Not in Love, by Ali Hazelwood

Not in Love,by Ali Hazelwood (Berkley, 400 pages)

Ali Hazelwood prefaces her latest book with what is, essentially, a fair-warning note to her readers: Not in Love, she says “is, tonally, a little different from the works I’ve published in the past. Rue and Eli have dealt with — and still deal with — the fallout from issues such as grief, food insecurity, and child neglect. They are eager to make a connection but are not sure how to go about it except through a physical relationship. The result is, I think, less of a rom-com and more of an erotic romance.”

Hazelwood has thus far been known by fans mainly as a rom-com writer who creates smart female lead characters and puts them in STEM-related work environments amongst other smart people and, inevitably, a male counterpoint. In Not in Love, Rue is a biotech engineer working in food science, so we’ve got the STEM setting, and we have the male counterpoint – in this case, his name is Eli, and he works for a company that’s trying to take over Kline, the company Rue works for.

The difference between Not in Love and Hazelwood’s other STEM romances is a much stronger emphasis on sexual chemistry and very explicitly written descriptions of what happens when that chemistry ignites. When Hazelwood warns readers that this is more “erotic romance” than rom-com, she’s not kidding.

But, in addition to the (plentiful) steamy scenes, everything I’ve liked about Hazelwood’s rom-coms is here too: witty banter, emotional complexity and well-drawn characters.

I love that Rue is science-smart but not unapproachable; there are plenty of relatable I-need-to-Google-this types of moments. Case in point, the book opens with Rue and her friend Tisha trying to figure out what a loan assignment is; they ask her friend’s sister, a lawyer, who doesn’t understand their lack of comprehension (“You guys are doctors,” she says, to which Tisha points out that “the topic of private equity firms and loan assignments did not come up in any class during our chemical engineering PhDs. A shocking oversight, I know….”).

Meanwhile, Rue could not be convinced to dumb down the title of her Ph.D. presentation: “A Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Investigation of the Effect of Three Polysaccharide-Based Coatings on the Minimization of Postharvest Loss of Horticultural Crops.” Her unapologetic thought is, “I had no talent for enticing people to care about my work: either they saw its value, or they were wrong.”

Rue is unapologetic about her dating life, too. She has a “no repeats” rule, meaning one and done, no exceptions; she doesn’t want a relationship, or the emotions that go with it. That was her plan when she matched with Eli on a dating app. She didn’t expect to ever see him again, so of course he ends up at the center of her workplace drama.

Rue probably could have stuck to her no repeats rule — she’s that emotionally stunted — but Eli falls hard for her. I like that the book moves between Rue’s point of view and Eli’s, because we can see how intense his feelings, emotional and otherwise, are, compared to her internal hesitations. And yet Eli is nothing but respectful to her and her hesitations, despite his desire for more, which makes him a very likable character.

The supporting characters aren’t always likable, but intentionally so — they all have a purpose and elevate the story, and many of their interactions with Rue and Eli are hilarious, adding to the novel’s smart, sassy vibe.

The plot is intriguing and believable, as Rue tries to save her scientific work from the grasp of Eli’s company, thinking — incorrectly, of course — that they’re being greedy. More seriously, as Hazelwood points out, there are mentions of grief, food insecurity and child neglect, but it’s not as depressing as it sounds. They’re issues that Rue and Eli dealt with that still impact them as adults, but there are no heavy-handed lessons or weepy sob stories — just real, life-goes-on reminders that what’s in the past doesn’t always stay in the past, and it can take a lot of work to build trust and open your heart after it’s been hurt.

This is another winner for Hazelwood, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their romantic fiction smart, emotional and extra spicy. Just not you, Mom, and if you do read this, please never tell me. A-

God’s Ghostwriters, by Candida Moss

God’s Ghostwriters, by Candida Moss (Little, Brown & Co., 303 pages)

In the first centuries of the Common Era, literacy was rare. Even when people knew how to read and write, they didn’t want to do it since scratching out letters and symbols on papyrus with no desks or ergonomic chairs was physically taxing. The solution for many elites of the time was to have enslaved people do it.

While most of the early leaders of the fledgling movement that would one day be known as Christianity weren’t men of means, they still had people accompanying them on their travels, and these people — not necessarily Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were the people who would write down the stories about Jesus of Nazareth, Many of them were enslaved, posits theologian Candida Moss in God’s Ghostwriters.

Formerly a professor at Notre Dame, now at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., Moss is attempting to bring biblical scholarship surrounding the New Testament to a broader audience. In doing so, she may upset some apple carts of belief, specifically for those who perceive Christianity as a religion of the learned built on the writings of Aquinas, Augustine and other intellectual heavyweights. In fact, Moss points out, in its first centuries, the emerging religion was often derided as the fantastical beliefs of women, the lower classes and, most of all, enslaved people.

Some of these ideas are already well-known, chief among them the fact that crucifixion was a form of execution used primarily to punish the enslaved and the worst kinds of criminals, and a threat to keep other people of low status in line. But Moss goes much further out on this limb, arguing that the involvement of the enslaved in the production and dissemination of Christian Bible influenced its content, through the inclusion (and exclusion) of certain things, and descriptions that would more easily flow from the mind of a servile person than from an elite. Descriptions of a netherworld, for example, are often disturbingly similar to conditions of prisons in ancient Rome, she says.

