Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


04-25-08: Nathaniel Rich Speaks 'The Mayor's Tongue' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston at Capitola Book Café

A Conscience for Svevo

Esperanto makes an appearance as well.

Italo Svevo fans unite! There was a bit of a foofaraw five years ago when the esteemed William Weaver released his translation of 'Zeno's Conscience', known before that as 'The Confessions of Zeno'. And well there should be; Svevo's work is lively, witty, hyper-intelligent and lots of fun. Svevo's back in the mix again, thanks to the wonderful first novel by Nathaniel Rich, 'The Mayor's Tongue' (Riverhead / Penguin Putnam ; April 17, 2008 ; $24.95). The novel resides in the same sort of borderland the characters within the novel inhabit; a world where the perceptions of those who experience it will alter the terrain to both suit and undermine any expectations.

Rich eschews traditions and immerses us in two unusual narratives. Eugene Brentani has just graduated and is actively engaged in avoiding his former life. He's told his father that he's moved to Florida, but he's only just moved to a different neighborhood in New York City. From working with a moving company, he finds employment working for a scholar who is authoring a biography of Constance Eakins, a larger-than-life Hemingway-eqsue figure now supposedly residing in a remote Italian mountaintop village. Eugene's a fan, and this is a dream job. Perhaps more than he expects.

Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford are lifelong friends and aging retirees living in New York, until Rutherford hares off to Italy. Schmitz becomes increasingly concerned as Rutherford's letters become increasingly strange. His friend seems to have escaped into a dream world of mental illness, and Schmitz will have to journey to Italy to find him.

Rich lays out each story in impeccable style, with an understated humor and a surreal sensibility. Since we're in Italy, we do get to hear Svevo's name pop up and not just in the name of Mr. Schmitz. (Svevo's real name was Ettore Schmitz.) 'The Mayor's Tongue' is a book that is rich in strange, as well as rich and strange. Rich successfully eludes your expectations and offers snippets of fairy tale, post-modern academic satire, and most importantly, characters we love to encounter. Fans of Svevo will be delighted, as will anyone who likes elements of the fantastic seamlessly integrated into a delightfully droll exploration of that borderland between fiction and reality. How many people do you know who have a "Truth turns to fiction" button? How often do they lean on it and how heavily? Rich's novel is an hilarious and poignant exploration the land of lies, the land that lies between our eyes, the land we create every time we see something and apprehend a vision. We take charge and make it our own, even if in doing so we change it beyond recognition. We dont often realize that we ourselves change beyond recognition.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston at Capitola Book Café : The Hip Pocket

The last hurrah of the Hip Pocket.

The event for James D. Houston at Capitola Book Café was a star-studded affair, and not surprisingly, one of the most entertaining stars was Jim's wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes with her – long enough for her to tell the story of The Hip Pocket bookstore in this MP3 interview. You'll see why this couple is a national treasure. Preserve them and buy their books – and tell them I sent you.


04-24-08: James D. Houston Lives 'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea' : Agony Column Podcast News Report from Capitola Book Café

James D. Houston Toasts Santa Cruz

...and where the author(s) live.

Wherever you live, consider yourself lucky. Every place has a charm; every place has a story.

But I must admit that not every place has a story teller, and certainly few have storytellers of the caliber of James D. Houston. In 'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea' (Heyday Books ; April 1, 2008 ; $25.95), Houston immerses the reader in this place, Santa Cruz, California and its environs. Collecting essays and fiction from 40 years of writing, 'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea' offers readers a swirling sense of place, a precise and poignant look at the people as well as the landscape.

Alan Cheuse (NPR book reviewer, author of 'The Fires', interviewed here) writes the forward, bringing you literally to Houston's doorstep. Houston divides the book into four sections; "Habitat", essays on Santa Cruz and the world beyond our doorsteps; "Kinship", stories of his family, his history, the place that he himself defines; "The Writing Life", essays about writers who have defined both places and writing itself as a place to be; and "Some Fiction". The book is a journey from one kind of truth to another, from one place to another.

