Random News on Books: Vol. I

Links a’ Poppin’

All sorts of interesting stuff out there today, kids. So rather than make a bunch of wee lil’ posts – which would probably better from an SEO standpoint, but from a my usual lazy standpoint, not so much. Thus without further ado, I present to you: the inaugural volume of this semi regular feature produced by Barking Book Reviews (from lot 17 of Gecko’s Park Studios): Random News on Books from Teh Interwebz.

From the Books Section of the New York Times:
Two Potential Airplane Books

The New York Times books section is always a good place for the literary minded; I’ve rarely been steered wrong by a reviewer here. These two books below I doubt I would ever get around to reading, however, they are definitely, at least to my mind, worthy airplane books.

What are airplane books, you ask? These are books that, as stated above, I ordinarily wouldn’t bother to read – not because they are bad or uninteresting, per se, but are nevertheless found lacking when compared to the always-growing list of books I actually do want to read. But I would read these books if I were half hour away from getting on a long transatlantic flight and suddenly realized I forgot to pack a book in my carry-on. I’ve been faced with this dilemma, and the ensuing panic made me realize for the first time that my reading habit perhaps approaches obsessive-compulsive levels.

I was more than mildly freaked out about it, this not having a book to read. So much so that I ran back through the terminal in search of a book store, and ended up purchasing Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, a fictional yet thinly-veiled account of the life of Laura Bush (!)

I know, right? But it was the only book in the airport bookstore that either  a) I hadn’t read; b) was pop-culture dreck; or c) otherwise didn’t insult my intelligence. And as it turned out, it’s actually an entertaining read – I actually researched the life of the actual Laura Bush after I finished it; it was that interesting. I wouldn’t have bothered with American Wife otherwise, to be honest – again, not because there is anything wrong with it, just not something it would have occurred to me to read under ordinary circumstances.

So, that’s an airplane book. And so are these, at least with regard to me. You, of course, may think otherwise.

Rusty Chapman Leads the Serial Murder Leagues in Left Handed Decapitations on Cloudy Days in Months Beginning with ‘R’

The New York Times reviews Popular Crime, a nonfiction piece that looks at famous crimes over the course of American history through the lens of baseball-like statistics. As spectator sports go, I confess baseball ranks up there with watching paint dry. In other words, almost as boring as watching golf.

As others have observed before me: baseball is 15 minutes of action squeezed into three or four hours. As such, I’ve never understood the true fan’s fascination with the statistical minutia of the sport.

The author of Popular Crime, one Bill James, is apparently some sort of legend among the baseball statistician cognoscenti; he has written books on the subject according to reviewer Nathaniel Rich, who cops to being one of those statistically analytical fans of both baseball and James. Despite this admission he seems to be fairly objective of James’ foray into the statistical analysis of crime. And in spite of finding baseball statistics as exciting as driveway root removal, Popular Crime sounds somewhat interesting – thus its status as a potential a airplane book.

Lost Horizon for American Ovaries

Is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder a Heart of Darkness for the reading-popular-fiction-on-the-beach set? Er, maybe not, says the New York Times’ Janet Maslin. Nevertheless, State of Wonder sounds just interesting enough that it could likely serve as an adequate airplane book.

Fertility drug research; cranky, old-but-still-brilliant researcher in the heart of the Amazon jungle; unexplained deaths – as I say, potential for a tolerable diversion on a long flight, at the least. I would have made several Heart of Darkness jokes here, but Maslin already took care of that in her review.

A Pseudopodic History of Science Fiction

A rather interesting graphic history of Science Fiction by artist Ward Shelley.Over at Worlds Without End there is a new review up on Feed, a novel by Mira Grant – the review is by one Allie McCarn, who actually has her own book review site, Tethyan Books. Bias admittal: normally, I would not have anything to do with any book that has zombies in it, at this point.

Not that I don’t like zombies as much as the next person, but they are kind of like the Stairway to Heaven of horror and science fiction. I like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven – or rather, the first 10 million times I heard it. Now, I’m done with it. I don’t ever need to hear it again. The rest of the Zepplin catalog? Sure. But not that. I feel that way about zombies, too.

But Feed is a Nebula Award winner, so it must not be completely without merit. After reading McCarn’s review, it even sounds like I might be able to stomach the zombie conceit in the novel given the right circumstances – it sounds like it would be a pretty good airplane book.

Incidentally, Feed was the Io9 bookclub book for May.

