Well chums, things were looking down. I had just lost a week’s worth of magnificent review work due to a computer crash. I called Tech Support, aka the Voice of Reason, to see wtf. “Jesus saves,” said the Voice, “but Buddha backs up.” I argued that this didn’t help me in my time of need. “Do you want to be right?” asked the Voice, “or do you want to be happy?” I chewed on that long enough to sense the Voice getting drowsy. “Yes, I want to be right and I want to be happy.” I finally replied. The Voice seemed stunned. Over the line I felt the Voice’s eyes narrow and really focus on me. It seems you can only choose one way—being right or being happy. Every mutually agreed upon situation involves compromise. And when one is right, someone else is most probably unhappy. Though I’ve known this on a pretty basic level for quite some time, it seems that I’ve drifted away from its practical application in everyday life. And here I thought I was doing pretty well, too. Damn, it’s humbling to be slapped in the face by something so blatantly obvious, as compromise. What does this have to do with book reviewing? Since when do Charley Memminger and Dr. Moreau have anything to do with each other? I’ll answer that later. For now, I’m thinking about book reviewing and happiness. I’m right and I’m happy. I’ve forgotten the Voice of Reason and my misfortune, things really are looking up!
Hanif, Mohammed. A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Knopf. 2008. 323p. ISBN 9780307268075. $24. FIC
Though this whirlwind of a story centers on Pakistani Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, Hanif’s dazzling exploration of the inner dialogs, workings, and turmoils of a disparate range of characters will blow up your mind some. Shigri is a bright light in his camp’s silent drill squad (yes, such a thing exists), but is jailed on suspicion after his roommate Obaid steals an aircraft and goes AWOL. The fact that the two have been sleeping together doesn’t matter in the least, reflected in one officer’s remark, “You two think you invented buggery?” There is a plot, but it’s placed firmly behind characters whose terrible weaknesses and strengths will captivate readers. There’s Generals, a blind woman imprisoned for fornication (she was raped), even a lowly radio operator who is feeling transcendently great after a fleeting encounter with his superior. “The fume-filled air was fragrant in his lungs. His ears were alive to the chirping of the birds. The bus horns were love tunes in the air waiting to be plucked and put into words.” Then he’s assassinated. The strong sense of doom will have readers expecting new characters to be Brazil-esque torturers, and the comedy is black as a tadpole coloring himself with a Sharpie, but this is no Catch 22 retread; it’s a bloodthirstier White Teeth.
Kosmatka, Ted. Prophet of Bones. Henry Holt. Apr. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9780805096170. $26. FIC
Gripping, dark, and well written, this alternate history thriller gets the highest possible BFD ranking: freaking awesome! Brilliant and introverted Paul Carlsson has known since his youth that earth is 5800 years old—scientists proved it in 1932, repudiating Darwinism and banning authors like Asa Gray and Nietzsche. Paul becomes a ‘bone guy,’ expert at paleometagenomics, a cross between genetics and anthropology. After an expedition to analyze a trove of mutated humanoid bones ends in disaster, Paul suspects there is more going on behind the scenes, something that would challenge the religious belief of three quarters of the world. He secretes a lozenge of DNA evidence for later analyzing (his hiding spot verifies Kosmatka’s mischievous genius), but his clumsy efforts to recruit help are discovered, and the shit hits the fan in a big way. He goes to ground, girlfriend in tow, hunted by the same dark force behind the expedition. But some of the pursuers are … wrong: “Huge and prognathic, thin lips peeled back from teeth like no human ever had—enormous canines, clenched down with insane intensity.” The story’s chilling dénouement sees the two captured and brought to a powerful, sinister old cytologist named Johansson, whose compound is “…the other side of the pay wall. Things beyond your wildest dreams. Things not exactly ethical.” Refreshingly merciless with his characters, Kosmatka paints in broad strokes yet still nails the details. Though the pace slows in the middle third, this is a compelling juggernaut of a read reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Läckberg, Camilla. The Stonecutter. Free Pr. Feb. 2013. 560p. ISBN 9781451621860. $15.99. FIC
