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09-30-11: Karl Shaw Offers '10 Ways to Recycle A Corpse'

Dime-a-List Book

Maybe not exactly a dime a list, but ... close enough for publishing work. ($10.99/101=10.88¢ per list.) I admit that I missed the prequel, or the first book, or whatever you want to call '5 People Who Died During Sex.' But only because it was not sent to me; '10 Ways to Recycle A Corpse' (Three Rivers Press / Random House ; September 27, 2011 ; $10.99) came my way and managed to stay as a testament to the power of morbid curiosity, good book design and the constant necessity for reading material in those little spaces where you just don't have the time or the mental wherewithal to focus on like, an actual book.

Not that '10 Ways to Recycle A Corpse' is not an actual book; it's got lots to recommend it, but it is not a book that requires or even really benefits from being read in one sitting, cover-to-cover. It's important to admit that we don't read every book in that manner. Short story collections can, in some cases, benefit from being read in pieces. And books like '10 Ways to Recycle A Corpse' pretty much require it.

For your ten-bucks plus, you really get a lot of red meat. Shaw offers much more than mere lists; he devotes anywhere from a sentence to a full page per list item, depending on the item and the list. The upshot is that you get a good chunk of pretty humorous non-fiction, with a macabre and bizarre outlook that is rather called for in these dark, post-Apocalyptic days.

The lists are grouped in lists of lists, so to speak, with nine chapters. If you were thinking that everything in this book came in groups of ten, think again. But given the content of some of the lists, you may be happy that, for example, in the food section the author could only find "5 People Who Drank Someone Else's Urine.' There's no shortage of sexual misbehavior, which I guess should come as no surprise. Whether you're looking for "10 Famous Wankers" (Samuel Pepys, Alan Ginsberg) or "10 Famous Collectors of Pornography" (Samuel Pepys, again? I guess, no big surprise, but — Rembrandt? Kafka? Be afraid!) Shaw has got your man. (And yes, Virginia, both of those lists are boy's clubs.)

Of course, there's much more to a book like this than lists. If it were just lists, it'd be about 40 pages and they couldn't hit you for a ten-spot, plus change. So you've got to have some verbiage, some prose, and it had better be pithy enough to be worth reading and funny enough to remember now and again. Shaw does well. He never embarrasses himself or the reader with really bad groaner jokes. It may seem trivial but in a work like this, such an inclination would have the gravitic pull of a black hole on a pigeon feather.

Shaw's delivery here is in fact admirably droll. He plays off his over-the-top lists by offering just the facts, and nothing but. When those facts include "50 Workplace Health Problems," ("Grocer's Itch") "10 Contemporary Cures for the Black Death" ("Wash the victim in goat urine"), the less said, the better. When those facts include "5 Artists and Writers Who Were More Wasted Than Keith Richards," well, inquiring minds want to know!

The subtitle of this book, does, however contain a pertinent warning, one that potential readers are advised to consider. The full title reads, '10 Ways to Recycle A Corpse and 100 More Dreadfully Distasteful Lists.' You may happen upon a list here that you'd wish you never read, for example in the 'Ad Nauseum' section. Read, for example, "Ingenious Uses for Ordure."

But not just before you plan on eating.




09-29-11: Joan Slonczewski Graduates to 'The Highest Frontier'

Inverting Expectations

One of the problems with genre fiction is pretty simple — Murphy's Law. When one sets out to write a science fiction, fantasy, horror or mystery novel, there are a lot of conventions and expectations. If a writer is experienced in the genre and lucky, there's a lot that can go right. But inversely, there's a lot that can go wrong, and it usually does. So when a novel comes along that can be, to a degree, accurately summarized as "college in space," one might be well-advised to temper one's expectations. At best.

Unless of course the name Joan Slonczewski is attached, and the novel is 'The Highest Frontier' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; September 13, 2011 ; $26.99), in which case you can actually and accurately invert your expectations. Slonczewski is the author of more than one classic, and her first novel in ten years is a best-case scenario in the science fiction genre. She gets the characters right, she gets the world right, she gets the science right, but most importantly she knows how to use all the moving parts to put together an engaging novel. 'The Highest Frontier' will exceed your highest expectations.

