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Wild at Heart: The Dark Center of Tim Johnston's "Descent"

Descent2015 may be young, but Tim Johnston's Descent has positioned itself as an early frontrunner for year-end best-of  lists. The surprise bestseller's plot is straight-up thriller: On the eve of daughter Caitlin's departure for college, the Courtlands drive into the Rocky Mountains for one last true family vacation--with the parents Grant and Angel desperately hoping that the setting will repair their faltering marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother set out on a morning run, only Sean returns, and with a badly broken leg. Caitlin has disappeared into the mountains by way of a stranger's car.

The wilderness that was to be a place of new beginnings has  become a character of its own, looming over the family and alive with jagged spires and forbidding forest, accelerant to the family's terror, grief, and self-doubt. Johnston not only pulls off this transition, but elevates his story with believable characters, impeccable pacing, and prose that serves up palpable tension, as well as serving the book's literary aspirations. This all sounds a bit hyperbolic (mixed-metaphor-inspiring, even), but Descent is that good. 

Of course, this isn't the first tale to use Nature as a key player, so we asked author Johnston for his own list of books featuring wilderness as an active force.

 


Environment as Character: Five Essential Novels

by Tim Johnston


The Rocky Mountains are more than a kind of character in Descent; they are the book's essential and ruling antagonist. For the Courtlands, the book's four protagonists, the realization that the mountains are not the picturesque American playground they've driven up from the plains to enjoy, comes too late, and after their 18-year-old daughter vanishes, the family sees the Rockies for what they really are, which is the same boundless, pathless, godforsaken place into which a great number of Americans far hardier than themselves once vanished forever.  Thereafter this landscape becomes so much more than majestic, astounding, or even otherworldly; it become sinister.  It becomes a world of malicious intent, no less cruel or comprehensible from one day to the next.  

 

Deliverance

Deliverance by James Dickey

A wild Appalachian river pulses through this novel like the story's own jugular vein, but its finest passage is when Ed must climb above the river, in the darkness, on a sheer face of rock. With superhuman attention to detail, Dickey transforms Ed into a being a pure sensation, and transforms the reader into Ed. You do not breathe. You do not dare look down.

 
The Shipping News

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Life-battered Quoyle washes up on the shores of Newfoundland and is marooned among a citizenry as hard and wind-scoured as the rock they call home. The image that stands out and represents both the outer and inner landscapes is the ancestral Quoyle homestead that is kept from being blown off its cliff into the sea by guy wires that cry like furies in the wind.

 
The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Having once sent me, in Blood Meridian, into a 19th Century American West before it was transformed by expansionist violence and the industrial revolution, McCarthy now immerses me in an America far down the road of its self-destruction, a lightless, ash-buried, bone-chilling world that is by far the most desolate he's ever conjured—and yet also includes a single heartening, and heartbreaking, flame of love.

 
Plainsong

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Here is McCarthy's Wild West in the modern era, as arid and unforgiving as ever, but populated now by a less violent and somehow more resilient breed of American—in particular two old-as-Moses brothers who go out day after bitter day to tend to their cattle and who find themselves, all of the sudden, surrogate fathers to one young woman who needs shelter from the harsh world. The title evokes the spirit and the artistry of the book: Plainsong.

 
Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

The opening pages so beautifully evoke Thomas Hudson's house that the reader cannot miss that the description is really about the man himself, his heart and his soul as we find them at the novel's outset. Likewise, as Tom suffers heartbreaking loss, the novel moves into a harrowing tale of the hunt for German U-boats in the Florida Keys, and those waters come to represent the dangers that lurk beneath every human heart that dares to open itself to love.

 

 

Descent is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.

 

Like Minds: Stephen Pinker Reviews "The Moral Arc"

The Moral ArcIs the world becoming a better place? Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, thinks so, and he thinks it's all about the science. His new book, The Moral Arc, outlines his hypothesis: As humankind gains greater understanding of the universe and increasingly applies scientific reasoning to its institutions--politics, economics, and philosophy, etc.--its moral failings fall away, replaced by the ideals of truth, liberty, and justice. Thought-provoking--and maybe ire-provoking, as well.

It's a line of thought familiar to Steven Pinker. Pinker--Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and named by TIME magazine as one of the top 100 thinkers in the world--explored similar ideas in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So who better to comment on Shermer's effort? Please enjoy Steven Pinker's guest review of The Moral Arc.

 

Guest Review of The Moral Arc

By Steven Pinker

I decided to write The Better Angels of Our Nature when I discovered that violence had declined across many scales of time and magnitude: everything from war and genocide to homicide, infanticide, domestic abuse, and cruelty to animals. The more I looked into the past the more hopeful I became for the future. We have been doing something right, and I tried to figure out what it is and how we can do more of it.

Steven PinkerIf you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature—one which explores all our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence—Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is it. Shermer has engaged the full mantle of moral progress and considered how far we have come and how much farther that arc can be bent toward truth, justice, and freedom. The Moral Arc is a thrilling book, one which could change your view of human history and human destiny. Through copious data and compelling examples Shermer shows how the arc of the moral universe, seen from a historical vantage point, bends toward civil rights and civil liberties, the spread of liberal democracy and market economies, and the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights. Never in history has such a large percentage of the world’s population enjoyed so much freedom, autonomy, and prosperity.

