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 X.com, 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

Happiness Falls, by Angie Kim

Happiness Falls, by Angie Kim (Hogarth, 387 pages)

What if a father went missing, and the only person with information about what happened was a disabled teenager who was unable to talk?

That’s the disturbing premise at the heart of Happiness Falls, the second novel by the author of 2019’s Miracle Creek, Angie Kim.

The novel is narrated by Mia, a 20-year-old college student, home for the pandemic and prone to rattling on at length about anything that comes to mind.

She has two brothers, the younger of whom is autistic and has also been diagnosed with something called mosaic Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder “which means he can’t talk, has motor difficulties, and — this is what fascinates many people who’ve never heard of AS — has an unusually happy demeanor with frequent smiles and laughter.”

Eugene is 14 and is primarily cared for by his father, a stay-at-home dad who daily takes him for long walks in a park near their home in the suburbs of Virginia. One day in June 2020, however, Eugene arrives home alone — running, dirty, disheveled and agitated, with traces of what appear to be blood under his fingertips.

Mia, who like the rest of her family is extremely protective of Eugene, later washes Eugene’s clothes and directs him to shower, one of many reactions that she later comes to question. But the Korean-American family is slow to realize that something bad might have happened to the father — they assume that there’s some rational explanation for why the father is slow to return and don’t even call the police for hours.

Once they do, a series of events unfolds that causes Mia, her other brother and her mother to question everything they believed about their life to that point, in particular what both Eugene and their father might be capable of, what secrets they might be concealing.

When, during an interview with police detectives, Eugene becomes upset and lunges at his mother, the teen comes under suspicion. Could he have violent tendencies the family has covered up, and could he have accidentally or even intentionally harmed his father?

And the discovery of texts the father sent to an unfamiliar woman — who is also now missing — calls into question his fidelity to his wife and family.

Meanwhile, other snippets of evidence keep turning up — perplexing snippets of video shot by passers-by the day of the disappearance, security footage showing the father’s credit card being used, and a backpack found in a river that contained a water-logged notebook in which the father had been recording notes on what he called the “Happiness Quotient.”

A less skilled writer could have taken the bare bones of this story and turned out a Hollywood thriller. But Kim makes it next-level by incorporating research on happiness and how changes in its baseline (literally, happiness levels falling and rebounding) affect our sense of well-being. And the novel is deeply researched on the subject of people who are unable to speak, because of severe autism or other disorders.

Kim explains in her author’s note that she experienced the frustration of being unable to communicate when her family moved to the U.S. when she was 11 and only knew a few “essential English phrases” she’d memorized. “Our society — not just the U.S., but human society in general — equates verbal skills, especially oral fluency, with intelligence. Even though there was a good reason I couldn’t speak English, I felt stupid, judged and ashamed,” she wrote.

Eugene, trapped in a seemingly impenetrable bubble, appears to have this sort of frustration, apparently processing some sort of trauma in the only way he knows how, by incessantly jumping on a trampoline and making anguished animal-like sounds, or zoning out by watching anime on his tablet. What he has going for him is love — a family that is unwilling to give up on him, no matter what has happened. But the novel also questions whether our expressions can go too far, to the point where they become damaging.

Happiness Falls is both an engrossing mystery and a family drama with multiple layers of complexity. A minor irritant is the series of footnotes that populate the book — not substantiation of facts, as footnotes are in a research paper, but asides derived from Mia’s hyper-analytical stream of consciousness. Addressing the reader, Mia says at the beginning of the narrative that readers can skip over the footnotes to get to the end, and eventually I did just that, as their presence was such an annoyance in the novel. It’s not that I objected to what Mia was saying in the footnotes, but their presentation interrupted the flow.

Also, I questioned whether this needed to be yet another pandemic book. But those are minor quibbles, and Happiness Falls delivers, maybe not happiness, but a novel you can get lost in this fall. A

Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge

Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, by Spencer Quinn (Forge Books, 291 pages)

Spencer Quinn is the pen name for Peter Abrahams, the Cape Cod resident who is the genius behind the “Chet & Bernie” books. They’re a collection of whimsical mysteries narrated by a dog who solves crimes with his human companion. I have zero evidence to support this, but believe that the books were sold solely because of their titles, which include “Tender is the Bite” and “The Sound and the Furry.” If you like this sort of thing, I suppose the books are great. If you don’t, they are painful.

