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09-01-11: Penn Jillette Says 'God, No!'

Ten Small Steps for an Atheist, One Giant Leap for Atheism

Penn Jillette begins his newest book with what he calls a gedankenexperiment. It's pretty simple; if God asked you to kill your child, would you do it? If the answer is no, then, Penn insists, you're an atheist.

If the answer is yes, then he'd like you to reconsider.

And, if the answer is no, or you are willing to reconsider, then the answer to the ur-question "Will you like this book?" is also quite probably yes.

'God, No!' is a rambling, shambolic atheist revision of the Ten Commandments that is alternately crude, funny, serious and sweet. Anyone with a solemn commitment to a mainstream religion is probably going to be greatly offended, but if you're not, then the chances that you will be greatly entertained. Jillette knows how to turn on the humor and when to turn it off and get either serious or sweet. For a book that is quite tightly organized and could be rather dry, 'God, No!' is very much like the man who writes it; loose, limber and very, very smart.

After a brief introduction wherein Penn establishes his atheist credentials, the book shambles off into ten chapters, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. You get what appears to be the King James original, then an interpretation, then "One Atheist's Suggestion." So, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," gets re-cast as, "The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all."

So far, so good; the rest of the chapter launches into the story of Penn's thoughts on Siegfried and Roy, David Blaine, and other points on the map only connected to his version of Commandment one by virtue of the fact that they involve art — sort of. That said, the writing is consistently entertaining, and bit-by-bit, Jillette does make clear his feelings on art with regards to what he thinks it is and why he values it. There are a lot of laughs and some nicely turned serious moments along the way.

The rest of the book follows this template to the degree that it is a template and that it can be followed. Jillette mixes in autobiographical stories, anecdotes and over-the-top opinion as he sees fit. As he cuts a swath through the Decalogue, Jillette is probably preaching to the converted, but he offers a very effective argument that life without god is not life without morality. It's not rocket science, but having it written down in a manner that is both clear and entertaining helps him make his point. The tight structure (ten commandments, one per chapter) is balanced by the fast and loose content within each chapter. Penn keeps things organized but not predictable.

The prose is the real star in 'God, No!' When Penn wants to be outrageously, side-splittingly funny, he can just unroll some story about, for example, Extreme Elvis. But he can also turn the same gross-out situation into a charming anecdote. He writes sweetly about his family, without getting saccharine. He says a few smart things, cracks a few dumb jokes, then makes you think about one in relation to the other. No matter what Jillette writes about, he will keep you reading, unless, of course, you find the whole enterprise completely offensive. He gives a pretty fair portion of his audience more than a few reasons to feel just this way.

For all the extremes he examines here, Jillette is trying to keep himself and atheism itself reigned in. He simply wants his readers to admit that, "I don't know," is a very good answer to many of life's big questions. It may not seem like much, but in the context of 'God, No!' it means a lot. It means mostly laughter, love, family — and the willingness to refrain from faith in unseen beings. Penn Jillette isn't asking for much. He wants to touch your heart and engage your mind. As for your soul, I'm certain he would answer, "I don't know."

08-31-11: Michael Harvey Reaches 'The Fifth Floor'

Crime, History and Character

It's tempting to think that history is but a subset of story; and it's just as appealing to see story as the child of history. Find a way to thread one within the other and readers cannot help but be captivated. It does not have to be as overt as historical fiction. We can find our histories under any rock or even garbage can, if we look closely enough. And nobody looks closer than the classic American private detective.

Michael Harvey's 'The Fifth Floor' is an entrancing mix of history and mystery, but not in the sense that we usually find the two melded. It seems so commonplace to start with, so stripped-down and simple. Michael Kelly, still stinging from the events of 'The Chicago Way,' is approached by an old girlfriend with an abusive husband. She doesn't have to do much more than take off her sunglasses to get Kelly on the case. But while following her husband, who works for "the Fifth floor" of City Hall, that is, the Mayor's office, Kelly finds a body in a house that happens to have a history. Kelly's simple case rapidly becomes more complex than he could have anticipated.

Harvey's second novel is a knockout exploration of dirty politics, the history of Chicago and the moral limits we set for ourselves. As with most mysteries, it is what we don't first notice that matters the most, in this case, Harvey's prose. His sentences are crisp, clean and immensely readable. We're transported into both story and history. Aiding and abetting Harvey's work on a sentence level is his sense of pacing. Laid out in short chapters that seem to be finished before the reader realizes what has happened, 'The Fifth Floor' flows by like an el-train that isn't going to stop before it reaches the final station. For all the stories within stories that you will find here, there's a steel spine that travels from beginning to end without letting the reader go.

Harvey's plotting and sense of story offer the perfect balance of precision and unpredictability. Kelly's investigation rapidly leads beyond the mayor's office, then back into the history of Chicago and the Chicago fire. Harvey knows how to keep readers utterly engaged in past and present plotlines as he inexorably ties them together. The tension is palpable but never overbearing. Sense of scale plays a large part in this novel, as Harvey connects events in the personal lives of his characters to the life of the city itself. He creates a tension with the contrast.

