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04-27-12: Lisa Lutz on 'Trail of the Spellmans'

Meta-Fiction is Fun

Isabel Spellman's life is a conflux of contrasts. Her family is sweet and charming, but tough and annoying. She still lives, sort of, with her Mom and Dad; also in the "units'" house is Demetrius, once in prison for murder but freed with their help in "Document #4." '('The Spellmans Strike Again') Her little sister Rae, once an occasionally charming, overachieving brat, is now a way-too-headstrong college student. Isabel's brother, once an annoying fashion plate, is now married and has been transformed into an annoying doting father. Isabel's ex-boyfriend #13, Henry is neither boyfriend nor ex- enough to make things comfortable. Her life is upside down, and as 'Trail of the Spellmans' opens, she's the best-adjusted in the whole bunch — and she's got a story to tell.

That's the best news that readers could hope for, as Lisa Lutz is an uncompromising writer who uses every trick in the literary toolbox to entertain her readers, and get to the smart heart of an authentically American family. 'Trail of the Spellmans' finds Lutz in top form with Isabel involved in a series of oddly intersecting cases, and most of them involve her investigating her own family. Lutz is a superb storyteller, who keeps her style and story breezy and fun.

But don't let the continuous humor, the excellently paced plot and the entertaining characters fool you. Lutz slips in footnotes, appendices and lots of the tropes of highfalutin' litrachur for low-falutin' fun. This book is charming every second you read it, extremely funny, with excellent use of crude language at the right moments, and in the end offers some serious insights into fully-rounded characters. It's everything you want an utterly serious novel to be except serious.

'Trail of the Spellmans' finds the family hired out in two cases; helicopter parents who want the Spellmans to keep an eye on their perfectly normal daughter and a woman who wants her husband watched. Of course, neither pans out as planned, and the Spellmans end up watching one another as much as they do anyone else. Granny Spellman shows up to make lives miserable, but her unstoppable force has never quite fully hit the immovable rock that is the Spellman family. The problems for Isabel and her family seem to multiply while the solutions recede beyond reach.

The appeal of Lutz's novels is her smart, fun prose. Here's a woman who knows how to have fun with literary hi-jinks from experimental literature. Lutz uses them for humor and insight into the lives of her very everyday characters. There's never a dull-sentence or extra word, but as a reader you'll never even think about these things. You're just there with Isabel — and glad to be there.

The Spellman family is quirkily all-American, and in Lutz's prose, way too much fun to read about. Lutz takes what might at first seem to be a simple plot and runs it through the complex emotions and relationships we find in every family life. She makes it all seem real and utterly believable, this private investigating business and the family entwined in it. As you read, everything is crystal clear, but take a step or two back and you'll realize that Lutz has created a complicated and very crafty story.

'Trail of the Spellmans' has all the positive aspects of the other books in the series, but also adds some serious consequences for Isabel and her behavior while staying fully in character. It also sports a very nice cover re-design from the previous books, which have been re-issued with the new theme in mind. Lisa Lutz writes fun mysteries about a family of private investigators. She also writes complex, meta-fictional visions of an American family trying to survive in the 21st century. The real mystery here is how she is able to do both in the same books; and it's a question that you're not likely to ask after you finish this novel. Smart, pithy fun is hard to find. Enjoy this book and wait for the next one.

04-26-12: Archive Review: Emmanuel Carrére 'The Adversary'

The Enemy Within

Editor's note: Editor's Note: Here's a review of one of the most terrifying books I've ever read. In case you don't want to sleep tonight.

True stories, no matter how unusual, are not by virtue of their truth particularly interesting. This can be the problem with many true crime books. Authors sometimes seem to think that simply by laying out "the facts of the case" they have done their job. Good true crime writing only comes from those who remember that they're telling a story. Great true crime writing comes from those writers who find themselves part of the story they are telling. Involvement in the story seems to tip the scales, enabling the writer to bring the reader deeper into the events, to see them with the eyes of the involved. Anne Rule kick-started a career when it turned out that her good friend at the suicide hotline was serial killer Ted Bundy. In 'The Adversary', Emmanuel Carrére manages to develop a rapport with a man who has no rapport with reality. It's an interesting feat, that leads to a beautifully written little book.

