November can really suck, you know? Things that are officially over this month include glorious Autumn and its happy colors, Halloween and its happy sugar rush, Octoberfest and its happy drunkeness, and the baseball playoffs (even if your favorite team did win, there’s always something a little disappointing about the end of a season).
I have great news, though, dudes. What doesn’t stink about November is that there are some completely asskicking new reads. Readers, read on.
Brown, Pierce. Red Rising. Del Ray. Feb. 2014. 400p. ISBN 9780345539786. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780345539793. F
In a dystopic future on Mars, a brave young man named Darrow makes a meager living as a “helldiver,” a space-age miner who risks life and limb every day mining helium-3 to terraform the planet for habitability. Darrow is a member of the working class, the titular “Reds,” who are steeped in the traditions and lore of their families and their hardworking fellows. Mars’s highly stratified society keeps Red at the bottom, lorded over by “Lambdas, Omega and Upsilon, Gamma…” and the imperious Golds, all of whom manipulate the Reds for their own benefit. Propaganda tells the Reds that “…obedience is the highest virtue” even as sigils on their hands mark them as, to all intents and purposes, slaves. Reds live close to the bone with no options to abate their suffering or even get more of the precious little food they receive (coffee, for example, is a fairy-tale extravagance). After Darrow’s beloved wife shows him a secret passage outdoors, she comes to a bad end. Fueled by rage, Darrow enters the academy, a rebel group intent on infiltrating and overthrowing Mars’s hierarchy. If you sense a total shitstorm of rebellion in the gloaming, you’d be correct, sir. While all the characters are drawn nimbly, Darrow is the cement. Readers will ally with his charm and badassery, feel his plight, and root for his rebellion.
VERDICT This is an excellent ripper of a tale with a bright, engaging story line—a great page-turner for a long winter’s night. What’s (much) better is that it places the concept of America on Mars, deftly making unmistakable analogies to our contemporary internal imperialism and inequalities. Sure, America means opportunity and passion, but it also means hard work, inequality, struggle, blood, and allegiance.
Capps, Tyler. Cooking Comically: Recipes so Easy You‘ll Actually Make Them. Penguin. 2013. 186p. photos. ISBN 9780399164040. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698139206. COOKERY
Does the world need another cookbook? No. But it needs *this* new cookbook from Capps, creator of online recipe comic 2AM Chili. Here dudes will find exactly what the subtitle promises—and then some. Readers are guided by a sassy, aggressive stick-figure dude with a great sense of humor who melts butter with a flamethrower, chops up veggies with a samurai sword, and says things like, “Mmmm. Smells like touchdowns.” Difficulty-wise, the recipes range from “Reading this recipe is harder than making it” (for jalapeno poppers) through “On par with shoe-tying” (for chicken soup) to “You’re gonna see some serious shit” (for bread bowls). Nothing in the book is harder than chicken parm, so foodies beware—this isn’t for you. All recipes feature about four pages of photographs of the product at various stages; e.g., for the Super Teriyaki Burger II readers see the assembled ingredients, toasted bun, and fried burger (difficulty rating: ‘Pssssh’). Good, solid, basic appetizers, main courses, and desserts are here, and I guarantee that they will please a normal, unfussy crowd. My kids enjoyed the cornbread, the mac and cheese, and the Chicago-style deep dish pizza. There’s a token vegan dish (pasta primavera), and six simple desserts which include Damn Dirty Ape Bread (like a Bundt cake). The only way this could be improved is with spiral binding so that it would lie flat more easily. VERDICT From this incredibly useful tome, magnificence will be created. Like Timothy B. Schnabel’s The Gift Giving Handbook for the Inept Man: Thousands of Gift Giving Ideas to Make His Life Easier and Her Life Better (Shanem, 2003), I recommend that dudes buy this, hide it, then act like you know what you’re doing. Soon enough you will.
