Gabriel Tallent and My Absolute Darling: The Beasts Within

We are well-served to remind ourselves that humans are predators, monsters with hard leather shoes. But like most things human, our monsters come in a variety of shapes and guises. The phrase “human monster” tends to conjure up serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, for example, or The Prophet from Meg Gardiner’s recent book, Unsub. Alas, you need not be a member of this club to lay claim to the title of monster. With My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates that one man, Martin Alveston, with one victim, his daughter Julia, can provide more than enough monster. Tallent writes like an angel, which is to say that he sees the beauty but knows the devil.

tallent-my_absolute_darlingMy Absolute Darling is set in the forests of Northern California’s Mendocino Coast, and the prose is appropriately lush, rich and dripping. Martin Alveston lives as far away from polite society as he can. He distrusts technology, the modern world, and comfort. He’s well-armed, and he’s taught his ripening daughter well how to use those guns.

Julia, AKA “Kibble” (Martin’s name for her) AKA “Turtle,” is smart. precocious and has been truly twisted into knots. Early on, after pages of gorgeous nature writing and scene setting, those same prose talents are applied to a scene of graphic abuse, as experienced by Turtle. It’s horrifying beyond belief. Consider yourself warned and advised. The writing is powerful and the story is told from Turtle’s perspective. What we see, that Martin does not, is that he has created a hero equal to his evil. As much as we loathe him, we love her.

But that’s not totally true, and here is where Tallent’s talent shows. Martin is prone to rants about Our Modern Life, and Tallent gives him some pretty persuasive arguments. He’s not just evil and twisted, he’s pretty smart. But his daughter is smarter, and she has the advantage as it were, of having been raised by a monster. The dynamic between father and daughter is becoming increasingly unstable. Turtle’s grandfather is still on the scene and on the remote rural property where they live. Turtle herself is in school, barely, where she attracts the attentions of her teachers and fellow students. My Absolute Darling turns out to be a taut bow, ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

The true pleasure of this novel is to experience Tallent’s astonishing prose as he carefully crafts two towering characters in his exquisitely rendered world. Every time Turtle meets a teen friend, picks up a gun, talks to a teacher, is abused by her father (not too often, thankfully), or even just hangs with him in a moment of simulated normalcy, the readers wants to stand up and cheer her on. We become invested in these characters, in this landscape. We want it to break and we want it to work.

gabriel_tallent-2017-editMy Absolute Darling is a powerhouse. Readers might see Turtle as a nascent superheroine, but she needs no super powers. She (and Gabriel Tallent) will kick your reading ass from here to eternity and back. The deal with monsters is this; make ’em evil, make us hate ’em. Make us believe in them. (All too easy in Martin’s case.) Then introduce us to the human who is their match. In this example, Turtle. The problem for predators is the existence of other predators.

The problem for Gabriel Tallent is that he chose arguably the most difficult and off-putting subject in our culture as the topic of his novel. But in our conversation, we discuss how and why he chose this perspective. I do admit that while I read I had to occasionally remind myself that the setting was California, not Appalachia. Tallent is extremely well-spoken and he took an unusual route in writing the book, which we do discuss. Follow this link to hear our lightning round conversation, or listen below.

Follow this link to listen to our long-form conversation, or perhaps you and your cubicle mates will just listen below to a discussion about human monsters

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Robert Wright Reveals Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

The gap between what we intuit to be true and what we can prove to be true will be closed by language, not science. Words will parse reality, and craft for us ladders and systems by which we may remake the world. Which is to say that while neuroscience may unlock the secrets of the mind, philosophers and writers will necessarily tell us what they are and how they my help us.

wright-why_buddhism_is_true-smIn Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright applies his witty, restless intelligence and superb writerly craft to explore, to map out, the terrain between the Buddhist language of mindful meditation and enlightenment and 21st century psychology, informed by neuroscience. The result is a very funny, engaging, even page-turning story that manages to be a light-hearted deep-dive into the human paradox of self, not-self, nothingness and we can save the world, one breath at a time.

From the get-go, Wright makes it clear that this is not a book for experts, and that this is not the “woo” you are looking for. He begins the book with a “Note to Readers” so engagingly readable, you won’t be able to stop afterwards. Then, he urges us to, in the words of the Matrix, “take the red pill,” to see the world for what it is. How exactly that works, he reveals in less than 300 pages of whip-smart writing that transcends memoir, philosophy, science and journalism. It turns out Wright believes that he has a pretty good handle on the solution to much of what ails humanity, and a strong argument to back up his assertion.

