The Little Liar, by Mitch Albom

The Little Liar, by Mitch Albom (Harper, 333 pages)

There’s a downside to being the author of a runaway bestseller like Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s that every book you write from that point on will be compared to the most successful one.

In Mitch Albom’s case, the success of his 1997 memoir about conversations he had with his former professor, who was dying of ALS, made him turn to fiction. While his subsequent books haven’t enjoyed the popularity of Tuesdays, which is among the best-selling memoirs of all time, Albom has a loyal following and continues to write columns and books. His latest, The Little Liar, is an imaginative and often troubling story that is part historical fiction and part morality play.

The titular character is an 11-year-old boy named Nico who, at the start of the novel, lives with his family in 1943 in Salonika, a city that at the time had the largest Jewish population in Greece. The Nazis have invaded and are driving Jewish families from their homes and into ghettos with the intent of sending them to concentration camps.

A Nazi officer recruits Nico to assure the families that they are merely being “resettled” and will have jobs and new homes in Poland. Nico is the ideal child for this job, as he is “a boy to be believed,” having no experience with lying; he is so honest naturally that he doesn’t fib even a little bit when asked, for example, if he has done the required reading in school, or if he was tagged in a game of chase. Nico’s believability is enhanced by his good looks: He is an extraordinarily beautiful child, so much so that strangers on the street stop to comment on his appearance.

And because he is so honest, Nico does not doubt the lies fed to him by a young Nazi officer named Udo, who promises Nico that his own family will be safe. Because he does not lie, he can’t envision that others do. So he willingly goes up and down the train platforms telling the anxious waiting families that he has heard that all will be well.

Things fall apart when Nico sees his own family loaded onto a train, and he finds out they are going not to new homes but to Auschwitz. Among them is Nico’s oldest brother, Sebastian, and a family friend, the same age as Nico, named Fannie.

The rest of the novel follows each of those characters — Nico, Sebastian, Fannie and Udo — throughout their lives, showing how Nico’s unintentional deceit affected all of them, even as adults.

These characters were invented by Albom, who said he got the idea for the novel after visiting a museum and learning that Jews were used to convince others to board the trains bound for death camps. “That perversion of truth, with life and death on the line, stayed with me for months and even years later,” Albom wrote in an author’s note.

Some of the characters in The Little Liar, however, were real people, including Katalin Karady, a Hungarian actress who used her fame and money to rescue 20 Jewish children who were about to be murdered by the Nazis.

The main conceit of the novel is that the story is told in first person by a mythological being: the Angel of Truth. This character comes from an ancient parable about how, when God was creating the Earth, he consulted angels with names like Mercy, Righteousness and Truth, and Truth was the only one who advised God not to create humans, because, as Truth said, they would tell lies.

“So what did the Lord do? He considered all that was said. Then He cast Truth out of heaven and threw him to the depths of the earth,” Albom writes.

This parable is not Albom’s creation but part of the Jewish tradition. But Albom makes Truth the storyteller, which allows for occasional soliloquies into the nature of truth and lies, e.g., “Truth is universal. You often hear that expression. Nonsense. Were I truly universal, there would be no disagreement over right and wrong, who deserves what, or what happiness means.” And, “Of all the lies you tell yourself, perhaps the most common is that, if you only do this or that, you will be accepted.”

As the novel went on, this narration started to feel a little contrived, but it all comes together with a clever ending that is surprising and satisfying. This is no small feat, given the dark subject matter that comprises most of the book, during the events of World War II and in the anger, bitterness and resentment that festers in later years.

As the characters travel different paths — Nico turning into another person altogether in an attempt to atone for his past — Albom explores moral questions such as whether there are sins that can’t be forgiven no matter what we do later in life, and whether any amount of atonement can release us from the torment of our own conscience. These are complex questions for the simple language used in this book, but Albom, like his teacher before him, has proven himself to be an exemplary storyteller. B+

John Abernathy You are Kind by Molly McGhee

Jonathan Abernathy is an unemployed college dropout, age 25, with no prospects for anything getting better — his “loans, IOUs, and bills so diverse ecologists would be within their jurisdiction to classify the collection as an ‘ecosystem.’”

He has a quarter of a million dollars in student loan debt (“with an APR so lethal it can kill within a week”) and inherited credit card debt from his parents “in the low six figures.”

Living in a basement apartment not much wider than the length of his body, Abernathy is so profoundly miserable that he is envious of his landlord going to work — “going somewhere where someone will tell her what to do. Then in exchange for this, they will give her money. Jonathan Abernathy would like to be told what to do in exchange for money.”

This is the set-up of Molly McGhee’s glorious debut novel, which paints a dystopian picture of what is commonly called late-stage capitalism and its effect on America’s underachieving young adults. Other than the misery of young people saddled with soul-crushing debt, there is little realism here, however. Abernathy lives in a world in which “dream auditors” infiltrate the dreams of sleeping citizens, this being possible because it has been discovered that “humanity shares a consciousness while it sleeps.”

People who are chosen to be dream auditors don special clothes and wander about the dreams of troubled sleepers, cleaning out the nightmarish stuff so that the person can sleep better and therefore be more productive at work — all the better for the economy. The service is much in demand by companies whose workforces “seem depleted.”

