The Agony Column

Interviews with Google’s Laszlo Bock and ‘Yoga Girl’ Rachel Brathen


yoga-girlThis week on The Agony Column Literary Magazine, host Rick Kleffel talks with Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of People Operations, about creating one of the best places to work in the world.

Then, Rachel Brathen, A-K-A Instagram sensation Yoga Girl, contrasts her inner life teaching yoga, and her digital life in social media.

Interview with Barney Frank

Rick Kleffel with Barney Frank

Rick Kleffel with Barney Frank

Humor, power and politics — inside the sausage factory.  Representative Barney Frank discusses his book, Frank.

Then, author Jon Ronson on the horror of Internet embarrassment in his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Author Erik Larson


dead-wake-680x440Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, about his latest book, Dead Wake, which tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s currently the number one bestselling non-fiction title.

And then on the program, Lazslo Bock, Google’s Director of People Operations, reveals why work should be fun.


From Rick Kleffels ‘‘ website:

Countdown to Destiny

We know, or think we know, what is going to happen. The Cunard liner Lusitania will be hit by a torpedo and sink; most of the passengers will die. What more can be said, and to what aim? Erik Larson answers that question with ‘Dead Wake,’ a tightly written historical thriller that for all its meticulous documentation, creates character and suspense as well as any novel. Readers will find themselves in the peculiar position of rooting for the impossible.

It’s important to note that Larson is a stickler for accuracy. Everything in the book is sourced. I mention this up front because the reading experience is so immersive and novelistic that it’s easy to forget you’re reading a work of non-fiction. Using the sinking of the Lusitania as the centerpiece, Larson has very carefully crafted a work that offers a striking and sweeping vision of the world descending into chaos as the war that will eventually be called World War One begins.

‘Dead Wake’ itself begins at pier 54 on the Hudson River, on May 1, 1915, as Captain William Thomas Turner readies the Lusitania. Larson puts us effectively in the place and time of his work with sparse, effective world-building. He knows the precise level of detail required to envelop readers in the perceptions of those whop were there. And in doing so, he immediately crafts an intense sense of suspense; will these passengers survive?

On the other side of the equation, he lets us meet Captain Walther Schwieger of U-20, the German sub fated to sink the Lusitania. Here, Larson finds a disarmingly likable figure, a man who runs the “happy U-boat” with a managerial ruthlessness devoted to sinking the biggest ships he can bring down. But U-boat tech is seriously cutting edge, which in this case means that it barely and rarely works as advertised. Torpedoes are more miss than hit, and the flimsy confines of a steel tube in the ocean are prone to leaks and lack sonar.

The plot is simple and tense; soon enough, the Lusitania will meet U-20, be torpedoed and sink in 18 minutes. Getting there is the key and Larson takes us from Washington DC, where we meet a depressed and love-struck President Woodrow Wilson, to Room 40 in the UK< where Winston Churchill is angling to get the Yanks dragged into this European War, to the war front itself, where soldiers jump and die to advance a battle line on the nightmarish landscape that would inspire J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mordor. Larson makes all this seem relevant, seamless and crisply engaging.

‘Dead Wake’ offers all the involving thrills of a novel; great characters, complicated ethics and morals, tense situations, romance, and the world literally hanging in the balance, with the impact of non-fiction, to wit — it’s all mind-bogglingly true. Larson assuredly fills in a lot of details about the sinking of the Lusitania that will be shockingly new to most readers, but the real appeal here is not simply the great facts, or even the great stories. ‘Dead Wake’ weaves facts in a manner that is equally artful and entertaining. Larson re-builds the past with his own personal style of prose, story and spectacle. For his readers, Erik Larson makes the past present.

Kazuo Ishiguro and ‘The Buried Giant’


buried-giantKazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, discusses his latest novel The Buried Giant.

Also on the program, Dean Sluyter on Natural Meditation: A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice. And Dan Simmons describes the moment when Sherlock Holmes deduces that he is a fictional character.

