Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


10-10-08: Dustin Kenall Reviews 'The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : The Agony Column Digest Radio Broadcast: September 28, 2008

"Who Nobody Wants to Be"

We're back with another fine review by Dustin Kenall for someone whom I was told actually enjoyed this website; that is Junot Diaz. Alas, he was touring at precisely the same time as Kate Christensen, and so I missed him when he came through town. Now, Kenall supplies the kind of in-depth review of 'The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' that readers of this site require; smart, insightful and pretty much entirely sans spoilers. A work this fine deserves a review this fine. And readers of this website certainly deserve this book. These are shoes weve all worn, this is the way we see and experience the world; both one book at a time, and through a lens of every book weve ever read. Every other life we've experienced in words.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : The Agony Column Digest Radio Broadcast: September 28, 2008 : Mark Richardson, 'The Necklace' and Robert Scheer Redux Pledge Drive

I do believe that this will just about catch us up on our Agony Column Digest Radio Broadcasts. Listeners know that I work out of Santa Cruz NPR affiliate KUSP. You might imagine, as I did, that there wouldn't be a really warm reception over at KUSP for my interview with the women who participated in the experiment documented in Cheryl Jarvis' 'The Necklace'. But after broadcasting this episode, I went to a party for KUSP and was rather shocked to find a very warm reception for this piece. This digest broadcast also includes Robert Scheer and Mark Richardson, both from the Capitola Book Café, and both cleverly edited to fit into my hopefully zippy radio-show format. This is the link; details are below:

Tin Hat 1 1:10
Necklace 1 10:24
Tin Hat 2 1:16
Necklace 2 9:35
Tin Hat 3 1:16
Litcal 1:42
Tin Hat 4 1:03
Robert Scheer 10:56
Tin Hat 5 1:01
Mark Richardson 1 10:58
Tin Hat 6 1:02
Mark Richardson 2 9:18

This Sunday, from 6-7 PM, I'll be broadcasting TAC on KUSP, and doing the pledge drive. You can help this column by giving during those hours (1-800-655-5877) , or on your own time via the web and mentioning my show. Thanks!


10-09-08 : Chris Cleave's 'Little Bee' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Agony Column Original Radio Broadcast

Humor, Horror and Survival

Note the stickies.
Sometimes I get very lucky; this would be one of those times. It was three years ago that I first met Chris Cleave in London, and talked to him about his first novel, 'Incendiary'. We had a great conversation, and kept in touch irregularly afterward. But time passes and everyone gets busy. So it came to pass that it was Janet Leimeister over at Capitola Book Café who asked if I'd heard of a book titled 'Little Bee' (Simon & Schuster ; February 2009 ; $24) by this guy named Chris Cleave. I hadn't heard of the book, though I knew the name – but thanks to her, now you will and plenty early.

Make no mistake about it, this is about as must-buy as you can get, to wit, I'd suggest grabbing a first ed British copy of 'The Other Hand', which was the UK publication title. Just because you'll want both. The prose is superb, the characters are achingly and hilariously realistic, the plot is shocking and superbly unfurled. We want to read books that blow us away, we want to read books that will make us want to laugh and cry in the same moment. This is that book. I'm telling you quite early about this book because it is worth the wait. Every second.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Agony Column Original Radio Broadcast : Laurie R. King and Karen Joy Fowler on Politics and Literature

For those who missed my first live broadcast of The Agony Column Broadcast Radio Show, here's a podcast link of my conversation with authors Laurie R. King and Karen Joy Fowler about Politics and Literature. Alas, James D. Houston was unable to join us, but I knew that King & Fowler would be able to perform superbly. Predictably, the best bits sort of avoid the whole subject, (and the moderator) and find Laurie and Karen talking about their work. You can hear the podcast of the broadcast here.


10-08-08: A 2008 Interview with Mark Richardson

'Zen and Now'

Mark Richardson at Capitola Book Café.
I dont know about you, but like about apparently five million people I have a weathered, faded, pale-green copy of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' by Robert Pirsig in the book boxes in my garage. And let me state for the record, that yes, I did read the whole thing, the first time through. I've always been compulsive that way. One book at a time. Start to finish. That's why I pick my books carefully, vet them extensively and make sure they'll be worth my valuable time. Joining that list is 'Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (Knopf / Random House ; Sptember 2, 2008 ; $25) by Mark Richardson, an admirably short and pithy memoir of Richardson's attempt to re-create the journey taken by Pirsig some 40 years ago. Not surprisingly, he stumbles on to some odd truths along way; some stem from within and others fall out of his research into the life of Robert Pirsig.