In this strange world, Jonathan Abernathy is recruited for an auditing job — appropriately enough, during his sleep. He’s desperate for the job because the alternative is selling hot dogs off a food truck, and this new job promises $20 a night (though, sadly, no health care) plus incremental student loan forgiveness and a temporary freeze on collections while he is employed.

So he’s grateful to have work, even if it’s strange and his co-worker/mentor, Kai, is even stranger. She is one of three women who populate Abernathy’s life, the others being his landlord, Kelly, and his neighbor, Rhoda, a single mother who always smells of pine and is in desperate circumstances of her own and, astonishingly, seems interested in him. Their relationship deepens as Jonathan becomes more entrenched in his job and continues with it despite troubling signs that everything might not turn out OK in the end, for anyone involved.

That is not a spoiler — the book begins even more ominously, with the line “Though it will take three years, from this moment, for death to act, Jonathan Abernathy will never live a life unmarked again. Death will be tethered to him as a shadow.” There are also some Jacob Marley-esque apparitions on the book’s cover.

Why read something that’s such a downer, especially during the holiday season? It’s a fair question, but in a world saturated with formulaic books, this is not one. Poor doomed Jonathan Abernathy, who earnestly recites affirmations to keep his spirits up (Jonathan Abernathy, you are strong! Jonathan Abernathy, you are brave! Jonathan Abernathy, there is nothing in life not meant for you!) gets our sympathy in part because McGhee convincingly paints him as a helpless pawn in the cold capitalist machine, and also because he is an orphan, both parents having died by suicide. These are odds not just stacked against him, but malevolently working to ruin him, as his new employer also seems to be.

At the same time, Abernathy has a sweet optimism that exists because of his willful oblivion. He wants to be a good person; he wants to be a good worker; he wants to be needed at work. (“He anticipates the feeling of being needed with the same fervor that he looks forward to arriving at a destination with air-conditioning after a long heat-soaked walk.”) But as it turns out, you can’t affirm yourself out of terrible things that have happened in the past, both your own, and that of people you know. And we keep reading, because we care about Jonathan Abernathy, and honestly, just want to know what happens to him. Closure matters.

This is McGhee’s first novel; she was working in a publishing house as she wrote it, and as such, the novel is polished in a way that some debut efforts aren’t. You can tell when someone spends their days immersed in words. You can also tell when someone is disillusioned with capitalism, as McGhee, like many of her generation, appears to be. She equates work with dreams, writing, “To work and to dream is to forget.” In this world, work is the merciless maw that consumes our hours, leaving precious little of the meaningful stuff. Is it preachy at times, and a bit too single-minded in insisting that Abernathy is a victim, devoid of any agency in his life? Of course. Is it also a book you will think about long after you’ve lent it to friends? That, too. B+

The Wake-up Call by Beth O’Leary

If I were a trendy person, I would call this book “mid”: just fine, mediocre, middle of the road. The Wake-up Call is fine for what it is — a predictable entry in the women’s fiction category.

Maybe I shouldn’t have read this right after finishing Remarkably Bright Creatures, which is thoughtful, intelligent and unique; this is a very different kind of book, meant to be light and fun. And it was fun, but it’s also forgettable, sharing the same tired plot as so many other rom coms before it. I personally am tired of plots that only exist because the two main characters keep misunderstanding each other and have an unbelievable inability to communicate.

The book alternates chapters between main characters Lucas and Izzy. They hate each other! But do they? The premise is that they work together, and the previous Christmas Izzy had written a card to Lucas telling him she was interested in him. But, big shocker here, he never got the card! And thus ensues a year of miscommunication that so easily could have been rectified if Izzy had just talked about why she was so damn upset.

The hotel that they work at is a great setting, and the supporting characters are far more interesting than Izzy and Lucas. There are mysterious guests, quirky guests and lonely guests. The rest of the staff is more compelling than the main characters too.

And then there is the ring subplot; the hotel is going under, so they’re trying to sell off unclaimed items that guests have left behind. There are, somehow, several diamond rings. So the staff sets out to find the people who belong to the rings, and Izzy and Lucas turn it into a competition of sorts, and it ultimately leads to some surprises that had the potential to make the book different from others in this category but were handled in what seemed like a slapdash way.

Ultimately, I wish O’Leary had put more effort into the stories and people behind the rings and less into Izzy and Lucas’s many, many frustrating experiences together — frustrating to them and frustrating to the reader who just wants to shake them and say “Just speak out loud what is in your head and everyone will feel better!” C+

The Good Part by Sophie Cousens

Meanwhile, I devoured The Good Part. Also in the women’s fiction genre but with a much fresher take on relationships and a more thoughtful reflection on life, it was a captivating read. Were there predictable parts and unbelievable moments? Of course. Is the general trope similar to Big and 13 Going on 30? Sure. (Cousens noted as much in her author’s note.) But The Good Part offers a new twist, and Cousens’ writing is engrossing, moving the story along at a quick and entirely enjoyable pace.

Lucy Young is in her mid 20s, unhappy with her job, her dating life and her living situation. An encounter with a wishing machine prompts Lucy to wish that she could skip to the good part of her life. When she wakes up, it is 16 years in the future. Her body has changed, she has a good-looking husband, a nice house and an important job, and she’s the mother of two.

The rub here is that her memories between the time she made the wish and the present are gone. She has no idea how she got to where she is in life, and she doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to do her job, manage new technology or parent her toddler daughter and 7-year-old son.

