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From The Agony Column
Preview for Podcast of Monday, March 26, 2007: History and this place.
Here's an MP3
preview of the Monday March 26, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column.
03-23-07: Kelley Eskridge Goes from 'Solitaire'
to 'Dangerous Space'
Hazardous to the Touch
When Kelley Eskridge's novel
'Solitaire' came out in 2002, I was just starting up this column, and
given the notice it was getting everywhere else,
I gave it a pass. 'Solitaire' did end up on a number of notable lists,
most notable the NYT Notable Books list. So I waited patiently for
the next novel, for the next ... anything. Patience is occasionally
in this case with 'Dangerous Space' (Aqueduct Press ; June, 2007
; $18), a new collection of short stories that acts as a great introduction
Eskridge's work. It collects stories from nearly 20 years of writing. "The
first draft of the oldest story was written in 1998," Eskridge
tells us in the publisher's Q&A that came with the arc, "and
the most recent story was finished in 2007." With an introduction
by Geoff Ryman, this collection from wonderfully primed-for-action
shoots onto the must-have list for this year -- and probably onto
a few award ballots as well.
more hazardous to your sexxual identity issues.
Eskridge is my favorite kind of science ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H speculative
fiction writer, the sort who is very interested in using the tropes
of the genre
to externalize that which we’d prefer not to discuss and force it
into the spotlight. "I use the speculative elements to write stories
about difference without having to justify those differences," she
writes in the Q&A, "they simply become part of the landscape." For
Eskridge, science fiction is, "the place where we can make metaphor
concrete; create alienation overtly, make literal demons within that
sometimes overwhelm us, assume it's possible to truly 'get inside'
The experiences she gets inside run the gamut here. There of the stories
feature her deliberately ambiguously gendered character Mars. "And
Salome Danced", short-listed for a Tiptree award, is an SFnal vampire
tale that revolves around art and talent as opposed to blood and violence; "Dangerous
Space", a novella original to this volume plays with sex to the tune
of music, and "Eye of the Storm" slips towards sword and sorcery. "Alien
Jane" was a finalist for the Nebula Award and adapted by the Giant
Snake Channel into an episode of a show featuring no giant snakes. Eskriddge
likes to torment art, and she does so chillingly in "Strings",
a compelling dystopian vision of art and music. Presumably, she's on the
RIAA's "we're gonna sue our customers if they won’t buy the
crap we make now" list. A fine business strategy, and one that I'll
be pursuing myself. "City Life" looks at a woman with a gift
or a problem -- you choose, while ":Eye of the Storm" posits
a character who discover that sex only works in concert with violence
-- not that speculative at all.
Eskridge (who has a website
here) is one of those writers who, in a
better world, would not even be thought of science or speculative fiction.
writing. One presumes that in the fullness of time, she will write
a speculative fiction story or novel about a world in which work such
as hers is not,
in fact considered unusual.
Look for it in the science fiction or fantasy shelves of your bookstore.
03-22-07: James D. Houston's 'Bird of Another
Kingdom of Hawaii
I first met James D. Houston at
the presentation of Santa Cruz Artist of the year to Laurie R. King last
year. Houston lives in Santa Cruz, not
far from KUSP, in a house once owned by Patty Reed, a survivor of the
Donner Party and the subject of Houston's bestselling novel 'Snow Mountain
Passage'. Houston told me at the time that he had never thought of himself
as a historical novelist until he moved into that house and learned of
its previous owner and her past. "We didn't know that the house
had a history when we moved in," he told me. "It was just the
cheapest place we could find in Santa Cruz at the time."
to the conquerors.
But for Houston, all characters start with place, and the more he learned
about the house and it’s previous owner, the more intrigued he became
with creating its history as fiction. "Later on, we found out it had
this extraordinary history, but I'm always thinking of that relationship
between the character and the place, so wherever a person's located is
part of the character development for me, right from the beginning." It's
important to realize that "we" in this statement includes Houston's
wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, with whom he co authored the bona-fide
classic 'Farewell to Manzanar'. Houston may not think that he has written
much history, but he certainly has a history in American literature.
That history is about to grow with the release of 'Bird of Another Heaven'
(Knopf / Random House ; March 26, 2007 ; $25), a story that spans over
one hundred years from the arrival of the King of Hawai'i in San Francisco
in 1881 to the takeover of a San Francisco radio station by a faceless
conglomerate in 1987. Houston's story is at base the story of how layers
of family spin across the American landscape, of the limits of our memory
and what happens to our lives and our understanding of our lives when we
step beyond those limits. It's the story of American ambitions and our
unending willingness to conquer in the name of peace, so long as peace
is named "commerce", and how the bonds of family from the past
extend into the future.
