“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” by Mikita Brottman

“For as long as I can remember, certain kinds of mysteries have enthralled me, especially those that contain an element of the uncanny—an odd coincidence; a mysterious stranger whose presence can’t be explained; an element of missing time; a prophetic dream the night before. To me, these wonders are dropped stitches in the universe, windows left uncovered for a moment, permitting us a quick glimpse into the unknowable.”

So writes Mikita Brottman in this fascinating chronicle of her growing obsession with a death that took place in the building she calls home, the Belvedere in Baltimore. A former hotel, which opened for business in 1903, the Belvedere was converted to condos in the early 1990s. By the time Brottman moved in, it was a place of “shabby grandeur,” with worn carpeting in the hallways and elevators that regularly broke down.

About a year after taking up residence in the downtown landmark, Brottman notices “Missing” posters posted around the neighborhood. Rey O. Rivera, age 32, 6’5″, brown hair, brown eyes. Eight days after his initial disappearance, Rivera’s body is found at the Belvedere, inside an empty room that used to house the building’s swimming pool back in its hotel days. He had apparently leapt off the top of the Belvedere and plunged through the roof of the annex, where his body had lain undiscovered for over a week. Out walking her dog, Brottman sees police swarming the building; later, from her apartment window, she has “an almost perfect view of cops climbing around on the annex roof,” and she even visits the room after everyone has left: “the carpet is stained almost black and scattered with what look like grains of rice, which, when I get down on the floor to study them more closely, turn out to be dried insect larvae.”

An Unexplained Death chronicles Brottman’s effort to find out what happened to Rivera. Was it suicide, or murder? Rivera had been working for a company called Agora that many of the people she talks to seem to consider somewhat sinister. He and his wife had been planning to move to California and everything seemed to be going well for them, so why would he kill himself? Brottman also reports on the many suicides and deaths that have taken place at the Belvedere over the years, along with the riddle of suicide itself. (This is the kind of book which matter-of-factly serves up sentences like, “Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think.”) You have to be willing to follow Brottman through her digressions, as this is not a linear true-crime tale. She even turns her gaze toward herself, and her lifelong conviction that she’s somehow invisible, forgettable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of her amateur investigation, and while anybody hoping that she will somehow come up with a definitive solution to the mystery may be left disappointed, I found the conclusions she does reach at the book’s end to be well-reasoned and utterly plausible. “What makes a death mysterious?” she muses. “What happened to Rey Rivera transpires every day. People die alone; their bodies are undiscovered for days. It happens everywhere… Nobody feels compelled to solve the puzzle.” Readers can feel lucky that Brottman took a crack at this one.

“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch

The Happiness CurveA few years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” was passed around avidly on social media by many people in my 40-something cohort. Rauch’s piece discussed research on the “U-curve,” which indicates that youth and old age are periods of relative happiness, while middle age is often a time of discontent and sometimes even despair. This holds true not just for people, but for primates, implying that the origins of the phenomenon “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

Many of us middle-agers can identify with Rauch when he writes how he “would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.” (Rauch is an award-winning and very successful journalist and author, proving that even the highest achievers are prone to this particular malaise.) Now 57, Rauch is happier and feels he’s emerged from the trough of the U and that his life is on the upswing.

He has expanded his Atlantic article into a new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The research he presents is quite convincing, though it’s not difficult to come up with anecdotal counter-examples. For instance, I read this passage—”With age, apparently, we lose not our emotional sharpness, but our tendency to have our day ruined by annoyances and setbacks. Perhaps, then, positivity comes about because older people lose their emotional edge… when storms do boil up, older people have better control over their feelings”—shortly after one of the president’s more apoplectic tweets hit the news cycle. (Luckily, most people in their 70s don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re under investigation by the FBI.)

Rauch’s main goal in The Happiness Curve is to reassure people in their late 40s and early 50s that it will get better; science says so. Economist Hannes Schwandt studied people who had grown up in two very different cultures, East and West Germany, under varying economic circumstances; he found that younger people usually overestimated how happy they’d be in five years, while older Germans greatly underestimated their future life satisfaction. “‘If [people] know that life satisfaction tends to be U-shaped in everyone and previous expectations don’t match up with outcomes for most people, that could make people feel less unhappy about their life,’ Schwandt told me. Normalization, he believes, can have a double-whammy effect. ‘If you tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this already helps you. And the second thing that helps you is maybe you can break the cycle of this vicious feedback effect. By knowing this is a normal developmental stage, you will also suffer less.'”