Wright’s book is on a quest to understand much of what drove William James’ work, and more, based on the latest science. We would like to think that ultimately, neuroscience and philosophy have a relationship similar to chemistry and physics, in that one is an organic incarnation of the other. Wright manages to explore that abstraction by combining his personal experiences in meditation, aided by his assertion that he’s not a good at it, with interviews from those who are. In his frustrations and in his (and their) successes, Wright reveals the bits of our minds that we’re not are running the show.

Wright’s book is tautly paced and compulsively readable. He knows when to dive into the more intricate and abstract aspects of Buddhist thought, and when to pull back to a personal experience that as often as not demonstrates his inability to grasp then easily himself. When, for example, he fails the most basic breath meditations, his recounting of how he was remonstrated by his instructor is a major “Aha!” moment for the reader.

Wright takes us well beyond the meditation mat, in both Buddhist philosophy and neuroscience. There’s a great vision based on the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, and it’s matched by his take on the Samadhiraja Sutra. Wright combines humanity and authority in his writing, leaving doctrine behind as he uses story to get us from seeing to understanding, and understanding the difference between the two,

robert-wright-c-barry-munger_cBuddhism can seem to offer up a series of incomprehensible paradoxes, key concepts that can seem inconceivable and thus off-putting. Wright is a master at confronting these head-on in a hard-headed manner that cuts through the confusion. One of our very human intuitions is that all of this should be pretty damn simple. That’s not exactly true. What you will get from Robert Wright and Why Buddhism is True is that of course it is not simple. But it is very, very human.

Not surprisingly, Robert Wright in person is his own best voice. After a few seconds, the combination of keenly-sharp crystalline intelligence and self-deprecating humor wil slice away any doubts you have as to the content of what he’s saying. He is so right-there in the room with you, it’s like having your own personal science fair, therapist, and philosopher. He’s a relentless synthesizer of ideas and belief systems. Follow this link to our lightning round conversation, or listen below.

You can hear a very, very engaged Robert Wright in a deep, deep dive interview you won’t hear on the Ray-Joe by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.

Andrew Sean Greer Finds Less: Teller and Tale

greer-less-origWe love the ineffable, from terror to charm. Shockingly, terror is rather easy, but there is a lot to be afraid of in this world.   Charm – the word implies magic, does it not? – is considerably more difficult. Consider this, then, the Miracle of the Summer. Less by Andrew Sean Greer has more charm than you’ll find in one place anywhere. Greer has crafted a lovely book about love and given it a cast of characters who will charm you. A glass of wine, a back porch in the sun, and you are set.

Arthur Less is considerably less set. He’s a sinking mid-list author whose long-term, live-in boyfriend has flown the coop to get married – to someone else. Arthur is invited, of course, and it is equally certain he does not wish to attend. Only by setting himself up with a summer of book-related travel can he escape, and his escape is ours. we learn all this from an oddly affectionate but rarely present narrator. Who is telling the story and why? This matters, almost as much as the enjoyment we find in Arthur’s travails and travels. We will find out, but what state will poor Arthur be in by then?

Less is a potted travelogue, a story of a journey that goes entertainingly badly for the characters involved, but wonderfully for the reader. In that eventful journey, expect to find Arthur Less in Mexico, Paris, the Sahara, India, Berlin, New York and other less palatable destinations. But wherever he goes, he in rendered i the most enjoyable, hilarious prose you can imagine. Less is less a character study, though there is plenty of that, and more of a comedy about the foibles of those who love, are in love and are loved. A translation chapter set in Germany is unforgettable and likely to prevent precisely the sort of laughter it inspires, which is to say, you’ll be less inclined to make that mistake.

Greer gets a lot of mileage out of a pretty big cast. The key here is that Greer the writer is crazy in love with all his characters, no matter how sketchily (not very, but) these people behave. The result is that wherever the book lands, we’re happy. And, given that we’re reading a travelogue, Greer’s ability to keep our eyes and his on Arthur Less and his prize (whatever he may decide that to be) is pretty astonishing. There’s more than a bit of Around the World in 80 Days to be found here, but the upshot is not episodic. The tour we are getting is internal as much as it is external.

andrew_sean_greer-2017-smWhip-smart and wonderful, Less has a mannered, classic feel to it. This is due in part to its clever narrative structure, which proves to be closely tied to plot and character. But it’s also clear that Andrew Sean Greer is having a good time, that he wants to share the joy. And joy, like love, terror and charm, is ineffable. Only in action, only in language is love clear. Immerse yourself in Less and you’re going to find just how moving the ineffable can be.

