Dudes have only a precious few moments per day they can devote to reading when lawn care, indoor plumbing, and the latest episodes of Maya & Marty pop up. Time crunched? Need a laugh? Curious about almost everything? Gender aside, if you answered “yes” to any or all of those questions you’re a reader who will enjoy Books for Dudes, dude.
This summertime column features the stirring Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label. Two other standouts are Linda Masterson’s nonfiction Living with Bears Handbook and Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus. And way back when the world was young in 1988, teeny unsung Jewish comedy hero Jackie Mason released Jackie, Oy! Jackie Mason from Birth to Rebirth.
So when you’re not damning 1010! Puzzle, that simplest of all reverse Tetris puzzle games, try one of the titles recommended here.
Chambers, Gregory S. The Legend of Mad Gringo. CreateSpace. 2015. 216p. ISBN 9781515240419. pap.$15.95. F
Between the apparent aimlessness of the story line and the author’s choppy writing style, this is a pedestrian chore to read. White collar exec Peter Martin (you can’t trust a guy with two first names; oddly, you can trust one with three) is down on his luck yet inexplicably upbeat—a casualty of the 2008 recession, perhaps? With three kids in private school and a vaguely defined but demanding wife, he needs money. Instead of doing what most of us would do (sell a kidney), he borrows money from his cash life insurance policy and takes an uninspiring corporate gig. Eventually he tires of “life on the inside” and invests in a boutique clothing scheme. In order to make his dreamy little dream a reality, he needs to bash through The System and get around The Syndicate. As in a lot of “business” fiction, everything works out for the best with elbow grease and luck. Does that sound like a pitch or an instruction manual for business people? Consider the author, Chambers, who in real life is a sales and marketing consultant. He “led the expansion of the cult apparel company, Mad Gringo.” You don’t want the reality behind this roman à clef, though, as the scenes are disconnected and not threaded, kind of like (and this is not a comparison) those in Keith Richards’s Life: alternately charming, wobbly, fascinating, unreliable. VERDICT Pro: free on Kindle Unlimited. Con: you get what you pay for. If the most exciting part of a book is the bookmark you’re using, then there’s a problem.
Fleming, Ian. The Spy Who Loved Me. Thomas & Mercer. 2012. ISBN 9781612185538. pap. $14.95. F
Ever since reading Andrew Lycett’s biography Ian Fleming, I “rediscovered” the celebrated author of the James Bond novels (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). this volume, first published in 1962, is a great example of what not to do with a franchise. It should come with a couple of warning labels: 1. this is not a James Bond thriller; and 2. sexism and misogyny, rampant sexual harassment, and coercion were acceptable 50 years ago. Fleming’s plot is structured around female protagonist (Bond doesn’t even appear until more than halfway through the story) Viv Michel, an attractive Canadian who spends a lot of time mulling over her past failed love affairs. While taking a break from a motorcycle jaunt across America, she’s working at the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks (upstate New York). Left in charge of the motel for the last night of the season, Viv is beset by two goons who tell her they have been sent to “keep an eye on the place” by the owner. They are just about to rape Viv when in waltzes James Bond, who fixes it all. The two then spend the night together, begetting the “spy who loved me” title. While the whole book is filled with sex scenes, they’re not nice ones. “All women love semi rape,” writes Fleming, as Viv. “They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” Fleming’s embarrassing attempts to portray a woman’s fears and feelings betray his sentimentality and stupidity. James Bond as written has little resemblance to the iconic character. He drinks a lot, takes Benzedrine, hardly kills anyone, doesn’t use many gadgets, and drives like he’s from Massachusetts (e.g., like a dick). VERDICT Even the mighty have terrible misfires—this is one. May it be stricken from the series.
