Don’t freak out over the plethora of summer 2013 titles out there, peeps. I have Books for Dudes staffers working overtime sifting through books, considering pros and cons, and separating the wheat from the chaff. Chaff, you ask? Chaff, I declare! I include a few chaff titles this month because I owe it to readers to declare if a book isn’t up to DudeLand standards.
And before you start with any eye-rolling or “haters-be-hatin’” reaction, consider this mini manifesto: your typical dude enjoys a wide variety of titles from gardening manuals to sci fi and simply wants to know if the new Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage based on Total War PC game is any good (yes, if you like that sort of thing) or perhaps simply needs a replacement for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Extraordinary Book of Facts: And Bizarre Information (I’d recommend 1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off coming from Norton in September).
I also include four excellent brief exhibits near the end of this column; Excellent Books That We Won’t Be Getting Too Terribly Deeply Into but are Certainly Worth an Honorable Mention This Month.
Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. Putnam. Sept. 2013. 832p. ISBN 9780399159213. $40. BIOGRAPHY
When coaxed (usually with candy) a dude will pick up a history book; if the candy is king-size, he’ll try a presidential biography. With no candy in sight, I picked up Berg’s Wilson with every intention of putting it down (or perhaps using it as a doorstop as the damn thing is 832 pages long). But I’ve been tuning into to the historical side of things thanks to an unlikely source (and probably not one A. Scott Berg would endorse): Badass of the Week, (BotW) which relates the amazingly heroic exploits of military men, explorers, and otherwise normal dudes. Outlandish and profanity-laced, BotW provides potent and necessary context to events and people of today (e.g., John Keller) and yesteryear (e.g., Mary E. Walker). And context is what a normal dude will need to properly admire the massive accomplishments of our 28th President and the excellent biographical skill of Mr. Berg.
An intellectual and academician, the madly ambitious Wilson was profoundly Christian and, according to Berg, “extremely sexual.” A gifted orator who loved to sing in a “silvery” tenor, Wilson ended child labor, created workman’s compensation and the eight-hour workday, and created 14 very nice points, and was the last president to craft all of his own speeches and the first to travel outside the contiguous United States. Berg paints Wilson as personally unlikeable; “[b]eneath his stern ministerial appearance churned a turbulent emotional life.” A bit fawning, Berg proves amazingly adept at tracing Wilson’s massive accomplishments amid his day-to-day life. VERDICT With careful endnotes and hundreds of black-and-white photos, this is an excellent read and an important accomplishment.
Hannah, Sophie. Kind of Cruel. Putnam. 2013. Aug. 448p. ISBN 9780670785858. $26.95. F
In what must be a subconscious authorial admission, page two of Kind of Cruel has narrator Amber Hewerdine using the term “pathetic” to describe herself; the same is true of this book. From a completely moronic premise to unbelievable characters to unimaginably dull internal and external dialog, “pathetic” keenly summarizes this title. Hewerdine is a selfish, insomniac Brit who has a massive cow as she’s waiting for a hypnotherapy appointment. A couple of hours later she’s accused of murder, from which she needs to exonerate herself and find the real killer. The title is apparently the 7th in a series featuring police detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse, who are minor characters here. If you like dreary family secrets, unrealistically stupid detectives, and psychodrama bordering on hysteria, this is your Mecca. Even then, though, you’ll have to face an insurmountably Byzantine plot; variable, unidentified narrators; and contrived plotting (oh, the very next hypnotherapy client was a cop?) that wholly disorient the reader. VERDICT Tedious drivel.
Kluwe, Chris. Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities. Little, Brown. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780316236775. $27. HUMOR
You may remember Kluwe as the Minnesota Vikings’ punter who defended gay marriage and free speech in an open letter to a Maryland politician back in September of 2012. A decent sort who voices cogent arguments for liberal points of view, Kluwe’s first book offers 61 essays/bleats on various topics (see subtitle). “Bowdlerizations” explains his predilection for swearing: “My words are a litmus test for those that would see the truth of a message rather than the package it’s delivered in.” “That Dark Passenger” explores how losing sucks, somewhat akin to “…a colony of fire ants gnawing away at your inner abdominals, spitting their venom all over your insides…” He even describes the punter’s moment: “Time slows down to molasses, syrupy thick and clinging.” Most entries, though, see Kluwe adeptly spewing sassy, post-ironic diatribes, not unlike a future Archie Bunker, on subjects upon which he is, perhaps, not quite expert (e.g., gun control, currency as a medium of exchange, government). His main expertise, after all, lies in punting footballs. Though thoughtful, opinionated, and funny, he’s no Daniel Pinkwater (check out Fish Whistle). Instead he brings the aggression and sensibilities of a pro baller to the page with rants/diatribes that push what’s in his politically liberal mind in a method that’s eerily neoconservative. Unfailing, braying insistence that “most people are just sheep” will either alienate readers or brainwash them into agreement. VERDICT Kluwe struggles to find his writing voice with one main problem: Topping that explosive open letter. Stick to punting.
