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06-10-10: Brett Easton Ellis Peers Inside 'Imperial Bedrooms'

Panic After the Year Zero

Following up is hard to do. This is especially true if the original work was not intended to have sequels. It's even more difficult if the original work spoke to and for, like, what might pass for an entire generation. Then, let an entire generation pass you by. Now revisit your characters. There's a good chance that some of them won't even be alive, at least if you're true to your vision.

Bret Easton Ellis started at the top, with 'Less Than Zero.' He's returned to his 80's-rock roots in a century that manages to be slightly uglier than that which preceded it, and brought back characters, who, if we didn't care for them, we somehow managed to care about them.

In the years since 'Less Than Zero' helped define a literary moment, or movement, Ellis has done a lot of interesting work, from 'American Psycho' to 'Lunar Park,' employing tropes from the genre fiction toolkit with easy aplomb. 'Imperial Bedrooms' (Knopf / Random House ; June 15, 2010 ; $24.95) is the sequel to 'Less Than Zero,' but it amounts to much more. Ellis is unafraid of his own work, and he fearlessly takes us back into the world of Clay, Julian, and Blair. More importantly, he takes us back to an LA that has had more than a generation to grow darker; ever darker.

With 'Imperial Bedrooms,' Ellis finds a surprising balance between the disaffected tone of 'Less Than Zero' and the more postmodern and genre-influenced novels that followed. The rather horrific lives he drew us into in 'Less Than Zero' have born the sort of fruit you might expect. Clay, Trent, Blair, Rip and Julian were fucked up then, and they're still fucked up, only older, and not necessarily wiser.

But Ellis' talent for making those lives matter to readers with prose that is beyond precise seems effortless now. Ellis has throughout his career made a habit of writing entertaining, involving novels about characters who, should we have the misfortune to meet them in so-called "real life," would seem repugnant. You might not want to meet any of these characters now, either, but they make for engrossing reading.

In many ways, 'Less Than Zero' was as much a part of the literary movement of "80's Horror" as it was of the "Brat Pack Lit." The author of 'Imperial Bedrooms,' like many of the horror writers of the 1980's, is still writing horror. (It was effectively satirized and honored by Douglas Winter's short story "Less Than Zombie.") As a horror novel, 'Less Than Zero' seems sort of prescient, and 'Imperial Bedrooms' mines the same emotionally devastating territory.

Horror often involves transformation, and the transformation of these characters is both subtly and in-your-face horrific. Moreover, 'Imperial Bedrooms' achieves as much momentum with mood as it does with plot. This is not to say that plot is secondary, but rather the dingy, grotesque vision of Los Angeles fuming slowly into a provably pointless future is a powerful and well-handled plot point.

Most readers who enjoyed 'Less Than Zero' were entirely different people when they read it. Perhaps the most horrific aspect of 'Imperial Bedrooms' will be the pull on those readers to go back and re-read the original, to become their old selves once again. It's not a bad idea, but it is not necessary. Ellis manages the transformative aspect of time well. His characters can't make the same claim.

06-09-10: Dan Dion and Paul Provenza Free the '!Satiristas!'

Bleeding the Comedians

It's well known that comedy is not easy. But beyond the more obvious, painful examples of how tragedy gets upended into comedy, the audience, particularly readers, don't often get any insight into the art itself. To a degree, that's necessary. Comedy is an involuntary reflex. But what this means is that the art of comedy, which certainly includes a large bit of writing, is not well understood beyond the surfaces we see. There's an entire underlying sea of craft of which most of us are unfortunately ignorant. Photographer Dan Dion and comedian Paul Provenza open up a door that most of us probably never even knew existed in '!Satiristas!' (It Books ; May 11, 2010 ; $29.99) which applies the methodic approach of Provenza's hysterical movie The Aristocrats to a series of interviews with comedians.

