The Agony Column

Author Roz Chast, “The Beginning of the End” to “The End”

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By Rick Kleffel

Roz Chast Asks ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’

No.

You’d think that living here in the 21st century, we’d be comfortable with death. It’s not as if we haven’t seen enough of it. But everyday, natural, he-lived-a-long-life-and-then-dropped-dead death gives us the heebies to the point where we’ve let ourselves be convinced that anything is better. Plus, there’s a healthy profit in tending to those who might otherwise have died but can be kept alive long enough to cash out every penny they had ever scrimped, saved and hidden away for that rainy day. If only it were just a day.

In ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’ Roz Chast tackles the subject of death in America, in the 21st century, head-on, in a personal, powerful poignant tour-de-force graphic memoir. The astonishing success here is that Chast manages to do so without being grim or glossing over the hard stuff. It’s all here; the humor, the sweetness, the hard decisions, the slow decline, everything that most of us have to look forward from both sides of the equation. Chast crafts an emotional victory as she tells the story of how she cared for her parents in the years before their passing. The truths of the matter might not set her free, but she articulates love in its most difficult moments with elegant grace. And she paints a particularly clear portrait of a society that is defeated by death, unable to talk about it, but plenty willing to profit from it.

Chast’s story unfolds in 18 straightforward chapters, from “The Beginning of the End” to “The End.” She starts her story when she visits her parents’ house and notices GRIME, in a page that speaks to her powers both as a writer and an illustrator. Clearly, her parents are no longer up to the challenge of taking care of themselves. Chast is charmingly and sometimes, alarmingly, honest about her life and her relationship with her parents; she makes no pretense of perfection. The result is that for the reader, everything that follows has more impact.

Chast tells her story in a sort of scrapbook style, with standalone pages punctuating longer pieces, but keeping every chapter focused on its topic as she moves the overall story forward. It’s an incredibly involving and detailed work of storytelling architecture. In any moment, it’s at once folksy and fun and raw. But step back and you realize just how carefully crafted the whole is. It’s a superbly sophisticated whole from cut scraps of life so real it aches.

The balance between art, comics and prose is an integral part of Chast’s creation. Once again, expect a complicated architecture that does not seem as such because as a reader, you’re simply immersed in each scene. That it all fits together so smoothly is something you never think about, and this is the ultimate testament to Chart’s artistry.

The character focus here is quite tight. Roz, her mother and her father dominate the story, with some cameos by caregivers. But in spite of her concentration on her parents, and even their own lifestyle, Chast’s narrative never seems claustrophobic. Her mother and father are created with depth and clarity. Her mother is more the leader of the family, while her father is more of a retiring scholar. Chast does a great job of showing each of them alone and making a careful differentiation between their characters alone and who they become when they are together.

Chast wisely refrains from making any social commentary of her parents’ story, with the result that readers are left to draw their own conclusions. This is particularly true with regards to the question of money. Chast deals with this, in detail, and it’s not pretty. She has a way of making you think things you might wish to unthink. Her “nary a word” approach makes any conclusions you draw about this even more powerful.

There’s never any doubt where this story is headed, but Chast’s tribute to her mother is especially touching. Her use of prose of art, and the blank spaces on the pages is striking. Even more striking, and only in retrospect, is how this all feels for the reader. The immediacy of Chast’s story, and her ability to tell it with raw honesty, let us close the book and feel as if a cherished friend has just confided in us, has told us in detail about the hardest experience in her life. But as the story plays out in our memories, we can’t help but become involved. We see ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives — and understand a lot more about the hard decisions to come.

Interview with Alan Furst

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While Alan Furst’s current novel is ‘Midnight in Europe,’ at this point in his career, you can’t really talk about a single novel. Make no mistake. You can read ‘Midnight in Europe’ by itself, having never read anything else by the man, cold, and it will knock you out. It’s a superb novel. But Furst is working on a unique literary form, a multi-volume version of a story in the style of a huge Russian novel.