While conceding at the start that much of what she writes in God’s Ghostwriters is inferred from what is uncontested about this period of history, Moss makes a compelling, if provocative, case. She is used to controversy, having previously published a book that questioned the number of early Christians who were killed for their faith. Moss’s 2013 The Myth of Persecution, for some, seemed an attack on Christianity itself, given that the martyrdom of early Christians is often used as an argument for the validity of Christianity’s claims. God’s Ghostwriters presents a similar problem, she acknowledges, writing, “If the New Testament is not the work of Jesus’ disciples, can it be trusted?”

Moss does not answer that question outright, but she is reportedly Catholic, so she must think there’s something of value in the Christian Bible. But she likens its “invisible” authors to delivery workers during the pandemic, writing “We speak of Amazon ‘delivering things,’ as if an abstract multinational company brought purchases to our home,” rather than low-wage workers.

For many readers, Moss might dance too close to the edge of blasphemy when she refers to certain biblical descriptions of Jesus as “slavish” and says that the narrative of Mark’s gospel, in particular, leaves room for interpretation that Mary was either enslaved or a sex worker. Some early critics of the fledgling Jesus movement argued that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. This is not new information to scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity; just as there were people eager to advance the deity of Jesus, there were many people eager to stamp it out.

But Moss’s excavation provides an engrossing history of Roman life and how slavery was part and parcel of the time, and she offers a rudimentary and accessible snapshot of biblical scholarship that is rarely, if ever, delivered from a pulpit. She shows, for example, that the story of the adulterous woman about to be stoned that Jesus forgave — which she calls “something of a fan favorite” — was not in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, where it resides today, and speculates on how it came to be there. Her descriptions of life in ancient Rome do not give it the romantic overtones held by the many people on social media who say they think about ancient Rome daily — as much as Rome is marked by military conquest, roads and aqueducts, it was also a place where animal feces was used as mortar, and dogs, as well as humans, were crucified. Perhaps modernity isn’t as bad as we make it out to be.

Does it matter that the Gospel of Mark was not written by a disciple called Mark, but dictated by Peter to Mark or even to an unnamed, enslaved person? Does it matter if the letters of Paul were not physically composed by Paul, but by a person who was enslaved or formerly enslaved? For some, Moss acknowledges, yes, this would present “an insurmountable problem” to their faith. But it seems that for most people who see the Bible as the inspired word of God, it would not matter who actually held the stylus or reed. For those who are willing to have their preconceptions challenged, God’s Ghostwriters will do just that. BJennifer Graham

The Guncle Abroad, by Steven Rowley

The Guncle Abroad, by Steven Rowley (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 320 pages)

It took me a minute to get back into the world of Patrick O’Hara, also known as GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) to Maisie and Grant, Patrick’s now 14- and 11-year-old niece and nephew, respectively. The last time we saw these characters, in Rowley’s The Guncle, they were five years younger. Maisie and Grant had just lost their mom, and their dad, Greg, was struggling with addiction, so a very unprepared Patrick stepped in as their temporary guardian while his brother checked himself into rehab. Hilarity, along with a good dose of all the emotions that come with family, love and loss, ensued.

Now GUP is back in charge as he leads Maisie and Grant on a journey to understand love ahead of their dad’s impending wedding to Livia; meanwhile, Maisie and Grant are on a mission to get Patrick to get their dad to call off the wedding. They’re not fans of Livia (although they seem to like their soon-to-be Launt — Lesbian aunt — much to Patrick’s annoyance).

“The key was not so much for the kids to understand their own [love] languages … but for Patrick to open their eyes to the ways in which Greg and Livia might be a good match, and ways in which Livia might be expressing love for the two of them that they were currently missing. Guncle Love Languages.”

The wedding is set to take place in Lake Como, Italy. As Greg and Livia prepare for their big day, Patrick takes Maisie and Grant to some pretty amazing places that he believes exemplify love: Salzburg, Austria (where they all joyfully revive some famous The Sound of Music moments), Paris and Venice. The locations make for beautiful backdrops for this quest of Patrick’s, even while his message is largely unheard and his niece and nephew dig their heels in.

Patrick’s conversations with the kids are often hilarious — he doesn’t coddle or hold back his opinions in the way most adults might. The kids aren’t quite as fun as they were in the first book, which makes sense because they’re older and not as amused by Patrick. Grant has lost his adorable lisp, but he hasn’t lost his unintentional wit.

“‘Careful, your mug might be hot,’” Patrick tells Grant when they’re in Paris drinking fancy hot chocolate. “‘This hot chocolate is for sipping, not gulping like a pelican.’ ‘I wish I was a pelican,’ came Grant’s reply. ‘Then I could store more of this in my throat pouch.’ Patrick shuddered. ‘Don’t say throat pouch in a chocolaterie.’”

What Rowley does really well here is explore how grief can still take a hold of us even as the years pass and our lives move forward. Moments big and small — a wedding or a memory of watching The Sound of Music — can evoke all kinds of emotions, from acute sadness to a sense of peace in knowing that the person you loved and lost would be proud of the people she left behind.

While Patrick is mainly focused on getting Grant and Maisie to accept Greg and Livia’s relationship, he’s nursing his own heartbreak while struggling to come to terms with hitting the half-century mark in age. Patrick broke up with Emory because he felt like he was too old for him, so even while he’s found renewed success in his acting career, he’s feeling lonely and missing Emory. It’s the kids who pick up on the missing-Emory part and ultimately force Patrick to acknowledge his fears.