Houston has a knack for seeming simplicity that evokes unfolding complexity. He writes with the casual candor of a neighbor greeting you as you leave for work, but in that easygoing hello and goodbye embodies years of acquaintance with the places he visits, the scenes he describes. Subtitled "A California Notebook", this volume may address a small coast town with a roller coaster and a pier, but each essay unpacks another facet of this state, this country, the places we live and want to live. Of course, Houston only makes it look simple and easy; but this is the sort of ease that comes with a life of writing.

Though 'Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea' is a California book through and through, Houston himself is not a descendent of Californians. You can sort hear this in his powerful voice; he's just a little too deep to have originated here, and the essays in "Kinship" pursue his past, journeying back east into Carolina, Tennessee, the Appalachians. He offers conflicting stories from his forbearers, contradictory tales that speak to the import of story in our lives. Houston's musings lead readers back to their own families and their own lives.

From the get-go, Houston was a writer, and his essays in "The Writing Life" reflect on his friendships with Raymond Carver and Wallace Stegner. The casual complexity of his prose enables him to reach deep while staying clear, to take readers into the hearts of those who have created our world in words. The four short stories that conclude the book are so much in Houston's voice, so much of a piece with what has preceded them, that the ring of truth seems bell-like, liquid. We are in a place.

Woodcut from the website.

As Houston is a Santa Cruz resident now, through and through – though he's also a man who can observe the world with the quiet aplomb of a studied traveler (he's that as well) – he celebrated the release of this book with a party in the Capitola Book Café. The cover of Houston's collection was done by artist Tom Killion. Like Houston, Killion evokes the beauty of the world in the coast of California. There's a certain "Floating World" feel to his delicately etched images; you can find plenty of them on his website, a time-sink of the first order. I spoke with Houston before the event; you can hear our brief interview here. We're lucky to have Houston as a chronicler of our world. If the world becomes as Santa Cruz, the world itself is lucky.


04-23-08: Terry D'Auray Reviews Lee Child's 'Nothing to Lose' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Patricia A. McKillip Reads at SF in SF

Arresting Novel

Just in time for summer – even though we're freezing cold here in Santa Cruz – Terry D'Auray has managed to scare up an ARC of the forthcoming Jack Reacher novel from Lee Child, 'Nothing to Lose'. From the sound of it, we have everything to lose if we're not reading Jack Reacher novels, and Child's latest appears to be no exception.

This time around it appears we're in for a nicely-turned story involving Homeland Security, words that you dont really want to enter your personal life. Here's a link to Terry's review, which you'll find to be as entertaining as the book she's reviewing – but much shorter.

You'll also find that in this case, one thing truly does lead to another.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Patricia A. McKillip Reads at SF in SF : 'The Bell at Sealey Head'

Recent and wonderful from McKillip.

David Lunde and Patricia McKillip at SF in SF.
Continuing on with the podcasts from SF in SF, today we have Patricia A. McKillip reading from her forthcoming novel, 'The Bell at Sealey Head'. McKillip has such a powerfully poetic voice that it comes as no surprise she's married to SF (science fiction) poet David Lunde. Any chance to preview one of her gorgeously crafted novels is not to be missed.

But for me, what really stood out in her reading was the humor in her work. When I read her prose, I'm more caught up in the musical nature of her writing. Hearing her read aloud, the generous and very funny humor stands out. It did for the audience as well. Here's a link to an MP3 that will transport you to another world – no passport required.


04-22-08: David Louis Edelman Gets MultiReal; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with David Lunde at SF in SF on April 23, 2008

One Second Jump for Mankind

Stephan Martinerre rules OK.

