Liars, a Gunfighter, Adolescent Arms Dealers, and More | Books for Dudes

As the head honcho of BFD Global Industries, I don’t mess around—except when I mess around. I commission and receive hundreds, maybe even thousands, of reviews each month from my staff. From these I winnow and streamline to get the best hundred or so, and then it’s a Survivor-style review-off until I’m left with the best of the best.

I present only high-quality stuff for y’all because I know time is tight (and when the book isn’t worth your time, I’ll make that clear). June 2015 includes some truly great fiction from Sharon Bolton, Sam Munson, A.J. Rich, and Dan Wells, plus hardcore summertime hammock-worthy nonfiction: Peter Cappelli’s guide for dudes with college-bound kids, the real history of a Western gunfighter, the chronicle of adolescent arms dealers from Miami Beach, how a hoarder tackled his demons, and Jared Stone’s adventures fitting 400-plus pounds of beef into a 14.7-cubic-foot freezer. Enjoy!

Little Black LiesBolton, Sharon. Little Black Lies. Minotaur. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781250028594. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250028600. F
Set against the backdrop of the Falkland Islands (always makes me think of Elvis Costello’s lovely song “Shipbuilding”) circa 1994, Bolton (Blood Harvest) twists the old saw of ‘children gone missing’ from whodunit to who didn’t do it. Though three people in the sleepy community of Stanley confess to the crimes, there can only be one possible killer. The narrative is told three times, once each from the perspective of each of the three, all of whom are similarly damaged. Catrin, who works protecting the Falkland’s marine and coastal ecology, has for three years been grieving the loss of two of her sons; though stoic, she is unreliable, perhaps even deranged. Rachel, Catrin’s childhood best friend, was responsible for those deaths, and Catrin’s ex-lover Callum witnessed the accident and, like the other two, struggles with his own baggage, mostly PTSD from fighting in the Falklands War. All three are well-developed characters, and Bolton has a nearly magical ability to make even the most sinister aspect of each seem perfectly reasonable (e.g., most readers will endorse Catrin’s plan to murder Rachel). When the third child in about a year disappears, a boy who looks quite similar to Catrin’s boys, the town has a community-wide vigilante freakout/witch hunt searching for the kid and the culprit amid the stark landscape. VERDICT A piercing, imaginative tale from the dark. Highly recommended for fans of intelligent psychological fiction.

The Dog MasterCameron, W. Bruce. The Dog Master. Forge. Aug. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9780765374639. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466842977. F
Ever think about when and where the first dog appeared? Best-selling author Cameron (A Dog’s Purpose) has—a lot. The book starts with a ridiculously melodramatic snippet of hard-ass archeology professor James K. Morby torturing a class. This introduces readers to the academician’s pet theory (har de har har): that mankind’s place at the top of the food chain is down to our domestication of wolves. Different story arcs catapult readers backward; in year 19, some dude (I picture Ringo Starr in Caveman) finds a wounded wolf that has just whelped and nurses her and her pups in a cave. The wolf soon connects the food he brings with his presence—the same way your pet tortoise knows you’re home by the sound your VW microbus engine makes. Meanwhile, in year 1 readers get glimpses of this same dude’s mom doing whatever the hell she needs to do to survive (prehistoric life was pretty tough). An unimaginative plot has something to do with the clan’s surviving the prospect of an invasion by a rival clan, and throughout Cameron leaves little to the reader’s imagination. Anachronisms abound (e.g., referring to “north” in year 1, the concept of “marriage,” etc.), soap-opera dialog is awful, but the worst part is that there probably are more installments of this crap coming out. VERDICT If you like paint-by-numbers fiction—and this book is painfully deliberate—you’ll love this mash-up of Jean M. Auel and the glitter-tastic “Magic Bunny” series.

