Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


05-02-08: Laurie Gough Travels to 'Kiss the Sunset Pig' : Agony Column Podcast News Report ; And Now for this Public Service Announcement

A 2008 Interview With Laurie Gough at Capitola Book Café

Laurie Gough is ready to roll at the Capitola Book Café.

Laurie Gough is going places; to California to be precise. Having spent time in a cave on a California beach, she wants to return. Who can blame her? Certainly not me! I live not so far from that beach, that cave she considers to be her destination. At least, that's the theory. She's going to leave her home town of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and drive her car to the edge of the world, or as it were, California, and find that cave, where she long ago kept a Cave Journal. In a car name Marcia with a rider she calls Morticia. It's a straight shot, down into the US, then across the country to Pacific shore.

Except when it's not straight. Welcome to 21st century travel writing and 'Kiss the Sunset Pig' (Penguin / Putnam ; March 2008 ; $22). It's a brave new world out there, and not just for travel writers. Readers who may have had their attention elsewhere but pick up this book will quickly twig to the fact that something is happening in the writing world, something odd, funny, and slightly off-kilter. I'll admit, I never thought much about this sort of writing before. But having seen the sunset pig, if not kissed it, I can see the appeal. My take would be that travel writing is a bad description of this book. I'd call 'Kiss the Sunset Pig' a memoir in motion.

Sunset does not make a pig kissable. Sorry!

For me, at least, travel is not something that instantly interests me. It's not like, say, monsters, or perhaps, networking architecture, in which I have an invested interest. So if the idea of a book about a gal who drives from Canada to California does not turn your crank, then you'll know where I was coming from when I picked up 'Kiss the Sunset Pig'. But my trusted source at Capitola Book Café had asked me to give it a look-see and I'd promised to do so. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found was really quite delightful. If you have no investment in the subject, then the author has to offer the most difficult piece of the puzzle up front, for all takers – enjoyable prose. On that count, Gough delivers, writing with the sort of snarky irreverence that one finds in Beth Lisick's writing. 'Kissing the Sunset Pig' is hoot to read even if you have no intention of kissing any pig, sunset or otherwise.

Gough gives you a lot more than you might expect here. This is no simple driving journey across the USA. Just when you think the most exotic place youre going to see is St. Louis (and I'm a barbeque fan, so I'd love to see St. Louis), you find yourself on the Greek Island of Naxos. Or Seoul ("DON'T GO!"). Or among the Cree, in a spell-check proof village called Kashechewan. 'Kissing the Sunset Pig' hop-scotches around the globe and around the writer's life. If you expect a linear, straightforward travelogue, your expectations will be defeated. But if you want an entertaining as all get-out memoir in motion, then 'Kiss the Sunset Pig' may actually prove to be good advice, no matter how distasteful it sounds in the abstract.

Gough conducted a travel writing workshop at Capitola Book Café on Wednesday, April 30, and I came early to talk to her about travel writing. Turns out, I had a lot of questions; knowing nothing about a subject makes an interview ever so much easier! We talked about her influences and how she got her foot in the door – all on this MP3 file link. It's your chance to take an audio journey with a professional traveler.

Uncharacteristic Blog Link

I generally do not give links to other blogs, even author blogs, because I just dont have the bandwidth. But this bit from Richard Morgan is special, and Richard Morgan is special (you can put a dime in a jar at the 7-11 for him!), so heres an entertaining rant of the sort one finds regularly in the weird world of SF literary criticism. SF is the genre that loves to put a "KICK ME" sign on its own back, and then proceed to kick itself. Whether it's Michael Chabon's introduction to Amazing Whatevertheheck or the most recent hairball to emerge from Harlan Ellison's windpipe, you just know that someone out there somewhere (maybe me) is getting ready to give the genre a good what-for. And it deserves it! I mean, isnt 90 percent of science fiction crud?


05-01-08: Patrick McGrath Endures 'Trauma' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Patricia A. McKillip Interviewed at SF in SF, April 20, 2008

A Family Madness

Turn the page, if you can.
I'm glad to have an opportunity to mention Patrick McGrath, because his first book, 'Blood and Water', was part of my early exploration of the limits of the horror genre, or more particularly – the lack thereof. I can mention him, well, because I'm in charge, but more precisely, because he has a new book out, 'Trauma' (Knopf / Random House ; April 11, 2008 ; $24.95). We'll start with the new and work our way back to the old.

'Trauma' takes place in the mind of Charlie Weir, a Manhattan psychiatrist who found his occupation by virtue of his own traumas. He tells you this, right out the box, and that refreshing directness is part of what makes this novel such a dark delight. His dad flew the coop, left his mother a wreck, and Charlie not so hot himself. But he's pulled out of it, sort of, and now he's counseling traumatized war veterans. This proves not to be a source of happy accidents. But though he's watched his life swirl away from him, he maintains a façade of control, a façade that will of course have unfortunate consequences. Charlie marries unwisely, with consequences. He takes up with a new woman, met via his competitive, controlling brother. He may be able to observe madness, but he may not be able to avoid it. Family history has a way of taking you in directions you do not wish to go.

