Florida Man

by Tom Cooper (Random House, 379 pages)

“Florida Man” became a meme in 2013 because of the bizarre headlines that seem in endless supply in that state, such as “Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm.” (True story, circa 2018.)

Florida Man is also the title of Tom Cooper’s second novel, and both the title and cover design suggest that the story within will be equally wacky. It is not, unless you thought Breaking Bad was a zany comedy.

It is, instead, a slow-burning, low-voltage thriller that spools profanely from the worst opening sentence since “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Cooper almost lost me on the first page, and three other times: the two pages of opening quotes (which include, bizarrely, the Miami Dolphins Fight Song, although the reason for its inclusion becomes nauseatingly clear later); the three-page table of contents that lists five categories and 114 chapters; and a two-page cast of characters, which is totally unnecessary unless you’re writing a play.

But then, in the amount of time it takes for a small plane to fall in flames from the sky, nearly clipping two 17-year-olds in medias res, he reeled me in and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the last page.

He is not so much a writer as a magician, turning a scruffy, flea-bitten, divorced man whose most loyal friends are a pack of feral cats into someone you pull for, someone you can’t abandon at page 20 or 200, because you care what happens to him, which, because he is a Florida man, is a lot.

Reed Crowe, the same teenager we meet having sex with his girlfriend on the first page, is divorced and has lost a child less than 10 pages later. He has parlayed a bale of marijuana he took from that burning plane into a generally miserable existence as proprietor of a tourist trap that makes I-95’s South of the Border look elegant, and a one-star inn served and populated by people who look like extras in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Crowe has a premonition that things are about to get even worse when a sinkhole swallows a lime tree in his backyard on what was already a “three-aspirin morning.” (Sinkholes, by the way, are but the first in a long line of reasons that “Florida Man” is a meme, rather than “Georgia man” or “Tennessee man” — Florida has so many horrible things going for it, besides the hurricanes, such as sinkholes, pythons and alligators. Just add beer, and Florida men neither live long nor prosper.)

The vanished tree begins a protracted chain of disturbing events, which include the sudden appearance of a real human skull in one of Crowe’s cheesier attractions at the Florida Man Mystery House, felonious behavior by Crowe’s longtime friend and employee Wayne Wade, and, most ominously, the emergence of a grotesquely deformed villain called “Catface,” who, as it turns out, was a survivor of the plane crash that the teenaged Crowe witnessed, and has spent every minute since then imagining how he would get his revenge.

Florida Man also has the same rich color and tautness, and the vivid sense of place of the AMC series, raising similar questions about why people stay in pocked places, both literal and figurative, for so long. It could hold its own as a series over at least two seasons, maybe more.

That said, I’m not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I suffered through it. But I can say the same about Breaking Bad, which is widely acknowledged as one of the best series of all time.

Breaking Bad, however, I never wanted to end. Florida Man seems to go on at least 50 pages longer than necessary, despite two perfectly good ending points that Cooper blows by.

However, that was another 50 pages in which I didn’t care if it was raining, or not raining enough, or if the dishes were piling up in the sink or if the president was tweeting. So we’re good. Call it Florida Man Makes Good Despite Bad Beginning. A-

When publishers consider the potential value of a manuscript, one thing they want to know is how many other books have been published on the subject. There’s a secret formula, some Goldilocksian number that indicates there’s interest in a topic, but not so much that it’s been overdone.

It’s mystifying, then, that there’s such a vast compendium of books about habits: bad habits, good habits, 7 habits, 5 habits, 3 habits, atomic habits, million-dollar habits, billion-dollar habits.

Apparently publishers think we are most inclined to try to change our habits around New Year’s Day, as there are at least two 2019 titles slated for paperback release the last week of December: Good Habits, Bad Habits, the Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick by Wendy Wood (Picador, 320 pages), and Tiny Habits, the Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg (Mariner, 320 pages).

That seems wrong. The best time for change is the advent of fall, with its invigorating changes in temperature, and children’s (theoretical) return to school.

Right now, the leading book of habit-changing is James Clear’s Atomic Habits, the paperback version of which costs more than the hardcover on Amazon, weirdly enough. (Avery, 320 pages. Because apparently 320 pages is a popular choice for habit books.)

But the father of all habits, of course, was the late Stephen Covey whose 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was released in 1989 and launched a brand. A 30th-anniversary edition came out in paperback in May (Simon and Schuster, 464 pages), if you don’t already have one of the 40 million copies already sold.

Or you could just forget about this self-improvement stuff altogether and just indulge in Melania and Me, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s account of her friendship with the first lady, which if it wasn’t over already, is as of the book’s publication this week (Gallery, 352 pages).

Clean, The New Science of Skin

by James Hamblin (Riverhead, 253 pages)

He was a doctor with questionable judgment, or so it seemed, when he gave up medicine to become a journalist and, at roughly the same time, decided to stop showering.

So why isn’t Dr. James Hamblin’s new book called “Unclean”?

It’s because there’s an increasing body of evidence that we are doing our bodies no favors with all the soap, deodorant, moisturizers and exfoliants to which we daily subject our skin. Skin isn’t just a covering; it’s the body’s largest organ, and it teems with more organisms than there were residents of New York City before the pandemic.

Meet, for example, the demodex, a microscopic arachnid that lives in your facial pores and eats your dead skin cells.

That seems a good reason to shower hourly, but like the gut flora that keep our intestinal tract happy, it appears that these organisms are there to help, and we are becoming unhealthier by scrubbing them away. “Research into the microbiome seems poised to overturn even our most basic assumptions about how to take care of our skin,” Hamblin writes.

So Hamblin, who was downsizing anyway when he moved from Los Angeles to New York, decided to delve into “the new science of skin” while going three years without washing his face. Before you dismiss him as kooky, know that this is an emerging trend. The internet is full of people who have stopped showering regularly and people who simply rinse off with water, who swear that not using soap and shampoo made their skin and hair healthier. They also insist that they don’t stink.

Hamblin weaves his own journey to becoming one of the “Great Unwashed” with the history of cleanliness, from the Romans’ public baths to Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Especially fascinating is how cleanliness became a sign of social status after germ theory was introduced, and an unkempt and soiled person came to be seen as dangerous. “To appear ungroomed suggested that you could not afford to wash, and that your toilets were the excrement pits in alleys adjacent to your tenement. You may be one of the disease carriers.”

That led to a new standard, in which people were required to do more than simply not look or smell gross; “a person was to smell actively good” to signal that they didn’t harbor germs or fleas. Then capitalism, which Hamblin says “sells nothing so effectively as status,” took over, and something human skin had done without for thousands of years — soap — became a necessity. Until late in the 19th century, soap was primarily used for laundry, in part because it was so harsh, such as the combination of lye and animal fat that early colonists made.

In the most compelling chapter, “Lather,” Hamblin tells the origin story of iconic brands such as Dr. Bronner’s, Ivory, Dove and Camay. (Fun fact: Wrigley’s chewing gum was developed to help sell soap that William Wrigley Jr. made. The gum sold better than the soap, which is why Chicago has Wrigley Field. Also, the Dr. Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps “was not a doctor, nor particularly tethered to scientific reality.”