And so I confess I came to the start of Quinn’s latest series with some trepidation, despite Stephen King having declared on the cover that he “absolutely adored the book.” The novel is called Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, and it’s about a Florida widow who gets cyber-scammed by some unethical Romanians. It’s quirky, but surprisingly poignant and fun.

The titular Mrs. Plansky is 71 and although her first name is Loretta it is an affectation of the book that she is called Mrs. Plansky throughout. She had been married to Norm, with whom she had a long and satisfying marriage, producing two children. The couple had lived in Rhode Island, but the success of their business — the Plansky Toaster Knife, a knife that toasts bread while you slice it — enabled a comfortable retirement in Florida where they did the obligatory retirement thing when you live near a coast: “getting a metal detector and taking it for long beach walks.”

All this to say, Mrs. Plansky missed her husband greatly when he died of cancer, but he left her enough money that she doesn’t have to worry, and she keeps busy with the many needs of her grown children and grandchildren, and also with her tennis foursome.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Plansky, while she is living her best widowed life, a villainous man somewhere in Romania is paying an instructor to teach English to his dead brother’s son. It’s a bit of a struggle. The frustrated teacher tries to explain to the boy why no American ever says the grammatically correct phrase “It is I” — “You must learn the right wrong grammar. That’s the secret of sounding American.”

How does one learn the right wrong grammar? “There are ways. For one you could go to YouTube and type in ‘Country Music.’”

The teen, Dinu, is learning English for a nefarious purpose that is obvious from the start. At his uncle’s direction, he will be connected with hapless senior citizens in America in a scheme to drain their bank accounts. Mrs. Plansky is his first victim when she authorizes a payment to a person she thought was her grandson using a platform hilariously called “Safemo.”

While the banks and law enforcement were suitably solicitous about Mrs. Plansky’s plight, they ultimately said there was nothing they could do because the Romanian authorities tended to look the other way on such crimes, seeing as they brought U.S. dollars into their economy. At first Mrs. Plansky resolves to just figure out how to live out her days on Social Security and any job she can get; she owns her car and condo outright (and has a new hip), meaning she is already in better shape than many other people her age. She sits down to do an accounting of her assets, liabilities and income and have a drink like people on the Titanic “after the collision but before the realization,” and finds the math grim.

In addition to her own living expenses, she has promised loans to her children and is responsible for her 98-year-old father, who needs to move into a more expensive wing of his assisted living facility. Also, she is feeling as though she failed her beloved Norm in being taken in by the scam and losing their savings. She is finally overtaken with “real, hot fury” over her circumstance, sells her deceased mother’s emerald ring and books a plane ticket to Bucharest, determined to solve the case (and get her money back) herself. Hijinks ensue as she moves from “doing, not being done to.”

Since the publisher has already revealed that this is the first book in a new series, it’s obvious that Mrs. Plansky will survive her adventure with her pluck intact. There are enough clues throughout the novel that the astute reader will have a vague idea of how the story will end before Mrs. Plansky even deplanes. If you’re looking for a heart-stopping thriller with a surprise ending, look elsewhere.

That said, Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge is light-hearted fun packed with sly asides (like a “presidential suite” in a Romanian hotel that had a picture of Richard Nixon above it) that elevate it above a beach read — or a story of a dog detective. It’s a deceptively smart little novel, inspired by a similar scam call to the author’s father.

And Chet and Bernie fans can rejoice; that series is not over. Up on the Woof Top, a “holiday adventure,” comes out next month. B+

Wifedom, by Anna Funder

The Breakaway, by Jennifer Weiner (Atria, 387 pages)

Not many novels get reviewed by Bicycling magazine, especially not ones by Jennifer Weiner. But the author of books such as Good in Bed and The Guy Not Taken has written what she calls “a love letter to cycling, and to traveling,” and the magazine took note.

