Justin Cronin Reflects The City of Mirrors

Where will you be in the next 1,000 hours? Where will you be in the next 1,000 days? Where will you be in the next 1,000 years? Scope matters; it informs our decisions as well as our visions. As humans, our gift is that we can encompass scope in any degree, from the infinitesimal to the cosmic. It is also problematic to do so. Give Justin Cronin credit then, for scope in all the degrees that matter to us as readers.

cronin-the_city_of_mirrorsBeginning with The Passage, continuing with The Twelve, and now concluding in The City of Mirrors, Cronin has immersed us in intimate personal history and grand historical tapestries; sometimes in the same moments. By any measure of scope, The City of Mirrors is a success. It’s a blast to read, a ripping yarn that manages to convey personal truth and pointed commentary. All this in a narrative ablaze with monsters.

Cronin as always, does an admirable job at the literary equivalent of “Previously, in The Passage and The Twelve.” It’s an important and telling nod to the reading experience. The three books essentially comprise one enormous novel. Don’t start with The City of Mirrors; go back and read the first two books first.  That said, he’s been writing and publishing them beyond the memory of most readers for plot details, so having that précis up front is nice.

But more importantly, with the concluding book in the trilogy, Cronin manages to wrap up his story in a manner that does not feel like simple knot-tying. The City of Mirrors manages the trick of being a satisfying story in itself while also finishing the many stories that began in the previous volumes.

The delight at the core of this novel is that we finally get a good gander at Timothy Fanning, patient Zero and the reason for all the apocalyptic adventures we’ve enjoyed for some startlingly large number of pages. And we meet Fanning not just as the nastiest critter alive, or sort-of alive, but, most engagingly, as the human he was before he was transformed into a monster. And this, of course, has always been the strength of these books. The monsters have recognizable characters and character arcs, as well as being damnably flashy monsters.

All this might be enough in itself, but Cronin offers so much more. The beauty to be found in his protagonists proves to be every bit as engaging as the evil in his villains. His prose can frame a terrorizing battle scene bigger than most anything you could imagine, but it is filled with poetic power in the small moments. His bent for academia, whether it’s to be found in the glory days of Harvard undergrads in the recent past or in pontificating conferences in the distant future, is unerringly enjoyable. Not an easy feat to pull off! And putting together the layers of story across time is a particularly poignant reading experience.

It’s certainly true that all times feel like end times, for better or worse; alas, it’s generally the latter. Cronin’s trilogy, perfectly completed in this ambitious novel, offers both a detailed personal vision and a grand-scale, end-times adventure. The real storytelling feat is not the epic sweep so much as the emotional connection. With this story, Cronin offers us the seemingly self-contradictory vision of an end that we do not want to end.

justin_cronin-2016-800Given that he’s written three tomes, and done three tours, Justin Cronin is to my mind unexpectedly but happily enthusiastic to talk about all this. He’s gung-ho, even, and our visit lacked only beers and a bar; but that would have made recording difficult, and it was, as it happens, a bit early in the day. What was nice about this conversation, is that we had the opportunity to talk about the work as a whole and illuminate some bits of the latest novel without really giving anything away.

And while we run slightly under my usual time, the fact of the matter is that he talks pretty fast. You get all the content in a percentage of the time! In this apocalyptic, final sentence of the review, you can follow this link to the MP3 audio of our conversation to download the file – or you can experience the post-post-apocalypse without ever leaving your seat or this page by listening below.


Kevin Kelly Expects The Inevitable: “I’m not a Utopian…”

Expect to be discomforted, and that is in the present. By reading this book. As for the future, Kevin Kelly is not in the business of comfort, though his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, is far less dystopian than you might reasonably expect. Kelly does not predict the future as much as he examines the present, and in doing so with some care, he unearths twelve trends that he argues will shape the future. Reading The Inevitable is the nonfiction equivalent of watching movie trailers for the next thirty years of Life on Earth. A happy ending is not guaranteed.

kelly-the_inevitableThe structure of the book is quite straightforward. Kelly names, then describes a force, and then carefully explores and intuits the implications of the import of that force. The forces he identifies include Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and Beginning. Under each banner, he starts big and gets bigger. In “Becoming” for example, he argues that, “…neither dystopia nor utopia is our destination. Rather, technology is taking us to protopia,” which Kelly considers a state of constant incremental change, some good, some ill, but overall on the plus side. Depending on your perspective, this may sound grand, or it may sound terrifying, but Kelly’s carefully framed explorations always make it sound…inevitable.

