Lili Wright on Dancing With the Tiger: “…there is such pleasure in sharing culture and sharing language…”

lili_wright-2016-dancing_with_the_tiger-large

There is always an underneath. Whether it is turtles all the way down, the undisturbed circle of dirt below the trashcan or the dark motives that inspire a kind act, we experience ourselves as the thin barrier between now and then, between inside us and every damn thing else. Our religions are born in and live in our dual lives, our dual selves.

wright-dancing_with_the_tiger-largeIn Dancing With the Tiger, Lili Wright embraces the strange masks we wear and with which we experience our lives. Anna Ramsey, the troubled heart at the center of this novel, is watching her life unravel. Her academic credibility has crumbled and her relationship is not far behind. Offered the opportunity to escape to Mexico to bring back a mask that may save her father’s reputation (and hers), she bolts from the coming ruins of her life. She’ll find a new face to wear in Mexico, but it may come at a cost she cannot comprehend, let alone afford.

Dancing With the Tiger is a straight-up treasure hunt shot through with drugs, magic and lies, all of which have the same effect on the characters caught up in them. Reality, as anyone in the novel might identify it, is quickly unmoored. Four major characters, who have no knowledge of or acquaintance of one another, are clearly entangled in something bigger than any one of them. Wright spins an excellent page-turning tale in the tradition of ripping yarns, but laced through with both literary insights and surrealist touches. The result is unexpectedly affecting and weird.

For this reader, the “twigger,” Chris Maddox, was particular delight. A “twigger” (Wright came across the term while she was reporting) is an archaeological digger who is also a tweaker, which is to say, addicted to meth. His perceptions of the world around him are particularly peculiar, and add a great tone to the novel. Wright also does outstanding work with drug lords and ex-pats. She creates a tightly-wound character arc for all, and weaves them together with the right amount of expertise and page-turning plot points. She hits the right balance between tension and attention.

Dancing With the Tiger itself is an experience of duality, even as it speaks to the theme in all its guises. Readers looking for a treasure hunt with touches of the fantastic can jump into the page-turning yarn of treasure and terror. Bit behind the mask of a sleek thriller, there are depths and echoes of something more primitive and dangerous. Lili Wright lets us glimpse the most terrifying enemy. The mirror.

For all the glimpsing you experience in reading Dancing With the Tiger, a conversation with Lili Wright herself will put you right back on the straight, if not so narrow path. We had a grand time talking around all the major plot points in Dancing With the Tiger. We did get to the ex-pat lifestyle, and how her work in reporting inspired this book, as well as her battles with using the word “I” and making stuff up.

Behind this mask, you’ll find a web link to our “lightning round” interview for a brief, hallucinatory audio glimpse at the world of Dancing With the Tiger. You may even have time to put on your “fascinating spreadsheet” face and listen below.

Alternately, you can step behind the mask of this internet “web link” to download our in-depth conversation, or just put on your “I’m really working boss” face and listen below.

Lindsay Hatton Dives Into Monterey Bay: Immersion in the Past

lindsay_hatton-2016-monterey_bay

We are built from stories, layered one upon the other. In her debut novel, Monterey Bay, Lindsay Hatton employs the specificity of history and historical fiction to craft an emotional truth that leaves history behind. Her protagonist, Margot Fiske, is mesmerizing and compelling, but is also neither ethical nor nice. It has served Margot well.

In 1998, Margot Fiske is running the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She’s an iron-fist, no-glove kind of boss, beloved but never underestimated. In 1940, she’s a 15 year-old girl who looks older and knows how to use it. She’s willing to use it to win the heart of the biologist, whom she at first dislikes. Turns out, he’s Ed Ricketts. His best (and very complicated) friend, John Steinbeck, is writing about him. Steinbeck doesn’t much like Margot, and we might not either, but she will not be left behind.

hatton-monterey_bayMonterey Bay runs on a powerful prose engine, steeped in poetry and vivid details. Hatton takes a lot of chances in her debut. She messes not only with history as we know it, but some of the most powerful fictionalized versions of history as well. She puts words in the mouths of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, and it all manages to feel natural, organic and credibly tense as we race to embrace a past that never was so we can better understand a future that will never be.

