Alan Cheuse is the author of The Grandmothers' Club and The Light Possessed, three collections of short stories, a memoir titled Fall Out of Heaven and a collection of essays, Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing. He serves as book commentator for NPR's All Things Considered and as a member of the writing faculty as George Mason University. You can also find feauture-length interviews and news reports here as well.
12-02-10:Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books with Alan Cheuse : 'The Poet Laureates Anthology' edited by Susan Schmidt, 'All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost' by Lan Samantha Chang and 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' by Walter Mosley
10-26-10:Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books with Alan Cheuse : 'What I Didn't See' by Karen Joy Fowler, 'Our Kind of Traitor' by John Le Carré and 'Nemesis' by Philip Roth
07-30-10:Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books with Alan Cheuse : Allegra Goodman, 'The Cookbook Collector,' Noam Shpancer's 'The Good Psychologist' and Elie Wiesel 'The Sonderberg Case'
07-20-10:Agony Column Podcast News Report : The Agony Column Live, July 10, 2010 : Alan Cheuse and Peter S. Beagle : "There are certain phrases I'm leery of using; one's "the creative process" and the other is "inspiration." -- Peter S. Beagle "Habit is the best thing for you if you’re trying to write prose." – Alan Cheuse
The Poet Laureates Anthologyedited by Susan Schmidt,All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lostby Lan Samantha Chang andThe Last Days of Ptolemy Greyby Walter Mosley
I trust that listeners can detect the fun; and that's part of the point of having a free-form discussion of three books with Alan Cheuse every month. We don't always have to like them, though we are pretty good at this point at picking books we like. But in talking through the three books, Alan and I both get a chance to seriously discuss not just the individual books, but the experience of reading itself. Books are often seen as a solitary form of entertainment, and that's correct only so long as we don't talk about what we read with others. And not just the plots, or the gist of books, but the reading experience itself.
As often happens, we sort of backed into a slight theme with two of our choices. We started out talking about 'The Poet Laureates Anthology,' which, as edited by Susan Schmidt is something quite amazing. Of course, 'The Poet Laureates Anthology' (W. W. Norton & Company ; October 4, 2010 ; $39.95) offers great poetry, and lots of it. But the real shock is how great the poets themselves are. If you look back at any other list of prizes or awards, you'll find a lot of forgettable and forgotten work. Not so with the poet laureates who are consistently memorable writers who have stood the test of time. Their poetry is great and the pocket history lesson that you get as a result of the works is equally great.
'All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost' (W. W. Norton & Company ; September 27, 2010 ; $23.95) by Lan Samantha Chang is set in the world of professional poetry, starting in an MFA workshop and moving through lives and career. Chan's writing is sparse but powerful and her novel makes the most of the setting with which she is intimately familiar. It's great to read while you're leafing through 'The Poet Laureates Anthology,' offering as it does a glimpse of those who become part of this pantheon come into being.
And finally, we both had the luck to tuck into Walter Mosley's latest, 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' (Riverhead ; November 11, 2010 ; $25.95), in which the chameleonic writer conjures up a powerful story of memory, family and love as Ptolemy Grey gets the 'Flowers for Algernon' treatment for Alzheimer's; he gets his memories back, but his death is hastened as a result. Mosley is smart enough to soft-pedal the science fiction and use the tropes to enhance the emotional aspects of the story.
Karen Joy Fowler, , What I Didn't See, John Le Carré, Our Kind of Traitor, Philip Roth, Nemesis
Alan Cheuse and I had a conversation to continue from our last discussion, when we talked about the brilliant writers who find themselves on the less-readable side of literature. This time around, Cheuse spoke not as a critic, but as an author of fiction. It provided a very different topic of conversation and we ended up in a place that neither of us expected. That is, until we started in on the books we had decided to cover.
'What I Didn't See' by Karen Joy Fowler, 'Our Kind of Traitor' by John Le Carré and 'Nemesis' by Philip Roth were all top-notch works by writers at the top of their power. This is what happens when you get to be our own editor; you get to talk about books that you like, with the intention of helping readers find the right choice for their taste.
The three books we chose were all rather different, and I've been living with them for a while. But it is always fun to talk with another reader who gets lost in books, and Cheuse is certainly a top-notch writer and reader. So, for example, he pointed out the Borgesian nature of Fowler's work, which I hadn't quite twigged to, lost as I was in the American mythos world. Fowler's collection proved to be as much fun to talk about as it was to read, which is a sign that it should be enjoyable by a wide range of readers. It would be nice to see Small Beer sell books like hotcakes. They deserve it.
I had been away from John Le Carré's work for a while, so it was nice to have Alan give me his pocket history. I have vivid memories of the times when I became a rabid Le Carré fan, and I collected all his work I could in these mass-market paperbacks. One of my good friends was working for The Aerospace Corporation, and had Top-Secret clearance, doing his part to bring about World War III in a manner most beneficial to the West. I worked at Quotron, a stock market quote vendor that was somewhat involved in building infrastructure for electronic communication between its locations. Computers and email, and USENET newsgroups. Now I'm back with Le Carré, and the Apocalypse is purely financial.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Fall
There is an unfortunate dearth of novels featuring harried, unpleasant suburbanites with complex inner lives and prehensile, blood-sucking stingers in their throats. After all, it's fiction isn't it? It's not like you have to stick to the sort of stories you'll find in the Everytown Mundane Daily Gazette. It's not as if the only fodder for the imagination has to be pre-formatted to fit the imaginations of fourteen-year old girls. Remember, we want to read fiction not lingerie catalogues.