Will College Pay OffCappelli, Peter. Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make. PublicAffairs. Jun. 2015. 224p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9781610395267. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781610395274. ED
The short answer: your mileage will vary. The slightly longer answer recalls one of AA’s many mottos: “It works if you work it.” The prolific Capelli (Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs) provides a reasoned, facts ‘n’ stats–based survey of the cultural phenomenon that is “American college.” Three themes resonate: 1. Caveat emptor; 2. Criticism of institutions shucking and jiving to strapped families with assurances of “good careers” for students who complete their programs; 3. Reminders that most employers care little for tightly focused, “practical, job-oriented majors” (e.g.,”invasive cardiovascular technology,” “casino administration,” etc.); they simply want the kids to do it the company way and are much more likely to underwrite certificate programs than hire for degreed skills. For decades, higher ed has pushed majors presumed to address future market needs, seen higher percentages of part-time students, unapologetically grown endowments, and promoted longer courses of study (e.g., the six-year bachelor’s). Seen as an economic animal, not an intellectual incubator, college is “…for many people the biggest financial decision they will ever make” often paid for with “crippling loans.” Indeed, Cappelli notes that  “…the costs of attending college…went up four times faster over the past twenty years or so than the overall cost of living.” The 2015 reality is that neither a liberal arts nor a “very practical, work-based degree” guarantees any payoff whatsoever. Hell, even bankruptcy doesn’t excuse student loans. VERDICT While it won’t answer the titular question, this title will teach readers scads about the industry that is “college” and the book’s central assertion, that money spent on a college education is a risk, is simultaneously refreshing and terrifying.

The Notorious Luke ShortDeMattos, Jack & Chuck Parsons. The Notorious Luke Short: Sporting Man of the Wild West. Univ. of North Texas Pr. (A.C. Greene). 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781574415940. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9781574416022. HIST
Luke Short was a cowboy, gambler, and gunfighter in America’s Ol’ West circa 1880–1900. The authors, both astute researchers and period aficionados (DeMattos cowrote A Rough Ride to Redemption: The Ben Daniels Story; Parsons cowrote A Lawless Breed: John Wesley Hardin, Texas Reconstruction, and Violence in the Wild West) have written the to-date definitive examination of Short, the least known of any of the Wyatt Earp/Bat Masterson crowd (there’s not even a Hollywood movie to which one can refer—he isn’t a character in any). Born in 1854, by age 15 Short was described by some as “the toughest of tough men” and smart enough to invest his earnings (livestock and cotton) instead of drinking or gambling them away. In 1878, he decided to reinvent himself as a gambler for “less physical effort and greater financial rewards” and moved around the West. Despite him hanging around with big players and getting in some big gunfights, there’s not a whole lot of information on him, so this book teases out the truth using news reports, obits, and the like (e.g., Masterson’s at-best unreliable late-in-life journals) and seems exhaustive and scholarly. The book is a gem of research, great at describing the sources, documenting provenances, and providing meticulous, but not obtrusive, footnotes. For all the excitement that Short thrived on, and from a time when newspaper reporters were disappointed if no one was killed in a gunfight, a cowboy’s life can seem pretty dull. VERDICT The authors’ craftsmanship is solid, presenting Short sans the glitz and drama of something like Unbreakable.

Arms and the DudesLawson, Guy. Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History. S. & S. Jun. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781451667592. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781451667615. CRIME
A defining, tone-setting moment for this book comes on page four: “It was surreal,” recalled principal dude David Packouz. “Here I was dealing with matters of international security and I was half-baked.” Lawson (Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street’s Wildest Con) uses assorted government reports and interviews with the principals and bureaucrats to reconstruct the events and conversations surrounding these three guys’ operations as arms suppliers. “To fight simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration had decided to outsource virtually every facet of America’s military operations…Military industrial giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin turned war profiteering from a crime into a business model. Why shouldn’t a stoner in Miami Beach get in on the action?” Fun, fast-paced, ironic, the reportage seems solid and the facts straight; it’s the self-importance of it that may bug readers. It’s inarguably an ‘important’ story to tell, but the reliance on drama makes it seem like it‘s trying a bit too hard to be “explosive” with sentences like “[w]ake and bake was [stoner dude’s Efraim Diveroli’s] daily ritual” and “[t]ell them that if they fuck with us they’re fucking with the United States of America.” Along the way Lawson dredges up unbelievable facts, such as “…in the early days of the war in Iraq $12 billion in $100 bills was transported in more than twenty flights from a vault in New Jersey to the Green Zone—only to vanish.” VERDICT Despite the histrionics, self-importance, and myth-building, Lawson’s book is ridiculously readable, well written, and hard to put down.

