Hey, librarians. How are your Jane Austen poster and ceramic cat collections coming along? Put that crap down for a minute and focus on these eight disparate titles.
And I mean disparate‚ I don’t fling about serious terms lightly. I tried, and failed, to weave some sort of narrative sense into this introduction. The books themselves are great (well, six of them), but putting them together thematically is about as comfortable as painting your head green and walking around the local pi√±ata festival handing out broomsticks.
Subjects include guns, some fifth-grade scamps, triathlon, hating on Wilkie Collins, pencil sharpening, a Cold War tragedy, an NBA legend, and a Russian sniper. How to make them commingle? I wrote, rewrote, crossed out, and tried again. I worked with my dog, tried interpretive dance: nothing worked. I hired guest writers, ghost writers, speech writers, underwriters. Fired them all‚ bupkes, dudes.
On the plus side, I wrote a rap song about it (below). Minus side: it sucks. Brings us to a new contest; The Challenge: out-rap me using elements of the eight reviewed books. The winner will receive: ONE POUND of bridge mix plus $10 in U.S. currency. There are only two contest rules: 1) it must be submitted in the comments section below, and 2) music librarians are disqualified (music librarianship is the last refuge of scoundrels).
Doug’s Disparate Rap
Sometimes mixed nuts is just mixed nuts/ eat up
Got mah pencil nice an’ pointy/ freakin’ Jerry West he such a jerky
Pre-glasnost politics be wack/ mad props to da boyhood adventure from the land of the Union Jack
Just wanna swim an’ bike an’ run/ dem rebels be blowin’ up Chechneeyuhhh
Mah trigga finga gotta itch/ Wilkie Collins such a little bitch!
I can’t rhyme worth a bag o’ wet cement/ want y’all to best me in the comments
Barrett, Paul M. Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. Crown. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780307719935. $26. HIST
I know nothing about guns, except to keep the hell away from them. How odd, then, to find this enjoyable, informative, well-written book on the Glock 17 pistol. Created in 1981 (I thought it was older) by scrappy Austrian Gaston Glock, who at the same time was running a second-hand metal press in the garage with his wife, Helga, the firearm was pretty awesome at improving on the extant death gadgets. It was lighter, more durable, and easier to use, plus it held more rounds. In a confluence of politics, technology, and timing, this underdog of a product upended the entire arms industry, and Glock became as synonymous with weaponry as Samuel Colt‚Ä¶or Tony Bayonet! It quickly became the go-to weapon for pretty much everyone in America, from cops to criminals to your third-grade teacher. Aggressive promotion lent affordability and prestige to owning the weapon; popular culture swooned, and market dominance followed. This meant bazillions for Glock and lots of other greedy businessmen who upholstered their dens of iniquity with $100 bills. I wouldn’t have thought that the biography of a gun‚ and its namesake and industry‚ could be this interesting, but Barrett (American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion) provides a readable, untechnical history.
Evans, Lissa. Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. Sterling Children’s Books. 2012. 272p. ISBN 9781402798061. $14.95. F
I loved this charming little British adventure about a ten-year-old boy and shared it with my own 11-year-old boy. He loved it, too. We both breezed through its pages in the shortest amount of time we had among baseball, triathlon, school, work, and all that arson we love to do. Stuart Horten is a curious and clever young chap who moves with his achingly dull parents to a place nowhere near an adventure playground or a swimming pool. There was no front yard, and the back yard consisted of a square of grass surrounded by a fence that was slightly too high for Stuart to see over. Things look like the Big Suck until Stu finds out that the town was once HQ for his family’s long-defunct business of miraculous mechanisms (locks, safes, coin-op machines) headed by his long-gone great Uncle Tony, a magician. Holy claiming your birthright, Batman! Because of a local villain, the nosy triplet neighbor girls, and cuz’ parents just don’t understand, Stuart is forced to slink around collecting clues and do detective work. He soon discovers six mysterious coins and solves riddles that unlock various contraptions around town that, in turn, lead to the big fat Maguffin. A great, throwback puzzler.
Friel, Joe. Your First Triathlon: Race-Ready in 5 Hours a Week. 2d ed. VeloPress. 2012. 256p. illus. ISBN 9781934030868. pap. $18.95. SPORTS/HEALTH
The title pretty much sums up what you can expect: Friel clearly covers for beginners the basics of the sport and its components (swimming, biking, running). Information on nutrition, gear, muscular strength, and more adds value and presents multisport as a healthy approach to life. Friel writes clearly, and he’s concerned with providing budding athletes with information that is immediately useful. For example, the sections on what to eat before, during, and after exercise are great. The body simply cannot operate on only one fuel. If you start to run low on one of them‚ carbohydrates, obviously‚ you simply can’t go on. This is referred to as ‚Äòbonking.’ He also debunks the fat-burning zone myth, addresses what I impolitely call the Hey, but I’m old! factor, and provides about 30 pages of workout regimens. To date, I’ve done over 80 triathlons from short sprint distances through full Ironman races, and I can unequivocally state that in every single one of them I have used advice, information, or tips that I got from Joe Friel’s books‚ especially the Triathlete’s Training Bible (also VeloPress, 2009). Give it a whirl; you’re across the finish line before you know it.