Time blurs; books whoosh by. But I wont forget the 2006 Worldcon, when my wife and I drove David Edelman from Anaheim to NPR West to record an interview for my Economic Genre Fiction Report for NPR. The sky was a bright grey-blue-white and the freeway was still blindingly new and relatively empty. There was a time when I knew the freeways of SoCal well; no longer. Books whoosh by.

And here we are in Spring of 2008 and I'm looking at an ARC for 'MultiReal' ( Pyr / Prometheus ; July 2008 ; $15), the second installment in the Jump 225 Trilogy, arriving just in time to help ring in yet another corporate takeover of America with the blessings of electronic vote fraud. Edelman's vision of a corporate future seems ever more relevant as each day goes by and another electronic gadget becomes indispensable – and makes us all just a little (or perhaps a lot) more vulnerable to those who manufacture the damn things. Edelman imagines a future where pervasive technology, the titular "MultiReal" offers great power. But with great power comes great vulnerability.

Having squeaked past the Defense and Wellness Council, Natch, the wolf in wolf's clothing sort-of hero of 'InfoQuake' now finds himself struggling against the good ol' enemy within. Expect high-tech backstabbing and a complete annihilation of any moral values you might have thought vaguely worthwhile. This is your chance to watch corporate sharks devour one another against the backdrop of a well-conceived futuristic landscape. As the real-world economy circles the Big Swirly, what cold be more exciting and relevant than to read about what happens some mumble-hundred years afterwards? Edelman lets readers gaze up the drainpipe.

Let's not forget to mention the slick cover by Stephen Martinierre and the decently priced trade paperback format courtesy publisher Lou Anders of Pyr, as well as the extensive Appendices and catcher-uppers that Edelman so thoughtfully supplies. I hope the time that passes between the release of 'MultiReal' and the final book in the series goes by just as swiftly, but perhaps offers fewer glimpses of the coming (or recently passed) Apocalypses.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with David Lunde at SF in SF on April 23, 2008 : SF Poetry

Today's podcast is the first from last weekend's SF in SF, featuring fantasy novelist Patricia McKillip and SF (as in Science Fiction, not San Francisco) Poet David Lunde. I managed to chat with Lunde before the show started and asked him about the rather esoteric world of SF poetry. Certainly it's a growth industry. You can hear our conversation from this MP3 Link, and find out more about Lunde from his website. Stay tuned, as the week proceeds, we'll hear his poetry reading, the discussion and more.


04-21-08: A 2008 Interview With Peter F. Hamilton

"There is no specific, set way to write"

Th US hardcover, at last! Worth the wait.

Peter F. Hamilton is just the sort of engaging storyteller you might expect him to be. Pick up his latest novel, 'The Dreaming Void' (Del Rey / Random House ; March 25, 2008 ; $27.00) and you'll be transported to a vibrant, exciting future, chock full of action, great characters and some snazzy new ideas. You expect that from this writer; what you wont expect is the science fantasy novel embedded within 'The Dreaming Void'. No, Hamilton is writing a metafictional novel; the science fantasy storyline is transpiring within a black hole at the center of the galaxy. A delightfully fanatical religious sect wants to poke the black hole and see if heaven springs forth; others think this is a really bad idea. Things get blown up, escapes are made as well as messiahs. It's just another day in the Peter F. Hamilton Commonwealth Universe.

Hamilton's on tour in the US, and he swung by San Francisco. It took some speedy negotiating, but I managed to inject myself into his schedule and we had a fascinating chat about how he started writing fiction, what he writes, how he writes and why. Here's the MP3 link. For a guy who writes LONG books, Hamilton is admirably elegant and succinct in conversation. We talked about not just his latest work, but also his forthcoming work, the nature of which may shock readers a bit – but I have to say I can't wait to tuck in. Of course, he's got to deliver a couple more 'Dreaming Void' titles before we get there; it's just another day's work for Hamilton to blow up the center of the galaxy. I think that sort of entry must look great on a resume for the right kind of job. "World Leaders Needed: Inquire Within!"


Agony Column Review Archive