After cleaning out the attic several times and reading all my back issues of Monitoring Times, I returned to reading that most primitive of written formats: the fictive monograph. I know, I know, many categories exist including chick lit, romances/bromances, and 50 Shades of Poop. But here at BFD HQ I focus on distinct genres which delight dudes everywhere:
- Manuals, product guides, topographical maps, and nautical charts;
- Books I like. There are many of these.
Category 2, friends, is where authors make the Magic Happen. Older titles, like from Tony Hillerman or Larry Block, are classics. Like a wife-beater tee over a speedo, they never go out of style. And new authors, hey – they are the classics of 20 years from now. When David Gillham and Jay Kristoff come to town, dig it like a bold, boxy suit in place of your spants.
Block, Lawrence. The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. Random House. 1980. 1st ed. 213p. ISBN 9780394510651. $8.95. F
This holds up okay for a book that was written in 1980. It’s the fourth in Block’s “Burglar” series about a (wait for it) burglar (yessssssssss!) who … ya know … burgles stuff in NYC. The rather unfortunately named Bernie Rhodenbarr is a lockpicking master sensei ninja thief by night and a humble bookseller by day. He’s also a bit of a Cary Grant/To Catch a Thief wannabe (hey, who isn’t?). Bernie and his dog-grooming best friend cook up a scheme to rob a wealthy couple. When they waltz in, they find the place already ransacked, but they steal some stuff from the safe anyway, including a wicked rare coin. They then make a beeline for Bernie’s favorite fat old fence, Abel Pratt. This dude loves his pastries and fine wine, lemmetellya. When Abel is bumped off the next day, the cops are looking hard to finger Bernie—so he has to figure out whodunit. Readers will have long figured out who the murderer is by about page 13. What’s left is Block’s screwing around with the minutiae of life: what clothes Bernie is wearing, what kind of drinks he’s having, and a long scene at a podiatrist. The series is light and enjoyable; if you like one you’ll like them all, but if you don’t, one is enough.
Gillham, David. City of Women. Putnam. 2012. 392p. ISBN 9780399157769. $25.95. F
From the cover image and title I expected a Book Club pick or something that would implode with pretension. Instead, this is a lovely, well-crafted novel set in 1943 Berlin. All the men are away fighting, and the titular city of women is starting to feel the strain as the war escalates. Air raids, ration shortages, brave faces, and economizing to the point of subsistence become routine. Sigrid, a soldier’s wife, lives with her stepmother and still daydreams about her former lover, a subversive Jew who has escaped the city. She helped him with teeny delivery jobs and loved the thrill. Gradually, though, Sigrid is drawn into the perilous, dissident activity of hiding Jews. Gillham has set the pace at a slow, deliberate crawl so that readers can drink in the setting and the details. He adeptly captures the women’s fatigue, the smells of old blankets, the delicious tease of shop windows labeled “Nur Antrappen” – “For Decoration Only.” A simple walk by the cemetery features “… ancient flat-faced headstones caked with moss, choked by vines. Obelisks and mute stone angles blackened by wreaths of the city’s soot.” (50). Dudes hoping to find industrious frauleins dressed in rubber and lipstick will be disappointed to find, basically, throwback German versions of women they may know: annoyed, tired, worn-down hausfraus who feel trapped.
Hillerman, Tony. The Sinister Pig. HarperCollins. 2003. 228p. ISBN 9780060194437. hc $25.95 F
Why are fast, cheap things often so damned pleasurable? Like burgers off the dollar menu or a hit from the crack pipe, this is rather satisfying for something so quick and easy. The ‘pig’ of the title isn’t an actual porker but a buoy-looking plug thing that’s run through pipelines to detect cracks, holes, and assorted other pipeliney troubles. And newbie U.S. Border Patrol officer Bernadette Manuelito stumbles onto a big pipelinery mess one day: pigs with massive amounts of coke smuggled from Mexico to the U.S. Bernie, who gets trapped by the bad guys, used to work for (and is holding a huge torch for) Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee. When Chee, himself quietly crushing on Bernie, figures out what’s going on, he races to save her under the guidance of retired lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and with the help of Cowboy Dashee, a Hopi with the Federal Bureau of Land Management. The villains are WASPy Washingtonians and a bighearted Latin American desperado. Despite the multiethnic cast, the only tension takes the form of good-natured sparring between Dashee and Chee. This is Hillerman at his most predictable, thinnest and, with that huge cast, using that most annoying of authorial tropes: ‘the gang is all here.’ There’s even a happy ending. Despite all that, it’s weirdly satisfying. Like finding a mint copy of The Best of Blur in the bargain bin for $5.
