Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully and Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully (First Arezzo Books, 273 pages)

Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum (Simon and Schuster, 320 pages)

It’s been nearly half a century since the Australian philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, effectively launching the modern animal rights movement. Twenty-seven years later, Matthew Scully — best-known then as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and other GOP politicians — came out with Dominion, which became a sort of Animal Liberation for a new generation (and also for those who couldn’t stomach Singer’s more controversial takes, such as giving parents the right to end the lives of disabled newborns).

Both writers made a compelling case against “factory farming,” the means by which the majority of meat and dairy products in the U.S. are produced, with scale, efficiency and speed that requires animals be treated in ways many people consider horrific. So, how’s it going?

Not so great, despite legal advances made by animal-rights activists and slight declines in recent years in per-capita meat consumption. Vox last year claimed in a headline “You’re more likely to go to prison for exposing animal cruelty than committing it,” which is demonstrably untrue, but the overarching point is valid — legal theory and strategy that aims to reduce animal suffering is still largely left wanting.

Into this void comes the highly regarded University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose Justice for Animals proposes a new legal theory, which she calls the “capabilities approach.” Published last year in hardcover, it’s new in paperback, as is Matthew Scully’s followup to Dominion, called Fear Factories. (And last year Singer updated his original work in a volume called Animal Liberation Now.)

Nussbaum, the author or co-author of 24 other philosophy books, is relatively new to the subject of animal rights, having seriously picked up the cause after the death of her daughter, an attorney who specialized in animal-rights cases. In Justice for Animals she expounds on ideas previously applied to standards of human welfare and assigns them to animals. According to Nussbaum, most animals can suffer injustice for which human beings should be held accountable. But not all animals. Nussbaum argues that we should take into account whether the animals are capable of living a certain sort of life — one in which they are striving to flourish in that world in ways accordant with their species. Injustice can be done to animals, therefore, not just by the willful infliction of pain but by thwarting animals from their natural progressions of life.

There are gradations that can make it difficult to identify injustice — she’s still not sold, for example, on whether crustaceans truly have flourishingly lives, and insects don’t seem to process pain. But injustice “centrally involves significant striving blocked by not just harm but also wrongful thwarting, whether negligent or deliberate,” Nussbaum says. If that smacks of legal-ese, well, this is a book that wants to establish a framework for bringing legal cases on behalf of animals, and so it lays out the case soberly, often with stilted language and professor-like repetition. This is for people who want to get into the weeds of animal rights.

Among the questions she tackles: Are we morally obligated to intervene to protect wildlife from misery and disease? (The New Hampshire moose dying of tick infestation come to mind.) Should we intervene when we have a chance to save an individual animal, or many, from predation? Can humans be “friends” with animals in captivity?

While Nussbaum considers the treatment of animals bred for slaughter on factory farms, and the cattle in large-scale dairy operations, a “moral horror,” she does not argue for veganism, saying, “I have no principled objection to the human use of animal products, so long as the animal is able to carry on its characteristic animal life.”

Scully, on the other hand, is a vegan, although in Fear Factories he does not aggressively try to convert meat-eaters; he seems principally concerned with getting people to think about the animals that suffered in order that they may enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. If they change their eating habits, all the better, but you get the sense he’d be satisfied if we could just stop with the wide-scale misery.

Fear Factories is a collection of about 50 articles and essays published between 1992 and 2022; nearly half originally appeared in the conservative journal National Review. Animal rights are typically considered a cause of the political left; as such, Scully was definitely not preaching to the choir, and the photos he chose for the covers of the book go for our emotional jugular. (The front cover shows rows of gestational crates, the kind Proposition 12 banned in California; the back, a close-up of a miserable pig in such a crate.)

While Dominion was deeply reported, with Scully going to a factory farm in North Carolina and a meeting of an international sport hunting club, among other places, the essays in Fear Factories draw more on his personal experience. In an essay titled “Lessons from a Dog,” he writes about how his childhood attachment to a stray dog his family adopted led to a moral awakening that caused him to become a vegetarian as a teen. Many others involve animal cruelty laws that were then being debated and met with resistance even though they proposed, as Scully writes, to extend “the smallest of mercies to the humblest of creatures.”

Scully has the soul of a poet, and it comes across in devastating prose in which he takes on the harvesting of elephants, trophy hunting, seal clubbing and other atrocities, and the derision and contempt often given animal-rights activists trying to make a point in ways as simple as offering water to a pig headed for slaughter. He also includes reviews he has written of other animal-centric books, such as The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by Edward O. Wilson and The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims.

While Scully is more eloquent, and Nussbaum more scholarly, both continue to build out the case against factory farming. Neither is an easy read, however; they are not meant to be enjoyed so much as to be studied. Fear Factories: A; Justice for Animals: B-

Good Material, by Dolly Alderton

Whether it’s because the holidays were unbearable or Valentine’s Day is even worse, we’re in the time of year that most breakups happen. If you happen to be nursing a broken heart, Good Material, the second novel by British writer Dolly Alderton, will be an excellent companion. And if you’re not, it’s a very good distraction from the post-holiday, mid-winter, my-team’s-wasn’t-in/didn’t-win-the-Super-Bowl blahs.

The novel is centered around the debilitating heartbreak of Andy Dawson, a 35-year-old comedian who just broke up with Jen, his girlfriend of four years. He doesn’t understand what happened — they’d just had a lovely weekend together in Paris, he mournfully tells friends, when Jen tells him that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. Unfortunately for Andy, that means he’s not only out of a relationship, but out of housing — they’d lived together and Jen’s salary had enabled them to live in much nicer housing than could Andy’s cobbled-together income from comedy gigs and corporate training events.

There is also the not-insignificant problem of their friend group — Jen’s close friend, Jane, is the wife of Andy’s best friend, Avi, and the two couples had been besties for years, leading to all sorts of painful complications in the aftermath of the breakup when Andy moves in with the friends while he’s searching for a place to live and monitoring his newly worrisome bald spot.