All in all, there’s a good mix here of lighthearted fun and emotional depth. When things start to get heavy, it’s a good bet that there’s going to be a laugh-out-loud moment or a clever quip that maintains the levity. Launt Palmina is especially good for a laugh (at one point she “mistakenly” mistranslates Patrick’s new role in Grease, to which an annoyed Patrick quickly clarifies that his role is to teach the boys the hand jive).

If you’re looking for a not-too-serious-but-not-too-fluffy summer read, The Guncle Abroad delivers. Definitely start with the first book, though, if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet. B
—Meghan Siegler

Worry, by Alexandra Tanner

Worry, by Alexandra Tanner (Scribner, 290 pages)

If there’s a twentysomething in your life, or if you are one, you will love Jules and Poppy, the anxious and squabbly sisters in Alexandra’s Tanner’s debut novel, Worry.

And also, at some point, you’ll just want to throttle them.

Tanner has bottled the nervous essence of youthful TikTok and spilled it out on the page in a quirky, pre-Covid novel that is dialogue-driven and plot-deprived but somehow manages to be fun to read.

It begins — and ends — in 2019. Poppy Gold, the younger of the two sisters and ostensibly the least emotionally stable, arrives at Jules’ rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

She takes over her sister’s home office and plans just to stay for a short while until she can find her own place.

Poppy has tried to kill herself and has picked up shoplifting for fun, but she seems to be on the mend emotionally. She, like much of her generation, is highly socially conscious, refusing to let her sister buy a SodaStream because she “doesn’t want to support Israeli apartheid.” She doesn’t have a job but is convinced she can get one and afford the rent on her own place, or else get their parents to subsidize it.

Jules, the narrator, knows better. Jules is somewhat stably employed as an editor for a publishing company that produces study guides similar to SparkNotes, and has a boyfriend with “an MFA in poetry and half a Ph.D. in poetry.”

“He pretends he knows things about wine and I let him. I pretend I know things about Russian literature and he lets me. It’s all very tentative,” Jules says. In her spare time, Jules obsesses over Mormon mommy blogs and picks fights with them in the comments. She calls them her mommies.

Her real mother, and Poppy’s, practices Messianic Judaism, just started an Instagram account (zero followers) and argues with her daughters about whether police are bad or good and is prone to texting them a thumbs-down emoji when they say something she doesn’t like.

“I don’t understand why the three of us can’t ever just have, like, a nice conversation,” Jules says to Poppy, discussing their mother. “Not even a conversation, just a moment even. What’s her deal with us? Why doesn’t she like us?”

“Oh,” Poppy says without looking up, “it’s because she’s a narcissist and we’re her appendages. It says so in the trauma book.”

Soon it becomes clear that Poppy will not be moving out anytime soon, and to the delight of their father, a dermatologist who is always telling his daughters what cosmetic work they need to have done (and does it free), they settle down to housekeeping together. They even adopt a three-legged rescue dog named Amy Klobuchar.

This is the point where there should be some rising story arc, some crisis, some Thelma-and-Louise-esque trip. Astonishingly, there is not. Worry is essentially a book full of snappy dialogue and stream-of-consciousness observations of one millennial and one zoomer. Poppy and Jules are an Algonquin Round Table that seats two.

While they both have dreams — Jules has an MFA and still aspires to be a “real” writer — they are locked in anxiety, self-consciousness and a never-ending loop of videos on the internet that end badly, from 9/11 to a zoo panda’s death. This leads to a conversation about whether watching videos like that changes a person.

Poppy argues yes: “There is a before and after of me watching this video, you know? There’s the me who hadn’t chosen to watch the video, and there’s the me who did. And I’m not the old me anymore.”

To which Jules replies: “The Internet isn’t real, it isn’t experience. It’s moving dots.”

But when Jules ventures out into the real world to watch a writer lecture at a museum, and another young woman tries to befriend her, she refuses to engage and spirals into self-pity. “There’s never been a reality in which I could be a serious thinker, a serious writer. I’m a Floridian. I’m a consumer,” she says to herself.

Tanner disguises the seriousness underlying the women’s unhappiness with her light, comic touch. When, for example, a high-school drama friend reaches out to Jules, Jules admits, “It thrills me to see that she is not working as an actress, that she’s working in nonprofits — the fate of the unremarkable — and that she’s the annoying kind of married where she has her wedding date, bookended with hearts, in her little bio box.”

But Tanner throws the readers under a bus with an emotionally challenging ending that is a sharp and unexpected departure from her modus operandi up to that point. It’s as if she’d been serving cotton candy, and then suddenly left the room and came back with fried alligator. But by that point, it’s too late for the reader to bail.

Worry is, in essence, an anxious monologue that will resonate most with young, under-employed, over-educated Americans who live in large cities on the coasts. B

Twelve Trees, by Daniel Lewis

Daniel Lewis is a tree nerd, and I say that affectionately, from one tree nerd to another. By this, I mean my house is filled with odd pieces of wood collected in forests and on beaches for no reason other than the beauty I see in their gnarled and twisty forms. Lewis, however, is the guy who could probably identify the type of tree these bits of wood come from and then launch into a lecture on the genus of the tree and its prospects for survival on a warming planet.