Paul Provenza and Dan Dion re-invent not comedy (that happens almost daily) but the comedian in '!Satiristas!' The format of the book is appropriately, absurdly simple. Introduction, Interviews and Photographs. That's it. But — remember the maiden days of the Internet, when the cry was "Content is king!"? Those halcyon days when what people wrote mattered? Before your personal sales and demographic data became the content that was king? Those days, yes. '!Satiristas!' beings back those days with a bucketload of pure content that is meaty, smart, funny and offers readers insights into the world of comedy, of how and why it is created that simply have not been aired before.

What sets this collection off to start with is the diversity within; this is not so much a "Who's Who" as it is a Field Guide. Provenza has been quite meticulous in choosing to include comedians from a broad range of the art; yes, you get Matt Stone and Trey Parker, but you also get Randy Newman. I'm not going to do the laundry list, but it is important to understand that simply in their selection, Provenza and Dion have made a great contribution to understanding just what is included under the rubric of comedian.

Provenza is a smart writer himself and he displays this with, again not surprising for a comedian, a great sense of prose timing. He starts each interview not with his question, but with a comedian's answer. It's a fantastic hook to pull the reader immediately into the sensibility of the comedian as they talk about their art. Provenza also knows when to bring out his own happily twisted sense of humor in order to egg on his interviewees, but he never puts himself in the spotlight, other than in an overall sense as the curator of this wonderful cabinet of curiosities.

As wonderful as the interviews are, Dion's photographs complete the work. I mentioned above that comedy is in large part writing — but not completely. There's always a visual component to a joke being told to the audience, even if that visual component is conjured up from an audio-only track. We can hear what people look like. Dion's art as a photographer of comedians is analogous to that of Provenza. He shows us the artist without the artifice, the creator and not the creation. The portraits are those of working men and women, and they give a sense of the humanity, the compassion, behind the searing sensibilities.

Production is important in a book like this, and It Books has done one hell of a grand job. The photos are gorgeously reproduced, the layout is big and easy-to-read. The book flows and with it, our concept of comedy is actually informed. When we see a novel or a movie, it's pretty easy to imagine the work that went into one of the other, the preparation, the writing, the editing, the art itself. Comedy works best when it hits you upside the head and leaves you reeling, without any thought that craft might be involved, let alone how that craft is created. '!Satiristas!' steps in and show us that comedy is an art that can be engagingly explored without ruining the joke.

UK Version/Macmillan
06-08-10: China Miéville Unleashes 'Kraken'

Comedy of Tentacles

We only see one side of any given city; the tower, the buildings, the sidewalks, the people, the traffic, the shape and geometry of that which lies above ground. Above ground, we can get a hold on the shape of city. What lies underneath, between, inside the minds of those who walk the streets is equally important in shaping their lives. It's not grim, really. It's odd, and often very funny, even if it does get us a few steps closer to the End of Everything.

'Kraken' (Macmillan / Pan Macmillan; June 29, 2010 ; £17.99 ; Del Rey / Random House May 7, 2010 ; $26) is the newest novel by China Miéville, and to my mind, it is something of a gift to his readers.

It's set in current day London, and begins with an impossible theft when a giant squid is stolen is stolen from the Natural History Museum. Billy Harrow, who preserved the beast, finds that he now inhabits a London far stranger than he imagined.

It's as if someone peeled up the streets to reveal a bit of Bas-Lag festering underneath, a world of squabbling gods and the officiously religious cults who worship them. Every time you think you've seen the strangest bit, Billy and his new mates round a corner and find something even weirder.

Perhaps what's strangest is Miéville's instant transformation into a prose humorist, most evident in the opening sections of the novel. Yes, the baroque style is there, but it's pared back a bit and when it runs into the vagaries of modern life in London, proves to be quite funny.

This is abetted by Miéville's generous affection for all his characters, no matter how important it is for them to help bring about the end of the world. That affection carries through to the reader. Every scene in this book offers a new source of joy, wonder, terror, usually all at once. 'Kraken' succeeds in being a very odd comedy, with lots of tentacles and monsters.

US Version/Del Rey
Readers who found Miéville through his previous novel, 'The City & The City' may find themselves on more familiar ground than they might expect from this description. For though 'Kraken' really does offer readers an "all monsters, all the time" tour of a city at the edge of the world, it also contains a very meticulously plotted mystery.

