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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


08-08-08 : David Lebedoff Looks at 'The Same Man'; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Mitchell Kaplan of Books and Books

George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love & War

Seeing the futuire in the present.

David Lebedoff starts with a coincidence and builds it into a fascinating literary biography of two of my favorite English Lit course staples in 'The Same Man : George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love & War' (Random House ; August 5, 2008 ; $26). It's really quite an inspired idea to look at these two men and their work which, while quite different in many respects, somehow still manages to strike a similar chord in at least this reader.

The coincidence is classic; Orwell and Waugh were both born in 1903. It goes a bit further; both were in the same social class and bother were educated in a public school. And there the similarity stops, in many ways. But as Lebedoff takes readers through their separate lives, Orwell's delicate health and determination to explore the lifestyles of the poor and unknown contrasted with Waugh's high-life, social climb into the aristocracy, readers can start to glean why both writers are still revered today, for in their own universes, the managed to grab hold of something essential that was just a' bornin' in their lifetimes – their future, that is, our world.

Neither man particularly liked what they saw coming and both seemed to have quite a clear grasp on just where we would be. Though Orwell's work is admitted into the "science fiction" canon, he never saw himself as a science fiction writer. I've mentioned many times on this site that Orwell had originally titled '1984' '1948', a title rejected by the publisher. He didn't see his book as a projection – he saw it as a reflection. Waugh's work was more obviously a reflection, but both men reflected and enhanced in their work the elements that would come to define their future and our present. De-humanization, media pundit-ocracy, the class war wrought large in the US of A and around the world ... Orwell and Waugh steeped their souls in the future to look at their present. It was a very mundane form of sort-of science fiction they wrote, but nonetheless a vital literary legacy.

Lebedoff encapsulates their disparate careers with wit and concision, and cherry picks a boatload of memorable quotes and quotable letters. He includes some fascinating appendices (Orwell's reading list for 1949!) and there are numerous notes. But none of that should matter a whit to prospective readers. Pick this up and in a second you'll be captured by Lebedoff's writing and his perceptive story. Reading about writers isnt just recursive; in this case, it's required.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Mitchell Kaplan of Books and Books : From Bookseller to Movie Producer

In my second bookseller interview this week, I spoke with Mitchell Kaplan, who owns Books and Books, and sealed yet another fascinating chapter in my on-going oral history of bookselling. Kaplan started his bookstore in a 500-square foot space that he snagged for song and recently opened his fourth branch – on Grand Cayman Island.

This is a great story, and Kaplan, recently the President of the American Booksellers Association, has some very interesting insights into the business. He's even branching out into the uncertain world of movie production, but I'll let you hear what he has to say about that in our interview available via this link. Books, movies and a setting in the world capital of money laundering – I'd not have been surprised if the movie was producing was about his own life!


08-07-08: Joe R. Lansdale Meets a 'Leather Maiden' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Translator Julie Rose

Texas-Fried Mystery

Staples – we give you a hand with your business!

It's been too long since I read a Texas mystery by Joe R. Lansdale. And just about the time I was thinking of giving up, along comes the enticingly-titled 'Leather Maiden' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; August 5, 2008 ; $23.95). I'll say this about the book; dont even bother to pick this one up and try to read it in the store, because about ten hours later, somebody is going to come along and tell you to stop reading and just buy the damn book, already. Lansdale is firing on all six, slick cylinders, and I'm not talking about internal combustion here. The sorts of cylinders that Lansdale fires tend to leave ugly holes in human flesh, and those who receive them either dead or mightily pissed off.

I know, I know, I'm drawing out the suspense. So no, this ain't no Hap & Leonard book. Yeah, more's the pity, as I miss my Hap & Leonard fix, but the fact of the matter is that I dont think readers are going to give a good god damn once the bookseller makes you cough up your hard-earned. OK, move along. Time to buy the sucker. Got it? Good. Here's as much of a précis as you're going to get from me with regards to the plot. Carson Statler is a Gulf War vet who volunteered for Afghanistan and feels like he got suckered into Iraq. Got himself a Pulitzer Prize nom back in the day, and got himself fired from the paper he was working on for screwing around with someone's wife and daughter. (In his defense, the daughter was in her thirties.) He comes back to his home town, gets a job with the local yokel paper and latches himself onto a mystery that will require solving and probably leave some folks less well-off than they were before he started poking around. Précis fini.

