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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


01-18-08: Sylvia Sellers-Garcia Knows 'When the Ground Turns In Its Sleep'

"It's inevitable that we edit"

Cover photo by Luis González Palma, chosen by the author.

Some stories have to be heard to be told. In the case of Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, those were the stories her mother told her about Guatemala during the "armed conflict." I put that in quotes because as Sellers-Garcia told me, there are still people who live in Guatemala who will tell you there was no "armed conflict." So of course, you can understand where her comment about editing comes from.

But it could also quite certainly refer to the editing she herself did to create 'When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep' (Riverhead Books / Random House ; January 1, 2008 ; $$24.95), a labyrinthine journey into the silence of a small village torn asunder by the "military action." Sellers-Garcia's novel is spare; the prose is cut to the bone. It's very simple – at first. Nítido Amán arrives in the village of Rio Roto, looking for his birthplace. But he's mistaken for a priest, and in the true fashion of a Kurt Vonnegut hero, he simply assumes the role. "Be careful what you pretend to be," is something we think we know by now, but it's all too easy to forget when you're in a country that you know only from your parents' stories and the memories of a child. There's something very dark and quite horrific behind the shattered remains of the school, beyond the forests. Deeds that benefit from our propensity to edit memory.

'When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep' is a powerful, sparse meditation on silence, memory and identity, the sort of book that sneaks up on you. As Nítido becomes part of a world he may once have inhabited, the layers of lies fall away, the tales begin to tell themselves. Woven into the fabric of the novel are letters and journals and stories within stories.

It all seems very simple, but when you hear my conversation with first-book writer Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, you'll know it's anything but simple. I talked with her extensively about not just the memories of her family that she mined to create the book, and her own personal experiences that led to the book, but the process of writing the book itself. She's a grad student getting her Ph.D. at Berkeley, and not surprising immersed in writing of a very different sort from that found in her novel. She told me how the two types of writing informed one another, and the layers and years of editing that turned a series of images into a published novel. Listen to her story; that told in the novel and the story she told me. We live in a world that encourages forgetfulness. Perhaps, by reading and listening to stories, we can learn to remember.


01-17-08: Frigyes Karinthy Offers 'A Journey Round My Skull' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Hugo Chat With Jeremy Lassen

"Death Tempts Me"

Ever get a bit of a headache?

Well it might, if it were early days in the 20th century, and while sitting in a café in Budapest, drinking tea and sweating bullets. First there's the big decision that Frigyes Karinthy finds himself faced with; write the monograph on society's ills or the three-act play? Then there's the pesky crossword puzzle, dominated by that stupid "oft-used phrase" that nobody's ever heard of until it is revealed in the puzzle. It was making Karinthy sweat, concentrate until he was red in the face.

And just to top things off, the trains come by. Rumbling, coming, the whole Doppler effect that makes them a standard-issue on sound effects compilations. But of course, Karinthy knows that there is no train; perhaps it was a lorry. So he starts the puzzle again, only to hear another damn train. And another. And a fourth. Until he realizes that there is no external sound. He's hallucinating.

Welcome to 'A Journey Round My Skull' (NYRB Classics / Random House ; March 11, 2008 ; $17.95), a genial if frightening memoir by a man who documented his own decline with dark humor and warmth. You'll meet not just Frigyes, but also "Little Me," the editor within the writer who makes sure that Frigyes understands that, "Reality as a genre requires no helping hand from the artist." First published in English in 1939, Karinthy's memoir here gets an introduction by Oliver Sacks, who admits that he read it as a teenager and one can clearly see it imprinting him in the way that Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke imprinted many of today's science fiction writers. Sacks calls the book a masterpiece, and assuming you like medical memoir with lots of really weird hallucinations, then you might be likely to agree.

Karinthy is skilled enough so that his wit and charm manage to cross the translation and the time barriers. He's just so straightforward about everything that it's hard not to believe that, for example, "The mirror opposite me seemed to move." As the visual hallucinations mount, as auditory hallucinations become more intense, Karinthy seeks medical help – 1936 style.

Though 'A Journey Round My Skull' has been out of print for more than 30 years, though it was written in 1936, it seems utterly contemporary. The question of reality is ever with us. We are immersed in our perceptions, even if they dont correspond to physical reality – just as we are immersed in a good book. Of course, we can always put down the book should it become too intense; a brain tumor does not offer the same choice.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Hugo Chat With Jeremy Lassen

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is my first conversation with Jeremy Lassen of Night Shade Books about duh contenduhs for this year's Hugo Awards. This time around, we focused on the novel, and I think that both of us come to some rather surprising conclusions. I'm really enjoying these regular chats with Jeremy; you can hear how much when you listen to the MP3. We'll be talking a lot more about this; send in your suggestions and comments, and I'll air them via the podcast. Or if youre game, you can call me and we can record them for the podcast. Whatever happens, be sure you'll hear the results!