Shermer also engages the conundrum of free will and responsibility. Though a thoroughgoing materialist, allowing no room for a soul to push our neurons around, he argues that we are volitional beings who must be held accountable for our actions. He explores the implications of this notion of culpability for justice, arguing that the criminal justice system must be reformed to reflect a rational and scientific understanding of human nature, in particular by adding restorative justice to a system that currently is based on retribution.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st CenturyThe themes of The Moral Arc are not just historical but in the headlines. The steadily unfolding revolution of gay marriage gives Shermer the opportunity to show how rights revolutions of many different kinds come about. Shermer devotes two chapters to showing that it is not religion that has been the driver of moral progress, but Enlightenment-inspired emphasis on science and reason. Gay rights and same-sex marriage have been opposed by most religions (the exception are the avowedly liberal religions); the expansion of the moral sphere to include homosexuals is a modern manifestation of the Enlightenment ideals of equal rights and equal treatment under the law.

Finally, Shermer debunks the lazy assumption that science has nothing to say about morals and values. Values we take for granted, such as civil rights and civil liberties, were explored and popularized by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who consciously modeled their reasoning on the greatest scientists of their ages. They considered the project of constructing a liberal democracy and a market economy as a kind of scientific experiment.

The Moral Arc will give any reason-loving, evidence-respecting, scientifically minded reader hope for humanity. It shows that our deepest problems of the past, present, and future may been solved by our ability to reason our way to solutions and persuade our peers that they can be successfully implemented.

 

 

Steven Pinker is also the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought. His latest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of 2014 in Nonfiction.

 

 

Guest Post: Two "Obscure Geniuses"--Alan Turing & Kurt Gödel

Yannick Grannec is the author of The Goddess of Small Victories, her debut novel about the life and marriage of one of the greatest mathematicians of the last century, Kurt Gödel. In this guest essay, she compares the lives of Gödel and legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whose creation of the Turing Machine is featured in the new film, The Imitation Game (based on the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma).


YannickGGödel let himself die of hunger fearing he would be poisoned; Turing committed suicide swallowing arsenic.

Both were scientists of the absolute; both were anti-conformist and tormented. Both were obscure geniuses: idols of their colleagues, and unknown to the general public. Both were precocious founders of logic, the mathematical language on which deductive reasoning is based. Their tragic destinies and their pioneering works speak to each other, and yet they never even met. But the cursor on your smart phone is in fact the combined souls of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel that still quivers a century after they were born.

In the thirties, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing posed to themselves the same question: “Can we find a universal procedure to prove that a mathematical theory is true or false?”

They each, in their own way, answered “no”: there exist some mathematical truths that cannot be proven. In order to work around this “incompleteness” statement, Turing connected formal logic to a mechanical model. He created the Turing Machine, which is a theoretical algorithm that suggests that a human brain functions just like a calculator. Therefore, a calculator can “imitate” the logic of human reasoning, but also address its limitations.

Goddess-Cover-252x390For Gödel, the human mind is more than a Turing Machine, more than a complex connection between choices. The uniqueness of mind and matter is, for Gödel, a mere cultural prejudice. Gödel devoted his life to prove, through philosophy and mathematics, that there is “something else.” Turing, meanwhile, applied his discoveries to the resolution of the messages coded by the Enigma machine, built by the Germans to encipher and decipher coded messages.

Gödel ends up a paranoid recluse, and Turing is forced into secrecy and is persecuted—a sordid and pathetic end for two brilliant men.

Paradoxically, because they hit some limits in their scientific approaches, Gödel and Turing opened a new era that appears to us today without limits: that of computer science and artificial intelligence. The language of today’s computers owe their origin to that very logic that our two geniuses had mishandled. The true/false dichotomy has become “1/0,” the binary code.

The irony of their asymptotic destinies is that they both lived in Princeton without ever crossing paths. However, in that incredible intellectual and scientific milieu, they both rubbed shoulders with two other giants of scientific history: Albert Einstein and John Von Neumann. In light of the urgency caused by the war and the hatred of Nazism, the combined discoveries of these two geniuses led to the creation of the type of artificial intelligence necessary for deciphering the secret codes of the enemy and the making of the atomic bomb.

There is no doubt that if they were to meet today, Gödel and Turing would debate the question of the nature of human thought and intelligence and their potential incarnations, for better or worse—somewhere between your smartphone and nuclear arms.

-Yannick Grannec

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Yannick Grannec is a graphic designer, freelance art director, professor of fine arts, and enthusiast of mathematics. Her debut novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, a fictionalized account of the lives and marriage of Kurt and Adele Gödel, was published in late 2014. She lives in Saint-Paul de Vence, France.

The Wilderness Within: Author Diane Cook on "Man V. Nature"

Man V. NatureClaire Cameron and I have something in common: we both like books about the struggle between humans and the natural world, especially when nature has the upper hand (see her list of "The Best Books About Getting Eaten" as proof). Her 2014 novel, The Bear, is the tale of camping trip gone wrong: a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness. Told through the voice of the young girl, it made the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which you may know by its former name, the Orange Prize.

