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.


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.


Jeff Goodell Knows The Water Will Come: Physics, Change and Humanity

We’re in a serenity prayer moment. Our world is changing, regardless of what we do. By the end of this century, the sea levels will have risen at least three feet, though the odds are it will be twice as much, or more. Unfortunately for us, we’re also in a boiling frog moment. It is already too late. The physics are measurable and immutable. The damage has already arrived. We need to understand what is happening and decide what we will do.

goodell-the_water_will_comeIn The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World Jeff Goodell bears witness to the world we have now. It’s not a pretty picture. Sure, the big changes have yet to happen. They’re a generation or two out. But, as William Gibson once wrote, “The future has arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Which is to say that if you’re a canny writer with an eye for science, you can tell a terrifyingly true story about climate change and rising seas right now. Goodell’s book is subtly researched (he does not shove the science in your face) and reported with on-the-spot interviews from the parts of this world that serve as previews for coming (un)attractions. But The Water Will Come is not a eulogy. It’s a snapshot. How we react to the picture, what humans do, is still up to us.

Goodell’s book is a compelling, page-turning journey from our inundated past (floods, Biblical and otherwise) to the edge of the present. Now begins in Florida, where residents and homeowners are playing real-estate roulette, calculating property values with a bizarre combination of disbelief and canny gambling. Our own mortality allows us to build skyscrapers a couple of feet above sea level. Mortgages (and buildings) that are literally underwater won’t matter to the dead. But our own frog-boiling talents allow profit in the present to pre-empt efforts towards future self-preservation.

Goodell really gets around, from glaciers to sea walls, from Venice to New York, and from drowning islands to endangered high-rises (see above). He interviews scientists, businessmen, and citizens to give readers a ground-level view of just what will happen when the sea-level rises. And while it is not good news, Goodell is not here to offer a preview of the apocalypse. For, as much as we are surrounded by climate-change denial and the potentially awful consequences of ignoring reality, we’re also able to shape our own destinies and, more importantly, our own reactions.

And this is where Goodell’s book takes a welcome and unexpected turn. In Lagos, he tours floating slums, temporary cities where our relationship to the coast has been shaped not by a stubborn insistence on permanent housing, but instead by an adaptive perception of home. We are all, by and large, quite used to having one permanent home in one place, but that need not be the case. Returning to Florida, things look dire, but only because we’re on the wrong side of serenity. By showing us how the world actually looks now, how the future has already arrived in coastal regions around the world, Goodell suggests that (because it is too late, alas) we need to accept what we cannot change (rising seas), find the courage to change what we can (our relationship to life near the coast), and discover the wisdom to know which is which. The joy of reading The Water Will Come is the discovery that if reality is immutable, we are not.

jeff_goodell-2017-smJeff Goodell should, in theory, be a poet or prophet of the coming apocalypse. In person, he’s a down-to-earth reporter who knows how to find the most interesting people on earth and engage them in conversations about what Stanislaw Lem called the pericalypse, that is, the apocalypse that has already happened but went unnoticed in the general haste. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the general haste, download our lightning round interview by following this link, or drop in and listen below.

For our in-depth conversation, we talked some of the highlights of his travels, but also and more importantly, about how our ability to change our understanding of home and life on the coast can allow us adapt to our future. You can begin your course of adaptation by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or take your time, seat yourself in a shallow pot of water, turn the burner on low and get ready to boil while listening below.

Beth Macy Traces Truevine: Stories, Webs, Traps and Truth

We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.

macy-truevineAll of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.

In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.

Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.

The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.

beth-macy-2017-smThere’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.