Also noted on Worlds Without End: the effing sweet history of science fiction diagram, which you see pictured here – originally from artist Ward Shelley – is now available as a print. I rarely spend money on such things, but I’m trying to talk myself into this one. It’s more justifiable than much of what I piss my money away on, to be quite frank.

Also, if you click on the graphic to look at it full size, it’s pretty big. If you’re on a pokey connection, it’s gonna take awhile.

Q: What Does it Take to Transcend Twighlight’s Onerous and Creepy Ending?
A: Getting Head from a Dragon

Cover of Touched by Venom by Janine CrossSpeaking of Io9, there’s a couple of interesting posts over there on science fiction and fantasy literary genres. First off, contributor Jess Nevins – described by Io9 as a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator (would that I could ever attain that level of cool – cool being a relative term, I know, but I’m a nerd) – discusses the portrayal of the mad scientist in fiction throughout the ages. And that’s just part one.

There is also a very amusing post for the Io9 Daily 10 today: Fantasy Sagas That Are Wronger Than Twilight. I have mixed feelings about the fact that of the 10 books or series of books listed in the top 10, I’ve only partaken of two of the respective authors (not to mention this abuse of innocent grammar in that headline from media professionals that should know better) One is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (I read the first one, many moons ago, but never got around to continuing); the other is Laurell K. Hamilton’s Narcissus in Chains. I read several of the Anita Blake novels back in the day, until the characterizations and plotting just got to too stupid to bear; I bailed out long before this one.

Anyway, the rest of the 10 sound interesting, as in “interesting.” There are a couple that even sound worthy of airport book status though, and one I might even add to my Possibly Maybe pile. The Cat’s Fancy by Julie Kenner is one I wouldn’t hesitate to read on an airplane (again predicated on the idea that I forgot to include a book in my carry-on). Although to be honest, that’s only if there is a Kindle edition; as self secure as I am, I’m not sure I’m confident enough to be seen reading such a book in public.

Of course if I have my Kindle, I can download whatever I want. But you get the idea.

Then there is Grunts by Mary Gentle. This is parody of Tolkien; I love Tolkien, so all I have to hear is the words parody and Tolkien, and I’m all but sold (National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings is absolutely brilliant). To quote Io9:

This parody of Lord of the Rings and its many imitators is generally very well-regarded and has a loyal following — but even this brutal novel’s biggest fans say it’s not for everyone. For one thing, this is the book that gave us the phrase, “Pass another elf. This one has split.” And then there are the S&M Hobbits, who roam around in BDSM gear killing people, while their mother is doing other naughty things with all comers.

This. Yes.

But as far as this list goes, I don’t see how Janine Cross’ Touched by Venom isn’t in the top 5 at least. Dragon-on-woman oral sex:

[the dragon’s] mouth a thumbnails length from my sex, [and] his firm gums brushing my buttocks …

And we’ll end this post with that vision in our heads.

Postscript. Hi John.

Mythopoeic Society’s 2011 Award Finalists

If, like me an hour or so ago, you’re wondering what exactly mythopoeic means, and consequently who and what the eponymous society is, allow me to elucidate. Or rather, let me quote the society:

Mythopoeic Society's 2011 awardsThe Mythopoeic Society is a national/international organization promoting the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantastic and mythopoeic literature through books and periodicals, annual conferences, discussion groups, awards, and more. We are especially interested in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, prominent members of the informal Oxford literary circle known as the “Inklings” (1930s-1950s). …

Scholars of the Inklings had observed that these men all created myth, so Society founder Glen GoodKnight borrowed a Greek adjective meaning “myth-making” as the name of the Society. Although the Inklings were all Christian authors, the Mythopoeic Society strives to follow what GoodKnight called “the Middle Way”: neither denying the religious beliefs and purposes of our three core authors, nor serving as an organization seeking to propagate those beliefs; and while urging the importance and relevance of our central authors, avoiding the trap of becoming a “cult of personality” for any one of them.

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoI dunno, a cult of Tolkien personality, or a Lewis personality cult, might not be so bad. But anyway, that’s the Mythopoeic Society. I had never heard of them before, but then I’ve been rather preoccupied lo these past two years or so. I’m also not familiar with the authors they name in their awards list (as presented below), but if the book blurbs are any indication, they all sound interesting.