Given the charm falling off the pages of Less, it takes no stretch of the imagination to guess that Andrew Sean Greer is every bit as charming as the world he creates. Would that his world could be all of ours!   Here’s a link to our short-form “lightning round” interview, or just listen below.

But really, the best Rx is to take your time, settle back and listen to Andrew Sean Greer embody the Charm School (it CANNOT be taught) by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.

Meg Gardiner Pursues Unsub: Family Business

Unsub begins with Caitlin Hendrix fulfilling her destiny, as the daughter of a cop, in a very bad place with very bad people. In a split second, she decides not to shoot. But it has been more than 20 years since The Prophet terrorized Northern California and essentially destroyed her father’s career. There’s more to destiny than staying alive.

gardiner-unsubFrom the very first paragraph, Meg Gardiner’s prose and style give will give readers the confidence that they are in for a solid story, well-told. The supple strength with which Gardiner writes prepare her to lay out the subtler parts of her story. Caitlin’s father was a storied cop, until he came up against The Prophet, a serial killer modeled on Zodiac. Consumed by the case, Mack Hendrix let a far-too-young Caitlin see photos of victims, of just what he was up against. Twenty years is not too long for Caitlin to wait. Vengeance has no expiration date.

Gardiner writes a smart, clean novel, quickly putting us in the path of a human monster. To her credit, Gardiner makes it clear that while monster outweighs human in the balance, nonetheless humans are capable of acts that are clearly inhuman. Which is to say that the terror and tension get cranked up pretty high pretty and pretty early in the moments it will take you to finish this novel.

For this reader, a sense of straight-ahead fair-play is essential in a serial killer novel, and Gardiner delivers with complete panache. There’s also the matter of tension management; too much and the reader will not want to read, but to skip ahead and just “find out.” Too little, and you get the same result for a different reason. Suffice it to say, Gardiner has you glued to every page, and the one after.

Even before you finish Unsub, you’ll know that it is the beginning of a series, and here as well, Gardiner shows us just how it should be done. Caitlin Hendrix is a character you care about, prone to put herself in danger, but only for the best reasons, which happen to be those that will keep you in this book and anticipating the next one.

meg-gardiner-2017So yes, I did ask Meg Gardiner if these characters were going to be rolled into Criminal Minds, because they’re making something based on this book and its sequel(s) for CBS. I will let listeners hear for themselves her answer, but to my mind any filmed production benefits from a prose beginning, because a book ensures there will be a story [usually]. I think readers and listeners will hear just how smart and fair Gardiner is, and yes, fair is important when you’re talking about someone who creates characters you plan on spending valuable time with. Just follow this link, or listen below to hear Meg Gardiner discuss the finer points of fairness and scaring the bejeebers out of you.

Robert Repino Unleashes D’Arc: Empowering Fun

We expect a lot from our entertainment. We want to be thrilled beyond belief by the new expanses we’re shown, even as our own inner lives are being illuminated. That’s a tall order, but look no father than D’Arc by Robert Repino. It’s the second novel, after Mort(e), in what Repino is calling The War With No Name series. He’s also published an excellent novella from this world, Culdesac.

In Mort(e), Repino quickly brought about the end of humanity’s rule on earth by virtue of the Ancient Ant Queen, a hyper-intelligent, almost god-like being that decides to eliminate humans. Not only does she create “THEM!”-like giant ants, she also “uplifts” the other species; dogs, cats, beaver, and more – so that they can walk upright, carry weapons and go on to make all the mistakes we’ve made. It is a come-uppance of Biblical proportions. Mort(e) was once Sebastian the house cat, neutered and de-clawed. His best friend was the neighbor’s dog, Sheba, a recent upliftee who has not taken a new name.

repino-darcAs D’Arc begins, Mort(e) and Sheba have managed to eke out a relatively stable life on the frontier. In a remote cabin, they raise the giant warrior ants, and try to recover from the war. But Mort(e) is a legendary figure and the events set in motion by the Queen are not yet done. A new race of intelligent monsters is creating a civilization under water, but they’re looking to the land. A city of beavers finds it is being threatened by a giant monster and there’s a serial killer foot in the tinderbox capital where all animals try to get along with one another and humans.