“..but it was as nothing compared to the noise of planes landing…”
—Alan Furst

In conversation about his latest, I definitely wanted to open it up, to explore how Furst builds this detailed world, novel by novel. He told me some very interesting secrets that took me back to my time as a child, reading the Compton’s Encyclopedia. In retrospect, it seems that the hardbound encyclopedia has much more worth than one might presume, as it captures the world in a moment. It may give you some valuable information about the world, to be sure, but is certain to offer invaluable and un-reproducible information about the moment.

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Writer Sarah Lotz

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Read a review of Sarah Lutz’s The Three, by Rick Kleffel.

Author Sarah Lutz

Author Sarah Lutz

Sarah Lotz is something of a contradiction in terms. Here’s her first novel, by my reckoning, ‘The Three.’ Bu there are three in the “Also By” list, and I come to understand she’s part of three other “writers,” that is single names on the cover that prove to be collaborations, including one with her daughter.

“…people need answers…”

— Sarah Lotz

To be honest, she looks far too young to have a daughter with whom she could collaborate, but she tells me that this is the case. The point being, if ‘The Three’ seems like a remarkably accomplished first novel, then that’s because like most “first” novels, it’s actually, well, pretty far down the line.

As a reader, I tend to confabulate, that is, to see things in novels that are not, I am later told, put there deliberately. So as I read ‘The Three,’ it seemed clear to me that Lotz is really interested in doppelgangers and doubles and simulacra a la Philip K. Dick. In hindsight, the author agreed, but she didn’t put them there on purpose. But the name Philip K. Dick is an important one for readers to remember, because this book has that vibe in spades.

We talked quite a bit about Android Man, a fellow who speaks through a version of himself he built. Lotz had to do a lot of research for this novel, and talking about that was almost as fun as the novel.

Read a review of Sarah Lutz’ The Three, by Rick Kleffel.

Interview with Author Bill Bryson

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This program was originally broadcast November 11, 2013.

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“It was the most amazingly eventful and magical summer…”
—Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s new book  ”One Summer: America, 1927″ digs into a transitional year in the history of the United States. His past books include  ”A Walk in the Woods,” “A History of Everything” and several other nonfiction books. KUSP’s Rick Kleffel spoke with Bryson about how he selects the subjects for his books and the importance of Charles LIndbergh to his latest.

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Interview with Author Steven Galloway

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Creating Harry Houdini

Martin Strauss makes some extraordinary claims at the beginning of Steven Galloway’s ‘The Confabulist,’ and like all such declarations, they require extraordinary proof. With Steven Galloway, Martin Strauss and novel’s focal point, Harry Houdini, you’re in precisely the right company to obtain it. Galloway’s novel manages to be a tense, imaginative historical thriller while simultaneously being a poignant mediation about love and loss.

The title of the novel suggests how it’s possible to reconcile such opposing literary notions. Confabulation is what happens when memories are blurred and the imagination supplies supposed facts to fill in the blanks. As we meet Martin Strauss, he’s not in the best shape. Suffering from tinnitus, and racked with guilt, he claims to have met Harry Houdini. Before we can blink our eyes, Galloway introduces us to Houdini, and the novel rockets forward and backward through Houdini’s life and Martin’s.

Galloway is a master of modulating his prose to keep it appropriate to the task at hand. His re-creations of historical events are transparent third-person narratives that are crisp, clear and exciting. Martin Strauss’s passages create tension and pathos as he tries to remember what he claims to have experienced. Galloway has the poetry to be lyrical, the power to create an intense propulsive narrative and the writerly wisdom to know how and when to move from one to the other.