The city itself is an important character in this novel, as Harvey treats readers with an authentic sense of place and time. The cold reality of the 21st century garbage can has a rich, loamy background that Harvey mines with skill. It's an outsize city with an outsize personality; but even Chicago has to work to keep up with those who live there. Michael Kelly, the classically-educated ex-cop, private eye, has a well-wrought edge that make him unpredictably violent. Stir his sense of decency at your own risk. Mayor Wilson of Kelly's Chicago is, for my money, one of the best characters to come out of recent noir fiction. He's as amoral as he needs to be to protect his city and those who live there, a fascinating, frightening man who keeps up with Kelly whenever he steps on stage, and off the page. You'll feel like he's sitting in the room with you, and it won't be comforting feeling.

One of the thrills of 'The Fifth Floor' is the unpredictability not just of Michael Kelly, but Michael Harvey. Harvey writes on a prose level with smooth, sparse precision. His characters are clear and complex. But his plotting is as dangerous as the Mayor of Chicago, and he pushes readers to an edge that is really quite extreme. It's not that his books are particularly violent, but rather that Harvey takes big chances with what happens in the lives of characters we care about. He's the writer equivalent of his own creation. You can't help but respect him. He's willing shove history itself around just to show the reader how much story matters — and to let that story speak for itself.

08-29-11: David Levien Hits the '13 Million Dollar Pop'

Economic Disaster Informs Midwestern Mystery

Life wears us down at the edges, smudging away what makes us unique until we succumb to the pull of the humdrum. Our aspirations, our hopes, our uncompromising morals are carefully negotiated away as we seek the solace of comfort, to protect those we love and shelter them from the storms we might be willing to subject ourselves to. As much as we are sold the virtues of compromise in others, in our own lives it seems a bit more bitter than we are led to believe.

David Levien's Frank Behr novels, 'City of the Sun,' 'Where the Dead Lay' and now '13 Million Dollar Pop' (Doubleday / Random House ; August 8, 2011 ; $24.95) have charted a unique path in noir fiction. Levien knows how to bring on the pathos, and the darkness, but ratchets back so that none of what he writes seems affected. Frank Behr is not just a PI; he's an everyman who is trying to work out his economic and emotional destiny in a world where both are threatened easily and often. As '13 Million Pop' begins, Behr finds himself in an unusual and unpleasant position. But he also knows that he should feel lucky. Frank Behr, one-time standalone PI, is employed.

Levien's novel has a naturalistically loose feel to it. His prose is closely written, and feels sparse, almost as if words have been removed after the fact. The words disappear and within the first chapter Behr sees his routine bodyguard job turn into a finely-written shootout. Someone is trying to kill Bernard "Bernie Cool" Kolodnik, and Frank's quick response saves both their lives.

With prose that is sharp, smart and generally invisible, Levien's plot and characters quickly take center stage. Frank Behr is a wonderfully conflicted man. He's moved in with his very pregnant girlfriend Susan. He has responsibilities to her and their child, complicated by his past history. And while he'd prefer to continue his work in the lone-wolf world as a solo PI, he needs the health care and continuity that's provided by the Caro Group, a 21st century version of Continental Ops.

But Behr has a talent for undermining himself no matter what the circumstances. All he has to do is not investigate the shooting he was involved in only because he was doing a co-worker a favor. Levien's novel is a pitch perfect examination of how economic uncertainty undermines relationships in tough times, with the bonus of a compelling contemporary crime fiction plot.

That economic uncertainty is everywhere in the novel, and Levien uses this to create a large cast of very memorable characters that resist all stereotyping. Bernie Cool proves to live up to his name; he's actually a good guy, written against type. It's a very effective piece of work. His chief advisor, Shugie Saunders, is not such a good guy. It's not that he's bad. But he wants that which he cannot have, in this case, as is often the case, a woman far too young for him.

Lowell Gantcher, Bernie's one-time real-estate partner, is the perfect portrait of a man in above his head, pulled down by the same tide that is tugging on Frank. Waddy Dwyer is in town for some work that he's generally quite good at, but he's finding the Midwest more difficult than he expected. And Frank's boss, Karl Potempa, is not so happy with Frank as he might be. Levien is a master when it comes to using his tough prose to create and manage a cast of characters. He mixes up a potently memorable crew.

Once these people start to embark upon their generally conflicting plans and agendas, Levien knows how to dole out the pleasurable pain. Unlike many writers, he is able to keep his story tense without becoming overwrought. Everything is thoroughly believable. There's a very naturalistic feel to these stories. Without seemingly overtly literary or overly topical, '13 Million Dollar Pop' does have the documentary-like feel of social realism that makes the increasingly terrorizing plot all the more compelling. Levien helps propel his story with a background that is literally out of the local crime section of mid-western newspapers. The facts inform the fiction and keep it fresh.

David Levien's third Frank Behr novel is engaging and compelling beyond the definitions of genre. It has the darkness of a noir with a tense, page-turning plot, but the off-hand feel of a heart-felt examination of what happens to real people in otherwise undistinguished cities when the economy goes to hell. It's a novel of intense sympathy for everyone involved. We're all in our world together and Levien manages to make us feel the same way about his world. Reading '13 Million Dollar Pop' offers the reader a 13 million dollar jolt for the price of a hardcover novel. In these shaky times, that's one hell of a good investment. We'll call it entertainment with the understanding that enlightenment is for the Bernie Cools of this world. The rest of us are hoping to make it to the next paycheck.

New to the Agony Column

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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