So when I saw Man V. Nature--a collection of short stories about humans in peril, and particularly the ways they deal with it--passing it along to Claire seemed the obvious choice. And she liked it, enough to suggest an interview with author Diane Cook. Their conversation follows.


I was immediately intrigued by the title of Diane Cook’s new collection of stories, Man V. Nature. My intrigue doubled when I found that the title story is set on a raft.

I make a grand claim that I’ve read every "stranded on a raft" story in print. It’s probably not true, but maybe I’m close? Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an introduction to another Richard Parker in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. From there I’ve spent 76 days lost at sea in Adrift with Steven Callahan and 117 days Staying Alive with Maurice and Maralyn Bailey.

I won’t go on forever, but my point is that "stranded on a raft" is almost like its own established genre. There is pressure on the writer who takes it on. She must bring something new.

When I saw that Cook had her own "stranded on a raft" story all I could think was, "Oh yeah? Surprise me." She did so, in spades. The title story in Man V. Nature seethes with heat, rejection and twisted perception. Like the very best raft stories, it pinpoints that moment where being lost in the wild brings out the wild in us.

I found myself enthralled by all of the stories in this collection. Not only are they surprising, but also fresh, funny, sad, often surreal and oddly true.

When I finished, I knew this was a writer I wanted to know more about. Cook, just back from the wilderness of her book tour, answered my questions by email.

--Claire Cameron

 

Claire Cameron: Your stories place characters in survival situations, like the three friends lost on a dinghy, co-workers in an office disaster, a woman in a shelter who is waiting for a placement with a new husband, and feral boys struggling to live through winter. All this hardship and I found myself cracking up. Why am I laughing?

Diane Cook: I’m glad you’re laughing. In general, I’m a funny person and my worldview, even when sad, is still rueful. Also, I think that as unreal as the situations in the stories are they aren’t at all unrealistic. There is the feeling (to me and I hope to other readers) that these are situations entirely possible even if they wouldn’t actually ever come to fruition. That they are things people ultimately are capable of. Which is uncomfortable.

Man V. NatureHumanity has come up with the most awful ideas and has rationalized them so successfully. And so there is the lightest dusting of satire and/or cynicism over the stories. This knowing wink is a bit of a relief in situations that would otherwise make us squirm. It’s comic. The knowing wink also leads us to some hope too. We recognize what’s wrong in these worlds. That’s half the battle.

CC: At the beginning of the collection you quote Emily Dickinson: "The Wilderness is new--to you. / Master let me lead you." I kept coming back to this and thinking about it. My idea: In your stories it is often a character's instinctive response to the unknown that leads to something new. What does the quote mean to you?

DC: In an abstract way, the quote says something to me about the characters and the worlds they are inhabiting. The characters are often bewildered by something their world is presenting them. They are new to it and need some kind of guidance. As the stories go on, who and what offers relief is unexpected and surprising. But I think leaders and guiding philosophies exist in the stories.

And the wilderness as an idea is very important to me, be it a wild wood, a bewildering society, or a wilderness of the mind. But the quote actually comes from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her longtime publisher and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I believe she is writing about the recent death of his wife. And so the Wilderness is the grief after death and she is offering help as he navigates this new terrain, the landscape of grief and loss, a landscape she knows.

This is important to me too. My mother died just before I began writing in earnest and I know that many of these stories are grappling with loss in some sense. I began to work out some of my feelings of loss by watching my characters go through their paces with grief of all kinds.

CC: A few of the stories are set in worlds where civilization has collapsed in some way, yet the collection as a whole feels hopeful. Like in 'Moving On', a widowed woman in a shelter is placed with a new husband and manages to find good. Are people inherently hopeful?

DC: I’m glad you see the hope in here. I definitely do. I think people must be hopeful otherwise, why go on?

Each breath into the next is an affirming step toward more life. I really think of it coming down to each moment. Each breath is an inherently hopeful thing. In this next instant anything is possible, isn’t it?

Even when my characters hit a wall or find themselves far from where they’d hoped to end up, they are still making the effort to survive, whether in a world-ending flood, or just survive the ending of some relationship. The book is about this yearning to survive, an almost desperate one. And to me that is the same as hope.

CC: Some of your stories are a refreshing take on social norms, like the teacher in "Meteorologist Dave Santana" who has sex for pleasure. She is also somewhat of a misfit because the other teachers don't know how to be around someone with "no secret shame, guilt, trauma or self-hatred." Why do we suppress our instincts?

DC: This is one of my main fascinations in life, which must be why I end up writing about it so much in the book. All the characters grapple with this tension between how they want to behave and how they must behave. Some give in to impulses, others don’t.

In my own life I tend to catalogue these moments myself and wonder why I act how I act, and wonder how different I am from others when it comes to my impulses. I think we suppress our impulses as an overture of peace. I do what is expected of me in certain situations because someone, usually someone I love or someone who has influence over me, expects it. Or because I know that to not behave in a certain way causes problems for everyone else.

