The Agony Column

Authors: Laurie R. King; Mark Bittman

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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.

Author William Ury

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get-to-yesWilliam Ury is the co-author of the classic book on negotiations, Getting to Yes, the co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project and has supervised talks between Hugo Chavez and rebellious citizens, the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war, and in the Middle east.

He spoke with host Rick Kleffel about his new book, Getting to Yes With Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents.

Authors Jennifer Senior and Stewart O’Nan

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In a Health, Science and Spirit segment, Jennifer Senior looks at the effects of parenthood on the parents in her book, All Joy and No Fun.

And Stewart O’Nan discusses his novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood decline and fall, West of Sunset.

 

Interview with Richard Ford

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Richard Ford

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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

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Interview with Kathy Freston

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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.

Author Interview: Tad Williams

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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.

Interview: William Gibson Connects ‘The Peripheral’

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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.

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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

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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

Fantasy Writer Tad Williams

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Tad Williams’ newest books are hard-boiled detective stories with a fantasy twist; the detective is angel Bobby Dollar.

By Rick Kleffel

Attitude is everything in the Bobby Dollar books by Tad Williams. The Angel Doloriel, aka Bobby Dollar, tells the story in some of the most enjoyable, hilarious, smartest prose you can find in this particular veil of tears. Following hot on the heels of ‘The Dirty Streets of Heaven,’ ‘Happy Hour in Hell’ follows the narrative model of the first book. We start in the middle, in this case as Bobby crosses a bridge into hell, then whip back to the beginning and take the story straight up, no chasers.

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