The Upswing

The Upswing, by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon & Schuster, 350 pages)

Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, promised his wife in 2015 that he was done writing books. (He had 12, including the highly regarded Bowling Alone, which examined the collapse of community within the U.S.)

Then, “tinkering with several obscure datasets — [his] favorite pastime,” Putnam happened upon information that made him change his mind. The information was the startling resemblance of the United States late in the 19th century to what the nation is grappling with today.

It was all there: “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed — all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.”

So Putnam dug into the economics, politics, society and culture of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age” and tracked how Americans climbed out of their societal morass. It took six decades, but from a low point at the turn of the century, the nation lugged itself to a high point of greater economic equality and a stronger social fabric between the 1960s and 1970s.

America did this, write Putnam and his co-author Shaylyn Romney Garrett, while transforming from an “I” society to a “We” society, becoming the sort of people who would cheer when JFK said we shouldn’t ask what our country could do for us.

But then, having reached this lofty peak, we promptly trudged back down down to the “I” pit. If you put this on a graph, you find an inverted U, something akin to Mount Crumpit, sans the Grinch. The good news, according to Putnam and Garrett, is that our forebears left us a map of how to get out of the problems that now dog us, if we only pay attention to their upswing and how it came about.

To take a measure of a society’s emphasis on individual over community, the authors explore a range of research to include the obvious (use of pronouns in publications) to the strange (how popular baby names reflect individualistic behavior). They then explore potential causes — from prosperity to globalization — and potential villains in the narratives. (Kids, you’re off the hook. “Neither Millennials nor Twitter and Facebook can possibly be blamed for the I-we-I curve,” Putnam and Garrett write.)

For people not eager to don the political label “progressive,” the relentless communitarianism that Putnam and Garrett promote may give pause, as well as their soft swipes at Randian (both Ayn and Paul) individualism. But conservative hearts will gladden at their prescription for a moral awakening, although the authors don’t think that such an awakening necessarily needs God, but revival of civil responsibility. Engineering a 21st-century upswing will involve “immense collaboration” of resources to re-educate the population in what we owe to each other, and a “groundswell of agitation” to force Progressive-era-like change.

They sound a note of caution: This is not an overnight revolution, and the upswing must leave no one out, but instead “appeal to the full range of American values.”

“Progressive reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise — to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protections of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.”

Putnam has said he wrote The Upswing not to make money but to effect change that he can see in his lifetime. He is 79, so he must be convinced that the strategies he and Garrett put forth here work. The pair make a compelling case that America in 1890 was much like it is in 2020 (sans a pandemic); less so that Americans are willing to accept their prescription. It is a scholarly book that will most appeal to policymakers, but accessible to anyone puzzling until their puzzler is sore over how to descend Mount Crumpit.

At the very least it’s an argument for not naming your kid something weird, so future sociologists won’t blame you when the country looks like a Dumpster fire. B

BOOK NOTES
It sounds like the most self-indulgent genre ever, but books on writing — that is, books written for writers by other writers — can be fascinating, even for people who write nothing more than posts on social media. The point is that if you’ve reached the professional point at which a publisher deems you worthy of musing on the craft of writing, you are probably astonishingly good at it.
Case in point: Claire Messud’s new “autobiography in essays,” which is intriguingly titled Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons I Write (W.W. Norton, 336 pages). An acclaimed novelist who now lives in Massachusetts, Messud writes gorgeously of her childhood in the sort of rich prose you’d like to bathe in. A sample from her opening chapter, on being asked to explain to a Toronto Sunday school class what it was like to live in Australia:
“I remember the scarlet fury of my cheeks, the twitching misery of that hour, to which I responded with sullenness and a furrowing of the brow, while my sister gamely chatted and revealed snippets of our private, our secret, other life as if it were less real, or of the same reality, as the dingy brick and gray linoleum and folding chairs around us, of the same reality as the brittle, bosomy instructor or the indistinguishable Christian children who were her charges.”
Definitely worth a look.
Other authors who have brilliantly wed life stories with advice and inspiration on the craft of writing include Deborah Levy, whose eloquent The Cost of Living came out in paperback last year (Bloomsbury Publishing, 144 pages) and the Anne Lamott classic Bird by Bird, published in paperback in 1995 (Anchor, 256 pages) but still an Amazon bestseller.
Also check out C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, thoughts on writing culled from Lewis’s letters, by Corey Latta (Wipf and Stock, 250 pages).
But for just a fun, motivational read about how to collect your thoughts into an essay, screenplay or book, there’s nothing better than Vermont writing coach Joni B. Cole’s Good Naked (University Press of New England, 208 pages). Mercifully, for a month in which we learned way too much about Jeffrey Toobin and Rudy Guliani, there’s a subtitle: Write More, Write Better and Be Happier.

Cuyahoga, by Pete Beatty

Cuyahoga, by Pete Beatty (Scribner, 262 pages)

You may know the Cuyahoga to be a river in northeast Ohio. If it’s still not ringing a bell, maybe you remember a river that used to catch on fire in Ohio with alarming regularity. That would be the Cuyahoga.

It’s no Merrimack, but it makes for a good book, even if you care nothing about Ohio. But be aware, Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga is the sort of novel often described as “inventive,” which is a euphemism for “for at least the first 25 pages, you’ll have no idea what is going on.” Sometimes even after that, you’ll be scratching your head.

Big Son and Medium Son are brothers who’ve been adopted and live in a newly settled portion of Ohio in 1837. They’ve grown up in the care of a couple who had one other adopted child — Cloe — and seven children of their own.

Like many little brothers, Medium Son, who goes by Meed, worships his elder brother, whose Daniel Boone-like feats include domesticating Lake Erie, bear wrestling, hunting 100 rabbits in one day and felling 10,000 trees in two days and one night. At least that’s according to Meed, who not only appears to be an unreliable narrator but is poorly acquainted with grammar and spelling. The language is rough-hewn, exactly how you might expect a modestly educated pioneer kid to talk.

To get us all acquainted, Meed tells several tall tales, creation stories about Ohio and the role his brother played in settling it. “There is nothing like the making of a place,” Meed says. “To bust up creation. To write your name in the very earth. My brother was a professor of such work.”

This was necessary, because Nature, in 19th-century Ohio, was resistant to settlement. “I imagine you are customed to meek and mild trees that do not want correcting. This is a story of the west so it has got western trees. You do not know the manner of our trees,” Meed says, explaining how the trees fought back: “Firewood piles took to disappearing. … Branches were seen to bust into windows and doors and carry off animals and merchandise.”

Similarly, Big Son’s help was required in taming furious Lake Erie, which, according to Meed, was unleashing wild winds on the hapless populace. The solution involved a visit to the underworld where Satan presented as a middle-aged man “unshaved and tired around the eyes” who served “good storebought coffee.”

“Ever since Erie does not misbehave too much — only frowns and dreams of someday drowning us.”

From these introductory stories, Meed moves on to the heart of the story, which is of the two brothers’ love for their adopted sister, Cloe Inches, who has “cheeks perpetually blushed, like the blood inside knew a private joke” yet is more competent and accomplished than either brother.

