The Agony Column

Maureen Corrigan and the Power of Re-Reading

Maureen Corrigan. Photo: Nina Subin

Maureen Corrigan. Photo: Nina Subin

There’s an important implicit assumption at the heart of Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. It is presumed that readers of her book have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sometime in the past, and probably not too recently. The title and the book invite us to re-read Fitzgerald, and I’m going to suggest that readers follow my cue, and (re-)read Fitzgerald before reading Corrigan’s work.

It’s not that ‘So We Read On’ does not stand on it’s own. It’s a superbly architected story told with verve, intelligence and wit. But it is a story about reading and re-reading in particular, and re-reading one particular book. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a natural choice for the great American Novel. It’s a tough act to follow. But Maureen Corrigan has managed to write the perfect follow-on, the story of the story, the storyteller, and of every reader in a hall of mirrors to infinity. It is Escher as aesthete, a literary reflection on reflection itself. Once you are in, you won’t ever want to leave. Nor will you need to.

After a gorgeous and fun introduction that meditates on all things Gatsby; the book, the writer, his life, the life of the book and the afterlife of the book, Corrigan takes us to Fitzgerald at a low point in his life, and bottom up, explores all the worlds of Gatsby. The grace and elegance on display here is subtle and elegant.

readonCorrigan has the storytelling knack to wear one guise after another with ultimate ease. One moment, we are with Fitzgerald and Zelda, the next, in the book itself with Gatsby and Daisy. She makes scholarship a sensuous joy as she explores archives, or the places where Fitzgerald lived. She can even duke it out with Fitzgerald himself, pulling a timeless quote from the novel and following up with her own acute insights in a manner that lets each complement the other.

Part of the reason for Corrigan’s success here is her determination to make this a book for every reader, not just critics or academics. She’s entertaining and intelligent, and marries these with an enthusiasm for Fitzgerald and his work that will sweep readers off their feet. She makes a lot of great points in a manner that lets readers share in her discoveries; for example Fitzgerald’s sharp understanding of the class system. She provides a mirror for ‘The Great Gatsby’ that readers can enter and explore at will with a generous guide.

Given that this is a book about a book, it’s surprising and nice that we never feel the presence of the elephant in the room. This may be an impression based on my personal experience. Having read ‘The Great Gatsby’ just before I read Corrigan’s book, I was already suffused with wonder at Fitzgerald’s achievement. But Corrigan’s book is never overwhelmed by its subject. It’s more of a tesseract frame about a perfectly rendered cube. She simply gets the book, and is able to convey just what it is she gets with enthusiasm and expertise.

The book itself is nicely done, with photos and maps that illustrate the life. Part of what Corrigan is creating here is a sort of time machine, one that will take us not just back into the age chronicled by the book, but as well, into the times and places and ways the author lived.

While ‘So We Read On’ is certainly a work of insightful criticism, it’s really more of a story with flourishes of critical thought. Corrigan’s path through ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is idiosyncratic and unique, but her storytelling skills are nonpareil. If you don’t read ‘The Great Gatsby’ before you read ‘So We Read On,’ rest assured that you will read it afterwards. You’ll want to meet this book word by word after reading Corrigan’s stories. And that idea, re-reading a book, has an immense power. Corrigan has the smarts to throw the switch and turn on that power, even as she guides our hands there.

Lisa See “China Dolls” and Lawrence Wright “13 Days in September”


On this week’s Agony Column, the legendary Walter Mosely on his latest story whose protagonist is a former porn star. And Lisa See, the renowned author of novels and nonfiction centering on the lives of Chinese and Chinese American characters discusses her new novel about performers in San Francisco’s night clubs in the middle of the last century.

chinadollsChina Dolls
Lisa See’s books include the best selling crime novel “Flower Net” and the personal family history “On golden Mountain: The 100 Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family.”

From Lisa See’s Web site: “It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.”


An Interview with Ex-CIA Attorney John Rizzo



Note: This program was originally broadcast February 2, 2014.

Rick Kleffel speaks with the man who was once the CIA’s top lawyer – John Rizzo, about the torture tapes, enhanced Interrogation techniques, dirty assets, drone strikes and about his new book, Company Man.

“Even inside the bubble, you find yourself fairly alone…” — John Rizzo

Rick Kleffel wrote:
I was most interested in the historical aspects of the story, and that’s where I took much of our conversation. There’s a very nice JFK connection in the book, and a scene that is impeccably described. We talked about Iran-Contra, and the part he would have willingly played had he been in the wrong place at the right time. All through the conversation, I have to say that John Rizzo was right there. I think that he was relieved to talk with someone who had read the book, and he was clearly happy to discuss events in the book that were not the focus of recent media attention.

Interview with Alan Furst



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.


Interview with Author Bill Bryson


This program was originally broadcast November 11, 2013.


“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.

Read more.

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



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.


Geoff Dyer: ‘Another Great Day at Sea’

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.

Interview with Kent A. Kiehl

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.


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.

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.