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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


10-31-08: Stewart O'Nan Sings 'Songs of the Missing' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kim Stanley Robinson Reads at SF in SF

You Are Different Without Her

We like to think we are simply ourselves, each whole and indivisible. But it's just not true.

A must-read intense, gripping novel.
Stewart O'Nan's 'Songs of the Missing' (Viking / Pengin Putnam ; November 3, 2008 ; $25.95) explores the ripples in a small American town when a young woman simply vanishes. O'Nan is already established as one of the great contemporary novelists, with works like 'A Prayer for the Dying' and 'The Night Country'. His prose is peerless and his ability to arc emotions and narrative unsurpassed. But mostly what O'Nan gets is America, the sort of suburban–exurban lifestyle that lets us know one another without really knowing one another. He intuits the threads of friendship and acquaintance, the powerful tides of parenthood, how brothers, sisters and close friends feel about one another. We may indeed be islands, but if that's the case then we are islands strung out in an archipelago, with deep connections buried beneath a troubled surface. Some close enough to touch, some close enough to see, some – close enough not to see. Remove one and the entire chain, the web of life is disrupted. It can never be the same again.

Who we are not.
'Songs of the Missing' begins with "Description of the Person, When last Seen." That's Kim Larsen, about to go off to college, but working her last summer at the Conoco. She hangs a it with her best friend Nina and her boyfriend J.P.

Then she never comes home.

What follows is a tense, stripped down but poignant examination of what those left behind become in the aftermath of her disappearance. O'Nan masterfully maintains suspense and tension, but extends the reach beyond plot to the emotional lives of Kim's friends and family. As the disappearance goes on, each of them will have to journey to a new self that exists without Kim. They re-create themselves and discover aspects of their own characters that they might otherwise never have acknowledged. There is emptiness to fill and occupied spaces that need to be emptied. Pain and guilt run side-by-side relief and wonder: "Why not Me?" "Me" falls into flux and there's no easy answer as to when it will settle down. While this is the sort of subject that can become bathetic, O'Nan's got the mad skills to ensure it is simple and powerful.

He's covered similar, if not the same ground in 2003's 'The Night Country.' Like 'Songs of the Missing', 'The Night Country' addressed the issue of loss. Both books demonstrate O'Nan's ability to write simple, but not simplistic novels in prose that flows like the rivers that run through the small towns he writes about. O'Nan knows the calculations that add up to a personality, and he knows how to write about them. And not just write, really; he knows how to sing the songs we hear in our heads.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kim Stanley Robinson Reads at SF in SF : 'Sixty Days and Counting'

Today's podcast is Kim Stanley Robinson's iconoclastic reading from 'Sixty Days and Counting' from SF in sf on October 18. Iconoclastic because he chose to read a passage from the novel that really has nothing to do with science fiction or speculative fiction and contains no elements of the fantastic – other than his wonderfully-wrought prose. I'll let listeners enjoy what he does read without spoiling the surprise of the subject with this link to the MP3 file. But I'll share this, that for DAYS afterwards I've been hearing those words rattling around in my brain and talking to my friends about what Robinson wrote. That's what great writing does; it sneaks up on you and returns to redefine your world. I will admit I would not have minded hearing Robinson's other choice for a reading from this book; he told us he was considering reading his creation of the Inaugural speech of a President who finds himself elected in the midst of an ecological disaster. And moreover, readers can relish this thought, which he also mentioned; after this coming election, Robinson's novel moves from the realm of science fiction to historical fiction.

In case we wondered what fate awaited the genre we all love.


10-30-08: A 2008 Interview with Amity Shlaes

'The Forgotten Man : A New History of the Great Depression'

A new view of the New Deal.
We'd all like to think that we've learned from history and won't repeat the mistakes of the past. Of course, that inclination is based on a presumption that we know history, that the narrative story we tell ourselves about our past is accurate. But if that's not the case, then all our so-called knowledge is for nought. Basing our understanding of the present on a mistaken notion of the past allows us to make the same mistakes once again in the light of a new day.

