Book Review 20/08/06

Make Russia Great Again, by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 274 pages)

When word got out that Christopher Buckley had a new book, this one about the Trump administration, Buckley fans didn’t just salivate; they drooled.

Buckley, the son of conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., made his own name writing satire, most notably 1994’s Thank You for Smoking, the story of three lobbyists who called themselves merchants of death because they represented tobacco, alcohol and firearms. It was later made into a movie; the book was 50 times better.

Now Buckley is back with a fictional memoir of the Trump years, told by his seventh chief of staff, now enjoying the amenities of federal prison. Herb K. Nutterman had retired after 27 years as the food-and-beverage manager at an assortment of Trump properties when the president summoned him to the White House. Despite the howling of his wife, Hetta, Nutterman reluctantly returned to his former boss’s employ, where he soon became part of a Russia scandal that may sound familiar, but not familiar enough to get Buckley sued for libel or defamation.

In this scandal, America has interfered in Russia’s election, inadvertently.

A computer program designed to retalilate automatically if a U.S. election has been hacked and the president is incapacitated goes into action, causing a communist trailing Vladimir Putin by 50 points to come in first, forcing a runoff election.

Meanwhile, a Russian oligarch known for manufacturing a chemical that is mysteriously involved in the deaths of people who run afoul of Putin and his cronies has surfaced and wants a favor from Trump.

It’s Nutterman’s job to solve these problems, quickly and quietly, before Putin finds out about America’s involvement and decides to retaliate by releasing some odious secret he is keeping about Trump.

Nutterman, ever loyal, is determined not to let that happen, but as he works to avert disaster, the scandals keep accumulating, somewhat as in real life.

As he reflects, “One minute you’re on the golf course minding your own business, thinking, Gosh, what a nice day. The next, the earth has gone out from under you and you’re in a conference room being deposed with three lawyers in attendance at a thousand dollars an hour each.”

Some real people in the real world have speculated that Putin, elected Russia’s president in 2000, has incriminating information on Trump that he withholds in exchange for presidential favor. In Buckley’s version of things, the purported blackmail has something to do with the Miss Universe Pageant, which was held in Moscow in 2013, and Trump’s enthusiasm for beautiful women.

If it’s hard to keep up with what is real and what is fiction, multiply that by 274 pages. As he has done in the past, Buckley combines actual people and events with fictionalized ones, although he puts as much effort into disguising them as a person who dresses for Halloween by putting on a hat.

Take, for example, the character of Seamus Colonnity, “Fox News’ number-one personality,” and a Trump confidante, who “truly enjoyed fawning over Mr. Trump, whereas others fawned out of fear.” Colonnity, of course, is Buckley’s version of Sean Hannity; I don’t know enough about Fox News to know who Corky Fartmartin is supposed to be. But you get the gist.

Buckley also thinly disguises a certain blond adviser to the president as Katie Borgia-O’Reilly, who is “sexy in a — I don’t want to say ‘creepy’ — certain kind of way, as if you might discover after sleeping with her that she was in fact an android or an Albanian assassin sent to murder your grandmother for no clear reason.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is clearly Sen. Squigg Lee Biskitt, whose “folksy rhetoric earned him titles like ‘Li’l Cicero’ and ‘Tiny Titan of the Senate’.” Ivanka becomes Ivunka; Jared, Jored. And so on.

I suppose there’s a certain logic to this, imposed by those thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers with which Buckley is seemingly familiar, but the juxtaposition of the real and satirized gets baffling after a while. Why, for example, are Newt Gingrich and his wife transformed into Mr. and Mrs. Neuderscreech while George Will and George Soros get to play themselves?

The bigger problem with Make Russia Great Again, at least for a general audience, is that it’s too much insider baseball. If you can laugh uproariously at something being described as “eerily Rumsfeldian,” or at least remember who Donald Rumsfeld is, you’ll find the book at least mildly amusing. If not, read Thank You for Smoking instead. Make Russia Great Again is a book-length stand-up act, with plenty of punchlines, the sort best served with cheap beer.

As someone raised on Firing Line, it pains me to say this; I want everything associated with the Buckley name to be accompanied by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. More fitting for this book is the Faber College Theme Song. (Then again, this is old material for Buckley. He first envisioned a Trump presidency in 1999, when he wrote an inaugural address for President Trump when the idea was simply a joke. In the last line, the president says he’s ordered the Treasury Department to issue “a couple billion extra in $100 chips.”

“Enjoy yourselves,” the fictional President Trump says. “It’s the dawn of a very great era.” Half the country still believes that. The other half waits impatiently for Christopher Buckley to be great again. B-

Christopher Buckley (reviewed above) is a past winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually in honor of James Thurber, the celebrated humorist and New Yorker cartoonist who died in 1961.
Buckley won in 2004 for No Way to Treat a First Lady.
Four months into a pandemic, we all could use some merriment, and there’s not a lot of humor to be had this month, in book form anyway. So here’s a look at the funniest books of the past decade, according to Thurber Prize judges.
All are available in paperback; your local bookseller would appreciate your business.

Hits and Misses, short stories by Simon Rich (Little, Brown & Co.)
Look Alive Out There (runner up), essays by Sloane Crosley (Picador)
Priestdaddy, memoir by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)
Born a Crime, memoir by Trevor Noah (One World)
The World’s Largest Man, memoir by by Harrison Scott Key (Harper Perennial)
Dear Committee Members, novel by Julie Schumacher (Anchor)
Truth in Advertising, novel by John Kenney (Touchstone)
Dan Gets a Minivan, memoir by Dan Zevin (Scribner)
Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, collected works by Calvin Trillin (Random House)
Half Empty, essays by David Rakoff (Anchor)
The 2020 winner will be announced, pandemic willing, sometime in the fall.

Book Review 20/07/02

Porkopolis, by Alex Blanchette (246 pages, Duke University Press)

When Alex Blanchette first moved to “Porkopolis,” residents asked if he was pro-hog or anti-hog. “Neither,” he would say, with the earned detachment of an academic.

For you and me, the question comes down to this: are we pro-bacon or anti-bacon? The average American is said to eat 18 pounds of it every year, despite occasional exposure (thanks largely to PETA) to the horrors of factory farming.

But it is harder still to justify eating bacon and pork tenderloin after reading Blanchette’s clear-eyed account of the industrial pig. Begun as a doctoral dissertation, the book is about as far from a PETA diatribe as you can get; Blanchette applies a dispassionate eye to “concentrated animal feeding operations,” also known as CAFOs. He moved to an town he calls “Dixon,” home to a massive meat-processing operation that manages all facets of a hog’s life, from the artificial insemination of its mother, to the slitting of its throat, to its rendering and dispersal to not only our supermarket counters but largely unseen uses in our daily lives in gelatin. (“I cannot write this book — it is possible that I cannot type this sentence — without touching dead traces of industrial pigs,” Blanchette writes.