I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid making more work or hardship for others. I am, however, endlessly fascinated by people who don’t live like this. Fascinated and perhaps a little jealous sometimes. I write about these people sometimes, and other times I write the characters who are more like me.

In this way I end up stringing together a kind of portrait of how complicated it can feel to be a regular person in the world.

CC: The wilderness looms everywhere in your book, sometimes in the center of the story, sometimes in the edges and sometimes inside a character. What is the wild to your writing?

DC: I get most of my inspiration from the natural world. Many of the situations in these stories came from my observations of the lives of wild things and asking myself how humans would deal with a similar situation.

Like, with the story "Somebody’s Baby," I was thinking about how precarious the lives of newborn animals are in the wild and how there are always predators waiting to strike when a mother isn’t looking. Danger is just a way of life. And survival is a daily thought. I wondered how mothers in a suburb might react to a threat that is unavoidable and constant. Loss in the wild is a stark and common thing. I love thinking of humans as wild things just farther along a spectrum of being.

And I try to keep that sense of wildness in my characters. For me it is the only way the actions of people can begin to make sense. I think we’d be so much more comfortable in our skin as people or as a society if we didn’t deny our wild lineage. It’s always been my belief that the world makes more sense when we acknowledge that sometimes our rationality is at odds with our instincts.

Guest Post by Iris Johansen, Author of "The Perfect Witness"

IrisJohansenIris Johansen, New York Times bestselling author of "The Perfect Witness," shares with us her top five favorite mystery and thriller reads.

KILLER by Jonathan Kellerman. For psychological suspense, you can't go wrong with Kellerman's Alex Delaware, a brilliant psychologist who frequently consults with the Los Angeles Police Department. In "Killer", a bitter child custody battle between two sisters escalates in a most lethal and surprising way.

DIRTY MARTINI by J.A. Konrath. Chicago police detective Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels will keep you laughing even as you navigate the twists and turns of her homicide  investigations.

"Dirty Martini" finds her on the trail of a psychopath who's poisoning the city's food supply.

BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE by Lee Child. I'm a huge fan of Child's Jack Reacher series, which follows the adventures of a former military police officer who now lives off the grid, drifting from town to town. He's tough as nails, but appealingly sympathetic. In this book he squares off against a killer who is targeting members of his former elite military unit.

THE COVE by Catherine Coulter. It seems like everyone now reads the Catherine Coulter's riveting FBI series, but this is where it all began. Sally Brainerd is hiding from her father's killers in a small Oregon town, but when FBI agent James Quinlan arrived to try and bring her in, sparks fly and people start dropping dead. Romantic Suspense at its best.

BEYOND BELIEF by Roy Johansen. You didn't think I'd leave my son off this list, did you? Roy was an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer long before we started writing the Kendra Michaels books together. BEYOND BELIEF introduces paranormal debunker Joe Bailey, a police detective (and former magician) who exposes phony spiritualists and fortune tellers. But he begins to question his skeptical beliefs when he investigates a murder caused by possibly-supernatural means.

 

Anita Diamant on Her Latest Book, "The Boston Girl"

The Boston GirlAnita Diamant is the best-selling author of The Red Tent, now a Lifetime miniseries. In The Boston Girl--one of our Best of the Month picks for December--Diamant traces the life of Addie Baum, a Jewish woman coming of age in the early twentieth century.

The ideas/sparks/inspirations for my novels come to me randomly. I picked up a booklet in a Gloucester bookstore and discovered the history of the oldest settlement on Cape Ann and The Last Days of Dogtown followed. On my first visit to Israel, a tour took me to a living history museum called Atlit, where Jewish settlers were interned by the British authorities after the end of World War 2, and that was the source of Day After Night.

The working title for The Boston Girl was Rockport Lodge.

I’ve been vacationing in Rockport, Massachusetts since the early 1990s and must have driven past the place hundreds of times. A three-story white clapboard farmhouse with a sign out front, “Rockport Lodge” looked like many bed-and-breakfasts in town.

But one morning, I spotted a friend walking out the front door and pulled over. Pattie was working as Rockport Lodge’s cook that summer and she told me it was nothing like the other inns. It had been founded in the early 1900s (1906 in fact) to provide inexpensive chaperoned holidays to city girls of modest means. The policy remained “women only” and the prices ridiculously low. In 1990 it was $35 a day with free meals for women earning less than $12,400. Turned out, I had friends who stayed there. “Rustic” is how they described it.

During the 1990s, I watched the Lodge fall apart. The paint peeled, the shutters broke and the lawn got shaggy. In 2002, the windows stayed dark and weeds sprouted in the gutters. The wooden annex – a long, shotgun arrangement of guest rooms behind the big house--sagged and sank and looked like it might blow down in the next Nor’easter.  

The main building, built as a farmhouse in the 1750s, was much sturdier, but it was in bad shape, too. I peered through windows and shredded curtains into dusty common rooms. A set of Blue Willow china was displayed in the dining room. There were puzzles and books stacked on shelves and magazines open the occasional tables in the front parlor, where an old upright piano enjoyed pride of place. Hand-lettered signs were tacked up beside an old black wall telephone near the front door. The place was like one of those old steamer trunks full of secrets.

The perfect setting for a novel, right?

