Thomas E. Ricks and Churchill and Orwell: Atomic Freedom

To us, Churchill and Orwell are towering figures, and rightly so. It’s easy to think that this was always the case. We see (and hear) them almost entirely in black and white – photographs, words printed on paper, tinny recordings from another century. The legends loom large, but the men behind them remained elusive – until now. With Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, Thomas E. Ricks brings into focus both their humanity and the shared source of their greatness. These men, of utterly different beliefs, upbringings and lives, found a purpose in focusing on the necessity of freedom. For John Donne, no man was an island. For Churchill and Orwell, every man was an unconquered continent, individual at an atomic level of freedom.

rick-churchill_and_orwell-400Against a 21st-century backdrop intense interconnectedness, Churchill and Orwell is a toe-tapping tale of terror. Ricks razors away everything that is not salient to his vision of these very different men, finding powerful storytelling through-lines to weave the most pertinent times of their lives together. Churchill and Orwell is a masterpiece of economy, immersing us in perfectly detailed descriptions that bring to life these very different men who nonetheless had their eye on the import, no,, the necessity of human freedom.

Ricks weaves back and forth between the two men. We get perfectly cropped portraits of their childhoods – every detail contributes to an understanding of how these men became the guardians of the intangible. Part and parcel of the power of this book is that these are both deeply flawed men, and Ricks is wisely (and compellingly) candid on this. Churchill starts out seeming like a demagogue in the making, and Orwell does not deal well with women. Their flaws are combined with – not compensated by – a powerful vision of individual freedom, which, in both cases, changes the world.

Ricks goes easy on the editorializing and leans hard on the storytelling, and in the process creates a tense narrative filled with memorable, often cinematically described scenes. Churchill is a mass of contradictions, and while our memory is understandably filled with his greatest speech sound-bytes (perfected years before the phrase would come into being), Ricks remembers his years on the wrong side of popular. It’s sobering because Churchill was on the skids for the very views that make him a towering figure in our time. As for details – few will ever see the great man, or even hear him again, without remembering his requirement for pale pink silk underwear. A man ahead of his time indeed!

With Orwell in Spain, Ricks also excels, crating scenes of war and paranoia that would be perfectly at home in a Hitchcock movie. Alas, during his life, Orwell was pretty much unknown, overshadowed by the bestselling novelists of his time. He made a living – and managed to make it out of Spain alive, despite getting shot in the throat. But his own understanding of freedom was not itself so well understood until well after he died.

However, with Churchill and Orwell, Ricks does much more than give us a carefully-crafted dual biography. He understands the essence and necessity of storytelling, and that even as he has told us the stories of these two men, he has also been carefully crafting the story of an idea. He knows that no reader can experience these two men and the fixation on freedom without thinking about today’s world.

To this end, Ricks finishes the book with a concise and powerful Afterword. “We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst,” he writes. Indeed, this is true. It is generally only in hindsight that what actually matters becomes noticeable, let alone obvious. With Churchill and Orwell, Thomas E. Ricks offers readers an engaging, crystal-clear vision of the past that works equally well in the all-too-opaque present.

thomas_e_ricks-2017The humor and verve that Thomas E. Ricks brings to his writing are immediately apparent when you are fortunate enough to hear him speak. For me, it seemed as if he might have thought that writing a book about these two men would be a bit of a break from a world that is too much with us. He is, after all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005. But, the more he wrote about Churchill and Orwell, the more the world came around until his publishers were clamoring for the book yesterday. I can guarantee you that you will be heading over to your usual online vendor (say Ziesing Books) to get this one even before you finish listening to the file you can download from this link, or by asserting your individuality and listening loud and proud in your cubicle or car (queue it up before you start the vehicle) to the file below.

Danny Goldberg Is In Search of the Lost Chord: New Ideas and Newer Ideas

History hardens as stories are sprayed on the sheets of the past. Our visions and ideas become set when we think we know what had happened. But history, while experienced from afar, is lived on the ground, and the stories of those who were there can bring the past to life, adding depth, color and even joy. Joy is the big feature of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, a personalized and individualized portrait of a single critical year. Danny Goldberg, who ruled the music roost of Mercury Records (and others) in the 1990’s, had just graduated from high school in 1967. He proves to be the perfect guide for a year that is, in many ways, still with us.

goldberg-in_search_of_the_lost_chord-smGoldberg made a wise decision up front to confine his narrative (mostly) to the year of 1967. It gives him a chronological through-line to keep his journey though incredibly complicated times comprehensible. He begins with a round-up chapter that sets the scene, then reaches back a few years to offer an understanding of the background and then – you’re off to a race through a year that proves to relentlessly exciting to read about and clearly informs our culture to this very day.

