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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


12-14-07: Rupert Christiansen Relates 'The Complete Book of Aunts' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Pete Atkins Reads The King of Outer Space

Everything You Need to Aunt

Walking the pet alligator.

How could I resist 'The Complete Book of Aunts' (12 Books ' October 16, 2007 ; $19.99) by Rupert Christiansen with Beth Brody? Frankly, I could not and snagged it from the shelves at KUSP immediately upon seeing it, brought it home and it's been keeping warm on the Rolling Shelves for that chilly day that apparently arrived at 4:30 AM this morning, when I went to the car and found the windshield iced over for the first time this year. Clearly this was a signal that I was to write about this delightful book that veers far outside my normal territory. That's what attracted me; that title on, the bookshelf.

But a title only gets you so far; a book has to deliver, and in this case what must be delivered are Aunts, in all shapes, sizes and for all sensibilities. Christiansen and Brophy manage to do so with just the right amount of style and grace and yes, the right sort of humor. You certainly don’t want to laugh at aunts; that would be bad form. But there's something inherently humorous in a book about Aunts, and the authors strike the perfect tone for genteel, entertaining reading. The prose is pitch-perfect.

Of course, a book about Aunts must be organized and organized well. 'The Complete Book of Aunts' measures up. We start off with A History of Aunts, the most surprising aspect of which is how much history passes before Aunts become an item. I would have thought that with all the begats and begets, the Bible would have strayed into Aunt territory, but that's not the case. No you have to wait until Nero, raised by an Aunt who clearly proved to be a bad influence, and to a certain extent prescient, since the talent of fiddling while Rome burns seems to be in demand here in the 21st century.

From there, the authors look at the bewildering variety of Aunts, from those who are mothers to their own nephews thanks to the wonders of modern science to Heroic Aunts, Brand Name Aunts and even, delightfully X-Rated Aunts. Damned Bad Aunts from Mrs. Reed of 'Jane Eyre' to Charlotte and Augusta, aunts to Hector and Ethel Munro, are ever enjoyable so long as they’re not yours. Charlotte ("known as Tom") and Augusta "mistrusted fresh air, and the atmosphere was further poisoned by the two women's mutual loathing and ceaseless bickering." Ethel recalls that she and Hector "often longed for revenge" and Hector acquired the alias Saki, under which he wrote a series of stories in which Aunts nearly as unpleasant as his met fates much more so.

I have to make special mention of Agony Aunts; I'm not one and never shall be, but if the photo of Dr. Ruth doesn't frighten you into a shivering mound of terror, then clearly, you have no feelings left.

But I know this not to be the case; my readers are full of feelings, most of which at the current moment are along the lines of "What has gotten into Rick Kleffel?" I can tell you precisely. I found a funny, slightly snarky, smart book about Aunts. Not a book to end the world, but a fine book. Of course, some might indeed feel that the publication of a book including photos of both Agony Aunt Ruth Westheimer and Aunt Jemima is indeed a harbinger of the Apocalypse. I wouldn't argue; in fact, I might see if I have time to sign up for fiddle lessons.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Pete Atkins Reads The King of Outer Space

Today's podcast is something I should have rescued from the vaults long ago, but; here it is, an early Christmas present for the listeners, Pete Atkins reading his story "The King of Outer Space". Atkins is a brilliant writer and reader. With Glen Hirshberg, he performs as part of the ROlling Darkness Revue. Prepare to be glued to your chair, stuck in your car, continue your run – make sure you allot 22 full minutes, because once you start you won’t be able to stop. Prepare to lift off!


12-13-07: Frank Delaney Visits 'Tipperary' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Rusty Morrison

Irish Epic

I love this type of illustration, even if it is sort of cheesy.

When I first saw 'Ireland' by Frank Delaney, it was hard to let it go. I like a fat historical novel now and again, and this looked to have the right density and correct length to provide that go-somewhere-else immersive experience. When I learned that Delaney would be visiting Capitola Book Café, I put in my order and now I'm well into 'Tipperary' (Random House ; November 6, 2007 ; $26.95). No need to turn up the furnace on chilly evenings. This novel is just overheated enough to warm the coldest hands, and charming enough to hang around in for nice winter's week.

