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This Just In...News From The Agony Column

Preview for Podcast of Monday, March 26, 2007: History and this place.

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday March 26, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!

03-23-07: Kelley Eskridge Goes from 'Solitaire' to 'Dangerous Space'

Hazardous to the Touch

Probably more hazardous to your sexxual identity issues.
When Kelley Eskridge's novel 'Solitaire' came out in 2002, I was just starting up this column, and given the notice it was getting everywhere else, I gave it a pass. 'Solitaire' did end up on a number of notable lists, most notable the NYT Notable Books list. So I waited patiently for the next novel, for the next ... anything. Patience is occasionally rewarded, in this case with 'Dangerous Space' (Aqueduct Press ; June, 2007 ; $18), a new collection of short stories that acts as a great introduction to Eskridge's work. It collects stories from nearly 20 years of writing. "The first draft of the oldest story was written in 1998," Eskridge tells us in the publisher's Q&A that came with the arc, "and the most recent story was finished in 2007." With an introduction by Geoff Ryman, this collection from wonderfully primed-for-action Aqueduct Press shoots onto the must-have list for this year -- and probably onto a few award ballots as well.

Eskridge is my favorite kind of science ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H speculative fiction writer, the sort who is very interested in using the tropes of the genre to externalize that which we’d prefer not to discuss and force it into the spotlight. "I use the speculative elements to write stories about difference without having to justify those differences," she writes in the Q&A, "they simply become part of the landscape." For Eskridge, science fiction is, "the place where we can make metaphor concrete; create alienation overtly, make literal demons within that sometimes overwhelm us, assume it's possible to truly 'get inside' someone else's experience."

The experiences she gets inside run the gamut here. There of the stories feature her deliberately ambiguously gendered character Mars. "And Salome Danced", short-listed for a Tiptree award, is an SFnal vampire tale that revolves around art and talent as opposed to blood and violence; "Dangerous Space", a novella original to this volume plays with sex to the tune of music, and "Eye of the Storm" slips towards sword and sorcery. "Alien Jane" was a finalist for the Nebula Award and adapted by the Giant Snake Channel into an episode of a show featuring no giant snakes. Eskriddge likes to torment art, and she does so chillingly in "Strings", a compelling dystopian vision of art and music. Presumably, she's on the RIAA's "we're gonna sue our customers if they won’t buy the crap we make now" list. A fine business strategy, and one that I'll be pursuing myself. "City Life" looks at a woman with a gift or a problem -- you choose, while ":Eye of the Storm" posits a character who discover that sex only works in concert with violence -- not that speculative at all.

Eskridge (who has a website here) is one of those writers who, in a better world, would not even be thought of science or speculative fiction. She'd just be called: good writing. One presumes that in the fullness of time, she will write a speculative fiction story or novel about a world in which work such as hers is not, in fact considered unusual.

Look for it in the science fiction or fantasy shelves of your bookstore.


03-22-07: James D. Houston's 'Bird of Another Heaven'

Kingdom of Hawaii

Flock to the conquerors.
I first met James D. Houston at the presentation of Santa Cruz Artist of the year to Laurie R. King last year. Houston lives in Santa Cruz, not far from KUSP, in a house once owned by Patty Reed, a survivor of the Donner Party and the subject of Houston's bestselling novel 'Snow Mountain Passage'. Houston told me at the time that he had never thought of himself as a historical novelist until he moved into that house and learned of its previous owner and her past. "We didn't know that the house had a history when we moved in," he told me. "It was just the cheapest place we could find in Santa Cruz at the time."

But for Houston, all characters start with place, and the more he learned about the house and it’s previous owner, the more intrigued he became with creating its history as fiction. "Later on, we found out it had this extraordinary history, but I'm always thinking of that relationship between the character and the place, so wherever a person's located is part of the character development for me, right from the beginning." It's important to realize that "we" in this statement includes Houston's wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, with whom he co authored the bona-fide classic 'Farewell to Manzanar'. Houston may not think that he has written much history, but he certainly has a history in American literature.