While Hatton’s prose is always a pleasure to read, she follows through by crafting a great set of characters, even though we’ve met some in Cannery Row, an authentic American literary classic. Margot Fiske is pushy, self-centered, incredibly talented and driven, even as a teenager. Ricketts is both a bemused genius, lost in the world of his creation, as well as something of a casual cad. Steinbeck is insecure and yet in charge, a famous man who is uncertain of his own worth, even if it is clear [to Steinbeck and everyone else] that he, like Ricketts, is some kind of genius. Margot’s father is a capitalist terror. It’s obvious that the daughter took after her father. Mothers are absent, and we notice this.

Hatton’s willingness to bend history to suit her needs is admirable, and utterly transparent. The story of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and its founder, Julie Packard, are well known to us and sidestepped here. Hatton does a great job creating Monterey as a sort of haunted beach town, and readers who enjoy a hothouse gothic feel to their literature will find much to like here. Even in the opening, there’s a distinctly Lovecraftian image of a tentacled menace just out of sight. That gothic shadow hovers over the novel.

In re-writing both history and fiction, Lindsay Hatton succeeds on all levels. She brings you in with seductive prose, keeps you hanging with a steamy mystery, and brings it all together even as she take history itself apart. Crowded houses preside over a Bay that is being killed by those who live there. A lonely genius meets a troubled girl. By the time the future arrives, there will have been so many more deaths. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is not dead – it is housing life. Its pages are these pages. Can you breathe underwater?

lindsay_hatton-2016I spoke with Lindsay Hatton at KAZU about her novel; how her work at the Aquarium informed it and the challenge of taking on literary icons. If you’ve read this far, please take the time to visit my report for KAZU about Lindsay Hatton. Leave a comment; this will help keep the reviews and interviews coming!

Here’s a link to an unfiltered “lightning round” to give you a précis as to Things Worth Knowing About This book.   Or you can listen just below.

Here’s a link to our in-depth interview, which is also a précis as to Things Worth Knowing About This book.   Or you can listen just below.

Ruth Wolever Thoughtfully Considers : The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health

ruth_wolever-2016-the_mindful_diet

In The Mindful Diet, Wolever and Beth Reardon use the whole mind and body philosophy of Integrative medicine and the scientized techniques of Mindful Meditation to use our best resource, our own mind, and have it observe our body. While anyone can do this, the steps laid out in this book, which I discussed with the author in my interview, offer the clearest and smartest path yet to bring a level of sanity to our diet and eating habits.

This is a book, and an interview that is pragmatic and helpful. The advice and workshops are easily integrated into an actual day of a normal person. And the results will fan out far beyond weight loss. If you’re leading a productive and satisfied life then your diet will take care of itself. The Mindful Diet offers tips for understanding bad habits and forming new habits, based on the latest neuroscience. At heart is a simple rule with implications that ripple through all you do. Stop. Find silence. Learn to listen to yourself, your mind and your body. Be on the lookout – for the rules that you make that work for you.

You can find my in-depth review and the long-form interview at the Rainbow Light Transformational Wellness Network podcast page. Please go here, leave a comment, and support all my blogs and podcasts. To hear my exclusive lightning round interview with Ruth Wolever, follow this link to the MP3 audio file, or just listen below.

Whit Stillman Remixes Jane Austen: The Vindication of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon

whit_stillman-2016-love_and_friendship

The letters never move on the page but writing is ever in motion. Jane Austen’s work was relevant when she wrote it and it still is, but our relationship to her writing has changed dramatically. Austen’s gift was that of a psychologist. She was able to describe human relations in a timeless manner. This makes her work ideal for the very modern art of remixing, and Lady Susan, an early novella, is the perfect platform for motion picture director Whit Stillman to re-purpose into Love & Friendship, as both a movie and a novel.

stillman-love_and_friendshipBoth are delightful. They honor the work of the original author and display the art of the remixer, director and writer, Whit Stillman. The novel as packaged is a hoot to read, and the movie is equally enjoyable. I read the book before seeing the movie, but I doubt it would make much of a difference in terms of the reading and viewing experiences. No matter how you approach it, Love & Friendship is deliciously dark fun.

