Pushing Boundaries, Getting Lost, Cooking Like a Man | Books for Dudes

“Dude” is a term that connotes much and means different things to different people. The “Books for Dudes” column uses it in ways that credit men with more dignity, smarts, and open-mindedness than do many others—much to my chagrin.

The column’s focus is intentionally broad; nothing is off-limits. From poetry to autobiographies of front-line soldiers, from science fiction to literary fiction, and from cookbooks about grilling to manuals about landscaping and lawn care, BFD covers a super-broad range of material. One caveat is that it eschews love stories with lots of icky kissing and romance and stuff.

This month features categories of books that have been heavy BFD favorites. Short stories (sometimes that’s all the time a dude can manage), cookbooks focused on the eating and not the preparing, action/adventure fiction, and (especially) books that push our boundaries—this month it’s historical fiction about a teenage girl in 16th-century London. In the words of John Lennon, dig it!

Bitter BronxCharyn, Jerome. Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories. Liveright. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780871404893. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780871404985. F
Prolific author Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, etc.) provides 13 (mostly) unrelated stories that have at least a little something to do with the Bronx. All were originally published between 2006–13 in various literary periodicals (e.g., Tin House, etc.). Charyn constructs hella work, powerful images in condensed language. While some stories are set in the near or distant past, others feel timeless to the point of taking place just yesterday. All feature a Bronx in “permanent recession” and focus on the push-pull of relationships. The resultant pressures and aftereffects that characters feel run the gamut—as do the characters themselves. Small-time criminals, guidance counselors, high school poetry teachers, and sexy-ass ladies who own too many cats amid “…peeling walls, the constant sting of urine, the flatulence, and the overripe sweetness of decaying flesh.” The tapestry is rich and multicultural yet understated—Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Jews, Albanians, what have you. One standout, “Major Leaguer,” is a moving tale that chronicles a sad love affair between an old ex-ball player who was the New York Yankees’ 25th man for a day in 1975 (he “struck out twice, botched a bunt, popped to left center, and hit into a double play”) and the 40-year-old, freckled hospital administrator who lives in the building where he’s a super. VERDICT Though the stories can sometimes feel choppy (Charyn constructs his sentences to deliberately jar the reader; for easy flow try Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air), this is realistic fiction imagined through the lens of an author who has been keenly observing people for longer than you’ve been alive, son.

DudeFoodChurchill, Dan. DudeFood: A Guy’s Guide to Cooking Kick-Ass Food. S. & S. Sept. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9781476796895. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476796901. COOKING
Don’t be put off by the “dude” tag here. In fact, rejoice in it, for this is a Good Cookbook. Handsome, boyish author Churchill was on a show called MasterChef Australia and (fun fact) touted the book on Good Morning America by preparing a burger for Blake Lively. This succeeds admirably in its intent: to teach young men to cook “simple, healthy, delicious, and fun meals” for themselves and the people they love. Recipes emphasize tastiness and nutritional density (meaning there are few wasted calories, Chumley), and chapters cut to the chase with titles like “How To Impress a Girl” (e.g., Peri-Peri Roast Chicken, Poached Salmon with a Walnut Apple Salad, etc.) and “The Hangover Cure” (e.g., Toad in a Hole, Bro Burger). There are five to seven recipes per chapter for a total of 45 and (importantly) all are accomplishable dishes that look seriously bangin’ (indeed, the food porn rating is a 10+). It’s cool. There are buttloads of things that a dude can do to waste the day (writing book reviews, for example), but in here are some actual useful skills that will enhance your life—and the lives of those eating with you. None of the recipes is too chi-chi or calls for insane, bullshit ingredients (we’re not making Heritage Loaf or anything) and the book’s tone is unerringly encouraging: “We all start somewhere,” Churchill notes. “If you burn your potatoes, you’ve learned to lower the heat next time.” VERDICT Though easy to dismiss as “gooberhead dudes can cook,” the reality is that this, alongside Tyler Capps’s Cooking Comically: Recipes So Easy You‘ll Actually Make Them and Steven Raichlen’s Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys, demonstrates a few basic recipes for dudes unaccustomed to cooking. Focused on crowd-pleasing dishes that will garner positive reactions, it will admirably help along a lifetime of healthful cooking.