The dialogue between Lucy and her son Felix is hilarious. Felix knows right away that this isn’t his mom — this is an alien imposter. When she tells him what she thinks might have happened, he sets out to find the wishing machine that could transport her back to the time of life she left behind. The way their relationship develops over the span of the book is heartwarming and, more importantly, believable.

And of course Lucy also gets to know Sam, this stranger she apparently married and had children with. Sam handles her memory loss with the right combination of compassion and sadness. He reminds her of some of the things she’s been through in the past 16 years, and it’s not all good — which is seemingly why she skipped those parts. But it also means she missed out on some of the good stuff: meeting Sam, her wedding day, the births of her children. She’s left to wonder whether it was worth it.

The Good Part is the perfect combination of thought-provoking and funny, and the characters are loveable and real. It’s a stellar example of what women’s fiction has the potential to be. A

Build the Life You Want, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey

Build the Life You Want, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey (Portfolio/Penguin, 208 pages)

Trying to make sense of the career path of Arthur C. Brooks can make your head hurt. Brooks started out as a classical French hornist and for a while played for a Baltimore brass quintet before joining an orchestra in Barcelona. From there, he was a music teacher in Florida before deciding to study economics. A master’s degree and Ph.D. later, he became head of a conservative think-tank, then a Harvard professor, and he’s now written a book with Oprah Winfrey.

The only connective tissue in all of this is that Brooks, in his own life and professionally, is a master of the pursuit of happiness, which qualifies him to teach the subject at Harvard and to write about it for The Atlantic. It is through his column there that Oprah Winfrey attached herself to his train. Their collaboration, Build the Life You Want, is a compendium of Brooks’ research on happiness, presented O magazine style.

They begin with by recounting the last days of Brooks’ mother-in-law, who had a challenging life and was confined to a bed at age 93 yet insisted she was happier than she’d ever been. Brooks questioned her and learned that her happiness came in part from her sense of agency, and her cultivation of relationships, work and religious faith.

Happiness, Brooks and Winfrey contend, in the many sections of the book that teeter dangerously toward platitude, is not a destination but a direction.

“You can’t be happy — but you can be happier,” they write. This requires nurturing the three components of happier-ness: enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose, all of which require some degree of struggle. It is throwing off the idea of happiness being an achievable, sustainable state that allows us to be happier, to their way of thinking.

They delve into arguments that feel a little tired, such as the importance of not being led by emotions. They frame this within the concept of metacognition — “thinking about thinking” — viewing emotions as something to control, rather than letting them control you. To do this requires practice, Brooks and Winfrey write, offering four ways to develop the ability: becoming more observant of your feelings, writing about them in a journal, tapping into happy memories and looking for “meaning and learning in the hard parts of life.”

Their next recommendation, choosing better emotions, is a bit trickier, but they maintain this can be done. How? Practicing gratitude (more journaling required), finding ways to laugh, and choosing hope over optimism. The latter are not synonyms, they argue, saying “Hope involves personal agency, meaning it gives you a sense of power and motivation.” Like an earlier section, in which they insist that enjoyment and pleasure are different things, this assertion can send you down a rabbit hole of disagreement unrelated to their general point. Best not go there.

You can also get bogged down in their descriptions of how sympathy differs from empathy, which is different from compassion. But their point is that compassion combines empathy with a stoic tolerance of uncomfortable feelings associated with another person’s pain. “To be a more compassionate (and thus happier) person, start by working on your toughness. To be tougher in the face of another’s pain doesn’t mean feeling it less. Rather, you should learn to feel the pain without being impaired to act.”

Brooks and Winfrey challenge the common assumption that difficult times call for more “self-care.” Research has, in fact, shown that focusing on ourselves excessively does less to improve our sense of well-being than focusing on others. They offer suggestions for breaking this cycle, such as “avoid your own reflection” (this includes things like taking selfies and Googling yourself) and refraining from making constant judgments about the world.

Perhaps most helpful, particularly as we head into the holiday season, is their advice on family conflict. Families can be morass of unmet expectations and simmering resentments even when there aren’t larger problems like a “values breach,” which is the rejection of other family members’ deeply held beliefs. People often try to ignore conflicts like these, assuming they will age out of them, but in most cases these points of contention become more fixed over time. The authors recommend regular conversations to try to work out small conflicts before they become large, accepting others’ values, and they say, “don’t treat your family like emotional ATMs.” They also warn against “chronic negativity,” which requires a degree of emotional separation to overcome.

Finally, Brooks and Winfrey offer tips on categorizing friends as “real” or “deal” and cultivating friendships that contribute to happier-ness because they are “deeply real.” Meaningful work — “work that is love made visible” — and spirituality round out what is needed for happier-ness.

It is unclear how much of Build the Life You Want is Brooks and how much is Winfrey, although the scattered “A Note from Oprah” pages throughout the book suggest Winfrey mostly lent her name to the project. Some passages, the authors acknowledge, have already been published in The Atlantic. There’s nothing groundbreaking here for anyone familiar with the authors, but also nothing that isn’t worth a reminder. Then again, with such star power, it’s a bit disappointing that it doesn’t dazzle more than it does. B-

A City on Mars, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

A City on Mars, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith (Penguin Press, 448 pages)

Besides buying Twitter and normalizing electric cars, Elon Musk is known for his belief that human beings need to get off this planet and in particular colonize Mars. “It’s a little cold, but we can warm it up,” his SpaceX website says, adding that because gravity on Mars is 38 percent that of Earth’s, “you would be able to lift heavy things and bounce around.”