Of course, all this learning from the past suddenly seems quite relevant when everywhere we look were being told that we're either headed for or already in an economic period that is similar to, if not worse than, the Great Depression. Fortunately, we know the Great Depression, we've got that story down cold. The excesses – moral and economic – of the 1920's lead to a boom based on nothing that collapsed in the 1930's. Laissez-faire capitalism ran amuck until it was tamed by FDR and brought into line by the boundaries of the New Deal. What we now call progressive economics lead to economic progress, slow but steady until World War II, when a wartime economy finished the job that Roosevelt had started.

Forgotten not more.
But what if that narrative is not accurate? Amity Shlaes takes a look at the Great Depression in 'The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression' (Harper Perennial / Harper Collins ; May 27, 2008 ; $15.95), and comes up with a rather different assessment of what went wrong and what went right. Her book is a gripping and insightful look at times gone by and tailor-made for our complicated current situation. Our comforting narrative of excess, punishment and redemption may not be the most accurate rendition of what came to pass during the Great Depression. Shlaes' vision shows an America grown almost Dickensian in poverty and the response to poverty, but more importantly, shows that what are generally perceived as the cures for the Depression may have managed to make it worse. And of course, the urgency of this book cannot be overstated; this is compelling reading that turns our perceptions upside-down and calls into question the big decisions being made in the name of the small businesses.

I spoke with Shlaes about the Great Depression, her book and the current economic crisis. She's a quick wit who absolutely knows her topic. She'll turn your head around and undermine what you think to be true. We're making momentous decisions and basing them on an understanding of history that is itself flawed. It seems that history is likely to repeat itself – but that is not graven in stone.


10-29-08: Gavin Smith's Haunting 'Dogfellow's Ghost'; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Cecilia Holland Reads at SF in SF

"The Master does not know."

The prose is the thing.

It's easy to forget this when you read a book. Sometimes, the words are just like a bus that takes you somewhere; you dont care about the bus itself, you just want the ride to be smooth and the destination to be enjoyable. And often enough, that's enough.

His Master's Voice.
But then you pick up a book like 'Dogfellow's Ghost' (New Writing / Pan MacMillan ; October 2, 2008 ; £14.99) by Gavin Smith and if you're lucky, you flip to the first pages and read, only to find someone speaking to you; a confidential, confident voice, whispering in your ear about loss, regret, and what it means to be ... human. The sort of voice that conjures up images of our own life to bring the book to life.

Smith's novel is a short and bittersweet meditation by Dogfellow, one of the Master's creations who lives on after the Master himself has met his fate at the hands of one of his own creations. The Master, who walked out of an H. G. Wells novel and into Smith's lovingly-wrought work, lives in Dogfellow's memories. Smith uses quiet, tight prose that evokes a sense of wonder as well as a deep emotional connection for the reader. His ability to traverse the terrain between human and canine is authentically uncanny in the strictest Freudian sense. Yes, I know that Freud is discredited as a scientist, so to speak, but as a literary theorist, he's really spot on, especially where the literature of the fantastic is concerned. He actually descended from his scientific perch to speak about aesthetics in his essay "The Uncanny," and its a work that should probably be more thoroughly understood and acknowledged in the world of weird fiction. 'Dogfellow's Ghost' is a perfect example. Trapped between the animal and the human, Dogfellow captures the concept of something that is familiar and foreign, with the resultant emotion in the reader being a cognitive dissonance that puts one at a pleasant distance from one's own life. What works so well in 'Dogfellow's Ghost' is the fact that Dogfellow is familiar to us on two levels; as a (not-quite) human character and as an anthropomorphized canine. The frisson of the uncanny cuts two ways and complicates our emotional involvement.

Obviously, 'Dogfellow's Ghost' is sort of obscure, in that it's a first novel from a UK author and publisher. It might just whiff by without a mention. It's the product of a pretty interesting project over at MacMillan, the New Writing Program. Here's what their publicist, Sophie Portas told me about it: " Macmillan New Writing was launched in 2006 with the aim of discovering superb new novelists writing in all genres. It publishes one novel per month and welcomes submissions from unpublished novelists. You can find out more info about the imprint from our website at:"

As a reader and critic who enjoys First Books, I find this a heartening development with a pretty torrid pace. And I suspect a few writers out there might find it of interest as well.

