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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


09-26-08: 'The Necklace' by Cheryl Jarvis

"What we get back when we put it on someone else's neck, that's what's meaningful to us"

Something around your neck.
I manage to back myself into some pretty impressive corners, but none, so far, have matched my decision to interview the women who were described in 'The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives' (Ballantine / Random House ; September 2008 ; $24) by Cheryl Jarvis. Janet Leimeister over at Capitola Book Café asked me about this, suggesting it might be fun for me to talk to a couple of them. But it proves to be just a bit more complicated than one might presume.

First, it helps to get a sense of the book, which though it might sound overly girly is actually pretty good. Jonell McLain is a fifty-something, self-described ex-hippie who lives in the seaside burg of Ventura, California. One day, she's strolling through the mall and sees a diamond necklace in the window of a jewelry store. It's pretty nice – and very expensive, with a sticker price of $37,000. She gets it in her head that she's going to perform this "experiment", which is to buy the necklace with twelve other women splitting the price. They'll each get it for 28 days out of the year, meeting once a month to swap it and tell tales of what "Jewelia" has done. (They named the necklace after Julia Child.)

The book that resulted is a short, fast read, with thirteen chapters that track the experiment and offer thumbnail portraits of each participant, and a wrap-up chapter to conclude. The upshot of this experiment was not a parade of ostentatious displays of wealth, but rather, the opposite. The women who gathered together and became, well, sort of friends, and certainly a sorority, decided to used the necklace and their deal to take the opportunity to give back to their community. They'd hold fundraisers for various local charities and ended up doing quite a bit of good. They also got into a fair amount of minor-league mischief (my term, not theirs!) doing things like leaving it on a front porch, skydiving with it, taking it to gynecological exams – actions that dont leap to mind when you see the necklace itself. The book pivots around the responses to the necklace, which are definitely not what youd expect.

Put your name here ....
That's the book; the interview, well a very different matter. First off, the author didn't show up for the interview – only the women, if, in fact the word "only" could be applied to the ten (ten?) – I think it was ten, I'll have to check the photo and count – who showed up. Even though I'd been told I should only talk to a couple of them, I decided that I'd not pass up the chance to speak to all of them. So, picture this: Rick Kleffel in the attic of the Capitola Book Café with ten aggressive, intelligent women – who prove to be not so unified as one might presume.

In the first place, there were the recording challenges. I've done these large-scale interviews before for KUSP's Life Under the Lights, so I had the gear and managed to get it set up before they arrived. Once I got past the gearhead aspect, the more formidable problem presented itself. That is, how to get ten smart, verbal women to speak in an orderly fashion? Here, the fact that they're women isnt such an issue, but still, puh-leeze – ten people? It was a prescription for chaos. But I was given fair enough warning by one of the group, Roz Warner ("The Leader"), and a fairly succinct explanation of what I wanted resulted in a very orderly, but nonetheless fascinating interview. And heres where the unknown came into play, because you know that the unknown is going to make an appearance in this sort of situation.

These women who had spent, for the most part, some four years together, were neither homogenous nor unified. I'd keep thinking that sure they'd all agree on this or that, but without fail they displayed a much more casual camaraderie than I expected. Many told me point-blank they said, "No," when first asked if they'd like to participate. There was a bit of dissention in the room. But that dissention and disagreement was matched by their emphasis on the good they'd done together, on the joy they found sharing the necklace not just among themselves, but with others outside the group. Their stories are funny, witty and quite compelling. The odd feeling, I think is also there. They're comfortable together, surely – but it's not the sort of comfort one might expect of a group of friends. There's a tension there, and I think you can hear it on the tape. Of course, I can't discount the fact that there was one gentleman in the room. My presence certainly must have shifted the vibe. But I think the interview tape makes it pretty clear that this necklace, this experiment was successful in ways nobody imagined.

