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05-30-09: Brendan Burford is 'Syncopated' : 'An Anthology of Non-Fiction Picto-Essays'

How fine is this? Take the supposedly objective eyes of "journalism" and render the reportage as a graphic "picto-essay." Bring the verve and style of graphic novels to the world of non-fiction essays. Place an accent on the weak beat between the one-two. Syncopated.

Brendan Burford has apparently been self-publishing 'Syncopated' for some time now, but this new volume, 'Syncopated : An Anthology of Non-Fiction Picto-Essays' (Villard / Random House ; May 26, 2009 ; $16.95) is the first from the powerhouse Villard imprint. It is, in short, utterly amazing, crossing history, subject and style fearlessly. It's relentlessly entertain and intensely informative. Some readers may find it skirts the edge of what they can bear.

The pieces really are all over the map in every sense. Silhouettes haunt and terrorize us in "What We So Quietly Saw" by Greg Cook, which illustrates quotes from FBI reports about Guantanamo Bay. The piece that precedes it, "The Evening Hatch," by Richard and Brian Haimes could not be more different in every way. It's a gorgeously drawn evocation of dusk at a pond in the summer. "Subway Buskers" by Victor Marchand Kerlow collects illustration of musicians in New York subways drawn on-the-spot b y the artist. "Father Figures" by Josh Neufeld is an unforgettable gallery of the men who acted as, well, father figures for the artist over the years. Alec Longstreth tells the story of "Dvorak" — Dr. August Dvorak, the inventor of a sensible keyboard layout that has yet to catch on. There are sixteen essays in 'Syncopated,' each them instantly, piercingly original and intense.

What's most fascinating about 'Syncopated' is the notion of the work itself. We're used to non-fiction and journalism as impersonal, a sort of (supposed) camera or mirror image of the world, the idea being that the best way to inform anyone about anything is to do so in a Dragnet form; "Just the facts, ma'am." But as years of mis-informative and purely deceptive "objective" reporting have come to show us, we need perspective in our reading, we need a point of reference. The graphic novel format, adapted here to short piece of journalism and non-fiction is the perfect method for conveying both the style and perspective of the writer and the actual content they are trying to convey. 'Syncopated' is the sort of collection that shows readers and the world there's another way to report, another way to reflect.

05-29-09: James O'Neal Peels Back 'The Human Disguise' : SF Noir

"THEIR WAR ... OUR WORLD," announces the front cover of James O'Neal's (or is it James O. Born — is he a double agent!?) 'The Human Disguise' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; June 1, 2009 ; $15.95). Thus falls away a huge chunk of plot, like an ice floe from the edge of Antarctica in a publisher's version of global (plot) warming. Hold on to your oars, readers. Without world-under-construction signs, world-building happens faster than you expect in O'Neal's science fiction debut. In just about one page, O'Neal shoots us twenty years into the future, when the US is crippled, but beer is plentiful. Win some, lose some.

Tom Wilner, the protagonist, looks more likely to be on the losing side as the novel begins. He's investigating his ex, who ran away (of course) with a crime lord. I may not hate it when that happens, but you can bet that Wilner's not happy about it. And of course his current case is going to take him places where literally, no man has gone before. Not the locker room at an exclusive women's club, no, Wilner's case is going to take him to a place where he'll find that he has not one, but two targets on his back. Bummer. Fortunately, he has some police procedural skills to rely on, and they're eerily reminiscent of what's on tap today. The future ain't what it's cracked up to be.

O'Neal knows his strengths and works them well, keeping Wilner's eyes on the ground while the world we know crumbles away. By focusing the gritty police-procedural aspects of his plot, he renders his science-fictional vision more believable, and importantly, more palatable to a non-SF audience. Most of his changes revolve around the current bad situation getting even worse, and he treats them with a kind of edgy humor, as if the whole world going into the toilet is some sort of joke. Wilner may not see it that way, but O'Neal is clearly having a good time and readers who like their noir surreal and shot-through with a bit of science fiction will as well.

