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09-19-14: Walter Mosley's 'Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore'

In the Flattened Light of Life

The simplicity of the images in powerful optical illusions belies the underlying implications. One second we're seeing a vase; the next, we see two faces in profile. We'd like to think that those visionary flips are restricted to the realm of childish magic tricks. It's not possible to have our understanding of our own lives inverted, until it happens.

For Debbie Dare the powerful protagonist of Walter Mosley's new novel 'Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore,' the flip happens during a shoot for her latest porn movie. One moment she is "in the life." And the next moment, she's out. That proves to be the easiest part of her journey. Hopping off that track proves to be far more complicated, and (against my expectations) is an engrossing, compelling reading experience. Mosley flattens the affect of his character's perception with masterful prose, turning what might be transgressive overkill into emotional engagement.

After the opening scene, the novel lives up to its title; Debbie Dare, aka Sandy Peel, stops having sex, though she does recall a few scenes in memory. But getting out of the business proves to be quite difficult, as she returns home find her husband, Theon Pinkney, dead in his hot tub. He may be deceased, but he's one of the main and most entertaining characters you'll find here. Mosley manages to tread a very fine line in 'Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore,' mixing bits of humor and crime fiction to craft a tense plot around the actions of a woman who is in the throes of a profoundly spiritual sea change.

The prose makes all this possible. The novel is written with a flat affect, and readers will feel as if they're seeing this world for the first time. Debbie sees everything equally, including her dead-ex. But it's not as if there's a fantasy element to the novel. The prose, crisp and to-the-point, makes all that clear. There's a revelatory feel, without the elaborate overstatement. At one point these's even a quite powerful sermon; bu8t in every sense, the book is under-written, giving it the punch of someone who is seeing the possibilities in their life for the first time.

The characters we meet make this book both real, and quite a bit of fun. Porn stars, henchmen, criminals, Debbie's (Sandy's) family, and even a set of distressingly oblivious parents, are all effectively energized by Debbie's (Mosley's) prose gaze. There are quite a few characters here that you're going to love and remember; Theon, Jude, Coco Manetti. Mosley manages to wrangle a large cast with serious ease in a small book. Only afterwards might you think of just how difficult it might be.

From the opening scene, the plot is set, but Mosley easily complicates it by virtue of Debbie's and Theon's professions and pasts. They all catch up with Debbie, but her thousand-yard stare makes her much tougher than anyone might at first surmise. But tracking the action on the outside is the Debbie 's equally intense interior journey. By divorcing sentiment from spirituality, Mosley gives both greater power.

Obviously, this is not a book for every reader; but not so obviously, it is a book that can be deeply enjoyed by a much larger audience than the subject matter might suggest. It is, in many ways, the quintessential American story, about an individual who rejects their lifeline and jumps track to something new and unexpected. That makes the book itself new and unexpected. You think you are seeing one sort of book; with the flick of an eye, you're seeing another. Life can be like that. Sometimes, change is for the better.

09-17-14: Lisa See Collects 'China Dolls'

Voice Power

My first thought on seeing 'China Dolls' was: "Not for me." But my contrary instinct kicked in; whenever I have a knee-jerk reaction, I force myself to remember the second word in that phrase. I opened the book and started reading instead of judging it by the cover. It took about one paragraph for me to become immersed in the voice of Grace, the narrator, and that was that. I really did not want to put down the book until I finished it as See carefully explores, over the next 400ish pages, the lives of three women in the midst of World War II America.

Not quite the midst, actually, since America doesn't get in the War until well into the story. But See's ability to capture and corral three very different voices, of three very different women, all involved in one way or another in richly evoked scenes of San Francisco's "oriental" nightclubs is sweet, smart, heartbreaking and disturbing but never less than utterly compelling.

Grace, Helen and Ruby form the trio of voices that take you through tumultuous years of American history, from the Exposition on Treasure Island to the great nightclub years in the city, to Pearl Harbor and the internment camps. The characters of these women are remarkably and entertainingly distinct. Grace is the lynchpin, a Chinese girl brought up bery Ameican who always wanted to dance. Helen is brought up in the confines of a family compound in San Francisco's Chinatown, and Ruby is Japanese, a free spirit ho is understandably passing herself off as Chinese. See does a great job of making each character someone whose perceptions readers look forward to returning to. By virtue of character alone, she turns the book into something of a page-turner.

The plot is surprisingly epic. See starts out in san Francisco and begins the book with a charming exploration of the Chinatown nightclubs. Readers might well have been satisfied had she stayed there, but she follows her characters into darker realms of history. As the world is torn apart, so are the characters, and See does not succumb to the temptation for unearned happiness. 'China Dolls' may seem like a bit of a lark, but See is too smart to let herself or her characters off easily. Charm evolves, and as we are engaged in these stories that reach into our lives, into our world, it's hard to put the book down and harder to forget it.