That history is about to grow with the release of 'Bird of Another Heaven' (Knopf / Random House ; March 26, 2007 ; $25), a story that spans over one hundred years from the arrival of the King of Hawai'i in San Francisco in 1881 to the takeover of a San Francisco radio station by a faceless conglomerate in 1987. Houston's story is at base the story of how layers of family spin across the American landscape, of the limits of our memory and what happens to our lives and our understanding of our lives when we step beyond those limits. It's the story of American ambitions and our unending willingness to conquer in the name of peace, so long as peace is named "commerce", and how the bonds of family from the past extend into the future.

The novel begins as the King of Hawai'i records his last words on one of the first Edison voice recorders in a hotel in San Francisco. But in order to get to this point, Houston's narrator, Sheridan Brody, a calm talk show radio host, has to break what I came to think of as "the grandmother barrier". Brody discovers the scene when he meets his grandmother and then discovers a journal of the life of his great grandmother. And that's when the novel did what all great novels do; it made me reflect on my own life and think that while I knew a bit about my grandparents' lives on both sides, my knowledge beyond that -- of my great grandparents -- was pretty much a blank. And as the novel gripped me more and more with the fascinating story of how Hawai'i became a state, the layers of family and generation perceptions infiltrated my own perceptions. 1881 seems a lot like 2007, and 1987 seems a lot like 1881. We access the recent past through the distant past, if need be. The layers of family and place tie us together inexorably and inevitably. We can read Houston's gorgeously written history as we live through and write our own. At one point in the novel, Brody suggests that every family has a genealogist, the one who becomes obsessed with documenting where the family has been. I'm not that person for my family, but I know that person in our family. I can see the layers of truth and see my own place in the generations the have left me here upon this far shore, and in the generations that will leave this shore behind. This place must here and now be my heaven. There are others, I suppose, waiting to be discovered in the past and waiting to be created in the future.


03-21-07: A Review of 'Finn' by Jon Clinch ; Orson Scott Card Launches 'Space Boy'

Best Served Cold

Dark river and ugly truths.
One wonders how many great novels have been killed before they were even begun. The thought certainly comes to mind when reading 'Finn' by Jon Clinch, which I review in-depth today. You don’t even have to talk to the author to know that many well-meaning editors and reading-group advisors had to have told Clinch that it would not be a good idea to go head-to-head with Mark Twain. But sometimes authors don’t listen, and readers are well-served as result. 'Finn' is a wonderful book, dark and disturbing as any recent horror novel.

Don’t let the connection to Twain put you off, and don't think you need to (re)-read 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' in order to read and enjoy 'Finn'. Clinch's work stands on its own. 'Finn' does without doubt challenge the reader. Clinch tells his story not in chronological order, but rather in pathological order, as the shreddings of a diseased and sick mind peel away the past. And Clinch is unsparing in his dissection of fathers and sons versus slaves and masters. Still, there are points of light here. Not thousand, not even ten. But the real light is the revelation of Clinch as a superb author of supernatural-seeming darkly-inflected reality.

Closeted Monsters

That was one hell of a bong hit!
We all know about the monster in the closet. They’re real, of course, though their nature may not be what you’d expect. Orson Scott Card, who is amply familiar with children, their literature and their fears, has made a career out of plucking that monster from the closet and putting it squarely in the sights of gun manned by a boy. I'm not even sure how many books there are in Scott's 'Ender's Game' series at this point. 'Space Boy' (Subterranean Press ; August 20, 2007 ; $35) is not one o them, but the deluxe, hardcover edition of this novella from Subterranean Press is likely be come as scarce as the closeted monster. We all know why those monsters hide in the closet. I mean, ask yourself; do you ever seethe closet monsters outside of the closet? No, that's because some is hunting them down. Or perhaps they aren't what we thought they were.

'Space Boy' offers readers that perennial delight, space travel without the hardware. As much as we like our rocket ships and whatnot, short-cutting to the straight-ahead adventure is a great way to cut to the chase. Todd is a kid like just about everybody who reads this column. He learns the names of the astronauts, the planets, all the space stuff you can imagine. But you might not imagine the monster in his closet. What it is, is best left unsaid. What it offers Card is the opportunity to craft a story that is highly appealing to the entire age spectrum of science fiction readers. Card writes with a deceptively simple clarity here, the kind of smart science-fiction fairy tale that is exciting and rewarding for anyone who wants to wrap their brain around the present clothed as the near-future.

