The raison d’être for Books for Dudes (BFD) is: quality. A book should mean something, do something, address a need of some kind. Books, like any other art, are best when both utile and beautiful. How and why certain crap books get published remains a mystery, and someone needs to speak up when they suck. That’s BFD—the speaker upper from the quality-control department.
And while it’s easy to believe “every book its reader,” don’t you find that discriminating readers enjoy the purest stuff? In the same way that a “from-scratch” cabinet built by a woodworker is “better” than the vanity hauled away from a big-box store, so Dörte Hansen’s This House Is Mine is better than, uh, well, see one particular title below.
Here’s to making books a force for good, for learning, for meaning, and for firing the imagination.
Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. Farrar. 2015. 144p. illus. by Yuko Shimizu. ISBN 9780374290252. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374712600. F
Did you, like me, miss this collection of ten updated fairy tales that came out about a year ago? You’ll most probably really enjoy them because Pulitzer Prize winner Cunningham (The Hours; By Nightfall) is a hoot-n-a-howl with these modern (postmodern? Damned if I know) versions of traditional tales such as Rapunzel, Beauty & the Beast, and Hansel & Gretel. Here, it’s the stories behind the stories that are the focus. It has a Jack and the Beanstalk where it’s made clear that Jack—the boy who trades for magic beans?—“isn’t a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to take his mother for her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains.” There’s a tale from the POV of poor Rumpelstiltskin who has wanted a kid forever and who, like Grendel, is maybe misunderstood. When the one-winged swan prince tires of courtly life and strikes out into the world, “[h]e could get only the most menial of jobs. Every now and then a woman got interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could break the old spell and bring him his arm back.” Cunningham’s writing is sardonic, dark, and smiling throughout, and artist Shimizu contributes elegant black-and-white illustrations. VERDICT Artsy, smartsy, and pretty fun.
Daley, David. Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy. Liveright: Norton. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781631491627. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631491634. POL SCI
Hey, America—how do you feel the 2016 election season went? Yah. The term gerrymandering comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry circa 1812, during which time the boundaries for voting districts were redrawn. Now termed redistricting, this practice took on a whole ‘nother level in 2010. Daley (former editor in chief, Salon.com) provides wonky-centric reportage that, perhaps unintentionally, is quite dramatic. Republicans, funded by Citizens United and led by tacticians Chris Jankowski and Karl Rove, targeted state legislature seats in order to “flip as many chambers as possible, take control of the process, and redraw the lines,” thus ensuring Republican victories for the next decade. “Control redistricting, Rove understood, and you could control Congress. [P]ush just 20 districts from competitive to safely Republican and the GOP could save $100 million or more over the next decade.” At the lower, state level, Republicans focused on 107 seats in 16 states to establish control over the line-drawing. Coined as “REDMAP” (redistricting majority project), the Reps spent about $30 million and “locked in control of half of Congress until at least 2020—or until Democrats can theoretically beat Republicans on the newly drawn maps.” They succeeded at winning 26 state legislatures and 29 state governorships, and now the districts resemble dreamscapes from a Tim Burton film. VERDICT Daley has written a complex, readable Wag the Dog sort of thing. There’s no need to skewer either party (because both use any spooky method, including redistricting, to gain a superior edge), though the obvious opportunism and concomitant carelessness are clear and thus subject to generalized criticism. In short, it leans left.
Gillespie, Spike. Pissed Off: On Women and Anger. Seal. 2006. 225p. ISBN 9781580051620. pap. $14.95. SELF-HELP
I initially picked this up for the cover, which shows a woman flipping a vicious bird. I thought my wife would find it funny because she, like most wives, can get a little pissed off about things (read: husbands) from time to time. Upon reading it, though, the book turned out to be pretty remarkable. Gillespie (All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy) writes from her heart in a folksy style connecting with readers on a personal level. Her stories of anger, wrath, resentment, and near-crazy rage mixed with entries from guest contributors can be long, but the real emphasis is on the genesis of the emotions, what to do with them and—importantly—how to move past their damaging aspects. Few self-help books are as impactful as Gillespie’s first two pages, which describe some emotional roots—she’s a little kid and spills a bucket of ocean water on a blanket while at the beach. And though it’s easy to make light (see no further than Louis CK’s “Why” routine), parents routinely lose it over any of a bajillion tiny things, possibly hurting their kids in the process. After the yelling stops, Gillespie was left with the sense “that this man is a terrifying brute who can rule me by force, and that I have no choice but to obey.” Flash forward to other vulnerable moments: teenaged Gillespie is stranded with a dead car, or needs to abort a stressful family visit, or has a hilariously misguided feud with author Dave Eggers: she returns to patterns learned on that beach. Her anger leads her to respond “to any crisis, large or small, with anxiety, hysteria, and drama. Calm isn’t part of my repertoire. Problem solving eludes me.” Its antidote, forgiveness, is far from playing nice—it’s about looking out for No. 1 so you can move past that shit. Powerful stuff. Gillespie is a good teacher whose warts-and-all anger confessionals reveal an author unafraid to expose the worst in herself as exemplar. VERDICT Invaluable.
