At the Sofaplex 22/01/20

The Tragedy of Macbeth (R)

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand.

Joel Coen directs and adapts this Shakespeare play starring Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling and Stephen Root. Washington and McDormand are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, slowly going mad with guilt and paranoia after the murders they commit to become king and queen of Scotland. (Spoiler alert, I guess, if you “read” Macbeth in high school without actually reading it.)

The look of this eerie black and white adaption is probably its most striking feature. It is set in a kind of minimalist world that suggests a vaguely late medieval/early Renaissance Scotland, but in a very modernist clean-lines furniture sort of way. Fog regularly rolls through stark landscapes or brutalist castle ramparts to underscore the evil, corruption and uncertainty of the moment. And if all that sounds a bit much, Washington and McDormand keep the whole thing down on earth with performances that make all that 400-year-old dialogue feel natural. Even if “Shakespeare adaptation” has the ring of homeworkiness about it to it you, this briskly paced, engrossing presentation will, I think, overcome whatever reluctance you might have (yes, this is Shakespeare, but it is also a Coen movie) and is worth a watch. A Available on Apple TV+.

Spencer (R)

Kristin Stewart, Jack Farthing.

Directed by Pablo Larrain, who also directed 2016’s Jackie, which, as I think other critics have noted, feels like very much a part of the same cinematic universe. In both instances, the focus — the sole, almost claustrophobically narrow focus — is the turmoil of a woman wrestling with celebrity and the strains of a seemingly “fairy tale” marriage. In this case, Diana Spencer (Stewart), still the wife of the Prince of Wales, is white-knuckling it through a multi-day family Christmas with Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet) and the royal family, including Charles (Farthing), the husband she has clearly become estranged from. She is happy to see her sons (Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry) but otherwise literally sick to her stomach over the visit, frequently throwing up from the pressure. She chafes against the rules, the pre-planned wardrobe picked out and labeled for each meal and event, the many discussions about how open her bedroom curtains are or aren’t. At times, she finds comfort in Maggie (Sally Hawkins), a sympathetic staff member who helps dress her, and in chef Darren (Sean Harris). And, as she works out her feelings about being trapped in this lousy marriage with this stifling family, she occasionally talks to distant ancestor Anne Boylen (Amy Manson), who understands the hurt of your husband giving you the same necklace as he gave his mistress.

As with Jackie, Spencer is more about feeling, the emotions of Diana, the mood of the moment or the tone of different relationships she has, than it is about linear storytelling. Though the action stays in those few Christmas days, she wanders back to her childhood, back through different iconic Diana dresses, into her family’s former house. In some ways this is a movie about the performance of a performance, Stewart doing Diana doing the “Princess Diana TM” shtick with the head tilt and the soft-spokenness but maybe also trying to figure out who she would be if she didn’t do that character anymore. And it’s an interesting watch. I can understand why Stewart has been drawing much awards acclaim. Her Diana is mannered — something I also thought about Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy — but she’s captivating and you feel her getting to the emotion of the character. B Available for rent or purchase.

The Tender Bar (R)

Ben Affleck, Christopher Lloyd.

JR (Daniel Ranieri as a kid, Tye Sheridan as a college student, Ron Livingston as an adult in voiceover) knows his mom (Lily Rabe) isn’t happy when they have to return to live with her parents (Lloyd, Sondra James) on Long Island, but he is delighted. The crowded house is frequently full of cousins and an aunt who, like JR’s mom, leaves and comes back when life doesn’t work out. And his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) is around — taking care of the family and tending bar at his place, The Dickens. Uncle Charlie gives impressionable JR lessons in “man sciences” (things like always have a little stash of money you hold back in your wallet and don’t spend at the bar, open doors for women, take care of your mother) and a community in the bar regulars. He also introduces JR to books — the canon of Dickins, later Orwell, and the like — and helps reinforce JR’s mother’s obsession with his going to an Ivy League college. But while she wants JR to become a lawyer — though not, as everyone jokes, to sue his father (Max Martini), a radio DJ who left them, for child support — JR’s love of Uncle Charlie’s books has him convinced he is going to be a writer.

Directed by George Clooney, The Tender Bar is a very straightforward kind of memoir telling a very straightforward kind of story about a boy growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. It feels a little too simple sometimes for the kind of golden (and awards-seeking) sheen it puts on everything. In this year of Belfast and Licorice Pizza, this take on the coming-of-age story feels a little mustier, a little like something that would feel at home in the theaters of the mid-1990s. The performances are fine — this kind of character feels like the optimistic variation of the one Affleck has played several times before. But while he doesn’t bring much new to the role, it and the movie overall are mildly, benignly interesting. B- Available on Amazon Prime.

Sing 2 (PG)

Voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon.

Also lending their voices to this animated tale are Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Garth Jennings, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman, Eric André, Pharrell Williams, Letitia Wright, Halsey, Bono and Bobby Cannavale doing the villain, a hotel-owning, gold-gilded office-having bully who pronounces “huge” as “U-ge” and maybe the one thing we, as Americans, could all agree on is that we can cool it with that kind of character for a while, huh?

The troop of performance-loving animals returns, still working for showman Buster Moon (McConaughey) in his theater, performing in a song-filled Alice in Wonderland show. When an attempt to take the show to the big city fails, Buster decides to bring the show to the talent-seeking hotel owner Mr. Crystal (Cannavale) anyway. Without intending to, the troop sells him on Gunter’s (Kroll) idea of a space-set jukebox musical, featuring the music of reclusive megastar Clay Calloway (Bono). Crystal wants something even better — Clay himself.

We get a mixed truffles chocolate box full of storylines — some characters working to convince Clay to come back to performing, some characters working out the difficult elements of their roles in the show, some characters dealing with the petulant fragile-egoed only-cares-about-his-image Crystal and his spoiled daughter.

There are a lot of characters and one of them is angry a lot — was an early complaint from one of my kids, who walked away from the movie about 20 minutes in. They seemed bored at points, but enjoyed the music and some of the sillier moments of physical comedy. And they did all wander back to the TV by the end, which features the music and production of the show-within-a-show. I mention these junior reviews in part because to watch this movie you are either going through the process of herding everybody into a movie theater or spending $24.99 for 48-hour VOD rental. Either way, for younger kids, the payout might not be worth the return in terms of kid engagement and enjoyment. My 6-year-olds might be right on the line of kids who have the patience for all of this movie’s scenes of talking and who are old enough for the threats of physical violence from the my-way-at-all-costs Crystal. Because the movie has so many storylines, we don’t get to spend as much time with any one character. As with the first Sing, the music is ultimately the movie’s most compelling star. C+ In theaters and available for rent.

Out of Office, The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

Out of Office, The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen (Knopf, 272 pages)

We are just now beginning to see how Americans’ work lives may have forever been changed by the pandemic, and in Out of Office, Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen craft a vision for how things could be better for the so-called “knowledge workers” who are able to do some or all of their jobs remotely. With some companies already announcing that they will be fully or partially remote even after the pandemic ends, this isn’t necessarily cause for celebration for people sick of working in their basements. But the authors begin by arguing that what we’ve been doing for the past two years isn’t truly remote work, but remote work during a stressful pandemic while homeschooling and wondering where the next roll of toilet paper is coming from. In other words, forget the past two years. Instead, dream with them about working fewer hours with no commute, fewer unnecessary meetings, more time to focus on the most important and fulfilling aspect of your job. It’s not The 4-Hour Workweek promoted by Tim Ferriss, but a more realistic fantasy.

And it’s necessary, the authors say, because the workforce is “collapsing” under the pressure of what they called fetishized standards of productivity and the hours we work: more than workers in other Western nations.

Among their points:

• To improve work life, we need not boundaries but guardrails. Boundaries are permeable. Guardrails protect. “Not because we’re fragile or undisciplined, but because the forces that undergird work today — especially the obsession with growth and productivity — are indiscriminate in their destruction,” the authors write. Other countries have guardrails that have been legislated, such as France, which passed a law in 2016 aimed at discouraging people who work at large companies from sending or replying to emails after working hours.