Jennifer Ramos Kennedy is yes, a distant relative of one of them, entering her freshman year at Frontera College, an orbital habitat where she'll be groomed for leadership. Jennifer's a lucky girl leading a privileged life. But even in space she can't avoid the problems brewing down below. Slonczewski creates an incredibly complicated future, much of which is implied rather than directly seen. Earth is going to hell in a hand basket with the help of humans and a biological alien invasion, cunningly crafted by the author. In order to help, Jennifer is going to have to get through college. Slonzewski is smart in setting up her character as a college freshman. She uses that familiar, first-day-in-school, immersion-in-a-new-world experience to immerse her readers in the future she's created.

While Jennifer is our primary perspective, some portions of the novel are seen through the eyes of Dylan Chase, who runs Frontera. As he tries to jockey priorities of a society and culture that have yet to arrive, the author uses him to crank up the tension. His decisions impact Jennifer's life. The ripple effect of Chase's decisions and perspectives on Jennifer's life gives the novel a more breathtaking, wide-screen feel.

Slonczewski builds her world on two levels, with superb prose and a pessimistic outlook. There's a balance to be struck in science fiction that is not often discussed. Writers who set their work in the future need to acknowledge the changes in language, while making sure the book is readable by those in the present. It's a knack that requires a delicate mix of artistry, creativity, social awareness, scientific knowledge and good luck. Slonczewski has it in spades. 'The Highest Frontier' is eminently readable, and every word, every sentence draws the reader into the entertainingly complicated future envisioned by the author.

Slonczewski's vision is not a future that readers will hope for. Fortunately, we can read her novel in the present, and look around, seeing the same seeds that she has brought to fruition in prose. The real power of a great science fiction novel is that readers can experience art that need not be prophetic. Sometimes thought-provoking entertainment is more than enough. We can only hope our future includes sequels to this novel. It's certainly a much better prospect than an ultracyte invasion.




09-28-11: Meg Wolitzer Fingerprints 'The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman'

Competitive Scrabble and Understated Superpowers

Divvying up books by the intended age of readers seems sillier than ever. After all, a good book is a good book, regardless of content. Meg Wolitzer is an author known for her entertaining and rather raw examinations of American life. She's unsparing and engaging in the same moment. For readers who enjoyed her novel 'The Uncoupling,' in which a spell cast over a suburban community results in a sex-strike by the women, her new novel about (and certainly readable by) pre-teens, 'The Fingertips Of Duncan Dorfman,' is an oddly appropriate companion. As in 'The Uncoupling,' Wolitzer uses a light touch of the fantastic to shed light on the inner and outer lives of those trapped in less-than-fortuitous circumstances by the economic and sociological vicissitudes of the current version of "interesting times." In a couple of short paragraphs, readers will find themselves immersed in a story set in the world of competitive Scrabble.

For most readers, the fact that there is a world of competitive Scrabble, with tournaments and $10,000 prizes might seem more fantastic than Duncan Dorfman's "superpower." Duncan, we learn, can read letters, words and images simply by touching them. Of course, this doesn't do him a lot of good, at first. He lives with his single mother, who has just lost her job and been forced to move back to Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania, with her "box-shaped" great aunt Djuna. Duncan's the kind of kid who's immediately targeted by the school bully, until said bully learns of his "power." Then his world and those of two other well-crafted characters, April and Nate are set on a collision course in a Scrabble tourney.

The pleasures of Wolitzer's novel for readers of any age are quite apparent from the get-go. She writes utterly believable, utterly likable characters who are down on their luck but never sad sacks or symbol-bearing ciphers for some unconscionable social-message agenda. Duncan, his mother (Caroline), and the other pre-teen Scrabble players, April, Nate and their families are the sort of people whom you would hope to meet at an Open House night at your local middle-school. They're interesting and real. Even though the novel is totally about (and thus appropriate for) the pre-teen set, the people we meet here are detailed enough and interesting enough to engage and sustain any reader's attention.

Wolitzer's plot hinges on two fantastic notions; the first, Duncan's power; the second, competitive Scrabble. Duncan's power is a well-handled and carefully worked-out sort of psychic ability. Call him the Carrie of Scrabble. But his ability as it concerns the tournament offers him in a well-devised moral dilemma. Imagine the problems confronting Clark Kent if he tried out for high-school wrestling and you get the idea. The unhappy economic circumstances of America in the early 21st century also add to the mix, since Duncan and his mom could really use the money from the Scrabble world.

