Camille Perri and The Assistants: Analogues of Wealth Interviews and Review

Equivalency can be the tipoff to inequality. It might seem counterintuitive, but when you experience this, it happens in a heartbeat. In Camille Perri’s The Assistants, equivalency confirms inequality and sets the plot in motion. Tina Fontana is the assistant to the billionaire-ish head of a media empire. When his whim-of-the moment travel plans prove to be equal in cost to Tina’s terrifying student debt, she finds herself at a moral turning point. Once she crosses the line, her perceptions of the world around her – and herself – are slowly but irrevocably altered. “Laughing all the way to the bank” gets a 21st century luxury gap update.

perri-the_assistants-largeTina’s voice is the driving force of The Assistants, which combines a soupcon of crime novel with a delightful dose of office farce. Once she sets herself in motion, Tina learns that isolation is impossible in the modern workplace. She’s looped in with Emily, who at first glance is Tina’s polar opposite. Tina is short, low-key and on the demure side. Emily is a tall, hot blonde associated with Harvard. Not a force to be denied, she moves in on Tina’s plans and into her tiny, tiny apartment. And while the apartment has room for no more, Tina’s office plans prove to be very accommodating to her female co-worker, all saddled with debt, generally from school.

The Assistants reads like lightning, but has pretty hard core of driving ideas. It doesn’t wear its smarts on its sleeve. Instead, Perri shows us and doesn’t tell us just how crafty she (the author) and Tina and her posse (the characters) are. There’s not a wasted word or a single scene that doesn’t race by like a New York cab on a rainy night. Generally through a puddle. She hits the truth-turns-to-fiction button at all the right moments, and genuinely likes all her characters. The billionaires are not, likeable, per se, but they are by no means villains. They’re more like clueless blue bloods, trans-Atlantic, time-shifted transplanted aristocrats from a clash-of-classes era.

The Assistants has enough crime to satisfy readers of the mystery/crime fiction genre, but is light on punishment, and utterly without violence (not even emotional), so as to be easily embraced by a very wide audience. The humor never gets into cartoon territory, and the book gets a R rating by virtue of a nice sprinkling of language that you still cannot use on TV. Simply put, this is a great way to make the world go away, funny and fast-paced, even as it is underpinned by matters that deserve serious consideration. That might happen after you finish hearing Tina’s story. Open up The Assistants and listen as Tina Fontana tells you her story, as she closes the luxury gap with a guilt-driven confidence that for readers, is the equivalent of one hell of a good time.

Not surprisingly, Camille Perri manages to display a similar level of confidence when we sat down to speak about her novel. You can hear the lightning round version of that interview by downloading the file at this link. Or you can don your office headset, pretend to be transcribing dictation and listen right here.

To close the luxury gap, settle in as you commute for the director’ cut, by downloading the file here. Or, get back to that document transcription because it’s a 50-minute interview work speech right here:

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Stewart O’Nan City of Secrets Review and Interview

Brand has lost everyone he loves, everything he was – but for his life. He’s fled the camps and managed to make his way to Palestine, to walk the crooked streets of Jerusalem. This is not the city we know, nor is it a city he knows. Under the rule of the British Mandate, Jerusalem is no haven for the Jews. Brand is by definition part of an underground resistance movement that he cannot, does not know. He must re-define himself when the world around him evades definition.

onan-city_of_secretsWith City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan takes yet another step into the dark heart of noir, with a story that unfolds as a pre-Cold War spy thriller. Brand is a perfect noir protagonist, who becomes involved in something bigger than himself. He meets a superbly crafted femme fatale, Eva, and falls for her as he searches for himself. The Jews flooding the city are preparing an insurgency. The Brits are the enemy. What we consider our world is upside-down.

City of Secrets is an intense thriller a lovely noir and a surprisingly powerful romance. O’Nan handles all this with a masterful sense of pacing, plotting and prose that keeps a book chock full of action and memorable scenes surprisingly succinct. But O’Nan also packs a remarkably complex moral calculus into the book. It slots in perfectly with the noir elements and the spy-story overtones to create a reading experience that is unique but feels excitingly familiar.

The set pieces here are hair-raising in a number of ways. They’re engagingly cinematic and deeply woven with the qualms Brand feels as he senses how little he knows. But the whole milieu is also cognitively dissonant for the reader, because the Jerusalem of then is so different from the Jerusalem of now. The political upheavals to come after this book have truly inverted the world of this book. But for most readers, those upheavals are the starting point.