By virtue of great writing, Repino makes crafts the characters here with a significant emotional wallop. Mort(e) is a flinty-eyed veteran, wary of immersing himself in the violence at which he so excels. He’s filled with a gruff love for Sheba, even as we the readers know she can never feel the same. Sheba is complicated and beautifully crafted, as are Fallkirk (a heroic husky), and the beavers, WOW – the beavers. Repino’s world building matches his character insights, which are stellar. Pretty early on, you’ll encounter a scene in the beavers’ city that is every bit as memorable as your first sighting of a sandworm on Dune. The good news is that it gets even better.

Repino creates a race of aquatic monstrosities who are sympathetic even as though they plan to kill all humans most of the animals. The Sarcops, as they call themselves, are highly intelligent and as ruthless as humans. Credit must go Repino’s amazing imagination then, that the novel includes an airship battle so thrilling it’s likely to push away any movie memories you might hope to store. Repino not only blocks that action like a pro, keeping our eyes on a variety of battlefronts, he also syncs up the character arcs with the action. It’s an emotional and excitement reading high of a magnitude you don’t generally find between the pages.

D’Arc also masters the other challenge of any book that is part of a series, which is to provide an ending that feels right, but does not actually, as it were, end. And while you’ll certainly be looking forward to more exploration of Repino’s world, this is a book that you will playing the best bits of, in fact all of, on the big screen in your mind. If you have high expectations of your entertainment, if you want to see something new and feel something human, then Robert Repino’s The War With No Name books offer you no less than the best you can hope to find.

robert_repino-2015-490What makes Robert Repino so much fun to talk to is how much fun he is clearly having writing The War With No Name books. And believe me, you will have fun as well! Repino is an outlier. He’s a literary school graduate who does not come to genre through conventions and magazines and short story writing. He even confesses a bit of embarrassment at not having a kitchen window epiphany novel to his name. I think his freedom from the usual genre associations works well for his writing, and his publisher Soho, not known for SF, deserves a lot of love for taking on this work. We tried to keep matters spoiler free, beyond, “That was a helluva scene.” Jump into the world you deserve by following this link, or just listen below and the Ant Queen will do all the deciding.

Daniel H. Wilson Winds The Clockwork Dynasty: A Survival of Ancient Beings

How much history is hidden? Our understanding of the past comes with a back-story that we all supposedly subscribe to, a theory that sounds good but which we know to be incomplete at best. Everyone has a different idea as to how we got to where we are today, and there are plenty of places in written history within which one might hide quite a bit of story that remains untold. June is a specialist in re-assembling ancient automatons, old clockwork dolls with fine machinery. When she rebuilds a Russian artifact, a writing doll, it inscribes a message – the first sentence in a story we have yet to hear.

wilson-the_clockwork_dynastyThe Clockwork Dynasty begins carefully and economically, but not slowly. Wilson expertly crafts a scene out of time, immersing us in the scents and sounds of age. But as we become comfortable, he ups the urgency. In the present, June has happened upon a story she was not supposed to see, bringing her and all those around her into peril. As she flees, we are taken to another perspective in 18th century Russia, that of Peter, an automaton created to help and perhaps replace Peter the Great. He too, must flee, and clearly his path will cross June’s, a meeting that is likely to make things worse for both rather than better.

Given Wilson’s written history, it ‘s tempting to think that what you’re getting in The Clockwork Dynasty is a steampunk novel., but that is not the case. You will get a lot of the scenery of steampunk, specifically clockwork robots, but Wilson’s storyline aims squarely at the sense of wonder and hits on all axes. Combining terror and awe, June’s journey is much more in a Lovecraftian vein of ancient survivals and secret histories. Behind what we think we know is something we do not know at all, and our ignorance could be our undoing.