The War Against the AssholesMunson, Sam. The War Against the Assholes. Saga Pr. Jun. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781481427746. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481427760. F
Though the title hints that this might be a tool to use when conversing with members of opposing political factions at barbecues, it’s actually an imaginative, choppily constructed fantasy/mystery that begins in a Manhattan private school. First-person narrator Mike Wood is a senior at St. Cyprian’s. Blunt enough to admit that he’s sort of a goon, Mike is also wise enough to acknowledge the rarefied world in which he lives: “my grades had never risen out of their initial mediocrity. For which my parents had to pay. Twenty-nine thousand four hundred dollars, that year.” Not long after Mikel beats the living shit out of a rival, the school’s mysterious outsider, Hob, gives Mike his copy of a well-thumbed, generic-looking book (“…small green book. Gold letters on the spine”) titled The Calendar of Sleights. It turns out that the book, superficially about card tricks, is less the mechanics of deception and more a kind of Sun Tzu-for-magic with sentences such as, “You shall learn the unconquerable desire of the low to rise.” After deepening the unlikely friendship with Hob and a new gang, Mike develops special traits (e.g., he can fly—or at least not fall, at first). Hob & Co. draw Mike into a centuries-old conflict between rival mages who use massive willpower and Byzantine tricks to win battles that take place in hidden locales all over NYC. Munson (The November Criminals) at times nails being young and not quite understanding how to control all the testosterone: “My healthy blood continued to pound stupidly through my veins. You’ll never recapture that headlong speed.” VERDICT YA crossover that actually fits the category. Readers willing to invest in a story that always feels a little askew will enjoy.

The Hand That Feeds YouRich, A.J. The Hand That Feeds You. Scribner. Jul. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781476774589. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476774602. F
Writing under the pen name* of Rich, this novel by Jill Ciment (Act of God, etc.) and the short story writer Amy Hempel (Here Lies My Heart, etc.) is a crackerjack. Morgan Prager is a young woman completing her Master’s thesis in “victimology” (i.e.,”what makes a victim”) in Manhattan. Coming home to her apartment one day she finds her fiancé Bennett mauled to death by her three dogs (none of whom are the killer type). Quickly and savagely TKO’d by the dual griefs of losing her man and her dogs, Morgan finds purpose in trying to save her two remaining pets and uncovers layer upon layer about who Bennett really was—or wasn’t. He had multiple fiancées, multiple addresses, didn’t even use his real name. Is it a web of lies? Are these clues to Bennett’s real identity? And is it merely coincidence that somebody is murdering all his ex-loves? If not … is Morgan next? Running throughout is the powerful motif of Morgan psychologically beating herself up for falling prey to the very kind of sociopath that her victimology studies pinpoint. Whereas two authors often spoil great stories or ideas, it’s clear that H. and C. complement each other’s finer points. VERDICT This is a fireball of a psychological thriller—smart, snappy excellence.
*Can anyone explain to me why writers use pseudonyms? And if they do, why would they ever then come right out and say, “Oh that’s my pen name”?

Buckley and MailerSchultz, Kevin M. Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties. Norton. Jun. 2015. 400p. notes. index. ISBN 9780393088717. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248234. HIST
Astute, pithy, crazily readable insight into two intellectual giants on opposite ends of the political spectrum and whose lifelong debates helped shape what “Left” and “Right” mean. Schultz (history, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) argues, quite effectively, that the ideas that Norman Mailer (1923–2007) and William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925–2008) espoused “…actually sprung from a similar frustration, a joint disgust at the central assumptions that dominated postwar America from the 1940s to the mid 1960s” and that their proposed solutions aimed for the same target with different weapons. The debates, actions, reactions, and professional journeys of Buckley and Mailer were similarly passionate; when the two bumped up against each other sparks flew to the mutual admiration of both. Schultz’s central assertion, that the two were close friends, is difficult to believe but is backed by ample evidence taken from personal diaries, letters, and published work through the early 1970s. Characterizing Mailer as a “bull” and Buckley more as a “smooth operator,” Schultz writes with deep respect for his subjects, and the book proves exceptional at placing these two wonderful, energetic, gifted men in their time. Readers will need to disregard Schultz’s frequent swervings over “historical/editorial” lines, ascribing characteristics that, while definitely “right,” aren’t strictly “proper” (e.g., Buckley’s ‘salesman’s eyes’ “…trying to sell something he knew you didn’t really want to buy” and Mailer’s “…Jewishness [as] more of a cultural code”). VERDICT While aficionados and experts will pick nits, for dudes like me who know little about these titans of America’s 1960s–70s intellectual landscape this a lucid, sharp look at their relationship.

