The Agony Column

Interview with Richard Ford

Richard Ford

Richard Fordford-let_me_be_frank_with_you-home

Human beings are a bickering species. But as much as we like to mix it up with one another, the majority of our arguments are entirely internal. We spend most of our lives interrogating and castigating ourselves, trying to find with certainty the answer to the question: who am I?

Richard Ford’s iconic character Frank Bascombe has an answer or two for you, and Ford spells them out delightfully in Ford’s latest book, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You.’ It’s a collection of four novellas that reads very much like an episodic novel. It is Ford at the top of his game. ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ is hilariously funny, cuttingly insightful, chock-a-block with stunning psychological wisdom, all while being entirely engaging and entertaining.

The first story, “I’m Here,” finds Frank retired and spending his time puttering around, reading to veterans and writing for their newsletter. His wife, Sally, is throwing most of her time into helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which has devastated the New Jersey coastline. Frank’s managed to keep a bit of a distance, until a phone call brings back his past to haunt him. In “Everything Could Be Worse,” Frank gets a visit from the former occupant of the house he now lives in. In “The New Normal,” he goes to visit his first wife, who has just checked herself into a very expensive, upscale nursing home, having been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And in “The Deaths of Others,” another phone call takes Frank to visit a friend he’d have preferred to have forgotten.

This is a short book, but it is pristine in execution. Every sentence feels both natural and richly evocative of character or place. Ford’s poetic prose rolls out lyrical descriptions of the American suburb laid to waste by the unstoppable power of nature. There is humor, high and low, the crisp clip of an everyday life turned into low-key and rip-snorting laughter. Ford’s an easygoing master of great writing.

Frank Bascombe himself is on a roll, having reached a new “period” in his life, that of the Default Self. In between acerbic observations that are deeply funny, expect to find insight into divining the self that has the ring of truth. Relationships between men and women, friends and ex-lovers feel familiar and warm but never fuzzy.

And even though the book consists of four stories, Ford provides poetic prose, plot and thematic hooks leading from one to the other, so that the effect of reading the book is unified and richly satisfying. Each novella could work as a standalone piece, but together they offer a whole that is truly greater than the sum of the considerable parts.

‘Let Me Be Frank with You’ sneaks up on you. It’s a fun, easy-to-read book that is incredibly substantial. Ford’s vision of America is true to life, and Frank Bascombe’s insights into life, the arguments he has with himself throughout the book, are quarrels that are ultimately won by and for the reader. And as much as we may be a bickering species, here’s one point we can agree on; ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ is perfectly clear vision of a very flawed race.

Interview with Bessel van der Kolk MD



Interview with Kathy Freston


The self-improvement genre is ever bountiful. We are lucky if we’re somewhere between being profoundly unhappy with who we are or simply ever seeking to become better. Kathy Freston’s approach in ‘Quantum Wellness’ is holistic, which in itself is not new. Nor, to be certain, are many of the components she discusses.

What is new is her happy ability to combine brevity and variety in the service of not suggesting that there is any single solution to making our lives better. For all that the word “quantum” conjures up our most incomprehensible branch of physics, here the words has other connotations. To my mind, ‘Tipping Pont Wellness” might be a better description of what Freston is after. She is simply suggesting that the upshot of many, small, actually makeable change can be that much sought-after quantum leap.

Freston is nothing if not straightforward. She begins the book with a brief meditation on just what happiness might be, then follows up with suggestions on how to use the book. She then lists what for her are the “Eight Pillars of Wellness”: meditation, visualization, fun activities, conscious eating, self-work, spiritual practice, and service. RaEach of these very reasonable concepts gets a nice once-over. Then it’s on to “Clearing the Way,” “Laying the Groundwork,” “Overcoming Obstacles,” and “Making the Leap.” Tally-ho!