One might suspect that Mythopoeic Society awards finalists’ works would all be elves and orcs, dwarves and goblins and gnomes and whatnot. But that’s not necessarily the case. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, for example, is set in a parallel of China’s Tang Dynasty (he apparently specializes in the alternate history subgenre), while Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is a retelling of a Senegalese folktale – this one sounds particularly interesting; Lord’s debut novel has garnered several other accolades as well.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature

There are also awards for scholarly works on this same genre. Here’s the complete list of the Mythopoeic Society’s 2011 Award Finalists.

Postscript: Credit where credit is due; I first heard of this while perusing Locus Online.

Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John

The cover of Chester Brown's Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a JohnI’m not a big reader of graphic novels, although there are a few over the years that I’ve really dug: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a beautiful, moving piece of literature — it’s one of the best memoir/autobiography’s I’ve ever read. I would read anything by Daniel Clowes, too. Of course the one title everyone knows is Ghost World, thanks to the movie (which may be good, but doesn’t do the book justice).

I still pick up and reread Shirow Masamune Ghost in the Shell series from time to time, as well. In fact I’d like to some sort of in-depth critical analysis with those books as the focus.

But I digress.

While perusing the New York Times book section earlier today, I spied a review on this new graphic novel: Paying for It. A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John. I have to admit, this sounds interesting for all sorts of reasons. I’ll have to add it to the possibly maybe pile.

Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly blurb:

A compelling look into one man’s history of employing prostitutes as a replacement for romantic love, this graphic novel is sure to create controversy. Brown has produced acclaimed but brutally honest autobiographical works before, but here he adds a new didactic element.

In June 1996 Brown’s then girlfriend broke up with him. After three years of celibacy and his growing conviction that romantic love is destructively possessive, Brown works up the courage to see a legal prostitute and finds the “burden” of anxiety over whether to pursue a relationship with any particular woman forever removed.

The next 200 pages are an explicit — but far from erotic — dossier of the various women he did business with, until he meets one that he ends up with in a monogamous — but still financial — relationship. Although Brown intends the work to be a compassionate look at a profession that helps people, he unfortunately goes out of his way to anonymize the sex workers — never showing their faces and telling the story in tiny, cramped panels, giving the whole thing a voyeuristic feel. A lengthy appendix arguing that a system where paying for sex is preferable to romance-based methods is unlikely to persuade many readers.

And here’s the New York Times book review on Chester Brown’s Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John.

A sample from Chester Brown's graphic novel: Paying for It.


2010 Nebula Award Winners

And Don’t Forget the Hugo Awards

Connie Willis' BlackoutI almost forgot, so busy posting other book news — in fact between this and my other sites I’ve barely found time to get any reading done today, and here it is almost dawn/bedtime. Anyway, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) announced this past weekend this year’s Nebula Awards …  er, rather, this year’s Nebula awards for books that came out last year … wait, what?

I think I need a time machine to sort that out. Speaking of which — see what I did here?Connie Willis won the novel category for her two-part time travel opus, Blackout/All Clear. I’ve not read her before, although I shall endeavor to soon; the Nebula Awards rarely let me down.

Unlike some professional organizations, you pretty much have to be a published author to be a full-fledged member of the  SFWA, so the Nebula awards are decided by writers’ peers. One would hope and assume that these people’s opinions should be reasonably well informed.  You can see the list of this year’s winners — last year’s I mean — just follow that link above.

Want to have a say but aren’t a published author? Then the Hugo Awards are for you; these are the fan-voted awards.

But  you have to get your butt to Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention — or at least sign up as a supporting member. This year Worldcon will be held in Reno, Nevada, Aug. 17 to Aug. 21. Worldcon members — specifically supporting, attending, and young adult members — get a say in the voting.

Not thrilled with Reno? Full attendees get to vote on where the next one is where it is held two years from now  (gimme a break, it’s been a while for me). Reno’s actually kind of cool though; it’s where Las Vegas service industry folk go when they want to do what the rest of us do in Vegas. Ergo, it’s more laid back than Vegas, and the tourists tend to be a bit more hip than the run-of-the-mill Vegas tourist. I thought about going this year, but unfortunately it’s not an option for me for both chronological and fiduciary reasons.

I hope to get out to Worldcon 2010 though, slated for Chicago, which is not quite in my back yard, but close enough. August in Chicago though — gonna be sticky.

By the way: Connie Willis has won both a Nebula and a Hugo previously, so bring the Blackout.


