Some see books as an escape from life. Will Schwalbe sees them more as a route to life, a means of engaging the world in its infinite variety. Schwalbe’s Books for Living is simply fun to read; a collection of some 26 book essays, it lends itself, you might think, to casual reading. But once you pick it up it’s impossible to put down. It’s super-fun, but not just a collection of essays. It’s a stealth memoir, personal and cultural, as well as a meditation on questions, answers and the importance of goofing off.
Schwalbe trains his book around a personal North Star; Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, a book whose real message is well conveyed by the chapter titled “The Importance of Loafing.” Schwalbe does a masterful job of bringing up books we do know, those we think we know and those we do not to craft a wonderful quilt that is full of life and joy, and yes, goofing off and fun.
Each of the essays is perfectly paced and fun to read individually, but the joy to be found here is cumulative and carefully crafted, As Schwalbe discusses the books that have moved him, he becomes our stand-in, our personal reading champion. And we get to know this man in an intimate and utterly unique feat of characterization. We see Schwalbe as a young gay high school student at a time when this was not generally acceptable. The librarian gives him the keys to understand himself, and we realize that Schwalbe is doing the same. By showing us the books that help craft him as a literary character in his own book, we understand from within how reading shapes us.
Make no mistake that the choices you will find here are as outstanding as they are unexpected. It’s a blast to read about what Schwalbe likes and why, and as he writes about the simple joys of reading widely we realize that by virtue of his format (memoir via book), we are reading widely whether we expected to or not. It’s all about the most important question we can ask: “What are you reading?”
Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is the perfect magic act. We open it for a series of enjoyable single-use essays, and find out by the end that we have lived not only the lives of the books that we have read about, but the reader’s and writer’s as well. But we are the readers, are we not? Better check to be sure you’re asking the right question, and living the right life. Ask early and often; accept conflicting answers. Books will tell you a story. Eventually, not one, but all of them will turn out to be yours.
Will Schwalbe in person is just as much fun as you’d expect. And while you eavesdrop on our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file, no need to take notes, Let it flow and enjoy it, you’ll have the books live when you buy Schwalbe’s book. If you’d care to begin life early, just click on the bar below and let your cubicle neighbor enjoy the conversation.
Knowledge is, perhaps counter-intuitively, ambiguous. We know facts and science, but we also know emotions and intuition. Of late, we’ve seen scientific advances that are allowing us to quantize “knowledge” that has thus far rested firmly in the terrain of emotions and intuition. We’re finding facts behind the feelings.
The devils and delights of the details of science combine with lovely prose in Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Williams uses her writer’s art to explore the science that underlies the universal appeal of the out-of-doors. Exploring the science behind our emotions in artistic prose proves to be a perfect combination. Moreover, there’s lots of fascinating work being done here and it is only the beginning.
Take, for example, the Japanese scientists and nature enthusiasts who are pioneering what they call forest bathing. It doesn’t involve disrobing;
“‘People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide, Kunio, explained to me. “This way, they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio—a volunteer ranger—had us standing still on a hillside, facing the creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the mother ship. Weathered and jolly, Kunio told us to breathe in for a count of seven seconds, hold for five, release. :”Concentrate on your belly,” he said.”
Concentrate indeed! Rest assured that you’ll need no help following Williams’ survey of the current state of our “NDD,” what she calls the Nature Deficit Disorder. She knows the perfect proportions of facts and science to story and character. You will meet quite a few characters here, not the least of which is the author herself, a very genial guide through a landscape you will see with entirely fresh eyes. Even as she engages us with wildly weird scientists, their stories and the facts they unearth, Williams is craftily creating for readers a new inner landscape.
Perhaps the most important aspect of The Nature Fix is that it is not the last of its kind. You will know that surely as you read every word and rewrite your own vision of the world the science will get stronger and more specific. The power of this book then, is that even when the facts become known, the feelings they underpin will be no-less certain. Nature makes us feel good and gives us strength, ultimately because we are natural. It might take us a bit longer to prove that scientifically. Until then, having a delightfully well-written book to remind us of the fact is a perfect example of the very human ability for intelligent design.
