Worry, by Alexandra Tanner

Worry, by Alexandra Tanner (Scribner, 290 pages)

If there’s a twentysomething in your life, or if you are one, you will love Jules and Poppy, the anxious and squabbly sisters in Alexandra’s Tanner’s debut novel, Worry.

And also, at some point, you’ll just want to throttle them.

Tanner has bottled the nervous essence of youthful TikTok and spilled it out on the page in a quirky, pre-Covid novel that is dialogue-driven and plot-deprived but somehow manages to be fun to read.

It begins — and ends — in 2019. Poppy Gold, the younger of the two sisters and ostensibly the least emotionally stable, arrives at Jules’ rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

She takes over her sister’s home office and plans just to stay for a short while until she can find her own place.

Poppy has tried to kill herself and has picked up shoplifting for fun, but she seems to be on the mend emotionally. She, like much of her generation, is highly socially conscious, refusing to let her sister buy a SodaStream because she “doesn’t want to support Israeli apartheid.” She doesn’t have a job but is convinced she can get one and afford the rent on her own place, or else get their parents to subsidize it.

Jules, the narrator, knows better. Jules is somewhat stably employed as an editor for a publishing company that produces study guides similar to SparkNotes, and has a boyfriend with “an MFA in poetry and half a Ph.D. in poetry.”

“He pretends he knows things about wine and I let him. I pretend I know things about Russian literature and he lets me. It’s all very tentative,” Jules says. In her spare time, Jules obsesses over Mormon mommy blogs and picks fights with them in the comments. She calls them her mommies.

Her real mother, and Poppy’s, practices Messianic Judaism, just started an Instagram account (zero followers) and argues with her daughters about whether police are bad or good and is prone to texting them a thumbs-down emoji when they say something she doesn’t like.

“I don’t understand why the three of us can’t ever just have, like, a nice conversation,” Jules says to Poppy, discussing their mother. “Not even a conversation, just a moment even. What’s her deal with us? Why doesn’t she like us?”

“Oh,” Poppy says without looking up, “it’s because she’s a narcissist and we’re her appendages. It says so in the trauma book.”

Soon it becomes clear that Poppy will not be moving out anytime soon, and to the delight of their father, a dermatologist who is always telling his daughters what cosmetic work they need to have done (and does it free), they settle down to housekeeping together. They even adopt a three-legged rescue dog named Amy Klobuchar.

This is the point where there should be some rising story arc, some crisis, some Thelma-and-Louise-esque trip. Astonishingly, there is not. Worry is essentially a book full of snappy dialogue and stream-of-consciousness observations of one millennial and one zoomer. Poppy and Jules are an Algonquin Round Table that seats two.

While they both have dreams — Jules has an MFA and still aspires to be a “real” writer — they are locked in anxiety, self-consciousness and a never-ending loop of videos on the internet that end badly, from 9/11 to a zoo panda’s death. This leads to a conversation about whether watching videos like that changes a person.

Poppy argues yes: “There is a before and after of me watching this video, you know? There’s the me who hadn’t chosen to watch the video, and there’s the me who did. And I’m not the old me anymore.”

To which Jules replies: “The Internet isn’t real, it isn’t experience. It’s moving dots.”

But when Jules ventures out into the real world to watch a writer lecture at a museum, and another young woman tries to befriend her, she refuses to engage and spirals into self-pity. “There’s never been a reality in which I could be a serious thinker, a serious writer. I’m a Floridian. I’m a consumer,” she says to herself.

Tanner disguises the seriousness underlying the women’s unhappiness with her light, comic touch. When, for example, a high-school drama friend reaches out to Jules, Jules admits, “It thrills me to see that she is not working as an actress, that she’s working in nonprofits — the fate of the unremarkable — and that she’s the annoying kind of married where she has her wedding date, bookended with hearts, in her little bio box.”

But Tanner throws the readers under a bus with an emotionally challenging ending that is a sharp and unexpected departure from her modus operandi up to that point. It’s as if she’d been serving cotton candy, and then suddenly left the room and came back with fried alligator. But by that point, it’s too late for the reader to bail.

Worry is, in essence, an anxious monologue that will resonate most with young, under-employed, over-educated Americans who live in large cities on the coasts. B

Twelve Trees, by Daniel Lewis

Daniel Lewis is a tree nerd, and I say that affectionately, from one tree nerd to another. By this, I mean my house is filled with odd pieces of wood collected in forests and on beaches for no reason other than the beauty I see in their gnarled and twisty forms. Lewis, however, is the guy who could probably identify the type of tree these bits of wood come from and then launch into a lecture on the genus of the tree and its prospects for survival on a warming planet.

An environmental historian and college professor who lives in Southern California, Lewis has built his latest book around 12 trees he finds most interesting and important. Disappointingly, although New Hampshire is the second most forested state in the U.S. according to the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, the 12 do not include the sugar maple, Eastern hemlock or any other of the most prevalent trees in New England.

Lewis’s picks are a disparate tribe flung around the planet — in some cases, literally, by seed dispersal. They include the bristlecone pine, the coast redwood, the East Indian sandalwood tree, the African baobab, the blue gum eucalyptus and the olive tree. Each tree gets its own chapter, in which Lewis tells stories about the tree’s history, its uses and abuses by humans, and its outlook. Along the way, he ventures merrily off the beaten path in order to share nuggets of information he has gleaned during his research.