In successive chapters, Goldberg take us through the areas that were transformed by 1967 as he explores the central idea, “the hippie idea,” that was at the core of this change. Goldberg is quick to point out how swiftly the word “hippie” and all things associated with it were trivialized to the point of cartoonishness even as he demonstrates the more powerful political and cultural concepts that drove the movement. The problem with the hippie idea proves to be that the idea itself is at odds with many of the forces needed to make it cohere. A celebration of youth, change, innovation, creativity and rebellion is quickly overtaken by competing factions on the inside and co-opted by commercialism from the outside. But the idea lives on.

Goldberg’s power as a storyteller stems from his ability to acknowledge the weaknesses while clearly identifying the strengths and the people responsible for them. The characters you meet here – Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, Martin Luther King, among others – may seem familiar, but Goldberg has a real knack for placing them in time and drawing them vividly into his own slightly personalized story. He devotes chapters to media, music, civil rights, flower power, politics, and consciousness. Each little focal point is a blast to read and Goldberg’s concise overview brings it all together. He makes his history fun even as he lets us discover just how relevant all of this is today.

Alas, even though most of us are unclear on exactly what happened in that tumultuous year – there was a lot going on! – it is unlikely that this particular slice of history will get repeated. That’s a shame, because we could use some of that positive sweetness about now, as a relief for the dystopian drama unfolding around us. Every idea has its time, and we can hope The Hippie Idea gets another round. But until then, Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea is a riveting look at a bit of history that, since we’re unlikely to repeat it, we might as well learn from.

danny_goldberg-2017It’s no secret that I enjoy talking to authors, but there was something about talking to Danny Goldberg, no listening, to Danny Goldberg tell this story that was so compelling, it made the era, the hope and the book come alive for me. Give Goldberg a listen and you’ll have that book in your hands soon after. I’m sure some visionary back in the day probably imagined that in the unknowable future, which is to say NOW, you’d be able to “follow this link to download the MP3 audio file” – which is to say, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out and listen below, no matter what The Man says!


Laura Caldwell, Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King Examine the Anatomy of Innocence: Story Ark

We might be tempted to think we know our system of justice is broken, and just how this came to be. The exoneration of those whom editor Leslie S. Klinger calls (terrifyingly) “the factually innocent” goes on, and the cases we hear of now and again are absolutely enraging and heartbreaking. Intellectual understanding is one thing, but immersion in life stories is another. Now, it is not as if these stories have not been told before. They have. But to truly get an insight into how each cog in this machine can break, simple linear storytelling is not sufficient.

Anatomy of Innocence_978-1-63149-088-0.inddCredit editors Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger for the brilliant insight that informs Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted, an anthology of exonoree stories told to top-notch mystery writers. The entire collection offers an in-depth view of every broken bit of our justice system, from the arrest of an innocent man or woman to their release, generally decades later.

Each portion of the wrongfully-accused-and-convicted story arc is from a different exonoree’s story. After introductions by Scott Turow and Barry Scheck, and a forward by the editors (all alternately compelling, informative and alarming), S. J. Rozan starts off the arc with “The Knock On The Door: The Arrest.” Rozan effectively and economically tells the story of Gloria Killian, a woman whose twisted story is so chock-a-block filled with convoluted idiocy and deliberate legal malfeasance that it seems utterly horrific. Factually innocent, which is to say the suspect did not commit the crime, period, Killian spent some seventeen years in jail. Wisely, each entry offers a brief introduction to set up the very short story that follows, and the story is followed by an afterward that follows up with a précis of the aftermath.

