Did curiosity kill the cat? It might have— it’s taking the fifth. But everyone tends to forget the rest of the aphorism: “And satisfaction brought it back.” In Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin wrote, “Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what’s on the other side?” And none other than King-of-all-Dudes Richard Feynman amplified that by writing, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
Dudes are curious about everything. Along with a sense of humor, curiosity is a top dude trademark because life is FAR too short to be screwing around in despair, misery, ignorance, or boredom. If you think that we’re going to spend our lives performing the routine maintenance on Planet Earth’s machines without a little ‘mind exercise’ from time to time, you’ve got another thing coming.
This month’s topics are as varied as ever here at BFD World HQ. Topics such as ‘What’s it like to be inside the mind of a Beatles freak?’ and ‘Why is it such a big deal for a chick to get into a bathing suit?’ are on point, as are mountain climbing, properly grilling fish, getting stronger abs, and what it’s like to pedal the same route as the Tour de France riders. And since March brings that hallmark of spring— pitchers and catchers reporting for duty in sunny climes— what is it like to be in the MLB?
So, these eclectic picks are even more unusual than usual. Subject, classification, genre, style, what does it matter? Variety is the spice of life (not paprika), and you have to be willing to learn a thing or two if you want to avoid brain atrophy.
Bailey, Blake. The Splendid Things We Planned. W.W. Norton. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780393239577. $25.95. MEMOIR
Did you ever bend a spoon and get it hot and break it apart? That’s how this glum memoir by Pulitzer finalist Blake Bailey (Cheever, 2009) goes. Bailey is not only a handsome bastard, he’s also a remarkably talented writer; TSTWP demonstrates that he is an astute study of personalities and how they knock into each other. Unfortunately, he paid for these attributes with a surfeit of unpleasantness while growing up, so vividly recalled that readers will need to double check that this is nonfiction. From the family portrait on the frontispiece onward, the Bailey family’s appearance is pure illusion. Far from the smiling, thriving, strong, and bonded-looking group we see living near the all-American town of Oklahoma City, the family’s youngest son paints a portrait of discontentment, ennui, and substance abuse. While it stands as a deeply rich memoir, it is also profoundly sad. With his uninvolved parents (power lawyer dad, dilettante mom) occupied almost entirely with their individual selfish pursuits, Blake’s ‘family’ devolves into being tethered to his older brother Scott, an unstable and negative psychological force. Where most big brothers are bastards, Scott’s relatively ‘normal’ power games (baiting, mocking) grow to vileness: drug addiction, car crashes, fights, jail time, all that crap. Just when you think there’s a little hope…He. Just. Gets. Worse. In fiction or reality TV, the Baileys might pull it together. Not so the real-life Baileys. VERDICT In one sense, this is a memoir-cum-biography of assholes; in another, it’s a brave statement about American misery. Either way it’s powerful. Tolstoy’s famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” has never been more true.
Beatles Are Here!: Fifty Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember. Ed. by Penelope Rowlands. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781616203504. $15.95. MUSIC
This is a high energy little book that is really only. For. Beatles. Freaks. Forty-nine contributors from all walks of life—rock critics to musicians to normal schmoes—reflect on the band, their legacy, and their own little piece of Beatle pie. Most of these uniformly folksy entries are from Baby Boomers, which is to say they’re self-absorbed. Few of the memories, stories, and reflections have anything to do with the Beatles themselves. The most interesting of them isn’t from rocker Billy Joel or critic Griel Marcus but a diary entry from a Cleveland fangirl. Her dad was a fireman; she went to Catholic school and had a crush on Paul. She’s totally normal, very tame, and it’s interesting to see a slice of her life, the words she chooses, and the thought processes of someone ‘typical’ for the early 1960s. Rowlands’s own fawning entry is countered by photographer Henry Grossman’s anecdotes about his more personal contact with the band, especially George Harrison. DJ Bruce Morrow asserts that it was simply kismet that the band hit “at the right time and at the right place,” and author Fran Liebowitz presents the outsider’s view— she didn’t enjoy the band at all. But all Liebowitz, et al. are really doing is yakking about themselves. It’s not bad, it’s just that readers are going to really need to want to read it. VERDICT If you love love love the Beatles like bees love honey/Pinterest loves baby goats/I love my gf’s boobs, you’ll love this. Otherwise…not so much.