He was not there to sensationalize what goes within a plant that kills a hog every three seconds, about 7 million hogs every year, but to understand the ecosystem of such an operation: the hogs, yes, but also the 5,000 or so workers the company employs. To do so, he worked in the plant and became friendly with the workers and other residents of the town, as well as company officials. He enjoyed this extraordinary access and trust because they knew he was writing a scholarly book, one that presumably would not make much of a splash. And it will hold little appeal for the casual reader, dense as it is with footnotes and ten-dollar words.

But that’s unfortunate, because Porkopolis is an even-handed exploration of an issue usually dominated by extremes: the “People gotta eat,” “They’re just stupid animals” and “There wouldn’t be a Dixon without hogs” chorus on one side; the “murderous, animal abusers” chorus on the other.

In fact, the plant where Blanchette worked employed people who would sometimes try to smuggle a sick piglet out of the building in their coveralls so it wouldn’t be euthanized, and who would resuscitate a stillborn pig with their own mouth and cheer when the piglet took its first breath.

That said, they willingly take jobs that involve sitting on a sow’s back while she is artificially inseminated so she will have babies we will eat in six months. Those on assembly lines are subjected to physical trauma that seems similar to the suffering of the pigs, so much so that new hires are warned that they will endure a period of “breaking in,” which Blanchette calls “the agonizing process of molding the human body to the disassembly line’s machine-driven repetition.” The psychological toll of the work (some workers, for example, spend six days a week wiping blood and feces from pig intestines) seems secondary to its physical assaults.

It’s hard to write on the topic without separating the players into heroes and villains, Blancette says. “However, what remains is something perhaps more honest: how people in this town, like so many of us, struggle within and against things they are a constitutive part of but do not know how to change.”

That said, even Blanchette’s moral generosity and even-handed treatment of the pork industry cannot powder and perfume the everyday horrors contained within: the sow (sow, because she’s not allowed to be a mother) banging her head violently against a metal enclosure because she cannot nest, as is her instinct; the coolers in which deficient piglets are enclosed to be gassed. And regardless of benefit, the practice of feeding piglets plasma from older, slaughtered pigs is something that the average person eyeing a BLT would rather not contemplate.

In the end, Blanchette does seem to take a side, however softly. He rues the pig’s lost right to be “an inefficient creature,” its every cell sucked into a capitalist chute applauded for making use of every part of an animal. The planet is full of chicken carcasses, he explains. This fossil record of chickens, whose bodies we grotesquely modify for the right to enjoy six nuggets for a dollar, may one day be studied in conjunction with human dominance during the anthropocene.

But these future archeologists would find no pig skeletons preserved in amber. Like ethical hikers, we leave no trace. We are like mothers yelling at our children, “I gave you life, I can take it away.” Only by creating the need for factory farms with our excessive consumption, we really mean it. Blanchette may not have set out to write an argument for de-industrializing pigs, but he achieved it. B

If you’ve already read How Not to Die Alone, don’t get too excited about Something to Live For, a new paperback by Richard Roper that was published this week.
It’s the same book.
How Not to Die Alone, Roper’s debut novel, came out in hardcover in May 2019. It was generally well-received. It garnered a “meh” number of ratings on Amazon (161) but got a thumbs-up in The New York Times and USA Today.
So why the new title?
It’s not unusual for a book to have a different title in the U.S. and the United Kingdom (e.g., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone vs. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Less common is an American title that is changed when a book goes from hardcover to paperback.
As it turns out, we can blame the Brits and the pandemic.
Roper wrote recently on his website that How Not to Die Alone was the original title but while “the U.S. loved it,” it was considered too dark for the U.K. So it was released there as Something to Live For, which is the title of a song that is meaningful in the book.
But then 2020 swaggered in, and now How Not to Die Alone is too dark in Covidian America.
“And so, after all that, the book is now called Something to Live For everywhere,” Roper wrote on his blog. “Oh, apart from Sweden, and Germany, which both have different titles.”
Meanwhile, on Reddit (r/books), there rages a debate on whether paperbacks or hardbacks are better. What’s most interesting in the thread is how many people say they have been literally injured by hardback books, usually while reading in bed. The mentioned assailants: The Lord of the Rings (“nearly cleaved my head in two”), The Count of Monte Cristo (1,488 pages), Oathbringer (1,248 pages) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (672 pages).
But this has to be the best answer: “I carried around a really thick hardcover book while I was in jail. Mostly because I was reading it but it was nice knowing that I had something that could hold up to some damage should something crazy have happened. Hardcover better.” Now you know.

Book Review 20/07/02

Shakespeare for Squirrels, by Christopher Moore (William Morrow, 271 pages)

In one of the more memorable songs from the musical Something Rotten, a character named Nick Bottom seethes “God, I hate Shakespeare — He has no sense about the audience / he makes them feel so dumb / The (expletive) doesn’t care that my poor (expletive) is getting numb.”

The same could be said of Christopher’s Moore Shakespeare for Squirrels, only it wasn’t so funny.

The third in a series of comedies derived from Shakespeare’s plays, the novel is a raunchy retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, populated by characters that will be familiar to anyone who has seen what is considered to be the Bard of Avon’s most performed play.

The main characters were introduced in Moore’s 2009 novel Fool, a satirical take on King Lear, and later embellished in 2014’s The Serpent of Venice. They are Pocket, a court jester; Drool, his dimwit companion; and Jeff, a monkey. In the opening, they are near death, adrift in a boat, Drool so delirious from hunger that he is begging to lick the monkey. “Just one wee lick,” he pleads.

Lucky for the monkey, land appears, and the three crash onto the shores of 14th-century Athens and into the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairies and players and royals, which in Moore’s hands are even more lewd and profane than Shakespeare wrote them. They are also somehow funnier. Shakespeare himself might have wished he had written this book.

Compare the dialogue of Shakespeare, when Nick Bottom’s transformation into a centaur with a donkey head is revealed — “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?” — with that of Moore: “Bottom,” said I. “Thou art transmogrified. How happened this change?”

A quick summary, with a necessary spoiler: Soon after landing in Greece, Pocket encounters the dying Robin Goodfellow (also known as the Puck), and is mistakenly apprehended as the killer. In order to save his own skin and that of his slow-witted but good-hearted companion Drool, he obeys twin royal commands to venture into the fairy-infested forest to find the true assassin.

With killer dialogue and exquisite timing, Moore is generous with the jokes, both Elizabethan and contemporary. (A frequent callback referring to Pocket’s diminutive size — “Not an elf” — is wickedly funny and seems to derive from the TV show The Good Place.)

Moore writes with his tongue firmly in cheek, when it is not exploring naughtier territory, as it frequently does. If the novel had to be assigned a rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, it would have had to fight for an R. As such, one of the novel’s failings is the sense that it was written by a teenage boy with a really high IQ. Which brings us to its other problem, foreseen by Nick Bottom in Something Rotten — Moore makes us feel so dumb.