The word play and Scrabbliana add a nice layer of word-geek texture to the proceedings. Wolitzer knows how to play on the reader's curiosity about just how deep this game can go, and has lots of funs with anagrams, puzzles and language that actually ties in to the plotline of the book. Here's a book about language where the plot actually derives from the language and word puzzles. They're satisfying fun.

And this leads to perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel, and one readers are least likely to notice, given all the other good stuff going on. Wolitzer's prose is superb, and very entertaining, without calling attention to itself. In fact, it's only after you finish reading the book that you will flash on just how effectively written 'The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman' is. Her descriptions and sentences prove to be Wolitzer's understated superpower. Forget your age. Good writing is hard to find and worth seeking, even if it is spelled out in tiles.




09-26-11: Neal Stephenson Triggers 'REAMDE'

Plots, People and Novels

The Forthrast family re-u, as black sheep Richard Forthast calls it, begins with guns. It's a sweet scene with fathers and sons and uncles and nephews lined up and plinking at cans and dust and dirt just across the crick. The Forthrast family saga in 'REAMDE' ends with guns, and in many ways it is just as sweet, even if by that point in the narrative the body count is pretty high.

Neal Stephenson's new novel is a character-driven, tightly-plotted thriller that, though it weighs in at over a thousand pages, really reads like a 300-page guns-r-us novel. But all those pages, all those characters, take it well beyond the plot-boiler conventions it uses so well. Set in Canada, the US, China, and many stops between and around the world, 'REAMDE' offers a dense, detailed look at humanity just after the turn of the century. We're caught up in connections we create, inherit and stumble into by pure accident. One second you're answering email; the next, you're pulling a gun, or having one pointed at you.

Stephenson kicks off his plot by creating fascinating, believable and likable characters who have enough juice to get themselves into — literally — a world full of trouble. Richard Forthrast has a complicated back story that led him to create the next generation of MMORPG, T'Rain. His innovation is to enable and encourage gold-farming, but that innovation leads gold farmers in China to their own innovation, a "ransomware" virus that chooses the wrong target. Things get complicated and more so, as professional criminals and terrorists up the likelihood of deadly violence. The plot of 'REAMDE' is dense, and just as intellectually satisfying as you'd expect from Neal Stephenson. It's superb and surprising.

Stephenson wisely ratchets back on the prose styling that he'd employed in his more baroque work, historical and science-fictional. There's still a nicely-honed satirical and humorous edge here, but don't look for anything particularly fancy beyond a few lists and the twists of phrase that you want to read aloud. 'REAMDE' is smart as hell and relatively slick.

For this reader, the real appeal of 'REAMDE' is the enormous cast of characters. Everyone we meet is entertainingly written, but nobody is too far over the top. Richard, his adopted niece Zula, his brothers, John and Jake, and a number of others that readers are better off meeting on their own are all people who are wonderfully fun to read about. Stephenson clearly loves all of his characters, even those, and there are more than a few, who are disposed to violence.

And while there is plenty of violence to keep the plot moving, and incredible set-pieces that keep the reader from moving, all of this is balanced by attention to details that make it all real. Wonderful descriptions of place and a sense of connection make 'REAMDE' seem like much more than a longish page-turner. Believe me, the pages will turn. Don't be daunted by its tome-like appearance or that four-figure page count. You will read 'REAMDE' in the same span you might take to read a book three times as long. But given all those pages, you're going to take away quite a bit more. You'll visit places you've never been (and could never go) and people you could never meet — but won't forget. 'REAMDE' is, in the novel, a computer virus, while the novel itself might remind readers of William Burroughs' observation that, "Language is a virus from outer space." Stephenson aptly demonstrates that, correctly deployed, a virus can itself be a cure for a culture that threatens to lose sight of the simple, powerful joys of plots, people and novels.



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03-19-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 153: Dave Barry : You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About

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02-25-14: Commentary : Annie Jacobsen Files 'Operation Paperclip' : History as Thrilling Literature

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02-23-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Part 2 : "...still clear distribution lines for books...."

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02-14-14: Commentary : Jenny Offill Engages 'Dept. of Speculation' :The Domestic Descent

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