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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


10-17-08: Kirsten Menger-Anderson Examines 'Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : LitQuake / SF in SF Kage Baker Brings on the Brass

Quacks Like a Doctor

Head-measuring specialists.

I love a good story of quackery; it's a very Fortean subject, as those tales directly address the shortcomings of known science. For years, the standard bearer has been T. C. Boyle's sublime and hilarious 'The Road to Wellville', his tale of John Harvey Kellog and the perils of past medical theory. And for anyone who thinks we've advanced since that time, it would do well to remember that maggots are once again back in style as a means of consuming dead flesh, so it's not really helpful to think that we're beyond leeches. If so, weve only bumped up one level of animal phylum.

For those of us who like our medical advice uncertain and based on passing fancy, there can't be a better book than 'Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain' by Kirsten Menger-Anderson (Algonquin / Workman Books ; October 21, 2008 ; $22.95), which takes on several generations of medical mis-apprehensions and spins a series of stories following the Van Schuler / Steenwycks family from 1664 through 2006. It may not be a pretty picture of the world of medicine – modern and otherwise – but it's certainly entertaining and offers a vivid portrait of the shortcomings of so-called scientific belief.

The format here is very simple. Anderson takes us through thirteen generations of Van Schuler / Steenwycks (the Van Schulers disappear after the titular first generation), in a series of stories spanning 342 years. Anderson's powers as a short story writer serve her well in this time-travelling version of the mosaic novel. She won was shortlisted for the Short Story Award for New Writers from Glimmer Train, and the Iowa Review contest. Fortunately for my readers, she's not a writer of the navel-gazing sort, unless one is searching for bodily humours and means through which they may be extracted to obtain a cure for neurasthenia, say. In keeping with yesterday's post about Jeffrey Ford's 'The Physiognomy', she's got a phrenologist aboard, and in keeping with the Steampunk themes of this week's podcasts, she writes with verve and vigour about the history of New York city. This is the perfect book to keep you eating well, as when you read it you'll want to do anything and everything you can to keep the doctor away. If fiction must have uses then this is a very utile novel.

And indeed, to my mind, fiction must have uses. 'Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain' is much more than a compendium of medical mistakes and the odd side-roads taken by medical scientists in pursuit of understanding how we work. Menger-Anderson (even her name has a steampunk feel) gets to the human element in all this history, that combination of pride and fear that drives us to believe in something, well – unadvisable. Ourselves, alas.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : LitQuake / SF in SF Kage Baker Brings on the Brass : Sub-Mariners

We modern-day Americans weren't the first to decide that we needed submarines to fight box-cutter-wielding terrorists. No back in the day, when steam powered them subs instead of you-rain-ee-yum, well, Kage Baker's time-traveling doppelganger was hanging around to keep an eye on the action. You can hear her report on the matter, "Speed, Speed the Cable," offered to an attentive audience at the LitQuake / SF in SF Shindig of October the Ninth, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eight, by following this complicated series of tubes.


10-16-08: Mario Guslandi Reviews Ed Gorman's 'Cage of Night' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : LitQuake / SF in SF Richard Bottoms Speaks to the power of Steampunk

Ticket to Ride

From PS Publishing. Always worth your time and money.
Oh my – readers and fans of Mario Guslandi's reviews will be shocked to find the man who usually confines himself to collections of short stories has opted to read a novel.

Yes, you read right, a novel, and not just any novel, but one by master storyteller Ed Gorman. Like Mario, I believe that Gorman is a seriously under-appreciated writer here in the states, and the story that Mario tells about the reception of Gorman's 'Cage of Night' is simply astounding. I frankly think that publishers were being disingenuous in their reaction to Gorman's genre-bending tale, because that sort of genre-bending is all the mainstream rage right now.

You can't turn on the TV without seeing some combination of science fiction, horror and suspense, say '1984' meets 'The Manchurian Candidate' – and that's on the news channels! When it comes to fiction, well, the weirdness almost seems sedate in comparison with the turmoil taking place in so-called mundane reality. Those seeking the solace of a great story that will pull them in and make them forget the world around them need only read Mario's review of Ed Gorman's 'Cage of Night'. Your next stop will be the PS Publishing web site, or one of the many independent booksellers who will stock this title.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : LitQuake / SF in SF Richard Bottoms Speaks to the power of Steampunk : A Positive Vision

Bottoms and friend from publishing world.

The first person to speak at the LitQuake / SF in SF event was Richard Bottoms; a name that may be unfamiliar to you – And it was to me – but probably not for long. He's at the helm of and is instrumental in setting up the Steampunk Convention that will close out the month here in Northern California. It looks like I may finally get a chance to meet the VanderMeers. But I'll not count my VanderMeers before they hatch, given the object lessons of how things such as nest eggs can hatch and take flight before youre able to ... stop working every gods-damned day of your life. Not that I'd stop, but I may have to stop this if the nest eggs don't return in some form or another! But I digress. Richard Bottoms is a steam-powered mover and shaker; and you can hear his first speech to the SF in SF / LitQuake crowd from this-here link.