Not surprisingly, in our conversation about the book, Florence Williams gave it the human touch. We talked about her inspirations for the book (moving from Denver to DC), and many of the wonderful experiences she had in her journey writing it. Here’s a link to our conversation, or you can listen below, even, especially at work. You can authentically call this your health care check-up even as you listen to the interview below.
This book is flat out hilarious and at the same time brilliantly insightful. Imagine Woody Allen [at his peak] writing Lovecraft stories and novellas, and you are well on your way. This will sell out soon and have you slavering. I’ll report more fully when I finish it… It’s addictive!
It’s much easier for us to deal with a lie that feels like the truth than a truth we wish were a lie. Which is to say that generally we’re much happier (and often better-served) to hear a fictional story about an unhappy problem than non-fictional reportage that’s so dire we refuse to let it enter our ears. And it helps too, if we already know the folks in that fictional story, especially if we’ve known the fictional people (as characters) for years.
Joe R. Lansdale is an expert at making readers happy, a skill much in evidence in his latest Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy. By my count, it’s the ninth novel in Lansdale’s series featuring low-key North Texas detectives Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is white, straight, married (to Brett Sawyer), easy-going and liberal; Leonard is black, gay, unmarried, hot-headed and conservative. Lansdale’s skill at playing with the dynamic between the two makes them believable, enjoyable and charming. The first book in the series is Savage Season, and if you’ve not encountered these guys before, this is the place to start.
That said, Rusty Puppy is smart enough to bring you up to speed in about three paragraphs that open the novel (which the author reads in my interview; more on that later). You get death, resurrection and a laugh-out-loud line you’ll want to hang on to. Once you’re in place with Hap, Leonard and the whole family, the clients arrive, and things begin whipsawing between hilarious, terrifying, poignant to craft a story that moves like lightning, makes you laugh a lot while you read and think about afterwards.
As the novel begins, a (black) mother from a nearby rusting-out mill-town hires Hap & Leonard to find out what happened to her son. The cover story is that he was killed looking for drugs in a bad part of town, uncharacteristic behavior. His mother thinks the cops killed him. Hap is inclined to take it slower, while Leonard wants to quickly even accounts by any means necessary. As skilled as these two are, prepare to stay awake turning pages as characters you love are put through the wringer – and yet you laugh. Yes, you laugh a lot.
What proves to be the true power of Lansdale’s work here is that he’s so good at entertaining you with these great characters, smart-ass humor and a toe-tapping terrorizing plot that he’s able to pack intense, powerful truths into his fictions as a by-product. Now, make no mistake, this reads very much like a comedic crime novel, with more than a few touches of horror. It’s fast paced and (slow down!) quickly read. That said, when you finish the book, you will come to know that it is not finished with you. The jokes are still funny, and linger, charging the implications of the novel with their frenetic energy.
Ultimately, Rusty Puppy is fun; the kind of fun that energizes the world around you. If it represents only a slice of what Lansdale writes, well – that’s all the more incredible. When I sat down to interview Lansdale, first I had him read the opening of Rusty Puppy. But, not surprisingly, that brought up his beginning to The Drive-In, which is one of my all-time favorites. I could not help but laugh, and then we were off to the races, talking about Rusty Puppy without really talking about it. We talked about the TV series based on the novels; each season roughly covers one novel, and the seasons will follow the novels’ order.
For all that Lansdale is making his name with the Hap & Leonard novels, he’s actually writing quite a bit for Subterranean Press, whether it’s the upcoming Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers, a prequel novel for Bubba Ho-Tep, Dead on the Bones, a collection of pulp stories, or Hell’s Bounty, a supernatural western co-written with Lansdale’s brother John L. Lansdale. Lansdale and I talked about all of them, when he wasn’t making me laugh.