So sure, Lansdale returns to East Texas, not a big surprise. And it should come as no surprise that Lansdale writes a book so readable, so gripping, endearing, funny and pithy the the pages practically jump between your ears. I mean they just rocket into your brain in what is almost a parody of the typical reading experience. I literally had to tear this book out of my own hands to keep on track with the current title being deep-fixed for interview. Lansdale's prose, his ear for dialogue, his pacing – I absolutely loved this book from the get-go and felt the years, the days, the moments slipping by. Youre lucky to be reading this, because in a better world, I'd still be reading Lansdale. But this being the beat-up ol' world we gots, at least in the fullness of time all of us can. And I might mention that he's on tour on the West Coast, with dates, times and places available from this link. Yes, he writes some of the most sever horror and mystery ever published. But you read anything he's written and you'll find that Lansdale likes people; so you shouldnt be surprised that he is the nice guy he proves to be. Pop on over and see him, if you can, and if you can't pick up his book – but dont open it to start reading until after you buy it.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Translator Julie Rose : Unpacking 'Les Miserables'

Approaching two bricks, really.

Today my podcast is a conversation with translator Julie Rose about her phenomenal work on 'Les Miserables'. This is true English-teacher heaven, an in-depth look at a masterpiece and how it is re-created for those who cannot read the language in which it was written. Julie called me from Sydney, Australia to talk about her work on a book you need to read. The poor are ever with us – until we are the poor. You can hear our conversation covering a book brick thick enough to knock some sense into a modern politician here.


08-06-08 : Taking 'Flight' With 'Out of Picture' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Bookseller Mark V. Ziesing

Beyond the Underwear Perverts

In a summer when we're being bombarded with movies based on the exploits of underwear-clad superheroes (even if said underwear is metal and or leather – ouch!), it might be difficult to believe that there are comic books that dont involve insane geniuses who are either bent on destroying or saving the world. We elect those guys into office with the understanding that they won't walk around in their underwear in public, and we clearly dont require them to be geniuses. You want to blow up the world, you've just got to have enough hand-eye coordination to press a couple of buttons and say, "God bless America!" ; you want to save the world, well, start studying up on your Powerpoint presentation skills. Either way, nix on the undies.

This brings us to those who would save the world of comics, or as well call them when they attain more than a veneer of class, graphic novels, except for that, in this case, they aren't novels, but instead graphic short story anthologies; think an illustrated New Worlds or Orbit. Or even, gulp, McSweeney's, which is probably the best analogy. That would be a fine description of 'Out of Picture 2' (Villard / Random House ; June 3, 2008 ; $26) and 'Flight Volume Five' (July 22, 2008 ; $25).

Readers should know that I'm not particularly enamored of graphic novels and comics. But 'Flight' and 'Out of Picture' are clearly quite similar and both outside the boundaries of what used to be associated with these formats. I'll start with a look at 'Flight Volume V', which is issued in a 10.25" by 6.75" size. At 364 pages of gorgeously done 4-color, heavy-weight glossy paper, I really suspect that each volume might be actually losing money. Well, so be it. There are 21 stories in here at anywhere between 10 and 40 pages a pop, in a stunning variety of styles. Take for example painterly, wordless sequences of the opening story, Michael Gagné's "The Saga of Rex : The Broken Path." Mysterious, surreal, pretty and disturbing all at once, it pretty much single-handedly establishes the bona-fides for everything that follows. And pretty much everything that follows lives up to the promise of Gagné's work, though it's not all in the same style.

For example, admirers of the "steampunk" fashion brigade will likely enjoy "Delilah Dirk and the Aqueduct" by Tony Cliff, or "Big Dome: Flowers for Mama" by Paul Rivoche. If you liked Mike Dawson's 'Freddie and Me', you'd probably enjoy 'Béisbol 2' by Richard Pose or 'Worry Dolls' by J. P Ahonen. If you like complete weirdness, you've got 'Igloo Head and Tree Head in Disguise' by Scott Campbell. There are a lot more styles and a lot of them to like. The real revelation will come for those who have never opened up a collection like this before. It's simply astonishing to see the quality and variety on display. You might be tempted to put this sort of book on your coffee table, but dont expect that it will remain there.

This doesn't mean that every piece will work equally well for every reader, but it does suggest that just about any reader is going to find enough material within to be worth liking. Moreover, once you take the plunge, you might find you enjoy work that you originally suspected would not get your interest. Editor / Art Director Kazu Kibuishi (who did the cover you see scanned above) and Assistant Editors Kean Soo and Phil Craven, Associate Alfred Moscala and the talented Villard editor Chris Schluep round out the team who put this together. They have earned and deserve our time and money.