The PrecipiceDoiron, Paul. The Precipice. Minotaur. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781250063694. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466868687. M
“About five hundred people are reported missing in Maine each year,” notes game warden Mike Bowditch at the beginning of this excellent, woodsy thriller. “Most of them are found somewhere between twenty-four and forty-eight hours later. The Bible students…had been missing for nearly two weeks when we got the call.” That long a time frame doesn’t bode well for two young women hiking the Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. Though many suspect that coyotes got ’em, Bowditch thinks not—and the woods are full of folks he could finger for the fiend (ah—astounding alliteration). The basics are that Bowditch busts a nut rescuing his ltgf when she too goes missing—but that’s too reductive a summation for the author’s level of skill. In economical and subtle writing, Mr. D. firmly imbues remote Precipice, ME, with both a sense of place (as good as Nevada Barr) and impending doom. Doiron eschews making mockery of Maine (additional alliteration, amigos) as a place where yokels and lobstermen solve cozy corner mysteries and while characters are on the lighter side, they are well drawn and serve the propulsive action. Indeed, the especially likable Bowditch isn’t a regular-guy-with-a-bajillion-talents (i.e., Sam Dryden in Patrick Lee’s Signal). Like the action and outdoorsiness, Bowditch’s many feels are authentic, as when he is sussing out Stacey, his gf: “I was so positive that she was the love of my life, that the two of us were meant to be together, and yet she seemed content that we remain intimate strangers.” This sixth in a series will compel you into the stacks for prior installments if you haven’t yet been hooked. VERDICT With the quick pace and straightforward action, this is a great choice—easy to pick up again after a debauched, tequila-fueled night at the beach (or at home the way you do it, you sad little person).

Best BoyGottlieb, Eli. Best Boy. Liveright. Aug. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781631490477. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490484. F
Readers meet the preteen Todd Aaron when mom drops him off at the Payton Living Center, a residential facility serving those with special needs, with the admonition that he is to be “the best boy” there. A few pages later he is 54, parents long dead, aching to go home—as he has been for 40-plus years. Though gentle and non-combative (he “… can’t bear to push my mind back against anybody, at any time, ever”), Todd is on a host of drugs (Risperdal, Lipitor, Paxil, Lunesta) and gets attacks of “the volts” when anxious. An autistic savant, Todd “…can remember every song I’ve ever heard” and also reads the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. Todd’s bouts of depression can get him so unhappy that it’s “raining all the time in my head even in sunshine.” Like Karl in Sling Blade, Todd’s father was a drinker and abuser, something brought to the fore by PLC’s new counselor, Mike. All smiles in public, Mike is pretty skeezy when alone with Todd. “Underneath his moustache he was wearing my father’s same yellow teeth and eyes…” thinks Todd. At one point Todd devises a shiv; is he setting up a defense related to Britannica article he read about trepanning, a barbaric process by which primitive man “let the crazy out”? Readers get glimpses into Todd’s self-harming and assorted fears—pets, typewriters (“filled with millipede arms”), and cash registers—though he occasionally has too much empathy (like for his jaded brother) to be a flawless character. VERDICT Readers will cheer—and shudder—for intelligent, compassionate Todd as he grows in this powerfully sad slice-of-life title.