Lilin, Nicolai. Sniper. Norton. 2012. ISBN 9780393082111. $24.95. F
This roman √† clef drops readers into the nightmarish story of a young dude named Kolima from Transnistria (sounds fake, but it’s real) who is conscripted into the Russian military and sent to Chechnya in a guerilla unit called saboteurs (Russian for real tough bastards). As the titular sniper, Kolima has a job description that differs a little from yours: I had to protect my comrades during transfers, participate in operations as a storm trooper, and collaborate with other units to find and eliminate enemy snipers. Somber yet readable, this blends myriad details (e.g., the many ways to use a bayonet) and exemplifies how soldiers need to become emotionally stoic: In the face of the horrors we went through every day on the front, some lost their mind, others risked losing it, many just died. The soldiers often had to be cruel‚ it was a matter of survival. This story is not for the squeamish, as Kolima faces, uhm, gross stuff early on. On corpse cleanup duty, he learns to shake bodies before lifting them so that the rats (big ones) run away. Urban battles are de facto meat grinders, and typical sights include a spray of bullets hit a small group of about fifteen men: in an instant, body parts, arms, legs flew off, everything was soaked in blood.
Olshan, Joseph. Cloudland. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780250000170. $24.99. F
Ah, spring (almost summer!)! Put away your cat sweaters, hike, bike‚Ä¶and let the bodies be revealed by snowmelt: And to think that each time I went for a walk I had passed within fifteen yards of this mother of two lying in a vault of snow that would entomb her for the rest of January and February and most of March. Awfuler: the murderer staged the victim to appear gradually like a budding flower. Unfortunately, this great, gruesome start leads nowhere. Readers get all the superfluous details of narrator Catherine Winslow’s small-time, S-L-O-W life on the titular Cloudland Road in Hartland, VT. Catherine ain’t no V.I. Warshawsky; she’s an ex-investigative journalist (she slept with Bob Woodward!) who owns an indoor potbelly pig and has a maddening penchant for pastoral blather: The forest had a sharp aroma of spring earth, and wildflowers were burgeoning‚ purple wood violets, Dutchman’s breeches, trillium and hepaticas‚Ä¶ Trillium?* And good luck at keeping the male characters straight. There’s a painter, his son, her attacker, some gay guy…maybe these are all the same person. The final nail in the coffin is that the murders are based on an obscure Wilkie Collins book, The Widower’s Branch. Let me state for the record that Wilkie Collins sucks. And while I like occasional big words, amanuensis (some kind of assistant) and the like deliberately provoke impatience.
*In case you want more: Cloudland Road is flanked on either side by tall oaks that in the summer cast a lovely drape of cooling shade. Wide-open meadows and pastures gently undulate as they stretch far back to forest, the land itself slowly rising to and elevation of 1,900 feet, and opening to a view of the Green Mountains that to the north are framed by Mount Ascutney.
Rees, David. How To Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Angelsmiths, & Civil Servants. Melville House. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9781612190402. $19.95. HUMOR
About ten years ago, I thought I had reviewed the weirdly coolest title ever with Janne Ruokonen’s How To Read How-To and Self-Help Books: Getting Real Results from the Advice You Get. While Christian sex books and Badass: Birth of a Legend came close, this one tops the list. Not only can Mr. Rees sharpen the hell out of any pencil you give him, he can take a joke way beyond its natural limit. This is the best treatise on pencil sharpening (in a sea of none). It also proves that capitalism, however small a niche it occupies, can stretch credulity. You’ve probably not heard of Rees, perhaps best not known for the political comic strip Get Your War On, which appeared in alternative papers, and slightly more not known as a Huffington Post blogger. That Rees is serious about farce is clear. Even the author’s note is diabolically funny, in part reading, I am left-handed, and this book is intended for left-handed people. Is it a joke, or does he get at the gooberish core of the craftsman when he notes, too much rotational toque during the sharpening process may gouge the graphite and leave a twisting ‚Äòghost image’ of the sharpener blade? I’ve already alerted the Pulitzer committee.