For those who want their fiction fictional, involving, and, now and again enjoy a prehensile, blood-sucking stinger, your intrepid reviewers, myself and NPR's Alan Cheuse, have once again dared to turn the pages of books that will be pitched at you faster than hardballs from a Major-league baseball cannon. Look out, he's on the front cover of a national news magazine! Duck, one of these guys has a new movie out based on his novel, the other is the subject of more speculation than the indigenous population of Mars. When you can't get away from them, it helps to hear some words from those who never get away.
Insomnia is my excuse, and Alan Cheuse needs no excuse since he's a National Institution. I think they ought to put him up on Rushmore before they add any late-twentieth-century astrology fans. And that's why when we need the big guns to go up against the big gun, we have Alan Cheuse.
Alan and I have been talking about both these books for quite some time, and we don't see exactly eye-to-eye on at least one of them. But that is precisely the joy of these conversations, and the point of having a conversation. It's not so much the words that each of us speaks, but the how the spaces in-between what we say get filled in. It's easy to forget that you need two eyes to perceive depth.
In this month's installment, Alan and I begin a discussion about books that we'll be carrying on in our next conversation as well. And we have a great deal of fun discussing two books that seem to operate on opposite ends of the spectrum. You cannot get a more important event novel than Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom.' He's always brilliant, and nobody can dispute that. But a reading experience is always personal as well.
On what might seem to be the opposite end of the scale, we have two movie-related authors, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, with the second book in a vampire trilogy. If I left out their names, I swear my eyes would glaze over at the prospect of reading this novel. But their first novel together, 'The Strain,' was utterly superb — haunting and page-turning. The real question was how they would confront the deadly middle-book problem (no beginning, no end). The answer is 'The Fall.' You can hear my conversation with Alan Cheuse about these two novels by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
07-30-10:Three Books with Alan Cheuse
Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector, Noam Shpancer, The Good Psychologist and Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case
First things first. As much as I enjoy discussing other people's books with Alan Cheuse, I also quite enjoy discussing his books with him. And because I talk to him regularly, I can get some insights out of him about his writing that might not ordinarily come out. When I arrived to chat about the three books we were scheduled to review, he told me that he'd just turned in his latest novel.
Since I found myself sitting across the table from an acclaimed author who had just finished a new novel, I decided to take the time to find out how that feels. Cheuse, wisely wary of sounding pretentious, was a bit tentative in his response, but I understood that to be a reflection of exactly how one might feel in such circumstances. After literally years of immersion in the creation of another world (his new novel has a historical setting), it seems quite understandable that upon emerging, everything outside the creation would seem pretty ... ungrounded, as it were. Cheuse, of course, is as articulate as ever when describing the ineffable.
Then we set out to discuss the books, which, by and large we enjoyed, with some reservations. I've already written about Allegra Goodman's 'The Cookbook Collector,' and Cheuse had already done his review for NPR. But the aspect of this format that we both enjoy is the opportunity to bounce our ideas off of one another and see where the discussion of the book leads. While I found the book to be yet another example of my economic fiction genre, Cheuse pointed out that it does deal with that, but that the charm of the novel, and its unique vision, is that it shows the characters at work.
We then went on discuss what Cheuse had told me earlier was the "fascinating failure" of Elie Weisel's 'The Sonderburg Case'. Let me suggest that this sparse, 178 page novel is indeed a powerfully written book. Weisel's prose knocks your head around with no effort. He's a brilliant visionary and philosopher. There's also a certain simpatico between Wiesel and the outstanding debut of Noam Shpancer, 'The Good Psychologist.' Both offer stark insights into the minds of men. You can hear a discussion of these fine novels and more by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
07-20-10:The Agony Column Live, July 10, 2010 : Alan Cheuse and Peter S. Beagle
"There are certain phrases I'm leery of using; one's "the creative process" and the other is "inspiration."
—Peter S. Beagle
"Habit is the best thing for you if you're trying to write prose."
Listen carefully. You'll hear it, partway through the show. Alan Cheuse tells us something rather important about modern American literature. He admits to reading science fiction, with an interest in the genre as literature. But he laments that few others in his position are. Remember, Cheuse has been a part of the National Book Awards, and more than a few other literary panels. It's nice, if a bit frightening, to know that he reads the genre, writers like Peter S. Beagle, who joins him.
Don't get the idea that the discussion was all that highfalutin' though. There's as much wallowing going on as there is philosophizing. I actually think in the shootout, wallowing wins. Because this is intelligent wallowing, and fun. I won't be broadcasting this one without a lot of beeping.
It's like sculpting an avalanche. Setting up The Agony Column Live Shows is a front-loading process. Read the books, first and foremost, know the material first and foremost. Sure, I've been doing that most of my life, but every show brings specific material and specific challenges. If you're talking to two writers, as I do, that's twice the challenge. Twice the reading. In this case, like six pages of notes, and I use 9-point Time Roman in two columns, to cram the most material into the least number of noise-making pages.
Then there's the scheduling. It's a nightmare. Get one person to some place, that's tough. Back and forth with the writer and/or the publicist, manager, you-name-it. Two writers? You can imagine the complications, the back-and-forths. Since starting on thius endeavor, I have some to understand just how hard both publicists and book store event planners have to work. Together, they take the puzzle pieces out of a box and toss them in the air just so, so that they fall to earth in a perfectly finished piece.
Finally, there's the event itself, moving the chairs (I help the fine people at CBC, getting the audio setup, making sure you press record. All of it, to lead to that moment when the avalanche begins.
It's amazing to hear a writer's work read aloud, especially when the writer is as good as Alan Cheuse. While I read the essays in 'A Trance Before Breakfast,' I myself fell into a trance — that of a reader. I followed the words on the page as a reading experience, and lost myself in Alan's travels. When he picked up a copy to read something, pretty much on the fly, I wondered just what I had gotten him into. His prose was so good that I'd forgotten he actually reads aloud for a living.
