05-04-13:Reasons Not to Leave the House, Reality Check
The Truth Hurts Edition
I really don't have the time to be doing this, but these four non-fiction books are already in my hands in hardcover, which means they could be in yours soon. They're all compelling works that cover a variety of perspectives, with one common thread. The news is not good. Things are decidedly not looking up.
What is certainly looking up, however, is our ability to articulate just what's wrong with the world in manner that at least allows the possibility of understanding the potentiality for change. Not that every book in this group is a clarion call for change. But each of these books are compelling and involving reading experiences that will wrap you up in this world. When you're set free, what was once invisible will be easily seen. It can not, however, be so easily unseen.
'Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession' by Barbara Garson (Doubleday / Random House ; April 2, 2013 ; $26.95) is a fascinating work that might remind readers of Charles Dickens as much as Studs Terkel. Garson makes quick work of her subject. You'll get a prescient memoir to introduce the book, and then a look at where we've all ended up, roughly divvied up into three categories; our jobs, our homes and our savings. The verb to keep in mind here is wither. Garson creates a large cast of nicely and economically (in the literary sense) drawn characters who have been part of our collective ride downward, even as we're promised better pie in a higher sky.
Garson herself is an interesting character as well, as she finds out how these people live and the things that they need to do to get by. I'd be remiss to leave out the attraction of reading a book in which you are pretty certain to find real people taking the same shortcuts and resorting to the same "necessity isn't desperate" measures that you as a reader are taking. 'Down the Up Escalator' is an unhappily accurate mirror, written with verve and intelligence that make informed self-reflection a compelling reading experience.
Truth and lies wrap up every family, but in Scott C. Johnson's family, everyone's problems were compounded by the fact that his father, he ultimately learned, as a teenager, worked for the CIA. Father-son relationships are difficult at best, but this added an unimaginable layer to the problem. If your father deceives people for a living, what makes you thinks he's being straight with you at home? Scott Johnson ended up as a reporter for Newsweek, and in 'The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son and the CIA' (W. W. Norton & Company ; May 20, 2013 ; $26.95), he tells a story that finds father and son working different sides of the divide in the aftermath of 9/11.
Mexico, Madrid, Baghdad — the father and son story is cross-hatched with the most compelling stories of a war that seems to have had no start and clearly has no end. Johnson's narrative drive is intense and his sense of story at two levels, personal and international, is superb. The power of this book is to offer a vision of the very personal cost of impersonal politics. It's difficult to put down and tough to forget. This is good; readers will find that no matter how uncomfortable some of this is, it is the sort of discomfort that we cannot afford to revise.
Revision is at the heart of 'The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry' by Gary Greenberg (Blue Ryder Press / Penguin Group ; May 2, 2013 ; $28.95). I will admit to having a copy of the DSM III on my shelves. If one might be inclined to write fiction about the mentally ill, it seems only fair to have some comprehension as to what the official definitions of this term might mean. But we are way past that point, with the release of DSM-5 imminent. Greenberg's book suggests that this is not an event to be celebrated. 'The Book of Woe' offers a look at how we will view ourselves and how the government, medical and insurance industries will use the newly revised book to turn many everyday experiences into diagnosable mental illnesses that can follow your around for the rest of your life.
What's interesting here is that Greenberg's book gets to the heart of how we define ourselves, how we decide who and what is "human." It also shines an unflattering light on a sieve through which we are all passed whether we know it or not. Knowledge is power, and knowing what the DSM-5 says and does may be the difference between madness and sanity for those who read this book. You may be terrorized by what you read here, but you'll also be informed and made aware. The first step towards solving any problem is recognizing that it exists.
Readers looking for a light-hearted (comparatively speaking) finish can follow up with 'Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight' by M. E. Thomas (Crown Books / Random House ; May 14, 2013 ; $25.00). She's a diagnosed sociopath, and while the book draws from her blog, sociopathworld.com, the real draw here is crisp, sharp prose used as a scalpel to dissect a society where a diagnosed mental illness is a good thing, something that go-getters had better go get, the better to get ahead, preferably by placing your foot on some unfortunate's back.
To the degree that sociopathy can be fun, Thomas makes it so by offering frank-beyond-frank visions her life and others. Not surprisingly, 'Confessions of a Sociopath' is quite well-organized. You learn just what one is, you see her in action, you get religion, crime, confession and not a single drop of confusion. There are no appy-polly-loggies here. What you will find is great writing, clear vision, a fascinating subject and, if you are unlucky, a perfect mirror in which to regard your own visage.
What's abnormal about all of these books is that they manage to achieve two very different goals. In and of themselves, they are all compelling, even exciting to read. For me they're page-turners. But more than this, these are books that show us the world around us in a manner that is both involving and accurate. These books feel right, even as they tell us that we, and the world around us and ever so wrong.
05-01-13:Mario Guslandi Reviews An Emporium of Automata by DP Watt
"...from the bizarre to the grotesque, from the baroque to the uncanny..."