Chloe is not one to become betrothed to young men with no means to support her, and as the brothers sleep on beds of straw in their adoptive parents’ barn, and Big Son basically exists on adoration, employment must be had. So Big takes to looking for jobs, which ultimately leads him to the wealthy man who is building, at his own expense, a bridge over the Cuyahoga, connecting Ohio City and Cleveland, whether they want to be connected or not. Hilarity ensues. As do disaster and heartache.

Although Cuyahoga has a strong sense of time and place, Beatty intends it to be a universal tale. “Every age and place has got its Big Sons,” he writes “Folks who hang the sky that we shelter under. Stand up the timbers of a place.”

Every place has also got its Meeds, its Cloes and its Mrs. Tabithas, the brothers’ adoptive mom. “Her mothering were almost ferocious. Food were an example. She would get a corncake in your mouth as soon as you come within her reach. Often you did not even mark her approach with the corncake — she struck like a panther.”

It is these comical portraits that ultimately endear Cuyahoga to the reader, as well as its quiet wisdom. “You cannot rely on a day entirely but you know the sun will come up,” Meed says, observing how birds are unpredictable but still have patterns in their “fool behavior.” The novel, too, is unpredictable, but satisfying for the mulish few who will stick with it to the end. A

BOOK NOTES
For all its other dubious gifts, 2020 has not offered much in the way of books by celebrities, and by that I mean that pop singer and soap actor Rick Springfield did not publish a new novel. Also, when I search for “memoirs by celebrities,” the returns give me Glennon Doyle’s Untamed.

Doyle is not a celebrity in the way that most people think of celebrities. What modest celebrity she has derives from her writing, and I was not searching for “books by authors.”

But Mindy Kaling, formerly of The Office, does qualify as a bona fide celebrity, and her chops as a comic have translated nicely to the printed page. Her third essay collection, however, is strangely presented: Nothing Like I Imagined (Except for Sometimes) comprises six comedic essays, all sold separately on Amazon for $1.99 each, under “Amazon Original Stories.” (They’re free for Prime members.)

Here are the all-important opening lines from the first essay, “Kind of Hindu,” as well as a few other celebrity offerings from this year. Some, I warn you, are vastly less promising, so I have taken the liberty of grading the opening lines, based on how much they induce me to read more.

Nothing Like I Imagined (Kind of Hindu) by Mindy Kaling: “Sometimes when I meet people who have seen The Office, they assume that, like Kelly Kapoor, I am only involved in my Indian heritage to the degree that it is fun and convenient. This assumption is pretty much correct. Culturally and religiously, I live my life like a secular American except when I’m out with friends at an Indian restaurant and I feel uniquely qualified to order our meal.” A

The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by Mariah Carey (Andy Cohen Books, 368 pages): “My intention was to keep her safe, but perhaps I have only succeeded in keeping her prisoner.” A

Open Book by Jessica Simpson (Dey Street Books, 416 pages): “The kids are asleep, and my husband is reading in the other room. So it’s just you and me.” B

More Myself by Alicia Keys with Michelle Burford (Flatiron, 272 pages): “I am seven. My mom and I are side by side in the back seat of a yellow taxi, making our way up Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan on a dead-cold day in December. We hardly ever take cabs.” B

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (Crown, 336 pages): “I wasn’t able to speak until I was almost four years old. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently that’s insane.” C

Me and Sister Bobbie, by Willie Nelson with Bobbie Nelson (Random House, 288 pages): “Nearly nine decades. A long lifetime. Hard to believe that it was sixty years ago I wrote a song called ‘Funny How Time Slips Away.’” C

What Can I Do?, by Jane Fonda (Penguin, 252 pages): “During Labor Day weekend in 2019, I was in Big Sur with my pals Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette. I have a history with Big Sur dating back to 1961, when I first ventured there myself in search of Henry Miller.” F

Let Love Rule, by Lenny Kravtiz with David Ritz (Henry Holt and Co., 272 pages): “I can’t breathe. Beneath the ground, the wooden casket I am trapped in is being lowered deeper and deeper into the cold, dark earth.” A

Also, just so you know, I wasn’t kidding about Rick Springfield. His novel Magnificent Vibration, released in 2014 (Touchstone, 288 pages), was shockingly fun.

Want, by Lynn Steger Strong

Want, by Lynn Steger Strong (Henry Holt & Co., 209 pages)

Books, says the protagonist in Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want, offer “quiet, secret temporary safety,” which is the best argument for reading one, or 10, this month. Whether you’ll want to read this one is dependent on your capacity for patience. It’s a slow burn of a story, the word “plodding” comes to mind more than once, but it’s a thoughtful meditation on American excesses and desires.

Elizabeth is, in many ways, a thoroughly modern Lizzie. A child of affluence in the 1980s, she has arrived at age 34 with a Ph.D., a husband, two children (girls, 2 and 4) and a teaching job she cares about intermittently. But she is unable to enjoy any of this because of debt that has driven the couple to bankruptcy and troubled relationships with her parents and former best friend.

The debt began with $30,000 owed to a hospital for a C-section, then grew to include emergency dental work, household expenses and $100,000 in student loans. “My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us,” Elizabeth muses. That could be one reason that she punishes it, getting up before dawn every morning for double-digit runs on icy streets in Manhattan.

Strangely, it is 2017 but Elizabeth somehow dwells in a world that is unmolested by the Trump presidency or anything political. (There’s that “quiet, secret temporary safety” perhaps.)

But otherwise, the book is, in many ways, a rumination on American culture, although it’s unclear what part of it, if any, the author seeks to indict. Elizabeth and her husband were “eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by our whiteness and the place we were raised in … we were both brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.”

After the Great Recession, they floundered psychologically: “We had principles or something, made up almost wholly out of things we knew we didn’t want to be or have a part in more than in any concrete plans for what we’d be instead. … We were galvanized in this way, smug and stupid. It felt athletic and exciting, this misguided, blind self-righteousness.” She wanted a life that revolved around books; he, despite the $100,000 in student loans, decides he prefers working with his hands, and so leaves finance to build custom furniture.

Elizabeth moves numbly through her days, leaving work early occasionally to wander through a museum or read in a coffee shop. She occasionally checks Twitter and Facebook, largely to stalk her former best friend, Sasha, who has vanished from her life, for reasons that are slowly unspooled. When her husband, the primary caregiver of their daughters, is away, she speaks of “watching” her children, as if she is a detached babysitter.

Meanwhile there are the sundry indignities of wheeling through a moneyed world with $72 in their checking account. One day, for example, the girls had a birthday party to attend, so Elizabeth wraps two books her daughters don’t like (plus “a toy they haven’t played with much”) in printer paper she has the children decorate. The gift is stapled shut because they are out of tape. (The 4-year-old, of course, announces as soon as they arrive, “My mom didn’t have time to get a gift so she made us wrap up our own toys.”)

Equally important to the story is Elizabeth’s fraught relationship with her mother, “the only person in the world who can say my name and make it mean.” Elizabeth has all sorts of psychological scars from her childhood, yet her parents — both attorneys — are blind to their inadvertent cruelties and genuinely don’t comprehend why their relationship is broken.

In one searing scene the parents insist that Elizabeth watch a video of her cavorting happily with family members as a child and demand that she explain why she is so angry with them. “Is this the childhood that made you do such awful things to us?” her father demands.

