Ben Rhodes Sees The World As It Is: Sweeping the Sand Back Into the Sea

The innate appeal of the political thriller, or memoir, is that the machinations of plot are revelations of character. With The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes proves that a memoir can be a political thriller. Seamlessly combining non-fiction and novelistic narrative techniques, The World As It Is tells the story of ten years of author Ben Rhodes’ life. Beginning with his invitation to join the Barack Obama presidential campaign and finishing with the turnover of the American government to Donald Trump, Rhodes’ plot is as exciting as the headlines. But his quiet insight into the motivations that drove him and those around him reveal a conflict behind the turmoil. The World As It Is happens when young but experienced idealists meet and try to change the human machines that enmesh them.

Rhodes’ perspective is throughout the book feels like that of an outsider even though he is in many ways, the ultimate insider. Because he eventually becomes part of Obama’s foreign affairs arm, Rhodes is not generally concerned with the immediate domestic crises created by the toxic Republican reaction to Obama’s election. Instead, he shows his work to be that of a busy firefighter, as he’s asked to solve one problem in a manner that creates more. National (in)security keeps him incredibly busy, essentially sweeping the sand back into the sea.

Be that as it may, we also see a group of men and women who believe that the machineries of government can accomplish lots of good for lots of people. Moreover, they’re good at integrating idealism and action. After years of frustration, we see Rhodes lead the effort to open up Cuba. It’s a lot of grunt work, meetings with Raul Castro to prepare the path and then the actual steps down the path. Baby steps, to be sure, but certain and difficult to un-create.

Irony arrives early and often, as when Rhodes celebrates the success of how Obama dealt with Libya. One key moment of accomplishment from within the perspective of the Obama administration was that they prevented Gaddafi’s promised razing of Benghazi. For all the lives they saved, they had no idea of the repercussions of that word in the years to follow. Unhappily, we see this play out as well. And yes, eventually Ben Rhodes becomes a villain for Fox News. Credit Rhodes’ writing expertise with the fact that in his narrative, this bit of recorded history seems surprising, as indeed anyone’s own vilification might seem surprising to them.

Rhodes’ prose is a big part of the real pleasure of reading The World As It Is. It feels raw and poignant, polished but prosaic. As a character, he feels a bit uncertain about his place in this world, but he’s willing to forgo or postpone personal life for the necessities of political action. And there are actions, plenty of them, positive things done by forward-looking humans here. Change is possible but never easy. Government is a human construct, easily broken by those who wish to, but fixable by those who care to. And in The World As It Is, we spend ten sweet years with those who care to and can selflessly change things for the better.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Ben Rhodes, or listen below.

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Chris Feliciano Arnold Explores The Third Bank of the River: Distributing Dystopia

Humans are excellent homogenizers of the world around them. We are given to think that the entire planet, with a few spectacular exceptions, looks pretty much like whatever is currently in view. We live in an eternal present, and assume that it’s the same for everybody else. With The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon, Chris Feliciano Arnold offers not a travelogue to an exotic exception, but rather, an impressive feat of world-building. In a layered, page-turning portrait, he crafts a vision of blocks of unchanged early-twentieth century blight dropped into vistas of prehistoric rain forest. Apparently, we don’t need arrow-flinging heroines. We can catch a plane to dystopia.

The Third Bank of the River unfolds in three beautifully wrought layers from the last decade or so. Everything is contiguous to something different, and the lines are changing constantly. We first meet the author as a callow post-grad. He’s an orphan from Brazil who grew up as a typical kid in the US; he wants to see the city of his birth. But the more he wants to immerse himself in the “authentic” lives around him, the more he finds himself wanting. As a character in his own book, he does himself no favors, which has the unexpected benefit of making his writerly vision feel gritty and realistic.

The vision, as it unfolds, is fascinating. We see – he sees – the inexorable incursion of the 20th-century West into a pristine wilderness populated by both un-contacted and “in-touch” indigenous tribes. “In touch” in this case means merely 7 miles from the nearest road of any kind. Drive down a highway. To the left: green inferno.” To the right: brutalist architecture for factories. Misquoting William Gibson, in Brazil, the present isn’t distributed evenly. Imagine your world, dropped a block at a time into trackless, unforgiving jungle. Nobody wins. Dystopia marches on.

