Hey, have you seen me lately? I’m the dude in your life. You know me, though you hardly ever see me, because I’m a blur of action and a model of peerless masculinity who is devoted to his family. I just got finished cleaning the grout lines in the shower—they now gleam. Later I’m going mountain biking, but first I have to mow the lawn and pick up a new sump pump. Reading? Yes, I know how to read. But between planning the finances for the next family vacation and figuring out if I really should set that springing clause in my last will and testament, I don’t know if I want to crack a book that’s not a chess manual or the latest quarterly earnings statements. Unless it’s a good book. Do you know a good book? A really good one? Why, yes, yes I do. See below.
Darnielle, John. Universal Harvester. Farrar. Feb. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780374282103. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780374714024. F
This goes from ho-hum to total creep ride within 20 pages. Jeremy is a young underachiever working at the Video Hut in late 1990s rural Iowa—but don’t dismiss this title as yet another derivation of Finnegans Wake. Someone is returning tapes to the Hut with haunting footage spliced in. “The figure or figures under the tarp buck and thrash, sometimes with a rolling movement, sometimes in violent jerks…. A grasping hand shoots out from underneath, a flash of color; then the boot kicks the tarp three times, very deliberately.” The tapes’ backgrounds reveal they were made nearby, “and you’d know, if you’d grown up anywhere nearby, exactly which house it was.” And it’s the precision of location, of accurately knowing one’s bearings, that is the heart of the novel. Jeremy reflects that, to a certain extent, American culture is about tracing people, about being able to track a life across a landscape. Q: If no one knows where you are, are you even alive? A: No. The deeper Jeremy digs, the more he registers small changes in “the coordinates of his inner drift.” Darnielle’s melancholy Iowa is a character itself, with all the “vague squalor” and “open stillnesses” of dreary rural farmsteads and pastoral landscapes. Jeremy and his widower father eat takeaway tacos “at the dinner table, like a family.” Keen, expressive writing is full of truth, as when the warmth of a girlfriend’s hand “soaked into his, rain on cracked earth.” Darnielle ends the tale noting that “[i]n most lives, in most places, people go missing,” saying, in effect, if you don’t have your bearings—if no one can trace your location—you are truly gone. VERDICT A quiet, well-written horror novel that asks: Are you lost if you don’t want to be found—even if it didn’t start that way?
Fifield, Richard. The Flood Girls. Gallery: S. & S. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781476797380. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781476797403. F
A book with this cover, the word girls in the title, and the premise of a bunch of broads “making everything all right” shouldn’t be this frigging good; it’s annoying how good this is. Some books should be dismissible, thrown onto the heap of chick lit like skyscraping heaps of formulaic thrillers by James Patterson. But no! Instead virgin novelist Fifield gives readers a stereotype breaker—a charming, thoughtful, genuine story about (dammit) a bunch of broads, well “making everything all right.” Reading this, a dude could learn a thing or two about snappy comebacks, atonement, alcoholics, small-town life, and softball. And maturing, and forgiveness, and doing hard things, too. Prodigal daughter Rachel Flood returns home to Quinn, MT, an isolated place of less than a thousand souls. As a teenager she was known for fightin’, drinkin’, and sleeping with every volunteer fireman in town named Jim (all of them). Now in AA, she’s working on Step 9—”[make] direct amends to people she has harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” “Amends” means dealing with her mother, who owns the town bar, and her de facto spiritual guide Jake (age 12) and playing right field for the Flood Girls, the hapless local softball team. VERDICT Most readers will yearn for a Great Hollywood Ending but read it and weep: sometimes sad things just happen.
Gangi, Stephanie. The Next. St. Martin’s. Oct. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781250110565. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250110589. WOMEN’S FICTION
This is a bitchin’ book. Joanna, 47, is a bitter woman, still in shock over getting dumped by Ned, 15 years her junior. She is in her final days dying from cancer and spends most of her time obsessing over this man. Ned gave Joanna a “corkscrew to the heart” not once but twice and has since “traded up” to a young, semicelebrity doctor. Joanna’s anger is tempered by three other narrators—her two grown daughters and Ned. The girls struggle with one another while providing hospice care for their mom in significantly different styles. Laney, 22, who had “to leave every normal thing, pals and work and mindless fun…outside the dying-mother bubble she inhabited,” is anxious and vividly drawn, intense like Joanna but imbued with a voice all her own. Elder sister Anna is more profane, less responsible, and somehow more true to life. And Joanna is too busy mourning to be bothered with dying. The wrenching loss of control she feels is countered by a dynamic of movement on to “the next state” in contrast with her stubborn need to haunt Ned. At one point she finds herself “arguing with the next me.” Though spiritually static, Joanna is also fully transformed from one being to another. “I am a new element, now elemental, now ether; now risen, now doomed, and now ready to trespass against you as you trespassed against me.” Dark humor abounds, as when Joanna compares the “Nancy Meyers movie” afterlife (e.g., “a many-windowed house with white sofas and French doors”) with the actual one, which consists of “a vast waiting room with an infinite number of beige plastic chairs, joined one to the next.” VERDICT The various jaded viewpoints and fast pace make this ghost story–cum–revenge novel enthusiastically recommended.
