This month I reread Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and damn if I didn’t revisit the whole raison d’être of Books for Dudes, because, jeez, did Roach ever pen the grandmammy of all books for dudes.
It contains all the hallmarks of what a book for a dude is all about: well written, with “important” subject matter, possibly upsetting to your comfort, enlightening, brain filling, boundary stretching…you get the idea. Books for curious, fun, time-crunched folks.
Whether she’s explaining how and why researchers use cadavers (or, most likely, parts) for crash tests or interviewing a man who analyzes plane crash mayhem or gently exploring the concept of human composting, Roach is at once serious, cheeky, and intelligent. She gets across, like few others ever have, that we are oh so very fragile. Roach’s other writing (Bonk, Packing for Mars, etc.) is anything but mediocre—a fit type of book for Books for Dudes.
So here on the 12th or thereabouts anniversary of Stiff, we celebrate inquisitiveness, pithiness, bravery in authors. I urge you—pick up a book like Stiff. Suggestions below—and years more here!
Bienenstock, David. How To Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High. Plume. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780147517081. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698401525. SOC SCI
Persuasive, insightful history-and-primer from a VICE columnist and High Times ex-editor; besides dispelling fairy tales and making strides toward legitimizing pot use, this book also covers procuring and using herb. With his base of extensive knowledge, Bienenstock can’t help but editorialize the hell out of this, and it’s interesting. For example, the War on Weed stems from the desire to “suppress its benefits—an insidious plot to protect the pharmaceutical industry, Big Tobacco, the booze barons…from unwanted competition.” There is much bemoaning the lack of accountability for needlessly suffering cancer patients, not to mention ruined lives from bullshit busts. And while historical tidbits are a cornucopia of “who knew?” (hemp is “the world’s oldest cultivated crop,” and in the 1600s it was a “key factor in the rise of the colonies as an economic power”), often Bienenstock’s tongue is firmly in cheek: “as long as any one of us is oppressed none truly blaze free” and the alliterative writing often seems stereotypically stoner-esque (e.g., “beneficial botanical” and “reefer revolution”). How-to sections deal with smoking, making the rounds of pro-pot communities such as Denver, and even “how to throw a weed-themed dinner party” seem geared toward those who already do. The book emphasizes peaceful lifestyle changes for readers (e.g., “utilize your high, even when you’re not high”). VERDICT Even thoughtful folks who oppose weed should find this a valuable addition to the growing discourse on marijuana legalization—or distinguishing “illicit” from “illegal.” Read it on the assumption that “it’s not marijuana that’s changing but society’s understanding of marijuana.”
Boggs, Belle. The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. Graywolf. Sept. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9781555977498. pap. $15. MEMOIR
Boggs is the author of the linked story collection Mattaponi Queen and—so she says—not at all related to longtime Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs. Right from page 1, which describes the “whooshing, endless hum” of mating cicadas, it’s clear that readers are in the hands of a writer who can deftly convey feelings—sad feelings. At 34, Boggs “desperately” wants her body to “work the way it is supposed to” and keenly describes how “child-longing” wreaked absolute havoc on her up-to-then perfectly rational life. “Many infertile women,” Boggs writes, “say that the worst part of the experience is the jealousy they feel toward pregnant women, who seem to be everywhere when you are trying (and failing) to conceive.” Her willingness to open up about being deflated, unconfident, and consumed with desire opens a window as to the lengths to which a regular person will go. “When I began to wonder why I could not conceive, I said the most I would do was read a book and chart my temperature. My next limit was pills; I would take them, but no more than that. Next was intrauterine insemination….” Contemplative, intelligent, and mature, Boggs is attuned to the natural world and organic processes including the fertility, mating, and parenting traits of animals. Best: the happy ending (really a beginning, right?). VERDICT Carefully, sadly wrought, Boggs’s honest, relatable tale will find an appreciative audience with anyone who has ever had an ovary.