The Breakaway, Weiner’s 20th book, is about a 33-year-old woman who is asked by a friend to lead a group of cyclists on a two-week trip from New York City to Philadelphia. Abby Stern, who pieces together a living walking dogs and picking up other unfulfilling gig work, has nothing better to do and needs the money — and also the chance to get away, because her boyfriend has just asked her to move in with him.

Although everything seems perfect on paper, Abby is hesitant and can’t figure out why. Mark is a podiatrist who adores her. He’s a fitness buff who runs 6 miles each day, so good-looking that when they’re out together others look at them quizzically, as if they can’t figure out why these two are together.
Ironically, they met as teenagers at a weight-loss camp, but later lost touch. Mark went on to have weight-loss surgery and develop a lifestyle so rigid that he never eats dessert; when he wants something sweet, he brushes his teeth or uses cinnamon-flavored dental floss. Abby, meanwhile, has come to be comfortable in her plus-sized skin, and she enjoys eating, despite having a mother who has tried to make her thin since childhood.Abby’s relationship with her mother is fraught, mostly because Eileen is, in Abby’s terms, “a professional dieter,” so scared of gaining weight that she picks the croutons off her salads as if they were slugs. Although Eileen insists she shipped Abby off to weight-loss camps each summer because she wanted “what was best” for her daughter, Abby just wanted unconditional love, which she didn’t get from her mother.

So when Eileen shows up unexpectedly for the bike trip, insisting that she just wants to spend some quality time with her adult daughter, Abby is suspicious and more than a little stressed.
But a bigger problem is a man who joined the group — someone Abby had a one-night stand with two years earlier.

This is not a surprise to the reader since, when Abby went to the man’s house, she had observed a high-end bicycle hanging on the wall. Some might call this foreshadowing. I call it an announcement that readers aren’t going to have to think too hard in the pages that follow.

It was pretty much a given that the one-night stand, Sebastian, would later show up to complicate Abby’s perfectly arranged life, given his juxtaposition with Mr. Boring But Nice.

But Weiner is a pro and her characters are surprisingly nuanced — not only the leads but also the supporting cast. The others who have signed up to ride the Empire State Trail — which is real and is the longest multi-use trail in the U.S. — include an evangelical Christian mom and her moody teen, two older couples who do a bike trip together every year and call themselves “The Spoke’n Four,” and a couple with two teenage boys.

There is a side plot involving Sebastian, who, during the trip, has gone viral on TikTok because of a video made by a vengeful former hook-up. This complicates the (utterly predictable) feelings that Abby and Sebastian have for each other even more than the presence of her Spandex-wearing mother does. And there is also a side plot involving a teenager in the group and a pregnancy that disappointingly devolves at times into a thinly veiled screed against the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

It’s not unusual for Weiner to delve into the political in her novels, which are staunchly feminist and often feature characters who have been shamed for their weight. She writes authentically about this because she’s been there. As she told one interviewer, “I wanted to write about the women I was seeing in the world who were fat and strong and beautiful and powerful and had great jobs and loving relationships because those were the books I needed when I was 14 and 15 and 16 years old.”

She also writes authentically about cycling, a love of hers that she rekindled during the pandemic. The book is dedicated to “all the riders and leaders of the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia,” where she lives.

Weiner is the sort of writer people call “relatable,” as are her characters. Her novels are not highbrow, but then neither are most of us, and she is undeniably a master of her genre. Unfortunately, the subtle political asides (such as a character deriding a “dead-white-men” tour of historical sites) sometimes seem like a way to add gravitas to what is, in essence, a beach read. The story would be fine without what can come across as preaching.
The takeaway from The Breakaway, however, is pretty simple: bicycling is good, people are complex, and we can make our own happy endings. Also, life is short: eat dessert. B

Wifedom, by Anna Funder

Wifedom, by Anna Funder (Knopf, 464 pages)

Never meet your heroes, goes the old adage. A corollary should be “Never read the letters written by their wives about them.”

Unfortunately, for fans of George Orwell, nee Eric Blair, in 2005 a series of letters was discovered, written by his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessey, to her best friend. Compared to the hundred of thousands of words written by Orwell, and about him, the letters represented just drops in the proverbial bucket. But those drops made waves. And now they are the basis for a partly imagined book about the couple that lionizes Eileen at the expense of her husband. Read at your own risk.

