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10-14-11: Jacqueline Novogratz Exports 'The Blue Sweater'

Mind the Gap

The world changes — slowly and swiftly, both at once. Single humans swim upstream against established social and economic systems for years with no obvious effect. Then, in an eye blink, something crashes, something fails and a revolution underway for decades steps up, center stage and perfectly obvious in hindsight. Afterwards, a new order is evident and entrenched. Few remember how we got to where we are.

In the 21st century, micro-financing, pioneered by Muhammad Yunnus, is well understood as a means of effecting economic change and empowerment. That was not the case back in 1985, when Jacqueline Novogratz graduated from college and waltzed into a Wall Street career with Chase Manhattan Bank as an international credit analyst. Her journey from ruling the world to saving the world, as chronicled in 'The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World' is not an easy ride.

Novogratz makes more than a few mistakes that leave both her and the reader uncomfortable. Seemingly good people end up on the wrong side of history. Loose ends never get tied up. It's life, raw and not always pretty. But that makes good reading for those willing to step into the discomfort zone where Western hubris meets the reality of world poverty. It helps greatly that Novogratz manages to discover both within herself and within the world around her an effective means for creating change.

Novogratz's book is a memoir of sorts, covering her early years in Africa, and her return to Rwanda after the genocide. Reader's looking for a "how-to" with regards to her creation of the quite-successful Acumen fund had best look elsewhere. Novogratz keeps her eyes on the grounding experiences she had as a rather green do-gooder and the sobering aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Because the book is a memoir as opposed to a business plan, it has a more personal feel. Novogratz does not go easy on herself, but she also speaks from a place of hope, not despair. There's a bit of hindsight at work that keeps the book from being maudlin, but sometimes shows the strain around the edges. The plot of Novogratz's life is dramatic enough, but authentically meandering as well.

Novogratz's prose is often beautifully, poetically descriptive. She evokes the exotic settings she finds herself in with ease. When she's in the flow, the book is appropriately immersive. But at other times, she's deliberately prickly. It's clear in her writing that she is not at ease, and her self-examinations are harsh and uncomfortable. It's an effective method of unsympathetic self-characterization, and a bracing counterpoint to the lyrical and inspirational passages.

The real power of 'The Blue Sweater' emerges not in the parts, but in the whole, in Novogratz's effectively communicated vision of how vastly different lifestyles and cultures can collaborate for the betterment of all, even in the face of human-created tragedy. "Betterment" is a dangerous word, one that often suggests what passes for modern steamrollering over what those in the steamrollers try to term primitive. But if you leave those labels behind and hunker down in the fields to talk, if you actually listen, you've made the first and most important connection. In 'The Blue Sweater,' Jacqueline Novogratz reveals ample reasons for hope, for life. They're good reasons to read, as well.




10-13-11: The Business of Unreality


Novels Explore the Virtual World

Oral histories were the first virtual realities. Homo sapiens became human as the hairless apes sat around campfires and told one another stories. There was likely no division between truth and what we now call fiction. The very act of verbalizing a story made it something other than what had or had not happened, and the storyteller must have become someone by virtue of having told the story. The narrative became an identity, transforming the hairless apes into human beings — each with a story.

We're eons past humanity's first days as a narrative species, but we are still storytellers, one and all. It's the only way for us to make sense of our lives. So it is not surprising that every generation of technology we create ends up, sooner or later in the service of storytelling.

Video games, which started their flickering lives as puzzles and tests of hand-to-eye coordination, are the latest technology to be used in the service of storytelling, with herds of writers employed in the craft of making each video game an immersive story. The art is still in an early stage, but even cave drawings have a primitive power and beauty.

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It is not surprising then, that videogames and the worlds they create are now themselves the subject of stories. The storytelling technology known as the novel is remarkably robust in this regard. The simplicity of written fiction, storytelling at its most stripped-down, makes it easily adaptable. Evolution plays out in this terrain as well, and we should not be surprised to see works like Ernest Cline's 'Ready Player One' and Neal Stephenson's 'REAMDE,' each set in the world of immersive video games. Read together, they offer a fascinating insight into more than technology; these books look at the continual revision of the narrative techniques that define humanity.

Stephenson's novel is an homage to plot, the propulsive power of events that wrap us up in the lives of characters created on the printed page. Richard Forthrast is the creator of an immersive video game that uses story to create profit. As the novel opens, an inventive human has figured out how to manipulate story to steal money within the story of the game.

