Every day around 3:04 p.m., my Whitmanesque barbaric yawp degrades into a barbaric yawn‚ I’m freaking tired! And when fetching a joltin’ cuppa joe, I try to take along a book for an added shot of adrenaline. That way I’m better equipped to figure out life’s mysteries, such as: What’s the difference between an aardvark and an anteater? What shall I get wifey to celebrate National Crochet Week? What can I do to help the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey honor the 2012 Olympics? What are some good books to recommend to BFD readers?
For the lattermost question, I offer nine suggestions below, seven of which are engrossing, amusing, and in line with the BFD credo: Immer die neuesten und besten Bücher im √úberblick.
CONTEST WINNER: Last month I promised a dollar and a name check to the first reader emailing me the name and workplace of the SLJ reviewer of David Melling’s epic Don’t Worry, Douglas! Unfortunately, the answer* came from‚Ä¶David Melling in clear violation of two rules of eligibility, to wit: 1) Contestants may not be named David Melling; 2) Contestants may not reside in New York, California, New Jersey, Washington, or Illinois (Melling owns homes in all five**).
*The answer is Anne Beier of the Hendrick Hudson Free Library, Montrose, NY, one of millions of folks smart enough not to enter the contest in the first place.
**I may have made that up.
Abbott, Jeff. The Last Minute. Grand Central. Jul. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780446575201. $24.99. F
TLM‘s hero is ex-CIA agent turned wannabe stay-at-home dad Sam Capra, last seen in 2011′s Adrenaline. But really, dudes are going to zone in on the villains here, a mysterious profiteering conglomerate called Novem Soles. Suspiciously akin to Get Smart‘s KAOS sans Bernie Koppel, NS are cold and ruthless‚ even for one-percenters. They’re Bad, and they’ll stop at nothing to reap maximum reward while inflicting maximum pain. Having a hard time with your car/job/wife/kids? They don’t care. They crush little guys like you and me and somehow make bazillions of dollars doing it. Novem has kidnapped Capra’s infant son, and with this as leverage they demand that he stalk and assassinate a little computer nerd who knows too much. It’s a breakneck, who-can-I-trust thriller that burbles along with lots of twists’n'turns, cloak’n'dagger, & slap’n'tickle. For a while there, it’s impossible to tell who’s bad and who’s good, but didn’t we all collectively go through that with Lindsay Lohan and Annette Funicello? Worth it for readers who don’t mind a story that bounces wildly all over the place.
Bolzan, Scott, Joan Bolzan & Caitlin Rother. My Life, Deleted: A Memoir. HarperOne: HarperCollins. 2011. 304p. ISBN 9780062025470. $25.99; pap. ISBN 9780062025487. $14.99. MEMOIR
Scott Bolzan, head of a jet chartering company, slipped in the bathroom at work one day in 2008 and fell backward, like, right onto his head. As a result, he suffered brain damage and somehow erased just about every memory he ever had. His diagnosis was profound retrograde amnesia. Along with severe insomnia and cracking headaches, Bolzan surely had a dramatic time of it, but the authors present his story with little panache and much repetition. Reinserting himself into his own life proved difficult, even with the help of a loving and supportive wife. It must be hard when you don’t recall what birthdays and Christmas mean yet, strangely, can remember the rules of football, but it’s just not told that convincingly. The writing is such that Bolzan’s family and friends come across as oddly synthetic, and even his relationship with his son, who has problems with substance abuse, feels devoid of emotion. Unless you’re really into the minutiae of this precise, exact situation (a very sick rich dude has to sell off his yacht, small fleet of cars, and fortune in wristwatches but remains optimistic), it’s better left as a Reader’s Digest article.
Dorgan, Byron L. & David Hagberg. Blowout. Forge. Mar. 2012. 432p. ISBN 9780765327376. $25.99. F
Blowout, really? Obviously Messrs. D. and H. have never worked in a kennel where, I assure you, the titular word has an entirely different meaning than it does in this sprawling, likeable blockbuster about clean energy. The Dakota District Initiative (reminiscent of Illinois’s Hole in the Ground) is a top-secret Badlands facility where scientists, ahem, inject a coal-eating bacteria into pulverized coal in a sealed environment, producing methane that could be burned instead of coal, and with a significant drop in CO2. And a fat, greedy, oil-billionaire villain doesn’t like it one bit! Hagberg, author of about a thousand books, and Dorgan, a former North Dakota politician, have created a meet-and-greet of didacticism and pedagogy; some sentences approach the 100-word mark (talk about a blowout!). Characters are stock, down to names that sound as if they were auto-generated. What’s the difference between Whitney Lipton and Ashley Borden? I can’t recall, except that one of them is a brassy woman with more balls than just about every civilian out there. When the authors aren’t clumsily expounding on dirty petroleum vs. clean energy, they’re clogging the plot with Venezuelans killing envoys, bumpkin militias getting ten kinds of pissed off, and an exposé reporter uncovering military secrets. It’s not John Updike, but if dudes stick with this, they do get explosions, eco-terrorists, whack jobs, action, gunfire, government secrets, and big-money stakes, and they’ll also enjoy quantum-effect encrypted burst transmissions.