At the heart of the novel is Lady Susan Vernon…no wait, it’s the narrator, Lady Susan’s devoted nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca. While he’d like you to think that he’s all about rehabilitating Lady Susan’s reputation, he generally manages to accomplish the opposite. Lady Susan, you see, is something of a predator. She’s beautiful, seductive, largely amoral and on the brink of broke. The upshot is that men of means are in deep moral peril when they are in her vicinity, married or not.

As an early work of Austen’s, Lady Susan has more than a few inconsistencies, which Martin, who adds the letters as an appendix to his own narrative, corrects, both in his story and in notes added to Lady Susan’s letters (which are Austen’s original manuscript). If all of this sounds very “meta,” well, that’s because it is, at least in the novel.   And it is very funny.

The film is a much more straightforward adaptation of the novel, and it eschews the narrative structure and the narrator himself, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, who is (perhaps) only briefly seen. The acting, pacing screenplay, art direction and direction are all top-notch. As there are plenty of reviews of the movie by authentic film reviewers, I’ll leave my sense of the movie at that. It was as hilarious as the novel, but without any of the meta-fictional additions that make the novel a delight in itself.

The film and novel work well together, but one does not require the other. Were one to see the film first, upon reading the novel you will find much more to the story. And having read the novel before seeing the movie, it is truly a delight to see the cast and director create such a wonderful adaptation. There’s no sense of anyone hoping to fix it in the remix. Instead, the remix itself gets a powerful affirmation here as an art-form in its own right; whether as a film or a novel or both, Love & Friendship is a lesson in both motion and emotion.

whit_stillman-2016-265Unsurprisingly, Whit Stillman himself is a man in motion. While he did manage to sit down during our conversation, you could tell his mind was flying ahead. He did confess to me that someday, when he manages to slow down enough, he intends to write a big book, not an adaptation of a movie or another book, but a big ol’ novel that will remix reality. The way books do. Chances are, he’ll make a movie based on that book. He’s clearly not the sort of fellow to stop for very long. You can hear our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, pretend the world is sitting still and listen right here. The time will fly by.

Justin Cronin Reflects The City of Mirrors

justin_cronin-2016-the_city_of_mirrors

Where will you be in the next 1,000 hours? Where will you be in the next 1,000 days? Where will you be in the next 1,000 years? Scope matters; it informs our decisions as well as our visions. As humans, our gift is that we can encompass scope in any degree, from the infinitesimal to the cosmic. It is also problematic to do so. Give Justin Cronin credit then, for scope in all the degrees that matter to us as readers.

cronin-the_city_of_mirrorsBeginning with The Passage, continuing with The Twelve, and now concluding in The City of Mirrors, Cronin has immersed us in intimate personal history and grand historical tapestries; sometimes in the same moments. By any measure of scope, The City of Mirrors is a success. It’s a blast to read, a ripping yarn that manages to convey personal truth and pointed commentary. All this in a narrative ablaze with monsters.

Cronin as always, does an admirable job at the literary equivalent of “Previously, in The Passage and The Twelve.” It’s an important and telling nod to the reading experience. The three books essentially comprise one enormous novel. Don’t start with The City of Mirrors; go back and read the first two books first.  That said, he’s been writing and publishing them beyond the memory of most readers for plot details, so having that précis up front is nice.

But more importantly, with the concluding book in the trilogy, Cronin manages to wrap up his story in a manner that does not feel like simple knot-tying. The City of Mirrors manages the trick of being a satisfying story in itself while also finishing the many stories that began in the previous volumes.

The delight at the core of this novel is that we finally get a good gander at Timothy Fanning, patient Zero and the reason for all the apocalyptic adventures we’ve enjoyed for some startlingly large number of pages. And we meet Fanning not just as the nastiest critter alive, or sort-of alive, but, most engagingly, as the human he was before he was transformed into a monster. And this, of course, has always been the strength of these books. The monsters have recognizable characters and character arcs, as well as being damnably flashy monsters.

