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01-10-13: Laird Barron Peels Back 'The Croning'

Deep, Dark History

Our lives are so crowded with events and emotions that it is difficult for us to comprehend just how old everything around us is. But in those odd moments alone, at night, staring into the blackness of the shadows in our rooms, or into the starry vault above, we can get intimations of just how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. We can look in the mirror, look in our eyes and in that endless pit, right there in the center, we can plunge, forever falling, never hit bottom, an unheard scream in a silence that swallows our souls. Such thoughts are few and far between. They're unwelcome and uncommon — unless you're reading Laird Barron's novel 'The Croning.'

The unfortunate soul at the center of 'The Croning' is Donald Miller, but he does not start the story. To craft the sensation of deep time that runs like the River Styx though this novel, Barron takes us back to undated antiquity where we see the story of Rumpelstiltskin play out in a gritty, terrorizing manner. We then meet Donald Miller in 1958, with his wife Michelle in Mexico. When she disappears, he ignores a warning to let her return on her own, and sets out to find her. What he finds — and what readers find with him — is a vision of the world, of the universe, of life itself that shrivels the soul and turns shadows into swallowing voids.

Barron's novel is intricately constructed and cunningly plotted. Barron cuts back and forth between the present, when Miller, now on the wrong side of 80 years old, finds his sieve-like memory a blessing and earlier slices of Miller's life that cast shadows with more substance than Miller might prefer. Michelle, his wife, is still youthful. She has apparently given up her search for a "lost tribe" and instead taken up studying her own family history. Knowledge may indeed prove to be power, but as Barron's dark spell takes over, it's the sort of power that happily consumes children to enjoy their fear and crushes human souls with no more care than a man who steps on a parade of ants on the sidewalk.

Barron's power as a storyteller is anchored in his prose, in sentences that make real for the reader historical and contemporary settings. There's a gritty, earthy undertone, and a staccato feel that scratches away the light and replaces it with inimical darkness. Barron seems to have scraped away everything that is unnecessary, leaving behind only the muscles and tendons of a story that is gripping and intense. 'The Croning' feels almost forbidden. One reads it as if it should be censored, even though Barron is a model of restraint with regards to on-the-page violence and its end result. Barron's prose induces the kind of primal unease a rabbit feels when it steps into the shadow of a predator.

'The Croning' benefits from a variety of settings both in time and place, all of them impeccably rendered. As we encounter Miller in all his incarnations, Barron creates a perfectly balanced mystery. Hidden in the tough-as-nails prose there are hints and connections that create a much bigger picture than any single scene; it's a mystery of cosmic and soul-shrinking proportions. Putting the pieces together is a true joy.

But Barron does not just hint — he delivers the goods, and not just in the denouement, but throughout the novel in the historical settings with deep atmosphere, and actual fear as well. Donald Miller's memory may be shattered, but as we read the novel, we do the job for him. Barron manages many truly frightening and disturbing moments, with hints of the haunted house here and revelations to hurt our minds that follow. 'The Croning' is a superb and authentically terrorizing novel that finds a mirror for the darkness in our souls in a cosmos that is, most unfortunately, not at all an empty void.

01-08-13: Lee Child Makes 'One Shot'

Locked Rooms

In an anonymous town in Indiana — American heartland country — we watch a letter-perfect mass-murder unfold. A sniper perches in a parking garage and kills five people. It's both horrifying and compelling. Not long after, a man is arrested. The evidence against him is overwhelming. His guilt is certain. He remains silent until eventually he says: "You got the wrong man." Then: "Get Jack Reacher for me." With laconic, iconic precision the narrative unfolds until a day or two of your reading time has vanished.

It's possible to both underestimate and overestimate the fine machinery that goes into Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. They can be easily underestimated because they roll out with a stark simplicity and don't feature a complicated or conflicted main character. They don't make social statements or examine cultural mores. They have a very abrupt beginning, a relatively straight through-line, an abrupt ending and lots of action. On the surface, there does not seem to be a lot going on other than plot.

It's easy to overestimate them because they are brilliantly written with a kind of fine focus and control that suggests formal minimalism with absolutely no scholarly baggage. They are so supremely attention-getting that you can read them while a television is blaring the background and have no idea what's on TV. They're clearly smart, addictive and well-written. They're impossible to ignore, difficult to put down and obviously the work of a highly-skilled writer.

'One Shot' is the Jack Reacher version of the locked room mystery. The evidence at the crime scene essentially locks in one man, James Barr, who once crossed paths with Reacher back in the Army. Even Reacher is convinced. But of course Barr insists otherwise, and Reacher finds himself working with his defense attorney and sister, even as the case quickly grows more complex and much more dangerous for all involved.