01-16-08: Neil Smith Goes 'Bang Crunch' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With John Picacio : Cover Story

Short Story Collection Shocker

Cute little kitty.

It's not just that the stories in 'Bang Crunch' (Vintage Contemporary / Random House ; January 8, 2008 ; $13.95) by Neil Smith are shocking; it's actually more the fact that he got a first book of short stories that's supposed to be shocking.

Oh, the dire state of USAian publishing.

Well, parts of it anyway.

The big foofaraw over Smith is a fascinating case that illustrates, well, something. Those of us who dare to read genre fiction know that there are several non-NY houses that are perfectly happy to publish hardcover first-book short story collections; Night Shade, Subterranean, Golden Gryphon, Tachyon, Cemetery Dance all come to mind (and I'm sure readers will remind me of others). On occasion even the larger houses of genre fiction will spring for a first book short story collection.

But when it happens in the litrary world, well, boys and girls this is news. Or at least rant fodder.

The thing is, is that Smith, whose stories truly rock and roll, might not have even had a chance at the trade paperback release over here had he not nominated for a couple of Canadian literary prizes, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the McAuslan First Book Prize. Three stories in the book ended up being nominated for the Journey Prize, the Canadian equivalent of the O. Henry Prize down south of some imagined line. Too bad Smith doesn't (exactly) write science fiction, because then he could have had his book published either by a large NY publisher in hardcover with a glossy pitcher of a spaceman slingin' back a buxom babe, or by a small press publisher with something really classy from one of our many favorite artists. You get what you get, though, and Smith got a 'Bang Crunch' cover for those Bang Crunch stories. Well, at least he got a cute kitty and a real book on the shelves.

It's a real book mostly because Smith lives up to his prize-winning hype. Take for example the first story, "Isolettes." Were I to meet people in this story anywhere outside of Smith's storytelling skills, I'm certain I'd find them insufferable boors, and even in the abstract they sound like urban hipster clichés. But Smith's prose is so superbly readable, I found myself gobbling this story up reflexively. Jacob and An are not a couple – he's gay and she's so independent, the second "n" fell of the end of her name. Still, through the miracles of modern science, they've got a baby in the NICU ("Nick you!" they think.) The whole shebang is a recipe for 21st century schmaltz, but Smith's smart prose and clinical plotting will simply knock you out.

Elsewhere, Smith takes a page from Chuck Palahniuk with "The B9ers," a story about a support group for those who find out that their tumors are benign. A newcomer who joins the group seems to give it purpose; but beware of purpose, right? 'Tis bound to lead to trouble. Or the germ-fearing version of a food fight. For those who insist on at least some genre element in their short story collection, look no further than 'Bang Crunch," a story about a girl who has, red Hoyle syndrome, a rare disease that, although it boosts your brainpower exponentially, has begun aging you a month a day." Certainly a must-read for those who couldnt get enough second person narration in Charlie Stross' 'Halting State'.

The bottom line is that we should be pretty damn happy we got a first-book collection of short stories from anyone outside the genre for just about any reason. Smith's book is smart, entertaining and pretty weird. Sure, I can understand the hesitation to put out a first-ed hardcover of short stories by a Canadian writer. At $25, or even $20, folk who will drop $15 might hesitate; in fact the hardcover format might encourage hesitation just because it looks more forbidding in some nebulous way. But as ever, for those willing to journey into the bookstore and pick up the damn book, 'Bang Crunch' is a collection to be bought at any reasonable price. And if you do, hope that you dont discover your own insufferable self somewhere in the pages that follow; and be glad that if you do, at least you'll be entertaining.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With John Picacio : Cover Story

This five-days-a-week podcasting is really as much an inspiration as it is a tightrope. Yes, some days I do sort of rack my brain, pacing around the house wondering, "Who you gonna call?"

John Picacio and his latest cover for Michael Moorcock's classic.

But then the clouds part, email arrives and you think, "John Picacio," that's who. And just as the streets start to seem limited, a whole new vista opens before thy eyes. Cover artists, and where better to start than the talented man who has graced so many of our finest recent covers. Check out the cover for the first of the new 'Elric' trade paperbacks, which, he told me, will include B&W drawings done as pencil originals. Or the art for the forthcoming 'Fast Forward 1,' seen below.

Cover art for Fast Forward I from Pyr.

One of the reasons I has such fun talking to John is that I found there was so much to learn about the cover art trade. Here's a link to the MP3 of our conversation, and a link to his website. Words and pictures, one needs no more in one's life.


01-15-08: Eric Weiner Explores 'The Geography of Bliss'

Database of Happiness

Follow the dotted line to happiness!!!
There is indeed a database of happiness; not just a database of happiness, but the World Database of Happiness, and it's located in the Netherlands.

