Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


01-11-08: 'Charlatan' by Pope Brock ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Malcolm Bell of Bookfellows Books : Mystery, Imagination and Bookselling

'America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam'

Poor goat.

How can I resist a book that has the word "Flimflam" in the title? Sorry, not gonna happen. Funny how the word synonymous with sleazy sales tactics is itself such a powerful selling tool. But 'Charlatan : America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam' (Crown Books / Random House ; February 2008 ; $24.95) by Pope Brock is just one of those books that really reaches out and literally grabs you by the balls. I'm sorry for this sort of terminology, but once you make the mistake of opening up the covers, you'll see what I mean. Brock has written a toe-tapping, non-fiction page turner about John R. Brinkley, aka "the superquack of Milford."

As the opening scene of this novelistic piece of non-fiction unfolds, Brinkley is performing a miracle cure for the Kansas State Medical Board, reporters and colleagues. The male patient is laid on the table and anaesthetized with two injections below the waist. Uh oh.

Then the nurse brings up the goat from the basement – a goat chosen by the patient.

What is supposed to be a couple of quick snips turns into a forty-five minute ordeal as Brinkleey removes the goat's testicles and transplants them into the happy human. After the operation, the patient stumbles away, his virility restored.

I wasn't exaggerating when I said the book grabs you by the balls; in fact it goes farther.

'Charlatan' is at once a cultural history, medical history and crime story. At least, I'd call what Brinkley did a crime and eventually Kansas did as well. Brinkley put the art into his work as a medical con-artist. His imagination and daring are positively breathtaking, and if you think it ends with crackpot science, you'll soon find that's only the beginning. Brock cranks readers through a pursuit that leads to advertising, and even radio as you know it; generally shabby and filled with a combination of crappy music and deceptive advertising. But that doesn't make it any less entertaining. If you can handle the bouts of horrific surgery, or dont mind grinding your teeth a bit, or even reading between your fingers, then 'Charlatan' is going to keep you glued to the pages. Pope knows how to interleave action and information in a manner so that each makes the other more interesting, more compelling.

Brock doesn't just give us Brinkley, he gives us a Nemesis; Morris Fishbein, Quackbuster. In so doing, Pope gives readers someone nearly as noxious as Brinkley. But at least Fishbein has his heart in the right place; and you certainly couldnt make up a name like that, could you? Reading a bit like Dickens as a muckraking Midwestern journalist, 'Charlatan' will surely make you wince, but it will also make you read – a significant achievement when you consider the subject. For me, at least, the teeth-grinding was the trick.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Malcolm Bell of Bookfellows Books : Mystery, Imagination and Bookselling

A window into other universes.

If you read this column regularly, the chances are you've bought a book from Malcolm and Christine Bell of Bookfellows. The Bells were for many years the owners of the Mystery and Imagination Bookstore, and still issue catalogues under that name. I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes of Malcom's valuable time, and we talked about the changes that he's seen in his more than thirty years of bookselling. While, yes, you'll want to buy something from him when you hear the interview, at least you can be assured that it will be a good something.


01-10-07: Charlie Huston Spills 'Half the Blood of Brooklyn' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Charlie Huston : "Let's get rid of those fuckin' dashes and put in some quotation marks"

And He Swears A Lot As Well

Where's the nekkid chick? Come on, guys – this design needs a nekkid chick!

Well, today we've got the podcast news and regular news all wrapped up in big shit-ola. That's because it's time to spill 'Half the Blood of Brooklyn' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; December 26, 2007 ; $13.95) with Charlie Huston. I've got to guess that most readers are familiar with Huston by this point; we've been flogging him here at The Agony Column since Terry D'Auray winced as she read the cat torture scenes in 'Caught Stealing'. I spoke with Huston last year about his Joe Pitt Casebooks, which I find to be one of those series that I can look forward to with delight. I know from the get-go what I'm gonna find when I peel back the kind-of-slimy trade paperback covers; the word "fuck" used well, a shitload of blood and enough violence – more than enough violence. These books are the perfect mental vacation; Huston takes you out of your world, puts you in Joe Pitt's world then entertains you to within an inch of your life for two hundred something pages.

