Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


11-16-07: A Review of Erika Mailman's 'The Witch's Trinity' : Horror and History ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Phone Interview with Andrew Szasz

Horror and History

Burn, baby, burn. Don't sweat it.
Readers know that I like a good horror novel, and that part of what I like is for a horror novel to actually be scary, and surreal. 'The Witch's Trinity' by Erika Mailman is both, but it's a lot more as well. Still, let's focus on the basics.

Mailman is working on ground that has been covered about ten million times. Witches such as she describes are beyond cliché. But Mailman uses visionary prose to immerse the reader in the perceptions of a character who truly finds witches both believable and terrifying. It's a daring move but one that utterly succeeds simply by virtue of great writing. As a horror novel alone, 'The Witch's Trinity' is a total success.

But Mailman does more than just immerse and frighten the reader. She also manages to pack a lot of historical reading pleasure into this novel, offering the reader the chance to understand more than the characters do about their own lives. The historical hindsight thrills here are as rewarding as the moments of sheer horror; moreover they bolster one another. I've reviewed the novel in-depth and in my standard-issue format here. I'd get searching now for signed firsts if I didn't have one already. And maybe lay off the pork for while.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Phone Interview with Andrew Szasz : 'Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves'

Mine shaft gap! Mine shaft gap! We must not allow a mine shaft gap! I feel greener already.

This literally just in – it's 5:17 PM PDT here in Aptos, California, and I'm looking out at my backyard thinking how easily I could put in a fallout shelter. I'm also thinking about what that has to do with all the bottled water in my garage, in the kitchen cabinets, all the organic foods on the shelves – because I just had a brief conversation with Andrew Szasz (pronounced "saws") about his book, 'Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves'. How can you not love a book that discusses the "inverted quarantine" and the fallout shelter panic of 1961? Well of course you must, and I trust you'll understand that unless you listen to this MP3 interview immediately, we are in imminent peril of succumbing to a mine shaft gap – and WE MUST NOT ALLOW A MINE SHAFT GAP! Or to have our precious bodily fluids poisoned.


11-15-07: Ralph Angel, 'Exceptions and Melancholies', Alta Ifland 'Voice of Ice' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Ralph Angel and Alta Ifland

Poetry Santa Cruz at the Capitola Book Café

The quality of writers you might find traveling through, or living in your city is likely to be much more amazing than you might expect. Take for example last night's extravaganza at Capitola Book Café. I was privileged to sit down and speak with two poets for Poetry Santa Cruz ; Alta Ifland, a Romanian who writes in French and English in her first book of poems, 'Voice of Ice' (Les Figues Press ; November 2007 ; $15), and Ralph Angel, who just won the 2007 PEN USA Award for 'Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986–2006' (Sarabande Books ; January 2007 ; $125.95). Their casual, engaging demeanor seemed to me to be highly understated given the quality of their written works. But talent is relentless. It emerges no matter what the environment. Ifland and Angel may come off like ordinary, smart nice people in person; on the printed page it is quite another matter. There, it is all literary fireworks. Dark literary fireworks.

Ralph Angel lives in LA.
Poetry Santa Cruz and the Capitola Book Café are the reasons this happened, and I have to give them credit. For Poetry Santa Cruz, Len Anderson, a physicist who spent sixteen years working for Measurex, is the publicist and so far as I can determine, the de-facto leader. "Poetry Santa Cruz," the bessditge tell us, "is a nonprofit organization incorporated in the state of California. We are unpaid volunteers working to nurture the poetry community and to bring poetry to the larger community in Santa Cruz County. We present poetry readings, craft workshops for poets and provide information on poetry events and selected other events which may be of interest to the community." One can imagine that this sort of thing might spread; why not a "reading Santa Cruz" or a "Fiction West Covina"? Stranger things have happened. And both Ifland and Angel have probably written about them.