Funder is an Australian writer who immersed herself in Orwell during a time when she was dissatisfied with the demands of her life as a wife and a mother while trying to fulfill her own professional ambitions. After reading his books and a half-dozen biographies, she moved on to Eileen’s letters, curious as to why Eileen was largely invisible in what had been written about Orwell. This is not a particularly original question when it comes to the wives of famous men; books have been written in recent years, for example, that introduce the little-known wives of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, among others.
But Funder brings a certain fury to her endeavor, because of her own domestic unhappiness and the concurrent river of discontent that flowed toward the patriarchy throughout the #MeToo years. She weaves her own unhappiness with that of Eileen, who died tragically on an operating table at age 39, though any real kinship between the two seems greatly exaggerated.

The Orwell that Eileen’s letters introduce us to is a petulant, entitled, unfaithful misogynist. The Eileen that Funder introduces us to is a brilliant, selfless martyr. His needs supersede hers at all times; even when they adopt a son at his request, he is not present when it’s time to pick up the infant. He’s an absentee husband and would have been an absentee father if they’d both lived long enough. As it is, she died at 39, Orwell at 46.

The story of her death is heartbreaking and evokes the problems of many in the working class today. The couple made too little money to cover their bills but too much to qualify for charity care. When she was diagnosed with cancer and needed a hysterectomy, she chose the cheapest doctor and hospital she could find, because, she wrote, “what worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money for better care.” She died of heart failure on the operating table. Her husband was in Paris, where he had been socializing with Ernest Hemingway. He later responded to someone’s condolences by saying, “Yes, she was a good old stick.”

There’s a line in the late Keith Green’s song “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt,” in which the ancient Israelites in the desert are complaining about their lot, saying “Moses seems rather idle / He just sits around and writes the Bible.”
That comes to mind while Funder recounts the work Orwell did with Eileen providing support. In the first six months of their marriage, Funder notes, he finished his “Shooting an Elephant” essay, wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, reviewed 32 books and composed two lengthy articles. In the last days of his life, Orwell would describe the incessant need to produce, writing “all my writing life there has literally not been one day in which I did not feel that I was idling … and that my total output was miserably small.”

Maybe someone that obsessive about work should hire a secretary instead of taking a wife, I don’t know. The pair were both miserable in their own ways, it seems, and both cursed with ill health. Funder’s overarching complaint is the “conditions of production” for high-achieving men. “So many of these men benefited from a social arrangement defying both the moral and the physical laws of the universe in which the unpaid, invisible work of a woman creates the time and neat, warmed and cushion-plumped space for their work,” Funder writes. In other words, like many contemporary women, she’d like a wife, too, or at least someone who would provide the traditional services of one. She later says, “Access to time, as to any other valuable good, is gendered.”

True as this still may be in some families, there has been progress on this front in the author’s life, and even in previous generations there have been women who have managed visible, professional success while married to high-achieving men and raising children.

This is not to say that Orwell wasn’t a first-class jerk who didn’t deserve the saint of a woman he married. But Wifedom, while not entirely fiction, is speculative, and Funder is clear that she came to the story with an agenda. Her achievement may not be so much truth as it is disillusion. B-

Slow AF Run Club, by Martinus Evans

Slow AF Run Club, by Martinus Evans (Avery, 239 pages)

Desir must not get to the library much, because there’s actually no shortage of books in this genre, from 2007’s elegant Strides by Benjamin Cheever (John Cheever’s son) to A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valeria, published in 2017.

But Evans does bring something new to the table, which is a willingness to use the F-word frequently (very popular in publishing these days), and also, he has run eight marathons (including Boston) as a 300-plus-pound athlete, a truly admirable feat. His book promises to be “the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to run,” and by “running” he doesn’t set the bar too high.

Apparently Merriam-Webster defines running as “to go faster than a walk.” So, “As long as your legs are moving faster than when you are walking, then you are running,” Evans says. He believes that the biggest thing keeping people from running is not the physical work of exercise but the mental roadblocks. So he spends the first part of the book offering a sort of runner therapy, with mantras such as “Not everything you think is true, and not everything you feel is real” and “The body you have today is the body that you have today.” He’s also a fan of affirmations, such as “You can do hard things” and “I love hills!!!”

