As I heard more and more comments about the effects of the pandemic we’ve managed to create (by virtue of mismanagement), perhaps the most common is that we are finding it hard to imagine just how this is going to play out. To me, this sounded a lot like what the science fiction world (and others) call a “singularity.” We are still waiting for the SF version, which will arrive when our machines acquire the means to improve themselves, in a series of events likely to happen faster than we can perceive them. What happens on the other side of that is unknowable.
At least, that was what my tiny human brain had confabulated. In order to clear it all up, I asked Cory Doctorow if he would care to talk about the subject. He and I have been doing so since his first novel, Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom, came out in 2003. He was kind enough to give me a nice chuck of time, and enough food for thought to avoid the take out window. Of course, I wanted to talk about his latest work, Radicalized.
This is definitely an interview that is not safe for radio. That said, Doctorow offers here what we need most now; down-to-earth thoughts about our unhinged now, with lots of good humor and an ultimately upbeat perspective. Not that everything is going to be OK. But enough, because cooler heads can prevail. Yes, you’re 7 years old, and there’s one thing for you to read. Here are the Highlights, fun with a purpose.
It’s tempting to look at current event political non-fiction as a thing of the moment. Don’t make that mistake with Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced Our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How We Can Fix It. Keep your eyes on the prize, “How We Can Fix It”, then drop yourself into the most compulsively readable work of contemporary politics since The Manchurian Candidate. Malcolm Nance deals in hard facts and documents, and writes as if his house is on fire. Turns out “House on Fire” is true as well. Pay attention; we are being tested, at this moment, and every other.
This is third book in what is, this far in, Nance’s trilogy, which night be called “Lord of the Lies: Russia’s Revenge.” Here in the increasingly fractured Untied States (not a typo), it’s becoming disturbingly easy to understand the mindset. The Soviet Union was once a major power, with lots of land. When the Berlin Wall fell, that power disappeared, replaced by a chaotic collection of fragile proto-states. Consider it a sneak preview for Putin’s plans for what we once called “The West.” Brexit and the 2016 election in the US were seemingly steps backwards for the West and one giant leap for Vladimir Putin.
In The Plot to Betray America, the focus is on the results here in the US. Nance is an engaging writer, and he delivers devastating news at the pace of an AK-47 on full auto with the precision of a laser-sighted sniper’s rifle. He knows when to fire out damning details and when to pull back for an aerial view of the battleground. Nance’s books feel like spy thrillers, which is something of a comfort. They’re more like nails in the coffin but for Nance’s obvious belief that the truth is, in the end, the most powerful weapon at our disposal. It is not surprising, then, that the enemy has used our own free media in an attempt to annihilate the truth.
Nance’s presentation of the facts keeps his book current, because he gives the reader a means of understanding what comes to pass after the book is written. By observing and documenting what has come before and offering it in an engaging narrative, he makes it possible for the reader to follow that narrative into the future. His narrative is not a simple condemnation, it’s a roadmap with reasonable plans to ensure we end up not at a destination chosen for us, but rather, one we choose. We in the USA are all about freedom to and freedom from. The truth shall set us free.
Prose poetry lends itself to autobiography. It is a natural form for confessions, for concise, carefully worded observations of one’s life and worlds that surround it. With The Extra Year, we come quickly to realize the author’s life path is such that we are lucky his first work is not also his last. It’s there in the fist poem, Cold: “I wonder if I affect everyone this way? Do they see small icicles hanging from my eyebrows? Does the oncologist remain aloof because my nostrils shoot frigid streams of air?”
Post writes single-paragraph prose poems that capture the contours of life with a precision that is suffused with joy and humor, even if the details are dire. That precision is a peak, a line that reveals only the precipices on either side. “I played pool. I danced. I sweated through three shirts every night. The best years of my life. I wasn’t looking for sex. Or love. I was looking for acceptance.” The writing is lean, all meat and muscle, sculpted word by word, but not in a manner to direct attention itself. Rather, Post uses precision to perfect transparency, to take the reader directly to the places for which language alone is inadequate.
