The Agony Column

Small Pieces Of The Madness Of This World – Lorrie Moore / “Your Inner Fish” With Niel Shubin


9780307594136_custom-944489ff003da542eeadae562662e441e0fdd603-s2-c85Lorrie Moore discusses the stories in her new collection, Bark, which look at post-divorce hysteria, middle-aged dating and classic grifter themes.  Stories full of desperation and sadness with characters who exist in the context of modern times. Despite their darkness, these stories are also deeply humorous. Laugh until you cry or let them both happen at the same time.












14_EP02_SAThen in the second half of the show it’s an interview with University of Chicago Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin from our archives. Shubin’s first book was Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Now he’s hosting a short PBS series titled “Your Inner Fish.” In this interview he discusses the book and how human biology reflects an evolutionary process visible in fossils.

Screenwriter and Novelist David Rich’s Latest Novel, ‘Middle Man’


David Rich

By Rick Kleffel

I think listeners and readers will get a sense just how much fun David Rich’s ‘Middle Man’ is as they listen to our conversation. I have not had so much fun, or been so relaxed in quite some time. And let me acknowledge this right now; David Rich is to be credited with re-casting my “Time to Read” mini-interviews as “the lightning round,” which says quite a bit about his wit and his intelligence.

But wait; there’s more. In ‘Middle Man,’ Rich presents what I suspect is the first concrete example of something we’re going to see quite a bit of in the future, which I call blogoflage. This is the art of creating false blogs and references to blogs as a means of backing up some big ol’ lie, whether you’re talking about global warming or trying to create a false identity. In the novel, Rich lays out in an iconic scene as Rollie Waters is re-invented for his mission. I can’t say if blogoflage (or bloggerflage) is “thing” yet, or if it will be named thusly, but for me it happened in print first here. This was a lot of fun to talk about.

…so much is known so quickly…

— David Rich

But Rich is the sort of writer who writes for fun and makes sure the readers gets it as well. So pretty much whatever we touched on (no plot details) we had a grand time talking about, from his writing-between-genre style to his work in the movies and upcoming novels.

Interview with Carol Cassella


Carol Cassella discusses medical ethics, brain death, identity and the health care system. She also talks about her new novel, ‘Gemini’, which combines medical mystery, love story and an exploration of family dysfunction.

Author and anesthesiologist Carol Cassella.

Author and anesthesiologist Carol Cassella.

By Rick Kleffel
Talking about ‘Gemini’ does present some challenges, because there are aspects of the plot that one simply does not want to discuss. Readers know that in my interviews, I try to preserve the reading experience, and we’ve done that quite handily here. It’s a tribute to how much Cassella packs into this slim, tense literary thriller.

“… we could provide good care for everyone…”
—Carol Cassella

Cassella wrote me after our interview and asked if I’d include this statement from her in my write up of the interview. It certainly bears thinking about and is pertinent to the book.

“The one thing I forgot to share with your audience is that there are good estimates that around 30% of our healthcare dollars are wasted now, on inappropriate care, medical errors, pricing failures, and a cumbersome administrative bureaucracy. If we could capture that waste and reallocate it, we could provide good care for everyone who needs it.”


Well said, and certainly pertinent to and present in the novel, which uses fiction to craft an emotional vision of the less than thrilling facts about our current healthcare system.

Laughing with Humorist Dave Barry


Dave Barry’s new book is ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’.

In this episode, Rick explores Dave Barry’s new book “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty”, with it’s author. And on the “Time to Read” segment, Carol Cassella discusses her new novel of medical suspense, “Gemini”.

By Rick Kleffel

I thought, I seriously, seriously thought that having read ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’ would somehow inoculate me from laughing during my interview Dave Barry. I should have sold myself the Brooklyn Bridge while I was at it.

So, here’s the deal. You will hear me, throughout this interview trying, almost always without success, to avoid laughing. My attempts might themselves be laughable, were their humor not dwarfed by Barry’s genial ease. I’ve spoken with Barry before about5 his fiction. but this was the first time we got to speak about his essays, which he can just reel off again and again, every time making you laugh.