As an example, Lewis wanted to confirm that products of the olive tree, which mainly grows in the Mediterranean and in California, are found on all the continents. So he tracked down the person in charge of supplying food to the largest year-round encampment in the Antarctic, and we subsequently learn how the 150 to 900 people at the McMurdo Station are fed. Food is delivered there just once a year, in January or February, and it sounds like they eat better there than many of us do. “When you’re stuck in a vast, tree-free tract of wind-driven snow and ice, you need good olives and their oil. Green, black, and Kalamata olives are the three varieties usually on hand. Olive oil and olives are also a staple for their pizza station, which bakes up sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand pizzas annually,” Lewis writes.

Due to the popularity of its drupe — that is the new word we learn for pitted fruits like the olive, peach or apricot — the actual olive tree doesn’t get as much attention in its chapter as the other 11 trees, as Lewis delves mainly into the production of olive oil. The demand for olive oil is so great that just 10 percent of harvested olives are consumed as olives; the rest is pressed into oil in a mind-bogglingly complex and regulated process that explains why the product is so expensive.

More focus on the tree itself is given in chapters of two threatened species of trees: the African baobab (you might not recognize the name, but Google it, and you will most likely recognize the tree) and the toromiro tree, once common on a Pacific island.

The African baobab is a source of water to elephants during times of drought, which is interesting, because the baobab, for reasons scientists can’t explain, stores much more water than an individual tree needs for itself. But as tempting as it is to think that the tree is, on some level, being helpful to elephants or other living things with its excess hydration, it is the elephants’ violent assault on the trees to obtain water that is contributing to the trees’ demise.

Equally interesting is the story of what Lewis calls “the nearly lost tree of Rapa Nui.”

Rapa Nui is the Pacific island more commonly known as Easter Island. It was once resplendent with the Sophora toromiro, which doesn’t have a common name or nickname like other trees and is simply known (by the tree nerds who pay attention to it) as the toromiro.

The toromiro is a small flowering tree that was part of a “painful drop in biodiversity” after humans arrived there around the 12th century. In the case of the toromiro, however, its gradual decline wasn’t all human-driven; Lewis explains how other factors were likely at play, including dozens of devastating tsunamis that have hit the island over time. But the trees were harvested too, for firewood and building material. By the 1600s wood was so scarce on the island that it became the most valuable commodity there, Lewis writes. Even driftwood was “precious.”

Today, more than six decades after the last toromiro tree mysteriously disappeared from the island, attempts are being made to re-introduce the tree to the island from toromiros found growing elsewhere, the seeds carried by birds or ocean currents. It’s not as easy as just planting seedlings. The soil composition has changed so much that cultivated trees have not yet taken root.

These are the sorts of stories that make Twelve Trees an unexpectedly fascinating read, although it’s not necessarily the sort of book that you’d recommend, for example, to your Bruins-obsessed neighborhood. It’s a book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, and would appeal most to those who think businesses should close for Arbor Day. (April 26 this year, in case you didn’t know.)

While Twelve Trees has its “Bueller? Bueller?” moments — most notably when Lewis delivers what is best described as a rapturous ode to lichens — it will make you think that maybe you care more about trees than you know. B

Funny Story, by Emily Henry

& How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang

Funny Story, by Emily Henry (Berkley, 400 pages)

How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang (Avon, 384 pages)

I was interested in reading Yulin Kuang’s debut novel, How to End a Love Story, after finding out that Kuang is the adapting screenwriter for People We Meet on Vacation and the writer/director for Beach Read, both upcoming movies based on novels by Emily Henry. And since it was released just weeks before Henry’s latest, Funny Story (already on my must-read list), I decided to read them both and compare these purportedly funny love stories.

How to End a Love Story is a solid debut — but I could see it being better as a movie (which makes sense given Kuang’s experience as a film writer). I have to wonder if perhaps some solid acting could make me believe the whole premise of the book.

Because here’s my biggest hang-up: The reason that main characters Helen and Grant “can’t” be together is stupid. I could not, at any point, wrap my head around this “enemies to lovers” plot when there was absolutely no reason for them to be enemies in the first place.

Helen’s sister was killed in a tragic accident 13 years ago. Grant was behind the wheel of the car that killed her. (No spoiler here — this is explained on page 2). The fact is, no one was at fault, no one was to blame, and it’s just not OK that Helen hates Grant for this thing he had no control over. I get that being around him might be difficult, but to straight up despise his existence and make him feel like he did something wrong really made me dislike her. And it’s hard to be invested in, let alone root for, a character you don’t like.

Also, she’s pretty uptight, and it was hard to reconcile that with the setting and other characters in the book. Helen is a popular YA author and has just started working in the writers’ room of the book series’ TV adaptation (clearly Kuang took the “write what you know” notion and ran with it). The writers’ room environment is rowdy and raunchy, and Helen doesn’t fit in.

It’s almost uncomfortable to see Helen’s interactions with these fun, indelicate people — and then watch her slowly become “one of them.” It seems disingenuous and awkward (again, maybe onscreen an actor could portray this transformation more naturally than my imagination was allowing for).

Meanwhile, Grant is an experienced film writer, well-respected and confident in the room but less so outside of it, as he still struggles with the anxieties that have plagued him since the aforementioned tragic accident.

Alas, Helen and Grant must work together, and of course it’s so hard at first, but then it’s not so much, and then there are some unfortunate moments of passion that can’t go any further because it’s just not OK, fundamentally, because of this thing that happened 13 years ago that was no one’s fault.

If you can wrap your head around all of that in a way that I couldn’t, you’ll probably enjoy this book. Certainly a lot of romance novels have their fair share of disbelievable elements — it’s just that they’re usually more eye-roll-inducing (just tell him how you feel already!) and less emotionally upsetting. But the writing is solid, particularly the dialogue, and it’s an interesting look at what goes on in a writers’ room and on a film set, knowing that Kuang has real-life experience there. C+

Funny Story was even better than I expected it to be. Henry had already proven that she is a master of women’s literature, with fun, real characters, unique but believable storylines, and just the right amount of heat. And in Funny Story, her dialogue shines, sharp and witty as always.