Finch, Charles. An Old Betrayal. Minotaur. (Charles Lenox, Bk. 7). 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781250011619. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250038395. F
Finch’s seventh entry in the “Charles Lenox” series (A Stranger in Mayfair) is pretty friggin’ awesome. Lenox is a former detective retired to Parliament in Disraeli-era London (that’s 1875ish, dude) where his duties entail things like debating “the Irish question” and helping ease tension between the crown and politicos. Though content, he yearns for the thrills he knew as a Sherlock Holmesian detective relying on his wits and a little shoe leather. After an attempt to assist a former colleague with an assignment ends unsuccessfully, Lenox becomes interested in a dull little case that he at first thinks is a lover’s spat. When, days later, a country squire is assassinated, Lenox’s interest turns to near obsession as he begins to piece together a conspiracy that endangers Queen Victoria herself. The story takes place in many locations across London, and against all odds the historical bits prove fun and pithy, explaining for example how the term “magazine” came to mean “journal.” The book’s chief appeal is Lenox, though. While not a royal, he ain’t exactly like us either; he employs staff including a butler, a footman, and a political secretary. Readers will ally, however, with his affection for his toddler daughter and with his ability to maintain a remove from being terribly snobbish.
VERDICT This is easily capable of being read as a stand-alone by those unfamiliar with prior installments. While at times the vigor with which Lenox pursues the case is enigmatic, Finch’s agreeable tone and accurate details make this super-likeable historical fiction.
Hylton, Wil S. Vanished: The Sixty Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II. Riverhead. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781594487279. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101616253. HIST
Take a gander over at the 940s call number : the shelves of libraries all over this great land are jam-packed with the stories and history of World War II. It is an area of constant circulation and fascination for readers, and this is a worthy addition. On a 1993 vacation to Palau, normal dude Pat Scannon sees the wreckage from a B-24 Liberator, one of America’s “eighteen-ton behemoth” bombers. Though clunky and clumsy, they were an essential component of America’s Clutch Win. The wreck starts Scannon wondering about the war and the men inside the plane. Why is the wreck here? Did the men survive? As a historian, Hylton does an amazing job of transferring Scannon’s growing obsession to the page, writing with a lyricism that borders on fiction. Yet the book manages to retain a journalistic remove as it twines together the strands of a much larger story. Hylton skillfully telescopes from the war’s bigger history to individual stories, exploring everything from the backstory of investigator Pat Scannon to Jimmie Doyle, an impossibly handsome member of one of the crashed B-24s, and overarching information about the two-headed Nimitz/MacArthur campaigns in the Pacific. The one man pipe dream soon turns into a full-bore project with partners and staff on expeditions. “It wasn’t about the thrill of adventure, or finding a pot of gold,” says Scannon. “It wasn’t even about finding lost planes. It was about memory. It was about preserving the past.”
VERDICT This combination of military, social, and personal histories makes for compulsive reading. Hylton’s efforts and extensive endnotes take “painstaking research” to new heights. Combined with writing that has clearly been edited down to the bone, this must have taken forEVer to pen, but the reward from this labor of love is an intuitive, discerning look at one aspect of comprehension.
McClanahan, Scott. Crapalachia: A Biography of Place. Two Dollar Radio. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9781937512033. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781937512125. MEMOIR
Crapalachia aka Denese, WV (or “West by God” as some call it) is weird, a little scary, and populated with the kind of folk that most dudes try to obscure as merely a vestigial part of their past. Any embellishments are simple extensions of personalities that doubtlessly exist. Starting in his mid-teens, the title chronicles McClanahan’s life with his older—and very rough—extended family. The author keenly observes the travails of miners and rednecks living in backwater misery. A rural, hardscrabble place, Crapalachia is where you don’t struggle against your impossibly crazy and old matriarch grandma Ruby because it’s just too much trouble. Here you pour cans of beer down the feeding tube of your Uncle Nathan who has cerebral palsy, cats get their heads bitten off by ginormous hogs, and your friends conduct completely sincere backyard wrestling world championships. It’s where five of your 11 uncles have taken their own lives. It’s the “land of nine-fingered people” from James Dickey’s Deliverance, sans the intellectual remove because guess what? You live here. And while the book shows how a person gets imprinted, it’s also the story of a bright mind coming out of the primordial ooze and becoming part chronicler, part rural balladeer.
