Daniel Handler Knows All the Dirty Parts: Inside Mind to Inside Story

“There are love stories galore,” Cole, the teenaged boy tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” Welcome to the mind of an average American adolescent boy, and to the new novel by Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler. The funny thing is that while there’s a lot of sex, none of it feels it dirty. Handler’s headlong plunge into the consciousness of Cole is not a book-length letter to Penthouse. It’s a powerful reminder our endless and intimate connections to one another – and story.

handler-all-_the-_dirty-_partsFrom the get-go, Handler has a lot of fun here. He’s a smart writer and commits fearlessly to his premise, with a stream-of-consciousness style that is the reading equivalent of a fast moving, ice-cold river. It’s a powerful, immersive, wake-you-the-hell-up experience. Handler’s prose is the key. He really nails the propulsive/impulsive nature of the in-between mind. Cole cannot control his own thoughts, let alone his actions. While we all might know this in theory, and even a bit in memory, Handler’s evocation bypasses knowledge with immediacy of art.

Cole’s life is in no way exemplary or odd, but our experience of it in prose elevates the ordinary to the sublime. Cole has a close friend, Alec, and eventually hooks up with the new girl, Giselle. Alec is close fit with the rest of the school, while Giselle, an exchange student, is a bit outside the range of normal. Handler’s focus is close enough to be uncomfortable, but clear enough to be uncompromising. He experiments with Alec, dishes dirt, and finds his match in Giselle. But even as we are fascinated, appalled or terrified by the details, we, like Cole begin to discover that there is more than mere event in our lives.

What we discover, to our pleasure, as contrasted in our minds at least, the sorts of pleasures that Cole is pursuing, are events transformed into story by Handler’s relentlessly internalized stare. In spite of himself, Cole is not simply a hedonist. Like it or not, sex turns out to be a connection, a story element from which we may not so easily extricate ourselves. Cole’s vision is not an episodic series of sexual encounters. Word by word, it becomes a life.

snicket-moodAll the Dirty Parts certainly lives up to its title, and the sum thereof, which is to say, that in a sparse, smart slip of a novel, Daniel Handler manages to convey far more than the words on the page. This impossible-to-put-down novel is a dare. Step in, be swept away. Life, sex, story.   This is human!

So, OK, yes, the AKA, matters, and Lemony Snicket has a new title out as well, The Bad Mood and the Stick, a book for very young readers illustrated by Mathew Forsythe. Between Snicket & Forsythe, plan on a delightful time. The illustration are charming and the title itself confirms that you’ll findaniel_handler-2017d the same droll sense of humor at work. It’s lovely, and an argument for publishing children’s books as a box set of hangable art. Make no mistake, the next time I’m in a bad mood, I’ll be sure to have a stick to hand.

In person, Daniel Handler is just as smart and I guess, vexatious (in the best possible sense of the word, and there is one in MY dictionary) as you might expect. Which is to say that even in our lightning round, which you can download by following this link, you can hear that engaging, hilarious pragmatism at work.

Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, or lean in close and listen up to the dark secrets of American adolescence.

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Robin Sloan Grows Sourdough: Starter Culture

Our world is chock-a-block with rabbit holes, into which we hurl ourselves, knowingly and otherwise. Work is the classic, and nowhere has work become more of a rabbit hole than in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Sign up and your life can disappear, generally regarded as a fine outcome. That’s Lois Clary’s story as Sourdough by Robin Sloan begins. She’s a software engineer at General Dexterity, a firm that makes robotic arms, and offers its employees Slurry, a sort of liquid version of Soylent Green, not made from people. At first, her life feels pretty simple, but like most lives, it gets complicated unexpectedly and in a hurry.

sloan-sourdoughRobin Sloan’s second novel is a pure delight. When you think he’s going to turn left, he blasts down the center, and when you think you’re in for smooth ride, things get enjoyably bumpy. Lois, not such big fan of Slurry, hones in on a hole-in-the-wall take-out restaurant and has them deliver variations on the same dinner every night; soup and sourdough. When the brothers who run the joint close up shop, they give their “Number 1 customer!” a present – a flagon of sourdough starter, so she can make her own bread. It proves to be another rabbit hole, for Lois and the reader, and both happily disappear into the gently weird world as crafted by Robin Sloan.