I tracked down the Rockport Lodge archives, which are housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women at Harvard University: forty- seven boxes filled with fundraising letters, brochures, housekeeping minutia, newspaper clippings, board meeting agendas and scrapbooks. The scrapbooks are yellowed and brittle, scrawled with spidery signatures, inside jokes and pledges of undying friendship. There are also pictures of girls lined up in ankle-length skirts, girls lounging on Good Harbor Beach in daring 1920s swimsuits, girls wearing boxy shorts and bobby socks. The clothes are a fashion timeline and tell a story about profound changes in American women’s lives.

In 2006, Rockport Lodge was sold and the land subdivided. The original farmhouse is back in private hands and has an open floor plan and a kitchen with granite countertops. The only clue to its history is a small sign over the front door, which being is slowly erased by the seasons.

And now, The Boston Girl.

The Goodreads Interview: Stephen King

Goodreads_icon_1000x1000Thanks to our friends at Goodreads for this excerpt from their recent interview with Stephen King, whose new novel, Revival, was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of 2014.

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KINGJust when you think Stephen King's well of pitch-black, sleep-with-the-lights-on horror must surely be running dry, he finds new and possibly even darker ways to terrify us. His latest novel, Revival, sees the author of more than 50 global bestsellers—including The Shining, Pet Sematary, and It—return to the "balls to the wall" (King's words) supernatural horror with which he made his name.

In a recent Twitter post about the book, King told readers, "If you're going to buy it, better tone up your nerves." His publisher, Nan Graham, said that upon reading it, "I asked Steve whether it really had to be this dark, knowing before he answered that, yes, it does.

Indeed King dedicates Revival, out this month, to "some of the people who built my house," including Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft. A story of fate, rock and roll, religion, obsession, and addiction, it follows Jamie Morton, a boy from Maine whose life becomes inextricably bound to his onetime childhood pastor, an increasingly sinister figure who performs mysterious electrical "healing" sessions.

Despite a near-fatal accident 15 years ago, after which he considered retiring, King remains prolific. Revival marks the author's fourth novel in two years: In June he released Mr. Mercedes, billed (on his website) as his "first hard-boiled detective tale"), and last year the 67-year-old published Joyland and Doctor Sleep, his gripping sequel to The Shining.

King tells Goodreads what inspired Revival, how tea by the gallon rather than drugs and alcohol now fuel his craft, and why he loves collaborating with his novelist sons, Joe Hill and Owen King.

Goodreads: Congratulations on the un-put-down-able Revival; my children almost went hungry. What was your inspiration for this book? And is it really "the most terrifying conclusion" you've ever written?

Stephen King: The inspiration was Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, which is a terrifying story about the world that might exist beyond this one. Other influences were Lovecraft, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and my own religious upbringing. And I've been wanting to write about tent show healings for a long time!

I wanted to write a balls-to-the-wall supernatural horror story, something I haven't done in a long time. I also wanted to use Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but in a new fashion, if I could, stripping away Lovecraft's high-flown language.

GR: The book is concerned with what you call the "fifth business," "change agent," or "nemesis"—the person who pops up at regular intervals throughout life with a purpose yet to be revealed. Who is this person in your life, if there is one?

SK: I think we rarely recognize the fifth business in our lives at the time those people are changing us. As a writer, I'd have to say it was Philip Roth, who first spoke to me in college when I read [Roth's 1967 novel] When She Was Good. Since then, he's shown up again and again, at 10- or 20-year intervals, always saying—through his work—"Come a little farther. Do a little better."

GR: How did your experience of addiction and playing in a rock band (the Rock Bottom Remainders) inform your portrayal of the hero Jamie Morton?

SK: There's a saying—"Write what you know." It's bad advice if you take it as an unbreakable rule, but good advice if you use it as a foundation. I did spend years as an addict, so I know that world, although I wish I didn't. When it comes to rock music, I'm not much of a player, but I do have entry-level chops. I'm more knowledgeable as a listener, and Revival gave me a way to write about rock and roll without being preachy or boring. Through Jamie I had a chance to talk about how important rock is to me and how it lifted my life.

GR: Revival seems as much a meditation on family and aging, love and loss, as it is a mystery/horror story. Was this your intention from the outset?

SK: I never have a thematic intention at the outset. The story informs the theme for me rather than the other way around. But as it happens, you're right—this is, at least to a degree, about getting old and the rapid passage of our lives. "It's a damn short movie," James McMurtry says, "how'd we ever end up here?"

GR: There's a line on page 25 that says, "Writing is a wonderful and terrible thing. It opens deep wells of memory that were previously capped." How true is this for you in your fiction?

SK: Writing is like being in a dream state or under self-directed hypnosis. It induces a state of recall that—while not perfect—is pretty spooky.

GR: Which of your books/stories are you most attached to and why?

...READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW AT GOODREADS.COM...

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About the interviewer:

Catherine Elsworth is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Cond&eacute Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.

Dean Koontz Interviews His Dog, Anna, Who Interviews Him

Dean Koontz's latest novel is The City. On December 9 he's publishing a Kindle Single, Odd Thomas.

His dog Anna's, ahem, new book is Ask Anna: Advice for the Furry and Forlorn.

