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akkad-american_warAkkad’s novel is interspersed with excerpts from historical documents and reportage, giving it a rough frame that starts the day after tomorrow and stretches to the end of the century.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.

Jennifer Ackerman Explores The Genius of Birds : Our Flying Aliens

Until they are annihilated by science, our assumptions seem so simple, rigorous, even unassuming. Birds, for example, are obviously incapable of “thought.” After all, the tiny brains, the jerky movements – they’re too twitchy to have anything resembling our own internal hamster-wheel minds. Jennifer Ackerman delightfully transforms our long-held default perceptions of birds in The Genius of Birds with lovely, lively prose, and great stories about science and scientists. Since birds are pretty much everywhere you look, this book will change the way you see the world around you.

ackerman-the_genius_of_birdsAckerman lays out her case in the Introduction to the book, so thoroughly and enjoyably that you might be tempted to think she’d be hard-pressed to outdo herself. Resist that temptation. Ackerman begins by reminding us how our prejudice against the very possibility of bird intelligence is reflected in our language, from “lame ducks” to “eating crow” to “bird brains.” Then the science from the last two decades comes to our rescue, and Ackerman introduces us to the varieties of birds that, once you observe closely, are clearly doing amazing things with their brains. Ackerman’s genius is for finding the great stories and characters who are reshaping not just our understanding of birds, but of thought and cognition as well.

She begins with the rock star of the bird intelligence world, the New Caledonian Crow, remarkable creature that can solve a logic puzzle that would challenge a five year-old human. From there, she head to the Barbados, where we meet Louis Lefebrve, who invented the first scale of intelligence for birds. Her portraits of the scientists and the birds they study are perfectly balanced and paced. She weaves together different strands and different birds, even as she digs down into what precisely we mean by intelligence. As she points out, behaviors that look intelligent may be the result of layered simple processes. For example, the stunning displays of flock behavior, when we see birds move in groups with amazing precision were once thought to be an indicator that the birds might somehow be telepathic. It turns out that they’re not keeping track of the entire flock; rather it’s just the closest seven (or so) fellow flyers.

As Ackerman demonstrates the many ways in which birds are in fact using their brains, she also explores the neuroscience that shows how brain size is not as directly proportional to intelligence as we are inclined to intuit. Indeed, some birds have incredibly densely packed neurons. And others, many, are using their brains in a manner that we could not hope to equal. “Caching behavior” is the name given to birds’ ability to hide food in thousands of spots over many miles and find them all. It’s a feat of memory that is simply alien to humans.

jennifer_akerman-2017The sum of these engrossing stories of scientists and the flying aliens they are studying is nothing less than transformative. The ubiquity of birds ensures that everywhere we look, we’ll see them anew, not as large insects (probably next to be revised!), but as superbly-adapted alien intelligences, with minds so different that both humans – and our science – are just now catching up.

Jennifer Ackerman’s art – and science – is evident both in her book, and in our conversations. She is a natural storyteller, and in The Genius of Birds, she’s found the perfect venue for her talents. You can hear our lightning round conversation by following this link, or just listen below.

If you prefer to let your mind take flight, here’s a link to the in-depth interview, or fasten your seat belt and listen below.

Annie Jacobsen Experiences Phenomena: Science, Sensibility and the Supernatural

We like our science in well-defined, straight lines, like a map. “Here Be Science,” we read. And, “Here Be Monsters.” Science is not so willingly refined, alas, and neither is everything outside of it. This gets really messy when we’re depending on science to help us, for example, wage a war. In our military messes reside both great science and great stories. So-called psychic powers have been “scientifically” (if not correctly) explained for well over a hundred years, so it is no surprise that we’ve attempted to exploit them as weapons.

jacobsen-phenomenaIn books like The Pentagon’s Brain, Area 51 and Operation Paperclip, Annie Jacobsen has been exploring our unadvertised military history and finding extraordinary stories. With Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, Jacobsen ups her own game to scare up the true stories of the US government’s psychic research programs. Conspiracy theories and science fiction may seem a bit mundane compared to Jacobsen’s tense, absurd and often terrifying story.