Much like the mind-virus in his iconic novel 'Snow Crash,' this invention infects every corner of the huge, family-oriented story that Stephenson is telling. Everyone who comes in contact with the origin story ends up complicating and expanding it, both in the virtual world and in the real world. The interplay of story and plot in 'REAMDE' is literally mind-boggling; this is a story that needs over 1,000 pages to play out. You can get immersed in the plot, of course, but there's more going on than mere plot. 'REAMDE' provides readers with a hall-of-mirrors version of storytelling itself.
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Ernest Cline's 'Ready Player One' also fires off from the immersive invention of a lone genius, but in a different direction. Cline's novel is set in a future that is our present reflected in a funhouse mirror. In 'Ready Player One,' reality it so unpleasant that everyone spends most of their free time watching television; no, scratch that, immersed in a video game.

When the inventor dies, he leaves his vast fortune within the video game itself, and the pursuit for that fortune spurs the characters to search through story for treasure. Once again, we have a story about self-definition within invented stories and "reality" battling for supremacy. Cline opts for complication using a smaller cast of characters but more levels of story and reality.

Both writers have crafted superb novels that can be easily read for the sheer joy of reading. There's no need to go beyond their intricately crafted surfaces to take pleasure in the ripping yarns each writer tells so well. But these two novels read together, each one itself a mirror full of mirrors, offer readers the opportunity to study the reflection of story and identity within a vision of a new storytelling engine captured by our oldest, and still quite relevant, storytelling engine. Both novels about videogames are stories about storytelling. We know who we are by the stories we tell, whether in spoken word, printed novel or immersive video game. We're a narrative species and our ability to tell stories is every bit as fascinating as the stories we choose to tell.




10-12-11: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'House of Fear' Edited by Jonathan Oliver

"Arguably the Best"

People buying their books in the general bookstores may feel that the horror anthology is dying out. With the exception of the occasional Stephen Jones or Ellen Datlow anthology (and of reprints of classical ghost and horror stories from the past) the major publishers simply ignore the genre or, at the best of times, stick to horror novels which, supposedly, sell better than short story collections.

By contrast, those who surf the web and visit the sites of the small, indie press, are overwhelmed by the constantly high output of anthologies assembling short fiction by established genre authors or newcomers.

Truth be told, many of these horror anthologies sadly provide material of dubious or downright poor quality, often passing off as horror what is merely violence and gore. Yet, the horror anthology manages to survive, thanks to brave publishers, competent editors and fine genre writers. Once in a while, the faithful reader is rewarded by finding a horror anthology which, instead of including a few excellent stories and a bunch of forgettable fillers, offers top-notch fiction throughout the book. 'House of Fear" is a very fine example of that rara avis, arguably the best horror anthology of the year and, if there is justice in the world, bound to win at least one of the next genre awards.

Thus, let me repeat this one more time: "House of Fear" features no misfires and even the stories that I found comparatively weaker (i.e. those by the likes of Adam LG Nevill, Chaz Brenchley, Christopher Fowler, Paul Meloy, Eric Brown, Nicholas Royle, Tim Lebbon) would deservedly figure in any good horror anthology. Except, this is not a good anthology but an outstanding anthology. Let me mention, then, the long list of outstanding stories included therein.

"Objects in Dreams may be Closer than they Appear" is yet another of Lisa Tuttle's great stories. The supernatural, horrific aspect adds the final touch to a perfectly crafted mainstream piece about failed marriages and unreachable dreams.

Stephen Volk's "Pied-à-terre" is a modern ghost story with a distinct movie character in keeping with the author's extensive ability as a scriptwriter.

A new story by Terry Lamsley is always an event to his numerous fans (myself included) constantly in waiting for more fiction by that extraordinary but not prolific author. "In the Absence of Murdock" is a weird tale disclosing unsuspected, hidden aspects of everyday reality, up to the high standard of Lamsley's early work.

In the delightful fable "Driving the Milky Way" by Weston Ochse, kids disappear due to a galaxy of stars and ancient Indian bones.

Garry Kilworth contributes the enjoyable "Moretta", revisiting the time-honoured theme of the haunted bedroom where unaccountable deaths take place.

"The Windmill" by Rebecca Levene is a nasty piece of supernatural horror set in the claustrophobic space of a prison cell, told in a detached but skillful and chilling narrative style.

"The Dark Space in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World" by Robert Shearman is an offbeat, magnificent story where a modern Adam and Eve face the mysteries of the universe and of the human condition after God sent them out of the Garden.

Nina Allan's extraordinary ability as a storyteller shows off once again in the splendid, unsettling and slightly Aickmanesque "The Muse of Copenhagen" while Sarah Pinborough's great narrative talent takes a subtler and gentler pace in "The Room Upstairs," a beautiful ghost story where a man with a disreputable job takes lodgings in a house hiding painful secrets.

