Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


09-12-08: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer Pick 'Best American Fantasy 2008' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli at Ping Pong Release Party


Dogs flew spaceships.

Matthew Cheney of Prime Books has a really cool idea for his 'Best American Fantasy 2008' (Prime Books ; October 2008 ; $14.95). He's decided to have a rotating series of guest editors to choose the stories each year. This is apparently the Year of the VanderMeer, with Ann & Jeff taking the helm to bring you their idea of the best fantasy stories of this year. If you want to see the best writing, the most original writing and most unusual writing being done in America, look no further. Here you go, your one stop shop for great short stories. This is not to say that this book is the literary end-all and be-all. I don't want to oversell 'Best American Fantasy 2008', but I can't imagine any reader, for work in any genre picking this up without finding a LOT of great reading. It'll generally be stuff you might never have suspected youd like, or even find printed, but here it is compact and easy-to-carry.

The first thing you have to do is to jettison most every connotation of the word "fantasy". The kind of fantasy you find in bookstores racked with unicorns and elves on the covers. This is the kind of fantasy you might have yourself if you found a deer, injured by a car lying at the side of the road; at least if youre M. Rickert, writing "Memoir of a Deer Woman." So look for work not by the authors of tome-like trilogies, but by writers like Rick Moody ("Story With Advice II: Back from the Dead") or Aimee Bender ("Interval"). That is look for writing that emphasize the surreal and experiential nature of the stories we tell ourselves to piece together life, one weird fragment at a time. If you've read this website before, or if you've read any of the work of Jeff VanderMeer, or the other (usually prize-winning) anthologies he and his wife Ann have edited, then you should have a pretty good idea what to expect. That would be fiction that hangs perfectly in the balance between literary experimentation and power-pulp prose that's raw and edgy. The stories are up-front. Theyre not evasive, even when they're plunging the reader into hallucination. If you're looking for traditional genre fiction, dont look here, though a few of stories are by genre authors and most of them will appeal to genre fiction readers. If you're looking for high-falutin', starin' out the window stories of humdrum meaningfulness, dont look here, though readers who enjoy exploring carefully crafted characters will find them in every work. No, 'Best American Fantasy 2008' is pretty much a Twilight Zone, where anything can happen so long as its well written and compelling and a little odd. Sometimes a lot odd.

For example, you'll find "The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford, which was podcast via this website. And you'll find Peter S. Beagle's "The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French." You'll find Kage Baker and Deborah Coates; a nice mix of well-known and should-be well-known. You'll find stories of lives you'd love to live and lives you could never have imagined. Fantasy is being re-defined by your mind. And next year, another (set of) editor(s) to define it again. We may know the future, but we dont know ourselves.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli at Ping Pong Release Party : Magnus Toren Sings for His Supper

For the final report from Ping Pong, we have Kathryn Petruccelli's fine recording of Henry Miller Library Director Magnus Toren doing some songs that I'll not spoil in the least – at least, not by telling you anything about them! Suffice it to say that Toren has played with the venerable (who EVER thought I'd use that word in association with ...) John Doe of X. Do we need any better credentials that that? I dont think so, and you wont either after you download this linked audio file. Have a fun Friday!


09-11-08: Steven Lee Beeber is 'Awake!' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Seana Graham Reports on Ping Pong and Speculative Literature

Insomnia Rulez OK

Staying up late, are we? Or just waking up early?

I'm not sure how many readers popped over to Amazon to read the interview with me, conducted by the stellar Jeff VanderMeer. But those who did may have noted what is in large part responsible for my ability to bring you give days a week of news reports for like, four years(?), let me check now .... Well, it'll be five come December 31, 2008 – and five days a week of podcasting for just a bit more than a year now. In a word, Insomnia.

I've always had trouble sleeping, or more correctly, I've never needed as much sleep as most humans. Even when I was a small child, I remember waking up at 2 AM and looking at the ceiling, tossing and turning. The reason hit home a few years ago, when my mother, my uncle and I were standing around, and my uncle mentioned that he'd had no trouble driving the distance to get to the gathering because he just normally woke up at 3:30 AM, to which my mother replied, so did she, to which I replied ... "So do I." Problem solved, as it were, or if not solved, at last understood. We Kaufman-Kleffels dont need so much stinkin' sleep, and that gives me about four hours a day that most people dont have to do stuff most people dont have time to do. Including blathering on about books like 'Awake! A Reader for the Sleepless' (Soft Skull Press ; October 28, 2007 ; $15.95) edited by Steven Lee Beeber and apparently sent to me by someone who did read that interview, no? And another one hits the stack by the side of the bed.

There are, I would presume, two types of insomnia. One would be an inability to fall asleep and the other an inability to remain asleep. I am one of the latter, not the former. So when I lay down before I sleep, I can either turn out the lights and drop off instantly, or remain stark, staring wide-eyed awake until such time my internal "Off" clicks over. Sometimes I like to take a break from whatever else I'm reading and dip into one of the many tomes at the bedside. To my mind there ought to be a Bedside Reading genre, and apparently, starting last year, Beeber laid claim to this quite fertile territory. He's now the King Thereof and with good reason. 'Awake!' is alas no cure for insomnia. That said, it's an anthology chock full of nice nuggets to read in bed before you decide to sleep, or before your internal "shutdown 0" process completes its run.