• Four-day work weeks can be achieved when companies eschew “faux productivity” and focus on getting important stuff done in less time. Companies can create policies that don’t accidentally discriminate — for example, childless people should be entitled to leave or sabbaticals without going to the trouble of having a baby. Like remote work, flexibility in employment is not necessarily a perk, the authors argue, but an opportunity to work 24-7. True flexibility would be like the software developer who gets much of his thinking done on a hiking trail, or the graphic designer who works for a few hours in the middle of the day, then three hours in the evening, building her day around the needs of her young children.

Companies like theirs operate with a culture of trust, “granting real freedom to make small and occasionally large decisions about when work should be done. … They’re focused not on immediate growth but on long-term vision: retaining valuable employees in a competitive industry.”

• Be suspicious of companies that present themselves as a family, rhetoric that emerged in the past half-century. “Treating your organization as a family, no matter how altruistic its goals, is a means of breaking down boundaries between work and life.” What many of us need is not a work “family” to compete with our own, but more emotional distance from all-consuming work.

In recent years, tech companies have normalized lavish perks that have contributed to this sense of work being a second home, from pool tables and pinball in break rooms, to free gourmet coffee and snacks, to bring-your-dog-to-work days. In order for a new hybrid model of work to succeed, offices need to be less appealing to workers, not more. Otherwise, remote workers already anxious about their relative invisibility, compared to people who keep showing up, suffer FOMO, fear of missing out, leading to even more stress. Companies need to create a culture in which there is truly a level playing field whether you’re remote or in an office building, Petersen and Warzel say.

• Remote workers contribute to their own stress by doing something that the authors call LARPing; the acronym stands for live-action role playing, and we do it at work when we become obsessed with constantly looking like we’re working, even when we ostensibly shouldn’t be. (An after-hours response to an email or Slack message is an example.) “A flare sent into the air to show you’re working incites others to send up their flares, too,” the others write.

In the end, Petersen and Warzel describe today’s knowledge workers as enduring a sort of carnival horror house of employment. In doing so, they make remote work sound worse than it is; there’s a reason so many workers are refusing to go back to the office, and it’s not all Covid-19-related. On the other hand, there’s also a reason for what’s been called the Great Resignation, and it’s not that we’re all clamoring to drive for Amazon.

Post-pandemic, we’re not going back to the lives we led in 2019, and Out of Office is part of the thoughtful conversation that needs to take place before we mindlessly take on other ghastly routines. Not every idea presented here is sterling; I’m deeply suspicious of the authors’ argument that cutting back on office time frees us to volunteer in our communities. That may solve some societal problems, but still leaves us with exhausted citizens. Also, the ideas presented in Out of Office may inspire hope among knowledge workers, but most have little power to change their own circumstances; it’s their bosses who need to read this book and sign on to the ideas. Workers can, however, help to foster change by thinking about why they revere hyperproductivity, a mindset the authors argue is a relic of the agrarian past. “Who would you be if work ceased to be the axis of your life?” they ask. While much of this book could be condensed into an article in The Atlantic, it’s good that the authors are posing the question they raise here. B-


Book Notes

Reader’s Digest Condensed Books are a thing of the past (we have SparkNotes with which to cheat-read now), but there are still “Book of the Month” clubs out there that offer to send you a book every month in the genre of your choice. Given that Americans read 12.6 books, on average, in 2021, according to Gallup,they’ve at least got the pacing down right.

But there’s another way to see books of the month — quite literally.

Last year, for example, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow came out in paperback (Redhook, 416 pages). It’s a well-reviewed novel about a 17-year-old girl from Vermont named January who finds a peculiar book that leads her on a fantastical adventure. Reviewers called it magical and inventive.

Let’s move onto February: February House (Mariner Books, 336 pages) is “the story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, under one roof in Brooklyn.” And you thought your bathroom was crowded. Sounds a bit like the Algonquin Roundtable, 24-7.

March: No way to begin spring without Little Women, so let’s do March: A Novel (Viking, 288 pages) by Geraldine Brooks, who envisions the Civil War experiences of the absent father of Meg, Beth, Jo and Amy.

April: One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival (W.W. Norton, 144 pages) is a gripping memoir by Donald Antrim, released last fall about his near suicide and struggles with depression.

May: Eight Days in May (Liveright, 336 pages) is another fall 2021 book that examines the collapse of the Third Reich. The author, Volker Ullrich, is a German historian, and the book was translated into English by Jefferson Chase.

June: Seven Days in June (yes, there’s a pattern here) is a celebrated novel by former beauty editor Tia Williams released last June (Grand Central Publishing, 336 pages). It’s about a pair of writers who had a fleeting romance as teenagers, then parted ways yet continued to write about each other in their books — while pretending not to know each other as adults.

Promising stuff here, if you missed these books when they first came out. Next week: July through December.


Book Events

Author events

TOM RAFFIO Author presents Prepare for Crisis, Plan to Thrive. The Bookery, 844 Elm St., Manchester. Thurs., Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m. Visit bookerymht.com.

CHAD ORZEL Author presents A Brief History of Timekeeping. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 27, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author presents Violeta. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Sat., Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration and tickets required, to include the purchase of the book. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

JOHN NICHOLS Author presents Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiters. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Tues., Feb. 1, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

Book Sales

USED BOOK SALE Used books for $1, $3 and $5. GoodLife Programs & Activities, 254 N. State St., Unit L, Concord. Jan. 10 through Jan. 21 (closed Jan. 17). Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit goodlifenh.org.

Poetry

CAROL WESTBURG AND SUE BURTON Virtual poetry reading hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

ROB AZEVEDO Poet reads from his new book of poetry, Don’t Order the Calamari. The Bookery, 844 Elm St., Manchester. Thurs., Feb. 3, 6 p.m. Visit bookerymht.com.

Album Reviews 22/01/20

Bird Friend, Carolyn Know (self-released)

Fans of folk revivalists like Karen Dalton and Jackson C. Frank, Manchester local Geoff Himsel and his girlfriend and musical co-conspirator Carson Kennedy were covered before on this page back in June 2020, upon the release of their I Am The Hand album, which was a pretty trippy little joint, full of real-sounding samples of rain, train station sounds and thunderclaps. Thankfully the pair hasn’t lost their taste for weird-beardness; opening track “Will You Miss Me/A Brighton Beach Of The Body” begins with some sort of circa-1930s-sounding radio broadcast, which is charming on its own, and then the duo ease into some organic, vintage-sounding busking that evokes Dust Bowl sharecroppers on a deserted street corner. More old-time-radio chatter and happy desolation ensues, most agreeably on “Angel Was My Friend,” at which point you begin picturing unplugged Woodstock performances of old, things like this. Some courageous, warm-hearted stuff here. A+

Pete Malinverni, On The Town: Pete Malinverni Plays Leonard Bernstein (Planet Arts Recordings)

Well that makes two winners this week, this one more in the category of records to be listened to when you absolutely, positively must chill. Jazz pianist Malinverni has been a fixture in the New York scene for 40 years if I’m reading this right, and toward our purposes, one of the highlights of his career was meeting legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. For what it’s worth, I totally get that; the first rock star I met still evokes memories of encountering a being not of this earth, so I can understand why Malinverni felt the need to, well, commemorate that meeting at long last. And so our principal here settles in with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jeff Hamilton to deliver stunningly genial versions of such classics as “New York New York,” “Some Other Time” and “I Feel Pretty” with the utmost care; the renditions feel intimate, playful and absolutely spot-on. A+

