A four-time veteran of off-planet missions, including a year aboard the International Space Station, offers a view of astronautics that is at once compelling and cautionary.
Why go into space in the first place? Kelly ponders that existential question early on, the whys and wherefores of entering into the strangest of strange environments and potentially suffering all manner of consequences. He replies, “I have a few answers I give to this question, but none of them feels fully satisfying to me.” Among those answers, perhaps, are because it’s extremely exciting to go where no one—very few people, anyway—has gone before, and after all, Kelly still holds the American record for consecutive days spent in outer space. Naturally, that comes at a cost; his book opens with an alarming portrait of edema, rashes, and malaise, and hence another answer emerges: we can’t go to, say, Mars without understanding what space flight does to a human body. Some of Kelly’s descriptions seem a little by-the-numbers, the equivalent of a ball player’s thanking the deity for a win—a spacegoing colleague is “sincere and enthusiastic without ever seeming fake or calculating,” while a Russian counterpart is “a quiet and thoughtful person, consistently reliable.” Nonetheless, Kelly’s book shines in its depiction of the day-to-day work of astronautics and more particularly where that work involves international cooperation. On that score, there’s no better account of the cultural differences between Right Stuff–inculcated NASA types and Yuri Gagarin–inspired cosmonauts: “One difference between the Russian approach to spacewalking and ours,” he writes, “is that the Russians stop working when it’s dark.” It’s fascinating stuff, a tale of aches and pains, of boredom punctuated by terror and worries about what’s happening in the dark and back down on Earth.
A worthy read for space buffs, to say nothing of anyone contemplating a voyage to the stars.
Raw glimpses of the humorist’s personal life as he clambered from starving artist to household name.
For years, Sedaris (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013, etc.) has peppered his public readings with samples from his diaries, usually comic vignettes with a gently skewed view of humanity. Those are in abundance here. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes after learning about a Chicago skinhead’s arrest. “You’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.” Forced to trim his toenails with poultry shears for lack of clippers, he writes, “that is exactly why you don’t want people staying in your apartment when you’re not there, or even when you are, really.” The diaries also provide Ur-texts for some of the author’s most famous stories, like his stint as a Macy’s Christmas elf that led to his breakthrough radio piece, “The SantaLand Diaries,” or the short-tempered, chalk-throwing French teacher in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). But though the mood is usually light, the book is also a more serious look into his travails as an artist and person: Sedaris is candid about his early ambitions to succeed as a writer, his imposter syndrome as a teacher, his squabbles with his never-satisfied dad and mentally ill sister, Tiffany, and his alcoholism. Even that last challenge, though, is framed as comic, or at least the stuff of non sequitur: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.” While Sedaris’ career took flight during the period this book captures, success didn’t change him much; it just introduced him to a broader swath of the world to observe and satirize. He can hardly believe his good luck, so he’s charmed by the woman who, upon escorting him to a packed bookstore reading, exclaims, “goodness, they must be having a sale.”
A surprisingly poignant portrait of the artist as a young to middle-aged man.
Slaughter’s latest break from the punishing travails of Dr. Sara Linton and Will Trent (The Kept Woman, 2016, etc.) uses a school shooting to reunite two sisters who’ve had compelling reasons for avoiding each other in the years since their own childhood horrors.
Twenty-eight years ago, two masked men broke into attorney Rusty Quinn’s Georgia home looking for the man of the house, the kind of lawyer who gives lawyers a bad name. In Rusty’s absence, things went south instantly, leaving Gamma Quinn dead, her daughter Samantha shot in the head and buried alive, and her daughter Charlotte fleeing in terror. Sam somehow survived and rose above her brain damage to become a successful New York patent attorney; Charlie remained in Pikeville, joined the criminal defense bar, and married ADA Ben Bernard. But she and Ben have separated; she’s taken solace in some quick sex with a stranger in a parking lot; and when she goes to the middle school where her one-night stand works as a history teacher to pick up the cellphone she left behind, she walks into the middle of a shooting that brings back all her own trauma. Goth girl Kelly Wilson admits she shot and killed Douglas Pinkman, the school principal, and 8-year-old Lucy Alexander, but Rusty, whose inbox is already overflowing with hate mail provoked by all the lowlifes he’s defended, is determined to serve as her attorney, with Sam as a most unlikely second chair. In addition to the multilayered conflicts among the Quinns and everyone else in town, Sam, who urged her sister to flee their childhood nightmare, and Charlie, who’s had to live with fleeing ever since, will have to deal with memories that make it hard for them to sit in the same room.
