Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wifedom, by Anna Funder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wifedom, by Anna Funder

Wifedom, by Anna Funder (Knopf, 464 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow AF Run Club, by Martinus Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultra-Processed People, by Chris van Tulleken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save What’s Left, by Elizabeth Castellano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heat Will Kill You First, by Jeff Goodell

The Heat Will Kill You First, by Jeff Goodell (Little, Brown and Co., 385 pages )

The effects of a warming planet seem less obvious in New England than in, say, Phoenix, Arizona, where it is 115 degrees Fahrenheit as I write. Except, of course, for the recently flooded towns in Vermont. And the hazy smoke that keeps drifting down here from Canada.

We can argue until the cows come home about whether we sit on the precipice of weather-driven, man-made calamity, but Jeff Goodell’s mind is made up. Heat, he says, is “an extinction force that takes the universe back to its messy beginnings. Before there was light, there was heat. It is the origin of all things and the end of all things.” And he is 100 percent certain about what is driving recent extreme weather: “250 years of hell-bent fuel consumption, which has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide.”

Goodell is a journalist who has been writing about climate for more than a decade. The cover of his 2017 book The Water Will Come looks like a still from a dystopian movie, with a trio of skyscrapers nearly submerged in seawater. Now Goodell is back with the equally alarming title The Heat Will Kill You First. His timing is impeccable.

Smart people on either side of the debate can disagree about whether recent record-setting heat waves are blips in time or a uniquely dangerous threat to humankind. But there’s no disputing that Goodell is an engaging writer at the top of his game. He’s like the love child of Ed Yong and James Patterson, with a little bit of Rachel Carson thrown in, which is to say he writes science-based, dystopian thrillers.

He acknowledges that small changes in global temperatures in recent centuries (overall, we’re up 2.2 degrees) don’t seem particularly scary. “Who can tell the difference between a 77-degree day and an 81-degree day?” he asks. … “Even the phrase ‘global warming’ sounds gentle and soothing, as if the most notable impact of burning fossil fuels will be better beach weather.”

But heat is deadlier than most of us think, he says. The human body is generally a well-regulated heat-generating machine, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of excess heat to kill us. Internally, there’s less than 10 degrees difference between our normal, everything’s-fine temperature of 98 degrees and the catastrophic cell death and organ failure that can occur at 107 degrees. And tragically, we get new examples of this almost every year when another fit athlete dies from heat stroke that occurs during a run or a football practice.

To drive this point home, Goodell recounts the story of the California couple who died with their baby and dog on an otherwise unremarkable day hike close to their home. The deaths, which made national news because they were originally so puzzling, were eventually determined to be from hyperthermia and dehydration. It had been in the 70s when they started the hike going downhill, but temperatures exceeded 100 on their way back up, and all appeared to have died of heat stroke.

“Just being alive generates heat. But if your body gets too hot too fast — it doesn’t matter if that heat comes from the outside on a hot day or the inside from a raging fever — you are in big trouble,” he writes. As our internal temperature rises past 103 degrees, blood pressure falls and people pass out. Interestingly, “This is in fact an involuntary survival mechanism, a way for your brain to get your body horizontal and get some blood to your head. At this point, if you get help and can cool down quickly, you can recover with little permanent damage.” But if you fall in a hot place and there is no one to help, you may never wake up.

Of course, people freeze to death when they fall unintended in cold places; falling and extreme temperatures are bad generally. But heat, Goodell says, is an “extinction force” and “the engine of planetary chaos, the invisible force that melts the ice sheets that will flood coastal cities around the world. It dries out the soil and sucks the moisture out of trees until they are ready to ignite. It revs up the bugs that eat the crops and thaws the permafrost that contains bacteria from the last ice age.” The next pandemic, he predicts, may come from some recently thawed ancient bacteria.

It’s not just humans at risk in extremely hot temperatures; others struggle in ways we normally wouldn’t think about. In the heat wave that hit Portland in 2021, for example, people were finding an unusually high number of injured baby birds on the ground. They weren’t dehydrated. They were leaving their hot, crowded nests before they were old enough to fly. And yes, dogs pant in heat since they can’t sweat like humans or plants, but some dogs fare better in heat than others, and not just because of differences in their fur. “Dogs with flat faces and wide skulls, such as English bulldogs, are twice as likely to succumb to heat as beagles, border collies and other breeds with more pronounced snouts.”

There is hardly a page without an odd, memorable fact like that, and a beautifully crafted paragraph that, as an added bonus, kindles a vapor of fear. Goodell, a longtime writer for Rolling Stone, is a pro at the dialogue-rich narrative style that keeps readers turning pages. Also, he’s really, really worried about us. From the sea creatures dying in warming oceans to deliverymen and farm workers passing out from heat stroke, he sounds the alarm on every page: you don’t know what is coming, you don’t know what is here.