We did get to talk a bit about how he does what he does, which is sort of like a live autopsy. Barry is a skilled enough patient / doctor in this equation that we did in one very memorable exchange get to the heart of his skills with language. Barry brings a lot of pertinent experience to the table, and not from a source you’d necessarily expect.

Standing in the Shadow of the Past



By Rick Kleffel

John Rebus is back — at the bottom. As ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ begins, he’s a DS, working for his one-time DS, now DCI Siobhan Clarke. His nemesis from ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave,’ Malcolm Fox, is back as well. What looks like a car crash might prove to be something else entirely. Simple events will prove to have complicated backgrounds. And readers should have no doubt that wherever you end up, one you start on a journey with John Rebus, getting there is all the fun you need.

As the mystery genre dissolves into serial killers and science experiments, Ian Rankin and his character, John Rebus, do things the old fashioned way. Both writer and character seek and tell utterly engaging stories about characters we give a damn about. Make no mistake; there are plenty of well-wrought mystery elements that make ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ a ripping, gripping yarn. But for this reader, the joy of just hanging out with Rebus and his gang was the primary draw.

Rebus has not aged well in his life, but as literature, he’s a hell of a find. Here’s a crabby old man who hits the mark every time. ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ is funny as hell, with lots of snappy dialogue and undersold poignancy. Rankin has a way of painting a vivid scene with very few words and infusing that scene with feeling and intimacy. Siobhan Clarke, his one-time underling, now his sort-of supervisor (the man can’t really be controlled), provides the right amount of reticent realism as opposed to the wild hairs of Rebus. And Malcolm Fox takes reticence to a whole new level as his time in the Complaints comes to an end. Soon to be unleashed as one of the cops he used to investigate, he’s none to easygoing.

Rebus and company begin the book investigating a car crash, but it’s not long before the political battle over Scotland’s independence come into the picture and from there, everything unravels into a series of enjoyably twisty knots. Past sins are revisited and present ones are scrutinized. For all the tension that he generates, Rankin also manages to give the book a distinctly literary feel. Between the life of crime, the life of a crime and the lives of his characters, the world he creates is complicated and vivid. Plus, it is fun as hell to read.

Rankin’s prose manages to feel detailed but read sparse. He has a talent for telling us just enough to make us feel we are really in that old house with his old friends, or out on the moors with a surly but tense felon. You can read this book and go on vacation with Rebus and Fox in the pub, half-sneering at one another as they discover they have more in common than either is willing to admit. It’s great to have rebus back at the bottom, even as ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ demonstrates that Ian Rankin has hit a new high — with more, we hope, to follow.

Michio Kaku Foresees ‘The Future of the Mind’

Theoretical physicist and author, Michio Kaku

Theoretical physicist and author, Michio Kaku

By Rick Kleffel | KUSP’s Agony Column

It’s obvious that Michio Kaku is about four steps ahead of the rest of the world. His books, ‘The Future of the Mind’ and ‘Physics of the Future,’ are as outstandingly entertaining as they are informative. In person, he’s just like his books, smart beyond belief and lots of fun.

“But I’m a physicist…”

— Michio Kaku

While I didn’t see a “But I’m a physicist…” button when we spoke at KQED, I’m pretty certain if there was one he would have been hitting it more often as I was hitting the cough button. To be honest, I find the man astonishing. He’s always on, and he has his subject down with a delivery that is authentically enthusiastic. It’s easy to see why he has two TV shows and two radio shows.

I tried, with some success, to get him to talk about crafting the books. He clearly gets to have a blast in the process, particularly with the interviews, and I can see the “kid in a candy shop” scenes when he talks about visiting labs, and seeing dreams and telepathy demonstrated by actual scientists.

