10-26-12 UPDATE:Podcast Update: Time to Read Episode 71: Debra Dean, 'The Mirrored World'
Click image for audio link.
Here's the seventy-first episode of my new series of podcasts, which I'm calling Time to Read. Hitting the one-year mark, I'm going to make an effort to get ahead, so that podcast listeners can get the same sort of "sneak preview" effect that radio listeners get each Friday morning. And yes, I know this means I have one more to go this week — and here it is!
Joyce Carol Oates,'Black Dahlia, White Rose,'Gregory Benford and Larry Niven,'Bowl of Heaven,'Charles Cumming, 'A Foreign Country'
One of the great delights in my reading life is to be able to ring up Alan Cheuse on the phone and talk to him about good books. We don't always have exactly the same take on what's good about them, but we both know them when we see them. In conversation about the books, the two of us manage to wrangle out a perception that actually comes pretty damn close to getting at what makes them good.
This time around, Alan and I chatted about three very different books. We started out with Joyce Carol Oates' latest collection of stories, 'Black Dahlia, White Rose.' Oates is an American Literary Institution, but finding a way to explain why while letting the stories keep their air of mystery was almost as much fun as reading the book. Of course, while you may be unsurprisingly tempted to think that Oates is not a life-affirming writer, the fact of the matter is that any artistic vision this strong is an affirmation. Perhaps with a chaser of unhappiness, but affirming nonetheless.
With 'Bowl of Heaven,' Gregory Benford and Larry Niven are doing what they do best, taking the humans we know and sending them places we cannot imagine — at least not until we read the book. I find it especially delightful to talk about science fiction with Cheuse, as he's so well-known for his literary work. But he both knows and loves good science fiction, as do I. Still, we approach the genre from different directions, and meet right in the middle of a good book.
In 'A Foreign Country,' Charles Cumming offers readers a tour of yet another world — this one, but seen through the eyes of Tom Kell, a disgraced SIS agent who finds himself unable to leave behind the life he did not like. Cumming writes the sort of detailed story that you'll think of as an "espionage novel" rather than a "spy novel." It's a subtle difference that was fun to explore in conversation with Cheuse.
"I found that describing the way a scene was lit actually helped a lot."
Malinda Lo has the kind of enthusiasm that makes you want to pick up her books and read them immediately, even when she's talking about the challenges she had to overcome to write them. I spoke with her after hearing her read from 'Adaptation,' so perhaps I was already won over by what she read. But the interview we did afterwards certainly sealed the deal.
'Adaptation' is a rocking, intense work of science-fiction horror that is apparently a "YA" novel because the heroine is a young adult. But to my mind the intensity of any great SF horror novel was present in the scenes I heard; there was certainly a sense of Michael Crichton's work.
For all the smooth and seamless nature of what we heard, Malinda Lo was willing to talk about the many obstacles she had to overcome to get there. Ideas left by the wayside like so many dead birds, the Internet proving to be both friend and foe — you can really hear the voice of a working writer.
But for all the work Lo need to bring the novel to the point of publication, she has the kind of enthusiasm that is necessary. In the often-noisy environment of the live readings at SF in SF, she had no problem making herself heard. This was the perfect setting to hear about such a novel, because after hearing the reading, or the panel, you can just walk out into the lobby and buy it from Borderlands Books. It's the sort of instant gratification that we're told you can only get from the Internet.
"..they were Republicans, who left the Supreme Court, totally alienated from the modern Republican party..."
— Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin is probably most familiar to watchers of CNN for his work as a legal commentator. But to those of us who spend our time reading books, his most recent works, 'The Nine,' and 'The Oath,' offer the reading equivalent of CNN, but written with an eye towards history.
I sat down with Toobin at KQED to talk about his latest book, 'The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court,' though to be honest, sitting down is rather a misleading way to describe any conversation with Toobin. I should not have been surprised, but I was. Toobin can summon an encyclopedias' worth of current events to his command, then synthesize and analyze them before your very eyes.
Toobin was following our interview with an ISDN gig to another station, and prepping as well for work with CNN. He was logging in and answering email from the moment we entered the studio. Once we started talking, I kept the focus on the subjects within and the creation of his two last books, 'The Oath' and 'The Nine,' which I read back to back. How could I not? These are utterly compelling, page-turning legal thrillers, and as I wrote the reviews and even the interviews, I had to ratchet back and make sure I didn't call them novels, because they read like novels.
Toobin is clearly well-schooled by his work for CNN, and KQED is a great setting in which to speak with him. For me, 'The Nine' and 'The Oath' form a continuum, and we moved back and forth over the longer timeline of the court that the two books cover. In his work at CNN, Toobin is often called to predict the outcome of cases while the justices are deliberating them. Rather than have Toobin talk about cases currently in the news, I asked him about writing a book in which his work itself is a part of the history he is chronicling. To my mind both the book and his answer to that question offer a perfect explanation as to why the books are so compelling. While current events are no doubt of import in the moment, reading books like this about current history, written for a longer view, is a means of stepping back and seeing a bigger picture.