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11-03-06: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's Menagerie

'Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras'

Buy this book or the next nugget you eat will be endagered.
I love a good bestiary, be the denizens real or imagined. So when Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's 'Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals' (Ballantine / Random House ; October 31, 2006 ; 27.95) came my way, I was intrigued to say the least. What would the guy who wrote 'Raising the Peaceable Kingdom' pick as his favorites? The surprise here is both what he picked and what he wrote. You'll see a lot of books about animals come and go. Not many will feature the chicken and the yeti.

The book is sublimely simple. There are one hundred animals in A-Z order. Each entry is about four pages long and includes a black and white photo of the critter in question. Masson makes no claims to be a naturalist, or any particular kind of specialist. This proves to be his biggest asset, for he is free to write about only the interesting aspects of each animal. He's not following a master plan more complicated than to write one hundred entertaining essays about critters ranging from armadillos to zebras.

This is not a book you have to read cover to cover; you can, and once you start you might very well do so. Masson is an excellent essayist, with a perfect sense of density. He knows when to pack in the facts and when to back off. He writes in a variety of styles suitable to the variety within his chosen menagerie. But most importantly, because Masson is writing about his one hundred favorite animals, he's constantly engaged in each subject.

Given the one hundred animals, there's wide variety of styles on display. Some of the choices masson has made are of creatures you’d never think to make a list such as this; for example: Chicken. These birds have been with humanity for thousands of years and yet they're not particularly well understood by those of us who aren't raising them. Masson's essay is a perfect example of focused, entertaining non-fiction, the kind of writing that should really be studied and taught and from which readers can learn a great deal, and not just about chickens. And, as you will soon come to realize should you make the mistake of picking up this book in the bookstore with the idea that you're going to leave without it, this essay is precisely one in a hundred.

Excellent writing aside, Masson has also made some wonderful choices. He's canny, you'll have to give him that. He might write a lovely little essay about Jeff VanderMeer's favorite mammal, the meerkat, and quote a Kashmiri Sanskrit text. Of course, he writes about the naked mole rat. Who could resist the naked mole rat? Masson is perfectly happy to fine-focus his work. But he's also willing to pull back, so you can get an entry about bats. That's a much bigger topic to fit into a mere four pages, but Masson makes it appear effortless. It’s certainly effortless to read. Masson will tell you that wombats will come when called by name. (Presumably you have to name them first.) Or that those stately pink flamingos, so beloved by John Waters, build their nest of mud and lay a single egg. Masson has a knack for finding the right thing to say and saying in a manner that seems admirably direct.

And then there are the choices. Masson writes about the chicken, the echidna, the stick insect and the yeti with the same level of detail, attention and prose skill. He devotes the same space to the badger as he does to the Bengal tiger. This is the kind of book you might be tempted to shelve, but it's not likely to ever get to the shelves. Somebody is going to take it down and read it, glance at it, page through it. It will launch a hundred novels and become part of a hundred more. Don’t say I didn't warn you when you pick this up in the bookstore and it decides to come home with you. In that regard, this book is as evil as a cute puppy.


11-02-06: David Hewson's 'The Lizard's Bite'

A Violent Vacation

No lizards allowed on the plane.

Atmosphere matters, and yet it is ineffable, impossible to pin down. How does a writer go about creating that feeling of dread, that sort of drippy ambience that captures readers and keeps them within the scenes of the book they’re reading. How do you destroy the world around the reader?

One way is setting, and David Hewson, in his Nic Costa mysteries, goes for the obvious but effective setting of Venice, Italy. To day the least, you've got the dripping part nailed. Hewson's fifth Nic Costa mystery, 'The Lizard's Bite' (Delacorte / Dell / Random House ; November 7, 2006; $22),offers the enticing combination of deep history and dark motives behind a series of accidents on the island of Murano. All this and a 400 page Venetian vacation – what’s not to like?

Well, it must be allowed that Hewson is not averse to writing scenes that are genuinely disturbing. But for this reader, at least, that's part of the appeal, part of the atmosphere that Hewson creates. But Hewson does disturbing well. In 'The Lizard's Bite', events are disturbing not just for their outward violence but more for their inward vileness. When humans treat one another like chess pieces, one man's sacrifice of a pawn is a family's tragedy.

'The Lizard's Bite' begins as Nic and his partner Gianni Peroni are inveigled to confirm the obvious. That is, that the fire which resulted in the death of two glassmakers from the Arcangelo family, who live in a rotting palazzo. They create unique glass forms in an ancient furnace. Small wonder they died. It was only a matter of time before history consumed them. And it is only a matter of time before Nic and Gianni begin to see through the smoke to the fire itself, sunk in a seamy local history.