Admittedly, it’s cheesy sometimes. But Evans does offer some more serious self-coaching advice. For example: Delusional self-belief, he says, is what inventors have until they invent something that no one believed possible. At one point, no one thought a four-minute mile possible, or a marathon under two hours. And when Evans weighed 360 pounds and was told by a condescending doctor “lose weight or die,” he had delusional self-belief when he announced he would run a marathon and bought running shoes later that day.

As Evans makes clear, the physical challenges of running a marathon at his size are subordinate to the psychological ones. In one story, he talks about being harassed by a van driver who is on the course to pick up people who can’t keep running. It was his first marathon, in Detroit. Although Evans repeatedly says he is fine to continue, the driver keeps coming back to him, urging him to get in the van and quit, saying things like, “Hey, big man, you’re starting to slow down. Hop in, I’ll take you to the finish line” and “I’m just doing my job, I can’t help it that you’re fat and slow.”

The driver continued badgering him until Evans was less than a mile from the finish line, which rightly infuriated him. What’s worse is that it almost worked — at one point, Evans hobbled to the van and almost got in before realizing that he could push past the pain and keep going. He did finish, and wrote of the moment, “I felt like I could literally do anything. I’ll never forget that moment, and everything that had come before it, not for as long as I live.”

With stories like this, it’s understandable that Evans feels the need to curse, a lot. And he is a reliable narrator when it comes to the difficulties of running while fat (his choice of word) and he gives decent advice on practical things such as how to deal with chafing, what to wear, what to carry on a long run, how to stretch, and so forth. He also has a rather heartbreaking chapter on “Running While Black,” in which he wrote, “The murder of twenty-five-year-old runner Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 damn near broke me. I almost hung up my running shoes for good because of it.”

But much more of his experience has been positive. In fact, scared as he was to run his first 5K in Cromwell, Connecticut — “a fat Black man wearing a bright orange shirt and shoes … getting ready to run a race in a sea of fit white people” — it turned out great, and he wants everyone to do it.

“Running,” Evans writes, “is a struggle of the mind.” That’s true for thin runners as well as overweight ones. But large runners do face an obstacle that thin runners don’t — judgment — judgment of ourselves, and the judgment of people who see us out on the road. In the face of this struggle, mindset is everything, he says. “Because let’s face it, people be judgin’. Haters are going to hate. There’s always going to be someone telling you to get on the bus.”

That’s a great line, and there are plenty in this book, but it is folksy to a fault, unfortunately. The expletive works in the title and in the running club he founded, but the constant repetition in the book becomes tiresome, as do some of the self-help exercises. (“Write down a habit that you would like to create a ritual for.”)

But I’ve been running for 30 years and am somewhat cantankerous, so maybe that’s great advice for others. Evans is an inspirational runner who has built a strong online community; he has 94,000 followers on Instagram, where he goes by “300poundsandrunning.” He’s a terrific role model for anyone, regardless of age or weight. B-

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (Harper, 309 pages)

The celebrated novelist Ann Patchett says that Thornton Wilder’s Our Town has been a “comfort, guide and inspiration” throughout her life, and that in her new novel, Tom Lake, she’s trying to draw attention to the play and to all of Wilder’s work.

In doing so she’s drawing attention to New Hampshire, since the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in a fictional town in the Granite State. And for someone who grew up in the South, Patchett has a surprisingly good grasp of New England, where parts of this novel take place.

At one point the narrator is asked to swim as part of a movie audition. “Right away I wondered how cold the water was because that’s the first thing a person from New Hampshire thinks about when someone starts talking about swimming,” she says. New Hampshire is omnipresent in Tom Lake, which toggles between the decades-old memories of the narrator, Lara Kenison, and her life in the early days of Covid-19, as she shelters with her husband and adult daughters on the family’s farm in northern Michigan.