Koontz, Dean. Life Expectancy. Bantam. 2004. 401p. ISBN 9780553804140. hc. $27. F
Koontz writes that “Insanity is not evil, but all evil is insane. Evil itself is never funny but insanity sometimes can be.” I don’t know if that’s a maxim or a platitude, but it informs this novel which is among the weirdest—and poorest—books I’ve ever read. I admit I haven’t read much Koontz, though it’s not for lack of his putting out books; the dude has at least one thousand novels out there. In this, the premise sounds great: Jimmy Tock’s gramps dies at the exact moment Jimmy is born, but not before he spouts 5 doomsday dates that will prove hellacious for Jimmy. The execution sucks, coming off like a cross between the most painfully awkward moments of L. Ron Hubbard and the outlandishness of Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” tales minus the dark humor. There are what feels like a thousand pages of Jimmy bumping up against a family of evil clowns. There are dismal shootings, uncreative maimings, bank robbery, and child endangerment. I give Koontz points for trying to spice up the genre with a thriller starring a pastry chef, but just because a book can be written doesn’t mean it should be published. Aren’t there unpublished authors who deserve a shot? You bet there are, and when I am crowned emperor you will see a hundred The Cryptos Conundrum for every Life Expectancy.
Kristoff, Jay. Stormdancer. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9781250001405. hc. $24.99. F
A good tracker will tell you that a horse and rider passed two hours ago. An Irish tracker will tell you what the rider was wearing, the color of the horse’s hooves, how the sun sparkled in the morning dew, and like that. The deeply imaginative Stormdancer is a quest novel of a decidedly Irish ilk set in a dystopian Japanese feudal society. If you enjoy rich detail and sensual writing, you’ll dig it. Where others would use ‘slum,’ Kristoff writes, “…a cramped and weeping growth of low-rent tenements and rusting warehouses slumped in the shadow of the sky-ships.” The island empire of Shima is so badly polluted that many wear full protective gear when outdoors. The toxicity is caused by the chief crop—the blood lotus—which serves as fuel for steampunky machines like airships and which doubles as a super-addictive drug (like if your lawnmower was a meth mixer). There’s a sociopathic shogun who wants what he wants and doesn’t give a crap about anything else; what he wants is an arashitora, or griffin. After his hunter actually finds one, there’s a terrible mess survived only by the hunter’s tagalong daughter, Yukiko, who bonds with the griffin. Kristoff apparently didn’t get paid for plot (predictable) but for massively inventive language and freaky elements like a decadent ruling class that immolates those (like Yukiko) who are ‘different.’ Bristling with energy and enthusiasm, this is the start of what should be a deservedly popular series.
Mortimer, John. The Trials of Rumpole. Penguin. 1996. 205p. ISBN 9780140246971. pap. $9.95. F
Readers everywhere enjoy a good ‘Ace Attorney’ trope. I don’t know who started it, maybe Erle Stanley Gardner (comments welcomed), but from Perry Mason to Steve Martini’s Paul Madriani to Michael Connolly’s Mickey Haller, Ace Attorneys are smart, sympathetic lawyers who might be a little rough around the edges. They are always One Point Down in the Big Fight. They use their Big Brain and Macho Charm to Win the Day. It’s an effective authorial gambit: legal shenanigans + nimble brain work = justice served (or justice derailed). Mortimer remixes the Ace Attorney with London barrister Horace Rumpole: a puckish, crotchety old underdog who relishes his hard-fought wins at the Old Bailey (central criminal court) like an ugly hound worrying a bone. Trials’ six short stories show what Rumpole lives for: legit legal skillz, small cigars, and countless glasses of claret. The rest of his life merely bookends his fun, from doses of his wife Hilda (a.k.a “she who must be obeyed”) to ridiculously named, hapless colleagues like Phyllida Erskine-Brown and Guthrie Featherstone. The most enjoyable of this collection concerns an art theft involving the Timsons, a family of thieving ‘minor villains,’ who Rumpole saves from the slammer with regular alacrity. The only trouble with Rumps as a character is also his main attraction—he is far too enjoyable, regularly outshining the courtroom drama.