One of many random examples (the context doesn’t even matter):

“‘I thought you were bringing a date,’ I say to Jules. ‘That guy you just went to Chicago with?’

‘Ryan.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘He cut his fingernails on the bus ride.’

‘Ew,’ Ashleigh and I say in unison.

Julia nods solemnly. ‘Flags so red, they veered toward maroon.’”

The “I” in the above example is Daphne, who is engaged to Peter, who decides just before the wedding that he actually loves Petra, his childhood best friend, who was engaged to Miles, who becomes Daphne’s new roommate and fake boyfriend after the respective breakups. Got that? (Jules, in case you’re wondering, is Miles’s sister, and Ashleigh is Daphne’s co-worker and, once Daphne lightens up a bit at work, her new best friend. Both add a well-balanced mix of fun and emotional complexity to the plot.)

And there is emotional complexity here; this isn’t all fluff and love, and I don’t think I rolled my eyes once. Funny Story is definitely funny, but it’s so much more than that, too: It’s a story of human relationships and all of the messiness and intensity that come along with them, how they can start and end in the most unpredictable ways, and how we all have the capacity to overcome heartbreak and learn to love again. A

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul (Bloomsbury, 264 pages)

In her 2016 book The Gutsy Girl, Caroline Paul drew from her own experiences as a firefighter, pilot and outdoorswoman to urge 8- to 13-year-old girls to live a life of “epic adventure.” It was the sort of book that many older women bought for their daughters and nieces, but along the way they read it, too — and loved it. Numerous reviews detail how women much older than the target audience made changes in their own life after reading the book.

Now Paul is back with a book written especially for much older women. In Tough Broad, she urges women past the half-century mark (and even nearing the century mark) to forget their age and head outdoors for their own epic adventures. These adventures, the subtitle warns, include boogie boarding and wing walking, which as the cover photo shows is exactly what it sounds like: moving along the outside of a small airplane in flight, and I suppose I should add intentionally, not because your plane malfunctioned.

Maybe our grandmothers secretly yearned to do that and didn’t have the societal permission, I don’t know. But wing walking at any age seems a bit, well, out there. But Paul argues that exhilarating outdoor adventures are not the result of having a positive attitude toward aging but “the integral gateway” to feeling good about this stage of life. This matters because numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between how we feel about aging and how we fare physically and cognitively. This is not to say that happy aging erases the physical insults and deterioration, but rather, as one 80-year-old scuba diver told Paul, “You can be a couch potato, or you can decide that whatever ails you is insignificant.”

Then 57, Paul is the youngster in this book, although she often talks older than she is. In the opening chapter, for example, she is meeting friends at Yosemite National Park but is thwarted at the gate by rangers who won’t let her drive in because her friend, who obtained the car pass, isn’t with her. Undaunted, she parks away from the gate, puts on a helmet, retrieves her electric skateboard from the car trunk and tries again. The bemused rangers, after “they all stutter-step away from me as if I’m about to wipe out their entire squadron of youthful shins,” let her in.

But she’s not there to skateboard but to meet up with another friend in her 50s who plans to BASE jump (illegally) from the top of the El Capitan monolith.

And so it goes. Paul, who clearly did not get enough adventure in 14 years of working for the San Francisco Fire Department, goes from adventure to adventure, often with people much older and fitter than she is. Meeting a 93-year-old hiker, for example, Paul has to beg off the 5-mile trek that the older woman wants to take because of previous injuries. The hiker reluctantly agrees to downgrade to just 3 miles, telling Paul at one point, “I’m an ageist. I don’t like old people.”

What she means is that she doesn’t like people who use age as an excuse for not getting outside and doing things that are challenging. And while there are plenty of stimulating things one can do inside, like read books or play chess, Paul argues that outside adventures are unique in bringing us to life, and she doesn’t mean just your backyard or a county park. “The less urban the environment you stroll in, the more well-being you feel,” she writes.

While a few of the activities that Paul covers here are much more staid than illegal BASE jumping — birdwatching makes an appearance, for example — the book’s most fascinating women are the ones doing the wildest things. Take the 71-year-old wing walker, who Paul discovers through a video that her children posted on the internet with the caption “MAMMA WENT WING WALKING! Without a word about it to us kids.” When Paul tracks her down, she learns that the wing walker had breast cancer and a mastectomy, chemo and radiation at age 64 and wanted to do something to celebrate her recovery. She’d learned about wing walking when she typed in “Something fun to do here” on Google. She didn’t just jump on the plane, but worked out for six months in preparation, without saying a word to her family.

Paul later tries it herself and realizes that it isn’t just the physical challenge that is so empowering, but what it does for one emotionally. She writes: “I realize how perfectly wing walking primes us for awe: there is the majestic view at thirty-five hundred feet that feels almost religious; there is the total disequilibrium of doing something so antithetical to every survival instinct; there is the exhilaration of twirling and ricocheting and falling in a vast sky.”

True, she notes, a person can experience awe during, say, a walk in a forest, but it’s “psychological disequilibrium” that keeps the neurons firing. We hear a lot about the benefits of sleep and meditation and lowering stress; less so about the need for novelty and challenge. But Paul writes, when she signs up to learn to fly a gyrocopter, she is helping her brain to remain elastic and nimble. “Embrace disequilibrium,” she exhorts us.

