Saturday, June 30, 2007

BBC Starts Stoppard Seven-Day Countdown

BBC Radio 4 has started broadcasting Stoppard radio plays and adaptations. They remain online for only seven days, so don't miss out. The first up is "Albert's Bridge": A man's chosen profession is painting a huge bridge. The task is perpetual, since one end of the bridge is already in need of a fresh coat before he reaches the other.

"Arcadia" starts today. In case you don't remember what it's about: A comedy which masterfully juggles notions of literature, mathematics, landscape gardening and love through the lives and preoccupations of the inhabitants of Sidley Park, Derbyshire in the early 19th and late 20th centuries.
And as a bonus, Stoppard muses on Raymond Chandler's years in London.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap: Part One

For the past couple of months, I've been receiving Us Weekly against my will. I foolishly pre-paid a two-year subscription to Premiere, just before they stopped publishing the newsstand version. Crap! So now I'm a reluctant subscriber to a periodical that makes People look like Cahiers du Cinema.

A few weeks ago, I attended a local garage sale and snagged a copy of Photoplay from February 1951. Neither was it targeted toward pointy-headed intellectuals, but at least it has some vitality. Not to mention some really crazy-ass advertisements.

I've decided that it would be instructive to analyze the differences between two generations of celebrity "fan" magazines. For the next few weeks, or until we all succumb to ennui, I plan to critique both Us and Photoplay in a new feature entitled Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap!

Let's start with The Covers:

Oof. Busy. Garish. Featuring scary, Botoxed people with dead, soulless eyes. Heather Locklear I know, and it's hard to be unaware of Mrs. Brad Pitt. But who the hell is Vanessa, and why should I care that the young star of "Herbie Fully Loaded" is holding a knife to her throat?

But check this out! It's Jane Powell, star of "A Date with Judy," and she looks quite lovely. Her hair appears a little stiff, but her blue eyes sparkle with something recognizable as human consciousness. There's no drunken horseplay with edged weapons. And Photoplay cost only 15 cents, compared to Us's $3.49 cover price.

On to the back covers. Here's a fairly inoffensive ad for a reality cooking show on Bravo. I'll never watch it (nor put in my mouth anything any of these people prepare), but it doesn't actively annoy me.

But, man, do I want one of those Chesterfields! I don't smoke, but I'm a sucker for a pack of coffin nails offered by the female lead of "Captain Horatio Hornblower."
Great copywriting: It's the Easiest Test in the Book... Open 'em. Smell 'em. Smoke 'em.
A philosophy with so many applications to everyday life!

The first round of Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap goes to -- Photoplay!

Books I'm Not Reading -- Anything from PublishAmerica

Every once in a while, I get packages from authors who have self-published a science fiction or fantasy novel. I don't like receiving them. I always feel like the authors are wasting postage on top of whatever they've already spent to print the book. In two decades, I've never reviewed a self-published or vanity press book. There's simply too much better stuff out there that deserves my attention.

Recently I received a book from a local writer whom I am not going to name. He's produced a futuristic techno-thriller about AIs running amok. It's "published" by PublishAmerica. And it just kind of makes me sad.

If you don't know anything about PublishAmerica, read this article from the Washington Post . Also read about the publication history of Travis Tea's "Atlanta Nights," a "bad book written by experts."

I opened the local writer's PublishAmerica book and was immediately struck by a glaring typo on the Acknowledgements page. A quick flip through the book revealed many others.

On a whim, I went to the author's personal Web site and learned that he has battled dyslexia all his life. Which made me terribly angry at PublishAmerica, because they obviously did nothing to help a client with a recognized problem. Instead, they took his money and let him produce a book that no reputable store will ever stock and few people outside his family will ever want to read.

Then I noticed that the writer's main page includes a big link to Writer Beware, which offers "Warnings About Literary Fraud and Other Schemes, Scams, and Pitfalls That Target Writers." And what is one of the publishers Writer Beware warns about most vociferously?

That's right. Good old PublishAmerica. And there goes a large portion of my sympathy for the hapless local writer.