City of Secrets is yet another amazing demonstration of Stewart O’Nan’s talent and versatility, and it is one hell of a gripping, engaging reading experience. Chandler, Hammett, Le Carré, and Orson Welles come to mind, but O’Nan is very much on his own here. For all the exotica, it comes down to a simple question and an unfortunate answer; What will you do to define yourself? When you become involved in something bigger than you are, you can easily find someone else doing the defining for you.

I sat down with Stewart O’Nan at KQED Arts to talk about City of Secrets without giving away the secrets of the novel. You can download our conversation by following this link.

Or you can put on your headset and listen in secret right here:

Interview With Jeremy Scahill Plus Book Review

[Author, left and interviewer, right, at Ramstein West Underground Parking Complex.]

“…as far as the local sheriff is concerned, it could be a suicide bomber…”

It would be nice to think there’s an easy answer, a simple, somehow safe solution to the very real threats posed by those whom we choose to call terrorists. Should we be surprised, and even relieved such a solution has presented itself in the form of drones? It’s a weaponized wish come true. From the safety an underground bunker on American soil, we’re able to target and kill those who would harm us half a world away. It’s a neat narrative that allows us to check that concern off our list and get on to the next crisis.

scahill-the_assassination_complexBut as Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept from the title onward in The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, it is not simple. Based on newly-obtained documents from a source who used to work in the drone program, The Assassination Complex contemplates the moral calculus used to turn brutal assassinations into almost anonymous battlefield casualties. Scahill and his staff offer a scathing, precise vision of just what is being done, and why it is happening. This is compelling reading for any citizen who wants to trust their government, written with understated power. It’s not simple by any means. It is by any measure riveting and important.

Edward Snowden provides a scene-setting introduction that explores the nature of leaked information. Jeremy Scahill then provides a chilling précis, and after that, prepare to be plunged into an Orwellian nightmare. There’s a “find, fix and finish” protocol put in place for the chosen targets. There’s a damning lexicon of euphemism. Targets are given “baseball cards” that summarize their crimes and the means by which the accusations against them are ranked. “Guilty until proven innocent” and “trial by jury” are left far behind. Trying to sort this out without the skills of Scahill and collaborators would be impossible. They manage to cover each aspect of the program in a manner that allows readers to put together the pieces of an ugly puzzle.

Readers who “want to believe” in the moral authority of the Obama Administration are going to have to re-focus their desires on something more realistic, like UFOs and aliens. The evidence that Scahill and his co-creators offer is undeniable. Not only is the drone program a morally bankrupt means to spin assassination, it’s been a program that has caused more problems than it ever solved. We manage to create enemies by killing innocent bystanders (in some cases, at a rate of 9 in 10) and we also eliminate potentially valuable sources of intel. All this while behaving just s fiendishly as any pocket dictator you might wish to name.

But the bad news does not stop at the ineffectual nature of what’s being done. The means by which we accomplish this are disturbing enough, and headed back home. It turns out, that as Scahill told me in our interview, “We’re not killing people, we’re killing cell phones.” The app installed on every phone is “Send a Drone to Destroy This Phone.” Will you thank the authors for making you regard your smart phone as a target for a Hellfire Missile? The jury’s out on that one.

The Assassination Complex benefits from superb design. Simon & Schuster and Scahill’s team have crafted a book that is as powerful the PowerPoint presentations that the CIA and the NSA use to illustrate the “kill chain,” which is to say, who lives and who dies. There are a lot of moving parts to integrate so that we, the readers can put together the big and very scary picture.

Here’s the most interesting aspect of The Assassination Complex: even before you finish the book, you’ll realize that when you bought it, your name and this book got paired in a data mart somewhere. You’ll start by putting your phone in “airplane mode.” But you’ll be suspicious, and with good reason. Then you’ll turn off the phone. The Assassination Complex will have created a new narrative for you. Simple will be a thing of the past, or maybe a myth.

You can hear my interview with Jeremy Scahill by following this link to the MP3 audio file. But you cannot unhear it. Or, you can listen here.

You might as well. If you’re reading this line, it’s too late, no matter how private or Tor-ified you think your browser history might be.

Vendela Vida The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty Review and Interviews

Our identity is an undeniably internal experience, but it is inextricably tied to external evidence. Take that away and you might find yourself in freefall, your story unmoored from your past, allowed to drift without direction into an uncertain future. If you are the you in Vendela Vida’s new novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty life opens up to opportunities both antic and intense. You might think that starting your story anew means leaving the past behind. Stories are not, however, so easily discarded.