Jacobsen traces the most modern beginnings of our attempt to use human psychics as weapons begins at the end of World War II, alongside Operation Paper Clip. This was the rush to grab all the Nazi scientists before the Russians could. It was not just science we found; evidence of research into the supernatural was found as well, and soon enough the arms race was paralleled by a psychic race that probably continues to this day. Jacobsen’s book focuses on the characters, from Dr. Henry Karel “Andrija” Puharich to Uri Geller, James Randi, Ingo Swann and astronaut Edgar Mitchell. As we grow to know and like (or, at least, enjoy reading about) the people, Jacobsen carefully orchestrates the complicated history of science meeting the supernatural with an eye towards war.

Having interviewed many of the participants herself, Jacobsen’s knowledge feels intimate, and readers who have been through this wringer will find clarity and re-assurance with regards to the reality of her reportage. No spoilers: so far, there’s no good working hypothesis to account for so-called psychic powers. That said, Jacobsen manages to evoke true chills as she describes experiments and successes. Some participants are quickly (and entertainingly!) written off, but some simply disappear into the government machinery. Watch for a fellow named Patrick H. Price. He might be someone you’d prefer not to meet.

Jacobsen’s grasp on this huge, complicated and often contradictory history is nothing less than astonishing. Given the topics and situations, only the footnotes and veracity of the text separate it from contemporary science fiction and horror novels. And for readers of say, Stephen King’s Firestarter, the pleasures (and terrors!) of what actually happened during the MKULTRA project are refracted in and magnified by the cultural and fictional mythology. Yes, Phenomena does read with the speed and intensity of a novel. The fact that it’s true makes it even more compelling.

At the heart of this book is a conflict that is not and may never be resolved. How do we feel; what do we do, when science gives us no ground upon which to extrapolate, but results suggest that there is some mechanism that must be explicable by science at work? Fascinatingly, it all comes down to humans, individuals, characters, who simply don’t reside on one side of the line. Perhaps the human population has grown to the point where the statistics are coughing up human anomalies with increasing frequency. Beyond science, you’re left with humans and stories.

It is often said that holding two mutually exclusive ideas in one’s mind requires something extraordinary. While training soldiers to be psychics proved to be problematic (to say the least), this book offers up the kind of ESP we can all aspire to: to hold in our minds an extraordinary and self-conflicting narrative. Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena is an example of our only and most powerful psychic ability: storytelling.

While it is tempting annie_jacobsen-2014-pgcto post an audio file consisting of an hour of silence, which is to say, psychic communication between Annie Jacobsen and I, all that happened on the printed page as I read the book. When we sat down to talk, it was two friends shooting the breeze about a mind-boggling work of non-fiction that one happened to have written. We tried to tease out the themes and keep the narrative stories intact, so that they can better warp your mind. We start small; here’s a link to download the lightning round, or just pop in your “mind reading” earbuds to listen below.

If you prefer a longer experience of hearing the voices of people who are not actually there with you, download a telepathic 45-or-so-minutes here. Alternately, you can prove the reality of these Phenomena by playing those voices right out loud below.

Garrett M. Graff Visits Raven Rock: While the Rest of Us Die

For the past two generations, we have had the ability to be the authors of our own annihilation. But the reality of this realization has not managed to discourage a tiny fraction of sunny optimists who believe post-Apocalyptic survival is possible. We have a new generation of so-called “doomsday preppers,” hyper-rich survivalists who are building luxury bunkers within which they hope to survive and start anew. Unsurprisingly, they’ll still be at the top.

graff-raven_rockBut they’re not the first to have a go at this game. The US government is the original doomsday prepper, as revealed in the terrifying, can’t-look-away history by Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die. Graff’s book is both page turning and thought-provoking. Graff does nothing less than map out, in compelling detail, the impact of our nuclear arsenals on our government’s perception of its own mortality. As soon as we knew that we could destroy all life on earth, we sought to make ourselves the exception.