"Be careful about me," Charles O'Brien, one of the novel's narrators tells us. It's easy enough to be wary of this garrulous storyteller. The tone is hardwood rich and shiny, the prose warm enough to bring a light sweat to the unprepared brow. O'Brien is an Irish Everyman, an understated and overwritten hero. But he's the one telling the story, and it's hard not to both like a believe him. He's not a firebrand, but a well-spoken gentleman who is just outside the forces that swarm through early 20th century Ireland. He's confident, not overly so, and the sort of man who ends up meeting the likes of Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. He's pretty sure you're going to like him, but manages to avoid being smug. Delaney's prose is perfectly pitched here, with the combination of formality and intimacy that the character and the events demand. This is not to say that some readers won't find O'Brien a little over-the-top. But the flow is fast and complicated and full of choice details. It's easy to let go.

And that's when you meet another man, a man of our time who has found O'Brien's manuscript and serves it up to us, interspersed with his commentary. That's the time when this reader starts to really perk up, because the presence of two narrators so well balanced and placed against one another, suggests a plot and creates a tension beyond the wide-open non-confining confines of O'Brien's pixilated life story. We're hearing that story for a reason that is compelling to an equally literate yet more demure storyteller. Give yourself a chance and you'll be swept away.

Moreover, you're going to learn a lot about a slab of history you may or may not be familiar with. I'm the latter, so getting to learn the details and big stories that shaped Ireland is a pretty big bang for me. Delaney does a great job of filling in the timeline without too much obvious lecturing. And when the lecture come – oh yes, they come all right – well, that's what you signed up for, innit?

Delaney has one essential quality that keeps him above the fray, a sense of wonder that would not bee out of place in a science fiction or fantasy novel. Of course, these days, lots of fantasies are little more than imagined histories; this is history imagined anew, and has a similar feel. Ireland is a land of imagination and magic; Delaney is both careful and able to capture it with the kind of prose that you can almost hear him reading aloud.

You may or may not think you like this sort of book. And Delaney, as O'Brien, knows this. He plays his hand carefully, fully, sometimes even flamboyantly. He smiles. You smile. It's a big fat life out there and in there. What you realize as you read 'Tipperary' is that your life is just as full, just as complex. And that somebody probably needs to be careful about you.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Rusty Morrison : Greeting the Omnidawn

Greeting earthrise.

I just got off the phone with Rusty Morrisson, who, with Ken Keegan, created Omnidawn Publishing. We talked about just how and why you go about creating a small press, from the community of poetry to the stacks of book covers waiting to go on re-prints. This is a riveting and fascinating look at the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the publishing industry from the ground up, the reason why we are the land of the free, etc. You can hear the MP3 from this link, and damn if this won’t make you want to buy and then start publishing poetry – well at least we have a great HOWTO start your own publishing company on file.


12-12-07: Tim Powers and James Blaylock Shine a 'Pilot Light' on William Ashbless ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Felix Gilman


Hawaiian Gardens my ass.

This is the best look we're going to get at William Ashbless. Now, I don’t if any of you have ever visited the hellhole suburb of Hawaiian Gardens where Ashbless claims to reside in 'Pilot Light' (Subterranean Press ; November 2007 ; $20/$45), but I have and I can assure you that it is certainly not in the least bit Hawaiian and that any gardens you might find would be most likely to be sprouting broken beer bottles and greasy fast food wrappers. The so-called "fact" that Ashbless would claim to live in such a place suggests that he's not fully versed in what the rest of the human race calls the truth. Of course, that's only the first layer of the onion that is William Ashbless.

As for onions, well, he seems to have something of a problem with them. Like his fellow science-fiction / genius literary author Jeff Lint, Ashbless has enough quirks to fill a book much larger than this one, but he's something of a no-show at his own party. Instead, we have a hilariously incoherent story gussied up with footnotes whose word count probably exceeds that of the story. Yes, it's true. Ashbless does claim that he submitted this story "back in the day" to Harlan Ellison for 'Dangerous Visions', but if he did, he only could have done so with the hopes of making Ellison's head explode. There's some evidence that might have happened. But I can't divulge my sources.

Uncorrected? How could anyone figure out what's correct?

I can state with certainty that Tim Powers' name appears at the bottom of an introduction to this long-delayed appearance of a clearly classic exercise in transcribing the thoughts of those who have ingested far too many controlled substances for their own good. And James Blaylock can barely wait to drag Jacques Derrida into this torrid dialogue between an author and his own story. Yes, Ashbless annotates himself, but not to death, no matter how much Blaylock and Powers might hope that to be the case. They seem to take every opportunity to mention his death and shortly afterwards, their disc over that he is still alive. Since I was under the mistaken impression that he was a contemporary of William Blake, you can bet I was surprised to find him living in Hawaiian Gardens. Gahan Wilson has taken on the arduous of illustrating the fermented fruits of Ashbless' imagination. He must have owed Bill Schafer over at Subterranean Press big-time. You can bet that even the man brave enough to publish Ashbless isn’t spared in those voluminous footnotes. No, here's an author who feels perfectly free to bite the hands that feeds him.