Many of us fear aging because we fear ill health and infirmity. However, Rauch quotes a study showing that “even as people became more afflicted with disability, their self-rated successful aging increased… most people remain surprisingly happy despite getting frail and infirm.”

The Happiness Curve will provide readers with a lot of food for thought, but the scientific study of happiness is still a relatively young field and I’m sure there is still more work to be done. Ultimately, perhaps this research may one day give us insights that could help the enormous numbers of people in their 50s who struggle with issues like opioid addiction and suicide. Meanwhile, those of us with garden-variety middle-aged ennui should read the book and take its lessons to heart.

Note: The Happiness Curve will be published on May 1, 2018. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Lagom” by Niki Brantmark, “Live Lagom” by Anna Brones & “Lagom” by Linnea Dunne

There’s nothing lagom about reading three different books about the suddenly-trendy Swedish philosophy of “everything in moderation.” As a Swede by birth—I grew up and reside in the U.S., but I have spent a great deal of time in my native land—I felt compelled to evaluate which of these competing books offers the best and most Swedish advice.

Lagom by Niki BrantmarkLagom (Not Too Little, Not Too Much): The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life by Niki Brantmark was written by a Brit living in Malmö with her Swedish husband. The references to wellies, kirby grips and hen dos prove that the book didn’t undergo the usual Americanization prior to its publication here. Despite the somewhat anodyne nature of much of her advice (Exercise! Clean out your closet! Recycle!), Brantmark does do a thorough job of outlining Swedish attitudes to everything from child-rearing, taking breaks during the workday to enjoy a cup of coffee and a treat (fika), holidays, and foraging for mushrooms.

Best advice: “Be more punctual.” I have found this to be absolutely true, and it’s why I’m almost never late (and go into a guilt-induced frenzy if I am). “In Sweden people are used to everything working on time—buses, trains, doctor’s appointments, etc. They therefore have the expectation that whoever they’re meeting will be punctual,” a Swedish friend tells Brantmark.

Low point: I love Swedish proverbs and quote them frequently. Quite a few appear in these pages. However, at one point, Brantmark credits “A journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step” as a “Swedish proverb.” Lao Tzu might beg to differ.

Authenticity: There are plenty of color images in the book, but most of them are generic-looking stock photos, credited to the free-pics site Unsplash. More äkta (genuinely) Swedish images would have made this book more appealing.

Live Lagom by Anna BronesLive Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way by Anna Brones, the daughter of a Swedish mother and American father who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, is a bit more journalistic in its approach. I appreciated the fact that Brones sometimes looks at Sweden with a critical eye (one chapter is titled, “Is There a Darker Side to Lagom?”). She also mentions employee “burn-out,” something I wrote about during my extended stay in Stockholm 10 years ago, and the fact that the “fast fashion” purveyed by Swedish company H&M is “the antithesis of a lagom wardrobe.” (IKEA wins kudos for its “focus on sustainability.”)

However, the majority of Live Lagom is dedicated to exploring everything that’s good about the Swedish lifestyle, from interior design to the “healthy hedonism” of enjoying a freshly-baked cinnamon bun at fika. Brones does a fine job of capturing today’s Sweden, which can sometimes be a land of contradictions; she doesn’t idealize it, and I approve of that.

Words of wisdom: “There is enjoyment to be found in the outdoors in any season, and energy to be drawn from it… When we spend time outside we are also more likely to work to protect it. We cannot fight for something that we don’t know, and becoming intimate with nature turns us into better advocates for it. Sustainability becomes less of a policy buzzword and more of a mindset. We make nature a part of our value system.”

Authenticity: I applaud the fact that the photos in Brones’ book were taken by actual Swedes (the team of Nathalie Myrberg & Matilda Hildingsson). The household interiors in particular have a certain Swedish je ne sais quoi (or should I say jag vet inte vad?) that can’t be faked.

Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced LivingBy the time I finished Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living by Linnea Dunne, I had discovered that there were at least three other books about lagom, but I had totally maxed out on reading about the joys of cinnamon buns and spending time in nature. (Though if I could read French, I might be tempted to pick up Le Livre du Lagom by Anne Thoumieux.) Dunne grew up in Sweden and moved to Ireland as an adult, so hers is more of an insider’s guide, devoting lots of pages to the importance of consensus and the collective. She interviews Swedes like Jasper, who grows his own vegetables in his suburb’s community garden, and Angeliqa, who buys “nothing but eco toys made of wood” for her two daughters.

