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.

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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.

 

Two of a Perfect Pair: Jeff Goodell and Kim Stanley Robinson Discuss Our Liquid Future

goodell-the_water_will_comeAs a regular reader of many very different sorts of books, I often find myself inspired to make connections between the books I read. As I read Jeff Goodell’s powerful work of journalism, The Water Will Come, all I could think about outside of his intense and compelling narrative was a rather different book; New York 2140, a hilarious and somehow hopeful vision of the future by master science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. As I read one book, the other began to speak to me, in a sort of cross-talk that gave both books more depth and scope. Even before I finished The Water Will Come, I wanted to re-read New York 2140.

2140-minBut it struck me that perhaps a more fruitful path would be to take the steps to get the authors of these two books speaking to one another. From a distance, the two books could not seem more different, science fiction set in the medium future versus journalism about the here and now. But between the two books, there was a lot of similar thought-experimentation in play.

I’ll let the authors speak for themselves in this 45-minute conversation that explores not just the subjects in the books, but those outside the books, in particular means of ameliorating the damage we have done and that to come. Here’s a link to download the conversation so you can listen as the seas rise; or, perhaps you’re more of a mind to settle back here, in this moment, where you are, and hear ideas as they are wrested from their aeries and given form by two of our brightest and most entertaining minds.

 

Beth Macy Traces Truevine: Stories, Webs, Traps and Truth

We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.

macy-truevineAll of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.

In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.

Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.

The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.

beth-macy-2017-smThere’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.

 

Annalee Newitz is Autonomous: Indentured to Self

Property is problematic. What can be owned and who can own it? Ownership can be onerous, which is to say a responsibility, or it can be empowering, an exemption from the obligation to care. With Autonomous, science journalist Annalee Newitz uses the science fiction novel in an exciting, emotionally engaging exploration of the edges of our economy. Pulse-pounding adventure proves to be the perfect instrument for examining the wreckage left after technology steamrollers over philosophy.

newitz-autonomousNewitz sets her story some 125 years into the future, in a world that is recognizably ours. Jack is a gene-splicing pharma pirate, a young woman who replicates patented life-saving and -extending therapies, bootlegging them so the poor can get a leg up. Paladin is a “human level” AI, indentured to the African Federation and working with Eliasz, a human, to bring Jack in. She’s pirated a prescription drug that unfortunately has terminal side effects. Ownership, moral and economic, are at war. Survival is optional.

Newitz expertly immerses readers in this world, wisely doling out bits of what we expect, what we hope and what we desperately want to find out with a plot that manages to be tense without ever getting into “artificial thriller” mode. We turn these pages because Newitz crafts characters who feel real. Everyone is shaded, with motivations that are both selfish and selfless. As Paladin and Eliasz make their way through the world seeking Jack, she seeks to undo what she has done. The thrill here is that we like both halves of this equation, and want everyone to succeed, which by definition should be impossible.

Newitz pulls off a lot of amazing feats in this novel. It’s a quick fun read that will make you think about a lot of current affairs by taking them out of today and resetting them in her future. Her characters, from the walk-ons to the leads are all superb and feel particularly real, especially Paladin, a masterpiece of neuroscientific pansexual speculation. The character arc of this robot, and others, including Med, a medical robot that appears human, are exciting and emotionally engaging incarnations of cutting-edge speculation about neuroscience and intelligence, artificial and “natural.”

Autonomous is bursting with ideas, and informed by a vision that’s not dystopian or utopian. It feels particularly real and agenda-free, almost slice-of-life some 125 years hence. In the here-and-now, Autonomous is a perfect example of all the great things that fiction can do. It’s as close to action-packed, emotionally charged science (fiction) journalism as you might hope to find. Explore Newitz’s world and you’ll return knowing a lot more about your own.

annalee_newitz-2017-cropThis is also the effect of talking with Annalee Newitz in person. Autonomous was the result of her work as a journalist, and as we sat down to talk about it, our conversation flowed from one mind-blowing bullet point to the next. We talked around the plot without talking too much about the plot, and she knows her science just as well as she knows her fiction.

You can jump into the world of your great-great-great-great grandchildren by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or declare your autonomy in the here-and now by clicking below and listening aloud wherever you are.

Ann Leckie Provenance: Values, Real and Imagined

In The Imperial Radch Trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), Ann Leckie created a space opera-style universe with the hard-headed hermetic depth of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a kick-ass through-line hard-SF military narrative and an insightful emotional core that re-thought gender. That left her a lot of room to play, and in Provenance she does just that, offering readers a coming-of-age heist-in-space novel that feels a lot like what you might hope for were we to resurrect Jane Austen and tasked her with the creation of an SF heroine. Provenance is understated and brilliantly imagined, thought-provoking and often hilarious fun.

leckie-covers

Readers who missed Leckie’s trilogy need not worry, as Provenance stands quite well on its own; those who enjoyed the trilogy will find something rather different here, but equally inventive and adept. When we meet Ingray Aughskold, she’s in trouble and not handling it well. She’s one of six adopted children in the Aughskold household, and certain that Danach, her rather nasty older brother (also adopted, but from better circumstances) will be the one to take their mother’s title of Netano. Ingray has tried to pull off a rescue, we realize, and it’s not gone well. Her primary response to this and the other obstacles she fails to overcome is to cry.