But all these problems are secondary to Andy’s heartbreak, which he is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to rid himself of. When he passes a woman wearing Jen’s signature perfume, for example, he goes to the store and buys all they have of that brand and pitches the bottles into a river, saying that’s four fewer times he’ll have to smell Jen again. He obsesses for weeks over whether it’s OK to send her a “happy birthday” text and, if so, what it should say. When that doesn’t go well, he devises a list “of all the other possible events in the coming year that might open the gateway for casual texting,” such as Christmas, his birthday, nuclear disaster and the death of someone they both know.

He tries engaging with other women, and even moving into a houseboat, in order to effect a fresh start. Friends beg him to stop thinking about her. Andy says he wishes he could, but “thinking about her is not a choice … the room inside my mind that has been occupied by her for the last four years still exists. I want to convert it into a home gym or meditation room or get in a new tenant, but I can’t.”

Alderton wrote about love and loss in her 2021 memoir Everything I Know About Love, and she has been called a Nora Ephron (Heartburn) for millennials. Andy the lovelorn is evidence of her experience with the subject matter, as in when she writes of the couple awkwardly meeting to close a joint bank account post-breakup and Andy says it feels like he’s encountering a celebrity: “A couple of months ago, Jen was the woman whose pants I put in the washing machine with mine when I put a load on. Now, she is unfamiliar and untouchable; someone I have a one-way relationship with in photos and memories and in my imagination.”

But it’s going to get even worse a few months later when Andy awakes in the morning to see “one of the worst texts you can wake up to other than being informed of a death” — Hey mate, saw what’s happening online. Hope you’re ok.

As miserable as Andy is throughout much of the story, this is still a very funny book. The protagonist is a comedian, after all, who does things like making mental lists of what he would agree to do in order to have Jen be in love with him again (lose hair at the front of his head, go to her parents’ house every weekend for lunch, never eat ham again) and Alderton’s own comic sense powers even the darkest scenes. There’s also a very funny subplot involving Andy’s eventual landlord, a conspiracy theorist devoted to Julian Assange (there are lots of contemporary references throughout the book) who is trying to get a historical placard for his house because George Harrison once slept there.

In every relationship that fails, Andy reflects four months after the breakup, something called “The Flip” occurs, a change in who wields the most power in the relationship: “The person who is in charge in a relationship is the one who loves the least.” This is among the relationship wisdom that Good Material imparts, another being that when we move on from one partner, we look for the next to provide in spades the 10 percent of whatever was missing from the last one.

But the greatness of the novel comes not from any of this, but from Alderton’s decision to flip the perspective from Andy to Jen at the end of the book, finally answering Andy’s lament, “Why did she break up with me?” — but only to the reader. It’s a masterful technique, one that adds heft and complexity to a story that was already satisfying. A

First Lie Wins, by Ashley Elston

How far will you read into a book if you don’t like the protagonist? With her first novel directed toward adults, Ashley Elston is betting that we will keep reading so long as she provides little surprises around every corner, like Willy Wonka.

The formula seems to be working. The book was the January pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and has garnered praise as a suspenseful thriller. To which I say meh. Not that First Lie Wins doesn’t throw out many curve balls — it does. And an author’s ability to craft a didn’t-see-that-coming ending after multiple didn’t-see-that-coming chapters is rightly valued in a day when the storylines of much popular fiction are painfully predictable. That said, it’s nice to genuinely like at least somebody in a 300-page book.

We are supposed to kind-of, sort-of like the protagonist, initially introduced as Evie Porter, although we soon learn that Evie Porter is the latest in a long line of aliases. When we meet Evie she is suffering through a dinner in which she is meeting, for the first time, her boyfriend’s circle of friends — people who grew up much differently than she did.

“They are the ones who started kindergarten together, their circle remaining small until high school graduation. They fled town in groups of twos and threes to attend a handful of colleges all within driving distance of here. They all joined sororities and fraternities with other groups of twos and threes with similar backgrounds, only to gravitate back to this small Louisiana town, the circle closing once again.”

Evie, on the other hand, is a loner with a much different lineage. She’d grown up in a small town in North Carolina, an only child who lived with her single mom in a trailer. It was a wholesome enough environment — lots of love and dreams — until her mom got sick, and Evie started stealing jewelry from rich people at age 17 to help pay for her mother’s cancer treatment. (Which is why we’re supposed to kind-of, sort-of like her.) Her criminal skills landed her even more lucrative work as an operative for a shadowy criminal enterprise run by a mysterious Mr. Smith. She goes from job to job, always assuming a new identity that has been meticulously set up for her, in order to achieve some nefarious goal for her employer. Although she is described at one point as “morally gray,” it’s a dark shade of gray.

Evie’s latest job is to infiltrate the life of Ryan Sumner, an affable frat-boy-turned-businessman who inherited his grandfather’s house and business and is happily living as a bachelor in a a leafy suburb in Louisiana, a place where there’s a lot of money “but it’s the quiet kind.”

An attractive woman, Evie inserts herself into Ryan’s life with remarkable ease, setting up a “chance” meeting by having a flat tire at a gas station that she knows he visits every Thursday. She wears a short skirt, her intelligence having gathered knowledge that “his eyes almost always lingered too long on any female who crossed his path, especially those dressed in short skirts.”

There is much suspension of disbelief required here and throughout the book — that this single encounter leads to Evie’s moving in with Ryan a few months later, that this bachelor with a roving eye is suddenly ready for a long-term relationship — but OK. Again, surprises around every corner, and Elston has elegantly plotted this story, showing us snapshots of Evie’s other lives in flashbacks even as she easily settles into domestic bliss with Ryan. There are shades of the movie Pretty Woman, especially when Evie dons a big hat to wear to a Kentucky Derby party.