The Necklace itself; well I suppose it was pretty spectacular. Tina Osborne ("The Reluctant") was wearing it, and sitting next to me at the head of the table. I stared at it for a while, wondering if that was it – and it was. You'll hear in this link to the audio interview, when I ask her about it. To be honest – I would have been more impressed to see some sort of electronic gadget, like maybe the new Google phone. Frankly, if you ask me, the book is a LOT more interesting than Jewelia. I think the women who participated would likely find that something they could agree upon.


09-25-08: For Jeffrey J. Mariotte the 'River Runs Red' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas, David Levine and Terry Bisson (3)

From The Slab to the Cave

An artery runs through it.
Jeff Mariotte is a busy guy. Between co-owning and managing Mysterious Galaxy from his ranch, his work on comic books and his YA novels, it's pretty hard to believe he still has time to write full-blown horror like 'The Slab', an excellent evocation of the California high-desert culture embedded in a Lovecraft-inspired eighties-style horror novel. Because he'd gone off in so many different directions at once, I'd actually lost track of Mariotte. When his latest novel, 'River Runs Red' (Jove / Berkley / Penguin Putnam ; October 7, 2008 ; $6.99) arrived, I almost missed it. The packaging is, to say the least, a bit on the anonymous side. And as well, 'The Slab' was a small-press production by Jeff Mariotte, not "Jeffrey J. Mariotte". But I'm always up for a mass-market paperback treasure. Horror novels seem a bit scarier when they're sort of sleazy. It's a lot easier for them to slip you the literary knife when your expectations are low. On the flip side, you can miss a good book. Keep your expectations in check, but dont miss 'River Runs Red'.

Mariotte offers readers wide-screen start-up, with psychics, the CIA, and three key characters scattered around the globe edging closer to one another, their past and of course, the Place. Mariotte's great with Place, and in this case, he's back out in the desert again, this time just outside a small Texas town. There's a cave there, and from it blood and plot will flow with equal regularity and power. The forces behind the world, the gods and demons and whatnots that drive our reality from behind the veil of dreams, nightmares and psychic visions are locked in a battle that is having repercussions in our world. Generally bad ones, except for those of us who enjoy reading wel-written, wel-paced classic horror.

Mariotte's mixed in more than a bit of spycraft into his horror novel, which gives the book a faster pace and an intelligent edge. Oh, we all know that the government is dealing with aliens, ghosts and displkaced gods, but its still a lot of fun to see it unfold on the printed page with the kind of skill that Mariotte brings to the party. And this is a party book, a good old-fashioned but original spin on what happens when humans are in the presence of power. You can get Hiroshima, or you can get the supernatural equivalent, running in the rivers of this world. Either way, it so happens that we dont deal too well with power and powers. But we make good food!

There used to be a time when you couldnt escape from mass-market paperback horror and most of it was not worth your time. Mariotte keeps you entertained and gives your gray cells something to chew on while they're helping you manufacture monsters in your mind's big-screen, surround-sound theater. Some twenty years ago, this novel might have been given the gerund treatment and titled The Running,' or 'The Glowing'. The cover would have included raised foil lettering. It would have been unmistakably horror. I'm not sure what exactly the current cover design looks like; but it doesn't say horror. It does include a cover blurb however, with the word "occult", so I suppose there's something to be thankful for. Nowadays, you can escape from horror fiction; but dont let this horror fiction escape from you.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas, David Levine and Terry Bisson: Panel Discussion

In the final podcast of the SF in SF show from September 20, 2008, David Levine, Nick Mamatas and Terry Bisson discuss their work. In this way, SF in SF is like a monthly science fiction / fantasy / horror convention – you get readings and a "battle of the words" effect. You can find your link – and mine – to the MP3 file right here.


09-24-08: Finding Flannery ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas, David Levine and Terry Bisson (2)

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Ms fnd in Logos.
Apparently, having done so, it all blows up. And the upshot is that readers spend more than a little time in the used bookstores, looking for that money-saving title that still satisfies after all these years.