As a teenager, Lara — then Laura — was cast as Emily in a community theater production of Our Town; she aced her audition because every other aspiring Emily was trying too hard, because being in a production of Our Town is apparently like the Holy Grail for thespians in this state.

“Citizens of New Hampshire could not get enough of Our Town,” Lara says. “We felt about the play the way other Americans felt about the Constitution or the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ It spoke to us, made us feel special and seen.”

The audition was eye-opening for Lara, who watched as adults desperate for a role bumbled their way through auditions. (“Many of the Georges … read their lines as if they were trying out for Peter Pan. The older they were, the more they leapt in a scene that did not call for leaping.”)

By the time her name was called, Laura, who had never been a “theater girl,” had decided to drop the “u” in her name for a spelling she thought more worldly.

Lara’s acting career was brief but dazzling and included another stint as Emily at a summer stock production of Our Town at the titular Tom Lake in Michigan, where she was paired with a soon-to-be-famous actor named Peter Duke. The two had a brief love affair, after which they went down markedly different paths — just how different their paths were is not revealed until the story’s end.

Even after he was no longer physically present in Lara’s life, Duke played a starring role in Lara’s family life. Her husband knew just enough about the story to tell their daughters that their mother once dated the famous man they’d just seen in a movie, which set off an emotional explosion in the house. From there Duke grew larger in the girls’ imaginations, to the point where one of them became convinced, at age 14, that Duke was her father. “Thanks to his ubiquitous presence in the world, the man I’d spent a summer with took up residence in our home, and still I thought of him remarkably little,” Lara reflects.

All that changes in the spring of 2020, when the adult daughters — Emily, Maisie and Nell — come home for Covid and their mother finally relents and starts telling the story of her acting career, tantalizing details revealed in short installments.

The daughters learn how that first unplanned audition came about and how, a couple of years later, Lara played Emily again at a University of New Hampshire production. (“In any given year more girls who had once played Emily attended the University of New Hampshire than any other university in the country…,” Patchett writes.)

Through the stories, the girls follow their mother to L.A. for a screen test at the behest of a director who’d been at the UNH performance. They hear about her two seasons of “unremarkable” television and her Red Lobster commercial. And ultimately they arrive at Tom Lake, where young Lara fell for a man who would one day have Tom Cruise-level fame while she slipped into domestic obscurity.

“You should have been famous. I think that’s what kills me,” Nell says to her mother at one point, to which Lara, reclining in grass and sunlight with her smart, accomplished daughters, says, “Look at this! Look at the three of you. You think my life would have been better spent making commercials for lobster rolls?”

But the stories that Lara reluctantly tells her family, while true, are incomplete.

“Secrets are at times a necessary tool for peace,” she says at one point. While her girls may not hear the whole story, the readers will.

Patchett dwells in that rarefied world of publishing in which everything she writes sells, and sells well, whether fiction or essay. (It’s also the level at which Meryl Streep voices the audio book.) Though Patchett has been married twice, she famously made the decision not to have children in order to concentrate on writing, believing that she wouldn’t have enough energy to put into both. A lot of energy went into Tom Lake; it is a warm and deeply thoughtful novel that exhibits Patchett’s copious talents in the highbrow genre called literary fiction. B+

Ultra-Processed People, by Chris van Tulleken

Ultra-Processed People, by Chris van Tulleken (W.W. Norton & Co., 313 pages)

Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know processed food is bad for you? Probably not, but as it turns out, there’s something even worse — ultra-processed food, which Chris van Tulleken eviscerates, along with its makers, in the aptly named Ultra-Processed People.

Ultra-processed food, according to van Tulleken, is not food, but “food-like substances that we’ve never encountered in our evolutionary history” but which we are now consuming in large quantities with little thought to its effect on our bodies.

Van Tulleken is a British physician who specializes in infectious diseases; his research is on how corporations affect human health, and so yes, there’s a villain in Ultra-Processed People, and it isn’t the consumer. And in van Tulleken’s telling, it’s unclear (and possibly unlikely) that the good guys will win, so ensnared as we are in the villain’s grasp. He describes consumers as prey in the industry of ultra-processed food production, with their products the bait.