Shakespeare for Squirrels demands much of its readers, and having seen A Midsummer’s Night Dream once 10 years ago doesn’t cut it. (Painfully, I can attest.) From the beginning, when our heroes are rescued by the fairy Cobweb, the casual reader is taunted by what he or she doesn’t know, never encountered or doesn’t remember. For a full 263 pages there is the sense that we are missing the best jokes. It’s full-on FOMO (fear of missing out) until we reach the afterword, when Moore explains how the book came about. Even then, people who are only conversant with a handful of Shakespeare’s 36 plays can get lost as he recounts the origins of Hippolyta, Theseus and Oberon.

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,” Shakespeare wrote in a line just as good as “though she be but little she is fierce.” The same can be said of Moore’s brain, which operates on a plane higher than that of the average reader and seems as conversant with Shakespeare as the typical American is with the McDonald’s menu. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Shakespeare for Squirrels without having read the two previous installments, Fool and The Serpent of Venice. It can stand alone as a story, as even A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not required prerequisite reading.

But without this base of foreknowledge, reading Moore’s latest book is the literary equivalent of eating pistachios that haven’t been shelled. There is pleasure, yes, but it seems like an awful lot of work to get to it. The mental gymnastics required to get into the flow of the dialogue alone are exhausting on a midsummer afternoon. (“The fairies, I thought, surely they will offer some unexplored gem of myth that I can festoon with knob jokes!”)

That said, you will emerge from Shakespeare for Squirrels armed with a new collection of Shakespearean-style insults, which may alone be justification for your time, thou unctuous little hedgehog. (Said affectionately.) B

As Americans gear up for a long weekend of quiet reading and deep thinking about democracy and its responsibilities, Project Gutenberg might come in handy.
The oldest digital library, it provides free access to more than 60,000 books that are in the public domain, so it’s a particularly good source for finding titles appropriate to the celebration of American independence. Here’s a sample of reading you can download onto your computer or ereader at
The Memoirs, Correspondence and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson(decidedly dry in places, but it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of personal letters of history’s giants).
• Speaking of which, there’s also Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution
George Washington’s State of the Union Addresses (other early presidents are there, too).
George Washington’s Rules of Civility (an adaptation of Richard Brookhiser’s Rules of Civility, which was said to greatly influence the first president)
The Autobiography of Ben Franklin and Franklin’s The Way to Wealth, which may be the first American self-help book
Sketches of Successful New Hampshire Men — this was issued in 1882 and has nothing to do with American independence. But how could we not? An excerpt: “Forty years ago, when Manchester, now the metropolis of New Hampshire, was little more than a wasting waterfall and an unpeopled plain, a few young men who had the sagacity to see, the courage to grapple with, and the strength to control the possibilities of the location, made it their home.” Thank God for that, eh?
The Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (as well as his inaugural addresses)
• Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
• G.K. Chesterton’s What I Saw in America
Of course, you could also just buy them, because in this day and age, there is no greater civic responsibility than shopping.

Book Review 20/07/23

Parakeet, by Marie-Helene Bertino (224 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The bride, “ethnically ambiguous,” has been banished to a luxurious inn, sent there by the groom a week before the wedding to decompress.

The groom, an elementary school principal, had proposed after five dates. The bride describes him like this: “He will never lie to me and he will never make me howl with laughter.” His family is composed of academics who each look “perpetually poised to ask a question after a great deal of thought.” Of course she said yes.

At the inn on Long Island, there is ambivalence and fear, not the normal pre-wedding jitters, but weapons-grade anxiety, the sort that makes it entirely plausible that a dead grandmother will show up in the form of a bird and make demands of the bride.

She was a “a rueful bird endowed with death’s clarity,” as acerbic in death as in life. She both warbled and cussed, and she soiled the bride’s wedding dress before she left.

Such is the powerful beginning to Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino, a much-lauded writer of fiction who lives up to the hype. A former fellow at MacDowell artist community in Peterborough (no longer “Colony”), Bertino has written one other novel, 2014’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, and a collection of short stories. She’s already sold another novel, set to be published in 2022, pandemic willing.

Parakeet takes place within the span of a week, with occasional flashbacks and one poignant flash forward, to describe the trauma-pocked life of the bride and her brother. It’s astonishing to realize that the bride is never given a name (nor the groom) and this omission does not matter or even seem strange. We don’t need to know her name; we learn everything else that matters.

The “bird-shaped grandmother” that shows up in the bride’s room knows about the impending wedding, but asks the bride to do something that has nothing to do with the ceremony. She/it wants the bride to find her estranged brother, and she makes a cryptic prophecy: “You won’t find him.”

The bride hasn’t seen her brother, Tom, for seven years. He’s a playwright who became wealthy and famous for writing about his sister’s life and then vanished.

“The last time I saw Tom was at his own wedding, where he lay bloody on a gurney, asking me to hold his hand,” the narrator-bride says.

But she loved her grandmother and so sets off to find the brother she doesn’t really want to see, all the while tending to the mundanities of a pre-wedding week, such as dealing with the florist, buying a new dress and seeing her maid of honor, her best friend from childhood, who, as it turns out, isn’t the greatest friend after all.

As the bride describes the relationship, “There’ve been several times in our friendship when Rose and I reached what I feared was its conclusion, when an important update to our subscription to each other had lapsed, and we either had to renew or face the tenuousness of our connection.”

This is typical of Bertino’s writing, which is startlingly original and frequently witty, as in her description of the woman from whom she buys a wedding dress: “Ada doesn’t wax her eyebrows or even trim them in any way I can detect. The courage this requires stuns me.”

Later, the bride describes her “smile so pale and winsome I appear floured.”

The exquisite writing and fresh turns of phrase do not exist to cover up a flan-like plot. The story is rich in its own right, thickened by pain and trauma.

The bride works as a biographer of people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, compiling the personal details of their lives for juries. (A visit she makes to a man whose brain is so unreliable that he needs to be reminded not to pull out a hot oven rack with his hand is especially poignant.)

But she has her own injuries, too, psychological ones from her mother and physical ones from a random attack. As she navigates the week, we are not sure if what she is experiencing is even real or the desperate imaginings of a brain that is truly broken.

Parakeet is a quiet thriller in that regard, pulsing with mysteries and questions. But it’s also a deeply empathetic portrayal of a woman struggling to discern what is real and right, like a bird banging into a glass window. It’s an excellent antidote to the common vacuous beach read.

AJennifer Graham

The Twitter war over J.K. Rowling and her views on transgender people has lately expanded to include other authors, including New Hampshire’s Jodi Picoult.

Picoult, who lives in Hanover on property that has views of both the Green and White Mountains, was asked by a fan to weigh in and tweeted (as did Stephen King) that trans women are women. Rowling, who does not share that view, is getting backlash from fans of her Harry Potter franchise, with some going so far as to have Potter-themed tattoos removed.

Picoult, however, stands to benefit from her tweet, as some Twitter users suggested that people buy one of her books in solidarity. There are plenty to choose; she’s written 27, with another, The Book of Two Ways, coming out in September. (The prologue is on her website if you want a sneak peek.)