In air-conditioned offices and homes, it can seem a bit overwrought, but, as he points out, there is a big divide between “the cool and the damned.” The affluent have central air conditioning while the poor swelter in homes without AC, or with old, inefficient units they can hardly afford to turn on. The disparity is worse in poorer countries. “Two hundred and twenty million people live in Pakistan, but there are fewer than a million air conditioners in the country,” Goodell writes. Economic inequality will be manifest in a “thermal gap,” he said, in which some people will fare better than others.

Goodell seems doubtful that things will improve; he notes that, were carbon emissions to cease today, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, but also acknowledges that human beings are adaptable and are already coming up with new ways to live; some cities, for example, are painting streets white to deflect heat. In other words, most of us can probably survive this — if the heat doesn’t kill us first. A

The Last Ranger, by Peter Heller

The Last Ranger, by Peter Heller (Knopf, 304 pages)

Yellowstone National Park is having a moment. An hour, really.

The first national park in the U.S., it was established in 1872 and straddles Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It is one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations and a plot device in the popular Paramount TV series. Its popularity derives not just from its natural beauty, but also from its wildlife, which includes bison, bears and wolves — the latter of which were reintroduced into the park nearly 20 years after they’d disappeared from the region a century earlier.

Human interference in the lives of wolves was the topic of Erica Berry’s memoir Wolfish (Flatiron), published earlier this year. Now Peter Heller addresses the topic in The Last Ranger, the latest in his growing compendium of novels that involve the outdoors, an interest he developed while growing up in Vermont and matriculating at Dartmouth.

Ren Hopper is a National Park Service ranger stationed at Yellowstone. It is a career best suited for solitary sorts, as much of the human interaction is observation, save encounters with the dumb or malevolent tourists, of which Ren seems to encounter more than his share. The dumb ones endanger themselves; the malevolent ones endanger the animals, by poaching. (Grizzly bears most often make the news when they kill someone, but more often it seems that humans try to kill them; their parts, especially the gallbladder, are components in traditional Chinese medicine.)

The story of how Ren, a fan of Russian fiction and specialty coffee drinks, came to live in a rangers’ cabin deep in the woods unfolds slowly. He learned to fish and love the outdoors under the tutelage of his mother, who drank to excess and left the family suddenly for murky reasons. He was married once, to a woman he deeply loved, but she died; why and how is initially unclear.

Ren’s best friend, besides trout, is a biologist named Hilly who studies wolves. She also lives in Yellowstone, where she is so entrenched with the packs that they know her scent and pay her little attention, as they live out their lives.

One of the more fascinating revelations of The Last Ranger is how keenly aware animals are of a human presence — some can smell us from nearly 2 miles away, and the more intelligent seem to sometimes leave their young within sight of wildlife-seeking tourists, knowing that they will be safe from predators for a short time. It’s like they’re getting some “me-time” with human babysitters, Heller writes. The novel is deeply researched, and some passages stumble into the realm of nonfiction when it comes to describing Yellowstone and its denizens.

But every good story needs a villain, and wolves are not it. The first antagonist is a surly local named Les Ingraham, whom Ren meets while fishing on his day off. To Ren, Ingraham is clearly breaking the law by pursuing a young bear with a dog. But he can’t do anything about it; he is out of uniform, and Ingraham, who is smart, has a story: his dog had been on leash but got away from him, and he was simply trying to reclaim his wayward dog.

Ren doesn’t believe him; Ingraham, like many locals, appears resentful that Yellowstone even exists and that the federal government enforces protection to animals and to the land. In particular, he seems to nurse a grudge for Hilly. And so when Hilly later gets caught in a leg trap near one of her observation points and nearly dies, Ingraham is a natural suspect, especially since he was arrested for assault 17 years earlier.

But as Ren researches Ingraham’s past, he learns that this seemingly malevolent poacher was a high school and college football star celebrated for an act of selfless heroism before he broke his back during a game. Rather than being a black-and-white suspect, Ingraham is now a puzzle to be figured out. At the same time, he learns about the existence of a group of wealthy ranchers called the Pathfinders, who had sued the federal government for stripping them of what they claim were historical rights to hunting and allowing their animals to graze on what was now park land.

Are the Pathfinders also more complicated than they seem, like Ingraham, or were they responsible for not only the trap that nearly killed Hilly and other seemingly taunting traps set around the park?

From the start, Heller’s sympathies clearly favor animals over people; like Hilly, who once made a vow to defend creatures who have no voice in the human world, he sees the worst things humans do as more reprehensible than the worst things animals do.

