Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

09-07-07: Erika Mailman Lights 'The Witches Trinity' ; Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Ruthanne Lum McCunn and Fan Wu


Burn, baby, burn! Oh wait, already used that caption.
You don’t have to wonder where Erika Mailman found the idea for her novel 'The Witch's Trinity' (Crown Publishers / Random House ; October 2, 2007 ; $23.95). Of course, we all know that there are plenty of historical records surrounding the various witch trials that took place over a four hundred year span of time. Anyone can rumble around through them and cook up a tidy little tale of "Burn the witch!"

But Mailman has a more personal perspective on the matter. She discovered a witch in her family, Mary Parsons, who was tried not once, but several times for witchcraft in Massachusetts in the 1600's, and – this is a story you don't often hear – found innocent. Mary Parsons lived into her eighties.

As Mailman mentions in her informative Author's Note, it was a technological innovation that drove the witch-burning craze. Shortly after Gutenberg invented the printing press, still a revolutionary tool some five hundred and fifty years later, top that Steve Jobs – an early bestseller appeared with the title "Malleus Maleficarum" ("the Hammer of Witches") by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Think of it as an early version of 'Witch-Burning for Dummies'. Basically, this book gave those in power the ability to point a finger at someone they didn't cotton to and say, 'Burn 'em!"

Our perception of all this witch-burning nonsense is filtered through innumerable (well, actually only one) Monty Python sketch(es) and ten years of over-the-top performances by Vincent Price in his prime. Far outside the realm of either lies a truth we'll just never really know. But Mailman's novel, based on her research into her own family's travails offers an intense, visionary glimpse into the ways in which religious beliefs married to new technologies can be used to marginalize the undesirable.

'The Witch's Trinity' fires off in 1507 in a remote German village. Suffering from a famine, the villagers are happy to see the arrival of a friar who promises to rid them of the curse that has brought the famine. Güde Müller is an elderly woman whose daughter-in-law would prefer one less hungry mouth at the table. What's more, she's experiencing strange visions. Is it bad bread or something worse? Worse is, of course, a village using high-tech reproduced witch-finding manuals to point a finger. No, worse is knowing that the finger should be pointed at you.

Mailman brings a transparent clarity to her vision of a village possessed by hunger. And I find it rather interesting to think about the flip side of witch hunts, to wit, Blessed Virgin sightings. It was after all, in a village in Germany some three hundred years later that some version of the godly, as opposed to the satanic, appeared in Marpingen. We're always so sure that there's something beyond our lives, something outside the reality we perceive. As with many things, we can easily blame this on innovative new technology, in this case, books.

Authors in the attic; Fan Wu left, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, right.

Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Ruthanne Lum McCunn and Fan Wu : 'February Flowers' and 'God of Luck'

Fan Wu, February Flowers. Ruthanne Lum McCunn, God of Luck.

Today's podcast is a conversation with authors Ruthanne Lum McCunn ('God of Luck') and Fan Wu ('February Flowers'), conducted in the attic of the Capitola Book Café shortly before their appearance there last night. These two women have fascinating novels and lives to match. The conversation was really quite fun for all. You can hear the MP3 from this link, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


09-06-07: 'Steps Through the Mist' with Zoran Zivkovic ; Agony Column Podcast News : Legends in the Making : Talking Books with Michael DeSarno

Two Forms of Beauty and a Bargain

Your next stop ....
It's not often we're lucky enough to get two forms of beauty and a bargain. But that is precisely the case with 'Steps Through the Mist' (Aio Publishing ; September 30, 2007 ; $23.95) by Zoran Zivkovic. I'll not make this article or argument particularly complex; it's pretty simple. Zivkovic's prose and compositional skill make the words on these pages ethereal and intelligent. Aio Publishing prints a piece of book hardware that is flat-out gorgeous. And, at $23.95, the whole shebang is bargain no reader of this column should pass up.

Zivkovic writes fables that have a universal appeal, novels that slot together fables in delicate layers and books that subtly re-define reality. In 'Steps Through the Mist', Zivkovic draws us into the lives of five different women, each experiencing a subtle separation from the reality we share. A rigid schoolmarm finds herself facing a young girl who knows the dreams of others. Those dreams spin out, each into its own story; a woman in a madhouse, a skier with a choice, a fortune teller with faltering faith, and an elderly woman with a precious alarm clock. Zivkovic's prose, as peerlessly translated by Alice Copple-Tosic, has the kind of transparency and beauty that makes one think not of other writers, but of other art. You read Zivkovic and see crystalline sculptures and austere, minimalist paintings in galleries whose name is just beyond your grasp.

