“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.

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“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 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.

“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.

“Murder in Matera” by Helene Stapinski

Murder in MateraOne of my favorite genres is the “Family Secret” book, in which an intrepid journalist investigates some scandal in his or her family’s past and uncovers shocking surprises. A couple of my favorites are Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret and After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey.

Now comes Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski, who grew up hearing stories about her notorious great-great-grandmother Vita, who immigrated to New Jersey in the late 19th century. Legend had it that Vita fled Italy with her sons after murdering somebody back in the Old Country, but no one seemed to know what actually happened. Stapinski decides to find out.

She’s concerned that crime may somehow be deeply encoded in the family genes, and how that may affect her own children; the author recounts the criminal backgrounds of many of her relatives, including cousin Mike the mob consigliere and Grandpa Beansie, who murdered a guy in a fight. “Most of the criminals came from the Vena side, the Italian side,” she writes. “The name Vena can be translated a number of ways… But Vena’s main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime.”

Her first trip to Matera, with her mom and two young children in tow, is less than successful due to the fact that it’s hard to conduct an in-depth investigation with kids around. So she waits 10 years and goes back alone, hiring a couple of researchers to help her out. Things have changed a bit—Francis Ford Coppola has opened a 500-euro-a-night hotel in Bernalda—but echoes of the past are everywhere, from the caves painted by monks in the Middle Ages to the two-foot-tall books of documents stored deep in local archives. With the help of her researchers, plus a policeman and lawyer, she eventually finds out what happened to cause Vita to make that long ocean voyage to America.

The one problem I have with his book, and it’s kind of a big one, is that Stapinski frequently departs from the nonfiction narrative to deliver chapters that flash back to Vita’s life in the 1800s. In the afterword, she explains that she used her own “Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how [Vita] would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life,” but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with so much conjecture. No photographs of Vita exist, but Stapinski describes “the curve of her neck and the way she tilted her head when she listened. She was smart and wise all at the same time… Liveliness and love of life was hard to find in a place as miserable as nineteenth-century Bernalda. And Vita had it. Vita had it in spades.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the book, almost as though Stapinski really wanted to write a novel about her ancestor based on true events, and came up with this somewhat awkward mash-up instead. She also takes some huge leaps of imagination in a couple of situations where there’s no solid evidence of what really happened.

Still, the one thing that comes through loud and clear is how incredibly difficult life was for her Italian forebears, who constantly faced death and deprivation. My own Swedish relatives came to the U.S. a couple decades after Vita, and life in Sweden was equally grueling for many of its own poor citizens. It’s never a bad thing to pay tribute to the people who made it possible for us to live comfortably in modern-day America, and to think about the immigrants who continue to come here today, often fleeing violence and famine, hoping to find a better life for their families and all the generations to come.

“America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman

America the AnxiousSometimes, it takes an outsider to provide a truly penetrating look at what’s really going on in a place. Ruth Whippman is an Englishwoman who moved with her husband to the San Francisco Bay Area, and soon found herself having the sorts of conversations she’d never had back in London: “Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?”

The British, she writes, “are generally uncomfortable around the subject [of happiness]… It’s not that we don’t want to be happy. It just feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.”

In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Whippman explores various aspects of the American “happiness industrial complex,” visiting places like Provo, Utah (because the largely Mormon population there is supposedly the happiest in the entire U.S.) and the headquarters of Zappos (the online shoe store whose founder and CEO is obsessed with making his employees thrilled to be coming to work). She tries meditation and takes a Landmark Forum seminar, in which participants are forced to share personal stories while the course leader tries to tell them that everything bad in their lives is their own fault (“A divorcée learns that, contrary to her belief that her husband was callous and emotionally cruel, she should be assuming the entire responsibility for the failure of their marriage.”).

Over and over again, Whippman finds that there are often unpleasant truths lurking behind smiley-faced façades. Those cheerful Mormons, for example? Many of them are secretly miserable and just putting on “a constant happy front”: Utah actually has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the U.S., and the CDC has found that residents of the state “report having more suicidal thoughts than anyone in the entire United States.” (“The Book of Mormon” parodied this attitude in the song “Turn it Off.”) Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s utopian Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an area he developed based on research on “how to maximize innovation and happiness,” becomes the site of a suicide cluster.

Granted, a lot of what Whippman writes about is only really applicable to a certain affluent class; I doubt Americans dealing with poverty have a lot of time to worry about whether or not their kid’s preschool offers toddler yoga (as does the curriculum at Whippman’s son’s school). She does point out, however, that strong safety nets tend to raise happiness levels; in Salt Lake City, for instance, a robust church-sponsored welfare program ensures that the city boasts some of the highest social mobility levels in the world, “on a par with Denmark’s.”

In the end, she declares that her main takeaway from her deep dive into the happiness industry is that “the more time you spend obsessively monitoring your emotional temperature, the less likely you are to be happy. I can confidently say that I am at my happiest when the topic of happiness is farthest from my mind.” America the Anxious is a brisk, enjoyable read that will definitely make me apply my critical-thinking skills the next time I hear about the latest, greatest study or self-help book on the topic of happiness.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.