Hewson's a smart writer, offering just enough detail to create a memorable scene, but not so much as to get in the way of the story. He offers the kind of historical backgrounds to modern conflicts that make the battles his protagonists fight more appealing, more resonant than a simple outsider investigation of corrupt cops. Actually, this book is the kind of novel that will have you going back to the bookstore to snag the rest of the series before you've finished the first chapter. Hewson's intelligent writing is understated and entertaining. He does something very complex and yet it is ineffable, simple. He'll destroy the world around you as you read with detailed prose and a convincing atmosphere. Hewson takes the reader to Venice without any of the annoyances of air travel. And even when you return from this violent vacation, you'll bring back some pictures that you'll not soon forget.


11-01-06: Brad Meltzer Opens 'The Book of Fate' and David Baldacci Books 'The Collector'

Bibliophilic American Cheese

Rotonda chic hits the thriller-cover biz.
We hold these truths to be self-evident. That thrillers are by definition, on the cheesy side. That's not a bad thing, but it is a thing. I've often sung the praises of American Cheese, from William Schoell's 'Spawn of Hell' to David Garnett's 'Bikini Planet'. I love good cheese. I couldn’t subsist on a reading diet of only cheese, but I do need regular infusions of big monsters, big-bosomed, hyper-competent, bikini-wearing babes, and dorky dudes who stumble and bumble their way to Saving the World As We Know It. You know, realism at its finest.

Generally, when I write about American Cheese, I'm referring to some variety of speculative fiction. But a glance at the Rolling Shelves offered a Standard Issue Duh revelation to this morning at 0-dark hundred. America is fighting the good fight, slinging the cheese and it's not just spec-fic. Nope. Two top-notch thriller writers are out there offering readers slabs of book-oriented feature film fodder, and damn if it didn't take me this long to twig that they too, are no more and no less than Fine American Cheese.

Brad Meltzer's 'The Book of Fate' (Warner "Feature Film Fodder" Books ; September 5, 2006 ; $25.99) and David Baldacci's 'The Collectors' (Warner "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture" Books ; October 17, 2006; $26.99) are both pure pulp, packaged to look like fine art. Or maybe it's just that the bar has risen and even pure pulp needs to look dignified and stately to get in the door of the bookstore. Readers need neither know nor care. But in the long dark days of winter, you'll have ample opportunity to edify yourself with classic, classy American Classics. I meank how often is it that Thomas Pynchon puts out a novel, huh? So having read your 1000+ plus pages of dense and intense, your brain is going to need some loosening up. You don’t want to know what’s really happening around here, do you? If just a glimpse via Pynchon, via Ford, via Mailer will do, then here's something to help you put the blinders back on. Ah, there you go, feels better already, doesn't it?

Meltzer was first out of the gate with 'The Book of Fate', a Masonic conspiracy thriller that features a whinging, damaged hero and secret code that unlocks the book of, er, fate. Complications ensue. However, what Meltzer had going for him, and what this book has going for it, is nothing to do, actually with the book itself. What’s interesting about Meltzer is that he was called in by the Analytic Red Cell Office of the Department of Homeland Security to help brainstorm potential terrorist scenarios. From the Washington Post Article: "When I got the call, I was floored," said Brad Meltzer, the author of several successful Washington thrillers, recalling his talk with the Homeland Security official who recruited him. "They said, 'We want people who think differently from the ones we have on staff.' "

This alone is enough to make him a Person Of Interest to readers of cheesy thrillers, because as we know, when life is not being a Bad Science Fiction novel (thanks, Kim Stanley Robinson for that fine observation), it often imitates a Cheesy Thriller, with the exception of nerdly heroes getting the girly girls. That don’t happen. But the improbable thrills, the page turning, mind-erasing fun, well Meltzer's been around this block enough times to make him, as I say a Person Of Interest. Yes, the book does tip into the five-hundred-page-plus count zone. But that just means, as they euphemistically say, that there is more of it to love, right? Right? And it definitely involves reading book in austere libraries. That book-love aspect has got to be a plus because Well, whatever the case, when the Freemasons take over the government, if they haven't already, then you can say you read it here first, unless you've already read Meltzer's novel, in which case you say you read it there first and had it confirmed here. Along with about 40K dedicated-to-conspiracy websites.

Not even designed by the same person.
In 'The Collectors', Baldacci re-convenes the Camel Club and adds some sex appeal with a very womanly new member who arrives, we are told "wearing high-heeled boots." Made for walking, one presumes. She going to help a locked room mystery with a particular appeal for book lovers since the murder occurs in the Library of Congress's locked rare book room. Rare books being stolen. Book rooms and boots -- what more could you ask for? A side of chili cheese fries? Baldacci is more able to afford such luxuries, at least in that he weigh is at a comparatively svelte 438 pages. And the book angle makes this all the ore delectable.