For this reader, 'Steps Through the Mist' is rather like a series of interconnected episodes from The Twilight Zone at its zenith. Part of this is the classy black-and-white presentation of Aio Publishing. The books epitomize graceful design, with black-edged pages, generous print size, everything to make the journey of the words into your mind a pleasure. The beauty of the writing is matched in every sense by the beauty of the presentation. The capper is that at $23.95 for a small-print run hardcover original, it's really quite a bargain.

Alas, this is a bargain you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere but the specialty booksellers – like Mark V. Ziesing, Borderlands Books and today's podcast interview, Legends Books. Or you can buy directly from the publisher, which is probably the best way to support such efforts. But this book isn’t about support. This book is simply a beautiful book object, what reading is all about. Make the most of your good fortune.

Agony Column Podcast News : Legends in the Making : Talking Books with Michael DeSarno

Today, on the Agony Column Podcast News, I speak with Michael DeSarno of Legends Books. DeSarno has an eye for books. We talk about moving books in the real world via Internet marketing and I find out DeSarno's picks for forthcoming books. You can hear the MP3 here, or subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.


09-05-07: Walter Moers Enters 'The City of Dreaming Books' ; Agony Column Podcast News : The Future Then : A Conversation With Kim Stanley Robinson

In Case You're Not Already There

Welcome to Bookholm.

"Yes, I speak of a place where reading can drive people insane. Where books may injure and poison them – indeed, even kill them. Only those who are thoroughly prepared to take such risks in order to read this book – only those willing to hazard their lives in so doing – should accompany me to the next paragraph. The remainder I congratulate on their wise but yellow-bellied decision to stay behind. Farewell, you cowards! I wish you a long and boring life, and, on that note, bid you goodbye!"

Walter Moers returns to Zamonia, the setting for his novels 'The 13 1/2 Adventures of Captain Bluebear' and 'Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures' with 'The City of Dreaming Books' (The Overlook Press ; September 6, 2007 ; $26.95), a mere 464 pages of surreal, hallucination-dipped literary madness suitable for readers of any age, so long as they've sort of lost their minds in advance.

A studious young dino-dragon thingie.
Moers is a peculiar writer, whose latest work is reminiscent of both Stanislaw Lem's silly space fables and China Miéville's 'Un Lun Dun'. 'The City of Dreaming Books' begins when Optimus Yarnspinner, a young literary dragon, inherits an unpublished story by an unknown author from his literary godfather Sir Dancelot Wordwright. Dancelot, on his deathbed, commands young Optimus to go to Bookholm to find the author and perhaps pick up a magical thingamajig that will bestow upon the horned, winged Yarnppinner the power to become a writer. How could any sane reader resist such shenanigans?

No need to. Moers, even in translation, is a joy to read. He has a straightforward, no-nonsense approach that makes the nonsense which follows all the more enjoyable. This is a book specifically written for book geeks, and you can see why Miéville cited Moers in my last interview with him. Moers explores all the dark crannies and lightly-read hallways of reading, writing and everything associated with both to people them with all manner of fantastic monster, critter, cross-breed and creation imaginable. What’s more, he illustrates his own books and does so incredibly well.

Bookholm is a reader's and writer's dream and nightmare brought to life. Deadly literary agents, Booklings and Bookhunters threaten young YarnSpinner in his quest for the Orm (ie, thingamajig), "a kind of mysterious force reputed to flow through authors at moments of supreme inspiration." Moers writing here is darker, a bit more dangerous, and happily for me at least, more monsterific than his previous work. But it retains the same wit, the same zany energy of 'Captain Bluebear' and 'Rumo', the same inclination towards a dense torrent of puns and imagination, the literary riffing that Moers does so well.

Do yourself a favor and don't look ahead at the illustrations. Not that they give much away, just that the joy of encountering them as you read the book is irreplaceable. And don’t let them scare you into thinking that this is a kiddie book, because it's not. Moers invests enough emotional heft into his characters to make you care what happens to them and glad that it's happening in such a wonderful landscape, which is itself a major character, one that will appeal to all readers. It is a truly literary landscape.