Just as Paul’s previous book, meant for young girls, appealed to older women, Tough Broads, though meant for older women will likely inspire women decades younger — and those whose goals are much more modest than walking on a plane mid-flight. In one chapter Paul accompanies a 59-year-old woman to a swimming lesson; the woman has tried multiple times over the years to learn to swim and never could, becoming more and more terrified of drowning each time. But she is determined to master her fear. She regrets that “there’s an entire area of life that I can’t participate in” and dreams of scuba diving somewhere exotic with her family. She is still dreaming — her story turns out not to be quite as inspirational as the others, but the moral is the same: that growth comes from trying, whether or not we succeed.

Paul, who is the twin sister of the actress Alexandra Paul, shares a poignant story about her mother, whose own mother had been anxious and overprotective, making her become risk averse. But at age 54 Paul’s mother tried skydiving and for the first time considered herself brave, and this courage set her off on new adventures. At 84 she told her daughter wistfully, “What I would give to be 60 again.” Paul concludes, “do it now, before you can’t.” That’s good advice for any woman, or man, at any age. AJennifer Graham

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman (W.W. Norton, 274 pages)

When a manager in Adelle Waldman’s Help Wanted is transferred to a store in West Hartford, Connecticut, it’s a promotion and his colleagues are stunned and impressed.

Which tells you everything you need to know about Potterstown, New York, a once-thriving town that unraveled when its major employer left town, leaving behind people “who walked around with something of a shell-shocked look as if modernity itself had caught them unawares.”

For all its economic troubles, however, Potterstown still has Town Square store #1512, a big-box store full of “mass-produced knockoffs of trendy boutique-type items” that is a few steps higher on the big-box social scale than Walmart. And it is the “roaches” of Town Square — the hourly workers who come in each morning at 3:55 a.m. to stock the store, then scatter before opening time — that are the subject of Help Wanted, the latest in a genre best described as late-capitalism novels.

It is obvious from the first pages of Help Wanted that the flawed heroes of this story are the nine workers who comprise the department called “Movement,” and that their supervisor is the bad guy. “Movement” is the trendy upgraded name for the department that used to be called “Logistics” — despite concern in some quarters that it made it sound like “they worked for a yoga studio or laxative company.” At any rate, in the pecking order of Town Square employees, Movement is the department for workers who are seen as “not customer facing” or “ready for prime time” because their social skills aren’t up to par.

These protagonists include Nicole, a 23-year-old with $30 in her checking account whose main goal in life is to buy a car so she doesn’t have to drive her mom’s dented sedan, the Dingmobile; Diego, a Black man from Honduras who immigrated to the New York with his father as a teen and (whose phone is currently shut off for nonpayment), and Milo, a would-be comedian with a YouTube account dreaming of a girlfriend and a place to live that isn’t a friend’s house.

The one thing the Movement workers have in common beyond their financial misery is their dislike of their perpetually obtuse manager, Meredith, who regularly comes in late, denies leave requests and micromanages the team. And so when the store manager, Big Will, gets promoted to West Hartford, the Movement team spots a way out of their collective misery. If Meredith gets promoted to store manager, she will no longer directly supervise them. And there’s a chance that one of them will get her job.

This fills members of the team, who, like caged birds, generally dwell in a state of learned helplessness, with excitement. Each one privately is hoping that they will be the person to be promoted and get a guaranteed salary and benefits, but they know that even if that isn’t the case, their lot would improve if Meredith disappeared. So they devise a furtive plan they dub “pro-Mer” — promote Meredith — in order to make this dream happen. Meanwhile, Meredith herself is ecstatically planning for her future promotion and getting the store ship-shape before the arrival of the Town Square executives who will conduct interviews and make the decision.

One by one, we learn of the circumstances of each worker’s life, and why the promotion — which is, frankly, not one that most people would write home about — is so important to them. Unfortunately, despite these asides into the team members’ lives, Waldman’s decision to make the story about all of them requires the reader to work hard to keep up with each of nine workers’ circumstances. While these circumstances are substantively different — one has a food stamp card that has not reloaded, one was evicted, one has an unexpected medical problem that consumes the money he’d planned on using for his child’s birthday party — they are all troubled by the same core problems: lack of education, lack of money, lack of opportunity, and a business that cares more about the bottom line than about them.

Most of the workers desperately want more hours (not all, because some have multiple jobs), and the store has plenty of work that isn’t getting done, but the company is content to sacrifice even customer satisfaction so long as sales keep steadily going up. In one example of corporate deceit, Town Square posts “help wanted” signs all over the store, even though they’re not hiring — the implication being that any lack of staff on hand was a function of the tight labor market and/or a lazy populace’s unwillingness to work service jobs.

At one point, when a couple of Town Square corporate executives meet with Big Will about his replacement, they wonder about the suspiciously excellent reviews that the Movement workers give Meredith. Is it really possible that this crew, some of whom didn’t finish high school, was smart enough to have planned a sort of coup? They think not. “It’s worth remembering,” one of the executives says, “that the people who work these jobs aren’t like you and me. We’re people who value stability, who worked hard to achieve it for ourselves.”

Having been primed for sympathy and affection toward the Movement team, it is a horrible indictment, not of the workers but of the executive. Still, in crafting this group of characters, Waldman did not venture far outside the box, giving us workers who have predictable troubles, like the shut-off electricity, the tendency to drink and the kid in jail. There is a sort of monotony to their lot that does not necessarily reflect the real world. Crummy jobs are held by all sorts of people, for diverse reasons.

