A Break in the Agony:Ten Books I'm Bringing to Hawaii and Why

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A Break in the Agony
Ten or so Books I'm Bringing to Hawaii and Why
The Agony Column for January 2, 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel

I'm hoping they won't open the plane door.
So I'm off on a family vacation to Hawaii, leaving Sunday, returning a week from Sunday on the redeye flight. Since SBC has a dialup in my area code there, and since we have a phone in the condo, I'll probably keep up the website though the news items will be diminished, as I won't be at home to receive the many books that I hope to have flying onto my doorstep. On the other hand, we have a friend staying at the house so I might have him open the packages and let me know what is in the pike -- and pass that on to you. I have great ambitions, but only actual time.

Of course, when it comes to packing and all the other niceties, my main concern is what books to bring. Vacation may not remove the computer distraction from reading, but it clears the way of a hell of a lot of others. So I thought I'd share with my readers what comes on a one week vacation and why. You must do the same thing right? I mean it's not a vacation unless it's a reading vacation, correct?

A reading beach, as opposed to beach reading.
First and foremost let me assure you that I'm not squeamish about taking big damn heavy hardcover books. I certainly prefer to read big damn heavy hardcover books, and if I'm going to go on vacation -- on a reading vacation -- then I want to take the books I'll enjoy reading most. So, sorry everyone who mutters on about taking only paperbacks on the plane because it's a vacation. I am bringing some paperbacks along, but they're trade paperbacks and pretty much like hardcovers without the hardcovers.

I'm also not one to blanch at taking more books than I can possibly read. I'm taking some ten or twelve books, when it's possible I'll read only two or three -- if that. For one thing, I'm taking some collections, so that I can break up reading between novels with readings of shorter fiction, something I don't usually do. And furthermore, I just want to have an embarrassment of riches, so to speak, if I'm going to lug all these books around. I sure don't want to have crisis where, based on what I've read in one book, I want to read another and find I've not got it with me. And now on to the lucky winners!

Safety and security.
I'm currently reading Walter Jon Williams' 'The Praxis: Book One of the Dread Empire's Fall'. I was wanting to read some space opera when I started the recently-read 'Coalescent: Destiny's Children Book One' by Stephen Baxter. Unfortunately, Baxter's opus doesn't quite get to the space opera aspect in the first novel of the series. For much of the book we're earthbound, in fact underground. Baxter's novel is fascinating take that splinters a bit towards the end -- but I suspect that's because it's the first step to the next level of the series, and I'm definitely interested in seeing where he goes with the series.

'The Praxis' (I'll dispense with the numerical aspects of a book once I've presented it) gets right to the meat and potatoes of space opera from page one forward. Williams' scenario finds humanity and a couple of other races having enjoyed (or endured) 10,000 years of relative safety and security under the yoke of the Shaa. Safety and security that exist because the Shaa will bomb the living shit out of anyone who dares to disobey The Praxis, their set of laws with which they run the universe. Those who aren't bombed into submission are tortured into submission by trained experts. As the novel opens, the last of the Shaa has finally decided to end its life, and what will follow will be a mad scramble for power, apparently punctuated by episodes of teenage-style lust and drunken hi-jinks. Under the laws of the Shaa, humanity and the other races seem to have been trapped into what looks to me like a perpetual adolescence of evolution. The Shaa basically disallow a number of technologies and practices that could get things beyond a Buck Rogers state of affairs. Yes, you'll have fun, fun, fun till your daddy takes the universe away. Better yet -- the sequel is already out and on order!

A matched pair of funny hats. Dan Simmons takes on the classics once again, with spectacular results.

But that's not all the space opera that's fit to ship. I've been patiently waiting for a space in my interview schedule to read Dan Simmons' latest novel 'Ilium', and damn if I'm not going to try to open up the time to do so in Hawaii. Simmons set one of his novels in Hawaii, 'Fires of Eden', so it only seem proper to repay the favor by reading one of his while I'm there. However, I've put an obstacle in my way. I want to read 'The Iliad' in the Simmons-approved Richard Lattimore translation first. That's a pretty beefy 400-plus pages of translated Greek poetry. Between the two of them, they could very well consume all my reading time while on vacation. But the one-two punch of pure artistry would be well worth the effort. The question is whether some other author won't turn my head first. And yes, I'm pretty close to buying the Cliff notes to 'The Illiad'. Stop me before I read again!

I once tried to eat sea-cucumber soup. Unlike reading Michael Cisco, it is not an experience I care to repeat.

My recent space-opera binge was supposed to be broken by a reading a horror novel, and the choice I had in mind was Michael Cisco's 'The Tyrant'. This surreal tale of dreams and nightmares made true is as far out from space opera as one could hope to be, in fact, so far from space opera that you actually come up around it and approach it from behind. But it's definitely short, and that's always a plus in my book. I loved his book 'The Divinity Student'. And really, really weird, that is, did I take some unknown drug and concoct this book in my brain weird. I love it when a book does that; it's an emotional and intellectual experience no other art form could possibly induce. Some people might not find this a good thing -- damn those sane people, as long as they make the trains run on time, they're good for something!

March you spoiled little brat!

Just so that I'm not totally drenched in unreality, I'm bringing with me 'Vernon God Little', which not only looks like something of a palate cleanser from all this genre fiction, but more importantly, a hell of a funny book in its own right. But what's weird is that 'Vernon God Little' also appeals to the same taste schemas that inform my genre reading. It looks weird, funny and a bit surreal. I'm interested to see how author DBC Pierre does in getting behind the eyes of an American teenage boy. I have two residing here at home with me; in fact I can hear one playing a snowboarding video game with his buddy here. He's fourteen years old and even he's rather repulsed by the violence in 'Soldier of Fortune II', which his older brother bought. That's a game where you sneak up on people and knife them from behind. Most delightful! And perhaps more what Vernon Little, the title character of the novel ,would be inclined to play. I really wonder if Pierre has got this right or not, and frankly I feel I'll be well-set to evaluate his success. The critical acclaim heaped on this book is not likely to have come from the Americans who are parents of teenage boys.