We are meant, of course, to side with Elizabeth, who gathers her children and leaves. But this is a novel of nuance, and Elizabeth is not always entirely likeable herself; her ennui is infectious. Maybe the parents had a point. They have wants, too, after all.

At the birthday party, Elizabeth listens as the other moms talk about the health spas where they go for self-care; she is not resentful, but her desire, and her inability to have these things, is palpable. But there are people who want the things she has; for example, the wife of her husband’s associate who has been trying for two years to have a child. “I see her want in the way her eyes dip closer to her nose; I smell it, desperate and sour, on her breath and her lips,” Elizabeth observes.

We all have currency of some kind, but not all currency involves money. For some it’s family, for others health. This is a rich, mineable theme. Want nibbles around the edges of what it could be but ultimately suffers from the narrator’s own lethargy and an ending of dubious resolution.
B

BOOK NOTES
When I was a kid, the next best thing to Halloween was checking out books about Halloween at the school library. There couldn’t have been that many, but there were always histories of holidays, and sometimes I would score a book on costumes or holiday parties that would have Halloween chapters. October is a long month, even longer when you’re in third or fourth grade; reading about Halloween helped me hang on until the 31st finally arrived.
Then I grew up, and … nothing.
I can’t remember reading anything about Halloween in ages. This seems strange, given that I own two dozen Christmas-themed books. So I set out to find some Halloween books for adults — and by that I mean books specifically about the celebration of Halloween and its assorted characters, not just books that are spooky. For that, all you need is Stephen King.
There aren’t a lot. Even though adults have effectively taken over Halloween, most Halloween books are for kids. But here are a few witchy titles I found for grown-ups:
Ghostland, An American History in Haunted Places, by Colin Dickey (Penguin, 336 pages)
The History and Haunting of Salem by Rebecca Pittman (Wonderland Productions, 647 pages)
For people who loved the film Halloween, there’s a book about the making of it: Taking Shape, Developing Halloween from Script to Screen, by Dustin McNeill and Travis Mullins (Harker Press, 378 pages).
Roald Dahl compiled an anthology of ghost stories — who knew? Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 235 pages.)
This book makes me tired just reading about it, but for the creative cooks among us: Tricky Treats, Halloween Delights for Appetizers, Snacks, Dinner and Dessert, by Vincent Amiel (Skyhorse, 96 pages).
More promising: The Spell Book for New Witches, Essential Spells to Change Your Life by Ambrosia Hawthorn (Rockridge Press, 244 pages). Don’t laugh; she’s the editor of Witchology magazine and says she has been a practicing witch for 15 years.
For the thirsty: WitchCraft Cocktails: 70 Seasonal Drinks Infused with Magic and Ritual by Julia Halina Hadas (Adams Media, 224 pages).
Finally, for those of you who are obsessed with Walt Disney, there is Vault of Walt 9: Halloween Edition by Jim Korkis (Theme Park Press, 256 pages), released this month. This is not a joke. Theme Park Press exclusively publishes books about Disney parks, and Korkis found enough anecdotes about Walt Disney, the man and his theme park to fill a paperback book. (Even more incredible, he’s written 28 other books, all about Disney, including Vault of Walt, Christmas Edition.)
And of course there are plenty of Halloween coloring books for adults, something I would normally grumble about, but 2020 being what it is … sure, bring out the orange and black crayons.

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety, by Jen Lancaster (Little A, 239 pages)

Jen Lancaster, self-described reforming neurotic, is a little anxious these days. Specifically, she is “a bundle of nerves, swaddled in a blanket of panic.”

You might find this surprising, given that she is a wildly successful author (15 previous books) with TSA PreCheck and enough disposable income and time to routinely buy kale salad at a Whole Foods two towns away. Or maybe all that explains why she is so anxious.

Regardless, the author of Such a Pretty Fat and Bitter is the New Black is here to help the rest of us dissolve our pre-election nerves and be more like her father, a man so unaffected by encroaching disaster that he calmly kept reading the sports pages in the middle of a flight in which the plane lost an engine and the oxygen bags descended. (Which recalls a book by another Jen — Jen Sincero of You are a Badass fame.)

Lancaster didn’t learn about her father’s nearly catastrophic fight until decades later, in part because he’s not the sort of man to obsessively worry about things that might happen (“We had my mother for that,” she says), and in part because he didn’t live in age in which people had outsized reactions to virtually everything. By almost every measure, the world is a safer place than it’s ever been for large swaths of people. “So … why the hell does it feel like the ends of days?” Lancaster asks. “Why does it seem like it’s about to rain locusts? Why am I cuffing my pants for the coming rivers of blood?”

There is a short answer, of course: social media. But that doesn’t make for a book. And so Lancaster dusts off the late Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” to serve as a sort of intellectual scaffolding on which to hang a collection of comical riffs about the state of American culture today.

Maslow, you may recall from high school, believed that human beings have to fulfill their most elemental needs, such as shelter and safety, before advancing to first-world accomplishments like self-esteem and self-actualization. In other words, you can’t worry about safety and security if you’re starving and cold; you can’t worry about love and accomplishment until you are safe. So, yes, this kind of fits into a conversation about anxiety. And it’s useful for dividing the book into five parts. But the structure seems a bit contrived and distracts from Lancaster’s comic gifts. We are force-fed Maslow when all we really want is vintage Jen, master of the bon mot.

After establishing her neurotic credentials (she says she is “actively afraid of bread”), Lancaster embarks on a tour of America the anxious, beginning with our obsession with having ethically grown, nutritionally complete and Instagram-worthy cuisine. Her grandparents, Italian immigrants, would scoff. They ate “whatever washed up on the shore in Italy” and later, “once they settled in Boston, their culinary repertoire expanded to include weeds they picked in the yard and the small animals they trapped in their attic.”

On the subject of clothes, another of Maslow’s first-tier needs, she brings us to an improv class she took at Chicago’s famous Second City comedy school, where she was told that clothes are a nonverbal announcement of identity. “My skirted leggings, tunic sweater, and matching scarf announced ‘I had a 20 percent off coupon at the Eileen Fisher outlet.’”

And so she goes, spinning through her own world and current events with a caustic tongue and just enough winsome deprecation to soften the edges.

One of her stories is one she’s told before, in another, shorter version in HuffPost eight years ago.

She was waiting in line for that kale salad at Whole Foods when a mother and child “cut in front of me with such grace and sense of purpose that I felt compelled to apologize for having arrived first.”

The girl, Margot, was about 6 and was wearing $300 jeans and carrying a Burberry purse. The mother was wearing jodhpurs and riding boots, “coated with a thin sheen of dust after she’d doubtless whiled away the day jumping rails in an indoor arena.” The child then proceeded to whisper questions that the mother relayed to the chef as if she was interpreting for a queen … about the quality of the sushi. Lancaster tells the story not with a keyboard, but a machete, and it is just perfect.

Less perfect are her many entreaties for us to live better, to reduce our paralyzing anxiety via platitude. Worst offense: “If your closet’s too overloaded to make choices, be ruthless. Purge and donate.” (May I suggest: if your editor lets you publish sentences like this when you’re a brilliant cultural critic, be ruthless. Find another.)

