There’s nothing like getting to know a character and watching him change, is there?
While some of this month’s selections don’t offer much protagonistic development (I’m not naming any names except Caroline Wright and her Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals for Four People which has almost no characters and is also a bit thin plot-wise), Books for Dudes’s (BFD) latest picks feature three worthy coming-of-age stories among other interesting fare.
Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything is as good as a writers’ workshop on presenting characters sympathetically; Will Ferguson’s 419 shows that a tentative, retiring, real woman can still kick a little ass (hey, at least she’s trying), and Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu shows just how reliable an unreliable narrator can be.
Changing topics radically, here is something you should be considering this month: LibraryReads, the new discovery tool/buzzbuilder for librarians. Something not to consider: Ed Hardy’s Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos (shudder).
Doescher, Ian. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. Quirk, dist. by Random. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781594746376. $14.95. F
This is, as the title promises, Star Wars (also called Episode IV: A New Hope) as imagined by William Shakespeare as imagined by Doescher. Presented in full iambic pentameter, it works quite well. Indeed, Doescher flawlessly translates Star Wars into old-timey language and even improves on the original with frequent character asides. The anonymous storm troopers are perhaps funniest; lines like “Oi, dids’t thou hear that sound?” (IV.i.45) and exchanges like this one, Trooper 8: “What do all these warnings tell—shall we explore?”/ Trooper 9, “Belike ‘tis just a drill, and nothing more!” (IV.v.5-6) lend absurdity. But yea and verily most characters rock their iambs and happily chew scenery. For example, R2D2’s usual beeps and whirps often turn into smarmy soliloquies when he’s alone, and Darth Vader projects a pathos that he couldn’t possibly convey in his usual, menacing caul and robe: “This presence that hath all my hopes betray’d,/ This presence that hath turn’d my day to night” (IV.i.25-26). Inventive use of a Greek chorus relates dramatic action, such as “The foursome t’ward the ship with swift foot race” (IV.vi.36).
Verdict In its way, this is the perfect book, wrapping a grand, protean epic in a preposterous conceit. Well done though it is, readers need to be completely infatuated with either Shakespeare and Star Wars for this to be anything but a trifle. Those thinking that this will spur an interest in 16th-century playwrights shouldn’t be surprised when Star Wars fanatics turn to the latest Star Wars title—Razor’s Edge (Del Rey: Ballantine), first in the “Empire and Rebellion” series by Martha Wells forthcoming in October.
Doig, Ivan. Sweet Thunder. Riverhead. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781594487347. $27.95. F
While better than 2012’s The Bartender’s Tale, Doig’s latest is still mediocre. Young Morrie Morgan is squandering his gambling winnings in 1920 San Francisco when he learns that he and his bubbly new bride have inherited a mansion in Butte, MT. The only catch is that the place comes complete with an occupant: grizzled old coot Sandy Samuelson. Butte, described as “…a section of Pittsburgh…grafted onto an alpine scene,” is controlled by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (a.k.a. the “copper collar”) which is busily wringing every last cent out of the economy with wage cuts, unfair working conditions, and even shooting striking workers. Morrie takes a job “wordslinging” editorials for the union’s new newspaper, the Thunder. There his job is to “…tear the living hide off Anaconda, day after day.” Doig’s characters act their respective parts simply and one-dimensionally; presented in third-person-objective narrative style, the characters’ motivations and thoughts remain private, revealed only in action and dialog. While this lends itself well to completing the story, it disconnects readers from the characters’ drive. Samuelson is especially unlikely; known alternately as “The Strangler” and “the Earl of Hell,” he’s unblinkingly presented as a “…cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman and city librarian, who had bent every effort and not a few regulations to provide a rough-and-tumble mining town with a world-class reading collection.” Really? Morrie, too, seems like a flake, as when he describes the Thunder as “…something that carries the sound of promise, that resonates across the land, that dramatically bespeaks the coming clash with Anaconda,” readers one wonders from what planet he comes.
Verdict Served made-for-TV movie style, this is an easy, if meatless, read.
Erikson, Steven. This River Awakens. Tor. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780765335005. $15.99. F
This river don’t awaken too quick, lemme tell ya. Erikson, author of the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” fantasy series, presents a sputtering, sprawling bildungsroman centered on new-kid-in-rural-Canadian-town Owen Brand, aged 12. Many deftly-drawn characters shoulder portions of this circa 1971 narrative; all are damaged. From an unstable mink farmer to a drunken wife-beater, a dearth of role models faces Owen and the three mismatched boys he hangs around with. This lack spills over into Owen’s occasional clannish behavior and his bullying of weaker boys. As Owen spearheads an effort to clean up and claim a dry-docked yacht as a secret fort under the sometime-tutelage of the watchman, an old ex-sailor, he bumps into Jen, aged 13, the local nascent femme fatale. Jen’s hopeless family situation has led her to become aggressively competitive, an alpha-girl with a huge chip on her shoulder. The two bond, grow, and mature. This same situation has proven an ample mix for many authors, but Erikson stretches the story to the breakpoint when the boys stumble upon on a body in the river, which they try to keep secret. The plot provides just enough rope to lead readers to the next page, and even the next chapter, but multiple, tense story arcs distract from one another and prove unsustainable. Maudlin sentimentality (e.g., “[i]f my family’s stumbling moves held anything positive for me—anything at all,” Owen says, “it was the chance to start again, scarred but wiser”) and unrealistic details such as middle schoolers dropping acid, further detract.