Angel's book is published in the classic poetry format; a smallish trade paperback with a muted cover image. His poetry is anything but muted. He taps into the surreal, jarring dream-while-awake imagery that our minds are only barely aware of capturing for just a moment. Reading his work called to mind Sam Adams lecture at the Singularity Summit, where he detailed the petabytes of data that we take in every hour of the day via sight and sound. Adams suggested that we use a combination of superstition and forgetfulness to manage all the information, that we were tossing out some memories while holding on to others even though they were superstition, first encounters with something that may have been an illusion because it has no backing history. Angel's work seems to sift through that mountain of data and pluck out the language that describes the parts of our lives we don’t really have time to notice, let alone contemplate. His language is angular; it slips between the crevices of everyday experience and then twists open the wounds, the wonders of each moment of our lives. Language makes life fresh and fearful. Ultimately, there is hope in the clarity he evokes.

Striking design from Les Figues Press for Ifland's first book of poetry.

Ifland is not your normal poetry experience. Her book, 'Voice of Ice' has a striking vertical design that instantly made me want to buy it. Inside, each poem is printed in French on a left page and in English on the facing right page. Ifland describes her work as prose poems, although these days they might be tagged as "flash fiction." Forget the label; the work is dark, rather frightening and very surreal. "Drinking Oblivion", "The Louse" and "The cat, the mouse and the Merlot" seem to coalesce out of nightmare into the written word. Ifland's prose is certainly far too musical to be mere flash fiction. She may eschew the broken line, but she does write songs, fast flights of notes from a frightened, fractured mind that has seen more than its share of horror. Those who admire Jeff VanderMeer's poetry and flash fiction will find a lot to like here.

And this would be precisely why you want to reach out beyond what you think you want to read. Even though the literary world has undergone a celebrity transformation with big-money authors preening like rock stars, the process is not yet complete. You can find raw talent there on the printed page with relative ease. The writing process itself is a help here. By definition a one-man band, writing keeps mushy-mouthed businessmen out of the lineup until you reach the top rungs. Even then, you have a hope of finding a bestselling writer who is also a potent craftsman and artist. Strip away the top layer of noise and bombast and you'll be able to go to your suburban book store on a quiet Tuesday evening and meet award-winning and award deserving poets. You can pick up their work with ease. Open the books, turn the pages and immerse yourself in words. More amazing than you’d expect.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Ralph Angel and Alta Ifland : Reaching Inward

I spoke with Angel and Ifland for a very short moment before they appeared at Capitola Book Café; we talked upstairs in the headbanging room of the Captiola Book Café. Headbanging, because it is an attic and there is a nice water pipe at forehead height that I've knocked my noggin on at least three times before I did so once again, last night. Ifland arrived first, and we talked a bit about her homeland and her three-language writing career. Angel arrived a few minutes later and joined us. I managed to get them both talking about their writing. Two poets, recorded in this MP3, ready for your ears. Language and music – and language as music.


11-14-07: Donald A. Norman Foresees 'The Design of Future Things' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Bookseller Elaine Petroccelli of Book Passage

Everyday, Now and Forever

This piece of tecch looks pretty scary to me. Like a people shredder.
I don’t know that I agree with everything that Donald A. Norman has to say in 'The Design of Future Things' (Basic Books ; November 5, 2007 ; $27.50). But I do know that what I read made me think very carefully about both his assumptions and mine with regards to man's relationships with his creations. Everyday we use stuff to do stuff. That's as far as our thoughts go, with good reason. We have lives to live. We neither need nor want to spend too much time thinking about how we interact with the increasingly complex automated ecology that surrounds us. Red lights point one way, green lights the other. We stop, then go, hopefully not at the same time.

Hopefully. Donald Norman has been fulminating about our helper-machine environment for some twenty years. Back in 1988, he started with 'The Psychology of Everyday Things', his first look at the importance of design and interaction. That book was transformed into 'The Design of Everyday Things' in 1990, and it's become something of a standard for ergonomics and industrial design. But that was back in the past; we're now identifiably living in the future, and a big part of that future involves automation that seems smart but is often the result of uninformed design principles – at least, according to Norman. "Designers tend to focus on the technology," Norman writes, "attempting to automate whatever possible for safety and convenience. Their goal is complete automation, except where that is not yet possible because of technical limitations or cost concerns." I don't know that this is always the case, but I do know that it's a case I might not have considered had I not picked up Norman's intelligently written and argued book.