As Hilly says at one point, “If the earth were a meritocracy and we were graded on how much each species contributed to the well-being of the whole, we’d be [expletive]. God will blow the whistle at all the people and yell, Everybody out of the pool! It’s why Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd captain, once said that the life of a worm is worth more than the life of a man. Sounds nuts, but it’s something to think about.”

As a writer, Heller has copious gifts of description. At one point, he describes the sounds of a wolf like this: “Two barks testing the night. Almost like a tuning, the confirming plucks of a string. And then a rising resonant howl that froze the stars in place, and dropped and hollowed like a woodwind, and then crescendoed again.”

He gives a character the habit of pinching the brim of his baseball cap as if to ward off bad luck. “It was like a rosary he wore on his head,” he writes.

But Heller’s novels are reliably gripping because they thrum quietly with tension, while slowly revealing the essence of characters who will stay with you for years. The Last Ranger, while not as good as Heller’s 2012 debut novel The Dog Stars — it’s a bit more predictable in places — is an excellent companion for the dog days of summer, especially for anyone who is more comfortable outside than in. A

After the Funeral and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley

After the Funeral and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley (Knopf, 240 pages)

The essayist Lorrie Moore once said that a short story is a love affair, compared to a novel, which is more like a marriage. That’s one way to put it. I’ve always thought of short stories as an amputation, with some vital part of the tale rudely cut off just as it’s getting good. If I’m invested in a character enough to read 5,000 words, I’d appreciate another 70,000 or so.

That said, contemporary short stories are perfect for summer reading, when the attention span is as short as the days are long. And if you can forgive her the depressing title, the new collection by acclaimed British novelist Tessa Hadley provides a summer smorgasbord of family drama that might be comically or tragically familiar.

Many of these pieces have been published in The New Yorker, including one of the best, “The Bunty Club,” which revolves around three middle-aged sisters who have returned to their childhood home as their mother lies near death in the hospital.

Hadley’s imagery is lush. She writes of one sister, getting into bed mid-afternoon to read a George Elliot novel: “She couldn’t remember the last time she had laid down to read during the day — it was like being a teenager, time stretching out voluptuously in all directions.”

On a man and a woman interacting in a cafe: “[She] felt the old tide of flirtation rising between them, promising to lift her from where she was stranded.”

Here’s how she describes one sister: “She had an aura that was just as significant as if she were a celebrity, improbably washed up at the seaside, having shaken off her entourage of admirers or detractors, thirsting to be left alone with her luxuriant inner life.”

“The Bunty Club” was the secret society the sisters had in their childhood when they met in a shed and swore to each other “not to do good and never to help people.” It was in danger of being forgotten forever until one sister came across an old box with their meeting minutes (they were exceptionally organized as girls), badges and “lists of enemies and bad deeds.” Again, I would gladly read 60,000 on that.

The other stories in the collection follow the pattern of familial angst and intimacy, often in the context of ineffectual men and mothers.

In “My Mother’s Wedding,” the narrator reflects on her relationship with her mother, who is about to marry a much younger man she met “when both reached for a paper sack of muesli base at the same time” at a natural food store. An intellectual who had “never properly come up against life in its full form before,” the groom-to-be seems as uncertain about the wedding as the bride’s daughters, who have their own ways of coping (or not) with their mother’s unconventional lifestyle.

In the titular story, a family that is basically run by two precocious girls deals with the death of the father, an airline pilot who hadn’t been all that involved in their lives. In “Funny Little Snake,” a stepmother unhappily tasked with returning a child to her mother is forced to rethink the reality of her own marriage and choices.

Hadley has a gift for parsing the difficulties of family life, particularly that of adult children and aging parents. In “Coda,” set in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the narrator explains that when temporarily living with her elderly mother, she shuns the handicapped-accessible bathroom downstairs in part because of the irrational sense that “if I used it, I’d be contaminated with suffering, with old age.” She goes on, “The truth was that every so often I just needed to be alone for a few minutes, not making any effort, or being filled up with anyone else’s idea of what I was.”

In this story, as in several others, the narrator has grown up relatively plain in the shadow of a beautiful mother. Also as in others, the narrator is a sophisticated reader: “For the moment, Madame Bovary was my inner life, stirred like rich jam into the blandness of my days.”

The 12 stories in this collection are achingly beautiful at times, and painful in places. Like much contemporary short fiction, a few may leave readers scratching their heads over the conclusion, or wishing for CliffsNotes, and readers unfamiliar with the U.K. may not recognize the places Hadley writes about. But women, in particular, will recognize the family dynamics for sure. A

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