The novel begins as the King of Hawai'i records his last words on one
of the first Edison voice recorders in a hotel in San Francisco. But
to get to this point, Houston's narrator, Sheridan Brody, a calm talk
show radio host, has to break what I came to think of as "the
grandmother barrier". Brody discovers the scene when he meets
his grandmother and then discovers a journal of the life of his great
that's when the novel did what all great novels do; it made me reflect
on my own life and think that while I knew a bit about my grandparents'
lives on both sides, my knowledge beyond that -- of my great grandparents
-- was pretty much a blank. And as the novel gripped me more and more
of how Hawai'i became a state, the layers of family and generation
infiltrated my own perceptions. 1881 seems a lot like 2007, and 1987
seems a lot like 1881. We access the recent past through the distant
need be. The layers of family and place tie us together inexorably
and inevitably. We can read Houston's gorgeously written history as
through and write our own. At one point in the novel, Brody suggests
that every family has a genealogist, the one who becomes obsessed with
where the family has been. I'm not that person for my family, but I
know that person in our family. I can see the layers of truth and see
place in the generations the have left me here upon this far shore,
and in the generations that will leave this shore behind. This place
and now be my heaven. There are others, I suppose, waiting to be discovered
in the past and waiting to be created in the future.
03-21-07: A Review of 'Finn' by Jon Clinch ;
Orson Scott Card Launches 'Space Boy'
Best Served Cold
One wonders how many
great novels have been killed before they were even begun. The thought
certainly comes to mind when reading 'Finn' by
Jon Clinch, which I review
in-depth today. You don’t even have
to talk to the author to know that many well-meaning editors and reading-group
advisors had to have told Clinch that it would not be a good idea
go head-to-head with Mark Twain. But sometimes authors don’t
listen, and readers are well-served as result. 'Finn' is a wonderful
and disturbing as any recent horror novel.
river and ugly truths.
Don’t let the connection to Twain put you off, and don't think
you need to (re)-read 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' in order
and enjoy 'Finn'. Clinch's work stands on its own. 'Finn' does without
doubt challenge the reader. Clinch tells his story not in chronological
order, but rather in pathological order, as the shreddings of a diseased
and sick mind peel away the past. And Clinch is unsparing in his dissection
of fathers and sons versus slaves and masters. Still, there are points
of light here. Not thousand, not even ten. But the real light is the
revelation of Clinch as a superb author of supernatural-seeming darkly-inflected
We all know about
the monster in the closet. They’re real, of
course, though their nature may not be what you’d expect. Orson
Scott Card, who is amply familiar with children, their literature and
has made a career out of plucking that monster from the closet and
putting it squarely in the sights of gun manned by a boy. I'm not even
many books there are in Scott's 'Ender's Game' series at this point.
'Space Boy' (Subterranean Press ; August 20, 2007 ; $35) is not one
o them, but
the deluxe, hardcover edition of this novella from Subterranean Press
is likely be come as scarce as the closeted monster. We all know why
monsters hide in the closet. I mean, ask yourself; do you ever seethe
closet monsters outside of the closet? No, that's because some is hunting
down. Or perhaps they aren't what we thought they were.
was one hell of a bong hit!
'Space Boy' offers readers that perennial delight, space travel without
the hardware. As much as we like our rocket ships and whatnot, short-cutting
to the straight-ahead adventure is a great way to cut to the chase. Todd
is a kid like just about everybody who reads this column. He learns the
names of the astronauts, the planets, all the space stuff you can imagine.
But you might not imagine the monster in his closet. What it is, is best
left unsaid. What it offers Card is the opportunity to craft a story that
is highly appealing to the entire age spectrum of science fiction readers.
Card writes with a deceptively simple clarity here, the kind of smart science-fiction
fairy tale that is exciting and rewarding for anyone who wants to wrap
their brain around the present clothed as the near-future.