Readers will get to hear as well the thrill in Kaku’s voice when he talks about how much he enjoys science fiction, and the importance of science fiction to the process of science. Here’s where the rubber meets the road in the form-following function arena. Listening to Michio Kaku you can get an appreciation of hard science and completely nutso, goofy science fiction.

Annie Jacobsen Files ‘Operation Paperclip’

Author Annie Jacobsen

Author Annie Jacobsen

Posted by Rick Kleffel:

My interview with Annie Jacobsen about ‘Operation Paperclip’ proved to be something of an operation itself. Her stopover in Northern California was brief, and the schedule was pretty tight. We were supposed to talk on a holiday; but the flight was delayed.

After more back and forths on my part than an episode of Get Smart, we finally managed to meet at KQED, for great sound superb ambience and a great conversation. As ever, my goal in the conversation was to give readers a sense of how the book feels to reading without giving them the feeling that they have already read it. And while generally, I might have tried to keep the discussion a bit more abstract, I could not resist asking Jacobsen about putting together what were for me some of the key scenes that read like something out of a John LeCarré novel.

And for this I have to here thank Jacobsen for her ability to both convey the sense of the scenes and some of the specifics while also being able to circle back and offer readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just how she managed to do what she did. What you can’t help but hear is her passion for both the subject itself and the process as well.

Author Jeff VanderMeer Seeks ‘Annihilation’


vandermeer-annihilationJeff Verdermeer visits with KUSP’s Rick Kleffel – reading from his new book, Annihilation. They discuss the book and also the business of art and self-publication.

Jeff VerderMeer

Jeff VerderMeer


Rick Kleffel wrote:
Vandermeer’s latest exploration into the literary landscape is markedly different from what has come before. ‘Annihilation’ unfolds in a world that is recognizably ours, caught in the act of becoming something else. The prose is stripped bare, the world is scrubbed clean, left gleaming with potential.

VanderMeer crafts for his readers the mystery that is right in front of our eyes, every waking and dreaming moment. These moments are rendered with a crystalline beauty and precision that makes it rather difficult to discern the difference. It is in fact rather difficult to discern the import of any difference.

Read more.

Mothers and Memoirs


Author Kelly Corrigan

Author Kelly Corrigan

In this program, Kelly Corrigan speaks with Rick about her latest book, Glitter and Glue.

Also, home baked gluten-free artisan bread in five minutes a day with Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.

“You just hope you get to have that whole second act with your children.”
—Kelly Corrigan

Rick Klelffel said:
Corrigan’s memoir is a perfectly complicated work of simple storytelling. It’s very easy to read and to a degree it’s easy to miss how sophisticated the narrative is. I admit to having a peculiar approach to the work. On one hand, everything we read here clearly has the ring of truth. But there’s an amazing level of artistry required to convey the very complex conclusions Corrigan reaches.

Jane Pauley Talks About Her Book: Reimaging the Rest of Your Life


Jane Pauley.

From Rick Kleffel:

Pauley’s book is a step aside from what you might expect. She weaves in her own post-career experiences with those of the people she’s interviewed for her segment on Today. She teaches by story, not sermon, embracing mutually exclusive notions. What works for one person might not work for another. ‘Your Life Calling’ does not offer all of the answers; but it does offer examples of answers that worked.

Pauley’s book is anything but simple, though it’s quite easy to read. She starts out with the story of Meg, a woman stricken with cancer, who recovers and then asks the pertinent question; “What am I going to do for the next 40 years?” Pauley is part of all that question implies, and she follows up with a variety of answers, including her own.

As ‘Your Life Calling’ unfolds, readers will find a mixture of Pauley’s colorful life, played lightly, and mixed with the stories she’s found for her TV series. The prose trends to the reportorial, and she’s clearly influenced by the styles required for TV. She works fast, and cuts time to suit the story and the point. Readers will be surprised by both her interest in and perspective on the future. In one segment, she offers visionary prose as she imagines how she might live some years down the road. Her grounded, low-key style keeps it all together.

Read more.