'China Dolls' starts off and looks to be a rather light book, full of fun and verve, and that certainly is true, for the beginning of the novel at least. But Lisa See's ability to invoke time and place through character enable her to craft not just a chorus of great voices but an entire world. See knows that light is best seen in contrast to darkness. eternity.

09-16-14: Lauren Beukes Illuminates 'The Shining Girls'

A Glimpse of Grubby Terror

We do not see much of this world. If we saw more, it might burst our minds. We string together the glimpses that we are afforded and feel immersed. That's good enough. We first meet Harper, a creepy sort of grubbin, giving young Kirby Mazrachi a plastic pony. We instinctively don't like Harper. Older men are not to give young girls toys. It's a bad sign. But in a crafty magic trick, in 'The Shining Girls,' Lauren Beukes shows us more of our world than we might think we'd like to see and makes it engagingly terrifying. For every human terror, there is a human wonder.

Terror takes us in and keeps us mesmerized. Beukes ratchets Harper back to 1931, when he stumbles upon a borderland in the middle of a city. From there, and with the help of place itself, in this case Chicago, Harper embarks on a unique killing spree, inspired and guided to snuff out the lives of girls who offer promise and tragedy to the world. If you've not already been handed the heart of this heavenly novel, consider yourself lucky, and just pick it up. Like revenge, it's best served cold.

Beukes vision of Harper is a grubby, churlish delight. He's not really smart, but he does possess a sort of low cunning. He's ugly and violent and horrific, but Beukes serves up murder scenes that are scary without being luxurious. Harper may be a serial killer, but in order to do so, he has to solve a very unique set of problems. He's a terrible, awful person, unsympathetic but not unengaging. it's a tough line to walk, but Beukes does so without effort.

Beukes' women are another matter; sometimes tragic, sometimes strong and powerful, always evocative of time and place and always assiduously researched to create complex characters who live up to the title. Yes, thet title is very important here. The book is really about women who shine, women who might have had an opportunity to effect huge changes in this world. But the parts of this world we don't see, those we cannot see, those we do not wish to see have an unfortunate effect on these women. Harper is simply a symptom. Happily, and saitisfying, there is a potential cure; Kirby.

Kirby is an almost-vicitm, and her special status helps her put together, with some engaging men in her life, just how an unintelligent low-life like Harper can prey on women who are indeed "the shining girls." Putting together the pieces of the crime and the solution are outstandingly fun, if always nerve rattling. Beukes knows how to craft tension without over-stretching a taut wire. s

For all the terror and wonder and tension to be found here, 'The Shining Girls' does something more than simply one-up the serial killer novel. Beukes has a means of evoking those places and moments between our everyday perceptions of the world. Her prose suggests not just what we see but what we miss, much of it full of wonder. We see people; she sees stories.

09-15-14: Alan Cheuse Reveals 'An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories'

Infinite Worlds Within

We exist in a universe of our own invention. No matter how much we might like to think ourselves creatures of a "real world," reacting to forces that are beyond our control, pragmatic handlers of day-to-day issues and ideas, the fact of the matter is that our blinkered vision is very much the sum of who we are. Getting outside our own perspective is yet another invention.

With 'An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories' Alan Cheuse manages to take readers outside their own hads and into worlds and lives that might as well be those of Martians. The stories here take us so very much there, into lives we'd never think to imagine. Cheuse uses the economy of the form to extract the maximum strength from what often seems to be an unfortunately well-informed understanding of how those other than himself and those perhaps very much like himself live. Happily, he's an equal opportunity explorer, and there's a lot of humor to be found here amidst the darker understandings.

The title story is an invocation of sorts, an invitation in a mind that imagines other minds and how they see the world. It evokes the fantastic worlds that live within us all. The stories that follow explore those worlds and fid a variety that's entertaining and occasionally painful as humanity itself. Cheuse has the means to channel voices; take for example the story he reads in our conversation, "Nailed," about a middle-aged man who takes his girlfriend to get a pedicure and decides to get one himself. He manages the neat trick of being hilarious while he's being almost painfully honest — about his character.

But Cheuse is also happy to venture well outside his own comfort zone. In his novel, 'To Catch the Lghtning,' he looked into the soul of photographer Edward Curtis. Here, in "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," he looks into Ansel Adams' life. In "Gribnis," you'll find a great recipe for onions and a fine story of family. In "Days Given Over to Travel," Cheuse imagines mother's dying thoughts, a heart-wrenching fantasia of language. Cheuse re-writes, or fills in the cracks of history with his picture of a bawdy, funny Ben Franklin in "Ben in Amboy."

The key to Cheuse's power as a writer of short stories is his unflinching honesty with his characters and himself. He never spares them the shame or the embarrassment of being human. These are often stories of shortcomings, of those who try but cannot live up to their own expectations, let alone those of others. That honesty proves to be refreshing, an embrace of humanity as it is, an embrace of people as they are. The marvels to be found here are those we may see, indeed those we may be in any moment of our lives. Our ability to invent and re-invent ourselves is nothing less than our own personal key to infinity.

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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