Penn, Robert. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees. Norton. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780393253733. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393253740. SCI
You’ll never look at a block of wood the same way—which is good, because, honestly, wood is tired of you looking at it that way. Penn is a journalist, which won’t surprise you, since, like many other journalists before him, he has mastered that trick of making you keep on reading about weird things you never knew you were interested in. In this case, ash trees and what they can do. Though Penn didn’t realize it at the time, ash surrounded his youth. From the tree outside his bedroom window to his “prized Dunlop tennis racket, my hockey stick, my cricket stumps and balls, the rocking chair…and our toboggan,” ash was all over the place. As a man, Penn ponders the land he owns and what he might create from the ash there. He selects a tree and has it sawed into planks (“creamy white and clean”) for boards, tool handles, the rims of wooden wheels. Fourteen boards in all, each 19 feet long. The excitement Penn feels about the upcoming projects, like making a desk, and oars, is palpable. Penn is aware of the humility of this woodworking endeavor, knows full well his hobby won’t build skyscrapers or heal people. But he also acknowledges partaking in a centuries-old process of craftsmanship, of creation, of a certain kind of “manliness.” Sprinkled throughout are multitudes of extremely interesting facts about ash, such as that it “does not taint food and drink” as do other woods like your oaks, elms, and pines. Think there’s a book like this about the humble pine? Hell no there ain’t. VERDICT Remember Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World? Penn does for wood what Kurlansky did for fish.
Taylor, Erin. Hit Reset: Revolutionary Yoga for Athletes. VeloPress. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781937715427. pap. $21.95. SPORTS
Are you one of those dudes who runs, bikes, skis, plays a little ball, maybe a wee bit of golf? And do you hate to stretch and viscerally detest yoga? Especially the “woo-woo” breathy stuff and mystery chants uttered by the impossibly chirpy flexi-person at the front of the room? Then you need this book, big fella. It’s easy to comprehend and has a clear purpose, and holy goodness does it help out a tight old man like you. Your muscles are like a Bit-O-Honey—they’ll snap under stress, so be sure to keep them warmed up and limber. Consider something you probably don’t consider much: imbalances in your body, like a runner’s gait that has slowly mutated over time with one hip higher than the other to compensate for road grade. You don’t feel it, but pretty soon your hips are out of whack and your athleticism—maybe your overall movement—is limited. Same for other sport/life injuries: the knee you blew out in college, that rotator cuff thing, that meniscus surgery. Taylor’s strategies help bodies reset from these changes and adaptations by covering lower body balance, tight hamstrings (which affect every damn sport), shoulder looseners (physiological terminology is, thankfully, eschewed), even mental focus. Taylor didn’t write this for yoga-ers; she’s a coach helping athletes achieve goals. Also, this is great for visual learners because photographs and diagrams show 90 percent of the activities involved; easy to use, very little guesswork. VERDICT Think LeBron James doesn’t stretch his muscles? Course he does. This shit works. Your hamstrings, back, shoulders, neck, Achilles—name your body part—will thank you.
Vásquez, Juan Gabriel. Reputations. Riverhead. Sept. 2016. 208p. tr. from Spanish by Anne McLean. ISBN 9781594633478. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780698179042. LITERARY FICTION
This muscly book is so packed with words, it’s like a fiber-optic cable of literary goodness, reminiscent of Alfredo Bryce Echenique’s quiet, personal A World for Julius. Javier Mallarino is a renowned Colombian political cartoonist teetering on the precipice of public acclaim and self-congratulation. After a 40-year career he has achieved a sort of dream state of anonymity; though he is “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half…able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, threaten a mayor, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry,” he goes unrecognized on the street. One day while getting a shoeshine in his beloved Bogotá, he sees Samanta Leal, who, 28 years earlier, may have been assaulted by a lawmaker. Instead of waiting for a trial, Mallarino tried the lawmaker in the court of public opinion through his cartoons, which led to the man’s resignation and eventual suicide. Mallarino is unsettled by the onslaught of memories that cause him to doubt and reevaluate his life’s work. He wonders about his role, the power the media wields, his deliberate and public destruction of a man based only on an accusation. Our hero internally considers questions of fair play, justice, right and wrong, public excoriation. If this sounds familiar, pick up any newspaper from anywhere and read any story. Ever been the victim of baseless accusations? VERDICT You’ll squirm. If you don’t have your reputation, what do you have?
Weatherby, W.J. Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One. Pharos. 1992. 253p. ISBN 9780886876555. from $0.01. BIOG
This is a chatty, nearly gossipy portrait that takes into account Gleason’s tremendous appetites for wine, women, and song. In this well-written and readable work, Weatherby refrains from gauche condemnation and trite generalizations out of his personal devotion to and respect for Gleason’s talents as a comedic actor and the genuine benevolence Gleason showed toward mankind. What’s greatly interesting is how much Gleason favored spontaneous, off-the-cuff fun on the sound stage. At a time when television was quite a controlled medium, defaulting to the bottom line of producers’ budgets, it sounds like Gleason did a version of controlled improv à la Christopher Guest. Pretty ballsy. Much attention is paid to his early, televised performances, with a focus on The Honeymooners and his various film roles. There’s much personal interview material, as well as many quotes from notable performers such as Mickey Rooney and Milton Berle. For example, Salvador Dalí said of Gleason, “I couldn’t keep his nonstop pace…. He was…a gentleman capable of great kindness and generosity.” And Joe Franklin said Gleason was “the complete comedian and the ideal TV guest.” Overall this is quite glowy, and though it isn’t perfect, it is much better than James Bacon’s gushing How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story. And if you ever had a thing for Audrey Meadows (and who didn’t?), you might enjoy her memoir Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner. It doesn’t have much in the way of lascivious tell-all details, but it does chronicle a bit of the jazzy, improv-style method that Gleason favored, and stands as a portrait of a hardworking, sweet New York City actress in the 1950s. VERDICT For fans of Gleason, this is pretty awesome, but the rest of you can go back to following Kanye’s Twitter account.