staged must have been staggering; but in the moment, as you watch it's utterly captivating.

"The Last Stand" tells the story of Kit (Chad Deverman), who returns home having lost one leg below the knee, to find that his wife, Helena, has moved on. Roselynn Hallett's Helena manages the difficult feat of being both remote and intimate, while Deverman's Kit is intense and yearning as both he and his plans implode.

"Gold Star" tells the story of Josie (Arwen Anderson), whose husband Crawford (Ryan Tasker) lost his life saving Kit's. When Kit offers to come over and talk with her, she's desperate to hear from him.

The staging of "The Last Stand" by Joel Mullennix is breathtaking and intense, with individual sentences from the story being delivered by as many as three actors. The ensemble work, which includes, Marilet Martinez and Armando McClain is so finely directed and staged that there seem to be more people on stage than are in the troop.

For "Gold Star," director Kossow takes a much more measured approach. The story itself takes place for the most part in Josie's apartment. Kossow does make a vital decision to put Josie's late husband, Crawford, on stage. It's a powerful move that preserves the poignancy of the text.

Word for Word's staging of "The Last Stand" and "Gold Star" emphasize the humor in Fallon's text, which gives the stories as staged a richer and more prickly texture that serves to balance out the tragic story arcs. There's no denying the power of these stories; they tap into an experience both timeless and contemporary. What Word for Word, Joel Mullennix, Amy Kossow, Chad Deverman, Roselynn Hallett, Arwen Anderson, Marilet Martinez, Armando McClain, along with set, sound and lighting designers, have managed to do here is nothing less than to bring language to life. Make the time to see this while you can, if you can. Word for Word does not adapt these stories. They bring them to life.

02-18-13: Dave Barry Explores 'Insane City'

The Farce is Strong

Everybody has plans. We all look into the future, and make decisions about what to do today based on our vision of where we expect and want to be tomorrow. We set a goal and then do what we can to get there. But life has a way of intervening. We find what we thought we wanted to do is not so much fun as we expected. We find that what we hoped would be easy proves to be hard. We meet someone who changes our vision of ourselves. In the course of days, months, and years, we end up somewhere utterly different than what at one time had seemed to be our certain destination. We are human frogs, boiling ourselves slowly every day of our lives, unable to discern just how poached we have become.

With 'Insane City,' humorist Dave Barry boils Seth Weinstein, a very human frog, in the accelerated literary genre of farce. It's a quick read that is consistently funny, often hilarious and always engaging, and not just because it centers on a wedding. Barry makes the book deceptively easy to enjoy, but don't be fooled. 'Insane City' is a finely tuned, superbly written novel about the triumph of truth in a world of deception. Humans may be as easily boiled as frogs, but what's left afterward is much better at making decisions that lead to a happier future.

Seth's story is both simple and byzantine. He arrives in Miami with "The Groom Squad" to get married, but first he gets drunk. This leads to a series of problems that must be solved before he can tie the knot with his hyper-rich / beautiful / successful lawyer bride, Tina. (Un)Fortunately for Seth, Miami proves to be a perfect human-boiling environment. It's a city and a character where the weird walk the streets without notice, where excess is expected and encouraged, and a frontier where the world sends its most desperate castaways. Seth's two days in Miami are the equivalent of years in our lives, overturning his understanding of himself.

Barry's accomplishments here are many and for the most part, never obvious. He offers readers a large cast of characters who seem real and full of the stuff of life. One of the treats of 'Insane City' is that we like everyone we meet, so it is always fun to read the book, no matter whom we are with. Barry does take some serious chances here by introducing, early on, Laurette, a Haitian refugee with two children. Her plight is not in the least bit funny. But Barry uses his sense of farce to get us from A to B to C to the letter in some alien alphabet where Laurette and her children fit in perfectly with the rest of his cast and what he calls the "wedding-industrial complex" that drives the plot. This is a novel where readers will miss all of the characters after they finish the book.

For all the wild excess on display in 'Insane City,' it's Barry's discipline that lets him turn the volume up to eleven. Dialogue is crisp, funny and to-the-point. Scenes of action are vivid. Barry gives us just enough to conjure up the absurdities that will send his characters into the next absurdity. He has lots of fun with the language and the ability to pluck out the low points of our highly civilized world, and then reveal them to be as hilarious as they are. He uses peeves to drive plot, and point-of-view with an effortless ease to bring laughter. You might think he spent more time with orangutans than would have been good for his health. It's a testament to his skill as a writer than he can bring out the inner life of a lonely primate who is not human.

Keep the title in mind as you read the book; Miami, the setting, the 'Insane City,' is not just a weird place where kooky stuff happens on a regular basis. It's a Petri dish where the human virus can grow unchecked, where the human frogs can be boiled in a fraction of the time it takes elsewhere on this gray world. 'Insane City' is a breezy, laugh-out-loud farce that lets you take it just seriously enough to understand, while you're catching your breath, that the water is getting warmer around you.

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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)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

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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

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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 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

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03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

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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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