Although in one of her funnier lines Waldman (who does have great comic timing) says that the ethnic diversity of Movement would make the dean of a private school proud, the team is not really that diverse except in age, gender and skin color. But the main problem with this story, dedicated to “all retail workers,” is its unnecessary complexity and its persistent gloominess. The novel takes place over just six weeks, but like a never-ending workweek, it feels like 600. C

Cool Food, by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen

Cool Food, by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen (Blackstone Publishing, 320 pages)

The actor Robert Downey Jr. was at a bookstore in London when he asked a clerk where to find the books on climate. The clerk’s reply: “Oh, the bummer section? It’s over there.”

When Downey later told this story to the writer Thomas Kostigen, with whom he was developing a TV show, Kostigen responded, “We need to do a food book and make it fun.”

An ordinary person not immersed in climate activism might wonder what climate and food have to do with one another. But the growing of food and the tending of animals that will become food are almost as large a part of this conversation as fossil fuel, because, well, carbon.

And to Downey and Kostigen, one way to combat a warmer planet is to eat cooler food — “cool” food is climate-friendly food, they say. And to promote it, they’re out with a bulky, hard-to-hold cookbook that doubles as a climate manual, irritatingly populated with cartoon-style sketches of themselves. Cool Food isn’t sure if it wants to be a cookbook, a graphic novel, a fourth-grade science book or a press release, and so there are elements of all four.

To be fair, I am a boomer, and not the target audience of this book — in fact, to climate change activists, my generation is the villain. And young readers of physical books prefer manga and graphic novels, recent studies have shown. So that concludes my grumbling about the physical presentation of the book, and we can move onto the actual content, which is — not terrible. Well, it’s also not great, but as Books Written By Celebrities With Co-Authors go, Cool Food is surprisingly useful at times. I learned things, things which you may already know, but somehow I did not: like what the numeric codes on produce at the grocery store tell us other than the price (five-digit codes that begin with 9 indicate the produce was organically grown and codes that begin with 8 indicate genetic modifications) and where I could buy jellyfish and how to cook one if I were inclined to eat one for dinner. (I am not.)

Also, I learned that in New Mexico there are Native American restaurants, and apparently nowhere else, and that 95 percent of yams are grown in Africa while most sweet potatoes in U.S. supermarkets were grown in North Carolina.

The first half of the book focuses on foods that the authors say are climate-friendly because of how they are harvested or grown: ancient grains, fruits, vegetables, sea vegetables (yes, they will tell you how to grow your own seaweed), nuts and, most important for New Hampshire residents, syrup, although the authors are shilling for Vermont syrup here.

Also this section of the book gave me a lot of new things to worry about that I’ve never known I should be worrying about, such as whether grain crops are seasonal or perennial. “When a seasonal crop is harvested, it loses all of its carbon intake and depletes the soil of 40 percent of its carbon content. All that carbon is released into the air, adding significantly to climate change,” the authors write.

We’re hearing a lot about regenerative agriculture these days, but a lot of the foodstuff mentioned here was unfamiliar to me: kernza flour, loquat fruit and pigeon pea shrubs. Nothing you find at your typical drive-thru. The recipes, accompanied by color photographs, run the gamut from intriguing (maple and chili glazed sweetcorn) to the bizarre (cashew stir-fry with puffed amaranth, which contains something called vegan fish sauce).

It was a relief to move on to the second section of the book, which contains no small amount of proselytizing about things like the farm-to-table movement, eating seasonally and organically, and cutting down on food waste. Not until the end does Cool Food address in any serious way whether all these foods are good for the human body — most of the talk is about what foods are good for the planet. When the authors finally give a nod to this, it’s in an effective takedown of the federal government’s dietary guidelines, once known as the food pyramid, now known as MyPlate. Well, actually, it’s Harvard University’s takedown, but they reprint it here in a chart that points out what the government says are healthy foods and ideal portions, and what Harvard nutritionists say. Let’s just say that there must be government lobbyists for potatoes and hot dogs.

The authors did not want to write a “bummer” climate book, and have largely succeeded at that. They have instead created an eating manual for climate worriers (which is pretty much all of us after this “winter”) and may struggle to find an audience outside of the most fervent activists and Robert Downey Jr. superfans. That said, the future is on their side; labeling that indicates the carbon footprint of foods — e.g., the amount of greenhouse gasses released in their production — is already cropping up on menus and food for sale. Those labels, Downey and Kestigen say, offer “the biggest promise for change.” But also, eat more jellyfish. C

Transient and Strange, by Nell Greenfieldboyce

Transient and Strange, by Nell Greenfieldboyce (W.W. Norton & Co., 211 pages)

The science writer Nell Greenfieldboyce has worked for NPR since 2005 and is a bit of an outlier. She doesn’t use social media much, lets her kids call her “Nell” and adopted a combined yet unhyphenated last name. She also has, until recently, resisted talking about her personal life in her writing. That changed a decade ago when a friend convinced her to write about a spider in her kitchen with which she had become entranced. And once that door was opened, a sort of floodgate opened from which Transient and Strange emerged.

“Transient and strange” is a phrase from a Walt Whitman poem about meteors, and meteors streak across the cover of Greenfieldboyce’s book, which combines science writing and memoir with a poignancy rarely seen in the genre. The author links discoveries undergirding disparate topics — tornados, black holes, spiders, fleas — to events in her own life, including her parenting mistakes, her parents’ physical decline and her husband’s health issues. The book is revelatory in every sense of the word.

The book begins with a sweet mildness that belies what is to come. She’s lying in bed with her children, when her 6-year-old shares that he’s been thinking about tornados, having listened to an audiobook that mentions one. At first, Greenfieldboyce is excited about introducing her children to this wondrous thing: “a spinning column of clouds snaking down to the ground.” But after watching her children’s eyes as they watch a short video, she realizes that she’s introduced not wonder, but fear, and indeed, both children, ages 3 and 6, become obsessively worried about a tornado hitting their home.