If you toss out the money-saving aspect, I've got the title that still satisfies after all these years. But let me rewind a little and set the scene. Anyone who takes an occasional gander at the Rolling Shelves knows I get more books than I want, need or have time to deal with. Lots of those go to the local library, but even they have their limits. The last time I showed up with ten grocer bags full of stuff they literally told me: "Please dont come back for six months. We can't handle all these books." Fair enough, I take the leftovers to Bookshop Santa Cruz, or Logos. Logos has the tendency to give me these pink trade slips, which allow me to buy used books or CDs. So it was that last Sunday I found myself perusing the used book shelves at Logos. It was a half-hearted effort. I just drifted away from the CDs and there, at the end of the aisle on the wall, it's the "O's". A hardcover white spine with black lettering caught my attention; it stood out from all the colors. It was simple and compelling.

Flannery O'Connor

In spiky black. A gothic, picket fence.

Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Blue, block lettering.

Hmm, I think. A book club edition, in a Demco cover. Maybe a nice reader for some of my favorite stories. I have all of them in the Complete Stories trade paperback, but that's kind of ratty. And we're heading into Flannery O'Connor-esque times, to my mind. Down times. I pluck it off the shelf, open it up and get a surprise.


Book club editions are not priced. Now I'm excited. I flip to the colophon page. First printing, 1965. It's 43 years old and in perfect shape. The title page has a lightly penciled-in price of 1st ED 30-. On the facing a page, a photo of the author, who died in 1964 at the age of 38. She was a young woman. I have to admit, it brought a tear to my eye.

If you are among the very young at heart.

I really love Flannery O'Connor's writing. She's tough, but smart and strong enough to explore her characters in a way to reveal their deep weaknesses with clarity, tragedy and a certain amount of distant sympathy. Theyre all going to fail, and generally not in a spectacular fashion. They'll fail themselves, and as I stood there, feeling failure close in on me, I knew I wasn't alone. Across all those years, from a culture so distant to mine that I knew we would view one another almost as aliens, I could feel that tug of power that great writing offers, the solace of the companionship of souls. Certainly not like souls, but – for reasons unclear to me, I can just understand the place that Flannery O'Connor writes from. Obviously, I bought the book. Credit well-spent.

And yes, I looked it up on Bookfinder, just now, in fact to see what it might be fetching me. Not that I'd part with it, mind you. Looks like it might fetch between $72.50 and $600.00 bucks. And that's the problem, my friends. I'd never sell it. So you go looking for bargains, because, well, money is in short supply. Then you end up spending more for a used book than you might for a brand new book, to find a used book that might be worth some 20 times what you paid for it – but only if you were willing to sell. I'll get my six hundred bucks out of this book. I read "The Comforts of Home" and found not comfort, really. But joy in some way. Right now, my brain is playing Shriekback, the song from their 1985 album which takes its title from the story / collection. Those were dark times, waiting for the world to end in a nuclear blast as we confronted the "Empire of Evil," while avoiding the evil within. It's time to wait again, to look back and within, as well as ahead. There's great literature out there, waiting to happen. Some of it is in my Rolling Shelves already – and some has probably left. Forty years hence, who will pick up one of these books from Logos and rejoice?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas, David Levine and Terry Bisson (2): David Levine Reads

Tell me a story and maybe I'll believe in it.

Jim Lively did an outstanding job recording SF in SF for us, didn't he?

Here's a link to the second podcast from the show, which is David Levine reading his fiction.

I continue to enjoy seeing justice served up nice and warm with a heaping side-order of literature. You can find your link – and mine – to the MP3 file right here. (In case the first link didn't catch your eye.)


09-23-08: Your Next Graphic Novel, 'The Twilight Zone' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas David Levine and Terry Bisson (1)

The Power of Story

A day in the un-life.
Time is certainly the arbiter of great stories. One year's indispensable, meaningful literary event may turn out to be as nothing ten years on; while the cultural fluff from another era can acquire a heft and power that is undeniable. We've already forgotten the former, but a fine example of the latter is Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Who would have thought that a television anthology show from the late 1950's and early 1960's would have the long-term, sustained, even mythic impact that this program has had? Serling himself wrote many of the most mythic and iconic episodes; and he was smart enough to usher in some of the finest writing talent of the time as well. There have been many attempts to update and follow up the original, but frankly, none of them have been in the same ballpark.