It’s hard to think of any writer since Flannery O’Connor, referenced at several key moments here, who’s succeeded as consistently as Slaughter at using horrific violence to evoke pity and terror. Whether she’s extending her franchise or creating stand-alones like this, she really does make your hair stand on end.
A light caper turns into a multilayered game of cat and mouse in a story that, as with most of Grisham’s (The Whistler, 2016, etc.) crime yarns, never gets too complex or deep but is entertaining all the same.
Bruce Cable is a bon vivant–ish owner of a bookstore specializing in rarities, which ought to mean he’s covered in dust instead of Florida sunshine. But he’s an aging golden boy, the perfect draw for young aspiring novelist and cute thing Mercer Mann, who’s attracted to books and Bruce and the literary scene he’s created on formerly sleepy Camino Island. It takes us a while to get to the smooth-operating Bruce, though, because Grisham’s first got to set up, with all due diligence, the misdeed to be attended to: the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts from the Princeton library. Now, who wouldn’t want the mojo associated with holding a piece of paper out of Fitzgerald’s typewriter? Suspicion falls on Bruce, whereupon Mercer enters the picture, for a novel way has been presented to her to pay off some crushing student loans. (Always timely, Grisham is.) Eventually, Bruce and Mercer are reading between the lines and searching for clues between the sheets (“We’re not talking about love; we’re talking about sex,” Grisham writes, with a perfectly correct semicolon). But was it Bruce who pulled off the literary crime of the century? Maybe, and maybe not; Grisham leaves us guessing even as he makes clear that literary criminals don’t have to be nice guys in order to be good at their work: “He died a horrible death, Oscar, it was awful,” one particularly menacing bookworm tells a quarry once the stolen manuscripts go missing a second time. “But before he died he gave me what I wanted. You.”
How all these little threads join up is a pleasure for Grisham fans to behold: there’s nothing particularly surprising about it, but he’s a skillful spinner of mayhem and payback.
Sludgepuggle! Pottymouth and Stoopid take on relentless bullies, terrible teachers, and a dastardly Ex-Dad.
Twelve-year-olds Michael and David have been best friends—and the objects of widespread ridicule—since preschool. Now they’re in seventh grade, and things are still pretty much the same. Everyone still calls David “Stoopid,” because he once accidentally spilled some paint, and Michael “Pottymouth,” because he responds with creative expletives when provoked (“Rrrrrggghhh, hicklesnicklepox! David isn’t stupid, you flufferknuckles!”). David’s divorced parents and Michael’s churlish foster parents are no help, and when a new TV show appears on the Cartoon Factory network, things take a turn…for the worse. As with Patterson and Grabenstein’s previous collaborations, the combination of short chapters and comical illustrations (here courtesy of Gilpin) targets fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. This iteration aims, not quite successfully in its broad strokes, to reflect a slightly more diverse crowd—the vast majority of primary characters are white, but Michael is black, and the story also touches on children’s experiences with divorced parents, (bad) foster parents, and families with lower incomes. Readers will be amused by Pottymouth and Stoopid’s shenanigans, bolstered occasionally by the brainy Anna Britannica (chubby and white and another victim of the school’s charismatic bully), but the generally formulaic tale delivers few truly funny or memorable moments.
An entertaining—but not particularly original—addition to the perennially relevant genre.
Greed, depravity, and serial murder in 1920s Oklahoma.
During that time, enrolled members of the Osage Indian nation were among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The rich oil fields beneath their reservation brought millions of dollars into the tribe annually, distributed to tribal members holding "headrights" that could not be bought or sold but only inherited. This vast wealth attracted the attention of unscrupulous whites who found ways to divert it to themselves by marrying Osage women or by having Osage declared legally incompetent so the whites could fleece them through the administration of their estates. For some, however, these deceptive tactics were not enough, and a plague of violent death—by shooting, poison, orchestrated automobile accident, and bombing—began to decimate the Osage in what they came to call the "Reign of Terror." Corrupt and incompetent law enforcement and judicial systems ensured that the perpetrators were never found or punished until the young J. Edgar Hoover saw cracking these cases as a means of burnishing the reputation of the newly professionalized FBI. Bestselling New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, 2010, etc.) follows Special Agent Tom White and his assistants as they track the killers of one extended Osage family through a closed local culture of greed, bigotry, and lies in pursuit of protection for the survivors and justice for the dead. But he doesn't stop there; relying almost entirely on primary and unpublished sources, the author goes on to expose a web of conspiracy and corruption that extended far wider than even the FBI ever suspected. This page-turner surges forward with the pacing of a true-crime thriller, elevated by Grann's crisp and evocative prose and enhanced by dozens of period photographs.
Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.
This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.
It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.
With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.