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.


John Scalzi Shores Up The Collapsing Empire: An Entire Universe of Smart Snark

The world is always going to hell in a handbasket – no matter what world, no matter when. In The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, it’s more than one actually. For all the years it took to build an “empire,” the whole shebang, from End to Hub, was tied together by the Flow, a galactic physical phenomenon that enabled faster-than-light travel and all the trappings of great space opera. Turns out The Flow, in pace for what felt like forever, was in galactic terms, temporary. A flash in the pan. Oops. Bad place to build an interstellar civilization!

scalzi-the_collapsing_empireAs The Collapsing Empire begins, Batrin Wu, who was running it, is reluctantly passing the torch to his daughter, Cardenia. Not that he thinks she’s not capable or deserving – it just wasn’t in the plans, which, ahead of the Empire itself, have collapsed. Greed being an eternal human value, the Nohamapetan family gets some slick parts moving fast to see if they can tip all this in their favor. From Hub to End and back, humans are doing what they do best; inventing, lying, stealing, cheating, discovering, studying and arming up for combat. As ever, we are our own biggest problem. Given that we are also on tap to supply the solution, it’s clear that many things will have to give.

The primary upshot of this combination of forced change met with both scurrilous and heroic behavior is some 300-plus pages of top-notch page-turning, illuminating snark that will have you laughing and looking around to realize that in five hundred, one thousand, ten thousand years, we’re not likely to change that much. When science supports the plans that make us wealthy, we are all scientists. If that’s not the case, we get out our “pragmatic skeptic” hats.

Line-by-line, Scalzi’s an amazing writer. There are many wonderful sentences here that are a joy to read. And while the primary mode is dark humor, Scalzi understands that to carry this off successfully, you need to have great characters, good and bad. On one side we have Marce Claremont, a wonderfully wrought gentle scholar soul. He seems like just the sort of fellow you might want to pause and have along talk about science with. On the other side you have Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed hilarious Owner’s Rep on the ship Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby. For all her boldness, she’s someone you want on your side. Ghreni Nohamapetan, on the other hand, is equally entertaining but someone who is better appreciated on the wrong side of an airlock without a spacesuit.

In the tradition of starting at the end, The Collapsing Empire does perhaps too good a job at setting up the sequel(s). Every moment reading this book is both fun and thought-provoking, and any ending is bound to inspire the desire for more. But the trick of this novel is to entertain you with language about a universe that never will be while making you think quite critically the world that is – all the while laughing about the follies of both.

john_scalzi-2017-400In my conversations with both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, the follies that are generally on display are mine. Here’s a link to my conversation with John Scalzi; or just listen below and amaze your friends with the wit and wisdom of John Scalzi.


Cory Doctorow Elects to Walkaway: Utopia As Nothing to Lose

Utopia is good, right? Everybody’s happy by definition, it’s not just a good life, it’s a perfect life. Which is to say that there’s nowhere to go but down. When you think about it that way, and you will as you read Cory Doctorow’s immersive and intense Walkaway, it begins to seem as if all the dystopias and utopias miss the point. Doctorow’s gripping glimpse at a possible day-after-tomorrow is a ripping yarn that will quickly shred your assumptions not just about how the world works, but why and why it matters.

doctorow-walkawayHubert, Etc [he has lots of middle names] is getting old, too old to enjoy the parties that attend the breakdown of the world as we now know it. 3D printing, vat food and a host of technologies now bubbling at the fringes of society have undermined any sense of order. The world is split between the Default, the crumbling remnants of what you likely see around you, and what’s in-between. The in-between is where things get interesting, because the technologies simmering now are flowering here. They’re portable, which means that if someone decides to move in and seize your community, you can “Walkaway” – drop it, leave and start anew elsewhere with the same level of comfort. Hubert, Etc leaves, and your reading life gets really interesting.

Doctorow told me in our conversation that he took a different tack in composing this book, which results in a richer read, where the future, like the past is a foreign country. They certainly do things differently here, and in a manner that has ideas of all sorts jumping off the pages. Even as the plot keeps the yarn a-ripping, Doctorow’s creation not only of the world, but the characters who inhabit that world and their assumptions about that world will surely mess with your head in the best possible manner.

Walkaway meshes the science fiction toolkit seamlessly with a great story that easily leads us from the familiar to the astonishing, generally while we are not expecting anything other than the fun to be had on every page. By careful world-building, the elements of story (character, plot, etc.) are given dimensions subject to joyful stretching, revisions and imaginative excess. Humor is a key element in Walkaway; expect to laugh out loud, a lot, and modify your reading habits accordingly.