Meanwhile, Rowling has a new work called The Ickabog, which she is publishing, one chapter at a time, on a website called Right now, the extended fairy tale consists of just Rowling’s words, but she is running a contest in both the U.S. and United Kingdom to choose illustrations that will be used when the book is published in the fall. Proceeds will go toward Covid-19 assistance.

For fare less controversial, Jane Austen fans might consider a book published this week: Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years, a Memoir in Five Novels (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages).

The first line: “About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.” Sign me up.

Book Review 20/07/16

The Great Indoors, by Emily Anthes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages)

In any other year, a book about “the great indoors” arriving at the start of summer would seem strange, a publishing mistake.

In 2020, however, it’s perfect.

We’ve all been under house arrest, and whether you’ve enjoyed it or are one empty-toilet-paper-roll away from strangling your housemates, the quality of the experience may have much to do with the design of your house. Science writer Emily Anthes explains why, in what she promises is “the surprising science of how buildings shape our behavior, health and happiness.”

The average American, Anthes writes, spends 90 percent of his or her time inside a building, to include offices, stores, restaurants, gyms, theaters and everything else we’ve been missing during the pandemic.

Our love of the outdoors, it seems, is fantasy, or myth. Outdoors is rain and mosquitoes. Indoors, a fridge and sofa. If you’re like Anthes, “anxiety-prone and risk-averse,” you prefer to enjoy the outdoors from your window. But until recently scientists mostly concerned themselves with the environment outside the home rather than in it. But that, Anthes says, is changing, and new research is emerging on how the design of buildings affects our brains, our moods, our productivity and our choices; and how features of buildings, such as windows, affect our mental health.

Some of these findings are intuitive: “Warm, dim lighting makes schoolkids less fidgety and aggressive. Fresh, well-ventilated air boosts office workers’ cognitive function.” Some make sense upon reflection: People who live on the highest floors of a skyscraper are the least likely to survive a cardiac event. But some are simply surprising.

Take, for example, the idea that a more challenging environment might extend life.

One couple in Japan took this to an extreme, building a nine-unit apartment complex that looked “less like a home than an oversized carnival fun house.” The homes were designed to befuddle. They had circular living rooms with kitchens in the center, round studies, ladders that led nowhere and what amounted to speed bumps in the floor. The creators were artists who believed death to be “immoral” and thought it could be cheated and that brain-stimulating architecture was one way to do it. They also created “destabilizing” parks and single-family homes.

Unfortunately, they died, so there were limits to the couple’s genius. Their work could be dismissed as the legacy of passionate fools, but for this: Lab animals housed in stimulating, challenging environments live longer and are healthier than animals confined to boring cages.

And, as Anthes writes, it’s long established that challenges are important for human flourishing. “Start lifting weights, and your muscles will swell. Learn to speak a new language and your brain will sprout new connections.” So who’s to say that a living room with shocking colors and speed bumps on the floor won’t positively affect us like a wheel and maze will stimulate a rat?

But not all changes need to be exhilarating. Anthes writes about a neonatal intensive care unit in Rhode Island that was redesigned from the traditional crowded ward to single rooms equipped with sleeper sofas where the parents could stay instead of just visiting. The infants fared dramatically better in the family rooms.

Having convinced us that the right buildings matter, Anthes embarks on a tour of the great indoors, from her own bathroom, where microbes seethe in the showerhead, to redesigned school lunchrooms in New York City, to a community in Phoenix, Arizona, designed for adults with autism to live their best life. She also takes on the housing of the incarcerated, controversial for those who think prisons shouldn’t be humane. (“We should send fewer people to prison, and we should treat them better while they’re there,” Anthes says.)

And she examines two disparate types of housing: that of the most basic shelter, such as the sustainable huts made out of sandbags fastened together with barbed wire, which an Iranian-American in California invented (locking doors are made out of shipping crates), and the high-tech, Jetson-like homes of the affluent, which could allow more seniors to age in place.

But the Jetson-stuff is passe now. What is really cutting edge in buildings are “buoyant foundations” that literally allow homes in flood-prone areas to float when water rushes in. This is part of a new interest in “amphibious architecture” that will allow humans to stay near the coasts as the oceans creep in. Anthes admits that amphibious homes are “more of a curiosity than a bona fide building trend” and that’s unlikely to change in the U.S., as long as these structures are not eligible for subsidized insurance policies, as is now the case. Still, the possibilities fascinate.

In closing, Anthes takes on buildings in space — what it would take to build a village on the moon or on Mars. “The irony is that our continued existence may hinge on figuring out how to live in environments that are literally lethal,” she writes. You’d think there’d be no research to draw from here, but Anthes sniffed out people who are already designing space cities for a living, such as the CEO of a California company called Mars City Design. (True, it’s in California, and its website says to email the company for its research, so invest carefully.)

“Blueprints for the Red Planet” is the shortest chapter and the least fulfilling, filled as it is with speculation. But the rest of The Great Indoors is a solid and satisfying read, even if its title might induce a nap. B

You cannot predict elections by book sales, but if you could, President Donald Trump’s campaign should be worried.

The No.1 and No. 2 best sellers on Amazon last week were literary grenades thrown at the president: Too Much and Never Enough, a memoir by first niece Mary Trump, and The Room Where It Happened by former national security adviser John Bolton. Both portray the president as immoral and inept.

To find a conservative viewpoint, one that Trump voters would relish, you had to plunge all the way to No. 27, where Ben Shapiro’s How To Destroy America in Three Easy Steps sat three places above Sean Hannity’s Live Free or Die.

To be fair, Hannity’s book was No. 1 in the “elections” category, and it doesn’t release until Aug. 4. But that’s also the release date of Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun, which is Twilight from Edward’s point of view and everyone knows how it ends. It’s still selling like toilet paper (the new hotcakes), at No. 8.

There’s no good recent data that easily explains why there are more liberal/progressive titles than conservative in Amazon’s top 30. Occasionally, a study asserts that Democrats read more than Republicans, but a 2012 survey of GoodReads readers found that supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney read the same median number of books a year: 26.

If none of these appeal (and for the record, Hannity’s book appears to be nothing about New Hampshire), there’s a rollicking good time to be had in Scott Conroy’s Vote First or Die, which is actually about New Hampshire and its outsized role in the election of presidents. Published in 2017, it’s a whimsical look at the path to the 2016 election and a timely reminder of how we got where we are.

Also, new and notable this week isLet Them Eat Tweets, How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

Book Review 20/07/09

The Madwoman and the Roomba, by Sandra Tsing Loh (W.W. Norton, 276 pages)

Can we say that it’s a little more than ironic that a woman who found fame leaving the stifling prison that was a 20-year marriage is now rhapsodizing affectionately about the “domestic mayhem” that is her life?

But that is where Sandra Tsing Loh has arrived 11 years after the publication of her celebrated Atlantic piece titled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” which was an explanation of why she ended her marriage and an invitation for other people to do the same.

