2017: The Year in Reading

I read 85 books in 2017, and reviewed 57 of them. The most popular posts (in terms of page views) were reviews of Our Secret Better Lives by Matthew Amster-Burton, a book I reviewed in December of 2016, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. The least popular post: The Widow by Fiona Barton. Hey, I really enjoyed that book!

My five favorite books that I reviewed during the past year, in no particular order: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Long Firm by Jake Arnott, Celine by Peter Heller and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. One of my happiest reading memories from 2017 is sitting in the outdoor garden at Julie’s in mid-August, eating an heirloom tomato sandwich and enjoying Evelyn Hugo. There’s nothing like the combination of sunshine, summer produce and a good book.

One of the highlights of the year is my client (and, I dare say, friend) William Kent Krueger‘s fifteenth Cork O’Connor mystery Sulfur Springs hitting the New York Times top ten bestseller list in September. It was Kent’s first time in the top ten! He’s a great guy and a relentlessly hard worker—his touring schedule would exhaust many writers half his age.

The end of December brought some sad news: the death of Sue Grafton, a genuinely lovely person as well as a wonderful writer. Her alphabet mysteries have played an important role in my life, and I admire the ambition that led her to attempt longer, more complex plots over the course of her long-running series. She never took the easy route, and that fierce integrity means the alphabet will stop at Y; she didn’t complete Z, and insisted no ghostwriter would finish her work. Grafton’s sleuth Kinsey Millhone will not celebrate her 40th birthday in print, but as long as people continue to read mysteries, she’s guaranteed to live forever.

I only reviewed eight nonfiction books, one fewer than last year. I did finally read a classic novel, Jane Eyre, and enjoyed it a lot, so I’ll have to see what else is out there that I probably should have read years ago. Escaping into the past holds a lot of appeal these days.

And now, a quote from E.B. White:

A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.

Happy New Year—and keep reading!

“Vacationland” by John Hodgman

VacationlandI had planned to be seasonally appropriate and review a Christmas novel this week. Then I read two of them, and found them to be corny and predictable. (I later found out one of the books I read had been adapted into a Hallmark Channel movie.) I didn’t want to spend the day before Christmas Eve slamming novels that are loved by people who are more merry and bright than I am, so instead, I picked up John Hodgman’s memoir Vacationland, which he has described as “white privilege mortality comedy.”

My copy of Vacationland was procured at the author’s book event in San Francisco; he had pre-signed all the copies, so I was spared the agony of saying something dumb to him after the show and the subsequent lingering feelings of shame. The memoir itself was born out of Hodgman’s one-person show, which I attended a couple years ago. I say these things to establish the fact that I am something of a John Hodgman superfan. (I also listen to his weekly podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” and have tickets to attend the live JJH taping at the Castro Theatre next month.)

For those who have not followed Hodgman’s career as closely as I have, the Yale alum quit his job as a successful literary agent to become a writer, producing three books of fake trivia, including The Areas of My Expertise. An appearance on “The Daily Show” to promote that book led to a regular gig on the show, and he was also cast as the PC in a popular series of Apple Computer commercials. His career has made him plenty of money, and he is white, and middle-aged, and he owns two summer homes, one in rural western Massachusetts and one in Maine. The former belonged to his parents; his dad essentially gave it to him after his mom died. The latter was purchased fairly recently, because “the mercilessly painful beaches” of Maine are his wife’s favorite place in the world, and it has thus become the place, he says, “where I will eventually accept my death.”

Coastal Maine is not cool or hip, explains Hodgman. “Maine’s population is the oldest in the Union. On our peninsula the young people tend to flee for Portland or points away, leaving their parents alone and embittered.” This may be true, but Brooklin, Maine—that’s where his house is; he goes to great lengths never to come out and say the name of the town, but about two seconds of Googling will reveal it—sounds pretty nice. His fellow summer residents in Brooklin include literati like Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem.

There’s a chapter which focuses on the E.B. White House, onetime home of the celebrated writer, which is now privately owned (he never mentions E.B. White by name, either). “He did not want it to become a museum… the location of this particular local point of interest is not celebrated and definitely not advertised. It’s usually not discussed at all. It was a long time before we knew about the house, and longer before we knew where it was. But eventually the information was slipped to us, and we received it as a gift of trust.” (I will pause to mention here that the house has its own Wikipedia page, and the exact coordinates of its location are also divulged there.) Hodgman states that he once saw photos of the house on a young woman’s Instagram page, which made him “feel desperate and mad,” and he left a nasty comment on her feed. “I am the villain of this story,” he admits, mentioning that he eventually took the comment down; shortly after that, she set her account to private.

I would be very interested to hear Hodgman’s reaction to the fact that the E.B. White House is now for sale, priced at $3.7 million, and there are lavish photos of it available online. Time marches on.

One of my guilty pleasures is gossip blind items, but Hodgman’s avoidance of naming names sometimes struck me as eye-rollingly coy. (I would love to know the identity of the “famous movie star” who once gave his wife a Scientology “touch assist.”) In some cases, it couldn’t possibly matter; a chapter about his visit to a “lovely, small liberal arts college” to deliver its annual “Samuel Clemens Address” is hilarious, and yet for some reason, I felt deeply compelled to figure out the identity of the school (it’s St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and it’s actually called the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor & Culture). I’m probably a monster and one of the reasons we can’t have nice things.

Do I nitpick this book too much? There were parts that made me laugh, and parts that are genuinely moving, such as the chapter about his mother’s death. I’m actually quite happy that Hodgman feels compelled to wrestle with his self-consciousness about being a rich white middle-aged man in today’s America, because it proves he is a sensitive and caring human being.

I was going to say that it would only be fitting if next summer, Perry’s Nut House, a historic souvenir shop described in the book, stocks copies of Vacationland, but then I looked it up online and found that like the E.B. White House, Perry’s is also for sale. As Hodgman states early in the book: “Everything ends. Nothing lasts.” If you don’t want to face those facts, there’s always the Hallmark Channel.

“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.”

“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.