All this might be enough in itself, but Cronin offers so much more. The beauty to be found in his protagonists proves to be every bit as engaging as the evil in his villains. His prose can frame a terrorizing battle scene bigger than most anything you could imagine, but it is filled with poetic power in the small moments. His bent for academia, whether it’s to be found in the glory days of Harvard undergrads in the recent past or in pontificating conferences in the distant future, is unerringly enjoyable. Not an easy feat to pull off! And putting together the layers of story across time is a particularly poignant reading experience.

It’s certainly true that all times feel like end times, for better or worse; alas, it’s generally the latter. Cronin’s trilogy, perfectly completed in this ambitious novel, offers both a detailed personal vision and a grand-scale, end-times adventure. The real storytelling feat is not the epic sweep so much as the emotional connection. With this story, Cronin offers us the seemingly self-contradictory vision of an end that we do not want to end.

justin_cronin-2016-800Given that he’s written three tomes, and done three tours, Justin Cronin is to my mind unexpectedly but happily enthusiastic to talk about all this. He’s gung-ho, even, and our visit lacked only beers and a bar; but that would have made recording difficult, and it was, as it happens, a bit early in the day. What was nice about this conversation, is that we had the opportunity to talk about the work as a whole and illuminate some bits of the latest novel without really giving anything away.

And while we run slightly under my usual time, the fact of the matter is that he talks pretty fast. You get all the content in a percentage of the time! In this apocalyptic, final sentence of the review, you can follow this link to the MP3 audio of our conversation to download the file – or you can experience the post-post-apocalypse without ever leaving your seat or this page by listening below.

Kevin Kelly Expects The Inevitable: “I’m not a Utopian…”

kevin_kelly-2010-the_inevitable

Expect to be discomforted, and that is in the present. By reading this book. As for the future, Kevin Kelly is not in the business of comfort, though his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, is far less dystopian than you might reasonably expect. Kelly does not predict the future as much as he examines the present, and in doing so with some care, he unearths twelve trends that he argues will shape the future. Reading The Inevitable is the nonfiction equivalent of watching movie trailers for the next thirty years of Life on Earth. A happy ending is not guaranteed.

kelly-the_inevitableThe structure of the book is quite straightforward. Kelly names, then describes a force, and then carefully explores and intuits the implications of the import of that force. The forces he identifies include Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and Beginning. Under each banner, he starts big and gets bigger. In “Becoming” for example, he argues that, “…neither dystopia nor utopia is our destination. Rather, technology is taking us to protopia,” which Kelly considers a state of constant incremental change, some good, some ill, but overall on the plus side. Depending on your perspective, this may sound grand, or it may sound terrifying, but Kelly’s carefully framed explorations always make it sound…inevitable.

The upshot is all the mind-boggling wonder of a science fiction novel, without the personal heroics. Kelly has a compelling story to tell but it is a decidedly non-human story. In The Inevitable, Kelly carefully teases out the narrative arc of technology. He gives us motion, but it is not the sort of motion we are readily able to see, in our lives, at least. That said, he does conclude each chapter with a two or three page vision of his own life thirty years hence, filled with specifics informed by the arguments of the preceding chapter. He admits that there might be mistakes in these specifics, but they’re fun to read.

This is not to say that The Inevitable as a whole is not fun to read. It is gripping as all hell, as gripping as the hellish notions Kelly sometimes intuits. To my mind, some of what is implied is the ultimate triumph of capitalism. While we will have access to everything (assuming we can afford to rent it), we will own nothing. If you think you don’t have to do much more than read the word “Tracking” to know where that trend is headed, or think we’ve already arrived at the more disturbing possibilities, Kelly has some news for you, and it’s not likely to make you happy. The old cliché has it that “information wants to be free.” Your freedom, on the other hand, may not prove to be a natural state.