Obituary: Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Yellow Man by Jeffrey Catherine JonesArtist Jeffrey Catherine Jones died last week on May 19, age 67. I just learned about it a little while ago after checking in with the blog of one of my favorite contemporary authors, Caitlín R. Kiernan (actually  I was looking up how to spell her name; I usually peruse her blog in what passes for morning for me/afternoon for everyone else).

Like many popular cover artists or comics illustrators, Jones is an artist that you and many others may not know by name but nevertheless would recognize her work, even though you may not know it as such when you see it. But if you read fantasy or science fiction you have most likely seen it, at least on bookstore or library shelves. She was quite prolific in the 70s and 80s — she did the art for some 150 book covers through 1976, according to Wikipedia — although she worked right on up until she died, apparently.

Silver Robe by Jeffrey Catherine JonesI first noticed her work on the cover of an Andre Norton novel — which one it was escapes me now — but it was the first time I was so captivated by book cover art that I actually sought to learn more about the artist and see more of their work. This was long before the Internet, which meant consulting card catalogs, making requests for books through librarians, and waiting  — a foreign concept in these days of instant digital gratification.

But I can remember how cool it was when The Studio art book finally arrived at my library, having been reserved for me; this was a collection of Jeffrey Jones’ work, along with artists Bernie Wrightson, Michael William Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith originally published in 1979. Jones shared studio space with them in the 1970s, and I subsequently got turned onto other artists — but Jones’ work captivated me the most.

It was that book that lead me to discover the adult illustrated fantasy magazine Heavy Metal, which featured a comic that Jones drew; it (and the magazine in general) made quite an impression on my pre-teen self (probably explains a few things). And comic doesn’t seem like quite the right term — graphic serial, perhaps.

Voyage by Jeffrey Catherine JonesI’ve always hated obituaries — as a reporter I’ve had to write a few, back in the day.  How can you sum up a life in a few words? You simply can’t — certainly not as a stranger.  You could write thousands of pages and still not cover the meaning of a person’s entire life, not really — certainly not those that knew them.

Nevertheless, for what it’s worth …

Jones received a fan artist Hugo Award in 1967 and captured the professional artist Hugo Award in 1970, ’71, and ’72. She received a nomination for a World Fantasy Award for best artist in 1975 and won it eleven years later in 1986. In 1999 she received a nomination for a Chesley Award for artistic achievement; in 2006 she received the accolade of Spectrum Grandmaster.

Born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, Jones went on to lead an interesting life by anyone’s measure before a combination of emphysema and congestive heart failure took her life 67 years later. You can read more about it here in Jeffrey Catherine Jones own words; much of her artwork can also be found at her website. If you’re wondering about the “Jeffrey Catherine,” as she relates in her biography, she had always identified as being a girl, despite having been born a boy.

Some of my early memories come from about the age of 4 or 5. By then I knew I wanted to be a girl. Maybe I was born with a kind of gender inversion —  some call it a birth defect. I know nothing of these things. I do know that my identification has always been with females– in books, movies, art and life. My best friends have always been female and I have always been exclusively physically attracted to females.

So, along comes puberty. Whoa! We were all confused, I know, but within that maelstrom was my desire for, and the desire to be, a girl. Until the age of 12 I knew nothing regarding sexual matters. I saw boys with girls. That’s what I saw. In the south, in the ’50s there were no gays and no lesbians, and certainly no one like me. So I became secretive. In my own mind I became ashamed, guilty and worthless — this was the road I started down so long ago.

Of course I didn’t know back when I first discovered her work that she was transgendered; back then as a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the early 1980s, I would have had no idea what that word even meant. And it goes without saying that it doesn’t matter to me as someone who admires her art, but it seems to me it bears mentioning in her obituary.

Despite identifying as female all her life, she didn’t begin transitioning to a woman until 1998. How difficult that must have been I can’t begin to fathom. Certainly puts one’s own traditional troubles with the opposite sex (or the same sex, if one is so inclined) into perspective — at least I never had to question who was looking back at me in the mirror.

One can’t help but wonder how this psychological trauma influenced her art; she doesn’t really delve into this in her autobiography on her website that I can see (I confess that I’ve only skimmed it at the moment — I didn’t even know she had a website until just now. But she does have some interesting observations on women as artists). If she had never had gender identity issues, what would her art of have been like? The same? Different? If the latter, than how? Then there is the larger question — are we the products of our genetics or our environment? Or some combination?