VERDICT If your people are the hardworking, unsophisticated types more likely to sit on the hoods of their cars drinking beer and listening to Skynerd than inside discussing the relative merits of nuclear vs. solar power, this is a book for you. If you didn’t, this is UnObamerica.
Patrick, Darrin. The Dude’s Guide to Manhood: Finding True Manliness in a World of Counterfeits. Thomas Nelson. Jan. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9781400205479. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781400205486. SELF-HELP
This is a super book. It’s sincere, contains little to no bullshit, and gets immediately and straight to the point which is: advising and encouraging men of all ages to live intentionally, with purpose, as a leader, true to yourself, a man strong in faith and in purpose. If that sounds completely unironic, it is. Patrick, a pastor, church planter, and also Chaplin to the St. Louis Cardinals (so shouldn’t we be reading the Red Sox’s Bland Mason instead?) lends a gentle but distinct Christian flavor to the text. Twelve readable, meaningful chapters serve as focii, and they view manhood through different lenses: heroism, discipline, contentedness, emotions, family, etc. Like any good pastor, Patrick uses a variety of engaging, readable tools to help his points find traction. These range from personal experiences to those of his friends and colleagues, from sports analogies (e.g., the determination of the rehabbing athlete), to pop culture (e.g., Don Draper), and from research to quoting other writers and the Bible. While the advice is well meaning and hopeful, perhaps the most potent point is in the differentiation between “just trying” and purposefully training. “Discipline,” he writes, “trains us in the art of focusing on our real needs and ignoring our felt needs.” Lack of discipline, he writes, sets us up for failure.
VERDICT A large part of the Books for Dudes column is about self-improvement, and Patrick’s book speaks—clearly and loudly—to exactly that moment. Maturation, growth, evolution—dudes should always be striving for these, with breaks for recreational activities like mountain biking, Adventure Time, and cannonballs into the local swimming hole. This will find an appreciative audience.
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, because it puzzles me that books by this author have been all but forgotten by present-day readers, I dig them up to remind dudes that “older” doesn’t always equate “bad.” Who did I find this month? One Martin Cruz Smith and his 1971 mystery Gypsy in Amber. Unfortunately, the print version of this book is unavailable in the United States and forthcoming as a mass pap. edition in May 2014 from S. & S. UK. The audiobook version is available through Recorded Books (5 CDs. library ed. unabridged. ISBN 9781419322129. $41.75).
Smith, Martin Cruz. Gypsy in Amber. S. & S. UK. (Roman Grey/Sergeant Isidore Mystery, Bk. 1). ISBN 9781471131271. pap. MYS
This mystery, originally published in 1971, is Jumpin’ Jehosaphat good. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked it up, but as a massive fan of the Arkady Renko stories (try “Wolves Eat Dogs” to experience a writer at the top of his game) I was certainly interested. It’s the first of two novels featuring a gypsy antique dealer named Roman Grey who lives in New York City. One of Roman’s associates is killed in a car crash, and that’s terrible. But what’s worse is that the van he was driving contained the corpse of a woman sliced into six pieces. The investigator turns to Roman for help in getting some answers, and to do so he has to traipse all over hell and gone to upstate New York to visit some rich dude and his daughter who hangs out with some weird-ass hippies. Following their trail, Roman lands at the Woodstock music festival (!) and pisses off the villain so badly that he becomes the hunted instead of the hunter. MCS reprised Roman in Canto for a Gypsy (1972), but not since. Other than the high quality, Gypsy in Amber has nothing in common with Smith’s other work. It’s a remarkable feat to write books that flow so well in such varied subject areas and make them fascinating to readers. Mostly he accomplishes this by crafting unique, real people accurately and with a minimum of words; it speaks to a massive, Wally Lamb-esque amount of research. Smith perfected the craft in subsequent novels each of which set him apart as an amazing, perceptive writer. The stunning Rose (1996), for example, is a murder mystery set inside class warfare in a 19th century English mining community; Nightwing (made into a truly awful movie in 1979) is the improbably glorious story of how some folks defeat a buttload of vampire bats attacking Native Americans in New Mexico.
VERDICT Pick up any book by the undersung Martin Cruz Smith—you’ll be glad you did.