But things take a turn when an old friend of Ryan’s shows up at the party with a woman who looks astonishingly similar to Evie on his arm. Soon there’s another big reveal that will be the hook that drags us, however unwillingly, through the rest of the book. Evie, it turns out, is not the only person presenting herself as someone she’s not. And her unscrupulous employer has grown suspicious of her loyalty and has set out to test her, even as she tries to follow through with her “long con” of Ryan, while growing comfortable in the happy-couple-in-the-’burbs life.

Meanwhile, a fatal accident involving people in the couple’s circle leads to a police investigation that calls Evie’s background into question and the story shifts to a murder investigation in another state that one of Evie’s alter egos may or may not have been involved in. And we become aware that Evie is not a helpless pawn entrapped by a criminal mastermind, but that she has developed her own protective network, including an IT genius who’d entered MIT at age 17 but dropped out because he was bored and realized “the most profitable work isn’t always legal.”

Despite Elston’s efforts to paint her as a “good” criminal, there is little reflection — for either Evie or the reader — of the moral issues involved. She’s Walter White-like in this way: if a cancer diagnosis is involved when someone starts to break bad, we’re supposed to look the other way. And as in the Breaking Bad universe, there are plenty of other “morally gray” people in the cast of First Lie Wins. (And there will be a cast: the film rights have already been acquired.)

A little sober reflection of the moral issues involved — some Tony Soprano on the therapist’s couch — would have added complexity to the story, but slowed the pace — the story races to an every-mystery-resolved finish that is both a perfect Hollywood ending and an opportunity for countless sequels. Evie Porter will be with us for a while, I predict. Whether we like her or not.

B-Jennifer Graham

Old Crimes by Jill McCorkle

The first short story in Jill McCorkle’s new collection, Old Crimes, is set in New Hampshire, but it’s not a story the Division of Travel and Tourism would care to tout.

In the story, a young couple, Lynn and Cal, spend a weekend at a family inn near Franconia, staying in a room with dark-paneled walls, “a faded floral bedspread, shades too small for the windows, and a forty-watt bulb in one lamp on the dresser.” It is a place full of toothpick holders and Early American decor that leaves Lynn “feeling like life had slowed, clicking like a dying engine, and then stopped.”

Oof. The Tyner Family Inn — “waterfront” if you don’t mind the long hike through the woods to get to a stagnant pond — is fictional though the rich detail suggests that McCorkle has had an unpleasant visit to a New Hampshire inn at some point in her past.

Lynn is hopeful that her boyfriend will suggest they look for a better place, but he doesn’t, and she struggles to find good in the weekend, her thoughts instead going to the titular “old crimes” — atrocities committed thousands of years ago and discovered by archeologists: for example, the Yde Girl and the Tollund Man, apparent victims of human sacrifice. She also ruminates on a vaguely threatening writing prompt from a creative writing class.

Concurrently, the couple encounter a 6-year-old girl — dirty, intrusive, “hair, teeth, nothing had been brushed” — whose presence triggers introspection in Lynn about her life and choices.

“Old Crimes,” the story, is stark and memorable, the kind of writing that could well end up in a “Best Of” anthology. The other 11 offerings are more of a mixed bag; though skillfully rendered, some are downright depressing, although that seems to be a requirement of the genre. There is a thread of humor throughout, however, as in the fourth story, “Commandments.”

In this story three women meet monthly at a cafe to commiserate about having been mistreated and then dumped by the same wealthy man — “kind of a First Wives Club, though of course, none of us had been married to him.”

The women are united in the shared experiences of over-the-top dates (one went to Bermuda, another to eat lobster in Maine, another flown to see the Northern Lights), of being wooed with suggestions of quitting their jobs and having children, of waking up under the same linen comforter in his ocean-view condo.

But there is a fourth woman in the story, the waitress named Candy: “ponytale, scaly reptile tattoo climbing her leg, big dark eyes that always look surprised.” The reptile isn’t her only tattoo. As the story unfolds, Candy keeps exposing others: some, quotes from Charlotte’s Web; others, random pieces of life advice she wants to remember. It’s unclear just how many tattoos Candy has, but the repeated revelations are a delight, set against the women’s discussion of how the unnamed man has done them wrong.

It turns out, however, that Candy has had her own encounters with the man; she had spurned his advances and dubbed him “the old creep.” Her take on the man turns the story — and our perception of all four women — on its head.

Although the stories in this collection are not all connected, Candy makes another appearance in “Baby in the Pan,” in which we learn that the reptile on her leg is a dragon. This is a deeply fraught story centered around an exchange between Candy and her mother, Theresa, over an image that Theresa is viewing on her computer. Theresa views the image of “a little bloody bird-looking thing” as a tragedy of abortion; Candy is much more pragmatic:

“Candy had all kinds of information she was ready to give like she might’ve been Moses on the mountaintop; she said the occurrence of such a late-term abortion (that’s what she called that poor baby in the pan) was a rare thing, and who knew what the sad circumstances might be. She said it was more likely someone’s sad miscarriage. She talked cells and clusters and what-have-you until Theresa wanted to throw a pan at her and she could have because Candy was standing right there in the kitchen in those short shorts she’s too old to be wearing with that scaly green dragon looking like he’s breathing fire on her you know what.”

The women go at each other, ostensibly over their differing views on abortion, but as in many mother-daughter relationships, there are onion-like layers of complexity, which culminate in Theresa saying, “Why don’t you just say you hate me?” and Candy responding bitterly, “I think you want me to say it so you can say it back.”

The Yde girl and the Tollund Man, to whom we were introduced in “Old Crimes,” also reappear briefly in “Sparrow,” a gut-wrencher of a story that closes the book. The narrator is a divorced woman living in a small New England town in shock from the apparent suicide of a young mother, who also took the life of her infant son. The incident causes the town and the narrator to reflect on other tragedies of years past, and the threats that always surround us: “icy sidewalks and empty wooded shortcuts, lone disheveled men, lean howling coyotes just beyond domestic tranquility ….” But life slowly gets back to normal and the narrator develops a relationship with another spectator at her son’s Little League game, a grandmother whose nonstop commentary provides comic relief and who cheers for everyone’s kids. However, in this world, even things that seem safe sometimes aren’t.