Reardon, Don. The Raven’s Gift. Pintail: Penguin Group (USA). 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780143187493. pap. $16. F
At first glance this is another End-of-Days Zombie survival story; within a few pages, however, readers will discern a potent, intimate dystopia. John and Anna Morgan are an adventurous, idealistic young couple deeply in love who run off to Alaska to teach. Unfortunately, a virus (“the sickness”) descends just as they’re getting settled; Anna dies, and John spends several months holed up alone. When he ventures out, he’s shocked at the “nightmarish arctic wasteland” that confronts him. He eventually finds a young blind girl hiding in a house, the first person he encounters who is not an “outcast”—one infected with the sickness. Though there are not many of these dangerous cannibals, who smell like “…a flower that’s rotting…[t]heir teeth wolf-sharp, their hungry mouths slowly taking over their faces,” the fear they inspire is constant. As the two hopefully and purposefully makes their way toward denser civilization, John proves himself an intelligent and caring man forced into stoicism. They meet few others, all the while pursued by “the hunter,” a mysterious figure on skis. Loyal to Anna’s memory, John resists growing closer to the girl, which becomes increasingly difficult as their predicament deepens. VERDICT Reardon’s emphasis on the Alaskan landscape and Inuit culture help this story reach an unusually high level of authenticity; the peril meter is consistently in the red in this urgent, excellent novel.
Rich, Simon. Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories. Little Brown. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9780316219396. $19.99. F
Simon Rich has penned a ridiculous, hilarious Dude Manual on Love; I haven’t laughed so hard since I last saw The Rabbit of Seville. 31 energetic short stories, grouped into three sections (Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl), range from the creatively believable “Unprotected” (a sweet, first person narrative of a never-used condom that lives in a boy’s wallet) to the all-time male fantasy: visiting the “Girlfriend Repair Shop.” Both stories, especially the latter, end happily—“From then on, things were perfect.” But Rich knows that the game of love doesn’t always end well. In particular, “The Present” poignantly tracks a professorial sad-sack who invents a time machine and winds up giving his long-suffering girlfriend her freedom; likewise, “Children of the Dirt” explains why it’s so hard to find someone to love. You’ll all laugh at the haplessness of men who can’t stay away from the “Sirens of Gawanus,” especially when Brent defends his choice: “I know the odds are against us. I know she’s a siren. I know she’s eaten people. I know she’s five thousand years older than me. But I really like her.” But you’ll also instinctively understand the plight of Ben in “Trade,” as he explains how his girlfriend exchanged him in favor of a tattooed dude who “…does performance art…based on Camus and Sartre.” VERDICT 100% win. The next time your wife hosts a book club, invite the menfolk and retire en masse to the rumpus room to read passages from this aloud.
Sons of Thunder: Writing from the Fast Lane: A Motorcycling Anthology. ed. by Neil Bradford. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9781250020963. $24.99. ESSAYS/LITERARY COLLECTIONS
These entries, selected by motorcyling enthusiast Bradford, are a real mixed bag. The title features several touted writers, but not their best work: T.E. Lawrence published “The Road” under the pseudonym “352087 Ross” and Roald Dahl’s “My Year” is a chummy exercise in sentimentality. Ted Hughes’s single entry is the poem “A Motorbike.” Other writers’ intentions are obscure. Novelist Tom McGuane, for example, couldn’t even ride when he bought his bike, and L.J.K. Setright’s descriptions of componential specifications, “tyres” and rhapsodies about “…pressed-steel chassis, formed as a monocoque backbone of generous proportions and admirable stiffness” are a little too exacting. Most entries, like Jonathan Gregson’s evocative “Bullet Up the Grand Trunk Road” and Jonny Bealby’s “Running with the Moon” are extracted from larger works and function as travelogues that happen to take place on motorcycles. And Hunter S. Thompson does what he does best: display how big a jerk he was. In “Song of the Sausage Creature” he writes, “Some of us are decent people who want to stay out of the emergency room but still blast through neo-gridlock traffic in residential districts whenever we feel like it…” Ending the collection on Robert Hughes’s potent “Myth of the Motorcycle Hog” helps, as it emphasizes bikes as fun transportation. It even pulls in a relevant quote about going solo from Leonardo da Vinci: “If you are alone, you are your own man.” VERDICT For diehards only.
