Eat, Poop, Die, by Joe Roman

Eat, Poop, Die, by Joe Roman (Little, Brown Spark, 253 pages)

One of the most fascinating and underrated places on the planet is Surtsey, an island off the southern coast of Iceland born in the 1960s. This land mass, the product of a volcanic eruption, was hoisted above water as if offered on a platter by Poseiden himself, offering scientists the chance to study how life develops on an inhospitable slab of rock.

It turns out that despite the grandest theories of theologians and biologists, life — on this rock, anyway — needed something humble, and kind of gross, for it to emerge and take root. It needed excrement. It was nitrogen deposited on Surtsey via the waste of visiting seabirds that began the alchemy that led to vegetation growing on the island, leading to more animals colonizing the virgin island.

The story of Surtsey and its remarkable development over the past half century begins Eat, Poop, Die, Joe Roman’s surprisingly engaging study of how the most basic of functions contributes to the world’s ecology. The book’s crude title and attendant jokes (“Perfect bathroom reading” reads one commendation on Roman’s website) detract from the seriousness of the work, and its elegance. That said, it takes some work to get the average reader interested in how excrement and rotting corpses power the planet, so perhaps a little levity (including a sideways photo of the author on the book jacket) was necessary.

Roman, a scholar at the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, can tell you more about whale poop than you want to know: for example, “In addition to being rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, the concentration of iron in whale poop is more than ten million times greater than in the surrounding seawater in the Southern Ocean.”

Whales’ nutrient-rich excrement helps nourish microscopic animals, and when whales die and their carcasses sink to the ocean floor, they create a habitat called “whale fall” which is ecologically important because, as Roman writes, “The abyssal seafloor is a vast nutrient-poor desert.” When whales are hunted to near extinction, or stranded on beaches and their corpses blown up with explosives, the natural order is disrupted in a way that is no less destructive because it is invisible to humans.

Similarly, Roman looks at the surprising connection between salmon and forest growth in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. What do fish have to do with trees? A lot, it turns out, when the fish are the favorite meal of bears who live in those forests, as well as other creatures that eat salmon, such as eagles, mink, coyotes and wolves.

Scientists are able to determine where nitrogen in plant life originates by a chemical signature that varies by flora and fauna. And there are researchers whose jobs involve comparing the trees next to streams full of salmon with trees that grow next to salmon-less rivers. Spoiler alert: The salmon-adjacent trees “grew faster and taller — which was good for the salmon, as more shade and large woody debris provided cooler summer temperatures and river structure that aided in salmon reproduction and growth.”

The reason, scientists speculate, is the marine-derived nitrogen in the fish gets distributed in the forest through bear excrement. “The salmon life cycle and the massive pulse of nutrients the fish deliver are crucial aspects of forest ecosystems. The trees, streams, and salmon are all connected.”

Roman writes not just from a desk but from deep in the field. For his chapter on salmon he visits a salmon research station in Alaska; he travels to Surtsey, and to Yellowstone National Park to observe how the reintroduction of wolves changed the ecosystem there. As one sign in the park explains it, “Although wolves do not directly affect all life around them, their effects possibly tumble down the entire food chain. This hypothesis is called a ‘trophic cascade.’”

And don’t count the buffalo out — they have roles as groundskeepers, with their excrement depositing nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil. As bison disappeared on the prairies, so did their natural fertilization. Roman interviews a Native American who calls bison “eco-engineers” because in addition to the nutrients they leave behind, they plow the fields with their hooves. This is not a book for reading while you’re eating lunch, as I learned when coming across something called the Bristol Stool Chart, an illustrated scale of the variety of human feces, used by medical practitioners. And of course, human excrement is addressed here; mammals defecate about 1 percent of their body weight every day, with humans making about two trillion pounds of waste each year, much of which is not contributing in a positive way to the planet’s ecology. But some is — I learned, with some dismay, that some people fertilize their gardens with their own urine. (It’s called “pee-cycling,” and yes, Roman tried it, although fist bump to his family who wouldn’t let him set up the system at home or use it in their garden. Instead his urine went to a pee-cycling center in Brattleboro, Vermont.)

But the bulk of the book is about non-human animals and the largely unnoticed role their bodily functions serve in our world. While Roman is careful to note that some of the theories he writes about are unproven, he makes a convincing case that when animal populations shrink, we’d best pay attention, because there are costs other than not being able to see a certain species anymore. In centuries past, for example, John James Audubon famously described migrating pigeons as blocking out the sun; others have described rivers so dense with salmon that you could walk across the water on top of the fish.

