Hoo boy, the dog-day heat came on full-bore this year, hunh? I don’t know why the phenomenon known as “summer” always surprises me…it happens almost every year, right? I get all lethargic and cranky in the heat and generally seek solace in cool streams and deep, shady bowers.
If that makes me sound like some sort of amphibian-esque creature from the depths, well, you pegged me right. Appearances aside, though, I frequently bring along a book or two to pass the time.
I have two reading categories of late: new books containing much awesome (NBCMAs), and books that are now a couple of years old and that I somehow missed when they first came out (having the convenient sobriquet BTANaCoYOaTISMWTFCOs). These also contain awesomeness.
So the next time you’re trying to beat the heat in that shallow, smelly bog behind your lair, try reading one of these titles. If nothing else, you’ll find the pages wonderfully sweat-absorbent.
Black, Michael Ian. My Custom Van: And 52 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face. Gallery. 2009. 256p. ISBN 9781439153536. $15.99. HUMOR
This first entry under “How did I miss this?” made me decide to include Black in the pantheon of “funniest people on the planet” beside Martin Short, They Might Be Giants, and Dave Carlson from sophomore year of high school. In this hearty little paperback, M.I.B. presents short takes on a wide range of topics, each critically important to the soul of American Wit. In fact, this is just like the work of Mark Twain, if Twain had written about bitchin’ taco parties, what his robot would be like when he built it, and opening a scented candle shoppe. It’s also reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s or Kurt Vonnegut’s black humor, if they had written epic fail erotic fiction, left instructions for the cleaning woman, or pondered about the DJ name they would eventually assume (mine=DJSqueeky). Fun, funny, and hilariously smarmy, this book covers the aforementioned plus other intriguing subject matter. Plus, you can usually finish one essay while on the dumper.
Boyle, T.C. The Tortilla Curtain. Penguin. 2011. 384p. reprint ed. ISBN 9780143119074. $16. F
I found this humbling‚ and not just because Boyle uses multisyllabic words. This book sharply, plainly contrasts My White World with the world of illegal Mexican immigrants, with the result of piling on the guilt. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher live comfortably in Topanga Canyon, CA. The Rincóns have basically sold their souls to get across the border and are quickly sinking in a negative-image dystopia around 300 yards from the Mossbacher homestead. This is no episode of Family Feud, and it’s startling how deftly Boyle delineates the two cultures: cushy’n'comfortable, gated-community, fresh-fruit-high-fiber diets vs. a steady diet of nothing, living on a blanket in an arroyo. Though obvious and exaggerated, the characters are disturbingly akin to the villains and bigots who exist in the real world, and the mirror that Boyle holds up for us is sharp and unflattering. When both families discuss their respective plights with other characters, Boyle demonstrates how superbly nasty people can be. Now, if it had been illegal French Canadian immigrants, on the other hand, maybe titled The Sheetrock Curtain…
Farah, Nuruddin. Crossbones. Riverhead. Sept. 2011. 400p. ISBN 9781594488160. $27.95. F
Farah is a special writer, the first I’ve encountered who effectively translates between my suburban white American world and the African one. As such, Farah is able to highlight those cultural trappings that don’t mean a thing in Africa, but that American eyes are drawn to, like how bedraggled a man’s beard is or how tightly his clothing fits. The book is also a soothing, exotic read, with vivid language that pours as smoothly as water from a deep, clear well. The plot follows a freelance journalist named Malik, who is Somali by birth but was raised in Malaysia and now lives in America. Malik journeys to his “homeland” of Somalia, seeking stories for articles. Though he is experienced in dangerous locales, he doesn’t know wtf he’s doing when it comes to Somalia, so his father-in-law, Jeeblah, goes with him as shepherd. All sorts of wackiness ensues, but a multicultural version of The Hangover this ain’t. Character interactions reveal culture clashes of all conceivable stripes among the country’s political and tribal factions, and Farah conveys them all through a remarkably clear lens. “After all,” he concludes, “every resident of this city is guilty, even if no one admits to being a culprit.” Images are precise yet leave all to a reader’s imagination. Thus, a balcony isn’t given specific dimensions, but is “large enough for a sumptuous party,” and a jeep becomes a “four wheel drive.” A pleasure.
