It’s that special time of year when your New Year’s resolutions are either starting to shape up nicely or have suffered complete annihilation. If it’s the former, congratulations! Your success and self-control are an obvious ploy to humiliate and provoke the rest of us! If it’s the latter, join we who woke up on 1/1 still drunk from the night before with a headache and some new, unexplained abrasions. Either way, take heart—today is the first day of the rest of your life and Books for Dudes staff have found some amazing titles to keep you company along the way.
Both Richard Powers’s Orfeo and Alan Lightman’s Accidental Universe are deeply satisfying reads, while for pure escape you really can’t go wrong with Matthew Klein’s No Way Back. If you’re a librarian, teacher, or parent (or maybe all three?) BFD urges you to read Raising Boy Readers, which provides an excellent blueprint for raising smart kids.
In sum, if your 2014 “fresh start” isn’t smelling so fresh, these titles can help get things moving.
Bacharach, Jacob. The Bend of the World. Liveright: Norton. Apr. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9780871406828. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780871408143. F
Peter Morrison lives in Pittsburgh and he’s that distinctly American breed of youngish adult floating in a perpetual late adolescence. You know the type: pushing 30, earning good pay in a make-believe job (he’s a “manager of customer analytics and spend processes”), not possessing a surplus of ambition. His girlfriend, Lauren Sara, seems even more lackadaisical about life. Pete’s quite smart, noting at one point that “…the office only crushes your soul if you’re dumb enough to bring it to work,” but he needs something to push him onward and upward. That something comes from a couple of very different sources, the first being his best friend Johnny—a total crackpot conspiracy theorist who claims secret knowledge about batshit-crazy occultism, drugs, and ghost governmental systems. On the other end of the spectrum, Pete is drawn to a mysterious, sophisticated older couple new to town. In them Pete sees maturity and what “the future” might possibly look like. As per the union contract on all coming-of-age novels, there’s mandated plots involving UFOs and a Sasquatch. VERDICT Bacharach is a keen observer adept at making the mundane feel remarkable. Dudes who want an immediate shot in the arm when cracking the spine of a book should be aware that this is like a keg of beer with a slow tap—the fun is there, but it comes out slowly.
Blair, Peggy. The Poisoned Pawn. Penguin. Mar. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780143189763. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780143179993. f
Did you read Blair’s 2012 The Beggar’s Opera? If not, you’d better be bringing a lotta gumption, Chumley. See, PP is set immediately post-BO, so if you don’t know the 411 you’re SOL. Having said that, it just takes a little longer—and more gumption—to find the plot here. Or, rather, the four different plots—and four different narrators—on offer within the first few pages. The main story of this police procedural set in 2006 Cuba centers on capable, dependable detective Ricardo Ramirez, who is haunted by the ghosts of his unsolved cases. At the same time that Ramirez is sent to Toronto to collect a priest found with ch!ld p0rn on his laptop (no graphic descriptions, no airsickness bag needed), a bunch of apparently unrelated poisonings of Cuban women occurs. Why? How? It’s Ramirez’s job to find out before the Canadian government issues a travel ban for Cuba, which would affect the island nation’s economy and which Ramirez’s Castro-esque governmental ministers really don’t want. So he’s busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest. Luckily he is assisted by a charming dwarf pathologist named Hector Apiro—an obvious homage to author Martin Cruz Smith’s Professor Andreev. Pastiches of other stories create an enjoyable, if disjointed, larger picture. In contrast to the grim murders and glimpses of life in hardscrabble Cuba are moments of quiet hilarity, as when Ramriez sees one of his ghosts, a two-weeks-dead, cigar-smoking woman; “The old woman had managed to squeeze her rather large rear end into [a] small swivel chair.” VERDICT While this is an interesting and thoughtful read, it really can be a jumble to follow if you haven’t read the first book [Starred review, LJ 1/1/14].
Guinn, Matthew. The Resurrectionist. Norton. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780393239317. $25.95; pap. ISBN 9780393348811; ebk. ISBN 9780393240610. f
Guinn’s well-written, well-conceived first novel flips back and forth in time between current- day USC and the beginnings of its distant parent institution, the Carolina College of Medicine and Physic, during the late period of American slavery, in 1857. In the present, an ex-addict med school student named Jacob is working as a PR flack for the school’s administration. While there are many similarities between the students of Ye Olden Times and now, today’s medical trainees seem to have cadavers aplenty to practice upon; Jake sees “…the dead bide the time patiently, like a silent cast awaiting the first act.” Back in the mid-19th century, however, corpses weren’t so easy to come by. Only when the school’s faculty sees tuition-paying medical students walking out do they acknowledge that “…small mammals simply will not do for a proper anatomy course.” So they up and employ a “school slave” named Nemo Johnston to, erm, “procure” corpses for the doctors-in-training. When the bones of these cadavers, all African American, are discovered discarded like so much gauze and catgut in the basement of a campus building, Jacob is in on the PR play to make it all go away quietly. If Jacob is the book’s guide, then Nemo stars as the titular “resurrectionist.” A skillful, intelligent man also pressed into service as the school’s butler, Nemo is equally comfortable with a mop and a surgeon’s scalpel; his personal history and growth is surprising. VERDICT This solid, fast-paced human drama offers a well-written look at the machinations behind running a medical school today and in the past.