Hiaasen, Carl. Star Island. Knopf. 2010. 352p. ISBN 9780307272584. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307594389. F
One thinks of the Hiaasen Formula as a loony hero undertaking a kooky kind of quest against jerk-off villains aided by some charming, kind-hearted allies. Not so in Star Island, where all of the characters are seriously repellent. Chief among them is Claude “Bang” Abbott, a photojournalist-turned-paparazzi who rigged a Pulitzer-winning photo before he turned his obsessive attentions to the vapid starlet Cherry Pye. Cherry’s parents, manager, publicists, bodyguards, and various and sundry other retinue are all heartlessly taken apart by Hiaasen; their real-life, interchangeable counterparts gracing the covers of tabloids every week in Our Fair Country. Some old friends appear in the form of The Governor (who was, in fact, once an enviro-conscious governor) and Chemo (a tall, murderous sociopath with botched plastic surgery), but even the former, lovable in so many other Hiaasen adventures, comes off as damaged and one-dimensional. The sole hope for a happy ending is Cherry’s smart body double, Ann DeLusia, who, like her namesake in Southern Spain, is independent and beautiful…and distinctly second tier: she comes off the bench only when Cherry is too high or in rehab. It’s wicked, but no one is having good time. Even Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey had some redemptive chutzpah. VERDICT It’s difficult to write “not recommended” because Hiaasen has brought so much joy to the printed page. So instead try Scat, about two kids and a band of misfits as they save a swamp from some oil men who…never mind, it’s a kooky quest.
Sorel, Edward. Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. Liveright: Norton. 2016. 176p. illus. ISBN 9781631490231. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490248. FILM
While it’s unexpected how interesting Sorel’s portrait of Mary Astor turns out to be*, it’s not surprising how well the distinguished cartoonist renders the beautiful Oscar-winning actress and her life story. After all, the dude (Literary Lives, etc.) can draw out the essence of anything—even politics. In large part, the book’s appeal comes down to artistic craftsmanship. Sorel became entranced during a home repair project; when ripping up the kitchen linoleum he chanced upon some 1936 newspapers being used to level the floor. The headlines yammered about the comely actress whose tumultuous, wrenching child custody/divorce case had devolved into a public circus of speculation concerning her purported “diary” of graded sexual conquests. Sorel isn’t attempting a straight bio or evenhandedness; this is personal and all-around immensely enjoyable—part love letter, part stalk fest. The book considers Astor through a modern lens, not the one available to her in prefeminism and women’s lib 1936. Indeed, what amounted to scandal and sin back then seems laughable today. The drawings are evocative, emotional, like Astor’s first love John Barrymore who spent months romancing her and is depicted as a giant head representing, one would suppose, his intellect, talent, and, uh, nose. Astor’s domineering father as well as her first husband, Ken Hawks, are bullish and featureless, respectively. The biggest names of the day (e.g., Sam Goldwyn, Clark Gable) breezily scamper about the pages. VERDICT This is high-caliber stuff, appealing to anyone with an appreciation of artistic skill. Imaginative and keenly realized.
Tara, Sylvia. The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least-Understood Organ and What It Means for You. Norton. Dec. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780393244830. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393244847. HEALTH & FITNESS
Secret? My own fat is pretty public. This book is freaking transformative as it makes the case for a changed view of fat. First-time author and biochemistry PhD Tara clearly illustrates something that a lot of people don’t yet know—fat is an organ of your body, exactly like the liver, the lungs, and (O be still my heart) the pancreas. It has functions and does important stuff such as acting as a “reserve of energy,” managing energy stores, enabling transmission of brain signals, and facilitating labor. Fat operates differently for every blessed person—and thankfully so. In short: 1) fat is not merely blubber, and 2) without it, you’d die. While this isn’t as readable as Mary Roach (e.g., Bonk, Stiff), it’s a helluva lot less clinical than a textbook, walking that fine line between readable and scientific—mostly by relying on anecdotes and reportage of stories of those with problems, e.g., the girl who couldn’t metabolize fat and nearly starved to death, or the Turkish dude with mutated leptin genes who received injections and was able to begin puberty at age 22. There’s also discussion of a virus (Ad-36) that correlates to humans accumulating more fat. This is not a get-me-thin book; indeed it helps to debunk that cultural stereotype and inject science into the frustration and despair that many people feel about weight, appetite, appearance, and health. VERDICT A challenging, fascinating, sometimes disturbing primer on fat that succeeds on the scientific and the cultural front. Bravo.
Unger, Lisa. Ink and Bone. Touchstone. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781501101649. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501101663. F
Finley Montgomery is a young, tattooed college girl who left behind some bad shit in Seattle and lives with her grandmother in upstate New York in the Hollows, a pastiche of an old-timey haunted town where “weird things happen.” Though she’s actively working on taking charge of her life, she’s frequently tense, mostly because she sees ghosts. Or spirits. Or something. And not just when she wants to, this is full-time, like the kid from The Sixth Sense. Honestly, it’s hard to care because what could have been drawn in ten pages takes Unger scores. As readers slowly get to know Finley, they’ll realize that she could have been a good character—if the pace of her book weren’t so glacially slow. There are multiple moments at which Unger might have jump-started this, but new, boring add-ons are introduced instead. These only manage to reduce the pace even further (e.g., grandma is also psychic, the New Old Flame who has followed her across country). By the time Finley reluctantly gets involved in the hunt for a young girl abducted ten months ago (the subplot involving this victim and her suffering family is especially mawkish), this is DOA. VERDICT If you’ve never read a supernatural thriller before, you might do worse than this, though it’s hard to imagine how.