The real power of The Inevitable is that in every case, Kelly approaches his subjects and draws his conclusions dispassionately, with a very even hand. This is not an alarmist tract, nor is it a glowing prediction. There’s very little predicting going here, really. But by imaginatively, intelligently exploring the past and examining the present, Kelly compellingly, engagingly grooms us for the future. Which way these winds will blow is something we cannot know. Knowing what these winds may be, on the other hand, might just help us understand what we will become – or become of us.

kevin_kelly-2010-pgcThe temptation in talking to Kevin Kelly about The Inevitable is to line up the forces he identifies and then say, “What’s this?” I tried hard to resist that, and Kelly made it easy. When we sat down, one of the first things we talked about, off tape, was his recent purchase of Summa Technologiae, Stanislaw Lem’s attempt to do something similar to The Inevitable – back in the mid 1960’s. It’s just been translated to and published in English. And yes, I did have notes for each bit, but we digressed far and wide as we talked. It was easy. Follow this high-tech “web link” to the MP3 audio of our conversation, or just let your smart chair pull itself up so you can settle down for your course in Tomorrow 101.

Alan Furst A Hero of France: Now, Then

alan_furst-2016-a_hero_of_france

It’s often said that science fiction is not about the future, but rather the present in which it was written. The same is true for historical fiction. The convincing details, the intricate research, the carefully conceived characters create for readers a past that points directly to the present.

Alan Furst has been mining the time between the World War I and World War II for longer than either war actually lasted. His novels are miracles of economy and concision. He seamlessly brings to life a past that is long gone. But readers immersed in his past can’t help but see it embedded in the present.

furst-a_hero_of_franceHis latest novel, A Hero of France is no exception. It’s now 1941, and Paris has fallen, but the French people have not. At least not all of them. Mathieu has elected to fight back, in secret, in any and every way he can. He’s currently helping downed British airmen return to England, to fight again. A small cadre of comrades help him, but the Nazis are aware of what’s going on, and determined to catch then. Is everyone the person they pretend to be? Mathieu’s talent is for reading the loyalties of those around him. As he notes, he can only be wrong once.

From the outside, A Hero of France sounds like a spy thriller, and it’s most certainly tense, thrilling and involves spies of a sort. But the arc here is not as much plot-based as it is character-based. We turn the pages to find out who the characters are and who they will become as much as we do to find out what will become of them. It’s a subtle difference that elevates Furst’s work into a very un-fussy sort of literature.

And while every detail and word feels period-precise, it is indeed impossible not to think of what happens in the novel in terms of our lives today. The world is ever filled with peril, with traitors, with those who are not what they seem. Mathieu’s strength is one that it behooves us all to attend to. We all need to learn to read those around us. The world, our world will always be under threat, and those closest to us can be brave, foolish, strong, wise, charitable or not what they pretend to be – as can we.

alan_furst-2016-cropIn conversation, Alan Furst is every bit as engaging, informative and challenging as his novels. Better still, he has the talent to speak about any one of them in particular while keeping potential readers in suspense. It’s almost as if he is one of his own characters, reading the audience very carefully. You can hear our in-depth conversation about his novel, A Hero of France, by following this link to download the file, or you can listen right here.

Dan White Sleeps Under the Stars : Our Hilarious Love Affair With Camping

dan_white-2016-600-under_the_stars

The human need for narrative explains a seemingly unfathomable aspect of our lives. We have an almost uncanny ability to find humor in that which we most love. Perhaps it’s the deep knowledge of love, the honesty, that admits the flaws and in embracing them finds only the ability to laugh. That laughter is the narrative bridge, the movement between one pole and the other.

white-under_the_starsThere’s plenty of laughter, lots of narrative movement, and humanity on display in Dan White’s Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping. White has cleverly constructed a personal history of camping, slotting in his experiences, always antic, with his own potted version of just how we got to the current state of camping in the 21st century. In itself that’s pretty complex. As we find out both from his research and his stories, the word camping covers a lot of ground.

As a work of humor Under the Stars delivers laughter early and often. White’s prose is flat out funny, and his willingness to push himself beyond the limits of his own expertise find him setting up some wonderfully elaborate pratfalls. But he’s equally good at excavating the history of what we now call camping and putting it into two perspectives at once. You’ll find all the expected names here; Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt (together, no less!), Edward Abbey, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. And yes, the book does bring in s’mores.

All this history is pretty complicated, but not in the manner you find here, where it’s breezy, fun and slotted into a well-woven narrative. The glue that hold all this together is White’s explorations of the paces they went as they are now, the remnants of the traditions, as he finds them now, and his own escapades, for example, naked camping, and the Immaculator, a Maker-style device for removing all traces of your camping experiences.