10-15-08: Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City Trilogy ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kage Baker, Terry Bisson, Richard Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale and Rudy Rucker on Steampunk

Golden Gryphon Trade Paperback Physiognomy

Click image to pop-up enlarged version.

Separated at birth.
One of the reasons that I spotlight first novels in my series for National Public Radio is that it's so easy to miss a great first novel if someone isnt shining a big ol' bright light on the thing and saying, "Looky-here, worth your valuable time!" Thus, I missed the very first edition of Jeffrey Ford's first book, 'The Physiognomy'. What I found was the EOS books, mass-market paperback re-issue that came out a year later. The trouble was that Avon Books next put out a trade paperback of the sequel, 'Memoranda', which I did get, and then a hardcover version of the final book in what then was called "The Well-Built City Trilogy", 'The Beyond', in hardcover. While I loved the books, the covers are sort of nothing-ish; they're not bad, but theyre nothing to write home about. Moreover, having the trilogy in three separate formats grates against every compulsive book-collecting bone in my body. But there was really nothing I could do about it – until now.

Those who have been listening to my podcast may recall an interview I did with John Picacio, where he talked about a project he was working on that has finally come to fruition; a single triptych painting that would be divided into covers for each entry in The Well-Built City Trilogy, to be re-issued in a unified trade paperback format by Golden Gryphon. Those books have just been released, and there's an investment that is well worth your valuable time and money; 'The Physiognomy', 'Memoranda' and 'The Beyond' (Golden Gryphon ; October 1, 2008 ; $14.95) are all available direct from the publisher, or via your favorite independent bookseller. Even if you have the originals in first eds, this is a great idea. They look beautiful, they're nicely printed, easy-to-read, and edge-cutting classics in a style that has not been explored.

The world that Ford creates in these books is unlike pretty much any other you'll find in what gets lumped under the rubric of "fantasy" these days. The Well-Built City is far leaner and more grotesquely simple than the sort swords-and-horses stuff that dominates the genre. Many critics have compared the first book in particular to Kafka, and I'd agree, to a point. There's a clean, crisp feel to the prose and the imagined world that really seems to have nothing at all to do with what is traditionally classified as fantasy. But no matter how you classify it, the trilogy is quite compelling, grueling and original. Wrapped in the work of one of today's best SF&F cover artists, this is a wonderful and affordable set of books that should call your name, and your attention to the publisher as well. Golden Gryphon has been doing stellar work in trade paperback of late; other entries include 'Harvest of Changelings' by Warren Rochelle, and 'Budayeen Nights' by George Alec Effinger. Follow these up with Jeffrey Ford, and your mind will be most excellently damaged. If this is the case, then perhaps Cley, the Physiognomist from Ford;s novel can schedule some corrective surgery.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Kage Baker, Terry Bisson, Richard Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale and Rudy Rucker on Steampunk : The Future Past

Terry Bisson, Rudy Rucker, Kage Baker, Richard Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale.

I'm starting off my podcast series from the LitQuake / SF in SF program from Thursday, October 9, 2008, with the panel discussion of SteamPunk, featuring Kage Baker, Terry Bisson, Richard Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale and Rudy Rucker. You can find the link to the podcast here. The discussion, as you might imagine, given the four volatile personalities takes some unexpected though always civil turns as the "positive" aspect of Steampunk gets the usual treatment from Lansdale, whom, it is instructive to remember, brought us The God of the Razors, among other deities. You know, if you ever find yourself in a Lansdale story, you might want to think twice about the power of prayer.


10-14-08: A 2008 Interview with Charlie Huston

From 'Every Last Drop' to Everyone's Last Gasp

No red paint in sight.
Charlie Huston is a one of those lucky writers who manages to get a lot of books published in a short span of time. It was less than a year ago when we got 'Half the Blood of Brooklyn', and now Huston's back with another Joe Pitt novel, 'Every Last Drop' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; September 30, 2008 ; $14). It's another hot rod to hell in novel form, with Joe Pitt once again employed by The Coalition to go undercover into a new clan, The Cure, who, you might correctly surmise, are seeking a cure for the Vyrus that causes vampirism.

As Charlie told me in the interview we recorded last week, he uses a lot of red paint for this one, and Joe' bleak world grows a darker shade of black. Do note that Charlie is always in fine form with these books, keeping them tense, terse and to-the-point; well many points, I'd have to concede, usually piercing flesh in ways both inventive and entertaining. Assuming that you're entertained by this level of violence and horror.