PLAYLIST

• Yo homies, Jan. 21, is creepin’ up on us, bearing with it “gifts” of hot new albums, for you to buy, ignore or, in my case, see if they make me barf! These are the days that try men’s souls, nothing but frozen tundra, slush and Alaskan mountain blizzardry until July, when we switch over to baking ourselves like microwaved Hot Pockets just to get low-grade lattes! But our North Pole life isn’t our focus today; no, we’re supposed to be poking innocent fun at new albums. Say, do you remember when X-Files person David Duchovny made a couple of albums and I was super-nice to them here, except for the part where I said they kind of sucked? What about when Billy Mumy from the 1960s TV show Lost In Space made some albums, and they sucked because there was no Dr. Smith freaking out and screeching in fear? I wonder if any more overrated actors will ever dare to step in to my critical crosshairs, to risk everything to see if I can stomach what musical thing they’re attempting, oh wait, look, it’s none other than Kiefer Sutherland, former Lost Boys and 24 star and now de facto president of the United States, with an album of his own, called Bloor Street, due out Friday! Bloor Street is an actual place in Toronto, Canada, which is north of us, covered in snow and ice, a place where you always have to watch out for Grinches and Abominable Bumble monsters until the weather turns warm in — well, it never does, so maybe Kiefer’s album is about his boyhood times living in a Toronto igloo before his famous dad Donald let him come to live with him in Hollywood, I have no idea. I know, I know, let’s get this over with, there’s some dumb YouTube video for the title track of this album, I’m going to go and see if I can stand it right now! Whoopsy daisy, Kief, way to rip off the guitar part from Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind,” what are you even doing. I don’t know, I suppose the rest of it is OK, if you like bands like Train. I don’t, so so I’m just going to move on to our next tale of terror. Let’s go, folks.

• Yes, finally I catch a break, after no new albums to talk about for weeks, here they are, my favorite psychedelic-stoner-rock band, only because their name is super-long and fills up all sorts of column space, yes, it’s Australian boneheads King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, with their first album of 2022, Butterfly 3001! Mind you, this is a remix album, and — holy crow, look at the participants, DJ Shadow did a rewrite of “Black Hot Soup” and called it “My Own Reality,” but this might be a troll on King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s part, because I can’t find proof that DJ Shadow did anything with that Blind Melon-ish song, so forget it, but Canadian punker Peaches’ remix, “Neu Butterfly 3000,” is super cool, draped in a busy, pretty world-music fractal.

• Yikes, time for me to waddle out of my comfort zone and talk about Things Are Great, the new LP from Seattle folk-indie dweebs Band of Horses! I don’t wanna, but I’ll listen to the single “Crutch” only because you demand it. Yuck, as always, it sounds like a B-side from the ’70s band America, like it’s music to shear your sheep to, aren’t sheep so cute, get me out of here before I melt down completely.

• Last but not least, it’s pale and slightly edgy-looking Norwegian synthpop girl Aurora, whom I’ve never heard of, ever, with The Gods We Can Touch, her new album! Hmm, I actually like the single, “Giving In To The Love,” it’s got some big bouncy Blue Man Group-style drums, ABBA-pop hooks, some Zola Jesus edge, there’s nothing wrong here folks, great stuff.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

Sweat, A History of Exercise, by Bill Hayes

Sweat, A History of Exercise, by Bill Hayes (Bloomsbury, 221 pages)

Every time a new study comes out about the benefit of exercise, there’s a sort of breathlessness about it, as if the authors have come across some undiscovered bit of wisdom that will change hearts and minds — and bodies.

Exercise does that, of course, but this is not a new development. Joe De Sena built a fitness empire on the concept of “Spartan Fit” and Sparta was last a player in ancient Greece. Most of us know at least a vague history of the Olympic games, and that physical fitness was a key component in the education of young men in ancient societies. “To achieve excellence, we first must sweat,” the Greek poet Hesiod wrote in 700 B.C.

It’s surprising, then, that when New York writer Bill Hayes set out to learn more about how exercise became a human compulsion, he found few contemporary histories on the subject, but found a comprehensive one written in 1573. Called De arte gymnastica (in English, the Art of Gymnastics), the work was compiled by an Italian physician, Girolamo Mercuriale, and written in medieval Latin. It was, Hayes would later be told, the sort of book that medieval intellectuals kept on their bookshelves but never read, “like the Bible or Infinite Jest.”

Mercuriale himself had set out to do precisely what Hayes does here: to comb through centuries of accounts of how people exercised and why they exercised, going back to the fifth century BC. There was, of course, exercise as a form of preparation for war. The Spartans, in particular, organized their society around principles of building not just men but warriors. But in other Greek societies, there was a culture of exercise more similar to the luxurious athletic clubs of today: While men went to athletic facilities known as “palestras” to strenuously train and challenge their bodies, there were also physical pleasures to be found there, such as saunas, bathing rooms and “oiling” rooms, where athletes would be rubbed with scented olive oil.

The goal, however, according to Mercuriale, should not be to become more physically attractive but to live a long and healthy life — in contemporary lingo, to have not just a long lifespan but a long healthspan. “Those who exercise moderately and appropriately can lead a healthy life that does not depend on any drugs, but those who do so without proper care are racked by perpetual ill health, and require constant medication.”

What’s amazing about Mercuriale’s conclusions, and similar ones by Plato, Hippocrates and the second-century physician Galen, is that they came in a time in which people got a lot of things wrong about health. They believed, for example, that illness was caused by imbalance in the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and bile), and that people could be healed with practices such as letting leeches suck their blood. But on exercise generally, these guys got it right, even if they did some weird things along the way, like collecting the sweat of athletes to use as a healing balm for hemorrhoids and genital warts.

Hayes is the the author of six other books, including Sleep Demons, a memoir about insomnia, and Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood. He is also known as the partner of the legendary late physician Oliver Sacks, and has written about other aspects of medical history before, including a nonfiction book that examines how the medical classic Gray’s Anatomy came to be. So it’s a little disappointing that Sweat sometimes devolves into more of a personal blog rather than an erudite history. This happens when Hayes drops in his own workouts, from mastering the crow pose in yoga to taking a boxing class. He may be an accomplished author, but he never convinces me to care deeply about his sports injuries, even when he slammed into a rock once while he was swimming. Not that I’m not sympathetic to head injuries, but it wasn’t what I came for.

That said, it was interesting to learn about the exercise habits of diverse, interesting people, from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who famously did 20 military-style push-ups each day, even in her 80s, to an Italian publisher and translator of Mercuriale who rings 600-pound church bells for exercise. Fun fact on the topic of unusual forms of exercise: Mercuriale counted laughing, crying and holding one’s breath as exercise, another reason to like him. And again Mercuriale was prescient: a belly laugh has been likened to “jogging for the innards.”

Hayes received funding from two foundations that enabled him to travel around the world to research this book, in part by inspecting old and rare books, aided by friendly librarians. (This in itself offered a glimpse into a strange world, as when he wrote that the librarian “placed a clean white pillow on the table top — a soft bed for these often fragile volumes — and provided a fresh package of handwipes” in order that he could clean his hands thoroughly in between books.) He also took an eight-week class that certifies people to become personal trainers, not to become one (although he did become certified), but just to learn about the process and more about the human body.

As with any book that runs the gamut from Pliny the Elder to Jane Fonda, Sweat attempts to cover a marathon in the space of a 5K. It’s a perfectly serviceable book, but not one that’s particularly memorable, since for so much of it the reader is subjected to watching the author travel and exercise. At least he had fun, so there’s that. As for advice, it’s hard to top this from Galen’s The Art of Medicine, dating from 180 A.D.: “Exercise should cease as soon as the body begins to suffer.” If, for you, that’s the moment you step out the door, best move on to another title. B-


Book Notes

If you haven’t heard, birds aren’t real. They’re drones sent by the federal government to spy on us, according to a tongue-in-cheek movement. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feed them and enjoy looking at them when we’re trapped inside by miserable weather.

There is no “birds aren’t real” book — not yet, anyway — but there’s been an equally cheeky book leading the “bird field guides” genre on Amazon recently. The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of the Whole Stupid World (Chronicle, 176 pages) is Matt Kracht’s followup to his The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, published in 2019 (Chronicle, 176 pages). Kracht, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, is gaming the system by showing up here. While the books are in the field-guide format, and technically about birds, they’re pure humor, and crude humor at that.

What’s really fascinating, though, is that Kracht’s take is not especially original. The same year Kracht’s first book came out, Aaron Reynolds gave the world the Effin’ Birds: A Field Guide to Identification (Ten Speed Press, 208 pages), which has even more profanity and absurdity than Kracht’s books offer. (Who knew there was such animosity toward birds?)