de Kretser, Michelle. Springtime: A Ghost Story. Catapult. 2016. 92p. ISBN 9781936787432. pap. $11.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787449. F
Judging this novella by its cover was easy because, like my missus, it’s gorgeous. Despite MdK’s provocative subtitle, this ain’t no mystery-gets-revealed Scooby-Doo–style. It’s a “there are ghosts of many kinds in life” kind—exes, dead parents, even feelings. Can horror look domestic? Yes. And ghosts can be in birdsong or hidden inside a child’s clothes folded by a jealous ex-wife. Frances is an art historian who has moved the 545 miles from Melbourne to Sydney to be with her new, much older partner, Charlie, who “had knocked on her window at five one morning. Having left his wife and son, he had left everything.” The young son, Luke, visits the couple regularly and stands as the living embodiment of the degree to which Frances’s life has changed. This is a spiritual as well as physical move, her life inherently different. One grounding influence is Rod, Frances’s 66-pound dog. On walks around their home on the paths near the river of Hurlstone Park, Frances spots a mysterious woman. Time after time the woman appears, silent and seemingly from nowhere. Frances speculates about where she lives, her age, the silence and motionlessness that encompass her. She investigates only to discover a mundane truth; her life seems to become, somehow…less special. By the end of the novella, it is ten years later and Frances’s circumstances have again changed drastically, though she is still absolutely haunted by strong memories, and unarticulated fears. MdK (The Lost Dog, etc.) keenly conveys Frances’s observations in writing that is admirably dreamy and mellifluous: “A heavy-headed datura flaunted pale orange trumpets that darkened at the rim.” VERDICT The pure craftsmanship of this gently drawn work will engage readers thoroughly.
Fortunato, John. Dark Reservations. Minotaur. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781250074195. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466885837. M
Superenjoyable police procedural that pays homage to Tony Hillerman (it also won the Tony Hillerman prize). Everyone assumed that New Mexico Congressman Arlen Edgerton ran away from an ethics investigation to parts unknown with his mistress 20 years ago. But what’s this? It’s his car loaded with bullet holes, found in a remote washout. So they call Special Agent Joe Evers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who works out of the Albuquerque office. Past his prime and deep into the bottle, Evers is three months from retirement and will forever mourn the loss of his wife two years ago. Evers is assigned this coldest of cold cases mostly because it’s hopeless. Loosely partnered with Randall Bluehorse from the Navajo Tribal Nation police force, Joe gets back his investigatory mojo and grows a healthy list of suspects. Arthur Othmann is a wealthy collector of artifacts, William Tom is a past president of the Navajo Nation, Kendall Holmes is a U.S. senator, and even Edgerton’s own widow all had reasons for the congressman to die—or prevent the investigation from succeeding. Will the shit hit the fan? Despite a disappearing character, some personalities drawn from central casting, and the problem of writing about a culture without being a member of the culture, there’s enough intrigue, dark motives, corruption, and shady cops to keep it moving along great. VERDICT This title isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to believe this is Fortunato’s first novel.
Milner, Greg. Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds. Norton. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780393089127. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393244991. TECH
Quick—guess how many GPS satellites there are up there in space? 100? 200? My wife just guessed 4,000. Well, the answer is 24. All owned and operated by the U.S. military’s 50th Space Wing 2nd Space Operations Squadron. Sixteen monitoring stations keep that shit together day in and day out at 20,000 kilometers up in space. GPS runs more stuff than you know—more than just driving to the Gap over in Willowdale. It does military security, measures the tectonic plates, and plays a huge role in air traffic control safety. It even has some sort of role in how we calculate time. This title provides readers with a primer on the history of navigation and what led to GPS, just enough about the implications of privacy and GPS, and only a little bit on the subtitular “how it is changing…our minds.” Military stuff is paramount and gets a lot of ink, but the appeal is really the clarity with which Milner explains all the science-y stuff that’s related to GPS, like plate tectonics, precision agriculture that uses the technology to boost crop yields, and LORAN, the WWII radio-based navigation system. Milner points out that the signals are “so dependable, so ordered and clean, that GPS has become our heartbeat. If it failed tomorrow, our society would experience enormous disruptions and scientific setbacks.” And it is a fascinating, vital topic: GPS “signals are traveling at the speed of light. A timing error of just a millionth of a second will translate into a distance error of 200 miles.” VERDICT The book gathers just about everything you’d want to know about GPS into one readable, organized place (a place quite unlike my daughter’s bedroom) with clear, logical, explicative writing.