Larsson, Åsa. Until Thy Wrath Be Past. SilverOak. Aug. 2011. 256p. ISBN 9781402787164. $24.95. F
Larsson is a renowned Swedish crime writer (dude, did you miss Det Blod Som Spillts?), and this completely engrossing novel starts out with the ghost of a murdered young woman saying, “I remember how we died.” As the book evolves into an evenly paced examination of the dark and light forces of life, embodied by the characters, it also radiates with an exciting frisson of lingonberry. So exciting, in fact, that to do the work justice, I must do what I told my editor (and my parole officer) I never would: revert to my native dialect and mother tongue, Swedish, to imbue this review with the nuanced flavors and subtle tones it deserves. Hooben flauben hågen düschken, euf der bin eitzen, mingaplorble flumen blooben. Icencoldenum, diesinriverdem, polizia proceduralenflaumen. Vit snow. Findem killeråmen. Heendy hooby bloomy floopy engi; schauzen guysembad versa Goodemcopfs. In any language, this is an addictive, juicy procedural that will keep readers turning pages long after the taste of pickled herring dissipates. Flooben?
Parkin, Joe. Come & Gone: A True Story of Blue-Collar Bike Racing in America. Velo Press. 2010. 208p. ISBN 9781934030547. $21.95. SPORTS/MEMOIR.
Parkin used to race bikes for a living‚ a weird way to make a buck, but so is taxidermy. After five pro years (’86-’91; adventures chronicled in A Dog in a Hat) in the Nation Where Bicycle Racing Is the Most Important Thing Ever (a.k.a. Belgium), Parkin began a stateside racing career that included a stint on the Coors Light squad. Adapting to the DIY style of American racing took moxie, as the life of a European racer was simpler: “race, eat, get a massage, sleep, eat, and then find your way to your perfectly cleaned bike.” In the mid-’90s, Parkin switched over to mountain bike racing, experiencing more successes‚ and more failures, all chronicled here. He describes the unglamorous work of team riders like himself, who must protect their team champion (e.g., the Lance Armstrongs of the world) in a million ways‚ by absorbing wind resistance, keeping the champ away from danger, wearing down opponents, and even giving up their bikes in the event of a mechanical breakdown. This chronicle tells of training rides, events, and puzzling peloton intricacies (i.e.,”I would not have a chance at winning but would twist my own balls off in order to make sure the race was controlled”) that are fascinating to us wannabes. Plus? Lookit that 1980s to 1990s style. Mullets!
Patterson, James, with Andrew Gross. Lifeguard. Little, Brown. 2005. 393p. ISBN 9780446617611. $9.99. FICTION.
This is the obligatory “summer beach read” that all book reviewers take an oath to provide when they join the union. Personally, I don’t go to the beach (see above at cool streams). But if I did, I’d be sure to bring along a lite’n'easy book for when I snapped out of my overheated torpor. Or for when I needed a coaster. C’mon‚ you don’t even need to focus on a beach book; it’s more like pretend reading. So, if I did read this piece of fluff, which I can’t really recall, it doubtless featured all of the beach-read standbys: action, intrigue, beautiful people, and a bit of ye olde “derring do.” There may have been a handsome Adonis/lifeguard who may or may not have fallen in love with a beautiful, blonde young siren/chick. Was she murdered? Was he framed for it? I can’t remember, but there’s a lot of sand coming out as I riffle through the pages. Maybe the lifeguard went on the lam, pursued by a beautiful, brunette succubus/chick who also happens to be, ooh, let’s say, an FBI agent. I mean, damned if I remember the details and hey, is that a dolphin out there? Does the FBI chick fall in love with the framed lifeguard who traps the real bad guy in a finale worthy of an episode of Scooby-Doo? Did I finish it? I just can’t recall, damn it.
Sellers, John. The Old Man and the Swamp: A True Story About My Weird Dad, a Bunch of Snakes, and One Ridiculous Road Trip. Simon & Schuster. May 2011. 208p. ISBN 9781416588719. $14. MEMOIR
Jeez, I thought I had it bad. This corker of a memoir typifies a peculiarly American Oedipal-esque complex: the embarrassment, impatience, and boredom one experiences in response to one’s father, starting around age 12 and lasting until around 30. Though this experience is so universal that the title alone is enough to tell the tale, read the whole thing. The elder Sellers is a stuttering, unconventional former Lutheran minister with a penchant for herpetology. Now, where most dudes enjoy ripping apart their singularly weird dads, Sellers skewers his on a red-hot spit right up the old fart box. But readers will see that this comes from a place of love because of the careful and detailed portrayal of the man. In Sellers’s youth, his dad loved snakes, playing games, taking drugs, Bob Dylan, chain smoking, sleeping nude, and, especially, hiking for endless hours. For “a preteen who wanted little to do with the outdoors if it didn’t involve walking across a parking lot to enter an arcade,” this wasn’t such a great match, but as the son ages, he yearns for a connection with his father. Or maybe he craves a collision course to hell, but either way, he reconciles himself to his dad. Funny, heartfelt, honest. And quite snaky.