While the proof does not have the illustrations, the colophon page
credits illustrations to Lance Card. The cover is certainly evocative;
like what happens to teenagers in their minds the first time they get
really, really high. On science fiction, I hasten to add. Do you want
to get high
on science fiction? 'Space Boy' -- no surprise about that title now
-- might do the trick, even if you think you've grown accustomed to
03-20-07: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling Travel 'Coyote
The Indoctrination Trick
In war, it's all about hearts and minds. If we win the hearts and minds
of our enemies, if we can just get them to see things our way, then we
defuse the conflict from within.
by Charles Vess. Cool!
And it's always easiest to win the hearts and minds of the young. To start
Most science fiction readers start early in their reading lives, and the
pull of the genre is so powerful that it never really recedes. When you
get a youth interested in reading science fiction, then both reading and
the genre will play a significant part in the rest of their lives. Just
like tobacco! Hook 'em young, you got a customer till they kick the bucket.
Probably less damaging, but it depends on whom you ask.
Many of the current generation of aging SF readers probably got their start
with Heinlein juvenile, or the seminal works of writers like Ray Bradbury
and Arthur C. Clarke. A younger batch of readers probably started with
'Mirrorshades' and 'Neuromancer'. In part, we come upon science fiction
and fantasy because they're the only things thrown at us in our reading
for school that doesn't bore us shitless. If we're lucky, some enterprising
and mildly hip teacher asks us to read 'The Veldt', or Edgar Allen Poe.
And once you get the hook set, it stops being a hook and becomes instead
a passion for reading, for reading the sort of work that makes your brain
feel bigger and better. That kind of immersion in reading leads to the
enjoyment of work beyond the genre, for the same brain cells that enjoy
science fiction, fantasy and horror soon learn to love the well-written
words regardless of what they describe.
The standard bearers for the Young Adult hook-books these days are, of
course, those in the Harry Potter series. These books have created their
own genre in terms of sales and publishers are understandably scrambling
to look for (wait for it) ( ... and ... ) the next Harry Potter. In their
rush to discover such a mythical beast, they have of course forgotten that
Rowling's series was sort of unique back when it came out. It's practically
drowning in imitators, and some have done spectacularly well themselves.
But the next Harry Potter is, if anything, going to be quite different
from the current model and equally unexpected.
Let me then offer for your delectation this version of "the next Harry
Potter", a collection of stories edited by the venerable team of Ellen
Datlow and Terri Windling, 'The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales' (Viking Children's
Books / Penguin Putnam ; July 2007 ; $19.95). And let me immediately qualify
my previous sentence. No, I don’t see this book racking up the
kind of sales that Harry Potter sees. Probably not. But. It could happen.
take a look at the book and at who might be interested in the work
'The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales' is the third volume in Datlow and
fiction" anthology series, following 'The Green Man' and 'The Faery
Reel'. It includes an informative preface by both editors, a scholarly
introduction by Windling, twenty-six stories by a variety of writers (well
twenty-four stories and two poems, to be academic, which is highly appropriate
in this case), with each story followed by both an author bio and an author's
note. It's "decorated" (read: illustrated) by no less than Charles
Vess. And finally, there's a list of further reading, which includes such
notable novels as Christopher Moore's 'Coyote Blue', Jeffrey Ford's 'The
Girl in the Glass' and Neil Gaiman's 'Anansi
Boys'. It's important to look
at everything in the book, not just the selection of mind-bogglingly great
fiction. Expect a few award nominations for some of the stories to be found
in here. Kij Johnson's "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the
Dogs of North Park After the Change" turned my head right round. Jeffrey
Ford is a masterful short story writer and well-loved in general, so the
presence of "The Dreaming Wind" will surely sell more than a
few copies. Ellen Klages, fresh from Tachyon's 'Portable Childhoods' covers "Friday
Night at St. Cecilia's", and genre veteran Pat Murphy starts things
off smart with "One Odd Shoe". So in spite of this coming
from the kiddie books division over at Viking, there are reasons aplenty
any genre fiction fan to bring this one home.
But the real audience for this book, I would think, would be that fairly
large population of hip teachers, those folks who read the genre or are
at least not averse to it, and want to plant the seeds for a new generation
of readers. It seems to me that this would be the ideal reading textbook
for a high school class, the sort of book that students would actually
enjoy reading, and that might turn a few of them into permanent readers.
I hope the Viking is sending this out to school district book buyers and
libraries. Or even just making the students buy the damn book; though more
than a few parents will enjoy it as well. For who is more like a teenager
than the Trickster? The combination of good and evil, of knowledge and
ignorance, that duality of child and adult defines the Trickster figure.
The Trickster is the perpetual teenager in all of us.