That sounds like an argument you would make to a 5-year-old. Also, a little cold? The average temperature is -80 Fahrenheit.

The optimism about populating an inhospitable planet has been long overdue for a reality check, and Kelly Weinersmith, a biologist, and her husband, Zach, a cartoonist, have stepped up to the plate.

The Weinersmiths are self-described “space geeks” who have studied the subject for four years, longer if you count the research they did for their 2017 book Soonish.

“We love visionary plans for a glorious future. We also are very skeptical people,” they write.

The Weinersmiths say the current conversation about Mars colonization centers around the specifics of getting there and settling in, while larger, stickier questions — such as ethical air rationing — are swept aside. They accept the noble intentions of the “space billionaires” — namely Musk and Jeff Bezos — but think that done right, colonizing space should be something that takes us centuries, not decades.

A City on Mars — subtitled “Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?” — comprises six parts, liberally punctuated with cartoons. The first section addresses the biological costs to spacefarers and the psychology of space settlement (i.e., how to go to Mars without losing your mind), as well as the logistical nightmare that is “space sex.” The people we’ve sent to space thus far are the best humankind has to offer; they go through gauntlets of testing to ensure they’re in peak condition. Even then, encapsulated in all their high-tech gear, they suffer the physical insults of living outside Earth’s gravity, including muscle and bone loss and eye damage. They’re exposed to higher levels of radiation in a place where medical facilities are in short supply. We don’t know what will be the physical effects of a longer period in space, much farther away than we’ve gone.

And there are the “morally dicey” issues that come with conceiving a child (should one be conceived) as basically an experiment. For example, “What we know about human bones in space today comes entirely from fully developed adults,” the authors write. “We have no knowledge about how altered gravity regimes will affect, say, a twelve-year-old girl having a growth spurt.”

The second and third sections of the book focus on living arrangements, including housing, food and waste disposal. You’d think anyone who signed up for a trip to Mars wouldn’t care about food beyond sustenance, but the Weinersmiths write, “People who study space psychology report good food as one of the most important factors in day-to-day well-being — an idea also found in books from the era of polar exploration.” (Fun fact: NASA prohibits adult beverages on the International Space Station, but on other trips, astronauts have taken cognac, whiskey and wine.)

Sections 4, 5 and 6 explore big-picture challenges: space laws, space states, space politics and of course the potential for space wars (which strikes down the argument for getting off this planet to escape the tumult here). The basis of space law was the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which in English was only about 2,500 words and basically said no weapons of mass destruction or military exercises in space. It also said all space activity should be carried out “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries.” That treaty and the Moon Agreement of 1979, however, do little to mitigate the kind of conflicts a greater human presence in space will raise, both in international politics and in the minutiae of spacecraft law such as whether starving astronauts can legally eat one of their crew. (There’s a scientific paper on space cannibalism titled “Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration.”)

Mars, which has 24-hour days similar to ours, could possibly be “terraformed,” its climate made more hospitable by detonating nuclear weapons at its poles, eventually making it warmer and wetter, and it’s easy enough to get to compared to other sites, but it’s far enough away that if something goes wrong you’re on your own. And the Weinersmiths envision everything, concrete and fanciful, that can go wrong, right up to war breaking out between the factions of Bezostralia and Muskow. They leave no moon rock uncovered.

Even a dystopian Earth is still better than Mars, the Weinersmiths argue: “That Earth still has a breathable atmosphere, a magnetosphere to protect against radiation, and quite possibly still has McDonald’s breakfast. It is not a world we would like to inhabit, but it is the one world in the solar system where you can run around naked for ten minutes and still be alive at the end.”

They’re not saying we should never go to Mars, just that we should do so slowly, after having worked some things out, like how to establish a short-term research station and how to make babies in space. B+

Mr. Texas, by Lawrence Wright

Mr. Texas, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 336 pages)

Sonny Lamb is a rancher who lives with his wife, Lola, in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It takes them 45 minutes to get to the nearest Dollar General. He is a kind-hearted man, the sort who, when he takes a prized bull to the livestock auction, can’t stomach it when the animal is about to go to a slaughterhouse, so he buys his bull back, even though the animal was only at auction because he was so broke.

This could explain why Lamb is just getting by in life, and suffering a bit of an early midlife crisis, sensing that “his life was ebbing, inevitably, pointlessly.” His wife loves him, but her large, fertile extended family exacerbates her husband’s feeling of everlasting mediocrity: The family “all carried themselves with an air of importance that Sonny could never hope to achieve.”
Then one day Lamb gets himself on the map when he saves a young girl and her horse from a barn fire. This happens around the time that a Texas state legislator dies mid-term, and a political mover-and-shaker is seeking a replacement in line with his interests. He’s looking for “Someone who stands for good, conservative values. Someone who commands the respect of all who know him. Someone with ideas. A patriot. A hero. A Republican.”
Sonny Lamb is none of these things, really. He’s adrift in a red state with “blue measles.” But someone had taken a photo of him riding a terrified horse out of a burning barn, and he’s hero enough.

Such is the beginning of Mr. Texas, a rollicking novel by New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright. A Dallas native who lives in Austin, Wright has said he came up with the character of Sonny Lamb more than two decades ago, and what is now Mr. Texas had earlier lives as a failed screenplay, a failed HBO pilot and even a failed musical. Which is fine, because it’s now a first-rate novel.