Jeffrey Catherine Jones, 11/10/1944-5/19/2011

Amazon 0, by Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Biographical sources:

On Io9: Reissue of Anno Dracula, What to Read While Starving Better

Kim Howard's Anno Dracula is being re-released by Titan Books. A couple of interesting posts up on Io9 today, discovered while perusing my usual RSS feeds this “morning.” First off, Nick Mamatas has a new book out called Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. On Io9 he discusses why he wrote the book and has some suggestions for underground reading. Then there is another really interesting essay by prolific author and alternate history specialist Kim Newman marking the re-release of his 1992 novel, Anno Dracula.

While I’ve heard of Newman’s book, I confess I’ve never actually read it. This is surprising, because in 1992 I was on the verge of my short-lived goth phase, which consisted mainly of hanging out at The Warehouse in Cincinnati — and later The Phantasy in Cleveland — or reading lots of vampire-themed fiction and nonfiction.  This is partly why hubub around the Twilight franchise and  paranormal romance subgenre ilk amuses me (in a sad way); craptastic popular culture moves in a never-ending circle.

Anyway, as I recall I had Anno Dracula on reserve at the Cleveland library at one point, but somehow never actually ended up getting it; no doubt someone purloined it. I’ll have to add it to the always-expanding books-to-read pile.

As for the Io9 essay by Newman, it’s actually rather illuminating. The central conceit at the core of Anno Dracula is that Van Helsing and Harker, et al, don’t defeat Dracula, but rather Dracula manages to overcome them and goes on to found a society in Great Britain where vampires are the ruling elite. In his essay Newman discusses at length not only his impetus and influences behind his conception of Anno Dracula and its writing, but how he came to be interested in horror and fantasy in the first place.

See what happens when you let your kid stay up late and watch horror movies? Couple this with a college courses on Victorian era literature and we eventually arrive at Newman’s alternate Stoker opus. There’s more to it than that, of course, but you can find out the rest at Io9.

How to Not Get Rich Quick with Your Host, Nick Mamantas

Nick Mamantas writing guide, Starve Better -- think of it is the Anti Writers Digest.I’m kind of wary of books for writers, particularly those by writers that tell other writers how to write — maybe that’s my problem., heh. But I believe that writing fiction is more than a technical craft; it is an art, as opposed to strictly craft work — craft implying a corollary of science. Sure you must master elements of the craft in order to make art (usually) — a painter must learn how to draw figures and hold a brush before he becomes an artist (we can’t all be Gauguin).

This goes back to the magazine fiction writing course I took in college — magazine journalism was actually my major — where we learned from someone who was well versed in the business of  publishing short fiction in magazines. We learned how it important it was to know a magazine’s specific audience and to write for said audience, as well as the other mundane (but nevertheless important) aspects of selling short fiction, such as writing query letters.

I remember feeling more than a little nonplussed early on in this class, and at the time really couldn’t elaborate as to why. It was only later on that I realized that this simply wasn’t what I wanted to hear — or learn. I didn’t want to write for other people, I wanted to write for me. I wanted to follow my muse — I wanted to make ART.

Yes, in capital letters, dammit.

Naive, I know — but I was a young man then, and earnest in the way that only youth can be. I wanted to learn the elements of the craft I needed to tell the stories whirling around in my head — plotting, dialogue, characterization, first- and -third person and when and when not to use them, etc. I didn’t want to learn how to sell some piece that a dowdy housewife will read in Redbook.

Nick Mamantas’ Starve Better doesn’t sound like your usual writers’ manual however; if nothing else, it sounds entertaining at the least. As he explains at the beginning of his essay on Io9:

I’ve just published a book for starving writers called Starve Better (Apex Publications), based on a decade of experience trying to make the rent writing strange articles for third-tier magazines, non-generic genre fiction, and anything else I was allowed to. It covers writing tips, finding venues for publication, and how to use one’s skills as a writer outside of traditional markets.

He talks a little about what motivated him early on to write in the subjects that he has — notably it seems he followed his muse, rather than what he learned in Magazine Fiction Writing 471, which probably explains his familiarity with starvation. As he says:

Then I branched out into fiction — mostly the sort of science fiction and horror that makes SF and horror fans complain, “This isn’t science fiction! You call this horror?” and readers of literary fiction slit their eyes and say, “Wait a minute…is this supposed to be scifi or horror or something?”

