Then reality hit me. Or rather, I got hit in the face by some hella powerful little dude! It was only after I woke up‚ tied to a wooden chair‚ that the little dude actually hit me, bounding forward and delivering a savage jab to my right jaw. It shattered what little concentration I had left. It also loosened a molar or two. The slats of the chair dug into my spine. I wasn’t sure when the limo ride back to airport had turned into this. Hell, I wasn’t even sure this was New York City anymore‚ it smelled like Jersey. Then little guy hit me again, and I nearly blacked out.
Where were you this afternoon between 3:30 and 5? another dude, a heavyset one, screamed at me from across the room.
Blinking away the sparks of light dancing through my vision, I tried to focus on Heavyset. Wha? Which day? Then I remembered, and like a soft jet of cool, clean water, relief washed over me. I practically sang back at him, I was at BEA! BEA!
What the hell is that? snarled Little. He was putting some sort of glove on his hand. Were these guys cops? Can they do this, I wondered? Hunh? screamed Little. What is BEA?
BookExpo America! I shouted. My voice was distorted, thick with fat lips and swelling bruises. I had to sploop out a glob of what must have been blood and tissue to get the words out. I just hoped it wasn’t part of my tongue.
Bhook Esspo Amewikuh? squeaked Heavyset. His tinny, high-pitched squeak was mimicking my inability to speak. He was leering at me.
Thath ohnley becauth you’ve bheen hitting meh, I splooped. I’m a bhook weviewah. I weviewed aight bookfsh dere.
Heavyset stopped leering, an expression of mistrust spreading over his wide, fleshy lips. Eight books? What books, you little bastard?! Prove it! he demanded. If you can prove it, we’ll let you go.
Since my hands were tied, I gestured with my blood-dribbled chin down at my left breast pocket. In thewre. Ith a wist of the bookfsh wif da reviewth.
Little sprang forward, grabbed the list, and unfolded it. Heavyset leaned in and, lips moving, they began to read. After a minute, Heaveyset glanced at Little. Uh oh, he said. The boss ain’t gonna like this.
Abrams, David. Fobbit. Black Cat: Grove. Sept. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9780802120328. pap. $15. F
Fobbit, a pejorative term, is a portmanteau of forward operating base and hobbit and stands for a soldier stationed at an FOB who avoids combat by remaining at base. I have enjoyed Abrams’s writing in Esquire and am happy to report that this darkly comic novel is a slice of awesome. Set during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the plot is awash with soldiers (and hundreds of pissed-off Iraqi citizens) and hones in on three disparate characters: Sgt. Chance Gooding writes press releases in the public affairs office; there’s dust on his gun, and he doesn’t send up flares to communicate, he emails the New York Times. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Vic Duret, prone to migraines, just wants to go home. And then there’s Capt. Abe Shrinkle, who soils himself at the slightest provocation and is quite possibly the worst officer in the United States Army. This ain’t Hogan’s Heroes. Like the best writing of M.A.S.H., it is true dark comedy in that it reinforces how unpleasant life can be for soldiers, and how ridiculous, funny, and stupid life can be. And it reminds us how cheap life is; how cheap American lives are.
Bachman, Randy. Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories. Pintail. Oct. 2012. 248p. ISBN 9780670066599. pap. $16. MUSIC/BIOG
Ahh, the simple pleasures of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Takin’ Care of Business), the working man’s band who proved that normal dudes could hit Number One, too. Was your brother in a band? He rocked some BTO. Bachman has been in the music business forever, and this book perfectly captures the conversational tone and relaxed, been-there-done-that vibe of his Sirius radio show, Vinyl Tap. The appeal is that Bachman ain’t no Keith Richards. He’s Randy Freaking Bachman from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He seems down-to-earth, and he knows everybody, pulling out names and anecdotes that are juicy but not crazy. Yes, he knows Neil Young (star of BEA 2012, also from Winnipeg), as well as Eddie Van Halen and Ringo Starr, but it’s the little anecdotes about rockers like Gene Vincent, Steve Cropper, Chet Atkins, and Frank Zappa that are real treats for rock freaks. And thank the Good Lord there’s no overarching theme or deep psychological introspection here, because sometimes you really just want to hear about that time in 1968 that Bachman once gave a weeping, broke Van Morrison a guitar to lip-synch Brown-Eyed Girl on TV in Cleveland.
Gonzales, Laurence. Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. Norton. Sept. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780393083187. $26.95. PSYCH
So, your 40-foot yacht is going down, and five of you are stuck in a rubber life raft 300 miles off the coast of North Carolina with NOTHING. Or maybe your husband has shot you, and you’ve bled ten precious pints. This is a book about what happens after you’ve somehow lived through the shark ripping out your armpit, severing arteries and leaving a narrow flap of skin to hold your arm on. The survivor tales of these traumas (as well as large disasters like the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis) make for freakishly compelling reading, but it’s the in-the-trenches stories of physical recovery, life rebuilding, retooling that really pay off. Gonzales (Everyday Survival, 2008) delves deeply into survival’s aftermath and works hard to pinpoint what resilience looks like for each person. How does one keep living? How does one move forward? How does one find a new normal? Because when you get your hand caught underneath a boulder, and it pins you there for 127 hours, you’re not normal anymore.
