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02-20-09: 'Shriek: An Afterword'
Via Wyrm : Now Fortified with Music by the Cult

Reading is a very particular activity for me. It generally requires certain things to be in place. For example, I sit in an upright dining chair by the dining table where I work. And I sit in a place that allows me to best experience the background music I choose to read by.

As much as I love music, I simply find myself unwilling and unable to read (or write, for that matter) when listening to music that has lots of lyrics. So the music I listen to is almost always instrumental, and generally what is today called "ambient" music, with a healthy side order of classical and jazz. It all becomes soundtracks for the book I'm reading; sometimes the music is appropriate and others, well, not so much.

For those of like mind, Wyrm Publishing has a great solution. Their signed, limited edition of Jeff VanderMeer's 'Shriek' (Wyrm Publishing / Clarke's World ; February 2009 ; $40) offers something more than a beautiful book. But let's start there, because well, we're print fiends and Wyrm does great work.

Wyrm is apparently a subsidiary / imprint of Clarke's World Magazine, and they've got a great lineup of other titles, if this limited edition of 'Shriek' is any indication. 'Shriek' Limited from Wyrm features a design by John Coulthart, the mad genius behind 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases.' The cover art by Ben Templesmith is a surreal reminder of just what you’re getting into with this book. Like all of VanderMeer's work, it grows in your brain, slowly replacing your reality with something, well, not better, but different. And in being different, at least it's a relief from what you're currently experiencing. You can read my original review of the book here.

And if you really want to dislocate your psyche, what better way to do so than with 'Excerpts from the Soundtrack to Shriek' by The Church, the free CD that accompanies the Wyrm signed, limited edition of 'Shriek'? I'll have to say it's not exactly reading music ... some of it is quite ambient and beautiful, but there are more than a few vocal tracks that are in fact just like something you might expect to hear on the street corners of Ambergris ... rough, strange, eerie and beautiful. Given the low price tag, this seems like one of those bargains that readers should not pass up. Unless, of course, the mushrooms have already overgrown your brain. In which case it's unlikely you'll need a soundtrack for reading. But the voices you’re hearing? They’re not your own.

02-19-09: Speculating on Popular Romance : Nazis and Zombies

Genre fiction has a limited appeal. There are only so many readers who will even think of beginning to pick up a romance novel, or a novel about zombies, or an alternate history. But what happens when you dilute one genre with another, when you use romance fiction tropes to explore worlds based on science fiction or horror concepts? Perhaps novels that combine the appeal and the audience of both — or is it neither?

The US Post Office creates strange bedfellows. Nobody asked them to deliver two books that combine romance with other sorts of genre fiction, but that's what happened. Saturday brought me both
'Resistance' by Owen Sheers (Anchor / Vintage / Random House ; February 11, 2009 ; $14.95) and 'Breathers' by S. G. Browne (Broadway / Doubleday / Random House ; March 17, 2009 ; $14). I'll be the first to admit that these books aren't exactly romances, alternate histories or horror novels, and that's really the point. By blending genre fiction tropes, they become less genre and more fiction.

'Resistance,' by Owen Sheers is a tricky one. You look at that book, and you might think "girly," but you'd be wrong. It's a fascinating piece of mainstream literary fiction with just a soupcon of speculative fiction to give a jolt of startlingly original perspective. Set in the Olchon Valley in Wales during World War II, 'Resistance' tells the story of Sarah Lewis, one of he women left behind when the men leave the valley to join the resistance – because in Sheers' novel, the Germans have invaded England. Sheers' took his cue from an interview he heard just after 9/11/2001, when one George Vader admitted that had the invasion taken place, he and his Welsh compatriots would not have overrun the Germans. Oh, they were planning to set up a resistance. But would they have succeeded? "I'm very sorry to say, no," was Vader's reply. "We were told that we would work for perhaps fourteen days, and that was our full lifetime, I presume." Sheers writes with a very careful, low-key precision and grounds his imaginative leap, with the wildest details coming from history itself. For example, in the book — and in reality — the Mappa Mundi was moved from the Hereford Cathedral to a cellar then a coal mine. 'Resistance' may take huge step from speculative fiction, but if you were particularly unclear on history, you’d never know from reading this book. And Sheers' historical twist gives this novel a particular intensity of vision.

