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Book Talk

Cyd Oppenheimer

We find great books, talk to their authors, have interesting conversations about them.
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The year is 1990; the first Bush is president; the Iraq war is imminent. Rebecca Silver is finishing her freshman year at Berkeley, excited for her summer internship at her father’s radical leftist newspaper, ready to follow in his footsteps and remedy injustice through activism. But then plans change. Her father shuts the paper down, telling his readership he’s doing so “in an attempt to stop pretending I’m having any impact on the horrors of our world.” Rebecca is persuaded to go be a counselor at her cousin Caleb’s utopian camp, Llamalo, in the wilds of the Colorado Rockies. Caleb’s approach is different than her father’s: he wants to change the world one camper at a time, through love and ritual, sending them back into society transformed. Yet there are questions about how Caleb came to acquire Llamalo in the first place, questions about whether he’s a visionary or a huckster, questions about whether it’s possible to be both at the same time. Having grown up grounded in the certainty of her parents’ convictions, Rebecca is forced to grapple with who she is and how to be when that certainty is taken from her, and she has to confront an unjust world without it.

Host Cyd Oppenheimer talks with author Heather Abel about idealism and disillusionment, booms and busts, and why stories matter.

Guest readers Kristopher Jansma and Brad Ridky join Oppenheimer to discuss power and privilege, masculinity and mythmaking, and the invention of identity.

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What you don't know about Charlie Outlaw, the actor, star of a hit TV show, is that he's been kidnapped. You don't know he was taken while vacationing on a remote island where he hoped for anonymity, a chance to re-evaluate his newfound celebrity and recent heartbreak. You don't know that his kidnappers don't know that he's famous -- that they value him only because he's American. You don't know, and he doesn't either, if his fame will doom him or save him or not matter at all.

What you don't know about Josie Lamar, the actress, former star of a cult TV show, object of Charlie's recent heartbreak, is that she's struggling with what it might mean to be washed up and in love with someone whose star is just beginning to rise. You don't know -- or maybe you do -- that she spent her formative years as a superhero, and that this is the person her fans still see when they run into her at the airport, the coffee shop, the doctor's office. Who is she if not the person others believe her to be? Where does acting end and reality begin? And can the superpowers that propelled her to fame help her to save Charlie -- or does real life not work that way?

Host Cyd Oppenheimer talks with author Leah Stewart about her "thematic preoccupation" with identity and gender, writing at the border of genre and literary fiction, and the influences of the 17th-century novel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on this novel.

Guest readers Tui Sutherland, Brian Slattery, and Alfie Guy join Oppenheimer to discuss love, fame, and the hero's quest.

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How would you live if you knew when you would die? This is the question confronting the four Gold siblings: Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon. In 1969, when they are children, a fortune-teller predicts, for each of them, the date of their death. It’s superstition, silliness, they know this, but words have power. The prophecy follows them as they choose their paths into adulthood. Simon heads to San Francisco in search of an authentic self. Klara becomes a magician, an illusionist, a performer of death-defying feats. Daniel studies medicine but, as an Army doctor, instead of healing, he deems young men healthy enough to send to war. And Varya, the eldest, turns to science, the opposite of magic, but her field of study — how to extend the lives of primates — is perhaps her own version of a death-defying feat. As they live their lives — and face down their deaths — each must find the path to writing their own story in a world where uncertainty and loss are pervasive but love is enduring.

Host Cyd Oppenheimer talks with author Chloe Benjamin about unreliable narrators ("To me, every narrator is unreliable"), about allowing herself to write characters whose lived experience differs from her own ("research and empathy are the best way I've found to give myself that permission"), and choosing to end not with death but with healing.

Guest readers Annie Thoms and Jessica Sager join Oppenheimer to discuss the journeys of oppressed peoples, the stories that we tell ourselves, and what it means to believe in transformation.

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In 1985 Chicago, the AIDS epidemic is decimating the population of young gay men who came to the city in search of acceptance, community, freedom. Yale Tishman is one of those men, watching as his friends are stricken down before him, wondering who will be next, if or when his turn will come. His friend Nico has already died, and Nico's sister, Fiona -- beloved by this tightknit group of men -- stands by as a silent witness, knowing she is the one who will survive, who will carry forward the burden of memory. In the meantime, in the midst, life continues: Fiona puts Yale, the development director for an art gallery, in touch with her great-aunt, who lived in Paris before and after World War I, and has a secret collection of paintings and sketches from the artists of the day: men she drew with and modeled for and, in one case, loved -- men who had come to Paris in search of acceptance and community and freedom and found their dreams bulldozed by war and its aftermath.

In 2015 Paris, terrorism is striking at the heart of the city, and in the meantime, in the midst, life continues: Fiona, thirty years older, is looking for her daughter, who, years ago, joined a cult, had a baby, disappeared. As the book moves back and forth in time and space, these intertwining stories ask what it means to be part of history, and how we live with love and loss.

Host Cyd Oppenheimer talks with author Rebecca Makkai about what constitutes cultural appropriation and how to "write across difference;" the dangers of "leading with meaning" and why writers should trust their subconscious; and the reason she killed off Cyd's favorite character.

Guest readers Jessica Sager and Annie Thoms join Oppenheimer to discuss mistakes, responsibility, and guilt; striving for safety while living in danger; and what happens -- to us and to others -- when our stories unravel.

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