Like Mark isn’t cooler than all of the Apollo astronauts put together.

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars as the rest of his crew escapes a deadly dust storm. But he’s not dead, and now he has to figure out how to let NASA back on earth know he’s still alive and how to get home. I’m pretty sure I have a permanent heart murmur now (thanks a lot, Weir) as about every tenth page of this book something awful happens to Mark that first he has to survive and then somehow fix. Explosive decompression event? Oh hell, that’s nothing, Mark’s the first guy to wreck a car on Mars.

I had to keep putting the book down because as long as I didn’t finish it Mark was still alive. I was irresistibly (and continually) reminded of that Star Trek episode, “City of the Edge of Forever,” where Spock tells Edith Keeler, “I am endeavoring, ma’am, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.” Spock–for that matter, not even McGyver himself–had nothing on Mark.

And he is such a great guy, you’re just rooting for him every minute of every sol (Martian for day). I think my second favorite passage in the book is on p. 268, when Mark says

I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”

He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.”

Like Mark isn’t cooler than all of the Apollo astronauts put together.

But my favorite line is on the last page, when Mark says

Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.

As everyone back on earth and his crewmates on Hermes care. And so will you.

Okay, sucking the tears back into my eyeballs, here’s what I think:

I think this book should be read by

1. Every writer who thinks they know how to write a thriller. They don’t.

2. Every school kid ten and older. Every kid who reads this book is going to want to learn how Mark did all that. She’ll want to study mechanical engineering, navigation, botany, chemistry, astronomy. You want to raise a kid interested in STEM? Here you go.

3. Everyone else.

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And opening this Friday…

Omit needless words!

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of StyleStylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey

Garvey calls this book “slightly obsessive” and no question he is the nerdiest of Strunk and White nerds. Lots of lovely little tidbits here, including the fact that White earned a D in English in his second semester at Cornell (I imagine in the same way Einstein failed high school math, they were both probably bored to tears). Cornell is of course where White met Professor Strunk and

first encountered The Elements of Style. Strunk had published the forty-three-page booklet himself in 1918, and it was available for purchase in the Cornell bookstore, at twenty-five cents a copy. Strunk had at least two goals in mind with the publication of The Elements of Style: to offer students a clear, concise blueprint revealing the main supports of what he called “plain” English style (“a few essentials,” in his words) and to save himself, and other instructors, time in grading papers.

Enshrined therein is

…Strunk’s Sermon on the Mount, the nugget that cradles the book’s DNA and that might be sufficient to reconstitute The Elements of Style in its entirety should the rest of it, like heaven and earth pass away: Omit needless words.

This bears repeating, and Garvey does so a little later

…continues to ring like a Lao Tzu aphorism at the book’s center, the Strunkian equivalent of the Golden Rule: “Omit needless words.”

In 1957 White wrote a reminiscence of Strunk that appeared in the New Yorker magazine. That same week editor Jack Case of Macmillan contacted White and said if White would edit it they wanted to republish the little book. It was published in 1959 and as of 2009 there were over 10 million copies in print, at which time a 50th anniversary edition was published in hardcover (I have one). In 2005 an edition was published with illustrations by Maira Kalman (and I have one of those, too).

My favorite chapter is “The Fewest Obstacles,” when Garvey traces White to Walden and Thoreau (and Aristotle, for that matter).

The quest for simplicity in writing is a reflection of the longing for it in one’s life as well…Among E.B. White’s confirming contributions in 1959 was the idea that plainness itself could constitute one of the most important “secrets of style.” As he put it in Chapter V, “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”…The effort to see clearly, think logically, and express oneself with precision leads the careful artist toward concision and simplicity, and necessarily, to a great concentration of force.

The correspondence between Case and White during the editorial process is delightful, as are the many letters White writes in response to readers. Exercising heroic self-restraint, I will quote only one

Dear Mr. White,
I’m omitting needless words!
Sincerely yours,
[a reader]

Dear Ms. ——
Thanks. So am I.
E.B. White

but they are sprinkled throughout and every time I came upon one I felt like a gold nugget had dropped out of the sluice box right into my hand.

Less successful are the suspiciously padded contributions from authors like Frank McCourt and Dave Barry and Ian Frazier and Adam Gopnik, who are allowed to go on and on (and on) about the art and craft of writing in a way White would have ruthlessly edited. Omit needless words!