Effin’ Birds is cultural commentary wrapped in bird bodies, with Reynolds inventing creatures such as the “spotted do-nothing” and the “peevish ringneck.” It too is kind of juvenile in its humor, but also kind of funny, as we all have a spotted do-nothing in our life.

If you prefer to take your birding more seriously, Princeton University Press recently published How Birds Evolve, What Science Reveals About Their Origin, Lives and Diversity by New York evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma (320 pages).

And last year, Deckle Edge published a new version of The Bedside Book of Birds, an Avian Miscellany, by the late Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood (392 pages).

But you’ll have to wait a few months for the book you really need: an actual field guide, snark-free: Birds of New Hampshire. It’s by Marc Parnell and is part of the Birding Pro series. (Naturalist and Traveler Press, 272 pages, coming March 22).


Book Events

Author events

TIMOTHY BOUDREAU Author presents on the craft of writing short stories. Sat., Jan. 15, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

TOM RAFFIO Author presents Prepare for Crisis, Plan to Thrive. The Bookery, 844 Elm St., Manchester. Thurs., Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m. Visit bookerymht.com.

CHAD ORZEL Author presents A Brief History of Timekeeping. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 27, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author presents Violeta. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Sat., Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration and tickets required, to include the purchase of the book. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

JOHN NICHOLS Author presents Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiters. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Tues., Feb. 1, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

GARY SAMPSON AND INEZ MCDERMOTT Photographer Sampson and art historian McDermott discuss New Hampshire Now: A Photographic Diary of Life in the Granite State. Sat., Feb. 19, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

Book Sales

USED BOOK SALE Used books for $1, $3 and $5. GoodLife Programs & Activities, 254 N. State St., Unit L, Concord. Jan. 10 through Jan. 21 (closed Jan. 17). Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit goodlifenh.org.

Poetry

CAROL WESTBURG AND SUE BURTON Virtual poetry reading hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

Album Reviews 22/01/13

Pussy Riot, Rage Remixes (self-released)

These Russian protest-punk girls should be no strangers to your cultural head space, given that they’ve caused all sorts of trouble with the powers-that-be in their homeland, which has led to their arrests and such. As a band, they have a sound that’s always evolving; they started out as a live-only performance-art act (there are now three albums in the books) that sounded like a bad version of Courtney Love, then became more like The Kills, and they’re now more of an edgy bubble-pop group. The Britney/Kesha sound has really served them well of late, and this collection finds their tuneage being remixed by such players as Berlin, Germany-based producer Boyz Noise (a decidedly industrial-stomping version of “Rage”), weird “elven songstress” Hana (a trance reimagining of “Toxic”) and Dutch artist Young & Sick (a fairly rote snap-dance take of the aforementioned “Toxic”). “Not A Friend” tables the obligato dubstep version of “Rage,” completing the package one would expect for a pretty darn spazzy anger-management record. A

Spoon, Lucifer On The Sofa (Matador Records)

This Austin, Texas-based indie band still stands as one of the very few things that made Aughts music tolerable. Do you even remember how bad it all was? But these guys, whose fetish for listenable hooks was a slap in the face of the entire Bowery Ballroom unintelligentsia, have dug even deeper with this one, which one band member described to Spin magazine as “the sound of classic rock as written by a guy who never did get Eric Clapton.” There cool stuff here, if a bit contrived: lead single “The Hardest Cut” rips off Stone Temple Pilots’ grunge standard “The Big Empty”at the verse, but there’s some muddy-as-heck guitar riffing in between the rest of it, which is basically, well, Bo Diddley by way of Stray Cats. What does that mean? It means it’s raw and awesome, like Black Lips trying to write a car commercial jungle and hitting paydirt, and hey, they’ve still got a knack for awkward rock ballads, as indicated by “My Babe,” which gives off a whiff of — gasp — Led Zeppelin in a way. They’re going to be able to get away with being an Aughts-indie band forever at this rate, folks. A-

PLAYLIST

• In case your Siri didn’t tell you, it’s the second week of the new year, folks, put me back on the chain gang until Memorial Day, when I will go back to my summer schedule of four days off and four days on, which, at this writing, is only 20 weeks away, or 100 workdays, but who’s counting. OK, I totally am, but let’s forget all that and focus on the pile of new releases due out on Jan. 14, which will hopefully consist of lots and lots of them, so I can just write this column quickly and eat my Funyuns and make jokes about my choice of a million albums without having to dig up some obscure metal album or any of that desperate hassle. Ah, here we are, the list is actually promising, so let’s kick off the “festivities” with The Boy Named If, from Elvis Costello & the Imposters! I don’t know if the Queen has made Costello a knight yet in his native Britain, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, like at this point she probably just makes singers into knights if they get a good review in New Music Express, just so she has an excuse to get away from her gigantic staff of Downton Abbey chambermaids and vape her truffle-and-apricot-flavored CBD oil in peace. Whatever, let’s get this out of the way quickly, I never cared about Elvis Costello or his jack-o’-lantern teeth or his stupid crook-leg-dancing, although “Pump It Up” is OK. Maybe the single from this album, “Magnificent Hurt,” is almost as weirdly danceable as “Pump It Up,” let’s do this. Ha ha, wow, it’s basically “Pump It Up” wearing a fake beard, I’m not kidding, I didn’t even listen to it until just now! I mean, it doesn’t have that roller-rink organ, but he’s clearly trying to revive the glory of those days when his entire trip was doing nothing but trying to weird out the normie parents of Gen Xers, as if the safety pins and Mohawk haircuts didn’t make for enough dinner table awkwardness. Wait, there’s the dumb organ, and it sounds more like a song Sting would write except a little more interesting, like that’s difficult. We done here, guys? Cool beans, let’s investigate the next monstrosity.

• Wait, can we just go back to Elvis Costello and not even discuss this new album from Canadian wine-parent-indie-rock bores Broken Social Scene? I mean it’s obvious that with the title Old Dead Young: B-sides & Rarities this is just a collection of songs that weren’t even considered good by these guys, so there has to be some seriously not-good music going on here. But wait, we’re talking about Broken Social Scene, so maybe it means they didn’t push these songs because they actually are good, like maybe they accidentally wrote some songs that didn’t put people to sleep within five seconds. Don’t know about you, but I’m officially intrigued, so let’s have a listen to “This House Is On Fire,” the only song I could find from this stupid thing. There’s a trigger warning for the video because there are supposed to be pictures of burnt-down houses. No, I’m serious. The song is a gentle and sad twee thing, sort of like Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”… yeah, that’s the song it rips off. OK!

Brightside is the new LP from Denver folk rockers Lumineers. The title track is draggy and slow, with raunchy Rolling Stones-style 1960s guitars. The singer is trying to sound more like Conor Oberst than he ever has, and there’s no discernible hook, only polite broke-down-truck vibe. Go for it if you must.

• We’ll wrap up the week with Hop Up, the new album from Orlando Weeks, the singer from London indie band The Maccabees. Test-drive single “Look Who’s Talking Now” is actually kind of pretty, basically yacht rock for people who can’t afford yachts.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

How To Live Like a Monk, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Life, by Daniele Cybulskie

How To Live Like a Monk, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Life, by Daniele Cybulskie (Abbeville Press, 175 pages)

When modernity fails, antiquity beckons. That is the conclusion to be drawn from renewed interest in lifestyles vastly different from the high-consumption, low-contemplation and tech-driven models so prevalent today.

This is seen in the popularity of Twitter’s “Lindy Man,” a lawyer turned lifestyle guru who exhorts people to consult ancestral wisdom in order to lead a more fulfilling life, and the trend toward tiny houses, minimalism and other scaled-back systems of living that previous generations of poor people sought to escape. Into this space comes Daniele Cybulskie, a medieval historian and self-described professional nerd who has built up a niche following with a podcast on medieval life. Her fourth book, How to Live Like Monk, seemed a promising escape from the excesses of the holiday season, and it has glimpses of potential, but ultimately devolves into boilerplate cheerleading for gratitude and simplicity, a la Sarah Ban Breathnach of the Simple Abundance brand. That said, it’s a book well worth skimming, especially if you’re a trivia buff.

