For the last triathlon of the season my buddy Ray and I rented a little 280 square foot cabin in the Alleghenies. I loved it, and said so. “I love it,” I said. With a nod to the simple construction, I added, “this is all I need. I think I could build me one of these.” Ray shook his head in disagreement, then loudly proclaimed, “You gonna build yourself another prison, Douglas.”
I scowled and cut another slice of cheese. Ray was probably right. My primary house/prison contains more books than anyone should; I could probably build a home out of them. Ray then added insult to injury by looking pointedly at my cheese-filled paper plate and quoting a recent Los Angeles Times Daily Dish article about the yearly diet of Average America: “[o]ur consumption of beef is down, but we’re binging on cheese with 23 pounds per person”. Ray then took a bite of his salmon jerky and walked out the door to look at the evening meteor shower. I nosed my way back through these here review books—good stuff all of them. Enjoy!
DeGraaf, Leonard. Edison and the Rise of Innovation. Sterling Signature. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781402767364. $29.95. HIST
Sterling books are known for their lush, sumptuous photography and for contributing to an overall “sexy book” experience. They have lots of excellent titles on topics of interest to dudes, like architecture, beer, adult playtime, and even coloring books for boys. But Thomas Edison? One wouldn’t think “sumptuous visuals” when thinking of Edison crouched over a microscope. Or an oscilloscope (or a sigmoidoscope or whatever it was he crouched over). But that’s what readers are treated to here: a superb visual experience with authoritative text. DeGraaf is the archivist of the Thomas Edison National Historical site, and his deep knowledge and appreciation for Edison comes through in measured, scholarly doses. Hundreds of images of historical notebook scribbling, portraits of colleagues and partners, photos of buildings, records of inventions, and letters support the text. DeGraaf examines many aspects of his subject’s life, not just the routine, “He was an inventor” angle. Indeed, Edison was first and primarily an entrepreneur who took the same approach to his considerable business affairs that he did to his inventioneering—one of constant innovation. VERDICT DeGraaf’s work provides a more rounded picture of Edison and will inspire even more awe in the man’s accomplishments. Sure, he gave us the light bulb (and the pneumatic stencil pen and concrete houses too), but he also pioneered “…team-based research, corporate support for research and development, and the branding of his persona as a reliable, practical inventor in order to encourage investor financing…” Basically, he created a “how we do this” template for American business.
Doherty, Megan. How Not to be a Dick! Zest Bks. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781936976027. $16.99. ETIQUETTE
This readable, fun, and funny book offers basic etiquette advice. Though any reader could get lots of instructional tips here, it’s intended for young ’uns to maybe age 30ish. A strikingly dude-friendly book with advice that is readable and comes in short bursts, but is also commonsense, realistic, and presented hopefully. Doherty recognizes that “…no one is perfect. We all do dickish things now and again. The important thing is to learn from any mistakes….” Chapters cover various milieu (e.g., home, work, the Internet) and guidance is pithy, direct, and sound. For example, “At Home” advises minding your manners, chipping in by doing chores, not claiming food by spitting on it, and cleaning your hair out of the frigging shower, ladies using good shower etiquette. “At Work” covers episodes such as the frustration of performance reviews in which maybe “…your boss has some unspoken bias…and that he or she is deliberately holding you back” and the inappropriateness of using mobile devices during work meetings. She also helpfully and succinctly typifies types of dicks, e.g., the drama queen (a fabricator of problems) and the martyr (one who revels in problems and uses them “as a sort of emotional capital.” VERDICT It’s not Emily Post (it’s better), and it’s not a life guide, but this will certainly get young adults on the right track to not being total dicks.
Hoffman, Susanna & Victoria Wise. Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors. Workman. Jan. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780761139614. $22.95. COOKING
Emphasizing the wide range of ethnicities and cultural influences that comprise America, this celebrates the “glorious cohesion,” the “great mélange” of flavors and ingredients that are on offer in Our Great Land. Recipes are one to two pages in length each. All are able to be accomplished, flavorful, and interesting. While I don’t enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating someone else’s cooking (or riding my mountain bike through the woods), I do get a sense of satisfaction from putting good-tasting, nutritious foods into my kids. I don’t think a normal dude could bring many of these off on a usual Thursday night, but they seem good for those with a little ambition and inclination on a weekend. If you’re willing to learn a thing or two, these are manageable recipes (e.g., Oven Beef Stew with Kalamata Olives and Payloads of Garlic) with some unordinary ingredients, like the Cumberland Gap Jelly on the beer-battered chicken. Or the nettles (yes, nettles). Informative historical tidbits (e.g., about walnuts or the history of the dutch oven) are interspersed for while we’re waiting for, like, the meat to braise or whatever. The desserts look like a lot of work. Flourless Chocolate Cake with Fernet Branca Cream and Raspberries? Just open the thing of raspberries and have at it. VERDICT Dudes who own palates will love this because it’s not the same old and will knock some pep into your meals.