Charlie Huston last year at KQED.
OK, if the particulars matter to you – and they really shouldn't – I can spill a few quarts myself. 'Half the Blood of Brooklyn' fires off with a full page that does not contain the word fuck. By the time you're on page three, blood and curses are flowing freely. Vampires from the outer boroughs are nosing around Manhattan, and that's pissing off the folks who keep Joe Pit in blood and ciggies. Joe is going to make a run to Coney Island, here he'll be forced to deal with the Freak Clan. Elvie is getting sicker, and Joe's going to have to make a tough choice. The world sucks; drinkin' blood seems pretty much called for.

Charlie and I talked about 'Half the Blood of Brooklyn' for today's podcast, as well as 'The Shotgun Rule', easily one of the best books of last year. I also asked Charlie about the film versions of his books, and we had a fascinating chat about his collaborations for comics. If you're interested in how two people co-write a famous comic book, listen up. If you've not read 'Already Dead' and 'No Dominion', let me state that you MUST read those books before tucking into this one. You've got a lot to look forward to; you should consider yourself lucky. By the way, nobody got rid of all the fuckin' dashes and put in some quotation marks.


01-09-08: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Strange Tales Volume II' Edited by Rosalie Parker ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Champagne Toast for 'Touchstone' : Email Your Questions for Laurie R. King

Pleasant Uneasiness

Another fine Tartarus book.

Today we're keeping things short and precise; first up, we have Mario Gusalndi's excellent review of 'Strange Tales Volume II' Edited by Rosalie Parker, a collection he really liked from Tartarus Press. I recently talked with Jeremy Lassen about the many virtues of Tartarus Press; their collection of the complete stories of Robert Aickman is a must-have, and holds a hallowed place on my non-rolling shelves. In fact, I'd pretty much by everything they printed if I had the loose cash; the quality of their work, both in what they publish and the hardcover originals they produce is simply outstanding. Interestingly enough, there's a crossover in this collection, in that it includes a story by Barbara Roden, one of the fine minds behind Ash-Tree Press. It may be a small world out there amidst the small presses, but at least its easy to get a decent book. Here's a link to Mario's review, with the proviso / warning that you may find yourself confronted with rent versus reading conundrum. But those books will always make a fine roof over your head. And the best, of course, are places you can live.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Champagne Toast for 'Touchstone' : Email Your Questions for Laurie R. King

Laurie R. King's new novel.

Last night, I attended the champagne toast at Capitola Book Café to celebrate Laurie R. King's new novel 'Touchstone' (Ballantine / Random House ; December 27, 2007 ; $24). King works in a variety of settings; she writes humorous historical mysteries in her Holmes & Russell series, contemporary police procedurals in the Kate Martinelli books and she writes one-offs set, well – where she likes. Her latest novel is set in the English countryside in the aftermath of World War One, but anyone reading it will feel the reverberations in the present.

This is a short interview that focuses on King's upcoming book tour and her connection with local bookstores the Capitola Book Café and Bookshop Santa Cruz. I had actually planned on speaking with Laurie King live last Friday during Talk of the Bay, but like much of Northern California, KUSP lost power. But that's the better for readers, because I plan on speaking to her twice in the upcoming weeks. One interview will be recorded in the studio as usual. The other will, with luck, take place on January 25, 2008, a live interview during my segment for KUSP's Talk of the Bay, between 10 AM and 11 AM PST. Laurie has invited my readers to email me questions for her, and we'll, be taking phone calls live during the show. (Within California, 1-800-655-5877 ; 831-476-2800 ; 888-549-6421.) I'll have more on this as the dates get closer. In the meantime, enjoy this brief MP3 conversation, pick up the book, then drop me an email or give us a call with your questions for Laurie R. King. And be honest – we'll know if you're lying.