Hamblin is a staff writer for The Atlantic, and some of the content in Clean will seem familiar to the magazine’s readers. He wrote about his no-showering policy in 2016, and I remembered a catchy couple of lines I’d read just a few weeks earlier in The Atlantic: “In October, when the Canadian air starts drying out, the men flock to Sandy Skotnicki’s office. The men are itchy.”

I encounter these reruns with no resentment, however, because Hamblin’s voice is, frankly, delightful. The line about the itchy men and Canadian air could be set to rap music, and we’d all nod along. Hamblin is one of a genre becoming known as “media doctors” and is the best in the burgeoning field. His explanation of how soap is made will make you wish he’d been your high-school chemistry teacher, and he strikes just the right balance of being funny enough to entertain while being wonky enough to trust as a source of medical information.

Which brings us to an elephant in the room, which is the pandemic. Hamblin finished the manuscript in January, before anyone foresaw the horror that is 2020, and his publisher had to worry that a book that suggests we clean ourselves less frequently might raise some eyebrows and serious questions. He addresses this in one paragraph of the prologue, saying “the stories and principles I share are no less relevant in this new era of pandemic awareness, as we recover from one and brace for the next.”

I’m not so sure about that as I survey the supply of soap and hand sanitizer at Hannaford. But Hamblin never says we shouldn’t be washing our hands. And he says that he’s never been one to touch his face. So carry on as you were in that department, but consider his invitation not to scrub every inch of your body so zealously, and with so many products. Your friendly neighborhood demodex will thank you.


The ink was still wet on the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic when enterprising writers started churning about the novel coronavirus.

On Amazon, you can find books with titles like The Covid-19 Catastrophe, The Coronavirus Prevention Handbook, God and the Pandemic, and (Expletive) Off, Coronavirus, I’m Coloring, many of them self-published.

Enough time has elapsed, however, for other titles appropriate to the global trainwreck called 2020 to emerge, and two are notable this week.

First, Flatiron is reissuing How to Survive a Pandemic by Dr. Michael Greger. He’s a vegan-lifestyle advocate who has built a brand around the words “How Not To.” His previous books include How Not to Die and How Not to Diet. The new paperback (592 pages) is the timely expansion of a book first released in 2006. Greger, who runs the website Nutritionfacts.org, says he donates all book proceeds to charity.

A more lighthearted title to be released Sept. 8 is The Lake Wobegon Virus (Arcade, 240 pages), your enjoyment of which may have much to do with whether you’ve forgiven Garrison Keillor for the transgressions that led to his canceling. It’s been three years since he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio for inappropriate behavior, and his publisher must believe he’s been punished enough, because there are two titles scheduled from him this fall. (The other is a memoir, This Time of Year, set for release Nov. 17.)

The Lake Wobegon Virus sounds fun. The description, provided by the publisher: “A mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition.”

Not nearly as fun as that coronavirus coloring book, though.

Book Review 20/08/20

Let Them Eat Tweets, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 217 pages)

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson are not amused, no matter what their book title says.

In fact, the political scientists, who live on opposite coasts, are convinced that America is becoming a plutocracy, governed not by its people but by its rich people. And they believe that Republicans are to blame.

Hacker and Pierson are established GOP-bashers; in three previous books, the pair skewered “the war on government,” the Republican revolution and “winner-take-all” politics (played, of course, by Republicans. They don’t come to the podium neutral. But hear them out. They’re not specifically out to tear down the Tweeter-in-Chief, but the system that enabled him, a system they say goes back more than 40 years.

The system results from what they call “the conservative’s dilemma,” which is this: Wealthy people have power that derives from their wealth, and they want policies that preserve it. But in a democracy, the poor and middle-class have votes that can take away that power. The wealthy conservative, then, is forced to court a constituency whose interests and needs are vastly different from her own to stay in power, and sometimes decides democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Their fear was wonderfully expressed in the mid-19th century by a British conservative, Lord Robert Cecil, who thought that under democracy “the whole country shall be governed by an ignorant multitude, the creature of a vast and powerful organization, of which a few half-taught and cunning agitators are the head … in short, that the rich shall pay all the taxes, and the poor shall make all the laws.”

Some factions in America today, particularly in the streets of Portland, would say, “You got a problem with that?” with no sense of irony.

But British conservatives did, over time, succeed; Hacker and Pierson note that Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher governed for nearly six decades, combined. And American conservatives have assumed and retained power in part by using a time-honored strategy: “addressing the material needs of the newly enfranchised.” (Did someone say stimulus checks?)

That alone, however, will not win elections, especially when the opponents offer bigger checks.

Which is why Hacker and Pierson believe that conservatives resort to stoking “cleavages,” or sectional loyalties, which “generate intensity sufficient to motivate potential voters and convince them to put their economic concerns to the side.” In other words, create divisions between people in terms of race, religion or ethnicity. As a policy, that’s plenty flammable, but it becomes downright explosive when combined with the sort of income and wealth inequality that America is seeing now, Hacker and Pierson say.

To make their case, Hacker, at Yale, and Pierson, at the University of California, Berkeley, scroll through a history of bad actors who, over the past 50 or so years, helped to create the political climate we live in now. They range from Richard Nixon to Lee Atwater, from New Gingrich (who they call “something of a founding father of our current political dysfunction,” to George W. Bush and his father. They, of course, save plenty of pages for Trump. But they argue that the plutocracy ball was already rolling back when he was on his first wife, and that most people clinging to it were Republican).

“The very rich invest most heavily in the Republican Party; its politicians, its party organizations, its allied groups, and its causes,” Hacker and Pierson write. Forbes says that of the 100 richest Americans, nearly two-thirds contribute mainly or exclusively to Republican or conservative causes, and they outspend Democrats in the top 100 by a ratio of three to one.

How, then, can they stay in power, since they require the votes of working-class Americans? According to the authors, conservative base-building relies on two “Rs” — resentment and racialization, which studies have shown isn’t difficult even among reasonable people. They cite a 2012 Harvard study in which researchers sent two “good-looking, cheery, and well-dressed” Hispanic-looking people to ride the commuter rail from a suburb of Boston into the city, chatting in Spanish the whole time. The researchers interviewed commuters before and after the experiment and found that after being exposed to the Spanish-speaking men, the commuters were more likely to say immigration should be reduced.

In other words, just two friendly people speaking Spanish created a backlash against immigration within a few days. “When outsiders breach the boundaries of established social groups, those within them often react with resentment, even revulsion,” Hacker and Pierson write.

Imagine, then, a political operative armed with that knowledge and determined to win at all costs, and it’s not hard to see why “dog whistles” are so much of the political conversation these days.

Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, Let Them Eat Tweets is an interesting synopsis of one side’s version of how we got to 2016, and where we may be headed in four months. The arguments weaken when Hacker and Pierson propose solutions, most of which involve not re-electing Trump; in fact, they believe the country, and our democracy, needs a “stinging” repudiation of Trump in November. From there, they offer benign and predictable hopes: that the country reform the economy so it’s not so accommodating for the wealthy; a development of a “more robust and inclusive democracy”; strengthening the middle class; and so forth.

To their credit, they insist they’re not out to stamp out conservatives or Republicans. “The hope is not that the GOP gets relegated to permanent minority status. Our institutions create very strong incentives to have just two major parties, and it is neither realistic nor desirable to expect only one of them to rule.” They also give examples of Republican governors that they seem to like, or at least not actively dislike: among them, Chris Sununu, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont.

And the answer to your most burning question: Hacker tweets, Pierson doesn’t.



Not being a follower of what used to be known as beauty pageants, now “scholarship pageants,” I just now learned that this year’s Miss America performed a science experiment as her talent.

The potential for chemical explosions onstage may not easily replace the swimsuit competition, insofar as ratings go, but that is certainly interesting. Is the evolution of the beauty pageant interesting enough for not just one book on the subject, but two? Publishers think so. There are two books out this month on pageant culture, strange for a year in which there won’t even be a Miss America pageant.

The first, and likely the best, is Hilary Levey Friedman’s Here She Is, The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America (Beacon Press, 275 pages). Props to Friedman for bravely using the term ‘beauty pageant,’ which is no longer allowed in conversation. She is a sociologist with a Ph.D. who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is uniquely qualified to lead the discussion, being a state president of the National Organization for Women, daughter of Miss America 1970 and an occasional pageant judge. I am psyched to read this when it comes out this week.

Also out this month is Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year-Old Quest to Define Womanhood by Margot Mifflin (Counterpoint, 320 pages). The title gets to the heart of why there’s suddenly so much talk about pageants; the Miss America contest turns 100 years old next year, and I guess publishers want to get a jump on the predictable jokes about how well she has aged.

(I still don’t understand why we had two asteroid movies at the same time in the summer of 1998, but that’s a topic for Amy Diaz.)

Mifflin is a New York professor who has previously written about the history of women and tattoos (2013’s Bodies of Subversion, powerHouse Books, 160 pages). Her take on pageants looks more like a scholarly book; Friedman’s looks more fun.

Neither is to be confused with The American Pageant, the history book that has been a staple of high-school history classes since 1956. (I still have mine; do you?) — Jennifer Graham

Book Review 20/08/13

Midnight Sun, by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown and Co., 658 pages)

Twilight aficionados read the first pages of Midnight Sun 12 years ago. They just now found out how it ended.

That’s because when Stephenie Meyer learned that the beginning of Twilight 2.0 — the same vampire love story, told from another perspective — had been leaked on the internet, she fell into a foul funk and stopped writing. “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die,” Meyer wrote on her website in 2008.

At some point, however, Meyer’s state of mind improved, or maybe the contents of her bank account dwindled, and she was able to find the will to finish the story, providing a sparkly bit of happiness for Twilight fans in a dreary Forks kind of year.

I have suffered through it, and here is what happens: The vampire gets the girl, and she lives to tell the story in four bestselling books and five movies. Sorry if that spoiled anything.

It is a testament to American capitalism that Meyer has pulled a 658-page rabbit out of this tattered and blood-stained hat. Not that the franchise has aged poorly; the bones of the original story — “the lion fell in love with the lamb” — were always strong, and the excellent casting and memorable soundtrack of the first movie propelled Twilight from the “young reader” shelves to the stratosphere of publishing. It’s not the “modern classic” that the Midnight Sun book jacket boasts but something more commercially valuable: a cultural phenomenon.

That’s what makes Midnight Sun so disappointing.

There is little new in this interminable navel-gazing of an angsty vampire newly in love, other than the opportunity to reflect on plot holes. My puzzler grew sore trying to figure out why, if Edward Cullen has two medical degrees, he stands by so helplessly in the climactic scene where the dying Bella Swan convulses violently on the floor of a dance studio, leaving his father, the good doctor Carlisle, to do most of the work.

As Edward moans about the boredom of going to high school for the 30th — or is it the 50th? — time, the perpetual matriculation explained as necessary to keep the myth of the perfect family intact, something inside me curdles, and I switch movies and go from Robert Pattinson to Cher, and want to slap him and yell, “Snap out it.”

Why are you in high school at all? You have two medical degrees! Go to work with your dad and contribute something meaningful to the world!

But no. Edward Cullen’s eternal purpose seems to be to stalk, as Bella Swan’s is to pout, and they do this for nearly 700 pages, with brief interludes for scintillating first-love conversations that are as interesting to behold as paint in the process of drying. As it turns out, we waited 12 years to find out Bella’s candy (black licorice and Sour Patch Kids) and soda pop (Dr Pepper), and the stream-of-consciousness drivel that goes through the mind of everyone in Cullen’s orbit. (You will recall that he can read the minds of everyone but for Bella. Pity the reader.)

The biggest plot hole of all, however, is how someone with such an interesting existence can have such banal thoughts, too often delivered huskily with lowered eyelids. (Note to vampires: Don’t turn anyone immortal as a teenager, lest they be trapped in adolescent angst for all of eternity. Wait until they’re at least 30.)

That said, there are a few mildly interesting scenes, all having to do with Edward’s pre-Bella existence, such as Edward’s first Christmas as a vampire. But this made me long all the more for another book — not a companion novel, but a prequel. Midnight Sun would have been much more compelling as a novel that gave us Edward from Carlisle’s bite to the day he first saw Bella.

As it is, this is warmed over hash — the taste a bit different the next day, but overall the same dish.

Twihards will protest, and there will be some who can encounter the 18th worshipful reference to Bella’s liquid chocolate-brown eyes without perpetuating violence in a physical book. Which is good, because there is sufficient violence in Midnight Sun already.

In the first intoxicating hours of exposure to Bella, Edward mapped out a plan to slaughter a roomful of students so there would be no witnesses when he killed Bella. (“I wouldn’t have to worry about the windows, too high up and small to provide an escape for anyone. Just the door — block that and they were trapped.”)

However much this fantasy might align with vampire thought, it’s deeply unsettling to read in post-Newtown America, particularly in a franchise that targets adolescents. Even for Twi-Moms like me, it’s a step beyond the pale, so to speak.

I could have done without that information, and the bulk of what accompanies it. I prefer my vampires mysterious and brooding. But sure, sign me up for the prequel. D

Is there a bigger fan of reading than Oprah Winfrey, who has said that “nothing, not one thing or activity, can replace the experience of a good read — being transported to a different land, a different realm, through words and language”?

Well, yes, as it turns out, there is Bella Swan, who is revealed in Midnight Sun (reviewed above) to be a more voracious reader than fans of the Twilight series might have inferred from her presence in Stephenie Meyer’s earlier books.

