As is our tradition, our family of four decamped to the mountains1 right after Christmas where we met up with another family of four2 for a week of nothing much.3 Generally, board games are played. Puzzles are assembled. Rum cake is consumed.
But the overarching vibe of the week is to unplug for as long as possible, just to take a break from the hurly-burly of the world. And if for you that looks like skipping out on some games and some puzzles so that you can throw yourself into a book or two,4 then you do you. Which meant that I got to do my all-time favorite thing: sit and read for so many hours on end that my butt actually got tired from sitting.
Two books5 consumed my time: one was good enough, the second is my new obsession.
The longer I spend in county government, the more interested I am in infrastructure and systems.6 For millennia, humans have been figuring out what to do with all of the fluids that come out of our bodies. Some of these solutions have been successful; none of the solutions are applied evenly across the planet — and until we get a grip on sewage globally, we will always be chasing our own tails when it comes to all of the downsides of human waste.
“On our shared planet, if just one person doesn’t have a decent toilet, it puts everyone at risk. Disease, pollution, suffering—the fallout of these is not easily contained to the places where they originated. If sanitation doesn’t work for all of us, it works for none of us. That’s the pain of it, and the beauty. We are all connected to one another and to every organism on the planet through our toilets.”
There are plenty of useful tidbits and horrifying facts8 in these pages, including the tale of a CIA op aimed to take a fecal sample from Gorbachev for reasons that remain unclear and that one early pregnancy test was given the name “Pregnosticon,” which proves that chemists can have a sense of, well, humor isn’t the right word. While the bulk of the book was written before the pandemic, Wald tacked on an epilogue that connects some of the public health issues we are currently wrestling with9 to issues we have always wrestled with, largely because people aren’t great at acting in their community’s best interest.
While Pipe Dream is well researched and written, it gets a little baggy about halfway through. There’s only so many different ways you can look at poop, pee, and other effluent without it getting repetitive. Still, it’s a title worth a skim, if only to have some quirky anecdotes at the ready.
To say that I am now singularly obsessed with Sara Gran and her creation Claire DeWitt would be underselling my feelings about this book. It’s so good, you guys — and the less you know about it going in the better off you’ll be.
Having said that, I will now say this: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is what Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency would have been if it were written by a much, much more versatile writer.10 DeWitt is an existential whodunit set in post-Katrina New Orleans. There are mysteries within mysteries here, with the occasional enigma thrown in. There are moments that are laugh out loud funny, coupled with moments where Gran punches deep:
“… sometimes the world seem so fucked up, like nothing make any sense at all…just vicious. But then sometimes, sometimes, it’s like—like it all fit together perfect, like a puzzle. Like you find this little piece, maybe five years ago, maybe ten years ago. And then years and years later, you see where it fits. And you see it made sense all along. Only you was too blind to see it. Too small to see it all at once.”
He sniffed. “Don’t seem like that now, though.”
I wanted to to hug him but I figured he might shoot me.
“But maybe someday,” I said carefully, “you’ll look back and all the pieces you have now, all the little bits that seem so awful— maybe they’ll all fit together just right, and it’ll all make sense.”
It’ll hit harder in context, mind.
If your idea of a a good detective novel is something more traditional, like Sherlock or Agatha, then this book isn’t for you.11 If you want to go on a ride, Claire DeWitt is your huckleberry. I’ve already ordered the next title in the (too short) series and am saving it for a special occasion. I hope I’ll have the time to really fall into it before Christmas 2022.
So how’s your post-holiday recombobulation going? Anyone else needed a few more days to really get it together? Get any good books?
Sometimes, those mountains are in PA. Once or twice they’ve been in NY. One year got really weird and 7/8 of us wound up in Montreal. I was the 1/8 who stayed in Oneonta to care for a corgi on crate rest and to write a book.
You might need a diagram for this but: all of parents went to Allegheny College in the late 80s-early 90s. Two of the four children are there now, which was an odd turn of events that none of us really anticipated. Three of the four children are now technically adults. One is old enough to drink. One is in her junior year of high school. All eight are giant nerds — but not nerdy about the same things.
Our recombobulation back into everyday life is ongoing. 2022 has already included car trouble and a dead cat (who really deserves his own post). It’s day four.
I speak only of myself. Any game that requires the ability to plan more than one move ahead or remember more than three rules is one that I will lose. I’m happy to sit there and play, if you need another person, but barring some bend in the space-time continuum, I will be as useless as a pool floaty in the Sahara. (Although it dawns on me that a floaty might have a use or two in a desert, so maybe that’s not the best analogy.)
I was less successful in getting though the stack of New Yorkers I brought. I’m up to October 4, 2021, tho. Progress.
There are a couple of exceptions. For example, when someone starts talking about salt/sand/brine trucks, my eyes glaze right over.
Almost all of these involved the word “sludge”
The sewage surveillance testing for COVID-19 cities are doing now initially was intended to monitor the opioid epidemic. Which I find interesting and sad.
Which isn’t to slag Douglas Adams. What he did he did really well. Gran, however, can write like a mother fucker.
I’m not book shaming. Read what you love to read. Just know that this isn’t a by-the-numbers mystery.