Editor’s Note: The Son is exciting, shocking, thrilling and page-turning. It is extremely violent but powerfully, not exploitatively so. The characters are vivid, intense and engaging. No matter what your tastes in fiction, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. Buy it while you can still get First Editions / First Printings. We now turn control of the review back to the non-frothing.
Story is power. Words control families, countries, empires, and worlds. The Son by Phillip Meyer begins with a transcription of a 1938 WPA recording of Eli McCullough, who claims to be 100 years old at the time of the recording. By the end of the novel, you’ll have lived through those 100 years and more; Eli’s life, his family and two other members of his family whose stories wind through to the present. It’s a powerful, purely American story that builds, word by word, a world that no longer exists but is transformed into ours. Meyer rips down into the core of what’s human to craft indelible memories. The Son builds a world from words with the power of pure story.
Immerse yourself at your peril, because Meyer’s story is raw, violent, often horrific and full of intense emotion. The craft at work here is subtle and astonishing. Meyer begins the novel taking us from one timeline to another through an almost 200-year history of the McCullough family.
The fabric of the story comes together slowly at first, though each episode is rendered in gorgeously sparse prose. Eli McCullough is 13 years old when his life is changed on the Texan frontier. It’s a battle zone, and he’s on the losing side. His son, Peter, manages to make a life for his family, and his great-grand-daughter, Jeannie, must do the same. From Comanche raiders to the descendents of Spanish landowners, from wildcat oilmen to 21st century market manipulations, Meyer takes us through three lives and six generations.
For all the grandeur that emerges, each word, each story, each chapter feels incredibly sparse and to-the-point. The prose is stripped and bare-knuckled, intense and often shockingly easy-to-read. Meyer is able to lead the unsuspecting reader into scenes of intense emotion or violence so naturally, with such little warning that they come with the terror of the unexpected. For all the rich power of the prose, The Son proves to be page-turner of the first degree.
It helps that Meyer creates a great cast of characters with slightly oddball, individual American voices. Eli is rebellious and intense with good reason. Peter, his son, is more contemplative, considering if not always considerate. Jeannie is a woman who had to compete in the Texan world of men and won. She’s aware of what she’s lost in the process, but not willing to regret her decisions. In any given forty pages, you’ll find as many well-drawn characters as you will in any other novel. Meyer’ sparse prose style works well for the creation of memorable characters.
Meyer’s world-building and plotting skills are impossible to untangle and beyond compare. The physical descriptions of the early Texan frontier and life among the Comanche are gritty and engaging; equally so, the Texas wildcatting days and the oil boom. Eli, Peter and Jeannie’s stories are intricately intertwined stories of power, sacrifice, and civilization. They are compelling because Meyer’s prose takes us seamlessly into their worlds and makes those worlds ours.
Check your expectations when you pick up Phillip Meyer’s ‘The Son.’ Here is proof that story transcends all boundaries of genre and subject, that prose overpowers history and experience to create new histories, new experiences that run raw into our minds. Here is a book where the power of story builds a world that is ours word by word. The Son lives up to Texas’s reputation.
A 2013 Interview with Philip Meyer: “…the folks who moved out there knew they were moving to a combat zone…”
Phillip Meyer is a serious guy. As we sit down and talk about his pitch-perfect take on the Great American Western Novel, ‘The Son,’ I can tell that he has pondered not just what he wrote but how it came to be with a fierce intensity.
The Son is a bit, big, novel, with lots of moving parts. It feels raw and natural, as if he just carved it out of a stack of diaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias, cutting out the bad words until only the good ones remained. But as we speak, it’s clear this was not the case. The book we have before us is V2 maybe V30. At some point, the original concept for the book gave way to the character of Eli McCullough.
Meyer likes the idea of world building, and in doing so for this novel about Texas, he spent a great deal of time in Texas, camping, living off the land, learning to make his own rope, start his own fires and make his own bows and arrows. This is why the novel has that feel of dirt beneath its fingernails. That’s not something you can fake.
