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10-14-11: A 2011 Phone Interview with Jacqueline Novogratz

Photo by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

"I'm sorry...I'm at the airport in Dubai, and it's pretty chaotic."

—Jacqueline Novogratz

It's not easy to catch up with Jacqueline Novogratz, even when she's headed to Santa Cruz for the "What's Next?" Lecture series, where she'll be appearing on Oct. 19, at 7:30 pm, in UCSC's Music Recital Hall. I dial in to a conference call and I'm immersed in something like the soundtrack to Blade Runner. "I'm sorry," she apologizes. "I'm at the airport in Dubai, and it's pretty chaotic."

Novogratz is the founder of The Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund incorporated in 2001 with the goal of using "patient capital" to change the lives of millions living in poverty around the world. It's been a stunning success and a testimony to the lessons that Novogratz learned in her youth, which she writes so eloquently about in her book 'The Blue Sweater.'

It was a challenging phone call. Novogratz did not have a lot of time, since she was speaking to me between plane flights, and the background sounded incredibly noisy at first, almost unrecordably so. The quality of the call was markedly different than my usual conversations, and as happens to me in these situations, I found myself straining to keep calm while one part of me was screaming: "Abort! The sound quality sucks! Abort!" Fortunately, I clamped down on that reaction and just kept listening.

And once we got to talking, Novogratz proved to be every bit as powerful over the phone as she is in print. There were times when on my end, all the audio dropped out. I just gritted my teeth and figured I'd fix it in the edit, listening as best I could to Novogratz.

When I went to edit the piece, I found it to be much, much better than my memory would have suggested. Novogratz was great, the sound was actually quite good and the dropouts were not happening on the recording side. Listeners can hear an earful of Dubai and better still, Jacqueline Novogratz talking about her life and her book, 'The Blue Sweater,' by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

10-13-11: The Agony Column Live with Tad Williams and Deborah Beale

"Her style was different, our styles were very different."

—Tad Williams

An amazing thing happened at The Agony Column Live with Deborah Beale and Tad Williams, and it is actually audible. You can hear a very straightforward and emotional conversation between this remarkably talented husband and wife team about the hazards, complications, and yes, rewards, of collaborating with your spouse.

I have to admit that it rather took me by surprise, but the raw emotion on display was quite apparent. The quality of the work makes it clear — they get along. But working with your better half is never easy, and the insight readers will get into this partnership on all levels is really, I think quite wonderful.

Of course, when you're working at their level, it should not come as too much of a surprise that they are able to summon that kind of honesty in front of an audience. It shows in their writing. But hearing it is indeed a sublime honor, and one that technology makes remarkably simple; just follow this link to the MP3 audio file.

10-12-11: Three Books With Alan Cheuse

'IQ84' by Haruki Murakami, 'Assumption' by Percival Everett, 'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead

Only in retrospect, as I write up this conversation, do I realize how much these three novels belong together. This week, Alan Cheuse and I chose to tackle three novels that use genre fiction tools to accomplish a more generally literary goal. Haruki Murakami dips into science fiction, mystery and romance; Percival Everett works hard-boiled mystery; and Colson Whitehead upends the horror genre. All three make use of their literary toolbox with the sort of ease that suggests that genre fiction has thoroughly permeated mainstream general fiction, and much to its benefit.

Some things are worth waiting for. Alan Cheuse and I have been anticipating the arrival of Haruki Murakami's new novel, 'IQ84,' for much of this year. It was released as three volumes in Japan; here it is a 1,000+ page tome. But it is every bit as good as it is big, and well worth the wait.

Murakami uses the tropes of genre fiction (alternate universes, paid assassins) to envelope the reader in unique, baroque plots, worlds, places and characters. Every piece of 'IQ84' is an intriguing part of a living work. This is precisely the sort of book you'll want to talk over with your friends; Cheuse has some very wise observations that will help you immerse in the novel and give you something to talk and think about afterwards.

We also read 'Assumption' by Percival Everett, which we both enjoyed. It looks like a hard-boiled mystery but proves to be something quite a bit more mystifying and complex. And finally, we read Colson Whitehead's 'Zone One,' with a split decision. At this point, I'm going to let my readers and listeners follow this link to the MP3 audio file and the end of the world.

10-11-11 UPDATE: Podcast Update: Time to Read, Episode 13: Erin Morgenstern, 'The Night Circus'

Here's the thirteenth episode of my new series of podcasts, which I'm calling Time to Read. The podcasts/radio broadcasts will be of books worth your valuable reading time. I'll try to keep the reports under four minutes, for a radio-friendly format. If you want to run them on your show or podcast, let me know.

My hope is that in under four minutes I can offer readers a concise review and an opportunity to hear the author read from or speak about the work. I'm hoping to offer a new one every week.

The thirteenth episode is a look at Erin Morgenstern and her first novel, 'The Night Circus.'

Here's a link to the MP3 audio file of Episode 13: Time to Read: Erin Morgenstern, 'The Night Circus.'

10-10-11: A 2011 Interview with Lisa Randall

Click image for audio link.

"I gave it to religious people, I gave it to non-religious people and both were unhappy with what I wrote."

—Lisa Randall

Reading books and speaking with their authors is a constantly challenging and surprising enterprise. What might seem obvious to one reader is completely obscure to another. I have to admit that I was rather surprised, in fact almost shocked by Lisa Randall's 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.' Yes, I expected some great material for science fiction writers who want to get alternate universes right. What I did not expect was an impassioned argument for the role of clear-headed science in society.

For me as a reader, this theme seemed so obvious, I was a inclined to downplay it when I spoke with Randall at KQED. But it was immediately clear to me that Randall was very interested in discussing what to both of us seemed one of the most important portions of her book — and we were off, or rather on-topic.

One of the joys of speaking with authors is actually asking questions, or engaging an author in conversation when there is something that you as reader have to learn from that conversation. Randall was quick to correct my misapprehensions of her work, and this made for an actual back-and-forth as opposed to an interrogation where questions were doled out and answers supplied.

Generally at KQED I run a bit over and the very kind engineers are happy to let me do so. But this time around, Randall's vigilant driver was tapping his wrist because she had to hurry off to another appointment. I totally understand, and while I was happy to send her on her way in a timely manner, I also look forward to speaking with her again. There was a lot we didn't get to, and I'd love to speak to her at Harvard — or better still, at the Large Hadron Collider.

Listeners should note that the reading is taken from the portion of the book that speaks to Randall's tangential involvement in the matter of the Large Hadron Collider Lawsuit filed in 2008, on the premise that starting up the collider might create black holes that could herald a swift apocalypse. Readers might recall my report for NPR on the matter. Happily that particular version of The End did not come to pass. Our universe and our world remain on the right side of the dimensional divide. Of course, that could change. Until that happens, listeners in this dimension can enjoy Lisa Randall's exploration of other dimensions by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

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