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12-19-14: Mark Samuels 'Written in Darkness'

Sinkholes of Despair

It is all too human to feel despair, and oh so easy to fall in love with it. Those moments of anguish that nobody can avoid, their chill darkness, the numbing of our colonized minds, they all offer us the bliss of oblivion. Blot out our thoughts. Let us slide from life.

Mark Samuels' short story collection 'Written in Darkness' bubbles up out of those depths and with each story, slips us as readers another comforting round of numb. This is an abyss that is not content to merely gaze back. For Samuels, nothingness is everything.

The collection is short, a mere 128 pages, but feels full. Reading 'Written in Darkness' is the literary equivalent of an ice bath. You're engulfed. If you survive, and you will, you will want more. Start with the elegant presentation. Egaeus Press books are offered sans dust jacket, and the creepy, indistinct but uglifying image on the cover, overlaid with a satiny red scrawl, upsets you before you begin reading. Stay that way, upset. Cling to life.

| Reggie Oliver offers a brief but incisive introduction, followed by nine stories. And though that chill feeling, almost like an anesthesia that leaves you deadened but able to witness your own surgery, is consistent throughout the collection, the stories display a nice variety of textures. "A Call to Greatness" offers, inside a wrapper, a historical narrative with tinges of the fantastic, about a Tartarean warlord. "The Other Tenant" evokes urban isolation in a highly concentrated prose form.

| "An Hourglass to the Soul" is the first stake in Samuels' march (in this volume) to craft a sort of hybrid gothic science fiction. It's the dark and disturbing tale of an IT worker sent to complete an unhappy assignment. "The Ruin of Reality" takes another firm step in this direction, as the outfall from our recent economic decline is re-imagined as a sort of bureaucratic nightmare. Samuels language, his prose and pacing show a real mastery of mood.

The story "Alastair" loops back in on the family, as Samuels crafts an unbalanced father who cannot compete with his wife and his own son. In "My World Has No Memories" a man must rebuild his life in a dark and dreary city. While there's a bit of the personal here, the setting and mood tack back towards Samuels' vision of a post-industrial slow-pocalypse. "Outside Interference" crystallizes these themes, and establishes itself as the centerpiece of the collection. Here Samuels fleshes out his doomed cubicle farm workers and brings bit of hell to earth in his own unique manner. The prose and descriptions are truly stunning, dark and moody.

The collection concludes with "In Eternity Two Lines Intersect," a story that finds another isolated narrator on the edges of life who arrives to a similar conclusion as those before but who takes that ending in an inverted fashion, finding ecstasy rather than despair. It proves to be just as unnerving, and yet offers a nice shading to all that has come before.

Samuels' work in this collection is really quite unique, part science-fiction horror, part mystical horror with a very nice dose of up-to-date cubicle farm depression. His prose and style are rather mannered, but these are manners that grow on you even as they pull you into the darkness within which Samuels dwells. 'Written in Darkness' is an essential buy for those who enjoy unusual fiction. Darkness, you will discover, can be tempting.




12-16-14: Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardner 'Grow It, Heal It'

Natural and Effective Herbal Remedies from Your Garden or Windowsill

The practices are ancient, some more than 5,000 years old. In another age, not so long ago, really, Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardner would have been called hedgerow witches. But what was once sorcery is now science.

Happily, we've come far enough in both our cultural acceptance and our scientific understanding to realize that as amazing as modern medicine may be, ancient medicine has some pretty astonishing lessons to learn from as well. An easy and practical way to do so is Hobbs' and Gardner's beautiful book, 'Grow it, Heal It: Natural and Effective Herbal Remedies from Your Garden or Windowsill.' What so great about this is that, yes, it is science, but not rocket science, or even garden science. Rank amateurs and armchair agriculturalists are invited, and easily able to participate in this party.

The setup here is smartly simple. There's a nice introduction that lays out where the authors are coming from and where you're headed when you read the book. From there, the book is divided into flour sections; Know It, with a list of 50 herbs, what they're good for and how to grow them, Grow It, with more detailed instructions for setting up a variety of home gardens; windowsill, front yard, back yard, planters, etc; Make It, how to cure, dry, produce teas, tinctures and more; and Heal It, a guide to how you can use what you have grown.

Make no mistake, the authors are all about care and caution. It's obvious, but repeated early and often in this book, that acute illness requires a doctor's appointment. That said, there are lots of great cures to be found in here that are all-natural, the virtue of which is becoming increasingly underscored by scientific research. Until they're growing us over at Monsanto, natural products have an intuitive and actual advantage. Nothing here is seen as a re-placement for the doc-in-a-box, but rather, as a low-key way of nipping some problems in the buds, often with buds. (No, not those!)