Heller, Ted. Pocket Kings. Algonquin. Mar. 2012. 368p. ISBN 9781565126206. $13.95. F
Frank Dixon is a washout at everything he’s tried, from boyhood sports to manhood novel-writing. Though I have no idea what his job actually is, he has grown tired of it, of being fat, of his marriage, and, especially, of writer’s block. Failure was my Siamese twin, he says, a writhing, unctuous viper joined to my hip who plotted against me in my sleep. With a nod to James Joyce’s A Little Cloud, Frank’s maniacal dreams of success include snarkily punching out successful writers named Jonathan and David (e.g., Lethem, Franzen, Safran Foer, Foster Wallace, Sedaris, Eggars, etc). Meanwhile, he discovers that he’s really good at online poker. Taking the avatar name Chip Zero, Frank turns little victories at small-stakes tables into massive paydays (after one month playing poker online, I was up $15,000). It’s addiction, sure, but it’s also Frank/Chip’s only arena of success and Heller (Slab Rat, Funnymen) plays it to its brazen hilt. As long as Chip’s life stays online, all’s well. But when he sets out on a messy New York-to-Vegas road trip, his virtual life begins to collide with the real one, and things get decidedly unwell. If you’re like me and don’t know a flush from a straight, that won’t interfere with your enjoyment of Heller’s tale. And even though it’s mostly about self-loathing and immediate self-gratification, this funny, intimate faux-memoir is nonetheless as charming as a steamroller on a hot day.
Moffett, Kevin. Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. Mar. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9780062069221. $14.99. F
Short stories generally puzzle the crap out of me, and those in this collection by Moffett (whose first collection, Permanent Visitors, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award) are no exception. While I understand that a short story is an inherently different beast than a novel, why is it that nothing happens in a short story? Ever! As in many other short story collections, Moffett’s characters are probably quite unlike anyone you’ve ever known. Among others, there is a cut-rate cruise ship bird trainer and a 74-year-old woman named Alta who feels whole only through relationships with men. These folks, even the newly married couple delivering a smelly Volvo to Jacksonville, think about things that I’ve never quite thought about: algae blooms, the dental health of Eastern Europeans, wooden back scratchers. They do this for a few pages, with some dialog, perhaps repartee, and it’s great. But man, there’s no action‚ no explosions, no car chases or notable sex scenes. Not even a game of darts. Why? Is there some unwritten rule that certain subjects are too pedestrian for the wilds of shortstoryland? It’s a fine collection, and readers will come away feeling happy that they discerned themes, like that you can confront some random, mystical unfamiliarity through the filter of another’s psyche. But if the most dynamic aspect of a book is its cover‚ this one looks like it’s a how-to treatise on back scratching‚ then you may as well spend an hour on YouTube checking out old Marty Feldman videos (see Robert Ross’s title, below).
O’Malley, Daniel. The Rook. Little, Brown. 2012. 496p. ISBN 9780316098793. $25.99; pap. ISBN 9780316098809. $15.99. F
First, a note to the publisher, Little, Brown: My copy was neither little nor brown; it was big, fat, and b&w. Just sayin’. This is among the most imaginative, interesting books to undergo processing in the BFD Review Machine‚Ñ¢ as of late. Absorbing, rich, and charmingly funny, this buoyant debut has much to offer those who don’t mind a mash-up of cloak and dagger, sf, fantasy, and mystery. Affected by retrograde amnesia, Myfanwy (it’s Welsh and rhymes with Tiffany) gradually discovers that she’s an important figure in an international shadow organization called the Checquy, a sort of paranormal version of the MI5 that protects Britain against all sorts of implausibly weird sh!t. Some members, including herself, are like the X-Men, with powers beyond the normal population.* In addition to being able to kill people with a touch of her bare skin (sounds like my ex-wife), Miffy is freakishly gifted at paperwork, and thus indispensable to the centuries-old bureaucracy. Pretty cool, except that a mystery Checquyer is trying to kill her and she is tasked with facing down some monsters from Belgium (and like Flemish bike racer Eddy Merckx, they really kick ass) called Grafters. Also, O’Malley completely pwns that trick of ending chapters at really awesome spots that compel you to keep reading. Turn off your baloney filter and enjoy.