Sourdough is fun to read in a variety of ways. Sloan is funny, but not jokey. He can go off into fascinating byways that end up circling back to the plot as we know it. He loves all his characters, and you will too. Moreover, in a compact and concise space, Sourdough does all the things big novels do. We meet real people in real lives that are slightly and believably weirder and more interesting than ours. You’re likely to read it faster than you expect, and you’ll feel fulfilled by the whole scope of the work, even if, like a great loaf of bread, you want more.

Sloan delivers more as he contemplates and conrobin_sloane-2017jugates start[er/up] culture at large. Colonies of microorganisms, the micro-biome, food culture, secret markets, and company cultures bloom wildly in Lois’ life. The culture that created the sourdough starter – a nebulous batch of worldly gypsies called the Mazg feels real enough to send you to the search engine. Sloan is skilled enough to suggest a lot in an easygoing manner and smart enough to let the reader make the connections.

There’s a quite bit ocommunity_grains-orig-1f magic in Sourdough. The starter seems to have a mind of its own, and the novel itself is light and fun and yet filled with both wisdom and engaging entertainment. It’s both deeply weird and utterly, openly enjoyable. It is, in all senses of the word, charming. Like the most powerful magic, it is a charm that hangs around afterwards. Even after you finish the book, your mind will drift down the rabbit holes created by Robin Sloan. Just follow the scent of fresh-baked bread.

In person, Robin Sloan is every bit a fun as his writing. As it happens, I encountered Sourdough shortly after a personal bread-baking renaissance, and I have to admit that when Sloan went into his King Arthur flour stories, I was already there. Slone and I spoke about the real-world mirrors for some of his fictional creations and he let me on where to get the really good flour (not to knock King Arthur!) To hear a lightning round interview with Robin Sloan, follow this link to download, or just listen below.

Follow this link to listen to our long-form conversation, order take-out and enjoy your favorite food for lunch.

Gabriel Tallent and My Absolute Darling: The Beasts Within

We are well-served to remind ourselves that humans are predators, monsters with hard leather shoes. But like most things human, our monsters come in a variety of shapes and guises. The phrase “human monster” tends to conjure up serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, for example, or The Prophet from Meg Gardiner’s recent book, Unsub. Alas, you need not be a member of this club to lay claim to the title of monster. With My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates that one man, Martin Alveston, with one victim, his daughter Julia, can provide more than enough monster. Tallent writes like an angel, which is to say that he sees the beauty but knows the devil.

tallent-my_absolute_darlingMy Absolute Darling is set in the forests of Northern California’s Mendocino Coast, and the prose is appropriately lush, rich and dripping. Martin Alveston lives as far away from polite society as he can. He distrusts technology, the modern world, and comfort. He’s well-armed, and he’s taught his ripening daughter well how to use those guns.

Julia, AKA “Kibble” (Martin’s name for her) AKA “Turtle,” is smart. precocious and has been truly twisted into knots. Early on, after pages of gorgeous nature writing and scene setting, those same prose talents are applied to a scene of graphic abuse, as experienced by Turtle. It’s horrifying beyond belief. Consider yourself warned and advised. The writing is powerful and the story is told from Turtle’s perspective. What we see, that Martin does not, is that he has created a hero equal to his evil. As much as we loathe him, we love her.

But that’s not totally true, and here is where Tallent’s talent shows. Martin is prone to rants about Our Modern Life, and Tallent gives him some pretty persuasive arguments. He’s not just evil and twisted, he’s pretty smart. But his daughter is smarter, and she has the advantage as it were, of having been raised by a monster. The dynamic between father and daughter is becoming increasingly unstable. Turtle’s grandfather is still on the scene and on the remote rural property where they live. Turtle herself is in school, barely, where she attracts the attentions of her teachers and fellow students. My Absolute Darling turns out to be a taut bow, ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

The true pleasure of this novel is to experience Tallent’s astonishing prose as he carefully crafts two towering characters in his exquisitely rendered world. Every time Turtle meets a teen friend, picks up a gun, talks to a teacher, is abused by her father (not too often, thankfully), or even just hangs with him in a moment of simulated normalcy, the readers wants to stand up and cheer her on. We become invested in these characters, in this landscape. We want it to break and we want it to work.

