The Agony Column

Author Interview: John Markoff


markoffHost Rick Kleffel discusses the history of artificial intelligence with John Markoff, and his book “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots”.

Author Interview: Stephen Witt


witt-how_music_got_free-400Rick Kleffel speaks with reporter Stephen Witt about his book How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy.

He followed an electronic trail that led him from the most powerful man in American music, to a temporary factory worker and a German genius.

The untold story of the remaking of modern music…

Author Interview: Karen Joy Fowler


fowler_w_coverRick Kleffel is joined by national bestselling writer and Man Booker Award nominee Karen Joy Fowler to discuss Black Glass, her collection of short stories.

Dr. Michael Gazzaniga



Neuroscience legend Michael Gazzaniga who as a student, discovered the split between the left and right halves of the human brain, discuss his science memoir, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain.

Plus, National Geogrpahic’s Dan Buettner on The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Interview with Matt Taibbi

Author Matt Taibbi

Author Matt Taibbi

By Rick Kleffel

Alas, I missed Matt Taibbi when he was in town. His schedule was so packed between addressing the Commonwealth Club about his new book, The Divide and working his new venture with Glen Greenwald that my last minute attempts came to naught. But thanks to his fearless publicist and the joys of ISDN connections, we were able to talk, at length, and still have one hell of a good time.

“… the biggest bank robbery in the history of the world …”

— Matt Taibbi

Make no mistake about it. Taibbi is dead serious in his examination of the New American Dystopia, but he and I also managed to laugh, early and often, at his wonderfully tweaked portraits of hell on earth. It’s hard not to laugh at some of the mind-bogglingly outlandish exploits that Taibbi documents.

In our previous interview, he and I discussed material similar to this from ‘Griftopia.’ This time around, we once again were talking about the financial scammers who are real-life Bond villains. It’s all in good fun until somebody steals 45 billion, that’s BILLION with a B, dollars from millions of small investors and pension funds.


Interview with Author Ben Tarnoff

Author Ben Tarnoff

Author Ben Tarnoff

By Rick Kleffel

Ben Tarnoff is an amazing speaker; he’s so precise, so knowledgeable and so much fun to talk to that I can’t imagine anyone not already convinced by the title alone not going out to buy The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature after hearing our conversation.

“How do you build a time machine? And it feels like narrative is the best way to do that.”
—Ben Tarnoff

Believe me, we left pretty much all the really juicy parts out of the book, but talked about what he wrote and how he wrote it in a manner that I found to be breathtaking even as we recorded the interview. Tarnoff was kind enough to come to my house, where we sat in the living room and discussed history, the Internet of telegraphy, and especially culture.

I really enjoy reading about history, and Tarnoff writes one hell of a ripping yarn about the men that we often think of as inventing the ripping yarn. The real danger with a book centered on Twain, as this one is, is that Twain is not an unfamiliar figure. He wrote about himself extensively, and has himself been well-served by many writers.

That said, by looking at his early career and putting Twain in perspective amidst his peers and by re-creating the intense literary scene that Twain came into his own in, Tarnoff manages to give us yet another good look at Twain, tell a hell of a story at the same time.

To my mind, Tarnoff should be on the lecture circuit, perhaps with David Talbot who wrote engagingly about a very different San Francisco in ‘Season of the Witch.’ Clearly, Tarnoff’s ability to speak about his book comes from his ability to craft the past as a world, then live in and write about that world.