LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Worthy Reads for Busy Dudes | Books for Dudes

Sometimes I’m too busy playing Brain It On! or reading aloud from BuzzFeed to the wife to read a book. A dude can get busy, ya know? Especially in wintertime. There are hordes to be dismantled and snow to be shoveled, and the hibernating isn’t going to do itself.

But don’t be discouraged or mad when the books/snow/work piles up. Sure, you could tantrum like Hassan Whiteside, but try reading instead. It’s a calming, soothing, restorative activity that’s fun for the whole family.

Feb ’16’s BFD features seven worthy books, makes an appeal for a less-than-stellar series, and, unusually, I’m covering a magazine—a first, I think. STAND is designed to encourage men to “give a damn about being better men, fathers, husbands, partners, neighbors, and citizens.” It’s simpatico with the entire Books for Dudes ethos—that men should strive, be curious, be open-minded, save time, and love everything they do as much as possible. Even if it’s shoveling snow.

And AgainChiarella, Jessica. And Again. Touchstone. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781501116100. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501116124. F
So. You fucked up somewhere along the line and contracted a terminal illness, and now you’ve agreed to be an experimental subject in a secret program where your own brain is put into a body cloned from you. Ahhhhh, schweppervescence: a fresh new you. But is it a new you? You’re still you—or are you? Admirably, Chiarella eschews spoon-feeding the plot in favor of dripping and accruing a story from pieces and small details. Characters’ physical restorations—“The freckles on my nose and cheeks are gone. My skin is poreless, scrubbed of its ruddiness and even the barest hints of sun damage, like a doll’s face”—only scratch the surface (hah) of the deeper meaning of identity. Something’s off, be it that you don’t enjoy coffee like you did or you can’t hold your paintbrush correctly. New selves start chains of questions: Do you really even like your wife/husband/cat? And if so…why? How much of us is in us? From where come our hearts, spirits, identities? Freaky. Told through the alternating perspectives of four clearly delineated characters, each person is surprised by their new self, especially as they remember who they thought they were. Like the best literate fiction (Margaret Atwood comes to mind), this slides around the emotional core of each character; each is authentic and independent, and Chiarella strives to maintain their individual narratives. And we’d better deal with this essential question: What makes us who we are? Because this becoming reality is headed our way fast. Biologically, figuratively, spiritually, we are more than just an amalgamation of experiences and emotions and guts and fiddly bits; a clone won’t have scars, won’t have damage, and similarly won’t have experienced the joys of caffeine, sex, chocolate. VERDICT Who we are, in Chiarella’s view, seems to be more than what we are.

The Fifth WitnessConnelly, Michael. The Fifth Witness: A Lincoln Lawyer Novel. Little, Brown. 2011. 448p. ISBN 9781455510313. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316069380. F
Connelly? Really? Well, yes. Consider the Harry Bosch stories: excellent police procedurals; taut, speculative, protagonist compelled to catch bad guys. Connelly’s Mickey Haller stories, on the other hand, aren’t like this. They’re much more like Budweiser beer: there’s a lot worse out there, and a lot better, but this is fine for when you want something that’s effortlessly okay. This novel sees Haller defending the hell out of Lisa Trammell, a bitchy, clueless twit who keeps fucking up her own defense by doing all the things that Mickey tells her not to: talk to the media, bring her kid to the courthouse, become involved with a douchebag promoter named Herb. The trial seems always to be one minute away from imploding; evidence is introduced at the last minute three times—once by Mickey in a masterly display of subterfuge (indeed, one wonders if this is a realistic look at the audacity of trial lawyers and the amount of baloney that they put up with). The wily prosecutor has Trammel dead nuts, but when Mickey floats a “she was framed” defense, readers will think that there just might be a chance. The Haller stories are simple; Mickey pines for his ex-wife, is devoted to his daughter, works hard. There are no complex characterizations and no sympathy for bad guys. Easy predictability wins the day. Apart from the sometimes brutal descriptions of bad shit going down, these books are a step away from the cozy corner. Appealing—just like Budweiser. To be sure, it’s important to challenge yourself by reading outside your comfort zones and tackling difficult or intellectual material (e.g., Miranda July’s The First Bad Man or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, both BFD-endorsed). And there are certainly “better” procedurals (e.g., Ursula Archer’s Five. VERDICT From time to time, man, don’t you just want a beer?