But even though this is a first novel, that does not mean that it doesn't have a potentially very wide appeal and a lot of possibility. It's short and written in a sort of simple manner that suggests it could be sold as both an adult fiction and a YA work. (Again the combination of the Uncanny.) But it also gets another helping hand from the fact that it is a novel told from a canine point of view and it's not a sappy serving of slobbishly sentimental slop. Because, let me tell you, if I could get a buck a pop for every damn doggie book that comes through my door I could stuff a decent mattress. If there's room on bestsellers lists for 'The Art of Running in the Rain', then said-same lists should clear the path for 'Dogfellow's Ghost'. Assuming it makes it over the pond.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Cecilia Holland Reads at SF in SF : Varanger

Gritty and surreal.

Psst ... wanna hear some bad-ass historical fiction with riots a brewin' and scary burials? Look no farther than this link to my MP3 recording of Cecilia Holland reading from Varanger'. There's a touch of the weird here, and lots of grit to make that weird seem utterly realistic. Interestingly, Kim Stanley Robinson, who appeared on the panel with Holland, told the panel that Holland was a primal influence on his work. It will be pretty clear as to why this is when listen to the MP3.


10-28-08: Barry N. Malzberg has Breakfast at the Ruins' : Agony Column Podcast News Report : Barry N. Malzberg Reads at SF in SF

Exercise for Students

A literary lion and a light aperatif.

What could be more sublime than 'Breakfast at the Ruins', Barry N. Malzberg's expanded edition of 'Engines of Night', a classic collection of astute and unsparing criticism aimed at science fiction? I can answer this quite succinctly, in MP3 audio, with this link to Malzberg reading from that classic collection at the last gathering for SF in SF, where he was joined by Kim Stanley Robinson and Cecilia Holland to talk about the simpatico between science fiction and historical fiction with moderator Terry Bisson, and in Malzberg's case, cast an eye on the past. Let me assure the readers and listeners that Malzberg is utterly, totally hilarious and quite tart in his willingness to accept the literary nature and failings of science fiction. 'Breakfast at the Ruins' belongs on any serious literary or genre bookshelf.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is the changing view of the genre from within the genre itself as captured by Malzberg. As we draw close to half a century away from the "Golden Age" of science fiction (no, not 14 years old and male), as the technological wheel spins ever faster and less certainly, as the clockwork universe comes undone and is replaced by the granular detritus of quantum uncertainty, a good sense of humor becomes an essential part of the toolkit we need to decode the present.

We're living in a future well beyond the dates specifies in many of the great science fiction works. They predicted nothing – but presaged everything.


10-27-08: A 2008 Interview With Alan Cheuse

"...the big books from the old days..."

...captured, that is, in words.

The Voice of NPR Books.
Alan Cheuse writes the sort of novels that immerse readers in another time, another place, another life, and not surprisingly – because he does so himself. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Cheuse before the release of his latest novel, 'To Catch the Lightning', and find out the genesis of this delicately layered yet propulsive novel. It's the story of Edward Curtis, who took his first portrait of an American Indian – Princess Angeline, or Kickisomlo in 1895. Five years later he was invited to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians, and in 1906 J. P. Morgan offered him $75,000 to take 1,500 photographs that would fill 20 volumes.

Cheuse talks about immersing himself in those volumes in the Library of Congress, and about the wax cylinders that still exist. He tells both the fascinating story of Curtis himself and his own long struggle to write the novel. As befits a book reviewer for NPR, he also offers some nice craft tips, though theyre sort of a double-edged sword. It's excellent advice, but you might want to plan out our time for perhaps, the next ten years. In the interim, you can read 'To Catch the Lightning' which will offer a lifetime of experience for a few sittings in front of nice winter fire. And of course, hear Alan Cheuse speak about his novel in this MP3.


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