Reading is by definition a referential act. Every book you pick up harkens to every one you’ve ever read before. Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, ups the ante in this regard. With Laurence A. Rickels, he’s written a companion volume titled The Blot. A Gambler’s Anatomy stands alone as another exciting entry in Lethem’s oeuvre, different from most of what he’s written before, and uniquely weird. But readers looking for the truly unique and inspiring reading experience can read both books. Between The Blot and A Gambler’s Anatomy, you’ll be able to re-frame not just the reality created by the writers, but your own as well.
In A Gambler’s Anatomy, a charming unsettling young man named Alexander Bruno is in Singapore, steeling himself for another victory in high-stakes baccarat. Bruno has lots on his mind; money problems, luck issues, a childhood marked by abandonment and abuse, but it’s still alarming to him when he passes out during a game. Worse still is the news; the cause of “the blot,” a sort of hole in his vision, will require brain surgery. Bruno, who has long suffered from telepathy, is worried the surgery might harm his gift, which rarely works, alas, when he needs it to. Still, he not so happy messing with his brain.
Lethem, on the other hand, is having an absolute hoot messing with the readers’ brains. A Gambler’s Anatomy is a tense, disturbing novel, a Kafkaesque plunge into nightmare and identity. Lethem’s mordant humor is present, of course, and it is darker than dark as he balances readers on the knife-edge of terror and laughter. Lethem, who has always written with an undercurrent of existential horror, takes the next logical step here into body horror, in a scene of mid-boggling bravura. A Gambler’s Anatomy will keep you in terrorized with wonder as tangled emotions and re-jiggered bodies are forcefully re-assembled by the cruel machineries we make so well for ourselves.
And A Gambler’s Anatomy would be enough by itself. That said, pick up The Blot by Lethem and Laurence A. Rickels to have your prose world upended again, as the crisp sentences of Lethem’s novel are annihilated in the onslaught of intense discussion between Rickels, a critic and Lethem. They met at a conference on the work of Philip K. Dick, which is an excellent clue as to the direction their conversation about the novel pursues. Suffice it to say that the discussion is fast, wild, and filled with the kind of prose fireworks you will want to read aloud but would be wise not to. Even if you haven’t read the novel, reading this exegesis will make you feel as if you have been cleaning your brain with a wire brush. And reading both, you’ll probably be able to feel that piece of the rock that Lethem is holding in the photo above – an inspiration for the work [From Berlin!] that he discusses in our interview.
The upshot is that either The Blot or A Gambler’s Anatomy is a wonderful, wild read on its own. But put together, they offer readers what was easily one of the most intriguing and unusual and powerful reading experiences of last year. Physically, they make a nice pair; The Blot certainly has an eye-catching cover. Imagine discussing neurosurgery and self-image with Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Kakfa to a backdrop of special make-up effect shots from David Cronenburg movies. Don’t look away. Hang on every word. Your very life depends on it.
Veronica Roth is a perfect example of a new generation of science fiction writers, who grew up “in a world,” so to speak, where science fiction has always been popular fiction. This has not always been the case. Having wowed the world with her dystopian Divergent quartet (three novels plus a collection of short stories), she’s returned to craft a new universe in Carve the Mark. This time, she leaves the Earth behind to find star-crossed lovers in an interplanetary war.
The setup starts on the planet Thuvhe, where Akos and his family are headed for a sort of celebration. Cue in “the current,” which runs through all living things, and is handily visible so as to make them more, well – readable. The connection provided by the current is unsurprisingly a two-edged blade, especially in the hands of Cyra. Her power is a kind of “counter-empathy,” and it is as political as it is personal.
Roth introduces us to her new world in medias-res – world-building is left to readers, who will enjoy putting together the puzzle pieces as the characters are built, layer-by-layer. Roth lets the readers join her characters as they discover their own world anew. Readers looking for a new take on space opera need look no farther. Think of Carve the Mark as space opera’s grandchild. EE “Doc” Smith would be proud!