An environmental historian and college professor who lives in Southern California, Lewis has built his latest book around 12 trees he finds most interesting and important. Disappointingly, although New Hampshire is the second most forested state in the U.S. according to the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, the 12 do not include the sugar maple, Eastern hemlock or any other of the most prevalent trees in New England.

Lewis’s picks are a disparate tribe flung around the planet — in some cases, literally, by seed dispersal. They include the bristlecone pine, the coast redwood, the East Indian sandalwood tree, the African baobab, the blue gum eucalyptus and the olive tree. Each tree gets its own chapter, in which Lewis tells stories about the tree’s history, its uses and abuses by humans, and its outlook. Along the way, he ventures merrily off the beaten path in order to share nuggets of information he has gleaned during his research.

As an example, Lewis wanted to confirm that products of the olive tree, which mainly grows in the Mediterranean and in California, are found on all the continents. So he tracked down the person in charge of supplying food to the largest year-round encampment in the Antarctic, and we subsequently learn how the 150 to 900 people at the McMurdo Station are fed. Food is delivered there just once a year, in January or February, and it sounds like they eat better there than many of us do. “When you’re stuck in a vast, tree-free tract of wind-driven snow and ice, you need good olives and their oil. Green, black, and Kalamata olives are the three varieties usually on hand. Olive oil and olives are also a staple for their pizza station, which bakes up sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand pizzas annually,” Lewis writes.

Due to the popularity of its drupe — that is the new word we learn for pitted fruits like the olive, peach or apricot — the actual olive tree doesn’t get as much attention in its chapter as the other 11 trees, as Lewis delves mainly into the production of olive oil. The demand for olive oil is so great that just 10 percent of harvested olives are consumed as olives; the rest is pressed into oil in a mind-bogglingly complex and regulated process that explains why the product is so expensive.

More focus on the tree itself is given in chapters of two threatened species of trees: the African baobab (you might not recognize the name, but Google it, and you will most likely recognize the tree) and the toromiro tree, once common on a Pacific island.

The African baobab is a source of water to elephants during times of drought, which is interesting, because the baobab, for reasons scientists can’t explain, stores much more water than an individual tree needs for itself. But as tempting as it is to think that the tree is, on some level, being helpful to elephants or other living things with its excess hydration, it is the elephants’ violent assault on the trees to obtain water that is contributing to the trees’ demise.

Equally interesting is the story of what Lewis calls “the nearly lost tree of Rapa Nui.”

Rapa Nui is the Pacific island more commonly known as Easter Island. It was once resplendent with the Sophora toromiro, which doesn’t have a common name or nickname like other trees and is simply known (by the tree nerds who pay attention to it) as the toromiro.

The toromiro is a small flowering tree that was part of a “painful drop in biodiversity” after humans arrived there around the 12th century. In the case of the toromiro, however, its gradual decline wasn’t all human-driven; Lewis explains how other factors were likely at play, including dozens of devastating tsunamis that have hit the island over time. But the trees were harvested too, for firewood and building material. By the 1600s wood was so scarce on the island that it became the most valuable commodity there, Lewis writes. Even driftwood was “precious.”

Today, more than six decades after the last toromiro tree mysteriously disappeared from the island, attempts are being made to re-introduce the tree to the island from toromiros found growing elsewhere, the seeds carried by birds or ocean currents. It’s not as easy as just planting seedlings. The soil composition has changed so much that cultivated trees have not yet taken root.

These are the sorts of stories that make Twelve Trees an unexpectedly fascinating read, although it’s not necessarily the sort of book that you’d recommend, for example, to your Bruins-obsessed neighborhood. It’s a book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, and would appeal most to those who think businesses should close for Arbor Day. (April 26 this year, in case you didn’t know.)

While Twelve Trees has its “Bueller? Bueller?” moments — most notably when Lewis delivers what is best described as a rapturous ode to lichens — it will make you think that maybe you care more about trees than you know. B

Funny Story, by Emily Henry

& How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang

Funny Story, by Emily Henry (Berkley, 400 pages)

How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang (Avon, 384 pages)

I was interested in reading Yulin Kuang’s debut novel, How to End a Love Story, after finding out that Kuang is the adapting screenwriter for People We Meet on Vacation and the writer/director for Beach Read, both upcoming movies based on novels by Emily Henry. And since it was released just weeks before Henry’s latest, Funny Story (already on my must-read list), I decided to read them both and compare these purportedly funny love stories.

How to End a Love Story is a solid debut — but I could see it being better as a movie (which makes sense given Kuang’s experience as a film writer). I have to wonder if perhaps some solid acting could make me believe the whole premise of the book.

Because here’s my biggest hang-up: The reason that main characters Helen and Grant “can’t” be together is stupid. I could not, at any point, wrap my head around this “enemies to lovers” plot when there was absolutely no reason for them to be enemies in the first place.

Helen’s sister was killed in a tragic accident 13 years ago. Grant was behind the wheel of the car that killed her. (No spoiler here — this is explained on page 2). The fact is, no one was at fault, no one was to blame, and it’s just not OK that Helen hates Grant for this thing he had no control over. I get that being around him might be difficult, but to straight up despise his existence and make him feel like he did something wrong really made me dislike her. And it’s hard to be invested in, let alone root for, a character you don’t like.