The book breaks down the wrongful accusation process into fifteen parts, and the cumulative effect is powerful. The men and women are from all stripes of life and all levels of income, though, not surprisingly, it’s a lot easier to end up here if you’re under-funded or under-educated. Many here are young enough to be both. And while the genre is non-fiction the feeling is often one of immersion in a Kafka-esque nightmare. Turow’s introduction is aptly titled “The Ultimate Horror.”

The storytelling within each segment is very taut and very powerful. Writers have been matched well; for example, ex-Marine Kirk Bloodsworth spent much of his life on death row and bonds well with Lee Child. Each writer takes the tack that works best for them, but the uniting theme of the progression through the arc of exoneration ensures an unsettling coherence. It’s a page-turner, stunningly well-paced and executed, but the hooks it plants stay with you. It helps to remember that as you read this, you are innocent, lucky and ultimately vulnerable.

Like democracy, the American system of justice may be the worst form of justice – except for all the others. That said, we know it is broken and this book goes a long way towards immersing readers in just how it is broken. Before we can fix anything, we have to not just know, but feel that it is broken. Anatomy of Innocence breaks the story into pieces, and in so doing, is exactly the first step in a new, better story about how justice gets fixed.


I sat down with editor Leslie S. Klinger and contributor Laurie R. King to talk about Anatomy of Innocence and indeed, the innocence Project itself. This is a passion project not just for these two, but all of the contributors. You can follow this link to enter other people’s nightmares, or just ask your jailer employer to lock your cubicle door so your responses to the powerful work will not disturb your fellow inmates co-workers.

Daryl Gregory Discovers Spoonbenders : Take the Astral Plane

American families are famously fractious. It’s normal to argue, the kvetch, to get entrenched in an unreasonable position. It’s less normal to read minds, detect if one family member or another is telling the truth, or to move paper clips, say, or pinballs with your mind. But that’s the Amazing Telemachus family, and they have sort of learned to deal with one another over the years. In Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, the seemingly wild and wooly Telemachus clan, with their varying degrees of psychic prowess, might seem a bit weird at first – like most families. But spend some quality time with them, and they start to seem like a pretty good vision of American suburbia as it slowly fractures while the world inches towards the 21st century.

gregory-spoonbendersMatty, the third generation, is a hormone-driven teenager who has his first out-of-body experience as he has his first … (nearly) sexual experience. It’s a funny scene, and fantastic example of how Gregory combines humor and heart with his imaginative science-fiction trope to externalize the untold anxieties of adolescent males. The Telemachus family once stood on stage with Mike Douglas, where instead of becoming famous, they were debunked. Teddy Telemachus, who has no psychic powers other than sleight-of-hand, his wife Maureen (a powerful remote viewer employed by the US government), their daughter Irene (the human lie detector), their son Frankie (weakly and unreliably telekinetic), and Buddy, who can see the future so clearly that he’s never sure when, as opposed to where he is, are tossed on the scrapheap of washed-up never-weres. But the family endures.

Most of the novel is set in the 1990’s, as the now disparate Telemachus clan are forced by hard times and bad choices to return to the Teddy’s home. Maureen died in the 1970’s, but she’s still sending Teddy letters of advice hen he needs them. The forces coming after the family now are all economic; money jobs, debt, employment, being sort of psychic makes all that harder, don’t you know? And your average totally not-average American family can pretty much pull together when push comes to shove, which you can bet will happen in this wonderfully plotted and engaging novel.

For all that the various powers and government programs to exploit them are the compelling stuff of page-turning excitement, the greatest moments in this book seamlessly combine plot and character moments to really get under your skin. Gregory hews to the science fiction side of the psychic world and gets more mileage out of the limits and foibles of average and sort-of flawed people with powers than he could ever achieve with big set pieces. There are great scenes in this book, make no mistake, and they feel big, but more believable. Psychics, schmycics, whatever – the true and most powerful powers of the Telemachus family are love, forgiveness and regret. And while these are psychic powers, they are powers we can all aspire to. If you need to bend a spoon, find a pair of pliers.daryl_gregory-2017-edit

Daryl Gregory in person seems almost as if he might be one of the Telemachus family. He has the full-bore enthusiasm combined with a laid back version of showmanship. Moreover, as we spoke, you could really feel his American family almost in the room with us. Fractious, perhaps, but ultimately, sweet, entertaining and bracing. And he does give me a ‘yes-or-no” answer to the “Do you believe?” question. You can follow this link to our lightning round interview, or use your 21st century psychic powers to listen below

For an extended journey on the astral plane, you can follow this link to listen to our in-depth interview. If you’re prepared to circle the earth without leaving your seat, just listen to below. If you levitate while doing so, make sure to catch it on your phone!