gabriel_tallent-2017-editMy Absolute Darling is a powerhouse. Readers might see Turtle as a nascent superheroine, but she needs no super powers. She (and Gabriel Tallent) will kick your reading ass from here to eternity and back. The deal with monsters is this; make ’em evil, make us hate ’em. Make us believe in them. (All too easy in Martin’s case.) Then introduce us to the human who is their match. In this example, Turtle. The problem for predators is the existence of other predators.

The problem for Gabriel Tallent is that he chose arguably the most difficult and off-putting subject in our culture as the topic of his novel. But in our conversation, we discuss how and why he chose this perspective. I do admit that while I read I had to occasionally remind myself that the setting was California, not Appalachia. Tallent is extremely well-spoken and he took an unusual route in writing the book, which we do discuss. Follow this link to hear our lightning round conversation, or listen below.

Follow this link to listen to our long-form conversation, or perhaps you and your cubicle mates will just listen below to a discussion about human monsters

Robert Wright Reveals Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

The gap between what we intuit to be true and what we can prove to be true will be closed by language, not science. Words will parse reality, and craft for us ladders and systems by which we may remake the world. Which is to say that while neuroscience may unlock the secrets of the mind, philosophers and writers will necessarily tell us what they are and how they my help us.

wright-why_buddhism_is_true-smIn Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright applies his witty, restless intelligence and superb writerly craft to explore, to map out, the terrain between the Buddhist language of mindful meditation and enlightenment and 21st century psychology, informed by neuroscience. The result is a very funny, engaging, even page-turning story that manages to be a light-hearted deep-dive into the human paradox of self, not-self, nothingness and we can save the world, one breath at a time.

From the get-go, Wright makes it clear that this is not a book for experts, and that this is not the “woo” you are looking for. He begins the book with a “Note to Readers” so engagingly readable, you won’t be able to stop afterwards. Then, he urges us to, in the words of the Matrix, “take the red pill,” to see the world for what it is. How exactly that works, he reveals in less than 300 pages of whip-smart writing that transcends memoir, philosophy, science and journalism. It turns out Wright believes that he has a pretty good handle on the solution to much of what ails humanity, and a strong argument to back up his assertion.

Wright’s book is on a quest to understand much of what drove William James’ work, and more, based on the latest science. We would like to think that ultimately, neuroscience and philosophy have a relationship similar to chemistry and physics, in that one is an organic incarnation of the other. Wright manages to explore that abstraction by combining his personal experiences in meditation, aided by his assertion that he’s not a good at it, with interviews from those who are. In his frustrations and in his (and their) successes, Wright reveals the bits of our minds that we’re not are running the show.

Wright’s book is tautly paced and compulsively readable. He knows when to dive into the more intricate and abstract aspects of Buddhist thought, and when to pull back to a personal experience that as often as not demonstrates his inability to grasp then easily himself. When, for example, he fails the most basic breath meditations, his recounting of how he was remonstrated by his instructor is a major “Aha!” moment for the reader.

Wright takes us well beyond the meditation mat, in both Buddhist philosophy and neuroscience. There’s a great vision based on the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, and it’s matched by his take on the Samadhiraja Sutra. Wright combines humanity and authority in his writing, leaving doctrine behind as he uses story to get us from seeing to understanding, and understanding the difference between the two,

robert-wright-c-barry-munger_cBuddhism can seem to offer up a series of incomprehensible paradoxes, key concepts that can seem inconceivable and thus off-putting. Wright is a master at confronting these head-on in a hard-headed manner that cuts through the confusion. One of our very human intuitions is that all of this should be pretty damn simple. That’s not exactly true. What you will get from Robert Wright and Why Buddhism is True is that of course it is not simple. But it is very, very human.

Not surprisingly, Robert Wright in person is his own best voice. After a few seconds, the combination of keenly-sharp crystalline intelligence and self-deprecating humor wil slice away any doubts you have as to the content of what he’s saying. He is so right-there in the room with you, it’s like having your own personal science fair, therapist, and philosopher. He’s a relentless synthesizer of ideas and belief systems. Follow this link to our lightning round conversation, or listen below.