Also, she’s pretty uptight, and it was hard to reconcile that with the setting and other characters in the book. Helen is a popular YA author and has just started working in the writers’ room of the book series’ TV adaptation (clearly Kuang took the “write what you know” notion and ran with it). The writers’ room environment is rowdy and raunchy, and Helen doesn’t fit in.

It’s almost uncomfortable to see Helen’s interactions with these fun, indelicate people — and then watch her slowly become “one of them.” It seems disingenuous and awkward (again, maybe onscreen an actor could portray this transformation more naturally than my imagination was allowing for).

Meanwhile, Grant is an experienced film writer, well-respected and confident in the room but less so outside of it, as he still struggles with the anxieties that have plagued him since the aforementioned tragic accident.

Alas, Helen and Grant must work together, and of course it’s so hard at first, but then it’s not so much, and then there are some unfortunate moments of passion that can’t go any further because it’s just not OK, fundamentally, because of this thing that happened 13 years ago that was no one’s fault.

If you can wrap your head around all of that in a way that I couldn’t, you’ll probably enjoy this book. Certainly a lot of romance novels have their fair share of disbelievable elements — it’s just that they’re usually more eye-roll-inducing (just tell him how you feel already!) and less emotionally upsetting. But the writing is solid, particularly the dialogue, and it’s an interesting look at what goes on in a writers’ room and on a film set, knowing that Kuang has real-life experience there. C+

Funny Story was even better than I expected it to be. Henry had already proven that she is a master of women’s literature, with fun, real characters, unique but believable storylines, and just the right amount of heat. And in Funny Story, her dialogue shines, sharp and witty as always.

One of many random examples (the context doesn’t even matter):

“‘I thought you were bringing a date,’ I say to Jules. ‘That guy you just went to Chicago with?’

‘Ryan.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘He cut his fingernails on the bus ride.’

‘Ew,’ Ashleigh and I say in unison.

Julia nods solemnly. ‘Flags so red, they veered toward maroon.’”

The “I” in the above example is Daphne, who is engaged to Peter, who decides just before the wedding that he actually loves Petra, his childhood best friend, who was engaged to Miles, who becomes Daphne’s new roommate and fake boyfriend after the respective breakups. Got that? (Jules, in case you’re wondering, is Miles’s sister, and Ashleigh is Daphne’s co-worker and, once Daphne lightens up a bit at work, her new best friend. Both add a well-balanced mix of fun and emotional complexity to the plot.)

And there is emotional complexity here; this isn’t all fluff and love, and I don’t think I rolled my eyes once. Funny Story is definitely funny, but it’s so much more than that, too: It’s a story of human relationships and all of the messiness and intensity that come along with them, how they can start and end in the most unpredictable ways, and how we all have the capacity to overcome heartbreak and learn to love again. A

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul (Bloomsbury, 264 pages)

In her 2016 book The Gutsy Girl, Caroline Paul drew from her own experiences as a firefighter, pilot and outdoorswoman to urge 8- to 13-year-old girls to live a life of “epic adventure.” It was the sort of book that many older women bought for their daughters and nieces, but along the way they read it, too — and loved it. Numerous reviews detail how women much older than the target audience made changes in their own life after reading the book.

Now Paul is back with a book written especially for much older women. In Tough Broad, she urges women past the half-century mark (and even nearing the century mark) to forget their age and head outdoors for their own epic adventures. These adventures, the subtitle warns, include boogie boarding and wing walking, which as the cover photo shows is exactly what it sounds like: moving along the outside of a small airplane in flight, and I suppose I should add intentionally, not because your plane malfunctioned.

Maybe our grandmothers secretly yearned to do that and didn’t have the societal permission, I don’t know. But wing walking at any age seems a bit, well, out there. But Paul argues that exhilarating outdoor adventures are not the result of having a positive attitude toward aging but “the integral gateway” to feeling good about this stage of life. This matters because numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between how we feel about aging and how we fare physically and cognitively. This is not to say that happy aging erases the physical insults and deterioration, but rather, as one 80-year-old scuba diver told Paul, “You can be a couch potato, or you can decide that whatever ails you is insignificant.”

Then 57, Paul is the youngster in this book, although she often talks older than she is. In the opening chapter, for example, she is meeting friends at Yosemite National Park but is thwarted at the gate by rangers who won’t let her drive in because her friend, who obtained the car pass, isn’t with her. Undaunted, she parks away from the gate, puts on a helmet, retrieves her electric skateboard from the car trunk and tries again. The bemused rangers, after “they all stutter-step away from me as if I’m about to wipe out their entire squadron of youthful shins,” let her in.

But she’s not there to skateboard but to meet up with another friend in her 50s who plans to BASE jump (illegally) from the top of the El Capitan monolith.

And so it goes. Paul, who clearly did not get enough adventure in 14 years of working for the San Francisco Fire Department, goes from adventure to adventure, often with people much older and fitter than she is. Meeting a 93-year-old hiker, for example, Paul has to beg off the 5-mile trek that the older woman wants to take because of previous injuries. The hiker reluctantly agrees to downgrade to just 3 miles, telling Paul at one point, “I’m an ageist. I don’t like old people.”

What she means is that she doesn’t like people who use age as an excuse for not getting outside and doing things that are challenging. And while there are plenty of stimulating things one can do inside, like read books or play chess, Paul argues that outside adventures are unique in bringing us to life, and she doesn’t mean just your backyard or a county park. “The less urban the environment you stroll in, the more well-being you feel,” she writes.

