Lisa Lutz The Swallows

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.

Uh oh. A mirror.

Here’s a link to my entirely spoiler-free interview with Lisa Lutz, wherein the same humorous sensibility is deployed in the general direction of writing this sort of novel. You’ll feel like a kid, reading Highlights, fun with a purpose. NOT in the dentist’s office.

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Beth Macy Dopesick

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.

Richard Kadrey The Grand Dark

Largo Moorden’s life in Lower Proszawa is prosaically familiar and utterly strange. He’s 21 years old, a bike courier with a decent place in a bad part of town and a lovely girlfriend. But he pedals past monstrous robots (known as “Maras”) and garbage-eating “eugenics” who keep the streets if not clean, at least less filthy. It quickly becomes clear that Lower Proszawa is not our past or future, but rather the present revised by the precise and joyous imagination of Richard Kadrey. It is nowhere we know, and everything we are.

Kadrey’s urban creation knows no boundaries of genre. He crafts his world with the precise language of science fiction and the wild abandon of modern fantasy. Keeping it tightly focused and ever-immersive are his carefully crafted characters. Read a page or so of this book, and you won’t be thinking of genre. Instead, you’ll start to worry for and with Largo. He’s no naïve kid from the sticks. He’s a scrappy, yet caring underdog from a bad part of town with no plans to return.

Largo’s girl, Remy is a talented beauty who works as an actress (of sorts) at The Theater of the Grand Darkness, a theatre that takes more than a cue card from the Grand Guignol. The Grand Darkness, and Lower Proszawa remain in the shadow of War. One has just concluded in a mixed victory and another looms. Iron Dandies, the disfigured veterans, walk the street in steel helmets to mask their disfigurement. Even though Largo is getting by, and a promotion, what looks weird and not good proves to be much worse than readers might guess. It’s compelling as Hell itself might be, were you to have the chance to glance inside.

Kadrey’s world is built without effort. His prose is stripped down and spare, musical in the manner of The Sex Pistols or Radiohead. He’s a master at revelatory plotting, showing us precisely what we need to know to ask the next question that he’s going to answer. His page-turning world is both delightfully imaginative and uncannily reminiscent of ours. Alas, it seems that creeping fascism is a universal thing, especially when it is creeping towards a state of endless war.

For all the here-and-now that lies just underneath Lower Proszawa, The Grand Dark is a creation of striking and very engaging originality. It’s a world you will want to return to, a world that you come to understand lies just beneath ours. At the core, storytelling is both the means and the end. The bloody horrors of The Grand Darkness are eerily mirrored in Largo’s life. Looking up from The Grand Dark, you’ll find unfortunate answers to the questions it asks in your world, enough to make you hope for a return trip for more hopeful answers to the question s you’ve yet to ask.

Here’s a link to your plunge into darkness with Richard Kadrey. The light you save will be your own.

 

Neal Stephenson Fall, or Dodge in Hell

Richard “Dodge” Forthrast –last seen in REAMDE – is puttering through the beginning of another day-after-tomorrow in the early 21st century. It’s an intimate, engaging scene that stands on its own, which is to say that Fall is a follow-on to REAMDE, not a sequel. In short order, he dies, and before readers have belted themselves in, the pages and plot acquire super-sonic speed, hurtling one into a gripping, unsettling and prescient makeover of today as tomorrow. Stephenson does not slow down, and those 880 pages seem more like 320 even as you achieve escape velocity and are hurtled from a visionary science fiction story into an equally visionary fantasy novel.

Stephenson is firing on all cylinders in Fall, handing family tensions, international intrigue, and unfettered imagination with equal ease. Starting with the basics, he demonstrates his power with prose in the opening, where he conjures a palpable nostalgia for the present. It’s a nice way to open a science fiction novel, especially since Dodge’s death requires that his body be preserved for resurrection in some unknowable future. The path to that future is lined with a truly terrifying extrapolation of the dangers of the dissolution of consensus reality. As truth becomes personal, divorced from the measurable and external, marketing and promotion become weapons of mass destruction. Without a doubt, this will be for many the most powerful section of the novel. Don’t read it in the vicinity of the news. It won’t end well for you.

stephenson-fallWhen next we meet Dodge, he’s Egdod, a nascent intelligence in a world unformed, until he takes a look around. Stephenson lets us slip into his online fantasy novel as Egdod lets there be light, sound, a mixmaster of human mythos, and wildly fantastic action that manages to break boundaries in post-Tolkien fantasy fiction. And while Stephenson’s afterlife is a deep dip into our religious human tapestry, complete with Miltonesque verses, its plot takes a page from 20th-century anti-religious philosophy; hell is, indeed, other people.