Let the Devil OutLoehfelm, Bill. Let the Devil Out: A Maureen Coughlin Novel. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. 320p. July 2016. ISBN 9780374298579; ebk. ISBN 9780374711726. F
Loehfelm sets this series squarely on the shoulders of the worthy Maureen Coughlin, a small, “thin, short, pale-faced redhead” driven to audacious violence by dark compulsions. An ex–Staten Island waitress, Coughlin is now wandering around New Orleans as a rookie cop on indefinite paid administrative leave (holy—how do I sign up for that?), causing mucho trouble. Coughlin isn’t the kind of girl you’re going to be taking home to meet mother (unless you’re Grendel); she’s troubled, brooding, and unapologetically leaks damage. One dark early scene sees her drunkenly reflecting on her night, which included leaving a man who may or may not have been a predator “crumpled on a curb…weeping hot tears onto his bloody cheeks, bleeding from the mouth and clutching his broken wrist to this chest.” This is a woman who looks away from her own reflection in mirrors. Though she’s technically not working for part of this book (suspended for actions related to exposing nasties on the last case), Coughlin is nonetheless seeking an elusive, murderous paranoid schizophrenic named Madison Leary with the basic hope that she can help curtail the chick’s bloodthirstiness. Coughlin has also been targeted by a bunch of fun-loving fellahs named the Watchmen Brigade who enjoy discussing race relations—as long as the white boys win. VERDICT Readers familiar with Loehfelm’s work (like 2008’s atmospheric Fresh Kills) will not be surprised to discover: it’s really good. There’s really only one way to get through this, though, and that’s to engage with the moody, swampy plot and try to understand the unlikable Coughlin. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, dark and bitter as it is.

Marvel and a WonderMeno, Joe. Marvel and a Wonder. Akashic. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781617753930. $29.95; ISBN 9781617753947. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617754128. F
Jim Falls, 78, is a retired Indiana veteran who now farms chickens. The hard, nasty work fits him because while he’s honest, he’s slow-moving and not smart. Sadly stoic, Jim realized long ago that his drug-addled daughter is beyond his influence. Instead he worries about her periodically returning because of the wreckage and chaos that inevitably follow. Jim has accepted her eccentric, teenage, biracial son, Quenton, as his own. People look askance at the boy’s quirky hobbies (e.g., gaming and collecting exotic pets) like he’s a future psychopath. Subtly, quietly, Meno has created a family teetering on the edge of ruin. Jim’s daughter runs away “for the final time” on Quenton’s birthday. Soon after Jim has his third cardiac event in two months; the fragility is palpable. Then John the Baptist shows up—not the prophet, but a real-life racehorse, fully legal with papers from New York City. The horse runs “like a zipper of lightning, a pulse of absolute blindness.” Quenton’s fetish for beasts leads to two bad men stealing the horse, and to Jim and Q getting it back. Meno is that rare writer unafraid to take on big fat metaphors like “…the sun—rampant, galloping westward—beating back the night” or describe a character through another character—as when Jim considers his daughter’s face, which “made him proud of who he was, able to endure all of his failings as a father…had become masked in secrecy and disappointment and guilt.” VERDICT A remarkable book; Meno deftly turns the American Dream onto its ass but displays facets of Americans that are so true that it will make your heart hurt.

The Devil in JerusalemRagen, Naomi. The Devil in Jerusalem. St. Martin’s. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250043139. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466841239. F
Hook: nasty injuries to helpless kids in the name of God. Line: it’s easy to be sanctimonious. Sinker: Ragen provides readers with few alternatives but to empathize with a monster. Israeli cops and medics are all shocked by the heinous behavior of taciturn mother Daniella. Like the doctor who first interrogates her, readers will feel “disgusted and angry, like a moviegoer who finds himself confronted by scenes of sickening violence to which he had no idea he’d bought a ticket.” “That person is not a mother. No mother—animal or human—behaves the way she has,” says the lead detective who determinedly digs for the truth. By alternating Daniella’s history with the investigatory bits, however, Ragen engenders empathy; invested readers will need to get to the intersection of Daniella as mother and monster. How can this superreligious woman originally from Pittsburgh married to a rabbi make such colossally bad choices? This same rabbi said, “If you take your mistakes too hard then you really might become wicked. You’ll think it’s in your blood and you have no choice.” Ragen’s excellent, anarchic story line lurches back and forth in time, from one narrator to another, and even between narrative styles. “If only she could explain the truth to them,” thinks Daniella at one point, “…that she had undertaken a sacred mission out of the purest love for her children!” VERDICT While the plot is challenging on a number of levels, it’s Ragen’s authorial prowess that stands out here. Her ability to craft a believable tale out of the outlandish, disturbed barbarism of real-life zealous cultists is, on one hand not for the squeamish. On the other, it illuminates the ridiculousness of championing one value set (Judeo-Christian) over any other.

Hurt PeopleSmith, Cote. Hurt People. Farrar. Feb. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780374535889. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780374714628. F
Hurt People—is that a direction or a descriptor? This well-written slow burn of a story gives readers a very clear view of what it’s like to be age nine living in an apartment complex in Leavenworth, KS, circa 1988. That may or may not seem like somewhere you want to be, depending on how much you enjoy the accompanying atmosphere of constant tension. Our smart young narrator and his slightly older brother are new in town, and their world is small. There are “…hints of kids. A turned over tricycle, flat tired in the grass. A frayed jump rope, hung from an unreachable branch.” They’re alone, with divorced parents. Dad is a city cop always working; Mom does long hours in the local golf pro shop. There’s an escaped prisoner on the loose, too. The boys consider the nearby woods “…the deep end of the nonpool world and avoided going into them.” Absent friends, and like the child versions of you and me, they play G.I. Joes with plots invented by the older brother that “lasted hours, took over the entire apartment, and contained several startling plot twists.” Oftentimes the bad guys win. Into this limited world appears the mysterious Chris, who lectures the boys about diving into the complex pool. While our young narrator shies away, his brother sees an opportunity and explores Chris as friend, mentor, and approval-giver. VERDICT First novels must be a bitch, and there are so many good elements here—period detail and the sharp characterization of the protagonist are particularly commendable—that it’s tempting to overlook the not-as-good ones. Chief among these is that not a whole lot happens.

