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12-01-06: Evolution and Revolution

A Review of Mark Z. Danielewski's 'Only Revolutions'

Stop staring at me!
What do you say about a book like 'Only Revolutions'? Apparently, quite a bit more than I, at least, had planned to. It's clearly an interesting book, and it is equally clearly one of those books that is Not For All Tastes. A significant number of people who pick this one up will and probably should put it back down. Yes, Danielewski is a literary and a page-layout genius. He not only has command of language at a line and prose level, he commands the way the words appear upon the page with the same skill.

But this sort of skill is a double-edged sword, and it can frustrate readers looking for a standard reading experience. Even some who enjoyed 'House of Leaves' will find 'Only Revolutions' less than satisfying. Danielewski is going for a mythic narrative in the age of video games; he gets it, but he's going to leave behind those who want no part of his wildly innovative page layout techniques. And to be fair, even without those, this is essentially a prose poem. If you absolutely don’t like prose poems, then the chances are you won’t like this.

But there is also a great chance that if you think you don’t like this sort of thing, you will in the case of 'Only Revolutions'. This is a book that rewards an active, in-store examination, a book that is worth picking up and leafing through. It's also a book that can give you a worthwhile reading experience as you stand there in the store and read it. It's not a short story collection by any means, but it does not require reading in totality to be enjoyed. But this folderol is covered in my review. I'm here to talk, my friends, about genre.

In this case, I've assigned 'Only Revolutions' as General Fiction first. The literary content is clearly all over the map but also quite clearly and simply literary fiction. But the execution demands that this novel be folded into the fantasy genre, because, well, it is chock full of the fantastic. In my interview with him, Danielewski talked about the characters as being teenaged version of the Olympian gods, dropped into a series of classics cars, put madly in love and sent to cross, time, space and the United States. If this novel matters, it will matter deeply to you. If it does not, it will make a pretty decent dent in the wall. But it will be a collector's item, so think twice before tossing it at the wall. Think of your wall, if nought else.


11-30-06: Shuffled, or Remixing Jeff VanderMeer

A Review of Jeff VanderMeer's 'Shriek: An Afterword'

What the hell do we do with this? Am I not already confused enough? I read four, what five versions of 'Shriek: An Afterword', and cobble together a review, then think, well this is going to be an easy News article to write. Just toss up the 'Shriek' review, talk about the genres*, and then a mention of 'Secret Life' in TPB from Prime? Right? Right?

Note the yellow book-mushrooms growing out of this tome. It's dangerous, I tell you!
Christ on crutch was I ever mistaken. I mean I kick my own lazy ass through the 'Shriek' review, then pluck this 'Secret Life' from the shelf expecting, well, 'Secret Life'. Book I read, now in TPB, good book, here it is, buy it up in TPB if you didn't in hardcover and give it to someone you love. Or someone you want to drive mad. Or, barring that, have that certain someone listen to my interview with VanderMeer.

But then, alas, I pull 'Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix' (Prime Books ; December 2006 ; $14.95) from the shelves and shitcan my early evening salutations. Because of goddamned course, nothing is ever easy with this VanderMeer fellow. Here all you want is an easy re-issue and he makes it hard. Instead of the usual same-as-it-ever-was, this is definitely not that. 'Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix' is precisely what it appears to be, as much as anything VanderMeer ever does could be precisely one thing, which is not much. It is indeed a text remix of the original work, with bits of the previous collection from Golden Gryphon, dropped out, new bits dropped in, artwork is in fact an entirely new beast. Scarier. Friendlier. No less likely to bite you and leave a hole in your brain.

Promo sheet for this book so weird you don't even get right away that it is aa promo for this book. Not after being at work for fourteen hours you don't!
You want particulars, here they are. Graphics added, lots of 'em. Five stories dropped, though VanderMeer assures us that "they are still present, in a way." Okey-dokey! Zombie stories, it's cool with me. In the old world of Unix I used to inhabit so much of the time, we were used to zombie processes. Here are the literary equivalents.