The Bella Swan Book Club, should you wish to join it, is heavy on classics, mysteries and dragons, causing her vampire boyfriend to swoon, “There was a bit of Jane Eyre in her, a portion of Scout Finch and Jo March, a measure of Elinor Dashwood, and Lucy Pevensie.”

If you want to read like Bella, here’s what that entails:
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. And everything by Jane Austen, except for Emma.
Jane Eyre and everything else by Charlotte Bronte.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, “especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, which appears to be about a family of dragons that eat each other’s bodies after death.

And, odd for a girl who grew up in the Southwest, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (She hasn’t gotten the memo that GWTW has been canceled.)

If you would rather read like Oprah, that’s still possible, too, even though Winfrey has announced that her 20-year-old magazine will print its last edition in December.

Oprah’s Book Club is still going strong, and her latest pick is Caste, the Origins of Our Discontents, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. It’s the 86th title that Winfrey has kissed and consequently No. 1 in “historical study” on Amazon. (But please buy from a local bookstore.)

Book Review 20/08/06

Make Russia Great Again, by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 274 pages)

When word got out that Christopher Buckley had a new book, this one about the Trump administration, Buckley fans didn’t just salivate; they drooled.

Buckley, the son of conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., made his own name writing satire, most notably 1994’s Thank You for Smoking, the story of three lobbyists who called themselves merchants of death because they represented tobacco, alcohol and firearms. It was later made into a movie; the book was 50 times better.

Now Buckley is back with a fictional memoir of the Trump years, told by his seventh chief of staff, now enjoying the amenities of federal prison. Herb K. Nutterman had retired after 27 years as the food-and-beverage manager at an assortment of Trump properties when the president summoned him to the White House. Despite the howling of his wife, Hetta, Nutterman reluctantly returned to his former boss’s employ, where he soon became part of a Russia scandal that may sound familiar, but not familiar enough to get Buckley sued for libel or defamation.

In this scandal, America has interfered in Russia’s election, inadvertently.

A computer program designed to retalilate automatically if a U.S. election has been hacked and the president is incapacitated goes into action, causing a communist trailing Vladimir Putin by 50 points to come in first, forcing a runoff election.

Meanwhile, a Russian oligarch known for manufacturing a chemical that is mysteriously involved in the deaths of people who run afoul of Putin and his cronies has surfaced and wants a favor from Trump.

It’s Nutterman’s job to solve these problems, quickly and quietly, before Putin finds out about America’s involvement and decides to retaliate by releasing some odious secret he is keeping about Trump.

Nutterman, ever loyal, is determined not to let that happen, but as he works to avert disaster, the scandals keep accumulating, somewhat as in real life.

As he reflects, “One minute you’re on the golf course minding your own business, thinking, Gosh, what a nice day. The next, the earth has gone out from under you and you’re in a conference room being deposed with three lawyers in attendance at a thousand dollars an hour each.”

Some real people in the real world have speculated that Putin, elected Russia’s president in 2000, has incriminating information on Trump that he withholds in exchange for presidential favor. In Buckley’s version of things, the purported blackmail has something to do with the Miss Universe Pageant, which was held in Moscow in 2013, and Trump’s enthusiasm for beautiful women.

If it’s hard to keep up with what is real and what is fiction, multiply that by 274 pages. As he has done in the past, Buckley combines actual people and events with fictionalized ones, although he puts as much effort into disguising them as a person who dresses for Halloween by putting on a hat.

Take, for example, the character of Seamus Colonnity, “Fox News’ number-one personality,” and a Trump confidante, who “truly enjoyed fawning over Mr. Trump, whereas others fawned out of fear.” Colonnity, of course, is Buckley’s version of Sean Hannity; I don’t know enough about Fox News to know who Corky Fartmartin is supposed to be. But you get the gist.

Buckley also thinly disguises a certain blond adviser to the president as Katie Borgia-O’Reilly, who is “sexy in a — I don’t want to say ‘creepy’ — certain kind of way, as if you might discover after sleeping with her that she was in fact an android or an Albanian assassin sent to murder your grandmother for no clear reason.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is clearly Sen. Squigg Lee Biskitt, whose “folksy rhetoric earned him titles like ‘Li’l Cicero’ and ‘Tiny Titan of the Senate’.” Ivanka becomes Ivunka; Jared, Jored. And so on.

I suppose there’s a certain logic to this, imposed by those thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers with which Buckley is seemingly familiar, but the juxtaposition of the real and satirized gets baffling after a while. Why, for example, are Newt Gingrich and his wife transformed into Mr. and Mrs. Neuderscreech while George Will and George Soros get to play themselves?

The bigger problem with Make Russia Great Again, at least for a general audience, is that it’s too much insider baseball. If you can laugh uproariously at something being described as “eerily Rumsfeldian,” or at least remember who Donald Rumsfeld is, you’ll find the book at least mildly amusing. If not, read Thank You for Smoking instead. Make Russia Great Again is a book-length stand-up act, with plenty of punchlines, the sort best served with cheap beer.

As someone raised on Firing Line, it pains me to say this; I want everything associated with the Buckley name to be accompanied by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. More fitting for this book is the Faber College Theme Song. (Then again, this is old material for Buckley. He first envisioned a Trump presidency in 1999, when he wrote an inaugural address for President Trump when the idea was simply a joke. In the last line, the president says he’s ordered the Treasury Department to issue “a couple billion extra in $100 chips.”

“Enjoy yourselves,” the fictional President Trump says. “It’s the dawn of a very great era.” Half the country still believes that. The other half waits impatiently for Christopher Buckley to be great again. B-

Christopher Buckley (reviewed above) is a past winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually in honor of James Thurber, the celebrated humorist and New Yorker cartoonist who died in 1961.
Buckley won in 2004 for No Way to Treat a First Lady.
Four months into a pandemic, we all could use some merriment, and there’s not a lot of humor to be had this month, in book form anyway. So here’s a look at the funniest books of the past decade, according to Thurber Prize judges.
All are available in paperback; your local bookseller would appreciate your business.

Hits and Misses, short stories by Simon Rich (Little, Brown & Co.)
Look Alive Out There (runner up), essays by Sloane Crosley (Picador)
Priestdaddy, memoir by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)
Born a Crime, memoir by Trevor Noah (One World)
The World’s Largest Man, memoir by by Harrison Scott Key (Harper Perennial)
Dear Committee Members, novel by Julie Schumacher (Anchor)
Truth in Advertising, novel by John Kenney (Touchstone)
Dan Gets a Minivan, memoir by Dan Zevin (Scribner)
Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, collected works by Calvin Trillin (Random House)
Half Empty, essays by David Rakoff (Anchor)
The 2020 winner will be announced, pandemic willing, sometime in the fall.

Book Review 20/07/02

Porkopolis, by Alex Blanchette (246 pages, Duke University Press)

When Alex Blanchette first moved to “Porkopolis,” residents asked if he was pro-hog or anti-hog. “Neither,” he would say, with the earned detachment of an academic.