The two main characters here, Strauss and Houdini, are magnificently conceived and equally well executed. Galloway crafts Strauss as a man whose cloud of self doubt never gets in the way of a muscular self-importance. Houdini is rather the opposite, a man whose constant certainty is undercut by his understanding that nobody, not even the great Houdini, can be right all the time. Moreover, much of the joy of the book comes from seeing Houdini create himself as a character. It is quite appropriate that, in a book about Houdini, we experience a sort of hall of narrative mirrors.

The reflections don’t end with the characters, but extend into the plot as well. The Strauss story has some echoes in the Houdini story that it encompasses, and both play with and undermine our sense of history. Suffice it to say that Galloway has clearly done his research with regards to writing about Houdini’s life in manner that is both historically accurate but imaginatively entertaining as well.

‘The Confabulist’ ultimately proves itself to be something of a magic trick, one that will play with the memories of everyone who reads it. None of us will come away with the same story, or the same memories of reading the same words. But there’s- no doubt that magic, real or imagined takes place. And the difference between magic, real and imagined is, if not negligible, at least negotiable. As readers, we have the power to choose which words to read between and what to put there.

Colson Whitehead and His Turn in the ‘World Series of Poker’

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By Rick Kleffel

Incandescent Memories of the Future

On the face of it, the world beats words, hands down, every time. Our lives are so immersive, so intense that it seems anything less, no matter how powerful the art, simply cannot conjure up reality. This would seem to be doubly true for Las Vegas and the world of high-stakes poker. Yet, one paragraph into Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Noble Hustle,’ you’re reminded of just how powerful — and fun! — language can be.

Fun is the key word here, it’s important, it matters, and not just because Whitehead keeps the reader entertained. It’s important because Colson Whitehead’s latest conjures up not just fun but serious fun. This is life and death stuff wrestled down the page with mere words. This is the triumph of the Lilliputians over Gulliver, this is hardcore wild-side writing. This is bright lights in black and white.

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Geoff Dyer: ‘Another Great Day at Sea’

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Author Geoff Dyer

Author Geoff Dyer

By Rick Kleffel:

I was intrigued with ‘Another Great Day Day At Sea’ pretty much from the moment it landed in my hands. Geoff Dyer’s prose voice was delightful and the subject seemed so odd and yet so obviously fascinating.

This wasn’t my first experience with Dyer, though. I’d read another odd little book by him titled ‘Zona,’ about one of my favorite movies of all time, Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

“..but it was as nothing compared to the noise of planes landing…”
—Geoff Dyer

I did manage to keep my focus (mostly) on the matter directly to hand, and talking about Dyer’s book was as fun as reading it. Here’s an interview where hearing the author’s voice will enable you to hear him speak when you read the book. We did make certain to talk about the book in a manner that left reading the book more appealing. Once you hear Dyer speak, you’ll hear him tell you the whole story as you read the book.

dyer-another_great_day_at_seaFor such a small book, there was a lot to talk about and the hour flew past. Dyer was a great sport, having just left one interview with the superstars to come talk with the podunk local guy.

I have to say Dyer was a bit surprised when I brought up ‘Zona,’ but there are not a lot of people who even know about the movie, much less revere it in the manner that Dyer (and I) do. Dyer’s book is a fascinating look at the power of art, and a hall of mirrors for anyone who is interested in how art makes you, well — human.

Kaui Hart Hemmings Discusses Comedic Reactions to Grief

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Author Kaui Hart Hemmings

Author Kaui Hart Hemmings

By Rick Kleffel

It’s hard not to laugh at most of what’s around you if you have just finished reading The Possibilties by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Sarah St. John’s voice will sharpen your ability to identify the many idiocies that surround you, and may inspire a more astringent response than usual.