While a few of the activities that Paul covers here are much more staid than illegal BASE jumping — birdwatching makes an appearance, for example — the book’s most fascinating women are the ones doing the wildest things. Take the 71-year-old wing walker, who Paul discovers through a video that her children posted on the internet with the caption “MAMMA WENT WING WALKING! Without a word about it to us kids.” When Paul tracks her down, she learns that the wing walker had breast cancer and a mastectomy, chemo and radiation at age 64 and wanted to do something to celebrate her recovery. She’d learned about wing walking when she typed in “Something fun to do here” on Google. She didn’t just jump on the plane, but worked out for six months in preparation, without saying a word to her family.

Paul later tries it herself and realizes that it isn’t just the physical challenge that is so empowering, but what it does for one emotionally. She writes: “I realize how perfectly wing walking primes us for awe: there is the majestic view at thirty-five hundred feet that feels almost religious; there is the total disequilibrium of doing something so antithetical to every survival instinct; there is the exhilaration of twirling and ricocheting and falling in a vast sky.”

True, she notes, a person can experience awe during, say, a walk in a forest, but it’s “psychological disequilibrium” that keeps the neurons firing. We hear a lot about the benefits of sleep and meditation and lowering stress; less so about the need for novelty and challenge. But Paul writes, when she signs up to learn to fly a gyrocopter, she is helping her brain to remain elastic and nimble. “Embrace disequilibrium,” she exhorts us.

Just as Paul’s previous book, meant for young girls, appealed to older women, Tough Broads, though meant for older women will likely inspire women decades younger — and those whose goals are much more modest than walking on a plane mid-flight. In one chapter Paul accompanies a 59-year-old woman to a swimming lesson; the woman has tried multiple times over the years to learn to swim and never could, becoming more and more terrified of drowning each time. But she is determined to master her fear. She regrets that “there’s an entire area of life that I can’t participate in” and dreams of scuba diving somewhere exotic with her family. She is still dreaming — her story turns out not to be quite as inspirational as the others, but the moral is the same: that growth comes from trying, whether or not we succeed.

Paul, who is the twin sister of the actress Alexandra Paul, shares a poignant story about her mother, whose own mother had been anxious and overprotective, making her become risk averse. But at age 54 Paul’s mother tried skydiving and for the first time considered herself brave, and this courage set her off on new adventures. At 84 she told her daughter wistfully, “What I would give to be 60 again.” Paul concludes, “do it now, before you can’t.” That’s good advice for any woman, or man, at any age. AJennifer Graham

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman (W.W. Norton, 274 pages)

When a manager in Adelle Waldman’s Help Wanted is transferred to a store in West Hartford, Connecticut, it’s a promotion and his colleagues are stunned and impressed.

Which tells you everything you need to know about Potterstown, New York, a once-thriving town that unraveled when its major employer left town, leaving behind people “who walked around with something of a shell-shocked look as if modernity itself had caught them unawares.”

For all its economic troubles, however, Potterstown still has Town Square store #1512, a big-box store full of “mass-produced knockoffs of trendy boutique-type items” that is a few steps higher on the big-box social scale than Walmart. And it is the “roaches” of Town Square — the hourly workers who come in each morning at 3:55 a.m. to stock the store, then scatter before opening time — that are the subject of Help Wanted, the latest in a genre best described as late-capitalism novels.

It is obvious from the first pages of Help Wanted that the flawed heroes of this story are the nine workers who comprise the department called “Movement,” and that their supervisor is the bad guy. “Movement” is the trendy upgraded name for the department that used to be called “Logistics” — despite concern in some quarters that it made it sound like “they worked for a yoga studio or laxative company.” At any rate, in the pecking order of Town Square employees, Movement is the department for workers who are seen as “not customer facing” or “ready for prime time” because their social skills aren’t up to par.

These protagonists include Nicole, a 23-year-old with $30 in her checking account whose main goal in life is to buy a car so she doesn’t have to drive her mom’s dented sedan, the Dingmobile; Diego, a Black man from Honduras who immigrated to the New York with his father as a teen and (whose phone is currently shut off for nonpayment), and Milo, a would-be comedian with a YouTube account dreaming of a girlfriend and a place to live that isn’t a friend’s house.

The one thing the Movement workers have in common beyond their financial misery is their dislike of their perpetually obtuse manager, Meredith, who regularly comes in late, denies leave requests and micromanages the team. And so when the store manager, Big Will, gets promoted to West Hartford, the Movement team spots a way out of their collective misery. If Meredith gets promoted to store manager, she will no longer directly supervise them. And there’s a chance that one of them will get her job.

This fills members of the team, who, like caged birds, generally dwell in a state of learned helplessness, with excitement. Each one privately is hoping that they will be the person to be promoted and get a guaranteed salary and benefits, but they know that even if that isn’t the case, their lot would improve if Meredith disappeared. So they devise a furtive plan they dub “pro-Mer” — promote Meredith — in order to make this dream happen. Meanwhile, Meredith herself is ecstatically planning for her future promotion and getting the store ship-shape before the arrival of the Town Square executives who will conduct interviews and make the decision.