Maden, Mike. Drone. Putnam. Nov. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780399167386. $26.95 F
A couple of assassins in black shoot the living hell out of an El Paso high school party, killing the President’s son; she tries a diplomatic solution, then a covert Mexican army thing, but both fail. She then hires one of Mike Pearce’s strike drones. Pearce is a sort of modern-day owner/operator (like the dudes on Ice Road Truckers. Or BJ and the Bear) who hires out his machines for strikes. Readers get a sense of how deadly the things are when a corrupt general in Mogadishu gets his: “The hovering unmanned helicopter was the size of a pickup truck and it pointed to a suppressed RND 2000 sniper rifle directly at him from a turret fixed to the starboard runner.” Though Pearce is initially reluctant (“I’m a businessman, not a therapist,” he says. “I don’t do personal vendettas. It doesn’t fit the company mission statement”), he winds up helping out. Some of the writing is hokey (“They were lying beneath high-thread-count sheets in a penthouse suite overlooking Manhattan”), but Maden effectively taps current social nerves as when the President refers to the National Security Agency (NSA) as being “…tapped into every major telecom, search engine, and ISP around the world.” VERDICT Mitigating this title’s pulpy, B-movie plot is a huge staff of effectively drawn, caricature-esque role players. If you’re looking for character nuance, it’s not here (see, Corleone, Michael), but readers who are drawn to action, military hardware, and explosions will enjoy this heartily.
Majd, Hooman. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay: An American Family in Iran. Doubleday. Nov. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780385535328. $26.95 AUTOBIOG
How is one “invited not to stay”? I’m actually pretty familiar with the concept as I’ve been invited not to stay at a lot of parties, a few jobs, and at least one long-term relationship. But for Majd, the stakes were a little higher and the essential question became: How do you cope when you’re going to be thrown out of your own country? The author’s TV and print reporting skills help him to provide clearly and thoughtfully an insider’s perspective of how difficult it is to straddle both American and Iranian cultures [footnote?]. Only by spending much time differentiating between the two can an author make apparent the vast cultural divide, not only regarding race and money but also in Iran’s self-identification as an Islamic culture. This can prove, perhaps unintentionally, funny, as when Majd grouses about Internet speed or quests for liquor and bootleg DVDs. The author’s strong opinions and affinity for relating geopolitical and intellectual differences to his own life work well. For example, he complains about the Gasht-e Ershad (cultural police) hassling his hot American wife for a too-short manteau and comments on gay culture, which though officially nonexistent, is tolerated. Why, he asks, “…is it okay for a man to dye his hair while a woman isn’t allowed to show even a strand”? He also draws many conclusions about the “…contrast between the revolutionary vision and the reality” of modern, upscale North Tehran which sounds for all the world like a Dallas suburb. VERDICT Readable and interesting, Ministry provides readers a reasoned, “normal-dude” look at Iranian culture.
Simsion, Graeme. The Rosie Project. S. & S. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781476729084. $24. F
Don Tillman is an Australian genetics professor who resembles actor Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird; though “no definitive diagnosis was ever made,” he presents something awfully like Asperger’s syndrome. Don has few social skills, usually experiences physical pain when touched, and is highly regimented. For example, he budgets 316 minutes weekly for cleaning his apartment and relies on a Standardized Meal System that routinizes his weekly eating and shopping. He’s blessedly oblivious to the chaos he causes, as when he gives a talk to a group of Asperger families that ends with the kids standing on tables chanting, Atticus style, “Aspies rule!” Don splits most tasks into Projects, like The Wife Project, a rather complicated algorithm that screens out virtually any human being, especially tardy, standoffish, disorganized, irrational vegetarians who smoke, are mathematically incompetent, and have dye jobs. But that’s Rosie, with whom Don’s lone friend, a lothario named Gene, sets him up. The two become unlikely friends. When Rosie shares the distress she feels because she doesn’t know who her father is, Don begins the far fetched but workable Father Project in which the two obtain genetic material from a graduation class of candidates. As the two interact and grow closer, Rosie drops her guard and Don becomes “…suffused with an irrational feeling of enormous pleasure…” aka amour. Eventually all of Don’s efforts go toward feeding the titular Rosie Project. VERDICT Romantically, Don is an everyman/sad sack who finally experiences a shot of grace in the form of a beautiful woman. Funny and convincing, TRP is, at heart, a dude-friendly romance; you had me at “Aspie’s rule.”