“Abundance” is not a word typically associated with monks, whose lifestyle, as we all know, is distinguished by austerity. But here’s the thing. What do you really know about monks, or nuns or other people of disparate religious beliefs who lead cloistered lives? You have Trappist beer or jelly in the house but know nothing about why monks make beer anyway. Cybulskie does not examine the lives of modern monks (which seems an oxymoron), but looks at their predecessors, and when she is focusing on history, and not giving advice, this handbook is fascinating.

Who knew, for example, that early monks were allotted a gallon of beer a day, or that despite their rigid schedule of prayer and chores, their lives were pretty much an intellectual’s dream, filled as they were with mealtime lectures and quiet reading hours? Monastery life was often foisted on young children, whose parents would turn them over to an order if they could not afford to raise or educate them (or if they wanted bonus points in the afterlife). And sometimes criminals took refuge in a monastery to avoid punishment (think Jean Valean). But many people chose the lifestyle freely, as there is something to be said for living in a peaceful commune where you don’t have to worry about how to pay the rent or what to wear. (Monks were typically given two outfits — one to wear while the other was being washed — and one pair of shoes, which were replaced every year.)

For all their simplicity, the grounds of a monastery were typically glorious, not only because they were to be a reflection of God’s glory, but because a key ministry of monks was providing comfortable lodging for travelers, a tradition that continues today, or at least that did before Covid. As for food, monks are not known for feasting, but they were Whole Foods before Whole Foods existed, with their own orchards, herb and vegetable gardens, and fish ponds. They generally shunned the flesh of four-legged animals, but ate poultry and fish, and there is record of one medieval monastery accepting eels as payment for rent. Monks were also way ahead of us on the whole green burial thing, accepting “dust to dust” as a lifestyle and even burying their dead in their orchards. Like the early Christians, monks of the Middle Ages were somewhat obsessed with death, ordering their lives around their hopes for the afterlife and sincerely believing that they lived in end times. Of course, like everyone else who lived before antibiotics, death was always a breath or two away, which gave rise to skull art and jewelry known as “memento mori” — Latin for “remember you must die.”

Cybulski concedes this to be a sort of “grotesque emphasis” on death and struggles to recommend it to her readers, but finds other monkish practices to suggest. Some are banal: Embrace minimalism! Don’t overspend! Supercharge habits! But there are nuggets of seriousness here, thought truffles worth digging for, and one of the monks’ most famous traditions, an emphasis on silence, is something sorely needed in the noisy lives that many of us live. Saint Benedict, originator of arguably the most famous guide for living like a monk, the Rule of St. Benedict, decreed that monks should not speak out loud except by permission or in services. He believed that “mindless chatter was at best distracting and at worst destructive.” By cutting out the small talk, he effectively kept monks from grumbling, and instead filled their minds with edifying words read during their communal meals.

On the website for Saint Anselm College in Manchester, home to a community of Benedictine monks, you can read Brother Isaac’s blog, which shows that despite a societal yearning for the past, the past’s institutions are keeping up with modern times. The concept of a blog might have been distressing for St. Benedict, but at least you can write one in silence. This saintly little handbook fails to ascend to intellectual heights, and its compact size reduces the usefulness and beauty of its otherwise compelling photographs and art, but it will nonetheless stimulate interest about cloistered life, past and present. C


Book Notes, New Year Edition

According to social scientists, you will likely abandon your new year resolutions between Jan. 19 and Feb. 1, but until then, keep the faith. In order to help with your plans to be thinner, smarter, kinder, richer, more organized and better dressed, here’s a lineup of books, both from past years and upcoming, that promise to help with your goals, fleeting as they may be.

Atomic Habits (Avery, 320 pages) by James Clear was published in 2018 but is still atop Amazon’s bestseller list. The author promises “tiny changes, remarkable results” that can apply to anything you’re resolved to do this year.

Brene Brown was a research professor before she broke into the Oprah-esque popular culture space. Her new book, Atlas of the Heart, is about “mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience,” whatever that means (Random House, 336 pages). Its genre is emotional self-help. That said, Amazon has said it’s one of the best books of the year, so worth checking out.

The Blue Zones Challenge is the latest from Dan Buettner, who studies people who live in the blue zones, the areas of the world where people live the longest. This workbook encompasses four weeks of changes with the goal of having a “longer, better life,” which fits nicely with the four weeks with which most of us stick with our resolutions. It’s from National Geographic, 240 pages.

Organizing for the Rest of Us (Thomas Nelson, 224 pages) comes out Jan. 22. Dana K. White offers 100 “realistic” strategies to keep our homes under control. She says that cleaning is the last step of a three-step process; the first is decluttering and the second is managing day-to-day stuff. Doesn’t look like there’s much new here, but could be an inspirational pep talk.

Baby Steps Millionaires (Ramsey Press, 224 pages) is by financial guru Dave Ramsey, who has taken some PR hits this year in accusations of a cult-like atmosphere at his Tennessee headquarters. Millions of people follow his plans, however, and his new book, releasing Jan. 11, promises to teach ordinary people how to build extraordinary wealth. Don’t read unless you’re willing to cut up your credit cards.

Finally, in what’s possibly the most unappealing title of a diet book ever, there is Dr. Kellyann’s Bone Broth Diet (Rodale, 416 pages), which is only slightly more appetizing than my proposed counter-title, Lose Weight and Gain Energy Eating the Slimy Contrails of Backyard Slugs. But OK. Kellyann Petrucci is a “concierge physician” for celebrities, and she says we can lose 15 pounds, 4 inches and an unspecified number of wrinkles by following her plan. At $17.99, it’s cheaper than Botox. Let me know if it works.


Book Events

Author events

JAMES ROLLINS Author presents The Starless Crown, in conversation with Terry Brooks. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Mon., Jan. 10, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

TIMOTHY BOUDREAU Author presents on the craft of writing short stories. Sat., Jan. 15, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

TOM RAFFIO Author presents Prepare for Crisis, Plan to Thrive. The Bookery, 844 Elm St., Manchester. Thurs., Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m. Visit bookerymht.com.

CHAD ORZEL Author presents A Brief History of Timekeeping. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 27, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author presents Violeta. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Sat., Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration and tickets required, to include the purchase of the book. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

Book Sales

USED BOOK SALE Used books for $1, $3 and $5. GoodLife Programs & Activities, 254 N. State St., Unit L, Concord. Jan. 10 through Jan. 21 (closed Jan. 17). Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit goodlifenh.org.

Poetry

CAROL WESTBURG AND SUE BURTON Virtual poetry reading hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

Album Reviews 22/01/06

Mild Orange, Colourise (self-released)

By now you’ve probably noticed a growing preference in this column for dream-pop and chamber-pop. Those genres go easy on my constitution these days, and that’s just kind of stuck, apparently permanently. Dimly related to shoegaze and no-wave, such bands are usually melodic but wonderfully noisy, raucous but unobtrusive in the great scheme. Now, these guys, professed to be dream-poppers, are New Zealanders, the two principal members having grown up together since the age of 3, which is even more promising, given that they didn’t meet at college, which usually leads to monstrosities like [any band from the Aughts]. They’re a 5-million-views-and-counting YouTube success and thus have remained indie, and this LP is captivating from the opening title track, its sub-spaghetti guitars and Coldplay-ish vocals capturing the essence of the genre perfectly. Elsewhere we have “This Kinda Day,” which sounds like what Pavement would be if they weren’t absolutely terrible, and “Aurora,” an exploration of pool-side Chris Isaak vibe that features some nifty Vampire Weekend guitar work. No problems here, folks. A

Project Youngin, Letter From The Projects (self-released)