The joy of Stephenson’s fantasy novel-within-a-novel is that it is informed by and intercut with a toe-tapping tale of near-future intrigue. Every coin in the fantasy world has two sides as characters from the supposed real world (assuming we are not a simulation), find themselves reborn in a world that manages to be weirder than ours. Stephenson uses the fantastic not just to externalize our world into his near-future, he uses his fantasy to externalize the characters in his novel. It’s an economical means for him to entertain the hell out of us (you’re ignoring the so-called real world when you’re immersed in this tense-in-all-worlds narrative) while providing a great dose of exploding-head thought experimentation. Fall, or Dodge in Hell wallops your brain while it whips you into a future that is all to reminiscent of today.

You can follow this link to a conversation via Skype with Neal Stephenson’s excellent voice avatar:

Follow this link to hear my conversation with Neal Stephenson’s meatworld incarnation.

Malcolm Nance Reveals The Plot to Destroy Democracy: History Repeating

Hearts and minds are not generally changed by externalities. Belief and understanding, for all that they are concerned with the world round us, are not a part of that world. They are internal phenomena; change comes from within. Present us with new experiences, new facts, new perspectives, and we may change. The stories we tell ourselves are the only ones that will persuade us.

With the first sentence of The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West, Malcolm Nance offers a terrifying scenario: “On November 8, 2016, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian President of the United States.” The bulk of what follows looks at the last 100 years of Russian espionage as well as current events. Nance is a brilliant orchestrator and analyst of history. The facts speak for themselves, and the author lets readers draw their own conclusions. By the time events get close to current, readers, engrossed in a page-turning look at dirty deeds done in the dark will have made their own internal arguments. We are natural pattern matchers, looking at the fall of Crimea during a long weird Washington summer.

Nance keeps us focused on the import of today by showing us the results of yesterday, and that today’s hot new trend is yesteryear’s reheated leftover from the previous generation. For example, “fake news” is all the rage, and it seems as if it might be impossible without the leg up offered by a ubiquitous Internet and omnipresent social media. But the Soviets were, back in the day (the 1970’s), busy sending trained Russian nationals to India as reporters, to plant stories with the hope (sometimes realized) in smaller, more easily-reached Indian papers, with the hopes that they would be picked up by AP and disseminated to the wider world. (Some were.) In the stream of a gripping run-up from Soviet times to today’s oligarchy, it’s a nice detail that itself makes no argument. It needs no argument. Just look around, and the patterns match whether you want them to or not.

Nance knows how to strip down to the basics, and rips through recent history and the current catastrophe with grace and a sure eye for economic storytelling. By the time he arrives in the present, readers are just the right bit ahead of him. The Plot to Destroy Democracy is tense and gripping, even if we think we know what’s going on. Nance never pulls his punches, and he has a knack for finding the details that bind together disparate strands of events to transform apparent chaos into unpleasant order. You will not read this book with the intention of change. And by the time you finish, you may not feel changed. But it’s quite likely you’ll want to see change, early and often.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Malcolm Nance, or listen below.

 

Ben Rhodes Sees The World As It Is: Sweeping the Sand Back Into the Sea

The innate appeal of the political thriller, or memoir, is that the machinations of plot are revelations of character. With The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes proves that a memoir can be a political thriller. Seamlessly combining non-fiction and novelistic narrative techniques, The World As It Is tells the story of ten years of author Ben Rhodes’ life. Beginning with his invitation to join the Barack Obama presidential campaign and finishing with the turnover of the American government to Donald Trump, Rhodes’ plot is as exciting as the headlines. But his quiet insight into the motivations that drove him and those around him reveal a conflict behind the turmoil. The World As It Is happens when young but experienced idealists meet and try to change the human machines that enmesh them.

Rhodes’ perspective is throughout the book feels like that of an outsider even though he is in many ways, the ultimate insider. Because he eventually becomes part of Obama’s foreign affairs arm, Rhodes is not generally concerned with the immediate domestic crises created by the toxic Republican reaction to Obama’s election. Instead, he shows his work to be that of a busy firefighter, as he’s asked to solve one problem in a manner that creates more. National (in)security keeps him incredibly busy, essentially sweeping the sand back into the sea.

Be that as it may, we also see a group of men and women who believe that the machineries of government can accomplish lots of good for lots of people. Moreover, they’re good at integrating idealism and action. After years of frustration, we see Rhodes lead the effort to open up Cuba. It’s a lot of grunt work, meetings with Raul Castro to prepare the path and then the actual steps down the path. Baby steps, to be sure, but certain and difficult to un-create.