Richardson's book is the nicely written travelogue of a "Pirsig Pilgrim." I never knew such folks existed, or would even have conceived that they could exist in such numbers as to have acquired a name and several hundred websites. The setup is simple; just hop on your motorcycle, grab your gnarly copy of ZATAOMM, then ride from A to B, where A is Pirsig's home in Saint Paul, Minnesota and B is the Zen Center in San Francisco. You've got seventeen days, and your stops are laid out in this convenient map. Go.

The journey you'll get to hear about in 'Zen and Now', and in my interview with Mark Richardson is rather different and a quite a bit more complicated. Sure, the stops, the starts, the sights. There's that. But, like ZATAOMM, 'Zen and Now' takes deep detours in the the mind of Robert Pirsig – and he's not the same guy narrating the original book. As Richardson told me, he took his trip and wrote his book, with "every comma in the right place". But nobody liked it. And what you'll hear from Richardson is a pretty damn searing writer's journey from a book of umpty-ump words to a book that was published.

Having finished his book to his own satisfaction, Richardson found it satisfied nobody else, beyond family and friends. How he re-worked it is a story worthy of Pirsig himself, and you can hear it from this link. Richardson's book is a powerful reminder of how hard it is to get outside your skin, and the risks you have to take to do so.


10-07-08: 'Getting to Know You' by David Marusek ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli Interviews William Gilly and Susan Shillinglaw

Out of Your Mind With Short Stories

Perhaps we'd prefer not to ...
David Marusek made quite an impression with his difficult but rewarding first novel, 'Counting Heads'. In it, he offered up a future that was just about as chaotic and comprehensible as the present, and unfortunately for his characters, just as dark. Even then, readers knew, his future actually derived from his past, in that the novel was built from the stuff he'd forged in his impressive short stories. It wont be long before the same readers who enjoyed the challenges of his novel will be able to seek those heady realms again in 'Getting to Know You' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; December 30, 2008 ; $15). The joy of Marusek's work is that he can present a future that is far from perfect with perfect clarity. Unfortunately those clear visions reveal not just prescient perceptions of where runaway technology and economics may take us. They also shine a not-necessarily welcome light on where we are at this moment, and that proves to be not such a jolly place.

Five of the stories are part of the superstructure, so to speak for 'Counting Heads', and theyre clearly marked in the table of contents; "The Wedding Album", "A Boy in Cathyland", "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy", "Cabbages and Kale Or: How We Downsize North America" and "Getting to Know You". Six others are rather outside the scope of that novel, including "She Was Good–She Was Funny", which first saw publication in Playboy. With this, Marusek joins writers like Kurt Vonnegut, and I mention this because like Vonnegut, Marusek has a knack for reveling in bedlam. He's able to dive headfirst into complications that he clearly understands but has no inclination to explain to the reader. First hand experience is always preferable, so we're immersed in worlds wrought from few words that are dangerous in ways we dont understand. Reading Marusek, one experiences the sort of disorientation that can happen when you first encounter science fiction. What is this world? you wonder. Then: Oh wait. Oh hell. This is my world.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli Interviews William Gilly and Susan Shillinglaw : More Than Four Levels of Steinbeck and Ricketts

Picture box verbiage.
Following up on the annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas and Monterey, Kathryn Petruccelli spoke with Susan Shillinglaw, Ph.D. and William Gilly about their work covering the partnership between Steinbeck and Ricketts. Gilly and Shillinglaw recently retraced the journey that Steinbeck and Ricketts made in the Sea of Cortez, and their conversation on the intersection of science and literature is just the kind of lively interchange that may be mistaken for an argument – and is all the better for it. You can find out more about them and their work in Holistic Biology for Stanford University here. It's quite pertinent to our complicated world and even the type of future envisioned by David Marusek. We have managed to perch ourselves high atop an unstable pile of technology, tradition and narrowly-averted natural disasters. You can hear what a scientist and a professor of literature have to say about our prospects as viewed through the lens of Steinbeck and Ricketts by following this link.


10-06-08: Agony Column Podcast Feature Interview : Writing 101, Lesson 1

Laurie R. King on Revising a Novel

Better writing though insight.
One of the most interesting aspects of interviewing writers is the question of craft. With this in mind, I've decided to embark on a series of interviews with writers aimed at discussing specific aspects of their craft. I'm calling the series Writing 101, and as often as I can, I will speak to writers about a specific area of writing; in this episode, I speak with Laurie R. King about the process she went through to revise her forthcoming novel, 'The Language of Bees'. Now, I'm quite lucky in this regard because Laurie R. King is something of a natural teacher. I asked her to tell me what she did from the time she decided a first draft was done to the time she sent the manuscript to the typesetters, and her answers are surprising and illuminating as well as entertaining. No matter what sort of book youre writing, I'm sure King's comments will provide both perspective and insight.

No two writers do this the same way, but hearing someone describe quite clearly and precisely, how they do it is ever helpful; even, one hopes, inspiring. Class is about to begin. Follow this link.


Agony Column Review Archive