Graff begins his book with a vision of Richard M Nixon. drinking, depressed, on the verge of resigning as a result of the Watergate scandal. He’s taking what will be his last trip on Air Force One as President. The proof of that is that he still has what we now call the “nuclear football.” In retrospect, it is a frightening moment.

You’ll find many more of these sorts of scares in this book than you expect as Graf expertly takes us through the history of modern Armageddon. Once we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, it didn’t take long for the government to realize that a single shot could now cripple our nation. We had to de-centralize the government in secret, to prepare for the possibility, the eventuality of nuclear war.

Graff finds a powerful storyline amidst a complicated tangle of history and follows it with clear expertise. Having come to the realization that it might be mortal, the US government seeks to prevent its own extinction. Graff describes acronym-rich plans for COG (Continuance of Government), in example, the “Designated Survivor” program, which runs some 20 levels deep and quickly to absurdity, with plans to install the an Illinois DA as the president should the 19 before him be vaporized in an attack. Chillingly, ECG (Enduring Constitutional Government) involves tossing our large portions of the Constitution. Even more frightening is the fact that this program is so classified little is known bout to this day.

The history of Civil Defense is equally illuminating, and not in manner that will calm our fears. In the earliest years of nuclear ignorance, there was some thought that the “duck and cover” drills some might remember might help. But as the totality of nuclear destruction became clear, Civil Defense was quickly eroded as the government sought to take care of number one. Visions of “bomb-proof” underground cities never came to fruition.

In the run-up the The End of All Things, we’ve had a few dress rehearsals, most of which went badly. Graff offers a particularly poignant look at the chaos that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. Our ability to learn from our mistakes apparently does not go too far in informing our plans. This is not to say that plans have not been altered, but rather that the no matter what is being planned, readers of the book are not likely to benefit.

As for the abandoned bunkers made obsolete by our advancing understanding of just how bad it would be, well, they’re now being re-made and re-sold to ensure that the 0.01% can survive along with the government. Graff effortlessly takes us to the edge of post-Apocalyptic survival for those who can afford it. We can be certain that some of us at least, think we are ready for The End. The rest of us are collateral damage. We won’t even get an acronym.

garrett_m_graffGraff’s storytelling skills cannot be suppressed, and when we sat down to talk, I was happily surprised to find that he was talking about some of details I found most enjoyable and compelling. That said, if you follow this link to [download] our in-depth interview, we only whet your appetite for destruction. Heck, you might as well listen to the whole damn shebang below, right now. As long as the nuclear football is still in play, the Game is on, until we are over.

 

For Ariel Levy The Rules Do Not Apply: The Laws of Refraction

We are busybodies by nature. We love to eavesdrop. Other people’s problems – and their memoirs! – prove to be perfect distractions from our own, which tend to be pretty mundane. We all have stories to tell. The ones we want to read had better be well written.

levy-the_rules_do_not_applyAriel Levy has one hell of a story tell; wrenching, awful, horrific, an emotional gut-punch. Perhaps the inciting incident as we like to call it, tenderized her. But she was already writing for The New Yorker. She had the skill to not just write a story, but identify one. She looked at herself and understood that her story made the grade, but as well, that it would only do so if she were able to approach her entire story with the same level of skill (but not [continuously] the same level of intensity) that she brought when she wrote about herself the first time for The New Yorker. Her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, brings fists-clenched, fine writing to every sentence. She does not need or use her fists often. Her story itself does most of the punching.

Levy is the child of a generation of women who grew up as the rules regarding how women should live and behave were bring burnt to the ground. We meet her as she embraces her parents and their embrace of post-70’s hippie culture. She’s going to be a writer, and the fierce determination she exhibits is both a promise and a warning. For readers, it is a promise of tight, to-the-point writing. For Levy, it is a warning that she may prove to be as skilled at making things difficult for herself as she is in extricating herself from those difficulties.

Levy has a life that is unusual enough to initiate our interest as readers, and the wherewithal to follow that up with well balanced prose. She can be precise and dispassionate when it moves us faster, and she can be searing when she’s angry, in love, betrayed, obsessed or mortifyingly sad. As the pages fly, readers will discover good reasons for all her feelings.