A year earlier, she’d found fame and acclaim for Mother on Fire, an acerbically funny memoir of parenting, and many of her fans were surprised to find her ringless a year later, although it did much for her career. I tend to be stoutly judgmental about such things, but I’m willing to forgive a lot for a laugh, including “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and another mildly disturbing Atlantic essay in which she said she wished her 91-year-old father would die. That’s probably a character flaw in me, which is why I like Loh even as she tramples on my fundamental values. She has plenty of her own, on public display in two books that portend a long-running series, 2014’s The Madwoman in the Volvo, My Year of Raging Hormones and now, The Madwoman and the Roomba, My Year of Domestic Mayhem.

There is a pleasant afternoon to be had envisioning what comes next: The Madwoman in the Face Mask? The Madwoman and the AARP? The Madwoman and the Depends? Loh (pronounced “low”) has built a devoted following, so it’s a safe bet that Roomba won’t be the last. Loh, who the New York Times once crowned a worthy contender for “publishers’ holy grail, ‘the female David Sedaris.’” Like Sedaris, she is reliably funny and specializes in understated comedy built around the adventures of a strange family that feels vaguely familiar but, under the microscope, is really nothing like yours. (How unlike yours? Her father, for starters, had a rock song written about him by a band named Boy Hits Car. The song contains the line “Mr. Loh’s not afraid to be naked.” There you go.)

But she imagines herself this red, white and blue everywoman, trying earnestly to be one of “us” rather than one of the dastardly “them,” all the while showing that she’s not really poor and struggling, but just seems to have too many stupidly rich friends. As a technique, this is generally opaque, and she wears peasant clothes well in one of the stronger chapters in the book, titled “Stanford Swimming.”

In the essay, Loh makes comic hash out of an evening spent with friends at a New York estate that “looks like a large villa you’d find in Europe, protected by lush non-native hedges.” The friends, of course, are “thems” and if you hadn’t already figured this out, you will when the wine comes out and the friends say, winsomely, that it isn’t expensive but was on the Zagat list of “great wines under $40.”

“Charlie and I raise eyebrows amusedly at each other. For us the price cap on a bottle of wine is eight dollars,” Loh writes. The next nine pages are essentially “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had Mr. Smith been sardonic, an easy-going, fish-in-a-barrel takedown of people who have personal cooks and tennis courts and sons who win swimming scholarships to Stanford. Loh, in comparison, says that she’s not even sure her teenage daughters can swim, and they come to the table, one looking like an L.A. gang girl “edging into drag queen,” the other a “painfully thin” child evocative of Ichabod Crane who is “less eating her salad than worrying it.” She worries that when lacrosse is mentioned, her daughters will think the conversation is about sparkling water.

“Stanford Swimming” is one of the longer essays in a collection that ostensibly runs the length of a year, Loh’s 55th. As Madwoman in the Volvo was about menopause, it’s more difficult to define what Madwoman and the Roomba is about, other than maybe trying to pay off a tax bill born of an IRS audit detailed in a chapter called “A very Hindu audit.” It’s here, among other places, that Loh’s everywoman credentials seem just a tiny bit overstated, as she exclaims worriedly about the IRS challenging $25,000 in business expenses and says she only gets massages when Groupon is involved.

There is a lot of exclaiming in this book. There also are a worrisome number of exclamation marks, making it seem that a stern editor wasn’t one of those business expenses, and an overabundance of Loh’s trademark dashes, which she seems to use as a calling card and a stand-in for ellipses. Example from a bit of dialogue: “‘You cannot lumber after waiters like an extra from The Walking Dead, knocking over priceless Louis Quatorze art along the way —’”

It’s a small quibble, and maybe you love it, but David Sedaris doesn’t do it.

At the end of the year Loh’s father finally dies, and at first she seems to have all the remorse and grief that you would expect of someone who has been grousing for years about why he had the nerve to live so long, given the “giant money leakage of his care.”

There is an important conversation to be had about whether science is extending life for too long, and Loh’s most shocking statements may be more shrewd calculations than heartfelt emotions; her undergraduate degree, after all, was in physics. But the reader still has the right to be shocked when, upon going to her father’s house soon after his death, Loh decides to take a selfie with her father’s corpse. Is this a thing? If so, it would seem more the action of a millennial than a baby boomer “at the dropping tail of the boom.”

It’s hard, however, to dislike any writer who calls a mortuary professional a “Styx crosser” regardless of other offenses. A-

Since The New York Times once said Sandra Tsing Loh (reviewed above) was a candidate to be “the female David Sedaris,” it seems appropriate to see who else has earned this honor, and more importantly, whether they’re in paperback so we can take them to the beach.

Sedaris, of course, is the sly humorist made famous in 1992 by an essay about playing one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s, the broadcast of which is now an NPR holiday tradition. His books, which include Me Talk Pretty One Day and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, seethe with weapons-grade humor softened by a folksy tone and a surprising depth of wisdom and lived pain.

Why do we need a female Sedaris? Hard to say because there is no equivalent search for a male Anne Lamott.

But the contenders, according to Google, include not only Loh but these authors:
Lauren Weedman,Miss Fortune (Plume, 304 pages)
Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There’d Be Cake (Riverhead, 230 pages)
Susan Reinhardt, Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle (Grateful Steps, 384 pages)
Susan Jane Gilman, Hypocrite in a White, Pouffy Dress(Grand Central Publishing, 369 pages)
Faith Salie, Approval Junkie (Three Rivers Press, 288 pages)
Jen Lancaster, Bitter is the New Black, (Berkley, 416 pages)

To be fair, there are others, but some women seem to have given the title to themselves on their blogs. I make no guarantees as to how Sedarisian these women are, but note that Crosley has especially good reviews.

Or you could just wait for a new Sedaris book to come out. The New York Times recently reported that there are two in the queue, The Best Of Me, a collection of previously published essays, due out in the fall (pandemic willing), and Carnival of Snackeries, more selections from the diary he has kept for more than 40 years, scheduled next year.

Book Review 20/6/25

What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, by Mark Doty (W.W. Norton, 288 pages)

Most everyone with a high school diploma has read Walt Whitman; if not the entirety of “Song of Myself,” then at least “I Hear America Singing” or “1861,” which seems even more prescient in the current arm’d year.

But for many Americans, Whitman fast receded after American Lit, and his iconic Leaves of Grass is best remembered for an infamous toilet scene in the AMC show Breaking Bad.

It seems a sorry fate to be forever associated with idle bathroom reading.

To the rescue rides Mark Doty, a poet and Rutgers University professor whose latest book is a searing and worshipful ode to Whitman, who he considers the first “truly American poet.” A gay man once married to a woman, Doty accepts as canon the widespread belief that Whitman was gay, saying that there is a “deeper level of scandal” that exists in Leaves of Grass, most visible to those familiar with same-sex longings.

Doty explores those longings — not only Whitman’s, but his own — in What is the Grass, which swells beyond the confines of conventional memoir to explore the importance of Whitman’s work and its surprising relevance to events of today. The book is a gorgeous contemplation of mystery and transcendence, and of the confluence of two men separated by a century and a half, but not by fact that one of them is long dead.

“The dead persist audibly in language,” Doty writes, displaying an admirable ability to take a truth that is plain and make its expression exquisite, like the difference between generic flour and King Arthur’s.