If you ask me what kind of writer is DP Watt, my answer is that it's hard to tell. Partly a horror writer, partly a new "decadent", by all means a creator of weird fiction, somewhere between ETA Hoffmann and Ligotti. The present collection (previously published in hardcover edition from Ex Occidente Press) effectively represents the many faces of this eclectic author continuously shifting from the bizarre to the grotesque, from the baroque to the uncanny. Thus, predictably enough, some stories are engrossing and delightful, other irritant and unaccomplished, some downright boring. Which ones are which, it depends , I guess, on the reader's personal taste and sensitivity.
I'll mention here the stories that I found more compelling and I'll ignore those which left me perplexed or annoyed. Generally speaking the best pieces (at least to me) are those where there's a definite plot, with a beginning and an ending, in other words where the writer acts as a storyteller. Call me an old traditionalist, if you wish.
"All His Worldly Goods" is an excellent mix of horror and nostalgia where a copy of Montague Summers' famous "The Supernatural Omnibus" keeps haunting a lonely bookshop clerk while "Erbach's Emporium of Automata" is a tantalizing tale about childhood memories, describing an odd emporium of mechanical toys and its unspeakable secrets.
In the offbeat and disturbing "The Butcher's Daughter" the appalling private affairs of a recently deceased old lady are finally revealed when a couple of newly-weds goes to live in her former house.
There are a couple of ghostly tales, the first ("Room 89") slightly in the fashion of MR James, enjoyable enough but which could have been greatly improved by trimming some overlong and a bit tedious sections, the second ("Telling Tales"), an enigmatic, well crafted story revolving around a conversation on the phone between and old lady and a mysterious informer.
"1<_0" is the disquieting report of the gradual physical and spiritual disappearance of a man becoming quite invisible to his own family.
I doubt it that six good stories out of a collection of twenty-one can constitute a sufficient reason to interest the average reader and convince him/her to buy a copy, On the other hand if you're a daring person ready to experiment with unusual types of fiction, introspective journeys into the human psyche and you're not as old fashioned as I am to require stories with a clear-cut plot and actual characters, I suspect you will greatly enjoy this offbeat book.
04-29-13:Ben Katchor Catalogues 'Hand Drying in America'
Subversive Cities of the Heart
The fantastic imagination can find an outlet in what at first glance appears to be a very ordinary world. The stuff of our lives is settled into a comfortable, familiar configuration, but the introduction of a simple invention or innovation can turn our world upside-down.
In his comic strips for Architectural Digest, Ben Katchor crafts low-key but wildly imaginative twists on the here-and-now to create fantastic visions that have the veneer of everyday reality. His newest book, 'Hand Drying In America,' is at once a mind-boggling work of alternate history and a powerful indictment of contemporary American society, but the stories seem only slightly surreal and entirely plausible. They're quick parables with the mind-altering power of smart philosophy wrapped up in goofy stories that glance down dead-end alleys with a combination of mordant humor and wistful nostalgia.
'Hand Drying In America' is a gorgeously produced, large format hardcover with full-color, slick pages; in 160 pages you get 160 stories, including the endpapers. The story that unfolds across the endpapers is indicative of the acerbic, ascetic visions in the book. In it, Katchor follows a reporter who finds out just how economically and ecologically destructive it is to produce books like 'Hand Drying In America.' Pantheon is well known for producing great books, and this is no exception, other than the fact that it tells you just how bad this all is. Consider yourself warned. This is just the first subversion and you've not even arrived on the title page.
What follows are 159 stories that generally speaking, tweak one aspect of reality and, in a single page, follow the implications of that tweak to the point where the absurdity of the world created only points back to the absurdity of our world. Whether he is exploring the sound of a light switch or "The Providential Twine Center," Katchor creates his world with an enjoyable rigor and a shaggy drawing style that easily captures the chaos of the cities he portrays. He utterly immerses you in his world for exactly one page. Then you're out, and what you see around seems transformed.
Katchor's ability to creating elements of the fantastic that seem almost logical and yet are utterly mind-boggling is consistently amazing. To the degree that he does so time and time again, this book is probably best read in small doses, but even if your binge and read through the whole thing in one or two sittings, you will find that he creates world you can easily revisit.
The strips are tricky on every level, in the best of all possible senses. Each story is easily read; the visuals and the carefully lettered text flow well. But the ideas are quite sophisticated and the prose is very smart. It sustains being read aloud on its own; if you try this, the stories feel like surreal prose poems. The sketched, causal feel of the art combined with a very precise use of colors combine to establish an everyday urban gestalt. The places you visit feel real. It's as if Katchor has been to all the parts of whatever city you live in that your have not managed to visit yet.
'Hand Drying in America' is ultimately a very odd duck, a subversive work of alternate history and a gnarly interrogation of what we have come to accept. Katchor's stories, powerful and resonant, all ask questions that tempt the readers of those stories to ask questions, and not just of the author or the stories themselves, but also of the world that surrounds them. It is, not surprisingly, like an artifact from one of the worlds it creates, a troubling wedge that slides into the bricks of our beliefs and upsets a balance that we did not know to exist. Read it at your own risk; watch the walls of your world come tumbling down.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]