Chris Felicino Arnold builds up his world with a well-edited combination of first-person experience and history. He knows how to wrap story in story, past and present; how to temper his vision so the readers slowly realize that the turned pages are leading us elsewhere. He unhomogenizes the world. The question we find ourselves asking is not a happy thought. Are we looking at our past – or our future? As Chris Feliciano Arnold explores The Third Bank of the River, we realize that the two may directly overlay one another. It adds up to dystopia, but it is not too late to change paths. First, we need to stop worrying about the future, and understand that by the time it arrives, we think it is already the past.

The author will be appearing at local bookstores:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018, 7:30 PM Green Apple Books 1231 9th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122

Tuesday, June 26, 2018, 7:00 PM Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, CA 94925

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Chris Feliciano Arnold as we discuss The Third Bank of the River.  Or listen below…

<a name=”ttr280″ id=” ttr280″></a>Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Chris Feliciano Arnold about The Third Bank of the River. Or listen below…

 

Laurie R. King on Island of the Mad: Razor Wit and Reason

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King Reviewed, plus in-depth and lightning-round interviews.

Readers will not be surprised to find Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell sharp and smart, even in an adventure titled Island of the Mad.  Prospects might seem dire as the novel begins.  An aunt of one of Mary’s friend has gone missing from Bedlam, the infamous madhouse that conjures of hellish visions informed by Hieronymus Bosch.  With terror in our hearts, we know that Russell will pose as a madwoman herself.  Dire does not begin to describe the peril.

But Laurie R. King excels at eluding our expectations, and as a mystery and novel, Island of the Mad zigs when we’re expecting a zag and evokes smiles alongside (and often in place of) shivers. Firmly grounded in a vividly wrought historical setting, the latest Russell and Holmes offers sly satire and lots of witty repartee between Holmes and Russell as they encounter fascists in Italy and Britain.  Fascism segues into opportunism, and profit becomes a seemingly legitimate goal for the might makes right set.  While Mary checks into the madhouse, Holmes spends time with Mycroft. Paths cross then converge. And every time Holmes and Russell have a meeting of the minds, readers can be reminded of King’s ability to craft superbly entertaining dialogue.

King expertly weaves the strands of a toe-tapping historical mystery with understated, indeed, often-unstated observations that may or may not feel contemporary. Island of the Mad is fun and tense, but not irrelevant. What King does most expertly is to leave readers room to enjoy all the mental gymnastics in which they wish to engage. The story is compelling, the characters are charming, unless they’re awful, and King has plenty of room to twist the plot when we least expect it. The travelogue aspects are gorgeous; King evokes Venice in all its sunken, decrepit glory, and finds even more surprising destinations for Mary and Sherlock. This is perfect summer fun, and chock-a-block with enough thought-provoking needles and actual history to pleasantly fill our minds. Mary Russell’s travels in the past manage to not just entertain the present. They illuminate it.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Laurie R. King as we discuss Island of the Mad.

Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Laurie R. King about Island of the Mad.

Jennifer Egan on Manhattan Beach: Drowning Noir

Our memories flow as does water. The moments are fluid; they can be touched, but not held. They are never the same, yet lie in wait to drown us. For young Anna, the day with her father at Manhattan Beach is a memory that beckons, complicated feelings and emotions, not well understood in the moment, and less so in reflection. In Jennifer Egan’s powerful and utterly engaging novel Manhattan Beach, water flows through the narrative, transporting us, surrounding us, uncontrollable.

Egan’s story unfolds in New York during the Second World War, where an older Anna now works for the war effort. The memory of that day at the beach haunts her. Her father has since disappeared. But now, as a nascent adult, Anna once again meets the man her father met that day. He owns a nightclub, and she’s given to understand he’s a gangster, though he’s kind to her. Perhaps he might know what happened to her father. Anna begins to ask questions as she pushes herself into a naval diving program. Shadows haunt the harbor. Violence is all too easy to find.