Verdict Patient readers will eventually find payoff with the characters’ growth, but this is a harsh and at times seemingly aimless book.
Ferguson, Will. 419. Pintail. Sept. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780143188728. pap. $16. F
411 on the 419: After a Canadian grampa drives his car off the road, his family and the cops unravel why the family’s savings is gone: gramps was scaring up funds to rescue Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta—late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petrolium Corporation—from The Henchmen set to despoil her. While this could be played for dark laughs, author Ferguson (Happiness, 2002) concocts a well-paced, taut story concerning a Nigerian 419 scam that weaves together five wildly disparate tales on deeply human traits like greed, revenge, and altruism. Gramps’s daughter, unlikely heroine Laura, goes to Nigeria to find the scammer (or “mugu”). A freelance editor, Laura will prove dear to librarians everywhere for her concern with indexing: “Indexes were tricky things. What mattered? Surnames, certainly. And cities. Specific locations (New York), but not general (kitchen).” Ferguson provides canny insight into the mugu, Winston, who sees himself not as a criminal but as “[h]unter. Fisherman. Entrepreneur. Nollywood director…” and “guyman”—justifiably seducing greedy capitalists. Other, compelling references to mangroves and deltas match neither Canada nor Nigeria yet add allure. Most compelling is the mysterious pregnant woman walking across Nigeria with whom Ferguson tantalizes readers. She’s as wary as a feral animal, and her keen senses help her navigate a lethal landscape.
Verdict Ferguson expertly sets the hook in this captivating thriller.
Grodstein, Lauren. The Explanation for Everything. Algonquin. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9781616201128. $24.95. F
Yo Lauren—you got some ‘splainin’ to do. Grodstein’s previous novel, the well-received Friend of the Family (2009) centered on a physician whose world disintegrates when he can’t control his loved ones’ choices. Explanation’s turf is similar; a mid-life academician widower with firm ideas about atheism gets rattled when he connects with a determinedly creationist student. The result is a beguilingly good read. Working with direct, economical—but uncompressed—language, Grodstein quickly paints Andy Waite as a widower with his head in the sand. He uses his devotion to his two daughters as cover for retreating from the world, even putting on a good show of professional self-awareness when he describes his college as “…eleven hundred students and forty-two acres of crumbling quad hidden in the ass end of New Jersey.” But his work as a [something] has lost its thrill, save for the bright spot of teaching a class that posits Darwinism as the titular Answer to Everything. While Andy’s routinization of life may be his way of dealing with his longterm grief for his wife, it’s a funk interrupted only by Melissa, a student passionate about creationism. They’re both seeking connection, from opposite ends, and become romantically involved. As Andy works to counter Melissa’s creationist ideas with science, the fervency with which she pursues Intelligent Design as a workable theory makes him take a renewed look at faith and religion, intangibles beyond his control.
Verdict An alarmingly good read, Grodstein has deep characters puzzling through big issues. If only there were an actual explanation for everything.
Handey, Jack. The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure. Grand Central. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9781455522385. $20.99. F
Handey, known for long, nonsensical aphorisms (e.g., Deep Thoughts, 1992), offers here a first novel that is a surreal, but excellent, experience. Little paroxysms of story ooze out of the head of a simple, unnamed narrator who travels to Honolulu with his pal Don. Once there our hero purchases an expensive, mysterious hula doll that comes with some very specific instructions; it cannot touch something that would cause “…devastating chain reactions of utter destruction.” Unfortunately, our hero ignores that part. Soon the two meet native girl Leilani and decide to undertake the impossible, arduous journey of stealing Honolulu’s ultimate treasure: the Golden Monkey. Needless to say, there’s some utter destruction, and some hilarious episodes. Passages can be silly (“We weighed anchor, cast off and did some other nautical things. I want to say ‘screwed the pony’ but that’s not right”). And weird (“One time I started following this actress. It’s not like I’m crazy; I was just obsessed with her”). And weirdly silly (“There was a knock at the door. It was the prostitute I had ordered, the one with epilepsy. [She was cheaper]).” Yes, it’s a peculiar novel, like something by Kinky Friendman times ten. And for someone approaching the intellectual level of the village fool, the narrator is wonderfully factual and direct. His simple statements, spoken with the veracity of either a sage or a simpleton, are primitively earnest.