Greenwood, Bryn. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Thomas Dunne. Aug. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781466885806. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250074133. F
This beautiful, affecting book about a lot of different people and things circa 1975 to 1990 when haircuts were bad but America was still great. At the center are Wavona “Wavy” Quinn, a girl age five at the novel’s beginning and around 20 by the end, and hulking Native American thug-with-a-big-heart Jesse Joe Kellen, about 18 years her senior. The action takes place mostly in and around Wavy’s father’s meth factory in the Midwest. Damaged almost beyond repair by an utterly failed environment and batshit mother Wavy doesn’t speak, trusts no one, and tries to care for her baby brother. Kellen literally falls into her life off his speeding panhead Harley. Smitten by a deep, immediate intimacy, the two become a couple by slow degrees over the course of the 15-year story. Kellen immediately becomes “protector” for Wavy. He brings her to school, buys her clothes and food, keeps her safe. Why does she trust him? It’s his smell: “He smelled good,” she thinks. “Sweat and motorcycle and wintergreen. No stinking weed smoke. No perfume. No sadness. He smelled like love.” Pheromones aside, the writing is direct and muscular, a snake with all the slithery danger of a coiled rattler on a hot rock. Even minor players get meaty roles that each give readers different angles on the proceedings: a teacher who shows up at a party despondent about John Lennon’s assassination, a cousin who thinks of Wavy as a mythical creature. VERDICT Greenwood (from Kansas, daughter of a “mostly reformed drug dealer”) astounds in creating a world where assorted murderers, felons, and thieves are sympathetic. Alternating narrators à la The Sound and the Fury create a dynamic where Lolita meets a dissonance of values/taboo romance like East of Eden, Damage, or The Little Mermaid.
Lehane, Con. Murder at the 42nd Street Library. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781250009968. $25.99; ebk. 9781250036872. M
Here’s hoping a sequel never comes for this weak entry in the “amateur murder mystery at the library” genre, billed as “Raymond Ambler #1.” A biographer is shot to death entering the New York Public Library’s main branch (the Schwarzman Building); the characters determine that it concerns access to a recently acquired collection of important papers and wind up setting off another murder. Some creep is afraid of being blamed; a meddling librarian obstructs justice with his “help.” A noir NYC murder mystery set in the world’s most famous library involving brainy rare books should be special: hallowed halls, dark corners, hidden nooks and crannies. But this? Stop-and-go action and decidedly awkward writing are deeply disappointing. Particularly grating are characters set up as screenplay icons/Cliff’s Notes descriptions: Harry Larkin is introduced as “medieval historian, former Jesuit, and absent-minded scholar.” Raymond Ambler, curator of the crime fiction collection, has a “proclivity to take on quixotic battles for truth and justice that no one else cared about.” Ahem. If this volume were merely poor, it could be classed as a guilty pleasure. But this? It takes so much time and page-flipping to simply establish which of the three main characters is thinking/speaking/narrating, it’ll drive you nuts. VERDICT Solid concept, awful execution. If you get through the first 15 pages and still like it, you’ll enjoy the whole thing. The most generous thing that can be said is that this skips around breezily and keeps readers on their toes.
Mason, Jackie with Ken Gross. Jackie, Oy! Jackie Mason from Birth to Rebirth. Little, Brown. 1988. 290p. ISBN 9780316549332. from $0.01. BIOG
This autobiography of the stand-up comic best known (depending on your age and preferences) for his roles on The Simpsons, The Ant and the Aardvark, and/or his YouTube station TheUltimateJew begins with a career-defining day—October 18, 1964*. On The Ed Sullivan Show, he (allegedly) unknowingly fires the “one-finger salute” to the host. Sully is so mad that he vows to bar Mason from television for the rest of his life. It almost works! Born to a poor rabbi in (of all places) Sheboygan, WI, in 1931, Mason had a difficult time growing up in an Orthodox household. Of his father (Mason actually pursued studies to become a rabbi himself), Mason writes, “He was learned, but he wasn’t good at making a living” and describes the man as prone to rages; “[t]his was a violent, crazy, insane type of beating.” From this crucible was born the protean comedian who worked his way up to where he “was pulling down as much as $10,000 a week in nightclubs” in the early 1960s. Many comics today owe a little something to Mason’s understated, long-suffering delivery and his ability to come to a boil over tiny things such as parking tickets or presidential candidates. Mason presents himself in the book and in comedy as something of a perpetual underdog. Behind the eight ball is the place he seems most comfortable. Despite all the clawing and chutzpah, however, is a shlimazel, “one more hungry comic who never rose above the category of almost-star.” VERDICT There’s not much intimacy or panache in this title, which sounds at times like merely a transcribed tape recording. But interesting? Yes!