Klein, Matthew. No Way Back. Pegasus. Apr. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9781605985442. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781605985879. f
Klein’s crisp, original voice is all at once peppy, funny, snappy, and darkly humorous and this thriller—his first since the cool Con Ed (2007)—is first person–narrated by likable turnaround executive Jim Thane. He’s the guy you bring in to replace your incompetent CEO when your company (say, a software maker) is losing beaucoup money (say, upwards of $3M a month) and you can’t make it stop. Jimmy is bright and genuinely motivated to redeem himself after bottoming out, derailed by booze, drugs, and gambling. This is apparently his 12th or 13th attempt to kick-start his life; his boss describes it as “last stop on the Loser Express.” Jimmy puts it more bluntly, confessing that “Desperate suggests more dignity than I actually had. Pathetic might be a better word.” But the clock is ticking; he has about seven weeks before the company, Tao, folds. He concludes that Tao is “like a high tech grease trap—all drippings, no meat,” and the deeper he digs, the weirder things get. Why did the former CEO disappear? Why can he still sell Tao’s software when it is obviously defective? Is that a Russian Mafia–looking guy living next door, is that a Cyrillic tattoo on the secretary, is this really an FBI agent? Klein does a masterful job of upholding Jimmy’s rationalizations for the reader—right up to the bitter end. Refreshingly, and unlike many thriller authors out there, Klein assumes intelligence on the part of his readers. VERDICT Thoroughly enjoyable and compelling from start to finish.
Lautner, Robert. Road to Reckoning. Touchstone. Feb. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9781476731636. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476731650. f
Though the style and dialog of this takes a little getting used to, those pushing through the first ten pages or so will be rewarded with an interesting tale from an unusual era—1837 westward expansion. Thomas Walker, 12, lives with his father in New York City. He’s remarkably mature, probably like most adolescents then, so when his father takes a job as a traveling salesman for the brand-new Colt revolver company selling the “Improved Revolving Gun,” Thomas tags along to help out. Soon after embarking on their first trip, the two run into a band of outlaws who steal their possessions and murder Thomas’s father. Left to fend for himself, Thomas latches onto Henry Stands, an ex-Ranger and grumpy-old-man-in-training. Though he’s initially reluctant to chaperone the boy, the kid’s stubborn toughness grows on Stands, and the boy proves to be Stands’s equal mentally and physically (e.g., on the agony that must be his virgin ass after days in the saddle, he only notes, “My rear had become raw bone”). And what would a Western—even one set in the East—be without a showdown? The author proves masterful at slipping in unusual words (“surcingle”: the wide strap that helps keep blankets or equipment in place on a horse) and crafts genuine period dialect and rhythms of speech, which sound formal to contemporary ears. VERDICT Great stuff. Lautner manages character maturation sans the usual sentiment associated with wide-eyed narration. It’s also a superior historical novel offering an unexpectedly keen window to a dim corner of American history: I mean, Martin Van Buren was president.
Lightman, Alan. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. Pantheon. 2014. 176p. ISBN 9780307908582. $24.; ebk. ISBN 9780307908599. SCIENCE
Lightman, a physics professor at MIT, has a brain roughly twice the size of an average person’s; fortunately for humankind, he has sworn to only use his powers for good. He starts this fantastic collection of previously published essays by relating how he met the Dalai Lama at MIT, and it’s exactly this kind of cross-pollinating of the spiritual world with the scientific one that exemplifies this title. “Science,” he writes, “does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some veils.” Much veil-pulling ensues, and like über-dude Isaac Asimov, the good professor focuses on explaining/exploring various topics within cosmology and physics, like dark energy. Mind-boggling facts appear; “If the theoretically possible values for dark energy were marked on a ruler stretching from here to the sun, the value of dark energy actually found in our universe … (10 -8 ergs per cubic centimeter) would be closer to the zero end than the width of an atom.” This title will infuriate intelligent design advocates, for Lightman holds, per the title, that “we are an accident.” And yet the writing is a real and searching investigation at the crux of science and faith. Where else might you read the spiritual version of the second law of thermodynamics—the “arrow of time”—explicated in a way that includes toupees and Botox? VERDICT Part philosophy, part science, this little book is a big fat pleasure to read. Carefully chosen words are always wonderful, and these have the bonus of embiggening your brain.
