This month’s selections serve to testify that dudes have some weird reading selections! Any monograph or ebook is fair game. It doesn’t have to be the latest Black & Decker Book of Home How-To: Complete Photo Guide to Home Repair & Improvement, though I’m looking forward to reading that, too. Indeed, amid items such as denture tablets and stale Cheerios, a typical dude’s nightstand will sport all manner of asskicking titles. Could be on fiscal sense and sensibility, recruiting the right people in the business world, or beloved Chilton’s Manuals.
This month’s BFD is a compendium of titles that defy overall categorization other than “man appeal.” One is a YA book, reviewed with apologies to the inimitable Angelina Benedetti, Extraordinary Mistress of LJ’s 35-Going-On-13 column. Another focuses on a series of murders in a rural West Virginia mining town.
Alongside these two excellent, adventuresome fiction titles, there’s a backlisted advice book from Southern firecracker Celia Rivenbark, illustrated fiction, and even a children’s book. BFD HQ also found a fantastic new cookbook, and a spare and haunting debut from the tremendously talented Kim Zupan. All titles will impart Tiger Blood to mere mortals.
In short: Read. Read it all. Read to yourself, to your kids, to your mom. While on the bus. While doing laundry. Instead of hanging out on Buzzfeed. Read yourself to sleep.
Your brain will thank you.
Crandell, Bethany. Summer on the Short Bus. Running Pr. Teens. 2014. 252p. $9.95. ISBN 9780762449514. YA
This is definitely the kind of book that, as a card-carrying member of the Dude union (the ‘dudeion’), I don’t read. Though I don’t know who it stars (because I totally didn’t read it), it might be Constance “Cricket” Montgomery, an archetypal privileged, spoiled brat who has repelled decent folk like you and me for centuries. Daddy has money; daddy likes to spend it on Cricket. She’s vapid, insensitive, and only cares about her Jimmy Choo shoes and full-bar cell phone coverage. When daddy decides Cricket needs a little maturity, he chauffeurs her off to be a counselor at a summer camp for youth with disabilities. (I’m guessing here. Because I would never read this). Over the course of about four days, and deprived of her high-class bubble, she goes from blithely calling the kids “window lickers” and “retards” to making deep friendships with the campers. She falls for a boy (Zac Efron’s doppelganger rowrrrr), loses the boy, and duels with the camp’s alpha-bitch (they wind up as a team). In short, Cricket slowly, sloooowwwly wakes up, learns empathy, and becomes a real person. Working off conjecture, I’m guessing that readers will start the book vengefully wishing for Cricket’s comeuppance and by the end rooting for her. If I had actually read this, I would sum up by writing that it was a pleasure to see this character transform from princess to…a somewhat less bitchy person. But because it was designed for teenage girls, I didn’t read it. (Note: I also didn’t wear my girlfriend’s underwear while lounging around reading it. Nope, not me). VERDICT A surprisingly genuine title in an industry known for spewing out premanufactured crap.
Keller, Julia. Summer of the Dead. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. (Bell Elkins, Bk. 3). Aug. 2014. 368p. $25.99. ISBN 9781250044730. MYS
Only in the Summer? Hell, I feel dead in spring, fall and winter too! Okay, imagine a neighborhood that improves when its people are working coal mines and you have rural West Virginia, where Bell Elkins, a determined and focused public prosecutor lives. Impoverished, violent, and drug-addled Appalachia is a nasty place , and as Elkins ponders one murder (Freddie Arnett, bludgeoned to death in his driveway) she stumbles upon another (Jed Stark, orange-handled screwdriver to the heart in a roadhouse). Bell’s personal life is in the pooper thanks to her sister, who once saved Bell from their child-molesting father by slitting his throat and getting 30 years in the slam, and now courts trouble and relies on Bell for rescue. A competing story arc centers on Lindy Crabtree, adult daughter of an old miner who “didn’t walk upright,” but crouched because “long years spent working underground had left his back as curved as a question mark.” Lindy’s dad is so far gone that she lines her cellar with tables so that he can calmly, comfortably live underneath them. He uses a bucket instead of a toilet; “The smell was like having fingers poked in your eyes.” Might the Crabtrees have a little something to do with the unsolved killings, you wonder? Ding, ding, you win a cigar. Bell and the unlikely-named sheriff Nick Fogelsong doggedly get to the bottom of things. Keller won a journalism Pulitzer , and though she has occasional hammy fun (e.g., the courthouse “…dated back to 1867 and had the plumbing to prove it”), this is well-constructed, if grim, stuff mostly narrated via characters’ internal thoughts. VERDICT The third in a series, this is the kind of creepy, slow-paced, inexorable confluence of people that subtly grabs readers, draws them in, and sets the hook hard. You’re 75 pages in and committed before you know it.
