Daniel J. Levitin Reveals A Field Guide to Lies: Identifying Information in the Wild

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Humans have such an affinity for story that we are easily misled. Every shiny sentence carries with it the possibility for truth of one kind or another. On one hand, it is obvious that made-up fiction, even the most outlandish science fiction, romance, horror, or mystery, may be the means of conveying subtle but intractable and important truths.

levitin-a_field_guide_to_liesOn the flip side, it is equally obvious that many statements of so-called fact are nothing of the kind. In the latter case, we often really need to know what is true and what is false, and Daniel J. Levitin’s book A Field Guide to Lies proves to be witty, though-provoking and flat-out useful in this regard. He gives fib-spotters everything but a special hat to wear– no binoculars required.

The book is divided three sections; one dealing with numbers, one with words and one with “the world.” Numbers are pretty easy to deal with, and Levitin has a lot of fun here. He asks what one might make of the claim that “In the thirty-five years since marijuana laws stopped being enforced in California, the number of marijuana smokers has doubled every year.” On the face of it, this sounds plausible (the section deals with “Plausibility”). But as Levitin points out, assuming just one smoker 35 years ago and then doubling that number 35 times adds up to more than 17 billion. Clearly, we’re being misled. And so it goes – but not without an enjoyable classification by Levitin.

While Levitin believes that graphs are the most succinct way to present numerical information at a glance, he also demonstrates that they are an excellent way to present misinformation. We see pie charts that add up to far more than 100%, and bar graphs that have left-right or up-down axes that are scaled to deceive, not inform. He also dives into some symbolic logic problems that are extremely informative with regard to debunking BS-artists. All of this he does with a nicely understated mordant sense of humor. This is quite easily the best field guide to anything you’re likely to read this year.

Once he’s done with numbers, Levitin turns his attention to words, most specifically their misuse and abuse. Here he dives into our storytelling nature, which makes us easy marks. And then, from Baby Mozart to experts at everything but the subject upon which they are currently being asked to speak, Levitin goes another hunt for lies in the wild. His discourse on alternative explanations is priceless, and especially important when it comes times for citizen to listen to plans for the future. It turns out that for all that humans are concerned with and think about the future, we’re pretty bad at predicting it.

Levitin even gets us to “counterknowledge…misinformation packaged to look like fact and that some critical mass of people have begin to believe.” This might seem to account for the vast majority of verbiage on offer today. and again, the draw of a good story has everything to do with this. Just witness the moon landing conspiracy theories. What could be a more powerful human truth than the accomplishment of a moon landing? Obviously, the cover-up.

daniel_j_levitin-2016_by_peter-pratoAnd so it goes, but perhaps just a bit less effectively thanks to Levitin. When he and I spoke about the book, I heard the last bit of his previous interview while waiting, and he was asked to opine on current events. During that interview, and ours afterward, he pointed out that he had been handed the opportunity to add to the lying landscape by offering an option that seemed like expertise but was in fact outside his range of expertise. He declined to offer an opinion.

You can hear our lightning round interview here:

Or you can sink into our in-depth interview here:

Forrest Leo Meets The Gentleman: The Devil You Don’t Know

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Lionel Savage has a problem – his marriage. Since this Victorian poet tied the knot, he’s been unable to write. The situation has grown dire and his solution is appropriately, so far as he is concerned, extreme. There’s just one last quite damnable party that he finds he must endure, and there he meets The Gentleman. we (think) we know the gentleman by many names, which is to say Legion. But as Lionel and the gentleman discuss matters at hand, they unexpectedly hit it off. And we as readers realize that this is not the Devil we think we know.

leo-the_gentlemanForrest Leo’s The Gentleman partakes of many bits and pieces, yet feels quite whole in and of itself. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard are the mountainous peaks looming in the background. In the foreground, look for P. G. Wodehouse and a butler named Simmons who makes life possible and passable for the generally miserable and selfish Lionel. As Lionel’s fondest unspoken wish comes true, the adventure to undo that wish begins.

Prepare to laugh out loud, early and often as you read The Gentleman. Leo writes hilariously dyspeptic misanthropic prose as Lionel. And fortunately for the reader, one Hubert Lancaster was tasked with putting together the manuscript for The Gentleman. Hubert cannot leave well enough alone, and constantly comments in asterisked footnotes, generally discounting much of what Lionel has to say.

The Gentleman is sort of a satire of Victorian adventure novels, but it embraces them to the degree that it’s a ripping yarn full of almost- and misadventures. The amazing accomplishment is that Leo loves his characters, and he crafts a story that is not only funny as hell, and just as rude, but also strangely poignant. While the plot moves at a breakneck place, it never feels overstuffed. Leo has a great sense of balance in terms keeping tension alive along with emotional impact. The poignancy also derives power from and lends oomph to the whimsical aspects of the tale.