Manhattan Beach is a compelling historical noir, with an intricately built setting and complicated characters enmeshed in a social machine beyond their ken or control. The intense plotting is finely enmeshed in seamlessly experienced history and achingly real characters. Egan’s prose is masterful and understated, beautiful but never showy. It flows, and we are transported, until, yes, like the characters, we are ultimately changed. Egan crafts a ripping yarn, with sea stories and shootouts caught in a current of melancholy. Dark nights and lonely streets; we are ever alone.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Jennifer Egan as we discuss Manhattan Beach; or simply listen below.

 

Edoardo Nesi Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class

Economics my be “the dismal science,” but it is a human experience that is fraught with very mixed emotions, no matter where you fit in the financial spectrum. It’s vitally important to understand how we feel about our place in the economy, but easily lost in seas of statistics, calculations and predictions. Awash in facts, feelings get the short shrift. Edoardo Nesi and Guido Maria Brera were friends in Italy before the fall of 2008; Nesi was the heir to a centuries-old textile business, while Brera was a stock trader. As the world fell apart around them, with all the power of an over-wrought opera, they talked. And wrote.

nesi-everything_is_broken_up_and_dancesThat conversation is captured in Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class, an outstanding and powerful story of just how expertly and easily we can bring ourselves to the brink of economic apocalypse. All those soft and fluffy numbers prove to have some rather sharp and hard edges when they escape from pages of prediction into the real world. Theory be damned – economics can make us miserable, no matter what we “earn.”

Everything Is Broken Up and Dances re-creates our emotional arc as a world, seen through the refracting mirrors of Nesi and Brera. In short, lyrical chapters, we voyage from the false highs after the turn of the century to the very real depths as one member of the EU after another teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Nesi, a prize-winning novelist must sell the family business. Brera watches the wider economic world crumble. While both understand the facts driving the forces at work, they also experience, and write beautifully, in sparse prose, about the socio-cultural feelings of those behind the wheel.

edoardo_nesi-2018The result is a perverse joy to read, gorgeous prose to tell a riveting human story of our emotional experience of economic science as it brings us to the precipice of annihilation. Nesi and Brera capture the abject terror of seeing your nation, your home brought low in the eyes and esteem of others. The real power of this book is to remind us just how thin the veneer of numbers is. We are not numbers. But neither are we free men and women. We are the captives of our own creation, so long as it remains invisible to us. Everything Is Broken Up and Dances resets our sensibilities. Facts are real, but no more so than the feelings they engender.

Here’s a link to my in-depth discussion with Edoardo Nesi about the Apocalypse that came and went unnoticed in the general haste.

 

Vlad Kreimer : Organismic Synthesizers

Music synthesis technology is perhaps, a fortunate phrase, taking the reader as it does from art to science. Music is our most human art; notes have no strict translation to objects in this world. Technology is the most human incarnation of art’s opposing pole, science. Between them are machines borne of one world, to enable creation in the other.

Since Bob Moog first started making the Minimoog, the creators of music synthesizers have in general crafted machines that taught you how to use them. The potentially confusing technology was laid out in a manner meant to de-mystify how it worked. This is a smart approach, but as Russian musician, performance artist and engineer Vlad Kreimer decided, not the only way to make an instrument.

lyra-8

Add to that understanding 50-plus years of synthesizer music, much of it pretty odd. And thus, we find ourselves here in the 21st century with a new form of synthesizer, the Lyra-8, which Kreimer describes as “Organismic synthesis.” It’s unlike any synthesizer you have ever seen, or more importantly, heard – as is its creator, Vlad Kreimer.

He started out making the instruments for his own performances, but the Internet response to them was a chorus of “Make them for us, please!” And now you cn find ll things SOMA Synth here on the Internet.

Here’s your link to an in-depth discussion with Vlad Kreimer about about music, technology, whale consciousness, and making art to make art.

Andy Weir Builds Artemis: Sphere by Sphere

In a vacuum, nothing happens in a vacuum. Andy Weir understands the science, and as well, that science is a very human pursuit. It is inevitable that we will build on the moon. The science will have to be impressively precise. But all that precision will be infested with humans! In Artemis, Andy Weir masterfully populates the scientific precision of the titular city with an engagingly human infestation.