One by one, we learn of the circumstances of each worker’s life, and why the promotion — which is, frankly, not one that most people would write home about — is so important to them. Unfortunately, despite these asides into the team members’ lives, Waldman’s decision to make the story about all of them requires the reader to work hard to keep up with each of nine workers’ circumstances. While these circumstances are substantively different — one has a food stamp card that has not reloaded, one was evicted, one has an unexpected medical problem that consumes the money he’d planned on using for his child’s birthday party — they are all troubled by the same core problems: lack of education, lack of money, lack of opportunity, and a business that cares more about the bottom line than about them.

Most of the workers desperately want more hours (not all, because some have multiple jobs), and the store has plenty of work that isn’t getting done, but the company is content to sacrifice even customer satisfaction so long as sales keep steadily going up. In one example of corporate deceit, Town Square posts “help wanted” signs all over the store, even though they’re not hiring — the implication being that any lack of staff on hand was a function of the tight labor market and/or a lazy populace’s unwillingness to work service jobs.

At one point, when a couple of Town Square corporate executives meet with Big Will about his replacement, they wonder about the suspiciously excellent reviews that the Movement workers give Meredith. Is it really possible that this crew, some of whom didn’t finish high school, was smart enough to have planned a sort of coup? They think not. “It’s worth remembering,” one of the executives says, “that the people who work these jobs aren’t like you and me. We’re people who value stability, who worked hard to achieve it for ourselves.”

Having been primed for sympathy and affection toward the Movement team, it is a horrible indictment, not of the workers but of the executive. Still, in crafting this group of characters, Waldman did not venture far outside the box, giving us workers who have predictable troubles, like the shut-off electricity, the tendency to drink and the kid in jail. There is a sort of monotony to their lot that does not necessarily reflect the real world. Crummy jobs are held by all sorts of people, for diverse reasons.

Although in one of her funnier lines Waldman (who does have great comic timing) says that the ethnic diversity of Movement would make the dean of a private school proud, the team is not really that diverse except in age, gender and skin color. But the main problem with this story, dedicated to “all retail workers,” is its unnecessary complexity and its persistent gloominess. The novel takes place over just six weeks, but like a never-ending workweek, it feels like 600. C

Cool Food, by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen

Cool Food, by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen (Blackstone Publishing, 320 pages)

The actor Robert Downey Jr. was at a bookstore in London when he asked a clerk where to find the books on climate. The clerk’s reply: “Oh, the bummer section? It’s over there.”

When Downey later told this story to the writer Thomas Kostigen, with whom he was developing a TV show, Kostigen responded, “We need to do a food book and make it fun.”

An ordinary person not immersed in climate activism might wonder what climate and food have to do with one another. But the growing of food and the tending of animals that will become food are almost as large a part of this conversation as fossil fuel, because, well, carbon.

And to Downey and Kostigen, one way to combat a warmer planet is to eat cooler food — “cool” food is climate-friendly food, they say. And to promote it, they’re out with a bulky, hard-to-hold cookbook that doubles as a climate manual, irritatingly populated with cartoon-style sketches of themselves. Cool Food isn’t sure if it wants to be a cookbook, a graphic novel, a fourth-grade science book or a press release, and so there are elements of all four.

To be fair, I am a boomer, and not the target audience of this book — in fact, to climate change activists, my generation is the villain. And young readers of physical books prefer manga and graphic novels, recent studies have shown. So that concludes my grumbling about the physical presentation of the book, and we can move onto the actual content, which is — not terrible. Well, it’s also not great, but as Books Written By Celebrities With Co-Authors go, Cool Food is surprisingly useful at times. I learned things, things which you may already know, but somehow I did not: like what the numeric codes on produce at the grocery store tell us other than the price (five-digit codes that begin with 9 indicate the produce was organically grown and codes that begin with 8 indicate genetic modifications) and where I could buy jellyfish and how to cook one if I were inclined to eat one for dinner. (I am not.)

Also, I learned that in New Mexico there are Native American restaurants, and apparently nowhere else, and that 95 percent of yams are grown in Africa while most sweet potatoes in U.S. supermarkets were grown in North Carolina.

The first half of the book focuses on foods that the authors say are climate-friendly because of how they are harvested or grown: ancient grains, fruits, vegetables, sea vegetables (yes, they will tell you how to grow your own seaweed), nuts and, most important for New Hampshire residents, syrup, although the authors are shilling for Vermont syrup here.

Also this section of the book gave me a lot of new things to worry about that I’ve never known I should be worrying about, such as whether grain crops are seasonal or perennial. “When a seasonal crop is harvested, it loses all of its carbon intake and depletes the soil of 40 percent of its carbon content. All that carbon is released into the air, adding significantly to climate change,” the authors write.

We’re hearing a lot about regenerative agriculture these days, but a lot of the foodstuff mentioned here was unfamiliar to me: kernza flour, loquat fruit and pigeon pea shrubs. Nothing you find at your typical drive-thru. The recipes, accompanied by color photographs, run the gamut from intriguing (maple and chili glazed sweetcorn) to the bizarre (cashew stir-fry with puffed amaranth, which contains something called vegan fish sauce).

It was a relief to move on to the second section of the book, which contains no small amount of proselytizing about things like the farm-to-table movement, eating seasonally and organically, and cutting down on food waste. Not until the end does Cool Food address in any serious way whether all these foods are good for the human body — most of the talk is about what foods are good for the planet. When the authors finally give a nod to this, it’s in an effective takedown of the federal government’s dietary guidelines, once known as the food pyramid, now known as MyPlate. Well, actually, it’s Harvard University’s takedown, but they reprint it here in a chart that points out what the government says are healthy foods and ideal portions, and what Harvard nutritionists say. Let’s just say that there must be government lobbyists for potatoes and hot dogs.

