Exercise-hungry non-athletes like me, clumsy and inept, love to read advice books based on “real” athletes. We are besieged by recommendations, corrective counsel, and products based on measuring and coaching elites. Thus I was drawn to “Good to Go: How to Eat, Sleep and Rest Like a Champion,” a sprightly, insight-packed investigation by journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden. Eleven fascinating chapters tackle everything from ice baths to sports drinks, energy bars, massage, pre- and post-even nutrition, meditation, metrics, and rest. If Aschwanden has one gift to a reader, it is this: “research” on athletes and fitness and performance is typically of poor scientific potency. Experiments are too small, poorly structured, and unable to screen out coexisting factors. Like dietetics, sports/activity science is barely scientific. Weaving her way through the fields of information and hype, Aschwanden gradually gleans what might actually help you and me make sense of our sporting and recovery efforts. Good to Go is an entertaining, useful book.
A recounting of a bizarre event that occurred as recently as 2018, exactly as the title says, “The Salisbury Poisonings” is as fresh as headlines. Indeed, usage of news footage unfurling the Russian nerve agent poisoning of two Soviet ex-spies in a peaceful British town is one of the devices employed dramatically by the directors and scriptwriters. Real-event dramas can readily leach narrative tension or flow, simply because the facts must be observed, but this four-part series manages to forestall that pitfall by focusing heavily on two core participants in the thick of things. Rafe Spall is flawless as a hapless police officer early on the scene, and, even more vital to the story, Ann-Marie Duff captures the horrid pressures on the key public safety official. Perhaps the echoing shape of Covid-19 invigorates the early episodes – I mean, this incredibly deadly toxin is creepily like the pandemic – but I found myself horrified at an event I’d barely followed at the time. The later episodes lose potency as a result, but the storyline artfully segues into a study of post-traumatic stress. The Salisbury Poisonings could have been a lame retelling using cutout performances overlaid by a dreary voice, instead it is a skillfully made, absorbing drama well worth your time.
Eluvium, aka Matthew Cooper is my favorite musician in the broad field of ambient music, a territory I’ve largely left alone since a deep fascination through the 1960s to 1980s. “Virga I” is the first in a new series and this time the versatile Cooper has fashioned a wonderful album of three pieces in the style of real, genuine ambient music as I experienced it first with the music of Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and then Klaus Schulze. Long looping songs, apparently generated by sounds and tunes under the presence of algorithms, whoosh and flow and ebb in a hugely satisfying aural panorama suited to both late night immersive listening and alluring lockdown work background. The first twenty-minute piece seems to herald arrival, the second shorter one is more “here,” and the third piece ebbs off into the distant, but really, all three are part of a vast, emotional whole that had me gasping with admiration. Virga I is not for everyone, for it really is suffusing and anti-rock, but for anyone ever attracted to Brian Eno and his notions of ambience, it is a 2021 highlight.
If you’re like me and enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then watched the movie starring Matt Damon, you know what to expect in Weir’s latest novel, “Project Hail Mary.” Perhaps like me, when you first encounter the namesake spaceship hurtling millions of kilometers from earth and wake up in the head of its sole survivor, uber geek Ryland Grace, you’ll picture a groggy Matt Damon, waking up to solve the puzzle of his whereabouts and his stupendous mission, rolling up his sleeves to calculate and make and shift and actuate, disarmingly using brainpower to stay alive, resurrect his mission, and yes, save humanity. Andy Weir is an elegant, natural stylist, perfectly evoking Ryland’s jokey, gritty personality. The plot careens towards ever more jaw-dropping space events, taking a twist midstream into territory scarcely believable but executed with such panache that I, the reader, flowed with it. I’m guessing if excessive sci-fi science is a turnoff, you’ll reject this book, but if you love any form of mental tussling, grab it and strap in for a jolly freewheeling ride. You might even, like me, read it in two enjoyable sittings. Project Hail Mary takes too many outrageous plot risks, and is too tailor-made for another super-hero-like Matt-Damon-starring movie, to be genuinely stirring, but science-driven entertainment of this quality is indeed rare.