Now I'm going to be perfectly clear here. These are not likely to be enshrined as great works of American fiction, though as fickle as history is, we never know. If we manage to flood everything but, say, Brad Meltzer's and David Baldacci's Rocky Mountain Filesafe Repository, then future generations may indeed judge these as the apogee of American literary creation, indeed, twentieth century world literary creation, books that capture the Spirit of the Age. But they indeed do capture the spirit of the age. And in a world of cheese, the cheese stands alone.


10-31-06: The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3; Jon Courtney Grimwood 'End of the World Blues' Reviewed

I Am What I Am Not

OK, I've got to admit the cover is underwhelm–under-stated, that's it!
Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to try to make a little shift in the format of this column until I can catch up with myself; I've been so busy producing radio pieces that I have neglected my long-form reviews, and I intend to rectify the situation. I also want to give those reviews a bit more of a schizophrenic edge, to write both the formal review and more chatty news-piece type of article. Just in case you weren't enough.

But I don’t want to fall behind on the breaking news items either, but I'm just going to have to refrain from being so long-winded. That said, it's hard not be long-winded and analytical when you get something really juicy like 'The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3' (Tachyon Publications ; January 2007 ; $14.95), edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin and Jeffrey D. Smith. If it seems like we're living in the future with this write up so be it. This is science fiction, speculative fiction, weird fiction and fiction that will take you places you thought you were not meant to go. The word that will work best is transgressive. If there are limits, this fiction was meant to overstep them.

Not surprising considering the woman the prize honors. Yes, the woman. The story is well-known within the genre and even around the edges, but I'll touch on the highlights. For many years, one of science fiction's most honored writers was James Tiptree, Jr, whose polished observations of sexual matters won him acclaim. Of course, eventually we learned that those polished observations were the creation of Alice Sheldon, a one-time debutante who became a CIA operative and one of SF's most honored authors. She stands as a beacon of the triumph of and the triumph over sexism in the SF genre. And as one might imagine, she is an inspiration to many other writers as well, writers who want to cross a line of two.

Thus, we get a collection, or rather selection of stories that reflect the author's own life as much as the author's work. With a cast of editors so stellar and diverse, one must expect a selection of stories equally diverse and one will not be disappointed. Jeffrey Smith's opening essay sets the complex tone of this collection with an abbreviated clarity that is as admirable as it is entertaining. Geoff Ryman starts things off with a short story that become his award-winning novel 'Air'. Nalo Hopkinson and Margo Lanagan offer the finest short fiction that the genre has to offer, while Aimee Bender continues her exploration of the interstices of fiction and unimaginable weirdness with 'Dearth', a story from her last collection, 'Willful Creatures'. (A brief aside here to mention that Aimee Bender is seemingly having a wonderful time exploring and exploding genre fiction. Thank you Aimee!) Essayist Pam Noles shakes things up with her non-fiction look at the import of Octavia Butler, a beautifully nuanced, well-written nugget that enlivens the collection in a delightfully unusual manner. It's something I'd like to see happen more often, as well as a selection of authors that includes the likes of Ted Chiang, Ursula K. LeGuin, Dorothy Allison, Eleanor Arnason and L. Timmel Duchamp. Tachyon is taking a big step forward these days, with a more aggressive (or transgressive) schedule that's featuring some to-die-for anthologies. Following on the heels of 'Feeling Very Strange', 'The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3' overcomes the unwieldy title. It transgresses the boundaries of fiction, genre and gender. If you are inclined to cross those boundaries yourself, this might not be a guide, might not be a map, but will set new boundaries. Imagine what will happen when those lines are crossed.

'End of the World Blues'

Intense, dense, literary suspense and science fiction. Click image to read the review.
Stepping back from my usual portentous bit of puffery, I will certainly say this about that. I enjoyed the hell out of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's latest, 'End of the World Blues'. He's a fearless guy. Now I suspect that a certain percentage of readers will just plain and simple bounce right off his work. It is deceptively easy to read and unexpectedly hard to comprehend; or at least it might seem that way. For some readers this will be because though Grimwood is willing to use bits and pieces of the science fiction toolkit, his novels are never written in a form that remotely resembles a straight-up, otherworldly adventure. So, a certain portion of the SF-adventure audience is going to be disappointed in the short-run. And conversely, as literarily adept as Grimwood is, he is (wait for it) willing to use bits and pieces of the science fiction toolkit in the service of whatever literary end he may be seeking with a particular work and they vary from work to work. Even when he writes a series set in the same (brilliant and idiosyncratically conceived) world, such as the 'Arabesque' books, he's after different goals in different books.

The upshot of all this is that Grimwood requires and rewards a patient reader willing to annihilate expectations when you open up the next book. He's versatile in a manner that makes most versatile writers look positively hidebound. I think that there is a literary switch out there. A giant flip-thing that if flipped could turn Grimwood into the flavor of the week. And he's got a lot of flavors. But don't read Grimwood because he could be or he is the flavor of the week. Read him because he is a good writer. The best things in life are not free. You have to buy the book. You have to read the book. In Grimwood's case, the effort is well-rewarded.