Toward the end, Lancaster pivots to an unexpected place: her fraught relationship with her mother, which has resulted in her having no contact with either parent. To use one of Lancaster’s own favorite terms, “spoiler alert” — at one point her mother threatened to sue her for libel. It is an unexpected airing of dirty laundry that, like David Sedaris writing about his sister’s suicide, is shocking and seems out of place, even as she explains, “While I was growing up, my mother’s behavior was so mercurial, I never knew what to expect, thus setting me on a course for a lifetime of anxiety.”

So, maybe it isn’t social media to blame after all. Maybe it’s our mothers.

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety is the perfect title for 2020, just not the perfect book. But it’s still a much better investment of your time than two hours on Twitter or another presidential debate. B

BOOK NOTES
Much is made of Amazon’s impact on bookstores, less of the company’s impact on publishing itself. But of course, Jeff Bezos would eventually get into publishing; he was married to a novelist, after all, and before it sold everything, Amazon sold only books.

Still, it’s a little surprising to learn that Amazon has been in publishing for more than a decade, not self-publishing as in CreateSpace or BookBaby, but publishing to compete with legacy players like Hatchette or HarperCollins. And it landed a big name in Jen Lancaster (United States of Anxiety, reviewed above.)
Lancaster’s new book, curiously billed as “observational comedy,” is published by Little A, one of 16 imprints that Amazon has established since starting a publishing arm in 2009. Its other imprints include Montlake, Thomas & Mercer, Lake Union, 47North and Grand Harbor Press.

Even more surprising, so far, the reach of Amazon Publishing seems relatively modest, at least compared to its outsized influence in so many other parts of American life. On its website, the company touts a handful of awards and says it has helped 36 authors reach more than one million readers. Note the word “readers.” It doesn’t say 36 authors sold more than 1 million books. One reviewer of Lancaster’s book on Amazon, that is marked a “verified purchase,” said she’d read it because she accidentally downloaded it as a free book she got through her Prime membership.

All this is to say, Amazon may be the largest seller of books in the U.S., but it’s clearly not decimating legacy publishers as it did bookstores. Not yet, anyway. But its website does one thing pretty cool: Each imprint, when listing current books, credits the title’s agent, agency and editor. For example, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter (you know you want to read this) was sold by David Patterson of the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency and its editor was Vivian Lee (334 pages, Little A). That’s wonky publishing tea that is usually reserved for subscribers to Publishers Weekly, but it’s nice to see credit given, since so many people besides the author are responsible for bringing us books.

The biggest Amazon Publishing successes so far, at least when it comes to literary prizes, appear to be a collection of stories, Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal (210 pages, Little A), and the children’s book You Are (Not) Small by Ann Kang and illustrator Christopher Weyant (32 pages, Two Lions).

Billion Dollar Burger

Billion Dollar Burger, by Chase Purdy (Portfolio/Penguin, 236 pages)

You don’t have to be vegan, or an animal-rights zealot, to be deeply uncomfortable about what is required to keep the meat shelves at your local supermarket stocked with ground beef and pork tenderloins.

In about the time it took to read the previous paragraph, about 10,000 animals in the U.S. were slaughtered to meet the insatiable demands of a population that is already dangerously obese. (Statistic via the website Animalclock.org, which tracks slaughter numbers in the U.S.) Obscenely, many of the animals died so their flesh could be thrown away; an estimated one-quarter of meat produced is discarded.

Marry atrocity and capitalism, and you get cell-cultured burgers. Or you would get them, if the companies racing to produce lab-grown meat could figure out how to produce them economically. Quartz reporter Chase Purdy has been following the companies’ quest for two years and brings a skeptical eye to how the products will be received on America’s dinner tables, if they ever get to America’s dinner tables. Or he does so for part of the book, anyway. He also seems a fanboy of Josh Tetrick, cofounder of the cell-cultured meat venture JUST, one of nine that Purdy has studied.

First, a primer: Cell-cultured meat (which has also been dubbed Frankenmeat) is meat grown from animal cells, not the pseudo-meat that is plant based, such as Burger King’s Impossible Burger.

Entrepreneurs like Tetrick envision a future barbecue in which people can honestly say “no animals were harmed” because the “donor cells” are taken from living animals, then grown in a lab into something called “clean meat.” The few people who have eaten it, to include Purdy, say that it’s decent and point out that everything we eat is a collection of cells. Plus, people who protest that it’s unnatural are forgetting what’s already on supermarket shelves.

“Just look at margarine, frozen pizza, Big Macs and deli meats; potato chips, soda, and every other now ubiquitous food product that is packaged for our convenience and enveloped in a carnival of sugar, salt, fats, and a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients. They are objectively bad for us,” Purdy writes. And they are unnatural.

More people have gone into space than have eaten clean meat, a JUST worker tells Purdy as he sits down to sample a pate made of cell-cultured duck at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. He later goes on to eat chicken tenders at Memphis Meats and thin-sliced steak at Aleph Farms, and to to interview a range of people with a dog in this fight, to include Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute and Peter Singer, the renowned philosopher and champion of animal rights.

All downplay the “unnatural” factor, which is a huge hurdle the industry faces in a time in which consumers are newly enthralled with farm-to-table restaurants and humanely produced meat and eggs. Singer said, “I don’t think nature is in any way a gold standard.” Similarly, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, a former Nestle executive, told him, “The reason why Homo sapiens have become what we are is because we learned to overcome nature.”

And even the “real” meat we see in supermarkets is divorced from its origin, pounded as it is into unrecognizable forms, and whatever else is done to it before we buy it. Purdy’s grandmother, who lives in Kentucky, told him that she has noticed that the smell of ground beef has changed over the years. “It smells like chemicals,” she said. She’s started buying bison instead.

Some people who are vegans because of animal suffering have said they would consider eating meat again when cell-cultured meat can be mass produced. Don’t look for it in the bins at Walmart anytime soon, though. The billion-dollar burger isn’t hyperbole. When one lab-grown burger was unveiled in London in 2013, it was said that the five-ounce patty cost $330,000 to produce, Purdy wrote. That year, cell-cultured meat amounted to $1.2 million a pound. By last year, it had dropped to a mere $1,000 a pound. In other words, one JUST chicken nugget cost $50.

In writing Billion Dollar Burger, Purdy is not the first to take on the topic. Paul Shapiro, co-founder of The Better Meat Co., wrote Clean Meat two years ago, and Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich addressed the subject that same year in Clean Protein.

Purdy’s take is a little more updated, albeit rather thin. Billion Dollar Burger has the feel of a Quartz article on steroids; one gets the sense that it took every line in Purdy’s notebooks to expand the manuscript to book length. And given his apparent regard for Tetrick, and his concern about factory farming and its effect on climate change, he is not an impartial observer. Nor does he delve deeply into the ethical issues of factory farming and cell-cultured meat; his style is observation and musing. As such, Billion Dollar Burger is an easy read on a complex subject and will likely need updating in a year. B-

Book notes
Now that the Emmys are over, we can move on to the awards that really matter: book awards.

Two big ones are coming up: the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, both announced in November.

If you’re like me and always bewildered that some books deemed the best of the year escaped your radar screen, there’s still time. The finalists for the National Book Award will be announced Oct. 6, giving you six weeks to read them before the awards ceremony Nov. 18.