White is an expert at having a goofy good time, which is pretty much what anyone hopes for when they go camping. It makes the book a mirror for what it describes. While, yes, there is a lot fascinating history, there is just as much fun to be had here. Dan White’s enjoyable, egalitarian voice manages to weave a single exciting, engaging, surprising and hilarious story out of pine boughs, mosquitoes “as big as your hand,” stinging nettles, leather loincloths, Victorian gentlemen (and women!) campers and their ever-ready guides. Whether you want to have fun reading about camping, or want to read about camping in order to have more fun on your next sojourn, consider Under the Stars the first and last little store you see before you hit the forest. Read it, stock up on sweets and hot dogs. The great indoors outdoors is calling.

dan_white-2016-cropDan White was intrepid enough to make the journey to my house for our interview, and demonstrated his courage, as you can see, by scooping up one of our fierce guard dogs. We talked about how he came to writer the book, and about the research that went into the book. Rest assured that we left the best jokes in the book, while discovering plenty of new humor in our conversations.

You can start with the idealized NPR-style report from KAZU. Follow this link and let them know (if) you like the piece.

Or, you can start with the lightning round overnight camp-over by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.

Or you can go in-depth on an RV tour by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.

Adam Haslett ‘Imagine Me Gone’ : Nature, Nurture and Free Will

adam_haslett-2010-imagine_me_gone

Our family provides more than an environment in which we may either thrive or wither. We are made from the bits and pieces of our parents. Good will and a good upbringing go only so far in the presence of an unlucky genetic inheritance. Margaret meets John in London in the 1960’s, falls in love, and becomes engaged to him; all before he’s hospitalized with depression. They decide to marry; love, family and story follow.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett offers a vision of the family as captured by love and genetics. Haslett wisely keeps all the genetics under the hood. Instead, the family is in the forefront, and the novel unfolds in a chorus of their voices across the decades. John and Margaret have three children; their oldest, Michael, his sister Celia and his brother, Alec. As the parents age, as the children grow up, their stories entwine and offer a constantly shifting parallax view. The individual voices are addictive, funny, and insightful; together, they create a compelling story that’s easy to read and hard to put down.

Haslett is a brilliant writer of prose and creator of plot, without ever being showy. We’re simply immersed from page one. Michael eventually emerges as the central character, and his chapters are always a delight, since he writes them as satires of the forces he’s encountering in a life made more complicated by virtue of who he is. John’s passages are beautifully done explorations of melancholy. Margaret is pragmatic and loving. Celia, resolute, and Alec a bit tightly wound.

Haslett’s immense talent allows him to tie these voices together both by virtue of the fact that everyone is related, and because they are all growing up, growing older, becoming themselves. The subtlety of his work is such that it never draws attention to itself. We’re with Michael and Margaret and John and Celia and Alec as the events of a family life, joyous and tragic, become, by virtue of his prose, part of our lives. And while this is a family with its share of troubles, it’s not a dysfunctional family. It is a real family; imperfect.

Imagine Me Gone pulls no punches. Even a functional family, motivated by love, finds itself faced with tough choices. And we don’t always make the best choices. But imperfect choices and imperfect families are the norm. If we choose love and compassion to guide our lives, if we let the voices and prose of Imagine Me Gone flow through our minds, we might for a few moments find a vantage point, a perspective in which our imperfections are part of a larger, more beautiful lifescape.

adam_haslett-2010Discussing a book with the power and plotting of Imagine Me Gone is a challenge of which, as it happens, author Adam Haslett is fully capable. If you’ve already read the book, then, you’ll find a lot of insight into your experience in our conversations. But if you’ve yet to read the book, then I trust that our chats will offer you some tips as to how the work was created, and a bedrock of understanding of the work to hand that will intrigue you to run out and buy it while you can still get a first/first hardcover.

You might start with the lightning round interview; follow the link to download the file or listen here.

We get down to some “inside baseball” “process questions,” which I trend towards as opposed to the “So what happen next?” genre, in the in-depth interview. You can follow the link to download the file or listen here.