The person who plucks Sonny Lamb from obscurity is a lobbyist named L.D. Sparks, who at one point observes, “Funny how a person can live his whole life being good or bad, but there’s nothing on the record, nothing that you can hold in your hand and say, here, take a look, this is who I really am.”

But after Sonny’s heroics at the barn fire, he has a photograph that says exactly that, and even though Sonny also has a history of womanizing and drug abuse after a war injury in Iraq, Sparks realizes he could construct a winning candidacy around the man — with the help of a PR firm, of course. Sparks needs a legislator he can control since he is one vote short in the General Assembly to pass all the things he needs, and Sonny seems perfect, possessed of “youth, looks, good teeth, and naivete.”

Sonny and Lola are initially taken aback when Sparks appears on their doorstep, but Sonny decides this is the chance he needs, since he’s been struggling with the fact that he’s never set an important goal and achieved it. Despite the angst, hilarity ensues. When Sonny appears on a local talk show, his mother calls in to ask why he didn’t consult her before deciding to run. “Don’t just assume you’ve got my vote,” she says.

His Democratic opponent, Valerie Nightingale, is ahead by 25 percentage points. Things are going so poorly that Sonny is starting to think that Sparks was working for Nightingale and scammed him into running. After a debate in which Nightingale mops the floor with him, however, Sparks and the other consultants decide it’s time to exchange the moral high ground for street-fighting, albeit through a political action committee, keeping Sonny’s hands clean.

Meanwhile, Lola has announced that she desperately wants children and they need to try harder. So the couple embark on a “breeding schedule” — sex twice a day, between campaign events, as they throw themselves into a new life that will upend their current one in ways neither can foresee.

While Sonny and his handlers are Republicans, Mr. Texas is partisan, but not problematically so. Wright says he is politically independent and the book skewers all of us, not just the political establishment, mocking people who loathe government while living on Social Security and food stamps, and those who see elected officials as Santa Claus, existing to grant their every wish.
Sonny’s world is our contemporary one; his state is populated by real people and places, like Ted Cruz and the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas, although it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. A scene where legislators go pig-hunting seems made up but is based on reality, similar to an event held simply for Sonny to collect lobbyist checks.

While Mr. Texas gets a tad preachy toward the end and concludes a bit abruptly, this does not diminish the overall pleasure of the novel. This is no Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the classic 1939 film starring Jimmy Stewart, but it’s a version for our time, at least in book form. A —Jennifer Graham

Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Be Useful, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Penguin Press, 263 pages)

“Be useful,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father used to tell him, and it’s good advice. It’s also a great book title, especially when paired with the subtitle “Seven tools for life.” That’s likely a play on two books by a certain controversial Canadian psychologist, but it works, especially in the hands of a body-building movie star and former politician. Unfortunately, it’s about the only thing that works in this self-aggrandizing collection of platitudes and boasts that is sub-par even for the genre known as “self-help.”

Where to start? How about the cover? Perhaps Schwarzenegger wasn’t channeling his inner Donald Trump mugshot with this dark and unsmiling closeup, but they’ve both got the same vibe: angry men you don’t want to brush up against in an alley. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but also don’t scare off the readers. That said, Schwarzenegger is 76, and looking better than some others in his Hollywood cohort, reason enough to check out his rules in case there’s anything helpful there.

Schwarzenegger begins with an introduction in which he rattles off his accomplishments as if introducing himself as the keynote at a Rotary Club dinner. (As governor of California, he implemented “environmental policies that inspired the world” and passed “some of the most groundbreaking, cutting-edge policies that state government has ever seen” and so forth). He also briefly confronts some of his very public failures — the breakup of his marriage to Maria Shriver because of infidelity, and the loss of reputation and movie projects after that. To be fair, he owns it: “I blew up my family,” he wrote. “No failure has ever felt worse than that.” But a page later, he’s back to celebrating himself, writing, “If you’re ever read anything about me, though, you probably already know that I didn’t give up.”

And way too soon comes the line we knew was coming but could have done without: “Like I always tell you, I’ll be back.”

OK, then. On to the rules, each one of which comprises a chapter. We can quickly dispense with the first three, which are standard fare for the genre: “Have a clear vision,” “Never think small” and “Work your (expletive) off.” There’s not much in here that you couldn’t have written yourself, except maybe for the part about developing your clear vision by sitting in your Jacuzzi. Because, of course, that’s where inspiration comes from — not walking for hours around London at night, which is how Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol.”

“There’s something about the hot water and the steam, about the hum of the jets and the rush of the bubbles. The feeling of floating, of not being able to feel the weight of my own body, sharpens all my other senses and opens me up to everything around me. The Jacuzzi gives me twenty to thirty minutes of mental clarity. It’s where I do some of my best thinking,” Schwarzenegger writes.

This was startling to me, not that a movie star hangs out regularly in his Jacuzzi, but because suddenly I began to think I’d gotten it wrong, that this book was comedy, not self-help. Particularly when I read the next sentence: “Sitting in the Jacuzzi is where I got the idea for my speech to the American people after the events of Jan. 6, 2021.”

In that speech, which I’d completely forgotten but was easily found online, he said he wanted to help the American people in their time of distress, which is why he made the video, and that Trump would soon be as irrelevant as an old tweet, a statement that hasn’t aged well. But if you were moved by that speech, the backstory is all here.