The upshot is all the mind-boggling wonder of a science fiction novel, without the personal heroics. Kelly has a compelling story to tell but it is a decidedly non-human story. In The Inevitable, Kelly carefully teases out the narrative arc of technology. He gives us motion, but it is not the sort of motion we are readily able to see, in our lives, at least. That said, he does conclude each chapter with a two or three page vision of his own life thirty years hence, filled with specifics informed by the arguments of the preceding chapter. He admits that there might be mistakes in these specifics, but they’re fun to read.

This is not to say that The Inevitable as a whole is not fun to read. It is gripping as all hell, as gripping as the hellish notions Kelly sometimes intuits. To my mind, some of what is implied is the ultimate triumph of capitalism. While we will have access to everything (assuming we can afford to rent it), we will own nothing. If you think you don’t have to do much more than read the word “Tracking” to know where that trend is headed, or think we’ve already arrived at the more disturbing possibilities, Kelly has some news for you, and it’s not likely to make you happy. The old cliché has it that “information wants to be free.” Your freedom, on the other hand, may not prove to be a natural state.

The real power of The Inevitable is that in every case, Kelly approaches his subjects and draws his conclusions dispassionately, with a very even hand. This is not an alarmist tract, nor is it a glowing prediction. There’s very little predicting going here, really. But by imaginatively, intelligently exploring the past and examining the present, Kelly compellingly, engagingly grooms us for the future. Which way these winds will blow is something we cannot know. Knowing what these winds may be, on the other hand, might just help us understand what we will become – or become of us.

kevin_kelly-2010-pgcThe temptation in talking to Kevin Kelly about The Inevitable is to line up the forces he identifies and then say, “What’s this?” I tried hard to resist that, and Kelly made it easy. When we sat down, one of the first things we talked about, off tape, was his recent purchase of Summa Technologiae, Stanislaw Lem’s attempt to do something similar to The Inevitable – back in the mid 1960’s. It’s just been translated to and published in English. And yes, I did have notes for each bit, but we digressed far and wide as we talked. It was easy. Follow this high-tech “web link” to the MP3 audio of our conversation, or just let your smart chair pull itself up so you can settle down for your course in Tomorrow 101.

Alan Furst A Hero of France: Now, Then

It’s often said that science fiction is not about the future, but rather the present in which it was written. The same is true for historical fiction. The convincing details, the intricate research, the carefully conceived characters create for readers a past that points directly to the present.

Alan Furst has been mining the time between the World War I and World War II for longer than either war actually lasted. His novels are miracles of economy and concision. He seamlessly brings to life a past that is long gone. But readers immersed in his past can’t help but see it embedded in the present.

furst-a_hero_of_franceHis latest novel, A Hero of France is no exception. It’s now 1941, and Paris has fallen, but the French people have not. At least not all of them. Mathieu has elected to fight back, in secret, in any and every way he can. He’s currently helping downed British airmen return to England, to fight again. A small cadre of comrades help him, but the Nazis are aware of what’s going on, and determined to catch then. Is everyone the person they pretend to be? Mathieu’s talent is for reading the loyalties of those around him. As he notes, he can only be wrong once.

From the outside, A Hero of France sounds like a spy thriller, and it’s most certainly tense, thrilling and involves spies of a sort. But the arc here is not as much plot-based as it is character-based. We turn the pages to find out who the characters are and who they will become as much as we do to find out what will become of them. It’s a subtle difference that elevates Furst’s work into a very un-fussy sort of literature.

And while every detail and word feels period-precise, it is indeed impossible not to think of what happens in the novel in terms of our lives today. The world is ever filled with peril, with traitors, with those who are not what they seem. Mathieu’s strength is one that it behooves us all to attend to. We all need to learn to read those around us. The world, our world will always be under threat, and those closest to us can be brave, foolish, strong, wise, charitable or not what they pretend to be – as can we.

alan_furst-2016-cropIn conversation, Alan Furst is every bit as engaging, informative and challenging as his novels. Better still, he has the talent to speak about any one of them in particular while keeping potential readers in suspense. It’s almost as if he is one of his own characters, reading the audience very carefully. You can hear our in-depth conversation about his novel, A Hero of France, by following this link to download the file, or you can listen right here.