Alan's reading of his travel essay was revelatory. With the heart of a skeptic and the prose of a mystic, he describes his time in Bali. The prayer-like feeling of his prose becomes a gyre of words, spiraling upwards. But he's smart enough not take himself too seriously, both within the work, and in some asides that kept the audience laughing as we too, I became part of the audience, spiraled upward.
Lucyby Laurence Gonzalez, Spies of the Balkansby Alan Furst, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I don't think we could pick more different books than the three that Alan Cheuse and I discussed this week. We start with a page-turning beach read, follow up with a well-crafted historical spy novel, and finish with punk rock experimental literature. There's certainly no danger of either Cheuse and I or readers getting in a rut!
Surprisingly, to me at least, I think Alan was more enamored of 'Lucy' than I was. 'Lucy' is the sort of science fiction novel that looks like and feels like a mainstream thriller. It's a case of be-careful-what-you-pretend-to-be; to my mind science fiction might find it lacking, while more mainstream readers will enjoy the speculative elements.
Both Cheuse and I quite liked 'Spies of the Balkans,' which is a finely-written historical spy novel of the sort that Furst has become the leading exponent of. Set in Greece in the run-up to World War II, we meet Costa Zanna, a cop in Salonika, a port city in Greece, as he becomes embroiled in the coming war and involved with a woman who is quite likely not who she seems to be. Furst gets all the details right, knows how to plot, and writes engaging characters whom we enjoy see coming closer. It leaves the reader wanting more; what more could we ask?
The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer, The Passage by Justin Cronin
Even as I type the write-up of this podcast on my hopefully-working computer, I'm getting ready for another confab with Mr. Cheuse later this week. I trust that readers will understand that it will take me a few days to catch up with myself. The last time I caught up with NPR's Alan Cheuse, we were both reading a batch of thrillers that generally speaking, lived up to that description.
One of the most difficult things to admit as a reader, to experience as a reader, is the end.
The end of a great novel; the end of a great series; the end of an author's work. Knowing, that you can never read a book from an author whose work you enjoy for the first time again. This is the end.
In this, case, the end comes with more bangs than whimpers, but plenty of both in 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' by Stieg Larsson. If you've been hiding under a rock, or more likely, swapping out one logic board after another in the faint hope of getting your computer to the point where you can once again return to your normal workflow, (only to find yourself up against a gnarly license manager that thinks your trying to steal the product you paid $600 for), then you might not have noticed that in your absence, the late Stieg Larsson slipped in and conquered the world of bestselling, intelligent thrillers. Alan and I first set our sights to discuss these books, so that the esteemed critic may suggest why they are more than worth your valuable time.
Worth your time as well is 'The Nearest Exit,' by Olen Steinhauer, his sequel to 'The Tourist,' featuring the return of Milo Weaver. For readers who like murky, grey-on-grey espionage novels with characters as complicated as the plots they are caught up in, this is a great way to vacation in Berlin. But please make sure you read 'The Tourist' first to fully enjoy your stay.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Lost by Alice Lichtenstein, The Good Son by Michael Gruber
NPR's Alan Cheuse is back with a new selection of books worth your valuable time and money. There are so many books out there, many of them very good; but only a few that demand your time and money. Alan Cheuse has a very strong idea as to why that's the case with this week's selection.
Up for consideration this week are 'Matterhorn' by Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam war novel; 'Lost' by Alice Lichtenstein, which follows the search for a missing man; and 'The Good Son' by Michael Gruber, a thriller of intrigue in the Middle East.
We started off talking about 'Matterhorn,' which is simply superb in terms of craftsmanship and prose as well as possessing an unflinching view of a war that still has lessons to teach us, in terms of eternal as well as immediate themes.
Next, we covered Alice Lichtenstein's latest, an intense burrowing portrait of American families within the engrossing confines of a well-turned plot.
And if you know Alan Cheuse, you know he has the ability to find some great thrillers — so expect something beyond mere entertainment when you start turning the pages of Michael Gruber's 'The Good Son.'
One of the things that becomes apparent when you hear Alan Cheuse talk about books is that he clearly speaks from experience; his own skills as a writer help him shape both his and his listeners' expectations of new reading. The trick of these conversations is to give our listeners a sense of the book, and that's all — which you can hear by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
03-05-10: Four Books With Alan Cheuse
Keith Thomson,Once a Spy Henry Porter,The Bell Ringers Jo Nesbo,The Devil's Star Hennig Mankel,The Man From Beijing
One of the most fun aspects of working with NPR's Alan Cheuse is that he loves a good thriller. It's kind of unexpected, because his own work is quite wonderfully literary, and he is a keen and intelligent critic of literary fiction, which he clearly loves as well.
But he's a man who travels fairly often, and finds himself at airports looking for something to read on the plane, and reading in planes — probably more often than many Americans read something other than the newspaper. So when he suggested that we talk about thrillers, I jumped at the chance. He recommended 'The Bell Ringers' to me a while back, which he described as a "really boffo spy novel." How could I resist?
And so readers have seen today's four books creep through the Agony Column in the past weeks. You have some idea of my take on them, and now you can get that of Alan Cheuse, and you'll find it as observant and spot-on as ever. For while Cheuse no doubt likes his thrillers, he's quite as astute critic of the small bits. Not surprising, I suppose, but it is refreshing to have a literary critic turn his eye to the thriller genre.
And for the most part, these books do fall into the thriller genre, as opposed to the mystery genre. Jo Nesbo writes a pretty solid mystery, but when you ratchet things up to the point of a serial killer, then you do veer pretty close to the exclusive world of thrillers. Keith Thomson's 'Once a Spy' is solidly in the high-concept, high body count world of thrillers, and 'The Bell Ringers' is as well. The latter does aspire to do more than simply thrill, however, as Cheuse observes. He also comments on the elephant not in the room with the other two books, 'The Devil's Star' and 'The Man From Beijing.' That would be Stieg Larsson, author of 'The Girl Who.." novels. You can find out who ranks where in the well-considered opinion of Alan Cheuse by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
02-05-10: Three Books With Alan Cheuse
Dominick Dunne, Too Much Money Jonathan Dee, The Privileges Adam Haslett, Union Atlantic Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love T. C. Boyle, Wild Child
We do try to stick to three books, but it is hard. Especially when we get gifts like the gift of money. Or rather, books about money. I called up Alan Cheuse, with the intention of covering just four books — only one over our usual goal. But naturally, the literary world has some different ideas.
We started by drowning ourselves in the rich-ass world of the late Dominick Dunne, whose all-too-juicy 'Too Much Money' (Crown / Random House ; December 15, 2009 ; $26), which brings back Augustus "Gus" Bailey as Dunne's alter-ego to dish the goods. And they are good, even if those of us who are not so rich might hope for trucks to fall from the sky on these sorts of people in real life.
Then we moved on to the slightly-less insanely rich world of Jonathan Dee's 'The Privileges,' (Random House ; January 15, 2010 ; $25), where good intentions and bad decisions result in money that's not exactly earned. Dee focuses on the giddy sense of risk, and the addictive nature thereof. Readers may or may not like this family, but these people do seem like the sort who lead a life off the page.
Then there's 'Union Atlantic,' (Nan A. Talese / Random House ; February 9, 2010 ; $26), by Adam Haslett, who managed the difficult feaat of getting a Pulitzer Prize nomination and becoming a National Book Award finalist for his collection of short stories, 'You Are Not a Stranger Here.' Suffice it to say the well-to-do are not quite so appealing in this novel. As they deserve, often.
Elif Shafak's first novel was 'The Bastard of Istanbul,' and she returns with the nicely-twisty 'The Forty Rules of Love' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; February 18, 2010 ; $25.95). You get the bored suburban housewife who finds herself immersed in the novel she's reading for a literary agent, The novel-within-a-novel, "Sweet Blasphemy" a novel of Rumi, explores the life of the Sufi mystic and creates a nice hall-of-mirrors effect. It's a device I particularly enjoy.
And finally, just because we needed to go way over the speed limit, so to speak, we talked about the latest from T. C. Boyle, 'Wild Child' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; January 21, 2010 ; $25.95). Cheuse pointed out that it was not so long ago that a 'Collected Stories' by Boyle came out; and yet this is his fourth collection since. He may be prolific, but he manages to be evergreen in terms of quality.
01-19-10: Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Start the Year Right
Don Delillo,Point Omega
Robert Stone,Fun With Problems
Yes, we did choose three very "guy" books for our discussion. Hey, we're guys. Don Delillo's 'Point Omega' (Scribner ; February 2, 2010 ; $24) bills itself "A Novel," but is closer to novella in length. Robert Stone, author of the legendary 'Dog Soldiers,' has a new collection of short stories deceptively titled 'Fun With Problems' (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ; January 11, 2010 ; $24).
And the prolific Douglas Preston bombards readers and the earth itself with the cleverly-written 'Impact' (Forge / Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; January 5, 2010 ; $25). You'd think it would be a pretty straightforward discussion of some rather manly reading.
Not so fast. You know, you get two guys talking about a book like 'Point Omega,' and it isn't hard for them to get derailed and talking about other stories in other mediums.
12-09-09: Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Michael Crichton Retrospective
It is true; I remember walking up to the desk at the Covina Public Library when I was 12 years old and checking out 'The Andromeda Strain.' Those were heady days for 12 year-old boys. 2001: A Space Odyssey and "One small step for mankind." But who might have guessed that Crichton would come closest to describing the future in his science-fiction novel that somehow managed to avoid being labeled science fiction. In so doing, the publishers and Crichton himself showed a genius that would play out over the next 40 years.
Michael Crichton has a new novel out, 'Pirate Latitudes,' and while some reviewers will tell you that it's thankfully not about technology, it is indeed about technology — just a tech we've had for hundreds of years. You also get sea monsters and cannibals, so what more can you ask? Well, here's what you can ask for; NPR's Alan Cheuse, in conversation about the greatest genre writer ever to avoid being called a genre writer, just by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
11-10-09: Three Books with Alan Cheuse
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Charlie Huston, Sleepless
J. M. Coetzee, Summertime
There are a lot of books out there, jostling for your attention. They fire them out of a cannon at me, and at NPR's Alan Cheuse as well. This month, we had a particularly fruitful selection. Who can not love Barbara Kingsolver? And what will the esteemed book critic for NPR make of Charlie Huston's science fiction apocalypse? How will J. M. Coetzee manage to hold a reader's interest as he writes about himself as if he were dead? What books do you think you want to read?
I had one hell of good time talking about books with Alan Cheuse this time around. It's a subject that we both take quite seriously, a subject that we believe all citizens should take seriously. How else can you engage with your world if not through reading, especially fiction? Fiction offer us the opportunity to experience lives we could never ourselves live; for example, Trotsky's life and untimely death in Kingsolver's 'The Lacuna,' or a world without sleep in Charlie Huston's 'Sleepless.' Or the literary Moebius strip that winds through a hall of mirrors in J. M. Coetzee's 'Summertime.' The deal is that each of these books will ask for a bit of your life, with the promise of giving you more than you expect in return. You can follow this link and hear which are worth your time — which are worth your life — by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
10-13-09: Three Books With Alan Cheuse:
'The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps'
Brian Kiteley, 'The River Gods'
Margaret Atwood, 'The Year of the Flood'
The esteemed Alan Cheuse returns to The Agony Column this week, with a look at three very different and very interesting books; William Styron ' The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps,' Brian Kiteley, 'The River Gods,' and Margaret Atwood, 'The Year of the Flood.' And in our conversation about these books, we have some entertaining banter in store for listeners.
