“Endurance” by Scott Kelly

Endurance by Scott KellyYoung Scott Kelly was a self-described “terrible student.” Then one day, a book caught his eye: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. “I wasn’t much of a reader—whenever I was assigned to read a book for school, I would barely flip through it, hopelessly bored,” he writes. Wolfe’s 1979 classic about brave Navy test pilots and astronauts changed Kelly’s life; “I closed the book late that night a different person.”

Perhaps some aimless youngster will read Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime of Discovery and be similarly moved. The fact that Kelly was able to go from slacker student to one of the most accomplished astronauts in history is an inspiring story. I found it fascinating, and yet it also made me very, very grateful to have my feet firmly planted on the earth’s surface.

Kelly set the record for the total accumulated number of days spent in space by an American astronaut, 520 (though another astronaut, Peggy Whitson, recently claimed that title with a whopping 665 days). Endurance tells the story of Kelly’s year-long mission on the International Space Station, and the title is more than apt. Anyone who thinks being an astronaut is a glamorous job will be quickly disabused of that notion; Kelly’s responsibilities onboard the ISS include plenty of hard and unpleasant tasks, like fixing the space toilet, exercise equipment, and the station’s finicky CDRA (carbon dioxide removal assembly). “NASA estimates that we spend a quarter of our time on maintenance and repairs,” writes Kelly, comparing repairing the CDRA to “doing a huge 3-D puzzle with all the pieces floating.”

PBS broadcast an hour-long documentary about Kelly’s mission called “A Year in Space,” and while it did depict some of the unpleasant aspects of the experience (such as the two unmanned resupply rockets that failed before they could deliver much-needed food, equipment and personal items to the ISS), there was more of a focus on the fun and adventure of being an astronaut. Kelly was shown doing media interviews, taking a call from then-President Obama, gazing out at the stunning views of Earth, growing zinnias, and doing somersaults in zero gravity. Not surprisingly, the book offers a lot more detail about the mission, including the parts of it that are uncomfortable, frustrating and just plain exhausting. Kelly’s long absence from Earth also challenged his two daughters and his longtime partner Amiko, a NASA public affairs officer.

Still, Kelly mostly comes across as upbeat and positive; he has lots of nice things to say about his fellow astronauts and their Russian cosmonaut counterparts, though some mildly critical comments he made about a colleague he had known since test-pilot school, Lisa Nowak, jumped out at me. “[S]he had become obsessive about small details that didn’t seem to matter much… She could become hyperfocused and had trouble letting things go, even if they were irrelevant.” Gossip fans may recall Nowak as the woman who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival, allegedly while wearing an astronaut diaper (a juicy tidbit that got a lot of attention, but which was later debunked). Kelly graciously chooses not to mention that scandalous episode.

While Kelly is now retired from NASA, his legacy will last for decades to come. Kelly is key to the future of long-duration space travel; scientists are comparing Scott to his identical twin brother Mark (who was also an astronaut, but logged only 54 days in space) to learn more about the psychological and physiological effects of space on the human body. If humans do make it to Mars someday, Kelly will have played an important role.

Endurance is a must-read for anyone who wonders what it’s really like to live in space. You’ll come away with a lot of admiration for the brave and highly skilled men and women who have served aboard the ISS. “Putting [the ISS] into orbit—making it work and keeping it working—is the hardest thing that human beings have ever done,” writes Kelly, “and it stands as proof that when we set our minds to do something hard, when we work together, we can do anything.”

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“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.

“The Man from the Train” by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the TrainIf you wanted to be a serial killer, one of the best times to practice your dark art would have been in the very early part of the 20th century. Most small towns didn’t have police forces. There were no wire services, so if a bunch of people were murdered in Iowa, chances are that the news would never reach Oregon. And, of course, there were no crime labs or DNA testing.

However, there were plenty of trains, making it easy to travel swiftly and anonymously from one place to another. In The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, famed baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter, researcher Rachel McCarthy James, claim that they’ve discovered the identity of one of the most prolific serial murderers of all time, with a body count of 100+ victims. The reason he escaped notice until now? Basically, no one had bothered connecting the dots of a whole bunch of very old unsolved crimes. These cases were not just cold, they were freezing.