McCorkle, who has been writing fiction since college and whose literary awards include the New England Booksellers Award, has chaired the creative writing department at Harvard and is among the dwindling numbers of authors whose new titles merit a book tour. She is at the top of her game here, with a diverse and memorable cast of characters that plumb the depths of the human condition — but somehow manage to flutter with hope. A

Religion of Sports by Gotham Chopra and Joe Levin

When Gotham Chopra was growing up near Boston, it was expected that he would follow the path of his famous father, Deepak Chopra, and go into medicine. Instead all young Chopra could think about was sports.

He loved the Red Sox and the Patriots, but he was especially fixated on basketball and got to attend some Celtics games with a friend of his father who had not just season tickets but VIP access to the team because of his donations to the Celtics’ foundation. At age 11 Chopra watched Michael Jordan score 63 points at TD Garden, a performance that prompted Larry Bird to say, “That wasn’t a basketball player. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

The remark became part of Chopra’s growing realization that sports have all the hallmarks of religion. That’s an idea that’s been around for millennia, but Chopra brings a fresh take to it in Religion of Sports, co-written with Joe Levin.

The first team sport involving a ball is believed to have been invented by the Mayans; the games were played near the temples, and the losers were sacrificed to the gods. (See, Patriots Nation, this season could have been much, much worse.) The Greeks saw physical training as a religious act. And Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman responsible for the 1896 advent of the modern Olympic Games, wrote, “The first essential characteristic of ancient and modern Olympism alike is that of being a religion.”

In Islam, there’s a word for the “true believers” — people who live their faith, rather than paying lip service to it, Chopra and Levin write. The mu’min exist in sports as well, and they are the players that we ordinary mortals worship, like Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Jordan. All this could comprise a high-school essay (and probably has). But what distinguishes Religion of Sports from the meh-fest that I’d expected is that Chopra actually knows the people he’s writing about; he is a filmmaker who worked with Brady, for example, on the documentaries Man in the Arena and Tom Versus Time, as well as other athletes including Serena Williams, LeBron James and Simone Biles.

And these are not superficial relationships. Not only has Chopra sat in the Brady family box at Gillette Stadium, but he hung out with Brady in his Brookline house after championship games, and Brady once tossed Chopra the keys to his truck (a Raptor) when he didn’t have a ride home. The anecdotes are rich, especially for fans of Boston teams, and the book is well-researched and surprisingly well-written for the genre.

In chapters that include “Myths,” “Transcendence,” “Moral Codes” and “Pilgrimage,” Chopra and Levin walk through the similarities between traditional religions and what they consider the newest one. Affiliation with other fans, for example, gives us the sense of community that humans have gotten from religious faith; sports likewise offer redemption and deliverance, heaven and hell, curses and miracles, they say.

But, they add, the religion of sports also offers something other faiths don’t: “… the gods are flawed human beings like the rest of us” and “anybody, with the right amount of luck and skill, can become a champion.”

Each chapter introduces us to one or more of these flawed gods and how they became transcendent. In “Myths,” Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, is center stage. Most people know something of her story: how, as a Syracuse University student in 1967, she registered for the race using the initials K.V. Switzer, having researched the rules and learned that the Boston Athletic Association didn’t officially forbid women from running, although no women ever had. She finished, even though the race director tried to pull her off the course just after Mile 4.

Here, her story is told through the prism of religion; for example, we learn that Switzer equated running with religious experience after she started training informally with the Syracuse cross-country team. “Once I got serious and ran over three miles a day, I stopped going to church. I realized it was because I felt closer to God and the universe out in nature than I ever did inside with a group of people.”

Now, “Her bib number, 261, has become a sacred good-luck charm for women runners everywhere,” Chopra and Levin write.

Not all of the stories fit the narrative so easily, however. The story of gymnast Simone Biles and how she came to drop out of the Olympics to preserve her mental health is given as an example of reformation, similar to Martin Luther’s start of the Reformation. (“She was turning her back on one of the most foundational beliefs in sports. She was showing that she interpreted the faith differently than we’d become accustomed to.”)
The late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the concept of “flow,” the state in which we can fully concentrate on activities and perform at peak levels, a state that athletes sometimes call being in “the zone.” Chopra sees this as not just an emotional or mental state but a spiritual one, writing, “It is a feeling that every athlete — every single one, from Little Leaguers to Major League all-stars — has experienced at one time or another.”

Moreover, he argues, sports have a “moral code” that is enforced as strictly as any religion, maybe even more so, by the rules of the games. “Win or lose, opponents shake hands. The lesson: humility. Cheating is never tolerated. The lesson: integrity. Referees enforce the same rules for everybody. The lesson: fairness.”

Again, there’s nothing especially groundbreaking here in the overall message, and the authors veer dangerously close to the land of the cheesy in the final chapter, titled “The Playbook,” which recaps the lessons of the book and invites readers to reflect on questions such as “What is the most magical moment (i.e., miracle) in your team’s history?” and “Which places do your tribe consider to be sacred ground?”) But the book is pleasantly engaging and full of stuff you might otherwise never know — including the fact that a pastor once gave a prayer before the start of a NASCAR game that, among other provocations, gave thanks for his “smokin’ hot wife.”

Religion, in other words, is not nearly as boring as some people think.

B+Jennifer Graham

Don’t Die, by Bryan Johnson

Don’t Die, by Bryan Johnson (Kindle and self-published paperback, 247 pages)

A few months ago, Time magazine profiled Bryan Johnson with a headline “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever.” It was the latest in a spate of publicity for the 46-year-old entrepreneur who, like Moses, climbed a mountain and descended with a bunch of new rules for everyone.

