At first glance, you’d think that the number 289 isn’t anything special. What can it signify? The area code for Southern Ontario? An engine block size? DDC for “Other denominations & sects” under “Christian denominations”? The square of 17? It’s all these things, but it’s so much more.
But 289 is indeed a very special number. It’s Books for Dudes’s favorite number because it’s the perfect number of words for a book review. All eight reviews below have 289 words.
These perfect-number-of-words reviews cover some pretty awesome books of the fiction and nonfiction types. You know that special kind of nonfiction that reads like fiction? We have three of those this month—Emilio Lussu’s classic A Soldier on the Southern Front, Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade and Carol Shaben’s Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story.
Additionally, two others are that kind of fiction that can almost be read as nonfiction—E. Michael Helm’s excellent “Of Blood and Brothers” books and Rachel Pastan’s Alena. And you know what? We have Chelsea Handler’s supremely enjoyable book about her one-night stands called My Horizontal Life, which I posit is actually in both of those categories.
By the way, this edition of BFD includes the February 2014 “romance that dudes won’t like admitting they kind of like”—Tim Schaffert’s sweeping The Swan Gondola.
Lastly, consider doing these three things someday: 1.) Look at a bayonet—knowing for what purpose it is designed; 2.) Collect your wits; 3.) Count your blessings.
Handler, Chelsea. My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands. Bloomsbury USA. 2005. 213p. ISBN 9781582346182. pap. $11.38. Memoir
Despite reviewing Chelsea, Chelsea, Bang Bang a few years back, I don’t know anything about this attractive lady other than that she’s on a TV show I’ve never seen and that she’s pee-soaked-underwear, snot-out-your-nose, abs-hurt-from-laughing funny. Handler’s knack for relating life stories lies somewhere between a super-funny seventh grader talking smack on the bus ride home and David Sedaris relating his experiences going to speech therapy and summer camp (and where else besides Books for Dudes would a Sedaris/Handler literary comparison pop up?). True to the title, this is Handler’s chronicle of heartlessly bagging one-night-stand trophy men. She also isn’t shy about bedding some real losers—and tells of multiple failures. For her male counterparts, there are few entrance requirements other than buying her hefty amounts of alcohol and having good bodies. And while some readers might feel a bit squeamish about Handler’s braggadocio, it is quite clear that she is in charge of her own damn sex life, thank you (you can go back to reading 50 Shades of Being Unimaginatively Dominated now). Though Handler’s situations (e.g., she’s banging a male stripper named “Thunder”) provide funny enough material, it’s her little observations that elevate this to spit-take levels (e.g., she honestly doesn’t know—and isn’t interested in—Thunder’s real name). With no pretensions, even fewer literary aspirations, and zero fear of judgment, Handler winningly delivers just what she aims to: laughs. Though “hot” and “funny” are quite subjective terms, dudes everywhere can all agree that, like Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler is broilingly hot and superfunny. VERDICT If you don’t laugh within the first ten pages, put this tile down and return to your Anna Quindlen. Handler’s forthcoming Uganda Be Kidding Me will, no doubt, be similarly charming.
Helms, E. Michael. Of Blood and Brothers: Book One. Koehler. 2013. 282p. ISBN 9781938467516. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940192017. F
Helms, E. Michael. Of Blood and Brothers: Book Two. Koehler. Mar. 2014. 274p. ISBN 9781938467509. pap. $17.95. F
This superbly enjoyable historical fiction features a simple and quite skilfully written story centered on family, the Civil War, and lost love. In 1927 Northern Florida, rookie reporter Calvin Hogue stumbles upon the two elderly Malburn brothers, who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War. It’s easy to get the two talking, but not together. Daniel, the older brother, and Elijah don’t speak to each other, but each tells Hogue his life’s story over the course of many meetings that the reporter dutifully transcribes into a weekly newspaper series. The two ended up on opposite sides inadvertently when young Elijah was captured and forced to work for the North as a scout. He eventually, and reluctantly, led a raid on his home valley of Econfina. The books chronicle seven intense years, from battles in Georgia to Reconstruction in Florida. The genuine, homespun voices Helms uses for the brothers (e.g., “Laying there under that hot sun I soon got powerful thirsty”) work perfectly as they potently recount harrowing battlefield experiences (e.g., “A yell went up like the bowels of Hell had busted open and ten thousand screaming demons was set loose”) and tell of sadnesses—including both falling for the same girl. The chronicle continues into the 1870s after Daniel returns home on foot from a Northern POW camp and Elijah is branded by some as a traitor. The young, excitable Hogue is also a well-drawn character; he coughs through sips of offered moonshine and obsesses about honoring the two brothers with the “whole story.” Helms’s steady intensity and pace keep the three narratives on track with little frittering away of precious pages. Both books are quick and pleasurable reads. VERDICT Helms’s (Proud Bastards) fiction carries the ring of truth.