Note: I also heartily recommend Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. My mother gave it to me on my birthday in 1977, and every now and then I’ll pick it up and let it fall open to whatever page it wants. I am never dissatisfied.

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Plum Pudding Muffins and S&M

Update on 6/22/12: Now downloadable from Amazon for FREE!

The writer of the delightful Phryne Fisher series jumps nine decades into the future, to bring us Corinna Chapman, baker. Corinna lives and bakes in present day Melbourne, Australia, in one of the truly great buildings of fiction, the Insula, eight stories covered in peacock blue tiles where each apartment is named for a Roman god or goddess and decorated accordingly. Someone is terrorizing the women in the building with poison pen letters, graffiti and vandalism, and someone else is killing junkies on Corinna’s very doorstep. Of course she takes action, however reluctantly, and along the way we meet her friends and neighbors, including Meroe the witch

I believe in absolutely nothing except yeast and the inevitability of politicians, so Meroe and I have agreed not to discuss it. Thus we have stayed friends.

the Lone Gunmen, whose tech shop Corinna describes thusly

The walls were painted black just like every nerd’s bedroom, and were layered with posters for each new video game. I would bet that somewhere right against the paint there would be an ad announcing Pac Man. Someone was lurking behind the counter, trying to stay out of direct sunlight and reading William Gibson.

and her two employees, Kylie and Gossamer

It was no use trying to describe either of them by mundane things like hair or eye colour. These could change overnight. At the moment Gossamer had greenish hair and bright green contacts in…Kylie had had pink hair and her own eyes, which are blue. Or so I believe…The only way I could be sure about their identity was their navels, which were always on display. Kylie had a silver ring with a blue stone in it in hers which is round and flat. Gossamer has a gold ring in hers, and it tends to have a lip on the upper rim…Otherwise they really could be twins.

Not forgetting Daniel, the hunky PI, Jason, the recovering heroin addict slash apprentice, the Mouse Police, aka Rodent Patrol Officers Heckle and Jeckle, and her partner, Horatio

…a gentlemanly cat [who] considers it impolite to hurry his food. Besides, he needs to remove every crumb from his whiskers before he steps down to the meet the Mouse Police, a rough but pleasant pair, far removed from him in elegance. Horatio is an aristocrat. I occasionally feel that I am unable to meet his stringent requirements for suitable conduct in a Lady.

The plot takes Corinna in some decidedly new directions, not least of which is a private S&M club, and no matter what she says at the end

Memo to the universe re Corinna Chapman as an investigator: I quit.

we know she lies. Partly because there are four more books in the series, upon which I am soon to embark. The icing on the cake, or in this case, muffins? There are recipes. Yummmmmmm…


The Most Underrated Crime Fiction Novelist Ever

That would be Michael Gilbert, author of some of the best mysteries you have never read. It torques me mightily that he is not better known on this side of the pond. A while back I stumbled across a new edition of The Night of the Twelfth on Amazon, and I was so pleased to see it available in the US that I thought I’d give it a little push on

The bodies of three mutilated children have been found in the peaceful Surrey countryside, and the third murder yields a single clue that leads the Surrey Constabulary to the general vicinity of Trenchard House Preparatory School. Mr. Fairfax, headmaster of Trenchard House, has enough to deal with already, including maintaining the security of one of his pupils, who is the son of the Israeli ambassador, and replacing a teacher lost to the stress of, well, teaching a lively group of young men alert to any sign of weakness on the part of the staff. The new teacher, Mr. Manifold, is something of a disciplinarian, as witness his pulverizing One-B (a great scene). He is not quite what he seems, but then, viewed through the lens of three child murders, neither is any of the rest of the staff of Trenchard House.

The setting is reminiscent of R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, another wonderful novel set in a British public school. The plot will be dear to every puzzle lover’s heart and the villain is ghoulish enough to creep out all but the most hardened reader, but the real stars of this novel are the boys, each rendered whole and individual in that iconicly economic Gilbertian style.

“It was only that Mr. Mollison was such an ass. I’m sorry, sir. But he was. You know what started the rot? It was in Scripture. One of them asked him what a harlot was. Well, really! That’s been a standing joke for years. All he had to say was, ‘It’s the biblical name for a tart,’ and they’d have know where they were.”

“What did he say?”

“According to those that were present, he blushed and said, ‘Well, Paine, it’s–um–a girl who has–er–lost her way.’ After that they pulled his leg until it nearly came off. When anyone on one of his walks took a wrong turning, they used to shout in unison, ‘Come back you harlots.'”