10-30-06: Turning the Literary World Upside-Down; NPR Rolling Darkness Revue Story Podcast

Mark Z. Danielewski Drags the Novel and the Book Itself Kicking and Screaming Into the 21st Century

Ready to take on the world.
...or is it Mark. Z. Danielewski (Daniel-lefski) himself who is kicking and screaming? This is a man who is difficult to separate from his work. Not because it is autobiographical, though one tends to suspect that the drug-and-sex-drenched parts of his debut novel 'House of Leaves', narrated in footnotes by one Johnny Truant, have some basis in fact. But Danielewski's work is so striking, so unusual that it demands your attention. His new novel, 'Only Revolutions' (Pantheon ; September 5, 2006; $26.00), might as well come with the author included, in the manner that a DVD includes commentary tracks and making-of documentaries. 'Only Revolutions' lives up to its title; it is in fact a revolution, a re-invention of not just the novel but the book itself, those stacks of pages bound between hard covers. If you think you know what to expect when you open a book, plan to be surprised when you open 'Only Revolutions'. Better yet, punt any plans or expectations you might have. They'll be subverted the moment you crack the covers.

'Only Revolutions' is the story of two teenagers, Sam and Hailey, who jump in a car and head down the road. It's as simple as that – and yet infinitely more complex. Danielewski has crafted not just a novel, but a book that is a response to the fragmented, arbitrated, cut-and-pasted media landscape that exists somewhere between cable television, the Internet, satellite radio and the shattered remains of print media. What can a simple book do to compete, to co-exist in this cluttered world competing communications?

You need only to open 'Only Revolutions' to find out. Within, you'll find everything you think can't find between hard covers. A cacophony of print that is only commercially possible with today's computerized printing and typesetting technology, 'Only Revolutions' presents readers with printed pages that truly compete with the go-go world of video games, Internet blogs and shout-at-the-world cable television and radio. But within the gorgeously designed, laid-out and printed chaos beats a heart as strong, as true as two teenagers on the road. Sam and Hailey. Always sixteen.

You'll read their stories eight pages at a time, with each page containing 180 words, back-to-front and front-to-back. If it sounds odd, well it is. But Danielewski, who is very interested in telling stories that readers can simply enjoy, is also adept at telling those stories. So he can actually pull off a novel in free verse, about two teenagers who travel through time in a succession of cars, travel through our history and yet remain in love. Danielewski has captured their hearts and he'll capture yours as well. He can make that essential emotional connection to the reader, immerse the reader in the lives of his characters and then send those characters of on a journey that defies and yet defines reason.

This of course presumes that readers are willing to go along for the ride. This is not your typical book, by any means. Reading Danielewski, you'll find yourself turning the book upside-down, then right-side-up, and soon realize there is no right-side-up. There is only the world and the words of the printed pages, in a riot of fonts, colors and sizes that must have made the publishers' brains boil. This is no simple set of words. 'Only Revolutions' takes advantage of the technological innovations of computerized typesetting like no book before it. The trick is that Danielewski is telling a powerful and universal story about teenagers in love. And in time. And in a succession of to-die-for automobiles.

Surprisingly enough, 'Only Revolutions' is a lot easier to read than you might suspect when you first encounter it. It's the Macintosh computer of experimental literature, beautifully designed and easy-to-use. It's also a fitting follow-up to Danielewski's first novel, 'House of Leaves', which is being re-issued in a new "remastered" version. 'House of Leaves' is a horror novel of sorts, or, at least, a horror novel filtered through the sensibility of M. C. Escher, with a story that unfolds in the main narrative and another, that of the aforementioned Johnny Truant, that takes place in the footnotes. I talked to Danielewski when he was in town recently, and he was one hell of a great interview. Not surprisingly, he has a great voice. The usual interview and reading are a bit tweezed this time, round however. I had Danielewski read two passages from 'Only Revolutions' that run side-by-side on the page, and then mixed the two so that they ran simultaneously, running one of the tracks through some primitive processing algorithms, just to give a better flavor of how the text feels when you read it. So, as ever, download the RealAudio, the MP3, or subscribe to the podcast. This is it. Your opportunity to hear literature dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

NPR Rolling Darkness Revue Story Podcast

I'm also podcasting my story for NPR on the Rolling Darkness Revue this week, in a handy MP3 format. Once again,k many thanks to all concerned, especially the Rolling Darkness Revue themselves witout whom, etc etc. If you'd like the MP3 version, click this link or subscribe to the podcast. If you'd like to hear a RealAudio version, just check out the website. And now to take advantage of this excellent extra hour on Sunday morning. It is not often that we're given a free hour to read. I plan on using it wisely!