Roth, Gabriel. The Unknowns. Reagan Arthur Bks: Little, Brown. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9780316223287. $27.99. F
Despite a raucous beginning in which protagonist Eric Muller lures a first date into dropping ecstasy and rolling around in bed, this book sucks. Possessing an excellent sense of irony but decidedly unlikeable, Muller is inexplicably rich (Silicon Valley circa 2002), hopelessly socially awkward, and boring as hell. Despite not needing to work, he doesn’t do anything. He becomes unaccountably infatuated with Maya, a reporter for an alt weekly whose prose he finds “…an impersonal fortress of elegantly presented research.” Like the software programmer he is, Muller woos Maya mechanically and deliberately, tamping down his man-child tendencies all the while. Bursts of amusement, such as when the two deconstruct their first date while on it jarringly disconnect Muller from his otherwise helpless, mole-man persona; he’s just not that cool. Roth shows readers Muller’s painful adolescence where he was rejected even by other programming nerds. He spends his time crushing on girls, sneaking through their underwear drawers. When he realizes that his “seven classes plus homeroom contained forty-six distinct girls,” he starts a notebook of covert intelligence on them (e.g., “obsessed with horses,” “lots of makeup”). It would be funny if it weren’t so goddamned pathetic. VERDICT Skip this dull, S–L–O–W title.
4 Exhibits of Authorial Excellence That We Won’t Be Getting Too Terribly Deeply Into This Month:
Exhibit 1: Jehanara Tremayne, Wendy. The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living (Storey, 2013). This weird, wonderful chronicle documents the author’s experiment in living off the grid in a purposeful, meaningful way. Jehanara moved from New York City to New Mexico and indulged every possible quest for repurposing, recycling, and gleaning scrap and waste in order to live a quiet, sustainable, independent life. To me, any book with truckloads of camel poop and welding = good.
Exhibit 2: Lin-Liu, Jen. On the Noodle Road (new this month from Riverhead) is an intelligent, well-crafted travelogue of a thoughtful woman and excellent writer who I wish would make me some noodles. It reads as though Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese (Dial, July 2013) and Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China are on a date holding hands. At a really good noodle joint.
Exhibit 3: Pachoda, Ivy. Visitation Street. Set in the waterside community of Red Hook, Brooklyn, this enjoyable urban opera from Dennis Lehane/Ecco has a well-drawn, wildly varied cast. Two teenaged girls, June and Val, go night rafting in the harbor. Only Val returns, found by Jonathan, a washed-up pianist and functional alcoholic. Told from a variety of perspectives, the book deals with the aftermath. June goes a little OCD, the sketchy Jonathan becomes a suspect, and others like 18-year-old Acretius (Cree for short) and caring local grocer Fadi, make their way through a permanently changed landscape. Red Hook is itself a character, a neighborhood richly and vividly drawn, alternately terrifying and idyllic.
Exhibit 4: Straub, Emma. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Dudes are sometimes (but not often) patient with titles such as this one that deal with “the breadth of female experiences,” (e.g., chick lit). Straub’s enjoyable 2012 novel is the late 1930s-early-1940s story of a girl from rural Wisconsin who gave up the little life she had in order to be somebody in Hollywood. Straub effectively uses words to create intimacy with the title character while also refraining from spelling out every single detail.
Coffee Table Book-O-Rama
Coffee table books: Lots of bright and colorful pictures along with select words make for a relaxing, daydreamy time on the living room throne.
Moore, Richard. Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World’s Greatest Bicycle Race. Velo. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781937715069. $34.95. SPORTS
WARNING: readers are strongly encouraged to bring along a bib to wipe away the frequent drool that this book is sure to induce. With 2013 marking the 100th outing of the tarnished TdF , sportswriter/journalist Moore’s panoramic book brightly delivers a century full of the glory and infamy that surrounds this famed race. Older images include first-time winner Maurice Garin (disqualified in 1904 for cheating) and scores of others riding fixed-gear bikes up the Alps and Pyrenees; more recent, eye-popping shots feature Armstrong et al. Along the way Moore features legends Eddy Merckz, Miguel Indurain, Greg LeMond, and Bernard “The Badger” Hinault in fine photos that capture the spirit of this race: struggle, crowds, diabolical road conditions, and chaos. Readers are also treated to passages featuring colorful Tour characters like “The Hobgoblin” Jean Robic, Laurent “The Professor” Fignon and Charly “Angel of the Mountains” Gaul. Early on Moore points out the Tour’s enormous economic stakes and the resultant propensity of athletes to cheat. VERDICT Any dude who is even remotely interested in the Tour and who also might enjoy spending time on the couch with beer/coffee/seltzer /kefir avoiding chores is susceptible to this book’s ample charms.
