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06-21-14: Steven Galloway Conjures 'The Confabulist' :

Creating Harry Houdini

Martin Strauss makes some extraordinary claims at the beginning of Steven Galloway's 'The Confabulist,' and like all such declarations, they require extraordinary proof. With Steven Galloway, Martin Strauss and novel's focal point, Harry Houdini, you're in precisely the right company to obtain it. Galloway's novel manages to be a tense, imaginative historical thriller while simultaneously being a poignant mediation about love and loss.

The title of the novel suggests how it's possible to reconcile such opposing literary notions. Confabulation is what happens when memories are blurred and the imagination supplies supposed facts to fill in the blanks. As we meet Martin Strauss, he's not in the best shape. Suffering from tinnitus, and racked with guilt, he claims to have met Harry Houdini. Before we can blink our eyes, Galloway introduces us to Houdini, and the novel rockets forward and backward through Houdini's life and Martin's.

Galloway is a master of modulating his prose to keep it appropriate to the task at hand. His re-creations of historical events are transparent third-person narratives that are crisp, clear and exciting. Martin Strauss's passages create tension and pathos as he tries to remember what he claims to have experienced. Galloway has the poetry to be lyrical, the power to create an intense propulsive narrative and the writerly wisdom to know how and when to move from one to the other.

The two main characters here, Strauss and Houdini, are magnificently conceived and equally well executed. Galloway crafts Strauss as a man whose cloud of self doubt never gets in the way of a muscular self-importance. Houdini is rather the opposite, a man whose constant certainty is undercut by his understanding that nobody, not even the great Houdini, can be right all the time. Moreover, much of the joy of the book comes from seeing Houdini create himself as a character. It is quite appropriate that, in a book about Houdini, we experience a sort of hall of narrative mirrors.

The reflections don't end with the characters, but extend into the plot as well. The Strauss story has some echoes in the Houdini story that it encompasses, and both play with and undermine our sense of history. Suffice it to say that Galloway has clearly done his research with regards to writing about Houdini's life in manner that is both historically accurate but imaginatively entertaining as well.

'The Confabulist' ultimately proves itself to be something of a magic trick, one that will play with the memories of everyone who reads it. None of us will come away with the same story, or the same memories of reading the same words. But there's- no doubt that magic, real or imagined takes place. And the difference between magic, real and imagined is, if not negligible, at least negotiable. As readers, we have the power to choose which words to read between and what to put there.

06-18-14: Ray Russell Heralds 'The Dark Return of Time'

An Atmosphere of Crime

Flavian Bennett has a lot to forget. Living in Paris with his father, selling English-language books makes this a lot easier than it should be. Sometimes, forgetting should he hard. Ray Russell is well-known as the co-proprietor, with Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press, which publishes some of the best supernaturally-tinged but generally quiet fiction you can hope to find anywhere. One might well presume that his novel would follow suit, and to some degree this is the case.

But 'The Dark Return of Time' offers a reading experience that is understated, atmospheric yet chock-a-block with incident, crime and no small amount of violence. It's a curious and effective mix, at once exciting and tense, with a pretty straightforward crime fiction plot and a wistful undertone that adds a deep resonance to matters. Russell manages to pack more into his 134 pages than many other authors get out of 400+. 'The Dark Return of Time' does something nobody else is doing and does it spectacularly well.

Walking home from work one evening in Paris, Flavian Bennett is witness to a rather spectacular crime. But he's not the only one. He reports the crime to the police, who don't seem all that interested — or is it just that he's clearly not a local? As Flavian tries to track the other witness, he and his father get a request to seek out a supposedly rare book titled The Dark Return Time. It's just about as elusive as the crime, the witness and Candy, a new woman in Flavian's life whose story seems to conflict with others.

Russell is a master of conflicting atmospheres. The crime fiction elements here seem gritty and real, while the backdrop and Flavian's worldview are far more internalized. There's a small cast of characters, impressively well-crafted, who will stay with readers outside the pages. The prose is crisp and chameleonic. Some scenes have the feel of a classic English ghost story, and others the brute force of thug fiction. Everything rings true, and Russell manages to slip fron one reality to next with no effort.

Given its compact nature, 'The Dark Return of Time' the full, rich feel of Russell's novel is pretty surprising. He crafts a space that feels lived in and one the reader will experience as extending beyond what we are told. 'The Dark Return of Time' is a mystery in all senses of the word. The elements of crime fiction are present and handled with page-turning expertise. But the larger sense of mystery, the perception that there is more than we can know about ourselves and the world around us, this sensibility emerges as well. Russell's smart, dark novel is thrilling, sensuous and memorable. It will write itself into your mind, and afterwards, you may well ponder if there is actually much of a difference between thinking — and reading.

06-16-14: Geoff Dyer Has 'Another Great Day at Sea'

The Steel Beach Party

It's a peculiar idea. Geoff Dyer, a smart, sly British writer, is asked if there is anywhere he'd like to go for a couple of weeks, with the idea he'd write a smallish book about his experiences. Dyer chooses an American aircraft carrier, and some months on, is told that he's got his wish. For two weeks, he's to be the Writer in Residence aboard the USS George H. W. Bush, and now, all in a trice it seems, we're lucky enough to have 'Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush' to hand for a bit of recreational reading. It's a vacation well worth taking, especially with Dyer as your guide.

'Another Great Day at Sea' is a straightforward gig, on the boat and in the book. We meet Dyer as he's coming in to the base near the ship. In no time, and very few pages, he's aboard. From the first paragraph, Dyer's lively prose and genial voice are strikingly entertaining. He portrays himself as a bit fussy, insisting on a cabin by himself, a luxury unheard of on the carrier — but he manages to get it. For all his joviality, Dyer has a deep streak of honesty in him. As we read his self-deprecating prose, we feel we're getting raw reportage, the real deal, even as Dyer waxes effectively poetic. His descriptions of the men wearing futuristic "cranials" and bearing heavy chains as if from some "medieval siege engine" are both breathtaking and effective. He's quite funny much of the time. You'll laugh a lot as you read the book, mostly at his clever turns of phrase; never at the crew.

The construction of the book is quite on the up-and-up. As readers, we follow Dyer as he is taken from one part of the ship to another. It's a huge ship, with a crew of 5,000. As Dyer points out, this is the size of a small town and they have someone aboard the ship to manage pretty much anything you might find in a small town. You'll meet a fascinating cross section of American servicemen and women, character crafted with grit and truth. There are many crewmembers you'll be hard-pressed to forget, and scenes of extraordinary if industrial grandeur.

As you read 'Another Great Day At Sea,' don't expect an exposé of the military. Dyer found himself aboard a well-run craft with a generally happy crew. The tight quarters don't allow for many shenanigans, even though the brig (which he visits) does get some use, usually for those who are tardy to work. In fact, the vibe of much of the book is that of a holiday traveler, who just happens to be aboard the carrier. It's fun, charming and yet rings true as well.

As he stays long on the ship, Dyer begins to get a bit more manic, cadging food from the Captain's cook, and getting his teeth done by the on-board dentist. By the end, he's transformed in a manner he does not and the reader will not expect. But early on in 'Another Great day at Sea,' you learn to abandon expectations. Dyer delivers far more than you can hope for in his slim little book. He crafts a world within the world that makes the whole shebang seem like a better, safer place to sleep.

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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