Irony arrives early and often, as when Rhodes celebrates the success of how Obama dealt with Libya. One key moment of accomplishment from within the perspective of the Obama administration was that they prevented Gaddafi’s promised razing of Benghazi. For all the lives they saved, they had no idea of the repercussions of that word in the years to follow. Unhappily, we see this play out as well. And yes, eventually Ben Rhodes becomes a villain for Fox News. Credit Rhodes’ writing expertise with the fact that in his narrative, this bit of recorded history seems surprising, as indeed anyone’s own vilification might seem surprising to them.

Rhodes’ prose is a big part of the real pleasure of reading The World As It Is. It feels raw and poignant, polished but prosaic. As a character, he feels a bit uncertain about his place in this world, but he’s willing to forgo or postpone personal life for the necessities of political action. And there are actions, plenty of them, positive things done by forward-looking humans here. Change is possible but never easy. Government is a human construct, easily broken by those who wish to, but fixable by those who care to. And in The World As It Is, we spend ten sweet years with those who care to and can selflessly change things for the better.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Ben Rhodes, or listen below.

Chris Feliciano Arnold Explores The Third Bank of the River: Distributing Dystopia

Humans are excellent homogenizers of the world around them. We are given to think that the entire planet, with a few spectacular exceptions, looks pretty much like whatever is currently in view. We live in an eternal present, and assume that it’s the same for everybody else. With The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon, Chris Feliciano Arnold offers not a travelogue to an exotic exception, but rather, an impressive feat of world-building. In a layered, page-turning portrait, he crafts a vision of blocks of unchanged early-twentieth century blight dropped into vistas of prehistoric rain forest. Apparently, we don’t need arrow-flinging heroines. We can catch a plane to dystopia.

The Third Bank of the River unfolds in three beautifully wrought layers from the last decade or so. Everything is contiguous to something different, and the lines are changing constantly. We first meet the author as a callow post-grad. He’s an orphan from Brazil who grew up as a typical kid in the US; he wants to see the city of his birth. But the more he wants to immerse himself in the “authentic” lives around him, the more he finds himself wanting. As a character in his own book, he does himself no favors, which has the unexpected benefit of making his writerly vision feel gritty and realistic.

The vision, as it unfolds, is fascinating. We see – he sees – the inexorable incursion of the 20th-century West into a pristine wilderness populated by both un-contacted and “in-touch” indigenous tribes. “In touch” in this case means merely 7 miles from the nearest road of any kind. Drive down a highway. To the left: green inferno.” To the right: brutalist architecture for factories. Misquoting William Gibson, in Brazil, the present isn’t distributed evenly. Imagine your world, dropped a block at a time into trackless, unforgiving jungle. Nobody wins. Dystopia marches on.

Chris Felicino Arnold builds up his world with a well-edited combination of first-person experience and history. He knows how to wrap story in story, past and present; how to temper his vision so the readers slowly realize that the turned pages are leading us elsewhere. He unhomogenizes the world. The question we find ourselves asking is not a happy thought. Are we looking at our past – or our future? As Chris Feliciano Arnold explores The Third Bank of the River, we realize that the two may directly overlay one another. It adds up to dystopia, but it is not too late to change paths. First, we need to stop worrying about the future, and understand that by the time it arrives, we think it is already the past.

The author will be appearing at local bookstores:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018, 7:30 PM Green Apple Books 1231 9th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122

Tuesday, June 26, 2018, 7:00 PM Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, CA 94925

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Chris Feliciano Arnold as we discuss The Third Bank of the River.  Or listen below…

<a name=”ttr280″ id=” ttr280″></a>Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Chris Feliciano Arnold about The Third Bank of the River. Or listen below…

 

Laurie R. King on Island of the Mad: Razor Wit and Reason

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King Reviewed, plus in-depth and lightning-round interviews.

Readers will not be surprised to find Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell sharp and smart, even in an adventure titled Island of the Mad.  Prospects might seem dire as the novel begins.  An aunt of one of Mary’s friend has gone missing from Bedlam, the infamous madhouse that conjures of hellish visions informed by Hieronymus Bosch.  With terror in our hearts, we know that Russell will pose as a madwoman herself.  Dire does not begin to describe the peril.

But Laurie R. King excels at eluding our expectations, and as a mystery and novel, Island of the Mad zigs when we’re expecting a zag and evokes smiles alongside (and often in place of) shivers. Firmly grounded in a vividly wrought historical setting, the latest Russell and Holmes offers sly satire and lots of witty repartee between Holmes and Russell as they encounter fascists in Italy and Britain.  Fascism segues into opportunism, and profit becomes a seemingly legitimate goal for the might makes right set.  While Mary checks into the madhouse, Holmes spends time with Mycroft. Paths cross then converge. And every time Holmes and Russell have a meeting of the minds, readers can be reminded of King’s ability to craft superbly entertaining dialogue.