Catherman, Jonathan. The Manual to Manhood: How To Cook the Perfect Steak, Change a Tire, Impress a Girl & 97 Other Skills You Need To Survive. Revell. 2014. April. 272p. ISBN 9780800722296. $14.99. MEN
Really? This is a manual to manhood? OK, maybe if you are a caveman emerging from a long, long coma. Or perhaps a Martian trying to pass for human. Or you have been living in a bomb shelter for most of your life. If none of those apply, no. To be sure there are some useful— if incredibly basic—tips here, such as how to jump start a dead battery, set a table, and behave during a police stop. But…how to clean a bathroom? How to open the door for another person? How to “Create a Personal Budget” in nine simple steps? No, no, no, a thousand times, no. Each entry ranges in length from about one-and-a-half to three pages. All of them have illustrations (helpful for “How to Iron Slacks,” but not so much for “Freshen Bad Breath”). But the lessons here are so elementary, so basic, that it would be difficult to imagine the scenario in which they would be useful to a reader. Possibly “How to Tie a Tie” or “How to Grill Fish.” But “How to Apply Deodorant or Antiperspirant”? “How to Machine-dry Laundry”? Are we breeding a generation of morons? VERDICT There is a slight possibility that young men would find this useful, but, with apologies to a most certainly well-intentioned author and publisher, this is mostly an insult to their intelligence. Spring for a subscription to Esquire Magazine or Megan Doherty’s useful and hilarious How Not To Be a Dick instead.
Anker, Patty Chang. Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave. Riverhead. 2013. 356p. ISBN 9781594486050. $27.95. SELF HELP
I’m not supposed to enjoy or endorse Some Nerve because, as an outgoing, try-anything-once triathlete and Chief Books for Dudes reviewer, I’m supposed to scoff at such heartwarming, inspirational stuff. Anker is a nice girl who, though shy and timid, decides that she wants to inspire her two daughters to be a bit braver than she. So she chooses to face her fears by doing things that scare her—jumping off a diving board in a bathing suit, public speaking, riding a bike, stuff like that—and grits her teeth and accomplishes them. What, you say? That’s not bravery? Yes, the classic wisdom is that bravery is rushing into burning building to rescue a pet capybara/old woman/prized grandfather clock. But bravery is a relative term, one that applies differently to different folks. You could call Anker’s work overly girlish or formulaic or deride the inherent weaknesses that Anker so willingly exposes. But fear is a real thing. I have fears; you do too. Even Chuck Norris has fears. (Namely: me. That’s why he won’t write a book, because he’s afraid I will review it.) More to the point, Anker is completely, utterly, and totally charming in relating her transformation from a wallflower/fraidy cat to…well, a less fearful wallflower/fraidy cat. Not fearless, but definitely more fun-loving. She isn’t going to be wrasslin’ crocodiles or joining the Golden Knights parachuting team any time soon, but she nails public speaking and bike riding for sure. This is like a friend-to-friend pep talk (BYOB) that’s quite heartwarming and well written. As an example to her daughters— and the rest of us— to get a little further out on the edge and enjoy mild risks. Mission Accomplished. VERDICT A gentle, motivational read. Highly recommended.
Go, Justin. The Steady Running of the Hour. Simon & Schuster. 2014. May. 480p. ISBN 9781476704586. $26. FIC
After the long, bitter winter of 2014 this might have been titled, ‘The Steady Running of My Nose.’ Tristan Campbell, recent college graduate (in history, Mother would have said, “Oh how … useful”) discovers he’s due to collect a fat ass inheritance from a relative he never knew. Sound good? You’re thinking maybe a new car or a blitz on Vegas, but the trip that debut author Go has in mind for readers is quite different. His writing style is likeable, accessible, and immediate. But the very mellowness that is so attractive also winds up imbuing the book with a lack of focus. It will take quite a few vague pages, for example, for readers to discern that the odd questions that the lawyers are peppering Tristan with (e.g., “…are you familiar with the Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s?” p.12) indicate that the Walsingham estate isn’t quite ready to collect. See, Tristan’s possible distant relative left his estate to his concubine, but it was never claimed. Tristan has only seven weeks to establish his rightful claim to the money before the mechanism expires. Flip back in time 90 years and readers meet rock climber Ashley Walsingham messing about in the Peak District— smack dab in the middle of England— on a macho, men-are-men adventure. Like Tristan, Ashley is a bit rootless, searching for his identity. Both are driven by curiosity and the desire to know themselves, rather than for fortune or fame. Their stories parallel; both take trips, which ground and help them figure out who they are. Both meet young chicks (Mireille and Imogen, respectively. Where the hell did Go come up with all these names, anyway?). As Tristan traipses all over Europe to prove his birthright, Ashley toys with death while traipsing about on Everest. And if it’s not a sweeping epic-mystery-love story like The English Patient, it’s also not a zany comic romp like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. VERDICT This is pretty damned good. I think readers will respond to Go’s overreaching—the book’s chief appeal is that it doesn’t play it safe. That said, readers will know within the first 15 pages if they want to stick with it. Skip it if you need lots of plot facts or are unwilling to let your imagination take over from time to time. One last thing—readers who sometimes flip to the end of the book to get the ending should do that here as it will make it easy to determine if one wants to read the first 479 pages.