But that's not the only landscape that Moers works in. Check this very peculiar video out:

If you can't see the video for some reason, here's a URL.

I'm sorry – I did not retain enough German to understand pretty much any of the words. But you have to love those little duckies, and the smart computer animation certain retains the visual style you find Moers' illustrations. He's enough of a polymath to get himself over the language barrier and into the Duh-murrican media consciousness.

I suppose that Moers' work is an A / NOT-A switch; either you like it or you don't. But I also suspect that lots of readers might find they do indeed like it. The problem may be actually finding a copy you can pick up and read in your local independent bookstore. I presume that it will be shelved somewhere amidst the piles of bestselling YA fantasy titles, lost in the crowds. That's why I put up a large image of the cover. Find 'The City of Dreaming Books', even if you think you already live there.

Agony Column Podcast News : The Future Then : A Conversation With Kim Stanley Robinson


Burn, baby burn!

Today's Agony Column Podcast News is a conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, whose most recent book is 'Sixty Days and Counting', which completes his triptych meta-novel Science in the Capital. (Hardly a realistic notion these days, but...)

Here's a non-science fiction book by a science fiction writer that quite accurately predicts the future, a presidency dominated by concerns over climate change. In case I have forgotten to remind readers of late, Robinson is the gent who coined this gem of a sentence: "We're living in a bad science fiction novel."

The idea that all science fiction is about the present is prevalent in the field of late, but this was not always the case. Heinlein and especially Arthur C. Clarke attempted to predict the future and Clarke didn't do so badly.

Robinson and I discuss whether SF will ever again don its crystal ball garb and try to beat the psychics. Here's your live MP3 link, and a link to the podcast. Or better still, subscribe through iTunes.


09-04-07: Jonathan Strahan Brings on 'Eclipse 1' ; Agony Column Podcast News : "Almost No Yes's" : A Conversation With Laura Furman, Editor of 'The O. Henry Prize Stories'

Thirty-Two Years and Counting


View from the past of the future.

"This isn't 1975, it's 2007," Jonathan Strahan observes in the introduction to 'Eclipse One' (Night Shade Books ; November 22, 2007 ; $14.95). "A different time calls for a slightly different approach." Originally, Strahan tells us, he was going to call his new anthology series 'Universe', after the series edited by the great Terry Carr back in the 1970's and 1980's. Instead, he put out a call for suggestions, and just as he was starting to despair, was handed the title 'Eclipse' by no less than Jetse de Vries, editor over at 'Interzone'. If you ever get a chance to go to a science fiction convention, make sure you get yourself over to the dealer's tables and the Interzone booth when de Vries is there. You'll see why any suggestion from him seems bigger than life. de Vries himself seems bigger than life. Talk to him and you're in a wild and exciting movie. Given the security cameras mounted in so many major metropolitan where a convention is likely to be taking place, you probably are in a movie.

'Eclipse One' is yet another bizarre sign of the literary environment in which the declining numbers of readers find themselves. I guess this is the publishing equivalent of what happens when you kill off all the predators in a landscape. The deer (writers) flourish and the few remaining meat eaters (readers) have the pick of a remarkably strong crop. It is indeed very strange. Ask any writer, publisher or editor: should I take up a career in writing short stories? They'll answer, Sure, if you want to like, starve. But that doesn't stop some incredibly talented writers from reliably producing stellar short fiction. It can't be for the money. It must be for the art.

Imagine that. Imagine this title / author list: "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" by Andy Duncan, "Bad Luck, Trouble, Death and Vampire Sex" by Garth Nix, "The Last and Only, or Mr Moscowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle, "The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large" by Maureen F. McHugh, "The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford, "Toother" by Terry Dowling, "Up the Fire Road" by Eileen Gunn, "In The Forest Of The Queen" by Gwyneth Jones, "Quartermaster Returns" by Ysabeau Wilce, "Electric Rains" by Kathleen Ann Goonan, "She-Creatures" by Margo Lanagan, "The Transformation of Targ" by Jack Dann & Paul Brandon, "Mrs Zeno's Paradox" by Ellen Klages, "The Lustration" by Bruce Sterling, and"Larissa Miusov" by Lucius Shepard. All original to this anthology.