Freston takes herself seriously enough to offer sound advice, search for science to back up her suggestions, quote experts in the various fields early and often, and use everyday logic and arguments to back up her strategy of incremental change. She uses analogy and metaphor well, and does not overreach. This comes easily with the main thrust of her book, which is that small changes, easily made, can add up to big results. Stated in this review that may seem obvious, but as a reading experience, Freston knows how to lead a reader along a variety of paths that balance intelligence and simplicity.

Freston is also keen enough to realize that not everything works for everyone. She emphasizes trying what works best, coming back again to what does not, and in general, making and keeping your goals attainable. She makes a strong and important case for spiritual well-being, eating well, and quite importantly, and uniquely, having fun. If you like the idea that having fun is an important part of self-improvement and a happier lifestyle, then Kathy Freston’s ‘Quantum Wellness’ is definitely a book that you can work with. In fact, no matter what your mind set, ‘Quantum Wellness’ has something to say worth hearing, worth reading, and it does so with admirable succinctness.

Herbalist, Doctor Christopher Hobbs

Christopher Hobbs

Christopher Hobbs

“I want to integrate both the traditional uses and the traditional wisdom and knowledge and experience with modern science.”
—Christopher Hobbs

Christopher Hobbs is easygoing and relaxed as we sit down to discuss his book ‘Grow It, Heal It’ — more so than I’ll ever be. After all, here’s a man who has spent his life in the world of natural health, mining ancient medicine with modern science. The continuity implied has got to give him the level of peace and intelligence that he brings to the conversation.

I have always tended to be quite skeptical of any writing in this genre. It’s very easy to make claims that you cannot back up and slather them with graphics that are impressive and entertaining. But Hobbs is first and foremost a scientist who understands the technical aspects of the practice. That said, his work and his presence on the page and in-person, are far more humane than are typically associated with the words “research scientist.”

For me, the striking aspect of ‘Grow It, Heal It’ was the cookbook slant. It’s not really in the text, but I love cookbooks, and the idea of being able to create your own medicinal herbs at home, with the recipes you find here is very appealing. It’s also nice that the work in the book does not involve a lot of high-tech, high-maintenance gardening stuff. I’m edging my way into growing my own herbs, as I have some nice places in the front yard to do so.

Chris and I talked about his work, and his take on how growing your own herbs (and yes, he does mention that herb as well, only very briefly) can save you money and cure your headaches — literally, in this case. If you’re interested in growing herb, matters of mind, body and spiritual health, or just want to hear something you can easily do in your own home, then Christopher Hobbs is your man.

Author Interview: Tad Williams

Tad williams

Tad Williams

After Tad Williams and I sat down at the dining room table in my house to talk about his latest novel, ‘Sleeping Late on Judgment Day,’ I was once again struck by his amazing ability to get to the heart of any question, and his willingness to rip apart his own assumptions. Williams is an eloquent spokesman for what he calls ‘hard fantasy.’

This might seem like a contradiction-in-terms. Fantasy is all about imagining a world which is not ours. Urban fantasy, currently overflowing at the seams, simply puts characters, critters and powers from a fantasy novel on mean streets, real or imagined. What Williams shoots for, he says, is a sort of hybrid of fantasy written with the same rigorous rule-following extrapolations that define hard science fiction.

williams-sleeping_late_on_judgement_day-homeWhen you listen to this conversation, you’ll quickly see why the Bobby Dollar books are so much fun. It’s because Williams himself is having fun, writing them on a very serious goof. That said, the big money these days is in the sort of thick-as-a-brick fantasies that are bringing new fans to the genre by virtue of their big and small screen adaptations. Williams cut his teeth writing foundational works in this genre when many of the current crop of readers (and more than a few writers) were wondering about school dances. and happily for his readers, he has something to say on that front.

Interviews with Anne Rice

Anne Rice

Anne Rice

Anne Rice – Anne Rice is having more fun than ever. As we sit down to talk about her latest novel, ‘Prince Lestat,’ it seems clear that she’s driven to explore new and uncharted territory. All she needs is a word processor and the worlds that she has created.