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Dean Interviews Anna

AnnaDEAN: Hey, sweetie, how does it feel to see your first book, Ask Anna, in print?

ANNA: Better than a bee stinging me on the nose, maybe not as good as being given a membership in the Sausage-of-the-Month Club. I'm a little worried about the celebrity thing, so I've ordered a custom disguise that makes me look like a poodle.

DEAN: There's an article in your book that reveals how people like Noah and Albert Einstein changed history by listening carefully to their dogs' advice. Are you aware of any more recent famous people who failed to heed the advice of their dogs?

ANNA: Tragically, yes. Mr. Johnny Depp's dog warned him not to play Tonto.

DEAN: Is there any down side to a dog being a successful author?

ANNA: Carpal-tunnel paw. Hollywood wanting to buy the film rights and recast me as a gerbil to be played by Adam Sandler in a furry suit. Perhaps a catty review here and there. Static electricity from the computer screen standing my fur on end, so that for hours at a time I go around looking as if I stuck my tongue in a wall plug.

~

Anna Interviews Dean

Koontz2ANNA: Hey, Dad, what's it like having to share the limelight with me now that I'm a published author?

DEAN: I have no jealousy whatsoever. I hope you enjoy a career that is bigger than mine. And don't worry: I would never--never!--put one of those annoying post-surgery cones around your head for no reason at all except envy or something. And I would never--never!--change your name to Pussycat and make you answer to it.

ANNA: Good to know. Sometimes we go for a ride in the car and you let me drive, and then you insist on sticking your head out the window. Are you mocking me when you do that?

DEAN: No, short stuff. It's fun! All the great smells!! My ears flapping in the breeze!!! People pointing and laughing!!!!

ANNA: Since my book is about advice, is there any advice I've given you that you're sorry you didn't take?

DEAN: That incident with the angry ferret comes to mind. But they sewed the thumb back on nearly where it was before, and I can still hitchhike with it if I ever need to.

ANNA: Hey, Dad, let me put the loop of my leash around your hand, and I'll take you for a walk.

DEAN: Great! Can we go to the park? Can we? Can we? Will you throw the ball for me? Better yet, the stick! Will you throw the stick?!?

~

> See all of Dean Koontz's books

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Excerpt: "The Fall: A Father's Memoir in 424 Steps," by Diogo Mainardi

ThefallBrazilian author and journalist Diogo Mainardi's unflinching story about raising a son, Tito, with cerebral palsy, The Fall: A Father's Memoir in 424 Steps is comprised of 424 short passages, each representing Tito's steps walking toward the hospital whose errors caused his disability. 

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Just before he was 6 months old, Tito went for another examination at Padua Hospital.

His neurologist lay him face down on the stretcher. At that moment, he should have rolled over onto his back. Instead, he merely waved his little arms about, but -- like a turtle -- he was unable to turn over.

That was the first sign that he had cerebral palsy.

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I had found out that my wife was pregnant exactly one year before.

I wrote about it on 23 February 2000 in my column in the magazine Veja.

I started by saying that, up until then, my rejection of fatherhood had been one of the rare, unquestioned certainties of my life. I went on to say that my wish -- and I quote word for word -- was to have "a turtle child, and whenever he became too agitated, I would just have to roll him onto his back and he would lie there, silently waving his little arms."

I got my turtle child.

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Some days after the examination at Padua Hospital, we received the results through the post. According to the neurologist, Tito had suffered "damage to the extrapyramidal system."

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I know how to read.

Reading is my job. I think by reading. I feel by reading. When we received the result of the examination at Padua Hospital, I read all about the extrapyramidal system. Nothing I read prepared me for what we were about to discover.

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Now I know what Tito has.

According to the neurologists who have examined him over the last few years, the damage to his thalamus was caused by his bungled birth. The thalamus is part of the extrapyramidal system. The damage is infinitesimal, so much so that no machine has ever yet managed to detect it. But it's serious enough to affect all his movements.

Tito can't walk, pick things up or talk normally.

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After examining Tito, the neurologist at Padua Hospital sent him to a physiotherapist at Venice Hospital.

During the weeks that followed, the physiotherapist put him through a series of tests.

It was only when all the tests were over that -- with a feeling of fear and panic -- I first heard the term which, from that moment on, would come to dominate my life.

Tito had cerebral palsy.

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The fear lasted a week.

Then it passed.

The reason why it took only a week for the fear to pass was a fall.

Tito was sitting on my lap. I was sitting on the sofa in the living room reading the newspaper. My wife, who was rushing about, caught her foot on the rug and fell flat on her face in front of us. When Tito saw her fall, he laughed out loud. We both pretended to fall over. And he laughed and laughed and laughed. And we laughed with him.

Tito's cerebral palsy immediately became more familiar. Slapstick was a language we all understood.

Tito falls. My wife falls. I fall.

What unites us -- what will always unite us -- is the fall.

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Abbott and Costello Go to Mars: On a voyage into outer space, Lou Costello gets his astronaut's boot caught in a storm drain and falls over when he wrenches it free.

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Francesca Martinez is a comedian.

She has cerebral palsy. All her performances revolve around that topic.