“I burned that copy and started fresh.”
—Kaui Hart Hemmings

Hemmings is every bit as sharp as her character, but much more generous, at least to aging radio hosts who have hijacked a bit of her visit to San Francisco. I set up the interview on something of a lark. The day I got the book in hardcover, I emailed the author, and suggested that the next time she happened to be in the Bay Area, she should let me know so we could talk about the book. She told me she’d be here next week, and I had the distinct delight of having a very good reason to put down anything else I was doing (like re-finishing the back deck or getting the car fixed), and spending a perfectly delightful bit of reading time with Sarah S. John

hemmings-the_possibilities-homeOff-tape, I asked Hemmings about a movie based on this book, which to me seems dead-certain, given that the movie based on The Descendants was an award-winning hit. (It was an excellent adaptation.) She told me that there had been some interest, but that her first novel had been in movie limbo for quite some time, and this one was only just getting entrée into said limbo. Once again, the many advantages of book over movies are made clear. Committees do not create books after a withering and often badly thought out decision process. That artists-in-their-garrets image offers a real advantage.

[Let me hastily add that most books are the result of more than the authors' efforts, and that editors, publishers and publicists make a huge difference in getting a book to the public. But the core initial creative process tends to be fairly solitary. Hell, I know I could use an editor, a second set of eyes for this enterprise. Cast not stones, etc.]

Hemmings and I sat down to talk and immediately began to have more fun than one should usually attempt an author interview. But it didn’t get in the way of a substantive talk that ran the clock down faster than I expected. We spoke for nearly an hour and then it was time for The Lightning Round.

Interview with Kent A. Kiehl

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Author Kent A. Kiehl. Photo: Mark Petersen Photography

Author Kent A. Kiehl. Photo: Mark Petersen Photography

Review by Rick Kleffel:

Kent Kiehl begins ‘The Psychopath Whisperer‘ with his first day of work as a twenty-three year-old graduate student; he’s entering the Matsqui maximum-security prison near the town of Abbotsford, British Colombia to interview the prison’s most violent inmates. “Prison is never boring,” he tells us. As this utterly compelling books proves, for young neuroscientists studying the brains of psychopathic killers, that is certainly the case.

‘The Psychopath Whisperer’ is a fascinating book on a variety of levels. The science is groundbreaking, the characters are riveting, Kiehl’s story arc as a young scientist making his mark in the field is involving, and the way Kiehl brings together all the threads for a stunning denouement is authentically thrilling.

Interestingly enough, for a fellow who speaks with those whom he describes as having a “flat aspect,” Kiehl’s prose is itself rather flat of aspect. It seems a bit odd at first, but as he goes on to interact with and describe some of the most vile humans one might hope never to meet, the reasoning behind this choice, if it is indeed one, becomes quite clear. There’s a clinical precision at work in the prose for this book that is actually quite appealing. The upshot is that Kiehl’s voice is unique and well served by his prose.

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Author Justin Go, The Steady Running of the Hour

Justin Go

Justin Go

Justin Go proves to be every bit as cosmopolitan as you might expect him to be from reading his first novel, ‘The Steady Running of the Hour.’ He’s sharply dressed, well spoken and more than able to talk about the odd mix of subjects that go into his engaging and rather intense book.

When asked about Dan Simmons’ ‘The Abominable,’ which does cover some of the same material albeit in a very different fashion, he tells me that he’s heard about it but not yet read it. In the world of two-books-make-a-trend, that means there’s a WWI/Everest meme in the wind. Taken on its own, ‘The Steady Running of the Hour’ is engrossing enough to talk about all by itself, and talk we do.

“… there was always something that had to happen …”
—Justin Go

Go told me that he had to mess about with all Britishness of the narrative, even though he’s an American. He spent some college time in London, and more besides, enough to consider the city a second home. In fact, travel plays a pretty big part in his life, as it does in his book. In our time, you can hop on a jet and get anywhere in a day or two. A century ago, you might have to take a steamer or a train, and get anywhere in a page or two via the magic of eliding the unnecessary bits.

Go told me that much of the novel would never have been completed had he ever thought that anybody was going to read it. To my mind, he could easily have a bestseller on his hands. I think the novel to be quite good and that it possesses a wide appeal.