Dan White Sleeps Under the Stars : Our Hilarious Love Affair With Camping

The human need for narrative explains a seemingly unfathomable aspect of our lives. We have an almost uncanny ability to find humor in that which we most love. Perhaps it’s the deep knowledge of love, the honesty, that admits the flaws and in embracing them finds only the ability to laugh. That laughter is the narrative bridge, the movement between one pole and the other.

white-under_the_starsThere’s plenty of laughter, lots of narrative movement, and humanity on display in Dan White’s Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping. White has cleverly constructed a personal history of camping, slotting in his experiences, always antic, with his own potted version of just how we got to the current state of camping in the 21st century. In itself that’s pretty complex. As we find out both from his research and his stories, the word camping covers a lot of ground.

As a work of humor Under the Stars delivers laughter early and often. White’s prose is flat out funny, and his willingness to push himself beyond the limits of his own expertise find him setting up some wonderfully elaborate pratfalls. But he’s equally good at excavating the history of what we now call camping and putting it into two perspectives at once. You’ll find all the expected names here; Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt (together, no less!), Edward Abbey, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. And yes, the book does bring in s’mores.

All this history is pretty complicated, but not in the manner you find here, where it’s breezy, fun and slotted into a well-woven narrative. The glue that hold all this together is White’s explorations of the paces they went as they are now, the remnants of the traditions, as he finds them now, and his own escapades, for example, naked camping, and the Immaculator, a Maker-style device for removing all traces of your camping experiences.

White is an expert at having a goofy good time, which is pretty much what anyone hopes for when they go camping. It makes the book a mirror for what it describes. While, yes, there is a lot fascinating history, there is just as much fun to be had here. Dan White’s enjoyable, egalitarian voice manages to weave a single exciting, engaging, surprising and hilarious story out of pine boughs, mosquitoes “as big as your hand,” stinging nettles, leather loincloths, Victorian gentlemen (and women!) campers and their ever-ready guides. Whether you want to have fun reading about camping, or want to read about camping in order to have more fun on your next sojourn, consider Under the Stars the first and last little store you see before you hit the forest. Read it, stock up on sweets and hot dogs. The great indoors outdoors is calling.

dan_white-2016-cropDan White was intrepid enough to make the journey to my house for our interview, and demonstrated his courage, as you can see, by scooping up one of our fierce guard dogs. We talked about how he came to writer the book, and about the research that went into the book. Rest assured that we left the best jokes in the book, while discovering plenty of new humor in our conversations.

You can start with the idealized NPR-style report from KAZU. Follow this link and let them know (if) you like the piece.

Or, you can start with the lightning round overnight camp-over by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.

Or you can go in-depth on an RV tour by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.

Adam Haslett ‘Imagine Me Gone’ : Nature, Nurture and Free Will

Our family provides more than an environment in which we may either thrive or wither. We are made from the bits and pieces of our parents. Good will and a good upbringing go only so far in the presence of an unlucky genetic inheritance. Margaret meets John in London in the 1960’s, falls in love, and becomes engaged to him; all before he’s hospitalized with depression. They decide to marry; love, family and story follow.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett offers a vision of the family as captured by love and genetics. Haslett wisely keeps all the genetics under the hood. Instead, the family is in the forefront, and the novel unfolds in a chorus of their voices across the decades. John and Margaret have three children; their oldest, Michael, his sister Celia and his brother, Alec. As the parents age, as the children grow up, their stories entwine and offer a constantly shifting parallax view. The individual voices are addictive, funny, and insightful; together, they create a compelling story that’s easy to read and hard to put down.

Haslett is a brilliant writer of prose and creator of plot, without ever being showy. We’re simply immersed from page one. Michael eventually emerges as the central character, and his chapters are always a delight, since he writes them as satires of the forces he’s encountering in a life made more complicated by virtue of who he is. John’s passages are beautifully done explorations of melancholy. Margaret is pragmatic and loving. Celia, resolute, and Alec a bit tightly wound.

