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08-01-13: Koethi Zan Compiles 'The Never List'

Forever and Never

Crime fiction thrives on a strange mix predictability and surprise. When we start a novel about a crime, we expect a solution that reveals and punishes the perpetrator while it vindicates the victim. We hope the writer will evade expectations while delivering on a promise of redemption. We're like kids at Christmas who want exactly what we asked for, but still expect the unexpected.

In 'The Never List,' Koethi Zan wastes no time with setup. Sarah, a twenty-something year-old woman, is trapped in a cellar with three other young women. One is taken away, and does not return. It's a nightmare and a headline — from the victim's perspective.

From the very beginning, 'The Never List' manages to be both a terrorizing page-turner and a careful character study. Sarah tells her story in the first person, shot through with flashbacks like the one that begins the book. The main story begins in the present, ten years after she managed to escape and see her captor jailed.

Sarah's narrative voice drives the novel, and Zan's characterization is crafty and riveting. Sarah's now a shut-in, living in Manhattan. When contacted by the FBI about another parole session, she starts to unravel and in the process she begins to face what happened and unravel the past as well. Each step away from her sheltered life brings her closer to an underworld that she is loath to acknowledge exists.

Sarah is a complicated, intensely conflicted character who reveals to the reader other women, equally complicated and conflicted. The other women in that cellar, Tracy and Christine, have taken very different paths from Sarah. An academic they meet along the way, Adele, is a gripping study in her own right. Notable is that in this crime novel, every major character is a woman, and that there is no romantic story arc.

With a first-person narrator who is clearly and understandably unreliable, Zan has a very difficult task for herself. She can't crank up tension by zipping from one perspective to another, but she can by slotting back and forth between the present and the past. While their captor was himself captured and incarcerated, there were many open questions in the case, and Sarah is compelled to close them, even at her own peril. She's also got her own inner issues to deal with, and getting to know the character who is telling the story proves to generate a large part of the tension in the story.

Since Sarah is telling the story in the first person, the prose has a double duty. Zan has to both craft character and keep things moving, describe scenes, and generate tension in a single believable voice. What's nice is that Sarah is changing pretty rapidly as the book moves forward. 'The Never List' is always enjoyable to read, no matter where Sarah is, or thinks she is.

The final task of a mystery is to give the reader a satisfying finish, and Zan works this excellently. She cooks up plenty of surprises in a relatively short space, but stays true to both reality as we know it and reality as Sarah sees it. The two are not necessarily congruent. And while she has an understandably sketchy relationship with reality, Sarah has a fantastic feel for the reader.

'The Never List' is a book that you won't want to put down, and that you'll be able to revisit after you finish. Even so, take your time when you read it. Koethi Zan is clearly a very talented writer, and my addition to the "never list" would be, "Never read a book by Koethi Zan too fast." The wait for the next book might seem to last forever.

07-30-13: Ruth Ozeki Clocks 'A Tale for the Time Being'

Reading is the Future

Editor's note::Ruth Ozeki's 'A Tale for the Time Being" was just nominated for the Man-Booker Prize.

Here's a link to the archivve version of my review. (Repeated below without the bibliographical details.)

Here's a link to my Time to Read feature about Ruth Ozeki and 'A Tale for the Time Being.'

Here's a link to my in-depth interview with Ruth Ozeki about 'A Tale for the Time Being.'

The book is a solid object, a physical creation that you can hold in your hands. But it's also a mirage, something that appears real but is not, at least not until you begin reading, and it is only while you are read that the book assumes its true form. The voices you create as you scan the words are as ephemeral as thought itself, yet they can create memories that are analogous to actual experience. You spend actual time of your life reading, but within the book, you are a different being.

In 'A Tale for the Time Being,' Ruth Ozeki gives you the voice of Nao (now), that is, Naoko Yasutani, who is sitting in Electricity Town writing in her diary. Ruth, who lives on a remote island off the coast of Canada, is reading the diary, and you are reading her story. As the voices layer and echo, as the story curls in on itself and sets up shop in your life, as you create the story by reading the pages in this book, every page you turn, every word you read, is a choice that changes everything that follows. You have become The Time Being.

Ozeki's novel is compelling and cleaver, funny and harrowing, insightful and witty, wildly imaginative and inventive yet down to earth and occasionally quite gritty. 'A Tale for the Time' is a stealth novel, and it plants seeds that grow into unexpected hybrids. As Ruth in the novel reads Nao's diary, she becomes increasingly concerned for Nao's fate. Did Nao survive the tsunami? What of her aged grandmother or her suicidal father?

Nao's story is compelling stuff, but 'A Tale for the Time Being' has a contemplative pace that encourages readers to take their time. Here's a novel that actually knows you will find yourself not wanting it to end and guides you to read it in an appropriate manner. That in itself is a remarkable achievement, one of many to be found in both the physical object and the ineffable reading experience you can extract fro that stack of marked pages.

