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09-25-13: Marisha Pessl Directs 'Night Film'

Dark at Heart

Mysteries are best left unsolved. The monster is best left unseen. But between the covers of the book, our experience must expand beyond what is solved and seen. 'Night Film' by Marisha Pessl, leaves a lot of the cutting room floor, but only the footage that is best rendered by the reader.

What Pessl offers on the page is nothing less than an engagingly overstuffed cabinet of curiosities, replete with baroque characters, a modern gothic sensibility, plots and stories that unfurl in a fractal fabric and even picture postcards of your vacation in her home-made hell. 'Night Film' is discomfort reading in best sense of the word.

In senses, the plot is simple and straightforward. Scott McGrath is a fallen reporter, whose last big story about a mysterious director of arty horror films, Stanislaus Cordova, blew up in his face. His life followed. Now it looks like the director's daughter has committed suicide, giving him a chance for redemption. He picks up some helpers; Nora, a hat-check girl Friday and Hopper, a suave sleaze with connections to the case. Their goofy informal detective agency has the case in hand for about second before it starts to come apart at the seams.

Pessl's novel is filled with images from Cordova websites, McGrath's case notes, and all the ephemera one might hope to find in that Cabinet of Curiosities. For all that he's a disgraced reporter, McGrath is an engaging narrator. But he spends a lot of time listening to other people's stories, so the first-person narrative never hangs heavy. The novel is loose and fun, as we follow our intrepid team ever deeper into the darkness.

Pessl's smart characters are the core of the stories here. They're believable, fun, sometimes scary, sometimes pathetic, but always riveting. You'll enjoy every meeting she has in store for you. She's smart enough to play the walk-on roles off against one another, so that every successive meeting adds a new vision to the bigger puzzle of the absent man at the middle of this maze, Stanislaus Cordova.

Pessl's plot is enjoyably complicated and not at all straightforward. This is the idea; we're in the world of the modern gothic. Hidden lives, secret cults, merchandising magic, forbidden websites, video's that may drive you mad — the path in is devious by design. What readers take away is directly proportional to that they bring. Pessl plays with the fantastic well. She knows the import both of rules and breaking those rules.

'Night Film' is a big book that doesn't feel big. Pessl's prose tends to feel airy and light, sure of foot and easy to read. For all the fun she has with the goofy side of her detectives and their quest, she's quite adept at building up a real reservoir of feeling. When matters become serious, it happens naturally, and the poignant moments are surprising and unforced.

When readers these days are confronted with a large novel, there's a temptation to read it as quickly as one can. 'Night Film' may lend itself to this. It's pacy novel with nice dollops of terror and tension. My advice is to take it slow and savor it. yes, this is the sort of novel that you can re-read to get a new experience. But as you come to the end, you'll want your first reading to last longer. It is one thing to search for something, like a good novel. It is another thing to find it, and realize just how good it was, as you come to the final page.

09-24-13: Joshua S. Raab Conjures 'theNewerYork Book II'

Export from LA

If you mention genre literature, the chances are your audience will, not without reason, think of science fiction, romance, fantasy or even non-fiction. The distinctions are useful and helpful to readers. But genre goes beyond this form of sorting. For example, Coffee Table Books are clearly their own genre, generally obeying rules as clear-cut as "military science fiction" or "historical romance." Big format; lots of photos, usually pretty. Low on type.

theNewerYork Book II, edited by Joshua Raab in LA will work perfectly well for many coffee tables even though in most ways it's the polar opposite of a coffee table book. It's a smallish paperback book with lots of type and lots of illustrations. I have Volume II, and Volume III actually "hits the shelves" today. It may be totally different, but I'm pretty sure it'll make a fine coffee table book as well.

Look inside, and you're likely to find a page full of slanted type ranting, or a weird drawing with an equally odd caption. The feeling here from beginning to end is surreal and experimental, printed superbly, with content that lives up to the fine presentation. Prose poems, weird declarations, a few illustrations that might cause a cringe and a few nice color plates; all of this adds up to a wonderfully textured and thought-provoking reading experience. It's really pretty weird. It might frighten the horses.