We must communicate with one another in order to live. How we do so shapes our lives. Being aware of how we present and process data is our best hope of staying in front of our stories, as opposed to catching up and trying to explain. There are, of course, entire professions and swathes of life that offer advice and opportunities to learn or sharpen our communication skills. You can fill libraries with the books. In those libraries, you will find four books by Edward R. Tufte; The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, and Beautiful Evidence. They will be the most beautiful books you will see – perhaps ever. Part and parcel with all that beauty, expect to find the sort of truths you can use on daily basis.
“You have to stay close to the empirical, observed world, and it has to have some credibility, some truth value…” Edward R.Tufte
Tufte’s strength is perfectly summarized in the title of his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. To say that the book is well-written is to miss much of the point, because the book is not so much written as composed, which is to say that every element on every page, every illustration, space, word, graphic, or chart is perfectly integrated, placed and printed so as to convey the most meaning with the most pleasure and the least effort. Four books, some seven-hundredish pages, and every single page is a frameable work of art, even when the pages themselves are discussing framed works of art.
In these four volumes, Tufte tells you everything you need to know to communicate effectively using all the tools now at your disposal, thanks to Moore’s Law and the ever-increasing specifications of displays, software and hardware. That said, Tufte is not about technology. For Edward Tufte, the equation that matters is, “In truth, beauty.” Crafting the proper framework for gathering the information, organizing the input and careful analysis of the data are requirements for presenting it in a manner that is both beautiful and effective.
Make no mistake about it, these are books that you will refer to early and often. They please the eye with every page and make you think with every paragraph and every mind-boggling juxtaposition that Tufte creates. In Visual Explanations, Tufte devotes a chapter to magic as a means of conveying disinformation. If you understand how to do something backwards, doing it forwards stands a better chance at becoming intuitive behavior.
Thankfully, Tufte, an accomplished sculptor and artist, does not simply send down a message from his mountain every seven years or so. He spends that much time printing the books himself so he can achieve levels of clarity that are simply stunning. When he’s not composing a book, Tufte teaches a one-day course that includes all four books and a tight performance that drops the essentials into your brain. It’s the kind of class you never forget, because you will use what you’ve learned pretty much any time you have to communicate. It’s happily sticky stuff. His take on a graphic associated with the Napoleonic wars will definitely turn your head around.
Tutfe and I talked about the durability of books as a technology, and using graphics as characters, his sculpture, and some of the details in his books and seminar. I have to thank Jeffrey Freymann, who introduced me to Tufte’s work many years ago, and Moira Gunn, who introduced me to Edward Tufte while I was waiting at KQED. And of course, I have to thank Edward Tufte, not just for his great work, books I can look at for the rest of my life, an amazing course that has already helped my presentations – but also for the great conversation you can download by following this link, or listen to below.
It’s been just about a hundred years since the “West” (at the time, the “victors” of World War I) enacted a solution that caused more problems that it ever solved. Britain, France, America, we all got in the game and divided the Middle East into countries that suited our notions – and ignored centuries of history and habitation. The war’s over, they have their land – what could go wrong?
Hindsight can be 20/20, and when deployed with the grace and economy found in A Path to Peace: A Brief History of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East, by George J. Mitchell and Alon [pronounced “alone”] Sachar, it can be revelatory. In this case, brevity is your friend. Mitchell and Sachar dig in and serve up a remarkably complicated history in a tight narrative. The upshot is to make perfectly clear the policies and events that have turned one of the central sources for spirituality in this world into a hot zone of continuous conflict.
The writing here is as crisp and precise as you might hope for from the best of our greatest diplomats. The unending terror and violence, in context, are comprehensible even as they set back the peace process. The authors show a thorough understanding of all sides in the conflict, and their recommendations are low-key and do-able – with a will to peace.
Make no mistake. This is not going to be easy; the authors write, however, with a hopeful feeling that goes a long way towards making compromise thinkable and attractive. The authors clearly believe that sacrifice is the best and bravest path forward. “We believe there must come a time when both parties are willing to take the painful and politically difficult steps that will be necessary to reach an agreement.”