Whitman was a writer who, for much of his life, walked a pauper trail; at midlife, he was living in a small apartment in New York with his mother and five of his siblings. He essentially self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855; having worked in printing since the age of 13, he set some of the type for the initial 200 copies himself.

It was, Doty writes, a strange book of verse “at odds in format and content with essentially everything in print in its day.” Whitman’s name was not on the cover. There was no indication in the lackluster reception that one of those volumes would one day sell at auction for $305,000, as it did in 2014, or that future generations would say “its best pages breathe an air perennially new,” as Doty describes them.

Whitman was a splendid mass of contradictions; a man believed to have once spent an afternoon in the embrace of Oscar Wilde, he once denied being attracted to men when asked directly. He possessed, Doty writes, “a radiant sense of connection to the bodies of others,” yet was a “perpetual outsider.” Today, his sexuality is discussed in some circles with reluctance; it is an ethical conundrum whether to out the dead.

Doty, however, frankly discusses his own relationships, from the “painful comedy” of a marriage to a woman twice his age, to his explorations in sex clubs and more fulfilling long-term relationships. The stories, while frank, are not titillating or gratuitous; they are earnest disclosures of a seeker who wants to know why Whitman has so profoundly affected his life, and that of American literature.

While there is structural analysis of Whitman’s poems here, it is not the dry stuff of lectures, but the invitation of someone who deeply cares about a subject and wants the rest of the world to share his enthusiasm. In this he succeeds; a chapter in, and I’d gone looking for my own dusty copy of Leaves of Grass, a gift stiff from disuse.

While on one level a meditation on sexuality, What is the Grass is evidence of Whitman’s unifying theory, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In other words, Doty’s experience is not my own, nor was Whitman’s, but there exist other, more important, commonalities, such as reverence for beauty and nature and passion and books, the latter of which, Doty believes, collide at the intersection of soul and time.

“The dead are not lost, but in circulation,” Doty writes. Like the poet who haunts him, he celebrates the “self without boundaries” while paying homage to the pocked and needful bodies tethered to earth. Whitman, wherever his atoms, must be proud. It’s a masterful work worthy of its subject. A


A few years ago, Time magazine reported that human beings now have the attention span of a goldfish, which can focus on something for about nine seconds without losing interest. That was quickly debunked by researchers who say that 10 to 15 minutes is more realistic.

And that is why the maximum length of a TED talk is 18 minutes, and why the ideal summer book should be not a novel or a 592-page White House memoir but a collection of essays or short stories.

When the heat sucks your energy like a bug zapper, there is pleasure in short bursts of reading equivalent to the time it takes to sip a frosty adult beverage. Consider these, which will not drain your energy or consume time better spent on the water or in the woods:

The Inner Coast: Essays, by Donovan Hohn: philosophical reflections on nature. Opening line: “I was, at age nine, a god of snails.” (W.W. Norton, 256 pages)

26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running and Life from My Marathon Career, by Meb Keflezigihi: inspiration from the long distance runner, Olympic athelete and Boston Marathon winner. Opening lines: “The first thing I see is the finish line behind me. For a moment I’m confused. Why am I lying on the ground with my head cradled in my hands?” (Rodale, 256 pages)

Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why, by Alexandra Petri: acerbic, partisan humor from a Washington Post columnist. Opening line: “You may feel that you understand what has been happening for the past four years, but I assure you, you do not.” (W.W. Norton, 240 pages)

The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery. Honestly, anything in the “Best American Series” works, depending on your interests; there is also Best American Short Stories, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mystery Stories, Sports Writing, Food Writing, Comics, Essays, and most intriguingly, “American Nonrequired Reading.”

But we’ll go with this one, edited by Montgomery, since she’s a Granite Stater. Her opening: “Several years ago I was invited to speak to kids and teens at the Boston March for Science. On a cold, rainy day in early April, I looked out at a sea of young faces framed by dripping umbrellas and the hoods of ponchos, and spoke to them about tree kangaroos.” (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages.)

Book Review 20/6/18

Somebody’s Gotta Do It, by Adrienne Martini (Henry Holt & Co., 240 pages)

On one hand, Adrienne Martini suffered from terrible timing, her new book coming out amid a global pandemic.

On the other, it’s a book about running for public office, and it’s out amid the most social unrest since the 1960s. Hillary Clinton tweeted about it. By these measures, it should be on everyone’s best-seller lists.

Somebody’s Gotta Do It is Martini’s account of running for — and winning — a decidedly unsexy office: district representative for Otsego County in rural New York. It’s also a call for you to stop the doomsday scrolling and do the same, wherever you live. This is not just because the world seems to be imploding before our eyes, but because of what Martini calls “a ripe, juicy opportunity ready to be plucked,” the redistricting that will happen next year, establishing electoral maps for the next decade.

Before your eyes glaze over at the prospect of being lectured to by the District 12 representative from Otsego County (home to Cooperstown, if you’re trying to place it), know that Martini is genuinely funny, despite being a middle-aged woman who knits. A marathon runner who writes a biweekly column called Dry Martini on a running website (, she is a reliable source of a laugh. That said, if you disagree with her political views and can’t take jokes aimed at your team, steer clear; you will only get angry. A previous memoir, 2010’s Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, may have the distinction of being the only knitting memoir savaged by Amazon reviewers for being too political. “If you want to tell the world of your political views, then WRITE A POLITICAL BOOK,” one said.

Regardless of your political leanings, Somebody’s Gotta Do It is a fine manual for the aspiring politician (or public servant, if you’re less cynical than me). It begins with Martini’s meltdown after the election of President Donald Trump. (The president’s supporters would call this the onset of Trump Derangement Syndrome.) Suffice it to say, Martini was not pleased, and after the inauguration, she decided it was high time she got involved in the political process.

The campaign itself was revelatory. But so was plunging into the work. At the first budget session for new members, during which she realized that the salt-and-sand budget for her county “could pay for my house three times over,” she concluded that running for office was kind of like pregnancy, in that she had spent nine months being “obsessed with the wrong things.”

“I owned every book on pregnancy and delivery, but had no skills or knowledge about, you know, infants.” Similarly, she said, “I’d approached running for office armed with research and numbers and opinions about how to win, rather than collecting information about what happens once you’re sworn in.”

While much of the book is about her own experiences, Martini delves a little into history, including the violence done to women’s suffragists, and also research on the gender divide in elected office. Although more women than men go to college, fewer hold public office, because fewer of them run. Martini suggests that this is as much about a lack of confidence as it is lack of role models. “Give every woman the confidence of a middle-class white guy, and we’ll run the world,” she writes. However, when women do run, they’re as likely as men to win. It’s just getting them to agree to be on the ballot that’s the problem, she said. That looks to be changing, at least among pro-choice Democrats. The political action committee Emily’s List reported that 920 women asked for information on running for office in 2016; in 2018 the number was 26,000.