Haslett’s immense talent allows him to tie these voices together both by virtue of the fact that everyone is related, and because they are all growing up, growing older, becoming themselves. The subtlety of his work is such that it never draws attention to itself. We’re with Michael and Margaret and John and Celia and Alec as the events of a family life, joyous and tragic, become, by virtue of his prose, part of our lives. And while this is a family with its share of troubles, it’s not a dysfunctional family. It is a real family; imperfect.

Imagine Me Gone pulls no punches. Even a functional family, motivated by love, finds itself faced with tough choices. And we don’t always make the best choices. But imperfect choices and imperfect families are the norm. If we choose love and compassion to guide our lives, if we let the voices and prose of Imagine Me Gone flow through our minds, we might for a few moments find a vantage point, a perspective in which our imperfections are part of a larger, more beautiful lifescape.

adam_haslett-2010Discussing a book with the power and plotting of Imagine Me Gone is a challenge of which, as it happens, author Adam Haslett is fully capable. If you’ve already read the book, then, you’ll find a lot of insight into your experience in our conversations. But if you’ve yet to read the book, then I trust that our chats will offer you some tips as to how the work was created, and a bedrock of understanding of the work to hand that will intrigue you to run out and buy it while you can still get a first/first hardcover.

You might start with the lightning round interview; follow the link to download the file or listen here.

We get down to some “inside baseball” “process questions,” which I trend towards as opposed to the “So what happen next?” genre, in the in-depth interview. You can follow the link to download the file or listen here.

Maximilian Uriarte Faces ‘The White Donkey’ : The Narrative Undertow

For Abe Belatzeko, the Iraq war offers more bureaucracy and boredom than fierce firefights. He pairs up with Jesus Garcia, and their journey from strangers in a strange land to friends proves to be a powerful narrative arc for The White Donkey, the graphic novel from the creator of the webcomic Terminal Lance. Readers of the comic will already know them; readers of the novel will never forget them.

Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey is a palpable reminder of how text and art can craft an unspoken, and in a sense, indescribable narrative power. Story is king here, but it lives almost entirely behind the words and images. Both words and imagery are deliberately spare, creating a sense of space and cognitive dissonance. In The White Donkey, war is both boring and terrifying, it’s unreal and uncanny. War is weird.

uriarte-the_white_donkeyTo a degree not much happens in The White Donkey, and the result is that the intensity with which the narrative grips you and the speed with which you read are both a bit uncanny as well. That said, the boys, and they are boys in that they are in no way grown up, show up and go through some rigorous, but not brain-bending training. Then out to wait here, do some pointless task there, and then flip out [with good reason] when a shot is fired.

But they change. And there are changes that might be undone and those that cannot be undone. And in the midst of it all, the world intrudes in the form of animals. The 29 Palms camp, which itself is ugly and infamous, is almost haunted by coyotes. They are both scavengers and messengers in the way that dreams are both scavengers and messengers. And the white donkey is even more powerful. But Uriarte knows well the power of ambiguity, and lets his audience make the journey into their own spirit world. This is a war where our conscience is our guide. Maybe we should try that more often.

The White Donkey is a pretty odd and quiet book about a war that we’ve managed to keep on the back burner. How could that happen? A war on the back burner? There’s a level of satire to be found in this novel, a grim, dry humor that ensures the story is never bogged down in “overfeel.”

Uriarte does not show us. He does not tell us. Instead, he’s crafted a graphic novel that offers us simulacrum of the experience. The narrative undertow of The White Donkey really does pull us, but not down. We rise to the surface to breathe. We look around, and find the world we created. It may not be what we intended. But having experienced the narrative with which it was forged, we can at least hope to understand that while it may never be ideal, it will always be malleable.

maimillian_uriarte-2016-600Maximilian Uriarte is, not surprisingly, charming, outgoing and very story-centric. I was intrigue and happy to hear early on in our interview about the import of the narrative arc in The White Donkey. While we managed to discuss a lot of his techniques, his themes and his ideas in the book, the core content, as it were, remains pretty pristine. We discussed out of context, a couple of scenes, but kept the story elements well out of the chat.

We did talk about Terminal Lance, as well as the novel. I do think anyone who wants to create a webcomic or graphic novel, or is interested in how story works in the abstract, will find a lot to like here.

Start out with the lightning round conversation, which you can download by following this link to the MP3 file. Or just listen here:

Of course you will want to hear this fascinating young man in-depth, and you can follow this link to download the audio file. Or, if your job involves long stretches of doing nothing (and most do), you can listen right here and right now.