The most famous mystery which James describes at length is the Villisca, Iowa, ax murders, which have been discussed in several other books, movies and online true-crime forums. The crime took place in 1912, but you can still tour the murder house or even spend the night there (no thanks!). James argues persuasively that he has solved the Villisca case, putting forth a suspect (he’s named toward the end of the book, not that it matters a whole lot; he’s probably been dead for a century). How did he figure it out? Basically, by comparing the hallmarks of the Villisca killer to many, many other crimes with a similar M.O.: the killer always took out entire families; he used the blunt side of an ax to slaughter his victims; the crimes took place around midnight; he covered the faces of the corpses; there was almost always a prepubescent girl, and there was evidence (mentioned in newspapers, albeit couched in plenty of euphemisms) that he had masturbated at the scene of the crime; entry and exit through windows, with doors left jammed; etc. Most important, however, was proximity to railroad tracks, which allowed this very cautious killer to make a quick escape as soon as he was finished.

While the Villisca case and other family ax murders in that same general time frame went off without a hitch (meaning that the killer got away, and in many cases, an innocent suspect was executed or lynched for the crime), James figures that as with any other art, practice makes perfect. He asks McCarthy James if she can discover the earliest possible crime with the killer’s hallmarks, and incredibly, she manages to do so. That time, he still escaped, but the police also pretty much knew who he was, and named him. It’s an amazing feat of research.

The book is interesting, but it does get repetitive, since it describes really horrible crimes in detail, chapter after chapter. James’ folksy style of writing helps leaven it a bit (a typical example: “No matter who puts on a Christmas party, they can always find somebody to play Santa Claus. No matter who is murdered, there is always someone who can be cast into the role of First Suspect.”). It is also fascinating to find out what police work was like in that era. Curious neighbors traipsed through crime scenes, and private detective agencies, most famously Pinkerton, competed for reward funds, usually raised by victims’ families and in some cases, city or state governments:

“There existed no organized system of licensing, regulating, and authorizing private investigators, except perhaps in a few larger cities. This left private citizens probing into open murder cases in significant numbers without warrants and without legal authority. Some of them were good, many of them ex-cops, but some of them were just people who had read too many Sherlock Holmes stories and appointed themselves private eyes. They would start poking around in unsolved murder cases, hoping to get the reward money or acting out fantasies of being master detectives. The cream of the crop were the Pinkerton and the Burns detective agencies, but even the Pinkerton and Burns agencies were shot through with shysters, con men, unscrupulous thugs, and rank amateurs. It was truly an awful system.”

If a culprit went to jail, frequently an angry mob would storm the facility, dragging the prisoner out without any due process, and lynching or beating him to death. Not surprisingly, many of these people were African-American.

James, to his credit, includes the names of these people in his rundown of the Man from the Train’s victims at the end of the book. He also speculates on the killer’s fate after his crime spree ends, suggesting he may have been involved in another famous unsolved case, this one in Europe. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but James makes a persuasive argument that will no doubt convince many readers.

“Beau Death” by Peter Lovesey

Beau Death by Peter LoveseyYou can always count on Peter Lovesey to provide you with a solid, well-written, well-plotted novel. Year after year, Lovesey just keeps publishing fine crime fiction—he’s written over 40 books—and funnily enough, just a few hours after I had been musing, “Is Peter Lovesey taken for granted?” the news broke that he had been awarded Grand Master status by the Mystery Writers of America. I hope the honor will bring more attention to his stellar body of work.

Beau Death is the latest entry in his long-running series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who works in the historic city of Bath. As the novel opens, a block of run-down townhouses is being demolished, and the wrecking ball reveals a surprise in one of the attics: a skeleton, dressed in an 18th-century costume, sitting in a chair. The police are called in, and when a goofy photo of Diamond with the remains goes viral, people start speculating that the dead man could be Beau Nash.