Roman believes that replenishing depleted populations is “one of the best nature-based tools we have to face the climate crisis. Wild animals, through their movements and behaviors — their eating, pooping and dying — can help rebuild ecosystems, recycle and redistribute nutrients, keep the planet a little cooler, and address the biodiversity crisis.” We need to “rewild the world,” he says, in a conclusion that is more of an op-ed than a science book. Having established himself as an authority on poop, who are we to argue? It’s a fine book for animal lovers, climate warriors and science geeks, but otherwise may struggle to find an audience. B

A Christmas Vanishing, by Anne Perry

A Christmas Vanishing, by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 190 pages)

Since childhood, Christmas reading has been a large part of my enjoyment of the holidays; I could quote from A Christmas Carol in grade school, and one of my favorite books is a collection of Christmas stories from celebrated authors. I start scouring new releases in the summer looking for upcoming holiday books and was hopeful when I came across A Christmas Vanishing by the late Anne Perry.

Perry, born in London and raised in New Zealand, is one of a few authors (Debbie Macomber and Richard Paul Evans among them) who churn out yearly Christmas-themed. There is an assembly-line precision about Perry’s 21 holiday offerings, which in recent years included A Christmas Deliverance, A Christmas Legacy, A Christmas Resolution, A Christmas Gathering and A Christmas Revelation — think of a noun, and Perry put “A Christmas” in front of it and turned it into a bestseller, and she would have continued to do so if she had not had a heart attack last December and died in April at age 84.

Perry is best-known as a crime writer, and the Christmas novels, set in Victorian England, follow that theme.

A Christmas Vanishing follows Mariah Ellison, a widow in her 80s (and the grandmother of a recurring character in Perry’s novels, Charlotte Pitt), on a journey from her home in London to a small rural town where she has been invited to spend Christmas with a friend and her husband. Mariah has known Sadie for a half-century but hasn’t seen her in 20 years; she remembers a falling out of some kind the last time they were together, but she can’t recall the specifics and is pleased to renew their friendship and see the town where she once also lived.

Also, “if she was being honest, she had to accept that she had nowhere else to go, which was entirely her own doing. Her daughter-in-law and grandchildren all had their own seasonal arrangements and she had not been included.”

When Mariah arrives at Sadie’s house via horse-drawn buggy (one of the occasional reminders that this novel is set during Queen Victoria’s time), Sadie’s husband, Barton, unpleasantly tells her his wife isn’t there, he doesn’t know where she is or when she’ll be back, and he’s sorry-not sorry but she can’t stay there. She goes to the house of another old friend but is told she can’t stay there either, and is sent to the house of that friend’s sister, Gwendolyn, where she finally finds a warm welcome.

Because this is a time in which there is no Nancy Grace or internet sleuths, and even Sadie’s husband doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding Sadie, Mariah struggles to assemble a search party, but soon she and Gwendolyn are joined by kindly bookstore owner Oliver, and they puzzle over the possibilities.

Did Barton kill or injure his wife? Did she take off on a lark? Was she in an accident? Has she run off with another man? Been kidnapped? The latter scenarios seem far-fetched given that Sadie is in her 70s and has no family money. The mystery deepens (as deep as this largely shallow story gets) when Oliver and Mariah learn that Barton spotted his wife, looking happy, in the window of a local vacant cottage not long after she disappeared.

There are hints that Sadie’s life was not quite what it seemed, and neither was Mariah’s. And Mariah is realizing she is trying to figure out the mystery of Sadie’s disappearance based on the Sadie that she knew long ago, not Sadie as she would be now. As the story unfolds, so do the secrets of the principal characters, and an element of danger is introduced that threatens Mariah.

“We all have things we would never want publicly known,” Oliver tells her at one point, and that was true for the author as well. In 1994 she was outed by the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures as having participated in a murder when she was 15. Kate Winslet played Perry’s character in the movie, which was based on the true story of the killing of Perry’s friend’s mother. Perry is a pen name for the writer, whose given name was Juliet Hulme.

As was detailed in her obituaries, Perry, who had a chaotic childhood and struggled with mental illness, spent five years in prison in New Zealand before reinventing herself and becoming an extraordinarily successful writer, penning not just mysteries but also a series of novels about World War I. Hers is about as good a redemption story as you can get. We shouldn’t speak ill of the dead or their books, and Perry’s Christmas novels are beloved by millions. But I found A Christmas Vanishing more workmanlike than inspired, and it is a Christmas story only in that it is cold, homes are decorated and there are people roasting chestnuts on the street. C

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-

Stay in the loop!

Get FREE weekly briefs on local food, music,

arts, and more across southern New Hampshire!