'Breathers,' by S. G. Browne, is lot more like what you think it's going to be, but funnier and more accessible. It's a pretty simple idea and not unusual given all the popularity of zombie fiction since 'World War Z.' Andy Warner is s nice guy, a bad driver and after an accident on Highway 17 (a local-to-me twisty deathtrap that gets featured in California Highway Patrol favorites like Red Asphalt 4), Warner is dead. But not for too long, 'cos in Browne's vision, the dead have an unfortunate-for-them habit of waking up, not dead, not alive, but as zombies. And being a zombie proves quite difficult. Browne is a funny guy, and he tells a story set in an outlandish world with the same kind of low-key realism that Sheers' employs, but with a very different effect. Like I said, funny, and often pretty gross, but not in a makes-you-puke manner. What Browne brings to the world of zombies is a sweet sense of humor. He loves his characters, even if they are dead and might have their parents cut up in pieces, stored in the freezer. And you'll like his characters as well. Sure, maybe mostly because we don't live in a world where there are really zombies (thus far), but grab it while it's still fiction, then, right?

What 'Resistance' by Owen Sheers, and 'Breathers' by S. G. Browne have in common is an uncommon willingness to combine disparate tropes to create fiction that has a pretty wide appeal. When you read the words "Nazi" and "Zombie" you don’t think romance. Or sweet. At least not yet. But conquer — kill — come back to life — and repeat. It'll all seem familiar soon enough.

02-18-09: Xinran — 'China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation' : The Long March, Mao, the Cultural Revolution and Unglued Shoes

History dies.

We can read the books, we can watch all the public television specials and the for-addicts-only channels dedicated to stories of history.

But every day, with the every human death, history dies. The voices are silenced and witnesses no longer tell their tales. It's essential, yes, to have an overview of events, to see the so-called "Big Picture." But the Big Picture is made of single stories told by single voices, and at some point we needs must either listen to and record those stories or lose them. All the sweeping vistas, all the momentous events, every Big Picture is sewn together from individual stories. From interviews.

It's an ambitious goal to chart the course of a nation with a series of one-on-one interviews, but Xinran has the skills to match that ambition.
'China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation' (Random House ; February 24, 2009 ; $28.95) is a collection of interviews by Xinran, author of 'The Good Women of China' and founder of the charity, The Mother's Bridge of Love. This book is literally and quite simply, the voice of history as we've never heard it.

Our vision of China has always and only been external; we've viewed events from afar and come to judgments based on what we've seen from afar. Xinran decided to go up against history and against the perception of the Chinese people as disinclined to tell the whole truth in order to hear history, first hand. In her introduction she talks about the challenges she faced, from choosing accommodations that would inspire confidence in her interviewees to the personal traumas of bringing their lives into hers. Because, history dies.

'China Witness' is a remarkable work of scholarship, dedication and personality. For all such projects seem to be rather simple when expressed on the printed page — interview Chinese men and women about their lives during the Cultural Revolution and beyond — the truth is that it took Xinran some 20 years to make this happen. And it’s not just scholarship, or getting people in front of a video camera or microphone that's difficult. Getting them to talk, to open up is Xinran's true talent, and if it requires her to talk about her unglued shoes, she's able to do so. She knows to do so.

The variety of interviewees is matched by the variety of writing styles. Some stories Xinran simply tells in a novelistic narrative style, and some are transcribed in dialogue format. But for each story, there is a new look at a very old country, a layer of life, a story, is brought to life and we're shown a China that has very little to do with our notions. We live in a complicated world and sometimes we might like to think that our lives are the templates for all of humanity. Here is your chance to see history built from the bottom up, to learn that there are not templates, only humanity. 'China Witness' is where history lives.

02-17-09: John Berlyne Extracts 'Powers: Secret History' : The Power of Obsession

Obsession profits from proper editing, even when you’re editing yourself. What John Berlyne — and PS Publishing, for that matter — have done with 'Powers: Secret Histories' is so remarkable, so thorough, so incredibly well-assembled and edited that there is no doubt that Berlyne has crossed the line. The ARC of 'Powers: Secret Histories' is 569 pages and weighs in at 3 1/2 pounds. The level of detail and are simply insane. You may want to worry a bit about John Berlyne even as you realize that here is the work of not one, but two consummate artists — Tim Powers and John Berlyne.

