Omar El Akkad Brings Home American War: Rise and Fall

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

akkad-american_warAkkad’s novel is interspersed with excerpts from historical documents and reportage, giving it a rough frame that starts the day after tomorrow and stretches to the end of the century.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Silberman Explores the Secret History of Autism: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Perspective proves to be unexpectedly powerful. The assumptions we bring to every thought are easily hidden. When we see others who are different, we create our models of them based on our own experience. The hidden assumption is that all humans experience the world in pretty much the same way. But what if sounds were so loud as to be overwhelming and lights so bright as to be blinding? The only way to uncover how others night feel is to listen closely and hear their story; even when they cannot themselves speak.

silberman-neurotribesSteve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity tells a powerful story, and takes the reader on a journey of understanding. He has to fight an uphill battle, because much of what we thought we knew about autism is simply wrong. But Silberman engages the reader with the most powerful tool available to humans – the power of story. In uncovering the story of autism, which was hidden in bits and pieces of medical literature, he emerges with a transformative view of not just autism, but humanity. You enter a new era of diversity – neurodiversity.

Silberman begins with his own discovery of autism, as an interviewer for Wired magazine. An article The Geek Syndrome brought him mail ten years after he wrote it, and he decided to explore the subject in depth. He reaches back in the 19th century, before autism had a name, and uncovers “The Wizard of Clapham Common,” one Henry Cavendish, a remarkable genius who was clearly autistic. We meet Hans Asperger, a pediatrician in Vienna in the years after World War I. Asperger is a fascinating character who saw autism as a continuum, not uncommon and ranging in degree. It was Asperger’s belief that society could accommodate his students, if they were properly taught.

Leo Kanner, on the other hand, saw autism as incredibly rare and strikingly debilitating. He was first to suggest that “refrigerator mothers” were to blame. It was his view that prevailed, until a quiet war broke out in the 1980’s. Silberman weaves this intense and fascinating medical history with the story of parents and child in the 21st century, coping with the fallout from our understanding of autism. It is a engaging, powerful and fascinating tale that culminates in the present, with a new understanding of the human mind.

Make no mistake; NeuroTribes is a pulse-pounding, page-turning delight to read even when Silberman is touching on material that is powerfully disturbing. The book is impeccably architected, and a stunning history of medicine that is truly transformative for readers in terms of understanding humanity. We’re all well acquainted with the import of diversity in nature. Silberman concludes with an understanding that the human mind is also diverse, and that those on the spectrum will change the society that embraces them. The power of their perspective can shape the future.

Steve_SilbermanSteve Silberman didn’t start out wanting to cover autism. But the upshot of what he found was clearly profoundly moving to him. When we sat down to talk, I asked him to read a bit from the book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, and his reading, which begins this interview, was so moving that listeners may begin to tear up before we even start talking.

What emerged as we spoke is a work of deep emotion and deep research. Silberman found himself in the middle of what he called “the autism wars,” which carry on to this day. He spent time with parents seeking any kind of cure for their children, and time searching through medical journals for clues as to why we saw a sudden spike in diagnoses.

Silberman’s work turns on a number of unforgettable characters; the Rosa family, living in the heights of the Santa Cruz mountains with a son who loves green straws; Henry Cavendish, an eccentric inventor; the power of the movie Rain Man; Hans Asperger, a brilliant man, head of his time and ahead of our time, trapped in Vienna as his world is overrun by Nazi; the cunning Leo Canning, who defined autism for much of the 20th century. Silberman and I talked about the men and women who shaped our notion of illness and health.

Listeners can hear the executive summary of our conversation, with material not found in the longer interview by following this link or listening below.

And they can hear the in-depth interview, which begins with a powerful reading from the book, by following this link or listening below.