They arrive faster than you can possibly believe. And since I'm lucky to sleep five hours a night, here are five books from the piles well worth your valuable time. I gotta tell you; I've got a table covered with piles o' books, and I'm going to try, try, try to mention all the keepers. You know that no matter what the economic or political or personal circumstances may be, reading is your best bet for pure entertainment. Just your brain and the words.
There's a little publisher in the UK with the very Lovecraftian name of Eibonvale Press and they are apparently making some very sweet books. Top o' the pile is 'The Oz Suite' (Eibonvale Press ; April 2009 ; £6.75 / £17.10) by Gerard Houarner, a collection of three linked stories that all circle round 'The Wizard of Oz.' Houarner writes a slip-streamy science fiction fantasy that is understated but very weird. Not in a studied manner, mind you, but weird from within. But for all the oddness in concept, the execution is smooth and accessible. If flying monkey gave you nightmares (they scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid), then you want this book. It won’t help with the bad dreams but it will certainly help escaping reality. Nice cover, nice package, nice contents.
Underland Press, home of the "wovel" (tell NPR you want more reports from that Kleffel guy) takes a break from their more science fiction / horror-oriented fare to offer 'Chaos' (Underland Press ; April 2009 ; $13.95), by "Escober, "a toe-tapping tour of British soldier Alex Fisher's life after a tour in Bosnia. Terrorizing dreams, memory lapses, and mindless violence lead him to suspect that his brain is falling apart one surreal piece at a time. What the heck is "Escober" you ask? It's a pair of Dutch writers who have four popular thrillers and a web page in the Netherlands. (http://www.escober.nl/) 'Chaos' lives up the title and yet it's a bit more straight ahead than Underland's more otherworldly fare. It might be a great fit for your edgy mystery lover.
Moving not too far ahead in time, one of my favorite writers, Kate Christensen has nothing but 'Trouble' (Doubleday / Broadway / Random House ; June 2, 2009 ; $24.95) to offer. In this case, Christensen turns the male midlife-crisis novel upside-down with the story of two youngish-feeling (but not actually young) women who escape from their lives to Mexico. Christensen always offers sharply-etched visions of real humans, crafted with lovely language and an acute understanding of how screwed up so many of us are. She has a cutting sense of humor and a knack for unveiling life-arcs that feel like roller-coaster rides. You know, like how you feel when you get yourself in, well ... trouble.
Charles P. Pierce is best known to me, at least, as Charlie Pierce on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" . But his forthcoming book, 'Idiot America' (Doubleday / Random House ; June 2, 2009 ; $24.95) is a priceless rant on all the stupid crap that is sweeping across the nation. The incept point of 'Idiot America' is Pierce's visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where he encounters a dinosaur wearing a saddle. Pierce is kind of like Borat without all he phony-baloney pretense as he goes from bad to worse, looking at radio, global warming foes and even novelizations. The key requirement for books such as this is the ability to vent and spew in an entertaining manner. Pierce has that down in spades, and even a country that manages to elect adults to run it retains thick layers of idiot fat to protect it from the chilling effects of intelligence.
If you ain't done lookin' fer rants, you don’t want to pass up Joe R. Lansdale. Trust me, this man is a master. 'Unchained and Unhinged' (Subterranean Press ; October 31, 2009 ; $40) is a slim book with lots of short stuff meant to be read quickly in a single ... sitting, say. The "Unchained" half is rants on writing, Robert E. Howard and writers you oughta heard about but may not have. Let Lansdale set you straight. The "Unhinged" half is fiction that'll curl any hairs you might that're uncurled, and kink up anything remaining. With DJ and interior illustrations by Glen Chadbourne, you got yourself a book that'll be the perfect after-dinner mint to 'Idiot America.'
04-16-09:'Private Midnight' Soundtrack CD : Kris Saknussemm and Clamon
There's a time of night when no-one who is awake wants to be awake. It is the time when you sit up in bed, startled. Perhaps you're screaming. Or laughing. Maybe tears are streaming down your face. You do not know why you are doing what you are doing, but there you are, awake now when you should not be awake. Worse yet, you're unable to go back to sleep, and instead, you look at your life with worry and regret, with fear and trepidation. Tomorrow, you think, will be worse than today. No matter what the time on the clock is, this is the Hour of the Wolf. Your own Private Midnight.
Kris Saknussemm doesn't exactly explore genre fiction; he explodes it. His first novel, 'Zanesville' was an overstuffed mélange of magic realism, science fiction, slipstreamy surrealism and patently absurd satire. Whatever your expectations were, they were subverted shortly before they were sliced, diced and shredded. His new novel, 'Private Midnight' (Overlook Press ; March 5, 2009 ; $25.95) is leaner, meaner, more seductive and more disturbing than 'Zanesville.' Leaving goofball science-fiction behind, Saknussemm turns his talents towards the noir detective genre with outstanding results. But not surprisingly, 'Private Midnight' strays outside of any boundaries that readers might reasonably expect to contain it.
Still, the setup is classic noir. Birch Ritter is a dodgy cop visited by his dodgier ex-partner, who points him at a case involving a "fresh widow." And you're off into a world that starts out weird and keeps going farther just when you think you've seen it all. As Ritter follows his instincts, he begins to realize that they may lead him places he'd never have imagined possible. The final frontier, as it were, is within.
'Private Midnight' benefits from great prose and gritty settings. Saknussemm knows that the best mysteries wait inside the characters he creates, and he takes readers into sexual realms that are both disturbing and erotic. He's not afraid to melt away the edges of reality but he never over-explains or rationalizes those parts of the day, the night, that is, that can never be understood. When you wake up, when Ritter comes to, when the world around us makes no sense whatsoever, we can only experience the language within. 'Private Midnight' sheds darkness on the world, shadows in the soul. There are things we have done that we'd prefer to forget.
'Private Midnight' is nothing if not weird, but not in a self-conscious manner. It follows the illogic of human flaws, the sensibility of dreams that do come true, much to our regret. The fiercely perverse sexuality is matched in intensity by the surreal turns the narrative takes as Saknussemm makes a hash of any conventions one might imagine to exist. You may or may not like 'Private Midnight.' But the chances are you will have an analogous experience. Fortunately for you, reading is a dream from which you may surely waken. Most of the time.
04-15-09:Andrew Hudgins and Barry Moser Say 'Shut Up, You're Fine' : Poems for Very, Very Bad Children — and Adults
Every sort of writing has genres, though we don’t always think of them as such — even poetry. But yes, there they are; ballads, haiku, love poems, introspective free verse, song lyrics (with many sub genres under this genre), children's nursery rhymes, children's verse, and now, happily for readers and unhappily for its subjects — dark children's verse. It's not exactly new, because children's verse has always had a sort of shadow, from Shel Silverstein, whose Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout simply would not take the garbage out to Allen Katz saying "Oops!". But Andrew Hudgins, with the illustrative help of Barry Moser, cranks up the shadows to a whole new level in 'Shut Up, You're Fine' (The Overlook Press ; March 2009 ; $14.95). Hudgins and Moser bring a sort of gleeful, brutal realism to their portraits of the 21st century child, crafting poetry that would appeal to kids ”— and adults — who would say they don't read poetry.
'Shut Up, You're Fine' looks just like a collection of poems for children, but certainly not the kind of children who usually read children's poetry — or anything other than the well-thumbed pornography they've stolen from a wayward parent. What Hudgins does is to carefully craft delightfully rhyming portraits of abused, discarded children tormented by their parents, their peers and often by themselves. In so doing he manages to combine horror, humor and sociological analysis into pointed commentaries on what childhood has become. He's unsparing in his honesty and unflinching in his vision. The combination may not be for everyone, but those who can take the vibe will find power and yes, some small redemption in the fact that Hudgins can actually manage t—/as seen on television." Here's where Hudgins gets to the heart of the matter; the public vision of childhood as compared to actual childhood. We're bombarded by conflicting images; happy children in commercials consume without a care in the world, while the network news they're embedded in luxuriates in reports of children's bodies found in suitcases. The disconnect is so wide that we never get a glimpse of the living, the actual lives of children. Hudgins collapses that gap into succinct verses that are grimly humorous and deeply disturbing.
Add to the mix the too-few but powerful illustrations of Bill Moser and to my mind you have a little book of verse that could quite comfortably be shelved with horror fiction. Moser's illustrations have an almost Victorian feel. They seem to be the sort of portraits that would be censored in a better world — but this is not a better world. These poems are not going to make you feel good, even though they are superbly crafted portraits of characters who happen to be children, and perceptions of the world from the perspectives of children. We like to think that childhood and children are innocent, but they're not. Children are born to survive in a world that is not necessarily friendly. 'Shut Up, You're Fine' is not friendly — but it is a fine example of a peculiar genre of poetry that seeks to smile at your face and stab you in the foot.
04-14-09:Mark Charan Newton Spends 'Nights of Villjamur' : A Whole Wide World
It's easy to see and talk about the red flags of fantasy. For example, if a new series pops up and talks about, "the adventures of a lowly country-born famer who is destined to be a hero of the Empire," well, watch out. Chances are you're going to see the ten-thousandth variation on the 'The Lord of the Rings.' To be sure, there is comfort in this, but interestingly enough, the works that promise adventure and include what traditionally passes for adventure so far as plot is concerned are themselves anything but an adventure in reading.
On the other hand, it's not so easy to see the green flags of fantasy, but they're there for the observant. For this reader, effective, enjoyable fantasy is all about careful world building, about a pointillist effort to create details so dense that plot rises from them like steam from the surface of a well-trodden avenue. I'd contend that beyond the worlds of M. John Harrison and more recently, China Miéville, Charles Dickens is an influence on the best of modern fantasy. He created his world from within and let the plot unfold around the characters.