Manal al-Sharif Daring to Drive: Change Comes from Within

There’s enough to worry about, still – the existence of an operational dystopia in the here-and-now is certainly enough to turn your head. Secret police, subjugation of women to an extreme and unaccountable religious order, alas, all of these boxes and more are waiting to be checked in today’s Saudi Arabia, as terrifyingly and effectively described in Manal-al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. But al-Sharif’s story is one of empowerment, of insight, of change from within leading to change in this world. Ultimately, it is more hopeful than harrowing.

al_sharif-daring_to_drive-300The story begins in media res, as our heroine is preparing to be arrested in a surreal scene that will feel familiar to readers of Franz Kafka. Men in suits, not uniforms, come to take her away to one unnamed destination after another. It’s the 20th and 21st century nightmare brought to life. But this dark dream, and those that follow, are the middle, not the beginning and not the end of the story. The real power in this book, as uplifting as the social movements it has inspired, is to be found in Manal al-Sharif’s journey, her character arc. The true hope is that change can come from within, because even in the worst circumstances, good people can find ways to become better.

Manal al-Sharif describes her upbringing in the strictest Islamic traditions with a clarity that was clearly not part of the experience. Her family was poor, and very religious. But no matter how dark her experience was, her writing infuses it with a vigor and knowledge that keeps the book gripping and relevant, vibrant even, with the understanding that what is being described is in the past. At first, as a child, al-Sharif hews to her society’s already extreme norms. But as a rebellious teenager, she becomes even more extremely fundamentalist. Soon enough, we find our heroine hectoring her parents for any variance outside the strictest interpretations of Islamic scripture. We, as readers, watch her become the sort of believer we might assume to be, for want of a better word, “incurable.”

But al-Sharif is accomplished and intelligent, and as she grows and scores top ranks in school, she begins to question her own beliefs. These are powerful moments, core to the book, and moments of hope and change for the reader. It does not take the story long to ramp up to an astonishing escape velocity. Before our eyes, Manal al-Sharif becomes not only an enlightened individual, she becomes a catalyst for change in her society writ large. If you long to feel the triumph of your characters as you read, this is your book. Living up to its title, it’s a true heroine’s story. Moreover it can be replicated.manal_al_sharif-2017-200

Speaking with Manal al-Sharif was both daunting and an honor. She’s an icon of change for thousands of women, and she’s suffered horrific life experiences that for many would fall under the descriptors of torture and mind-control. I will admit that for me, the excitement sparked by the external changes and movement brought about by Manal al-Sharif is less important than the internal changes she so clearly describes. To my mind, the internal begats the external, and the former is far more important because even in a society where change is obvious and seemingly unstoppable, it cannot happen without the cooperation of the populace. The upshot; we have to believe in our hearts. Manal al-Sharif managed the most difficult thing in the world. She changes her hearty and she may change yours.

You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link, or listen below.

You’ll hear some raw and not-always comfortable honesty if you follow this link to listen to our in-depth interview. Or, if you are in a place where you can sit slack-jawed while you are blown away by her story, just listen below.

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are Stealing Fire: Changing Your Mind

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal preface Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, their deep dive into the latest in human technology, with a vision and reminder of just how long we’ve been at this task. We start in Ancient Greece, with the Eleusinian Mysteries, a ritual that involved drinking kykeon, an elixir that bestowed visions and powers upon those who consumed it. We still do not know exactly what kykeon was (or is), but that has not stopped us from trying to raise ourselves by our bootstraps. Stealing Fire is a page-turning update on the human quest to change our minds and enhance our capabilities.

kotler-stealing_fireKotler and Wheal are, in this book, detailing the blowback from their work in the flow genome project and from Kotler’s previous book, The Rise Of Superman. That response proved to be a potent combination of curiosity and investment, which is to say, that, as we quickly learn, the Navy Seals were more than interested; they were already on-board and had a few tricks up their sleeve that they thought would intrigue Kotler and Wheal. This makes for some fascinating reading about group flow, and our first step on a journey through the wild world of Our Minds in Action Today.