For all the disharmony that surrounds us, the authors are quick to note that US Policy on the matter has remained the same through both Republican and Democratic presidencies. We are indeed the United States on this point. The most powerful aspect of this book is the quiet persistence embodied here. Both of these men have worked hard to bring about a change they may not see in their lifetimes. This book makes it easy for us to understand why, and share their hope.
Meeting these two men in person was the kind of honor that does not even get the proper air time during our conversation. I was quite happy to hear George Mitchell mention Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East when we spoke. It’s the perfect follow-on to this book. And this book is the perfect follow-on to this conversation with George Mitchell and Alon Sachar together. Here’s a link to download the conversation. Or just listen below.
I have many quite specific book-buying memories. Among them is visiting Bookshop Santa Cruz in 1995, where I found a book I had to have by a team of writers I’d never heard of – Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I loved the hell out of that book, and the others that followed. The Agent Pendergast novels and both writers’ other work, fiction and non-fiction, were reliable jolts of pure reading pleasure.
I must admit then, that my first thought about The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story was, “Hmmm — sounds like a non-fiction version of Relic without the monsters … [presumably].” This makes sense, because Relic itself was originally conceived of without monsters. And the first thing I asked Douglas Preston about when I spoke to him via Skype before his appearance next week at Book Passage in Corte Madera was whether or not it might end up as fodder for a Pendergast gig.
But my main point of interest in this mini-interview was the intersection between technology and archaeology. On one hand we like to think that all the tech in the world has made it all known to us. The Lost City of the Monkey God makes it clear that there are still things we can discover. I talked to Preston about lidar, and the advent of the 21st Century Gentleman Explorer, and how well that image and those actions played for academics and archaeologists. The bottom line is that everyone wants the tech, but it is delicate, expensive and bits are still classified.
Here’s a link to our conversation, or you can listen below. Stay tuned for an in-depth interview and review. And even if you find poisonous, tiny critters particularly terrifying, don’t worry. You’re not likely to meet them outside o the Lost City. And if you do, well … at least you will have been on the cutting edge.
Evolution is a process that is by definition invisible – it happens too slowly. It’s not just the speed though, it’s the results, all around, that seem, well, underwhelming. Evolution does what works, which is generally unspectacular. Except in those species when it is forced to some extreme, in which case, evolution’s shovel-ready face is made plain. Matt Simon is your man so far as evolution’s extremes go. His book The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems is engaging, fun to read, well and thoroughly illustrated. It’s non-fiction horror at its best.
Each section of the book offers up stories and illustrations of critters that have come to an unusual and generally creepy evolutionary solution to the usual problems; feeding, avoiding being fed upon, mating, protecting your young – all the things humans do, but we generally do them in (what we, at least, consider to be) a more straightforward manner. While some of these weekday monsters might be known to readers, for example the Angelerfish, or the, uh… wow these are all freaking weird! And generally under-advertised, so to speak. All the better to creep you out and fill you with wonder.
The one-two punch of great prose writing and great illustrations should sell this book to all but the most weird-averse readers. Simon is a great presence. He has a low-key sense of humor that is always kept in perfect check. He knows how to tweeze the reader’s distress-level with an alarming ease. Each critter is covered in just the right length of verbiage. He’ll digress on occasion, but is always on point. It’s like having the great fortune to accidentally run into the most interesting person at the party.
The illustrations are a key part of the book’s power. Vladimir Stankovic’s work is beautifully drawn even when he is showing us something truly unpleasant, like the Tongue-Eating Isopod. It’s conceptually horrific, explained in dismaying detail by the ever-cheerful Simon, and as drawn by Stankovic, both cute and creepy. That is not a target that is easily conceived of, and these two bull’s eye the hell out of it in this book. It’s really fun, so much so that you may not realize that your consciousness is being colonized by Simon’s take on evolution.