If I want to get back to a brutal but pertinent unreality, then Richard Morgan's 'Market Forces' should do me just a treat. It's a near future scenario that could probably be converted to an ultra-violent video game. Conflict Investment and constant killing seem to be the way we're heading as a nation anyway. If America decides to invade another country for its own good while I'm away, then I'm ready to go with context-appropriate reading. I'm only hoping that those in charge aren't bringing in PS2 PlayStations to run our aging nuclear arsenal. But if they are, I have a couple of potential future nuclear attack managers.

… and if they become such, one hopes that they won't wind up in a future, new, updated and expanded edition of Rhys Hughes clever concoction, 'A New Universal History of Infamy'. This self-described Borgesian work offers primers on personalities such as 'The Brutal Buddha, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg', ' Trader of Doom, Basil Zaharoff', along with such "Surplus Parodies" as 'The Hyperacusis of Chumbly Mucker'. This may be the short story title of the year for 2004 -- only one day into the year.

I've already read the first two stories in 'Rumpole and the Primrose Path'. To my mind, these books are the best possible example of how digital technology might be brought to bear in a fruitful method. Nobody can play Rumpole but for Leo McKern. We know that's the case. When I read these books, it's his voice I hear speaking them. So when digital filmmaking finally comes of age, someone can go back and very carefully sample the original runs of Rumpole and re-create the new ones to spec. It's probably something I'll only see in my dotage, and how appropriate is that? In the interim, these little short story breaks act as a perfect brainwash between-genre fiction reading.

John Mortimer's latest Rumpole collection is as delightful as...

Jasper Fforde's latest Thursday Next opus.

But when I want to get really weird and really fun, I've saved myself a wonderful bon-bon. That would be the newest Jasper Fforde novel, 'The Well of Lost Plots'. It's coming out in a couple of months in the US, so a review will be well-timed for those not quite as compulsive as I am. Also, I must admit that they’re doing some pretty interesting things with the American editions that they don't do in the UK. I'd want to buy both editions anyway, but now I have a damn good reason, thankyouverymuch. And I can get my American edition signed; Jasper Fforde is coming to the US on tour. I know he's showing up at M for Mystery on February 28. You can check his website to find out when he's going to be near you. Trust me, it's worth the trip. He's totally entertaining. I'd even watch a late-night TV show to catch an appearance by him. Unless they're being pre-empted by live reporting from our latest invasion.

I'm also committed to reading all the Strange-Quinn novels by George Pelecanos, so 'Hell to Pay' is my second shot of straight reality to counter all the weirdness I'm importing. Like the Rhys Hughes, this is fast, easy reading. I can see it getting read in one day on a sunny beach, assuming we get any sun in Hawaii. This will leave only 'Soul Circus' to complete the preparation for 'Hard Revolution'. I must say that Pelecanos is to my eyes clearly preparing for the prequel, even in the book I just read, 'Right as Rain'. There are plenty of hints in that book about Derek Strange's past, plenty of references. I'm curious to see how the hints develop as the novels progress. What fun it is being a totally compulsive reader! Especially when you latch on to an author like Pelecanos, who writes with such astringent clarity that his books might be the mystery equivalent of Listerine.

Researching the family legend of Zeppelins and Brazil.

'Crimewave 7' is also coming with me. There are lots of short stories here, all of them in the Pelecanos mode, from what I can tell. I read a couple or three in between novels and I've polished off the collection before I know it. 'Crimewave' is always a pleasure, and interestingly enough, one of its contributors (though not in this issue) is coming to the US to tour, and I'm hoping to talk to him. That would be Ian Rankin. He's showing up shortly before Jasper Fforde. I wouldn't put it past the publishers to try to save money booking them both at once, in some godforsaken deal with the airline devils. Yes, readers, authors love being uprooted from their comfy chairs and shoved into a flying cigar tube and dragged from hotel to hotel and bookstore to bookstore in a relentless thirty-day death march year after year. The next time you see a cheerful author at a book signing, remember this and thank him or her profusely. Buy his or her books even if you don't read them. They're working overtime and they damn well deserve it.

Another interstitial selection is Elizabeth Moon's 'Bibliomancy'. Four novellas from PS Publishing, from the author of 'Black Light', an interesting novel that sort-of defined Goth for me at least. You get some award winning material, an introduction by Lucius Shepard, and the usual beautiful production work. Sublime, weird reading for a single sitting.

And finally, for a full bolt of real reality, it's family background investigation time. Yes, that's at least part of the reason for my picking up 'Dr. Eckner's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel'. As a child, I seem to remember being told that someone on my father's side of the family was the first person to fly a Zeppelin -- or a dirigible -- across South America or Brazil. All those Kleffels were certainly in Germany at the right time to have picked up such a gig. Between the Internet and Douglas Botting's biography of the father of the Zeppelin, I intend to find out if this is just my childhood imagination acting up on my, old age creeping in, utter fantasy or hard reality.

Where the laptop will stay for a week.

All of those will be on the trip, along with my laptop already configured for a 56K dial-up number in Hilo. It will be slow going next week, but lots of reading hopes to get done. It may never be achieved, but I've prepared a moveable reading feast. And that's what I call a vacation. You can just call it a break in the agony.

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