What’s really interesting here is the breadth of applications that Kotler and Wheal unearth in their investigation. From Burning Man to the Googleplex, from Red Bull to Richard Branson, Kotler and Wheal take us on an eye-opening tour while getting down to the nitty-gritty of what we know this moment. There’s a great look at the individual aspects of ecstasis, as well as an investigation into the uses of what they call “wicked problems.” They write, “The amplified information processing and perspective that non-ordinary states provide can help solve these types of complex problems, and they can often do so faster than more conventional approaches.” The idea is that all the disparate areas of research and investigation have real-world applications.

Through all this, the authors have a firm grasp on story and character, which means readers are in for some engaging close-ups of just who is doing what and for what purpose. The upshot is that, as with any new technology, there are questions as to just how and when it should be applied, even if the new technology is applied to the human mind and body. (Are smart drugs cheating when used by studentsteven_kotler-2017s? How is a pill different from cup of coffee?) There’s quite a bit of history to be found here as well, and the authors do a fine job bringing everything together to tell a coherent and ennobling story.

Ultimately, Stealing Fire is every bit as big an exploration as you might expect given the title, told in a lively narrative with engaging stories. What Stealing Fire is not, is a conclusion. For all their excitement and all the great information to be found here for those seeking to extend themselves, the most important part of Stealing Fire is that it is clear we are, not just looking at, but we, ourselves, are a work in progress. Here’s a book that offers some useful tips for operating and improving the human machine.

Here’s a link to the lightning-round interview with Steven Kotler, or enjoy it with your advanced human mind below!

For the big-thinks version, follow this link or let the words fill your mind directly for the bar below.

Omar El Akkad Brings Home American War: Rise and Fall

Story boils us down to our bones like nobody’s business. It’s the last connective tissue to disappear, and the first to re-appear. In Omar El Akkad’s American War, story is just about all the Chestnut family has left. After the war, quick and hot, came the insurgency, long and slow. It was no civil war, but nonetheless, the South lost again, and again the price was crippling. Sarat and her family just want to get North, where the work is. But Sarat is raw material, waiting for her, unaware she is already immersed.

akkad-american_warAkkad’s novel is interspersed with excerpts from historical documents and reportage, giving it a rough frame that starts the day after tomorrow and stretches to the end of the century. Sarat and her family are American refugees from the ravages of a civil war fueled by oil and climate change. El Akkad keeps his world extremely gritty. You’ll find no miracle cures for climate change. What Akkad’s future has to offer is less for more, especially here in the US, and even more so in what remains of the American south.

For all it’s grit and vigor, American War manages to portray a dark future without drowning the reader in drear. Sarat and her family and those who take her under their wing are a fascinating bunch, enough so that El Akkad can boldly explore what we are doing to ourselves at this moment, in the context of this future where America is the foreign country. The in-your-face factor of what El Akkad brings off is really quite stunning. It is one think to think the unthinkable. El Akkad wants you to empathize. When you do, you’ll scare yourself.

El Akkad’s world building is careful and low-key. He uses the tropes of SF well enough, but never gets flashy about it. This goes to making the book feel intensely realistic. Any innovations are things we could do right now if we were so inclined. And here is where American War will have you levered, trapped, read through, satisfied and staring around you. Why have we not done this yet? Why are we so lucky?omar_el_akkad-2017-800

My luck in this regard begins and ends with being able to talk to Omar El Akkad about his book and the reportage behind it. American War is not the first SF novel to be informed by a writer’s experience as a reporter, but it was a privilege and fascinating insight to hear just how El Akkad’s non-fiction work shows up in the funhouse mirror of his novel. Here’s a link to our lightning round conversation, or you can just listen below.

And here’s our complete conversation. Don’t worry, there is a future, at least so long as you have not followed the link to download the file or listened below. After that, anything and everything goes!