Since that life-altering trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Johnson divorced his wife, left his religion, got un-depressed and devoted his life to what he considers humanity’s most pressing challenge: vanquishing death. His days are now spent undergoing a series of interventions and protocols intended to elude, or at least forestall, death, and recruiting others to the cause.

“Don’t Die” is both Johnson’s motto and the name of his new book, which is free on Kindle (a paperback costs around $7). That in itself is evidence that Johnson is not “normal” in any sense of the word; anyone with his following on social media could find a traditional publisher and a respectable advance if they are willing to play ball with editors. But Johnson is determined to follow his own vision, however odd it seems to the rest of the world. He has said he’s not interested in what his contemporaries think of him, but what people who live centuries from now think of him. In other words, he don’t need no stinkin’ editors and he doesn’t care about his critics.

Consequently, Don’t Die is, at times, a bewildering mess with occasional forays into brilliance.

The book begins reasonably enough, with an introduction in which Johnson describes a bit of his journey. Then it descends into a fanciful dialogue among a series of characters built on the various facets of himself that journeyed up Mt. Kilimanjaro. These characters are largely self-explanatory through their crude names: Scribe, Model Builder, Authority Seeker, Farm Boy, Cognitive Bias, Relentless, Game Play, Dark Humor, Self Critical and so forth. (Why there is no consistency among these names — e.g., Game Player — why some nouns and some adjectives, I could not tell you.)

There are two other beings in the narrative: Blueprint, a newcomer to the group (and the real-life name of Johnson’s “don’t die” initiative) and Depression, a character/state that the rest of the group left on the mountain, which some regret doing.

Conversations with these versions of himself comprise most of the book, in ways that are occasionally interesting, and in other ways that make you want to throw your phone (or alternative viewing device) out the window.

For instance, in one, the “group” discusses the growth of automation, accompanied by “a slow erosion of human decision-making.” While most people would think of this in terms of, say, a robot filling a fast-food order, Johnson wants to hasten the world to a place where “mind-off” automation governs our bodily functions, as he believes our natural processes are inefficient and poorly designed. As such, he believes we need to “demote” the conscious mind as the decision-making entity in favor of autonomous systems that get feedback from all our body’s stakeholders about what our bodies need. For example, in this manner of thinking, our liver should have more say in what we consume (and what we do all day) than our impulsive mind.

Not only will this give us longer lives, but it will magnify human potential. As the character Blueprint says in the dialogue, “a world of autonomous selves will open up a proportional step change in freed-up energy, which will then allow the upleveling of the modern human mind to whatever we will one day be. The change will be as powerful as the one from ancient to modern human. One can only dare imagine what we will do and what our experience of existence may be.” He believes that as much progress as humans have made, we could still be, right now, living in a sort of “Cognitive Paleolithic” age and that the only way out is to rise above the modern mind, which he calls “frail, ambitious, bullying, timid, and riddled with bias and error.”

OK, so what about the not dying part, and why does Johnson call himself “Zero,” going so far as to use that as his pen name and social media handle?

In all this Philosophy 101-level discussion, Johnson does insert the protocols that he says are effectively de-aging parts of his body, things like the perfectly calibrated vegan diet of 2,250 calories “spread out over optimal times during the day” and not drinking fluids after 4 p.m. so he doesn’t wake up during the night.

The foodstuff he talks about on podcasts is all there — the “nutty pudding,” the dark chocolate, the olive oil, the “super veggie.” And he is, at times, winsomely self-deprecating and even funny, as when he describes a tin of food as “a slurry of seaweed chewed up and spat out by a dying bird” and he has Self Critical say, when looking at his plate, “I feel like the color has been drained from life.”

But using the soft, patient voice that Blueprint says is necessary to win over skeptics, he convinces the team that an algorithm can and should be designed to take over the myriad manual tasks of daily existence. And over the course of the book, he addresses — and takes down — many of the criticisms directed at him over the past year.

Johnson is at his best when he derides the human tendency to let its lower faculties lead at the expense of the higher. Speaking on the miraculous nature of human consciousness, Devil May Care delivers a soliloquy about how the base need of hunger can transform “the most dynamic form of intelligence in the known universe into a simple calorie-finding machine.”

And his arguments that the best and brightest should be pushing aggressively at the boundaries of the human lifespan are convincing. Most humans who have been born over the course of our existence didn’t make it past 20, he says. Age, or “life units,” is the “scarcest and most valuable currency that has ever existed,” along with freedom of choice. And when Scribe asked the various characters that are assembled what they would do if they knew this was the last day of their life, the Blueprint character had the most sensible answer: try to figure out how to thwart death.

Put this way, it seems that this should be what all of us should be doing every day. Which of course, is the central point that Johnson wants to get across. As for the “Zero” stuff, well, it remains kind of fuzzy why he thinks this is a good idea, but it derives from his thinking about first principles.

Don’t Die is Johnson’s long-form response to people who learn a little about him and dismiss him as a sun-avoiding, supplement-chugging, blood-transfusing nut. The book does help to explain Johnson in ways an hour-long podcast cannot, and if you stick with it, the dialogue format eventually makes sense and can even seem charming by the book’s end, although it’s downright torturous at the start. For people who just want some new-year inspiration about how to be healthier and live longer, there are far better books, such as Dr. Peter Attia’s Outlive, and the basics of Johnson’s protocols are more easily learned in the many audio and print interviews he does. C+

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico (Kensington, 368 pages)

I started reading Familia in a hotel room while waiting for my daughter to get ready to go to dinner – and promptly lost all desire to go out to dinner. (I mean, we went — she wasn’t about to buy “but I really like this book” as a reason not to).

Lauren E. Rico’s novel is a fast-paced story that covers a lot of bases: family, obviously, but also different cultures and how they form us, a bit of a mysterious crime, and coming to terms with a life that can change in so many significant and unexpected ways.