The short list for the Booker Prize is out, and it includes three American authors: Diane Cook, Brandon Taylor and Maaza Mengiste. A fourth, Douglas Stuart, is a citizen of both Scotland and America. (A widely expected nomination for Anne Tyler for Redhead by the Side of the Road, given a B+ here, did not materialize.)

The Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, used to be given exclusively to an author writing in English from the U.K. The Man Booker Foundation expanded its reach in 2014, allowing writers of any nationality to be included, so long as the books are written in English and published in the U.K. There has been much howling and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters over this.

Regardless, the diligent reader can read one nominated book each week and be finished in time to complain about the winner, which will be announced Nov. 17. Here they are:
The New Wilderness, Diane Cook (Harper, 416 pages)
This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber, 304 pages)
Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi (The Overlook Press, 240 pages)
The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (W.W. Norton, 448 pages)
Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart (Grove Press, 448 pages)
Real Life, Brandon Taylor (Riverhead, 336 pages)
But while making your pick, don’t assume that just one will win. Last year the Bookman judges threw a curveball, choosing two winners: Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

Featured photo: Billion Dollar Burger, by Chase Purdy

The Dynasty

The Dynasty, by Jeff Benedict (Avid Reader Press, 528 pages)

To hell with Tom Brady. The real GOAT is Robert Kraft. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from The Dynasty, Jeff Benedict’s exhaustive examination of the Kraft-Belichick-Brady era. There is nothing more to be written, at least not about things that happened in Foxborough before the Dumpster fire that is 2020.

I came to the book as a skeptic, wondering if the world really needed another 500 pages about the Patriots, even by as accomplished a writer as Benedict, whose 2018 biography of Tiger Woods was achingly good.

But yes, of course we did.

Tiger Woods was a compelling portrait of a complicated figure (we gave it an A-) and read like an insider account of the famed golfer’s life even though Benedict and his co-author Armen Keteyian were unable to interview the principals of the story: Woods, his mother and his former wife, and his late father.

In The Dynasty, however, Benedict had access to many of his subjects, to include Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Roger Goodell, and Brady’s predecessor, Drew Bledsoe. Notably absent from the acknowledgements is Belichick, but Benedict, as it turned out, didn’t need no gruff, reticent Belichick. He began work on the book two years before Brady obscenely said “I’m not going anywhere” in a Super Bowl commercial, and then a month later, announced that he was going somewhere after all. (Not that I’m bitter.)

It turned out to be exquisite timing for an explain-all book, which poignantly concludes with Brady’s socially distanced visit to Kraft’s home in which he tells the Patriots owner he’s leaving, and then makes the call to Belichick, with Kraft standing over him like a parent insistent that a child call the grandparent to say thank you for the birthday gift.

That scene, while no doubt fundamentally true, raises my only complaint about this sort of book, which attempts to wed the narrative grace of a novel with the rude reality of events long since past. That said, Benedict’s narrative, ably blended with sportswriter-styled quotes from his myriad sources, carries the reader comfortably through 20 years of dynasty building and earlier than that, to the roots of Robert Kraft’s obsession with the team that was then called the Boston Patriots.

In fact, this book could have honestly borne the title Robert Kraft, as it is an ode to the businessman who used to take his young sons to see the Boston Patriots play, over his wife’s objections. (“The games are on Sunday. The boys have to go to Hebrew school on Sunday.”) Kraft would dutifully deliver his sons to Hebrew school, but handwrite notes to the teachers each week, asking that they be dismissed for a “family commitment.” Then he’d pick them up in a dark green Porsche (his paper-production business already doing well by then), with a brown paper bag full of sub sandwiches: “two corned beef and two roast beef with mustard.” Excellent parenting, that, and also excellent attention to detail, the hallmark of Benedict writing.

He goes on to walk us, courtside, through Kraft’s astonishing quest to acquire the team, which was not a snap decision or mere privilege of wealth, but an obsessive, strategic hunt that wasn’t so much a plan but a scheme. The story of how he acquired rights to the parking lots and to the stadium, putting the team under his control when he didn’t own the team, is fascinating, as is his patience. Pats fans are now accustomed to seeing Kraft and son Jonathan sitting in the owners’ box at Gillette, looking like models for GQ, but it’s doubtful that many understand what it took for them to get there.

Benedict clearly has enormous respect for the Krafts and the organization they built, but he doesn’t shy away from the generous supply of controversies that have accumulated over the years, from the locker-room scandal involving Boston Herald writer Lisa Olson in 1990, to Robert Kraft’s arrest for soliciting prostitution in 2019. (A court recently ruled that the prosecution’s video was inadmissible as evidence, so this will likely go away.) That said, he doesn’t dwell on it. The charges are mentioned in a seven-page epilogue in which Benedict neatly summarizes the events of the past year. The book’s real conclusion is the celebration after the Patriots trounced the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Brady, Belichick and Goodell all stood on the stage. “When they met in 2000, Belichick was a young father and Brady was fresh out of college. Now Belichick was a grandfather and Brady was a middle-aged dad. The sports world had watched them grow old together through the prism of football. ‘We’re still here,’ Belichick told Jim Nantz,” Benedict writes.

Well, two of them still are. (Not that I’m bitter.) As a Boston sportscaster wisely said earlier this year after Brady signed with the Bucs, “If it doesn’t end badly, it doesn’t end.” In spring it looked as “the dynasty” was over, and Benedict writes with a sense of finality. In fact, the dynasty could thunder on without Brady, depending on how Cam Newton performs. Regardless, The Dynasty will stand as the definitive account of an extraordinary era, and it’s a pleasure to read. A

BOOK NOTES
Amid the mounds of words that will be written about Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week, those most worthy of our time are the words written by the late Supreme Court justice herself.
My Own Words, released in 2016, is a compilation of writing and speeches by Ginsburg, assembled by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages; also paperback released in 2018).
It’s a whimsical selection including an editorial Ginsburg wrote for her high school newspaper and a letter to the editor on the subject of wiretapping, published in the Cornell Daily Sun, as well as her Rose Garden acceptance speech and her dissenting opinions. For other good RBG titles, see supremecourtgifts.org, run by the Supreme Court Historical Society.
For those weary of politics, blessedly, there are sports — all of them, concurrently: baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf. For those listless moments between games, publishing has us covered with these titles:
Three-Ring Circus by Jeff Pearlman, out this week, is a look at another dynasty, the L.A. Lakers from 1996 to 2004, with emphasis on the fight club that was Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with Phil Jackson as the man in the middle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pages).
Pass It On by Deshaun Watson appears to be an inspirational book from the Houston Texans quarterback (its subtitle: Work Hard, Serve Others, Repeat) because, of course, nothing qualifies a person to write books as does being an NFL quarterback. Cue The TB12 Method. (Thomas Nelson, 224 pages.)
The Captain is a new memoir from former Mets player Dave Wright (Dutton, 368 pages).
New in paperback for those of you who aren’t bitter: 12: Tom Brady and His Battle for Redemption by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge. This was originally published in hardcover in 2018 but has been updated with recent events for the paperback release (Back Bay Books, 352 pages).
Tales from the Seattle Seahawks Sideline by Steve Raible and Mike Sando — no, never mind. That one hurts.