Jasmine Bashara, call her Jazz, is constantly scheming and scamming, cutting every human corner in an effort to corner some market, any market. There’s enough crime to go around. But with the vacuum of space too close for comfort, every move is circumscribed not by morality, but science. Jazz, a very humanweir-artemis human, understands the science intuitively, which helps in her inclinations to acquire ill-gotten gain. Weir handles his female protagonist well. He cranks up the smart-ass tone, which helps to gloss over our questions about why she sounds quite a bit like Mark Watney from The Martian. The fun begins as she learns that when the proscriptions of science meet the machinations of the market, human morals may prove more useful than the lack thereof.

Artemis takes the “Bay City” small-ish town crime caper novel and relocates it to an astonishingly well-crafted lunar base. Hired by a businessman to help move matters in a direction useful to said businessman, Jazz quickly finds herself hurtling past questionable into matters that would be merely complicated and dangerous – on Earth. But in Artemis, on the moon, the science waits in silence, ready to silence those who ignore it at their own peril. For readers, the result is a delightfully complicated thriller as the no-nonsense scientific setting makes even the simplest crime more difficult and dangerous.

The key to Weir’s fun seems simple but it’s not. Jazz is a smart-ass joy, and she’s really fun to read. She knows the machines as well as the machinations, and the scientific (not “science fiction”) setting adds an almost Rube-Golberg feeling of fun. Make no mistake; though the book is set in the future, nearly every bit of the science behind the city of Artemis (what seem to be domes are actually spheres) has already happened, or is about to. For all the future you find here (cultural and technological), the book simply does not feel very “science fictional,” other than the fun aspects that the tech adds to the plotting. Seeing everything through the superb snark of Jazz humanizes the setting so it feels real, just a little foreign.

andy_weir-2017-origFor readers (or moviegoers) who enjoyed The Martian, Artemis is a perfect follow-on. Weir brings all the joy in human invention to the character, and creates a backdrop for more stories of human infestation in space. Our imperfections are highlighted in the stark environment of Artemis, and every bit as enjoyable when tangled up in a good story.

Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Andy Weir about Artemis.

…And here’s your link to an in-depth discussion with Andy Weir of the moon, earth and the humans one finds in both places.

 

André Aciman Asks Call Me By Your Name: Tension and Attention

Elio lives in a sort of paradise. He’s the 17-year-old son of an Italian academic, living on the Italian Riviera in the 1980’s. He takes after his parents; he’s smart, good-looking and at ease with himself and his life. Every summer, the family takes in a boarder, a fellow academic to help Elio’s father with a few details while taking in the atmosphere and “academicizing,” as it were. When Oliver, a 24-year-old American arrives, it’s all hunky dory, fraught with the powerful tension and attention that the precocious teenager telling the story brings to every word.

UnknownCall Me By Your Name is a joyous extended vacation for any reader lucky enough to pick up the novel. Aciman manages an incredible feat in Call Me By Your Name; he re-writes reality to make our mere presence more exciting by virtue of the language and vision with which he presents it. Elio is a wonderful narrator; he is both entirely innocent and yet filled with knowledge, and importantly, confidence. As he falls both emotionally and physically in love with Oliver, there is nothing for the reader to grab on to but love itself, unformed at first, then quickly coming to life in exquisitely written scenes of courtship. Here is a novel that crafts the glorious architecture of human affection, of the joy we can find in one another.

andre_aciman-2018The purity of Aciman’s vision is so embedded in the prose and Elio’s character that every page glides by, as much as our lives do. No matter what sort of book you are used to reading, Call Me By Your Name is an addictive experience, a page-turning, spell-casting sort of novel that erases time. Aciman is so at ease with Elio, who in turn is so at ease with life that all of it, love, erotica, excitement, even actual romance seem perfectly clear and easily attainable. While you are in the pages and in Elio’s life, life is easy and wonderful and real. Happily, there’s a hangover that carries on after you put down the book, which is difficult. Call Me By Your Name wants to be read.

Where we live at any given moment is, alas, rarely something we are given to know in the moment. By immersing us so effortlessly in Elio’s vision, Aciman lets us know where Elio is living in these recorded moments. Dramatic events would be superfluous in the presence of Elio’s powerful emotions. With daring clarity, Aciman’s vision informs our own. Our own lives and our own stories offer us the opportunity to live in the sort of paradise that Aciman conjures expertly, effortlessly.