For you and me, the question comes down to this: are we pro-bacon or anti-bacon? The average American is said to eat 18 pounds of it every year, despite occasional exposure (thanks largely to PETA) to the horrors of factory farming.

But it is harder still to justify eating bacon and pork tenderloin after reading Blanchette’s clear-eyed account of the industrial pig. Begun as a doctoral dissertation, the book is about as far from a PETA diatribe as you can get; Blanchette applies a dispassionate eye to “concentrated animal feeding operations,” also known as CAFOs. He moved to an town he calls “Dixon,” home to a massive meat-processing operation that manages all facets of a hog’s life, from the artificial insemination of its mother, to the slitting of its throat, to its rendering and dispersal to not only our supermarket counters but largely unseen uses in our daily lives in gelatin. (“I cannot write this book — it is possible that I cannot type this sentence — without touching dead traces of industrial pigs,” Blanchette writes.

He was not there to sensationalize what goes within a plant that kills a hog every three seconds, about 7 million hogs every year, but to understand the ecosystem of such an operation: the hogs, yes, but also the 5,000 or so workers the company employs. To do so, he worked in the plant and became friendly with the workers and other residents of the town, as well as company officials. He enjoyed this extraordinary access and trust because they knew he was writing a scholarly book, one that presumably would not make much of a splash. And it will hold little appeal for the casual reader, dense as it is with footnotes and ten-dollar words.

But that’s unfortunate, because Porkopolis is an even-handed exploration of an issue usually dominated by extremes: the “People gotta eat,” “They’re just stupid animals” and “There wouldn’t be a Dixon without hogs” chorus on one side; the “murderous, animal abusers” chorus on the other.

In fact, the plant where Blanchette worked employed people who would sometimes try to smuggle a sick piglet out of the building in their coveralls so it wouldn’t be euthanized, and who would resuscitate a stillborn pig with their own mouth and cheer when the piglet took its first breath.

That said, they willingly take jobs that involve sitting on a sow’s back while she is artificially inseminated so she will have babies we will eat in six months. Those on assembly lines are subjected to physical trauma that seems similar to the suffering of the pigs, so much so that new hires are warned that they will endure a period of “breaking in,” which Blanchette calls “the agonizing process of molding the human body to the disassembly line’s machine-driven repetition.” The psychological toll of the work (some workers, for example, spend six days a week wiping blood and feces from pig intestines) seems secondary to its physical assaults.

It’s hard to write on the topic without separating the players into heroes and villains, Blancette says. “However, what remains is something perhaps more honest: how people in this town, like so many of us, struggle within and against things they are a constitutive part of but do not know how to change.”

That said, even Blanchette’s moral generosity and even-handed treatment of the pork industry cannot powder and perfume the everyday horrors contained within: the sow (sow, because she’s not allowed to be a mother) banging her head violently against a metal enclosure because she cannot nest, as is her instinct; the coolers in which deficient piglets are enclosed to be gassed. And regardless of benefit, the practice of feeding piglets plasma from older, slaughtered pigs is something that the average person eyeing a BLT would rather not contemplate.

In the end, Blanchette does seem to take a side, however softly. He rues the pig’s lost right to be “an inefficient creature,” its every cell sucked into a capitalist chute applauded for making use of every part of an animal. The planet is full of chicken carcasses, he explains. This fossil record of chickens, whose bodies we grotesquely modify for the right to enjoy six nuggets for a dollar, may one day be studied in conjunction with human dominance during the anthropocene.

But these future archeologists would find no pig skeletons preserved in amber. Like ethical hikers, we leave no trace. We are like mothers yelling at our children, “I gave you life, I can take it away.” Only by creating the need for factory farms with our excessive consumption, we really mean it. Blanchette may not have set out to write an argument for de-industrializing pigs, but he achieved it. B

If you’ve already read How Not to Die Alone, don’t get too excited about Something to Live For, a new paperback by Richard Roper that was published this week.
It’s the same book.
How Not to Die Alone, Roper’s debut novel, came out in hardcover in May 2019. It was generally well-received. It garnered a “meh” number of ratings on Amazon (161) but got a thumbs-up in The New York Times and USA Today.
So why the new title?
It’s not unusual for a book to have a different title in the U.S. and the United Kingdom (e.g., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone vs. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Less common is an American title that is changed when a book goes from hardcover to paperback.
As it turns out, we can blame the Brits and the pandemic.
Roper wrote recently on his website that How Not to Die Alone was the original title but while “the U.S. loved it,” it was considered too dark for the U.K. So it was released there as Something to Live For, which is the title of a song that is meaningful in the book.
But then 2020 swaggered in, and now How Not to Die Alone is too dark in Covidian America.
“And so, after all that, the book is now called Something to Live For everywhere,” Roper wrote on his blog. “Oh, apart from Sweden, and Germany, which both have different titles.”
Meanwhile, on Reddit (r/books), there rages a debate on whether paperbacks or hardbacks are better. What’s most interesting in the thread is how many people say they have been literally injured by hardback books, usually while reading in bed. The mentioned assailants: The Lord of the Rings (“nearly cleaved my head in two”), The Count of Monte Cristo (1,488 pages), Oathbringer (1,248 pages) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (672 pages).
But this has to be the best answer: “I carried around a really thick hardcover book while I was in jail. Mostly because I was reading it but it was nice knowing that I had something that could hold up to some damage should something crazy have happened. Hardcover better.” Now you know.

Book Review 20/07/02

Shakespeare for Squirrels, by Christopher Moore (William Morrow, 271 pages)

In one of the more memorable songs from the musical Something Rotten, a character named Nick Bottom seethes “God, I hate Shakespeare — He has no sense about the audience / he makes them feel so dumb / The (expletive) doesn’t care that my poor (expletive) is getting numb.”

The same could be said of Christopher’s Moore Shakespeare for Squirrels, only it wasn’t so funny.

The third in a series of comedies derived from Shakespeare’s plays, the novel is a raunchy retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, populated by characters that will be familiar to anyone who has seen what is considered to be the Bard of Avon’s most performed play.

The main characters were introduced in Moore’s 2009 novel Fool, a satirical take on King Lear, and later embellished in 2014’s The Serpent of Venice. They are Pocket, a court jester; Drool, his dimwit companion; and Jeff, a monkey. In the opening, they are near death, adrift in a boat, Drool so delirious from hunger that he is begging to lick the monkey. “Just one wee lick,” he pleads.

Lucky for the monkey, land appears, and the three crash onto the shores of 14th-century Athens and into the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairies and players and royals, which in Moore’s hands are even more lewd and profane than Shakespeare wrote them. They are also somehow funnier. Shakespeare himself might have wished he had written this book.

Compare the dialogue of Shakespeare, when Nick Bottom’s transformation into a centaur with a donkey head is revealed — “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?” — with that of Moore: “Bottom,” said I. “Thou art transmogrified. How happened this change?”