Critical also for the power of this book is Post’s sense of story. He understands that story is motion, not commotion. We need not change, we need not journey or arrive at a new understanding to experience narrative, because narrative itself, in these poems, is motion. This is not to say that there are no arcs in the poems, or the collection itself. In this book, every time you read a word you know it is the only word that could be there. These are the true words. There’s a sense of security reading The Extra Year, of knowing that the only way to understand the end is the read every word, in order, that comes before. These poems are without a doubt the shortest path to tell this tale.
Post’s powerful debut reads easily, an amiable autobiography. In this case, however, the life we know is compressed into brilliant shards, coal into diamonds. This first book is all too close to his last. When you read it here, it is the first time you get it. The proximity of death sharpens our view of life – but does not change the details. It’s perfectly clear.
I spoke with Jory for my show Narrative Species at KSQD, live on the air. I should not have been surprised that it was so easy and so fun. But it was and I was. For me, I suppose, a little terror is a good thing. Obviously, the architect of the joy in our conversation was Jory. Here’s a link to my recording of that conversation, taken from a recorder that was between the microphones and the broadcast.
We are well acquainted with the harm wrought by computer viruses and ill-intentioned hackers. Information is a valuable commodity and a powerful tool within our increasingly connected world. But the threat is understandably generally seen as virtual. With Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, Andy Greenberg demonstrates that the boundaries have been broken. Sandwormis the story of the first cyberwar, an attack in the virtual realm that rippled quickly into the physical world. Sandworm is a superbly-crafted non-fiction techno-thriller, revelatory and terrifying.
This story could be complicated, in terms of what happened, why and the technology involved. But Greenberg’s work is excellently, carefully written, gathering relevant recent history as the underpinning for a tense replay of battles we heard little about even as their effects unfolded around the world. He digs into the profiles of those here and abroad who comprehend the perilous potential of a highly-connected world. These men and women are part of a thrillingly organized story that casts quite a few current headlines into an unsettling perspective.
Whether he’s reaching back a few years to offer a demonstrative episode of pertinent technological or sociological history or unfolding more current events up-close and in-depth, Greenberg has a page-turning narrative flair. He plots well, and finds the right voices to tell the story. Moreover, as the overall narrator for the book, Greenberg manages to make a fairly complicated and twisty story read with enviable ease. You won’t think about the writerly skill on display here because the story is so interesting and pertinent.
Andy Greenberg accomplishes a great deal in Sandworm. He pulls off a pulse-pounding page-turner that leaves the reader well-prepared to recognize the relevance in what’s happening here and now, in this moment. Even though, as William Gibson so famously observed, the future is not evenly distributed, it will manage to creep ever closer to us all. As that comes to pass, we’re better off informed of the terrors that lurk behind the screen, the lies in the wires. Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers gives us as much to fight with as itdoes to worry about.
Here’s a link to my conversation with Andy Greenberg about Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers.
Horror is all-too-often a perfectly reasonable reaction to the world around us. Served with a liberal dose of levity, it helps us keep moving forward amidst a backdrop that seems to be making a beeline for dystopia. The brief moments before we arrive are indeed well-spent with Daniel Handler in his latest novel, Bottle Grove. With admirable economy, Handler uses weddings, marriage, and a soupcon of the supernatural to embrace both sides of the luxury gap. Set in San Francisco in the recent past or immediate future (depending on your income), Bottle Grove is by turns chilling and hilarious, even as it has the ring of truth.
We start with a wedding, (Ben and Rachel Nickels) which does not go well. Before it ends, a spirit of this age finds flesh with which to make merry and mischief. And before readers know it, we are (with foxes in hot pursuit) headed down one rabbit-hole after another. Martin is a bartender nearly making it while those around him bathe in the sort of money he can only imagine. He’s something of a remora, reaping the fallout from the riches around him. He falls for Padgett and cooks up a shady scheme with her that puts her in Be Careful What You Pretend To Be Territory.