Nash was known as the “King of Bath,” a local icon who hosted royalty, politicians and famous writers during his tenure as town’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Eventually, scandal and debts caused him to survive on a small income from city funds, and when he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—but could he somehow have wound up in a townhouse attic in an unfashionable suburb instead?

I will admit that I thought Beau Nash was Lovesey’s own creation, kind of a take-off on Beau Brummel, but he was real. Not real is the book’s Beau Nash Society, a fashionable, invitation-only Bath club whose members are required to attend meetings dressed in period costume. If the corpse isn’t the real Beau, perhaps he was a modern-day member of the Society, and with a little help from his girlfriend Paloma (an expert on historic clothing), Diamond will need to don a wig and breeches in order to discover the dead man’s identity.

Unlike a lot of crime fiction series which overwhelm you with their characters’ back stories, Beau Death can easily be read as a stand-alone. There are some references made to incidents in Diamond’s past, but this really isn’t a series which demands to be read in order. Though mystery fans who are just discovering Lovesey will no doubt be delighted to find that he has such a rich and deep back catalog to enjoy. His Grand Master award is well-deserved indeed.

“The Wife Between Us” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between UsNow that The Wife Between Us has been written, I kind of feel like there’s no need for any other domestic-suspense-with-unreliable-narrator novel, ever. This book marks the apogee of the genre, featuring a narrator as unreliable as an ’87 Yugo with engine trouble and more misdirection than a Penn & Teller show. It was co-written by two authors, and you can just picture them emptying a bottle of Pinot Grigio together as they gleefully try to one-up each other with crazier and crazier twists.

Like several other novels of its type, such as Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife, the book tells its story in alternating chapters. We meet Vanessa, the ex-wife of wealthy Manhattan financier Richard Thompson (no relation to the musician, presumably), who has been replaced by a younger, fresher model. Nellie is the adorable blonde preschool teacher who simply can’t wait to have kids (Vanessa never managed to get pregnant) and settle into domestic bliss as the new Mrs. Thompson. Vanessa, reduced to waiting on her former “friends” as a saleswoman at Saks, is determined to stop their impending nuptials. Her chapters are told from a first-person perspective, while Nellie’s are in third, so there’s never a problem keeping them straight.

Is Vanessa delusional (her mother suffered from mental illness)? Jealous? Convinced she has unfinished business with her ex? Did Richard dump her because she’s an alcoholic (there’s a lot of drinking in this book)? Just what is he up to on his frequent business trips? And what skeletons lurk in Nellie’s closet? You can try to guess everyone’s motives, but when everything is finally revealed, you’ll probably be shocked. I was, and I’ve read a ton of these sorts of books. Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, you got me good.

By now, you probably have an idea of whether or not this book is for you, and I don’t want to risk spoilers (you can download the first four chapters here). It’s completely nuts and more than a little gimmicky, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour! The Wife Between Us will be published on Jan. 9.

The Wife Between Us

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowI usually don’t write about books after my book group has discussed them—either I review them beforehand, or not at all—but I didn’t have time to write up A Gentleman in Moscow before our meeting. So I thought I’d try to do something a little different this week.

My book group usually only reads crime fiction, and this is not a work of crime fiction by any stretch of the imagination. Apparently, New York’s Mysterious Bookshop listed it as a staff pick, but they do sell other types of books “for those customers that also like to stray from the field”! However, it is definitely a massive best-seller; it’s been on the New York Times hardcover fiction list for 45 weeks. A Gentleman in Moscow, like All the Light We Cannot See or A Man Called Ove, has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Why are so many people reading and recommending this book? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is a man of honor. Admit it—with all that’s going on in the world, doesn’t reading about a genuinely good, decent and admirable man sound pretty appealing right now? As the book opens, in June 1922, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. Taken before the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Rostov is deemed to have “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class,” and is told, “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” However, he has a few well-placed admirers, and thus, he will be allowed to live out his days in the hotel, with the warning that if he ever sets foot outside of it, he will be shot.