Smith, Tom Rob. Agent 6. Grand Central. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780446550765. $25.99. F
This juicy, detailed novel is the final third of Smith’s trilogy begun with The Secret Speech (you never heard it) and continued with Child 44 (ma and pa plum run outta names after #43). It’s long and political, with spies and people fixated on ideologies, but TRS keeps this thing really chuggin’ as he examines how loyalty is different than ideology. Though supported by deep, polished characters, the story focuses on hard-ass KGB man Leo Demidov in 1950 Stalinist/monolithic Russia. Leo’s world is changed when he meets Raisa, and superlative little moments show how an Apparatchik in love isn’t any different from you and me. Leo and Raisa’s intricate relationship shares all the intimacy and vulnerability of anyone’s (except maybe David Bowie and Iman’s). By 1965, Leo is an ex-KGB man with switched loyalties: he’s happy to play John Lennon to Raisa’s Yoko and is a full-bore family man. Unfortunately, Raisa dies while chaperoning a trip to the United States that summer, a Cold War pawn. By 1980, Leo’s considerably darker allegiances lie with opium and dreams of revenge. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a 450-plus-page assburner of a book, not something you can realistically get through without a lot of, like, intent, but it’s worth the ride.
West, Jerry with Jonathan Coleman. West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. Little, Brown. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9780316053495. $27.99. MEMOIR/SPORTS
Just as the idea of onion blossoms, canned peaches, and sex on the seashore are all better than the real thing, the same can be said for the idea, the mystique of Jerry West. In fact, almost anything is better than this intolerable, self-aggrandizing affair, including halitosis, botulism, and that awful salt water rash on your bum. Bear with me, warns West on page six before treating readers to the blah blah blah of his hardscrabble upbringing and his bullying, coal miner father. We get hints that this childhood incubated some form of greatness (perhaps great self-absorption?). After the death of his brother in Korea, West used basketball as a form of control; the court became my sanctuary and my refuge, the place where I felt most alive. But as he chronicles his supernaturally awesome play, coaching tenure, and executive career, we glimpse the real West behind the prickly reputation and reports of being a complicated man. He’s a dick. I don’t envy Coleman, who must have been constipated for weeks after this project. I have been the silhouetted figure of the NBA logo since 1969, West writes. That’s the kind of mystique that can be left alone.
Self-Help from the BFD Vault
Carson, Richard David. Taming Your Gremlin. rev. ed. Quill. 2003. 173p. ISBN 9780060520229. pap. $14.99. SELF-HELP
Carson, a psychotherapist, is humorous, concise, and incisive in his approach to personal happiness. A quick read and a classic, now available in a 2009 revised Kindle edition.
Cohen, Alan. Why Your Life Sucks: And What You Can Do About It. Jodere Group. 2002. 199p. ISBN 9781588720283. pap. $14. SELF-HELP
Honest, engaging; treats multiple types of sucking, e.g., You give your power away and You try to fix other people with quick, speedy takes on the syndromes behind these types of behaviors. It’s no panacea, but it’s interesting.
Carter, Steven. This Is How Love Works: 9 Essential Secrets You Need To Know. M. Evans & Co. 2001. 224p. ISBN 9780871319395. $21.95. SELF-HELP
The nine secrets are good but not quite secret: Notice small stuff, create safe spaces, tend the fire. Perhaps too brief but engaging. Like Sucks and Gremlin, this relies heavily on anecdotes to make things clear, and to good effect.
[Editor’s Note: Douglas used to be LJ‘s Self-Help columnist, in case that isn’t obvious.‚ HM.]
The Endorsement: Michael Chabon
Yes, he won a Pulitzer. Yes, he’s rich from Hollywood dreck, including John Carter. Yes, he’s dark and handsome. But don’t let those facts deter you from the writing, which is as magical as eating hallucinogenic pine cones atop the weathered, barren gabbro of the Outer Hebrides. Just as the rather rotund Ken Follett never met a cookie he didn’t like, I’ve never read some Chabon I didn’t enjoy. He has an ass-crackingly funny detective novel (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) set in an alternate reality where Jews have created a homeland not in Israel but in Alaska. Wonder Boys is the well-known story of sad sack Grady Tripp and the satellites that surround him. Like most of us, Grady is a perpetual thickwit whose lone success cursed him to a life that must be akin to what Joseph Heller and William Golding experienced. Even Chabon’s slim The Final Solution (a novel of detection) is quietly amazing as a study of how World War II must have looked to the English. His autobiographical book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, lyrically shows how a Pulitzer winner can be a schlump just like you and me, only with better writing. And 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is, rightfully, held up as a hell of a wild fictive ride chronicling the intertwined lives and work of two desperate, driven Jewish dudes making comic books in the 1930s and 1940s.