Moreover, on a sheer readability scale, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems is most likely an 11. It’s impossible not to pick this up and peruse through it to the degree where it will give even the Internet a run for its money on your attention. And rest – or unrest, as the case may be – assured that you will hit the Internet afterwards, to find out more. It’s possible this book itself may be an argument for evolution. The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar is in some ways a precursor of the literary world to come. Which is to say that they haven’t killed off the book yet, though they may have tried. Instead, they made it stronger.
Hear my lightning round interview with Matt Simon by following this link, or listening below.
Or go for survival of the fittest with the in-depth conversation by following this link or listening below.
The recent discovery that every human decision begets a new quantum timeline might leave those of us in this timeline wondering what’s out there beyond the limits of our backwater universe. As of this writing, the technology that revealed the existence of these timelines has yet to give us any means of sending living humans from one to another. The scientist who tested this met with himself – and an unfortunate fate.
It turns out, however, that with some effort, books can provide worlds where universes slip from one possibility to another. It must be admitted that with higher technology these transfers change the objects, sometimes beyond recognition. So the books that move from these alternate realities may be changed as well; at this point we can (and may) never know. The science seems to indicate that we can most easily glean the wisdom of what’s called the “Primary Timeline,” and we are not on it. As we go to press, the books listed below are available through selected merchants. Given the uncertainties of the transfer process, your copies may not be the same as anyone else’s.
T.C. Boyle is a well-known writer of literary fiction in this timeline. This is why it is clear his “newest” novel is not from around here. The Terranauts (Ecco; $26.99) might seem like a crafty piece of historical fiction based on the true story of the Biosphere “experiments” from the early 1990’s. It’s funny, takes a hard look at both humans, what they (we) are doing to the planet and how they (we) manage to turn potentially life-saving science into a fashion show. That sounds like the T. C. Boyle we know hitting on all cylinders.
Obviously, this is not the whole story. Boyle’s supposedly “earlier” novel, A Friend of the Earth (published in 2001) was set in a vision of 2026 that reads a lot like current events. Environmental collapse (check), corporate takeover (check), what was “sci-fi” to Boyle some 15 years ago is newspaper articles today. His so-called science fiction novel turns out to be literary romp – like much of his work.
On the other hand, The Terranauts reads as if it were a science fiction novel written in 1975. The characters are full of optimism and humanity. They’re going to save the world one shovel-full at a time, because their scientific experiment is designed to turn them into subsistence farmers, as well as a romantic triangle of romantic triangles connecting inside and outside the enclosure. The Terranauts could be a science fiction novel set in the past, or it could be a science fiction novel written in the past, in our alternate timeline. One can only hope that the timeline from whence The Terranauts was retrieved is as well informed about humanity and the environment as is the novel and those whom the author brings to life within it. Hear the author discuss the book by following this link. Or listen below!
There can be no doubt that Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Knopf; $28.95) hails from an alternate timeline, one where it is a work of fiction, unlike here, where it is all too real. The title might lead you to believe that it is an early novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick, and reading it may evoke the queasy paranoid terror of these authors at their best. In fact, our timeline produced The Space Merchants by science fiction writers C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl in 1953(!), a satire about an overpopulated world where business has taken the place of government and politics is in corporate control. (When published it was fiction.) Some experts contend that The Space Merchants might be an example of an early literary inter-timeline transfer.
Meanwhile, back in this timeline, The Attention Merchants certainly reads like a page-turning thriller, in which advertising as we know it is invented in the 1830’s by Benjamin Day, who was trying to find a way to make money selling newspapers. Selling the information printed on paper was not a moneymaker. However, selling the attention of those who bought the papers to read proved to be an ingenious source of endless money, up to this day.
The history of attention proves to be a real attention-grabber itself. The intricate intertwining of technology combined with the most outrageous lying, thieving human behavior cannot help but bring to mind the best satiric science fiction of our timeline. Needless to say, readers who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick will find The Attention Merchants a dystopian delight. It’s informative and filled with engaging characters and stories, including the man who actually created and sold Snake Oil. (Using rattlesnakes, “They never bite me!”) Wu makes an incredibly important point in this book. For all that we try to be aware of our declining resources (air, water money), one we tend not to think about is thinking itself, that is, attention. More and more, our attention is being usurped and used by those who would sell us anything from a new widget to a new nation. You’ll never hear the phrase “paying attention” in the same way after reading this book. You can hear Tim Wu saying “paying attention” by following this link to our interview. Or immerse yourself int he days of future passed below….