Highly recommended, and a great Christmas gift for the mystery lover in your life.

Other excellent Michael Gilbert reads:

The Queen Against Karl Mullen, the best courtroom drama since Witness for the Prosecution.
The Long Journey Home, a tale of presumed loss, return and revenge worthy of Shakespeare.
Fear to Tread, featuring one of my favorite Gilbert characters, Mr. Weatherall, and my favorite Gilbertian line, “Now Mr. Weatherall had meant to be good.”
The Danger Within, a story of British officers in a WWII Italian POW camp that is a cross between The Great Escape, Hart’s War, and Stalag 17.

And just for fun, here’s the trailer for Stalag 17.

Found the good.

Find the GoodFind the Good by Heather Lende

Heather asked me for a blurb for this book last May. I warned her that I almost never do blurbs because, well, I suck at them. She sent me the book and that evening I emailed her thusly:

Take your pick. Or chose none at all:

“A beguiling evocation of small-town life, and death.”

“The perfect book club book.”

“This goes right on the Christmas list for every member of my family.”

Picked it up at the post office this afternoon, came home, sat down, read it in one sitting. I want to move to Haines, and I want you to write my obituary, too.


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Sir Robert Carey returns for a seventh glorious outing

A Chorus of InnocentsA Chorus of Innocents by P.F. Chisholm

O frabjous day! Here we are on horseback again, galloping ventre a terre over the Debateable Lands between England and Scotland circa 1592. Yes, Sir Robert Carey returns for a seventh glorious outing, and I am delighted to report that this time we get to spend some quality time with Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s love. The book begins on the Scottish side of the border with the murder of a minister and the rape of his wife, heavily pregnant with their first child. She finds her way to her friend, Elizabeth, in England, and Elizabeth, in spite of the inevitable repercussions from her abusive but for the moment conveniently absent husband, rides off to find the killers, if she can. In so doing she puts herself most grievously at risk from far too many people far too eager to make a buck off the kidnapping and murder of an English noblewoman on the wrong side of this very fraught and fluid border.

There is plenty of action here (Elizabeth herself kicks ass! Squee!), and as always the scene Chisholm sets is a veritable time travel portal you step through the instant you turn to the first page

It was surprising and the older one thought a little shocking that there were so many kirks, and not all of them burnt or in ruins like in the Low countries. Some old Catholic churches had been torn down and a new one put up, but more often they were just altered with the heads of the saints knocked off and the paintings whitewashed. Not every village had a kirk, by a long way, but a lot did.

Find me a better description of post-Reformation Scotland, do, but what I found most fascinating was Elizabeth’s inner dialogue over her situation. We get to see her first meeting with Sir Robert

Their eyes had met. Their bodies had known their business and kept a distance, but their eyes…

She is married to a man she doesn’t love who positively hates her and delights in showing her how much with his fists (and a nice reveal as to why). She is in love with Sir Robert (as who isn’t) and he loves her, too, but she is an honorable woman and she won’t cheat. She does have some revolutionary thoughts on women and society and religion that are wonderfully revealing of that time and place and even more revealing of her own intelligence. She is a worthy match for Sir Robert.

And of course there is that wonderful Chisholm voice, as in

She had liked Jamie Burn; he was a good man, perhaps a little hot tempered, perhaps a little intolerant, but he had started a school for the children of the village and his sermons were only an hour long.


“…There’s a street called Cheapside where they have shops with great plates and goblets and bowls of gold and siller in the windows and nought but a couple of bullyboys and some bars to keep them.”

”Where’s London exactly?” asked Bangtail, with the slitty eyed look of a Graham with a plan.


There was nothing wrong with killing somebody for money, of course, but killing one of your own surname for an outsider? That was disgraceful.

Sergeant Henry Dodd is back

And moreover the moon was behind more clouds making the night pitchblack, so Dodd sighed, brought the hobbies into the shelter so no one would ask why they were there and rolled himself up in his cloak across the door opening and hoped no one would wake him because burying people took time and was a lot of effort.

and meet Mr. Anricks, a tooth drawer and a pursuivant (aka spy) for Sir Robert Cecil, and Young Henry with his unfortunate spots, and all the boys in Minister Burn’s choir, especially little Jimmy Tait. The book finishes with a marvelous set piece of derring-do involving enough arms and ammunition for the siege of Stalingrad, and the last line will leave you with your heart in your mouth. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil, but oh! I can’t wait for Number 8.

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