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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


11-02-07: Tezuka & Satrapi Graphic Novels ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Jeff Ayers, Manager of Forbidden Planet, NY : Monster of the Id

"Public understanding must be gained on biological weapons"–"Or, they would be executed"

Darker than you think – than you want to think.
It's not all this grim. But neither of these graphic novels shies away from the graphic. Both 'MW' by Ozamu Tezuka (Vertical ; October 15, 2007 ; $24.95) and 'The Complete Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon / Random House ; October 30, 2007 ; $24.95) offer more than glimpses of the tragedy and horrors that surround us. Both are strong political statements, and both are adult-oriented fiction that will compel your attention at ever level. And while they're both the same price, I must hasten to add that 'Persepolis' is a trade paperback, while 'MW' is a hardcover. Go figure the economics of the printing press in this topsy-turvy world.

Or instead let yourself go into these rather disturbing worlds. Well, 'MW' is pretty much thoroughly disturbing and that's something of a surprise. Tezuka made his name and the manga world with 'Astro Boy' and 'Kimba'. Big eyes and bigger hearts. That makes 'MW', originally serialized in Japan between 1976 and 1978 even more surprising. 'MW' took on the stuff of today's headlines some thirty years ago. In it, a young boy is exposed to a toxic gas leftover from US experiments. The gas kills everyone on an island except for the boy and one other, and the government decides that the event is best left unchronicled. IE, whitewashed. The boy is transformed by the event into a conscienceless serial killer who becomes the women he kills and sleeps with a priest who does have a conscience, one that is tortured by the knowledge of what the now-grown boy is doing. And the toxic gas is still out there. Waiting.

Happier times, sometimes.
You can imagine that this is not a happy story for happy people, and by the time you finish it you might be ready for Satrapi's sweeter but still serious tale of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. There could hardly be a more timely tale, and the timing is such that you’d better read it quickly. The book is a sort-of tie-in for the movie, co-written by Satrapi, which has already gathered up awards and acclaim. It's slated to open here on Christmas.

As books, both of these volumes are quite nice. Pantheon has made a science of the turning graphic novels into beautiful trade paperbacks, and given its flagship status, 'The Complete Persepolis' is no exception. Nice printing, deep blacks and jacket flaps take this a cut above the average trade paperback. Meanwhile, the folks over at Vertical are in comparison giving you a huge value. 'MW' is 585 pages, equally well-printed and comes in a form factor that is quite desirable. I figure that between them, these two books should take care of all your serious graphic novel needs for the rest of the year. But I might suggest finding some lighter reading to split them up. Between the poison gas and the executed, you might wish to find a breath of fresh air.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Jeff Ayers, Manager of Forbidden Planet, NY : Monster of the Id

Today's Agony Column Podcast is a conversation with Jeff Ayers, the manager of New York's version of 'Forbidden Planet'. I visited the London version, where I found some things I thought I’d never see again; interestingly enough, American books. You can listen to the MP3 of my conversation with Jeff and wish you were there. He's an energetic, entertaining guy who will bring you back to the bookstore.


11-01-07: Michael Jasper 'The Wannoshay Cycle' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Talking Food With Mollie Katzen

For Your Own Protection

Damn pyramids keep falling on my head!

It's an American tradition – I hope – to distrust those who tell you that they’re doing something "For your own protection." We typically understand this to mean that those who speak the words are imposing a burden which will inconvenience us and benefit them. Furthermore, we're not to question either the request itself or the motive behind the request. It's "For your own protection."

Uh huh.

In the science fiction genre, we know this as "To Serve Man."

To serve readers, on the other hand is a taller order, calling for literary instead of culinary skills. Both are in short supply. So we're happy to find Michael Jasper working a very American science fiction tradition with 'The Wannoshay Cycle' (Five Star / Thomson – The Gale Group / Tekno Books ; January 2008 ; $25.95). Jasper grew up in Iowa and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though I first encountered his work in Interzone, a UK publication that brought us the likes Alastair Reynolds, Jasper's work has none of the feel or the trademarks of the current UK SF genre. There's no sense of icky, sticky complexity, no hyper-detailed exotica. Jasper writes a meat-and-potatoes novel that is dense and complex, but his settings and characters pretty straightforward, as are his concerns. We live in a world of scapegoats, all very human. What happens when aliens arrive? No matter what their actual nature may be, their status as scapegoat is pretty much assured.