Follow this link to hear the lightning-round short interview.

Join André Aciman and I for a cup of coffee and in-depth conversation by following this link.

David Frum vs. Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

History and journalism are inextricably intertwined. One begets the other, then they cross paths as change works on both. With Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, David Frum treads the line between them with intelligence, craft and wit. Here, journalism is history, frame by sorry frame. Frum demonstrates an ability to maintain the perfect distance from the events he describes. He moves effortlessly from telling details to insightful analysis, and always keeps a journalist’s eye on the narrative arc of history. In his vision, the jumbled mess of news and misinformation we experience in our lives becomes the story of a nation-patient quickly succumbing to a deadly infection.

x500Frum is clear from the title onward that his book is not a personality study of the current President. Rather, it is an examination of how our democracy can rot from within. “Trumpocracy” quotes Montesquieu, following his lead to examine “…negligence, mistakes, a certain slackness in the love of the homeland, dangerous examples, the seeds of corruption, that which does not run counter to the laws but eludes them, that which does not destroy them but weakens them,” as they apply to the here and now of America. Sadly, these are all happening early and often.

The power of Trumpocracy is evinced in Frum’s ability to wrangle lots of hanging facts into a coherent, if disturbing, story. The book is quite organized, and breaks down both what is happening and why it is happening into easily understandable bits that are readily assimilated. And just in case you thought you had heard it all, rest assured that Frum has managed to find plenty of highly alarming facts that have not had their time in the spotlight. It’s not just worse than you think, it is far worse than you think.

The high tension that turns this book into a sort of non-fiction political thriller derives from the contrast between the theories of conservative philosophy and governance and the actualities of what is happening in the American government that Frum’s journalism expertly exposes. Frum is well-steeped in the ideas of and an excellent spokesman for what night be called “classic conservatism.” “Trumpocracy” is not the classic conservatism you were looking for; instead, it is simple and often-idiotic greed, slathered in the slogans of nationalism at best, and racism at worst. What it is not, Frum warns, is easily dismissed. Even if the man and the enablers are run out of town, the damage they have done will require generations of recovery.

dbfa8FlT_400x400In writing Trumpocracy before the story seemed to be finished, David Frum took a huge chance. Fortunately for readers, for this nation, he was to able use his skills as a journalist and a storyteller to craft an image we cannot ignore, to find a story we discount at our own peril. But ultimately, Frum is (or wants to be) an optimist; he trusts his readers, and his country to recognize the danger, and to see the story he tells as a prelude and not an apocalypse. The book ends on a note of hope, and is itself a reason to hope. If we can understand the story, we can craft a sequel in which the history that follows is happily informed by the journalism and a return to responsible governance.

Here’s a link to my conversation with David Frum about Trumpocracy.

Two of a Perfect Pair: Jeff Goodell and Kim Stanley Robinson Discuss Our Liquid Future

goodell-the_water_will_comeAs a regular reader of many very different sorts of books, I often find myself inspired to make connections between the books I read. As I read Jeff Goodell’s powerful work of journalism, The Water Will Come, all I could think about outside of his intense and compelling narrative was a rather different book; New York 2140, a hilarious and somehow hopeful vision of the future by master science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. As I read one book, the other began to speak to me, in a sort of cross-talk that gave both books more depth and scope. Even before I finished The Water Will Come, I wanted to re-read New York 2140.

2140-minBut it struck me that perhaps a more fruitful path would be to take the steps to get the authors of these two books speaking to one another. From a distance, the two books could not seem more different, science fiction set in the medium future versus journalism about the here and now. But between the two books, there was a lot of similar thought-experimentation in play.

I’ll let the authors speak for themselves in this 45-minute conversation that explores not just the subjects in the books, but those outside the books, in particular means of ameliorating the damage we have done and that to come. Here’s a link to download the conversation so you can listen as the seas rise; or, perhaps you’re more of a mind to settle back here, in this moment, where you are, and hear ideas as they are wrested from their aeries and given form by two of our brightest and most entertaining minds.