Death is part of life—usually the last part. And while it plays a pretty big role in a full three-quarters of this month’s titles, death doesn’t define dudes—we’re defined by life. How? Shoot—in a lotta ways! We fix your car whistling a merry tune, ride bikes down muddy jeep tracks, fight off genetically modified parasites, track down a lawless fruitcake bent on world destruction, work on our tree forts, figure out how bluetooth works, or raise (muddy) kids (in rickety tree forts). Doing stuff—intentionally happy stuff—is what life ought to be about.
So rip out a rebel yell, Chumley (wait until you’re out of the library though). From the punchy verve of Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work to the sinister world of Islamic extremism, from camping to singing in the shower and digging deep holes, know that dudes are out there living large—and reading books, of course. So don’t let full-blown sucky December bring you down, pal—grab a book and relax.
Cutter, Nick. The Troop. Gallery. Feb. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9781476717715. $26. ebk. ISBN 9781476717753 FIC
This hella creepy book begins on a teeny Canadian island where scoutmaster Tim Riggs and a tight-knit group of 14-year-old scouts are camping. A dude shows up out of the blue —and he’s hungry. “It wasn’t much more than a skeleton lashed by ropes of waterlogged muscle,” observes Riggs, “its flesh falling off its bones in grey, lace-edged rags.” Tim sees Mr. Hungry eat a handful of soil—and it’s not because he’s a geophagist; he’s just freakishly hungry. As Tim, who is also a general practitioner, cuts open the hungry man he releases “[t]hree feet of oily tube” —a massive, vampiric tapeworm. Tim rapidly gets infected and suddenly we’re having an epidemic. Though at times maudlin, especially concerning the boys’ feelings about the pain of adolescence, this is surprisingly well written for a horror novel. There are skies “…salted with remote stars” and a beach that is “a bonelike strip unfurling to the shoreline.” Additionally, Cutter simply nails a lot of things: the interplay between the five-pack of man-cubs, for example, or his description of a kid’s sudden anger which “…rose out of nowhere, this giddy charge zitzing through his bones and electrifying his marrow.” Cutter adds intrigue by zigzagging back and forth in time and place and parceling out the story from a variety of viewpoints. Each character—from patient zero to Scoutmaster Tim—brings a slightly different perspective; fictionalized news reports (grotesque) and clinical lab reports (cold blooded) add to the verisimilitude. VERDICT An eerie/disturbing page-turner perfect for horror fans, reluctant readers, and anyone who liked Lord of the Flies or John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Hayes, Terry. I Am Pilgrim. Emily Bestler: Atria. May 2014. 703p. ISBN 9781439177723. $26.99. ebk. ISBN 9781439177747. FIC
Readers, prepare thine selves for an experience that’s the opposite of Dashiell Hammett: to wit, this sprawling 700–page spy thriller that traipses all over Europe and the Middle East. Keyed to the personality of the titular protagonist, it’s pretty freaking good too. At a NYC murder scene we’re introduced to the Pilgrim, whose investigative skills and knowledge far outstrip the abilities of even the most experienced cops. He knows within a moment that the hot chick found “…naked in the bathroom—her throat cut, floating face down in a bathtub full of sulfuric acid” was killed by a pro. Soon readers are learning the Pilgrim’s backstory. He was once the youngest-ever chief of a super-secret intelligence organization known only as The Division. His identity is so cloaked that anyone who knows his real name winds up dead (it’s Scott Murdoch—oops, sorry, you’d better go hide now). He knows murder. Eventually, the Pilgrim is pitted against the Saracen, a jihadist whom Hayes capably forms by describing his life from a young age. Following a brief and unhappy struggle against the Fahd monarchy in Saudi Arabia, his family is torn apart and the Saracen finds comfort and belonging in ultraconservative Islam. After honorably fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, he works his way back home undercover and starts his lifelong plan to bring down Infidel America using engineered smallpox. VERDICT There’s lots of spycraft and intelligence work here, lots of wisdom and knowledge about human motivations and psychology. Hayes’s screenwriting background (From Hell, Road Warrior) serves the drama and pace quite well. There isn’t a whole lot of action at first, but it gets there.