A DNA test brings together Gabriella and Isabella, the former young woman fully believing the results were a mistake and the latter having no doubt that they weren’t. Isabella, who has lived her whole life in Puerto Rico, used to have a sister, Marianna, and she disappeared when she was seven months old while in the care of their extremely inebriated father. Gabby, a magazine fact-checker who lives in New York City and was raised by now-deceased parents whom she loved deeply, does not believe it’s possible that the parents who raised her — Mack and Lucy — were not, perhaps, her birth parents.

Gabby embarks on a trip to Puerto Rico, for the sole purpose of writing a magazine story about what happens when DNA test results are wrong. She thinks it’s the perfect way to show her boss that she has talents beyond fact-checking and deserves a staff position as a writer.

It seemed a little unbelievable that Gabby is a fact checker — her job is literally to dig in and find facts — and yet she doesn’t make much of an effort to dig into the facts about her family history despite the DNA test results. I guess there’s that emotional component that would make it difficult to believe that your history is anything other than what you remember and what you’ve been made to believe.

As Gabby explains to Isabella, “For what you’re saying to be true, I’d have to believe Mack and Lucy would have — could have — literally stolen a baby off the street. … This isn’t about not being able to believe that I’m your sister. It’s about being able to believe that I’m not their daughter. And I just … I can’t.”

The story mainly alternates between Gabby’s and Isabella’s points of view, but there’s a whole cast of interesting characters, and Rico gives most of them at least one chapter. This means the story is tied together from all sorts of perspectives, from Alberto’s — the book opens with him, coming to on a street, baby missing — to the detectives’ on the missing-baby case. It was a really fun way to see the mystery unravel, because, of course, nearly everyone has a secret. The narrative also switches between now and “that day,” the day the baby disappeared, offering another compelling angle.

There’s the mystery, and then there’s the juxtaposition of two young women who were raised very differently and have different kinds of intelligence; Gabby is more book smart while Isabella is more street smart. Rico shows this subtly but effectively, in scenes like this one, from Isabella’s point of view, as the women walk through one of the shabbier areas of Puerto Rico.

“When Gabby takes out her phone to snap a picture, all she can see is the mural — a spray-paint reproduction of the Mona Lisa draped in a Puerto Rican flag. All I can see are the two guys standing just out of the frame, conducting a little street-side retail.”

There’s definitely a “wealthy girl from NYC vs. poor girl from San Juan” piece of the narrative, and while I personally didn’t feel like it was overdone, I think someone who is of Puerto Rican descent or is more familiar with Latino culture would likely read the representations of Puerto Rico a lot differently than I did. A lot of the descriptions shine a negative light on the people and places of Puerto Rico, mainly San Juan and la Perla, and I can’t pretend to know how accurate they are. The author does include a note at the beginning of the novel explaining her own family history and that she is trying to honor her heritage and the stories she heard from her Cuban grandfather and Puerto Rican grandmother, along with her extensive DNA connections to the island and her own experiences visiting there (which she acknowledges were from a tourist point of view).

Familia is a quick read that manages to be both fun and a bit dark, but it’s also meaningful and has a lot of heart. A-

Everywhere an Oink Oink, by David Mamet

Everywhere an Oink Oink, by David Mamet (Simon & Schuster, 225 pages)

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously described talent as hitting a mark no one else can reach, while genius hits a mark no one can see. Then there’s David Mamet, a man of both talent and genius, whose writing no one can follow. Not that he can’t write plays and scripts. But his new memoir is a rollicking hot mess.

Mamet is a Hollywood luminary whose screenwriting credits include The Verdict, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog, among other films. He has worked in entertainment for half a century, first as a playwright in New York before he was lured to California to work in movies, a move that he quips was a demotion.

Today, Mamet is both a Hollywood insider and outsider, although he is likely a little more outsidery than usual right now, given the title of the book — Everywhere an Oink Oink — and Mamet’s description of himself as “embittered.”

This is a man with tea to spill, and it’s delightfully acidic, at least the parts that we can comprehend.

Writing in staccato, Mamet seems to want to get stuff off his chest, the quicker the better. He has a dim view of many people in Hollywood — producers in particular — and the direction the industry has been headed in. (He really doesn’t like DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, programs, either.) He darts from topic to topic, eschews the socially accepted norms of capitalization, and drops names as if they were hot potatoes, though not ostentatiously. It was just an occupational hazard for him to rub elbows every day with A-list actors and D-grade producers.

His point, best as I can tell, is that the entertainment industry in the 20th century was fun and rewarding for those directors and writers who could “make it happen.” (Making it happen amounted to “getting the asses into the seats, keeping them there for two hours, and sending them out to tell their friends.”) Not so in the 21st. For that, he blames “Diversity Commissars” and “corporate degeneracy” for boring the audience out of theaters with their insistence on lecturing them.

“The hegemons, as they grow fat, become less sassy, and the confusion about objective (making money by supplying a need) caused by affluence attracts exploiters as the sun calls forth maggots from a dead dog.”

This is apparently the problem that most of Hollywood has had with Mamet — they acknowledge his genius, but then the thing in front of them, despite its occasional captivating and startlingly original phrasing, is so strange that ultimately they pass. He admits, “no one out there, in forty years, liked my scripts” — except for the actors, five directors and the audience. He was frequently told, “I so respect your work, I love everything you’ve ever written, except this.”

But somehow he managed to make a 40-year career there, enough to fill a book with anecdotes, like the time he sat next to Jane Fonda at a dinner and didn’t recognize her, the time he hugged Anne Heche (“and if she was Gay, she at least during that hug was bisexual”), and the time Dino De Laurentiis and Ridley Scott visited him in Martha’s Vineyard to talk him into writing the script for Hannibal. (He did, and they hated it, of course.)