Like most deep and important art, this isn’t a book for wussies. If you're not serious about the writing of Tim Powers, you're not only missing out on the work of one of our great living writers, you'll also miss out on the proper sense of wonder that 'Secret Histories' will evoke. The cognoscenti will feel so rewarded that they'll want to sew the books into their skins, while those in their general vicinity will doubt their sanity. Doubt away, Philistines! There won’t be enough copies of this book produced for you to own one anyway.

Simply put, Powers has everything produced at a level of quality that justifies the level of quality in this book about Powers. Even if you own a shelf o' Powers in his trade and limited editions, you're going to find a wealth of material that you simply could not find elsewhere, including a huge excerpt from 'To Serve In Hell,' an early and unfinished Powers novel from 1976. You'll find a wealth of Powers' art, and lots of color plates of book covers. Berlyne's ability to organize the disparate forces that comprise this book, including tributes and articles by the likes of Dean Koontz, James P. Blaylock, China Miéville and Karen Joy Fowler is itself a fine example of the obsession that begets art. There's so much here, one might be tempted to think this was an Italo Calvino-style artwork about a writer who doesn't exist; but having met Power, I can assert that's not the case. I haven’t met Berlyne though, and it occurs to me that perhaps they are one in the same.

Of course there's another level of obsession at work here, and that is PS Publishing itself, which is producing three separate states of this book. Forty pounds (£40), will get you one of 1,000 copies signed by Powers. The paper alone weighs, as noted 3 1/2 pounds. It's a deal. But then when you head towards the stratospheric of the slip-cased and deluxe-lettered editions, well, let's just quote Firesign Theater and say, "In the Next World, you're on your own." £195 gets you an unfinished, unpublished novel, 'The Waters Deep, Deep, Deep,' while
your firstborn £495 gets you all of the above plus a full-color facsimile version of the original, handwritten manuscript of 'The Anubis Gates;, complete with dog-ears and coffee stains. This is a book that is positively bleeding art, and all great Neptune's ocean shall not wash this blood clean from your hands. future.

02-16-09: Michael Katakis, 'Traveller' : A Brief History of Prescience

Clear, well-written, even poetic prose can tell us so much about the world; it can tell us much more than we ever suspect. There's something about the process of observing the world then converting those observations into words that cuts through the surface noise, that can allow writers to "see" more than they think they are seeing. Michael Katakis has been writing daily and travelling for more than thirty years, and his book 'Traveller' is a remarkable work that manages to capture a world in words.

'Traveller' unfolds as a series of journal entries, none too long, some only a single paragraph. They're not in chronological sequence, nor are they organized by country or direction. Instead, there's an inner poetry that threads together Katakis' vision of a world gone gently and sometimes maddeningly awry. But it's an achingly human world, full of real people who find themselves in places of wonder, horror, sorrow and joy, a world where language, informed by the past, informed by written history, evokes an eternal present the reaches from the past into the future.

Photo: Michael Katakis
'Traveller' is a quick read, and doesn't require that you read it in order. The book itself is, as Kurt Vonnegut once described a life, "unstuck in time." True to the title, Katakis is a traveler, and he'll take you from Sierra Leone in 1988 to Paris in 2004 with a quiet, powerful prose that makes the transition seem instinctive — just right. Katakis is also a photographer, and many of the entries and letters have a photographic feel about them. They are prose snapshots that use language to capture more than just mere image. Katakis evokes the emotions and the underlying sense of history in each of the places, each of the scenes he describes, and these emotions and history provide the thread and through-line that make the whole of 'Traveller' so much more than the sum of its parts — though that sum in itself would be quite impressive.

What emerges, however, is a certain sense of prescience in the language, informed by history. When he writes about the current events that inspired him to leave the United States behind, Katakis looks back to the writings of T. E. Lawrence, and there finds the words that will define our future. By focusing so clearly on the various "presents" he was describing, Katakis is able to tease out the threads that connect not only his writing, but also history. 'Traveller' is a deceptively easy book to read, but it ties you up in visions of the past that will haunt you in the present — and stay with you in the future.

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