Kleon, Austin. Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. Workman. Apr. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9780761178972. $11.95. pap. SELF-HELp
Kleon follows up his best-selling Steal like an Artist: 10 Things No One Ever Told You About Being an Artist with more encouragement in the same cheery vein. Emphasizing that communities of intention are powerful and that connecting with like-minded people is important, Kleon bases this breezy read around ten tips (e.g., Tell Good Stories, You Don’t Have to be a Genius, etc.). Each exhorts readers to action and to share their work with others. Most suggestions (e.g., share your influences) will work for all professions, not just artists, though this is not universal—as when Kleon proposes folks shoot video of themselves working (look, kids, this is what typing a memoir looks like!). Advice is quite useful, as in “Learn to Take a Punch,” which deals with criticism’s many forms; “You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are. This is especially hard for artists to accept, as so much of what they do is personal.” Like the stealer/shower he is, Kleon uses inspirational quotes from a wide variety of dudes from John le Carré to Dave Grohl. VERDICT Like Steal, Show is timeless; readers can return to it repeatedly throughout life and still glean useful ideas and tips. It’s a mistake to think this is aimed at young, artsy people, because anyone starting out (or starting over), from middle-age hausfraus to dissatisfied portfolio managers to hopelessly tardy book review columnists will find upbeat encouragement here.
Margotin, Philippe, & Jean-Michel Guesdon. All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release. Black Dog & Leventhal. 2013. 671p. ISBN 9781579129521. $50. MUSIC
This chunky, tidy package contains just enough trivia and info to be interesting to both rabid fans and casual readers/listeners; it will also look great on the coffee table. Each of the 213 Beatles songs receives at least two pages of coverage (notable ones such as “All You Need Is Love” get more). The authors pick out the most interesting (and verifiable) Beatlebits, such as that the title of “Eight Days a Week” was supplied by Paul’s chauffeur, that “Norwegian Wood” was about an affair that John had, and that “Ticket to Ride” was Paul’s first recorded guitar solo. It’s also interesting what’s not here, like that “Baby You’re a Rich Man Too” was once “Baby You’re a Rich Fag Jew” (devoted to the group’s closeted homosexual manager Brian Epstein, who became quite wealthy) and that “Get Back” was originally intended to satirize the British anti-immigrant movement. And even the most die-hard fanatic might be surprised to learn by reading the instrumentation notes that John hardly ever played on George’s material. Though this is hardly indispensable, as it covers ground already detailed by many other titles, including William J. Dowlding’s excellent Beatlesongs and Mark Lewisohn’s masterful The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962–1970, this strikes a great balance between serving as an enjoyably readable flip book and a dense reference tome. VERDICT No single book can contain every encyclopedic tidbit about every song, but this provides beginners and budding musos more than enough to chew on.
Morley, Isla. Above. Gallery. Mar. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9781476731520. $24.99 ebk. ISBN 9781476735641. FIC
While there’s nothing horribly graphic or torture-porn-esque about this, it will be difficult for some because it’s the story of a young girl who’s held captive for 15 years by a madman. Icky. Blythe, a teenage girl from Kansas, narrates the story of how her school librarian (oh, great) named Dobbs captures and installs her in his defunct missile silo/love nest/survival shelter. He calls their little twosome “the Remnant,” saying, “After the End, you and I will rise up together. You and me—we will one day seed the new world.” While Dobbs’s delusions make sense to him, they’re still batshit. He “save”’ Blythe, he didn’t kidnap her; the prison is termed “The Ark” and is replete with animal and seed samples. [spoiler alert!] Abused and eventually raped (while her thoughts drift to a lake she used to enjoy), Blythe steadfastly struggles against Dobbs, but to no avail; he even makes her marry him and she bears a son, Adam. After years of unpleasantness, mother and boy escape from the silo, and things get even weirder. Nuclear radiation has made some very bad things happen to the world; civilization has had a fork stuck in it. When the two are discovered by some surviving humans they immediately size Adam up as prime beef for world repopulation. VERDICT Extremely readable, this is dystopic for Blythe personally and the world globally. Was Dobbs really crazy when he shaved Blythe’s head and body and told her, “We’re preserving a way of life, don’t you see?”
For those with weak stomachs and/or delicate sensibilities, please consider this alternate review from the perspective of “Hey, everyone’s got good intentions, you just have to look for them.”
Morley, Isla. Above. Gallery. Mar. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9781476731520. $24.99 ebk. ISBN 9781476735641. FIC
This is a freewheeling jaunt about self-discovery, love, and the magic that really makes a relationship work. Dobbs, a smart librarian, loves Blythe the way that Sid Vicious loved Nancy Spungen—with everything he’s got. Feeling the time is right, Dobbs brings Blythe fully into his world, immersing her into a safe, secure environment with few distractions and where she has lots of quiet time alone. A loving provider, Dobbs happily feeds Blythe and provides her with things she needs (even a wig when she goes a bit bald). Through the years Dobbs never complains, shares about his excitement about his life’s work, and asks what he can do for his bride. He even brings her an almond cake for her birthday—though she’s allergic. Oh well, that’s what epi-pens are for, right? When the two begin a physical relationship Blythe likes to think of a magical place on the water. They beget a son and live happily for 15 blissful years. When Dobbs passes, mother and son are cast into a strange new world where they are found by smart people who would very much like to make Adam the president.