This leads Greenfieldboyce into her natural territory: making science relatable for a mass audience. Her attempts to calm her children’s fears lead her to call a University of Oklahoma scientist whose research led to the 1996 film Twister, then to read a book he’d read as a child, to learn about the development of Doppler radar, and the devastating tornado that hit Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1953, killing 94 people and displacing 10,000.

But then, she suddenly slips in some devastation of her own, a traumatic experience from her childhood that sends her to seek counseling as adult. Like a tornado, we don’t see this coming, and Greenfieldboyce skillfully weaves her own story with happened to the families in Worcester, as their ordinary lives were upended, then there was an eerie calm, and then the storm slammed into them again.

One of the more interesting details that she shares about the Worcester tornado is of survivors who described potatoes and eggs floating in the air as the tornado approached — a phenomenon caused by the wave of low pressure.

The story then easily flows into a visit with her hospitalized father, which leads into a discussion about — wait for it — meteors. Admittedly, this is no ordinary family. Greenfieldboyce has long been interested in extraterrestrial rocks; she wears a chunk of one as a pendant, and she’d just bought her father a piece of a moon rock as a Christmas present. (Maybe not as strange as it seems, even though it had wound up in a drawer; he’d once worked for NASA.) She takes us on a whirlwind journey of famous rocks (the revered Black Stone in Mecca) and improbable rocks (the meteor fragments that hurtle to Earth) and reminds us that what we take for granted today was practically heretical just a few centuries ago. Thomas Jefferson, for example, reportedly mocked Yale scientists who said rocks they’d collected had come from space, saying, “It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.”

Walt Whitman muscles his way into this story, as Herman Melville does later, and Greenfieldboyce’s own words hold their own with these literary stars, even as she tells stories that involve several unsavory characters, like the man who tried to seduce her when she was 12. For someone who for 30 years was intent on not writing about herself, she writes with a shocking amount of candor, most of all when she writes about what she calls “my eugenics project.”

At 23, she fell in love with the man she would eventually marry. He had a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that would one day result in his needing a kidney transplant. Although she was in love and committed to him, she writes, “I didn’t think an organ transplant at the age of thirty or forty, and then years of taking drugs to suppress the immune system was anything to just shrug off.” And just as her boyfriend had inherited the disease from his mother, who had inherited it from her father, there was a chance that their children would inherit it too.

All this thrust the young couple into the world of genetic counseling and artificial reproductive techniques. He was against the “reproductive industrial complex”; she thought they’d be crazy not to avail themselves of scientific methods that might allow them to have a baby free of the worrisome gene. Their struggle to conceive a child — taking place at the same time that he is preparing to have a kidney transplant — takes the reader deep into the couple’s most intimate spaces. And quite by happenstance, it does so at a time when the nation is newly engaged in a conversation about in vitro fertilization and the ethics of frozen embryos.

Theirs is a deeply moving story, as is the book overall. Greenfield has said that she wrote the essays independently, not knowing what would become of them, but they flow beautifully, like water. She may not have all the answers to her questions — or ours — but the questions she raises are fascinating. Transient and Strange is neither; it is elegant, thoughtful writing that will endure in your thoughts. AJennifer Graham

Unshrinking, by Kate Manne

Unshrinking, by Kate Manne (Crown, 277 pages)

The national airline of Finland announced recently that it would ask passengers to step on a scale with their carry-on luggage in order to get an accurate assessment of the plane’s load and ensure a “safe takeoff.” It’s voluntary, inasmuch as is possible with the airline essentially saying we could crash if you don’t comply.

There was immediate backlash, with some calling the policy “fatphobic,” which is the popular catch-all term for any sort of perceived discrimination or cruelty against people with overweight or obesity (to use the preferred medical terminology these days). But it’s great timing for Kate Manne, a philosopher and associate professor at Cornell University, who has taken up the crusade against fatphobia in her third book, Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia.

In Unshrinking, Manne brings a philosopher’s take to a subject that Roxanne Gay, Lindy West and other writers have tackled: the hardships and cruelties that people with large bodies suffer as they navigate a world that prizes thinness. The solution that fat people (her preferred term) are usually offered is the suggestion to lose weight. But Manne believes it’s the world that needs to change, not people who are overweight. People should have the right to be any size they choose without the expectation of discrimination or mockery, she says; in fact, she argues, being a hundred, or a couple of hundred, pounds over what the doctor says we should weigh is another form of diversity, like skin color or the shape of our nose.

While Manne has been a range of sizes over the course of her life — she says almost apologetically that she is not currently significantly overweight — she was overweight enough as a child to endure the frequent casual cruelty that can stay with a person for a life. She recalls, for example, the boy in fifth grade who said “Fat little Kate-lyn” to her in P.E. class and another boy who ranked her attractiveness saying her figure “left something to be desired.”

Internalized, these sorts of insults convince a person that their body is something to be ashamed of, leading grown women with graduate degrees and good careers to still feel inferior when it comes to their body.

“I have been swimming just once since the age of sixteen. (I wore leggings and an oversized T-shirt.) I haven’t been dancing since I was twenty. And nobody, save my husband and doctors, has seen the dimpled, stretch-marked backs of my knees over the same time period,” Manne writes.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried to lose weight, and at times, she had done so successfully — as when she developed an Adderall addiction and once didn’t eat for a week, causing her to nearly pass out during a doctor’s appointment. But her weight would go up and down, and when in 2019 she was offered an all-expenses-paid book tour in Europe in conjunction with the paperback release of her book Down Girl, she refused to be photographed. It was a time when her doctor’s chart categorized her as “severely obese” and she couldn’t bear for photographs of her at that weight to go out into the world.