Handler is a natural at crafting the supernatural frisson. He knows the perfect literary hand-waves needed to suggest the monstrous aspects of the nicest so-called men, and the menace implicit on the most ordinary gestures. The dark wit behind the Lemony Snicket novels finds an excellent palette in the contemporary horror tale. Happily, Handler displays an amazing economy, packing the dank horror of a much longer book into a tight, taut tale of bad crime. He manages to use authentic internal character drivers in the service of the apparently supernatural to externalize the economic and emotional devastation hidden in humanity between the peaks of prosperity and the pits of poverty. What, exactly is gilding the new Gilded Age? It does not smell so sweet.
In the age when every book is a movie-in-waiting, Handler is smart enough to use language, humor and horror in Bottle Grove to craft the sort of effects that only work in print. Mind the (luxury) gap – chances are you’re at the bottom, looking up.
Here’s a link to my conversation with Daniel Handler about Bottle Grove.
Donny Kimoe wants to be a good lawyer. He’s the one who defends the undefendable, though, and the scorecard does not tell a good story. His last client was executed. His current client is on a fast track to disappearing. His drug habit isn’t helping as much as it used to. Donny’s legal shenanigans are beginning to threaten his own safety. He wants to do the right thing. Is it particularly hard, or is he not as good as he needs to be?
Welcome to the day-after-tomorrow world of Christopher Brown, who, like his character, is a lawyer in Texas. Rule of Capture, his second novel, has the same setting as his first, Tropic of Kansas, wherein he manages the unique feat of creating a believable dystopian present. Xelina, Donny’s newest client, has footage of a political assassination. Donny knows he can help her by using the law. At least, that’s his hope, which unfortunately is his weapon of choice in a gunfight.
Rule of Capture is a unique legal thriller. Brown is rigorous in his world-building. There’s no shiny extrapolated technology to magically blast in. Instead, the author applies his excellent powers of extrapolation to the law, finding Reagans far more threatening than lasers. The world is bristling with danger. It’s an open-carry paradise, with all the horror we currently hide from ourselves striding in the unpleasantly bright sunlight.
Donny’s an interesting and compelling character, surrounded by the sort of sleaze we get to read about on a daily basis. He’s likable but inclined to deceive himself when it comes to what sort of help he can provide. He sympathizes with his rebellious clients, but blinkers himself into the belief that the law is here to protect them, even when it is clear the law will not protect even him.
Brown knows how to score point after point for the reader, though. Rule of Capture has a bit of the feel of a horror novel, and readers will enjoy following Donny down into the legal equivalent of the cellar beneath the haunted house. We know it’s a bad idea and we know that Donny expects it is as well. But we sure as hell love to hope with him. Rule of Capture eventually reveals just what the title is about, as Donny finds he’s on the train that’s carrying his clients. Brown is a master of law-twisting terror, and every page threatens to show us a headline from the world we live in as opposed to the one we hope we are only reading about.
Rule of Capture takes the toolbox of technological science fiction and uses it to rebuild the legal thriller, crafting a reality that seems more pertinent to what’s going on around us than mere descriptions can possibly manage. It’s compelling and gritty, and imaginative enough to capture all the terrible things you know or have heard about and put that puzzle together. Is the result a mirror? We hope not, thinking hope, if not the best, may be our only weapon.
Lurie tells his story on the run, speaking to you – we do not know who you are, not yet. He’s young and on the run in a landscape that threatens him with death by thirst, hunger, and gunfire. The American West in the mid-1800’s is not a place for orphans, especially those who can sense the needs of those many who have died here. His path leads him to become a sort of outlaw.
Nora is stranded as well, stuck at her home(stead) in Arizona, very specifically in 1863. Her husband is absent on an unknown trek, her youngest is certain a monster is stalking them, and the young woman her husband brought home as a sort of step-child adoptee is more interested in talking to spirits than hauling water to the ramshackle home that is being transformed by drought into a deathtrap.