STANDSTAND. ed. by Dwayne D. Hayes. quarterly. $19/issue; $60/year consumer; $85/year library.
I read every word of issue one of STAND magazine (http://www.stand-magazine.com/), and each was good, meaningful, and intentional. The magazine is dedicated to the radical notion that men should strive, evolve, and stand up for that in which they believe. It is written for “men who give a damn about being better men, fathers, husbands, partners, neighbors, and citizens.” Yes, I say! On the cover is a handsome, side-burned working man wearing a jean jacket and hoisting a sack of something over his shoulder. But look closer; his hat, bearing the image of an outhouse, reads “Porta-Can.” The message isn’t a post-ironic joke, it’s “So what? It’s work. I’m doing the best I can.” Inside there’s everything you need to get your mind and heart activated. Poetry, book, and film reviews and how to dress well for around 100 bucks. Wise words from wise men like John Ruskin (e.g., “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it”) and Montesquieu: “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” There is a harrowing first-person account of depression, an interview with author Steve Almond (Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto), a photo-essay about men and the dignity of work, and a piece about sex trafficking that sadly relates that the phenomenon is closer to your community than you realize. VERDICT Overall, this magazine provokes a question—what kind of man are you? It also encourages you to live intentionally. This is the sort of socially conscious, self-aware effort that any dude can be proud to read. It’s about wisdom and how and why we achieve it. Really, now—who could have a problem with that?

Storming the CityWahlman, Alec. Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam. Univ. of North Texas. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781574416190. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9781574416220. HIST
An unexpectedly readable, interesting, and well-written examination of exactly what the subtitle imports. Four chapters present case studies of emblematic battles: Aachen (1944), Manila (1945), Seoul (1950), and Hue (1968). Wahlman’s goal is to provide neither definitive accounts nor operational/political contexts for these conflicts; this work is simply an evaluation of the tactical performance of American forces. And each study admirably addresses these contexts retaining an analytical core of “command, control and communications, intelligence and reconnaissance, firepower and survivability, mobility and counter-mobility, logistics, and dealing with the population.” The battles range over a variety of terrains and conditions, and the book examines how “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation” were key in capturing each city—and how the ability of the military to accomplish this has degraded over time. The writing is excellent, economical, tactical, and, amazingly, readably technical. VERDICT For readers not even remotely interested in urban warfare, topical mechanized military coverage, or histories of World War II and/or Korea—you could be surprised by this. Just like that fantastic article from (fill in the blank: Atlantic Monthly, Guns & Ammo, Bass Weekly) about (fill in the blank: brain surgery, inventor Thomas Blanchard, snap spinners), you probably respond to good writing, and boy, it’s here. Readers with interests in these areas will certainly enjoy this; the rest of us could really take a lesson in why this is important for today and the future of our military efforts. I’m always urging readers to stray beyond their usual comfort zones; this is a case in point.

ShelterYun, Jung. Shelter. Picador. Mar. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781250075611. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250075642. F
Story starts out dull: guy, family man, wakes up groggy, gets his kid batteries for the remote. Slowly, the details about his life emerge—selling the house, underwater on the mortgage, marriage doesn’t feel rock solid, there’s much uncertainty here. A life with this pervading sense of insecurity isn’t the one that the main character, Kyung Cho, has planned for, isn’t the one he wants. The titular “shelter” is more like a lean-to in cold woods than a warm and cozy nest with tea and biscuits. Kyung “was raised to believe that owning a home meant something. Losing a home like this—that would mean something too.” Though dutifully playing the cards he’s dealt, Kyung also acknowledges to himself that they suck. Right around this time the reader will start wondering why they care, and this point is exactly when Kyung’s world goes from bad to worse. Kyung’s mom, who lives nearby, is found wandering around in an extremely delicate state, in bad shape. Cops. Ambulance. Then things get even worse. Yun’s tale isn’t melodramatic crap; Kyung is a real guy. He lives in your nice suburban neighborhood; he’s a professor at your local U. This all happens in a blur so fast that Kyung’s head spins, that he’s not even conscious of his life turning to shit. VERDICT The real story is how Kyung responds to all of this. He takes in his parents, starts finding a “new normal.” Yun has created an individual, sometimes impotently angry, who builds something beautiful out of nothing, out of his own sense of hopeless hope. Even if the route he needs to take is a sad one with bleak views, it is through this he becomes that most mythic of all creatures: man, fully grown.

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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.