The solid center of the audience for this book will include fans of
the specific authors, fans of the artist, and fans of the editors.
pretty substantial number of readers, and what probably got this off
the ground in the first place. But wouldn’t it be nice if this anthology
were to become "the next Harry Potter"? And it is not unreasonable.
With appeal to both young adults, educators and genre readers, 'The
Coyote Road' cuts across a wide cross-section of readers. Readers,
one would imagine,
who hope that the book creates a new set of readers. The trickster
may capture the hearts and minds, and not just souls and trinkets.
03-19-07: "They still have to do their laundry, even if you're
sleeping in dirt"
A 2007 Interview with Christopher Moore
There is one thing I've learned to expect when talking to Christopher
Moore; he's not a big fan of reading his own work. Beyond that, I just
the books, and believe me, it's a delight each and every time. Moore
is a master who is now not just at the top of his own game, where he's
been essentially since book one, but at the top of other lists as well.
Like the bestseller list.
Moore at KQED.
It's richly deserved and a long time coming. When I first talked to Moore,
we talked about his life as a midlist author. This time around, we had
the chance to talk about his life as a bestselling author. "You
get to fly first class," he told me. "On the long flights." But
of course, his life as a superstar of the writing world (he didn't wear
a cape or come with an entourage) was not the sole subject of our conversation.
Mostly, we talked about his new novel 'You
Suck', an engaging and hilarious
sequel to 1995's 'Bloodsucking
Fiends', which, yes, I shall cop to it
now so that I don’t get hit for it later, I called 'Bloodsucking
Freaks' just once during our interview. Moore talked about how he uses
realism to wring some laugh-out-loud humor out of the most over-worked
monster cliché in the horror genre. He also spilled the dirt on
turkey bowling. You remember turkey bowling from 'Bloodsucking Fiends'
and 'You Suck', right? It's that touch of realism that makes the vampires
stuff seem sort of pedestrian and utterly buyable. Well, it so happens
that Moore wasn't making that up, not was he the sort of fellow who wanders
into the 24-hour Safeway to get a bottle of milk in wee hours of the
morning. It so happens that Moore himself once was in Tommy Flood's shoes;
managing a pack of late teen and young twenty-something Animals with
a really strong union, so that th1rte3n GUYS were there to do the work
of four on the grave shift. I'll only add that turkey bowling is where
it starts. Moore 'splains where it ends.
We also talked about Moore's work for the movies and yes, television.
This is where it gets good, where he spills the dirt on the TV series
we'll likely never see, though I hope that readers will write to the
networks and DEMAND his various big ideas be used to illuminate screens
small and large. In fact, in case you just can't wait to hear just that
part, I've sliced it out for you. So you can hear just
the showbiz stuff here, cos I'm shamelessly to pick up some movie
and TV site readers. One presumes that if they find Moore's words about
movie and TV funny
(they will) perhaps they'll be more willing to go back and hear
the entire of the interview as either an MP3 or a RealAudio
file, for those who
like TinnySurround sound experience. And then....OMFG. Read a book.
And now for the kicker. This week is pledge week at my NPR affiliate,
KUSP. To say my segment on Friday was less-than-salubrious would be an
exaggeration. While my producer said he wouldn't can me, I'm hoping that
readers will be willing to go to the KUSP
website and pledge, like $5,
via the web and mention: Rick Kleffel Talk of the Bay Friday Author Interviews.
You can cut and paste that string into the comments section on the second
page of the pleddge dealie, and it’s
important to do so, otherwise your contributions will be attributed
to other portions
of the schedul.. KUSP is the reason I'm able to get access to these
great authors. If every
did this, it would be (trust me) a veritable flood of donations that
would be utterly painless for yon readers and utterly priceless for yon
interviewer and the this column and podcast. If you can't, and I understand
that, even an email to KUSP can help.
In any event, here's another outstanding guest for the Agony Column podcast,
Chris Moore, with yet another exercise left for the listeners. Do you
think that I asked Chris Moore about how he uses the word fuck? Give
the interview a listen, and then send me an email telling me Chris's
favorite variation on our favorite word. I'll enter you in my latest
drawing to win some desirable book. I can't say what it is just yet,
I'm making this up as I type. Last week was very busy, but this week
I've got enough room to send out the three signed copies of China Miéville's
'Un Lun Dun'. What can you win with this drawing? If nought else, more
podcasts. Stay tuned.