PrintAs the novel opens, our never-named, second-person narrator arrives for a vacation in Casablanca only to have her backpack stolen while she checks into her hotel. She loses everything that confirms her identity and all her money. The police promise her that her backpack will be returned, and they make good on that promise, sort of. She’s handed a backpack that looks like hers and has money and ID, but it is not hers. In a split second, you have a new identity.

Freed from her story, our heroine pursues a path that serves up low-key but very funny slapstick cut with crime fiction and identity roulette. She encounters a famous actress and becomes involved in filming a movie as a double. That’s not the first mirror you’ll find here, nor is it the last. And while Vida writes a stunningly engaging page-turner with lots to make you smile, she seamlessly mines her premise for its mythical and psychological riches. It turns out that you cannot leave the past behind so easily after all.

The real power on display here is Vida’s ability to write a book that encompasses the whole life, from laughter to love to loss. She does so with a grace that is understated by virtue of crisp prose. Vida has created a novel that is laugh-out-loud funny, filled with penetrating philosophical thought and powerful emotions. You’ll read it quickly, and find that it is lodge in your memory, your story. This is the perfect book to read in vacation home or hotel, and leave behind for the next guest.

The second person storytelling in The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty works perfectly with the scenario and characters she’s created to immerse us in story in a manner let readers look in the mirror and see more than one face, more than one possibility. The future, it turns out, is not fixed. You can make a choice. You can write your own evidence.

Here’s a link to the short form interview I did with Vendela Vida, evidence of fleeting words spoken into the air, never to return again. Or you can listen to the interview right here.

Here’s a link to the long form interview I did with Vendela Vida. Or you can listen to the interview right here.

The Assistants by Camille Perri

Run, don’t walk to see Camille Perri; she’s on tour now.  Her new novel, The Assistants, is outstanding.  It’s often hilarious, always engaging, a page-turner and more fun than any job.  A great Mother’s Day gift, and a great read for anyone who likes a funny, smart, enjoyably tense novel.   We had a great chat yesterday, should be up soon!  Stay tuned!

camille_perri-assistants

Jessica Knoll Luckiest Girl Alive

We have to admit that there’s a new and very specialized genre afoot. The spectacular success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has inspired publishers to tag anything that features a strong female protagonist in a crime fiction setting as “the next,” with the hope that sales will follow, no matter how much you have to squint to suss the semblance. But don’t hold comparisons against Luckiest Girl Alive. Read the first page. Ani Fanelli has a voice all her own.

Sknoll-the_luckiest_girl_alive-hche’s not a character who is easy to like, unless you like difficult-to-like, and I in fact do like difficult-to-like. In the opening sections of the book Ani seems to live up to the title. She has a great job, a great fiancé and is well set. She may come from the burbs, but she’s left them in the dust. I’ll leave the “Or’s” to the readers.

Making your way through the layers of revelation in The Luckiest Girl Alive is an onion-peeling experience, stinging tears included. Ani’s best friend Nell is the leavening flavor, but not by much. These are smart, ambitious young women in New York, where survival of the fittest is an understatement. Darwin might re-write his famous theory after witnessing nature New-York-society style. Red in tooth and claw is just the beginning. And it’s certainly a delight to explore the food chain with Ani, a self-doubting, self-absorbed, top-predator-in-training.

knoll-the_luckiest_girl_alive-smJessica Knoll’s skill in prose, plotting, revelation and character revelation as plot ensure that Luckiest Girl Alive is engaging even when the main character is pondering plunging a knife in her fiancé’s back. Ani might seem to be all furious surface, but we’re privy both to what she is saying and what she is thinking. Only occasionally are they the same. Knoll captures a raw power that becomes disconcerting when you least expect it.

As we see Ani plunge forward into a vicious present, we also see her precarious past. It’s a high-wire act with a fatal fall awaiting any misstep. You might not be Luckiest Girl Alive, and you might not want to meet the Luckiest Girl Alive. But the book’s memorable, the sort of memorable that leaves scars.

By the time I spoke with the author, she’d written a revelatory essay on Lenny. [The mere title of the link divulges plot points.  You might want to read the essay and/or listen to this interview after reading the book.]  Both the novel and the essay are raw and intense, connecting the author directly to some of the most powerfully-portrayed events in the book. We discussed those events both in the long and short interviews.

You can download the short form via this link.

Or listen here.

You can download the long interview by following this link.

Or listen here.