One of the attractions of this book is the lovely layout. Credit Rodale with making this a book that is perfect for perusing before you head out to your local independent garden store to pick up some of the plants described, from Aloe Vera to Yerba mansa. The authors offer a wide range of herbs, but not so many as to seem overwhelming. Clearly, they've learned the virtues of brevity.

Ultimately and charmingly, what you get here is a cookbook for natural remedies. At the very least, you get a guide to growing some interesting and easily maintained herbs. At best, you get to replace some of the more noxious pills in your medicine cabinet with something you created. You'll know everything in the remedy, which is itself a source of comfort.

Whether or not you think yourself the sort of person who would grow herbs, 'Grow It, Heal' proved readers with an easy-on-the-eye guide to growing plants that may prove useful beyond being green things in your immediate vicinity that you have brought to life. But even meeting that baseline is not a bad place to start. Growing anything is itself a healing experience.

[Disclosure Note: I am currently creating a Living Well podcast for Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems, who employ Christopher Hobbs.]



New to the Agony Column

12-19-14: Commentary : Mark Samuels 'Written in Darkness' : Sinkholes of Despair

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Audio Review of Mark Samuels 'Written in Darkness' : "This is an abyss that is not content to merely gaze back."

12-16-14: Commentary : Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardner 'Grow It, Heal It' : Natural and Effective Herbal Remedies from Your Garden or Windowsill

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Christopher Hobbs : "I want to integrate both the traditional uses and the traditional wisdom and knowledge and experience with modern science."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 187: Christopher Hobbss : Grow It, Heal It

12-09-14: Commentary : Tad Williams Is Caught 'Sleeping Late on Judgment Day' : As Below, So Above

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Tad Williams : ...Heaven and Hell couldn't be an open, on-going dramatic conflict; it would be more like the Cold War."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 186: Tad Williams : Sleeping Late on Judgment Day

12-04-14: Commentary : Anne Rice Crowns 'Prince Lestat' : A Unified Theory of Vampires

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Anne Rice : "I have to woo him..."

12-03-14: Commentary : Andrew Michael Hurley Returns from 'The Loney' : A Matter of Faith

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Four Books With Alan Cheuse : : Maureen Corrigan So We Read On, Casey Walker Last Days in Shanghai, Ron Rash Something Rich and Strange, Nicholson Baker Traveling Sprinkler

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 185: Anne Rice : Prince Lestat

12-01-14: Commentary : Back to Darkness : Re-Visiting 'Darkscapes'

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Anne-Sylvie Salzman : "You really have to enter a world and it's not some kind of guided tour."

11-22-14: Commentary : William Gibson Connects 'The Peripheral' : Time Life Books

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with William Gibson : "...recalibrate my yardstick of weirdness..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 184: William Gibson : The Peripheral

11-19-14: Commentary : David Greene Catches 'Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia' : The Character(s) of a Country

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with David Greene : "It was very easy to literally just tell their stories..."

11-17-14: Commentary : Azar Nafisi Resides In 'The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books' : Choose Your World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Azar Nafisi : "I wanted to show how close reality and fiction are..."

11-15-14: Commentary : Cary Elwes Delivers 'As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride' : Re-Reading and Re-Viewing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Cary Elwes : "...an unwise decision on my part..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 183: Azar Nafisi : The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

11-10-14: Commentary : Dana Cowin 'Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen' : Learning to Cook — and Live

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Dana Cowin : "...so I add a little more citrus..."

11-09-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 182: Dana Cowin : Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook with 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes

11-06-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi and A. S. King : "You're handing us all the problems..." Paolo Bacigalupi "That gray area is so important for readers..." A. S. King

11-05-14: Commentary : A. S. King Foresees 'Glory O'Brien's History of the Future' : Halls of Mirrorsr

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with A. S. King : "How much do we really change?"

11-04-14: Commentary : Paolo Bacigalupi Believes In 'The Doubt Factory' : Thrills Matter

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi : "...these are perfectly nice people..."

10-30-14: Commentary : Brian J. Showers Opens 'The Green Book, Issue 4' : 200 Years of Le Fanu

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 181: Paolo Bacigalupi : The Doubt Factory

10-27-14: Commentary : Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers Recall 'Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J. S. Le Fanu' : New Stories for an Antiquary

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Brian J. Showers : "I have a lot reference materials on my desk..."

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