For all that Walkaway is fun and sense-of-wonder-inducing, it’s also very political, fueled by an honest rage that burns off in snark and “that would be funny if it were not so true” commentary. Where some offer stark choices, utopian splendor or dystopian decay, Cory Doctorow takes an essential first step in a new direction. When faced with a dilemma – as in two choices – Doctorow’s Walkaway revels in the third choice. Those who would rule this world fear nothing more than those who can build another.


In my conversations with both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, the follies that are generally on display are mine. Here’s a link to my conversation with Cory Doctorow; or just listen below and amaze your friends with the wit and wisdom of Cory Doctorow.

I managed to get Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi to hang around long enough to speak to me together. Apparently I was there! Here’s a link to our conversation, or listen below. A word of warning; we do talk about the soon-to-be-included in the DSM “asshole personality disorder.” As a bad cue reader, I may resemble that remark!

Barbara Feinman Todd, Pretend I’m Not Here: The Ghost’s Story

todd-pretend_im_not_hereStory and storyteller are inexorably intertwined. Who tells us the story is every bit as important as the words being spoken. Perhaps the teller haunts her own story, changing our perception, if not the words we hear. Writing, ghosts and the strength that guides a gentle soul are the heart of Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp by Barbara Feinman Todd. Todd is a ghostwriter, most famously of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. Her memoir is a page-turning meditation on politics, identity and the writing life.

As it begins, Todd’s story is achingly familiar. She graduates from college with a writing degree and an interest in fiction, but gets a job at the Washington Post as the post-Watergate glory days unfold. She finds her footing and soon enough ends up working with Woodward and Bernstein. One thing leads to another – as is common in America’s working world – and she finds herself ghostwriting books, an occupation that requires her not simply to write, but to become another person.

Todd’s a very engaging and smart writer, who knows how to ratchet up the tension with genuine emotions and events. We all know where she is headed; we also know that the upshot of her attaining the highest point possible for her profession, ghostwriting for then First-Lady Hillary Clinton will not end happily. Todd’s secret weapon is crystalline prose deployed to explore the murkiest human relations, where celebrity and an endless, hostile spotlight conspire to annihilate anyone who is not a Teflon-coated soulless sociopath. That’s not our narrator, we love her. Her struggles amidst the shoals of so-called big-fish are the stuff of our lives.

The characters that haunt this book are most assuredly not ghosts. Woodward, Bernstein, Clinton and the human remoras that follow them are sharply evoked. She found Bernstein, “…a welcome break from the long days and too many nights hunched over my computer reading Woodward’s drafts or transcribing taped interviews or trying to find some needle-in-a-haystack fact buried within an intelligence document. Carl brought some much-needed levity to our regimented work environment…” Elsewhere we learn that, “Mrs. Clinton was cordial and had a way about her that made you feel like she was really listening.” Todd knows how to incorporate details to create our larger-than-life size figures on a more of a 1:1 scale for readers.

Of course the central character here is the ghost herself, and it is here that the true strength of the book lies. Barbara Feinman Todd hunkers down and gets the work done, both as a character and as writer. She treads the dangerous depths of writing about her attempt to sell a novel with grace, and makes us glad that she had the opportunity to apply her talents in the manner she has thus far. Crafting a literary novel may feel more artistic than ghostwriting a memoir, but Todd help us understand that art is in the application, not the genre.

Ghostwriting itself is fascinating, and anyone who is interested in writing as a profession will find Pretend I’m Not Here an excellent examination of how it does and does not work. As Todd takes us through her life and the increasingly tense confrontations with the human machinery that alternately guides and goads the Clintons, the book becomes impossible to put down even as we’re immersed in the method-acting that necessarily alienates the ghost-writer from herself.

barbara_feinman_todd-2017-800Pretend I’m Not Here looks pretty low-key and you might be tempted to think it reads that way as well. It is true that Barbara Feinman Todd manages to portray the deadly serious nature of the games she’s involved in without taking herself too seriously. When you’re writing about the powder-keg where politics and press meet, she keeps the keeps the lights bright but not incendiary. It’s a hard balance to keep and not an easy story to tell. Dear World, Barbara Feinman Todd suggests here. This is how I haunt you.