You can hear a very, very engaged Robert Wright in a deep, deep dive interview you won’t hear on the Ray-Joe by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.

Andrew Sean Greer Finds Less: Teller and Tale

greer-less-origWe love the ineffable, from terror to charm. Shockingly, terror is rather easy, but there is a lot to be afraid of in this world.   Charm – the word implies magic, does it not? – is considerably more difficult. Consider this, then, the Miracle of the Summer. Less by Andrew Sean Greer has more charm than you’ll find in one place anywhere. Greer has crafted a lovely book about love and given it a cast of characters who will charm you. A glass of wine, a back porch in the sun, and you are set.

Arthur Less is considerably less set. He’s a sinking mid-list author whose long-term, live-in boyfriend has flown the coop to get married – to someone else. Arthur is invited, of course, and it is equally certain he does not wish to attend. Only by setting himself up with a summer of book-related travel can he escape, and his escape is ours. we learn all this from an oddly affectionate but rarely present narrator. Who is telling the story and why? This matters, almost as much as the enjoyment we find in Arthur’s travails and travels. We will find out, but what state will poor Arthur be in by then?

Less is a potted travelogue, a story of a journey that goes entertainingly badly for the characters involved, but wonderfully for the reader. In that eventful journey, expect to find Arthur Less in Mexico, Paris, the Sahara, India, Berlin, New York and other less palatable destinations. But wherever he goes, he in rendered i the most enjoyable, hilarious prose you can imagine. Less is less a character study, though there is plenty of that, and more of a comedy about the foibles of those who love, are in love and are loved. A translation chapter set in Germany is unforgettable and likely to prevent precisely the sort of laughter it inspires, which is to say, you’ll be less inclined to make that mistake.

Greer gets a lot of mileage out of a pretty big cast. The key here is that Greer the writer is crazy in love with all his characters, no matter how sketchily (not very, but) these people behave. The result is that wherever the book lands, we’re happy. And, given that we’re reading a travelogue, Greer’s ability to keep our eyes and his on Arthur Less and his prize (whatever he may decide that to be) is pretty astonishing. There’s more than a bit of Around the World in 80 Days to be found here, but the upshot is not episodic. The tour we are getting is internal as much as it is external.

andrew_sean_greer-2017-smWhip-smart and wonderful, Less has a mannered, classic feel to it. This is due in part to its clever narrative structure, which proves to be closely tied to plot and character. But it’s also clear that Andrew Sean Greer is having a good time, that he wants to share the joy. And joy, like love, terror and charm, is ineffable. Only in action, only in language is love clear. Immerse yourself in Less and you’re going to find just how moving the ineffable can be.

Given the charm falling off the pages of Less, it takes no stretch of the imagination to guess that Andrew Sean Greer is every bit as charming as the world he creates. Would that his world could be all of ours!   Here’s a link to our short-form “lightning round” interview, or just listen below.

But really, the best Rx is to take your time, settle back and listen to Andrew Sean Greer embody the Charm School (it CANNOT be taught) by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.

Meg Gardiner Pursues Unsub: Family Business

Unsub begins with Caitlin Hendrix fulfilling her destiny, as the daughter of a cop, in a very bad place with very bad people. In a split second, she decides not to shoot. But it has been more than 20 years since The Prophet terrorized Northern California and essentially destroyed her father’s career. There’s more to destiny than staying alive.

gardiner-unsubFrom the very first paragraph, Meg Gardiner’s prose and style give will give readers the confidence that they are in for a solid story, well-told. The supple strength with which Gardiner writes prepare her to lay out the subtler parts of her story. Caitlin’s father was a storied cop, until he came up against The Prophet, a serial killer modeled on Zodiac. Consumed by the case, Mack Hendrix let a far-too-young Caitlin see photos of victims, of just what he was up against. Twenty years is not too long for Caitlin to wait. Vengeance has no expiration date.

