To paraphrase Dean Martin: Ain’t life a kick in the head? Choosing the BFD picks of December has been impossibly difficult given the sheer amount of awesomeness going on in the world of writers creating books dudes should read. Winnowing down the entries to only seven was the work of many hours, costing me so many cups of coffee that BFD HQ burned through two Keurig machines. It was worth the pain, though, because I’m able to share a total hot mess of bookage: A detective novel set in the afterlife, a book of poetic short stories all about faraway conflicts, three nonfiction titles about teamwork, heroism, and how far being nice can get you, a lifelong Sasquatch hunt, and Matt Sumell’s wicked rockin’ debut novel about a hella energetic, confused dude finding his way in the world, a story that goes to show you can’t keep a good man down—not for long anyway.
Dunn, Merritt L. The Transylvania Detective Squad. CreateSpace. 2014. 277p. ISBN 9781503007772. $11.99. F
Let’s make it clear at the outset that this is a small-budget self-published affair; its lack of pretension and literary aspiration (both of which qualities succeeded so wildly for James Brotherton in Reclaiming the Dead) work to its advantage. It’s straight-ahead pulpy fiction in a simple, soft-boiled Mike Hammer/Philip Marlowe gumshoe style, and surprisingly successful. The story follows Tom Flynn, a World War II soldier killed in action who goes to Purgatory, aka Britannia, where everything resembles a gothic past: “…England was about 1922—fashion, the trains, technology…” Within five pages the stoic Flynn is recruited for the Transylvania Flying Squad of detectives. As Flynn raps with his new boss on the train to the city, he starts getting a load of what’s to come, that Transylvania City is not, how you say, “normal.” Somewhat akin to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, all sorts of magical creatures—trolls, werewolves, witches, vampires, golems, book reviewers—live there, which allows Dunn to mash up the detective intrigue with interwar British motifs and otherworldly characters, spells, potions, and whatnot. Detectives are tasked with protecting tourists and preventing mischief, which includes stopping anybody from using magic to affect things back on Earth. Soon, though, Tom is thrust headlong into a crazy-assed situation where he’s trying to head off a hurricane of crap starring Jack the Ripper, who’s newly returned from the Dark Realms and dying to get back to Earth to continue his ripping ways. Plus: fast, nonstop action and fun; minus: the plot can feel a bit patchy and descriptions are meager. VERDICT What can one man do with pen and paper? You’ll be pleasantly surprised as Dunn has churned out a damned good book for the price.
Jászberényi, Sándor. The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond. New Europe. 2014. 208p. tr. from Hungarian by M. Henderson Ellis. ISBN 9780990004325. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780990004332. F
Hungarian author Jászberényi chooses the words for this collection of literary short stories very carefully, yet lets the tales fly with such abandon that’s it’s hard to square the difference. Fluid and highly observational, each tale is a rich, poetic slice of life from places you might never go—such as Egypt and Chad. The author’s day job as a Cairo-based journalist covering the Middle East informs the stories, and each contains the ring of truth. The first story, “The Fever,” sets the book’s “no prisoners taken, no punches pulled” tone with the narrator dying a nasty death in a remote developing country. The stories all describe experiences alien to Westerners and skilfully explore material about which readers are curious: two guys bullshitting at their jobs, which happen to be verifying the numbers of massacred civilians; a dude living with townspeople who fear a wild dog that has enjoyed human blood. “Everything looked good bathed in its light,” notes the narrator of the moon in the title story, even as the tale uncoils the divisions present among his fundamentalist hosts, their fear and uncertainty that the devil could be almost anything to them. “The First” shows a dispassionate crowd observing the public execution of three men, then returning to lazily chew their betel as though nothing had changed, “…only that now the air was a bit sweet with the scent of fresh blood.” “Taking Trinidad” comments on journalists inured to the scenes of death and suffering that they cover. The only quibble readers might have is that the narrators are so hell-bent on observation that it’s difficult to feel any simpatico with them. VERDICT Mr. J is a gifted writer, this book is to be savored and relished.
Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass. 2002. 229p. ISBN 9780787960759. $24.95. BUS
This circa-2002 how-to book for business types by Lencioni (The Five Temptations of a CEO and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive) is well regarded for a reason—it’s pretty damned good. It’ll even show you what your team lacks (e.g., strong leadership, teamwork, etc.). It is told in the form of a story (“fable”), which succeeds where straight explication would not. Kathryn is hired as the new CEO of a powerful yet aimless Silicon Valley software corporation. She observes that the top executives do their own thing pretty well, but that they’re not functioning so great as a unit. She decides to take them to a series of off-site, multiday retreats focused on team-building. Eventually Kathryn wins over her executives through a combination of schoolmarm control, trust-building, goal-setting, role-defining, and massive focus. Unresolved (not necessarily interpersonal) conflict and communication problems are top organization destroyers; Lencioni’s ideas are successfully, concisely exemplified through the execs and their assorted foibles and successes. In the process that bitch-on-wheels Mikey quits, Jeff happily moves from high-powered exec to lower-rung team member, Tony sleeps with April, and Marcus G. comes out of his coma to find that he has fallen in love with Marcus P. (making the Christmas party a little awkward, but hey). Post-fable, the author provides clear suggestions and exercises for rearranging your organizational culture. Succinct and appealing, this will help readers see business decisions and workplace scenarios unemotionally and help anyone struggling with the difficulties of leading or being in a group.
By the way, the five dysfunctions are:
1. Absence of trust where “trust” = the ability to be vulnerable and admit mistakes (e.g., “Sorry I was thinking about chickens instead of writing that grant proposal.”)
2. Fear of conflict: Debate should be constructive with no repercussions (e.g., “You fired me for telling you that your necktie is stupid?”)
3. Lack of commitment: teams need to follow one direction, even if some disagree (e.g., “I still think we should try for the field goal instead of going for it on fourth and long.”)
4. Avoidance of accountability: those responsible for poor performance are called out, not just the CEO (e.g., “Do you really think that Sebelius had anything to do with the Obamacare website failure?”)
5. Inattention to results (e.g., “Wait, I thought *you* were doing the automatic monthly debits to the member accounts! AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”).
VERDICT Can it hurt? No. Ignore at your own risk.
Logothetis, Leon. The Kindness Diaries: One Man’s Quest To Incite Goodwill and Transform Lives Around the World. Reader’s Digest. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781621451914. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781621451921 $11.99. INSPIRATIONAL
Logothetis is a sweet, kindhearted fella who sees the best in folks simply by looking for it.Urged by something in his gut (no, not his pancreas), he sets off to circumnavigate the globe riding a yellow motorbike-and-sidecar contraption and with $0 in his pocket. If it sounds familiar, it’s because he did pretty much the same thing in 2011 with The Amazing Adventures of a Nobody: A Life-Changing Journey Across America Relying on the Kindness of Strangers. He relies on the kindness of strangers for everything—gas, food, lodging—with one twist: he will return (not barter) kindness when possible. One dude who hosted him for a night gets a trip to England to see his son’s wedding; another, a kind homeless man who shared his sidewalk and blanket, gets cooking classes and more secure lodging. Some of the people in his life, including his longterm girlfriend, call his journey “running.” But he labels it “freedom,” and it’s undoubtedly true that Logothetis is genuinely happiest while meeting people and learning about them. He ignores scores of slights and humiliations, focusing instead on all the blessings he encounters, all the kind souls. As a result, the text can at times sound trite, as when he observes that “…change doesn’t come to us, we must go seek it.” But for every cheesy expression there are ten legit paeans, such as seeing joy “bouncing off” a new friend “like sunlight” and observing that “[t]he small moments, the small acts; they break the heart wide open.” VERDICT Odd. Brave. Energetic. Sidecar-tastic. More people should be this open to the world.