King expertly weaves the strands of a toe-tapping historical mystery with understated, indeed, often-unstated observations that may or may not feel contemporary. Island of the Mad is fun and tense, but not irrelevant. What King does most expertly is to leave readers room to enjoy all the mental gymnastics in which they wish to engage. The story is compelling, the characters are charming, unless they’re awful, and King has plenty of room to twist the plot when we least expect it. The travelogue aspects are gorgeous; King evokes Venice in all its sunken, decrepit glory, and finds even more surprising destinations for Mary and Sherlock. This is perfect summer fun, and chock-a-block with enough thought-provoking needles and actual history to pleasantly fill our minds. Mary Russell’s travels in the past manage to not just entertain the present. They illuminate it.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Laurie R. King as we discuss Island of the Mad.

Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Laurie R. King about Island of the Mad.

Jennifer Egan on Manhattan Beach: Drowning Noir

Our memories flow as does water. The moments are fluid; they can be touched, but not held. They are never the same, yet lie in wait to drown us. For young Anna, the day with her father at Manhattan Beach is a memory that beckons, complicated feelings and emotions, not well understood in the moment, and less so in reflection. In Jennifer Egan’s powerful and utterly engaging novel Manhattan Beach, water flows through the narrative, transporting us, surrounding us, uncontrollable.

Egan’s story unfolds in New York during the Second World War, where an older Anna now works for the war effort. The memory of that day at the beach haunts her. Her father has since disappeared. But now, as a nascent adult, Anna once again meets the man her father met that day. He owns a nightclub, and she’s given to understand he’s a gangster, though he’s kind to her. Perhaps he might know what happened to her father. Anna begins to ask questions as she pushes herself into a naval diving program. Shadows haunt the harbor. Violence is all too easy to find.

Manhattan Beach is a compelling historical noir, with an intricately built setting and complicated characters enmeshed in a social machine beyond their ken or control. The intense plotting is finely enmeshed in seamlessly experienced history and achingly real characters. Egan’s prose is masterful and understated, beautiful but never showy. It flows, and we are transported, until, yes, like the characters, we are ultimately changed. Egan crafts a ripping yarn, with sea stories and shootouts caught in a current of melancholy. Dark nights and lonely streets; we are ever alone.

Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Jennifer Egan as we discuss Manhattan Beach; or simply listen below.

 

Andy Weir Builds Artemis: Sphere by Sphere

In a vacuum, nothing happens in a vacuum. Andy Weir understands the science, and as well, that science is a very human pursuit. It is inevitable that we will build on the moon. The science will have to be impressively precise. But all that precision will be infested with humans! In Artemis, Andy Weir masterfully populates the scientific precision of the titular city with an engagingly human infestation.

Jasmine Bashara, call her Jazz, is constantly scheming and scamming, cutting every human corner in an effort to corner some market, any market. There’s enough crime to go around. But with the vacuum of space too close for comfort, every move is circumscribed not by morality, but science. Jazz, a very humanweir-artemis human, understands the science intuitively, which helps in her inclinations to acquire ill-gotten gain. Weir handles his female protagonist well. He cranks up the smart-ass tone, which helps to gloss over our questions about why she sounds quite a bit like Mark Watney from The Martian. The fun begins as she learns that when the proscriptions of science meet the machinations of the market, human morals may prove more useful than the lack thereof.

Artemis takes the “Bay City” small-ish town crime caper novel and relocates it to an astonishingly well-crafted lunar base. Hired by a businessman to help move matters in a direction useful to said businessman, Jazz quickly finds herself hurtling past questionable into matters that would be merely complicated and dangerous – on Earth. But in Artemis, on the moon, the science waits in silence, ready to silence those who ignore it at their own peril. For readers, the result is a delightfully complicated thriller as the no-nonsense scientific setting makes even the simplest crime more difficult and dangerous.

The key to Weir’s fun seems simple but it’s not. Jazz is a smart-ass joy, and she’s really fun to read. She knows the machines as well as the machinations, and the scientific (not “science fiction”) setting adds an almost Rube-Golberg feeling of fun. Make no mistake; though the book is set in the future, nearly every bit of the science behind the city of Artemis (what seem to be domes are actually spheres) has already happened, or is about to. For all the future you find here (cultural and technological), the book simply does not feel very “science fictional,” other than the fun aspects that the tech adds to the plotting. Seeing everything through the superb snark of Jazz humanizes the setting so it feels real, just a little foreign.

andy_weir-2017-origFor readers (or moviegoers) who enjoyed The Martian, Artemis is a perfect follow-on. Weir brings all the joy in human invention to the character, and creates a backdrop for more stories of human infestation in space. Our imperfections are highlighted in the stark environment of Artemis, and every bit as enjoyable when tangled up in a good story.

Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Andy Weir about Artemis.

…And here’s your link to an in-depth discussion with Andy Weir of the moon, earth and the humans one finds in both places.