From the get-go, from the very first sentence of the book, Carrére pulls himself into the story. "On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent teacher meeting.." It's a fascinating story, to be sure. Romand, having missed a test for medical school, lies about it. The lies accumulate, until he is married, with children, supposedly employed as a medical researcher for WHO (the World Health Organization). In fact, he had no job and is managing to live off of money he takes from his friends and the rest of his family, supposedly "investing" it for them. He spends his days sitting in restaurants, parked at highway rest stops, wandering the forest. It's the consummate version of 'living a lie'. The sheer pettiness and boredom of Romand's acts are astounding.

Carrére interleaves the story of Romand's unraveling with the story of Carrére's decision to contact the man as he is in prison. He's accused of killing his wife and children and his parents. He's done the deed. Carrére is spending too long gazing into the abyss. Will he become his own version of the monster he is hunting? It's an interesting question, and Carrére (translated by Linda Coverdale) answers it in antiseptically clean prose. He is rather shameless in his pursuit of Romand, trying to eke out his story. There are lies, and truths and lies within truths and matters that can never be verified. There's a feeling that the subject, the author, and eventually the reader are on the edge of a vast vacuum. It's the nothingness of pure lies, of tall tales that become small truths. It's held at a distance, but the reader can see it nonetheless.

The other side of this coin is that 'The Adversary' can occasionally seem a bit shallow, as if it is gliding above the truth by minimizing the involvement of the writer and the reader. Fortunately, the subject himself is so much an absence, so void of humanity, that it is clear no human can ever really understand this creature. It cannot understand itself. It looks like a human, it talks like a human and it walks like a human. It's a small story, a tale told by the reflective foil backing of the mirror. list.

04-23-12: T. M. Luhrman Listens 'When God Talks Back Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God'

Science and the Supernatural

There must be more to this world than the world itself. That much we know; anything else is, by definition guesswork. We know and are part of the natural; beyond that is the unknown, the supernatural, the realm of religions and spirituality. The division is so clear that it is easy to miss a crucial fact; we apprehend both the known and the unknown with our minds.

In 'When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,' T. M. Luhrman gives a clear, well written, scientific vision of the mind as it examines the ineffable. She describes with amazing clarity just how the natural minds of our natural world confront the supernatural. It's a gripping, well-organized reading experience that will keep readers thoroughly, thrillingly engaged in a world that they can neither touch not taste nor see.

Luhrman's book begins with some simple questions; how and why do people believe in a supernatural God in an age of rational science? Luhrman is a psychological anthropologist and decided to find an answer to those questions by investigating the beliefs and examining the experiences of American Evangelical Christians. In her preface, she sets forth her premise, some of her methods and thoroughly hooks the reader for the very intense and strange journey that follows.

Luhrman decided to focus on one specific church, The Vineyard, a rather low-key version of Evangelical Christianity that focuses on prayer as a means of bringing the voice of the Christian God into one's mind. Written in an almost novelistic style, her book takes readers step-by-step through the process that congregants in the Church use to hone their ability to actually experience God as a separate being who speaks to them in their minds. It proves to be a fascinating, ground-breaking exploration of the supernatural experience with the toolkit of psychological anthropology.

Characters are a key component in 'When God Talks Back,' and one in particular, Sarah, carries us through the book. Sarah offers readers a chance to experience the full-range of the Christian experience, from the highs of hearing God's voice in one's mind to diagnosed mental illness. Luhrman makes it quite clear that the voices that these Christian evangelical congregants hear are not the result of madness, however. She gives a very thorough and fascinating look at how prayer is used to segregate one's thoughts into those of one's self and those of an external, loving God. It's a crystal-clear scientific look at a truly supernatural experience that does not presume to know the reality of the supernatural. Luhrman's work in this sense is nothing short of brilliant.

Beyond her abilities to examine the supernatural with scientific exactitude, Luhrman brings an engaging prose style and a grand sense of organization to her material. She's able to convey her utterly new material in a manner that's truly enjoyable to read. We meet a gallery of entertaining characters and see them through her eyes, and Luhrman herself plays an appropriately large part in the narrative. The design of the experiment at the center of the work is fascinating and itself has the compelling pull of a crime narrative.

'When God Talks Back' is enjoyable and accessible, which is fortunate, because it is an essential work that explores issues at the heart of our conflicted culture. Luhrman manages to examine the religious life with scientific eyes and the scientific life with religious eyes. She shortcuts prejudice and politics entirely, with the result that readers of all beliefs will find themselves empathizing with those who differ. What Luhrman does with 'When God Talks Back' is nothing less than use science to unite us — in this world, as well as the next.

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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