Shields, Sharma. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. Holt. Jan. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781627791991. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781627792004. F
Eli Roebuck, eight, lives deep in the woods of 1943 Idaho with his stolid dad, Greg, and his “simply bored” mother, Agnes. The last time Eli sees mom, she runs off with Sasquatch, aka ‘Mr. Krantz,’ “the largest person Eli has ever seen, over seven feet tall, and three or four times heavier than Eli’s own dad…as furry and sleek as a grizzly bear.” Eli sees his mom “…transported, elevated” with Mr. Krantz, “maniacally content” with this man/beast whose feet were “…two hairy sleds that moved noiselessly over the floorboards…” But if sadness is a foregone conclusion for Eli, placed in a situation that can’t help but crumple him, so is a certain morbid comedy. When Greg gets him a dog, for example, Eli names it ‘Mother.’ As Eli grows, his searches for meaning—for answers about Sasquatch and his mother, and about the man/thing that took away his yet-formed life—define him. Young adulthood sees Eli acting as though “…sex would deliver him from the memory of his mother. Sinking into another woman, releasing the old ghost.” He becomes a podiatrist who’s married and has two daughters, but he’s more involved with his obsession/search than with them; despite the considerable level of activity in his life, he always circles back to complete the loop begun when he was a child. Shields could play the story straight, but what fun would that be? Instead the book, and Eli’s life, is filled with dream/nightmare sequences that are less supernatural and more supranatural. One describes an upsetting, inescapable fall into a bottomless pit, in another an eagle tries to steal a swaddled baby. Eli’s journey is somehow underground, seemingly underneath and deep within a psychological realm. VERDICT Imaginative, unpredictable, and endearing, this is a pretty phreaky ride.
Sumell, Matt. Making Nice. Holt. Feb. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9781627790932. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781627790949. F
Sumell’s debut novel is an asskicker. Alby, 30, is a spazz. Whether he’s your kid brother, older brother, stepbrother, or maybe your own damn self, Alby is family and the only thing you can predict about him is his unpredictability. He’s annoying, loses most of the fistfights he starts, and he’s not all that fun to be around: exactly why he is so real, so riveting. Readers meet him soon after his mother has died from cancer and he is completely undone by grief. Though filled with brio, Alby doesn’t know what to do with himself and has the tendency to lash out, like when he punches his sister “right in the tits” (it “skimmed over the right tit and landed solidly on the left”). Amid other powerful vignettes, Alby adopts an abandoned baby chick which is “almost transparent. He looked like a dog’s heart with a bird’s head stuck on, a blob with a beak…” Alby names him Gary and envisions him growing into “a goddamn falcon that flies around the neighborhood all day eating raccoons and dogs and toddlers before he flies back to my forearm and takes shits.” Over innumerable Hot Pockets in the kitchen, Alby explains to his concerned, amputee father that “I got a thing in my heart for helpless things that need me, OK?” If Alby doesn’t make too much nice with people, it’s only his tempestuous honesty and genuineness that prevents it. Seemingly unlikable, Alby is actually honest, if energetically troubled, with a voice reminiscent of Scott McClanahan’s in Crapalachia. VERDICT This excellent, readable, and engaging story cycle begins what I hope will be many from Sumell, whose comic timing and dead-on black humor are welcome any time in my house. Does a man-child raising a female cardinal he names Gary as a falcon whom he envisions as ‘hunting mammals and butt-fucking seagulls” make you laugh? If not, skip it but most dudes will say, “you had me at ‘Gary.’”
Zuckoff, Mitchell. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. Harper. 2013. 416p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780062133434. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062133410. HIST
Did you like Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken? If so, you’re going to love FiT, which is a similarly sized journey that will stretch readers’ incredulity about how far men can be pushed and still come out more sane than a babbling book reviewer. Zuckoff (13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi) seamlessly wraps two tales together. The first brings alive a World War II story of rescue from, of all places, 1942–3 Greenland, where the allies had some refueling depots. After 17 men from three different aircraft (a C-53 Skytrooper, a B-17 searching for them, and a Grumman J2F Duck involved with the rescue) crashed on the glacial icecap, the military mounted a five-month-long mission to resupply and save the men; ten were eventually saved after undergoing torment to their psyches and bodies from the extreme environment: crevasses, snow-and icestorms, periods of little food, isolation. The modern-day adventure-cum-epic comes almost 70 years later and brings the tale full circle; in it a team of private do-goodniks— including the author—join with the Coast Guard try to find the Duck and the men inside it. One of the last sequences, in which the final rescue pilot crash-lands his almost-dead Consolidated PBY Catalina at a frozen airport, nearly T-boning a parked B-17, is too incredible to believe. VERDICT A totally bad-ass tale of a brand unusually heroic even for World War II histories. Excellent, suspenseful popular history.