Grecian, Alex. The Yard. Putnam. 2012. 432p. ISBN 9780399149542. $26.95. F
At first I thought The Yard was all about lawn care, but it turns out it’s Grecian’s (heir to the Formula 44 fortune) debut, a sprawling, engaging crime novel detailing the hunt for a killer. Mr. G manages to not distract readers with carefully composed, chunky details about its Victorian (1889) London setting (think top hats and capes) but keeps chugging along at a damn good clip. For example, even though a boy is running for his life, we see what he sees. To his right, the black hansom cab sat idle, the horse sniffing the morning air, the coachman hidden in a blanket of shadow. The forensic efforts of those days prove fascinating, the characters are well defined, and the plot is propulsive. There’s even a mysterious, sinister, bald man involved‚ not unlike the one who’s outside waiting for you right now (cue the creepy music). It’s not what I think of as historical fiction; it’s more the Victorian version of Rush Hour (Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker), a buddy comedy with the novice detective teamed with the experienced, older cop showing the kid the ropes and getting’ the bad guy.
Grow, Kory. Heavy Metal: From Hard Rock to Extreme Metal. White Star Pub. 2012. 272p. ISBN 9788854406568. $34.95. MUSIC
Finally, the heavy metal coffee-table book that everybody can agree on, just in time for National Fireworks Day! While punk rock is really more a dude’s style, metal has quite a place in our hearts, and I can’t really put my finger on why. Not that I want to put a finger anywhere near the guys in Slayer, Megadeath, or Motörhead. With metal, an audient is one of many, part of a crowd. You can sound your individual barbaric yawp, but, oddly, you have to do it en masse. Dudes will pick up this book, they’ll make fun of the bands, they’ll talk about metal music, and they’ll remember when (e.g., the first time they saw KISS). In fact, this might be the very first Books for Dudes book discussion group title, because we’re sure not going to sit there and talk for an hour about 50 Shades of Gray: and slowly she stuffed her — into his —– before the two –ed their —-s out in the bathroom… Feeling brave? Google Images: Manowar.
Pierce, Richard. Dead Men. Overlook. Jul. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781590208687. $25.95. F
Antarctic exploration and Robert Falcon Scott go together like helium blimps named Hindenberg and static sparks. Both, ironically, carry quite a romantic charge. Pierce’s first novel intersperses imagined little episodes of Scott and his fellow explorers with growing-up-into-I-am-going-to-be experiences of a loner, sad sack-esque, computer networky nerdy dude. Adam is besotted on sight with this skinny little chick who turns out to be a famous artist. She’s obsessed with the Antarctic and wants to get to the bottom of the mystery about the doomed Scott expedition‚ they were 11 miles away from a food depot and didn’t make it. Why*? Adam proves steadfast and loyal to a fault to Birdie, who proves inconstant, fickle, variable, and unreliable, a skinny little bitch on wheels. Part of what kept me reading is why? What magic power does she have over him? Is it similar to the power my sweetie has over me? The Antarctic expedition and the romance are alike in that they both depend on the charisma and charm of one person and the blind, dogged loyalty of others to make it happen. Or (ahem) not happen, as was the case with Scott.
*Lots of reasons, some of which are: they were wearing clothing that wouldn’t get 90 percent of you through a New York City winter; they were eating about half of what they should; they were man-hauling sleds (called sledging) for 800 freaking miles, carrying everything they had, including 30 pounds of ROCKS for science.
Santos, Aaron. Ballparking: Practical Math for Impractical Sports Questions. Running Pr. 2012. 220p. ISBN 9780762443451. pap. $15. MATH
What does a sports-loving mathematician do in his free time? If you’re Aaron Santos, you gamely attempt to answer questions like, How many swimmers can fit inside an Olympic-sized pool before it overflows? About 2000. I think young minds will take a special shine to the explanations as Santos presents them because he shows his work (as my math teachers used to say). A few pages of explanation present the hypotheses, explain the basics of calculating the problem (including the math symbols that I don’t understand but enjoy looking at), and arrive at a solution. Thus, we get answers to the titular impractical sports questions such as Assuming the rumor about rat poop in baseball hot dogs is true, what’s the total mass of rat poop consumed in MLB ballparks each season? About 54 tons. An interesting series explores the number of teeth lost by NHL Hockey players in the 90 years since its inception‚ about 27,000! Leading to a total toothpaste savings of $1.8 million! Along the way, Santos admirably explains scientific notation, that all-star running back Emmett Smith really only ran 10.4 career miles, and losing ten pounds of unsightly fat requires climbing 120,000 stairs.