Whether or not it’s a bit of a snobby take, fact is that the rap game is powered much less by musicianship than it is by PR stunts and spurious drama. It parallels online troll culture in that regard, so it’s culturally relevant as well as being the most defining vibe of our era. To us critics it’s more than a little stale; the backstory of this St. Petersburg, Florida, rapper can’t be told without including mention of a fake “shooting” that took place during the filming of the video for his 2018 mixtape Thug Souljas, a stunt that made headlines in XXL and other big-hitter webzines. Mine isn’t to judge, of course, simply to report, and all that really happened is that he’s still around and currently pushing this 11-song EP, which jumps off with “Prophet,” Youngin’s disaffected, heavily accented (and kind of ragged-sounding) flow sitting in a broth of swirly, immersive trap beats. And so it goes; “Money Callin’” fits into this collection of pain memoirs with a beat that, if you’ll pardon, evokes the theme from the TV show Cheaters more than anything else. Pretty contrived, but what isn’t these days? B

PLAYLIST

• Boy, thank heaven the holidays are over and we’re back to normal Fridays, with tons of new records coming out on Jan. 7, so I can tell you all about them here, on this page! I’ll tell ya, I’ve been doing this column for one million years now, but this past holiday season was the worst ever, like I thought I was going to have to talk about restaurants just to fill the space, but I wouldn’t have even been able to do that, because I’m one of those people who’ve been wearing an N95 mask and a space helmet just to go to the mailbox, so I’ve only been to a few local restaurants for takeout! But look, let’s start 2022, The Year That Everything Ends, with some levity, because look guys, it’s an album from everyone’s favorite actor, model, singer, television personality, and author in the world! No, no, I don’t mean Betty White, we’re talkin’ RuPaul, who’s most known for his drag queen act! Believe it or not, this album, titled Mamaru, is his count-em 14th, so I guess he really is some sort of musician/singer person, which is actually news to me. OK, where were we, who knows, right, his new single, called “Blame It On The Edit,” a catchphrase that denotes something to do with his TV show, I don’t know or care what. The lyrics “could be taken a few ways,” supposedly, like whatever they’re babbling about on his show, or something to do with how social media life is different from real life. World’s loudest-ever “duh,” am I right guys? OK, whatnot, let’s have a listen to this thing, I can hardly wait. Hmm, it’s kinda like a Skee-Lo rap joint, but snap-dance, and there’s goofy Auto-Tune effects and other junk going on. Someone will probably like this, I don’t know, let’s proceed.

• Bob’s your uncle, folks, look, it’s British indie-rockers The Wombats, with a new album, called Fix Yourself, Not the World! Boy, if people would only take that advice, know what I mean? These guys are Liverpudlians, like the Beatles, if you’ve ever heard of them, and this album has already seen four singles released ahead of time, one of which is “Method to the Madness,” a slow, plodding wimp-rock thingamajig with chilly, low-impact vocals that kind of sound like Paul McCartney a little, but sloppy and a little off-key. It’s boring and not really catchy, but that’s what you hipsters get for your entertainment dollar these days, because bands like this can get away with anything, because they’re Lilliputians or whatever, from Gulliver’s Travels or wherever. Get this trashy nonsense away from me or I’ll barf, I mean it.

• Oh look, it’s Eric Nam, with a new LP called There and Back Again, his second! We rock ’n’ roll journalists always have to assume our audience already knows everything, so I’m about to use the phrase “of course” in a way that’s completely unwarranted, because 99.99 percent of you have never heard of this artist, are you ready? Here goes: Nam is, of course, hugely popular in Korea, and the single is “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” Ha ha, it’s a little like Michael Jackson, but mostly like Bruno Mars doing a sexytime hip-hop-tinged trifle. You’ll probably like it if you’re 11 years old, and if you are, you shouldn’t be reading this, you should be getting tucked in so you’ll be ready for school in the morning.

• We’ll end this artistic train wreck with Scottish alt-rock band Twin Atlantic’s new full-length, Transparency! “Bang On The Gong,” the single, is droopy grime-tinged bubblegum-pop. It’s the only thing I’ve liked hearing this week, just saying.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett

These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett (Harper, 320 pages)

The Ann Patchett craze somehow eluded me, although I know people who wait breathlessly for her next book. She is not as famous as Stephen King nor as prolific as Jodi Picoult, having “just” eight novels and two children’s books to her name, but she enjoys those writers’ commercial success, and has developed an auxiliary fame as co-owner of a Nashville bookstore and as an advocate for independent booksellers.

As such, there’s been breathless anticipation all year for Patchett’s fourth book of nonfiction, These Precious Days, which is a pandemic book — not a book about a pandemic, but a book set in the pandemic. In fact, some of what occurs in the essays here pre-dates Covid-19 and has been published before, in The New Yorker and elsewhere. That, it turns out, matters not one whit.

The essays are finely strung, like a strand of Mikimoto pearls, and are so well-crafted as to have sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head. Patchett identifies as a novelist but says she’s always writing essays to fill in the gaps, to remind her that she’s still a writer when she’s not consumed by a work of fiction. Amusingly, she says that when working on a novel, she’s stalked by the idea of death, thinking that she could die at any time and the undertaker would bury all her beloved characters with her. The pandemic made that worse. “What was the point of starting [a novel] if I wasn’t going to be around to finish? This didn’t necessarily mean I believed I was going to die of the coronavirus, any more than I believed I was going to drown in the Atlantic or be eaten by a bear, but all those scenarios were possible. The year 2020 didn’t seem like a great time to start a family, or a business, or a novel.” And so she spent the time working on essays, which Patchett says death didn’t seem all that interested in.

The collection starts with a remembrance published in The New Yorker on Patchett’s “three fathers,” her biological dad and two stepfathers. (“Marriage has always proved irresistible to my family. We try and fail and try again, somehow maintaining our belief in an institution that has made fools of us all.”) The next essay, “The First Thanksgiving,” is a pithier reflection on Patchett’s experience as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, when she couldn’t go home for the holiday and instead decided to cook a traditional dinner in her dorm for other stranded friends. Having never cooked a turkey or any other Thanksgiving dish before. “I made yeast rolls, for heaven’s sake! I cooked down fresh cranberries into sauce!”

Only having enough quarters to call her mother from the pay phone when she was finished (we’re talking about a woman who is now 60), she used recipes from The Joy of Cooking and writes that “even now, when someone claims they don’t know how to cook, I find myself snapping, ‘Do you know how to read?’”

Not to take away from Patchett’s talents, but part of the appeal of her essays is simply that she lives such an interesting life. Take, for example, the beginning of her essay, “Flight Plan,” in which she writes: “Three of us were in a 1947 de Havilland Beaver, floating in the middle of a crater lake in the southwest quadrant of Alaska.”

What?

It is a declarative statement, simply crafted, but dares the reader not to read on to learn more. It turns out that the essay is not about this particular excursion that Patchett took with her physician husband, Karl, but about his lifelong obsession with aviation (and by extension, every other amateur pilot), and her coming to grips with it, with reactions that range from bewilderment to fear.

We learn much from this essay about aviation culture, such as that a certain model of small plane is known as a doctor killer. (“Doctors have enough money to buy them,” Karl said, “but they aren’t good enough pilots to fly them.”) But we also go deep inside Patchett’s marriage, her terror about the possibility of Karl dying in a plane crash, her struggle to understand why dangerous pastimes were so important to him. “I understood he wasn’t interested in baking bread, that there would be no Scrabble or yoga in our future as a couple, but couldn’t there be a hobby in which death was not a likely outcome?”

But death is, of course, a likely outcome for us all, and despite Patchett’s insistence that death had no interest in essays, it enshrouds the titular essay, which is about her relationship with a woman named Sooki, who was the actor Tom Hanks’ personal assistant for nearly 20 years.

Patchett had come to know Hanks after writing a jacket blurb for his book of short stories, Uncommon Type, and came to know Sooki when Hanks later agreed to narrate the audio book of her novel The Dutch House. Through increasingly intimate emails, the women evolved from “affectionate strangers” to housemates while Sooki was in an experimental treatment for pancreatic cancer.