My first experience with The Twilight Zone was actually not seeing the show itself, but instead, reading Serling's prose adaptations of his own stories. And it's the stories that matter here, Serling's ability to corral the bits of reality and unreality that we mix in our own minds and turn them into a tale well-told. It's surprising then, that nobody has thought to do what Walker & Company are doing; turning episodes of the television shows into finely produced graphic novels.

Walk a mile in my shoes.
I loved 'After Hours' (Walker & Company ; September 16, 2008 ; $16.99) in hardcover and 'Walking Distance' (Walker & Company ; September 16, 2008 ; $9.99) in large-format softcovers. The screenplay adaptations by Mark Kneece were as carefully sparse as the original productions. The illustrations – Rebekah Isaacs did 'After Hours' and Dove McHargue 'Walking Distance' – are clean and crisp, again emulating the feel of the original in a graphic novel format. For my money, the seven bucks extra to get the hardcover is as nought. These are stories that we already know are for the ages. You'll want them all in the most durable, nicest format you can find. But then, as the whole economy circles the drain, well, getting anything at any price is probably a blessing.

My mirrors.

The lessons of these stories are powerful and ever timely. 'After Hours' promises that coming next is 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street'. Anyone who lived in California during the power outages brought about by Enron knows the lessons of that episode. Turn out the lights and change out the government. It worked once. It will work again. That's the power of myths – and the peril of ignoring them.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF, Featuring Nick Mamatas, David Levine and Terry Bisson (1) : Nick Mamatas Reads

Beware of gnome.

While I couldnt attend this month's SF in SF, you can thank Jim Lively who did – and recorded the show for you. Here's a link to the first podcast from the show, which is Nick Mamatas reading his fiction. Finally, justice is served as I find myself in the rather enjoyable position of getting to hear my own podcast the way my listeners hear them. You can find your link – and mine – to the MP3 file right here. (Perhaps you'll prefer this one to the one above.)


09-22-08: A 2008 Interview With Beatrice Basso

"It's like the soul of America is in the artists, and why not share that?"

Bea Basso

Translation is a tricky art form – it does not start from within the artist. Instead, the translator must perform an act of alchemy upon an existing work, using his or her vision to channel it from one language and just as importantly, one culture, to another. The intuitive leaps, the restraints of the media, the demands of the audience and often the players, require a combination of muscular and sympathetic thinking and skill that is unique and far more complex than the consumers of translated work might think. I've become quite interested in the process of translation, because the tension between the discipline of preserving the intent of the original and the creative leaps required to translate it are not found in any other art form.

Beatrice Basso came to my attention for her work with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, as the first person ever to translate Carlo Goldoni's 'The Antiquarian's Family' into English. The challenges she faced in this task were many. She was working not simply as a translator of language, but also as a dramaturge, a term and occupation with which I was unfamiliar. The breadth of her work is impressive, but its her understanding of what she does and her ability to convey the complexities of the translation process – as well as a lovely voice – that make her interview outstanding. If you've ever read a translated work that just seemed a joy, to live and breathe on it's own, then this interview will give you some idea as to how and why this comes to pass. Bea talks about the hidden layers of translation; for example, she translates from Italian to English. But Italian is a language of many regions and dialects which are startlingly different. Add to this the cultural differences between the two countries and you'll find that she's called up to give of her own creativity in a unique and fascinating manner. You can hear our conversation through this link. I think that many listeners will find their own understanding of the process of translation is itself translated after hearing this. You wont read any language without having that shadow, that perspective – the understanding that any journey from pen to page is one of invention and intention.


Agony Column Review Archive