While the proof does not have the illustrations, the colophon page credits illustrations to Lance Card. The cover is certainly evocative; it looks like what happens to teenagers in their minds the first time they get really, really high. On science fiction, I hasten to add. Do you want to get high on science fiction? 'Space Boy' -- no surprise about that title now -- might do the trick, even if you think you've grown accustomed to the unreal.


03-20-07: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling Travel 'Coyote Road'

The Indoctrination Trick

Illustrated by Charles Vess. Cool!
In war, it's all about hearts and minds. If we win the hearts and minds of our enemies, if we can just get them to see things our way, then we defuse the conflict from within.

And it's always easiest to win the hearts and minds of the young. To start early.

Most science fiction readers start early in their reading lives, and the pull of the genre is so powerful that it never really recedes. When you get a youth interested in reading science fiction, then both reading and the genre will play a significant part in the rest of their lives. Just like tobacco! Hook 'em young, you got a customer till they kick the bucket. Probably less damaging, but it depends on whom you ask.

Many of the current generation of aging SF readers probably got their start with Heinlein juvenile, or the seminal works of writers like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. A younger batch of readers probably started with 'Mirrorshades' and 'Neuromancer'. In part, we come upon science fiction and fantasy because they're the only things thrown at us in our reading for school that doesn't bore us shitless. If we're lucky, some enterprising and mildly hip teacher asks us to read 'The Veldt', or Edgar Allen Poe. And once you get the hook set, it stops being a hook and becomes instead a passion for reading, for reading the sort of work that makes your brain feel bigger and better. That kind of immersion in reading leads to the enjoyment of work beyond the genre, for the same brain cells that enjoy science fiction, fantasy and horror soon learn to love the well-written words regardless of what they describe.

The standard bearers for the Young Adult hook-books these days are, of course, those in the Harry Potter series. These books have created their own genre in terms of sales and publishers are understandably scrambling to look for (wait for it) ( ... and ... ) the next Harry Potter. In their rush to discover such a mythical beast, they have of course forgotten that Rowling's series was sort of unique back when it came out. It's practically drowning in imitators, and some have done spectacularly well themselves. But the next Harry Potter is, if anything, going to be quite different from the current model and equally unexpected.

Let me then offer for your delectation this version of "the next Harry Potter", a collection of stories edited by the venerable team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, 'The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales' (Viking Children's Books / Penguin Putnam ; July 2007 ; $19.95). And let me immediately qualify my previous sentence. No, I don’t see this book racking up the kind of sales that Harry Potter sees. Probably not. But. It could happen. Let's take a look at the book and at who might be interested in the work therein.

'The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales' is the third volume in Datlow and Windling's "mythic fiction" anthology series, following 'The Green Man' and 'The Faery Reel'. It includes an informative preface by both editors, a scholarly introduction by Windling, twenty-six stories by a variety of writers (well twenty-four stories and two poems, to be academic, which is highly appropriate in this case), with each story followed by both an author bio and an author's note. It's "decorated" (read: illustrated) by no less than Charles Vess. And finally, there's a list of further reading, which includes such notable novels as Christopher Moore's 'Coyote Blue', Jeffrey Ford's 'The Girl in the Glass' and Neil Gaiman's 'Anansi Boys'. It's important to look at everything in the book, not just the selection of mind-bogglingly great fiction. Expect a few award nominations for some of the stories to be found in here. Kij Johnson's "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" turned my head right round. Jeffrey Ford is a masterful short story writer and well-loved in general, so the presence of "The Dreaming Wind" will surely sell more than a few copies. Ellen Klages, fresh from Tachyon's 'Portable Childhoods' covers "Friday Night at St. Cecilia's", and genre veteran Pat Murphy starts things off smart with "One Odd Shoe". So in spite of this coming from the kiddie books division over at Viking, there are reasons aplenty for any genre fiction fan to bring this one home.

But the real audience for this book, I would think, would be that fairly large population of hip teachers, those folks who read the genre or are at least not averse to it, and want to plant the seeds for a new generation of readers. It seems to me that this would be the ideal reading textbook for a high school class, the sort of book that students would actually enjoy reading, and that might turn a few of them into permanent readers. I hope the Viking is sending this out to school district book buyers and libraries. Or even just making the students buy the damn book; though more than a few parents will enjoy it as well. For who is more like a teenager than the Trickster? The combination of good and evil, of knowledge and ignorance, that duality of child and adult defines the Trickster figure. The Trickster is the perpetual teenager in all of us.

