Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

10-19-07: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet': Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2007 Conversation With Ann Packer

"..a feast..."


Today, we're leading with Mario Guslandi's review of 'The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet' edited by Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link. I'll add only that, like Mario, I think that there are pieces in here that will utterly delight a wide variety of readers. That's down to Grant and Link's editorial focus which is pretty simple but alas, not so common as one might hope. That would be that they simply print stories they like. To get a sense of their taste, you can listen to this interview; [which includes Karen Joy Fowler] or just buy the book. Be prepared to loan it out, because to my mind, it's the sort of book that has you pressing it on your friends, saying, "Read this story, it's so you." But don’t plan on getting it back.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2007 Conversation With Ann Packer : Everyday Horrors

Ann Packer at the Capitola Book Café on October 18, 2007.

Today's podcast is a conversation with author Ann Packer, author of 'The Dive from Clausen's Pier' and 'Songs Without Words'. I found Packer's work to be an extraordinarily observant vision of suburbia. She knows how to accumulate detail to put readers deeply inside the lives of her everyday characters. Then she douses those characters' lives with a dose of realistic horror. To my mind – and I asked her about this – she's reminiscent of Stephen King in her willingness turn everything upside-down for nice, if not perfect people. 'Songs Without Words', her latest novel, follows the friendship of two women as their lives go to hell in a handbasket. Like Steve Almond, she's not shy about forcing us to face our fears as parents. Being a parent is, alas, something of a cavalcade of terror. There is actually, factually no end to the worries of a parent. Solve one potential problem, and three more horrific possibilities present themselves, each more life-devastating than the last. I also talked to her about her writing process, which as you might imagine, is rather organic. You can hear the entire twenty-something minute interview, conducted in the cramped back of the Capitola Book Café, in this MP3. Maybe make yourself a calming cup of tea.


10-18-07: 'Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Report on Austin Grossman

42 Kinds of Class

Behold the man.

I no longer need a nightstand. My nightstand is a stack of books that reaches the ceiling.

This is to say, rather that there can be no excess of books for the bedside, books fit for interstitial reading. The problem isn't finding them; there are plenty that qualify. The problem is keeping the stack small enough so that you don't have to stand on the bed to find the book at the top of the stack. Or risk an avalanche should you try to snatch one fromteh center. Winnowing down; always an issue.

Sometimes though, the publishers make it easy for you. That's the case with 'Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote' (Random House ; October 16, 2007 ; $28.95). Here are 42 essays, riffs and what might in this day and age be called and prove to be rants; herein they are something just as powerful but far more elegant. But for all the craft, for all the verve and the gorgeous, languorous language, what's really striking about these pieces if how they slot together to paint a vivid picture of world that is:


Capote is the quintessential 20th century essayist and writer. He defined literature in his day, but his day has alas passed. Not that his writing is any less involving and engaging. It seems more urgent now, even as it beckons us to a world that no longer exists. Pick up 'Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote' and on any page you'll be whisked through the doors of perception into lives as remote as the Stone Age.

It's the language that takes you there, language that retains it power, language that finds its power enhanced by the passage of time and by its ability to offer us passage to climes so remote that we cannot tough them ever again. New Orleans, 1946. "I am more or less disgusted by the phrase 'old charm.'... The main portion of this city is made of of spiritual bottomland, streets and sections rather outside the tourist belt." Fontana Vecchia, 1951. "'There used to be many werewolves in Taorima,' he said, his gray eyes regarding me steadily; then with a disdainful shrug, 'Now there are only two or three.'" Self-Portrait, 1972. "Not long ago, my doctor suggested that I adopt some healthier hobby other than wine-tasting and fornication. He asked if I could think of anything. I said, 'Yes, murder.'"


But the language remains, in a collection that includes a non-fiction novel – "Hand-Carved Coffins", portraits of Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, and Willa Cather, Capote's last written words, written the day before he died.

It's easy to think of the 20th century as a chaotic, horrific mess, as the time when the world descended into hell and emerged into a science fictional dystopia. 'Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote' reminds us that there was space in those years, space for beauty and elegance and truth and joy. In so doing, we are reminded that we might snatch these moments yet again, in our very different world, if only for the time it takes us to read Capote's words. We are there and we are here. Two places at once.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Report on Austin Grossman : "Unconventional Education Fuels Author's First Novel"

On Sunday, NPR broadcast this report on Austin Grossman's unusual educational experiences that led to his first novel, 'Soon I Will Be Invincible'. Today, I've got a high-quality MP3 copy for you to download. It's pledge drive for many NPR stations, and I'm told that some stations – alas, such as my station – did not get this report as part of the "pledge drive" edit for Weekend Edition Sunday. I'd like to thank those readers who helped keep this story in the 25 Most Emailed Stories for two full days. That's a great help to this column. Readers who want to contribute even more to this affair can pledge via the web at and mention my name. But don’t worry about it. I'm just lucky to be doing what I'm doing, and I realize that these columns and podcasts probably result in you buying books, which is the primary purpose of the Agony Column. So long as enough of us buy books, they're likely to keep making them. Otherwise Sony is going to make you an offer you can currently refuse but in the future – well, predictions of the future are notoriously about the present. And so I predict: more books.


