Anton Chekhov. H.H. Munro. Thomas Mann. What do these writers have in common? They completely suck.
Harsh? Perhaps, and given their conglomerated authorial reputations vs. mine, even I think that I ought to be banned from this particular exercise of free speech. But DAMN I read assorted stories by this crew last month and let me tell ya—NOTHING HAPPENS. Nothing! Some chick cries. Some kids are bored on a train. Someone impersonates a teacher for a day. I wanted to scream! Give me a villain, a volcano, a car crash! Give me a simple murder! I mean really, is a little murder too much to ask?
Now to be clear, only a couple of this month’s BFDs feature overt murder and mayhem—but lemme tell ya, all these books go somewhere, even if you’re not be overly fond of the destination.
Along with Michael Connelly’s The Black Box and Bill Fitzhugh’s Pest Control we feature a couple that impart wisdom (Garret Keizer’s Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher and Ari Goldman’s The Late Starters Orchestra), Cara Hoffman’s marvelously original Be Safe I Love You and also some classic James Thurber—Alarms & Diversions. It’s all good, dude.
Armacost, Andrew. The Poor Man’s Guide to Suicide. Moonshine Cove. May 2014. 277p. ISBN 9781937327446. pap. $12.95 F
Despite being pretty gloomy and grim, Armacost’s (Space Bush, 2012) latest is readable and reveals much about the tendencies of depressed men. Wesley Weimer is 33, a non-custodial father to two kids by two women. He has a crap job as a prison guard, which might seem kind of cool until readers see him at this simultaneously stultifying and dangerous gig. He lives in a crap place. Most of his discretionary spending goes to child support and kid expenses. He’s let his friendships lapse and he’s obligated to care for his ailing mother. Armacost tries to answer the big Q of “perseverance”: How long can one man can fight the good fight? A: Not too long, Chumley. Feeling hopeless, and constantly ruminating on his own misfortunes, Wesley ponders the many ways to end it all, settling on one that ends with his kids getting the life insurance money. Wes reconsiders after his once-best friend’s life implodes in a cloud of poop-scented humiliation; the pace of the book picks up considerably, revolving around raising a lot of money fast (prison + contraband = $$$). By the end, Wes has hope—not the fairy-tale variety. VERDICT Because Wesley is everydude—bright, normal, decent—albeit one who is a weathered husk of his once-happier self (Armacost’s fictional depiction of depression has an alarmingly real feel), this has special dude appeal. Be it a job, a relationship, whatever situation that feels hopeless, most dudes have been there. It’s interesting to read about this poor bastard’s misery, even if it’s “just another” version of our own damned misery—and what can be learned by getting out of it.
Connelly, Michael. The Black Box. Little, Brown. 2012. 403p. ISBN 9780316069434. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316069441. F
Let’s be clear: Detective Harry Bosch kicks ass. This is the 18th Connelly novel to feature the fictional detective, and it’s one of the best of the bunch as it successfully stretches Connelly and Bosch a little out of their respective comfort zones. Bosch is a classic lone-wolf detective, and he’s generally an awkward fit in the team-oriented LAPD squads in which he works. He has frequent conflicts with any politically motivated overseer, and especially when they screw with him; he has no patience for them. Black Box finds Harry working cold cases as a retirement-deferred detective, meaning he has no union protection. When his idiot supervisor lodges a bullshit beef against him, Bosch checks out and takes a vacation. But he doesn’t go fishing or lie in a hammock reading crime thrillers—he goes ahead and more deeply investigates the murder case that he’s working on. What kind of cop takes a vacation to do more intense cop stuff than he’s generally allowed to do? And Bosch will not give up. He’s totally focused, relentlessly monomaniacal, and he’s going to hunt you down. He’s not angry about it or anything, it’s just what he does. Like Lady Gaga, he was born this way. A ballistics match leads him to revisit the 20-year-old killing of a young, Danish photographer during the awful 1992 LA riots. The deeper he digs, the less likely the possibilities become, until he unlocks the case’s “black box” (akin to a plane’s data recorder) that lays out what he needs to do to get the bad guys. VERDICT Any Bosch is good Bosch, and Connelly has forgotten more about good pacing and cliff-hangery than most authors will ever know.