Moving on to Rule 4, “Sell, sell, sell.” In this chapter Schwarzenegger extols the value of visualization, confidence and publicity, and why it’s helpful to let people underestimate you (they’ll be blown away when you exceed their expectations later).

Rule 5, “Shift gears,” sounds like a guide to pivoting when things aren’t going well, but is actually more of an ode to positivity, and not of the Norman Vincent Peale kind.

Schwarzenegger grew up in Thal, Austria, under conditions that many contemporary Americans might consider child abuse. His father, for example, required that he do 200 knee bends every morning to “earn” his breakfast and Schwarzenegger writes that his father would sometimes “come home drunk after work and hit us. Those times were very hard.”

But, he said, he chose to recognize that “on the vast majority of days my father was a good dad” and the difficulties he encountered in childhood helped to make him the person he is today. He also notes, however, that his brother grew up to be an alcoholic and eventually died in a drunk driving accident, so that formula for success is not one-size-fits-all. There’s a deeper, more poignant book in the brothers’ stories and how their lives turned out so differently, and the fact that it’s buried under talk about positive thinking is a bit unsettling.

The final rules are “Shut your mouth, open your mind,” and “Break your mirrors,” the latter a line that Schwarzenegger got from his former father-in-law, the late Sargent Shriver, who said in a speech in 1994 that we need to stop looking so much at ourselves and look at each other. It’s solid advice, particularly in the age of the selfie, and is an unexpectedly serious note on which to end, particularly after all the Jacuzzi nonsense.

On his way to becoming a champion bodybuilder, Schwarzegegger worked out five hours every day, and he says that as his goals evolved he took that same chunk of time and put it into whatever he was striving to be good at — first actor, then politician. That information suggests that there’s much more to this man than showmanship, and we get glimpses of depth in this book. Unfortunately too much of it dwells in the shallows, and it rises only to the level of a Dollar Store book. D

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, by Maria Bamford

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, by Maria Bamford (Gallery, 272 pages)

Are comedians prone to mental health problems? Two new books add to this image of the troubled funny man (or woman) — Misfit by Gary Gulman (Flatiron, 283 pages) talks about the comedian’s struggle with anxiety and depression; he also had an HBO special in 2019 called “The Great Depresh” that’s about mental illness.
Then there’s Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford, which is subtitled “A memoir of mental illness and the quest to belong anywhere.”
I haven’t gotten deep into Gulman’s memoir, but here’s what I can tell you about Bamford’s: It’s kind of a hot mess, a rambling, often cringey discourse that only occasionally does justice to its underlying and interesting premise: how secular “cults” — from family to 12-step groups — entice us because of our pathological need to belong.

To be fair, the need to belong is a feature, not a bug in our species, one that helped protect our ancestors from predators and starvation — safety in numbers, and all that. Groups provide human beings cover and, often, meaning. And Bamford has joined plenty, including Debtors Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. Her experiences in these groups provide a loose scaffolding for Bamford’s stories and jokes.
She wound up at Debtors Anonymous, for example, after an STD led to an infection which led to $5,000 in medical bills she couldn’t pay because she was working for a bakery, loading trucks. The work, she said, wasn’t enough to cover rent and groceries, let alone medical debt, and collectors started calling, and then she got robbed. Her parents were well off but announced they would support her emotionally but not financially, and apparently the emotional support wasn’t so great either.

So at Debtors Anonymous, Bamford got solid advice on how to deal with creditors and put her financial house in order, and got support from fellow sufferers. “This is the great thing about twelve-step support groups. You can share the grossest elements of your personal failings and all you will hear is peals of joyous recognition to the rafters of whatever Zoom breakout room you’re in,” she writes.

After a year of sundry humiliations, including living in someone’s spare bedroom and taking every temp job she was offered, Bamford was hired full-time at an animation studio in L.A. There she could afford an efficiency apartment with a pool (“Filled with leaves and a dead baby possum, but a POOL!”) It took eight years to fully pay off her medical debt, while she was cobbling together a career in which she was successful on some fronts and still struggling on others. For example, she was fired from a job at Nickelodeon shortly before she got work doing voice-overs for the series CatDog. She was still working reception jobs by day when she was appearing on the Tonight show.

Along the way she was struggling to have sustained relationships, which is one way of saying she was having a lot of one-night stands. “What to do? I joined another twelve-step group! Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.”
There, she met “buzzy, intense people in tight clothes” who supported each other in coming up with a “dating plan” and she eventually improved so much that she was able to have a relationship for 11 months with someone who was in a group called Marijuana Anonymous.

At this point, Bamford starts running out of 12-step groups to write about, so she ascribes culthood to other random things, such as success. One success she found was as an actor in Target Christmas commercials (you can see them by Googling “Target Christmas Lady”) starting in 2008. But the success of those commercials constrained her in other ways, and she had a personal tragedy involving a dog she loved, and then because Bamford had started feeling ethically compromised by working for Target, she wrote a letter to “The Ethicist” column at the New York Times, setting off a chain of events that got her fired.

I am literally exhausted by this point, just reading about her life.
She foresaw this, writing “Maria, where was your psychiatrist in all this?” and explaining that she’s been on Prozac for an eating disorder since 1990, and now she was thinking she could be bipolar, and then she had a terrible relationship with a bad man, and suddenly she’s checking herself in a psychiatric ward — at which point she is entering a new cult, “the cult of mental health care.”