A quick summary, with a necessary spoiler: Soon after landing in Greece, Pocket encounters the dying Robin Goodfellow (also known as the Puck), and is mistakenly apprehended as the killer. In order to save his own skin and that of his slow-witted but good-hearted companion Drool, he obeys twin royal commands to venture into the fairy-infested forest to find the true assassin.

With killer dialogue and exquisite timing, Moore is generous with the jokes, both Elizabethan and contemporary. (A frequent callback referring to Pocket’s diminutive size — “Not an elf” — is wickedly funny and seems to derive from the TV show The Good Place.)

Moore writes with his tongue firmly in cheek, when it is not exploring naughtier territory, as it frequently does. If the novel had to be assigned a rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, it would have had to fight for an R. As such, one of the novel’s failings is the sense that it was written by a teenage boy with a really high IQ. Which brings us to its other problem, foreseen by Nick Bottom in Something Rotten — Moore makes us feel so dumb.

Shakespeare for Squirrels demands much of its readers, and having seen A Midsummer’s Night Dream once 10 years ago doesn’t cut it. (Painfully, I can attest.) From the beginning, when our heroes are rescued by the fairy Cobweb, the casual reader is taunted by what he or she doesn’t know, never encountered or doesn’t remember. For a full 263 pages there is the sense that we are missing the best jokes. It’s full-on FOMO (fear of missing out) until we reach the afterword, when Moore explains how the book came about. Even then, people who are only conversant with a handful of Shakespeare’s 36 plays can get lost as he recounts the origins of Hippolyta, Theseus and Oberon.

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,” Shakespeare wrote in a line just as good as “though she be but little she is fierce.” The same can be said of Moore’s brain, which operates on a plane higher than that of the average reader and seems as conversant with Shakespeare as the typical American is with the McDonald’s menu. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Shakespeare for Squirrels without having read the two previous installments, Fool and The Serpent of Venice. It can stand alone as a story, as even A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not required prerequisite reading.

But without this base of foreknowledge, reading Moore’s latest book is the literary equivalent of eating pistachios that haven’t been shelled. There is pleasure, yes, but it seems like an awful lot of work to get to it. The mental gymnastics required to get into the flow of the dialogue alone are exhausting on a midsummer afternoon. (“The fairies, I thought, surely they will offer some unexplored gem of myth that I can festoon with knob jokes!”)

That said, you will emerge from Shakespeare for Squirrels armed with a new collection of Shakespearean-style insults, which may alone be justification for your time, thou unctuous little hedgehog. (Said affectionately.) B

As Americans gear up for a long weekend of quiet reading and deep thinking about democracy and its responsibilities, Project Gutenberg might come in handy.
The oldest digital library, it provides free access to more than 60,000 books that are in the public domain, so it’s a particularly good source for finding titles appropriate to the celebration of American independence. Here’s a sample of reading you can download onto your computer or ereader at gutenberg.org:
The Memoirs, Correspondence and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson(decidedly dry in places, but it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of personal letters of history’s giants).
• Speaking of which, there’s also Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution
George Washington’s State of the Union Addresses (other early presidents are there, too).
George Washington’s Rules of Civility (an adaptation of Richard Brookhiser’s Rules of Civility, which was said to greatly influence the first president)
The Autobiography of Ben Franklin and Franklin’s The Way to Wealth, which may be the first American self-help book
Sketches of Successful New Hampshire Men — this was issued in 1882 and has nothing to do with American independence. But how could we not? An excerpt: “Forty years ago, when Manchester, now the metropolis of New Hampshire, was little more than a wasting waterfall and an unpeopled plain, a few young men who had the sagacity to see, the courage to grapple with, and the strength to control the possibilities of the location, made it their home.” Thank God for that, eh?
The Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (as well as his inaugural addresses)
• Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
• G.K. Chesterton’s What I Saw in America
Of course, you could also just buy them, because in this day and age, there is no greater civic responsibility than shopping.

Book Review 20/07/23

Parakeet, by Marie-Helene Bertino (224 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The bride, “ethnically ambiguous,” has been banished to a luxurious inn, sent there by the groom a week before the wedding to decompress.

The groom, an elementary school principal, had proposed after five dates. The bride describes him like this: “He will never lie to me and he will never make me howl with laughter.” His family is composed of academics who each look “perpetually poised to ask a question after a great deal of thought.” Of course she said yes.

At the inn on Long Island, there is ambivalence and fear, not the normal pre-wedding jitters, but weapons-grade anxiety, the sort that makes it entirely plausible that a dead grandmother will show up in the form of a bird and make demands of the bride.

She was a “a rueful bird endowed with death’s clarity,” as acerbic in death as in life. She both warbled and cussed, and she soiled the bride’s wedding dress before she left.

Such is the powerful beginning to Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino, a much-lauded writer of fiction who lives up to the hype. A former fellow at MacDowell artist community in Peterborough (no longer “Colony”), Bertino has written one other novel, 2014’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, and a collection of short stories. She’s already sold another novel, set to be published in 2022, pandemic willing.

Parakeet takes place within the span of a week, with occasional flashbacks and one poignant flash forward, to describe the trauma-pocked life of the bride and her brother. It’s astonishing to realize that the bride is never given a name (nor the groom) and this omission does not matter or even seem strange. We don’t need to know her name; we learn everything else that matters.

The “bird-shaped grandmother” that shows up in the bride’s room knows about the impending wedding, but asks the bride to do something that has nothing to do with the ceremony. She/it wants the bride to find her estranged brother, and she makes a cryptic prophecy: “You won’t find him.”

The bride hasn’t seen her brother, Tom, for seven years. He’s a playwright who became wealthy and famous for writing about his sister’s life and then vanished.

“The last time I saw Tom was at his own wedding, where he lay bloody on a gurney, asking me to hold his hand,” the narrator-bride says.

But she loved her grandmother and so sets off to find the brother she doesn’t really want to see, all the while tending to the mundanities of a pre-wedding week, such as dealing with the florist, buying a new dress and seeing her maid of honor, her best friend from childhood, who, as it turns out, isn’t the greatest friend after all.

As the bride describes the relationship, “There’ve been several times in our friendship when Rose and I reached what I feared was its conclusion, when an important update to our subscription to each other had lapsed, and we either had to renew or face the tenuousness of our connection.”

This is typical of Bertino’s writing, which is startlingly original and frequently witty, as in her description of the woman from whom she buys a wedding dress: “Ada doesn’t wax her eyebrows or even trim them in any way I can detect. The courage this requires stuns me.”

Later, the bride describes her “smile so pale and winsome I appear floured.”

The exquisite writing and fresh turns of phrase do not exist to cover up a flan-like plot. The story is rich in its own right, thickened by pain and trauma.

The bride works as a biographer of people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, compiling the personal details of their lives for juries. (A visit she makes to a man whose brain is so unreliable that he needs to be reminded not to pull out a hot oven rack with his hand is especially poignant.)

But she has her own injuries, too, psychological ones from her mother and physical ones from a random attack. As she navigates the week, we are not sure if what she is experiencing is even real or the desperate imaginings of a brain that is truly broken.