Then came the pandemic, during which she began to imagine a world in which she didn’t always feel the need to hide. This did not involve a diet — Manne argues, with lots of science to back her up, that diets don’t work and instead inflict suffering. Instead she imagined a world in which the word “fat” is a neutral term, not an insult, and in which large bodies aren’t judged.

Fatphobia, Manne says, is a “feature of social systems that unjustly rank fatter bodies as inferior to thinner bodies, in terms of not only our health but also our moral, sexual, and intellectual status.” The book catalogs many of these from Jordan Peterson’s “Sorry, not beautiful” pronouncement about a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model to examples of professional women viewed as less intelligent than their peers because of their weight. In these sorts of stories, Manne has a slam-dunk case; there is no question that fat-shaming is one of the last kinds of shaming that are permissible and Hollywood has helped perpetuate this idea.

Manne also deftly pokes holes in the arguments that defend treating large people differently from others. Her fellow Australian philosopher Peter Singer, for example, argues that airlines should set fares based on the weight of the passengers. “In terms of the airplane’s fuel consumption, it is all the same, whether the extra weight is baggage or body fat,” Singer has written. Manne counters with a calculation that shows it would cost just a few dollars more in fuel to transport an overweight man than a thin woman. She is at her best with this kind of sparring, and Unshrinking is thoughtful and deeply researched, belying a cover that suggests otherwise.

Ultimately, though, this is not a book that solves arguments, but rather raises them. Obesity is surging not only in America but in other parts of the world, and health experts say that excess weight is a factor in many types of cancer and other diseases. Yo-yo dieting is certainly not the answer, and weight-loss surgeries and drugs carry risks, as Manne points out. She wants a society where there is no pressure for people to lose weight — even at the doctor’s office — and where we don’t have to feel shame for succumbing to our appetites, for choosing lasagna over grilled vegetables. But with mounting evidence that restricting calories improves health outcomes — even for people who are not overweight — it will be hard for some people to accept her defense of hedonistic eating. Grilled veggies are better for the human body than lasagna, and no amount of fat acceptance can change that. BJennifer Graham

The Frozen River, by Ariel Lawhon

The Frozen River, by Ariel Lawhon (Doubleday, 432 pages)

Ariel Lawhon was in an obstetrician’s waiting room when she came across a story about Martha Ballard, an 18th-century midwife in Maine who is said to have delivered more than 800 babies without ever losing a mother — a remarkable record for anyone, even more so during that time period.

Lawhon tore out the article from the magazine she was reading and made a note on it: “Would make a GREAT novel!” Fifteen years later, The Frozen River tells that story — three-quarters based on historical record; the rest, as Lawhon describes it, “what could have happened.”

But it isn’t just the story of a midwife, but a true-crime mystery that is deeply New England, though written by a woman who lives in Tennessee.

It begins with the discovery of a body lodged in an iced-over river, “lips parted, eyes still widened in surprise.” After the corpse is pulled out and lugged to a local tavern, Ballard, a self-taught medical practitioner, is called to inspect it. She immediately recognizes the man: Joshua Burgess, implicated in the brutal rape of a pastor’s wife three months earlier. “I had hoped to see Burgess swing at the end of a rope for what he did, but dead is dead, and I’m not sad to hear the news,” Ballard, the narrator of the story, says.

It is clear to her that Burgess, despite where he was found, had not drowned. His injuries indicate hanging, and he is missing several teeth, among other gruesome injuries.

In the 1700s, when this story is set, Maine was not yet a state but part of the Massachusetts frontier. And while there was a judicial system of sorts, and men could be put to death when convicted of rape, such convictions were rare. Further complicating matters, the second person involved in the rape of Rebecca Foster was a judge, Colonel Joseph North, who lorded over official proceedings of the town.

So when Ballard recorded in her diary “Mrs. Foster has sworn a rape on a number of men,” this was a scandal of the highest order: “The people of Hallowell will be chewing on this bone for years.”

Ballard’s diary is central to the story; in fact, it’s the only reason we know about her at all. As recounted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (later made into a film), Ballard kept concise notes about her life and work from 1785 to her death in 1812. Lawhon draws from the diary to weave her imagined account of how events mentioned in Ballard’s notes played out, using flashbacks to build out her life before the rape, death and trial.

Although Ballard’s assessment of Burgess’s cause of death was accurate, when the case comes before Colonel North, he dismisses it and rules the death an accidental drowning. Immediately after, a girl who works for Rebecca Foster (the woman who was raped) comes before the judge to report fornication, as it has become known that Rebecca is pregnant — the timing of the pregnancy corresponding with the rape. Ballard, who knows the truth, can’t stand for this, and says in the courtroom that the judge is the other man involved in the rape.

This sets up a battle royale between Ballard and North that will ultimately resolve much differently in fiction than it did in real life. It is a protracted battle that involves fear that Ballard’s own son might have been involved in the death of Burgess, and Colonel North using every means at his disposal to try to destroy Ballard and her family, even taking the family’s mill.

Throughout, Lawhon shows us what it was like to be a formerly enslaved person freed in the Massachusetts territory, how women were then treated (Ballard, for example, could not testify about the rape without her husband present in the courtroom) and how disease and death were constant companions to the colonists. (One particularly poignant chapter describes how diphtheria, sometimes called the children’s plague, ran through the Ballards’ Massachusetts home before the couple moved to Hallowell.)