In Jasper's novel, the aliens don't land so much as fall. In the midst of a winter blizzard, in the midst of terrorist attacks on American soil, black pyramids tumble and crash. Inside are the Wannoshay, humanoid-ish aliens who only want to get along. Good luck with that; even humans can't get along. But we like a good alien because they look really different from us. That makes 'em easy to blame when shit gets blowed up, and even easier to round up for placement in internment camps. "For their protection and ours."

To serve man – on in this case Wannoshay. Let's just call 'em Wantas. Because that sounds much more demeaning.

Jasper's cast of characters and their concerns are all front-and-center middle American. A priest, a drug addict, a single mother, a day laborer – there are not the typical hero types you'll find in American SF, not the trong-jawed, dead-certain against-all-odds-outsiders. Nope, Jasper refreshingly looks at the sort of people you might see at the grocery store, or in front of it with sign in their hands, and then try to look away from. This is America, folks, land of the justifiably paranoid and home of the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. Aliens, mysterious diseases, terrorists, government crackdowns on every damn thing and suspicious minds as the new norm. We're terrorized all right, but by one another. Aliens? Hell, somebody in the next county is an alien so far as I'm concerned.

The tone and tack of Jasper's novel are much more akin to Ray Bradbury, or even Stephen King, than Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher or Richard Morgan. There's a peculiarly American fullness that underlies his prose and his approach. His spiritual interests are somehow still down-to-earth even if his aliens are not of the earth. The Wannoshay are as vulnerable as the homeless, as pliable as the ne'er-do-wells who haunt fast food restaurants and run-down bars. They're pragmatic, not romantic. And they're as easily sidelined, dismissed and converted into scapegoats for all of our ills, for all of our sins. We live in the century of the pointing finger, and would do well to remember that it can easily swing in our direction.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Talking Food With Mollie Katzen : Call Any Vegetable

Now I have that Frank Zappa song stuck in my head.
... and the vegetable will respond to you! sYou can hope. Monday, I had the privilege of speaking with Mollie Katzen, author of 'Moosewood Cookbook' and 'The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without'. Readers will recall that I had great luck with the two recipes I cooked from the latter, enough so that I bought 'Moosewood Cookbook' when I was at the Capitola Book Café. I had a delightful, if somewhat clueless on my part, conversation with Mollie. You can hear the MP3, wherein she explains how she became interested in vegetarian cooking and just what sort of vegetarian she is. We also talked tools, oh so important. And let me mention that last night, my wife picked a recipe from 'Moosewood Cookbook', which I prepared, and it was superb. Polenta Pie, really easy, quick, actually sort of fun to make. Having a recipe takes the tension out of food making, so you can just bop merrily along to the prerecorded beat, so to speak. Tonight it is gratin again. What's on your plate?


10-31-07: The Senses of 'The Surgeon's Tale' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Janet and Chris Atwood Take 'The Passion Test'

Jeff VanderMeer, Cat Rambo, M. F. Korn and D. F. Lewis Preserve the Imagination

Surgical precision not required.

I'm glad to find out that neither "Cat Rambo" nor "M. F. Korn" is imaginary. Whenever you see the name D. F. Lewis or Jeff VanderMeer attached to anything, it's best to question reality. You never know what they'll get up to. In this case, it's 'The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories' (Two Free Lancers Press ; December 15, 2007 ; $9.99), a beautifully printed and produced little booklet that includes six stories and some delightful illustrations. There's no colophon page, nothing beyond the words on the covers and between them to tell the story of the book itself. Only I am left to tell the tale.

And the tale is this:

Quit your job in the IT world.

Start life anew as a writer. Starve the finances and the mind will quicken.

It worked for VanderMeer and Rambo, at least. In times recent, both Rambo and VanderMeer made a hasty exit from the workaday world of code-cracking, tech-writing terminal boredom, the better to focus their minds on that which does not exist, should not exist and yet is brought to life in vibrant prose in these brief pages. Rambo and VanderMeer collaborate on the sensual title story. "Sensual" in that they overwhelm the reader with tastes and smells. It's a brave and effective effort that enslaves the reader with chemical memories in order to create a world where magic and science are crossing in decline and rise. In such a world preservation is indeed possible, but as ever, the desirability is mediated by one's (in)ability to predict the outcome of one's efforts. No matter what reality we inhabit, look long enough, look hard enough and you shall find a monkey's paw. "The Surgeon's Tale" is gorgeous, funny, surreal entry into urban fantasy. Take a walk through the smallish town center of the suburb nearest you after reading it and you'll not see the same town you've seen before. The world is shot through with magic, and the results of this are not always beneficent to all involved.