A review of this book is to a certain extent spurious. You know if you need it and should that be the case, you’d best get a move-on. Somewhere out there a neglected genius is coughing up things only he would dare to describe. Pay the man, lest he ask to borrow your car.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Felix Gilman : Thunderer and Mervyn Peake

Somewhere out there is a castle named Gormenghast.

Today, I'm podcasting a conversation I had with Felix Gilman about his novel 'Thunderer!' and the influence of Mervyn Peake in modern fantasy. You can grab the MP3 from this link, and the novel should be out there soon. I suspect that a lot of readers will enjoy it greatly.


12-11-07: Lewis Hyde Offers 'The Gift' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Story Author Writes First Book in New Language

Threads and Themes

Taking on the vampire economy.
There's a hunger at large in this world, a desire that touches nearly all. Surrounded as we are by art, by the fruits of creative imagination, we cannot help but be touched ourselves. We don’t just want to experience art. We want to experience creating art.

But the mechanics of the marketplace of art are such that it's simply not possible to sell all that art. I remember one USENET wag named Kibo who, back in the heyday of USENET news groups, predicted that someday there would be a news group for every person on the planet. These days the response might be, "Only one?" But instead we have websites for just about every person on the planet and quite a few devoted to humans and other critters that will never exist. We have indeed achieved Stanislaw Lem's Pericalypse, a glut of art and information that makes it impossible to find the good.

But who cares about the good? What about those of us who do the mediocre? Where's the reward for that? The star-dumb, the prophets? Huh? What makes creation rewarding? Back when I talked to Jonathan Lethem, he mentioned a book by one Lewis Hyde titled 'The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World' (Vintage Books / Random House ; December 4, 2007 ; $14.95), which has just been released in a "25th Anniversary Edition" splattered with blurbs from the likes of Lethem and David Foster Wallace. It's kind of ironic, really, all those blurbs and the hoopla to sell a book that might be seen as highlighting the virtues of not getting sold.

In his new preface, Hyde talks about how books are sold, essentially on a one-sentence pitch. "Any current list of bestsellers will provide a sample of the genre: "Extraordinary conclusions about the lineage of Christ." "Newspaper columnist learns life lessons from his neurotic dog." "How the dead communicate with us." "Reporter exposes a ring of vampires out to take over Seattle." "Memoir by the bad-boy golf champion."" His book, he says is not so amenable to summary. It's point is to be non-summarizable. Hyde wanted to explore an idea about the process of creation, a why and wherefore for the artists who are not super-stars putting their names on book-blurbs. That would be the other 99.99999% of humanity. Somebody has to be the audience.

This ties into another thread brought up by Michael Krasny in his excellent memoir 'Off Mike'. Krasny wanted to be an artist – a writer, to be precise – but had to wade through a fair portion of his life before he managed to write out the bildungsroman of his own life story. His book is something of an inspiration to would-be writers, an audience I'm trying to address with those NPR Reports on writers who have published their first book. Or, not so much would-be writers, but rather, those who simply write or do stuff regardless of what they do with it afterwards.

All these threads lead quite nicely to Hyde's book-long meditation on the place of creativity in the capitalist society. It's not such an easy relationship. Hyde believes that, "in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried from the artist to his audience." This does not bode well for those who would convert art into cold-hard-cash commerce. Hyde's a great writer, who uses evocative stories and fables to complicate his point and create a sort of pixilated understanding of his vision. The effect for the reader is that of having an intelligent discussion with someone who cares passionately not just about art but about all creativity. This is a powerful work about why we do create and why we should create and how should experience creativity in all its forms. Suffice it to say that those who are interested in Digital Rights Management and the current Copy Fight wars will find much fodder for reasonable discourse. Not that reasonable discourse is supposed to have a large appeal in the so-called "marketplace of ideas." Hyde writes the sort of book that will blow your mind, slowly.

This isn’t the only book of Hyde's I've read. Back in the before-time, I read and reviewed his book 'Trickster Makes This World' for the Fortean Times. As you might suspect, I found it quite an enjoyable and thought provoking examination of the Trickster myths; and even Michael Chabon refers to it in the 'Astonishing Stories' intro.

And even though Hyde states that 'The Gift' is not amenable to the one-line summary, he gives one anyway, which might suggest why this book is seen as essential by the likes of Lethem. "And if the salesmen want to pitch the book as "Bad-boy critic takes on vampire economy," that's all right with me," Hyde says.