'Awake!" pulls in nice short pieces from a huge variety of writers and offers work in just about any style imaginable, with more than a few written in styles you simply couldn't imagine. There are lists, poetry, prose, non-fiction, fiction, illustrations and just plain weirdness. There are comics and comix, illustrations and pitchers, all offered in an eight-day week, because, well, when you dont sleep, the week is actually, factually, experientially longer. It's 350 pages of keep you amused while you're forced to be awake goodness. Contributors include Lydia Lunch (remember "No New York"?), John Sayles, Cricket Suicide, Steve Almond, Jonathan Ames (a friend has been trying to get me to read this guy for like five months now), Louise Bourgeois (insomnia drawings, very cool), Darin Straus, Margaret Atwood, Neal Pollack ... and more. It's really very diverse and exceptionally readable for such a project. It's done with the perfect combination of seriousness and humor. Plus it's pretty cheap. It's enough to keep you awake at night just wanting the book to read it.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Seana Graham Reports on Ping Pong and Speculative Literature : Book Store Writers

Fortunately for ME, one of the few people Kathryn did not have time to speak with at the Ping Pong release party was the redoubtable Seana Graham. Seana was one of the lucky folks to end up in 'The Best of LCRW' (I can abbreviate that now, can't I? Please?), and getting her perspective on the process will give my listeners yet another scintilla of insight into the wild and weird world of publishing, to wit – the wisdom of hanging about yon local bookstore should one be interested in publication. Seana and I sort it all out for you in this linked audio file!


09-10-08: A Review of 'The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule' by Thomas Frank ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli at Ping Pong Release Party

Polemic on the Potomac

20-250th nervous breakdown.

Today, I'm publishing my review of 'The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule' by Thomas Frank. In my interview with Frank, he expressed his admiration of the polemic form and H. L Mencken in particular. It's not surprising when you read his book, which is a fire-breathing destructo-ray aimed at the neo-conservative men who have effectively ruled this country since the dark, dreary days of Reagan. It certainly preaches entertainingly well to the converted, backing up its claims with extensive footnotes. But beyond the Opinion Column, "Letters to the Editor" partisan appeal, how does this book read? You can read my review right here. It's all opinion, all the time at the Agony Column!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kathryn Petruccelli at Ping Pong Release Party : Christine Hamm and Children Who Have Trouble With Meat

Today's podcast continues Kathryn Petrucelli's reports from the Ping Pong release party. She speaks with contributor and poet Christine Hamm about her work both for Ping Pong and about her poetry in general.

I have to say that Ping Pong is sounding like a very "genre-friendly" literary journal. Hamm's work has been compared to Stephen King – not a common reference point for poets! You can hear the entire interview from this link.


09-09-08: Terry D'Auray Reviews 'The 19th Wife' : Agony Column Podcast News Report : Gayle Shanks, President of the ABA and Bookseller for Changing Hands

Diary of an Excommunicated Housewife

19th nervous breakdown.

Today, we're running Terry D'Auray's review of 'The 19th Wife' by David Ebershoff. Ebershoff's novel is not necessarily Terry's normal beat. The narrative is comprised of two rather different components; one if the entirely fictional diary of Brigham Young's 19th wife, written in the stilted prose of the period. The other is a current day mystery that involves a member of the FLDS; that is, those who still practice polygamy. I'll mention that the advance marketing campaign for this book was brilliant, with a series of mysterious postcards fronted by pictures of "wives". If youre looking for an epic "get lost in it" historical novel with a current-day tie in, read Terry's review here.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Gayle Shanks, President of the ABA and Bookseller for Changing Hands : "Amazon is killing us"

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is my interview with Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, and the current President of the American Booksellers Association.

I talked to her about her journey as a bookseller, from the time she and a friend opened a hippy bookstore in Tempe for $500 in 1974, to the current incarnation of that bookstore which hosts over 350 events per year. She's not shy about what she does to keep in business. If you read, you need to get books and you want to get books from people, not pixels. Listen to this interview and let Gale Shanks tell you why.


A 2008 Interview With Kathleen Ann Goonan :

"...just before Hiroshima..."

Kathleen Ann Goonan.

Kathleen Ann Goonan's 'In War Times' was easily one of my favorites of last year. It was exciting to read, had a great SF-nal MaGuffin, and most importantly, created three generations of characters who came to life. It had an epic sweep and a huge emotional impact, but it wasn't epic length. For this week's podcast, I spoke with Goonan about this novel and the one she's currently working on, a sequel of sorts that extends the reach of her wonderful vision. Our conversation went in a direction Id not anticipated but greatly welcomed – Goonan's interest in teaching and the technologies of teaching. What she said reflects back through 'In War Times' and illuminates a lot of what takes place. You can hear our conversation via this link; but if you've not read 'In War Times', dont wait to do so. Get a first edition hardcover and treasure it. In fact get two, it's the kind of book you'll want to give to our children.


Agony Column Review Archive