Verdict Readers with a sense of the absurd will love this; everyone else either has no sense of humor and/or will lose patience immediately.
Terry, Chris L. Zero Fade. Curbside Splendor. Sept. 2013. c.294p. ISBN 19780988480438. $12. F
This first novel from Terry (MFA, Columbia Coll.) centers on Kevin, a teen in urban Richmond, VA, whose cassette player and love for Redman place this a few years back. Informed, no doubt, by his experience teaching writing and theater to juvenile inmates, Terry has a gift for presenting realistic teenaged swagger. The author also manages to parlay this aggression as covering for inexperience; it is born from innocence and ignorance rather than depravity. The story chronicles a week in the life of Kevin, who is overweight and lives with his mom and sister. He falls in puppy love, gets in fights, does his best to avoid bullies, and yearns for the titular zero-fade haircut. Kevin’s main male influence/man-crush is his uncle Paul who has “…a chuckle that sounds like water bubbling down the drain. He’s the man.” Though the narrative focuses on Kevin, it is half Paul’s. Though young, Paul is presented as the older and wiser grownup who takes seriously his role as paterfamilias. Readers get an intimate look at his sexual awakening and how it infuses his everyday life. When Paul tells Kevin that he’s gay, Kevin retreats emotionally, immaturely, and out of ignorance. After Paul and his gay friend save Kevin from a playground beating, Kevin’s mind changes. Paul successfully sums up the week by asking Kevin, “We cool or what? I’m your uncle. It’s not like I’m gonna try and make you my boyfriend.”
Verdict Terry’s unsentimental bildungsroman will grow on readers as they adjust to Kevin’s voice, and anyone with a heart will appreciate his genuine maturation. This is an excellent value at a bargain price.
Wright, Caroline. Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals: for Four People. Workman. 2013. 194p. ISBN 9780761174936. $12.95. COOKERY
Holy crap—this is the best cookbook I’ve seen since David Joachim’s A Man, A Can, A Plan: 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make (Rodale, 2002). Genuinely, the only problem is that some of the names are a little frou-frou. Take “Piadini with Pulled Bresaola, Baby Kale and Parmesan” Your usual dude will say…wha?? But with this cookbook, you’re going to grow up a little bit. Maybe you’re tired of “heat and eat” MREs, maybe you want to impress a ladyfriend. At heart you’re already yearning for knowledge young Padawan, so this is the perfect title. Take “Lentils with Turkey Sausage and Fried Sage.” It looks good’n’healthy and the whole recipe is 137 words long, with about six ingredients. It’s all very manageable. Not every recipe in there is happening. I mean, no dude is going to make a radish, watercress and butter sandwich. But tomatillo huevos rancheros or super duper pasta primavera?
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 tempered when I learn that the author in question has already been discovered by many before me. Still, books by this author have been all but forgotten by present day readers. One such writer—with apologies because he’s still kicking ass as a “verse columnist” over at The Nation—is Calvin Trillin.
Trillin, Calvin. Family Man. Farrar. 1998. 184p. ISBN 9780374153243. $18. AUTOBIOG
Trillin’s enviable authorial pedigree ranges from serious nonfiction (1969’s An Education in Georgia) to comic verse-and-commentary Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (2008) to journalism and (most unbelievably) a weekly humorous newspaper poetry column. Though this dude can probably write anything, he dearly loves three subjects most: family, travel, and food. The author’s 1998 Family Man is funny, plain truthiness from a wise and talented man that combines a novelist’s sense of irony and a journalist’s ability to keep readers engaged. Patient and wise, Trillin is willing to consider most everything with a judicious dose of wit; a way of being that more of us should emulate ASAP. The writing is endearing, chummy; Trillin becomes someone you’ve known for ages and whose stories you look forward to hearing. Typical ‘old man’ musings abound, as when he relates, “As far as I could tell, the time that had elapsed between Abigail getting an early-morning bottle and both of them having breakfast in a college dining hall was about fifteen minutes” are more than offset by damned clever observations, like when he describes the Family Asparagus Situation. While he and his daughters were pushing “…asparagus around as if hoping against hope that it might come across a slot in the plate it would fall through,” his asparagus-loving wife waxes on how good it is. It’s a minor bump on the road of life, and Trillin knows it even as he’s going over it. “It obviously isn’t difficult to adjust to something like differing views of asparagus,” he concludes, “we had that one sorted out in just ten or twelve years.” After all, this is a man who knows that “Marriage may be compromise, but it’s not capitulation.” Verdict Smart, unsentimental, understated, loving reflections on family life.
 For those wanting a superb one, consider Mark Slouka’s devastating Brewster, set in 1968. “I wasn’t stupid,” says 16-year old protagonist Jon, “Just fucked up.” Most dudes will feel kin to this invisible, angry, raging, horny, confused boy. Deep, unsentimental and not a YA novel.