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Bookworm: ‘Anxious People’ a feel-good novel that runs away with you

‘How to Astronaut’ will do more than just take up space.

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Anxious People”

  • By Fredrik Backman
  • c. 2020, Atria
  • $28, higher in Canada; 352 pages

There's no way out. Face it: you can't escape. There's no sneaking off here, no graceful exits, no big cartoon stage-hooks for you. You can't wiggle past anybody, and just walking off into the sunset is a no-go. Nope, you're stuck. You can't get away now; as in the new novel "Anxious People" by Fredrik Backman, there are too many eyes watching.

Ten years ago, a man was at his wits' end.

"Anxious People" author Fredrik Backman.

He had foolishly borrowed money, hoping to make more but the economy tanked, and he had nowhere to go but to a bridge. Standing at the top of the span, he thought he was alone, but a teenage boy was there, too, and he tried to talk the man into stepping back. Alas, the man stepped forward into the void and the boy never forgot.

Years later, that boy became a man who became a police officer like his father. Unlike his father, he had no patience, so when a call came in that a bank robbery had taken place in their nondescript little town, the young officer thought it might be his chance to show his boss' boss' boss that he was a good cop.

But this robbery was like no other: the bank was a cashless bank.

Realizing that this must be the Dumbest Heist in History, the robber panicked and ran to the building next door. From there, he could only go up, and into an apartment where there happened to be an open house. Now totally unnerved, he waved his gun, which probably wasn't real anyhow, and this robbery-not-robbery instantly became a hostage situation. But after demanding pizza, the robber let everyone go and then he disappeared. Poof.

"Anxious People" by Fredrik Backman.

There'd been nine people in the apartment that afternoon. Eight were questioned (and not very successfully). There was a rabbit there, too, and a trunk full of wine and a freezer full of food. And a lie that somebody got away with...

You know what it's like to be minding your own business on a bench somewhere, and you're joined by a dotty eccentric who suddenly starts talking gossip about people you don't know? It's scattered, and it makes no sense; it's odd, and yet amusing enough that, despite yourself, you become interested in hearing more. That's initially what "Anxious People" is: vague, like you should want to continue but it's an uneasy 50/50 now, and author Fredrik Backman makes you laugh but it's a not-quite-committed laugh, and you wonder how you'll make it to the end of this book.

Trust: you'll make it to the end of this book.

Turns out, the scatter is the point. It's a bunch of oops-forgot-to-tell-you that hold this tale together, along with distractions, adorableness, romance, and mystery-like MacGuffins that demand patience and promise a well-earned payoff that's sweet, full of heart, and the right book for our times.

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Of course, that's what you want, isn't it? A feel-good novel that runs away with you? Yes, it is, and "Anxious People" is that perfect escape.

“How to Astronaut: Everything You Need to Know Before Leaving Earth”

  • By Terry Virts
  • c. 2020, Workman
  • $27.95, higher in Canada; 320 pages

You've been over-the-moon before. Just not in the way you want. No, you're someone who needs to see the Earth for yourself, from two hundred thousand miles up. You want to experience weightlessness, extreme g-forces, and you want to walk among the stars. In "How to Astronaut" by Terry Virts, you'll see that doing so could put you into a whole new orbit.

“How to Astronaut: Everything You Need to Know Before Leaving Earth” author Terry Virts.

Ever since you were little, astronauts have been your heroes. They're elite scientists and you know that being hired by NASA isn't something that happens to just anybody. Says Virts, his career started when he was just seventeen years old, and he joined the Air Force to learn to fly jets. It was there, he jokes, that he discovered a skill that's essential: he learned "to sound cool on the radio."

Of course, there are other things you'll need to know to NASA: how to speak other languages, for one. How to recognize when you're about to die from lack of oxygen is important. Or this: how not to break limbs when riding "The Vomit Comet," and how to perform basic medical procedures if someone does.

An astronaut also needs to know what "the red button" is and why it shouldn't be touched.

Once you get the technical training out of the way, astronauting requires knowing everyday logistics. Virts learned, for example, that zero-gravity makes a great extra hand when doing projects. He learned how to pack for six months in space, and how to pick the best underwear for the journey. Astronauts must know how to prepare meals among the stars, and they must learn to properly potty while there. They need to exercise, wash up, get dressed, get a haircut, log onto the internet, and watch TV while floating. Astronauts must be curious and resourceful. While on a space capsule, they need to know how to live – although sometimes, they will die.

“How to Astronaut: Everything You Need to Know Before Leaving Earth” by Terry Virts.

Ask around, and you'll see that just about everyone has enough trouble living on land, so... astronauting? Yep, it's got its challenges, too, but in "How to Astronaut," author, NASA astronaut, and International Space Station commander Terry Virts makes it seem like any other job.

Granted, it's a job with a 40-plus-pound uniform and coffee breaks are made of you-don't-want-to-know-where-it-comes-from water, but even inconveniences appear as privileges in Virts words – and yet, this isn't a book full of platitudes. Instead, Virts writes about those things readers have always truly wondered about life in space, including both personal and mundane activities, the tricky stuff, and those behind-the-scenes scenes that you didn't even know you wanted to know. He does it with a minimum of technical language but a maximum of humor that doesn't descend into the jokey, making this book very, very readable.

And fun, too – lots of fun that, except for a few minor grown-up asides, makes it something that older teens can enjoy, as well as adults. So, get "How to Astronaut" for your bookshelf. It'll do more than just take up space.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.