Parakeet is a quiet thriller in that regard, pulsing with mysteries and questions. But it’s also a deeply empathetic portrayal of a woman struggling to discern what is real and right, like a bird banging into a glass window. It’s an excellent antidote to the common vacuous beach read.

AJennifer Graham

The Twitter war over J.K. Rowling and her views on transgender people has lately expanded to include other authors, including New Hampshire’s Jodi Picoult.

Picoult, who lives in Hanover on property that has views of both the Green and White Mountains, was asked by a fan to weigh in and tweeted (as did Stephen King) that trans women are women. Rowling, who does not share that view, is getting backlash from fans of her Harry Potter franchise, with some going so far as to have Potter-themed tattoos removed.

Picoult, however, stands to benefit from her tweet, as some Twitter users suggested that people buy one of her books in solidarity. There are plenty to choose; she’s written 27, with another, The Book of Two Ways, coming out in September. (The prologue is on her website if you want a sneak peek.)

Meanwhile, Rowling has a new work called The Ickabog, which she is publishing, one chapter at a time, on a website called theickabog.com. Right now, the extended fairy tale consists of just Rowling’s words, but she is running a contest in both the U.S. and United Kingdom to choose illustrations that will be used when the book is published in the fall. Proceeds will go toward Covid-19 assistance.

For fare less controversial, Jane Austen fans might consider a book published this week: Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years, a Memoir in Five Novels (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages).

The first line: “About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.” Sign me up.

Book Review 20/07/16

The Great Indoors, by Emily Anthes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages)

In any other year, a book about “the great indoors” arriving at the start of summer would seem strange, a publishing mistake.

In 2020, however, it’s perfect.

We’ve all been under house arrest, and whether you’ve enjoyed it or are one empty-toilet-paper-roll away from strangling your housemates, the quality of the experience may have much to do with the design of your house. Science writer Emily Anthes explains why, in what she promises is “the surprising science of how buildings shape our behavior, health and happiness.”

The average American, Anthes writes, spends 90 percent of his or her time inside a building, to include offices, stores, restaurants, gyms, theaters and everything else we’ve been missing during the pandemic.

Our love of the outdoors, it seems, is fantasy, or myth. Outdoors is rain and mosquitoes. Indoors, a fridge and sofa. If you’re like Anthes, “anxiety-prone and risk-averse,” you prefer to enjoy the outdoors from your window. But until recently scientists mostly concerned themselves with the environment outside the home rather than in it. But that, Anthes says, is changing, and new research is emerging on how the design of buildings affects our brains, our moods, our productivity and our choices; and how features of buildings, such as windows, affect our mental health.

Some of these findings are intuitive: “Warm, dim lighting makes schoolkids less fidgety and aggressive. Fresh, well-ventilated air boosts office workers’ cognitive function.” Some make sense upon reflection: People who live on the highest floors of a skyscraper are the least likely to survive a cardiac event. But some are simply surprising.

Take, for example, the idea that a more challenging environment might extend life.

One couple in Japan took this to an extreme, building a nine-unit apartment complex that looked “less like a home than an oversized carnival fun house.” The homes were designed to befuddle. They had circular living rooms with kitchens in the center, round studies, ladders that led nowhere and what amounted to speed bumps in the floor. The creators were artists who believed death to be “immoral” and thought it could be cheated and that brain-stimulating architecture was one way to do it. They also created “destabilizing” parks and single-family homes.

Unfortunately, they died, so there were limits to the couple’s genius. Their work could be dismissed as the legacy of passionate fools, but for this: Lab animals housed in stimulating, challenging environments live longer and are healthier than animals confined to boring cages.

And, as Anthes writes, it’s long established that challenges are important for human flourishing. “Start lifting weights, and your muscles will swell. Learn to speak a new language and your brain will sprout new connections.” So who’s to say that a living room with shocking colors and speed bumps on the floor won’t positively affect us like a wheel and maze will stimulate a rat?

But not all changes need to be exhilarating. Anthes writes about a neonatal intensive care unit in Rhode Island that was redesigned from the traditional crowded ward to single rooms equipped with sleeper sofas where the parents could stay instead of just visiting. The infants fared dramatically better in the family rooms.

Having convinced us that the right buildings matter, Anthes embarks on a tour of the great indoors, from her own bathroom, where microbes seethe in the showerhead, to redesigned school lunchrooms in New York City, to a community in Phoenix, Arizona, designed for adults with autism to live their best life. She also takes on the housing of the incarcerated, controversial for those who think prisons shouldn’t be humane. (“We should send fewer people to prison, and we should treat them better while they’re there,” Anthes says.)

And she examines two disparate types of housing: that of the most basic shelter, such as the sustainable huts made out of sandbags fastened together with barbed wire, which an Iranian-American in California invented (locking doors are made out of shipping crates), and the high-tech, Jetson-like homes of the affluent, which could allow more seniors to age in place.

But the Jetson-stuff is passe now. What is really cutting edge in buildings are “buoyant foundations” that literally allow homes in flood-prone areas to float when water rushes in. This is part of a new interest in “amphibious architecture” that will allow humans to stay near the coasts as the oceans creep in. Anthes admits that amphibious homes are “more of a curiosity than a bona fide building trend” and that’s unlikely to change in the U.S., as long as these structures are not eligible for subsidized insurance policies, as is now the case. Still, the possibilities fascinate.

In closing, Anthes takes on buildings in space — what it would take to build a village on the moon or on Mars. “The irony is that our continued existence may hinge on figuring out how to live in environments that are literally lethal,” she writes. You’d think there’d be no research to draw from here, but Anthes sniffed out people who are already designing space cities for a living, such as the CEO of a California company called Mars City Design. (True, it’s in California, and its website says to email the company for its research, so invest carefully.)

“Blueprints for the Red Planet” is the shortest chapter and the least fulfilling, filled as it is with speculation. But the rest of The Great Indoors is a solid and satisfying read, even if its title might induce a nap. B

You cannot predict elections by book sales, but if you could, President Donald Trump’s campaign should be worried.

The No.1 and No. 2 best sellers on Amazon last week were literary grenades thrown at the president: Too Much and Never Enough, a memoir by first niece Mary Trump, and The Room Where It Happened by former national security adviser John Bolton. Both portray the president as immoral and inept.

To find a conservative viewpoint, one that Trump voters would relish, you had to plunge all the way to No. 27, where Ben Shapiro’s How To Destroy America in Three Easy Steps sat three places above Sean Hannity’s Live Free or Die.

To be fair, Hannity’s book was No. 1 in the “elections” category, and it doesn’t release until Aug. 4. But that’s also the release date of Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun, which is Twilight from Edward’s point of view and everyone knows how it ends. It’s still selling like toilet paper (the new hotcakes), at No. 8.

There’s no good recent data that easily explains why there are more liberal/progressive titles than conservative in Amazon’s top 30. Occasionally, a study asserts that Democrats read more than Republicans, but a 2012 survey of GoodReads readers found that supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney read the same median number of books a year: 26.