Téa Obreht’s second novel, Inland boldly re-invents the Western with a unique prose and storytelling style that rewards readers in the ways possible only in literature. First and foremost, Inland is a reading experience. Those familiar with Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife will find the appeals of that story – a detailed historical vision infused with the human supernatural understanding of life – present and accounted for in this book. But that’s where the similarity ends. Obreht takes an equally effective but very different prose and storytelling approach here. The difference perfectly suits the material, and the result is a powerhouse incarnation of an American genre, reborn. Newer than new, older than old, Inland is what reading is all about.
Each story is equally compelling, and both are well-removed from the sort of storytelling in The Tiger’s Wife. Lurie’s story unfolds over a span of years. His path as a smart orphan leads him to join up with a gang of outlaws, and puts him in the sights of a lawman determined to run him down, a trope that Obreht rewires with entertaining expertise. His ability to sense what the dead want is no gift; it’s another problem for him to deal with in a life where death is a constant companion. He tells his story in the first person, and we do learn who he’s speaking to.
Nora’s story unfolds over far less elapsed time, but with equally eloquent detail. We hear her story in the third person, a choice that feels perfectly in place to a reader for whom the West as experienced by both storytellers is an unknown expanse, chock-a-block with the unexpected. Her youngest son has everyone on the lookout for a monster. The layabout girl her husband brought home is a table-knocking spiritualist who thinks herself special. Her husband is not home, and she senses he’s kind of dodgy. Water’s short. The politics of their tiny town have an immediate impact.
Obreht weaves these two seemingly disparate stories with great expertise, and crafts a vision of the frontier west unlike most others (camels, monsters, ghosts) that rings with impeccable truth. She also unites the engaging entertainment of the Weird Western with a prose style that echoes the lonely desperation of the lost. Which is to say that Inland is fun to read but as striking as a deadly desert sunset that transforms a waterless world into a cold hell.
Obreht’s ability to combine opposites in prose that echoes the beautiful and dangerous world that surrounds her two stories is present even in the architecture of the novel as a whole. The tension of the diverse narratives and persons, as it were, telling the stories, is itself a driving force to keep the reader immersed, and a reward for doing so. Close the book, and you will know you have read a whole, single story, new in all the ways implicit in calling the work a novel. The words go into your mind and create a new world, a place you come to understand, a place you realize is now a part of your life.
Here’s a link to my conversation with the delightful Téa Obreht about her journey into the desert of novel-writing.
A special bonus in this delivery of Cephalotron mixes is a full hour of uninterrupted soundtrack only from The Dream Journal, hosted by Katherine Bell Saturdays,10-11 AM PDT/PST on KSQD.org. This is a talk show featuring the discussion of dreams and dream theory science with guests and callers (call in with your dreams for live analysis, 831-900-5774!). Listen to the podcasts at KSQD.org! I provide a live, improvised soundtrack composed while listening to both the conversation and an ambient-level version of the music I am creating on a four-second delay. The music is cued very low in the mix, meant to create an audio sense of place for the talk of dreams to unfold. If you enjoy this music, please let the station know. If you would like to know more about the music, let me know. You can find some photos of the gear, both packed and set up to play on Facebook.
Here are five more hours of Cephalotron, in a totally word-free mix [occasionally a song with lyrics sneaks in]. If you view via iTunes, you’ll find a setlist in the lyrics. Enjoy, if you like or listen to this let KSQD.org know via their feedback portal. It will assist in keeping this broadcast on the air. You can listen live, includes song source announcements, 9-10 PM PDT/PST Sundays at KSQD.org.
It’s an isolated boarding school, out in the country a bit, but not the best. Stonebridge Academy students are not high achievers. They call themselves Stoners. Alex Witt, who left her last teaching job in a hurry, finds herself teaching creative writing, which is to say, mostly winging it. her firsts assignment suggests that something unpleasant is afoot here. The dead rat in a desk drawer on the first day does not phase her. Her students, however, are another matter. There’s more than a whiff of the unsavory.