Norman is nothing if not well-informed. He cites the work of both Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson, as well as more than 20 pages of recommended readings, references and notes. And he certainly makes you think, as when he goes right up against my favorite technology of all time. "Two thousand years ago, Socrates argues that the book would destroy people's ability to reason." Of course, Norman follows on with Socrates impeccable reasoning and then extends it into our own machine age. We're surrounded by machines that use limited AI to make decisions for us. He cites the example of a British motorist trapped in a traffic circle for fourteen hours by a new feature on his car called "Lane Keeping," and it is indeed a nightmarish example. But he also talks about the virtues of the machine/human interaction in the Segway, which has thus far failed to change the way anyone does much of anything.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with all his conclusions, Norman is clearly a fascinating thinker with an agile mind that he has aimed at problems that are seemingly invisible because of their ubiquity. He argues for augmentation as opposed to automation, and his thoughts seem tailor-made for a presentation at the next Singularity Symposium. He perfectly expresses the frustration that we feel over the inability of so-called expert systems to take the next step, even a baby step towards what we now call AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence. We want our expert systems to learn things beyond the purview of their design. We don’t want smart cars; we want smart design. Norman's book epitomizes the thought behind Dr. James Hughes comment in my interview with him at the Singularity Symposium; " don’t really want to have an argument with your toaster about whether it is going to give you toast in the morning."

As befits a smart man writing about smart design, Norman has kept his own book smartly designed. It's short and to the point, and it's also tremendously entertaining. All the brilliance in the world won’t do a whit of good if nobody wants to read it. Norman writes a book that engineers can use to inform their industrial design as well as a book for those who are forced to use stuff. Particularly interesting is the "Afterword: the Machine's Point of View", in which he undertakes to speak with several machines. He interviews Archiver, which, "resides on a distributed set of powerful computers in a process called 'mesh computing.'" It's an effective use of the science fiction genre to explore a real-world problem. But unfortunately, 'The Design of Future Things' isn’t science fiction; this is the future we live in. And argue with.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Bookseller Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage : Writers Aplenty, Events Galore

I just got off the phone with Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, and what an incredible story she has to tell you. This is a bookstore that has, she tells me, three events every day! Unlike many of the bookstores I talk to, Book Passage is a general interest bookstore that manages to beat off the chains on their own ground, mostly by hosting a relentless series of events with top-notch authors, many of whom live nearby in Marin County. You can hear the MP3 of our conversation here, and find out why you want to visit their website. No, I'll tell you why. With all those events, they have a huge stock of signed books that apparently do a bang-up business. So, next time you miss an author who comes to tow, no need to miss the book; check out their website. And don’t blame me for all the money you end up spending! Blame me, however, for the piles of books.


11-13-07: Kage Baker Buckles Up to Swash Again ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Live from Shakespeare Santa Cruz The Princess and the Pea "Pea Chair Tour" at Capitola Book Café

'Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key'

I suspect the lettering may remain intact.
Hot on the heels of 'The Maid on the Shore' by Kage Baker, first published in last year's 'Dark Mondays' from Night Shade Books, comes 'Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key' (Subterranean Press ; April 2008 ; $35), another pirate adventure from the always adventurous Baker. John James has just popped off the ship captained by Henry Morgan in 'The Maid on the Shore', and he's decided to give the pirate biz the ol' heave-ho. Turns out that it's not such a hot prospect. Oh sure, there's adventure, even a zombi to spice things up now and again, but at the end of his voyage, John James has about fifty pounds, and well, bricklaying pays better. All he has to do is deliver a note from a dead man to the dead man's mistress.

And you can imagine how that goes.