Expect to find one super-thrilling scene after another with a plot spanning centuries that you’d like to read in seconds. Importantly, Wilson spares us the usual romance and focuses on the characters and ideas, with the result being that even as he writes a blockbuster action scene, the action is matched by the ideas and the character arcs. For this reader, at least, Wilson has moved from a science fiction feel to a horror fiction feel sans the supernatural machinations. The upshot is that Wilson’s latest feels fresh and original, even as the page-turning-thriller vibe keeps you up late reading. This is a novel that were it a movie (and it should be), every scene would prove to be a good part. It not only keeps you in the present it creates, it makes you remember it after you have finished reading.

daniel_wilson-2017Consequently, this is a novel that might seem to have a more specialized appeal than proves to be the case. Don’t be fooled. The Clockwork Dynasty is big-scale crowd-pleaser with smarts and heart. It admits a sequel, but not from the edge of a cliff. Even if it proves that your motives for doing so are not your own, even if our destiny has been shaped by beings we do not know to exist and could not comprehend if we did, your time reading The Clockwork Dynasty is time well spent.

The clock is ever ticking when one sits down to interview an author with books as stuffed with ideas and good writing as those of Daniel H. Wilson. He and I have been talking for over a decade, a deepish sort of time that can seem a little bit scary. As we sat down for The Clockwork Dynasty, I also wanted to discuss Robogenesis, a novel that breaks new boundaries in body horror. Forget the post-apocalypse, etc, and settle down for a chat that includes a brief look at having your body town to shreds by tiny bits of smart metal embedded in your spine. Feel them crawl up your spine as they entwine your nerves. Follow this link to the MP3 audio file of our brief discussion, or listen below.

Let time swallow you whole for almost an hour with Daniel Wilson by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.

Tal M. Klein Throws The Punch Escrow: Which Me Am I?

The very idea of teleportation is, in Tal M. Klein’s The Punch Escrow, a clever bit of misdirection. We’ve seen it in fiction so many times, so many places. We’ve seen it go wrong almost as often as it’s gone right, yet we’re quite comfortable in a future where it’s commonplace. Our narrator, Joel Byram, has a sweet, smart, snarky voice that’s fun to read. In 2147, the world looks pretty good, even without the Mona Lisa, lost in an excitingly-described teleportation accident.

klein-the_punch_escrowUh oh. Between the dark shadings in Joel’s voice, it’s easy to guess something is going to go wrong. The clever bit is that the first things to be proved wrong are our assumptions about teleportation. As Joel points out, it’s an incredibly violent proposition. To be sure, it seems to be almost pristine. But, down and dirty, it involves annihilating your body as it is converted into data that is transmitted to another point where a new copy of your body is (hopefully) rebuilt. Viewed this way, what we take in the SF genre to be a straightforward process is really quite fraught with the potential for errors.

It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong, in spite of the titular protocol that essentially performs a checksum to verify a good copy. Fortunately for Joel, his fiancé is a maths genius who works for International Transport. Alas, that may prove to be problematic as well. Joel is no genius himself. He’s a “salter,” who earns his living by using his wits to come up with arbitrary arguments he aims at any available AI, with the intent of improving its wits. For a certain personality type, it’s the ultimate job: he’s a professional smart-ass, paid by the snark. Where snark meets Big Teleportation, danger and thus entertainment, follows.

The Punch Escrow is punctuated by engaging footnotes that offer selected and well-written dollops of the hard science behind Klein’s solid world-building. It’s refreshing to find science fiction with actual science in it, made more so by Klein’s super-fun prose voice. The pulse-pounding plot elements lock into place nicely, and readers are in for a wildly cinematic ride even as they are enjoying the world-reveal. Klein offers some amazingly resonant emotional notes for his well-crafted characters, more often than not keyed into the science of the story itself. It’s not surprising that the book is already in production. For readers, the best news is that it hardly matters whether or not it ever makes it to the actual big screen. It plays like one as you read it, but offers enough details that it begs to be re-read upon completion.

tal_m_klein-2017-editFor all the newfangled aspects of The Punch Escrow, perhaps the most pleasing aspect is very old-fangled, which is to say that this feels like a classic science fiction novel. It has the science, the thrills and the satiric humor that mark some of the best work of the previous century, without any sense of being deliberately “retro.” The Punch Escrow does what the best SF is supposed to do; it transports you to a future that feels real, with smart science and an equally smart sense of story. Your encounter with teleportation manages to teleport you with no technology involved.

Tal. M. Klein told me a great story about how his book came to be. It is absolutely not what you think it might be, and it was just the beginning of a conversation that was as engaging and surprising as the book behind it. As you might expect, he’s pretty stoked about the whole movie aspect, and as you might also expect, he’s got more than a grain of salt ready for the actual completion. You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link to get the flyover view, or listen below.