The solid center of the audience for this book will include fans of the specific authors, fans of the artist, and fans of the editors. That's a pretty substantial number of readers, and what probably got this off the ground in the first place. But wouldn’t it be nice if this anthology were to become "the next Harry Potter"? And it is not unreasonable. With appeal to both young adults, educators and genre readers, 'The Coyote Road' cuts across a wide cross-section of readers. Readers, one would imagine, who hope that the book creates a new set of readers. The trickster may capture the hearts and minds, and not just souls and trinkets.


03-19-07: "They still have to do their laundry, even if you're sleeping in dirt"

A 2007 Interview with Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore at KQED.
There is one thing I've learned to expect when talking to Christopher Moore; he's not a big fan of reading his own work. Beyond that, I just read the books, and believe me, it's a delight each and every time. Moore is a master who is now not just at the top of his own game, where he's been essentially since book one, but at the top of other lists as well. Like the bestseller list.

It's richly deserved and a long time coming. When I first talked to Moore, we talked about his life as a midlist author. This time around, we had the chance to talk about his life as a bestselling author. "You get to fly first class," he told me. "On the long flights." But of course, his life as a superstar of the writing world (he didn't wear a cape or come with an entourage) was not the sole subject of our conversation. Mostly, we talked about his new novel 'You Suck', an engaging and hilarious sequel to 1995's 'Bloodsucking Fiends', which, yes, I shall cop to it now so that I don’t get hit for it later, I called 'Bloodsucking Freaks' just once during our interview. Moore talked about how he uses realism to wring some laugh-out-loud humor out of the most over-worked monster cliché in the horror genre. He also spilled the dirt on turkey bowling. You remember turkey bowling from 'Bloodsucking Fiends' and 'You Suck', right? It's that touch of realism that makes the vampires stuff seem sort of pedestrian and utterly buyable. Well, it so happens that Moore wasn't making that up, not was he the sort of fellow who wanders into the 24-hour Safeway to get a bottle of milk in wee hours of the morning. It so happens that Moore himself once was in Tommy Flood's shoes; managing a pack of late teen and young twenty-something Animals with a really strong union, so that th1rte3n GUYS were there to do the work of four on the grave shift. I'll only add that turkey bowling is where it starts. Moore 'splains where it ends.

We also talked about Moore's work for the movies and yes, television. This is where it gets good, where he spills the dirt on the TV series we'll likely never see, though I hope that readers will write to the networks and DEMAND his various big ideas be used to illuminate screens small and large. In fact, in case you just can't wait to hear just that part, I've sliced it out for you. So you can hear just the showbiz stuff here, cos I'm shamelessly to pick up some movie and TV site readers. One presumes that if they find Moore's words about movie and TV funny (they will) perhaps they'll be more willing to go back and hear the entire of the interview as either an MP3 or a RealAudio file, for those who like TinnySurround sound experience. And then....OMFG. Read a book.

The horror.

And now for the kicker. This week is pledge week at my NPR affiliate, KUSP. To say my segment on Friday was less-than-salubrious would be an exaggeration. While my producer said he wouldn't can me, I'm hoping that readers will be willing to go to the KUSP website and pledge, like $5, via the web and mention: Rick Kleffel Talk of the Bay Friday Author Interviews. You can cut and paste that string into the comments section on the second page of the pleddge dealie, and it’s important to do so, otherwise your contributions will be attributed to other portions of the schedul.. KUSP is the reason I'm able to get access to these great authors. If every reader who downloaded a couple of MP3's in the last year or so did this, it would be (trust me) a veritable flood of donations that would be utterly painless for yon readers and utterly priceless for yon interviewer and the this column and podcast. If you can't, and I understand that, even an email to KUSP can help.

In any event, here's another outstanding guest for the Agony Column podcast, Chris Moore, with yet another exercise left for the listeners. Do you think that I asked Chris Moore about how he uses the word fuck? Give the interview a listen, and then send me an email telling me Chris's favorite variation on our favorite word. I'll enter you in my latest drawing to win some desirable book. I can't say what it is just yet, I'm making this up as I type. Last week was very busy, but this week I've got enough room to send out the three signed copies of China Miéville's 'Un Lun Dun'. What can you win with this drawing? If nought else, more podcasts. Stay tuned.


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