Scheckel, Larry. Ask A Science Teacher: 250 Answers to Questions You’ve Always Had About How Everyday Stuff Really Works. The Experiment. 2013. 368p. ISBN 9781615190874. $14.95. ebk. ISBN 9781615191796. SCIENCE
Providing exactly what the title promises, this is a treasure that dudes will really love—it’s great for reading to kids of all ages. Entries are topically arranged into 11 chapters (“The Human Body,” “Captivating Chemistry,” etc.) and each is chock-a-block with fascinating stuff described in the way only an enthusiastic science-smart person can. The actual answers to questions like “Which way does the Earth rotate?” are provided, sure (btw, it’s counterclockwise when seen from above), but Scheckel adds more. In the “counterclockwise” answer, for instance, we also learn that “the Moon’s gravity affects the Earth’s rotation,” and that it is “moving away from the Earth about 1.5 inches every year.” Who knew? Each answer is one to two pages long and easy to understand. Why are the oceans salty? Dissolved minerals and stuff in there. How do microwave ovens cook food? By radar. Why do skunks smell so bad? It’s a spray weapon on their butts. Amid the science Scheckel even sprinkles a few funnies, like some “How cold was it?” jokes in the answer to “What is the lowest temperature recorded in nature?” (minus 129 degrees, btw). VERDICT Reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s Of Time, Space, and Other Things, this is a steal at any price. Engaging, informative, and brightly written, the book will find a grateful, interested readership.
Sundaram, Anjan. Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. Doubleday. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780385537759. $25.95. ebk. ISBN 9780385537766. MEMOIR
It’s every parent’s second-worst nightmare: You have a smart, handsome son who gets into Yale on a promising PhD track in math. He gets a solid job offer from Goldman Sachs. He’s set! You’ve won! Instead, your boy snatches defeat from the jaws of victory and takes off to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—perhaps the un-nicest place on earth—to become a freelance journalist. For the love of God, why? “In America,” Sundaram writes, “I was beginning to feel trapped and suffocated, removed from the world.” He lands in the city of Kinshasa, renting a spare bedroom where “rats banged through the metal pots when I turned on the bulb” in the kitchen. What he finds in the DRC, and how he describes it, is close-up and unsettling. In contrast to America, the DRC he feels “…only impermanence, fear. I had to constantly push, fend.” Thumbnail sketches of Europeans pillaging rubber during the automobile revolution and the current craze for tantalum (used in cell phones) illustrate that the DRC’s land and people have been abused for hundreds of years.Instead of writing like a tourist gawking at misery, when Sundaram describes his experiences reporting in the city (“Death is as widespread in few places,” he writes) and the countryside, where he seems most at peace, he is absorbing, exposing, and relating experiences quite alien to Westerners. VERDICT Sundaram doesn’t have an escape hatch; he’s made a precarious living as a stringer, and the authenticity is palpable.
Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Algonquin. Apr. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781616203214. $24.95. FIC
Let’s get something straight: dudes are not supposed to enjoy romance novels. I didn’t like admitting that I liked Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project last month in the same way I don’t appreciate the position I’m in with Fikry. I resent the skill and verve that Ms. Z. shows in this quirky, punchy novel. I don’t like that it’s so readable, so appealing. I disdain its damnable charm, its succinctness, its crisp, clear tone! AAAGH! The titular Fikry is a persnickety grump with a “porcupine heart” who acts much older than his 39 years. A bookseller on an island off the New England coast, recent widower Ajay claims that he’s not an alcoholic, “but I do like to drink until I pass out at least once a week. I smoke occasionally and subsist on a diet of frozen entrees. I rarely floss.” He adds, “I live alone and lack meaningful personal relationships.” Voted “least capable of taking care of a child,” A.J. nevertheless adopts a two-year-old baby named Maya who was left in his bookshop. As he slowly gets himself back on track, A.J. finds that fatherhood mellows him and teaches acceptance. After that it’s a hop, skip, and jump into full-blown love and happily-ever-afterland. And you know what? Good for A.J. I’m glad for him, dammit. VERDICT This lightning-fast read is super enjoyable; hide it inside a copy of Popular Mechanics.