According to her, the term cerebral palsy can only have been invented to induce "fear and panic." That is why she likes to be described as a "wobbly" person. She is always wobbly, always about to fall.

Francesca Martinez's humor -- like Lou Costello's -- takes its inspiration from her falls.

Cerebral palsy is her astronaut boot caught in a storm drain.

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Francesca Martinez told the Daily Mail what had happened to her.

Her cerebral palsy, like Tito's, was caused by a medical error. Her mother was left unattended for some hours because "being a Sunday there were fewer hospital staff on duty." Francesca remained in the womb and was left without oxygen for seven minutes.

Cerebral palsy, she explains, "occurs when part of the brain fails to work. It affects one child in five hundred. Each case is unique, but usually people's muscle control and mobility are affected."

The best way to describe how cerebral palsy affects her is that she appears to be "slightly drunk." Her speech is slurred and her balance wobbly.

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Two weeks after learning that Tito had cerebral palsy, I wrote about it in my column in Veja:

My 7-month-old son has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. From the outside, that piece of news might seem utterly desperate. From the inside, though, it's different. It was as if they had told me my son was Bulgarian. If I discovered that my son was Bulgarian, the first thing I would do would be to consult a book to find out more about Bulgaria: gross national product, principal rivers, mineral wealth, etc. And that is what I did with cerebral palsy.

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After saying that cerebral palsy was a term that struck fear into the heart and that, for the first time in my life, I belonged to a minority, I ended the column in this shamelessly sentimental way:

I consider myself to be a humorous writer. For me, there is nothing funnier than frustrated expectations.
Frustrated expectations about social progress.
Frustrated expectations about scientific discoveries.
Frustrated expectations about the power of love.
I have always worked from that anti-enlightenment viewpoint. Now I've changed. I now believe in the power of love. Love for a little Bulgarian.

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From that moment on, Tito's cerebral palsy became a recurrent theme in my columns.

Over a period of ten years, I devoted eight columns to him.

If, as Francesca Martinez estimated, cerebral palsy affects, on average, 1 child in 500, I published a column on the subject, on average, every 500 days.

Cerebral palsy affected the lives of my readers as often as it affects life in general.

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In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Francesca Martinez stated: "That's the huge secret about disability -- anyone with experience of it knows that a disabled person is just a person they love."

In my first article about Tito, that was the only "huge secret" I had to reveal.

Astonishingly, for me and for Anna, Tito's cerebral palsy was never a cause for sorrow. Astonishingly, for me and for Anna, Tito's cerebral palsy never seemed a burden.

At 7 months, Tito was simply a person we loved.

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In mid-2001, we took Tito to see a neurologist in New York.

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Tito and me in New York.

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In New York, I became Tito's first mode of transport.

He would point left and I would go left. He would point right and I would go right. He would point at his grandmother and I would hand him over to his grandmother.

Tito would choose my fate by sending me off to the right or to the left.

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The New York neurologist was very encouraging.

After doing a few tests, he predicted that, in two years' time, Tito would be speaking normally. He also predicted that, in four years' time, Tito would be walking on his own.

Both predictions proved false.

Tito never spoke normally. He never walked on his own.

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Christy Brown had cerebral palsy.

During the first few months of his life, his parents took him to various neurologists in Dublin.

They all said that Christy Brown would remain forever in a state of "torpor," because he was an "idiot," "mentally defective," a "hopeless case" and "beyond cure."

In his autobiography, My Left Foot, Christy Brown described how he was able to overcome the worst prognoses, finding a way of typing and painting with the big toe of his left foot.

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Like Christy Brown's parents, Anna and I learned to ignore all the doctors' stupid prognoses, whether positive or negative. Like Christy Brown's parents, Anna and I learned to celebrate each step taken by Tito, however wobbly.

After a certain point, we even learned to celebrate his falls. In the early years, Tito would always hurt himself when he fell. Over time, he developed new ways of breaking his falls.

Knowing how to fall is much more valuable than knowing how to walk.

Punk Rock Girl

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A MemoirViv Albertine's new memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. is a book is divided almost straight down the middle. Side One is the story of her upbringing in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill: It's the mid-seventies, and the Sex Pistols are at the head of a massive, angry (or at least frustrated) cultural insurgence. Her rebellious tendencies have led her into the center of punk culture, and inspired by its outsized personalities and  confrontational style, she picks up a guitar, forsaking traditional training for the DIY ethos of the day. After her band with the pre-Pistols Sid Vicious (The Flowers of Romance--a possibly sardonic suggestion from Johnny Rotten) fails to launch, Albertine joins forces with The Slits, a ska-infused, all-girl outfit that, through the force of its collective will and audacity, elbows its way to the front of a stage filled with sharp, mostly male elbows. Everyone is wearing Vivenne Westwood's provocative clothing purchased from Malcolm McLaren's infamous boutique, SEX--at least as much as they could afford. Mick Jones of The Clash wanders in and out of the story, first as a gangly proto-punk spending all of his time and loose change trying to put together a band, and later as Albertine's on-again, off-again boyfriend (the classic London Calling track "Train in Vain" was inspired by her). It's a story in the best rock & roll tradition: Initiative leads. Ability chases. Success looms. Then someone bumps the turntable.