He goes on to discuss “some books and magazines and people you should be following, if you’re into the fringes of the genre.” And it’s worth checking out. For example, he lists Requires Only That You Hate among his list. This is a self-described geek-rageaholic’s science fiction and fantasy review blog.

Apparently it’s only been around for a few months, but the reviewer, one pyrofennec, is as  prolific as the paperback tripe so effectively skewered at Requires Hate. Go check it out for yourself; as for me, pyrofennec had me at “subliterate hack” and “bugfuck boat has beached.” Don’t worry; there is actually plenty of thoughtful criticism on race, gender and the usual literary topics amidst the rage. Even when there isn’t, clever hyperbole to illustrate a point is always amusing.

Furthermore, this person must be commended for toughing out books most of us (well, the smart few, at any rate) we would put down after a chapter or two — that is if we got past the cover blurb in the first place. Plus pyrofennec apparently wades into fan forums. Yikes! Pyrofennec, you are a braver man than I, regardless of what is between your legs.

And while we’re on the subject, not having a gender neutral singular pronoun is a pain in the ass. I know the accepted convention is to use “he” and that’s fine,  but as I say, as a journalist I hate to assume, because I don’t know. The fact is, I don’t know. Purely from an etymological standpoint, it has always bugged me, not because it’s politically correct but it’s not necessarily correct, period. Plus words are powerful things, as powerful as gender.

In any event, I’ve added Requires Only That You Hate to my RSS feed, and have added Starve Better to the possibly maybe book pile. The ebook edition is only $3.99  so I’ll most likely pick it up one of these days.

Terri Gross Interviews Area 51 Author Annie Jacobsen on Fresh Air

Little Green Aliens Russkies?

Is truth stranger than fiction? And is Area 51: An Uncensored History truth?

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseWhen I was a child, I went through a years long phase where I read everything I could on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFOs. This period commenced in second or third grade not long after the school nurse figured out I was blind as a bat and I got my first pair of glasses; I subsequently discovered the world at large – a world only vaguely, blurrily hinted at before.

I was able to see the board in the class room for the first time, as well, and academic things suddenly began falling into mental place. I went from being in the lowest reading level group to the highest in a matter of weeks. The world of books opened up for me as well.

Anyway, this interest in the paranormal, modern myths, mass hysteria, cryptozoology, complete and utter bullshit – please take your pick of your own preferential term, here – lasted well into adolescence. In fact it never really ended, it just became sublimated to a large degree by other things, namely cars, girls and computers. Needless to say that when the X-Files debuted, I was there glued to the television, and was pretty much every week during the season for the next eight years.

I drifted away to some extent once David Duchovny got too big for Mulder’s britches – but was and am still solidly in the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade. Did you see her in Last King of Scotland? Did you SEE? Oh. My. Various. Gods. Hurt me. So it’s perhaps also needless to say – in my roundabout sort of way – that when I listened to Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview with journalist Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base – I knew I would have to read this book.

(I’m in Terri Gross’ brigade too, just like Gene Simmons, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Documentation and Research Overshadowed by OMG Little Gray Russians Revelation

In fact I just listened to the podcast in the wee hours this morning while out for a walk before bed – I’m completely nocturnal these days – and promptly downloaded the book from Amazon when I got home. I read the first several chapters before I drifted off to sleep.

If you have any interest in this sort of thing at all – and by “thing” I don’t so much mean UFOs and little green men and conspiracy theories, although that’s all wrapped up in this, but rather U.S. military history – then this book is probably worth a read. I’ll be able to address the “probably” in the days ahead once I finish the book, naturally. Incidentally I find myself for the first time since college reading two non-fiction books concurrently, so it may take a few days.

In any event, you’ll want to check out the Fresh Air interview; you can read excerpts of both it and Jacobsen’s Area 51 at NPR as well.

My first impression of the book, based on the first few chapters, is that it does seem to be deeply researched and documented, although the style in which it is written I’m finding to be mildly problematic (more on this in the full review). Jacobsen is a professional journalist by trade, a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine covering national security issues, so she has a vested professional interest in publishing an accurate book.

That being said, the use of anonymous sources can be tricky when it comes to credibility; I’ve been in that boat myself, although that only involved the misuse of public funds in the Sedona (Ariz.) Fire District – not alleged early Cold War-era Russian subterfuge and espionage programs and rival U.S. government-sanctioned programs, both of which involved children – allegedly, I stress.