There are also stories about people he doesn’t identify, such as the “Very Famous Singer” who required that everyone in the orchestra sign a statement vowing they would not look at her. (That is true, apparently, of many directors and stars; rank and file workers are warned to never catch their eye.)

The book is entertaining and revelatory in parts, a self-indulgent screed in others. It is illustrated with cartoons by the author.

And alas, there is little here to encourage aspiring screenwriters, of which he says, “The self-deluded feel they ‘have a script in them,’ not realizing that it’s in them, as they have neglected to write it down. Should they actually do so, they will hate it, as it will have nothing to do with how it felt when it was ‘in them.’

“They may then attempt to wrestle the thing closer to The Feeling they had, but they’ll never get it closer, as the feeling, which felt like an idea, was only a feeling — their attempts are like a chef saying he wanted to make the couscous taste like the First Day of School.”

If aspiring screenwriters do want some concrete advice, however, it’s to concentrate all your efforts on plot, not dialogue. He considers dialogue extremely unimportant and says that a good outline is the bulk of the work.

Perhaps the best aside in the memoir is in a chapter titled “Lime Rock,” in which he wanders into a fascinating description of the power of stories.

“From the time we cry, we make sounds to influence those around us. With the exceptions of joy, hurt, or surprise, this is, in fact, the sole reason anyone makes these sounds.

“And we all love to tell stories. They are, after all one means — their other excellences aside — for immobilizing a group (audience or dinner party). That is, for exercising power.”

The stories told here, however, are so poorly organized that their power dissipates, leaving the power with the reader who may choose to put the book down — or, in the parlance of theater, leave their seat.

“The study of history can be reduced to the simple phrase: ‘What the hell happened?’” Marmet eventually concludes. The same can be said of this book. C

Best books of 2023

Books that earned “A”s from Hippo reviewers in 2023

Fiction

Life on Delay, by John Hendrickson

Hendrickson writes movingly of the small indignities of stuttering which stem from things that most people take for granted — the ability to place an order at a restaurant, to record a voicemail, or even introduce yourself to another person. … although the narrative is encased in difficulties which relatively few people experience, its broader theme is more universal: healing from childhood and family dysfunction.

Life on Delay … opens a window beautifully into human struggles that often go unseen. It is the rare sort of book with the potential to make us better human beings. —Jennifer Graham

Maame, by Jessica George

Maame covers all the bases of growing up with cultural barriers, without being heavy-handed or preachy. … [Maddie’s] story is often funny, and always heartfelt and engaging. —Meghan Siegler

I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai

When the protagonist of Rebecca Makkai’s gripping new novel is a teen, she arrives at a boarding school in New Hampshire knowing little about the school or the region.

… It would be reductive to call I Have Some Questions For You a thriller or a whodunit, although it has many components of both. … While it’s a page-turner … there are frequent mentions of real women who had violent, premature deaths, and the men responsible.

… Look for this one when the lists of the best books of 2023 emerge later this year. —J.G.

The Promise of a Normal Life, by Kaiser Gibson

The Promise of a Normal Life … is a quietly revealing character study that wields power in lyricism and detail. —J.G.

The Society of Shame, by Jane Roper

… it’s hard to imagine that there will be a smarter, sassier takedown of social media this year than The Society of Shame, Jane Roper’s merrily caustic novel about cancel culture.

… Roper is a gifted comic writer, who knows how to throw a punchline and to sustain a running gag, or two or 20. … But it is the social media cameos that make the novel so hilarious, the ever-changing, irreverent hashtags… —J.G.

After the Funeral and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley

The 12 stories in this collection are achingly beautiful at times, and painful in places. … But women, in particular, will recognize the family dynamics for sure. —J.G.

The Last Ranger, by Peter Heller

As a writer, Heller has copious gifts of description. … But Heller’s novels are reliably gripping because they thrum quietly with tension, while slowly revealing the essence of characters who will stay with you for years. The Last Ranger … is an excellent companion for the dog days of summer, especially for anyone who is more comfortable outside than in. —J.G.

Save What’s Left, by Elizabeth Castellano

This is not a tragedy … but pure comedy, a book-length stand-up routine with a punchline every few minutes.

… 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….

Save What’s Left is a romp in the sun and sand…. It’s all fun, especially if you’ve ever loved a beach town, or thought about moving to one. —J.G.

Happiness Falls, by Angie Kim

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 the novel is deeply researched on the subject of people who are unable to speak, because of severe autism or other disorders.

Happiness Falls is both an engrossing mystery and a family drama with multiple layers of complexity.

Happiness Falls delivers, maybe not happiness, but a novel you can get lost in…. —J.G.

Mr. Texas, by Lawrence Wright

A Dallas native who lives in Austin, Wright has said he come 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.

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. —J.G.

The Good Part, by Sophie Cousens

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. —M.S.

Nonfiction

Dinner with the President, by Alex Prud’homme

… Prud’homme has figured out how to make American history fascinating: tell stories connecting it to food. If my old high school history textbook, The American Pageant, is still in use, Dinner with the President should replace it immediately. —J.G.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer

The question of what we should do with the art of problematic people has come up regularly in recent years, and nobody seems to have a good answer. Dederer … attempts to craft one in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma…. … Dederer is like a dinner guest you don’t want to stop talking because she’s so well-read and interesting … and her writing is delightful and fresh. —J.G.

All the Beauty in the World, by Patrick Bringley

In conversations with visitors to the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], and with his coworkers, he brings us fully into the job [as a guard] with him, letting us see through the eyes of first-time and regular visitors the effect that the ancient art has on them. —J.G.

How to Survive History, by Cody Cassidy

It’s fanciful, of course, and a tad silly, but Cassidy comes to the task with a surprising gravitas and the right mix of ‘yes, this is kind of crazy’ but also ‘this is serious stuff, pay attention.’

… Cassidy owns ‘humor history’ and it’s top-notch for the genre. —J.G.