Featured photo: The Dynasty by Jeff Benedict

Here She Is

Here She Is, by Hilary Levey Friedman (Beacon Press, 225 pages)

Mark Zuckerberg, as it turns out, wasn’t the first entrepreneur to gather pictures of women and ask people to rate them. That distinction belongs to P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century showman.

In 1854, not long after he started his National Poultry Show, Barnum proposed a contest that would judge America’s “Handsomest Lady.” That didn’t get much traction, so the next year he launched the “American Gallery of Female Beauty,” a collection of daguerreotypes (the first, crude forms of photographs) that he believed would show that “specimens of American beauty will compare favorably with any that the Old World can produce.” The pictures would be displayed at Barnum’s New York museum and visitors would vote to decide who was the most beautiful.

Alas, we will never know the winner, since the images were destroyed by a fire that viewers of the movie The Greatest Showman will remember. But as Hilary Levey Friedman writes in Here She Is, a history of the Miss America Pageant, Barnum had a sizable hand in what would evolve to be pageant culture in America (if not “The Facebook”).

Friedman, a sociologist at Brown University, comes naturally to the topic, having grown up steeped in pageant culture. Her mother, Pamela Eldred, was Miss America in 1970, and shelves in their home contained not just books but crowns. She remembers reading books in the audience as a child while her mother was emceeing pageants or judging them. Friedman, however, was not a contestant; she writes frankly of not being “pageant material.”

“Like most nine-year-olds in the 1980s, I was in desperate need of orthodontia and perhaps some better corrective eyewear. But I would have been able to overcome these (temporary) impediments had I been physically beautiful — which I am not.”

Still, she says “sequins and rhinestones were in my DNA” and she loved pageantry, and especially the Miss America Pageant, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. Rather than being a wholesale denigration of women, beauty pageants, she argues “trace the arc of feminism.” It’s easy to heap criticism upon pageants and the women and girls who compete in them. “Yet, winning means something,” Friedman says. “Many dismiss beauty pageant contestants, until someone they know wins.”

Few, of course, do. Just 92 women and girls have been Miss America (the first two winners were 16); it is said that parents are more likely to have a son win the Super Bowl than to have a daughter become Miss America. But pageants are intimately entwined with American history in the past 100 years, in surprising ways.

Take the “Miss Whatever” sash, for example. Friedman explains that sashes were borrowed from parades advocating for women’s suffrage, which in turn borrowed them from the military. They may seem silly today, but they have noble origins. And “Miss America” itself is a much more respectable title than some of the earliest pageants; be grateful we no longer have an International Pageant of Pulchritude or baby parades, which later gave way to a “Juvenile Review,” judging of specimens of children over the age of 5. In 1932 the Pennsylvania State Board of Health had to condemn this “deplorable exploitation of childhood,” but baby pageants and parades continued in force until a polio outbreak in 1950 slowed them down.

You can’t talk about child pageants without thinking of JonBenet Ramsey, the Colorado child found murdered in her basement in 1996 just weeks after having been crowned “Little Miss Christmas.” Although child pageants had existed throughout the century, it was this child’s death that made the nation horrified by them. JonBenet became a “reverse ambassador” for child beauty pageants (even though she herself had just participated in 10 pageants). Though an admitted fan of pageants in general, Friedman also describes herself a third-wave feminist, and she is sober in her assessments, writing, “I have found, like most parents, child beauty pageant moms seem to have the best intentions for their daughters’ long-term success in life. But those intentions come with a high price tag and lasting implications.”

Friedman also casts a skeptical eye on the promotion of pageants as launching pads for professional success. While it’s true that the Miss America organization has been the largest provider of scholarship money for young women since the 1940s, the winners have not (yet) become neurosurgeons, jet pilots, investigative journalists, coders and CEOs, as promotional material for the 2020 pageant (canceled, of course) imply. “No recent Miss America winners have done any of those things professionally,” Friedman writes, adding that “this brings into stark reality that it is unclear how Miss America is preparing the world for great women.”

Hers is a refreshing take on a surprisingly complicated story, and Friedman is an engaging writer and serious thinker who frames the history of Miss America in a portrait that even people uninterested in beauty pageants can enjoy. A

BOOK NOTES
A new children’s book called Yorick and Bones (HarperAlley, 144 pages) stirs thought about how many books have been published under the influence of Shakespeare, and also about the phenomenon of parent authors who write books with their children.
Yorick and Bones, comically billed as “The Lost Graphic Novel by William Shakespeare,” is written and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard (author of the Grumpy Birds series) with his daughter Hermione. It’s about a dog that digs up a skeleton, Yorick, that has been animated by a spilled magic potion that seeped underground.
Yorick, Shakespeare fans might recall, is the court jester in “Hamlet” whose skull is exhumed in Act 5. (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy!”)

At first the skeleton is thrilled about being freed from the earth; he has been longing for friends, and for a sausage. But there is a potential problem: the dog, of course, wants bones to eat. It is a delicious story made even more appetizing by the fact that it is written — because all genius has a touch of madness — in iambic pentameter, because why not? Not being age 8 through 12, and not having children this age, I’m not the target audience for this book, but I still want to read it and many sequels. Here’s hoping the dog finds other skeletons to dig up.

As for other Shakespeare-inspired books, there are at least three others this year: Christopher Moore’s Shakespeare for Squirrels, reviewed here last month (William Morrow, 288 pages), James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin, 320 pages), and Kathryn Harkup’s Death by Shakespeare, Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (Bloomsbury Sigma, 368 pages).

For parent-child collaborations, what comes first to mind is Stephen King and Joe Hill’s short story “Throttle,” and novelist Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella, who have written five humorous books together.

There is, of course, also Mary Higgins Clark, who writes with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, and closer to home, New Hampshire’s Jodi Picoult, who has written two books with her daughter Samantha van Leer.

As for Shakespeare, he reportedly had three children, none of whom authored any books of which we know.

Fathoms

Fathoms, The World in the Whale, by Rebecca Giggs (Simon & Schuster, 284 pages)

In July rescuers worked three days to free a humpback whale that had become entangled in 4,000 pounds of junk near the entrance to New York Harbor. This story had a happy ending; many do not, like the sperm whale found on the coast of Maine with a greenhouse in its stomach.

Yes, a greenhouse, full of tarps, ropes, flower pots and other necessities for growing tomatoes. Also found in the belly of the beast: a coat hanger, an ice cream tub and parts of a mattress. Suddenly the Book of Jonah doesn’t seem quite so fanciful.

“Like a chamber furnished for a prophet or castaway, these stomach contents recalled stories of people surviving inside whales,” writes Rebecca Giggs in her journey to “the world in the whale,” Fathoms.

This is the first book by Giggs, a nature writer in Perth, Australia, who has been compared to Rebecca Solnit (Drowned River) and Annie Dillard (The Abundance) but most reminds me of Diane Ackerman, the American poet and naturalist whose books include The Moon by Whale Light.

Like Ackerman, Giggs writes with a pen dipped in awe and approaches the natural world with reverence and curiosity. They also share an ability to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways, as when Giggs described a tired man with “fatigue pleated around his eyes” or says of a wet boat, “seawater griddles the windows.” In other words, they are not so much authors as poets.