Raichlen, Steven. Man-Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys. Workman. 2014. 631p. $24.95. ISBN 9780761166443. COOKING
I’ve always wanted to be able to cook well, but having precious little time, scant knowledge about that mysterious land known as “the kitchen,” and zero talent, is discouraging. I have no patience for cookbooks that specify stupid, expensive crap that I’ll never use again (e.g., Gwyneth’s duck eggs). Perhaps I’m too stupid to cook? Maybe not now, as MMM is like a lottery win of cooking, bringing mega-oomph to simply-prepared, high quality meals—no fancy schmancy equipment required, though Raichlen does encourage use of organic products, pointing out that “excellence lies in the details.” As with any cookbook, some recipes (e.g., leg of lamb North African style) seem just too hardcore for regular dudes who, like me, frequently mash together eggs and whatever leftover crap is laying around for “the magical dad scramble.” But for every one of those you get, like, three Pan-Braised Pork Chops with Shiitakes and Green Peppercorns, 95 percent of MMM’s recipe’s are perfectly doable. Also, there’s loads of other useful information that I embarrassingly admit to never having learned, like that fully cooked fish will break into clean flakes when poked with a forefinger. There’s even an introductory primer for kitting out your kitchen. At 600 pages, there are plenty of tasty, high-class, simple variations on absolutely normal food. (Think grilled cheese sandwich, but with Haloumi cheese). Raichlen has a superencouraging tone: “You live in the best time in history to cook and eat well,” he writes, adding that “[y]ou don’t need to know how to cook everything,” just enough to nail the essentials. VERDICT The Holy Grail for dudes who appreciate flavor, healthfulness, speed, and simplicity.
Rivenbark, Celia. Rude Bitches Make Me Tired: Slightly Profane and Entirely Logical Answers to Modern Etiquette Dilemmas. Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2013. 254p. $14.99. ISBN 9781250029232. HUMOR
Perhaps it was simply love at first sight as Celia had me at her cover pic and title, but damn this is Good Stuff. It’s not your typical etiquette book—for that I really do recommend Emily Post—but still delivers exactly what the subtitle promises. Because Rivenbark (We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle) writes mostly for “exhausted, overworked, undervalued” moms, and dudes will have to use a little imaginative power to make it work, but not much. After all, R. points out that bad behavior is “practically universal” in ‘Merica. The Q&A format presents a huge gamut of smart-assed advice ranging over a bazillion-and-one situations loosely grouped into mileu (e.g., airline travel, dinner parties, traffic jams, the workplace, marriage, funerals). At the gym, Rivenbark fields locker room questions like, “…why would anyone think I wanted to talk to them while they’re just standing in front of me butt naked?” and how to subtly ask fellow exercisers the million-dollar question, “Pardon me, but is this your ass sweat?” It’s not always hilarious, but it’s almost all worthy. What it lacks in subtlety is made up in directness, such as the section entitled “Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old like A Skank” and the advice about those rear-window-of-the-F-150 RIP tributes to a dead brother/cousin/NASCAR hero: “forcing your undoubtedly sincere and heartfelt grief on the public is skin-crawlingly overcompensating.” VERDICT Rivernbark functions as a de facto Dutch Aunt with from-the-gut, instinctual advice for dealing with those who piss you off. If it isn’t already obvious, this is not designed to function as a true etiquette book, but rather a funny, common-sense approach to handling other people’s rude behavior.
Russell, Sheldon. The Insane Train. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2010. 304p. $18.99. ISBN 9780312566715. MYS
Hook Runyon has one arm and works as railroad security (a.k.a. a yard dog) in Barstow, California in the late 1940s. He’s under constant scrutiny from bosses for his effective, if unorthodox, methods of solving problems—usually at the railroad’s great expense. In his second adventure after The Yard Dog (2009), Hook is assigned to provide assistance to an insane asylum transporting its patients to Oklahoma via the railroad. The asylum has just had a massive fire that killed 30 inmates, so the pressure is on to get staff and patients relocated. For helpers, Hook enlists four friendly Army vets-turned-hobos. A motley, cheerful mob, they nobly deal with the patients as best they can. At one point these ex-soldiers have trouble getting the female patients to lunch, so they line the women up P.O.W. style, hands behind heads, and march them there—to the enjoyment of all. While the women patients are tame (except perhaps that one exhibitionist), most of the men are criminally insane and must be handled carefully, even after being drugged to the gills to ensure docility. The trouble is, staff and patients start getting knocked off one by one, and it soon becomes clear to Hook that the murderer must also be the arsonist. Hook also meets a romantic interest, a pretty nurse who doesn’t mind that he lives in a caboose with a ferocious, loyal guard dog named Mixer. Best aspect: wiseass characters constantly mouthing off. Worst: even though it’s fiction, it’s painful to read the keen depictions of the plights of the patients and the hobos. Hard-boiled, tired, and gruff as they are, the characters carry the ring of truth and are all strikingly, optimistic. VERDICT Imaginative, very fast paced, lively, and LOL funny, there is a lot to enjoy in this outstanding novel.