Time was, not so long ago, when this book would have been a hardcover. But be that as it may, at sixteen bucks, it's a pretty good bet that won't break your bankbook if you’re looking for something nasty with actual monsters instead of just the human kind. For those who find themselves interested in the book, I'd advise avoiding reading the back, which seems quite enamored of giving away the whole shebang. That's not unusual these days, but it's no less annoying. I'm guessing that because the publisher is Tor, that they'll stack 'em up with the science fiction, even though the author's previous work is mystery fiction. That's too bad, because mystery readers willing to give reality a bye will quite likely enjoy the character, dialogue and plot-mechanics of 'The Human Disguise.' James Rollins has proved that the science fiction toolkit can be generously employed in novels that aren't sold as science fiction. For a book that does a lot of invention and speculation, 'The Human Disguise' is really quite approachable for non-genre readers. The cover design is really quite nice as well. No matter where they shelve it, it will seem right in keeping. Or cleverly disguised.

05-28-09: Katha Pollitt Considers 'The Mind-Body Problem' : Old Sonnets and New Poems

A little history is called for; in 1982, when so many of today's young adults were not yet even conceived of by their parents-to-be, Katha Pollitt published a book of poetry titled 'Antarctic Traveller' to great acclaim. Much happened in-between then and now; she wrote, and the world changed irrevocably. Poetry, however, has not changed, not much at all. It remains impervious to society, unaffected by technology. But poets are not impervious. That is in fact what lends poetry itself the spark of the eternal. Only a mortal being can author an eternal work.

So now:
'The Mind-Body Problem' (Random House ; June 9, 2009 ; $23) is published and Katha Pollitt finds voice once again, or rather a voice heard though the years finds form in poetry. 'The Mind-Body Problem' offers readers that ineluctable hint of the eternal that we find in every day of life, in every glance and every moment. Sure, we know it's there, but there's not much we, the readers, can do about it. We leave that heavy, or light lifting to the poets, to Katha Pollitt in this particular case.

The appearance of 'The Mind-Body Problem' offers us a "when" to turn to poetry: now, because Pollitt has returned and brought with her some 78 pages of poetry collected in a small, slim volume. These are poems of the now, and you'll find subway riders and Jane Austen readers, Key food shoppers and, yes, Old Sonnets. You'll find this world, the now, distilled into language that is finely cut crystal, funny and engaging, thoughtful and intelligent. You find words that become mirrors and in those mirrors you'll see not only yourself, but that other most essential part of the poem, the invisible: the eternal.

Pollitt divides her collection into three Big Thinks; "The Mind-Body Problem," "After the Bible" and "Lunaria." Each Big Think is of course built from the stuff of life, from individual poems that deserve to be read in full. I'll not poach Pollitt's best lines to pad out this commentary. The first and third portion of the book speak to the here and now from different angles. Perhaps it’s spring versus fall, or birth versus birthdays. Joining them are nine poems that consider the Bible, as no-one but Pollitt is equipped to do. She's funny, and easy on the mind so that she is better able to make that powerful connection to link the now to something beyond now. She finds the spark at the heart of poetry and makes it worth your valuable time in this life. It’s not like you have an eternity to read poetry. And it's not like you need an eternity to read poetry. Itr only takes a moment to lodge a hook deep in your heart.

05-27-09: Jean Thompson Suggests 'Do Not Deny Me' : A Common Brilliance

It's tempting to think of 'Do Not Deny Me' (Simon & Schuster ; June 9, 2009 ; $14) as a collection of horror fiction. Jean Thompson's ability to see into the tormented inner lives of her collection of oh-so-ordinary characters is so strikingly clear, so crisply written that it's quite frightening. We do not want the mirror to show us as we are.

But talent will out, and Thompson's talent for the short story form is impeccable. Whether she's visiting a domestic heaven that proves to be an unhappy home ("Wilderness") or immersing the reader in mind of a stroke victim ("Escape"), Thompson takes the reader gently and ineluctably with each word into the lives of those who are lost in their lives. Thompson's evocations of hope are even more caustic than her portraits of despair; in "Mr. Rat," for example, we meet a man we may all know, in one form or another, and perhaps despise. But Thompson evokes the chilling humanity within, making recognition as uncomfortable as sympathy.