Kirn, Walter. Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. Liveright: Norton. Mar. 2014. ISBN 9780871404510. 272p. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780871407337. crime
I’ve read me some Walter Kirn in the past, but in no way I was ready for this, a work for which the phrase, “The truth is stranger than fiction” was coined. Page one tells readers, straight out, what it’s about: ” …I volunteered to drive a crippled dog from my home in Montana…to the New York City apartment of a rich young man, a Rockefeller, who had adopted it.” Wow, so, um…why? Well, Kirn explains, “It felt like a noble gesture at the time, and I was in the mood for an adventure.” Hmph. Though Kirn “…found him instantly annoying; a twee, diminutive hobbit of a fellow whose level of self-amusement seemed almost delusional,” this rich dog-adopter had a lot of charisma. For some reason the two developed an occasional friendship that lasted 15 years. Turns out that this Rockefeller—whose name was actually Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter—was an impostor of magnificent proportions. Eventually, Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter was found out and his story unraveled. Not only a swindler, R/G was also a kidnapper and a murderer. As Kirn attends his trial in LA, he reflects on how this revelation shook up his world, about the concept of identity, and on what this giant duping said about himself. Kirn loosely concludes that, like R/G, he too is an impostor of sorts as a writer, someone who “…turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.” R/G’s story was made into a (really bad) movie with Eric McCormack called Who Is Clark Rockefeller? VERDICT Good luck putting this down. The thing about Kirn is, even if you’re not terribly interested in the story, he’s such a good writer that you’re compelled to continue.
Lussu, Emilio. A Soldier on the Southern Front. Rizzoli ex Libris. Mar. 2014. 288p. tr. from Italian by Gregory Conti. ISBN 9780847842780. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780847842797. MEMOIR
Lussu was a lieutenant in the Sassari Brigade, a special group of madmen who all came from Sardinia (that’s an island off Italy’s knee, Chumley). I can’t vouch for his soldiering skills, but as an author he shows intelligence, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing modesty. It’s clear from the outset that he is not merely Italian but an Italian soldier. He also manages to convey the universal weariness of an infantryman in simple, sometimes prosaic, terms while imbuing some of the narrative with unusual lyricism. Lussu and his men yearn to be “liberated” from the “ferocious promiscuity” of assaults and eagerly anticipate rear deployment when they “…would finally be able, in our hours of idleness, to lie out in the sun, or sleep under a tree, without being seen, without being awakened by a bullet in the leg.” In the meantime, though, the Austrians are firing good-Christ-those-are-HUGE 305mm and 420mm siege guns. Battles sound terrible, replete with friendly fire and experiences such as, “tornadoes of earth, rocks, and body fragments flew up into the air, way high up, and fell back down far away.” Lussu’s keen observational eye takes in the big picture, including drunken commanding officers and a general with the same ‘cold and rotating’ eyes Lussu knows from “the mental hospital of my hometown.” He contrasts a raving “…commander of the Alpini groups, ready to die” with his own boss’s attitude on the matter: “He can start dying by himself. That’s his business.” Though difficult to compare with a contemporary memoir, say Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012) or Gary O’Neal’s American Warrior (2013), Lussu’s somehow seems more epic. VERDICT Part lyrical Italian mojo, part authorial descriptive genius, part 100-year-old stoicism, this eminently readable book UNgraphically describes the infantry experience.
Pastan, Rachel. Alena. Riverhead: Penguin Grp. USA. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781594632471. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698141605. f
Pastan’s novel, a pastiche of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca,offers a very linear plotline and an unnamed heroine (that’s kinda cool). Miss Thing is a bright, eager youngster/ingénue originally from the Midwest who becomes an art curator and lands a job in NYC. She’s soon pressed into service at a big art show—the Biennale—in Venice. It’s her first trip abroad and she’s simultaneously entranced by the art and repulsed by her ladyboss’s boorishness. She meets a special dude—Bernard Augustin, who she sees as having a “… big head with … cropped salt-and-pepper hair floating like a grim moon over that surging sea of well-dressed humanity.” She learns a little about him, concluding that he is someone to whom others don’t compare well; a man among “…a rank jungle full of monkeys and mosquitoes.” The book describes their lifelong, mixed personal and business relationship. Pastan excels at nailing sensations, such as when Little Miss arrives in New York City: “the air smelled of urine and of burning. A fizzing started up inside me like bubbles rising a beer bottle when you prise off the top. It wasn’t fear. Or rather, it wasn’t only fear. It was amazed delight, excitement, glee, and a thrilled horrified prickling as though my skin were being scoured off, leaving me raw and new.” In Venice she ditches the hungover boss, “a loose, lumpy package on top of the spread, snoring in light, congested bursts like a little dog” and enjoys herself, of course meeting Bernard while so doing. And again, with a light touch, Heroine observes his elemental sex; he is flushed, straightened, growing, vibrant. WOooOOoOOoooooooOOOh! VERDICT This isn’t every dude’s cup of tea, but it will appeal to readers who enjoy interesting, well-written—and damned sexy—literary fiction.