And of course, the weather is practically a character in itself. Although Lawhon compresses the timeline of events for her purposes, the story takes place in what was literally called “the year of the long winter” in Hallowell, as the Kennebec River was ice from November 1785 to the following April. The icy river is an ominous presence from the story’s beginning until its end, as is a silver fox that seems to serve as an omen, as well as a biology lesson — who knew that “silver foxes” are actually black?

Lawhon followed the historical record enough to make the story feel real, but she reveals in an author’s note at the end of the book the major ways in which her story and the truth diverge, and why. Readers signing up for The Frozen River should prepare to make an investment of time, not only for this slow-moving, densely detailed story, but also because they will then want to read A Midwife’s Tale. Those more impatient might want to wait for the inevitable movie. BJennifer Graham

Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully and Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully (First Arezzo Books, 273 pages)

Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum (Simon and Schuster, 320 pages)

It’s been nearly half a century since the Australian philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, effectively launching the modern animal rights movement. Twenty-seven years later, Matthew Scully — best-known then as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and other GOP politicians — came out with Dominion, which became a sort of Animal Liberation for a new generation (and also for those who couldn’t stomach Singer’s more controversial takes, such as giving parents the right to end the lives of disabled newborns).

Both writers made a compelling case against “factory farming,” the means by which the majority of meat and dairy products in the U.S. are produced, with scale, efficiency and speed that requires animals be treated in ways many people consider horrific. So, how’s it going?

Not so great, despite legal advances made by animal-rights activists and slight declines in recent years in per-capita meat consumption. Vox last year claimed in a headline “You’re more likely to go to prison for exposing animal cruelty than committing it,” which is demonstrably untrue, but the overarching point is valid — legal theory and strategy that aims to reduce animal suffering is still largely left wanting.

Into this void comes the highly regarded University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose Justice for Animals proposes a new legal theory, which she calls the “capabilities approach.” Published last year in hardcover, it’s new in paperback, as is Matthew Scully’s followup to Dominion, called Fear Factories. (And last year Singer updated his original work in a volume called Animal Liberation Now.)

Nussbaum, the author or co-author of 24 other philosophy books, is relatively new to the subject of animal rights, having seriously picked up the cause after the death of her daughter, an attorney who specialized in animal-rights cases. In Justice for Animals she expounds on ideas previously applied to standards of human welfare and assigns them to animals. According to Nussbaum, most animals can suffer injustice for which human beings should be held accountable. But not all animals. Nussbaum argues that we should take into account whether the animals are capable of living a certain sort of life — one in which they are striving to flourish in that world in ways accordant with their species. Injustice can be done to animals, therefore, not just by the willful infliction of pain but by thwarting animals from their natural progressions of life.

There are gradations that can make it difficult to identify injustice — she’s still not sold, for example, on whether crustaceans truly have flourishingly lives, and insects don’t seem to process pain. But injustice “centrally involves significant striving blocked by not just harm but also wrongful thwarting, whether negligent or deliberate,” Nussbaum says. If that smacks of legal-ese, well, this is a book that wants to establish a framework for bringing legal cases on behalf of animals, and so it lays out the case soberly, often with stilted language and professor-like repetition. This is for people who want to get into the weeds of animal rights.

Among the questions she tackles: Are we morally obligated to intervene to protect wildlife from misery and disease? (The New Hampshire moose dying of tick infestation come to mind.) Should we intervene when we have a chance to save an individual animal, or many, from predation? Can humans be “friends” with animals in captivity?

While Nussbaum considers the treatment of animals bred for slaughter on factory farms, and the cattle in large-scale dairy operations, a “moral horror,” she does not argue for veganism, saying, “I have no principled objection to the human use of animal products, so long as the animal is able to carry on its characteristic animal life.”

Scully, on the other hand, is a vegan, although in Fear Factories he does not aggressively try to convert meat-eaters; he seems principally concerned with getting people to think about the animals that suffered in order that they may enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. If they change their eating habits, all the better, but you get the sense he’d be satisfied if we could just stop with the wide-scale misery.

Fear Factories is a collection of about 50 articles and essays published between 1992 and 2022; nearly half originally appeared in the conservative journal National Review. Animal rights are typically considered a cause of the political left; as such, Scully was definitely not preaching to the choir, and the photos he chose for the covers of the book go for our emotional jugular. (The front cover shows rows of gestational crates, the kind Proposition 12 banned in California; the back, a close-up of a miserable pig in such a crate.)

While Dominion was deeply reported, with Scully going to a factory farm in North Carolina and a meeting of an international sport hunting club, among other places, the essays in Fear Factories draw more on his personal experience. In an essay titled “Lessons from a Dog,” he writes about how his childhood attachment to a stray dog his family adopted led to a moral awakening that caused him to become a vegetarian as a teen. Many others involve animal cruelty laws that were then being debated and met with resistance even though they proposed, as Scully writes, to extend “the smallest of mercies to the humblest of creatures.”

Scully has the soul of a poet, and it comes across in devastating prose in which he takes on the harvesting of elephants, trophy hunting, seal clubbing and other atrocities, and the derision and contempt often given animal-rights activists trying to make a point in ways as simple as offering water to a pig headed for slaughter. He also includes reviews he has written of other animal-centric books, such as The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by Edward O. Wilson and The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims.

While Scully is more eloquent, and Nussbaum more scholarly, both continue to build out the case against factory farming. Neither is an easy read, however; they are not meant to be enjoyed so much as to be studied. Fear Factories: A; Justice for Animals: B-

Stay in the loop!

Get FREE weekly briefs on local food, music,

arts, and more across southern New Hampshire!