No spoilers here, but it is a deeply moving story about friendship, and utterly riveting. As is the collection in its entirety. A


Book Notes

As the end of 2021 mercifully approaches, here’s a look back at the books that made our A list. Some won critical acclaim nationwide; others, not much more than here, but they’re worth your attention if you haven’t read them already.

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers (W.W. Norton, 278 pages), novel: A widowed dad struggles with raising his neurologically untypical son while pondering possible other worlds beyond our universe.

The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green(Dutton, 274 pages), nonfiction, essays: The author of The Fault in Our Stars gives 1- to 5-star reviews of everything from Canada geese to Diet Dr Pepper to the “wintry mix.”

Love Like That, by Emma Duffy-Comparone(Henry Holt and Co., 211 pages), short stories: Nine stories about love, both brittle and vibrant, all set in New England, two on the Granite State coast.

The Audacity of Sara Grayson, by Joani Elliott (Post Hill Press, 400 pages), novel: Part of the genre often dismissed as “chick lit,” this is a fun, original and New Englandish story of a daughter tasked with writing the ending to a best-selling series after the author, her mother, dies.

The Five Wounds, by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton, 416 pages), novel: A troubled Catholic family in New Mexico grapples with an unwed pregnancy, poverty and illness in this moving portrait of real life, the kind that doesn’t show up on Twitter.

The Blizzard Party, by Jack Livings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages), novel: Engrossing fiction set during the very real blizzard of 1978.

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf, 303 pages), novel: This Booker Prize-winning story of a young girl and her “artificial friend” asks us to think seriously about the costs of companion robots, both to us and to them.

Chasing Eden, A Book of Seekersby Howard Mansfield (Bauhan Publishing, 216 pages), nonfiction: An intelligent and contemplative book by a New Hampshire author about an unusual cast of Americans who bid the founders’ call to pursue happiness in their own unique ways.


Book Events

Author events

JAMES ROLLINS Author presents The Starless Crown, in conversation with Terry Brooks. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Mon., Jan. 10, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

CHAD ORZEL Author presents A Brief History of Timekeeping. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 27, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author presents Violeta. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Sat., Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration and tickets required, to include the purchase of the book. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

JOHN NICHOLS Author presents Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiters. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Tues., Feb. 1, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

GARY SAMPSON AND INEZ MCDERMOTT Photographer Sampson and art historian McDermott discuss New Hampshire Now: A Photographic Diary of Life in the Granite State. Sat., Feb. 19, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

TIMOTHY BOUDREAU Author presents on the craft of writing short stories. Sat., Jan. 15, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

Poetry

CAROL WESTBURG AND SUE BURTON Virtual poetry reading hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

DOWN CELLAR POETRY SALON Poetry event series presented by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. Monthly. First Sunday. Visit poetrysocietynh.wordpress.com.

Book Clubs

BOOKERY Online. Monthly. Third Thursday, 6 p.m. Bookstore based in Manchester. Visit bookerymht.com/online-book-club or call 836-6600.

GIBSON’S BOOKSTORE Online, via Zoom. Monthly. First Monday, 5:30 p.m. Bookstore based in Concord. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com/gibsons-book-club-2020-2021 or call 224-0562.

TO SHARE BREWING CO. 720 Union St., Manchester. Monthly. Second Thursday, 6 p.m. RSVP required. Visit tosharebrewing.com or call 836-6947.

GOFFSTOWN PUBLIC LIBRARY 2 High St., Goffstown. Monthly. Third Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. Call 497-2102, email elizabethw@goffstownlibrary.com or visit goffstownlibrary.com

BELKNAP MILL Online. Monthly. Last Wednesday, 6 p.m. Based in Laconia. Email bookclub@belknapmill.org.

NASHUA PUBLIC LIBRARY Online. Monthly. Second Friday, 3 p.m. Call 589-4611, email information@nashualibrary.org or visit nashualibrary.org.

Language

FRENCH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE CLASSES

Offered remotely by the Franco-American Centre. Six-week session with classes held Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $225. Visit facnh.com/education or call 623-1093.

Album Reviews 21/12/30

Reptaliens, Multiverse (self-released)

The first album from this Portland, Oregon-based husband-and-wife synthpop duo was 2017’s FM-2030, named after the famous transhumanist (a barmy, pseudoscientific discipline that focuses on artificial intelligence, longevity by becoming part-robot or whatnot, etc.). So by now, if you’re normal, you’ve got warning bells going off all over the place, as you’ve seen words like “transhumanism” and “Portland,” so you know there’s plenty of kooky nonsense going on here, and you should probably avoid it, and you’d be right, at least in my book. Anyway, that first LP was dreamy but not dream-pop, more like Au Revoir Simone-meets-Postal Service-style rubbish that didn’t make it onto an episode of Portlandia. Cut to now, when Covid has prevented Mr. and Mrs. from jamming with their wine-gulping band, so it’s just the two of them, with less synth in their synthpop, just guitars and boring drums, still sporting the New Order fetish they had before. These harmless, ’60s-radio-tinged little tunes aren’t really bad, but, as on their first two albums, the muse begins to tire of them, as does the listener, and by the time album-closer “Jump” rolls around, you’re like “Wow, that’s 40-odd minutes I’ll never get back.” Don’t get me wrong, a couple of tracks would fit well on your wombat-indie mixtape, be my guest. B

Engelbert Humperdinck, Regards (OK Good Records)

I really don’t remember if we’ve gone over this former 1960s/1970s megastar before, but this five-song EP does present an excuse to remind everyone within eye-shot that this British India-born tenor was the Pepsi to Tom Jones’ Coke during the Nixon years. He was, um, I mean is, a crooner who never had the unhinged bombast (or the hips) of Jones, but he definitely was the second banana. A bonus here is that I also get to touch on a holiday tune, a super-long-overdue version of Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” in fact, not that there’s any time left for your grandmother to enjoy it unless she’s hip to the Downloadin’ Stuff scene. It’s all covers, of course; market-made spectacles like this guy probably wouldn’t know the first thing about writing a song, but it’s all good. “What a Wonderful World” is here in all its chintzy glory, and of course a tearjerker, “Smile” this time, packing a full orchestra to deliver its hilariously maudlin message. Nothing unexpected. (What else am I supposed to say? “It’s dumb”?).

PLAYLIST

• Happy New Year, folks. My favorite “2022 is coming” internet meme so far right now is the one with a picture of two tidal waves, representing 2020 and 2021, and a Godzilla standing behind them that’s supposed to represent 2022. What sheer lunacy is left to happen in 2022? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, but we have one final week of awful albums to cover for 2021, some of which are actually being released on New Year’s Eve, which is dumb, because who buys albums when they’re drunk? But whatever, who cares, some metal band called Oathean is releasing their new album, cheerfully titled The Endless Pain and Darkness, on Dec. 30, a Thursday! Or at least that’s what the Album Of The Year webzine is saying; some other sources are saying it was released on Nov, 30, which is even stupider, since it’s a Tuesday, but at this point I need rock ’n’ roll albums to write about, because otherwise I’m going to talk about politics or something, because it’s that time of year when no band in their right mind is releasing an album, except for Oathean, whoever they are. So anyway, let’s see what this Oathean band even is, shall we? Ha ha, they use that funny font in their band logo, the type all the “extreme-metal” bands use so that their fans don’t really know which album they’re buying, they just know that the devil is involved somehow, and what else should someone care about? I’ll bet you it sounds like Deafheaven, I’ll just bet you. Huh, look at that, they’re from Korea. I thought they were from Finland or whatever, that’s weird. The whole album is up on YouTube right now. It starts out with some “symphonic metal” elements (in other words it sounds kind of snobby, like Evanescence but with no singing) and then, ah, there we are, they want to sound like Bathory/Deafheaven. That singing cracks me up so bad, like the guy sounds like a giant rat who’s demanding your cheese right this minute or he’ll — why, he’ll — he’ll screech like a giant rat at you, that’s what! Beware the wrath of the King Of The Cheese Rats, fam, that’s my only warning!