The book ends with what is officially called “Obligatory suicide disclaimer” and a genuinely heartbreaking sketch that Bamford did in fifth grade. It’s titled “I feel down in the dumps” and shows a child kneeling with their head hung down. It makes evident that Bamford’s difficulties with mental health aren’t simply the result of bad decisions in adulthood, and a difficult mother, but mental demons have stalked her since childhood. She writes, “Like most people, I’ve thought of suicide between eight and ninety times per day since around the age of nine,” even though she says, “Even regarding suicide, I’m not a can-do person.”

Finally Bamford goes into a couple of pages of jovial advice for people who are suicidal. Call a helpline — dial 988, for starters. “BUT IF THAT FAILS: Call AT&T! Call Domino’s. Call an anti-abortion ‘clinic’! See if they’re pro-life for your life.”

OK, this is comedy, I get it. (I think. Does she really think that “most people” think of suicide all day every day?) And there will no doubt be people struggling with mental health for whom this approach is genuinely helpful. “Please don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. Do something else instead. Even if it’s harmful! Suicide is a one-off. You can do meth at least twice without consequences! … Knock yourself out with a forty-ounce keg of Baileys Irish Cream and a Dairy Queen Blizzard. You do not want to miss any additions to the Dairy Queen product line!

Bamford is genuinely funny, and there are moments of light and love in this book, however fleeting. There’s a lot of family angst between Bamfords that remains unresolved, let’s just say.

But there is still something unsettling about turning mental health struggles into a punch line as Bamford and other comedians are doing, apparently successfully. If this book helps even one person, then it’s an unqualified success. But for someone who doesn’t think about suicide at all, let alone regularly, it was an uneven and heart-rending read. C

— Jennifer Graham

Featured photo: Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, by Maria Bamford. Courtesy photo.

The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff

The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff (Riverhead, 253 pages)

In a world populated with doomsday preppers, people embracing life off the grid, and extreme athletes racing for days through the wilderness, there is surely a market for a book about a girl who escapes servitude and lives alone in the wilds of 17th-century America.

Whether there’s a market for such a book written in the language of, say, Chaucer, is harder to predict.

But many people are gushing about Lauren Groff’s latest book, The Vaster Wilds, which is a brutal and bloody survival story wrapped in lyrical Middle Ages prose.

The unnamed girl, in her late teens, had been born in England and “discovered a new born babe, all alone one bad dawn, still in the juices of birth, and naked in the filth of shiteburne lane, and nearly dead of cold.” She was taken in by a church and adopted at age 4 by a minister and his wife, and charged with taking care of their child.

The girl grew attached to her charge, whom she calls repeatedly “the child Bess,” and traveled with the family by boat to the Jamestown colony, not knowing that people were starving in the “new world.” (The novel is set around 1610, a time in which an estimated 80 percent of Jamestown colonists died of starvation and disease.)

For reasons that are slowly revealed, the girl decides that the wilderness of this strange land is better than the colony, so she steals leather gloves and a cloak from her mistress, and boots from a boy who’d died of smallpox that week, and she flees.

“Into the night the girl ran and ran, and the cold and the dark and the wilderness and her fear and the depth of her losses, all things together, dwindled the self she had once known down to nothing. A nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past. It was also true that with no past, the girl thought, a nothing could be free.”

The dangers awaiting the girl include not just the elements and men sent to pursue her, but continued starvation, wild animals and the fact that she has no compass or roads and no real place to run to. She just goes, intent only on survival.

As her trajectory itself is not much more interesting than a typical NASCAR race — only she is running in a direction, north, and not in circles — part of the story is her recollections of the past, to include a lost love, and her hopes for the future, which involve making it to Canada, getting married and having children in a house that is safe and has food. She recalls various atrocities she witnessed, in England and in the new land. And there are enough heads on sticks and flayed men here to comprise a new episode of Game of Thrones.

There is also the matter of her sustenance, which requires many unsettling scenes, such as a half fileted frozen fish that suddenly, upon thawing, is shocked back to life, and a nest of baby squirrels that she harvests for meat with the angry mother looking on.

But there is transcendence in the wild, too, as when she awakens one night to see a huge bear sitting at the base of a waterfall, looking at it in something that seems to resemble awe. That leads her to contemplate how “if a bear could know god in his own bear way, then a bear had a soul. …. Then she thought that perhaps in the language of bears there was a kind of gospel, also. And perhaps this gospel said to the bears the same thing about god giving bears dominion over the world. And perhaps bears believed that this gave them license to slaughter the living world, including the men in it.”

For an uneducated girl of 17 or 18, she is deeply spiritual, in part because of the religion pressed upon her in servitude, in part because of the voices that she converses with while she runs. At one point, the voice scornfully interrogates her about why she thinks she can survive in such harsh conditions, alone. “And she wanted to weep but she did not and instead she said, But I am not alone for I carry my god in my heart always. And she did, she felt god, a pinprick of light deep within her.”