With Matt Simon, we find ourselves facing a book we hope comes from an alternate timeline. If Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants terrorizes your soul by invoking paranoid fear, Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems (Penguin; $20) scares you the old-fashioned way. It’s like a sketchbook for the body-horror gross-out scenes from a flock of David Cronenburg flicks. Yes, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar claims to be non-fiction, then substantiates its claim with lots of notes, and even beautiful illustrations of the monsters it so lovingly describes. That said, having been (literally) engrossed by the compulsive experience of reading the book, I can say with complete authority that I intend to substantiate nothing, seeking out not a single horror to be found herein.
Taking as his premise the miracle of evolution, author Matt Simon writes charmingly and disarmingly of the generally unpleasant extremes evolution will go to get the job done. In seven chapters covering critters from the “Ant-Decapitating Fly” to the “Tongue-Eating Isopod,” Simon crafts compelling portraits of evolution’s snappy answers to some really weird questions. In case you wonder what a “Tongue-Eating Isopod” looks like in action, illustrator Vladimir Stankovic is ready to show you in illustrations that are shockingly non-nauseating. Why, that little worm-like thing sitting in the fish-victim’s mouth is almost cute! With Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, you can turn a frown upside-down – and your stomach – in the same sentence. Hear an interview with the author (if you dare) by following this link.
Thanks to the combined efforts and talents of Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and Johann Strauss, The Beautiful Blue Danube is a waltz that flows effortlessly from this world to others beyond our imagination. Apparently, it also flows back from those worlds as well, bringing us The Five Wonders of the Danube (Cadmus Press; $26) by the suspiciously named Zoran Zivkovic, translated beautifully from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic. Zivkovic’s book is a collection of five stories from five bridges crossing the Danube, but immersion in his prose makes it clear that this is not the Danube we are used to, and Zivkovic’s idea of what a story might be is equally unusual.
The stories set at each of Zivkovic’s Danube bridges examine the costs of Art, but the stories themselves are clearly not from any tradition in our timeline. Yes, Zivkovic gives us poignant characters and gorgeous descriptions, and yes, events move from beginning to end. But as we read the stories, the details add up in a parallel manner as opposed to serial. Images echo, events resonate. In “First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg” an enormous painting on a huge canvas appears, attached to the cables on the bridge. The canvas shows a sunset about to unfold, and as news of its appearance spreads, those in charge conspire to own it. The off-world content here is the storytelling itself, because as you read of this wonder, small scenes and sentences even, suggest connections beneath the surface flow of the prose. Zivkovic expertly crafts two stories in one; the events you read about, and the story in the connections between the unconnected. As you read further into the book, the parallel images stack up and craft a narrative like no other.
If you remember how you felt when you first discovered that tattered paperback of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, you are partway there. This is a book where everything that happens could happen, but also where everything that happens would never happen. In our timeline, of course, he also has a collection out titled Impossible Stories. Rest assured it lives up to the title.
Regardless of the timeline, the shift of seasons remains universal. The tradition of observing the winter solstice, that moment when the world stops in darkness and turns slowly to the light, varies greatly across the continuum of the possible. For evidence, look no further than A Midwinter Entertainment (Egaeus Press; £33), edited by Mark Beech, “Representing an Exclusive Collected Edition of Curious Pieces.” Apparently, in the timeline that Beech either hails from or has access to, the year 2016 looks a lot like 1916, revised by the collaborative efforts of Rod Serling and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book is dedicated to “the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.” Our history records Nister as a mid-19th century publisher who invented the automatic pop-up book and Dowson as a Decadent Romantic poet. It’s clear that they are much better known in the history from whence this book is delivered.