The Times of the Eighties: The Culture, Politics and Personalities that Shaped the Decade, ed. by William Grimes. Black Dog & Leventhal, dist. by Workman. 2013. 312p. ISBN 9781579129330. $29.95. HISTORY
Gen Xers will both enjoy and despise reliving the Reagan years with this oversize title. Drawn from the New York Times’s news-makiest events, it covers all that stuff you derided back then as well as other things that you didn’t learn to despise until later. “Disbelief” will be your watchword as you glide down memory lane pursued by the nightmares of Teddy Ruxpin, the ’86 Mets, and the $2,500 Macintosh—now boasting 128K of RAM! Coverage of the decade is evenly distributed among the book’s eight sections with titles that range from “National” (remember Gary Hart?) and “International” (the Berlin Wall), with the “Business” section discussing infamous figures such as Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. New York, dominated by Ed Koch, has its own section and “Science, Technology and Health” features what now seems like revolutionary stuff: the artificial heart, AIDS coverage, discovering the wreck of the Titanic. “Fashion and Life & Style” will, for most dudes, be the most icky—Princess Diana, shoulder pads, big hair—but the especially robust A&E section and decent sports coverage including (surprise, surprise) Tour de France titles won by Hinault and LeMond (above)—make up for it.
Kelley, Kitty and Stanley Tretick. Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2013. 179p. ISBN 9781250021465. $24.99. HISTORY
If you would rather your coffee table reflect something auspicious, try Kitty Kelley’s Let Freedom Ring in which her writing accompanies the photos of Stanley Tretick (1921-1999) from the August 28, 1963 March on Washington—50 years ago now. Tretick was a photographer for Look magazine; because it was a bimonthly publication his pictures were never used and this contains hundreds of them. Tretick was trusted by John F. Kennedy, whose campaign he covered, so there are many shots of John and Bobby as well as candids of the March’s major players like “Big Six” members Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, and others. Many shots of regular March attendees give readers a sense of the scene; folks dressed up for the march on a day that turned out wickedly hot. Though Kelley is frequently characterized as a muckraker, her incisive, explanatory passages are excellent. VERDICT One can learn much from the right combination of visuals and words, in this case they are especially adept at conveying the simple, massive scale of the event, estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000 people.
Dudes, There’s an Undiscovered Country Out There…
From time to time I “discover” a new author (it’s quite a feeling, let me tell you). Fortunately, my rapturous joy is always tempered by learning that the author in question has already been discovered by many hundreds of thousands of readers before me—O.K., long before me. So long, as it turns out, that this author, this once somebody, has been all but forgotten by present day readers. One such writer is Sax Rohmer.
Rohmer, Sax. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. Titan. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780857686039. $9.99. F
This here is some crazy bookage. Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu mysteries are even older than Agatha Christie—so old that this first in a series of 13 was written as a serial for newspapers about 100 years ago. In classic pulp akin to (and reductive of) Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Rohmer’s Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are London-based heroes facing off against one of the first supervillains—Dr. Fu-Manchu, leader of the worldwide conspiracy called the “Yellow Peril.” In this story, Fu-Manchu kills Sir Chichton Davey, but why? And what other dastardly evil deeds might the wily scoundrel perpetrate on an unsuspecting city? It’s up to Smith and Petrie to find out at their own risk! Wordy, descriptive passages are both classy and hilarious: “I may have mentioned the fact before, but on this occasion it became so peculiarly evident to me that I am constrained to record it here—I refer to the sense of impending danger which invariably preceded a visitor from Fu-Manchu.” In Rohmer’s writing, people don’t run or say “wtf,” they “make off,” or ask, “whatever can be afoot?” Available in paperback from Titan Books, most of these Fu stories are also available as ebooks. VERDICT Don’t read this for the anachronistic racism; read it for the simple fun, new vocabulary words (e.g., dissimulation) and to see how a skilled old-timey author orchestrated superior stories out of thin air.
 The three books that Ben Thompson, owner of Badass of the Week, has authored, such as Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live, are all good for reluctant male readers from about grade seven onwards.
 I’d add: “waste of time” but that would come close to admitting that I actually yelled ‘shut up’ at the book several times.
 Starting in Corsica (yay Marcel Kittel in the stage that will be remembered for the Orica GreenEdge bus becoming wedged across the finish line with riders fast approaching), it will wind up on the Champs de Elysee at the end of the month.