Juillard, André. The Gondwana Shrine. Cinebook. (Blake & Mortimer, Vol. 11). 2012. 64p. $15.95. ISBN 9781849180948. F
There is a fat, thick line between the “comic book” (e.g., Family Guy: A Big Book O’ Crap) and a true “graphic novel” (Asterios Polyp); TGS walks, even dances, on that line. Like in a graphic novel, the authors don’t shy away from characters representative of themselves—in this case mature gentlemen (ahem). TGS is part of a series called “The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer,” and this installment’s main character is Philip Mortimer, a mid-to-late 40s heavyset dude with a receding hairline and a chin beard. The subject matter, though, can seem somewhat adolescent, more like a comic book. In this case, Morty is looking for a lost civilization. Though the series has a foot in both graphic novels and comic book camps, it is to the detriment of neither. Though set in the 1940s, the tales embody that brand of indistinct, Indiana Jones-esque timelessness. They feature frequent zany plotlines in which anything can happen and usually does. TGS, for example, features Morty recuperating after a grave illness not with bedrest, and reading leather-bound tomes, but by gathering some compadres and searching for a lost civilization in the wilds of Africa. It’s not exactly the kind of story your typical adolescent boy is going to be drooling over and it’s very much reminiscent of Herge’s Tintin stories. (Indeed, original writer and artist Edgar Jacobs assisted Herge with Tintin). Like that exemplary series, these take forever to actually read. Readers will struggle to plow through TGS in one sitting…and not only because they’ll be using a dictionary for the big words. VERDICT Charming and surprisingly dense, TGS and the series from which it comes is jammed with the sort of twists and turns that can only come in this potboiler/cliffhanger type serialization. Elephants charge, underground-dwelling dudes try to murder everyone, and hot chicks strip down to their bathing suites. All are completely enjoyable. TGS features a truly weird and ingenious trick ending. I’m looking forward to looking up more of the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer—and more from Cinebook’s catalog.
Steig, William. Grown-Ups Get To Do All the Driving. HarperCollins. 1995. 42p. $10.95. ISBN 9780062050809. CHILDREN
Just as it is important to read comics from time to time, it also behooves a dude to flip through children’s books on occasion. One that crossed my path recently was William Steig’s Grown-Ups Get To Do All the Driving. It’s hilarious, and not quite “for kids.” The kids will see the essential truth in it and in the accompanying full-page illustrations such as ones captioned “Grown-ups say they were once children” and “Grown-ups like hands to be clean,” but really this is Steig observing and providing an interesting perspective of “otherness,” somewhere between kid and grown-up. “Grown-ups take a lot of pills,” Steig observes. “Grown-ups like children to be polite.” And the title comic, which is priceless. VERDICT There’s nothing I hate more on a daily basis than getting into my car because I have to go somewhere. Maybe it’s to work, maybe it’s to buy something that I can’t afford, or maybe it’s to bring one of my kids somewhere. But the very title of this book shows how kids think—the “hey I never get to drive” feeling that they have—and that I once had, too.
Zupan, Kim J. The Ploughmen. Holt. Sept. 2014. 272p. $26.00. ISBN 9780805099515. MYS
This is a startlingly beautiful debut novel from a talented craftsman. It is the story of one relationship, the deep kinship felt between two antipodal, yet completely simpatico men: one a murderer, the other his jailer. John Gload, 77, is a one-time farmer who uses his analytical, methodical, and workmanlike brutality for contract killing. Though a wise soul, Val Millimaki is a younger, humble sheriff’s deputy with a tense marriage who has trouble connecting with people, especially his cloddish co-workers. The story, constructed sturdily and carefully from the ground up, shows the two men finding an unlikely, uneasy mutuality from their individual darknesses. The relationship slides between kinship, mentor/pupil, father/son, even “priest and confessor, the roles unfixed and seeming to change by the minute.” Both have moments of deep humanity. When Val briefly looks at life through the eyes of his mother, a suicide, he sees the “barely discernible camber of earth under a sky that had yielded little but heartbreak.” And Gload, even in the act of murder, observes his victim’s “eyes half closed as if on the verge of mere gratified sleep or rapture.” Additionally, Zupan’s descriptions of the Montana landscape are a marvel; keen observations combined with a deep intimacy of the landscape. “Sandstone scarps filigreed with fossil fish and shells projected atop the cotbanks like the pulpits of sailing ships and everywhere startling columns of the ancient stone wind-carved and pocked like sculpture from a fever dream.” The tone recalls both Ace Atkins’s western work (e.g., The Broken Places) and the languor of Ray Bradbury. VERDICT Spare and emotionally devastating, this cannot be recommended highly enough.
 Need more proof that Appalachia sucks? Try Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia