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11-19-10: Michele Norris Finds 'The Grace of Silence'

The Act of Listening

Writing for radio requires a level of discipline that is far beyond that of the print-only world. A major piece of writing for a newspaper or magazine might run 2,000 to 3,000 words and even then seem pretty short. A major piece of writing for the radio might run 200 to 300 words — and even then, it is going to seem long.

Michele Norris makes the most of the discipline she learned in her years at NPR in her debut book 'The Grace of Silence.' Norris originally thought it would be a book of essays about race, based on her work at NPR. But it quickly changed when she decided she should start asking questions of her own family. Those questions broke a silence she had not known to exist. 'The Grace of Silence' starts as a memoir, but quickly moves beyond any boundaries as Norris finds a mystery in her family's history that leads to an examination of our history. The story that unfolds is compelling, entertainingly well-written, and superbly crafted, with an emotional heft that is honest and raw.

Norris embraces the brevity of radio writing with a skill that makes her a great storyteller in prose. We meet her father near the end of his life and then, in a series of telescoping conversations and investigations, move back through Norris' life and her parents' lives to find out what happened, and why. It is a story that, were it not so well written, might be difficult to read. As a nation, we're still close to the bone with regards to race and racism. Our ugly past is a lot closer and a lot uglier than you might hope to believe. But hope and belief work in our favor as well. Norris effectively uses both to sometimes shock and sometimes honestly, and without effort, uplift the reader. Being uplifted is a unique sensation. It is often attempted and rarely succeeds. Norris succeeds because she does not try.

There's a lot of history, both of Norris' family, and of the US in this book. But often-startling stories and events are rendered in prose that is precise and to the point. Norris is never too economical here; you never get the feeling that any scene is a sketch, and that's the result of skill so finely honed that it does not tip its hand. The book is a pleasure to read. Even the most personal family scenes are rendered with an even reportorial hand.

What is most impressive — in retrospect, when you have run through Norris' page-turning examination of a family and even a national mystery — is the skill with which she's put together the story. She keeps jumping back in time, then moving forward in a manner that allows the reader to put together the bigger and smaller pictures simultaneously. While the book is couched as a memoir and has all the pieces, it often reads like a true-crime or pocket history. It's utterly compelling and very crafty in construction.

Of course, Norris learns quite a bit about the state of race relations in America in solving her own family mystery, and as she learns, we as readers experience her own immersion. She puts us in her shoes, and that proves to be a great place to be. She's smart, tenacious and empathetic. This book may not offer all the answers, but it certainly gets readers started asking the right questions.

'The Grace of Silence' is not at all what you might expect it to be. Norris has used her skills as a writer for radio to explore in prose the minds of an entire nation and the depths of her own family history. When you open up 'The Grace of Silence,' abandon your expectations. You'll find a powerful mystery, unknown history, and then, in the moment when you finish — a willingness to embrace the silence that follows. To listen.

11-16-10: Matt Taibbi Explores 'Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con That is Taking Down America'


It's a big canvas; the entire world, over the last forty years. The scope of what has unfolded is so large as to be difficult to comprehend. What has transpired is so complex it takes a while to realize that Matt Taibbi is not just talking about politics, or business or even economics. 'Griftopia' is a book of true crime on a global scale.

Compared to the figures we meet in 'Griftopia,' the villains in a James Bond movie seem like unambitious pikers. The men and women who haunt this book are not constrained by compassion or morals or laws. They frequently have the laws re-written to suit their needs. Their take is so large that they have literally shifted the global balance of power. And their crime spree is not over yet.

In 'Griftopia,' Matt Taibbi sets himself a difficult goal. He can't just identify the criminals and say, "There they are." The problem is that the criminals have redefined the crime. Taibbi is not confronted just with who done it and how; he also has to explain just what happened. Fortunately, he is more than up to the task. 'Griftopia' is gripping, funny, terrifying and exciting. And even though the temptation is to say that it is also utterly depressing, that's really not the case. Taibbi writes with enough verve to leave readers feeling energized. Clarity is refreshing.

We start in familiar territory; Taibbi on the campaign trail in 2008, marveling at the manipulative powers of Sarah Palin. But something else is going on; quietly, in the background, banks are failing. Big banks. Oil prices are skyrocketing, and Taibbi realizes he has no clue as to why this is happening. Even though he's not a financial reporter, he decides to find out. What follows is a frightening portrait of Alan Greenspan, the avatar of regulatory capture. This phrase was coined to describe what happens when those within an industry manage to put themselves or one of their own in charge of regulating that industry. It's a way or working around the law. It's the beginning of the end.

Taibbi goes on to examine what he calls "the bubble machine," the ability to generate bubble economies that siphon vast amounts of money out of the hands of the many and into the hands of the few, then the fewer. He looks at the "internet bubble" and the housing bubble, and all the outright crime that festered in an atmosphere of what looked like money for nothing. Of course, the money went in one direction and the nothing hung around. He explores and makes chillingly clear the complex relationship between credit default swaps, derivatives and so-called "tranches" of secured mortgages that were chopped up and sold as AAA bonds. He comes close to making your head spin with anger, by drawing parallels between the lowest levels of crime and the stratospheric regions where entire economies simply disappeared into the accounts and holdings of a few wealthy criminals.

What makes 'Griftopia' a great read is Taibbi's prose and approach. He's funny and profane, and makes you laugh out loud about once per page. He keeps things simple, even when what is explaining is not simple. He gives us big characters, like Alan Greenspan Win Neuger and Joe Cassano. Readers will find themselves sucked into plot arcs of mind-boggling crime, in which the criminals essentially hire politicians from both parties to re-write the laws so that what was once illegal becomes not only legal, not only unregulated, but shockingly, illegal to regulate. In this book, crime pays.

'Griftopia' stems from the highly-rewritten final chapter, which ran in the Rolling Stone — a portrait of Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid attached to the face of humanity." But it goes well and terrifyingly beyond that, with a look at Sovereign Wealth Funds, by means of which foreign powers now have a hand in when you're allowed to park on the streets of this country. He de-mystifies the commodities market and explains why oil shot through the roof. In a difficult-for-Democrats-to-read chapter, he looks at the health care bill. It's by no means socialism. It's the exact opposite, which makes one pause to wonder what would happen should those who call it socialism get their hands on it.

In the hands of a different sort of writer, 'Griftopia' might have been unreadably depressing and complicated, but Taibbi knows how to take apart the machine and show readers how the parts go together. He writes with clarity and flair. He's unflinching even when readers might wish otherwise. You might find this book filed under, Business, or Politics, or Economics; or even, perhaps True Crime. But 'Griftopia' actually should be filed as non-fiction horror. It's essential reading. The first step to conquering fear is to understand what needs must be feared.

11-15-10: Laurie David Prepares 'The Family Dinner'

Cooking, Kids and Chaos

One quick trip through 'The Family Dinner' by Laurie David will tell you all you need to know. Every page is crammed full of stuff. Colors fly everywhere, photos jostle with colored boxes full of type, quotes seem to almost be falling out of the book, activities compete with advice, you can practically hear someone shouting, "Clean up! It's time for dinner!"

Laurie David apparently has a pretty good grasp on the family dinner. It's not neat and tidy. It's not quiet. It's jam-packed with action, craziness, loud voices and the occasional projectile. Her trick, however, was to turn it into a book that itself can help make your family dinners.

In our family, we always looked forward to the Sunday Roast. I'd make a classic roast beef — sirloin tip roast, cross-rib roast, whatever was on sale — or maybe a ham or a leg of lamb, a turkey breast — with garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, or maybe a salad. It was something we all looked forward to. The Sunday Roast.

Laurie David has a practical understanding of how important the family meal is. She realized this at the dinner table, actually talking to her teenagers. But translating that understanding into a book is not an easy task. A family is all about crazy, random, unplanned spurts of energy and invention. A work of fiction can channel that sort of energy, but it's not likely to inspire cooking. Finding a way to express the unpredictable nature of pulling together a meal every single gosh-darned day is not a challenge left to the uninitiated.

It will come as no surprise then that 'The Family Dinner' is not page after page of text with Laurie David laying out recipes and offering tips for napkin-folding and seating arrangements. It's much more akin to a scrapbook put together by an extended family of extremely talented people with a lot of passion for a pet project. The result is as kinetic as it needs to be, inspiring as it has to be, but mostly just packed to the rafters with words, images and ideas that may actually help you to get your family's keesters to the chairs.

'The Family Dinner' does have a plan. You need a plan. The sixteen chapters start with simple steps to get dinners made — and eaten at the same time sitting down together. You get plenty of recipes by Kirsten Uhrenholdt; a chapter on fast recipes, for example, Pan pasta and Chicken Schnitzel. You get slow cooking — Arroz con pollo, or Lentil stew. You also get a chapter on reading at the table, and trust me, reading while eating is one of the great pleasures life can offer.

But 'The Family Dinner' goes a lot farther than recipes. Laurie David talks about divorce, and offers a chapter on showing gratitude. But to just pull out the subjects and the recipes takes the book apart in a way that doesn't suggest its effect. This is an exuberant, joyous book. Sure, it gets a bit on the sentimental side, but David offers everything with charm. There are enough photos and sidebars to keep every chapter as lively and hopping as an active family dinner. And even if you don't have kids around, there's certainly a use for a book based around the ritual of breaking bread and fast with those you love.

For all the easy, smart fun to be had here, 'The Family Dinner' is a pretty sophisticated affair. David seamlessly integrates elements of autobiography, cookbooks, cut-and-pastes interviews with luminaries from a wide variety of disciplines, and does so with a very down-to-earth, homey feel. There are lots of tips, hints, insets, and graphic flourishes to make all this seem fun. And it is fun. But there is quite of bit of synthesis going on here. David talks about green living, divorce, the importance of gratitude and reading in a straightforward and unpretnetious manner. All this in a book that is likely to get splattered with cooking oil.

Happily, 'The Family Dinner' is a book best experienced in hardcover, in person, in a local bookstore. You open it up and you'll see what I mean. This is "Little House in the Suburbs," 21st century style. It's unpretentious and fun. When Laurie David talks about sitting down with a book for dinner, 'The Family Dinner' is the perfect first course.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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