When you’re ready for the high-science version with grace notes about footnotes, follow this link to download the file, or listen below!

Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas: Topian Fiction

Well into Christopher Brown’s exciting new novel Tropic of Kansas, the title itself is described as, “…the line in our heads where ingenuity runs into loco.” Well, yes, we crossed that line and not recently. As a nation of boiled frogs, we are finding it harder and harder to understand not only how we got here, but as well, where exactly we are in the first place. As the present becomes more incomprehensible, the necessity for re-inventing it becomes increasingly urgent.

brown-tropic_of_kansasWe first meet Sig, a kid in an America that is somewhere in the gray zone between discombobulated and dystopian. Sig is fierce to the edge of feral, and he’s being rounded up as an illegal immigrant and sent back home – to America. As we meet Tania, a (US) government employee with lots of questions about both sides of the matter, we begin to wonder, where in the hell is this taking place. Is this meant to be our future? It’s not exactly the future and that’s your first clue that Christopher Brown has something much more nuanced and interesting than “dystopian” prescience.

As hellish as things look; climate change, economic disaster, and Untied, not United States – Brown is happy to offer us some solace as well. Not everybody with a modicum of power buys into the madness. The possibility for real change is present, and low technology is there to help. The experience of reading Tropic of Kansas is thrilling not just because Brown is a masterful plotter with Sig (sort of) maturing into a genuine hero, the kind of character that makes readers want to cheer out loud. One of the major thrill here is realizing that this is not the future. It’s the present, lightly re-mixed, with a plot that reality sadly seems to lack.

It’s hard to turn the pages fast enough as you read Tropic of Kansas. Brown writes set-pieces with a powerfully cinematic eye, but remembers to invest them in character. And, as you are reading, Brown’s visionary writing and world will drop your jaws every time his perceptions laser their way into the heart of today. This happens early and often; importantly, the book was written well before today, so that Brown’s vision seems topical without resorting to “ripped from the headlines.”

christopher_brown-2017It’s also critical that this is not Another Book About the Dire, Awful World. Things are bad in Tropic of Kansas, but not entirely so. There’s a soupcon of “getting-better-ability” even in the most horrific situations. This isn’t dystopian or utopian fiction, but just, what you might call “Topian,” which is to say a system that has Humans in it and thus is incapable of reaching Heaven or Hell. We can imagine both, but we know in our hearts that it’s Purgatory for us.

I first encountered Christopher Brown as the editor of the excellent anthology Three Messages and a Warning, and so was queued up early for his novel. I just admit that the novel really knocked my socks off, and it’s the kind of work that offers lots to talk about. When we sat own at KQED, there was so much to talk bout that I barely got time to mention his anthology – but we did some quality time to discuss both his novel and the anthology. You can hear our lightning-round interview to cover the basics by following this link, or listen below.

For a deep dive into the nascent genre of Topian Fiction, follow this link, or immerse yourself in the antidote for Our Topian World by listening below.

Rob Goodman Jimmy Soni Examine A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Claude Shannon was a man of a different age from ours, and not simply because it was his mind that informed the creation of our world. Even for his time, the mid-20th century, he was the quintessential quiet man. An engineer, a mathematician, a tinkerer, Shannon’s story proves to be riveting and relevant here is the 21st century, where we now understand ourselves to be swimming in a sea of information. With their biography, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have crafted a gripping narrative that honors their subject even as it astonishes their readers. A Mind at Play is an engaging exploration of the silences and spaces from which Information Theory, and the Internet, eventually emerged.

soni_goodman-a_mind_at_play-300Shannon is not an easy man to write about, but the authors manage to create a seamless single voice with which to examine what proves to be a very American success story. To do so, they find the perfect scenes and prose to match, to wit, a story from Shannon’s youth about his use to electrified fences transmit coded messages on the wires. The authors are clear on the fact that this was not uncommon, but they write the prose and paint the picture so that readers cannot help but be thrilled in this intimation of what was to come. It is but one of many quiet moments that reverberate into the present.

Soni and Goodman bring in some heavy hitters and major players from this era; Vannevar Bush, whose genius was to find those like Shannon and others and bring them into the war effort; Alan Turing, who came to America to check up on our cryptography; John Von Neumann and Albert Einstein. They effortlessly weave these stories into Shannon’s story of creating the idea of the “bit.” He wanted to call it the “binary digit,” but was dissuaded from doing so. And so, Soni and Goodman offer us the wonder of seeing our world built one bit at a time.