McGrath writes succinctly and invasively, taking you into a mind that is unraveling as fast as you can turn the pages. But it's a controlled chaos, with brilliant literary technique put in the service of an unsettling intellect. 'Spider', for example, is a frighteningly accurate portrait of a man whose mind is under assault from schizophrenia, and was a perfect choice for adaptation by David Cronenburg. It was a horror novel that was surrealistic and naturalistic simultaneously. His first collection of short stories, 'Blood and Water' stretched the bonds of the horror genre, demonstrating that fiction intended to cause emotions ranging from unease to terror could have a wide literary range. McGrath's fiction captures the skewed points-of-view of grippingly real characters and takes his readers on visionary journeys. Pick up 'Blood and Water' or 'Spider' and then try to stop from buying 'Trauma'. You may need the help of someone in Charlie's profession to kick the habit, however. Or just figure that this is a good time to start sniffing glue.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Patricia A. McKillip Interviewed at SF in SF, April 20, 2008 : A Good Take

I had to have two goes at interviewing Patricia A. McKillip at SF in SF on April 20, 2008. The first time around, the break between the reading and the panel was ending, time was pressing, Terry Bisson was making those clucking sort of noises you make when you want to say, "What the hell are you doing?" and I managed to ask McKillip one of those questions that elicits a very politely phrased "What the hell are you talking about?" response right out of the box. Heres one interviewer's experience: if you ask a question that requires an elaborate explanation, punt it. McKillip and I agreed to have another shot after the panel discussion, which went, comparatively speaking, swimmingly well – and here's the MP3 to prove it. (Or if not prove, at least suggest the potential magnitude of the disaster that would have ensued had I not been granted a "reset" by my very kind guest.)


04-30-08: Eleanor Coppola Takes 'Notes on a Life' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : David Lunde, Patricia A. McKillip and Terry Bisson at SF in SF, April 20, 2008

Bumpy Roads

Like sand through an hourglass, so go the days ....

It's perhaps hardest to stand not in the spotlight, not exactly out of it, but right next to it. The forces at the edge of the eye of the hurricane will tear you apart before you reach that deceptive calm. It takes iron will, deep focus and a belief in your self and those around you. Such qualities, you might imagine, would make one a superior writer, at least when it comes to chronicling hurricanes. Youd be right, and you'd need look no farther than Eleanor Coppola for an example of whats required.

I have to admit that I rather preferred Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, to the movie itself. I'll never forget Eleanor Coppola in that movie, a presence more powerful than any actor could ever hope to achieve. She translated that experience herself into 'Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now' a book that Pauline Kael said, "made me want to see his movie." (Pauline Kael, it should be mentioned, gave a very positive review to ReAnimator, and won my heart.)

It's no surprise then, that I quickly moved Eleanor Coppola's newest book, 'Notes on a Life' (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House ; May 6, 2008 ; $25) off the Rolling Shelves and onto my cluttered desk, where it migrated into the confines of my tiny brain. These are Eleanor Coppola's notebooks starting in 1986 and running through 2006. Twenty years of family life and art, of tragedy and triumphs from the personal diaries of a remarkable woman and mother.

The parent part intrigues me, because well, I'm a parent with one child doing professional video for business marketing and another still in art school. Let me tell you this all sounds ducky and is, but it's also easier said than done. It's just hard to be a parent. Reading Coppola's vignettes, that reveal glimpses of lives we could only imagine, does something rather magical. We hear Francis Coppola typing on his computer, or see Sofia rehearsing in stocking feet. The immense visions we experience in the movies, the perfect shots and the powerful emotions they evoke, are pixilated, broken down into the million moments of a family struggling to get through one day after another. It's a fascinating feeling, like seeing the Mona Lisa undone and then made whole by the artist himself. And as a parent, it gives you insight into your own life, the ability to look it at from the outside, where it's not just more bills and meals and laundry.

This is all made possible because Coppola is an engaging diarist, a careful chronicler of her own life and the lives of those around her. She has the knack to pick out the right details, the intelligence of an artist and the wisdom not to get caught up in her own artistry. 'Notes on a Life' is remarkably easy to read, and you'll likely read it more quickly than you expect. You may be reading someone else's life, but you're still living your own. Every moment; take notes. Someone may want to read them; perhaps just you, perhaps the world, but what difference?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : David Lunde, Patricia A. McKillip and Terry Bisson at SF in SF, April 20, 2008 : "Seems like we have a theme here"

David LUnde & Patricia A. McKillip

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is a recording of the panel discussion at SF in SF on April 20, 2008, featuring David Lunde, Patricia A. McKillip and of course, the inimitable moderating (though maybe that's the wrong word) talents of Terry Bisson. Heres a link to the MP3 of the panel discussion. Some language may be included, most of it English, the majority of that quite civil. Most, that is; and depending of ccouse on your definition of "civil".