We've all got a secret life. Hope it is this.
But what we really have here is something far more interesting. First and foremost, since I'm sort of usually broke, not to put too fine a point on it, this book is cheap. Only $14.95, i mean, come on! That's like some toss-it-in-the-trash fast food for two, only instead you get a kick-ass book. VanderMeer got a ticket to ride with this one. Basically, the guys at Prime must have said, "Whatever!" when he told them he was going to turn a short story collection into some really oddball meta-fictional mind-fuck. I'm sorry, it’s late and my mind is not what it should be. All I know is that this VanderMeer is something of a madman, and he's gutted a great book and put it back together with Mr. Potato ears and nose, and put a funny sign on the back that says "Kick Me". No, it of Christ....coming-of-age story about two Montana clergymen on a fishing trip, wait what the hell? That doesn't sound right. This guy is nuts. He really did remix the thing. Well, at least there are illustrations and readers know I'm a sucker for that.

But 'Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix' rackin', frackin'-ly gets right on the must-buy list. It is outstandingly, humorously bent. And it's cheap. Forget the fast food, it'll give you the runs anyway. And should you ignore my sage culinary advice, should you go ahead and binge on the fast food, when you find yourself in the can, at least you can be glad that you've got his weird, oddball bizarre-o-rama to read. You can curse yourself for ignoring the culinary advice and thank yourself for following the reading advice. I do pretty good by the reading advice, and trust me the culinary advice is good as well. If you think not, stop by my house next time you’re in NorCal and I'll cook up a tasty dinner. Jeff: I don’t cook squid. Sorry.

(*Genre, schmenre. Everyone is always falling over themselves to say that "Genre doesn't matter to me, man, I'm above that shit. Not I! I am far, far beneath it. I love genre! Give me a pigeon and I'll find a pigeonhole! That 'Shriek: An Afterword' is not surprisingly, a kitchen sink affair. Struggling, struggling..well, Fantasy first, in the wide, inclusive sense, not in the GCFT sense. Then so close they could be doing something obscene, 'Shriek' is obviously general and highly faluting literary fiction. It looks down on hoity toity from an aethereal height. Next up, it is surely horror, because, well it's got mushroom people, and if you weren't scarred in your youth by watch Attack of the Mushroom People, then you deserve a 'Clockwork Orange'-style showing. And finally Science Fiction, because the mucky-mucks at Tor would beam me out into space on wide dispersal if I dared not call one of their books science fiction. So there. Hell's bells it's late! See yez!)

11-29-06: A Review of Naomi Novik's 'His Majesty's Dragon' ; Fortean Times 217, MAKE:08, Fantasy Fall 2006

Orchestral Emotions

Naomi Novik at Worldcon.
I covered Naomi Novik's 'His Majesty's Dragon' exactly a year ago, but wanted to give it a proper review, with the bells and whistles that I personally require to consider a novel reviewed. Yes, I am catching up on my official review list and there are a number of titles yet to come. But as I write my so-called official and in-depth reviews, I'm hoping that readers who missed my mentions the first time around will discover these titles and that even those who have already read the books might want to revisit them via these reviews.

In the case of Naomi Novik's first novel, there was quite a bit to say. It's remarkably accomplished, well written and very enjoyable. She provides a novel to launch a series that feels complete in and of itself and yet provokes the reader to read more. Time has treated this novel well in my mind; there are a number of scenes that I can go back and visit. I liked it then, I like it now and I'm going to continue to enjoy it even long after I've finished it.