Fitzhugh, Bill. Pest Control. Avon. 1997. 312p. ISBN 9780380973484. $20. F
A fast-paced, spirited fireball of an adventure, this comedy of errors is led by Bob Dillon, professional exterminator. After he quits his job for refusing to spray triple doses of toxic chemicals (for which his boss nicknames him “Mr. Greenpeace”), he strikes out on his own with “Bob’s All Natural Pest Control,” using his self-bred Assassin Bugs, which eat roaches sans environmental after-effects. One drunken misadventure with a Polaroid camera and a skull-and-crossbones flier later, Bob is mistaken for a professional assassin and offered a fat contract—which is completed by sheer accident. The rub is that multiple real hit men are angry at missing out on the action, and come looking to eliminate Bob before he steals any more business. Bob is unerringly optimistic, but he’s immediately way over his head, haplessly keeping himself, his wife, and his wisecracking, brilliant ten-year-old daughter alive via impossibly improbable near-misses, mistakes, and blown chances. Filled with genuinely interesting factoids about cockroaches and bugs, this is also quite Dickensian in punishing mean behavior and rewarding good intentions. Comedies of errors are great as long as they stay that way (think A Shot in the Dark with Peter Sellers), and it’s precisely because it doesn’t take itself so seriously that Pest Control succeeds so wildly. Fitzhugh invents a kooky, wacky, and very energetic story reminiscent of books by Laurence Shames or Carl Hiaasen. It’s FUN. And in the words of my pal Ray, “If it ain’t fun, don’t do it.” VERDICT Decidedly light, the novel’s quirky elements and characters lend meatiness—or at least meat flavoring. Read it aloud to your old lady at bedtime, she’ll laugh.
Goldman, Ari L. The Late Starters Orchestra. Algonquin. Jun. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781565129924. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781565129924. memoir
In which cello mania smites a Modern Orthodox Jewish baby boomer and rocks his world like Fed Chair Janet Yellen rocks a Phillips curve. Goldman, professor of journalism at Columbia University, with a wife and three kids, one in college, one in middle school, undergoes an entire lifestyle change in order to better play the cello (insert Beavis and Butthead sound affects here). Even for New York City, the world’s Candyland of Weird Choices, this seems like a weird choice. Just the same, when the passion hits him, Goldman sacrifices workouts, family time, and other recreations. “All learning needs is a supportive environment,” he posits, surrounding himself in just such a cocoon by taking lessons, practicing like crazy, recalling the lessons of his former cello teacher, and joining the titular Late-Starters String Orchestra. An undeniably good writer with the journalist’s knack for keeping people reading, Goldman intersperses the story with the history and development of the cello and its significant players (admit it, you’ve only heard of Yo-Yo Ma), waxes on topics of every kind (e.g., brain stimulation, healthy aging), and likens his efforts to the successes he experienced in writing, teaching, friendships, parenting, marriage, and faith. He notices, over long periods of time, “I was now something more than just musical. I was becoming a musician.” Is he good? Yes, quite good. But that was never really in question, was it? It’s more about his individual determination and willpower and of his having the balls to distill his whole life’s wisdom through the four strings of this bastard of a cello. VERDICT This primer on intentionality/lunacy is a filter through which Goldman has poured his considerable accumulated life wisdom to ask, “Do I give up my dream just because it might seem irresponsible?”