With The Swallows, Lutz brings her trademark perceptive and often funny prose to do battle in what becomes a war of the sexes. Just who is fighting and why is best left to the reader to discover. In this environment, Lutz’ ability to evoke a smile from a turn of the phrase and slyly cutting repartee becomes a two-edged sword, wielded with precision. Our willingness to make light of intractable problems ensures that nearly every smile is followed by a cringe of discomfort. Credit her skill as a wily designer of plot traps as you helplessly turn the pages. Lutz brigs the obsessive to compulsive reading.
Told in round-robin style, there’s a low-key feel of Rashomon at work here. The four storytellers are nicely (un)balanced. Witt is complemented by Ford, a male teacher at the school who proves to be far more complex than we are ready to expect. Gemma is the new girl in town who does not arrive with an agenda but whips one up in short order. Norman Crowley is deeply immersed in an agenda the puts him firmly in a place he’d avoid if there was a choice. Needless to say, everybody’s plans are sabotaged by an all-too-believable reality.
Lutz is a master at cranking up tension while tamping down over-reach and overkill. The funniest and most terrible thing about The Swallows is that what happens seems sort of subdued compared to reality. But readers will know that in the thick of it, nothing feels underplayed. Lutz has a killer sense of humor, here in the service of a sort of social horror story. It’s OK to laugh so long as you are not looking in the mirror.
The real triumph of The Swallows is Lutz’s ability to keep the pages flying and the (uneasy) laughter flowing while excavating some very unpleasant truths in the most ordinary of lives. “Look at this,” she says. “Now, this,” laughing, and you laugh too. You want to, you need to, you know it will be a hoot to find out what’s at the center of the mystery.
Putting any problem in perspective required more than mere fact. To be sure, facts are necessary; reality cannot be change unless it is accurately described. But the power of narrative, the discovery of stories that bind the facts, is the only way to create the intellectual and emotional understanding within which one might discover not just the problem, but as well the solution.
While there has been no recent shortage of admirable reporting about the opioid epidemic, it requires a book like Beth Macy’s Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Back Bay Books / Hachette Book Group; 400 Pages; $17.99) to put the acts in perspective. The mother of a victim in this book tells the author that she hopes Macy will “find the story” of her daughter’s death. Dopesick does this and so much more. It tells a nation’s story. Even mere facts move the narrative; 300,000 dead so far. That’s 100 9/11 attacks – with another 100 to unfold in the next five years. It is impossible to imagine that we’d do nothing. But so far, beyond the outliers (doctors, parents, addicts, a few more) we’ve barely begun to admit it is a problem.
Macy manages to, in a very compact narrative, get to the nub of the problem, find the stories that started with the problem and takes her readers on a journey into the heart a medical nightmare, a man-made plague that began over 100 years ago, when Heinrich Dreser invented a molecular disease vector. He put it in a pill and called it Heroin, and it was prescribed to cranky babies and anxious adults. Until. We generally think we know how that story ended, but a sequel was in the works.
It was re-made and marketed in the US (not for the first time, but recently) as Oxycodone – around 1989. Texas led the way to “legalization”, and the pills were aggressively marketed, particularly in the poorest part of the Appalachians. Macy resides not far from what proved to be ground zero in this outbreak, and she took the tie and effort to talk to the people who suffered. The stories she uncovers and tells are compelling and horrifying, not just because the facts themselves are both, but also because our perception of addicts is that they have made a selfish moral choice. Macy makes it clear that this epidemic is not just man-made; it was exploited for profits by Perdue. The human tragedies of that exploitation are the stuff of incredibly powerful storytelling and courageous research on Macy’s part. She did not just ask questions. She took part in these lives, to make their stories more immediate, involving and direct.
The facts of this epidemic speak for themselves. In Dopesick, Macy speaks for and to those on the receiving end of those facts. But she does so with the sort of bravery the victims and their families need to summon to fight the molecule. For all the despair she encounters, and that left even now, Macy manages to bring to life the human power of stories that can end well. It is certain that not all will end ell. Too many lives have been needlessly lost. When you read Dopesick, you will be certain that there is much to be done. But you’ll also be part of that story. It is a story you can not only narrate, but change.
Here’s a link to my conversation with Beth Macy about Dopesick. It’s not her story, it is everyone’s.