What happens to Levy is best left discovered in the book itself. As a reader, I was appreciative of her ability to write prose so supple that I was able to immerse in it almost as if I were an ice skater, flying across the pages. The speed with which you devour this book is in no way indicative of how long it stays with you. Ariel Levy is in your life to stay, and readers will be thankful, ultimately for the journey she provides.

airel_levy-2017Sitting down to speak with Ariel Levy, I was happy to find her happy. It is there in the memoir, but any sense of happy might well be undercut by life itself and in specific, Levy’s life, which has been considerably more complicated and god-awful than many. The upshot is that we had a really fun and intense and wonderful conversation about how she wrote what she wrote as well as how she made it through what she wrote about to actually get around to writing it.

Ariel Levy kicks ass, takes no prisoners. Here’s a link to download the instant gratification conversation, which is just long enough to a) Make sure you want to hear the longer, in-depth interview b) Buy the book, in no particular order. In a hurry? Just listen below.

And, since you’ve decided to do both, why not start with the in-depth conversation, follow this link, or listen right here!

Elan Mastai Lives through All Our Wrong Todays: Lighting Fools

It’s easy, so easy, to forget that our world could be perfect, right now. Utopia is within our technological and sociological grasp. Food and shelter for all, meaningful lives, we can do this. It’s just that we are a bit too busy turning the world into an unlivable hellhole.

mastai-all_our_wrong_todays-smImagine a visitor from that utopia, visiting our world. They’d start at “unlivable hellhole,” but pretty soon the word “dystopia” would be rolling off the top of their tongue as easily and as often as if they were a New York literary agent or a Hollywood movie producer. Obviously, this visitor’s story would make for a great novel. And All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai certainly tells this story – to begin with.

The brilliance of Masti’s first novel is that he gets past this premise pretty quickly. First, he invests in a small cast of well-drawn characters. We meet his father, Victor Barren, and his girl, Penelope Weschler. Lionel Goettreider is the genius who built Tom’s utopia, which is to say, our utopia, but for … Tom. We love these characters, particularly Tom who is no genius. This is problematic for Tom, because he’ll need more than a bit of genius to set things right.

All Our Wrong Todays does so many things effortlessly right that listing them is prohibitive. It will surely make you laugh out loud early and often. Mastai’s prose manages to serve sentiment and snark with equal ease and authenticity. On a sentence level, you’ll find plenty of examples that you’ll want to read aloud for their sheer wit, insight or both. The book is written in short chapters engineered to make you turn the pages relentlessly, and it works. Prepare to lose a day or two, and even better, spendd the following days paging back, re-reading the best bits because they’re just so damn funny and damnably insightful.

When it comes to playing with the time-travel and science fiction utopian premises, Mastai demonstrates a truly sense-of-wonder inducing level of imagination and skill. For me, the idea of a visitor from utopia seeing our world as dystopia would be enough. But even early in the novel you get a riff on waking up that is so inspired technologically and socially that it’ll turn your head around. These moments come often, as Mastai manages the trick of one-upping himself in terms of plot and time travel permutations with a skill you won’t notice because you’re so busy being entertain, immersed and boggled.

None of this skill would matter quite as much if Mastai did not make us care so much about his characters. Tom Barren is wonderful – snarky, sweet, confident (generally when he should not be), and still learning about himself. Penelope, Victor, Lionel, they all bear their humanity both crudely and gracefully, like most of us. And for all that Mastai is capable of science fiction invention to rival anyone, he ultimately keeps his focus on the human element. Yes, you’ll laugh and be amazed. But the gut punch is emotional.

elan_mastai-2017-smEarly on in the novel, Mastai mentions Kurt Vonnegut, and in particular, Cat’s Cradle. When I spoke to him about his book, he was quick to bring both up, and I have to say, the comparison is apt. That’s not something I’d say lightly. And while we managed not to give away any of the novel’s surprises (there are many!) we did get to talk about Mastai’s humor and his take on science fiction, as well as his experiences with it. You can follow this link to download the MP3 or listen below.