Recently, after a regular ’ol day of reading, taking the exercise, and yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn, I became a feminist. Perhaps it is more accurate to write that I “reupped” because I originally drank that Kool-Aid in college after a professor told me that feminism was merely “the radical notion that women are people.” Thanks Dr. Barreca, that dog’ll hunt.
My reenlistment was sparked by reflecting on Kelley Armstrong’s novel City of the Lost, reviewed below. I got all serious about it—which is really not how dudes approach many issues, even serious ones. It’s not the best review, and it probably won’t change many minds, but I gave it a whirl.
The rest of the reviews are presented in my (hopefully) humorous, irreverent, informative style—that of a guy writing for people who are bright, curious, and busy. Along those lines, and apropos of the current climate of divisive political primaries, I recommend heartily this blog post, which posits the question, “In a mass knife fight to the death between every American president, who would win and why?”
Every dude I shared it with became immediately engaged, spouting facts about various presidents who could win such an imaginary battle. Most of this knowledge came from (gasp!) books. My vote: Ike.
Armstrong, Kelley. City of the Lost. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. May 2016. 416p. ISBN 9781250092144. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250092151. F
Armstrong is a best-selling author with gaggles of fans who love her series books (e.g., “Darkest Powers”). Originally released as an e-serial, this book was called brilliant, unique, and twisty. Well, guess what? It’s a pedestrian, reductive, antifeminist crap show. It “stars” Casey Duncan, 30, a detective whose defining moment came at age 18 when she accidentally-on-purpose killed a bad boyfriend during a struggle, lied about it, and walked away. She now spends her life protecting bff Diana, who is incapable of resisting her abusive ex. The two represent the pinnacle of codependency (“It’s been two years since she left him and convinced me to move to a new city with her”) and share that hoariest of tropes: innocent-girl-dangerous-man (see: Twilight, Fifty Shades, One Kick, ad nauseam). This tough-but-damaged sisterhood doesn’t deal with its issues but instead runs away to the titular commune of about 200 similarly damaged people (might as well spread chum to attract the predators). If Duncan has enough moral ambiguity to eschew legal responsibility for manslaughter, she wouldn’t be running from this predicament. She’d simply kill Diana’s ex and the two would love each other forever—save-the-girl story complete. Instead, Armstrong denies them any opportunity to heal. Silly writing (e.g., “I do have a job I love,” Casey thinks. “But that’s all I care about. My job and Diana. The job is replaceable. Diana is not.”) combines with papier-mâché characters; it’s unbearable and impossible to suspend one’s disbelief enough to enjoy this. VERDICT Exploiting women’s vulnerability while also posing them as responsible, even admirable, murderers doesn’t work. Branding irresponsibility as heroic seems regressively antifeminist. Highly unrecommended.
Buhring, Juliana. This Road I Ride: Sometimes it Takes Losing Everything To Find Yourself. Norton. May 2016. 240p. ISBN 9780393292558. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393292565. SPORTS
Now this is feminism! Buhring chronicles how she, not a cyclist of any sort when she started this journey, rode her bike around the globe—kind of on a whim—and wound up setting a world record in the process (18,000 miles; total time: 152 days, 144 of them in the saddle). The way Buhring got to liftoff is interesting, heartbreaking, and provides the backstory of the issues with which she struggled and overcame. The author was raised and escaped from the Children of God cult, which she detailed (with Celeste Jones and Kristina Jones) in 2007’s Not Without My Sister. Buhring also details falling head over heels in love with a kindred spirit Hendrik Coetzee, a renowned South African kayaker and expeditioner who was taken by a crocodile in 2010 in the Congo. To shock herself out of her deep grief, the boot-strappy Buhring sets a goal and goes for it: “Whenever I’m told I can’t do something,” she writes, “a little voice in my head starts counting down.” The journey is temporal and psychological; there is no separating the two. She names the bike Pegasus, and with a manager but no sponsors or cash to speak of, sets out with the intention of raising awareness for the Safe Passage Foundation. The money runs out in New Zealand, and she starts relying on the kindness of strangers and friends. Incredible, admirable, ballsy. It’s not a “travel book” in the traditional sense, focused as it is on the quest’s physical demands, consideration of her grief, and the short relationships formed along the way. Endurance cycling is a slog requiring unimaginably huge amounts of psychological strength, which Buhring evidences in spades. VERDICT Buhring is in a class with Amelia Earhart and Kathrine Switzer; brave, strong, and a little crazy in the best possible way.
Clarke, Ali. The World’s Toughest Races: From the Most Extreme to the Downright Weird. Summersdale. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9781849537308. pap. $14.95. SPORTS
This awesomeness presents the basics of 54 titular races split into seven self-explanatory chapters: Ice, Water, Fire, Stone, Multi-Discipline, Extreme Wheels, and Weirdest. From the latter, I’m glad to report that the author included the wife-carrying championships in Finland. Clarke “scoured the top ten lists, hunted down the unusual challenges.” Why? Because “these extreme challenges offer us something that is lacking from our everyday lives…We want to be surprised, to have our self-sufficiency tested and to use our own power and wits.” Entries are just enough to whet your appetite; I have no doubt most readers will be considering several as they read. Some of these truly do seem impossible, others inadvisable, and some totally doable and fun. Doable: the Race, in Northwestern Ireland, which is a six-leg run, kayak, bike, run, bike, run, and the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, a longer-than-iron distance with bitchin’ cold sea water and a marathon in which the final ten miles rise 6,100 feet. Inadvisables include the Cadiz Freedom Swim in South Africa (seven miles in 55 degree water) and the Spartathlon ultramarathon in Greece which re-creates Pheidippides’s 153-mile run in 490 BCE as he attempted to raise help for his Spartan brothers prior to the Battle of Marathon. Impossible: the Iditarod Trail International—it’s the same as the dog race except on foot, skis, or bicycle (all have been completed)—and the Barkley in Tennessee: a 100-mile ultramarathon that only 1.4 percent of participants have ever finished. The overall height gain is 60,000 feet, equal to climbing two Mt. Everests from sea level. “Getting to the finish line is important,” notes Clarke, “but it’s the experience that counts. How much do you think you could endure and survive?” VERDICT Choose your poison—all the races are pretty nuts. Perfect for destination racers and the clinically insane.