Schaffert, Timothy. The Swan Gondola. Riverhead: Penguin Grp. USA. Feb. 2014. ISBN 9781594486098. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781594486098. f
Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope, 2011) starts with a stunning fragment about damaged, handsome young Bartholomew “Ferret” Skerritt crashing his stolen hot-air balloon into the home of two spinsters. The wayward Ferret is fresh off heartbreak and disaster at the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha (which folks hoped “could unmuddy the river and uncloud the skies”). The story that follows alternates between pretty (if unpenetrating) tableaux and mildly unbelievable plot pieces that move the action forward (also backwards, sideways, down). All are firmly centered on Ferret, a romantic hustler who performs as a vaudeville ventriloquist and who feels redeemed when “the people fell for my tricks” because “they believed in magic,” if for just a moment. Unlike the keenly drawn small-time swindlers, scoundrels, and bandits with whom he associates, Ferret is a harmless, tame dreamer full of lyrical reflections and world-weariness. He has “the look of a boy a mother never could properly scold.” Ferret busily chases a girl he has fallen deeply in love with—a mysterious, if inscrutable, actress named Cecily—but must compete with tragic, wealthy William Wakefield for her hand. VERDICT Beautiful, but shallow. Schaffert’s lush style woos readers with dreamy etherealness (e.g., her eyes were the color of orange-peel tea) and offers a decidedly light plot (e.g., picking the pocket of a pickpocket). Readers will be gobsmacked by keen portraiture of life at the turn of the century, (which upstages the romance), a time when McKinley was president and “Remember the Maine” was the big huzzah. It’s also a 464-page sprawling monster that will tire readers seeking action or tight plotting (for that try Simon Rich’s brassy, brilliant The Last Girlfriend on Earth). Credit Schaffert for adeptly writing romantic, magical, and readable dreams.
Shaben, Carol. Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story. Grand Central. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781455501953. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781455545629. HIST
Like Piers Paul Read’s 1974 classic history Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (there’s a 2005 paperback from Harper Perennial), this book deals with the survivors of a plane crash in a frozen wasteland. Also like Alive, it’s told in third-person close, an excellent strategy for conveying the compelling, life-critical decisions made by multiple people along the course of a bad, bad plane trip way the hell up in Canada one night in October, 1984. One dissimilarity, and this might be considered a spoiler: no one eats anyone else on this crash. A dutiful, but exhausted and spiritually drained pilot makes a mistake flying into High Prairie, Alberta. Of the ten people on board the small commuter plane, only four live: the pilot, a politician, a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, and the prisoner he was transporting for arraignment. Three are injured, shocked, and sort of dazed; the fourth guy—the one who holds his shit together—is, ironically, the prisoner. He winds up being responsible for the lion’s share of activities that save the rest of them. About the first third of the book describes the run-up to the crash and the personal and weather conditions contributing to it. From the moment of the crash onward, however, it’s interesting to see the men lose all semblance of status and just try their best to help each other survive and be rescued—they have to, because October in Northern Canada is deathly cold. Shaben, the daughter of the politician, also explores the next few years of their individual lives. VERDICT Vibrant without being flamboyant, honest without feeling raw, and especially exacting and forceful, this is not a book that screams for attention, but it remains riveting just the same.
Zasio, Robin. The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life. Rodale. 2011. 222p. ISBN 9781609611316. $17.20; ebk. ISBN 9781609611323. self-help
Zasio (a psychologist on A&E’s Hoarders) presents the dysfunction she specializes in treating as not as a one-in-a-million freakshow but as something that everybody does to one degree or another. Indeed, most regular people have “crap” issues (my term, not Zasio’s)—be it a closet crammed with sweaters or shelves of review copies you’ll never read (I’m talking to you, Barbara Hoffert!). As a book, Hoarders is a completely fascinating, wtf chronicle of seemingly normal people hoarding weird crap. Among many profiles are those of a nice young man who hoards crappy old blenders and toasters in the hopes of fixing and selling them and a successful businesswoman living in a craphouse filled to the brim with clothes and cat poop. However, it also provides excellent tips, advice, and suggestions for anyone willing to take a good, hard look at their crap. Even as she explains the terrible emotional anxiety hoarders experience when parting with belongings, Zasio acknowledges that we all hang onto them even if the situation never becomes acute. The difference is that hoarders are rarely swayed by logic (e.g., you really can lose this stained loveseat/80’s pantsuit/collection of Elvis shot glasses) or “need vs. want” conversations. Interestingly, Zasio also declares that it’s okay to keep crap for no good reason—as long as it doesn’t interfere with your life1. See, Dr. Z. isn’t anti-crap as much as she is pro-health, and as such she encourages readers to live without crap (e.g., ask: is it functional? Relevant to your life? etc.) because “your environment—and your mind—will feel clearer in no time.” VERDICT A real-life counterpoint to George Carlin’s caustic routine about ‘Stuff‘; Hoarders is an excellent, readable, actionable self-help book for anyone interested in de-cluttering.