The book is illustrated by Kris Dikeman (with one piccie that will speak directly to those who enjoyed the movie "Oldboy"), and the cover design is by James "Argosy" Owen, he of Coppervale Studios. As 100-page paperback shows go, it's very, very nice, especially for ten bucks.

Other works by both Rambo and VanderMeer are more reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith, who is not so far off the mark of the first one, either. But "The Dead Girl's Wedding March" (a solo effort by Cat Rambo), "The Farmer's Cat" (a solo effort from VanderMeer), "Key Decides Its Destiny" and "Three Sons" (both by Rambo) are more removed from the world within which we live; they strike a more mythic, fairy-tale tone. And it is a remarkably even tone, in that there are no jarring shifts as you read. It all feels cut from the same cloth.

The final story is "The Strange Case of the Lovecraft Café", written by M. F. Korn, D. F. Lewis and VanderMeer. While the writing and tone start out in a similar vein, the story takes more of a goofy left turn as we get Crawford Tillinghast's take on an eatery where one might find "Deep Fried Ones" on the menu. If you do not get the picture, proceed immediately to the nearest bookstore and pick up "H. P. Lovecraft: Tales" from the Library of America. The literary look and cover design will fool all but the best-informed into thinking you're just getting the back story on a lost literary legend. Which you are, in a sense. But. Again, if you need the background to the jokes in the story, this is the place to start.

I know; you don't need no stinkin' background. You just need your local bookery to stock "The Surgeon's Tale". Good luck with that, unless your local bookery is like, Borderlands, or Forbidden Planet, or one of say, two dozen specialty shops that dot this blighted, benighted globe, circling a dying ember in the vacuum vault of stygian emptiness. If you're not next door to the abyss, you can visit Cat Rambo's website to order a personalized copy, but black scratches on a piece of paper, made as if the writer were being pursued by agents of eternal damnation, suggest you’d best hope that the apocalypse arrives after December 15, 2007. I guess they're serious about that date. Maybe they know something we don’t. Probably they know something we don't. Thoughts come into my mind and I wish to unthink them. If it does happen, if I am able to unthink those gibbering screeches that echo even now, I just hope that none shall be there to consume what is left, none shall partake of the essence of my venal, meaningless existence.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Janet and Chris Atwood Take 'The Passion Test' : Make a List, Check it Monthly

Chris Attwood, Janet Attwood and their book 'The Passion Test".

Once again, into the breech of Gateways Books goeth I, this time to speak with Janet and Chris Atwood about their book, 'The Passion Test'. No, it's not that kind of book. It's about figuring out what your passion is; IE, what you really give a shit about ; and then making the hard choices required to follow your passion and pursue what matters to you. This is not unlike what VanderMeer and Rambo have done. One guesses that their lists were a bit shorter and easier than most of ours, really. The Atwood's have a pretty on-target message that's worth your valuable time in this MP3. That is, presuming that you are worth your own valuable time. Alas, on this benighted globe, plunging mindlessly into the aching, hungry void, that's not a given.


10-30-07: Molly Katzen Offers 'The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kage Baker Reads at SF in SF

Gracias for the Gratin

Nice format, great cookbook.

I knew it would come to this, sooner or later. I knew I would start writing about cookbooks; I just had to find the right one to wrap my brain around. That proves to be Mollie Katzen's 'The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without' (Hyperion Books / ABC ; October 9, 2007 ; $22.95). I've looked at a few other cookbooks as they came into KUSP, but they were a little complex for my tastes. When I see a recipe with a long list of ingredients, most of which I don’t have on hand, I tend to flick past it quickly. That's not necessary with Katzen's admirably simple cookbook. But don’t take that to mean the recipes aren't top-notch.

Here's what happened. Since I'm now podcasting on a daily basis, I look for authors who are swinging into town to give things a bit of audio variety and help my phone bills. (Oh the misery the month I spoke to Peter F. Hamilton and Xiaolu Guo in the UK.) I noticed Katzen was going to be at Capitola Book Café on Monday, October 29, and set up an interview, which you'll hear later this week. But first, I wanted to report my unfiltered thoughts on the cookbook before I talked to the author.

It is, in a word, totally outstanding. Now, look. I'm a guy who thinks some of the best food on this planet can be found at the Central Texas Barbecue in Castroville, California. I am told that only I could find CTB in the home of the artichoke. (Remember that vegetable! Or as Frank Zappa would say, "Call any vegetable!") The meats they serve there are like dessert, they’re so flavorful. I mention this to help readers understand that I'm not necessarily inclined to jump up and down for a vegetarian cookbook. Now, I know that Katzen's 'Moosewood Cookbook' is a big deal, but frankly, I've never seen it. Heathen am I. But Katzen's new book has a lot of things going for it beyond the great recipes. I'll talk about those later, but I do have to throw in some book geek stats.