No wonder the Ikea furniture is so easy to assemble; it’s the Scandinavian writing. Direct + uncomplicated = male-friendly. Repetitive and S-L-O-W, this novel alternates between the assorted miseries of contemporary Fjällbacka, Sweden which includes a tragic drowning, and the assorted miseries of yesteryear Fjällbacka, Sweden, starting with the experiences of a titular stonecutter in 1923. Läckberg’s workmanlike characterizations reflect the stolid characters of Fjällbacka’s citizenry, like the new mom who feels like “…she was just two huge walking breasts” and who “…had never in her entire life felt so miserable, tired, angry, frustrated, and worn out….” Readers will soon find, however, that this is a 560 page assburner[i] that alternates between ‘slow burn’ and ‘hopeless mess’ with a needlessly repetitive plot. The entire pathological mess has at its roots in a sexy, man-eating socialite named Agnes whose conniving heartlessness traces an ugly path to current day Fjällbacka, Sweden. There two dedicated policemen boil down a shitstorm of activity into four rather prosaic cases including a pedophile ring, a drowned girl, and someone feeding ashes to babies. While both story arcs are monotonous, the contemporary portion’s plentitude of characters often make it feel like a soap opera.
Laskas, Jeanne Marie. Hidden America. G.P. Putnam. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780399159008. $25.95. BIOG
Like Studs Terkel before her, Laskas humanizes the mundane by putting a name and face on all the nameless, faceless people that keep the American machine running. Each of the nine profiles act as a human interest piece and primer on the industry at hand. So, in meeting TooDogs, an inscrutable dude who built and runs an Alaskan oil rig, we learn about roughnecking. Ditto Charlotte and Shannon, cheerleaders for the Cincinnati Bengals who have, hands down, the most unglamorous jobs. When Laskas interviews Joe Haworth, a chatty environmental engineer, we not only meet his wife, we learn that the Puente Hills landfill east of L.A. receives 13200 tons of waste a day—enough to cover a football field two stories high. While Haworth recognizes that society “…doesn’t necessarily want to know where its waste goes,” Laskas illuminates the bigger picture, showing readers that landfill workers, gun shop clerks, and blueberry pickers are hidden because their jobs aren’t too fun. Though hidden (even dehumanized, to an extent), each is hardworking and diligent, and Laskas does an admirable job of maintaining a heartfelt, cheery tone in each profile.
Matlock, Glen with Peter Silverton. I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol. Rocket 88. 2012. 273p. ISBN 9781906615369. $25. MUSIC
If you’re a punk fan, you’re a Sex Pistols fan and a de facto Matlock fan. Matlock, the original bass player for the Pistols, coauthored 10 of the 12 songs on the legendary Bollocks album. Sick of “all the bullshit,” he left and was replaced by his friend Sid Vicious. This books picks up where the 1990 edition left off, chronicling how the band rekindled its friendships, toured the world at various times between 2002 to 2008, and other assorted goings on at chez Matlock. Upon leaving los Pistoles, Matlock proved that he was an actual musician by forming power pop band The Rich Kids and working with, literally, everyone—his bio is a who’s who of musical royalty ranging from The Faces to Primal Scream. Despite that, Matlock neither poses as a hoity-toity artiste nor talks down to readers. His genuineness reflects Punk’s DIY ethic: if you have the energy, you can dream it and do it! When you’re not drooling all over your copy of Rocket 88’s Spirit of Talk Talk (and if you haven’t heard Laughing Stock get it now), this is a conversational, informative read. Not only will you learn who Jah Wobble is, you will know what it’s like to be a teenaged Sex Pistol (and an adult and middle-aged one, too).