10-17-07: A Review of 'In War Times' by Kathleen Ann Goonan ; Agony Column Podcast News Report: A Conversation With Scott Hamman and Tammie Stallings of Handee Books

For All Time

A novel for all times.

For some time, I've had a sort of bee in my bonnet about science fiction set in the past. I'm not talking about alternate history. I'm interested in books that are set in the past and look forward to the future we currently occupy as if that future were a sort of "science fiction" future, and anticipate it in a manner that engages not just the history lover, but also those of us who love speculative science fiction.

'In War Times' by Kathleen Ann Goonan is that book, and much more besides. It's a sweeping yet concise family saga, with a powerful vision of war and everything it does. Goonan writes a page-turning novel with engaging characters and concepts packed onto every page. Here's a link to my review of the novel. This is a book that should have a huge appeal to a wide variety of readers, whether your preferences are for literary or genre fiction. 'In War Times' is both, a novel keeps you in its world long after you have finished reading.

Agony Column Podcast News Report: A Conversation With Scott Hamman and Tammie Stallings of Handee Books : Internet Only, Actually Real

Too handy for those of us on a budget!

Today I talk with Scott Hamman and Tammie Stallings of Handee Books. Take a look at their web page and drool with envy at their selection. I have had the privilege of actually going to their store, which is now totally virtual. I have to say that almost never have I seen so many books that I wanted to buy. It was positively frightening. I managed to get out of there with my finances intact, but only just barely. You'll definitely want to hear what these booksellers and bibliophiles have to say; and all you have to do is listen to the MP3. I refuse to take any responsibility for what happens afterwards.


10-16-07: Bob Rickard and John Mitchell 'The Rough Guide to the Unexplained' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Live at the Capitola Book Café With Andrew Kimbrell

Second Edition Strange

Saucer clouds – simulacra, not UFOs.

There are lots of ways to do an imprint, and one of the more interesting, if restricted ways is the path explored by imprints like the so-called "Dummies" books, or the Rough Guides. I must say I find it kind of odd and a bit off-putting to see these sorts imprints expand further and further afield from their original mission. After all, I ask myself, I know I might need a Rough Guide to Mexico. It's a place, so sure, you want a guide book. But I was not so sure I needed 'The Rough Guide to the Unexplained' (Rough Guides / Penguin Books ; September 3, 2007 ; $21.99). The Unexplained is not a place. It's a ... well, it's a concept. And I suppose that makes it explorable in the "Rough Guide" sense.

But when you see the names of Bob Rickard and John Mitchell attached to such a work, it quickly takes on a very different nature. Bob Rickard founded The Fortean Times back when many of us were hoping to get our driver's licenses, and with Mitchell he co-authored earlier versions of this Rough Guide. So, sure, it's a Rough Guide, and funnily enough, the Rough Guides have strayed from the straight path to wind up here, in the world of the very Fortean world of the Unexplained.

So what is 'The Rough Guide to the Unexplained'? It's 454 packed pages of Forteana with a boatload of black and white photographs. In the informative introduction, the authors set out a very nice précis of Fortean thought, emphasizing the humor, the wonder and the transience of scientific thought. It's a nice, well-thought out and fun to read introduction to the Fortean world and Charles Fort himself. Even if you own Fort's works, and especially if you don’t, this is a great way to plug yourself directly into that sense of perception.

From there, well, not surprisingly, things get weird. The book is divided into thirteen major sections, and each section broken down further into articles and entries. The major sections include: Teleportation, Strange Rains, Wild Talents, The Madness of Crowds, The Fairy Folk, Mysterious Entities, The Haunted Planet, Signs and Portents, Simulacra and Other Images, Monsters, Living Wonders, Tail Pieces and Notes and Further Reading. The book is thoroughly indexed, meeting at least the Monkey Man standard of measurement. That is to say, I was able to look up The Monkey Man in the index and find an entry in the book. As readers should know, The Monkey Man is one of my favorite Fortean critters, part monster, part mass hysteria, part – well, who the heck knows? Robot or rodent, it hardly matters. What does matter with regards to this book is that it gets not only an entry, but an illustration taken from an Indian newspaper reporting . One of the exemplary aspects of this book is the rich level of illustration and example. This includes not just reprinted illustrations, but a generous number of illustrations that reprint news articles. The inclusion of these articles really adds a layer of interest and veracity to the proceedings. Not, mind you, that Rickard and Mitchell are implying that the events reported are real, but rather that the reports themselves are real. This a critical point; Forteana and Fortean studies are as much about the reports of phenomena as they are about the phenomena themselves. Forteana is a sort of newswatch on our myths and legends, a tracker of our campfire tales.