Older, Malka. Infomocracy. Tor. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780765385154. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765385147. F
“Sixteen days until the vote and one of the corporates is threatening war. There’s a lot of work to do,” thinks Ken, a political operative in the near future. There the world is peaceful because of a successful new “micro-democracy” structure that organizes society into centenals—collections of 100,000 people—not countries. Every ten years there’s a vote; centenals choose which of any of the available governmental structures they want to follow (right now there are 33), and the party that wins the most centenals wins the Supermajority. As with any election, the stakes are high and there are profits to be made. Undercover political operatives thrash around assassinating counterparts and destroying party credibility in an attempt to win the Supermajority. If Older’s predictions about the future are true, we’ll all be working on projected files and have handheld scans and an “Information” scrawl projected onto our vision (like in M.T. Anderson’s Feed). It’s the eponymously named Information, though, that regulates the elections and controls the Internet/phone/broadcast media. Impartial, or just a creepy monopoly? Amid a lot of noise and hot air, Ken learns about a plot by one of the governments to violently sabotage the election cycle and approaches Information expert Mishima (mostly because she’s drop-dead gorgeous and he has fallen for her like a sack off the back of the Tater Truck). Murky at first, the story lines straighten out, and Older, a 2015 Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, proves excellent at provoking readers to move on. VERDICT Political sf with rollicking action just plausible enough to freak you out.
Paris, B.A. Behind Closed Doors. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781250121004. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250121011. F
This spineless story about a sadistic relationship in England doesn’t kick in for a full hundred pages. The slogging run-up is akin to the 2016 presidential race: setting up a fairy tale with hints of the darkness to come. Grace is a simple and innocent Cinderella/Snow White type with a syrupy-sweet life centered on her job and her sister Millie, who has Down syndrome. Jack is a millionaire lawyer hiding raging sadism behind a cultured exterior. Jack dupes Grace into marriage, then takes her hostage inside his huge countryside mansion, all the while controlling every detail so as to appear perfect. Grace is consumed with not pissing him off lest he limit access to Millie. The setup is ridiculous. Grace can’t walk out because Jack took her money, can’t call for help because he took her phone, can’t run away while he’s at work because he locks her in, etc. Jack isn’t even interested in Grace sexually; he just dresses her in fancy clothes and uses her to cook dazzling meals for guests. Jack’s hazy interest in Millie goes unexplained amid him stating crap like “I have nothing against you personally, Grace…you are the means to the end I have always dreamed of having.” And awkward Grace is built for powerlessness: “even though I wanted him dead, I wasn’t sure that when it actually came down to it I would be capable of going down to the kitchen, fetching a knife from the drawer, and sticking it into his heart.” Unsurprisingly, she takes 300 pages to kill him. VERDICT Dumbed-down, insultingly antifeminist torture porn—this Fifty Shades for “psychological thrillers” is neither psychological nor thrilling. If you would actually like to be scared, try Andrew Vachss.
Parker, Robert B. Sixkill: A Spenser Novel. Putnam. 2011. 304p. ISBN 9780399157264. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780425246900. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101514665. F
The late Parker’s virtues as writer of the gumshoe series about Spenser have been extolled by many others and by far better than I. But still—this is the shit. The last Spenser novel Parker penned, this has the wisecracking gumshoe from Boston up to his usual high jinks. In a way, it’s the perfect Spenser novel, because the stakes aren’t unrealistically high (like Potshot, a sort of Magnificent Seven) and relationships don’t get too terribly psychologically tense (like in A Catskill Eagle). It’s Goldilocks just-right. This installment finds Spenser trying to determine the truth about the death of a woman at the hands of a clown from Hollywood in the city to shoot a movie. Spenser, who put the “wise” in “wiseass,” sees an unhealthy situation here, one that repeats itself to the detriment of innocents. As in many cases, Spenser goes from PI-for-hire to pro bono do-gooder, determined to bust this nasty little system apart so that it can’t happen again. It’s this altruistic streak that sets Spenser apart from everybody and everything else, a facet of him that comes to the fore when he takes on a young bodyguard fired by the clown, a Native American Cree named Zebulon Sixkill. Spenser helps Z evolve from a mere meathead muscleman to something like a Galahad-esque protégée. By molding Sixkill after himself, Spenser takes the character from an adrift kid on a bridge to nowhere to a man on a mission. The two of them bust up the shit ring—good. Better—they create the space for Sixkill to evolve and live his life like a man—a Spenserman! VERDICT If you want a funny, snappy detective tale, try this—get it for a penny anyplace online!