Memminger, Charley. Aloha, Lady Blue. Minotaur. 2013. 306p. ISBN 9781250007780. $24.99 FIC
The novel’s protagonist, Stryker McBride, sports a bad porn name, lives on a houseboat circa Miami Vice Don Johnson, is far too sexually successful (one word, threesome), and lives in Hawaii (Magnum, P.I. marathon, anyone?). Even with a tired setup like this, Memminger creates a spirited detecto story. McBride is an ex-journalist living at the Bayview Yacht Club on Oahu with his two German Shepherds. He’s recovering from an assault that forced him into retirement and semi-seclusion; the same incident has made virtually every cop on the island hate his guts. When his high school crush seduces him in order to look into the death of her father, McBride’s bs meter lights up, only to be overridden by his dick. The rub is that the father owned a taro field which, by all that is American and capitalistic, should have been plowed under to make way for McMansions ages ago. So what gives? Ex-journalist himself, Memminger’s writing flows easily, and though McBride’s history is dense, everything remains quite clear. This is perfect for a winter’s day read because places like Kaneohe Bay, Waimanalo, and the Koolau Mountains sound awfully dreamy when it’s four degrees outside.
Nisbet, Jim. Old and Cold. Overlook. 2012. 160p. ISBN 9781590209158. $13.95. FIC
I’m no connoisseur, but I enjoy me some strange literary fiction from time to time. Though scouting for such books can be tough, hunters should focus on the native habitats: small presses, undiscovered authors, and Chuck Palahniuk, to name a few, as all these tend to cook up imaginative, off kilter stories. Nisbet, who has been short listed for the Pushcart and the Hammett, presents about as whacked out a book as you can get and still be readable. The unnamed main character, a 63 year old street dude, is admirably, deeply drawn. A massively intelligent and probable schizophrenic who lives under a bridge, spouts French, algebraically calculates when social security will catch up to him, and uses words like temerarious. It’s a choppy, but poetic, read because Unnamed speaks just like my missus: in big fat, run-on gibberish. “Pseudo-senility this ain’t. All too aware. Dementia in reverse. The floridity of your vegetative process. Confusion as regards sedulity.” Feels Beat, right? Just when readers might despair that this is an incoherent mess, Nisbet sets a powerful hook by having his nameless character accept $5000 in an envelope. Turns out he’s a hit man who literally measures hits in martinis. Push through the first 20 pages; your reward is a rollicking, if unclean-feeling, experience.
Raimondo, Lynne. Dante’s Wood. Seventh St. Bks. 2013. 321p. ISBN 9781616147181. $15.95. FIC
Troubled Chicago psychologist Mark Angelotti is haunted by a reckless past in which he ‘annihilated’ his Hippocratic Oath. Mark is returning to his professional life with blindness caused by a genetic defect. Though he’s pretty much a walking emotional maelstrom, he’s high functioning, whose empathy meter redlines in the case of Charlie Dickerson a developmentally disabled adult with Fragile X syndrome who is framed for murder and from whom the cops have coerced a confession. Mark is dead set to exonerate Charlie by finding the murderer himself, but as he gets closer the killer targets him. Raimondo offers more than a typical thriller. Though the story itself is tight and fast paced, Raimondo also has the especially convincing Mark railing against a police system divorced from justice and also exploding various stereotypes about persons with disabilities, especially visual impairments. Readers will love Mark’s dry, sarcastic wit “I’ll keep my eyes wide open,” he’ll say, or refer to his Blindberry. Whether he is arguing with a disability rights activist, sparring with a cruel, confrontational lawyer, gently wooing a colleague (blind sex is no different than regular sex, it seems), or carefully navigating the emotional minefield represented by Charlie’s parents, Mark is a vivid character, an astute and insightful man. Even if he does sometimes uses big words (e.g., eidetic, arriviste), I hope we ‘see’ (ha!) more of him soon.