I cannot summon up another writer whose prose makes me swoon as much as Kevin Barry’s does. A masterful mix of Irish scutty and lyricism, any Barry page just feels so damned pleasurable to absorb! Especially powerful is his knack of capturing places and moods. His dialogue is an object lesson for lesser writers. Therefore, even though I am not a short story fan, I devoured the eleven tales in “That Old Country Music” and can vouch for every one of them. Most notable are “The Coast of Leitrim,” a love story that can break a heart; the glorious drunken mayhem of “Toronto and the State of Grace”; and the slapstick of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy.” Read all eleven, dear reader, That Old Country Music is a joy.
Such a welcome surprise! Five months after Folklore beguiled me, now we have “Evermore,” a luscious reprise of her new softly melodic, world-weary folk rock. Evermore follows Folklore in its style, all lulling piano, percolating keyboards, trembling guitar figures, allied to her emotive soft-whispery voice and intelligent storytelling lyrics. The sure touch of Aaron Dressner at the production desk matches Swift’s songs like lock and key. Highlights among the generous fifteen tracks include the gorgeous “‘Tis the Damn Season,” on which Swift croons “it always leads to you in my hometown”; the stunning recollections of an abandoned relationship in “Coney Island” contrasts Swift’s honeyed vocals with Matt Berninger’s gravely baritone; and another super sonic collaboration with Bon Iver on the title track.
A captivating, swaggering literary novel about the American battle for unionism and workers’ rights in the cruel hard times of the early Twentieth Century, “The Cold Millions” showcases Jess Walter at his scintillating peak. Channeling E. L. Doctorow, he focuses on Spokane in the northwest, on two brothers at the rough edge of capitalism, one passionate about the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World), the other one younger and protective of his sibling. Careening events put them in the path of a fascinating, sinister tycoon and police thugs and assassins, and ally them with a female socialist firebrand. Jess Walter, like Doctorow, seamlessly plonks the small pawns of the world amongst real-life, outsized makers of history, and he seems capable of writing from the point of view of all the protagonists and antagonists. Roughhouse America springs to life in his scenes and the plot propels and surprises. All in all, The Cold Millions is a triumph and a hell of a fine read.
A mystery writer with fine motor control of a book’s pace, Jane Harper’s previous best sellers were evocatively imbued with their landscapes, whether the harsh Australian bush, a lush Australian rainforest, or a cattle farm. “The Survivors” takes place in a small Tasmanian coastal town and once again, the author nails the locale: the beach, rocks, and fishing boats. When Kieran, who had fled for the big smoke after tragedy had struck, returns to his home town, and a body turns up on a beach, the past and present collide as he digs into both. The character roster, immediately recognizable from such a town, is skillfully realized, the plot turns are gratifyingly opaque, and the background of disaster and guilt is almost palpable. As with Harper’s first three novels, I read The Survivors in one sitting, and if I questioned whether the climax sold the earlier engrossing pages short, I can still heartily recommend it.
Extinction of species is taking place at a rate one or two magnitudes greater than evolution’s outcome, with humans the immediate and background cause. As a child, naturalist Michael Blencowe was fascinated, as only children can be, with tales and pictures of near-mythic animals, birds, and butterflies that have disappeared from our plant. “Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures” is his passionate, engaged tale of finding what traces are left of eleven vanished species. A most determined historian of doom, Blencowe travels from the Bering Sea to the Galapagos isles, from Finland to San Francisco. The onsite trips are evocative, but even more so are his reverent forays into museums with their fossils, skeletons, and preserves carcasses. He pursues the leftover remnants of the last Great Auks on a forsaken Devon island and in a Danish museum. New Zealand’s sad history of its isolated, vulnerable birds killed and eaten is told thrice by the author, with the Moa’s demise striking me as most tragic. The Dodo, he writes, “has achieved a dubious immortality: the smiling face of extinctions.” The tone throughout is a convivial mix of pithy recounting of histories and flights of easygoing lyricism. Towards the end, he expertly weaves in wider questions enmeshed with global warming. For anyone brewing over our fate and Earth’s fate, Gone is a welcome, enjoyable feast.