Alan and I generally tend to agree in our estimation of books, but that's not always the case and it isn’t this time. I'll let listeners discover where we disagree, but the range here is pretty entertaining in itself. William Styron's 'The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps', (Random House ; October 6, 2009 ; $24) offers five essays/character sketches/short stories (you pick your favorite description), all centering on his service during World War II and the Korean War, since he was "lucky" enough to be drafted twice.
Brian Kiteley's novel 'The River Gods' (FC2 ; August 9, 2009 ; $16.95) comes from FC2 (Fiction Collective Two) () is an experimental work that describes life in Northampton, Massachusetts from the eleventh century to the 1990's. If ou enjoy mosaic novels, this one's well worth your time.
Ad finally, we discuss Margaret Atwood's sequel to 'Oryx & Crake, 'The Year of the Flood'. Nor surprisingly, she provides a great platform from which to discuss her work and the world within which it lives. You can hear our conversation about these books by following the link to this MP3 audio file.
08-28-09: Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Fall Preview
E. L. Doctorow,Homer & Langley
John Irving,Last Night in Twisted River
Sherman Alexie,War Dances
Looking for a few books worth your valuable time to read this fall? Join Alan Cheuse and I as we talk about three of the big releases for this fall. Your summer reading days are coming to an end, so you’d best cram in all the bad beach reading you can find out there. Soon enough, America's best authors will be bringing you new work to keep you warm in the winter.
For many, this is the last week of summer. Next week, school will be back in session, and down at the beach at 5:20 AM, I'll see Dave the School Bus Driver for the first time since June. Books, like school and movies, follow a predictable pattern, and the fall brings on the
prestigious "Big Lit" releases. I managed to corral Alan Cheuse for one last chat down by the beach to preview three books you’re going to hear a lot about this fall; E. L. Doctorow's subtle, visionary 'Homer & Langley' a massive new novel by John Irving, 'Last Night in Twisted River,' and from Sherman Alexie, 'War Dances,' a collection of short stories. You can the leaves turn gold in the background as Alan and I chat about these fine books by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
08-19-09: A 2009 Live Interview With Alan Cheuse
"This reinforced their vision of the world as filled with many spirits" —Alan Cheuse
On July 26, 2009, I had the delight of having Alan Cheuse in to the studio at KUSP for a live broadcast version of The Agony Column. Since Mr. Cheuse and I speak regularly — and since we'd been holding off on speaking about his work, 'A Trance After Breakfast,' this was the sort of interview where preparation and the interview itself are equally easy.
Having spent so much time recently speaking with Cheuse about the work of other writers, it was strangely unusual to talk with him about his own writing. I've read a lot of his fiction, which I found to be immersive and entertaining as well as emotionally powerful. And of course, we’ve talked about books. But I frankly had little idea of how all that would translate to travel writing. Not surprisingly, Cheuse has an utterly unique approach, sometimes elegiac and sometimes reportorial and more often than not, both at once. What Cheuse does incredibly well is to write about complex emotions and situations, to draw the power of those situations into his language and to translate all that for the reader in a manner that is enjoyably easy to read. It's a bit like great cooking; complex flavors that seem simple and elegant.
To this, and our conversation, Cheuse brings a mordant sense of humor and humility. He's a guy who reads and appreciates great science fiction as much as he does high literature. He's having the time of his life, reading, writing, writing about reading and peaking about both. Care to travel in time? You can do so as easily as following this link to the MP3 audio file of our interview.
07-31-09: Three Books with Alan Cheuse
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Joyce Carol Oates, Little Bird of Heaven
David Eagleman, Sum
Special Guest Star: Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Back from anything remotely resembling slumming, this week, Alan Cheuse and I took up the latest novels from two literary superstars; Joyce Carol Oates, 'Little Bird of Heaven,' and Thomas Pynchon's 'Inherent Vice.' Then, just to mix it up a bit, we talked about David Eagleman's 'Sum: 40 Visions of the Afterlife' and Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities.'
We're working our way towards the fall, when the big books by the big literary authors are released, and we've already got a fine start, with Joyce Carol Oates, 'Little Bird of Heaven,' and Thomas Pynchon's 'Inherent Vice.' The former finds Oates moving away from Faulkner and edging in on Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'. But this story unfolds in Oates' setting of Eden County, New York, in the town of Sparta, surely an evocative name. Our suburbs are nothing if not Spartan, and the lives of those who live there unfold in this novel with intense sexual passion and bloody violence. As for 'Crime and Punishment,' set in the suburbs, it is ever wise to recall Howard Devoto's immortal line "I could have been Raskolnikov/But Mother Nature ripped me off!" Music features in the language and the plot of 'Inherent Vice,' a novel that is quite uncharacteristic for Pynchon, who nails the late-sixties noir genre with ease, aplomb and lots of drugs — at least in the novel. And finally, we talked about 'Sum: 40 Visions of the Afterlife' by David Eagleman and Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities.' We covered the world in a mere twenty-something minutes as you can hear link to the MP3 audio file.
07-24-09: Three Two Books with Alan Cheuse : Daniel Silva, 'The Defector', Colum McCann, 'Let The Great World Spin'
Let's set the record straight; the story is "Martyrdom" and the collection is 'Metahorror,' edited by Dennis Etchison. And in fact it was Douglas Winter who edited 'Prime Evil.' All this becomes clear as you listen to my latest conversation with Alan Cheuse as we discuss 'The Defector' by Daniel Silva and 'Let The Great World Spin' by Colum McCann. In the process, my dog is running around the back yard where Cheuse and I sit each Wednesday and discuss books, and the neighbors are cutting up wood, not one another. Well, we hoped, and we didn't hear any screams.