Better Living Through Birding, by Christian Cooper

Fame that erupts on social media is often fleeting and unearned. Christian Cooper is the rare exception–his is a story worth telling, and in this memoir he does so exceptionally well. —J.G.

The Heat Will Kill You First, by Jeff Goodell

… there’s no disputing that Goodell is an engaging writer at the top of his game. He’s like the love child of Ed Yong and James Patterson, with a little bit of Rachel Carson thrown in, which is to say he writes science-based, dystopian thrillers.

Goodell, a longtime writer for Rolling Stone, is a pro at the dialogue-rich narrative style that keeps readers turning pages. —J.G.

Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson

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 explaining why in his exhaustive new biography.

Isaacson’s prose is sparse; he lets his subjects and interviewees do the talking, and they all had plenty to say. —J.G.

Class, by Stephanie Land

Class, by Stephanie Land (Atria, 272 pages)

Stephanie Land’s dream of becoming a writer came through in a big way in 2019 when she published Maid, a memoir about working as a house cleaner for people who were clearly some of the worst human beings on the planet. The book landed at a time of increasing concern about income inequality, and the single mother’s stories about scrubbing other people’s toilets to pay the bills struck a chord; it was a New York Times bestseller, was adapted for a Netflix series and praised by former President Barack Obama as one of the best books of the year.

Land is now back with Class, subtitled “a memoir of motherhood, hunger and higher education.” Because of the success of Maid, it was immediately chosen for the Good Morning America book club and will no doubt enjoy commercial success. Unfortunately, it’s an Eeyore of a book, gloomy and resentful, which detracts from the social messages that Land wants to convey.

She begins in familiar territory, which can best be described as “He done me wrong.” The predominant “he” in this case is the father of her child, Jamie, who readers of Maid will remember had little interest in being a husband or father, and who, according to Land, is the cause of many of her struggles. At the beginning of the book, he has, for example, abruptly said that he will not be able to take their daughter, Emilia, for the summer, as had been arranged. This left Land scrambling to find the vast amounts of child care that she needs because (a) she has to work, fair enough, but also (b) she is enrolled in college, a longtime dream that is contributing to her financial problems in a big way: She will soon graduate $50,000 in debt.

On top of that, she’s planning on getting a master of fine arts. “Writing,” she says, “the real writing that mattered, was meant to be done without cartoons blaring in the background and someone asking for pancakes.”
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, except for the fact that Land’s young daughter seems to be standing in the way of everything her mother wants to do. She’s 5 and is the most sympathetic character in this book. She has a father who’s constantly canceling on her — saying he can’t see her because he has to work — and a mother who keeps leaving her with babysitters or because she has to work. Children tend to love their parents no matter what, and so Emilia is not resentful like her mother, even as she gets sent to detention for being late to school, and has people fail to pick her up when Land forgets it’s an early release day.

Meanwhile, Land has many bones to pick here, not just the grievances she has with her ex, starting with her family. Her mother, she writes, resigned from parenting when Land was 21, moving to Europe to be with a new love. Her father, Land says, was not helpful at all when she called him to say she needed help paying for child care, asking if he would ask his sister to pay or contribute. The aunt is another Bad Person. “In my early twenties, she got upset over people not being grateful enough for the gifts she bought for Christmas,” Land writes. “Ever since, we received a few pairs of socks from her instead. In her defense, they were nice socks.”

Ouch. It is that kind of zinger that makes us want to put Land at arm’s length as she continues with her story of woe, lest she find something bad about us to write in her next memoir. In Land’s world, most everyone is unhelpful and unpleasant, from the guidance counselor at the University of Montana-Missoula to the judge who considers her request for a child support modification and deems her “voluntarily underemployed.”

As in Maid, Land seeks to roll back the assorted indignations of the working poor, those who, for whatever reason, are at the mercy of student loans and credit card payments, with every dollar allotted, and then some, and little more than peanut butter and grape jam in the pantry. Along the way, she wants to take away the stigma of single mothers not being “enough” for their children without a partner. And she writes movingly of trying to date with a child: “Having a kid and trying to date felt equivalent to hanging a wedding dress in my closet and bringing it out to show a person when they picked me up for the first time. Men no longer saw me as a lighthearted dating prospect. They looked at me and I could almost see the reflection of white picket fences and family dinners at five thirty in their eyes.”

But as Land rolls through her days of struggling to take care of her daughter while working and going to school (and at this point, she’s starting to shop around stories that would eventually comprise Maid), it can be difficult to sustain sympathy for her as she gets pregnant again (without being able to identify the father) and applies for another credit card. The people close to her who dare to question her choices get knifed. When one woman, who is giving Land a ride home because her car has died, says, “I’m worried you’re not making good decisions here,” Land writes about “concern trolling,” which she said wasn’t actual concern but “an opportunity to act as if they knew better than me.”

At one point, Emilia, whose tender heart has been broken by her father multiple times, says to her occasional male babysitter and her mother’s roommate, “Are you going to be my new dad?” The answer is no, but she will learn that she’s going to be a big sister, right about the time her mom learns that she’s no longer eligible for food stamps because Emilia has turned 6 (the SNAP formula says Land was able to work full-time then even though the school day was six hours). Not surprisingly, the child asks who the father of her soon-to-be little sister is. Land replies, “There’s no dad, or he’s not around anyway. The baby is just ours.”

That’s a sweet sentiment, which seems to set the little family up for happiness in the future. And despite the ongoing fight with her ex over child support, which seems to be the primary conflict the book is built around, we know how this story ends, or at least we do if we follow Land on social media. No longer a victim of men and circumstance, she is hailed as a voice of the underclass, a champion of those who are being trampled on by late-stage capitalism and predatory colleges and lenders. Nothing wrong with that — but the question remains: is this book, and her writing generally, substantially better for her $50,000 college debt? We’ll never know, nor are we allowed to ask. B-

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