There's a downside to this list, which is that it automatically invalidates all the 'Complete Fiction of [put author name here]' collections we just bought by many of these authors. That's a hit I'll be happy to take. The upside is that for reasons beyond reason, beyond commerce, for reasons that could only be artistic, the short story form is more vital today than ever, certainly more so than in 1975. Back in 1975, the sort of writers we're reading today were writing about today. This very day, this year 2007. The visions ranged from the wildly optimistic to the utterly despairing, but none actually captured the future that unfolded. They did however, paint a particularly impressive picture of 1975, just as 'Eclipse One' offers a wonderfully imaginative look at our world. These stories are written in a future – and set in fantastic worlds or even our own ordinary everyday world, just tweaked – that the futuristic writers of 1975 were unable and in many cases not intending to portray.

Thirty-two years from now, in 2049, as we teeter towards the center of the century, one has good reason to wonder if the short story will still even exist. Or if books will exist, as we know them now. Let us imagine that future, knowing that any vision, any prediction, any calculation we make will be totally, utterly wrong.

Agony Column Podcast News : "Almost No Yes's" : A Conversation With Laura Furman, Editor of 'The O. Henry Prize Stories'

Laura Furman, top from the RH website; bottom her anthology.
For today's podcast, I'm honored to present a phone interview with Laura Furman, the editor of 'The O. Henry Prize Stories'. In yet another sign that the art is alive even if the commerce is crippled, the O. Henry Awards continue, ninety-six years and counting. (I swear I didn't just predict the death of the short story in the article above. Really.)

If you read short stories, if you write anything, if you want to read short stories or want to write anything, do yourself a favor and listen to what Furman has to say. She's funny and absolutely riveting as she talks about the history of the awards, the Man Himself, her amazing process for choosing the stories and the book itself. It's an essential work for any reader who enjoys short fiction or writer hoping to get short stories published

Not only does it offer the finest examples of the form, it includes a lot of ancillary material that rounds out the collection into a mini-course in writing and publishing short fiction.

The jurors – Charles D'Ambrosio, Ursula K. Le Guin and Lily Tuck – each write an essay on their selection. (Furman explains who the jurors are, how they're chosen and what they do in the interview. ) Each author contributes notes on his or her story. All this would make the collection invaluable, but like a Popeil appliance pitch, wait, there's more. The list of the magazines that submit their work for consideration alone is worth more than cover price; said list includes addresses and editors' names, thus replacing the unwieldy Writers' Guide with a 26 page précis that offers you the best of the best markets. After all, these are the markets that, should you be lucky enough to get published in them, will send a copy of the issue in which you are published to the editor of the O. Henry Prize anthology. What more could you ask?

There's a reason an institution lasts so long. It's smart and the people who run it are smarter. You can hear the MP3 from this link, or just subscribe to the podcast. Knowing, of course, that the death of Podcasting is just around the corner. In the Future, that is.


09-03-07: A 2007 Interview With Guo Xiaolu

"Self-censorship is profound as a Chinese author, and I don’t think anyone like to admit that."

The author at the BBC.


Concise, witty, entertaining, profound.
Guo Xiaolu's 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' is fascinating book on a variety of levels. Not surprisingly, the author is even more fascinating on more levels. A filmmaker, novelist, and poet in China, she came to London in 2002, knowing very little English. She immediately started a diary-dictionary where she recorded the new words she learned each day. Five years later, those scraps of paper have been transfigured into her first novel written in as she calls it "broken English." I had the good fortune to speak to her via telephone a couple of weeks ago, and was even more fortunate to speak to her at length via an ISDN connection to the BBC in London. This is one of the most intense and interesting conversations I've ever had with an author. She was riveting and dove into her answers to my questions with the same ferocity it takes to learn a new language, then to turn around and write, then sell a novel in that new language.

Even though she's a filmmaker with an award winning feature film, she told me in the interview that she'll be happy to keep her distance from the planned movie based on her novel. She speaks with an emotional authority and power that is quite captivating; that's apparent in the novel as well. Here's a link to the MP3 version of the interview, which lasts some 52 minutes; make sure you leave late for work so you can get mired and traffic and hear the whole shebang; otherwise you may find yourself sitting in the parking lot and listening. Here's a link to the RealAudio version, or you can just simplify your life and subscribe to the podcast. Bring roses. Get ready to fall in love again.


Agony Column Review Archive