I understand the desperation that can grip someone who wants to see his or her words in print. But please, folks, remember Yog's Law: Money Flows toward the Writer.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

William Gibson Cracks Me Up

William Gibson’s new novel, “Spook Country,” arrives in stores later this month. I’ve read it, but I’m unsure when, if or how I’ll review it. It’s good, but not a real ground-breaker like “Pattern Recognition.”

I really loved 2003’s “Pattern Recognition.” So much so that I was interviewed on NPR about it. Too bad we had to go and invade Iraq that week, thus delaying the segment’s airdate for months. You can hear me blather about Gibson here.

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the author of “Neuromancer,” mostly because I’ve been too focused on the wrong elements of his fiction. The days of cyberpunk are long over, but Gibson has retooled his technique to embrace the absurdity of post-9/11 America. He’s consistently funny, but usually in a very understated way.

I never mutilate finished copies, but I cheerfully dog-ear galleys to mark notable passages. “Spook Country” has a lot of turned-down corners. Some of my favorite lines include:

On meeting an impressive old man:

Hollis thought he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate (or perhaps the methadone). Like someone who'd be invited quail shooting with the vice-president, though too careful to get himself shot.

On riding in a Zodiac:

This wasn't the Staten Island Ferry. He was bouncing along at some insane speed on something that reminded him of a creepy folding rubber bathtub he'd once seen Vladimir Nabokov proudly posing with in an old photograph.

On Gallic body language:

Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure.

I once interviewed Gibson for The Chronicle and really enjoyed speaking with him and his co-author Bruce Sterling. They’re both scarily smart, but each was polite and charming, witty but not aggressively so. I’ve exhumed the review/interview from The Chronicle archives, if anyone’s interested.

By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra; 429 pages; $19.95

During the 1980s, both William Gibson and Bruce Sterling shook up science fiction by inventing high-tech futures unlike anything readers had encountered before. With such novels as Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Sterling's "Islands in the Net," they dramatized the far-flung consequences of the Information Revolution.

In their new collaborative novel, "The Difference Engine," Gibson and Sterling take a decidedly different tack, reinventing Victorian England as a hotbed of cybernetics and industrial espionage. Extrapolating from the mostly forgotten work of mathematician Charles Babbage, who proposed building steam-driven computational machines in the early 1800s, they weave a complex narrative that involves a deadly search for a set of punched cards.

In an interview, Sterling and Gibson said that neither is sure who first saw in Babbage's "analytical engine" the germ of a novel.

"It's an interesting bit of historical trivia," said Sterling. "But then it occurred to us, "Hey, what if he'd actually built it?' This is one of your classic science fiction ideas, and when you get one like that, you need to do it justice."

In imagining a Britain where the computer revolution arrives a century and a half early, Sterling and Gibson twist history in surprising, yet eminently logical, ways. They play with the conventions of the Victorian novel and add references to the latest advances in paleontology, computer science and physics. Such eminent figures as Benjamin Disraeli, Keats and Byron make cameo appearances, but not in the manner one might expect.

It's a heady mix of fact and fancy, one that requires a certain sophistication to appreciate. Although it takes some of its inspiration from sensational potboilers of yore, "The Difference Engine" makes heavy demands on its readers. Sterling isn't kidding when he says, "This isn't a book you can eat like a Dorito."

The novel's structure is especially unnerving. It begins with a 70-page prologue about a prostitute and a shady public relations flack that seems to push the story in one direction. Most of the book follows dinosaur expert Edward (Leviathan) Mallory as he dodges secret agents in a London on the brink of anarchy. Finally, Mallory drops out of the picture completely, and the narrative becomes increasingly less linear and more impressionistic.

It's an audacious, infuriating stunt, which Gibson defends: "If we had structured the book along traditional literary lines, it could never have been as satisfying for us." Sterling agrees. "The whole last section, my favorite part of the book, is like a stew. . . . There's very little in the way of characterization and nothing in the way of coherent plot, but I think that section best captures the spirit of this book."