We didn't get to that third book because we hadn't actually finished reading it yet. I didn't have the latest Joyce Carol Oates novel, and Alan had only cracked the first three pages. But as you'll understand, those are three vital pages so far as it goes when choosing a book. That's because we talked about how to avoid bad books, as well as why you should read, well, lighter fare (and what some critics will dismiss as just plain crap) between the masterpieces. Man does not, should not live by caviar alone. To hear a conversation about a healthy literary diet, follow this link to the MP3 audio file.
Volume 3, Drama
07-17-09: Alan Cheuse on Writing the Textbook : Drama
'Drama' is where things get sticky, where the choices become limited and uncomfortable. For every piece you choose to include, others, perhaps many others seemingly just as worthy, must be left out. Drama is inherently a longer form and far more challenging to present. In a book you can only put words, but drama is as much about performance as it is about text. The text though, is the literature.
When I talked to Alan Cheuse about 'Literature: Craft and Voice, Volume 3: Drama,' my questions were queued up from the moment I picked up the book. How do you choose the best oh, 600 pages of drama since time immemorial? How do you bring to life the words printed on a page, how to you instruct a student to read and analyze words that are meant to be heard, not read? The reading experience is wildly different from the play-going experience. How do you use a textbook to help us understand the cornerstones upon which the immersive media that now rule our lives are based? We live in an environment that Sophocles could not even have dreamed about. How do you put him at square one for student who probably spent five years watching cartoons before even thinking about reading? You can hear his answers to these questions by following the link to the MP3 audio file.
Volume 2, Poetry
07-10-09: Alan Cheuse on Writing the Textbook : Poetry
This is the podcast in which a barking dog plays an integral part. I suppose that comes as less of a surprise given that we were talking about poetry, but yes, sometimes having the dog actually helps matters. Today, Alan Cheuse and I talk about his work on the vlume of poetry and his process of collaboration with Nicholas Delbanco.
When it comes to collaboration, working on a textbook is a rather daunting task. Cheuse and Delbanco spent five and half years putting these three books together, and they worked fast according to industry standards. Cheuse told me how they collaborated and how they divided the duties, which became quite important when it comes to dealing with the huge number of works they had to sift through and choose. As well, there quite a bit more work involved in this one than in the fiction, again due to the sheer number of poems covered. Cheuse read a number of the best selections, some famous, some merely great. You can hear a huge chunk of poetry, criticism and talk about the craft of putting together textbooks by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
Volume 1, Literature
07-03-09: One Book With Alan Cheuse : Writing the Textbook
There's money to be made writing textbooks. But it's not easy money by any means. This week on Three Books With Alan Cheuse, we're talking about one, that is, 'Literature: Craft & Voice, Volume 1: Fiction,' and about the process of writing a textbook.
You can afford to cut back to one book with Alan Cheuse when that book is a 700-page version of, as he describes it, "an issue of Harper's Magazine." Ever want to know how you go about getting into this lucrative business? I think dedication of the sort that one very rarely finds outside of religious orders is called for. Cheuse confided in me that he spent five and half years working on the three books he and I will be talking about, one at a time — and that was a very short timeline! You can hear us chat about the planning and events that went into that timeline by following the link to this MP3 audio file.
06-19-09: Agony Column Exclusive — (Around) Three Books With Alan Cheuse 'Every Man Dies Alone'
by Hans Fallada
by Hermann Broch
Recently, we here at The Agony Column have taken to calling Friday Cheuseday, because, well, that's the day we dedicate our podcast to an ever-widening discussion of books and literature with Alan Cheuse. This week, we're going back in time and traveling to Germany, to look at society as an illness.
From "The Disintegration of Values" in Europe in general and Germany in particular, from 1888 through 1918, found in Broch's intense trilogy to the slim volume written in 24 days in 1947 by Ernst Fallada, about dissident Germans in Nazi Germany, today Alan Cheuse and I will talk about how the many affect the few and the few the many. It's always tempting to look at today in terms of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," or to see America as an analogue of the post-sunset British Empire. But it's never quite so simple on a personal level. You can hear my conversation with Alan Cheuse about these two harrowing titles by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
06-13-09: Alan Cheuse and 'Single Scene Short Stories' : One Book, Many Lessons
No, not every book has text, even, probably even some textbooks. Still, here's a book where text is king and Alan Cheuse is your guide to intricacies of crafting great fiction. In today's conversation with Cheuse, we talked about the power of these short stories and about the literary elements of craft that give them their intensity. Rather than looking at three books, we look at many stories and venture into literary criticism and theory, stepping right past the lines the hem in book reviewers. We talk about Raymond Carver's one thousand page monument to minimalism and Alan reads an entire story by Amy Hempel. You can hear our conversation by following this link to the mp3 audio file.
06-05-09 :Agony Column Podcast News Report — The BEA with Alan Cheuse : The Death of the Book and Other Bodily Parts
Who do you want to give you the lowdown on the BEA? Well, let me suggest NPR's Alan Cheuse, who returns from the premiere Book conference with a report on lines, the bikini models, grumbling publishers and the oft-reported death of the book.
If you want to get more than a rundown on titles, Alan Cheuse is the guy to ask. In our conversation about Book Expo America 2009, he gets to the all important ambiance of the affair, the feel of the booths (not the bikini models, that's the kind of reporting I specialize in!), the talk on the floor about attendance and most importantly, we get right to the point. Because we used to just have to talk about the death of the novel, which has been right around the corner pretty much since novels were first invented. Of course like any apocalypse, if it has arrived, we've just not noticed. And the predictions get more extravagantly entertaining every damn year. Let Alan Cheuse show you what literary entertainment really means by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
05-30-09 : Three Books With Alan Cheuse
A Moveable Feast, Restored Edition
by Ernest Hemingway
American Rust by Philip Meyer
The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro
and Chuck Hogan
"Half way through vampire novel, it's giving me nightmares..."