Martini shines when applying her “Dry Martini” wit to the indignities of seeking office, as in her list of things she learned while doing that quintessential politician task: knocking on doors. One person, she reports, told her they couldn’t open the door because everyone in the house had tuberculosis, “which can’t possibly be true, but whatever.” The humor, however, comes and goes amid instruction on how to ask people for donations, design mailings, and answer seemingly impossible questions such as, “What would you do to combat the opioid epidemic in the county?” If we get a little impatient between jokes, it’s because we’ve been conditioned for them and expect them at the end of every paragraph, a la Sedaris.

In addition to learning how to run for public office, readers of Someone’s Gotta Do It will emerge with fresh revulsion for the typical coroner system, in which people of any background can be elected to determine how someone died, so long as they’re 18 or older and live in the county.

Martini’s revulsion for that system, however, is surpassed by her revulsion to Trump, whose election, she writes, left her literally shaking.

Like the nonplussed knitters upset by Martini’s political leaning in her previous memoir, some people won’t be able to get past the Trump hate to find anything useful or inspirational here. But for those who can, or those who share her views, Somebody’s Gotta Do It is a breezy, informative look at the grassy roots of politics, with the cheerleading of an overweight marathon runner who knows what it’s like to persevere while in pain. “Running very slowly while crying is still moving forward,” she writes. “So is walking while muttering [expletive, expletive, expletive].” B+

Covers for two books. Salvage the Bones, handwritten font tangled in the black silhouette of a tree, a swirly blue sky and yellow ground. The cover for Difficult Women, a black background with thin light pink font, and a heart made from pink color splashes.

The most interesting thing in publishing last week was not in book stores but on Twitter through the hashtag #publishingpaidme.

The hashtag started as a means to expose disparity between advances paid to black and white authors, but wound up also showing differences between genres, and also the courage of authors who chose to participate.

Roxane Gay, a black writer of fiction and nonfiction, said she was paid $15,000 for her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, $100,000 for 2017’s Hunger: A Memoir of My Body, and $150,000 for The Year I Learned Everything, expected next year.

Those numbers horrified Mandy Len Catron, an American writer and professor currently living in British Columbia, who revealed that she received a $400,000 advance for her 2017 memoir How to Fall in Love With Anyone.

For perspective, Catron confesses that she was “a totally unknown white woman with one viral article” — which was “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” published in The New York Times in 2015. Without revealing sales numbers, Catron also said that three years later she is “laughably far from earning out that advance.”

I wish I could recommend we all buy a copy of How to Fall in Love With Anyone just to support Catron for her honesty. But I just found my review from three years ago, and all I could muster was a “B.” Better to buy something written by Gay (I gave her 2017 short-story collection Difficult Women an A) or anything by novelist Jesmyn Ward.

Ward revealed on Twitter that her advance for 2011’s Salvage the Bones, which won a National Book Award, was $20,000 — about $13,000 less than the average car loan taken out this month.

Book Review 6/11/2020

Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor (Riverhead, 304 pages)

The pandemic has forced publishers to delay the release of dozens of books that didn’t seem appropriate to bring to market as a potentially deadly respiratory disease was spreading.

No such problem for Breath, journalist James Nestor’s examination of how generations of us became mouth-breathers, and how the practice is ruining our looks and our health. You with the sleep apnea. Me with the perpetually clogged sinuses. Nestor bids us to breathe only through our nose, “the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds and weather vanes to our emotions,” and to adopt a pace of inhaling and exhaling that comprises what he calls “the perfect breath.”

There’s a formula that seems to show God likes math: Inhale 5.5 seconds, exhale 5.5 seconds equals 5.5 breaths a minute, for a total consumption of about 5.5 liters of air.

Some years ago, Nestor became interested in a subset of extreme athletes called freedivers, people who can hold their breath for more than five minutes and dive deep in the ocean without breathing equipment. His exploration of that culture led to 2014’s Deep, Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves. He also took a class in mindful breathing that, while boring at the time, resulted in more focus and calm the next day.

So he began studying super-breathers, people who believe that how we breathe is intimately connected to how healthy we are, and noticing the differences between them and ordinary people who can hold their breath for maybe 20 seconds without thinking they’re going to explode.

And he concluded that most of us don’t really know how to breathe, even though we do it 50,000 times a day. We breathe sloppily, through whatever orifice happens to be open at the time. We take short, shallow breaths, many more times a minute than necessary. We can breathe like this, but we’re not meant to, Nestor argues. And the combination of a soft, modern diet that doesn’t require energetic chewing, and poor breathing habits, is rearranging our skulls, not for the better, he says.

This is not a new idea. In 1862, an artist named George Catlin traveled through reservations of native Americans and documented their remarkable good health and straight teeth, which in his book The Breath of Life he attributed to breathing only through the nose. The native Americans, like other civilizations 1,000 years before Christ, were convinced that mouth breathing led to ill health. Mothers would watch their sleeping babies and gently pinch their mouths closed if they opened, so children would grow into adults who only breathed through their noses.

If this seems weird, you should know that there live among us modern humans who put a piece of tape on their mouths before going to bed at night, to achieve the same goal. For a while, Nestor was among them.

As part of his research, he became half of a two-subject study to monitor the effects of spending 10 days breathing only through his mouth, and then 10 days breathing only through his nose.

Nestor emerged from his experiment convinced that the ancients were right, that we sacrifice much of our health and vitality by ignoring the quiet, constant intake of air, which we take for granted until our capacity becomes diminished. Research has shown that we absorb 18 percent more oxygen when we breathe through our nose than through our mouth. Air taken in through the nostrils is substantively different from air processed through the mouth.

Believers include a Silicon Valley dentist who tells his patients that chronic mouth breathing causes periodontal disease, cavities and bad breath and suggests that they use “sleep tape” on their mouth at night to break the habit, and a woman convinced that breathing therapy can heal scoliosis, among other conditions.

The modern tendency to breathe with both the nose and the mouth has effects beyond our perpetually clogged noses. Our nasal cavity atrophies when it’s not robustly used, and even our lungs suffer when we’re not using them to their potential; they further deteriorate with age. But, according to Nestor, and the Tibetians, “The internal organs are malleable, and we can change them at nearly any time.” Exercise helps, and so does proper breathing, which can also decrease anxiety and improve sleep, among myriad other improvements, Nestor promises. It did for him, although he warns that there is no breathing exercise that can dissolve an embolism or heal cancer. In short, better breathing can improve your life, but not save it.

“The glories of nasal breathing” is not the sexiest topic, but Nestor is persuasive and his narrative sings, at least for the first hundred or so pages. Later, he drills down into techniques he calls Breathing+, which he admits is a sort of “respiratory gauntlet” and not nearly as appealing as shutting your mouth and counting to 5½.