Offerman, Nick. Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. Dutton. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780525954217. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698138322. bio
Hubris: (h)yo͞obris/. Noun. Excessive pride or self-confidence. Offerman is best known for his role as Ron Swanson on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In PYOC Offerman proves himself to be a nice guy who respects his parents, loves the Chicago Cubs, and assumes the mantle of a self-made, blue-collar dude in a world of spoiled Hollywood brats. But while decent guys with good work ethics and affection for family should feel perfectly free to write autobiographies, it doesn’t obligate dudes to read them. Offerman takes special pleasure in describing how very ordinary he is; it’s tedious. Readers sit through the alternating scorn and fondness for growing up in rural Minooka, IL; how teenage Nicky felt like an outsider for enjoying Bukowski; and how he was half of a two-man break-dancing team. Weirdness like a lusty praise of weed is counterbalanced by bits that make complete sense, such as the satisfaction of working alongside his adored dad and uncles. “For one of those impossibly proficient men to deem my work a ‘nice job’ filled me with more satisfaction that any A-plus grade I ever received in school,” he writes. Big O drops names, describes every freaking role he ever got (e.g., the plumber on Will and Grace)—including theater—and casually dispenses advice about various topics (e.g., maps), in appropriately-titled asides (e.g., “Know Your Ass from a Hole in the Ground”). It’s fine, but to slog through 352 self-absorbed pages of reiterating to readers how lucky he is…no. VERDICT Reading more like a bunch of transcripted tapes, this needs hella more funny.
Powers, Richard. Orfeo. Norton. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780393240825. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393242683. f
Orfeo (the title taken from Monteverdi’s opera) follows Peter Els, a retired avant-garde composer, a “…quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden,” whom no one considers anything other than mildly eccentric. Ensorcelled by Mozart’s Jupiter at age eight, Peter sees music in all things, especially people and nature. And let me tell you, he’s like the Jimi Hendrix of the clarinet—ain’t no stopping him. Powers’s joyously descriptive wordiness magnificently animates Peter; this is a true person, not merely a character. As he matures, Peter discovers his life’s quest: revealing “…something magnificent and enduring [that] hid under music’s exhausted surface.” A huge imprint of sadness is made on teenage Peter when his Eurydice dumps his clarinet-playing ass. Unifying the fast-forwards and rewinds that track his life, readers come to understand his love of chemistry and microbiology as another aspect of his intellectual intensity. And that’s just when it gets deliciously weird: when Peter combines the two with experiments involving bacterial cultures, this “…gaunt, monkish man…[with]…rimless glasses and plaid work shirt pilled around the collar” triggers a nationwide manhunt led by Homeland Security. VERDICT Powers skillfully weaves together and makes understandable two fields that get pretty far up their own asses in terms of complex, theoretical impracticality. For a book with such an upsetting premise—on so many levels—this is a soothing, evocative read in which characters inhabit intellects and ideas as much as they do the earth. It’s a wild, imaginative read for dudes looking to eclipse car chases/explosions/WWII history.
Sullivan, Michael. Raising Boy Readers. Huron St., dist. by IPG. 208p. ISBN 9781937589431. $19.95. parenting
This game-changer of a professional book quickly cuts to the chase: most boys need “to be allowed to read in volume at whatever level is comfortable for them while their brains develop at their own pace.” Sullivan’s cogent, thoughtful observations incorporate refreshing doses of real-world common sense, such as that “…for all that we teachers and librarians try to do, parents and families have so much more effect on developing readers.” While the author refers to boys generally, he’s careful to note that no boy (or girl) is typical, further, the tactics he recommends (e.g., read aloud to children) will work for both genders and that placing stress on a boy to read or overemphasizing reading often backfires. Instead, Sullivan recommends relaxing and modeling reading behaviors. And his advice to parents of good readers is, basically: leave them alone. The author is also eager to point out the importance of nonfiction to boys and is highly critical of America’s “test-and-punish” educational culture (created by governments keen to simply rack up so-called ‘improvements.” Those interested in this topic will also find food for thought in Amanda Ripley’s 2013 The Smartest Kids in the World. Indeed, a concise argument is made that “grade-level reading is a pointless and arbitrary standard and relies on the Brain Lag effect,” wherein boys’ brains develop later and thus they read about 1.5 years later than girls. In addition to five wonderful introductory chapters, Sullivan’s annotated book lists (e.g., Christian fiction, ghost stories, etc.) are priceless. VERDICT Amazingly readable, understandable, and direct advice. Anyone can get a lot from this, most of all teachers and librarians.
 See Strategic Moves, featuring Stone Barrington, by Stuart Woods.
 But really, isn’t being a notable TV actor somewhat akin to being the prettiest girl at the Party of Ugly Chicks?