Giggs begins with a riveting experience of attending the death of a whale on Australia’s coast, in her hometown. In nature, the death of a whale is called “whalefall,” a beautiful euphemism that describes how the whale’s body descends to the ocean floor, where it is food for a hidden ecosystem. “A whale in the wild goes on enriching our planet, ticktocking with animate energy, long after its demise,” she writes. “So the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore.”

The whale dying on the beach was not so beautiful, although Giggs manages to make it so, with her descriptions of a community that gathers around the whale in empathy.

As the whale wheezes and gasps over several days, surfers kneel, families take pictures, a woman tries to crown the whale with a wreath made of seagrass and flowers. (“It took three wildlife officers to pull her off the side of the whale, kicking.”) Giggs herself passes the time interviewing wildlife officers about why they can’t humanely euthanize the whale and why, when it dies, its body will be carted to a landfill. “The whale as landfill,” she writes. “It was a metaphor, and then it wasn’t.” She touches the whale and discerns its heartbeat, and then when it passes, launches an exploration of why whales, whose genetic ancestors go back 50 million years, elicit such emotion in humans and what is happening to them in a time of ecological change.

As made evident from her opening story about the greenhouse, Giggs is disturbed about how the detritus of capitalism is filling the ocean and its inhabitants. At least this cruelty to whales is unintentional, unlike in generations in past when we hunted the animals to near extinction. (As late as 1960 whales were the planet’s most economically valuable animal, commanding $30,000 per carcass, which amounts to about $260,000 today, Giggs says.)

She writes in unemotional detail of the boatside flaying of whales and how the whale, especially in the 19th century, was shockingly present in almost every aspect of life — from candles to oil to hair brushes to eyeglass frames to piano keys to the stuffing in sofas. Whales are not fish — they are mammals — but for a time, the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned their meat on Fridays during Lent. And during World War II, Americans were encouraged to eat whale meat in order to save beef for troops.

Fathoms is filled with interesting detail like this, and although she is not a journalist Giggs does a good job of separating myth from fact, while leaving open the prospect of mystery, as when a whale-watch captain explains the leaping of whales as nothing more than a grooming ritual, trying to get barnacles and lice off their skin. (Whales, it turns out, are lice-ridden, which you might want to remember if you ever come across one stranded on a beach.) Actually, some scientists believe that the leaping that so thrills whale watchers may enable communication with distant whales, and Giggs is not willing to discount the idea of play.

In all, Fathoms is a book of wonder, and although the American reader may occasionally tire of its focus on Australian events, Griggs is an accomplished tour guide to their complex world. B+

BOOK NOTES
If you haven’t already taken a side, it’s time to choose: Team Dan or Team Blythe?
Dan, of course, is Dan Brown, one of New Hampshire’s most famous writers, and his former wife was said to have been a great part of his success. The pair that The Guardian once called a “formidable literary team” divorced last year, however, and recent headlines show that a “finalized” divorce is not necessarily final.
Blythe Brown, according to The Boston Globe and other news sources, is suing the The Da Vinci Code author saying that he withheld information about new projects, among other unethical behavior she alleges.
Those new projects, it’s been reported, include a TV series based on Brown’s popular character Robert Langdon, and a children’s book released recently.
It’s a pity that the scandal has eclipsed the publication of the children’s book, which looks simply delightful. Wild Symphony (Rodale, 44 pages), illustrated by freelance artist Susan Batori of Hungary, is the story of an all-animal symphony conducted by Maestro Mouse. It’s not just a book but an interactive experience, with a website (wildsymphony.com), app and accompanying songs composed by Brown, who was an aspiring musician before he became an author.
Brown is not the first author of adult books to later publish a children’s book. Others include Carson McCullers (Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig), William Faulkner (The Wishing Tree), Aldous Huxley (The Crows of Pearblossom), Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond books, who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and of course C.S. Lewis, equally famous for his Christian apologetics like Mere Christianity and his children’s books set in Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, among them).
There’s also E.B. White, who was a staff writer for The New Yorker and co-authored a classic book on writing, The Elements of Style, before going on to write children’s classics like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
Another already famous writer has a children’s picture book in the works: J.K. Rowling’s The Ickabog, set for publication in November. Rowling and Brown will have to sell a lot of books, however, to compete with the best-selling children’s book of this week, also by an unexpected author: I Promise by LeBron James, the NBA superstar, is an aspirational book for preschoolers up to grade 3, illustrated by Nina Mata.

Florida Man

by Tom Cooper (Random House, 379 pages)

“Florida Man” became a meme in 2013 because of the bizarre headlines that seem in endless supply in that state, such as “Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm.” (True story, circa 2018.)

Florida Man is also the title of Tom Cooper’s second novel, and both the title and cover design suggest that the story within will be equally wacky. It is not, unless you thought Breaking Bad was a zany comedy.

It is, instead, a slow-burning, low-voltage thriller that spools profanely from the worst opening sentence since “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Cooper almost lost me on the first page, and three other times: the two pages of opening quotes (which include, bizarrely, the Miami Dolphins Fight Song, although the reason for its inclusion becomes nauseatingly clear later); the three-page table of contents that lists five categories and 114 chapters; and a two-page cast of characters, which is totally unnecessary unless you’re writing a play.

But then, in the amount of time it takes for a small plane to fall in flames from the sky, nearly clipping two 17-year-olds in medias res, he reeled me in and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the last page.

He is not so much a writer as a magician, turning a scruffy, flea-bitten, divorced man whose most loyal friends are a pack of feral cats into someone you pull for, someone you can’t abandon at page 20 or 200, because you care what happens to him, which, because he is a Florida man, is a lot.

Reed Crowe, the same teenager we meet having sex with his girlfriend on the first page, is divorced and has lost a child less than 10 pages later. He has parlayed a bale of marijuana he took from that burning plane into a generally miserable existence as proprietor of a tourist trap that makes I-95’s South of the Border look elegant, and a one-star inn served and populated by people who look like extras in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Crowe has a premonition that things are about to get even worse when a sinkhole swallows a lime tree in his backyard on what was already a “three-aspirin morning.” (Sinkholes, by the way, are but the first in a long line of reasons that “Florida Man” is a meme, rather than “Georgia man” or “Tennessee man” — Florida has so many horrible things going for it, besides the hurricanes, such as sinkholes, pythons and alligators. Just add beer, and Florida men neither live long nor prosper.)

The vanished tree begins a protracted chain of disturbing events, which include the sudden appearance of a real human skull in one of Crowe’s cheesier attractions at the Florida Man Mystery House, felonious behavior by Crowe’s longtime friend and employee Wayne Wade, and, most ominously, the emergence of a grotesquely deformed villain called “Catface,” who, as it turns out, was a survivor of the plane crash that the teenaged Crowe witnessed, and has spent every minute since then imagining how he would get his revenge.

Florida Man also has the same rich color and tautness, and the vivid sense of place of the AMC series, raising similar questions about why people stay in pocked places, both literal and figurative, for so long. It could hold its own as a series over at least two seasons, maybe more.

That said, I’m not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I suffered through it. But I can say the same about Breaking Bad, which is widely acknowledged as one of the best series of all time.

Breaking Bad, however, I never wanted to end. Florida Man seems to go on at least 50 pages longer than necessary, despite two perfectly good ending points that Cooper blows by.