Bruce Feiler Discovers The First Love Story: The Import of Imprint

Story tells us, importantly, surprisingly, who we are. It’s not a cookbook – it’s a mirror. Stories can become so embedded in us that we no longer see them such. We lose their complexity and texture in the blur of everyday recognition. Adam and Eve, for example, are mythic, unforgettable figures.

feiler-the_first_love_story-stBut the paradoxical reality of their mythic existence overshadows what is really important. Bruce Feiler sets the story straight with his brilliantly insightful book The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us. As “first humans,” Adam and Eve are both impossible and impossibly important. As exemplars of human love and characters, their love story quite literally creates this world. It is imprinted upon our souls.

Feiler’s an energetic writer and host for what proves to be a whirlwind trip around the world as discovered in the stories told about the story of Adam and Eve.   We meet Yossi Garfinkel, who suggests, “Adam and Eve symbolize the movement from hunter-gatherers to village life.” And we are off, as Feiler digs just deep enough to let readers explore with him the many implications of the stories behind the names we see in the mirror each morning.

We learn for example, that there are two different versions of the creation myth itself. “The fact that there are two versions of the narrative reinforces this notion that life is fundamentally about creative tension,” he writes. “Creation is cocreation.” And yes, creation, as in birth and a woman’s place in the world, are central in this story. Adam and Eve, the author is quick to point out, is a story that’s been used by the Church for centuries to keep women in what the men who ran the Church thought to be their places.

The stories that Feiler uses to bring his theme alive are as fascinating and diverse as humanity itself. Yes, you can bet he travels to the unimposing spot in Iraq that corresponds to the Garden of Eden. But the real discoveries are those that unpack the true and eternally relevant complexity from the Adam and Even myth. There are a lot of twists and turns in that story, and a lot of concerns; sexuality, obviously, but temperance, grief, change, aging, it’s all there. The power of this book is that once you read it, you’ll see the fingerprints of the Adam and eve story all around you.

bruce_feiler-2017-4Moreover, you will see the story inside your own life. The Adam and Eve narrative is where we all both begin and end. Don’t think that this book is something it is not. It has no and needs no agenda. The First Love Story is of course universal. But how we understand it is ever so personal. It is up to us to discover the first love story, every time we fall in love.

Bruce Feiler has, as he describes it, the ideal job. He waits at the kitchen table for stories, and yes they come to him, and yes, we are lucky enough that he’s able to identify and research them, so as to write wonderful engaging books about stuff we all see from the kitchen table but generally don’t have either the time or the talent to write about. He is every interviewer’s, interview listener’s and reader’s dream. He knows his stuff, and he knows how not to give away the store. Here’s the short version; follow this link to download or listen below.

And here’s our complete conversation, wherein our writer has too much fun.

Laurie R. King Weaves Lockdown: Tapestry, Mosaic and Suspense

The tension begins with the title and ends when you close the book. But Laurie R. King’s Lockdown is every bit as much of a character study as it is a thrilling novel of suspense. It reads like lightning but lingers like memories of good times spent with good friends, those you will make when you spend Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School. Lockdown is the perfect example of character-driven suspense, and a smart vision of 21st century suburban sprawl where diverse threads come together whether they want to or not.

king-lockdown-300We begin before the dawn, as Principal Linda McDonald lies awake, worrying about the logistics for the big day to come at her middle school in San Felipe, a central California coast town that offers the full range of American income, from the poorest farm workers’ daughter to the odd Internet millionaire’s son.

King keeps the chapters and introductions to the characters short even as she expertly sets them up and apart from one another. We meet Brendan, the richish kid playing a first-person-shooter video game, Mina, the daughter of nervous Iranian émigrés, Olivia, the cop, Tio, the janitor, and more. Happily King quickly makes it easy for us to figure out who is who, as events move quickly towards an ending that at least one of them plans to be quite unhappy.

While some of the characters have more back-story than others, forward momentum is the order of the day, and that momentum unfolds in ordinary, small moments that are drawn with care. Even characters that we suspect find our sympathy, which puts readers in a very unusual and interesting situation. Lockdown is something of an apotheosis of sympathy for the devil, who after all, saw himself as the hero of his own adventure. Chances are that readers will not be thinking too much about the abstractions that lend the narrative strength though, and not just because the suspense factor is so expertly ratcheted through the roof. It turns out, we like the people who are in the fray, and that matters, a lot. Yes, there are call-outs to King’s other works and characters that will make it especially fun for her regular readers.