First off, this is a book with no DJ, a nicely printed cover and it's only 144 pages. It's 8 1/2" by 11", a nice comfortable familiar format. It's easy to take it with you to the grocery store – I did so, in fact. Katzen illustrates her own book and it’s printed in one of those handwriting-like fonts. The latter could prove to be precious or annoying, but it's neither because it's easy to read. The illustrations are nice, and the effect is that you've got some mom-with-nice-handwriting's notebook. It easily lays open with you're cooking or shopping. As a piece of book tech for cooking, it's just dandy.

Which would not mean doodely-ooodely if the recipes weren't both make-able and edible. Or frankly, beyond edible, that is totally delicious. Again, the recounting. So, I'm signed up to interview the cookbook author and I decide to make some of the recipes, to find out if they're any good, frankly. I've never interviewed a cookbook author before. When I interview a literary author, I read the book, in an attempt to "use" as it is supposed to be used. So I tried the same thing here, and made one recipe that sounded good to me: Stir-fried carrots, red peppers and red onions with roasted cashews, and one that my wife liked, the one that lead off the book, Artichoke Heart and Spinach gratin. The latter didn't sound so hot to me, but like the former it involved ingredients that I had or were readily available at the local (1 mile away) grocery store, Deluxe Foods of Aptos. (It's a locally owned store.) So, first I go to the store. I ended up spending $26.66. For two dishes, that's a lot. But it included raw cashew pieces ($4.99) that I used like, 1/4 of, and fresh parmesan cheese ($6.48) that I used only part of and 2 quarts of milk @$1.59. The only expensive part of the meal that was entirely consumed was the frozen box of artichoke hearts, which clocked in at $3.99. Overall, that made the whole deal not so fiscally painful.

I tend to cook way in advance, so I started early. The directions called for chopping, etc, and the prep was utterly painless. I first put together the gratin, then popped it in the oven while I prepared the stir fry. Oh wait, first, before that I roasted the cashews. But still, pretty much only 40 minutes to put the two dishes together, and damn. Just following the recipe like a chemistry experiment (well, I did add a lot more garlic than called for, tablespoons instead of teaspoons, and I threw in some cooking sherry into both recipes), but still largely, say following the recipe word for word, the results were stellar. It really tasted like restaurant food and we ate every damn bit. Both dishes were easy, required no exotic foods – and came out exactly as described. I did put in all optional ingredients (pineapple and ginger in the stir fry). We didn't heave a meat entrée for dinner and we didn't miss it. So, my totally unscientific experiment informs me that two recipes chosen at random from "just under 100" are outstanding. If you wanted to buy a cookbook you might use, even if you are a dedicated meatatarian, this cookbook will do. No CTB takeout required, damnit. Stay tuned and you'll hear my conversation with the author. We'll see how this cookbook-author interview biz goes.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kage Baker Reads at SF in SF : Welcome to Sutro Park

Probably the most important SF novel of the year.

I'm privileged to have a brand new company story by Kage Baker for today's podcast. And even more privileged to have her introduction to the story. This is why you want to find SF in SF, or your local equivalent. Listen to this MP3: new story, author insights. Saturday evening in San Francisco with the science fiction literary set. It doesn't get much better than this. (But the gratin is really, really good.)


10-29-07: SF in SF Podcast

A Panel Discussion With Kage Baker and Eliot Fintushel Moderated by Terry Bisson

As the headline describes the content of the podcast so concisely and correctly, I'm going to try to get out of my own way quickly. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy literature and especially science fiction literature and you live in the Bay Area, then you owe it to yourself to get to these events. Parking is neither as tragic or as comedic as I have expected, and the forums are a great place to meet and chat about books you love with the folks who write them. You'll hear original readings and be able to panel discussions. This panel will give you an idea, and tomorrow you'll hear on this podcast a reading of a NEW KAGE BAKER COMPANY STORY, never printed or released. Yet. And better still, you'll hear her discuss how she came to write the story; it's a fascinating insight into the artist at work. It's the reason why you should bee there next month when Molly Gloss and Karen Joy Fowler appear. Here's a link to the MP3; here's a link to the RealAudio. Here's a link to the pertinent details of next month's gig. I'll be trying once again to up the quality of the audio. Join me!


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