I wrote about the first issue of 'Out of Picture' last year, and this year's model is equally impressive. It's certainly an impressive size, 9" by 12" and 236 pages. So, yes, I did just do the math and square inches wise, they roll out to just about the same. Quality-wise, it's kind of a wash as well, ou can pick your poison depending on what size of book you prefer to carry around. 'Out of Picture' is the product of a pack of rogue animators from Pixar and Blue Sky, but even if you're immune to the charms of the stuff the studios produce (I am), again, open the book. It starts with a nice little joke of story, 'Sub Plotter' by Jason Sadler. Goofy, quirky and quick, it features a lively style and a nicely imagined story. Fans of Hayao Miyazaki's 'My Neighbor Totoro' will find a similar visual style on display in 'A Dream of Kyosuke' by Dice Tsutsumi. Nash Dunnigan's "Why Bother? : A Tale of Urban Relocation" is an illustrated story of gargoyles and pigeons; sweet, but not saccharine. There are others, all worth your time, and as you will see when you peel back the covers, quite a variety.

Discovering these collections is something of a revelation. They put me in mind of when I first stumbled across Metal Hurlant, re-titled Heavy Metal in the states back in the before time, or the first time I found a Terry Carr 'World's best SF' in the revolving rack at Zody's in Covina, California. There's an entirely new set of stories to be told; and means of reading them. Whats more, Villard is to be congratulated for putting together such a superb package. I just hope they turn enough of a profit to keep these series going. With 'Flight' at rev 5 and 'Out of Picture' at rev 2, things are looking quite good.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Bookseller Mark V. Ziesing : Signing

Mark is a shy robot bookseller.

Today's podcast takes us back to Shingletown, California and Mark V. Ziesing. He's just redone his website, and I talked to him about the re-design, the re-deployment and how much of a factor the web is in his sales. We also talked about the importance of word-of-mouth and how that works for a mail-order / web-based bookseller. Who tells who what when nobody necessarily knows one another from walking around town? What happens when your store is as big as the Internet? You can hear Mark's entertaining answers to these questions right here, and find out what he commands a fanatical customer loyalty by following this URL.


08-05-08: Agony Column Podcast News Report : David Weber vs Geekspeak

'By Schism Rent Asunder'

Organization man.

David Weber is organized. You have to be when youre the architect and writer of multiple science fiction series. He came down to KUSP studios to interview on GeekSpeak with myself, Lyle Troxell, Sean Cleveland and Ryder Brooks, and before the show talked about his incredibly complex web of universes, series and characters. His writing process is almost architectural; as he spoke I was reminded of a man who had to build several large shopping malls, keep the projects on time, under budget, with the added action item of narrative artistry. He's on tour for his newest novel, 'By Schism Rent Asunder' ( Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books ; July 22, 2008 ; $25.95), the second installment in his Safehold saga.

Safehold is Weber giving himself an opportunity to play in two genres at once. 'Off Armageddon Reef' sets up the scenario of humanity on the run from an alien race bent on our annihilation. On the planet of Safehold, they make a very familiar deal with the devil, sacrificing their human rights for safety. To ensure that we're not found, technology must be forbidden, and what better way to do so than put everyone in the grip of a merciless religion. The result is a world born in the science fiction genre that reads as if it were conceived in the fantasy genre. Of course, the collisions between religion, safety and personal freedoms as relevant to this world as they are to Weber's newest inimical universe.

Honor Harrington fans need not worry that Weber's flagship series was ignored. You can hear what happens when you lock three Geeks from GeekSpeak, once insomniac podcaster and a world famous science fiction writer in a radio studio and go live from this link.


08-04-08: A 2008 Interview with Charles Bamforth

Grape vs Grain

Charles Bamforth.

"Wine seems to have stolen the moral high ground," Charles Bamforth tells me, while we're both ensconced in the back room of the Capitola Book Café. Having just spoken with Benjamin Wallace about 'The Billionaire's Vinegar', I'd tend to agree, with the emphasis on stolen. Bamforth's book, 'Grape Vs. Grain : A Historical, Technological, and Social Comparison of Wine and Beer' is a wonderful, slim and elegant tract that offers a look not just at beverages, but the societies that produce and consume them.

Bamforth's book is admirably simple; History of wine, history of beer; churn through each aspect of each beverage. Bamforth is quite straightforward in his premise; he thinks beer's been given the short shrift in our culture, and he's out to right that wrong. He's certainly qualified. He spent 30 years at Bass in the UK, where he was the head of research. He's now the chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology and Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing sciences at the University of California, Davis, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. And yes, you will find out why the British drink their beer warm, and why beer is indeed the superior beverage. Bamforth makes a great case, and you can enjoy his low-key sense of humor in this link to our interview. Cheers!


Agony Column Review Archive