That was Alan Cheuse's reaction to 'The Strain' by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.
I'm a devil, I know, asking him to read literature that tramples down the borders of taste with buckets of blood and scenes of physical horror so gruesomely disturbing that you can practically hear the icky sound effects that would accompany the movie version.
But whatever the topic, be it the restored edition of Ernest Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast' or 'American Rust' by Philip Meyer, a piercing look at life in the rotting remains of what was once an industrial power, Alan Cheuse and I had a grand time discussing today's selection of three books. The Hemingway pretty much comes under the must-buy banner; there are 60 new pages of new material here, and much of what was elided by the book's first editor, Hemingway's fourth wife Mary, really proves to have mattered. You can hear our conversation by following the link to the MP3 audio file.
05-22-09 :Agony Column Podcast News Report — Three Books with Alan Cheuse
by Stephen Baxter
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Books have no borders, no boundaries, no matter how much booksellers demand lines of demarcation. The upshot of this is that you will find great reading in a variety of titles and genres, shelved everywhere in the store. Here to help you sort it all out is Alan Cheuse of NPR's All Things Considered. Today he and I talk about three very different books, that have but one thing in common. They're worth your valuable time and money.
I have to admit that I was quite happy when Alan Cheuse asked me about 'Flood' by Stephen Baxter. He'd seen my write up, and was hoping to score a copy, which I was happy to help him do. Now, it ends up in Three Books, alongside the latest by Luis Alberto Urrea, 'Into the Beautiful North' and 'Do Not Deny Me', a collection of short stories by Jean Thompson. I'm connected to both of the other books as well; I'm pretty sure, at least that my one-time colleague from KUSP, Jenn Ramage, interviewed him. And the Agony Column's Kathryn Petruccelli interviewed Jean Thompson a couple of years back. Now you can hear my conversation with Alan Cheuse about these three books by following this link to the MP3 file.
05-15-09 :Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Words and Music
by Rita Dove
Shannon A Poem of the Lewis Clark Expedition by Campbell McGrath
The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
Once again, I'm honored to be joined by Alan Cheuse as we take another look at three books worth your valuable time and money. This time, we're heading over to the poetry section, to examine two unusual books of poetry by Rita Dove and Campbell McGrath. Then, just to keep things lively, we look at the latest novel by Arthur Phillips, 'The Song is You,' an actual song that I have tucked away somewhere on one of my Stan Getz records. Yes, vinyl records.
Music runs through the selections for today's Three Books conversation. Rita Dove's 'Sonata Mulattica' poetry collection is a historical narrative about George Polgreen Hightower, a wunderkind musical genius, the son of a white European woman and an "African Prince" who travels from London to Vienna to meet Ludwig Van Beethoven, who had written a sonata to honor him — until they met. Campbell McGrath's 'Shannon', is a 100 page narrative poem about George Shannon, the 16 year old boy who was separated from the Lewis and Clark Expedition and wandered alone on the prairie for 16 days is written in vivid, musical prose. And Arthur Phillips, 'The Song is You' is the first great American iPod novel, and offers an usual celebration of the sorts of technology that are usually shown as alienating factors in our lives. You can hear Alan and I discuss these books by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
05-08-09: Agony Column Exclusive Podcast : Alan Cheuse, Three Books : Three Books by James D. Houston: 'Snow Mountain Passage', 'Bird of Another Heaven' and 'Where the Light Takes Its Color from the Sea'
It's been just three weeks since we lost Jim Houston, a writer I was privileged to call a friend. Alan Cheuse knew Jim as well, and it seemed to me only right that he and I share some of our thoughts on three of his books; 'Snow Mountain Passage', 'Bird of Another Heaven' and 'Where the Light Takes Its Color from the Sea.'
05-01-09: Agony Column Exclusive Podcast : Alan Cheuse, Three Books :
Amos Oz, 'Rhyming Life and Death,' Elmore Leonard, 'Road Dogs' and Rory Clements 'Martyr'
If you want to know what you should be reading tomorrow, you can listen to what Alan Cheuse has to say today. He's the book commentator for NPR's All Things Considered, and the source of seemingly endless variety when it comes to reading suggestions. Today's discussion goes all over the map, from literary thought-experiments to slick, smart, mainstream fiction to new books you might not have heard of, but will be glad to hear about.
Alan Cheuse always manages to surprise me with this literary choices. I plucked his review of 'Rhyming Life and Death' from the San Francisco Chronicle, which is to be commended for its extensive and varied book coverage. The latest novel by Amos Oz is a slim volume with lots of payoff. And how can you go wrong with Elmore Leonard? You can't, and his latest, 'Road Dogs,' brings together three protagonists from previous novels. Finally, we talk about the first book by Rory Clements, a British journalist whose historical mystery, 'Martyr' is an immersive historical journey and a toe-tapping murder mystery. You can hear what Alan and I have to say about these fine works well worth your time and money by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
04-24-09: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books With Alan Cheuse : Three Thillers
This week on "Three Books With Alan Cheuse," we have the upshot of a random comment I made before we talked last time. I'd mentioned that I was thrilled that he'd liked the Lincoln Child novel, 'Terminal Freeze', and told him I thought he might like 'Fragment' by Warren Fahy.
The next thing I know, he's told me that he read it on a plane, and then goes on to suggest two more novels worth your valuable time and money. In addition to 'Fragment', we talked about 'Marine One' by James Huston (St. Martin's Press ; May12, 2009 ; $24.95) and 'The Genesis Secret' by Tom Knox (Viking / Penguin ; April 30, 2009 ; $26.95). You can hear our conversation about three thrillers that worth the time you will spend turning the pages as fast as possible by following the link to this MP3 audio file.