Hollandsworth, Skip. The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer. Holt. Apr. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780805097672. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780805097689. CRIME
Austin, TX, in the 1880s seems pretty cool. There are pool halls and saloons in a culture “like something out of a Henry James novel.” Horse-drawn carriages, this newfangled electricity thing, and, oh, Jack the Ripper (JTR), too. Yep; in December of 1884, Austin “was terrorized by someone equally as vicious and, in some ways, far more diabolical than London’s Ripper.” He was termed the “Midnight Assassin” and in the community-wide freakout that follows pretty much anytime eight of our womenfolk are brutalized, a dozen men are arrested and three actually tried for murder (none correctly). The politicians who staked their claim on justice for the horrific crimes were doomed to fail. Mollie Smith’s “head had nearly been split in two…[and s]ome of the gashes were deep enough to expose her organs.” Unlike JTR, who focused on prostitutes, Austin saw a variety of people gruesomely killed: black, white, men, women. The events transpired over a couple of years only to stop suddenly. A few months later, bloody Jack starts up in London. One of the book’s most chilling bits speaks merely to the culture of the day: a black laborer who has been attacked and nearly killed is searching in freezing winter darkness for his girlfriend who may have been abducted. Distressed and gravely wounded, he seeks help at the door of a white gentleman who, calmly, sends him away—most probably to die—so he can get back to sleep. Hollandsworth estimably weaves in period details such as this, or that “[a]ccording to local gossip…[one man’s] handshake was strong enough to crack corn,” and also intriguing bits of history; Austin started out as Waterloo and was renamed after Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas.” VERDICT True crime, history, painstaking detail—this has something for everybody. It took Hollandsworth years to research, compile, and write this narrative, and the craftsmanship shows.
Nelson, Willie with David Ritz. It’s a Long Story: My Life. Little, Brown. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9780316403559. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780316403566. MUSIC
The difficulty in gauging the veracity of an autobiography exists because the account is written by the subject irrespective of his own objectivity. If Nelson can be believed, however, he is one charming character. The author relates his life from his birth in 1933 to 2015, spending much time in the Abbott, TX, of his childhood rhapsodizing about his sister and grandparents who raised him and about how he fell hopelessly in love with music. Married at 19 to a 16-year-old, Nelson had two kids in short order and became an itinerant musical journeyman who found work where he could, mostly as a DJ, while supplementing his income with any paying gig. Some of it wasn’t pretty; the musician slept in a ditch or two and rode some freight cars searching for work. Though he deemphasizes the experience, readers will see Nelson’s discouragement and disappointment throughout his time in Texas and on the West Coast. Even Nashville didn’t work out at first. He notes that when he “turned the corner onto Music Row, where the big record companies have their offices and studios, the Buick laid down and died. That should have told me something.” Ordinary people would have given up long before, but Nelson doubled down on his dream and kept trying. When he went bucks up, he remained humble: “It felt great to be able move the family into a nicer house and not worry about putting food on the table.” In this chronicle of hot and cold streaks, Nelson never lost his conviction to be a songwriter. If the bitterness he feels about his early-1990s tax troubles is sharp, it’s because he paid his dues a few times over. VERDICT Dudes can learn a lot from a man who is still kicking ass in his 80s.
Thwaites, Thomas. GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human. Princeton Architectural. May 2016. 208p. photos. ISBN 9781616894054. $24.95. MEMOIR
One observation: what a damn beautiful freak. I’ve read some weird stuff, but this here GoatMan might take the cake. After writing the fascinating The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt To Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch and receiving glowing reviews, Thwaites didn’t care for the ensuing attention and “fame.” What he really wanted to do is to live “in the moment, like an animal.” So, get this: he’s awarded a research grant to construct a goat exoskeleton and live (for as long as he is able) among a herd. And he succeeds. Thwaites shares how he enlisted the help of a far-ranging cast of characters from neuroscientists to his mom. He makes special arm prosthetics (“the idea for the forelegs is to make hollow fiberglass ‘bones’ into which I can insert my forearms, and aluminum tubing in lieu of elongated metacarpals”), wears a funky-fresh goaty helmet, and deeply considers how to create a belly pouch to help him digest grass. “I’m not one to shy away from the odd calculated risk,” he writes, “so imbibing a bit of fluid cultured from a goat’s rumen wouldn’t usually be the sort of thing that would concern me.” Is it necessary to state the obvious, that Thwaites is a project designer whose arty, conceptual work has appeared in major galleries? This is a singular, admirable, and fantastic project, and Thwaites does a great job of capturing the journey in an inimitably engrossing style that is by turns funny and odd. The photos alone are worth the cover price. To sum this work up, I’ll compare it to the challenge of a 50-mile trail race: you will experience a range of emotions and won’t know if you can finish. When you’re done, you’ll say, “wtf.” Was this worth the cover price? You’ll think about it for years. VERDICT This book will compel readers to engage, so try the journey—it’s weird but worth it.