Horowitz, Jeff. Quick Strength for Runners. Velo Press. 2013. 199p. ISBN 9781937715120. $19.95. FITNESS
For once, the hype on the cover is actually true— readers can definitely become faster runners with fewer injuries in about an hour a week. What’s better, many of the exercises look pretty badass to try. The book is ideally structured for those with little time to kill and a major interest in fast improvement. There is no need to go to a gym, so readers can be in the comfort of their own homes (or, preferably, the more luxuriant homes of wealthy friends). The introductory section lays out the purpose and benefits of strength training and the next describes some of the tools one might use to help (e.g., a wobble board, some dumbbells, though most all of the exercises can be done sans equipment). The remainder of the book shows standing, weighted, and floor exercises (one-legged deadlifts, squat/shoulder press, and jackknives, respectively) all with basic and advanced options. Then readers are presented with sets of workouts that put certain exercises (around 10 of them) together in a routine. These balancing, core strength, and run-specific exercises will not remake readers into Paula Radcliffe or Steve Prefontaine, but they will make folks more nimble with a greater capacity to absorb shocks and unexpected twists. VERDICT This is ideal, it really doesn’t get any better than this. There is enough variety to keep your body working and guessing and enough periodization (that is, it gets progressively harder) to keep building on the work you’ve already done. This is the cheapest option you will ever find to improve you as a runner and also build holistic agility into your life; my guess is that any athlete in any sport and non-athletes as well can get the same.
Howard, Paul. Riding High: Shadow Cycling the Tour de France. Mainstream. 2003. 237p. ISBN 9781840188943. $16.43. MEMOIR/SPORT
Elite cyclist Howard (Eat, Sleep, Ride: How I Braved Bears, Badlands, and Big Breakfasts in My Quest to Cycle the Tour Divide) chucks his life out the window for a month and fulfills a lifelong dream by riding the exact same route—on the exact same days—as the 2003 Tour de France. In all it is a journey of 2,131 miles spread over 21 days (termed “stages”). That is a lot of bike riding, peeps. If it sounds superhuman, well it sort of is. But even up to about 100 years ago the TdF and other major races opened racing slots to normal schmoes. Most of these riders, called ‘touriste-routiers,’ would do the stage, then find some grub and cheapo lodging, and go again the next day. Most were flat broke, performing tricks for the crowds to earn money for their supper. Any cobbler, school teacher, policeman, bike shop owner, or librarian who had enormous, stupid balls could ride it. In 1927 one of these amateurs squirted out the front and damn near took the stage from the pro riders! Just before WWII race organizers stopped offering these slots (which need to be returned, btw). For Howard, the day to day grind sees him mounting up many hours before the racers and facing innumerable challenges to his body, his willpower, and the complicated logistics of bringing off such a trip. While oddly light on cycling details, like, “I was in my small ring when I realized…” it’s long on details that the very audience he writes for (other cyclists) are hoping to read— the quality of the hotels, rest, food, and who he encounters on the trip. As an elite cyclist, he’s a bit egotistical (e.g., he feels happy when performing faster than the other athletes who are also shadow riding) and also a pain-loving madman, shrugging off a symptom that sounds like a meniscus problem. VERDICT This trip is every cyclist’s dream, and Howard’s journal will have massive appeal to them; others, well, perhaps not.
Harris, Mark. Bang the Drum Slowly. Bison. 2003. 243p. 2nd ed. ISBN 9780803273382. $16.95. F
Originally published in 1956, this is frequently cited as the best baseball novel ever, but that’s like saying The Godfather has something to do with the Mafia. BtDS is a study in manhood as exemplified by Henry Wiggen, star left-handed pitcher for the major league New York Mammoths. Twenty-four-years-old and intent on winning the division pennant (there were no wildcard playoffs back then), Wiggen carries himself with the maturity of a professional. He enjoys a good time, is genuinely happy to be married with a kid on the way, and keeps one eye locked on his own future. Wiggen’s outsized authenticity comes through frequently, as when he’s haggling for a contract: “I rather play baseball than anything else,” he says. “I do it best. I like the trains. I like the hotels. I like the boys. I like the hours and the money. I like the fame and the glory. I like to think of fifty thousand people getting up in the morning and squashing themself to death in the subway to come see me play ball.” Wiggen’s best friend is a friendly, wide-eyed innocent named Bruce Pearson, who is a ham-and-egger catcher on the team. After Bruce is diagnosed with a terminal illness, Arthur goes to extra trouble to look after his doomed friend, keeping his condition a secret from other players and (especially) the owners. It is feat of humanity, loyalty, bravery, friendship, and fellowship, and it informs— almost consumes—Wiggen’s entire life. Stylistically, Howard’s near stream-of-consciousness writing falls somewhere between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and it lends Wiggen a heartfelt, folksy charm that dovetails perfectly with his strikingly big-hearted brotherly love for Bruce. VERDICT This is a moving, genuine, and laugh-out-loud funny story that is an absolute original American gem.