There are essentially two stories here, that of Nao and her family and that of Ruth and her family, that is, Ruth and her husband Oliver, who hear a remarkable similarity to the author and her husband. No matter whose voice you are reading, the worlds that Ozeki creates are utterly enchanting and the voices mesmerizing. 'A Tale for the Time Being' creates many worlds within its pages; Nao's life in California, in Japan, her grandmother's time in Taisho Japan, Ruth's world on a rural island, Nao's father's life, and more. The novel feels like an elaborately carved fresco, with stories in stories, documents, footnotes, appendices and search engine results. It's all very fun to read.

The stories you'll create as you read the novel are funny, poignant and sometimes disturbing. We live in a bullying world, where arrogant leaders push around those whose interests they are supposed to serve, and where young schoolgirls in Japan torment one another with an equal ferocity. But there is beauty and creativity as well, the sweet love and sacrifice of family. Ozeki's vision is balanced, embracing opposing visions with the ease of Nao's Buddhist monk grandmother.

But getting at the essence of lives in world where the future and past co-exist but do not mingle requires more than two simple stories, even if they are intertwined with the skill that Ozeki brings to the architecture of her novel. The imaginative leaps Ozeki makes in terms of storytelling are ultimately matched by her visions of the technology we use every day. Not surprisingly, her technological innovations end up as storytelling tools, turning 'A Tale for the Time Being' into a sort of kaleidoscope of shifting realities.

Ultimately, 'A Tale for the Time Being' ends up being the sort of book that can only be a book. Story exists outside of the means by which it may be told, and it is often easily ported from one form to another. But books require the active participation of the reader in order for the story to unfold. As you turn to the first page of 'A Tale for the Time Being,' you'll being to change, and that change will not be complete, even when you've finished reading the novel.

07-29-13: Andrew Sean Greer Explores 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells'

The Quantum Alternatives

It's all too easy to get stuck in your own life. Each day has its demands, and as we hurry through the hours, mired in each minute, stepping back and getting perspective on just why you are doing what you are doing becomes impossible. But if we take the time to sit down and read, it can give our minds the respite required to see the sense, or nonsense, of our actions.

It takes a certain kind of book to make this happen, and Andrew Sean Greer's novel 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' is perhaps the perfect incarnation of such a book. The premise is simple, the execution is sparse and elegant, the pace both life-like and lively. Each abounds with sentences you'll want to underline or read aloud. Greer crafts three worlds you'll be able to inhabit after you finish the book, world from within which you'll get a new slant on your own harried life.

We meet Greta Wells living in New York in 1985. Her twin brother, who is gay, has contracted AIDS. Her lover has left her and her depression is such that her therapist recommends electro-shock therapy. She might have some hallucinations afterwards, she's told. But when she wakes up in New York of 1918, with the same set of friends and relatives in slightly different circumstances, it's no dream. After attending an ECT session in her new life, she wakes up in 1941; and after her session in 1941, she's back in 1985. Greer quickly immerses the reader in this fairy tale-like plot with precise language and a small cast of carefully crafted characters. As events echo and parallel one another across the three lives, the plot is tense but utterly life-like.

From the first sentence, Greer's prose is elegant and memorable but clear and unpretentious. He creates the tone of a modern fairy tale for adults by filling his novel with quotable lines and set pieces. The bit of magic he uses to create the three lives is dashed off with just amount of nonchalance. In any given scene, we feel as if we are in a grounded reality, but Greer offers only as many period details as required to help the reader travel in time along with Greta. Greta tells her story in the first person, and Greer makes us feel as if we are itting in the living room with her listening to her tale told by the fire.

Though the story is set in three different times, Greer keeps his character list short; there are five main players. But while the core cast is small, the variations in each period allow him to play with the characters and spin them out in slightly to greatly different lives, especially Greta herself. In a fascinating bit of characterization in absentia, Greta is left to discover how her own self is different in these disparate lives. The rest of the cast is generally likable, and even when they're not, they're great fun to be around. 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' gives readers fifteen characters for the price of five.

The triple timeline also works to turn the stuff of everyday life into fuel for a page-turning thriller that quite happily involves no mayhem, but more than little joy and love. This is a novel where the differences between the lives of each Greta and the way each iteration of Greta goes about changing the lives of the other Gretas is a means for Greer to quite naturally crank up the tension. It's a blast to rocket through this novel, breathlessly waiting to find out how it all wraps up; and Greer provides an eminently satisfying finish.

While 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' offers Greta a look at the potentials in her own lives, Greer's novel has just the right feel of fable and the perfect proportion of parable to enable the reader to pull back as well. We get to be immersed in the book but as well to enjoy it as a book. It will help you get unstuck from your own life. In a sense, it is a book you will finish quite quickly — but a book you might never really finish with.

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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