This is, after all, Kage Baker. James is made an offer he can't refuse, or at least for an amount of money he cannot in good conscience allow to pass him by. And after all, it is only one small trip to recover a potential fortune. Joined by clerk Winthrop Tudely, who soon sheds his meek demeanor, and Sejanus Walker, a black freedman, and Mrs. Waverly "John James" sets forth on the Harmony to encounter everything but.

Baker is a master at creating mischievous mayhem, at orchestrating adventure and comedy and the supernatural in a manner that is pleasing to the mind. If you're one of the many readers like myself who consider the time they spent reading Tim Powers' 'On Stranger Tides' a simply wonderful reading experience, then I'd heartily suggest signing up for both 'Dark Mondays', if you've not already done so, and the forthcoming 'Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key'. It's the usual limited, deluxe hardcover edition for $35 a pop, which doesn't seem particularly dear to me. One might be tempted to call 'Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key' a novella, and indeed the SFWA may enforce such a perception based on word count and what not, but the fact is the ARC I have is 184 pages in an 8.5" by 5.5" format. Seems pretty short-novelish to me, and I like a good short novel. A weekend read is always a delight, especially as the evenings grow short; though by the publication date, we should be well into spring. Still, if it is too chilly to sit outside, stay inside by the fire and warm yourself with fine words in a fine book.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Live from Shakespeare Santa Cruz The Princess and the Pea "Pea Chair Tour" at Capitola Book Café : Creating a New Generation of Readers

Princess Maria (left) Dana Werdmuller, (right), her daughter (center). And of course, the Pea Chair.

Well, in just a few minutes, I'm going to the Capitola Book Café to see what’s what with the Shakespeare Santa Cruz "Princess and the Pea" chair tour. You can imagine what a delight it was to announce this on the radio. It took a bit of doing to work my way through the prose so that I didn't jump up and down on the obvious double-entendre. But I'm curious about what SSC is doing and what I might hope to find. I'll report back shortly and you can enjoy the MP3 report I assemble before it gets aired on KUSP. I just wish that Hans Christian Andersen had chosen to go with beans, as it would have made my radio copy easier to read. But "the Princess and the Bean" doesn't have the same ring to it; moreover there's Jack and his Jolly-Green-Giant peastalk. Or I guess it's a beanstalk.

Billie Harris warns of the dangers that can occur when you have too many monkeys jumping in the bed.

OK, now I'm not only back but I've edited the audio – oh so lightly – for your enjoyment, and there can be nothing grander for any reader than to see young readers in the making. I talked with a potential princess who proved to be the Real Deal, and I talked to Billie Harris, who comes to Capitola Book Café each Monday to read for children. In addition, I talked with Dana Werdmuller, the Marketing Director for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and a very special reader who arrived as part of four generations of readers who were attending the event. In fact, one of them was indeed the Actual Princess who sat in the chair.


11-12-07 : A 2007 Interview with Tom Brokaw

"It troubles me..."


Expect the unexpected.
I'll let Tom Brokaw do most of the talking. I frankly didn't expect to interview him; I thought the more senior types at KUSP would line him up when he came to Santa Cruz to talk about his new book, 'Boom! Voices of the Sixties'. But this did not come to pass. I even expressed a mild interest in talking with him, but again thought as I left the station that I probably wouldn’t have time to set it up.

But the unexpected intervened and I returned home to find an email enquiring if I wanted to speak with him. Even then, I didn't expect much would come of it, but I said "Yes," and then found myself in a swirl of activity, plowing through the book and plastering it with stickies. First I talked to him on the phone, and then last Thursday, in an event sponsored by Capitola Book Café, I spoke to him in person, upstairs, in the so-called "crying room" of the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, California.

From the back cover.
Nobody was crying then. No, Tom was signing stock, lots of stock, and I helped, pitching books and slapping "Autographed" stickers on them. When we finished, we sat down and chatted about the oddments in 'Boom!" – his connection with Bob Haldeman was probably the most disconcerting.

You can hear the MP3 or the RealAudio version. And you can decide for yourself on how history will view this history, and whether or not we shall learn from our experience, or repeat it – again.


Agony Column Review Archive