Dunne also devotes two pages to the Swedish phenomenon of Friday taco night, where families set up a taco bar and then settle down to watch TV. (One Swedish satellite channel shows six episodes of “Modern Family” in a row on Fridays, which seems almost a little too on the nose.)

This Lagom is probably the quickest read of the three, thanks to the image-heavy layout; however, I didn’t like the fact that much of the text is set against deeply-colored backgrounds, which made it hard to read at times:
Lagom by Linnea Dunne

Most depressing statistic for American readers: More than the others, this book really shows how far ahead Swedes are in terms of living lightly on the earth. (“Only 1% of all household waste in Sweden ends up in landfill—the rest is recycled or used to produce heat, electricity or vehicle fuel.” Sweden literally imports garbage from other nations to keep its recycling plants going.) “Swedes are generally far more trusting than other nations, and it shows—why bother with laborious recycling and composing if you don’t trust that your neighbor will follow suit?” writes Dunne. “Ideas about avoiding plastic wrappers and opting for organic alternatives are taking root because there is less cynicism than elsewhere.” Meanwhile, over here, people are still arguing about whether or not to charge for plastic bags at the grocery store, something Swedes have been doing for decades.

Bonus points: For quoting Swedish national treasure Jonas Gardell. He described Sweden as the land of mellanmjölk (roughly, 2% milk)—not too skinny, not too fat.

If I had to pick just one of these books to buy for an American reader, I think I’d select Brones’ Live Lagom. All three books do a fine job of describing the concept of lagom living, but I especially liked the layout and photos in her book. And the fact that she discusses both the positives and negatives of lagom seems very balanced to me.

“Boys Keep Swinging” by Jake Shears

Boys Keep Swinging by Jake ShearsI picked up Jake Shears’ memoir Boys Keep Swinging because I was a fan of his glam-rock/disco band the Scissor Sisters, who have been M.I.A. over the past few years. (In case you’ve never heard them, here’s a popular track from 2009.) Shears also wrote songs for the “Tales of the City” musical that I loved so much back in 2011; I still nurture a hope that it’ll go on to have a second life someday.

As it turns out, Boys Keep Swinging doesn’t deal at all with the band’s lengthy hiatus, or “Tales of the City”—it stops around the time he’s about to start working on the Scissor Sisters’ second album. So this is really a book about how a kid named Jason Sellards, who grew up feeling like an outcast, became the platinum-selling rock star Jake Shears, and hints at why he had to walk away from it all for a while.

I’ve seen Shears on Dan Savage’s husband Terry Miller’s social media, but until I read Boys Keep Swinging, I had no idea that Shears was a frequent caller to Savage’s radio call-in show when he was a high school student. Savage became something of a mentor to Shears after telling him on air that he should come out as gay to his parents; he took the advice, but it didn’t go very well, unfortunately. Savage even brought young Jason to the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS to demonstrate the importance of staying safe.

Eventually, Shears moved to New York and studied fiction writing at the New School, picking up gigs as a go-go dancer at clubs and writing for the fashionably hip Paper magazine. (He also dated Anderson Cooper back when the future CNN newsman was hosting a TV game show!) In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Shears and his pal Scott Hoffman made their first appearance as the Scissor Sisters—”People were sad,” he writes. “They needed to be entertained.” Performing a goofy song called “Bicycle of the Devil,” while wearing nothing but a kimono plus “a leather G-string, combat boots, and a harness,” a star was born. “When the number ended, people clapped and hooted. I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my body.”

Relentless hard work and self-promotion paid off with a record deal and enormous success in England, where the band’s self-titled debut became the best-selling album of 2004. However, Shears’ self-doubt, personality clashes within the band and the physical and mental grind of constant touring took its toll. Shears was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was suffering from depression. Of course, this is a rock star’s memoir, so that process was a little bit different than it is for the average guy: “It was Elton [John] who finally had the talk with me about going on antidepressants,” he writes, going on to quote Sir Elton: “David [Furnish, John’s husband] and I are very worried about you. If you don’t like them, then just get off them. But you have to at least try it.”

Fortunately, Shears today seems like he’s in a pretty good place: he’s starring in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots” and he has a solo album due out later this year (“some of the best music I’ve made,” he notes in the epilogue to his book). Boys Keep Swinging does a great job of capturing the highs and lows of rock stardom, as well as providing a moving coming-of-age story.

“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.”