Masterson, Linda. Living with Bears Handbook. PixyJack. 2016. expanded 2d ed. 288p. ISBN 9781936555611. $24. SCI
Ecological props for this offering, which is about the best book on “living with bears” imaginable. Majestic, cute, scary, adorable, curious, bears are all these things and two more important things: smart and hungry. Bears are designed to eat—a lot. And because they are all smarter than the average bear, they also quickly learn how to get the most calories for the least amount of work (like a lot of mothers-in-law I have known). Humans stash good eats all over the place—trash cans, hen houses, beehives, etc. Indeed, Masterson’s “Bear Calorie Counter” effectively shows that natural foods like acorns, blueberries, and tent caterpillars tend to be on the lighter side, calorically speaking. Human foods, though, are a bonanza—jelly doughnuts are 400 calories a pop; a cherry pie (“cooling on windowsill”) is 2,500. And “[t]o get the 20,000 calories a day needed while fattening up before hibernation, a bear would need to eat…ONE 7-pound bird-feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds.” Which would you choose, Chumley? Attracted by our bird feeders and trashed jelly doughnuts, bears get “habituated”—too comfortable around humans—and unintentionally cause conflicts, which 99 times out of 100, they lose. That’s the basic ecology lesson, but the book also provides tips on keeping your home bear safe, information about what to do if you encounter one, the signs and sounds that can help you determine if there’s one around, suggestions on how to view them, case studies and success stories, and specifics on how you (yes—you!) can help bears. VERDICT Fact-driven and reasonable in tone, this awesome, common-sense selection is a required purchase for every public library within 50 miles of a bear.
Rowley, Steven. Lily and the Octopus. S. & S. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781501126222. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501126246. F
In this refreshing, thoroughly enjoyable bit of magical realism, writer Ted Flask seems quite alone in the world save for his 12-year-old dachshund, Lily, with whom he converses about everything and then some. Smart and witty Ted broke up with his long-term bf 18 months ago. He sees a therapist (“Jenny, which is not a name you should accept for a therapist. Ever.”) and avoids the topic of his dog, upon whose head Ted has just begun to see an octopus he describes as “aggressive.” It’s a tumor, and it’s going to “have her,” and in that sudden realization Ted comes face-to-face with an impending, devastating loss. In many ways this stands as a beautiful elegy for having a dog. “I can sit with her quietly, our bodies touching just enough to generate warmth, to share the vibrating energy of all living things, until our breathing slows and falls into the parallel rhythm it always does when we have our quietest sits.” Lily isn’t merely a sappy object for emotions, either. She has a distinct personality full of pluses (loves ice cream) and minuses (stubborn as a mule). The octopus develops a personality, too, and though Ted doesn’t like to, he can also speak to it as he does to Lily. Some seizures, a rented trawler, and much ice cream later, the novel concludes, but the characters and story will stay with readers. Dog people, cat people (aka librarians), and even crazy cat ladies (yes, I’m talking to you, Lisa) will enjoy the ultimately human-ness of all three characters. VERDICT An unexpectedly wrenching and emotionally mature story from screenwriter and first-time author Rowley.
Tussing, Justin. Vexation Lullaby. Catapult. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781936787388. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787395. F
This ought to be more likable, because it has rock and roll at its base and three dudes needing a resolving force driving it. One is Peter, a wishy-washy doctor invited along as personal physician to the second, aging rock star Jimmy Cross. So far, so good. The wild card is a groupie named Arthur, who has been deadheading behind Jimmy for 20 fucking years. One planet, two moons, all seeking (basically) the stability of love. Though Jimmy is cast like a Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen type (grizzled, mythic, deep), he seems pretty bored—and boring. He invites Peter along not only because he needs a doc but because he was “friendly” with his mother. Aside from the obvious daddy issues on both sides, there’s not a lot of spark to their relationship. It seems akin to being a team doctor taping up the same ol’ injuries every night. Arthur is in a wide, erratic orbit of his own. He left behind a wife and kid, so he can get no esteem from any self-respecting family-loving dude, but he crashes into a woman who may be the answer to his groundlessness. And straitlaced Pete is a classic fish-out-of-water-who-just-broke-up-with-someone-and-will-try-anything-right-now like Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly. What could have been a gonzo journalism–style descent into debauchery (there are some funny moments) or the chronicle of three lonely cowboys on the road who find fellowship and spirituality with one another turns simple; Arthur and Peter resolve their issues independently and in WAY too much overly specific detail. Jimmy remains a cipher, merely an elemental catalyst than anything actually interesting. VERDICT What’s your midlife crisis going to look like? If it’s this, could you call me? Because I think we could write it a little better.