Wallentin, Jan. Strindberg’s Star. Viking. 2012. 447p. ISBN 9780670023578. $28.95. FIC
Liking this book is a lot like being my wife: you have to be willing to overlook flaws. Imho, a book can still be okay even if it has one of the Three Most Commonest Flaws: 1) starting with a bang and then losing momentum; 2) basing the narrative on unlikeable characters; and 3) too damned much implausibility. Unfortunately, Wallentin has #s one through three. A Swedish diver (he’s a creep) finds a relic that’s been preserved in copper vitriol for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. He loses the Maguffin to a mysterious, motorbike ridin’ siren (she’s a murderess). In taking possession of the relic, an alcoholic, drug-addled academic symbologist (sigh) turns into the prime suspect for the murder. Things get even more intense when he learns about another Maguffin. Everyone is involved and everyone (especially the Germans) wants the damn Maguffins! The chase leads all over hell and gone, even the Arctic Circle, and reveals the truth about an ill-fated hot air-balloon mission from over one hundred years ago. C’mon, who wrote this, fifty monkeys with typewriters? Even though it’s a choppy read, I couldn’t tear myself away because it sure is a sticky, inventive, and imaginative novel. Star is typically Swedish: umlauts and Eurotrash keep it lively and Bergmanesque inscrutability keeps it mysterious. If you like sprawl, convenient plotting, and have a long attention span, this is a good choice. But reading a book is an investment, and you want the damned thing to pay off.
From the Bottom of the Heap: Every month Library Journal gets hundreds of galleys for review. Maybe even thousands! From these hundreds of thousands of titles, only a fraction are reviewed. For the discards, it’s good luck with that critique from the The Saline Courier. But now, we at BFD HQ have a remedy, our feature From the Bottom of the Heap, a sort of Last Chance Saloon where a dedicated BFD staffer will review a book formerly destined for the Dumpster of Books that Will Remain Forever Unreviewed and instead present it to you, our dearest friends and constituents.
Haasis, Hellmut. Bombing Hitler: The Story of the Man Who Almost Assassinated the Führer. Skyhorse. Feb. 2013. 272p. tr. from the German by William Odom. ISBN 9781616087418. $24.95. HISTORY
Haasis Freiheitsbewegungen von den Germanenka¨mpfen bis zu den Bauernaufsta¨nden im Dreissigja¨hrigen Krieg (translated by Russell Brand as ‘My Large Dog is Actually a Small Pony’) is everything my 12th grade book reports were: amateurish, disjointed, and repetitive. Though everyone knows how Hitler’s story ended in 1945, fewer know that there were many assassination attempts along the way. This one was carried out in November, 1939 by a lone dude named Georg Elser, a carpenter fiercely opposed to the Nazis. Elser painstakingly built a bomb timed to ignite during a speech commemorating the failed Beer Hall Putsch. It exploded, but missed Hitler by 13 minutes; eight died and 63 others were injured. Haasis’s account of Elser’s story is reminiscent of someone recapping a video, and while I’m no historian, the level of detail seems speculative, even unrealistic. How could Haasis know that Elser “…treated himself to two cups of coffee rather than his usual single cup” on the day of the bombing? Or that, if Elser had succeeded in his attempt to escape to Switzerland, he would have been remanded to the Germans by Swiss border guards? The same information that makes for an excellent Wikipedia article is diluted across 272 pages. Though it could be the translation, Skyhorse Publications seems out to corner the Georg Elser market as they also published Helmut Ortner’s The Lone Assassin: The Epic True Story of the Man who Almost Killed Hitler (2012).
This month BFD staffers invented a new category. A special sort of hell for books that none of the dozens, even hundreds, of employees of Books for Dudes enterprises could make it through. We call this little feature, Close but no Cigar.
Celona, Marjorie. Y. Free Pr. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781451674385. $24.99. FIC
I started but couldn’t hack this book, which traces the life of a helpless newborn left outside an urban YMCA in the dead of winter as if that nightmare weren’t enough to keep me morbidly awake through the wee hours, the kid then starts a journey through a series of shitty foster homes. It’s the same intrinsic problem I have with Jodi Picoult—the character is just too incredibly fragile. It’s like watching a film of a knitting needle half an inch from someone’s naked eyeball. The experience has me flinching, covering my eyes, closing the book, and immediately finding any Peter Serafinowicz video.