Still, for all the grue you encounter in a Joe Pitt casebook, there's a kind of deep appeal to this character, who is both a literally-bloodthirsty killer and a noir knight in dark armor. He's truly human in ways that keep the character compelling and compulsively readable. It's probably too cold to sit on the porch and read his in one sitting; but this perfect for fodder for reading by the first fire of the year. Burn something and read Charlie Huston.

In the dead of the winter, you'll be able to get another dose of a rather different Huston, 'The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death' (Ballantine / Random House ; January 13, 2009 ; $25). Yes, he still uses the red paint, but leaves the source off-screen for his tale of Web Goodhue, a slacker type who falls into a new occupation; crime-site cleaning. Of course, this isnt the sort of fall that comes without injury and Web soon finds that cleaning up is only part of his job. The wrong woman, the answer to the wrong question, it's easy to go ... wrong.

Esier said than done.

I talked with Huston about his latest two novels, and I'll let you hear him tell me his plans with regards to both Joe Pitt and Web Goodhue. But wait; there's more, because the prolific Huston has more Pitt in the hopper, plans for Goodhue beyond erasure and something totally different up his sleeve as well. By now, you should know to have Huston on your auto-buy list. There's a lot of future in the future; here's a link to the MP3 that will tell you how far the future can reach.


10-13-08: A 2008 Interview with Naomi Klein Explores 'The Shock Doctrine' ; Agony Column Broadcast Radio Pledge Drive : Support Your Agony

"One of the really dangerous parts of an economic shock like this is just the complexity of it"

A hole in our lives.
For all the talk of technologically-accelerated change, there's nothing like an economic disaster to throw the world into fast-forward. When the difference between each day can be easily measured in trillions of dollars lost or transferred from one class to another, any technology beyond those of the economy seem rather irrelevant. Naomi Klein is the kind of visionary who sees our future in economic terms; in fact, it's starting to seem as if she saw the present about a year ago when 'The Shock Doctrine' (Picador / Henry Holt ; June 24, 2008 ; $16) was first released as a hardcover.

Klein has a fascinating approach and thesis. She calls her book an "alternative history," but it's not speculative fiction. Instead, she examines at the last forty or so years of history from a new perspective, viewing the rise of the so-called "free market economy" championed by Milton Friedman as a violent conquest rather than the peaceful unfolding of natural economic evolution.

Naomi Klein manages to smile!
From the overthrow of Salvador Allendé in Chilé to the razing of New Orleans by Katrina, Klein offers example after example of how the powerful have harnessed natural and man-made disasters to unmake existing, stable economies and replace them with ruinous "free market" capitalism that transfers wealth from the poor to the rich and leave the victims with precious little.

Klein is currently touring and talking about her book as well as the present economic crisis. She'll be at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz on Friday, October 17, at 7:30 PM. You can get tickets for that event at the Capitola Book Café and the Resource Center for Non-Violence. Here's a link to the rest of her tour dates.

Klein is clear, passionate and very down-to-earth in her book and was equally so when I spoke to her on the phone. For all that we might have liked to believe that our economy was beyond shock, that's now quite clearly not the case. Change is happening so fast, it might seem impossible to keep up, but Klein offers a pretty clears vision of what is happening now, why it is happening and how we can keep a grip on our world, our lives and our economy. It's not all about disaster; we can, she says, resist; and in fact that is what's happening. It's time to clear the air and prepare for economically-accelerated change. Here's the MP3 to introduce you to 'The Shock Doctrine'.

Support Your Agony

Today is the Pledge Drive on NPR affiliate KUSP; I'm running the Food Panel with Mollie Katzen, Michael Pollan and Ann Vileisis. I've got ten Molly Katzen cookbooks to give away, and a $500 matching grant. I'm hoping there are at least ten brave readers out there willing to support this podcast and broadcast by joining up and picking up a great cookbook. I'm not a vegetarian; in fact, I've long been more of a meatatarian. But back when I decided to talk to Mollie Katzen, they sent me her book and I tried some recipes and found them totally wonderful. They're now staples at our house. You can help this column, and this podcast and get a free cookbook.

By the end of this week, I'll be making my 500th podcast – every one free. And what I have coming up is quite stellar; though I'm going to keep you in the dark about them until they get podcast. But, at 10¢ a podcast, plus getting the book, well, I hope that some of you out there think its worth supporting. I'd especially appreciate a phone call during the show; 1-800-655-5877, from 6 PM – 7 PM PDT. Or, you can pledge on the web during those hours, at Whatever your choice, now is the time to support this venture, which has remained advertising-free and independent for nearly seven years. Thanks; your attention is greatly appreciated.


Agony Column Review Archive