But in a culture where some of us are so perpetually stressed and distracted that we forget to breathe for a half-minute — a phenomenon known as “email apnea” — we could use a breathing coach. Breath suggests that we should all shut our mouth, but for eating and brushing our teeth. B+

For a couple of pleasant hours during the last week of May, it looked like the nation was going to turn its eyes to … birdwatching.
Before rage over the death of George Floyd exploded nationwide, rage over Amy Cooper’s tirade against birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park had spun off a delightful Twitter diversion, #Blackbirdersweek.
The virtual celebration was begun by a Georgia grad student, Corina Newsome, who studies seaside sparrows. It was quickly eclipsed by other, more momentous events, but in times of trauma there seems something healing in putting down the phone and picking up the binoculars. And there are a couple of new books out to assist.
Celebrated nature writer Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way is an examination of how birds “talk, work, play, parent and think” (Penguin, 368 pages). And Massachusetts naturalist David Allen Sibley has a new guide called What It’s Like to Be a Bird (Knopf, 240 pages). And Todd Telander has written a new Falcon Pocket Guide called Birds of New England (Falcon Guides, 192 pages).
Useful as they are, none of these are selling as well as the new Hunger Games prequel, Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Meanwhile, it’s not as useful as a $1,200 stimulus check, but Publishers Weekly, the venerable trade magazine about books and publishing, recently made its digital edition available for free to anyone who signs up on its website. It’s not clear how long this will last; the website says “free during the Covid-19 crisis.” But there’s an extraordinary amount of content that is usually behind a paywall, including current and past bestseller lists and a database of reviews going back to 1895. Not bad in exchange for an email address.
Another pandemic freebie is available from Audible, which has made a collection of children’s stories free “as long as school is on pause.” Go to

The Language of Butterflies

By Wendy Williams (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages)

The next time you think one of your relatives is weird, breathe deeply and think of Miriam Rothschild. Her father collected fleas.

“A flea lover since childhood,” he amassed more than 260,000 of them, writes Wendy Williams in The Language of Butterflies, explaining how Miriam Rothschild, a self-educated scientist and butterfly enthusiast, came naturally to the study of entomology.

Or consider Herman Strecker, a 19th-century stone carver who collected 50,000 butterflies. “He had a long face and a long neck and an even longer, out-of-control beard. He looked like Moses. He had deep-sunken grief-filled eyes. He lived the unkempt life of a zealot, going so far as to crawl in between his bedsheets with his pants and boots on,” Williams writes.

These unusual men, however, are peripheral characters in the story of butterflies, which Williams, a New England science writer, tells with aplomb. You may not care about butterflies. Don’t let that keep you from this book, which is more interesting than anything you will see on TV this week.

Even the most butterfly-illiterate people are vaguely aware of the monarch butterfly’s astonishing migration from Canada to Mexico, which Williams explains compellingly, having witnessed their arrival on a mountaintop, an experience that she calls “otherworldly.”

“The migration of the monarchs from points as far north as Canada all the way south to these particular mountaintops is a world phenomenon that belongs to everyone on the planet,” she writes. “It’s a source of global joy, like the migration of the wildebeest on the Serengeti Plain or the migration of gray whales off the west coast of North America.

“They are all following the sun, just as we would if we could.”

The monarch is the most famous of butterflies, and the most brutal — the males rape the females. You’d think they wouldn’t have the physiology for violence, but butterflies, Williams writes, are surprisingly sturdy. They look fragile yet have “robust” exoskeletons built for endurance.

But when it comes to interesting life stories, the monarchs have serious competition from a butterfly variety called Fender’s blue, which pupates underground, cared for by ants. When the butterfly emerges, the ants carry it to freedom above ground, as if the insect’s triumph is their own.

It’s an almost unbelievable story of a symbiotic relationship between creatures that we scarcely notice exist. The ants are motivated by the “invisible hand” described by 18th-century economist Adam Smith. Their reward is the sweet fluid that the caterpillar secretes, the ant equivalent of candy; in exchange for the treat, the ants provide protection from predators that the butterfly-to-be needs.

But it’s not the strange circumstances of butterfly existence that cause humans to be fascinated by them, Williams says. It’s their colors. “Your brain processes color information much, much more quickly than the information about movement. … What that means is that the color of an apple — or, in a spillover effect, the color of a butterfly — hits us fast and hard, in the gut.”

As flying insects with scales on their wings, moths and butterflies are cut from the same cloth, so to speak. Both belong to the second-largest category of insects, lepidoptera. But the drab moth repels us while the colorful butterfly entrances. Williams believes butterflies satisfy an innate craving for color in the human brain. In her 60s she set out to discover why the insect inspires biologists, hoarders and thieves — yes, there is a “international underground Lepidoptera market,” in case you were wondering.

The Language of Butterflies equally entrances, thanks to its author. This is not the Wendy Williams, radio host and lifestyle columnist, whose titles include Is the Bitch Dead or What? but the Wendy Williams who wrote a thoughtful history of the horse and is the co-author of 2007’s Cape Wind, a sympathetic examination of wind farming proposed off Cape Cod. Her voice is engaging and friendly; her enthusiasm for exploration, infectious. (This is a woman who keeps in her car a wide variety of footwear — hiking boots, riding boots, water shoes and so forth — just in case.)

Unlike wind farming, the subject of butterflies, approached deftly, can be apolitical. Williams worries about climate change and its effect on butterflies, wondering if one day their migration might be the stuff of lore, like the migration of passenger pigeons and North American bison. But she is neither a scold nor a Cassandra, and her tone is ebullient and hopeful. The only question she doesn’t answer adequately is what, exactly, one does with the corpses of 260,000 fleas. A

Recent events in Minnesota and New York City’s Central Park invite a reflection on the experience of being black in America. For people who haven’t had that experience, there are books.
A fine place to start is A Particular Kind of Black Man, which we reviewed here last year. (Simon & Schuster hardcover, paperback coming in August.) It’s a novel, but Tope Folarin draws on his experiences as a Nigerian-American growing up in Utah to craft a deeply moving, and sometimes painful, story.
In the opening pages the protagonist remembers an experience from his childhood: An elderly woman would sometimes appear by his side while he walked to school, often patting his head affectionately. One day she said to him sweetly, “If you’re a good boy here on earth, you can serve me in heaven.”
The child was just 5 and saw the promise as generous and magical, not the punch in the gut that it is to the reader. Folarin has said this exchange happened to him. This wasn’t 100 years ago. Folarin is 38.
On Twitter, some readers are asking for advice on books that can help them better understand the American-American experience. One title that keeps coming up is The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander’s book came out in 2010, but a 10th-anniversary paperback edition was released in January by The New Press.
Also new in paperback is Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math, an acclaimed memoir of growing up black in predominantly white Oregon. The prologue is a poignant letter to the first of the family to come from Cape Verde to America, in the 1700s. “This ain’t our Eden,” it concludes.
Two years old but No. 1 on Amazon for a while last week is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press). “I have never met a white person without an opinion on racism,” she writes. “… And white people’s opinions on racism tend to be strong. Yet race relations are profoundly complex. We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant.”
Also suddenly a bestseller is 2019’s How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and another title co-written by Kendi, Stamped, Racism, Anti Racism, and You, co-author Jason Reynolds (Little, Brown).
To America’s credit, many of these titles are now on backorder. There will be more.

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