Sense and Sensibility are the reasons I write here and speak with the authors. Barbara Feinman Todd offers a perfect example of this. In our conversation, you can hear Todd’s remarkable knowledge and perceptions as well as her ultimately low-key approach.   Her story, so compelling and timely, is filled with the rich history of America’s press politics and an uncanny access to those at the top of both. It’s the paradox at heart of the life and this book, which is both a ghost story about a haunted nation, and the story of the ghost who tells the tale.

Here’s a link to our “lightning round” interview, an executive summary for the man or woman on the go. Or enjoy below!

And here’s our complete conversation; take your time and enjoy the smart storytelling of Barbara Feinman Todd.

Will Schwalbe Finds Books for Living: What Are You Reading?

Some see books as an escape from life. Will Schwalbe sees them more as a route to life, a means of engaging the world in its infinite variety. Schwalbe’s Books for Living is simply fun to read; a collection of some 26 book essays, it lends itself, you might think, to casual reading. But once you pick it up it’s impossible to put down. It’s super-fun, but not just a collection of essays. It’s a stealth memoir, personal and cultural, as well as a meditation on questions, answers and the importance of goofing off.

schawlbe-books_for_livingSchwalbe trains his book around a personal North Star; Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, a book whose real message is well conveyed by the chapter titled “The Importance of Loafing.” Schwalbe does a masterful job of bringing up books we do know, those we think we know and those we do not to craft a wonderful quilt that is full of life and joy, and yes, goofing off and fun.

Each of the essays is perfectly paced and fun to read individually, but the joy to be found here is cumulative and carefully crafted, As Schwalbe discusses the books that have moved him, he becomes our stand-in, our personal reading champion. And we get to know this man in an intimate and utterly unique feat of characterization. We see Schwalbe as a young gay high school student at a time when this was not generally acceptable. The librarian gives him the keys to understand himself, and we realize that Schwalbe is doing the same. By showing us the books that help craft him as a literary character in his own book, we understand from within how reading shapes us.

Make no mistake that the choices you will find here are as outstanding as they are unexpected. It’s a blast to read about what Schwalbe likes and why, and as he writes about the simple joys of reading widely we realize that by virtue of his format (memoir via book), we are reading widely whether we expected to or not. It’s all about the most important question we can ask: “What are you reading?”

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is the perfect magic act. We open it for a series of enjoyable single-use essays, and find out by the end that we have lived not only the lives of the books that we have read about, but the reader’s and writer’s as well. But we are the readers, are we not? Better check to be sure you’re asking the right question, and living the right life. Ask early and often; accept conflicting answers. Books will tell you a story. Eventually, not one, but all of them will turn out to be yours.

will_schwalbe-2017-origWill Schwalbe in person is just as much fun as you’d expect. And while you eavesdrop on our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file, no need to take notes, Let it flow and enjoy it, you’ll have the books live when you buy Schwalbe’s book. If you’d care to begin life early, just click on the bar below and let your cubicle neighbor enjoy the conversation.


Florence Williams Gets The Nature Fix: Quantizing Intuition

Knowledge is, perhaps counter-intuitively, ambiguous. We know facts and science, but we also know emotions and intuition. Of late, we’ve seen scientific advances that are allowing us to quantize “knowledge” that has thus far rested firmly in the terrain of emotions and intuition. We’re finding facts behind the feelings.

The devils and delights of the details of science combine with lovely prose in Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Williams uses her writer’s art to explore the science that underlies the universal appeal of the out-of-doors. Exploring the science behind our emotions in artistic prose proves to be a perfect combination. Moreover, there’s lots of fascinating work being done here and it is only the beginning.

Take, for example, the Japanese scientists and nature enthusiasts who are pioneering what they call forest bathing. It doesn’t involve disrobing;

“‘People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide, Kunio, explained to me. “This way, they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio—a volunteer ranger—had us standing still on a hillside, facing the creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the mother ship. Weathered and jolly, Kunio told us to breathe in for a count of seven seconds, hold for five, release. :”Concentrate on your belly,” he said.”

Concentrate indeed! Rest assured that you’ll need no help following Williams’ survey of the current state of our “NDD,” what she calls the Nature Deficit Disorder. She knows the perfect proportions of facts and science to story and character. You will meet quite a few characters here, not the least of which is the author herself, a very genial guide through a landscape you will see with entirely fresh eyes. Even as she engages us with wildly weird scientists, their stories and the facts they unearth, Williams is craftily creating for readers a new inner landscape.