Part of his house arrest entails moving from his luxurious suite to a cramped space on the hotel’s top floor, with a low ceiling and only the tiniest of windows. How he adapts to, and even thrives in, his new life is the main subject of the book.

2. Readers enjoy historical fiction and getting acquainted with a particular place and time. Set as it is during the first four decades or so of communist rule, you learn a lot about Soviet life even without leaving the Metropol. Party apparatchiks, true believers, foreign press, even Khrushchev himself—they all walk through the doors of the hotel. At any given time, there may be Bolsheviks arguing in the ballroom, or a glamorous movie star walking her borzois through the lobby.

3. The book is sweet without being sappy. At one point, Rostov figures he’s had enough of being confined and decides to commit suicide by jumping off the hotel’s roof. Of course, something happens up there to ultimately make him decide not to leap, but I was kind of relieved that he wasn’t too much of a Pollyanna.

4. It’s really well written. Towles’ prose can be sly, philosophical or dryly witty, but it’s consistently lovely. A couple of examples:

“As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.”

“But, alas, sleep did not come so easily to our weary friend. Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.”

Towles doesn’t sugarcoat the often harsh realities of that period of Soviet life, but I have to admit that visiting the book’s Metropol Hotel, with its charming and compelling cast of characters, is something of a welcome respite from our 21st-century world.

“Party of One” by Dave Holmes

Party of OneI picked up Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs because I am a fan of Dave Holmes’ comedy podcast “International Waters,” but reading it was like a trip back in time. You see, while I am now a demographically-undesirable Gen X’er, long ago, I was a proud member of the MTV Generation. This was back in the days when the network still devoted the bulk of its programming to videos, presented by a stable of video jockeys (VJs). On-air personalities like Kevin Seal, Martha Quinn, Matt Pinfield and newsman Kurt Loder may have been reading from teleprompters, but they seemed genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music.

Then came the dark day in the 1990s when MTV held its first “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. One of the entrants was a guy named Jesse Camp. I thought he was the most irritating person I’d ever seen on a TV screen. Seriously, see if you can make it through this 15-second video of Jesse without lunging for the pause button. Camp was born Josiah A. Camp III in Connecticut, where he attended a fancy boarding school, but on MTV, he presented a spacey, burned-out street kid persona. Somehow, Jesse managed to win the competition—later, there were claims that the voting was rigged by a hacker who “did it because everyone else at MTV is just corporate bullshit”—but at the time, the fact that MTV viewers had chosen this teenaged clown made me so angry that I decided I had finally outgrown the channel and I was done with it forever.

The second-place contestant was none other than Dave Holmes. “I looked like Walter Cronkite in cargo pants” next to Jesse, he writes in a chapter called “Notes on (Jesse) Camp.” “If I was a little disappointed to lose the job to him, the Talent Department was straight up confused and frightened. Like, who is this guy, and how exactly do you take care of him? What does he eat? Does he eat? What, if anything, is he on? Who’s going to get him to work? Most pressingly: is he always going to be like this?”

The powers that be wisely decided to hire Holmes as well as Camp, and the runner-up went on to enjoy a successful career at the network (“His MTV career lasted about three years longer than Camp’s,” per Wikipedia). Since his MTV days, Holmes has worked steadily as a TV host, radio personality and actor; he’s currently a writer-at-large for Esquire, and has contributed some pieces I’ve just adored, like his hilarious reviews of “mother!” and “The Emoji Movie.”

Party of One is a fun read for Holmes’ fellow pop-culture obsessives; the book contains one of the best celebrity stories I’ve ever read (about actress Tara Reid and her friend at an MTV spring break shoot in Cancun), along with candid tales about growing up gay and Catholic, experimenting with drugs (only twice! but both incidents were memorable), and getting advice at a critical juncture in his life from the pop duo Indigo Girls, whom he happened to run into at an Applebee’s (“It was as though they had seen some kind of gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and reported for duty”). And I’ll admit to a teensy bit of schadenfreude over the fact that Holmes has a great, wide-ranging career, whereas Jesse is the topic of occasional where-are-they-now pieces.