One senses the authors’ respect for and understanding of Shannon with their occasional inclusion of the math and physics behind and of Shannon’s discoveries. It’s pretty damn easy and thrilling to read the core equation at the center of Shannon’s Information theory. Goodman and Soni pull off these scenes with ease. In honoring Shannon’s sense of quiet, they find their greatest strength as biographers. A Mind at Play is a playful and entertaining look at the man whose Information Theory underpins our reality.

Thrilling is an understatement with regards to my conversation about with Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. To be fair, we were all playing in the key of Claude Shannon, and these two experts earned their expertise in the creation of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. But I also think that what was informing all of us was the fact that we are all in a sense children of the Information Age. No matter how loud it has become, our world was born in quiet. Follow this link and listen to Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, or listen below to pure information. Beauty!

Rick Wartzman Explores The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America : From We to I

Early in The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America, Rick Wartzman introduces readers to what many may feel to be a mirror image – those whom labor economist Guy Standing calls “the precariat.”   Wartzman goes further: “a group of people who invariably live lives defined by economic insecurity and are all too aware that they’re stuck in the mud, if not falling ever further behind. Their ranks extend well beyond those in gig jobs or other forms of ‘contingent work,’ and their disenchantment with how poorly they’re faring is hardly new.” The not-so silent majority is ever growing and living from paycheck to paycheck has become the new normal. How did we get from the American Dream to this nascent nightmare?

wartzman-the_end_of_loyaltyIt’s a great, if unhappy, story, impeccably and compellingly well-told by Wartzman, who elects to follow the history of relations between employees and those in charge of four major American corporations; General Motors, Coca-Cola, General Electric and Eastman-Kodak. In just a little more than a hundred years, America has journeyed from welfare capitalism to corporate welfare. Wartzman keeps his eye on the liminal space between those in charge and those on the line, taking readers from the creation of what we now understand to be The American Dream, to its peak, and then through the decades in which it is nibbled to death by ducks. And here we are.

Wartzman is a superb historian and storyteller. He has a knack for finding great stories and characters within each of his chosen realms, and an amazing ability to re-create the past from the perceptions of the past. This helps us experience the birth of what we now call “The American Dream” – a good job with pay that enables a middle-class lifestyle not so different from the lives of those who lead the company. Critical too, was the security of the employment and the social contract between employer and employees, with the former understanding that the latter were key elements in the success of the company. Wartzman explores the truth, explodes the myths and tells a lot of great stories about a lot of great characters.

Balance of story, history, concept and character are vital to the success of this book. It’s a lot of fun to read, chock-a-block with colorful characters and pretty wild scenes, especially to those of us today who will look upon the days of “welfare capitalism” with more than a whiff of head-spinning utopian nostalgia. Wartzman is also a master of showing and not telling, allowing readers to arrive at their own moral conclusions and letting the facts speak for themselves.rick_wartzman-2017

One of the most engaging aspects of The End of Loyalty is Wartzman’s ability to weave corporate and human character arcs, so we can judge for ourselves, for example, the impact of “Electric” Charlie Wilson versus Jack Welch over at GE. However you may feel about corporate morals, or the lack thereof, the stories are a powerful and sobering look at what the 20th century did to the average worker.

For all that The End of Loyalty is a serious work about something that matters greatly to each and every American, Wartzman understands how to tell an unhappy story in a manner that will make readers happy. The End of Loyalty offers up a full serving of American Quirk, with blow-hards, do-gooders, self-promoters, self-starters, suburban dads, working moms, corporate raiders and the old-New and new-New Deal. It turns out we’d be lucky if we were to “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alas, we are not going back. But if we read The End of Loyalty, at least our next steps need not be off the same cliff from which we have so slowly fallen.

As an example of the American Slowly-Boiled Frog, I experienced The End of Loyalty with a combination of wonder, depression and hope. Wonder was the result of reading Rick Wartzman’s flawless prose creation of The American Dream, depression a result of reading his incisive dissection of what happened, mostly from the time I entered the workforce onward, and hope, well – when you listen to Rick Wartzman speak, the reasons for hope will become clear. You can tell The Man where to go and how to get there by brazenly listening below, or just follow this link to the MP3 file of our lightning round.

For an extended discussion of How We Came To This Terrible Place, follow this link, or simply invite your supervisor over and have them listen with you.