Weston, Robert Paul. The Creature Department. Razorbill. Nov. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9781595146854. $16.99. F
Though this delightful novel is intended for kids in the third through seventh grades, anybody with a heart will enjoy it. Elliott von Doppler, a young, nerdy kid just waking up to who he is, finds himself infatuated with his Uncle Archie’s job as head of R&D at the DENKi-3000 electronics factory. He’s thrilled when Archie invites him to tour the joint along with Leslie, a classmate Elliott barely knows. Soon after entering the mysterious, Wonka-esque factory, Elliott and Leslie meet “the Creatures,” an eclectic band of helpful, friendly monster types who help Archie develop new products. “Stooped, troll-like creatures with jutting jaws and broken teeth. Tiny winged things, part insect, part pixie, that sparkled as they flew. Huge, hulking, hairy unhumans (with horns). Creatures with too many heads, too many arms, too many tails, or just the right number of tentacles.” Special “Creature Technology” helps the team create products, but while R&D has some gizmos in the pipeline, like six-legged roller skates that allow one to skate down stairs, they haven’t produced a huge seller like the Electric Pencil with Retractable Telescopic Lens in quite some time. Thus, corporate nasties move in to shutter the factory unless they can extract a profit. When Uncle Archie goes missing, Elliott and Leslie have to rally the troops to save the company. VERDICT Read this book to your kids. Your typical eight to 12-year-old doesn’t care too terribly much for character development or navel gazing, but they’ll enjoy the whirlwind action and uncomplicated characters—plus you get major Dad points.
Zyzak, Magdalena. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkill. Henry Holt. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780805095104. $25. F
For a zesty, magnificently rich literary experience, try Polish writer Zyzak who deftly litters every page of this debut novel with adventurous, dense writing and who wields language as artfully as Vladimir Nabokov or Chuck Palahniuk. The title character, latest in a long line of pig herders, lives in the tiny Odolechka, Scalvusia, an Eastern European backwater village (ten times worse than Moldova) in 1939. There he’s part of a passionate, savage local scene that includes a priest who pins his own earlobe to a door with a fork and a mayor who lustily consumes radishes slathered in lard. Competing against local nobleman Karol Von Grushka, shy and lowly Barnabas attempts to win the attentions of the beautiful Roosha. As a reading experience this is equal parts ridiculous and sublime, somewhat akin to a Peter Greenaway film invaded by the Marx Brothers. Readers willing to let plot and character development take a back seat to language, as when a “…magpie warped and quirked,” and the delight of vocabulary (e.g., “…a talbot eyeing a trefoil”) will be immensely entertained by this decidedly unserious read. Where many literary authors often take a grim tone, Zyzak remains understatedly humorous and lighthearted—with an occasional Proustian overtone.
VERDICT Zyzak is a major talent to whom many will swear allegiance. Within the first ten pages readers will know if they like this densely and dryly comic novel.
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 writer 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 is Edward Abbey.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Univ. of Arizona. 1988. 255p. ISBN 9780816510573. $26.87. AUTOBIOG
Abbey, who was park ranger at Arches National Park for a couple of seasons, was a political anarchist, advocated for environmental issues, and hated to see people destroying “his” park. So I guess he was also a misanthrope, but he was also a really good writer. These essays are an appreciation of the park, of nature, and of wilderness. Unfortunately, readers have to filter Abbey’s deeply affecting writing through his polemic and cranky politics. He loves the place, but doesn’t want to share it under many circumstances with mankind. In his view, tourism, development, and tromping about on the delicate desert are unsustainable activities. “Progress,” he scoffs “has at last come to arches after a million years of neglect; industrial tourism has arrived.” VERDICT The book isn’t for everyone; even as Abbey recognizes the landscape’s beauty, is profoundly awed by its importance, he acknowledges that reading about it and experiencing it are inherently singular experiences; “…you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets” and encourages readers to go experience it for themselves.
 Quote, p.41: “The square was filled with screws and scrolls and hooks, coal-mining picks and hammers, lace collars made by blind Honorata nuns atop the Tchjornamatka Mountain, bison-shaped crystal vases, pictures of the holy family with hydrocephalic Jesuses in the laps of pea-headed Josephs, zircon engagement rings, matryoshkas, amber and glass rosaries, fruits, vegetables, meats, knitted shawls, ear-flapped hats, and defiant farm animals—everything yelping, mooing, clanking, quacking, banging, knocking. An outsider might have been at risk of mental schizm, but to Odolechkans, all this was pleasantly melodious.”
 Indeed, your take might be more like reviewer Cara on goodreads: “Edward Abbey is a pompous, hypocritical ass-wipe who likes to make as if his day hikes and drives to the general store are heroic, life-altering adventures.”
This links to the Majd, which he sent separately: Indeed, Majd could probably double his money by publishing this in Iran as “An Iranian Family in America.”