Readers may or may not concur. What annoys Sterling most are critics who imply that he and Gibson somehow "forgot" to give the book a conventional resolution.

"The Difference Engine" was published a few months ago in England, and Gibson had "a real fear that the British would say, "Give us a break! This doesn't sound remotely like us.' " Instead, the novel was well-received, and the publicity tour afforded the authors the chance to see how closely their imaginations matched reality.

They saw a real difference engine that, Gibson says, is "being built from Babbage's plan, using Victorian technology. We both sprang at it, and the woman who was its guardian said, "No! Not without white cotton gloves!' Which caused us both to collapse in shock . . . giggling."

The joke is that the characters in the book are similarly fussy about dirtying the fragile components of their steam computers. And indeed, it is in the small details that one derives the greatest pleasure in reading "The Difference Engine." While the main plot has its fair share of action and suspense, the novel, like the engine itself, captures the reader's interest mostly with glimpses into its intricate gearwork, rather than through the momentum of its large-scale effects.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer of Stoppard-Love

Lots of Stoppard plays in production this summer:

"Rough Crossing" is being performed in Lenox, MA.

In Boston, "Indian Ink" is being performed at the Plaza Theatre.

BBC 3, 4 and 7 are preparing a season of Stoppard radio plays and adaptations, including "R&G Are Dead," "In the Native State," "Arcadia" and "Rock 'n' Roll."

Turning to the cinema, Stoppard also worked on the script of the upcoming Matt Damon thriller, "The Bourne Ultimatum."

And in case there was any doubt in your mind, the Telegraph wants to assure you that Stoppard deserved all seven Tonys for "The Coast of Utopia." Meanwhile, the Independent has crowned him "the new King of Broadway."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

"Coast of Utopia" Wins Seven Tonys

Just as they were about to announce the winner for "Best Play," the screen suddenly went black for 10 seconds, and then the credits started to roll. No, wait, that was the other show.

By now, most have probably heard that "The Coast of Utopia" took seven awards, including honors for director Jack O'Brien and actress Jennifer Ehle.

So, hurrah. Maybe you want to celebrate by listening to the new CD of Mark Bennett's award-winning original score.

And if you'd like to compare the "Sopranos" finale with the Tonys telecast, Ken Levine has the run-down.

Mustache-Bereft Granthony: The Face of Fear!

Sweet sainted mother of Mordecai Richler, has Granthony shaved off his pornstache AND undergone a spur-of-the-moment nosejob? All the "For Better or For Worse" pundits have an opinion.

The train wreck, she is a'-coming.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tonys Versus Tony

The big event is only a day away, and the whole nation holds its collective breath.

Everyone wants to know whether Tony Soprano will get whacked in the series finale. As for any other Tonys, well, the suspense is a tad less palpable. (Some attendees at Radio City Music Hall will rely on Tivo to get them through the night.) Still, "The Coast of Utopia" is in the running for 10 awards, so there will be a few too-cheap-for-HBO Stoppardphiles tuned to whatever network broadcasts the ceremony. (CBS? PBS? Oxygen? Spike? These things get away from me.)

An anonymous Tony voter reveals his/her picks for New York Magazine. As does Lawrence B. Johnson in the Detroit News. There doesn't seem to be much controversy, though.

Here's to a decisive win for the author, cast and crew of "The Coast of Utopia."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Books I'm Not Reading -- Too Many to Mention

Here's a list of the books currently in my "Hey, I wouldn't mind reviewing that" pile. Between now and the end of August, I'll have space in The Chronicle to cover eight of these, max.

See the problem?

The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers
13 Bullets by David Wellington

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod
Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell
Acacia by Anthony Durham
Harm by Brian Aldiss
A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
Blaze by Richard Bachman

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis
9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Th1rte3n by Richard K. Morgan
Shelter by Susan Palwick
The Sons of Heaven by Kage Baker
Territory by Emma Bull
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

...And With Ann-Margret as the Demonic Snake-Slut

I think this wins the prize as the Best Title and Most Ridiculous Artwork on a mass-market paperback. It's been almost three decades since I read John Farris' all-stops-out Southern Gothic horror novel, but I don't remember any "Viva Las Vegas" refugees in it, especially any with scaly, nipple-less boobs.