04-29-08: Millipede Press and Tom Tryon 'The Other' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : David Lunde Reads at SF in SF, April 20, 2008

The Twins at 50

Harry O. Morris did the cover art.

If they were thirteen years old back in 1971, they'd be fifty now. They'd probably be living in seclusion – in a small town along the California coast, I would hope. Niles and Holland Perry, those strange brothers living in the house at the edge of town, overlooking the cliffs. Bought with money inherited from the tragic death of their father. A little strange but seemingly harmless.

I wont say precisely how close I was to their age when I first delved into the world of Thomas Tryon's 'The Other' (Millipede Press ; September 2008 ; $17), but in retrospect it occurs to me that sympathy might have overtaken fear back then. Children can certainly be monsters; but when you're a child as well, it's easy to identify with the monster.

Thomas Tryon's first novel is a masterpiece of atmosphere, a carefully etched journey into fractured families and small-town secrets. From the opening first-person narration to the final coda, Tryon's language is at once easy and effortless even while it creates a feeling of unease. The dusty streets of a small-town in the nineteen-thirties, the quietly creepy inhabitants of the house; Tryon scrapes away at your nerves with the kind of persistence that is truly frightening – obsessive. Once you're there, time slides into those sort of dog days of summer, when there's nothing to do and the heat oppresses your mind and clouds your thinking. Waking dreams and living nightmares become one in the same. And reading is the most powerful and persistent waking dream.

I suspect that lots of us have withered, thumbed paperbacks of Tryon's novel in the garage, their yellowed pages suggestive of the sort of time that passes in the book; sick time, call it, blurred by illness. Nothing is clear but the words on the page and the miasmic fever of reading. I'm sorry, I can't come to work today. I'll be laying on the couch and reading.

Millipede Press has put together an impressive and inexpensive re-issue of Tryon's classic. It features a thoughtful introduction by Ramsey Campbell, a thought-provoking afterword by C. Robert Holloway, with cover and internal art by Harry O. Morris. There's a certain scholarly, sterile look that adds to the creepiness of the narrative. Millipede makes nice books and the price is outstanding. But in the end, it's the words you want, and the words you get are insinuating, seductive, unpleasant. It's a bad dream brought to life. Morris' surreal prints are like chunks from a filmstrip, gritty and suggestive. Those boys would be fifty now. That old house, where the grass grows unchecked and the weeds in the backyard might hide the corpses of rabbits and raccoons. Knock on their door. They'll answer.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : David Lunde Reads at SF in SF, April 20, 2008 ; Instead

Today's podcast picks up the reportage from SF in SF on April 20, with author Patricia A. McKillip and her husband, SF poet David Lunde. It was a fun night; the house is getting fuller, and the authors were stellar as ever. I must say I was totally unprepared for what Science Fiction (and literary) poet David Lunde would read, but you'll hear as did I – he was fantastic. Alternately funny, poignant, sometimes both, Lunde read from both genre material and literary works with equal power. Let me put you front row, center with this MP3 link. You're about to meet the Astronaut's Wife. You'll like her.


04-28-08: Pico Iyer Takes to 'The Open Road'

A 2008 Interview with Pico Iyer

Easier said than done.

Pico Iyer has been a traveler for most of his writing life, turning out one stellar book of prose after another. And during most of that time, he's been friends with the Dalai Lama, a result of his father's interest in the man stemming from a time when many of us – including Pico Iyer himself – were, not to put too fine a point upon it, in diapers. In fact, Iyer was just two years old when his father first met the Dalai Lama, shortly after he'd departed Tibet to live in exile. That life has been chronicled by many writers, but few with the sort of relationship that Iyer developed in the subsequent years. His new book, 'The Open Road : The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House; March 25, 2008 ; $24) is a magnificent and concise vision of arguably one of the most important and influential men in the world today.

I stopped by Capitola Book Café and talked to Iyer for one of the more intense interviews I've had of late. There in the back room, we covered a journey both spiritual and physical, a friendship between two men that has lasted over 30 years and taken both around the globe. Iyer's book is a wonderfully textured, fascinating journey itself. His prose is stellar, drawing the reader into a world as big as the world and as small as a single man, doing what he can with the sort of aplomb that earns him adulation as well as excoriation. He's cunningly constructed the book to read as much like a novel as a biography, which shouldn't surprise one. The Dalai Lama is after all, a man of action. Iyer did not let his immense archive of conversations with the Dalai Lama get in his way. He told – and this is the second time recently I've heard this quote – "If you want it shorter, it will take me longer." Iyer's time winnowing down his work was time well spent.

You can hear our conversation here via this MP3 link. For me, this conversation was a welcome return to Buddhism, which I've discussed in delightful talks with writers as diverse as John Burdett and Kim Stanley Robinson, who memorably told me, "Buddhism is hilarious." I agree – and I asked Iyer about this as well. And truth to tell, this chat came at a time of a bit of personal turmoil. I have to say both Iyer's book and the interview helped ground me once again, helped me focus back on the books and the writing, back on the books, yes – this one first. Front and center; the open road.


Agony Column Review Archive