*There are lots of others like her who all explored their wildly variant powers at a quite-British government boarding school similar to the X-Men’s Xavier Institute for Higher Learning. There, children sang little animals to death, lifted refrigerators above their heads, and had in-depth conversations with pine trees. One boy was linked to atmospheric phenomena in Iceland, but on such a deep and complex level that no one really understood how they were related.
Parnell, Sean with John R. Bruning. Outlaw Platoon. William Morrow. Mar. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9780062066398. $26.99 MEMOIR
Former U.S. Army airborne ranger Parnell’s grunt-in-the-trenches memoir, filled with complicated, upsetting situations so crazy as to seem made up, energetically describes the alternately mundane and extreme life of the contemporary American soldier. Parnell and his soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, stationed in Afghanistan, must alternate‚ sometimes instantly‚ between roles as combatants, rescue workers, humanitarians, and anti-terrorists. Powerful, gritty, and sometimes disturbing, this book belly-punches readers with story after story of decent guys trying to act honorably in situations where it’s physically, psychologically, and morally difficult to do so. The impact is immediate and powerful, akin to hearing a vet open up over a few colduns. I know some ex-infantrymen, dudes who are confident, relaxed, and comfortable in a variety of situations. They can lead, but they also know how to contribute to team efforts. They are funny, fun, and work hard. It could be that I just happen to know some great guys, but I think not. The upshot is that we have to hand it to Parnell and his men who, alongside Colby Buzzell (My War: Killing Time in Iraq), Benjamin Tupper (Dudes of War), and David Bellavia (House to House: An Epic Memoir of War), are today’s true ‘Mericans. Plus they know how to keep the guns away from imbalanced, unreliable dudes like me.
Rasmussen, Gorm Henrik. Pink Moon: A Story About Nick Drake. Rocket 88. 2012. tr. from Danish by Bent Sørenson. 176p. ISBN 9781906615284. $25; pap. ISBN 9781906615291. $14.95. BIOG
Everyone has a soft spot for poor Nick Drake, a sadder rock figure even than Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. Drake released three albums in five years and, despite great potential and a strong songwriterly hand, OD’d in 1974‚ no one knows if it was intentional‚ at age 26. Originally published in Denmark in 1980, this quiet, accessible book, which nicely matches its subject’s somber music, somewhat debunks Drake’s romanticized image as depressive loner. Interviews with his parents and school chums reveal a magnetic personality and gifted athlete (he may still hold the record at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, UK for the 100-yard dash). Though he did seem intensely concerned with creating meaning (√† la the personality type described in Eric Maisel’s Van Gogh’s Blues), the young Drake comes off more as a Promethean figure, less a Hart Crane/Dante Gabriel Rossetti (or even Elliott Smith/Ian Curtis) one. This changed in his last years, when depression got the best of him. Wonderful as this work is, however, it can’t be trusted as a biography. Rasmussen can’t know what transpired in 1967 at Aix-Marseille University, where Drake spent six months, nor did he have the kind of access to repeat conversations from Drake’s trip to North Africa verbatim. Too much license is taken for this to be anything but, as the title suggests, a story‚ albeit a really good one‚ in which straight biographical bits are interwoven with skillfully composed, extrapolated scenes. Where casual readers will see this as obsessive, fans will find it a great companion book to Drake’s music, and rock lovers will enjoy the author’s serious, personal attempt to get intimate with his icon.
Ross, Robert. Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend. Titan. 2011. 336p. ISBN 9780857683786. $25.99. BIOG
Awkward writing and a fawning tone ruin what could have been a great appreciation of underrated pop-eyed* actor/writer comedy genius Marty Feldman. Feldman’s 1970s fame came at the price of a couple of decades of energetically pursued misery, including stints as jazz-loving bohemian in Paris and in hundreds of crappy odd jobs, including book stealer, busker, dishwasher, trumpeter, and boot sole groover‚ whatever that is. Feldman’s early show biz work in dance halls sounds unbelievably dreary, the prevailing theme being that he would do almost anything for a buck; he finally settled into a routine of being basically, a bad musical specialty act. Feldman soon found a niche as a writer‚ at times a brilliant one. Who else could describe Jesus Christ as not the kind of Jew who would be accepted by the Hampstead Garden Suburb. He wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor or the kind of Jew my parents would have accepted. He was merely a savior, which wasn’t a professional. Disjointedly, Ross details the well-liked Feldman’s rise to stardom as Eye-Gor in Young Frankenstein, his eventual disillusion with Hollywood, and his death from a heart attack during the filming of Yellowbeard. Instead of reading this ultimately frustrating jumble, look Feldman up on YouTube, where you’ll find his work on At Last the 1948 Show exuberantly irreverent. Let’s hope someone biographicalizes Peter Cook someday soon.
*As for his famous eyes, the cause is pretty mundane: an operation for Graves’ disease (just like Rod Stewart and Orca Winfrey have), which resulted in his eyes being more protruded; he also had a squint.