• And that brings us to the music albums that are literally being released on New Year’s Eve, the day before New Year’s Day, which is easily the worst holiday of the year. Why, you ask? Come on, you know why. All the good holidays are gone, and you know you have to go back to work or school or your court-directed community service thingie in a day or two, and from there it’s the usual wintertime activities: trying to keep from getting frostbite on your feet or going completely insane from sun deprivation while reading tweets about the Kardashians vacationing in Maui, or however you usually torture yourself. Again, there’s nothing to talk about here other than metal bands, so come on, get out the barf bags and let’s try to find something from Vanda’s new Covenant of Death album! They’re from Sweden, and they look kind of normal, like regular Judas Priest stans. Nothing on YouTube at all, but their Facebook has a snippet from some tune that’s pretty basic thrash from 1989. Yours in metal, guys!

• We’ll wrap up this rotten year with something that isn’t metal, a compilation album called Stars Rock Kill, composed of cover tunes from indie bands on the Kill Rock Stars record label, including Chateau Chateau, Amber Sweeney and Lucy Lowis, whose cover of Elliot Smith’s “Say Yes” is folk-grungy manna for ironic, badly dressed 40-somethings. Fifty-two songs here, which is pretty generous, man!

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

Powder Days, by Heather Hansman

Powder Days, by Heather Hansman (Hanover Square Press, 264 pages)

Heather Hansman learned to love skiing in New England, even though she’s more of a West Coast woman these days. An accomplished writer and editor who has worked for magazines such as Outside, Backcountry and Powder, Hansman doesn’t qualify as a ski bum, the skiing-obsessed person who will take on low-paying jobs at ski resorts in order to indulge the passion full-time. But she was for a while and brings deep insider knowledge to Powder Days, an examination of what rising temperatures are doing to the ski industry, wrapped in a love letter to the sport and to winter.

“I know that skiing is ephemeral and selfish, but I ache when I’m away from it for too long, and I don’t think it’s just the dopamine drop that drives the fixation,” Hansman writes.

Before you non-skiers depart for lack of interest, you should know that while this is a book written by a skier for other skiers, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for the sedentary and clumsy (myself the latter). Hansman is a graceful writer, as lithe in language as in body, and while she occasionally slips into skier-speak, with a little Googling, you will learn many interesting things, such as that dangerous clumps of snow on a ski route are called frozen chicken heads, a term I enthusiastically welcome to my vocabulary. In short, I don’t ski, and I still found this book engrossing.

Hansmen begins by recalling her early ski-bum days, which began around a campfire in Maine when another skier offered Hansman a job scanning lift tickets at a ski resort in Colorado. “I latched on to the idea that if I went west, I would be braver and truer and more exciting,” she writes.

She had become a skier like most people do — because her parents paid for lessons. “You don’t become a skier by accident — it’s an objectively stupid, expensive, gear-intensive sport — but my parents enabled it early, cramming my brother and me into hand-me-down boots and carting us to New Hampshire, so they could ski too,” she writes. “ … In college, I’d wake up in the post-party, predawn dark to drive across Maine and New Hampshire just to ski knobby backcountry lines in the White Mountains. I’ve always felt clearer in motion.”

That said, Hansman came from a family of occasional skiers, not those who strap toddlers to skis while they are learning to walk. Her obsession with the sport and lifestyle grew organically, somewhat to her bewilderment. “Skiers chase snow and freedom and wildness, at the expense of a lot of other things. I’m still trying to understand how something so ephemeral can shape your whole life.”

Hansman dips into the history of skiing in the U.S, acknowledging “the ski industry starts where my ski story starts, in the knobby mountains of New England.” She recalls skiing the Tuckerman Ravine and the Sherburne Trail of Mount Washington, created in the 1930s, back when runs were “steep and skinny, just a couple of skis wide.”

“That was skiing for a long time, no lifts, just a grind uphill and a slide back down.”

She then zips through how the sport exploded, its growth tracking with the lives of baby boomers, and how its popularity in the 1970s led to today’s elaborate resorts and McMountain trails that she fears have taken the soul out of the sport and tarnished it with elitism. (Fun fact: more than 50 billionaires have homes in Aspen.)

The bigger problem for the industry, however, is not the unaffordability of homes in ski country, but the warming climate. There’s less snow these days than there was a quarter-century ago, and it’s not always cold enough to make snow, as 88 percent of ski resorts do. We are seeing, as Hansman puts it, “the winnowing of winter.” She quotes a meteorologist friend who says that what concerns him most is that low temperatures are increasing faster than high temperatures. This means that places like New England have fewer days when the temperature falls below freezing.

“Depending on the emissions scenario you choose, snowfall is predicted to shrink by up to a third by the end of the century. That thin margin of winter is going to have a huge bearing on the future of skiing, and on whether or not people can keep counting on the seasons to eke out a way of life.”

Hansman’s worries that Aspen could be the new Amarillo by century’s end may strike some as the hysteria of the climate-grief-stricken. By the end of January, her fear of “hot, snowless winters” may actually hold some appeal. But there is real concern about what will happen if recent trends continue. Resorts can make snow, sure, but it still has to be cold enough. “I get a deep gut ache when I think about losing snow, about the contrast between my childhood memories of snow and the gray slush of right now. … New England skiing feels almost too painful now. How could it have gotten this bad so fast?”

Hansman ends with another kind of grief, the acknowledgement that skiing can be deadly. “If you get deep into skiing, eventually you have to acknowledge that the thing you love can kill the people you love.” Then, she pivots into the tendency for thrill-seekers like skiers to abuse drugs and alcohol, and sometimes to kill themselves. Deaths of despair are on the rise in the U.S. and this is an important topic, but it was a bit jarring to have this conversation take place at the end of the book. That said, it’s a small quibble with an otherwise solid book, which might even be more interesting for nonskiers than skiers, who already know about frozen chicken heads.


Book Events

Author events

JAMES ROLLINS Author presents The Starless Crown, in conversation with Terry Brooks. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Mon., Jan. 10, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com.

TIMOTHY BOUDREAU Author presents on the craft of writing short stories. Sat., Jan. 15, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

CHAD ORZEL Author presents A Brief History of Timekeeping. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 27, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author presents Violeta. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Sat., Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration and tickets required, to include the purchase of the book. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com.

JOHN NICHOLS Author presents Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiters. Virtual event hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Tues., Feb. 1, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com.

GARY SAMPSON AND INEZ MCDERMOTT Photographer Sampson and art historian McDermott discuss New Hampshire Now: A Photographic Diary of Life in the Granite State. Sat., Feb. 19, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Visit monadnockwriters.org.

Poetry

CAROL WESTBURG AND SUE BURTON Virtual poetry reading hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. Thurs., Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Via Zoom. Registration required. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.

DOWN CELLAR POETRY SALON Poetry event series presented by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. Monthly. First Sunday. Visit poetrysocietynh.wordpress.com.

Book Clubs

BOOKERY Online. Monthly. Third Thursday, 6 p.m. Bookstore based in Manchester. Visit bookerymht.com/online-book-club or call 836-6600.

GIBSON’S BOOKSTORE Online, via Zoom. Monthly. First Monday, 5:30 p.m. Bookstore based in Concord. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com/gibsons-book-club-2020-2021 or call 224-0562.

TO SHARE BREWING CO. 720 Union St., Manchester. Monthly. Second Thursday, 6 p.m. RSVP required. Visit tosharebrewing.com or call 836-6947.

GOFFSTOWN PUBLIC LIBRARY 2 High St., Goffstown. Monthly. Third Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. Call 497-2102, email elizabethw@goffstownlibrary.com or visit goffstownlibrary.com

BELKNAP MILL Online. Monthly. Last Wednesday, 6 p.m. Based in Laconia. Email bookclub@belknapmill.org.

NASHUA PUBLIC LIBRARY Online. Monthly. Second Friday, 3 p.m. Call 589-4611, email information@nashualibrary.org or visit nashualibrary.org.

Language

FRENCH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE CLASSES

Offered remotely by the Franco-American Centre. Six-week session with classes held Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $225. Visit facnh.com/education or call 623-1093.

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