Gardiner writes a smart, clean novel, quickly putting us in the path of a human monster. To her credit, Gardiner makes it clear that while monster outweighs human in the balance, nonetheless humans are capable of acts that are clearly inhuman. Which is to say that the terror and tension get cranked up pretty high pretty and pretty early in the moments it will take you to finish this novel.

For this reader, a sense of straight-ahead fair-play is essential in a serial killer novel, and Gardiner delivers with complete panache. There’s also the matter of tension management; too much and the reader will not want to read, but to skip ahead and just “find out.” Too little, and you get the same result for a different reason. Suffice it to say, Gardiner has you glued to every page, and the one after.

Even before you finish Unsub, you’ll know that it is the beginning of a series, and here as well, Gardiner shows us just how it should be done. Caitlin Hendrix is a character you care about, prone to put herself in danger, but only for the best reasons, which happen to be those that will keep you in this book and anticipating the next one.

meg-gardiner-2017So yes, I did ask Meg Gardiner if these characters were going to be rolled into Criminal Minds, because they’re making something based on this book and its sequel(s) for CBS. I will let listeners hear for themselves her answer, but to my mind any filmed production benefits from a prose beginning, because a book ensures there will be a story [usually]. I think readers and listeners will hear just how smart and fair Gardiner is, and yes, fair is important when you’re talking about someone who creates characters you plan on spending valuable time with. Just follow this link, or listen below to hear Meg Gardiner discuss the finer points of fairness and scaring the bejeebers out of you.

Robert Repino Unleashes D’Arc: Empowering Fun

We expect a lot from our entertainment. We want to be thrilled beyond belief by the new expanses we’re shown, even as our own inner lives are being illuminated. That’s a tall order, but look no father than D’Arc by Robert Repino. It’s the second novel, after Mort(e), in what Repino is calling The War With No Name series. He’s also published an excellent novella from this world, Culdesac.

In Mort(e), Repino quickly brought about the end of humanity’s rule on earth by virtue of the Ancient Ant Queen, a hyper-intelligent, almost god-like being that decides to eliminate humans. Not only does she create “THEM!”-like giant ants, she also “uplifts” the other species; dogs, cats, beaver, and more – so that they can walk upright, carry weapons and go on to make all the mistakes we’ve made. It is a come-uppance of Biblical proportions. Mort(e) was once Sebastian the house cat, neutered and de-clawed. His best friend was the neighbor’s dog, Sheba, a recent upliftee who has not taken a new name.

repino-darcAs D’Arc begins, Mort(e) and Sheba have managed to eke out a relatively stable life on the frontier. In a remote cabin, they raise the giant warrior ants, and try to recover from the war. But Mort(e) is a legendary figure and the events set in motion by the Queen are not yet done. A new race of intelligent monsters is creating a civilization under water, but they’re looking to the land. A city of beavers finds it is being threatened by a giant monster and there’s a serial killer foot in the tinderbox capital where all animals try to get along with one another and humans.

By virtue of great writing, Repino makes crafts the characters here with a significant emotional wallop. Mort(e) is a flinty-eyed veteran, wary of immersing himself in the violence at which he so excels. He’s filled with a gruff love for Sheba, even as we the readers know she can never feel the same. Sheba is complicated and beautifully crafted, as are Fallkirk (a heroic husky), and the beavers, WOW – the beavers. Repino’s world building matches his character insights, which are stellar. Pretty early on, you’ll encounter a scene in the beavers’ city that is every bit as memorable as your first sighting of a sandworm on Dune. The good news is that it gets even better.

Repino creates a race of aquatic monstrosities who are sympathetic even as though they plan to kill all humans most of the animals. The Sarcops, as they call themselves, are highly intelligent and as ruthless as humans. Credit must go Repino’s amazing imagination then, that the novel includes an airship battle so thrilling it’s likely to push away any movie memories you might hope to store. Repino not only blocks that action like a pro, keeping our eyes on a variety of battlefronts, he also syncs up the character arcs with the action. It’s an emotional and excitement reading high of a magnitude you don’t generally find between the pages.