Side Two. The band has blown apart. Grownup problems ensue: education and career; marriage and kids; serious illness, divorce, and identity. The actor Vincent Gallo. Albertine moves through all of it, drawing from the same well of determination that compelled her to pick up the guitar for the first time. The two sides of the book may tell very different stories, but they share perspective and style that are both straightforward and ultimately uncompromising. If you love this music (and your library contains titles like Please Kill Me and Richard Hell's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp), then this book is fascinating and essential. If not, it's fascinating and inspiring. It's occasionally coarse, and often terribly funny and fun.

In the spirit of the title, we asked Albertine three memorable examples of the three main themes: clothes, music, and boys.

 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes
Your three memorable articles of clothing or outfits, where & when you wore them, where you got them, and what made them special.

My first cool outfit was by mail order, all the rage in the 1960s. It was a purple corduroy three piece suit, a fitted jacket, mini-skirt and hipster bell-bottom trousers with big belt loops. It came in pieces, so my mother had to sew it all together. Best of all there was a "Donovan" peaked cap included, like a Dylan cap, which I wore to death.

When I first went to Vivienne Westwood's shop "Sex" in 1975, I couldn’t believe that what I was thinking about and drawing at art college, someone else had thought to put onto clothes. I’d never thought of combining erotica, feminism and insurgency with items of clothing. I wore this look with my own embellishments from that day onwards and I didn’t have one peaceful journey through London for the next six years because of it.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaAs my 18-year marriage started to fall apart, because I’d started to play my Telecaster again (still a powerful weapon in the wrong hands), I began to think about how I was dressing. I had become very conventional, not wanting to be noticed, hiding away in a nice house by the coast away from London, and I had to think again about who I was, who I wanted to project with my clothes. You hear all these phrases like "mutton dressed as lamb," but I think good taste is good taste whatever age you are, and clashing prints with cuban heels now or matted hair and loads of black eye-liner back then are good taste - my version of good taste.

Music, Music, Music
Three inspiring/influential/rewarding musical experiences of your life. Bands that you’ve seen, shows that you’ve played, people you’ve met, or any other musical moment.

The first time a live show transported me was when I saw Fleetwood Mac play at a free night-time outdoor concert on a wild piece of land called Hampstead Heath near my home in North London. Everything about the evening was dark and mysterious and forbidden. Fleetwood Mac came on and played "Albatross," the guitars wailed over the tops of the black silhouetted trees, I felt like I was flying and swooping with them.

The second time has to be when I saw the Sex Pistols live at Chelsea School of Art. I was transfixed by Johnny Rotten, not because he was extraordinary, but because he was as near someone like me that I had ever seen on stage and I found that shocking, inspiring and fascinating. He couldn’t sing or play an instrument (like me), he came from North London, a poor family, below-average schooling, bad housing (all like me) and yet unlike me, he wasn’t ashamed, apologetic or embarrassed about any of this. The next day I went out and bought a Les Paul Junior and started to learn to play guitar.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaI stopped playing music for twenty five years. I felt it wasn’t an interesting medium anymore. By 2008 a couple of things had happened, the internet (making it possible to reach people without the conduit of record company men), I became healthy again and I went back to art school one day a week to explore my thoughts and feelings creatively. All this made me want to pick up the guitar and play and write songs again. Big changes in your life aren’t always about eureka moments, sometimes it’s just painfully slow, hard work and dogged determination.

Boys, Boys, Boys
Three who had a profound effect on her life, good or not so good.

The thing is, in the 1970s, ordinary girls and women were very repressed and oppressed, we had no role models, I never once met an interesting woman, in the arts or music who I could imagine being. They weren’t even in the media. The first woman who resonated with me was Yoko Ono. So I was influenced by boys. I wanted to do things boys did and I dated boys that interested me on that level. That realisation has made boys less interesting to me. What do I want or need from them now? Especially now I have my own home and a child. If it’s just about companionship, for years on end…well, that person is hard to find, male or female.

The three boys I nominate are: my first proper boyfriend, Magnus (who I still know and love, we are neighbours), he was interesting, well-read, an amazing artist, from a poor background, and I followed in his footsteps for a while to gigs and art school. I was thirteen, he was fifteen and we went out together for three years.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaNumber two has to be Mick Jones (guitarist with the Clash) who I met at art school when I was nineteen. I watched as he tried over and over again to form bands, full of passion, love of music and determination, which was very rare in a young person back then. He was also extremely intelligent, self-taught, interested in politics and all aspects of life. From him I learnt how to run a band. We are still friends and love each other too.

Number three is myself. I am the boy now. I am whole. I don’t look to a man to complete me, to inspire me, to lead me somewhere I haven’t quite got the courage to go to by myself. It’s taken fifty or so years to get here. Love and romance sure do look different from this perspective. Most relationships look a bit pathetic to me to be honest. I am questioning what two people are doing, clinging together for years and years on end, way past the relationship’s sell-by date. I would like a new paradigm to be the norm, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

Photos 1 and 2 by Carolina Ambida; photo 3 courtesy the author

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