leckie-provenanceEven as Ingray resigns herself to deal with the problems she’s created, readers will slowly begin to adopt and adore her. Hwae, her home, is part of a very complicated interstellar society (The Radch Empire), which is a delight to unpack. On Hwae, one’s wealth and position are partially determined by the possession (or not) of “vestiges,” relics and keepsakes that reference events, people and places of personal or societal import. The provenance of these items is critical and unquestioned. Flailing and failing, Ingray is forced to be particularly skeptical of not just herself, but the rest of her world as well. For readers, the true joy is determining which cracks are the result of our ignorance of the world as readers and foreigners, so to speak, and which are part and parcel of the fabric of Leckie’s carefully crafted universe.

Leckie is a master of powerful prose that gives us emotional depth even as we are trying to suss just how the world works. Her spectrum of sexuality is superbly crafted, and her sense of character rings utterly true. And while there are big questions to be answered, there are also small moments of honesty, cowardice and valor to play through as well. There’s a wonderfully sly romance afoot, and a series of set-pieces that are outstandingly visual and tense. We meet a drily comedic alien, the Geck ambassador, and Captain Tic Uisine, a resourceful rogue with a talent for running mechs remotely. Our antagonist’s ambitions are eminently understandable, while our protagonist’s weaknesses equally empathetic. The upshot is that every scene is chock-a-block with characters we enjoy doing something that is fun, mysterious, exciting and emotionally engaging.

Leckie has a lot of fun with the Imperial Radch in Provenance, and as a reader, I’d be thrilled to see her follow up these characters, or any others in this universe. The triumphs of Provenance are many. It’s a fantastic stand-alone novel, a wonderful introduction to a space-opera universe that’s fresh, different, weird and foreign, yet ultimately grokkable and relevant to the here and now. Provenance is a novel that shows a mature talent making merry by letting her readers knock about in a well-worn universe. It’s fresh, wild science fiction wedded to the virtues of timeless storytelling, important and yet light-hearted. Leckie’s future is intelligent, imaginative, but most importantly fun. That this universe was created in our universe can only be a good sign for both.

ann_leckie-2017-ocropI had a blast chatting with Ann Leckie about Provenance and the universe of The Imperial Radch, even as the book itself gave me chills of space opera perfection. The dense language evoked memories of my first encounter with Dune, and we talked about the inspirations and inclination that went into building the work. And yes, I admit that I did ask the spell-check question, because part of the joy of reading this book is Leckie’s ability to craft a semantic version of the future.

You can follow this link to our lightning round, where we use gate technology to whip through universe – or you can just listen below in this world.

Follow this link for a deep dive into the craft of writing science fiction, thoughts on the spectrum of gender and the import of tears, or listen below, trying to remember just which universe is yours.

Loren Rhoads Suggests 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die: Life, Death and Everything In-Between

The word “cemetery” might first conjure up your own local variant, a big lawn studded somewhat regularly with cement tombstones. It’s a place you might not think about much, until you read 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. Rhoads innocent-seeming travel guide is actually a thought-provoking look at life, death and everything in-between. Gorgeously photographed and stunningly well-traveled and researched 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die the perfect logical endpoint of all bucket lists.

rhoades-199_cemeteries_to_see_before_you_dieAfter an admirably eloquent and brief introduction, Rhoads offers up exactly what is advertised. Divvied up by location, she finds the most destinations in the US. She then goes ’round the world. Every destination gets at last one photo, sometimes more, and they are all top notch. The whole book is in color; it’s a gorgeous thing just to look at. Moreover, Rhoads is a great writer, whose summaries are much more than mere travelogue. They’re miniature essays that touch on all the things suggested by cemeteries, which is to say, life’s rich pageant.

The utility of this book is manifold. If you want to ponder just about any aspect of life, these elaborate visions of where we house our dead will take you places you might never expect. If you’re looking for a reason to travel just about anywhere, you will find it here. And if you are planning on travelling just about anywhere, this book is likely to serve up a perfect little side trip.

lorren_rhoades-2017Whether or not you are planning on rising from the chair in which you read it anytime soon, this book has something to say to you. It says it well, it says it with both eloquent prose and beautiful photographs, it is a pragmatic assessment and an inducement to whimsy, and it does all of this 199 times. Loren Rhoads 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die is arguably the best, indeed the only travel guide for the living and the dead. The grass is always greener on your grave.

As far as I was concerned, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die had another benefit as well, which is the opportunity to speak with the author, about my favorite places in the book and all the odd thought-paths those places took me. I thought Loren Rhoads every bit as riveting as her book, and lots of fun to talk to. Here’s a link to our lightning round, which served up something different from the main interview.

Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, and take a deep dive into the wild and wooly world of after-life housing.  Or, if you prefer to transition to the next world while at your desk, listen below!