You can read more about this if you follow the link above to the NPR/Fresh Air interview. Much of what Jacobsen and her sources say – many of whom are on the record – seems quite plausible and indeed is documented: that Area 51 and nearby facilities have been used for nuclear bomb and even nuclear rocket tests, as well as overhead surveillance programs and the development of related aircraft. Some of this, of course, is actually already known, such as the U2 spyplane, the stealth fighter, and Project Oxcart.

So it’s unfortunate that the one thing that everyone in the media is going to focus on almost exclusively will be the tidbit in the back of the book, in which Jacobsen alleges that a saucer actually did crash in Roswell in 1947. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, after it was initially taken to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And that it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children “altered” to look as if they were aliens. That this was part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welle’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. That Stalin had actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes.

This admittedly seems farfetched, particularly the Mengele aspect. If being a journalist teaches you nothing else, it teaches one to have a healthy bullshit detector and to believe in Occam’s Razor. You don’t last long without the former; real-life experience leads you to follow the latter intuitively, if not scientifically. Either way, I’m sure that most of my fellow people in the Fourth Estate would agree that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation or answer to a question is usually the correct one.

On the other hand, Jacobsen says she has faith in her source, that she worked closely with him for nearly two years. That she is able to verify the veracity of everything else he has told her, that she has checked and verified his medical, personal and military records – so she personally takes him at his word on this admittedly difficult to believe claim.

He allegedly was one of the engineers called in to reverse engineer the Russian craft that crashed at Roswell and also saw the bodies of the child pilots. Of course, it might be different if we knew the identity of this person, and thus is the slippery slope of anonymous sources – we have to trust the journalist on this one. And she’s going out on a pretty big limb – if it were to come out somehow that this source isn’t reliable or deliberately mislead her – or worse, that she herself has made this up – her career as a journalist is over (although there will still be the talk-show circuit).

I want to believe, but I'm skeptical of the final claim in Jacobsen's Area 51.In any case, the whole Mengele aspect of the story is particularly hard to swallow; his movements at the end of and in the years immediately after the War are seemingly well documented. If he was working with the Russians he was apparently doing so clandestinely and remotely. And the idea that the technology existed in the 1947s to surgically or otherwise alter a human’s appearance to the point that they looked truly alien – like a so-called gray – is, well, admittedly ridiculous.

It’s notable that this revelation comes at the end of the book in an epilogue, although Jacobsen refers to it in an early chapter of the book. I’ll reserve any further comment until I finish the book, but again she addresses these issues following questions from Terri Gross in the NPR interview, so you can read/hear for yourself.

As for me, like Mulder, I Want to Believe. But like Scully, I’m pretty skeptical – at least as far as this Roswell revelation that comes at the end of Jacobsen’s Area 51.

In the Garden of Beasts on Fresh Air

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.National Public Radio’s Fresh Air had an interesting interview this week with journalist turned author Erik Larson; his book In the Garden of Beasts hit bookstores this week as well. In the Garden of Beasts examines early Nazi Germany, years before World War II began in earnest in the European theater. What makes the book interesting – if Teri Gross’ interview with Larson is any indication – is that it examines Nazi Germany through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, who was assigned to Berlin in the early 1930s.

Dodd, an historian and professor by trade and friends with both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually resigned his post after several years, having clashed repeatedly with both Nazi officials and the U.S. State Department. During his tenure he not only had a first hand look at how the Nazi Party consolidated its grip on power within Germany, but saw the beginnings of Hitler’s Final Solution – in one interview with Dodd Hitler even angrily suggested that Germany would have to “put an end” to the so-called Jewish problem, according to Larson.

Even beyond the subject manner – evil and the understanding thereof may not be easy, but it’s certainly never boring — this Fresh Air episode is worth a listen; it provides an interesting look into the process of writing history and nonfiction as well. It sounds as if Larson has exhaustively researched Dodd and the period for In the Garden of Beasts.

In addition to excerpts from the interview, NPR’s site also has an excerpt from the book. I think I’m going to have to add this to my ever-growing pile of books to read. Reading nonfiction, particularly history, can be painfully dry, but Larson’s books have many more good reviews than not, so I’ll soon see if I agree.

Besides, I have to help support a fellow ex-journalist who has turned to writing what he wants for a living, don’t I? You can find out more about Erik Larson at his website; and then there is Larson’s Wikipedia page.