The authors did not want to write a “bummer” climate book, and have largely succeeded at that. They have instead created an eating manual for climate worriers (which is pretty much all of us after this “winter”) and may struggle to find an audience outside of the most fervent activists and Robert Downey Jr. superfans. That said, the future is on their side; labeling that indicates the carbon footprint of foods — e.g., the amount of greenhouse gasses released in their production — is already cropping up on menus and food for sale. Those labels, Downey and Kestigen say, offer “the biggest promise for change.” But also, eat more jellyfish. C

Transient and Strange, by Nell Greenfieldboyce

Transient and Strange, by Nell Greenfieldboyce (W.W. Norton & Co., 211 pages)

The science writer Nell Greenfieldboyce has worked for NPR since 2005 and is a bit of an outlier. She doesn’t use social media much, lets her kids call her “Nell” and adopted a combined yet unhyphenated last name. She also has, until recently, resisted talking about her personal life in her writing. That changed a decade ago when a friend convinced her to write about a spider in her kitchen with which she had become entranced. And once that door was opened, a sort of floodgate opened from which Transient and Strange emerged.

“Transient and strange” is a phrase from a Walt Whitman poem about meteors, and meteors streak across the cover of Greenfieldboyce’s book, which combines science writing and memoir with a poignancy rarely seen in the genre. The author links discoveries undergirding disparate topics — tornados, black holes, spiders, fleas — to events in her own life, including her parenting mistakes, her parents’ physical decline and her husband’s health issues. The book is revelatory in every sense of the word.

The book begins with a sweet mildness that belies what is to come. She’s lying in bed with her children, when her 6-year-old shares that he’s been thinking about tornados, having listened to an audiobook that mentions one. At first, Greenfieldboyce is excited about introducing her children to this wondrous thing: “a spinning column of clouds snaking down to the ground.” But after watching her children’s eyes as they watch a short video, she realizes that she’s introduced not wonder, but fear, and indeed, both children, ages 3 and 6, become obsessively worried about a tornado hitting their home.

This leads Greenfieldboyce into her natural territory: making science relatable for a mass audience. Her attempts to calm her children’s fears lead her to call a University of Oklahoma scientist whose research led to the 1996 film Twister, then to read a book he’d read as a child, to learn about the development of Doppler radar, and the devastating tornado that hit Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1953, killing 94 people and displacing 10,000.

But then, she suddenly slips in some devastation of her own, a traumatic experience from her childhood that sends her to seek counseling as adult. Like a tornado, we don’t see this coming, and Greenfieldboyce skillfully weaves her own story with happened to the families in Worcester, as their ordinary lives were upended, then there was an eerie calm, and then the storm slammed into them again.

One of the more interesting details that she shares about the Worcester tornado is of survivors who described potatoes and eggs floating in the air as the tornado approached — a phenomenon caused by the wave of low pressure.

The story then easily flows into a visit with her hospitalized father, which leads into a discussion about — wait for it — meteors. Admittedly, this is no ordinary family. Greenfieldboyce has long been interested in extraterrestrial rocks; she wears a chunk of one as a pendant, and she’d just bought her father a piece of a moon rock as a Christmas present. (Maybe not as strange as it seems, even though it had wound up in a drawer; he’d once worked for NASA.) She takes us on a whirlwind journey of famous rocks (the revered Black Stone in Mecca) and improbable rocks (the meteor fragments that hurtle to Earth) and reminds us that what we take for granted today was practically heretical just a few centuries ago. Thomas Jefferson, for example, reportedly mocked Yale scientists who said rocks they’d collected had come from space, saying, “It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.”

Walt Whitman muscles his way into this story, as Herman Melville does later, and Greenfieldboyce’s own words hold their own with these literary stars, even as she tells stories that involve several unsavory characters, like the man who tried to seduce her when she was 12. For someone who for 30 years was intent on not writing about herself, she writes with a shocking amount of candor, most of all when she writes about what she calls “my eugenics project.”

At 23, she fell in love with the man she would eventually marry. He had a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that would one day result in his needing a kidney transplant. Although she was in love and committed to him, she writes, “I didn’t think an organ transplant at the age of thirty or forty, and then years of taking drugs to suppress the immune system was anything to just shrug off.” And just as her boyfriend had inherited the disease from his mother, who had inherited it from her father, there was a chance that their children would inherit it too.

All this thrust the young couple into the world of genetic counseling and artificial reproductive techniques. He was against the “reproductive industrial complex”; she thought they’d be crazy not to avail themselves of scientific methods that might allow them to have a baby free of the worrisome gene. Their struggle to conceive a child — taking place at the same time that he is preparing to have a kidney transplant — takes the reader deep into the couple’s most intimate spaces. And quite by happenstance, it does so at a time when the nation is newly engaged in a conversation about in vitro fertilization and the ethics of frozen embryos.

Theirs is a deeply moving story, as is the book overall. Greenfield has said that she wrote the essays independently, not knowing what would become of them, but they flow beautifully, like water. She may not have all the answers to her questions — or ours — but the questions she raises are fascinating. Transient and Strange is neither; it is elegant, thoughtful writing that will endure in your thoughts. AJennifer Graham

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