Readers who want to know more can of course listen to the interview I did with the author earlier this year at Worldcon. As for the usual genre assignment, I've done the unusual. For me, this novel reads so straightforwardly that I've assigned it first as General Fiction; next as Science Fiction, and finally as Fantasy. But it seems obvious upon consideration. Novik's world is built on some solid-seeming history and does not feel at all fantastic, even the dragons. She's kept up the premise in a manner that to me seems more science fictional than fantastic. If dragons, then – 'His Majesty's Dragon'. And finally, yes, it’s got dragons so fantasy readers who delight in dragon-oriented fiction will delight in this. But it's not surreal fantasy, nor is it otherworldly fantasy. In the final analysis, I think this is an excellent book, and I think most readers will agree. I don’t waste my time on bad books. You read as much as I do, you get pretty good at picking stuff you like. And it definitely helps to be your own book review editor and assign yourself only books worth reading! That's what I'm here to do – help you be your own best rook review editor.

Way, Way Off the Rack

Fantasy girls, at least.

Not using the Doors' song joke.
Three new magazines Worth Your Valuable Time are on the racks – or at least they should be! Let's start with Fantasy Magazine's Fall 2006 issue. Scantily clad gal on the cover -- check! Big-name author, Hal Duncan -- check! Lots of authors you've never heard of but probably will hear more from -- check! Unaccredited book reviews -- check!

Hal Duncan gets an interview and a story in this issue. One must, in my humble opinion, respect a magazine and man who use the word "Fuck" so well in an interview. Kudos, and some good questions that will give readers an edge into Duncan's enormously interesting novel, 'Vellum'. In case you've not had enough Matrioshka dolls in recent weird fiction, Marly Youmans' "The Matreshka" will cure your need for a span. Ben Peek's "under the Red Sun" is the centerpiece of the magazine and Darren Speegle, who we've seen in the TTA pubs gets "Exposure" here. Other writers included are Lisa Anne Figuroa, Megan Messinger, Matthew Johnson, Amber van Dyk, Alison Campbell Wise, Afifah Myra Muffaz, Hannah Wolf Bowen, Stephanie Campisi, Kaaron Warren, E. Catherine Tobler, Catherine M. Morrison and Len Bains. A variety of material to be sure, all quite good. Let me note that the type and layout and fantastic. This is very easy-to-read and it suits all concerned quite well.

Paula Guran edits the book reviews, which cover a variety of titles. Well done, as ever, but I'd still prefer to know who is reviewing what. And yes, I know that this is how other publications cover that territory, sans attribution. But they're not going to change it now, so one must simply read and wonder. This is after all, Fantasy Magazine, so perhaps that's the point.

MAKE:08 rules, totally. Even if you're not going to make any of this stuff, this is a gorgeously designed magazine, pretty fun to read and really easy to look at.

Now, you're note going to read everything that comes into your house cover to cover. Some stuff is going to sit on your coffee table or in the can. Some stuff is going to get stolen by your teenager, who is mining MAKE: for skateboarding and bong-building tips. More power to 'em, at least they're actually looking at words for a change.

Of course, somewhere out there, someone is dreaming up the companion 'zine for MAKE:. No, it's not the already-on-the-racks (but not yet bought by me) CRAFT. Someone is going to MAKE: DESTROY!

And finally, in case our lives are not lurid enough, there is always The Fortean Times to spice things up. Recovering from the not-to-be-mentioned ** issue, they've got that good old Fortean figure Nikolai Tesla on the cover, and just a little bit late for 'The Prestige' movie tie-in, but what the heck. It's a solid article, well-laid out with good photos. And TESLA! Not the hard rock band fortunately.

Just in time for the announcement of the Shanghai-based Bruce Lee theme park (which very well may follow in the footsteps of Von Daniken's now defunct theme park), Fortean Times goes to the movies via Bruce Lee's mysterious death, which as one might expect, was not, according to the article, mysterious in terms of conspiracy. I'll let readers follow Tim Weinberg's chain of logic, a nice little bit of Fortean skepticism that should put some worries to rest. Though not the worries of those investing in that theme park.

Three nice magazines, fan 'em out on your coffee table for this holiday season. Impress your relatives and workmates with just how erudite you are. Of course, the scantily-clad gal in the water, well...At least she's wearing something.