Interviews with Authors Patrice Vecchione and Daniel Handler


book-step-into-natureAuthor of Step Into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, Patrice Vecchione joins Rick to discuss her new book.

Rick also spoke with Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, about his new book We Are Pirates.

Then, Geoff Dyer has Another Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard the George HWW Bush.

Two Authors Interviewed: Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Samantha Shannon


Host Rick Kleffel speaks with Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman about his book, Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, and then with British author Samantha Shannon about her novels from a Dickensian future, The Bone Season and The Mime Order.

Plus a lightning round review of three books with NPR’s Alan Cheuse, and a lightning round interview with Dave Barry.

Peter Bell; Sara Blaedel; Dr. David Perlmu


Rick hosts three distinct guests on this program:

Rick Kleffel travels abroad to speak with British writer Peter Bell about his ghost stories and supernatural fiction.

Danish Queen of Crime, Sara Blaedelon her novel, The Forgotten Girls.

Dr. David Perlmutter gives us insights on gluten and from his book, Grain Brain.

Author Marc Goodman Foresees ‘Future Crimes’


2marc_goodman-2015-pgrsmExponential Potential

In any consideration of recent technology, it helps to remember that we had working nuclear bombs before we had working nuclear reactors. As new layers of wonder blossom around us, we need to be aware that there may be less wondrous layers beneath our cultural radar. Wearable computers offer us the opportunity to keep tabs on our health and our loved ones. They create equally enticing access for criminals.

Marc Goodman understands the applications and misapplication of new technologies. But he also knows that the way to reach readers is with stories, not facts. You’ll find plenty of facts in ‘Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do,’ but you’ll generally find them in engagingly-told true stories of current computer crime. Goodman’s book is something of a page-turner as he explores and explodes our notions of a brave, safe new world. For every plus, there is a minus, most of which we are dangerously, not blissfully, unaware.

goodman-future_crimes-homeMuch of what you’ll read here is not simply informed speculation, but recent history. It helps to remember not just Moore’s Law, that chip speed doubles about every 18-24 months, but William Gibson’s law as well; “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Goodman is about two days to twenty years ahead of the cutting edge. Consider this book a sneak preview of what you hope never to see or experience.

‘Future Crimes’ is crisply organized and cleanly written. Goodman knows how to raise an alarm without hyperbole. Unfortunately, the facts of the present give us plenty to worry about in the future. Here’s a book that will certainly change your perceptions of everyday activities like looking in or posting to Facebook or Twitter. It turns out that nothing in life is free.

Some stories in here are going to be familiar to some readers, but Goodman is an excellent writer. Even if you know what happened, his retellings are gripping reading. With the present-day stories as a backdrop in the reader’ minds, the speculation becomes grounded in a reality so as to make it even more alarming. As Goodman ramps up the terror, he makes his point about understanding risks before they reach apocalyptic potential. Ignorance of the crime will not prevent you from becoming a victim. In fact, it makes it more likely.

For all the bad news he brings to the table, Goodman’s overall story arc is encouraging and empowering. It’s certain that inexpensive genetic manipulation will bring with it new hazards, but if we at least understand the potential we can make some intelligent decisions to prevent the criminalization of every new technology. Now, Goodman concludes, is the time for us to think about security. His book finishes with steps we can take now, before the problems become dangerously problematic. We’d do well to learn from our own example. Technology has its pluses and minuses, and many of the former ultimately prove to be the latter. From Hiroshima to Three Mile Island, we’d better learn to connect the dots while we still can.

Three Unique Authors: Okey Ndibé, M.O. Walsh and Kelly Link


Three unique authors take the stage: Okey Ndibé discusses his life in Nigeria and his novels Arrows Off Rain and Foreign Gods, Inc; debut novelist M.O. Walsh brings on the Southern gothic in My Sunshine Away; And Kelly Link reveals the reality behind her tale of the surreal and the supernatural.

Authors: Laurie R. King; Mark Bittman


Laurie R. King discusses her new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Dreaming Spies.

And in the second part of the program, food activist and cookbook author Mark Bittman talks about his books, Food Matters and How to Cook Everything Fast.