Year of the CowStone, Jared. Year of the Cow: How 420 Pounds of Beef Built a Better Life for One American Family. Flatiron. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250052582. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250053794. COOKING
TV producer Stone’s debut is much more than a primer on “where my food comes from,” though that aspect is by itself worth the cover price. Enthusiastic and keen to incorporate health and quality into his life, Stone purchases 420 pounds of steer meat ($2,500) in an effort to eat well and also (natch) to learn about where food comes from. The introductory study on the sustainable ranch where he bought the meat is particularly pithy; crops (olive and fruit trees) benefit from the fertilizer and grazing habits of herds (goats eat weeds, cattle munch grass, and chickens peck bugs) which then provide chevre, beef, and eggs respectively. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding and Stone rhapsodizes about rich, high-end beef that “tastes like everything a person would like about a steak, but cranked to eleven and then shot into space, and then kissed by angels.” The special thing about this book is Stone’s ability to clearly and quickly communicate the ‘better’-ness of his animal as opposed to a feedlot animal pumped full of steroids, antibiotics, and God knows what else. This enthusiasm and yen for excellence extends, however, to other areas of life (e.g., barefoot running), too; the year of the cow isn’t just about the cow. At its root, this book is one aspect of a dude’s effort in being a real provider for his family; cooking and filling his family with good-tasting, healthy food—and there are assorted recipes included—becomes a joy he shares with his two-year-old son. VERDICT Like A.J. Jacobs’s Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, this is great for healthy-minded dudes everywhere.

The Devil’s Only FriendWells, Dan. The Devil’s Only Friend. Tor. (John Cleaver, Bk. 4). 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780765380661. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466874978. F
John Wayne Cleaver, 17, is the kind of boy every mother would like to see her daughter dating: a pure sociopath. JW has killed a lot; “…some of them were demons, true, but some of them were people” and, like a certain ex-boss of mine, has actual plans for killing almost everyone he meets. For Nathan, he’d “…get in close and cut his throat.” He’d poison Kelly. And Fred in Accounting would be straight hit-and-run. Fortunately for the good guys, JW works with the FBI helping to hunt down the sinister nasties labeled “The Withered,” a particularly gross/nasty breed of being that possess people—though he’s quick to point out that “…’Demon’ wasn’t really the right word any more than ‘possessed.’ ’” These demons move across bodies over thousands of years, always ending in the host’s suicide—except for one that they’ve captured, a girl named Brooke who is locked away in a rubber room near the team’s HQ. JW visits with Brooke daily and tries to tease out useful information from the thousands of personalities combined in her twisted psyche. Of course, JW is also in love with her. It’s a good, energetic twist on a very old and tired premise. Wells explains the finer points of “life in the demon hunting business” really well. It’s like Wells keeps words in the refrigerator’s crisper—always fresh. VERDICT This is the fourth in Wells’s “John Cleaver” books (I Don’t Want To Kill You, etc.); though it stands alone just fine, the smart money is that readers new to the series will be quickly hunting around for volumes 1 to 3.

MessYourgrau, Barry. Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act. Norton. Aug. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780393241778. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248050. MEMOIR
Catalyzed by the shame and ‘hypersensitive intimacy” of his girlfriend seeing all the crap he’s living amid, Yourgrau begins to slowly dig himself out. The process, while quite honest, is fairly mundane; less an Updikean excavation than it is simply making a decision to make decisions. Unfortunately the author’s grandiosity streak is a bit much. He decides to “chronicle” his ordeal, to “descend into the existential bowels of my beleaguered self” and “be a questing pilgrim slob, on a twelve-stations-of-the-Cross trail of transformation.” Yourgrau also has the ability to wax about his pathology ad nauseam; four closets are “…stuffed to the gills, in good part with the unworn, the broken. Crummy mini-caves of an anti-Ali Baba.” Really, he’s just some dude who can’t get rid of certain things. He learns that it has to do with his past wounds and hurts; that one’s emotions can form attachments to things and make them part of the hoarder’s identity. The root is when he dropped a repurposed bottle his mom gave him when he was a kid. It’s an accessible book, just boring. Yourgrau might be interesting to sit next to at a clambake, but his narrative is simply wearisome. Soon, you’ll just want him to stop: Wah wah wah, clean up your crap. He’ll feel elated after pitching a “chewed-up trolley” or an office chair, then spend an hour picking out a goddamn screensaver. Perhaps if the crap he was deciding on was different, but this is old suitcases, broken laptops, ancient typewriters. VERDICT It’s easy to overlook the author’s good writing when we’re too busy judging him on his time-management skills.

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Douglas Lord About Douglas Lord

Douglas Lord has been reviewing books and audio for Library Journal since the earth was a molten mass. He is an Ironman athlete blessed with a family that sometimes finds him funny and puts up with him constantly reading aloud from advanced review copies. Books for Dudes focuses on books for curious, fun, time-crunched men.