Meyer and I talked quite a bit about the process of putting this novel together. It reads very quickly and seamlessly, so it’s tough to get how it did not come together that way. The feat of art, he says is to remove the traces of the effort is requires to make it.
Meyer and I also addressed some of the more controversial portrayals in the novel, his version of the Texas frontier, which he describes as a combat zone. No character or side in the novel comes off as all-good or all-bad, or even predominantly one or the other. Meyer sees one civilization as pretty much like the other. Once you have the advantage, you use it, and take as much as you can to defend it.
Meyer is every bit as eloquent as his novel. To be honest, I might not have thought I’d ever read or like this book, but having read it and even better spoken with the author, I’m on board for anything he has to offer. My take is that readers should order up the book before they listen. But if you must, try just the lightning round first; follow this link to download, or listen here:
Trust me, better to have the book on it’s on the way before you listen to our in-depth conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file… or listening below.
Social media is a problem, a threat, a waste of time, the answer to all questions and the solution to all problems, as well as their cause. Do we spend as many hours talking about the “connect-me Internet” as we spend talking in it? Possibly – at least it feels that way. Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey have taken a not-uncommon observation – “It’s mimicking life” – and by running with it to explore implications good and bad, have crafted The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.
The innovation here is to dive deep into biology and set up a series of careful parallels, and this is where most books might stop. But Luckett and Casey really go for it. The result is a wild and weird mash-up of cybernetic and social bio-philosophy that offers both practical advice for the here-and-now (as you read this, it’s there-and-then) that leads to an optimistic if not utopian future.
The power of this book is the depth to which the authors take their argument. Internet memes are likened to biological DNA – information packets, pay-loaded to deliver specific information that will set in motion a series of planned, if not always predictable changes. The implications might lead anywhere – business, politics, the arts, science, even and perhaps especially, crime. Luckett and Casey make an excellent case suggesting that by treating the connect-me Internet as a living organism, you may be fighting less and swimming more.
Luckett made pots of money and probably even more friends (digital and actual) by leveraging our desire to connect for Disney, Revver and theAudience. It’s experience we can all profit from, in all senses of the word. Rest assured that both authors know the power of story and use it well to make their cases. After offering hands-on, use-now advice, they take us out into a future that is bright but not blinding.
The authors themselves are well aware of the pitfalls of social media as well. Not to put too fine a point upon it, evolution gave us both apples and anthrax. Unfortunately, the Internet (of late) has been leaning more towards the latter than the former. A book that understands this but looks towards a tomorrow better than today (not a slam-dunk by any means), is a book that’s both useful and engaging.
Obviously, the hard science of all this, the cyber-biology, so to speak, is decades in the future. But having an informed, high-level discussion of just how we, as a biological species want to manage the evolution of information technology is the only and probably the best way for us to get this science in the queue. And as we think about the evolution of the Social Organism, we’d be well advised to remember the early paleontologists, who in their enthusiasm to rebuild dinosaur skeletons, managed to put a thumb-bone on the nose of an Iguanodon to give it a horn. Evolution is not so easily understood as we might hope.
I spoke to author Oliver Luckett by Skype about The Social Organism in an epic conversation that you’re not going to hear on the radio without more than a few beeps. Which is to say, that he was lots of fun and minced not a single word when it comes to taking on ummm… most of the Internet. Follow this link to download the interview, or just listen below and make sure the volume is high enough so your cubicle neighbors can hear all the parts they won’t hear on the Ray-Joe.
The melting-pot mindset of America lends itself well to the horror genre. A little of this, a little of that – our lives are made of many moving parts with lots of sharp edges. Slip slightly out of line and you are someone else’s cautionary tale. As Jason Wyckoff demonstrates so wonderfully in his second short story collection for Tartarus Press, The Hidden Back Room, there are many ways for us to fall onto the sharp edges with which we surround ourselves.