The big saving grace, the strength of this work, is the sense of humor that informs most of the pieces here. This is the kind of experimental literature that does not take itself seriously. The exceptions to this trend are all well enough wrought to stand on their own, but in contrast with the more whimsical fare, they add just the right touch of seriousness to the proceedings. This is a delicate balance that one might take for granted as one peruses the collection in coffee table book reading mode. The volume I got came with two very nice heavy-duty postcards, suitable for framing or using as bookmarks. (The latter is an honored use around my house.)

Add it all up and you'll find a compact work of inexpensive experimental fiction that you'll poke at for months to come. The illustrations and graphics are handsomely produced. There's a nice follow-on telling you who did what. And even if the issue I got is more than a year old, it feels contemporary. That's a hard effect to pull off.

Of course, alas, the chances are that you're not going to find this at a store near you. Look to the publisher's website, Here's the coffee table book that offers every bit of the entertainment value of its bigger brethren, with no sugar, no artificial sweetener and at about a quarter the price.

09-23-13: Jojo Moyes Finds 'The Girl You Left Behind'

The Pleasure of Story

Editor's Note: I know that most readers expect to find a different sort of book here. Jojo Moyes, like Dan Simmons, writes books that are hard for her publisher to classify. I'd be quick to put them into the category of Great Story, Told Well, Hard to Put Down. This book has everything you want in a fine ripping yarn.

It's always easier to make a decision than to live with the aftermath. And once we have set our sights, willingly, wisely — or not — down one path, that choice and those that follow gain a feeling of inevitability.

With events unfolding nearly one hundred years ago and in the current day, Jojo Moyes new novel, 'The Girl You Left Behind,' looks at the problematic choices we make and their unruly offspring. In a story comprised of stories that include historical settings, modern-day legal shenanigans and the emotional costs of just trying to be alive, Moyes crafts characters whose ordinary lives are extraordinarily engaging.

'The Girl You Left Behind' begins in the midst of World War I in the village of St. Pérron, France — occupied by the Germans who rule roughly, but not so cruelly, over the French villagers. Sophie LeFévre runs Le Coq Rouge while waiting for her husband, Édouard to return from the front. Her portrait becomes the object of some obsession for the surprisingly gentlemanly German Kommandant. In the 21st century, Liv Halston receives the portrait as a gift from her husband, shortly before he dies. Spotted by the artist's heirs, it becomes the focus of a legal battle, and the locus of a complicated mystery.

Moyes takes her time crafting the historical setting and set of characters, imbuing the story with a sense of tension and urgency as well as emotions. For all we might think we know about the first World War, Moyes has managed to find a scrabbly, fascinating bit that has thus far gone under the cultural radar. The first portion of the book is told in the first person, from the perspective of Sophie LeFévre. It's a smart, immersive choice. Tension is the village run through a variety of fault lines; between the generally, but not always peaceful Germans and their unwilling hosts an between factions within the village as jealousy and suspicion pit neighbor against neighbor with accusations of collaboration. Moyes takes us just to the edge of the known and then picks up the story in the present.

In the present, we meet another unlucky woman, Liv Halston. She's been a widow for four years after her young husband, a brilliant architect, died suddenly. She takes a housemate, then meets a man, but events don't pan out as she hopes. Soon enough she's on the wrong side of an art custody battle, vilified in the press and on the ropes financially.

Moyes' plotting in 'The Girl You Left Behind' is simply superb. Every character is caught up in both right and wrong, and as the stories in the timelines wind closer, she manages to ratchet up the tension while keeping events on both sides of the divide compelling and low-key but rife with urgent high stakes for the characters. And in spite of the fact that the book combines a variety of different tones and genre elements, she brings it all together quite seamlessly with great characters and an intricate unfolding of events.

No matter what sort of book you think you like, you're bound to find some element of that book in 'The Girl You Left Behind.' But more importantly, Moyes simply knows how to spin a great set of stories into a single, exciting tale. She explores bits of the world generally left unseen with characters who ring engagingly true. Out of the stuff of life, she weaves two different times into a single, smart and very satisfying story. When it comes to reading decisions, 'The Girl You Left Behind' is easy, with an aftermath of new memories from lives you might not otherwise have had a chance to live.

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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