If none of these appeal (and for the record, Hannity’s book appears to be nothing about New Hampshire), there’s a rollicking good time to be had in Scott Conroy’s Vote First or Die, which is actually about New Hampshire and its outsized role in the election of presidents. Published in 2017, it’s a whimsical look at the path to the 2016 election and a timely reminder of how we got where we are.

Also, new and notable this week isLet Them Eat Tweets, How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

Book Review 20/07/09

The Madwoman and the Roomba, by Sandra Tsing Loh (W.W. Norton, 276 pages)

Can we say that it’s a little more than ironic that a woman who found fame leaving the stifling prison that was a 20-year marriage is now rhapsodizing affectionately about the “domestic mayhem” that is her life?

But that is where Sandra Tsing Loh has arrived 11 years after the publication of her celebrated Atlantic piece titled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” which was an explanation of why she ended her marriage and an invitation for other people to do the same.

A year earlier, she’d found fame and acclaim for Mother on Fire, an acerbically funny memoir of parenting, and many of her fans were surprised to find her ringless a year later, although it did much for her career. I tend to be stoutly judgmental about such things, but I’m willing to forgive a lot for a laugh, including “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and another mildly disturbing Atlantic essay in which she said she wished her 91-year-old father would die. That’s probably a character flaw in me, which is why I like Loh even as she tramples on my fundamental values. She has plenty of her own, on public display in two books that portend a long-running series, 2014’s The Madwoman in the Volvo, My Year of Raging Hormones and now, The Madwoman and the Roomba, My Year of Domestic Mayhem.

There is a pleasant afternoon to be had envisioning what comes next: The Madwoman in the Face Mask? The Madwoman and the AARP? The Madwoman and the Depends? Loh (pronounced “low”) has built a devoted following, so it’s a safe bet that Roomba won’t be the last. Loh, who the New York Times once crowned a worthy contender for “publishers’ holy grail, ‘the female David Sedaris.’” Like Sedaris, she is reliably funny and specializes in understated comedy built around the adventures of a strange family that feels vaguely familiar but, under the microscope, is really nothing like yours. (How unlike yours? Her father, for starters, had a rock song written about him by a band named Boy Hits Car. The song contains the line “Mr. Loh’s not afraid to be naked.” There you go.)

But she imagines herself this red, white and blue everywoman, trying earnestly to be one of “us” rather than one of the dastardly “them,” all the while showing that she’s not really poor and struggling, but just seems to have too many stupidly rich friends. As a technique, this is generally opaque, and she wears peasant clothes well in one of the stronger chapters in the book, titled “Stanford Swimming.”

In the essay, Loh makes comic hash out of an evening spent with friends at a New York estate that “looks like a large villa you’d find in Europe, protected by lush non-native hedges.” The friends, of course, are “thems” and if you hadn’t already figured this out, you will when the wine comes out and the friends say, winsomely, that it isn’t expensive but was on the Zagat list of “great wines under $40.”

“Charlie and I raise eyebrows amusedly at each other. For us the price cap on a bottle of wine is eight dollars,” Loh writes. The next nine pages are essentially “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had Mr. Smith been sardonic, an easy-going, fish-in-a-barrel takedown of people who have personal cooks and tennis courts and sons who win swimming scholarships to Stanford. Loh, in comparison, says that she’s not even sure her teenage daughters can swim, and they come to the table, one looking like an L.A. gang girl “edging into drag queen,” the other a “painfully thin” child evocative of Ichabod Crane who is “less eating her salad than worrying it.” She worries that when lacrosse is mentioned, her daughters will think the conversation is about sparkling water.

“Stanford Swimming” is one of the longer essays in a collection that ostensibly runs the length of a year, Loh’s 55th. As Madwoman in the Volvo was about menopause, it’s more difficult to define what Madwoman and the Roomba is about, other than maybe trying to pay off a tax bill born of an IRS audit detailed in a chapter called “A very Hindu audit.” It’s here, among other places, that Loh’s everywoman credentials seem just a tiny bit overstated, as she exclaims worriedly about the IRS challenging $25,000 in business expenses and says she only gets massages when Groupon is involved.

There is a lot of exclaiming in this book. There also are a worrisome number of exclamation marks, making it seem that a stern editor wasn’t one of those business expenses, and an overabundance of Loh’s trademark dashes, which she seems to use as a calling card and a stand-in for ellipses. Example from a bit of dialogue: “‘You cannot lumber after waiters like an extra from The Walking Dead, knocking over priceless Louis Quatorze art along the way —’”

It’s a small quibble, and maybe you love it, but David Sedaris doesn’t do it.

At the end of the year Loh’s father finally dies, and at first she seems to have all the remorse and grief that you would expect of someone who has been grousing for years about why he had the nerve to live so long, given the “giant money leakage of his care.”

There is an important conversation to be had about whether science is extending life for too long, and Loh’s most shocking statements may be more shrewd calculations than heartfelt emotions; her undergraduate degree, after all, was in physics. But the reader still has the right to be shocked when, upon going to her father’s house soon after his death, Loh decides to take a selfie with her father’s corpse. Is this a thing? If so, it would seem more the action of a millennial than a baby boomer “at the dropping tail of the boom.”

It’s hard, however, to dislike any writer who calls a mortuary professional a “Styx crosser” regardless of other offenses. A-

Since The New York Times once said Sandra Tsing Loh (reviewed above) was a candidate to be “the female David Sedaris,” it seems appropriate to see who else has earned this honor, and more importantly, whether they’re in paperback so we can take them to the beach.

Sedaris, of course, is the sly humorist made famous in 1992 by an essay about playing one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s, the broadcast of which is now an NPR holiday tradition. His books, which include Me Talk Pretty One Day and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, seethe with weapons-grade humor softened by a folksy tone and a surprising depth of wisdom and lived pain.

Why do we need a female Sedaris? Hard to say because there is no equivalent search for a male Anne Lamott.

But the contenders, according to Google, include not only Loh but these authors:
Lauren Weedman,Miss Fortune (Plume, 304 pages)
Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There’d Be Cake (Riverhead, 230 pages)
Susan Reinhardt, Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle (Grateful Steps, 384 pages)
Susan Jane Gilman, Hypocrite in a White, Pouffy Dress(Grand Central Publishing, 369 pages)
Faith Salie, Approval Junkie (Three Rivers Press, 288 pages)
Jen Lancaster, Bitter is the New Black, (Berkley, 416 pages)

To be fair, there are others, but some women seem to have given the title to themselves on their blogs. I make no guarantees as to how Sedarisian these women are, but note that Crosley has especially good reviews.

Or you could just wait for a new Sedaris book to come out. The New York Times recently reported that there are two in the queue, The Best Of Me, a collection of previously published essays, due out in the fall (pandemic willing), and Carnival of Snackeries, more selections from the diary he has kept for more than 40 years, scheduled next year.

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