The Vaster Wilds is not an easy read, despite the beauty of its language. It wasn’t until I was more than a third through the book that I grew comfortable enough with the style and language that I wasn’t actively observing it. But once you get to that point — and maybe it will be sooner for you than me — it’s like getting a second wind on a run, or getting into “flow” in an activity. Still, it’s a book that, like poetry, requires you to take it in slowly for effect. Unfortunately, it’s also a book that requires readers to suffer with the protagonist, from beginning to merciful end. You’ll love it or hate it, but will not forget it. Which also might be good or bad. B

Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson

Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 615 pages)

In April of this year, social media had a field day when, soon after launch, a SpaceX rocket exploded 24 miles in the air and Elon Musk’s team called it a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

What most people didn’t know is that this phrase wasn’t a euphemism devised by a beleaguered PR team, but a term that SpaceX had long used to describe a strategy: Move fast, take risks, blow stuff up, learn from it. It explains why, right after the explosion, Musk said to his team: “Nicely done, guys. Success.”

That strategy is not just a business slogan but a way of life for Musk, who is not only the world’s richest man but possibly its most interesting. The tech world used to have a galaxy of superstars, to include Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey. After his purchase of Twitter, Musk started taking up all the oxygen in the room, making all these movers-and-shakers in the tech world sideshows or opening acts for him.

Whether you admire or loathe him, Musk is one of the most consequential people on the planet, and Walter Isaacson, formerly head of Time and CNN, does a masterful job at explaining why in his exhaustive new biography. Spanning 615 pages before the footnotes, bibliography and acknowledgments, it’s a compilation of interviews with Musk and his family and business associates, and two years of following Musk around. Essentially, the only way you could know more about Elon Musk is to have witnessed the 52 years of his life yourself.

And while most of what we know about Musk started when he became an internet multimillionaire at age 27, it’s the formative stuff — the things that happened in childhood and adolescence — that best explains him. Unlike, say, Zuckerberg, who seems to have had a relatively stable childhood in suburban New York, Musk grew up in challenging circumstances in South Africa, the child of unconventional parents who were themselves the children of unconventional parents.

Take his maternal grandfather, who worked as a rodeo performer, construction hand and chiropractor. One day he drove past a single-engine airplane sitting in a field. He had no cash and didn’t know how to fly, but convinced the owner to trade the airplane for his car. “The family came to be known as the Flying Haldemans, and [Musk’s grandfather] was described by a chiropractic trade journal as ‘perhaps the most remarkable figure in the history of flying chiropractors,’ a rather narrow, albeit accurate, accolade.”

Musk’s mother, Maye, was part of the “Flying Haldemans” and was for a time a model, but it was perhaps his father, Errol Musk, described as “an engineer, rogue, and charismatic fantasist,” who had the biggest impact, because of his abusive behavior. Elon’s brother, Kimbal, who, like Elon, has no contact with his father today, said Errol had “zero compassion,” and Elon Musk still chokes up when talking about how his father treated him as a child, at times making him stand for an hour while his father yelled him calling him an idiot and worthless, Isaacson writes. School was no better — young Elon was constantly getting beaten up, and he was sent to wilderness-type camp during the summer where the boys were literally told to fight each other to survive, and some campers had actually died. Musk described the camp as “a paramilitary Lord of the Flies.”

Isaacson said these early experiences help explain why, even today, Musk’s moods “cycle through light and dark, intense and goofy, detached and emotional, with occasional plunges into what those around him dreaded as ‘demon mode.’” Elon’s first wife, Justine, told Isaacson that in South Africa, Elon “learned to shut down fear,” adding, “If you turn off fear, then maybe you have to turn off other things, like joy or empathy.”

The sins of the father haunted the son even as he left South Africa for Canada just before he turned 17. He went by himself and later was joined by his mother and siblings. Soon after he got to Canada, he lost all his money when he failed to return to a bus before it took off; that experience was what got him thinking about ways the financial industry needed disrupting, which eventually led him to a troubled partnership with PayPal founder Peter Thiel.

But Musk’s first millions came from a venture called Zip2, an internet startup that created city guides for newspapers. Then in 1999 he founded a venture he called, which he saw as a “one-stop everything-store for all financial needs: banking, digital purchases, checking, credit cards, investments and loans. He described the venture to Isaacson as “the place where all the money is at,” which makes X, as in the company formerly known as Twitter, seem like child’s play.

From there Isaacson goes on with astonishing detail into the creation of Tesla and SpaceX and sundry other ventures, as well as the relationships that came after Justine. Musk has 11 children with three women, the youngest (with singer Grimes) named X, Y, and Techno Mechanicus, who is called Tau.

The X obsession is more than a little strange, and the richer Musk gets, the more the world gives him a pass for his strangeness and the cruelty that he seems to have inherited from his dad.

“Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behavior, his callousness, his recklessness?” Isaacson writes. “The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth.” Isaacson, who has also written biographies of Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, among others, was granted astounding access to Musk and his associates; he says Musk even encouraged his adversaries to speak with him. There will yet be other biographies written; Musk is still in the early stages of his goal to transfer human consciousness to Mars, and he seems to think time is running out to save the species. Then again, a risk-taker like Musk may run out of time himself. His grandfather, the leader of “The Flying Haldemans,” had a motto: “Live dangerously — carefully.” He wasn’t careful enough. He died when Elon was 3, in a plane crash.

Isaacson’s prose is sparse; he lets his subject and interviewees do the talking, and they all had plenty to say. This is the rare book that I recommend reading on a tablet or phone. The heft of the book makes it difficult to hold comfortably. It’s hard to pick up, but it’s also hard to put down. A —Jennifer Graham

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