Along the way expect some short excerpts of bad poetry, and actual insights into the competitive nature of writing. And lots of laughs, as well as shout-outs to your favorite Victorian writers. You’ll finish it in a day or so and be on your guard for the alread0finished sequel. The book is choc-a-block with wonderful illustrations which add nicely to the effect. In The Gentleman, Forrest Leo gives readers a Dev’l they can make deal with.

forrest_leo-2016When I spoke with Forrest Leo, it was clear that the reason readers have so much fun with the book is that he has so much with the book. I learned of the unusual beginnings, which one might never guess from simply reading the text. You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link to the MP3 audio file; or just settle into your winged chair and listen right here.

You can hear our in-depth conversation, by following this link to download or listen to the MP3 audio file, or just listen below.

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It: Walk a Mile in Her High Heels

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To be honest, Jessi Klein was probably wearing flats when we spoke. To be tellingly honest, I never noticed her shoes. In her engaging, hilarious memoir, You’ll Grow Out of It, Klein divides women into two types; poodles and wolves. Poodles, tells us, are women like Angelina Jolie, who are naturalistically, effortlessly feminine. She puts herself squarely in the group of “wolves” which is to say, women who have to work at it. This after she tells us, in the beginning essay, that she was a tomboy as a girl and she’s now grown up to be a “tom man.”

klein-youll_grow_out_of_itIf you’re beginning to twig to the fact that Klein is going to give you a bit of an insider’s view of how women think, then you’re on the right track. You’ll Grow Out of It, which clearly does not apply to Klein in so many ways, offers readers a glimpse into Klein’s agile perceptions. From her 28th birthday at Disney World to the 100-plus wedding dresses she tried on, You’ll Grow Out of It is by turns funny, sweet poignant and always the stuff of truth. She clearly understands that brevity is the soul of wit and in the short pieces here you’ll find plenty of wit, lots of wisdom and more laughter than in most so-called TV comedy. It’s the sort of book that begs you to read it aloud to anyone in your vicinity, and to re-read it when you have the chance.

Klein really does delve into all the aspects of a modern woman’s life from growing up as a tomboy and into what she calls a “Tom Man” to encountering a man accurately described by the title of the story “The Cad” to shopping at her favorite store (“Anthropologie”) to “How to Get Engaged” to the aforementioned “The Wedding Dress” to “How I Became a Comedian” to “Get the Epidural.” She’s barely passed the age of [mumble mumble, I’ve learned enough to say nothing], and yet she covers a goodly portion of life. Anyone wanting a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent, imaginative artist who happens to be a woman can do no better than to dip into Klein’s mind.

Rest assured you’ll laugh out loud, early and often. But more importantly, you’ll find some smart and witty prose delivering a sometimes-scathing vision of Americana – but not too scathing. Klein is having a good time in her life, and reading this book, you’ll not only see why, you might get a few tips you can use yourself

Men who want to get an idea of what sort of intellect they are attempting to court would do well to read this, as well as women who might feel as if they have just found a sort of soul-mate. But if you just want to be amused by someone who is smart and funny, then the chances are you will be glad that Jessi Klein never grew out of it. Moreover, you’ll be glad that someone told her she would. It’s physics; for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. It’s how we launch rockets, or in this case, lives.

jessi_klein-2016-largeOccasionally, I find that one interview informs another. For example, having spoken with Dr. Glade B. Curtis about Your Pregnancy Week by Week, I found myself perhaps a little more familiar with women’s perceptions thereof, and inclined, by virtue of that knowledge, to ask questions fearlessly, for example, about lingerie. Or pregnancy.  As Klein pointed out when we spoke, even the word can make you uncomfortable, unless, etc. So I learned about Spanx.  Who knew?

You can hear my lightning round interview with Jessi Klein by following this link to the MP3 audio file or just listen below.

You can hear our in-depth conversation, which Jessi herself was kind enough to call a conversation, by following this link to download or listen to the MP3 audio file, or just listen below.

Drew Magary Embarks on The Hike: 21st Century Otherworlds, with Cell Phone

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It’s a necessary comfort to believe that this world is not the only world; that this reality is not the only reality. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the rabbit hole, hanging out with Don Juan Matus, bowling with Rip van Winkle, faerie journeys – we spend a fair amount of our time in this world imagining others. In those places, we mete out justice, knowledge inner and outer, and connections between things that aren’t linear or easily explicable. We meet life’s toughest and least palatable challenges. Secrets we dare not reveal to even ourselves are out in the open. And, in Drew Magary’s hilarious and touching novel The Hike, your cell phone works, on occasion.

magary-the_hikeBen is on a business trip, stuck in an almost deserted inn way the hell out in the Poconos. Restless, with nothing to do, he steps outside and finds a path heading into the woods. He decides to take a hike, following the Path, then passes the “No Trespassing” sign, and before you can say “magic realism,” Ben discovers that this is not so easily dealt with as one might hope. This is not simply lost in the woods. This is capital-L Lost.

Driving the novel is Magary’s snarky, smart and very funny prose played against the combination of love and fear that Ben feels for his family “back in the world.” As Ben explores Magary’s carefully constructed otherworld, readers learn as much about Ben as we do about the otherworld. The key here is that both become equally compelling to us as readers. Moreover, we can intuit that Magary himself has had some of the “this world” experiences that threw Ben for a loop.