In terms of balancing the suspense, which is to say keeping readers focused, but not too focused on the end, Lockdown is in a class by itself. Between the short chapters and her own keen understanding of the interplay between character and action, Lockdown reads at the perfect pace. The word that comes to mind is organic, woven, with each word and action giving birth to those that follow. But more importantly, and surprisingly, Lockdown is a novel that readers will remember as much for the setting as the suspense. Guadalupe Middle School is a place readers will want to return to. You’ll want to linger in the hallways after the fray. You’ll want to hang out as the characters deal with the small events of everyday life. There is an after, and you will find yourself happy with whatever it has to offer.

laurie_r_king-editI will admit to being lucky enough to have Laurie join me at the home studio to talk about her book. My goal, as ever, is to give her potential readers enough to send them to the bookstore, without having told them so much as to make such a trip superfluous. In a variety of alternate timelines, King is an award-winning teacher, and those skills serve her well in this timeline as we spoke about Lockdown. To my mind, this is one of her best novels. Readers can get a head start of the back-story of the novel by following this link to the MP3 audio file, or wait until the school lunch hour and listen below.

Jeff Guinn Takes The Road to Jonestown: The Making of a Demagogue

Facts matter; but story builds from facts to give reality a shape, something we can use to inform our vision and guide our actions. To build an effective story, you need more than the basics. You need a beginning and a middle as well as the end, no matter how spectacular the latter may be. Jeff Guinn’s masterful The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is the perfect example of how a full story, built from facts that capture the beginning and middle, can help us understand the end, and the man who made it happen. Jim Jones was not an aberration. He was a demagogue, and we are not finished with these men, not by a long shot.

Guinn opens the book with the discovery of the Jonestown massacre, told from the perspective of the Guyanese soldiers who discovered what had happened. That shift of perspective, made possible by Guinn’s recent interviews with these men so many years later is an excellent intimation of what is to come. Guinn digs deep, starts before the beginning – before Jim Jones was born – and every fact he finds contributes to a rich, terrifying tapestry. This is how we manufacture our monsters.

Guinn takes up Jones’ story before his birth, and when we meet his mother, a lot of the pieces pop into place. She is a true force of nature, and not the cuddly sort. She knows her son is destined for greatness, and treats him as such. even as a child, Jones is spooky as hell. He joins all the churches in his small town, and conducts funerals for road kill, and other animals. He displays an interest in those who are able to control others with the power of speech, especially Adolf Hitler, and is later impressed by Hitler’s suicide. He’s not even a teenager.

What Guinn does is to turn Jones’ story into a page-turning tale of true-life horror. His ability to bring in all the facts, to dig up perspectives from townspeople who knew Jones as a child and others, at each stage of his life is as astonishing as the story itself. Guinn knows intuitively how to marshal his facts into story, to find the human thread of slowly twisted growth. Jones was not without talent, but most of his skill was turned to manipulating others to ends that were ever more suspect and selfish. As his power over others grew, the darkness beckoned and blossomed.

The power and the import of The Road to Jonestown lie in Guinn’s “tell it like it was” style. Raw history, raw story, (in)humanity unmasked, transform the tawdry and awful into an informative vision. Reading The Road to Jonestown does not fjeff_guinneel like history. It feels like current events, which is to say it will certainly inform anyone’s vision of any time.

The 1970’s are now history, as is Jones and his horrific legacy. But the demagogues are still with us. Adolf Hitler helped teach a young Jim Jones how to control others. As we read about Jim Jones, as a particular brand of American demagogue, the shapeless shamble of our lives in this moment is shadowed. The title of this book, like every other word, is important. This is a journey. We’re now on the road from Jonestown, and we’d be well advised to observe the signposts.

One of the reasons I have devoted so much time and effort to speaking with authors is that actually hearing the voice of the author – the speaking voice – can be offer a powerful insight into the work. Jeff Guinn is an exemplar of that inclination. In our conversation, he managed to effortlessly discuss his story of the past in the context of the present, to extract the universal attributes – think the Platonic “ideal” of demagogue. To hear Jeff Guinn’s voice, in brief, follow this link to the lightning round interview, or just listen below.

To immerse yourself in the past as a means of better understanding the present and more importantly, preparing for the future, follow this link, or just listen below.