Although these pseudo-food products weren’t even available 200 years ago, they now comprise about 60 percent of the diet of people in the U.S. and U.K., van Tulleken writes. And they’re making us unhealthy and obese, he argues, saying that people don’t overeat when they are presented with fresh, healthy meats and vegetables; they are driven to overeat when their diet lacks the fresh food and nutrients the body craves.

The idea that people are overweight or obese because they don’t exercise enough and lack willpower, he says, “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

“For example, since 1960, the U.S. National Health Surveys have recorded an accurate picture of the nation’s weight. They show that in white, Black and Hispanic men and women of all ages, there was a dramatic increase in obesity beginning in the 1970s. The idea that there has been a simultaneous collapse of responsibility in both men and women across age and ethnic groups is not plausible. If you’re living with obesity, it isn’t due to a lack of willpower; it isn’t your fault,” he writes.

So what is ultra-processed food, exactly? Van Tulleken describes it as anything wrapped in plastic that has at least one ingredient that you usually wouldn’t find in a typical home kitchen. That definition, taken literally, is problematic, because if 60 percent of what’s in your pantry is UPF, there’s probably some overlap in the ingredient list. So maybe he should have said what you wouldn’t find in a typical home kitchen in the 1940s, or ingredients we can’t pronounce or don’t recognize, but we get the point, which frankly isn’t new. Some years ago, I read a diet book by a chemist who stopped eating processed food when she realized that her angel food cake contained an ingredient she’d used that day in a lab.

And scientists have increasingly been sounding the alarm about artificial sweeteners that we’ve been using for decades; van Tulleken retells the story of how saccharin was discovered in 1879 by a Johns Hopkins chemist trying to make medical compounds from coal tar. When he accidentally got some on a piece of bread at dinner, the chemist later wrote, “I had discovered or made some coal tar substance that out-sugared-sugar.”

Eating should be simple, van Tulleken argues; the human body has an internal system that tells us what and how much we need, but we have thrown it out of whack by feeding it things the body is not meant to eat. And that doesn’t mean we’ve thrown it out of whack by eating sugar and carbs — when they are real food, not ultra-processed, they’re not the problem. So to demonstrate the problem, van Tulleken commits to eating no ultra-processed food for a month, and then 80 percent ultra-processed foods for the next month, all the while being medically monitored. (He also encourages readers to do the same — to “give in — allow yourself to experience UPF’s full horror” — while reading the book. Full disclosure: I did not.)

Some of what he ate is similar to products marketed as healthy in our supermarkets — for example, cereal fortified with vitamins, or high-protein granola bars. But while eating a chocolate-chip caramel bar one morning, feeling that it was certainly more healthy than a candy bar, van Tulleken investigates the ingredients and discovers that, in addition to multiple additives, one ingredient was “hydrolysed beef gelatin — cow tendons. It wasn’t enjoyable after that.” As one researcher told him, “Most UPF is not food. It’s an industrially produced edible substance.” Also, he argues, it’s designed to be addictive.

So, how do we stop? Van Tulleken’s brother, who struggled with his weight, decided that UPF was an addiction no different from alcohol or drugs, so he stopped eating it altogether. So did the author. Others may be fine eating UPF occasionally, even with the full knowledge of what it is. But knowing what you’re eating is the first step in stopping.

But surprisingly, while van Tulleken backs some government policies to improve labeling and marketing to children, he comes down on the side of freedom and says, “I sincerely don’t have a moral opinion about eating UPF. … I don’t care how you feed yourself or your child. The goal should be that you live in a world where you have real choices and the freedom to make them.”

Well, yes, but he just spent 300 pages telling us that UPF is killing us, so it seems a strange conclusion to draw.

While van Tulleken’s credentials are impressive, along with his willingness to offer himself up as a guinea pig of sorts, Ultra-Processed People is a little bit of a mess, structurally, and in its conclusions.

The best eating advice ever, it seems was, given succinctly by Michael Pollan when he wrote “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s mostly what van Tulleken is saying, just more awkwardly. C

Save What’s Left, by Elizabeth Castellano

Save What’s Left, by Elizabeth Castellano (Anchor, 304 pages)

When Kathleen Deane’s cardiologist husband of 30 years decides to move out because of a “paradigm shift,” she experiences her own.