Testerman, Doyce. Hidden Things. HarperVoyager: HarperCollins. Sept. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780062108111. $14.99. F
I tend to enjoy first novels, and there’s a lot to like about this crime story with magical overtones: it’s pure escapist reading. Our protagonist, Calliope Jenkins, is kind of an asskicker. Independent and sexy (not in a girly way), she’s a private investigator in the VI Warshawsky mold. When her former boyfriend and current business partner is found dead, she’s superdriven to find out why. In doing so, she winds up needing the help of a bizarre dude who looks like a cross between a homeless man and a clown. Reality is like a carpet, he explains. In some places it stays nice and fresh and solid and sometimes [t]he carpet wears down to paper thin. It’s on those thin spots this story depends.
- Good: The plot moves a little too quickly, like a whirlwind.
- Good: Readers don’t know where it’s going or where it’s going to wind up.
- Good: Descriptions, as when she depicts a fat man: His torso was a broad, fat teardrop that extended to his knees; his arms, also quivering, were flat wide sacks that swung ineffectually at his sides.
Zevin, Dan. Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad. Scribner. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9781451606461. $24. HUMOR/MEMOIR
Zevin is a humorist with archetypal dude reactions to fatherhood, family life, his parents, and getting a minivan. His book represents the kind of easy, accessible humor that father-dudes immediately understand because they, too, have gone from onetime hipster to some schmoe driving a minivan. Losing your cool isn’t attractive, but it happens to all of us. If it happened to Bill Cosby (who went from playing Alexander Scott to Dr. Cliff Huxtable), it’s going to happen to YOU. Zevin succeeds, though you can really sense the Eau de Weary stench coming off him. One chapter is all about going to court to fight a dog-walking ordinance violation. Conversations revolve around the mundaneness of airline reward miles, sojourns to discount grocery chains, Disney. And that’s life at the intersection of dude and dad. Life gets sad, mundane, and much more tame.
The Endorsement: Ray Bradbury
We all knew it was coming, and sooner rather than later, right? I mean the guy was 91 and had lived a good long life. A perpetually surprising and talented scribbler, RB was a fiction writer of all possible fictions in the truest sense. Sure, some of it was sf, and some of it had fantasy elements, but he was bigger than genre. Bradbury will be remembered and loved for stories about real boys dreaming of going to rocket school, disillusioned astronauts wandering through ghostly alien landscapes, friends battling a wicked magician, and a society closing in around a fireman who has developed a conscience.
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. HarperCollins. 1997. 288p. ISBN 9780380973835. $18.99. F
Yes, Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are amazing full-length novels. But Bradbury’s best, IMHO, was that most intriguing of all fiction types: the short story cycle. Published in 1950, this relates the colonization of Mars. While at first the Martians succeed in repelling the invaders, Earth’s fourth expedition succeeds, helped along by a plague that has decimated the natives. The trickle of early settlers turns into a river, and soon Mars is very much a copy of the Earth everyone was so intent to leave: rotten. In The Off Season, most of the population returns to Earth only to die in a nuclear war. Bradbury’s eternal hopefulness shines through in the few who have stayed behind become the new Martians. Lyrical, compelling, and with a strong anticapitalistic streak.
Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine. HarperVoyager: HarperCollins. 1999. 319p. ISBN 9780380977260. pap. $13. F
Another story cycle originally published in 1957, DW centers on the boyhood adventures of awesomely named preteen Douglas in 1920s Illinois. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about these celebrations and dirges about youth, growth, and innocence wherein Bradbury’s seemingly limitless imagination turns the humdrum (soda fountains, lawnmowers) into explorations of subjects like human time machines, and witchcraft.
Death Is a Lonely Business. HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. 2003. 232p. ISBN 9780380789658. pap. $12.99. F
This noir mystery is set in decrepit 1949 Venice, CA, and stars an unnamed writer acting as a gumshoe who must solve a series of murders with the help of detective Elmo Crumley. Written in the style of Hammett or Chandler, it succeeds as an authentic celebration of style and is about the last thing one would expect from a SF Grand Master. And that just speaks to RB’s ability and range. There are even sequels, A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) and Let’s All Kill Constance (2003).
Two favorite short stories:
- Uncle Einar, in which a winged man looks back on his life. An accident robs him of his gift of flight, and he winds up married to a sweet farmgirl. It’s enjoyable in its own right. What man doesn’t think of himself as special, bucking and rearing in captivity (read: marriage), no matter how awesome the woman? Could have been called Uncle Einar Gets a Minivan.
- Interval in Sunlight, with not one sf iota, is a quietly harrowing story of a husband and wife traveling through Mexico. She is unhappy, but it’s the kind of unhappy where she doesn’t fully realize how bad it is, or how hard it’s going to be to break away. When I read this aloud to someone long ago, they were shocked that a male sf writer (gasp!) could have such a strong grasp of a female character.