The opening chapter of "All Heads Turn..." is pretty memorable, though. It's a rare novel that starts with a wedding ceremony in which the crazed groom decapitates his bride with a military saber. And things only getter weirder from there, as a family curse with its roots in African voodoo plays out across the generations.

John Farris isn't particularly well known beyond the borders of horror fiction fandom, even though he's published a couple dozen books, some of them quite good. He's probably most famous for "The Fury," filmed by Brian DePalma and starring Kirk Douglas and Amy Irving. (The best part is at the end, when Irving makes John Cassavetes explode via telekinesis.)

He seems to be a writer appreciated more by other writers than by a mass audience. Stephen King, Richard Matheson and Peter Straub are always saying nice things about him. If you're looking for some well-done, escapist thrillers, I recommend "When Michael Calls," "Catacombs" and "Sharp Practice."

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lileks Keeps His Job

There will be those whose schadenfreude will have been thwarted by the announcement that, although he's lost his daily column, James Lileks won't be taking a buyout from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and will instead receive a plum new assignment. But I'm not one of them.

I've been reading The Bleat for almost a decade, and it has brought me a lot of enjoyment. As a political commentator, Lileks went a little off the rails after 9/11 ("The terrorists are coming to Minnesota to kill MY CHILD!!!"), but he's always been a reliable source of fun and insightful writing about pop culture. His Gallery of Regrettable Food is still gut-bustingly hilarious.

I'm not so keen on his fiction, though. I couldn't even finish his mystery novel, "Mr. Obvious." The snappy patter that works in a blog post begins to sound... desperate when stretched across a 200-page narrative.

Some will complain that Lileks is overpaid or lazy or just plain insufferable. But I'm glad he achieved the resolution that he wanted. I know what it's like to work at a place where the Specter of Unemployment stalks the halls and can only wish him well.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Rothfuss, Tolkien & Dick -- Not a Law Firm

Time for another Chronicle science fiction and fantasy review, now featuring the latest from Patrick Rothfuss, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip K. Dick.

I more or less had to be talked into covering all three of these titles. The publicist at DAW kept after me until I agreed to at least try the extra-large "The Name of the Wind." I was unaware of "The Children of Hurin" until it showed up at the local Borders (guess Houghton-Mifflin didn't want any SPOILERS! getting out [there's lots of incest!!!!] and so chose to send no advance copies) and then decided that reviewing it was obligatory. The Dick collection isn't new work, but my editor convinced me that I should discuss it. I just hope the folks at Making Light don't make fun of me, like poor Charles McGrath.

Underappreciated Gems by Thomas Perry

If you're interested in crime fiction, you owe it to yourself to check out The Rap Sheet's ONE BOOK PROJECT. They asked the question, "What one crime, mystery, or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years?"The 115 books selected, with really interesting commentary, make a great reading list (for anyone who has the time to sit down and read a hundred thrillers). I strongly second the nominations of Mitchell Smith's "Stone City," Bradley Denton's "Blackburn," Ross Macdonald's "The Chill" and John Connolly's "Every Dead Thing."

Had anyone asked me, I might have chosen Thomas Perry's second book, "Metzger's Dog." It's a semi-comedic caper, quite different in tone from the more hard-edged stuff he does now. There's nothing else quite like it. Dr. Henry Metzger is the cat, by the way.

Even more obscure is Perry's "Big Fish," which is long out of print, for some reason. After years of searching I finally found a copy at San Francisco's Main Library. It's not his best book, but it's worth reading if you're a fan.

In general, I think Perry's work is less popular than it should be. Aside from the Jane Whitefield series, Perry doesn't recycle characters, and he doesn't deliver the standard thriller plots that some readers find comforting. There's always something off-balance about his books, which is a major reason why I like them so much.

I'm looking forward to his latest, "Silence," due next month.