01-13-13 UPDATE:Podcast Update:Time to Read Episode 80: Laird Barron 'The Croning' and 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All'
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Here's the eightyth episode of my new series of podcasts, which I'm calling Time to Read. The podcasts/radio broadcasts will be of books worth your valuable reading time. I'll try to keep the reports under four minutes, for a radio-friendly format. If you want to run them on your show or podcast, let me know.
My hope is that in under four minutes I can offer readers a concise review and an opportunity to hear the author read from or speak about the work. I'm hoping to offer a new one every week.
The eightyth episode is a look at Gregory Johnsen, 'The Croning' and 'The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.'
Louise Erdrich, 'The Round House', Amanda Coplin, 'The Orchardist', Eowyn Ivey, 'The Snow Child'
Alan Cheuse and I started the New Year off right, with a discussion of three outstanding novels, and diversion into The New Strange, a literary wave the follows on the "strange stories" of Robert Aickman, and includes the work of authors like Mark Valentine and John Howard, Reggie Oliver, Peter Bell, and Brian J. Showers.
Most of our talk focused on the three novels, which we both quite enjoyed. Louise Erdrich's 'The Round House' is an easy choice. It combines powerful themes with a great take on the crime novel and unfolds in Erdrich's Ojibwe native American community. This has been the setting of many of her novels, but 'The Round House' marks a departure for Erdrich with regards to her narrator.
We also talked about Amanda Coplin, 'The Orchardist', another lovely American novel set against a forbidding landscape. Both of us found Coplin's prose exemplary, and Cheuse demonstrated the book's excellence by being able to find the specific passage he was looking for. This is a novel where the landscape is a character, revealed with nuance and power.
At this point in the discussion, we turned to The New Strange, a literary movement that is observed when one looks at the stellar work last year from Tartarus Press and The Swan River Press. Peter Bell's 'Strange Epiphanies' in title and content expresses well just what this movement is about, as do the 'Selected Stories' of Mark Valentine and Reggie Oliver's The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and Other Strange Stories' and Brian J. Showers' 'Old Albert: An Epilogue.'
And from there, we went straight to 'The Snow Child' by Eowyn Ivey, an Aickmanesque Russian fairy tale about a snow-child that turns up as a real girl in an harshly-rendered homestead Alaska of 1920. Ivey's combination of grit and light is a superb mix that manages the make the unreal feel hyper-real.
"...characters become their ideas, become their ideals..."
—Andrew P. Mayer
The theme of the night was Epic Fantasy, and Andrew P. Mayer's series, 'The Society of Steam,' is certainly epic. But steampunk is not necessarily fantasy, to my mind, so when I sat down to talk with Mayer, I knew what I wanted to ask.
Mayer was apparently ready for this line of questioning, and our conversation took some entertaining and unexpected turns. When you are talking about epic fantasy, one is inclined to hark back to the familiar; particularly J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, which has (as some writers have argued) damaged the genre as much as it has boosted its visibility by virtue of its popularity, especially since it was so well-adapted to film.
But as an editor and the indexer of books for this website, I (should) know better. Actually, fantasy is the biggest tent in the world of writing. When I look at books and think about which indexes I will place them in, it's hard to exclude even lots of non-fiction from fantasy.
This is not meant to imply that non-fiction is filled with "fantasies" in terms of untruths, but rather, that facts alone are rarely enough to convey a story. And as well, non-fiction may offer lots of fodder for those qwho want to write fantasy, or treat subjects of fantasy in a non-fiction format. Charles Fort is the perfect example of a non-fiction writer whose work may appeal to readers of fantasy; and I'd highly recommend Patrick Harpur's brilliant 'Daimonic Reality' to all readers of fantasy and those of urban fantasy in particular.
To bring all this back to the more codified world of steampunk versus epic fantasy, suffice it to say that Mayer made a fine argument as to exactly what aspects of his stories are quite clearly fantasy versus science fiction. I can make an argument that science fiction is subset of fantasy, and think most readers can as well.
One of the things that I liked about Mayer's work was that he had actually finished his fantasy trilogy promptly, and that the books did not become increasingly massive. We talked about the business of writing as well, with regards to what is selling these days and why hew chose to write the genre that just happens to be quite popular.
Mayer also talked about creating characters to fit into his environment, and in particular, about using some of the tropes from graphic novels in his steampunk fiction. He has a very interesting vision of science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy, which you can hear by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
01-07-13:A 2013 Interview with Fariba Nawa
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"...she pulled on my coat and said, 'You have to help me...'"
It's the Thursday before Christmas, and that are incredibly busy at the Book Café. It's taken me a long time to get this interview set up and to properly prepare. For me, it is one thing to read a book for pure pleasure and quite another to gather the details I need to do an interview. I've been going through 'Opium Nation' again, immersing myself in Nawa's complex and intense journey of discovery.
"Journey of discovery" does not fully describe the book, nor Nawa's complicated process of putting it together. For me, the intertwining of her opium industry reporting and the personal journeys back home and how the two become tangled as she becomes involved is a perfect example of how an attempt to realize one goal often leads to another. This is where I want to take the conversation, even though there is another laden with the politics of the present hovering at the door. Those politics are subject to change without notice, and I want to explore with Fariba how she managed to capture so much story in so few words.
Nawa and I talked about the genesis of the book, in her reporting for a magazine story that came to be titled, "Afghanistan, Inc." This article did not paint a pretty picture, but it lead to more reporting, and in the course of doing the work Nawa found herself back at home and immersed in memories of the past as well as the egregious mistakes of the present. At that point, the stories started becoming personal.
Still, she fond herself with two separate stories and separate books, as it were; one about drugs and corruption in Afghanistan, the other, a look at her own experiences as a girl leaving the country and then returning home again as a young woman. It was when she met Darya, the 12 year-old child bride that she found the stories were indeed one in the same.
For this interview, I concentrated not on the politics. Afterwards, she seemed surprised that I had not asked her to offer her opinion on what was going to happen in 2014, when as we are told, the troops will be gone. That's a different discussion, and one that interests me, but it's not germane to this reportage, so to speak. I have some ideas about getting her to come back for a second round. In the interim, readers can hear us talk about how Fariba Nawa managed to write such a damn good book by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
New to the Agony Column
12-02-13: Commentary : Susan Stinson Sees the 'Spider in a Tree' : Blessed in the Hands of An Unknowable God