Beech manages some pure magic with A Midwinter Entertainment. Pick up this book and you will find yourself in a gentler, kinder world that is shot through with slivers of darkness that will rend your heart even while they bring a fun, silly grin your face. Those who enjoy a good bit of supernatural detection will be pleased to find a brand new Connoisseur tale (“The Celestial Tobacconist”) by Mark Valentine and John Howard. Two of the stories herein (“The Secret” by Anatole Le Braz and “Il va neiger…” by Francis Jammes) are “translated” by George Berguño, presumably from a foreign language as well as from an alternate history. As a reading experience, A Midwinter Entertainment delivers you to a cozy fireplace surrounded by the darkest of shadows. Matching the written content is the sumptuous presentation. Illustrations, endpapers, everything in A Midwinter Entertainment conspires to convince you that the world you think you inhabit is less real than the world you encounter on the pages.
Here’s an experiment you can perform at this very minute. Cross your eyes until you’re really seeing double, then slowly, very slowly, bring them back into unity. The moment just before the images merge is most likely the tiny but significant distance between our world and that of Julius Knipfel, Real Estate Photographer, the hero of Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly ; $22.95). Katchor’s been slipping between Knipfel’s world and ours for more than a quarter of a century, collecting one-page observations whose oddness serves only to highlight just how weird the most mundane of lives can seem.
Reading the stories in Cheap Novelties is a wildly entertaining and unusual experience. Katchor’s art and storytelling seem pretty low-key, but the further you go, the more you realize that the world you’re reading about, while quite similar to ours, simply cannot be the world in which we live. Every detail is slightly out-of-kilter, and Katchor’s stories do not come to conclusion as much as they seem to layer up, one over the other. He draws the ugly with beauty, but one begins to suspect that his mind, so to speak, is equipped with a set of corrective lenses that is sharp but slightly off-the-mark. You realize the power of his work when you’ve read enough of the book to begin thinking that Knipfel’s world has a leg up on ours. Here’s a link to my interview with Ben Katchor. [Or enjoy the double vision below!]
One of the premiere independent publishers of our world is Tartarus Press, run by the Raymond B. Russell and Rosalie Parker. Apparently, in another timeline, they’re both writers, and another independent (from our timestream), PS Publishing, brings us their writing. Damage (PS Publishing; £20) by Parker, is a collection of stories that can best be described as “strange,” though that does not quite capture the whole of it. Yes, stories like “Selkie: A Scottish Idyll” and “Beth–Harvest Home” incorporate elements of the fantastic, and have an eerie beauty. But the Parker, who is not from around here, (which is to say, our timeline) permeates her work with a delicate but tough sense of the feminine. Love and beauty share the stage with distilled terror. Damage is, in the words of Peter Sellers, “life’s rich pageant,” strolling across a bed of nails.
While all of the other authors mentioned in this piece are either coy about or in denial of their alternate origins, Ray Russell makes it quite clear in The Stones are Singing that the novella you hold in your hands is not a product of the world in which you are reading it. John Dowson, a British ex-pat lives in Venice, and cherishes his view. He’s quick to notice a jacket draped across a balcony. It seems a bit out of place. He turns around, takes a tumble and hits his head. When he picks himself up off the floor – how long was he out – he’s got a bad case of tinnitus. In the days that follow, his world seems to slowly slip off its tracks. His life as he remembers it no longer quite matches the actual past, if such a thing even exists.
It’s obvious that nobody of this world could write with such a powerful sense of subtle displacement. Russell’s book is compulsively readable, a page-turner about the most minor events of a mostly ordinary life. It’s masterfully written and plotted, yet it is also sweet and generous. It’s close enough to pass as a local, but by the time you finish you will instinctively know that it’s not from around here. The Stones are Singing finds music in the smallest differences of everyday life. It’s there – just listen. (Or alternately, listen to my interview with the Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker.) [Or drop into the alternate timeline below….]
Even as you read these words, there’s another version of you, who did not read them. Like it or not, your decision to read sent you into another reality. You are actually 100% responsible for this world. Will that knowledge affect your next decision? Your journey has already begun.