D’Arc also masters the other challenge of any book that is part of a series, which is to provide an ending that feels right, but does not actually, as it were, end. And while you’ll certainly be looking forward to more exploration of Repino’s world, this is a book that you will playing the best bits of, in fact all of, on the big screen in your mind. If you have high expectations of your entertainment, if you want to see something new and feel something human, then Robert Repino’s The War With No Name books offer you no less than the best you can hope to find.

robert_repino-2015-490What makes Robert Repino so much fun to talk to is how much fun he is clearly having writing The War With No Name books. And believe me, you will have fun as well! Repino is an outlier. He’s a literary school graduate who does not come to genre through conventions and magazines and short story writing. He even confesses a bit of embarrassment at not having a kitchen window epiphany novel to his name. I think his freedom from the usual genre associations works well for his writing, and his publisher Soho, not known for SF, deserves a lot of love for taking on this work. We tried to keep matters spoiler free, beyond, “That was a helluva scene.” Jump into the world you deserve by following this link, or just listen below and the Ant Queen will do all the deciding.

Daniel H. Wilson Winds The Clockwork Dynasty: A Survival of Ancient Beings

How much history is hidden? Our understanding of the past comes with a back-story that we all supposedly subscribe to, a theory that sounds good but which we know to be incomplete at best. Everyone has a different idea as to how we got to where we are today, and there are plenty of places in written history within which one might hide quite a bit of story that remains untold. June is a specialist in re-assembling ancient automatons, old clockwork dolls with fine machinery. When she rebuilds a Russian artifact, a writing doll, it inscribes a message – the first sentence in a story we have yet to hear.

wilson-the_clockwork_dynastyThe Clockwork Dynasty begins carefully and economically, but not slowly. Wilson expertly crafts a scene out of time, immersing us in the scents and sounds of age. But as we become comfortable, he ups the urgency. In the present, June has happened upon a story she was not supposed to see, bringing her and all those around her into peril. As she flees, we are taken to another perspective in 18th century Russia, that of Peter, an automaton created to help and perhaps replace Peter the Great. He too, must flee, and clearly his path will cross June’s, a meeting that is likely to make things worse for both rather than better.

Given Wilson’s written history, it ‘s tempting to think that what you’re getting in The Clockwork Dynasty is a steampunk novel., but that is not the case. You will get a lot of the scenery of steampunk, specifically clockwork robots, but Wilson’s storyline aims squarely at the sense of wonder and hits on all axes. Combining terror and awe, June’s journey is much more in a Lovecraftian vein of ancient survivals and secret histories. Behind what we think we know is something we do not know at all, and our ignorance could be our undoing.

Expect to find one super-thrilling scene after another with a plot spanning centuries that you’d like to read in seconds. Importantly, Wilson spares us the usual romance and focuses on the characters and ideas, with the result being that even as he writes a blockbuster action scene, the action is matched by the ideas and the character arcs. For this reader, at least, Wilson has moved from a science fiction feel to a horror fiction feel sans the supernatural machinations. The upshot is that Wilson’s latest feels fresh and original, even as the page-turning-thriller vibe keeps you up late reading. This is a novel that were it a movie (and it should be), every scene would prove to be a good part. It not only keeps you in the present it creates, it makes you remember it after you have finished reading.

daniel_wilson-2017Consequently, this is a novel that might seem to have a more specialized appeal than proves to be the case. Don’t be fooled. The Clockwork Dynasty is big-scale crowd-pleaser with smarts and heart. It admits a sequel, but not from the edge of a cliff. Even if it proves that your motives for doing so are not your own, even if our destiny has been shaped by beings we do not know to exist and could not comprehend if we did, your time reading The Clockwork Dynasty is time well spent.

The clock is ever ticking when one sits down to interview an author with books as stuffed with ideas and good writing as those of Daniel H. Wilson. He and I have been talking for over a decade, a deepish sort of time that can seem a little bit scary. As we sat down for The Clockwork Dynasty, I also wanted to discuss Robogenesis, a novel that breaks new boundaries in body horror. Forget the post-apocalypse, etc, and settle down for a chat that includes a brief look at having your body town to shreds by tiny bits of smart metal embedded in your spine. Feel them crawl up your spine as they entwine your nerves. Follow this link to the MP3 audio file of our brief discussion, or listen below.

Let time swallow you whole for almost an hour with Daniel Wilson by following this link to download this file, or just listen below.