Perhaps the most important aspect of The Nature Fix is that it is not the last of its kind. You will know that surely as you read every word and rewrite your own vision of the world the science will get stronger and more specific. The power of this book then, is that even when the facts become known, the feelings they underpin will be no-less certain. Nature makes us feel good and gives us strength, ultimately because we are natural. It might take us a bit longer to prove that scientifically. Until then, having a delightfully well-written book to remind us of the fact is a perfect example of the very human ability for intelligent design.

Not surprisingly, in our conversation about the book, Florence Williams gave it the human touch. We talked about her inspirations for the book (moving from Denver to DC), and many of the wonderful experiences she had in her journey writing it. Here’s a link to our conversation, or you can listen below, even, especially at work. You can authentically call this your health care check-up even as you listen to the interview below.


Joe R. Lansdale Floats Rusty Puppy: Rot Within

It’s much easier for us to deal with a lie that feels like the truth than a truth we wish were a lie. Which is to say that generally we’re much happier (and often better-served) to hear a fictional story about an unhappy problem than non-fictional reportage that’s so dire we refuse to let it enter our ears. And it helps too, if we already know the folks in that fictional story, especially if we’ve known the fictional people (as characters) for years.

lansdale-rusty_puppy.jpgJoe R. Lansdale is an expert at making readers happy, a skill much in evidence in his latest Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy. By my count, it’s the ninth novel in Lansdale’s series featuring low-key North Texas detectives Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is white, straight, married (to Brett Sawyer), easy-going and liberal; Leonard is black, gay, unmarried, hot-headed and conservative. Lansdale’s skill at playing with the dynamic between the two makes them believable, enjoyable and charming. The first book in the series is Savage Season, and if you’ve not encountered these guys before, this is the place to start.

That said, Rusty Puppy is smart enough to bring you up to speed in about three paragraphs that open the novel (which the author reads in my interview; more on that later). You get death, resurrection and a laugh-out-loud line you’ll want to hang on to. Once you’re in place with Hap, Leonard and the whole family, the clients arrive, and things begin whipsawing between hilarious, terrifying, poignant to craft a story that moves like lightning, makes you laugh a lot while you read and think about afterwards.

As the novel begins, a (black) mother from a nearby rusting-out mill-town hires Hap & Leonard to find out what happened to her son. The cover story is that he was killed looking for drugs in a bad part of town, uncharacteristic behavior. His mother thinks the cops killed him. Hap is inclined to take it slower, while Leonard wants to quickly even accounts by any means necessary. As skilled as these two are, prepare to stay awake turning pages as characters you love are put through the wringer – and yet you laugh. Yes, you laugh a lot.

What proves to be the true power of Lansdale’s work here is that he’s so good at entertaining you with these great characters, smart-ass humor and a toe-tapping terrorizing plot that he’s able to pack intense, powerful truths into his fictions as a by-product. Now, make no mistake, this reads very much like a comedic crime novel, with more than a few touches of horror. It’s fast paced and (slow down!) quickly read. That said, when you finish the book, you will come to know that it is not finished with you. The jokes are still funny, and linger, charging the implications of the novel with their frenetic energy.

Ultimately, Rusty Puppy is fun; the kind of fun that energizes the world around you. If it represents only a slice of what Lansdale writes, well – that’s all the more incredible. When I sat down to interview Lansdale, first I had him read the opening of Rusty Puppy. But, not surprisingly, that brought up his beginning to The Drive-In, which is one of my all-time favorites. I could not help but laugh, and then we were off to the races, talking about Rusty Puppy without really talking about it. We talked about the TV series based on the novels; each season roughly covers one novel, and the seasons will follow the novels’ order.

joe_r_lansdaleFor all that Lansdale is making his name with the Hap & Leonard novels, he’s actually writing quite a bit for Subterranean Press, whether it’s the upcoming Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers, a prequel novel for Bubba Ho-Tep, Dead on the Bones, a collection of pulp stories, or Hell’s Bounty, a supernatural western co-written with Lansdale’s brother John L. Lansdale. Lansdale and I talked about all of them, when he wasn’t making me laugh.

If you’re in a hurry, check out the short lightning round interview, which you can download from this link, or listen to below.

No matter what you do listen to the reading that begins this interview, then stay for the many laughs that follow. Download the whole shebang here; listen to the first bit below.