However, that was another 50 pages in which I didn’t care if it was raining, or not raining enough, or if the dishes were piling up in the sink or if the president was tweeting. So we’re good. Call it Florida Man Makes Good Despite Bad Beginning. A-

BOOK NOTES
When publishers consider the potential value of a manuscript, one thing they want to know is how many other books have been published on the subject. There’s a secret formula, some Goldilocksian number that indicates there’s interest in a topic, but not so much that it’s been overdone.

It’s mystifying, then, that there’s such a vast compendium of books about habits: bad habits, good habits, 7 habits, 5 habits, 3 habits, atomic habits, million-dollar habits, billion-dollar habits.

Apparently publishers think we are most inclined to try to change our habits around New Year’s Day, as there are at least two 2019 titles slated for paperback release the last week of December: Good Habits, Bad Habits, the Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick by Wendy Wood (Picador, 320 pages), and Tiny Habits, the Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg (Mariner, 320 pages).

That seems wrong. The best time for change is the advent of fall, with its invigorating changes in temperature, and children’s (theoretical) return to school.

Right now, the leading book of habit-changing is James Clear’s Atomic Habits, the paperback version of which costs more than the hardcover on Amazon, weirdly enough. (Avery, 320 pages. Because apparently 320 pages is a popular choice for habit books.)

But the father of all habits, of course, was the late Stephen Covey whose 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was released in 1989 and launched a brand. A 30th-anniversary edition came out in paperback in May (Simon and Schuster, 464 pages), if you don’t already have one of the 40 million copies already sold.

Or you could just forget about this self-improvement stuff altogether and just indulge in Melania and Me, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s account of her friendship with the first lady, which if it wasn’t over already, is as of the book’s publication this week (Gallery, 352 pages).

Clean, The New Science of Skin

by James Hamblin (Riverhead, 253 pages)

He was a doctor with questionable judgment, or so it seemed, when he gave up medicine to become a journalist and, at roughly the same time, decided to stop showering.

So why isn’t Dr. James Hamblin’s new book called “Unclean”?

It’s because there’s an increasing body of evidence that we are doing our bodies no favors with all the soap, deodorant, moisturizers and exfoliants to which we daily subject our skin. Skin isn’t just a covering; it’s the body’s largest organ, and it teems with more organisms than there were residents of New York City before the pandemic.

Meet, for example, the demodex, a microscopic arachnid that lives in your facial pores and eats your dead skin cells.

That seems a good reason to shower hourly, but like the gut flora that keep our intestinal tract happy, it appears that these organisms are there to help, and we are becoming unhealthier by scrubbing them away. “Research into the microbiome seems poised to overturn even our most basic assumptions about how to take care of our skin,” Hamblin writes.

So Hamblin, who was downsizing anyway when he moved from Los Angeles to New York, decided to delve into “the new science of skin” while going three years without washing his face. Before you dismiss him as kooky, know that this is an emerging trend. The internet is full of people who have stopped showering regularly and people who simply rinse off with water, who swear that not using soap and shampoo made their skin and hair healthier. They also insist that they don’t stink.

Hamblin weaves his own journey to becoming one of the “Great Unwashed” with the history of cleanliness, from the Romans’ public baths to Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Especially fascinating is how cleanliness became a sign of social status after germ theory was introduced, and an unkempt and soiled person came to be seen as dangerous. “To appear ungroomed suggested that you could not afford to wash, and that your toilets were the excrement pits in alleys adjacent to your tenement. You may be one of the disease carriers.”

That led to a new standard, in which people were required to do more than simply not look or smell gross; “a person was to smell actively good” to signal that they didn’t harbor germs or fleas. Then capitalism, which Hamblin says “sells nothing so effectively as status,” took over, and something human skin had done without for thousands of years — soap — became a necessity. Until late in the 19th century, soap was primarily used for laundry, in part because it was so harsh, such as the combination of lye and animal fat that early colonists made.

In the most compelling chapter, “Lather,” Hamblin tells the origin story of iconic brands such as Dr. Bronner’s, Ivory, Dove and Camay. (Fun fact: Wrigley’s chewing gum was developed to help sell soap that William Wrigley Jr. made. The gum sold better than the soap, which is why Chicago has Wrigley Field. Also, the Dr. Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps “was not a doctor, nor particularly tethered to scientific reality.”

Hamblin is a staff writer for The Atlantic, and some of the content in Clean will seem familiar to the magazine’s readers. He wrote about his no-showering policy in 2016, and I remembered a catchy couple of lines I’d read just a few weeks earlier in The Atlantic: “In October, when the Canadian air starts drying out, the men flock to Sandy Skotnicki’s office. The men are itchy.”

I encounter these reruns with no resentment, however, because Hamblin’s voice is, frankly, delightful. The line about the itchy men and Canadian air could be set to rap music, and we’d all nod along. Hamblin is one of a genre becoming known as “media doctors” and is the best in the burgeoning field. His explanation of how soap is made will make you wish he’d been your high-school chemistry teacher, and he strikes just the right balance of being funny enough to entertain while being wonky enough to trust as a source of medical information.

Which brings us to an elephant in the room, which is the pandemic. Hamblin finished the manuscript in January, before anyone foresaw the horror that is 2020, and his publisher had to worry that a book that suggests we clean ourselves less frequently might raise some eyebrows and serious questions. He addresses this in one paragraph of the prologue, saying “the stories and principles I share are no less relevant in this new era of pandemic awareness, as we recover from one and brace for the next.”

I’m not so sure about that as I survey the supply of soap and hand sanitizer at Hannaford. But Hamblin never says we shouldn’t be washing our hands. And he says that he’s never been one to touch his face. So carry on as you were in that department, but consider his invitation not to scrub every inch of your body so zealously, and with so many products. Your friendly neighborhood demodex will thank you.

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BOOK NOTES
The ink was still wet on the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic when enterprising writers started churning about the novel coronavirus.

On Amazon, you can find books with titles like The Covid-19 Catastrophe, The Coronavirus Prevention Handbook, God and the Pandemic, and (Expletive) Off, Coronavirus, I’m Coloring, many of them self-published.

Enough time has elapsed, however, for other titles appropriate to the global trainwreck called 2020 to emerge, and two are notable this week.

First, Flatiron is reissuing How to Survive a Pandemic by Dr. Michael Greger. He’s a vegan-lifestyle advocate who has built a brand around the words “How Not To.” His previous books include How Not to Die and How Not to Diet. The new paperback (592 pages) is the timely expansion of a book first released in 2006. Greger, who runs the website Nutritionfacts.org, says he donates all book proceeds to charity.

A more lighthearted title to be released Sept. 8 is The Lake Wobegon Virus (Arcade, 240 pages), your enjoyment of which may have much to do with whether you’ve forgiven Garrison Keillor for the transgressions that led to his canceling. It’s been three years since he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio for inappropriate behavior, and his publisher must believe he’s been punished enough, because there are two titles scheduled from him this fall. (The other is a memoir, This Time of Year, set for release Nov. 17.)

The Lake Wobegon Virus sounds fun. The description, provided by the publisher: “A mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition.”

Not nearly as fun as that coronavirus coloring book, though.

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