Green flags for fantasy fly from the rotting tower of Mark Charan Newton's 'Nights of Villjamur,' (Pan Macmillan / Tor UK ; June 12, 2009 ; £16.99) ominously billed as "The Legends of the Red Sun Book One." To my mind, that sort of titling is a red flag, but readers are advised to give that one a pass. 'Nights of Villjamur' is the sort of pleasantly immersive novel with lots of details and perhaps a few too many plots and characters for its own good, but just the right amount for readers eager to leave this reality behind and find something worse.
In the great scheme of things, I suppose it could be worse than our bean-brained replay of the Great Depression. Take for example, an impending ice-age, driving refugees to seek solace in a city that takes its cues from The Pessimist's Guide to the Afterlife, a city populated by cults like that of Sri Chinmoy, a city where the dead are banging at the gates. That would be Villjamur, where a variety of intriguing characters are on a collision course, none of whom is a wise wizard waiting to retire, a farm-fresh country boy with a special destiny or hot farm girl handy with a sword. Instead, you get a dash of Lear, with a King's daughter, and, always a great sub-plot driver for entertaining fantasy, a murder mystery. Cults, con-men and genocide round out this sunny vision without giving a single hint that everything will be solved in climactic sword fight between the farmboy and a wizened but magically-powerful antagonist.
This is all very well and good, but for readers, the proof is in the reading. Newton writes prose that's both direct and detailed, moving the action but embedding it in a heavy, grungy atmosphere. He does a great job of integrating the supernatural, the science fictional and the surreal into his fantasy. You might want to keep a scorecard handy — there's no "Dramatis Personae" page in the ARC — and refreshingly enough, no damnable maps. Are maps a red flag or not? I'm hard pressed to decide.
04-13-09:Jayanti Tamm Does 'Cartwheels in a Sari' : The "Chosen One" Chooses to Leave
We create our own identity, one day at a time. Even as children, being brought up by parents who care enough to teach and discipline us, we make choices and every choice we make adds another facet to our sense of self. The sense of discovering one's self, of forging into the unknown to find out who we are, is an essential freedom.
Folk tales and supernatural horror fiction are replete with stories in which parents have made deals with the Devil or an equivalent entity, selling the lives of their children for comfort in this world. They may seem outlandish, but they're not irrelevant. Jayani Tamm's parents met at the behest of Sri Chinmoy, a self-styled guru who claimed to be more holy than Buddha, Mohammed and Christ. Her mother was in search of a spritual guide, and Sri Chinmoy appeared on the balcony above her. He invited her into his apartment, where she meditated amidst a sea of hippie guests. Guru pointed to theman next to her and told her she sold marry this man.
They disobeyed his command to refrain from sex, and when their daughter was born, Guru named her Jayanti — "Victory" — and declared her the Chosen One, his perfect disciple. Brought up in an world where, by virtue of the fact that she was "Chosen," she had no choice, Jayanti found herself immersed in a high-profile cult led by a man who claimed to talk to "the Supreme" and controlled everything she said and did. But free will is more powerful, it seems, than God's will. Or at least Sri Chinmoy's.
'Cartwheels in a Sari' (Harmony / Crown / Random House ; April 14, 2009 ; $22.99) is Jayanti Tamm's memoir of growing up in the cult run by Sri Chinmoy, a con-artist who aspired to achieve the import of actual leaders like the Dalai Lama. Don’t lket that happy-wappy title or the colorful cover deceive you. 'Cartwheels in a Sari' is the rather chilling account of how the Land of the Free can be twisted into the home of the enslaved by mind-control clothed in religious garb. It seems that the whole, "I'm the front man for God himself," story never grows old.
Tamm tells her story from the inside-out, so that as readers we experience her emotions and perceptions of the Guru Media machine from the inside. Like all those who seek to use morality and religion to control others and accumulate wealth and real power in the world, Sri Chinmoy employed a non-stop propaganda campaign that drew in celebrities and talking heads. We find that he was not above simply terrifying his followers with threats of supernatural repercussion and goon-borne brute force. Sri Chinmoy claimed to have an array of super-powers at his behest; he could see the future and read the minds of those in his sway. And to the point that they obeyed him, he could see their thoughts. But when Jayanti disobeyed him in her mind and there were no repercussions, a carefully built façade crumbled.
Reading 'Cartwheels in a Sari' can be unsettling. It's like watching a spider subdue a victim and then carefully drain the life from it — not too fast, because you need your prey to live in order to keep yourself alive. Tamm is a skilled and rather fearless writer who knows how to cut to the quick; 'Cartwheels' is less than 300 pages. But then, Tamm was only 25 when she escaped the cult. As her daughter was born, the Sri Chinmoy died. Alas, his cult lives on and she has relatives within. There's a reason to read this book, beyond the compelling story and timeless lessons of how easily humans are manipulated into acting against their own self-interest. We all have a choice to make; and that is simply to ensure that we can make another, different choice.
New to the Agony Column
03-04-14: Commentary : Michio Kaku Foresees 'The Future of the Mind' : Form Follows Function