04-17-09 :Agony Column Exclusive : Alan Cheuse : Three Books
Alan Cheuse is the nation's foremost radio book reviewer, and as it happens, one of our best novelists as well. Having interviewed Mr. Cheuse now and again, and having heard his reviews, I decided to see if he was up for a semi-regular feature here in the Agony Column Podcast. I proposed a simple format. I'd ring him on the phone and we'd talk about three books worth reading.
Because the heavens smile upon me, he agreed. This week, we're starting with three books that haven’t been in this column before; 'In Other Rooms, Other Wonders' by Daniyal Mueenuddin; 'The Stalin Epigram' by Robert Littel; and ' A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century' by Jane Vandenburgh. Worthy of your valuable time and money? You can find out by following this slink to the MP3 audio file.
10-27-08: A 2008 Interview With Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse writes the sort of novels that immerse readers in another time, another place, another life, and not surprisingly – because he does so himself. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Cheuse before the release of his latest novel, 'To Catch the Lightning', and find out the genesis of this delicately layered yet propulsive novel. It's the story of Edward Curtis, who took his first portrait of an American Indian – Princess Angeline, or Kickisomlo in 1895. Five years later he was invited to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians, and in 1906 J. P. Morgan offered him $75,000 to take 1,500 photographs that would fill 20 volumes.
Cheuse talks about immersing himself in those volumes in the Library of Congress, and about the wax cylinders that still exist. He tells both the fascinating story of Curtis himself and his own long struggle to write the novel. As befits a book reviewer for NPR, he also offers some nice craft tips, though they’re sort of a double-edged sword. It's excellent advice, but you might want to plan out our time for perhaps, the next ten years. In the interim, you can read 'To Catch the Lightning' which will offer a lifetime of experience for a few sittings in front of nice winter fire. And of course, hear Alan Cheuse speak about his novel in this MP3.
It's no surprise the NPR's Alan Cheuse is passionate about reading. It's also no surprise how articulate he is when he talks about reading, nor that he's equally articulate about his own fiction, including his latest, 'The Fires', even if he is one of those writers who, like William Gibson, waits and "takes dictation" from the part of himself that actually does the writing.
Cheuse teaches at Georgia Mason University, and what he has to say about how blogging interacts with teaching literature will come as something of surprise, however. I had a great time talking with Cheuse, and attending his event at Capitola Book Café, where I was found Santa Cruz poets Morton Marcus and Robert Sward among those attending the reading. I'll be frank. Even Cheuse didn't expect a large turnout for a literary writer publishing two standalone novellas via the Santa Fe Writers Project. We joked about it before the interview, but I have to say I was surprised by the rather large turnout from local readers who had enjoyed his fiction and as well, his memoir 'Fall Out of Heaven'. As he told me in our interview, the latter get mined in the title novella from 'The Fires'. The memoir tells the story of his trip to Russia to retrace the exploits of his father; 'The Fires' takes place in that same Russia, a chaotic society coming apart at the seams.
To my mind, a lot of the interviews for this site might be something that would be of use to writers-in-training, or students studying writing. Cheuse is a teacher, and he offers up a lot of fascinating advice. I particularly enjoyed our discussion of the old "write what you know" saw that, as Cheuse points out, perhaps is as often used to destroy art as often as it manages to inspire it.
I should warn readers that both the MP3 and the RealAudio files of the interview contain the rather X-rated story associated with teaching and blogs. As if said warning is going to frighten readers away rather than having the opposite effect. Occasionally those of us tagged as bloggers have to live up to our sordid reputations. Or perhaps more often than occasionally.
New to the Agony Column
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Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2010 Interview with Tim Powers : "It just struck me, pirates, mixed with Voodoo in the Caribbean; it just seemed like that would be a rich field to play in..."
11-30-10: Commentary : James Barclay Reveals 'Legends of the Raven' : 'Elfsorrow,' 'Shadowheart,' and 'Demonstorm'
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books With Alan Cheuse : The Poet Laureates Anthology edited by Susan Schmidt, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
11-30-10: Commentary : Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan Create 'The Fall' : The Middle of a Nightmare
Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2010 Interview with Guillermo Del Toro in Bleak House, The Haunted Mansion" : "I was always worried about where Godzilla left his droppings...
11-26-10: Commentary : Adam Carolla Worries That 'In Fifty Years, We'll All Be Chicks' : Messiah Complex
11-04-10: Commentary : Pierre Pevel Sharpens 'The Cardinal's Blades' : Dragons, Cults and Conspiracies
Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2010 Interview with Gary Young on Morton Marcus : "...scanning the heavens in our solitary vigil for words that will redeem us..."—from "Radio" by Morton Marcus, as read by Gary Young
11-03-10: Commentary : Cormac McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian' : Horror In the Eyes of the Beholder
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Agony Column Live Preview : Paul McHugh and Wallace Baine on Writing, Journalism and the Future of the Newspaper: "Newspapers have geography on their side." - Wallace Baine "Why isn't the paradigm shifting even faster?" - Paul McHugh
11-02-10: Commentary : Charles Burns Gets 'X'ed Out' : Welcome to Your Nightmare
Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2010 Interview with Charles Burns : "I remember having this feeling of literally wanting to slip out of my skin, shed my skin and turn into someone else."
11-01-10: Commentary : Graham Hancock is 'Entangled' : Informed Speculation at the Edge of a Cliff
10-13-10: Commentary : Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck Catalogue 'Wonders of the Sky' : Lights Before the Airships
Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF panel from September 11, 2010, with Amelia Beamer, Terry Bisson, Mark L. Van Name and Gary K. Wolfe : "Those zombies were metaphors for slavery."-Gary K. Wolfe
10-12-10: Commentary : Darin Straus Lives 'Half a Life' : Reading the Grieving Mind