Child's ability to plot around the taciturn Reacher is verifiably astonishing. Here, he manages more than a few surprises under circumstances that don't make them easy. There are some entertaining red herrings, and some obvious clues readers will see that the characters will not. The characters that show up for this novel are a great batch. Barr and his sister are down on their luck as they circle the drain of American poverty. Barr's defense attorney, Helen Rodin, is nicely under-experienced. The DA is her father, Alex Rodin, a brass-plated jerk, and the detective in charge, Emerson, has a feel of weary competency.

On the other side of the tracks, Child cooks up a wonderfully crooked county plot, the sort of thing you see in the "B" section of your newspaper. There's a pretty big cast at work here, and Child makes them all vividly real. He also makes them all vividly unlikable, so as the Reacher moves through the ranks, we're happy to see them meet the Reacher.

'One Shot' delivers all the fixtures we want in these novels; Reacher's always useful silence, prose clipped to what seems to be the letters themselves, and a variety of payoff moments that are certain to make readers laugh out loud. The comedy of revenge is a key element in Child's novels. Child evokes an emotion that is very difficult to pin down, but when it happens, it's always enjoyable. You can't hel;p but make a noise when you encounter these moments, part-bark, part -laugh, part "Hell, yeah!"

'One Shot' demonstrates Child's incredible prose prowess with every sentence, and his powerful use of plot to drive home the pleasure of reading. It will engulf your life, absorb your attention and reward the effort you put into reading it with serious pleasure. And this is the key to Child's work. He's a superb purveyor of reading pleasure. 'One Shot' is a perfect example of this. It's fun, low-key and grittily realistic. It's a smart close-up of a small cross-section of America as seen by an eternal, classic American outsider. It says enough — and not a single word more.

01-07-13: Fariba Nawa's 'Opium Nation'

Home Pages

Identity is a slippery idea. National? Personal? Family? Intimate? Public? Take your choice of any single version and you'll find the rest inextricably involved. Any boundary you might try to make will be breached. Look in the mirror and eventually the entire world looks back at you. As 'Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan' begins, Fariba Nawa makes a difficult and dangerous border crossing from Iran into the country of her birth, Afghanistan. It's a homecoming and not the first step she takes towards a resolution, a restoration that can never take place.

'Opium Nation' combines the personal and the political with the identities of individuals and the identities of nations using memoir and deeply-researched reporting in a story that hopscotches around the world to save a child in the present as it traces Nawa's childhood and her trips to her homeland in the present day. Her own story is harrowing enough. As a young girl in a middle class family in Afghanistan, she saw one of her classmates killed by a Soviet bomb. Her grandmother escaped being shot by mere inches, and in the 1980's, the family fled carrying what they could on two donkeys over the Iranian border.

In the present day, Nawa returns to her homeland to find it overcome by the opium industry, a blight that reaches into every life. Nawa, who has spent most of her life in America but always considered herself both American and Afghan, explores the cities of her childhood and beyond to expose corruption, crime, murder, child slavery and pretty much every abuse that humans can heap upon one another, all as a result from the pursuit of poppy profit. Drugs, tradition, modern warmongering and inept nation building combine to create a disaster that Nawa lets readers experience in terms both practical and very, very personal.
" As an expose of a country funded largely by illegal drug sales, 'Opium Nation' offers readers a tense, internationally flavored vision of true crime on a grand scale. Nawa rings up the facts and the figures to paint a picture that is truly alarming. From an ancient tradition to a modern economy, Afghanistan is made for growing opium poppies. The US involvement is undeniable and our mistakes are many, apparent and tragic in perfect hindsight. As a work of investigative journalism, you'll not find a better, more clear-headed work of drug-trade reportage.

But Nawa herself is part of the picture; she's intimately involved in her own reporting and this makes the book more than a mere work of non-fiction. 'Opium Nation' is a heartbreaking tragedy, with intense characters helplessly ground up by the world's desire for heroin. Nawa centers the stories around Darya, a child bride whose life has been bartered away; at the age of 12, she is given to a man more than three times as old as she. Nawa is there to see her rebel and she reminds Nawa of herself at that age. A bond is formed that extends to the readers' hearts. 'Opium Nation' is a profoundly affecting and clear-eyed journal of the needle and the damage done.

Even if she simply stuck to the mere facts of her experiences in Afghanistan, Nawa would clearly have had a powerful story on her hands. But her ability to weave so many stories, both good and bad, to give an even-handed version of her stories and to do so with the grace and economy she achieves makes the book far more than just a work of investigative journalism or memoir. Fariba Nawa both starts and finishes the book as a profoundly divided soul. She is American, Afghan, and a country, indeed a world unto herself. Read 'Opium Nation' and you may see quite a bit more when next you glance in the mirror.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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