The title story will give you the perfect entry in Wyckoff’s world. Reed Murmin pops over to get his car repaired at a new shop, and the owner suggests he can wait at the diner across the street. It turns out to be a bit strange – off, sort of. But then it takes another step away from the normal. And then it gets, well, hazardous to human health. And no matter what you expect, rest assured anything you find will be original. By the time you arrive at the titular room, you will know that you are, alas, still in Kansas.
While Wyckoff does love the American (horrific) tall tale, don’t expect him to stay strictly within the bounds of sanity. In “Gut Punch,” Devin goes to visit his mother, who is in a madhouse. Wyckoff takes you one believable step after another until he crafts a scene that completely and without any doubt lives up to the title. “The Homunculus in the Curio” opens up a cabinet of curiosities and considers whether there is still magic in this world. Both remind us that there is – in prose.
One of Wyckoff’s most effective motifs is the sidestep. He really knows how to combine a direct prose voice with a prosaic setting and start readers off in a world where you feel as if someone you know is telling you an everyday story. Reality as we know it is described; and then edged away from. For example, in “A Blood Without Blood,” the narrator is a reporter who goes to great lengths to establish his veracity. Then he’s sent to that most banal of locations, a junkyard. What he finds there is not likely to show up in a newspaper – but Wyckoff makes sure you get the picture.
“The Dreams of Pale Night” is a novella that finds Wyckoff in tall-tale horror with a story that revels in rural American isolation. Like most of the stories in this book, it has the deep, textured feel of a novel. Wyckoff is attentive to invention, with the result that these stories feel fresh and new, even as they strike the same reading pleasure centers activated by any of the great names of horror fiction.
Tartarus Press makes beautiful books, and The Hidden Back Room is no exception. They tend to go out of print fast and increase in value quickly. Happily, they are also available in very inexpensive e-book formats. If you buy ePubs from the publisher, you’ll not have to deal with DRM. Readers who enjoy a good dose of terror mixed with their reality will want to book The Hidden Back Room.
The typical memoir is a work of reflection; turn a mirror on the past and try to describe what you see there. Easier said than done, surely, and things might fall out of order, if we choose to grade by import as opposed to order. But what if the past we have made, or the past that has been given to us, does not bear reflection? Trauma does not lend itself to memory but unmemory.
Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler begins as she is vacationing in Thailand with her fiancé when he’s stung a box jellyfish. He died in three minutes. It was an event that did not simply bisect her life – it untied it. Since she’d been a little girl, she had been fascinated by the ocean. She was midway through a PhD in Marine Biology. Now the ocean she loved had killed the man she loved. She bolted to Eastern Europe, away from the ocean, on a journey back to the ocean.
The pure power of the book comes from Fowler’s clipped and poetic prose riding the tide of a powerful storytelling voice. Rather than simply reflect what happened, Fowler refracts her story, breaking it up into compulsively readable explorations of her heart, the world in which she’s traveling, and the very human hearts she meets along the way. The pacing and plotting keep this book in the realm of a page-turner, even if the plot plays out in the human heart.
From a Croatian aquarium to a tense lunch in an Israeli café, Fowler creates a series of indelible scenes, and characters. The Israeli girls she meets on the beach in Thailand are still friends with her today, and their stories are the stuff of pure – sort of gnarly – human life. But most importantly, Fowler brings a deft, light touch to all her writing, even, no especially the tough parts. We are all haunted; by our past, our mistakes, by memory. Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler will lighten the time you spend reading it and a give you the words with which to address your own refracted shattered pasts.
<a name=”ttrslf” id=” ttrslf “></a>When you hear Shannon Leone Fowler’s voice on the page, you’ll quickly recognize it in audio. She has an amazing sense of speaking directly to the point, to the issue. And though she does not mince words, we did find ourselves speaking at length about her book and her experiences. Her intricate sense of story shines through in even the short lightning round interview, which you can download from this link.