And while the going gets really weird, we sense and feel that the otherworld journey that Ben undertakes to meet, what’s at the end, as it were, is not as perilous as life itself. That said, Magary comes up with a bevy of excellent monsters. There are now and again monsters of “eating machine” variety, invested with an imaginative flair of reality and weirdness that makes them pretty scary nonetheless. But Magary is also smart enough to create plenty of monsters who have an actual character. They’re certainly engaging and in some cases unforgettable.

For all that Ben finds himself meandering in an otherworld, the book is built like a rocket. You’ll probably read it in a day. It’s funny and light-hearted, but definitely not light weight. For all that it is defiantly unreal, it is essentially about that which is most real, which is to say that place where our emotions spill out into the world. Until we experience them, our emotions are the merest wisp of fantasy; when we are in their grip, nothing seems more real. When you finish reading The Hike, you’ll realize that we all walk the otherworld. Strike a smile, shed a tear, walk a mile, meet your fear; the otherworld and this world are not so different after all.

Drew Magary on the other hand, is even less different than you might possible imagine. So, yes, the author of the book with the talking crab is the kind of guy you might expect to find at a PTA meeting as opposed to Comicon. We sat down and spoke at length and then put our heads together for a brief lightning round, which you can find by following this link to listen to or download, or just listen below.

Or settle back for the long form interview by following this link, or listen here:

Dr. Robynne Chutkan M.D. Reveals The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out

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We’ve always seen ourselves as individual beings comprised of a number of sub-systems; circulatory, respiratory, etc – with which things may go wrong. Parts of us might fall apart, we’ve worried. But we’ve come to change that perception as we’ve discovered more and more about what we now call the “microbiome.” We’ve known for some time that we have gut bacteria. But recent discoveries suggest that we’re not individuals. We are walking ecosystems, and it behooves us to treat our ecosystem and not just the human carrier.

To this end, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out is a great source of up-to-the-moment health advice based on the idea that overall health care involves paying attention to the health of our microbiome. Dr. Chutkan came to her vision of health through her own experience, described in our interview, and her prescription is not simply for your diet. This is a holistic view of microbiome health.

You can download the lightning round interview with Dr. Robynne Chutkan from this link, or you can just listen below. You can find my full book review and in-depth interview by following this link to the Rainbow Light Transformational wellness network podcast page. Please go to iTunes and leave a review!

Kaui Hart Hemmings Explains How to Party With an Infant: The Mommy Track and the Parent Trap

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Mele Bart finds herself in something of a pickle. She’s a single mother by virtue of the fact that, Bobby, the father-to-be ditched her for another woman. Two years later Bobby and the other woman are getting hitched and they want Mele’s daughter, Ellie, to be the flower girl. Mele is simply trying to keep her head above the perilous mommy-infested waters of the San Francisco Mommy Club, where she has found a few friends. Her latest scheme is to enter a cookbook contest. Mele is surrounded by children, mothers, fathers and most importantly, stories.

hemmings-how_to_party_with_an_infantHow to Party With an Infant is the latest novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and readers will feel warmly, darkly and hilariously surrounded by Mele’s stories, and not just hers alone. How to Party With an Infant is a fascinating novel, with a rambling feel, but a coherent core. Mele tells her story by filling out the cookbook content online form in often-embarrassing first-person detail. In the course of the novel, she also tells the stories of her friends, Annie, Barrett, Georgia, and Henry, the stay-at-home father.

Hemmings pursues her characters with an almost ruthless honesty. She takes events to their logical conclusion, no matter how unhappy (in the moment) that conclusion may prove to be. There’s a raw, urgent feel to the writing here, even as it is quite carefully orchestrated and woven through storytelling in a variety of platforms, from blog posts to third-person tales of suburban displacement. It’s clear Hemmings knows these people. She’s lived the life and admitted to all the weaknesses as well as embracing the strengths.

Prepare to laugh often and out loud as you read How to Party With an Infant. Hemmings has a great set of verbal ju-jitsu moves to shake loose the laughter. She clearly loves her socially-sinning characters who are generally just trying to get through one life or another without crashing and burning. The wedding of prose and perspective more than makes up for Mele’s missed nuptials.

kaui_hart_hemmings-2016The telling of the tales is vividly important. Mele’s cookbook-entry form verbiage is brusque, warm, funny, and sometimes flinch-worthy, which is to say, powerful. But Hemmings goes beyond the standard novel form and gives us four solid short stories, one for each friend. She gives us blog posts and there are stories entwined there as well. While this seems like a lot of verbiage, Hemmings is a master of cutting to the chase. How to Party With an Infant is amazingly succinct.

I spoke with Kaui Hart Hemmings at KQED and we discussed the personal experiences that informed the book. She is, not surprisingly, disarmingly charming and admirably to the point. If you’d like to get a brief sense of what both she and the book are like, you can hear my lightning round interview below.

Now if you want to hear a bit more of the story behind the stories, just settle back and listen to our in-depth interview.

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

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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

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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

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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.