Hoffman, Cara. Be Safe I Love You. S. & S. Apr. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781451641318. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781451641332. F
I was startled by this as from the title and cover I expected a mooshy, gooey mess of girl-centric hokiness. It even comes out in April, the Traditional Time of Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs (I shudder in anticipation of the sacrifices given by the collective American liver). So much for judging a book by its cover—this is a vivid, urgent story centered on Army Sergeant Lauren Clay, who is fresh home from commanding troops in Iraq. “Home” is, drearily, the same. Her same boyfriend, his same uncles, the same small-town bars and routines. While certain things have changed, like her formerly disabled father showing more pep, home is stuck in time and instead of comfort in familiarity or happiness for selective progress, Lauren finds dismal memories and feels abnormal, as though she were “…not living side by side with the rest of them anymore.” Also of concern is Lauren’s unabashedly weird relationship with younger brother Danny, which is more akin to a mother/son bond. In contrast to blue-sky thoughts like, “A cord of joy was tied so tightly between them,” Lauren’s passing episodes of violence highlight differences between her former self and “…everything like an animal now.” Eerily accurate passages and observations are magical, like Lauren’s shock of coming home from “a place that was outside of time” or observing a “…gesture from so long ago, she didn’t know if it had ever happened before. A gesture from a ghost’s life.” VERDICT Be Safe is an observant, intelligent, and immediately powerful portrait of PTSD, and Hoffman’s accessible writing style allows readers to have an easy time catching the rhythm of her protagonist’s thinking patterns, but not to understand her motivations. Nor, for that matter, will they guess what the plot will serve up next. A fascinating, mysterious character study that Hoffman has purposefully crafted to sputter like a Hemi down one cylinder.
Keizer, Garret. Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher. Holt. Aug. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780805096439. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780805096446. MEMOIR
A one-time teacher and author of the amaaaaazing The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, Keizer returns to the classroom after 14 years off. Right on page 1 he sets a simple, honest tone for the book by disclosing that he’s 57 and “signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance.” This refreshing and anti-bullshit style has a dull double edge that distills huge swaths of discontent about teaching. There are legitimate beefs, such as how exhausting the profession is and how much time is squandered on nonsense. And there is some whining, from discontent with the state of the teacher’s lounge to how much and how loudly everyone talks, to “the biggest change in education,” what Keizer sees as a counterproductive “move toward uniform instruction.” It would be easy to dismiss the author as a grinchy old man but for his huge heart. He obviously cares deeply about his students, about fairness in the classroom, and about giving his best effort. In return he asks for the best efforts of students—a standard that frequently runs counter to the rest of the school environment. The book’s chief appeal is an overarching surfeit of wisdom and keen perspective, such as when he observes that “[o]ften the most neglected kids in a school system are not the so-called trouble children; they’re the struggling but mostly cooperative children whom no one troubles to give a second thought.” VERDICT One word: Magnificent. Required reading for anyone even remotely involved in education and those who love them.
Thurber, James. Alarms & Diversions. Harper. 1957. 367p. ISBN 9780060908300. f
I wish to hell that Thurber was still alive and writing because he is forever making me think and laugh. Alarms & Diversions is a bunch of wonderful stuff: pithy essays, sublime short stories, and evocative cartoons and drawings. Mostly it is shot through with the everyday romance of male-female relationships. Thurber somehow manages to typify what marriage “should” be compared to what The Honeymooners or Family Guy marrieds actually act out on any given day. While concise, he uses the occasional big word (e.g., xiphisternum, thrug), a hallmark of any writer who wants to make a dude think. And while he also makes classy references (like, to Ovid and stuff), he never talks down. And right alongside this propriety he includes stuff on the Loch Ness Monster and a hilarious series of increasingly stiff, cranky, and totally fictional letters between him and a publisher concerning 36 misplaced/never ordered copies of “Grandma was a Nudist.” Thurber’s nonfiction reflections are priceless, as in “The First Time I Saw Paris” (as a code clerk for the State Department in 1918). He describes the “hysteria” of the city’s heartbeat as “…the kind of compulsive elation psychiatrists strive to cure. Girls snatched overseas caps and tunic buttons from American soldiers, paying for them in hugs and kisses, and even warmer coin.” Or “A Holiday Ramble,” in which an older Thurber actually—get this—sits and thinks, spending time in “the avenues and byways of meditation” being taken to “curious but familiar places, inhabited by all kinds of persons, from the immortal to the forgotten.” VERDICT Just like you wouldn’t read Henry James before age 40, don’t pick up Thurber until you’re ready to be challenged to actually read—carefully. When you do, you’ll pick up nuggets of wisdom the dude lays down. That you can get this from $0.23 on Amazon blows my mind.
 Verochka by Anton Chekhov
 The Story Teller by Thomas Mann
 The Schartz-Metterklume Method by H.H. Munro
and that’s why hobbies, passions, adventures, humor, best friends, meaningful relationships, and religion are so damned important