She decides to move from the suburbs of Kansas City to a New York beach town where a childhood friend is happily ensconced on a 50-acre potato farm, “unironically wearing overalls and aprons” and painting everything that doesn’t move white. Ten years near the sea have made this formerly free spirit of a friend “downright wholesome.” And Kathleen is convinced that by moving there, she, too, will find the sort of bliss her husband thinks he will find on a ’round-the-world cruise and then living in an RV.

What she finds, however, is a McMansion under construction next to the ocean-view shack that she purchased on the recommendation of a real-estate agent. And a life that is not quite what she envisioned.

This is not a tragedy, however, but pure comedy, a book-length stand-up routine with a punchline every few minutes. It’s Elizabeth Castellano’s comic distillation of her life growing up in a beach town on a peninsula in New York’s Suffolk County, where, as in the novel, development threatens to swallow much of the town’s character and charm.

In Save What’s Left, the fictional town is called Whitbey, and Kathleen is unwittingly absorbed into its drama when she buys a “Save What’s Left” bumper sticker at a local shop without knowing what it really means, and donates to a “community fund” that is funding something quite the opposite of what she imagined.

Whitbey is beautiful, as promised, but upon close inspection, there is much drama seething among the locals, making the hostilities of a typical suburban HOA seem docile by comparison.

The instigators seem to be a group of women known as the “Bay Mission,” who walk by Kathleen’s house every morning at exactly 7:16, so strict is their routine. When Kathleen gets on their mailing list, she deems the group something of a cult, despite its benign activities such as cleaning up the beach and creating a community zen garden. Every time Kathleen gets an email from the group, she says, “I half expect it to include a recipe for turning all the children of Whitbey into mice.”

But Kathleen herself is turning into a different person than she was when she arrived in Whitbey. Having tired of collecting orange jingle shells on the beach, she has turned her energies to questioning the legality of the ever-growing house under construction next to hers, which is constantly raining debris in her yard. She throws herself into anti-McMansion advocacy, writing a column for the local paper (that is hilariously rewritten by the editor) and showing up at every town council meeting, aided by a local man who had no interest in her cause but apparently wanted to be on television and likes the attention.

Meanwhile, Kathleen’s husband, who had been sending her postcards and gifts during his paradigm-changing trip around the world, turns up unexpectedly in an Airstream, with nowhere else to go.

Kathleen, who had said of her husband, “I don’t want to sound unkind, but, if a man leaves you in search of adventure, you want that man to choke to death on a deep-fried cricket in Beijing. You just do,” isn’t happy about this but allows him to camp in the driveway and use her electricity, not unlike the Griswold family’s Cousin Eddie. (It is, Kathleen reflects, the secret to a good marriage or a good divorce: “Someone needs to live in the driveway.”) Soon after, the monstrosity next door is finally finished and shows up on AirBnB as “Seaside Retreat. Modern Wonder.” (It has, after all, “four outdoor showers, five bathrooms, two washing machines, two full kitchens, and a waterfall.”)

At times the hijinks threaten to devolve into National Lampoon-style slapstick, but Castellano set out to write an anti-beach read, meaning one that slyly makes fun of typical beach reads while exaggerating the foibles of beach town life. She does this spectacularly. She also is a master of hilarious apropos-of-nothing asides, such as a running storyline about a Christmas card and letter that Kathleen and her family gets every year from someone they don’t know. (After her husband left, Kathleen was quick to send the letter-writer a card with her new address so that she gets the future Christmas cards in the divorce.)

Save What’s Left is a romp in the sun and sand, albeit without the physical irritants of sun and sand. It’s all fun, especially if you’ve ever loved a beach town, or thought about moving to one. And in that case, it’s also a warning.

As Kathleen says in the opening of the book: “I’m now the kind of horrible person who genuinely cares about what so-and-so had to say about the traffic from the chowder festival. I’m the kind of person who has an opinion about whether the beach sticker should be placed on the front or rear bumper of the car. I know more than one person named Bunny. … I’m that kind of person. The worst kind of person. I’m a beach person.” A

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