Watson, S. J. Before I Go to Sleep. Harper. June 2011. 368p. ISBN 9780062060556. $25.99 F
Wanna getcher mind blowed up? Try this. Our British heroine wakes up every day without being able to recall the past 20 years or so. Thinking she’s about 25, Christine tiptoes into the bathroom after skeeving out because she’s sleeping next to some OLD guy. She freaks out seeing a 45-year-old version of herself in the mirror. The aforementioned old guy (her husband) calms her down and informs her that she’s an amnesiac who forgets everything right after she goes to sleep at night. He goes to work, she chills out. Repeat. Repeat again. With the help of a detailed journal and a doctor, Christine remembers a little further back every day, from little things like, “Gee, how do I take my coffee?” to big issues like, “How the hell did this happen to me?” Was it a car crash, like her husband says, or a violent attack, as she distantly remembers? Ditto on the fire that supposedly destroyed family pictures; ditto on whether she has a son. Could she really forget having a son? Is her husband lying? Protecting her? This is a positively addictive thriller, and Christine’s unreliability as a protagonist only heightens the mystery and the reader’s enjoyment. Watson skillfully keeps all the details straight and accelerates the pace as Christine learns‚ and relearns‚ who she really is.
Young, Mylow. Against the Gates of Hell: A Crack House Exodus. Moody/Lift Every Voice. Sept. 2011. 420p. ISBN 9780802401694. $14.99. CF
When an author who has passionate faith in Christ but isn’t so big on style or grammar writes a book, it turns into this, a twisted sort of novel that could fit into LJ‘s “The Word on Street Lit” column. Long on internal and intra-character dialog about God but short on action, this story follows the lives of estranged twin brothers, one a crack addict trying to break his dependence and the other a family man and cop. Thick, forced dialect has been recorded and transcribed verbatim from librarian staff meetings (i.e., “justa bidnessman tryna make a dolla”). Most of the plot tension stems from Rene, the cop’s wife. Her personality is so happy, attractive, devout, faithful, and mindfully positive (much like my own girlfriend’s) that it forces the twins to evolve and improve themselves. Basically, if they don’t step it up, they’re in for a world of poop from this hard-working, clean-living woman‚ you don’t mess with Rene. Because of this, the book’s weaknesses seemed to fall away. Sure, the characters are one-dimensional, and yes, they ponder the role of Christ in their lives ad nauseam. And, yet, because of Rene, each becomes a true, kinetic person working to change for the better. Go for it if you:
- are not a Christian and want to read about how super-Christians do it;
- are a Christian and are interested in what drug addiction looks like;
- enjoy stories about Christ’s redemptive power;
- are none of the above (you’re, say, Jewish, living in New York City, or Protestant, living in San Antonio, or even Buddhist, living outside Flint, Michigan) and want something that’s way outside your experiential zone.
MOFO: Monthly Optimized Fecundity Opportunity
Schaller, Elaine Roberts. Dear Cindy, Love Mom: Letters of Love, Loss and Life. Crooked Mile. 2010. 167p. ISBN 9780982833100. $9.95. MEMOIR
Let’s be quite clear: the loss of a child is the absolute worst pain that a human being can experience. Period. In 2007, Schaller lost her daughter, Cindy, to a ruptured brain aneurysm. Cindy was 33, a dietician and professional fitness trainer who died while training for her first Ironman Triathlon. Consumed with grief, Schaller wrote these letters describing her unhappy journey as a pressure relief and outlet for her pain. Compiled, they are a gift to those who grieve and for those who support the grieving. Schaller manages to express the immediacy of her own struggles and also to convey the message that there are no rules to this sort of mourning; the only way to get through it is to get through it. Blessedly clear advice sections highlight lessons learned, and the author’s plainspokenness is exactly what mourners need, e.g., “Ignore idiots! People can say the stupidest things!” “I crawled here,” she writes of persisting through many horrible months. “I crept here.” Fundraising and advocating (with help from the Brain Aneurism Foundation and Team Cindy) provided Schaller with some direction and comfort, but she encourages others to see that one becomes a different person after experiencing such a tragedy. This will find a grateful audience and make a worthy companion to Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Therese A. Rando’s How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. An excellent choice for public libraries of any size, this is especially appropriate for special collections (e.g., Compassionate Friends libraries).
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