Pacing is critical in short stories, and Thompson displays an effortless ability to glide through time. In "Do Not Deny Me," Julia's new boyfriend dies suddenly, leaving her with a burden of guilt. Two months later, she meets Fay, "one of those middle-aged women who manage to be both shabby and respectable at the same time." Fay observes that, "'There's a spirit around you...or more like an aura.'" Fay, it so happens, is a psychic, and Thompson's vision of her is chillingly true. At first, she manages to comfort Julia. At first. Thompson's plotting and pacing, her interleaving of emotional revelations and plot complications, compel the reader with a power that is itself almost psychic. Thompson understands how to slip between the lines of ordinary lives and find the squiggling, squirming minds that live them.

Even those who manage to escape their lives manage to do so in a disturbingly ordinary manner. In "Treehouse," Garrison, a suburban father with an unrewarding job, decides to build — a treehouse. "The world had grown too large, he cold have told them, too cluttered with bewilderment and pain. Now he had made it small enough to fit inside himself." Thompson's sympathy for her characters enables her to write stories that are in many senses deeply disturbing.

'Do Not Deny Me' is a trade paperback original and you'll likely want to buy two or more copies. Only two of the stories have appeared previously. For all the despair that the subjects of the stories inspire, the stories themselves are beautiful to read. Keep a reading copy near your nightstand and another in a plastic bag. The latter may prove to be quite valuable some day, assuming that humanity has the grace to survive long enough. Alas, reading Thompson's carefully crafted stories might lead the reader to conclude that is quite unlikely.

05-26-09: 'Either You're In, Or You're In the Way' by Noah and Logan Miller : Love, Honor and Succeed

You can walk from wherever you are at this very moment to Hollowood on a path comprised only of books offering advice how to succeed there. I admit it, I have a few myself, including 'The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook,' which I hastily add, I bought for my son along with a mind-bogglingly expensive camera. These HOWTO guides seem to have a pretty standard format, and none I've seen are particularly reader-friendly; that is, they're fine for information and instruction, perhaps, but not something you'd sit down and read for enjoyment. 'Either You're In, Or You're In the Way' by Noah and Logan Miller isn't exactly a HOWTO; but it's a kick to read.

Logan and Noah Miller don't have the resume. No film school degree from USC with lots of cozy connections. Instead, they came from the less illustrious but more educational school of hard knocks. Their father was a homeless alcoholic; they loved him, and he them, nonetheless. And they made a promise to him before he died, the sort of crazy thing you say to someone you love. They told their father that they'd make a feature film of a screenplay they'd written called Touching Home, and get Ed Harris to play him in that movie. It couldn’t possibly happen, but of course it did.

'Either You're In, Or You're In the Way' (Harper/ HarperCollins ; April 28, 2009 ; $26.99) is another improbable success story. First and foremost, it is one hell of a ripping yarn, fraught with Shakespearean pathos and humor. The boys, identical twins, have one hell of a story to tell. Alas, lots of humans have one hell of story to tell, and few manage to make theirs as engaging as the Miller brothers. They do so by virtue of having a great sense of humor and a sort of raw prose approach that feels really genuine. There's no sugar coating to this unlikely tale of persistence and success. The story, which is chock full of good advice, is not couched as a series of lesson in life or anything else. 'Either You're In, Or You're In the Way' is simply a well-written "what happened to us" story that offers action-based examples of how two utterly unprepared young men managed to grab the reins of the movie-making process and actually make a fine feature film.

Yes, you get the prerequisite credit card story; but you get it from the perspective of kids trying to pay the bills. Yes, you get the star-stalking story, but it’s screamingly funny. Yes, you get the disastrous employees stories of "Little Angry" and "Big Angry," but there's no malice, only a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But you also get human emotions laid bare, as the Millers watch their father suffer the ravages of alcoholism, and nicely, without the poor-me-ness that sometimes accompanies such tales. There's a tough-as-nails approach to love, movies, brotherhood and life that permeates this book. Nobody takes themselves too seriously, but the brothers take those around them quite seriously, often with hilarious results. If you're remotely interested in movie-making, family or just a funny story about things going awry — and right — in the movie making process, here's a story that simply rings true. This book does not offer advice so much as the book itself is advice; find your voice, and speak without fear.

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