11-28-06: A Review of Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves: The Remastered Full-Color Edition'

No Ambivalence, Just Fanalysis

It's possible that you don’t know anything about Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves'. If that's the case, you haven’t read the various news items or columns I've written about this work, nor have you listened to the interview I recently conducted with Mr. Danielewski. Today, I'm posting an in-depth review of the new edition released recently to coincide with the release of Danielewski's newest book, 'Only Revolutions'. And below you can find one of the new images from the new edition...but there are pretty many more. Perhaps not enough to foment a revolution, but there may be just enough to inspire a revelation, should you find Danielewski's baroque, complex novel revelatory.

One of the new color plates from the "remastered" edition.
You wouldn't be alone if you felt that way about 'House of Leaves'. Nor would you be alone if you just hated it – but you'd be in a minority of those who are familiar with the book. At least I think you would be. The review covers the book for those who have the original and for those who think they might like to try reading it. Of course, this is a book that permits many styles of reading, and Danielewski certainly realizes that. He's OK with it. So feel free to skip the footnotes – or read only the footnotes in courier type, which tell the sad tale of Johnny Truant.

If phrases like "footnotes in courier type" do anything they should give you a clue that Danielewski's novel is not simply the ultra-serious work of highfalutin litrachur that you should expect. One of the things I noticed was how much fun Danielewski has with his satiric approach. There is comedic gold in them thar footnotes, but it requires a very dry and pretty peculiar sense of humor to see 'em that way. I loved all the obsessive details, the sort of Internet-style "fanalysis" that goes into the making of these constructs. Like all good humorists, Danielewski takes his material seriously so that you don’t have to.

A surprise as an illustration for this literary collage.
I've assigned 'House of Leaves' as primarily a work of general fiction, because the appeal of the novel cuts across all genres, and because to my mind, in the final analysis, it is simply a rather weird love story. But given the whole haunted house deal, it must go into the Horror genre, and given the fantastic nature of the house, it certainly deserves the appellation of Fantasy. And finally, I do believe this to be a work of science fiction, because Danielewski is quite consistent in his manner of creation; I suspect it will appeal to a few SF fans who like their SF literary and really, really wild.

But in the end, it’s the love stories that matter, and for that matter, that presage his newest novel, 'Only Revolutions', which is wall-to-wall love story. Well, when it’s not the print equivalent of a multi-media mindfuck, complete with scrolling text in the margins and more type coloration than you're likely to find in say, the latest novel by Richard Ford. You may or may not enjoy 'House of Leaves' or 'Only Revolutions'. But they make great fodder for Internet Fanalysists.


11-27-06: Teacher Man

Kathryn Petruccelli Interviews Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt holds court.
One of the joys of working with KUSP is that I'm occasionally graced with airing interviews such as this conversation between fellow interviewer Kathryn Petruccelli and superstar (auto)-biographer Frank McCourt. I guess, as it happens, we're on a Pulitzer run here at TAC, what with Richard Ford and now McCourt. But prizes be damned, these are both simply interesting guys.

McCourt's new book is 'Teacher Man', the story of his years as a teacher in the fifties, when he'd watch a movie like 'Blackboard Jungle' with horror because, well, that was pretty close to where and when he worked. One thing that listening to and podcasting other people's interviews helps me understand is how commanding it is to hear the voice of an author without having read the book; it is in fact a great way to get entry into the book. Just hearing that voice comes pretty close to re-creating the reading experience; as close as you can get, anyway without actually sitting down to read.

I'll let Kathryn and McCourt do the heavy lifting here, because they make it seem so easy. Pick up the MP3 file here, the RealAudio file here or subscribe to this podcast here. We're closing in on 52 straight weeks of regular podcasting now; one year of podcasting and five years of The Agony Column. As KUSP has been an invaluably helpful experience for me and helped me to get these interviews to you, I'd love for you to support KUSP via this link. Mention me for extra points, and if I hear back from KUSP, I'll try to send you a book or summat.

Thanks for joining me, and now over to Kathryn Petruccelli and Frank McCourt.