Wright, Tom. What Dies in Summer. Norton. 2012. 1st American ed. 284. ISBN 9780393064025. $25.95. F
Besides mayflies, droughted crops, and Gore Vidal, what dies in summer is poor, murdered Tricia Venables—and this very title that brings her to us. Despite some lovely moments, few readers will have the patience for a shitshow that has about as much continuity as a slug after attacking a pillar of salt. The story’s centerlessness infects the main character, a 1960s Texas tween named Jim, with incoherence. Jim lives with his Grams ‘cuz his mom don’t want him, and he’s around 12 when his cousin Lee Ann, who’s the same age, moves in. The two share some sexual tension and weird little adventures, but Jim remains aloof as a character. First-time author Wright is practically aberrant in refusing to get on with the freakin’ story. Wtf is Jim’s ‘night visitor’? Why does his mother’s boyfriend hate him? What’s up with that dude they met at the liquor store? The book is doubly frustrating as Wright is particularly good at description, e.g., a preacher is “…a big, hearty, pink man who looked as if he’d been squirted down into his clothes like drive-in ice cream…” But descriptions do not a novel make, and the problems are compounded by Jim’s insightful, expressive, completely unrealistic idealism; 12-year-old boys don’t absolve abusive stepfathers while still woozy from the beating. BFD looks forward to the next Wright book.
Waber, Bernard. I Was All Thumbs. Houghton Harcourt. 1975. 48p. ISBN 9780395214046. $6.95. F
At first I thought this was my unauthorized biography, since ‘all thumbs’ describes me anytime I try to fix a bike/lawnmower/anything with moving parts sans an exploded diagram. But no, it’s a vintage 1975 Waber (of Lyle the Crocodile fame) story that centers on Legs, a melancholic aquarium octopus who belongs to Jacques Cousteau Captain Pierre. Legs is a bit bitter about life, his thankless, supporting role in the Captain’s success, and the Captain’s terrible jokes. Legs also dreads his return to the ocean; when released he becomes increasingly confused and sad until he finds a friend – another octopus named Knuckles. It’s a universal, everyperson/everyoctopi story that, at heart, is about all unfulfilled, yearning peeps seeking the end game. Isn’t Waber really writing of the human/octopus condition? Railing amid our petty insecurities, weeping through the emotional chaos of change, a psychological fear of “the other”? How can we conquer our individual and societal Weltschmertz until we, like Legs, look outside ourselves and begin to trust, to love? Is this really just a charming old children’s book with a couple of octopi, or is it a story of courage, of angst-killing, of hope?
Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas and the Weather of the Future. Pantheon. 2012. 214p. ISBN 9780307907301. $22. SCI
It’s hard to consider global warming as anything but a political issue because polemicists duke it out with glee everywhere from candlelight poetry fests to backyard pig roasts. But this little tome grounds issues in fact sans political grandstanding, blaming and shaming, or loading the text with unintelligible scientificky gibberish. Indeed, in completely understandable terms, it confirms that global warming and cooling cycles have been going on for bazillions of years. From there the authors pick the most likely future climate patterns. Even the definition of terms (e.g., the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’) is helpful and balanced. Thus we learn that water vapor, not CO2, is the foremost contributor to the greenhouse effect. Also that some climate change is indeed attributable to mankind with carbon dioxide getting the most “attention because humans are adding it to the atmosphere.” It’s not perfect; a huge improvement would be more references, footnotes, and an index (though chapter titles are pretty illustrative of content). People may try to politicize the book (one Amazon crank calls the authors CIA shills, which I don’t get. Wouldn’t they be shilling for, like, SeaLab?), but Emily Elert and Michael D. Lemonick (writing for Climate Central) are so damned lucid they get far above any fray. Excellent for schools, discussion groups, as a YA title, and, I discovered, for reading while eating fried dumpling soup.
I’m participating in the Freestyle Moustache category against Keith “Gandhi Jones” Haubrich of Seattle and Jan Haakon Bekkavik of Norway. Canada’s Evan Gillespie is out this year with sprained philtral ridges.