That's just the first stop in 'The The Geography of Bliss' (Twelve Books / Hachette Book Group ; January 3, 2008 ; $25.99) by Eric Weiner. Weiner, a self-described grump and a veteran international correspondent for NPR, has written a most peculiar book that's difficult to describe but delightful to read. Because he journeys hither and yon, you might be tempted to describe it as a travel book, but not if you read it. Weiner, who calls himself a "self-help book addict," writes convincingly about the search for happiness, so it might be a temptation to slap on a "self-help tome" label, but again – you wouldnt if you read it. Reading the book is the key here, and that should be your clue that the book is well worth your valuable time.

For all the great discoveries and hitherto-unknown facts you'll find here, it's Weiner's voice that carries the day. Yes, he is sort of a grump. He takes nothing for granted and keeps the focus on whats real and in front of his eyes. But he tells you about it all with prose so entertaining and witty, you'll likely walk away from this book hoping for a glance at his grocery lists. The superb, entertaining prose makes 'The Geography of Bliss' a delightful reading experience. Weiner manages to be consistently funny and a bit gruff without ever wearing out his welcome. He doesn't have to show off; he's a great non-fiction prose writer.

And this doesn't even get close to the places he goes and reasons for his travels. As you learn in his first stop at the World Database of Happiness, located in the Rotterdam, happiness is not well understood. On the minus side, it seems insane that our civilization should have so little comprehension of what makes us happy. On the plus side, in 'The Geography of Bliss', you get to join Weiner as he travels to the happiest places on Earth to find out why folks there are happy. It's such a brilliantly simple and in hindsight obvious idea that you wonder why nobody else has thought of it before. Frankly, I'm glad it was Weiner. His grumpy outlook is the perfect vehicle with which to view all this happiness.

He's really a happy guy. Really!
I talked to Weiner last week about 'The Geography of Bliss', and he's as entertaining as his written voice, which is no small accomplishment. I'm sure most of my readers and listeners have heard him report for NPR from some hellhole or another. All those unpleasant journeys, all those unfortunate assignments doing something important and pressing, apparently required a coping strategy the result of which is a guy who can be both sober and hilarious in the same moment. In fact, the real deal is that he's hilarious because he is so sober. Plus, you're going to learn a new word, and maybe, if you have kids, you can hope that one of them will grow up to be a happyologist.

Twelve Books is doing some really interesting stuff, but alas, it can't be easy to sell. 'The Geography of Bliss' is the sort of book that's best sold in a bookstore. You walk by, remember this article, maybe, or Weiner's name from some particularly distressing hellhole report, and wonder how the hell geography and bliss could have any connection. (Unless youre a geography teacher or an "A" student in a geography class. [But even to each of these "bliss" must seem to be an alien concept.]) So, there you are in your local independent bookstore. Pick up this book and begin reading. Let your journey to bliss begin; even if you're only going to encounter it as a result of reading 'The Geography of Bliss.'


01-14-08: A 2007 Interview with Vikram Chandra

"Deeply felt and loudly expressed"

Vikram Chandra at KUSP.

I dont know what they did to sell 'Sacred Games' by Vikram Chandra when it first appeared in hardcover. I remember when those honkin' volumes first landed on the shelves over at Bookshop Santa Cruz; what I'd heard about the book made it sound intriguing, but when I picked it up and lifted some 900-plus pages, I thought, well, Maybe in some other life...

Fortunately for me at the time, I didn't perform the ever-popular and often deadly first page test. For had I simply read the first page, I would have happily signed up for the next 899. [The novel itself is exactly 900 pages long; the book includes 14 pages of glossary that while not required can be educationally helpful and increase your enjoyment of the reading experience.] 'Sacred Games' has a real grabber opening, and I had Chandra read the first paragraph for the opening of our interview. 'Sacred Games' is a superb and compulsive reading experience, funny, involving, with a toe-tapping plot and a complex crime story that never lags. Just the bare bones of plot are enough to keep you glued to the pages; but the gorgeously evoked alien culture that exists in Bombay is itself a character complicated and fascinating enough to keep you riveted.

A big image of a big book.

Chandra told me that he really wanted to write a simple, local crime story about a shooting in his neighborhood. He's a fan of both the classic masters like Hammet and Chandler, but also of the modern mystery writers as well, citing George Pelecanos as an inspiration. In fact he mentioned the currently in-vogue HBO series The Wire, and yes, in many ways, 'Sacred Games' is very much like that series. For what Chandra found as he explored the genesis of the shooting in his neighborhood was that he could just pull out that single incident for a 250 page quickie piece of crime fiction. One connection led to another and soon he just gave into what he called the shape of the novel. Page one of the book will seal the deal, but hearing Chandra talk about the his investigations and meeting with crime lords and hit men will make you want to read the book even faster. You can hear the MP3 of the interview here. Dont hold your breath for the movie version though. One suspects that like the book, it might be a rather lengthy undertaking.


Agony Column Review Archive