So, another one on the to-be-read, stack, right? Teetering, is it? That's a good sign!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Story Author Writes First Book in New Language : Xiaolu Guo Film News

Award winning and yet very strange. We like very strange.

Today's podcast is a high-quality DRMless MP3 of my most recent article for NPR, a piece about how Xiaolu Guo came to write her first book in English. You've got all the raw material I used if you downloaded the original interview. Xiaolu sent me copies of How Is Your Fish Today?, The Concrete Revolution, and a short new film, Address Unknown. They all showcase the same intelligence, wit and charm that made 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' such a delight. As well, they show some of the same stylistic grace the novel shows, in terms of mixing documentary styles with fictional tales. How Is Your Fish Today? is a very Borgesian movie, a creamy meditation that renders reality more plastic than is usual. The Concrete Revolution is in fact a documentary about the price being paid for the "New China". Address Unknown is a sort of complement to her novel; the novel as if seen looking the wrong direction through a telescope. Readers lucky enough to be in Rotterdam in January can see her latest movie, We Went to Wonderland; while UK readers can pick up the translation of her first novel in Chinese, '20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth' in January as well. Xiaolu has a powerful, fascinating voice, with a bent to the surreal. It sounds like life, especially the surreal aspects. Those threads and themes; first books, creativity, the gift of art, the way everything seems to weave seamlessly from one theme to the next.


12-10-07: A 2007 Interview With Bettina Aptheker and Megan Seely ; NPR Report on Xiaolu Guo

The Personal and the Political

History and HOWTO change it.
History has the power to move, to inspire, to bring forth passion in our lives. But you have to find it, you have to read it, you have to hear it, to somehow get it into your mind first. And the problem is that there are lots of histories and stories out there with the power to inspire that you might not ever happen to hear or read. Fortunately, the documents, the lives, the voices remain. In this case, the voices of Bettina Aptheker, author of 'Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel' (Seal Press ; September 5, 2006 ; $16.95) and Megan Seely, author of 'Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist' (NYU Press ; January 7, 2007 ; $17.95). I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with both of them at the Capitola Book Café before they appeared last week, and I have to say that it was intense and yet, really relaxed and fun. These ladies didn't just use the F-word; they defined it.

The F-word in this case being "Feminism". But there's a lot more going on here. Bettina Aptheker is a genuine historical figure, and her story as it unfolds in 'Intimate Politics' is a remarkable summation of the struggles of the 20th century that brought us to the 21st. She was the daughter of a famous American Communist party leader, Herbert Aptheker, and a prestigious "red diaper baby." The people she talks about having in her house, the things she's done are simply mind-boggling. I'm going to let her tell the story, but it's riveting look at everything from the McCarthy hearing to the Angela Davis trial to the 21st century. Megan Seely calls herself a "third wave feminist," one who ha benefited fro the struggles of Aptheker, Her book, 'Fight Like a Girl' and great HOWTO not just for feminist activists, but for anyone who ants to get out and support the cause of justice of any stripe. She writes with the same clarity you'll hear when she speaks. Speaking with both of them and hearing them interact was totally entertaining, because they're both light-hearted, but also very moving, because they both have lived serious lives and have remarkable accomplishments. And better still, they’re both funny. They laugh and you will as well. Here's a link to my MP3 of the interview with them, and here's a link to the RealAudio file. Make a point of listening to them, and hear stories you just can't hear anywhere else. Is that not the goal, the essence of reading?

First Book, New Language

A passionate writer.
I'm posting this very early because I want readers and listeners to have a chance to listen to my upcoming story on Weekend Edition Sunday. Now there's always the possibility that it won't air this week, given some kind of news event. But I am told that if you listen to Weekend Edition Sunday, my report will run in the last half of the first hour, just after the Puzzle Master Presents with Will Shortz. This time, the piece is on Xiaolu Guo, whose first novel in English is 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers'.

It's a great novel and I hope an entertaining report, mostly because Xiaolu has such a wonderful voice, both in timbre and by virtue of what she says. You can hear the passion in her voice; and you can find the entire interview here. As ever, I shall upload a high-quality MP3 version of the report in the fullness of time, but in the interim, I'd ask readers to listen up when it runs live, and then return here, or just go to NPR where you can find the web page for the story. Use the "Email this story" button early and often. That will suggest to NPR that they ought to keep running my reports which go directly to support this website and interviews like the one above as well as that with Xiaolu.


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