To be honest, I love talking to Anne Rice because she’s just as enthusiastic as I am. She knows and loves her books and thinks deeply about what she does and how she does it. Of course, part of what she does is unthinking. She’s one of the masters of reaching into her own vat of swirling emotions and sensibilities and pulling out a story, writing it up from nothing. She’s summoning.

One of the themes we followed this time around is Anne’s own changing sensibilities. When she got into the horror fiction business, she managed a neat trick. She turned her own grief and horror into novels that partook of the fantastic but didn’t seem to.

Now, she’s come to the point where she’s mastered the fantasy and even the science fiction elements behind her novels. She doesn’t go so far as to turn them into “hard SF,” but she’s pretty hard-headed in crafting plots that would play out in the real world. Her so-called supernatural vampires embrace science, and they need to.

Laughing with Humorist Dave Barry


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

This program was originally broadcast March 23, 2014.

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.

Interview: William Gibson Connects ‘The Peripheral’

Author William Gibson

Author William Gibson

Readers are advised not to read the dust jacket, which gives away a big part of the story, as do many reviews.. This is a novel best experienced on its own, immersive terms. Gibson has proven that he’s a writer we can trust and that pays off here in so many ways. Plunging us into a vision of crime and caper complicated by an intricately devised future, ‘The Peripheral’ is perhaps Gibson’s best novel yet.

One the most enjoyable aspects of ‘The Peripheral’ is Gibson’s bone-dry sense of humor. This is a very funny book, with nary a laugh line in sight. Gibson’s smart use of the crime genre and science fiction genre give him the perfect excuse to zip up and down the income scale in a manner that speaks intimately to the income gap permeating our lives that nonetheless is somehow unspeakable.


All that is readily apparent in our world starts out invisible in ‘The Peripheral.’ By the time the novel ends, we can look back, and sense our own history, remade and re-mystified. Gibson paints a portrait of the future that highlights the weirdness of the present. He writes superbly about technology; how it changes us as we change it. But he needs no tech to re-wire our minds. Words will do just fine.

Author Azar Nafisi and Actor Cary Elwes


Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi discusses her book The Republic of Imagination.

And then actor Cary Elwes talks about the making of the movie The Princess Bride and his book As You Wish. Elwes’ portrait of the production adds another Escher-like layer to the proceedings.

Cary Elwes

Cary Elwes

Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin & NPR’s David Greene

Dana Cowin

Dana Cowin

Audio Interview Part 1: Dana Cowin / Part 2: David Greene (41:45)

Dana Cowin is every bit as unpretentious as her book, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook with 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes. The book lives up to the title, as does the author. This is smart advice from someone who can help you learn to cook because she had to learn herself.

And this proves much more difficult than you can imagine. The individual recipes are a treat; they are easy, but it’s the state of min that Cowin captures in her open9ing passages that really matters. Keep an open mind; pay attention; read the recipes. It seems so basic that it is easy to mess up. But once you get the basics down, you can have a blast with Cowin. I certainly did.

Just put two people who like to cook, but know the pitfalls (having pit-fallen into them) and that’s a recipe for a fun conversation. Cowin and I talked about her Brussels Sprouts phase, and my version of garlic stuffed Brussels Sprouts. And it was from her that I gleaned that what i thought was my overly-browned Pear + Brown Sugar Upside-Down Cake was in fact just extra deliciously caramelized.

I had my eternal question about bending pastry sheets answered both in person and in the book. This was one of those chats that I made certain was going to bring back some useful, practical information. And yes, that’s the main vibe I get from Cowin. She’s practical, down-to-earth, and funny.

The unwritten rule is often “Don’t ask questions unless you pretty much know the answers.” The idea is, I guess, that the interviewer should control the interview. It’s not without merit, but here especially, I was going to ask for all sorts of geeky tips.

David Greene’s new book is Midnight in SiberiaMore.