Herb Wong and Paul Fingerote Profess Jazz on My Mind

herb_wongStorytelling takes many forms; words can fill any space. While the days of vinyl records are not gone, the heyday of liner notes was some fifty years ago. Herb Wong was a critic, record producer, educator and radio DJ on the former station KJAZ in San Francisco. He also wrote liner notes for many of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century. Jazz on My Mind: Liner Notes, Anecdotes and Conversations from the 1940s to the 2000s (Macfarland; April 18, 2016 ; 248 pages ; $39.95), co-written with Paul Simeon Fingerote (who was the Marketing Director for the Monterey Jazz Festival) offers readers a delightful curated vision of America’s music genre.

The collection is organized as if it were an extended play CD, with “tracks” for each instrument, from Big Bands to Trumpet, to Vibraphone, to Vocals. In each “track”, you’ll find Wong’s liner notes for records, interviews, as well as anecdotes about his spectacularly weird life. Reading Wong’s liner-note prose is a pure joy. His enthusiasm will send you to the record store, and his encyclopedic knowledge will inform your listening. You can read the book from cover to cover, and you’ll be tempted to do just that.

paul_fingeroteBut it is also perfect for causal reading, and as a reference if you’re listening to the music. If you’re unfamiliar with jazz music and want a starter’s guide, I cannot imagine a better book. This is truly fun to read, a time capsule into another era and even another version of English that you simply won’t read or find anywhere else. Wong was a charming, genuine genius, but you don’t need to be one to dig his writing.

Here’s my 78 RPM hit single version, from KAZU.

Here’s the extended play 45 RPM single before the expert editorial advice from KAZU.  Download the file from this link, or listen here.

Here’s the 33 RPM long-play interview for your Pacific Coast Highway cruising pleasure. Download the file from this link, or listen here.

Mary Roach Takes the High Road with Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Humor is most easily identified in contrast. We grasp for comedy in the midst of tragedy. It’s a release, a pratfall from the emotional high-wire that we traverse just to get from one end of the day to the other. Mary Roach’s approach generally involves exploring little-known areas of science and honing in on the goofy, weird stuff that crops up around the edges. Her masterful prose bridges the gap between the true and the odd, and you can’t help but laugh.

roach-gruntWith Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Roach finds herself in the world of military science. There’s a lot of science that goes into our military endeavors, and Roach engagingly finds the strange with her usual aplomb. She plays her own curiosity against, for example, The Chicken Gun, which shoots frozen chickens at airplanes to test how the windshields and engines might fare in the event of “birdstrike.” She’s so charming, funny and informative, it’s easy to miss the skillful comedic talent that goes into making us laugh while we learn.

But Grunt also goes into places where Roach finds herself treading on more delicate ground. Here her authority as a writer interested in the very human comedy of life is (once again) understated, but wildly effective at apprehending the complex emotions we as a society and soldiers as individuals have with regards to sending our best and our brightest into battle. As Roach writes about the miracles of surgical re-construction now available, she reveals the wry humor of the men and women in harm’s way. You might miss the subtle shift, because Grunt is consistently funny even when Roach is speaking to the most difficult subjects.

Roach is a superb storyteller both in miniature and in a grand scale as well. When she is focused on a particular topic (stink bombs, diarrhea, etc), she brings us in with deft characterizations of those she meets, and of herself as well. She knows how to craft a speedy topic arc, let us in on some weird secrets and make us laugh. The chapters are little miracles of comedic non-fiction, so well done we might miss the mastery.

Roach’s little stories are not mere episodes, however. She’s on to a larger vision as well, one that is definite enough to leave us thinking about the big picture. In Grunt, that big picture is quite funny, but also sweetly charming and filled with a kind of brave hope. The bravery is evenly distributed; the scientist and the soldiers are breaking new ground. And Mary Roach is as well, with this book and her entire oeuvre. Science and humor are both so very human in her eyes, and especially in her prose. Between the words, there’s always room for a pratfall.

I’ve been speaking with Mary Roach about her writing since I received the earliest ARC of her first book Stiff. It’s really fun and really easy, because she’s both smart and funny. To find out just how smart and funny she is, check out this un-edited interview, by following this link to download the file or listening right here. And yes, it is in the iTunes podcast as well.