We're given a stolen object, a wonderful gallery of suspects, and even the FSRC, the most entertaining cop squad I've yet read tasked to deal with the more Fortean aspects of life. They're a great comic foil for the more serious movers and shakers from underneath, yet effective in accomplishing their deliberately nebulous goals. As far as I'm concerned, Miéville can pop down a rabbit hole and follow these folks for a good few novels. He even manages to mention Life On Mars, and I think somebody ought to give those folks a few bazillion pounds to film 'Kraken.'

For those who have followed Miéville's career over the past, erm, years, 'Kraken' offers a deftly-plotted, inventively humorous step up, one that draws from every strength he's shown us in his previously novels in a manner specifically designed to please. Kick back and enjoy the end of the world. There will be plenty of monsters on display, and more than a few reasons to laugh.

06-07-10: Cory Doctorow Gets By 'With a Little Help' :

Experimenting With The Economics of Hardcopy and Electronic Publishing

When is a book not a book? When it's Cory Doctorow's 'With A Little Help,' which manages to be a book, a dreaded, copyright-killing e-book, and about seven different kinds of publishing experiments all of which will be extensively documented in successive printings of the book itself. This is not exactly news; Doctorow laid down the outlines to his experiment in a column for Publisher's Weekly late last year. If you're looking for the details of the experiment, find them there.

Here's my précis of what's on order. First off, this is a collection of short stories, some already published, say, in the vein of 'Overclocked.' Doctorow will be giving away e-books as he always does (thus far, when contracts permit, and he generally makes sure they do permit). It's not quite out yet, but if you've practiced, breath-holding may in order.

Doctorow will also offer a POD trade paperback edition, with one of four (I believe) covers by artist friends of his, including Rick Lieder, who did the cover for the trade paperback proof that the ever-generous Doctorow graced me with during our interview. This is a very nicely printed book, as fine as an trade paperback you're going to get "straight outta New York," as it were. The print is a generous size, the production level is top notch — this is a fine, nay, perfect reading copy. It does lack blank spaces for readers to splash salsa or marinara sauce on, but that's an innovation coming down the road.

Doctorow is also offering an insanely hand-detailed limited hardcover for $250, which will include all sorts of fascinating stuff he obtained ... with a little help from his friends, who include Neil Gaiman, Rick Lieder, Will Wheaton, Frank Wu, Rudy Rucker and Kelly Link.

There's something for every level of reading obsession, from the iPhone readers all the way up through the people whom I may or may not resemble in terms of covering books with wrappers, storing them in glass cases, reading them with little white reading gloves, or that lovely between-step, the taqueria TPB, for rough and ready reading.

What's interesting here is not simply the great fiction, though it is hard to resist mentioning "Power Punctuation" or "Scroogled." That said, by now you should know that Doctorow's stories offer smart writing, engaging characters and a heavy dollop of mind-blowing-style science fiction, that kind of Heinlein high that you think cannot happen after you graduate from high school.

But beyond the real reason to buy the book in any state, the fiction, the book itself is an evolving story. Doctorow is soliciting searches for typos, and offering footnoted recognition. He's tracking what the profits he makes from the books and documenting them in the subsequent editions. As he observes in our interview, he made some money from his other collections, and doing this experiment will help him determine whether this mix of POD, e-books and limited edition hardcovers will do better than a more traditional route.

My take as a reader an inveterate book collector is probably predictable. As soon as readers can get the ebooks at, I'd say go for it. It's not too hard to read a short story on a smart phone, if you have one, or even on your laptop or desktop. Of course, the trade paperback is a fine reading copy to keep to hand, either to toss in a backpack and read on the train, or keep on your bedstand. Short stories are good in either environment. And then there's the to-die-for copy, which of course get handled with the Demco linen gloves and read in the parlour while listening to vintage 1980's ambient and electronic music. That's a lot of ways to read the same text, and that, readers, is why those paper things we love so much are going to be around a lot longer than the techmongers tell us.

New to the Agony Column

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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