'The Rough Guide to the Unexplained' has a variety of uses. This is probably not the sort of book you’re going to read cover-to-cover. But at any given juncture, you can pick this one up and read a cogent, imagination-inspiring article about a subject you might never have considered. So stack it up for general-purpose nightstand reading and essential reference material for any writer. To my mind, one can never have too many books like this and this particular volume is just superb. It's a dense thicket of oddness, a lively read that will effectively blow your mind whenever you pick it up. The Unexplained may not be a place, and it may not actually need a rough guide; but serious readers might very well need this book.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Live at the Capitola Book Café With Andrew Kimbrell : "A fundamentally ethical crisis"

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is a report from the Capitola Book Café last Thursday, when I went to attend the reading by Andrew Kimbrell and stopped to talk with Kimbrell and a couple of very well-informed other attendees. First, I talk to Ken Kimes, who with his wife Sandra, founded New Natives Organic Sprouts more than 25 years ago here in Santa Cruz County. Then I spoke with Tim Galarneu of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, an organization dedicated to the concept of organic, local agriculture. And finally, I spoke with Andrew Kimbrell himself, just before he went to the podium, to find out how he was going to modify and expand the themes of our conversation earlier that day. You can find them all on the MP3 here. You'll probably eat better as a result and just as importantly, save yourself some money.


10-15-07: A 2007 Interview with Andrew Kimbrell ; NPR Report on Austin Grossman

"Drought resistant plants, plants that taste better, plants that reduce fat...Complete. Science. Fiction."

From the CAFF Website; you'll hear more about them in tomorrow's podcast news.
Too bad most of what Andrew Kimbrell talks about isn't science fiction, even though some twenty years ago, it might have sounded like SF. Mutant super weeds. ("Return of the Giant Hogweed", anyone?) Tomatoes spliced with fish genes so they can be frozen yet remain fresh. Recombinant peas turned deadly by gene splicing. Pollution in the DNA ecosystem.

Welcome to 'Your Right to Know', a right that actually does not exist and one which few have been willing to quibble over. But for readers who like their food to be non-toxic, for readers who like their dystopian science fiction to peek out at them from the grocery store shelves and for readers who are simply nail-spitting mad at everything damn thing in general because it's all such a clusterfuck, then Kimbrell is your man. He's on point on message and knows his stuff. More importantly, he knows stuff you probably don’t know or at least, he's got it cleverly arranged to give you an unpleasantly clear view of reality in a manner that is entertaining and highly energizing. I'll confess. I frankly was not all that worried about this stuff before I picked up his book. My attitude was, hell, I'm a mutant already. What’s the big deal?

Safe as rBGH milk.
Well, gene-splicing to sell pesticides is a problem so far as I'm concerned. You want to genetically engineer mutant-rabbit bears that can jump hundred of feet and pounce on a Prius? Have at it! But gene-splicing corn that you can dip in RoundupV7.8 because V7.7 no longer kills the Giant Hogweed, well, that's A) a boring use of a potentially exciting technology and B) takes the corn tortillas and the entire menu of most of my favorite Mexican restaurants right off the plate, thus leading to personal starvation.

But really, I don’t eat very much any more, so that's all good. You won't want to eat out very much either after reading 'Your Right to Know', but when you go shopping at least Kimbrell provides you with a game plan for the grocery store. Not a big honkin' list, but a nice overview of how to make sure that if you are what you eat, you won't be a fishy tomato. Kimbrell is a practiced and compelling voice, the sort of guy you might think to sit down and listen to for a few passing minutes only to stay glued to your chair until the end. As ever, I have defeated my own stats by posting a RealAudio and an MP3 version of the interview. When you manage to pry yourself out of your chair, take a trip to your grocery store and see, just see if those shelves look the same.

"Unconventional Education Fuels Author's First Novel"

Austin Grossman at KQED.
I have a report up on NPR for Weekend Edition Sunday on Austin Grossman's education and how it contributed to his first novel, the excellent 'Soon I Will Be Invincible'.

Readers can help contribute to this website and column by going to this web page and emailing the story. You can listen to the RealAudio and as soon as I can get my hands on the original WAV file, I'll post it here as one of the Agony Column Podcast News Reports. Stay tuned, and press that email button.

There's another way to contribute to this column, which is to pledge some trivial amount to KUSP; mention my name and let them you know you appreciate their support of my interviews. Or heck, just enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Kick back and read a book.


Agony Column Review Archive