Christopher Priest's "Widow's Weeds" cleverly blends supernatural, magic and eroticism while Jonathan Green's "The Doll's House", a shocking piece where a woman stressed by family burdens has to face a more terrible nightmare, demonstrates how a conventional subject can be skilfully handled by an accomplished writer.

Similarly, in "What Happened to Me" Joe R. Lansdale gives an effective rendition of the by now weak clichÉ of the haunted house by inoculating a new, powerful dose of supernatural strength. In short, this is a marvellous anthology that you can't miss even if horror is not quite your cup of tea. Praise to editor Jonathan Oliver and to Solaris Books for this wonderful gift.




10-10-11: Lisa Randall is 'Knocking on Heaven's Door'

Science, Particles and Civilization

The universe is real. Drop a rock, and it's going to fall on the ground. That's gravity at work, a weak force, particle physicist Lisa Randall tells us, but real. We can measure how fast things fall. We can know the world around us by virtue of our ability to measure it, and observe the universe across a spectrum of scales that is no less than breathtaking.

Randall's new book, 'Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World' is more than a bit breathtaking itself. Randall is well known for 'Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions,' her lucid and excitingly written exploration of the state of physics in the dawn of the 21st century. In the six years since she wrote that book, plenty has come to pass in the world of particle physics, particularly with the completion of the Large Hadron Collider.

But Randall lives in our world, and that's what makes her new book so compelling. With 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' she steps outside of the lab to look at the role and perceptions of science in world society at large, even as she reveals the awesome and potentially terrifying power what we're able to learn now. The interplay of science, art, politics and religion are vitally important not simply to physics, but to our ability to know the world. Only if we have a grasp of actual reality will we be able to make the difficult decisions that face us at this (or any) moment in history. 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' is an impassioned call to reason and reality.

Readers expecting an immediate immersion in mind-numbing technology and physics are best advised to look elsewhere. Randall begins her book by going back to the basics, to explain how and why science works to an audience that has been overwhelmed with details of science's progress recast as shortcomings. She traces our current ambivalence back to Galileo's travails, and does a fine job of showing how while many attitudes have helped open up the way for science, there is still potential for needless conflict.

Simultaneously, Randall begins her exploration of the latest discoveries in physics by taking readers down, then up the scales of measurement, showing how new technologies have enabled new visions of the world. She's very careful and expert demonstrating that new discoveries do not necessarily render old ones obsolete or prove them false. The same lucidity she brought to the Standard Model of physics in 'Warped Passages' is here applied to risk assessment and the role of science in steering the world. If we are to make good decisions, she argues, we must make them in the light of clearly understanding the physical world.

The physical world, down to particles beyond many readers' ken before they read this book, is Randall's forte, as is describing the latest discoveries and how they might impact civilization. The author is clearly enamored of the Large Hadron Collider and its potential for helping us plumb the most inner workings of the universe. The upshot for the reader is a very entertaining and comprehensible history of this astonishing piece of technology. Perhaps the most notable aspect is that, even though there are clearly some competitive minds and nations at work here, the overall feel is of international cooperation to achieve the larger goals in the interest of humanity. It's like a scientific version of the UN, with most of the bickering but little of the vitriol.

Back cover, Large Hadron Collider, Front cover, The unviverse

Randall does not stop with the technology and readers are definitely going to get a mind full of particle physics, gently administered in clear prose, reasoned arguments and smart analogies. The book's design plays a significant part in the process. The dust jacket and front cover interplay are quite nice. The interior illustrations bring to life Randall's visionary explorations. Randall offers enough details to inspire a couple of generations of science fiction writers in a manner that lets more general readers get the gist of the arguments without being beamed into the aether on wide dispersion. Chances are you'll come out of this book with your head spinning, but the effect will be enlightening.

'Knocking on Heaven's Door' is not simply another tome about quark, strangeness and charm. You'll find plenty of all three of these qualities in all their definitions, but you'll also come away heartened that those at the forefront of human thought and human civilization are well aware of how their work impacts us all, on a day-to-day basis. Randall's an excellent prose stylist, who employs this talent to help readers comprehend the cutting edge at an appropriate level of detail. She writes a lot about scale in this book, and it clearly informs her writing.

Most importantly, readers will understand how their own impressions of what is happening impact the science itself. Science is civilization's best tool for bettering the lot of those who are not scientists. Its ability to do so hinges on their willingness, our willingness to accept that while reality does not change, our understanding of it does. The self-improvement that characterizes science is not a weakness, but rather its greatest strength.



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