The Alchemist's DaughterLawrence, Mary. The Alchemist’s Daughter. Kensington. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781617737107. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781617737114. F
The year is 1543, the place is that messy, slummy, open sewer pit known as London. Amid the dank corners and diseased populace living during the reign of Henry VIII and his final wife is Bianca Goddard, 17-year-old proprietor of medicinals and physickes. Bright, cheery, and savvy, Bianca is caught up in a misadventure in which she is forced to prove her innocence after a good friend is poisoned to death (though the victim also sports “a purplish ring around her neck” from being throttled). The constable needs a convenient target for the murder, and Bianca fits the bill. Such a classic plot requires some pretty special writing to overcome its plainness, and luckily Lawrence (Death of an Alchemist) offers that in spades. This is not a romanticized London. Wretches die of wasting infections, people literally rake the muck of the Thames to find things of value, and people’s lives are small, short, and cheap. Bianca’s friends are similar misfits and, like many of the era, have deformities (her friend Banes, for example, has a useless arm and no thumb). Two factors greatly increase this title’s value to dudes: 1.) Vocab building (e.g., wherry, purgative, poniard, anlace, etc.). 2.) Fantastic insults (e.g., “piss sniffer,” “puffed-up prillywig,” etc.). Whereas some historical fiction bristles with self-importance, this novel eschews it to excellent effect. An eerie subplot involving a creepy, rat-eating boatman is captivating. VERDICT The strong female character in this YA crossover with massive authenticity is just smart enough to be charming without being precious or terribly unrealistic.

Lost CanyonRevoyr, Nina. Lost Canyon. Akashic. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781617753534. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9781617753541. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617753626. F
In which a Californian hiking trip in the fictional Cloud Lakes area of the Sierra Nevada mountains turns into nothing less than a colossal shitshow. Three Californians primed for personal transformation are rebuilding their lives and have discovered solace in the outdoors. Gwen is a deskbound social worker in Watts who helps disadvantaged youth; she spends time pondering race, socioeconomics, and social justice and is haunted by the suicide of one of her brightest charges. Single dad and worrywart Oscar is pondering his true vocation and reflects much about how his former enclave of a Mexican neighborhood is changing even as he sells off bits and pieces in his real estate job. Todd is an attorney whose main case saps his energy; he is “…tired of wealthy, entitled clients and of helping people who didn’t really need help.” The musings of these three are elements that remain constant throughout the story, and while they detract from the “adventure” aspect (for that, see C.J. Box), they also set the tale refreshingly apart from the usual adventure genre crap. The little group of deep thinkers is counterpointed by adventurous, overconfident leader Tracy, who blithely dismisses various concerns (e.g., snow) and proclaims the trip as “…no obstacle course, no artificial Tough Mudder bullshit.” After getting detoured from its intended route, the party sets out for the unmarked, long-disused, titular destination; with a nod to James Dickey’s Deliverance, they encounter pockets of nasty people (no spoilers but see: Emily Brady’s Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier and The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail). Challenge after challenge wounds, incapacitates, and saps each to the core. VERDICT A direct, bangin’ read for those interested in how people deal with physical and moral challenges.

FishbowlSomer, Bradley. Fishbowl. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781250057808. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466861701. F
This precious little tome from Somer (Imperfections) presents slices of life “seen” through the eyes of Ian, a goldfish who has jumped out the 27th floor of a high-rise apartment building. Naturally, the conceit disintegrates rather quickly as not even the most perceptive of goldfish can take in terribly much in a four-second fall, but the result is a pleasing group of character studies with exceptionally keen observations. Content is appealing, artsy, and keen: “[t]he passing of a particular moment can’t erase the fact that it was once present.” Except for the characters’ obvious close proximity, the book lacks a theme to unify them. The only common thread seems to be that all privately struggle with personal issues. Chapters are narrated by alternate residents. Ian’s owner is a grad student named Connor who is dating the sweet Katie but cheating on her with Faye. The building’s super, Jimeriez, fixes stuff and then melts into nowhere; pregnant Petunia is on bed rest and craves ice cream sandwiches; her builder boyfriend is Danny; his coworker Garth cross-dresses; homeschooled Herman believes that he can teleport (and who are we to contradict him?); and Claire is an agoraphobic phone sex worker. Of Ian the “gold-encased nugget of fishy flesh,” the best that Somer says is, “blessed indeed are the thoughtless.” Some lives intersect, but mostly this is a bloodless, humorless intellectual exercise that will leave readers feeling unfulfilled. VERDICT As a conceit it’s as fine as Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine; but if the funnest thing about a book is that you can flip the pages to make a fish doodle swim, that book might need some work.

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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.