01-08-08: Jeff Long Goes 'Deeper' ; Agony Column Podcast: A Panel Discussion with Mollie Katzen, Michael Pollan and Ann Vileisis : The New American Meal, Part II

Fresher Hells

Something to share with your children.
I remember reading 'The Descent' by Jeff Long and, not far into it, finding myself impressed and horrified. I was impressed by the imagination that the author to his vision of an underground civilization and horrified by the specifics. I was so struck by the book that I specifically remember mentioning to my son, who was at the time a budding horror fan. I hadn't finished the book when I spoke to him and afterwards, I amended my recommendation. For while 'The Descent' was undeniably powerful in spots, it was also rather talky at times. Still, it was a book that stuck in my brain and never left, and it created a place in my mind that I could go back and visit. Not that I'd want to; after all, that place was historical basis of our legends of Hell and not a very nice place to visit. But still, very vividly evoked.

I happened to be in Boulder Colorado, recently, the author's home town and was browing a very fine Boulder Bookstore, when I saw 'Deeper' (Atria Books / Simon & Schuster ; August 21, 2007 ; $25), which I knew to be a sequel. 'The Descent' was one of those great "one-offs" that come and go in the horror genre. While most writers who "dip" into genre fiction tend to come up with at best a well-written pale reminder (that soon is transformed into a striped remainder), Long's book had genuine moments of power, enough that a close look at the sequel is warranted.

One of the most interesting aspects of 'Deeper' is that 'The Descent' was published in a pre-9/11 world; the sequel now has to take into account the entire creaking notion of "Homeland Security" and add to it the existence of an actual Hell. It's a fresh hell, with terrorist implications all over the ding-darned place. Not surprisingly, Hell is after America's children and though we might like to hope that the Devil is dead, chances are that the Entity Formerly Known As Satan is a bit harder to knock off than you'd hope. And if we couldnt dig ourselves any deeper, those in charge of the good ol' US of A have decided that it's time to ratchet up the tension with China. Hey, theyre underground too, aren't they?

Long's strengths as a writer center around his experience as a climber, which he can with apparent ease translate into descriptions of caving; one presumes he's done a bit of that as well. Long is also a smart user of the supernatural and unreal, etching out an underground civilization with military precision. If you've not read 'The Descent', heres the best excuse to immerse yourself in Hell since that recent John Milton collection; and once you've made 'The Descent', won't it be comforting to know that Hell is not enough, that you can always go 'Deeper'?

The New American Meal 2

Ann Vileisis, Mollie Katzen, and Michael Pollan.

Today I wrap up the panel discussion I had with Mollie Katzen, Michael Pollan and Ann Vileisis, and make sure you stay tuned, because this part of the talk reveals that which has heretofore been a major mystery; the importance of phones to a certain food. You can hear the MP3 file from this link.


01-07-08: A Panel Discussion with Mollie Katzen, Michael Pollan and Ann Vileisis

The New American Meal 1

Ann Vileisis, Mollie Katzen, and Michael Pollan.

"You are what you eat," we're so often told. And that is certainly true, but if you care to pursue that line of reasoning, you'll start looking more closely at the individual components of your meals and their ingredients. Michael Pollan decided to follow this line, and the result was the best-selling and utterly compelling 'The Omnivore's Dilemma', which he has followed up with 'In Defense of Food'. As I read 'The Omnivore's Dilemma', I couldnt help but think of two other recent books I'd read; 'Kitchen Literacy' by Ann Vileisis and 'The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without' by Mollie Katzen. To me it seemed that all three writers were homing in on the same realization about what America eats and why. And it seemed natural – a word freighted with meaning in the conversation that followed – that I bring together the three writers together to talk about what I call the New American Meal. The conversation took place at the J-School Studios at UC Berkeley, engineered by Milt Wallace. Today's podcast is the first half hour of our talk; if you eat food, you probably want to hear what these writers have to say. The mind needs food as surely as does the body. I'll podcast the second half of the conversation tomorrow.


Agony Column Review Archive