A Mad Bomber, Ungentlemanly Warfare, and Prog Rock | Books for Dudes

Wow! Does Books for Dudes (BFD), that best-of readers’ advisory column, have The Goods this time around. The staff, volunteers, and partners here at BFD Enterprises found some great reads this month, including Samantha Hunt’s amazing The Dark Dark, and from the BFD international affairs desk, Giles Milton’s rollicking good Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat. We also champion Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road because, well, interesting.

Also featured is Theresa Schwegel’s The Lies We Tell (Minotaur: St. Martin’s), coming in July. Though he didn’t know it at the time, musician Adrian Belew wrote about Schwegal’s lead character Gina Simonetti in his song “Stop It,” with the lyrics, “Like a breakfast at the Egg House, a waffle on the griddle/ I’m burnt around the edges but I’m tender in the middle.”

And if you like our choice of Michael Cannell’s Incendiary, you might also try The Pierre Hotel Affair, by Daniel Simone with Nick Sacco, a deliciously bleary caper about the 1972 heist (and what followed) of the safety deposit boxes inside that New York City palace of pomp. It’s a plus that The Pierre Hotel is related in the deliciously low-rent accent of a wise guy looking back with fondness about his criminal past.

I know you think of opinions like mix tapes, right? And you may not want to hear mine, but believe me, this is good stuff. Thousands of satisfied customers can’t be wrong.

Bouman, Tom. Fateful Mornings: A Henry Farrell Novel. Norton. Jun. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780393249644. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393249651. Mys
Like Bouman’s first book, Dry Bones in the Valley, this novel focuses on Henry Farrell, a cop in rural Pennsylvania, where “[w]hatever coal was worth taking was gone, leaving odd right angles in the land and pools of strange color and unknown depth.” What’s the matter? A missing woman, small-time corporate greed, and the DA’s in a hurry. And since Henry has “[n]o truck, no body, no weapon” and not much else to do, he spends all his time on this case. The first slow, swampy hundred or so pages do zip for the plot, instead developing Henry: cop, reader, fiddler, hunter, widower. He’s not some bullshit Renaissance Man/Genius Bruiser, but rather a normal dude who smokes the occasional bowl. He’s a little taken with the missing Penny, “was reminded that her beauty was rare and startling for the area…like finding a morel or an arrowhead.”¹ All signs in Penny’s disappearance point to baby daddy Kevin (both parents lost custody because of drugs). Though they are described as “sweet, helpless, a little bit deluded” about parenting, Henry smells something that’s off. In no particular order, Henry finds out: Penny was kept prisoner in her home, was somehow involved in a prostitution ring (which Henry inadvertently busts up), and was also cheating on Kevin (my bet is on the lawyer/landlord). And that shit’s just for starters. What’s with the dude they pulled out of the river? VERDICT Most of the writing is LOL funny (e.g., “[o]f all tradesmen, roofers are the most villainous degenerates in America”) and a lot of it plain ‘ol truth, as in, “it wasn’t good luck that kept that truck on the road…but the absence of bad.” Who hasn’t owned that truck?

Cannell, Michael. Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Apr. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781250048943. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250048936. CRIME
Cannell makes no bones about the big reveal of the man behind the spate of New York City firebombings in the 1940s and 1950s: it was George Metesky, who had a beef against the Con Edison company. Instead of taking the usual approach of a time-lined procedural running up to a capture, Cannell instead provides a frenetically paced book that jumps around in time to tell this fascinating, multifaceted case. New York’s finest, though they tried mightily and lost men to bombs, couldn’t get anywhere with this case. The public was scared and angry, their wrath directed at cops who couldn’t catch the guy. “The bomber was a phantom, a bogeyman, who gathered the suppressed anxieties of the mushroom-cloud era.” Frustrated and empty-handed, the police turned to the unheard-of practice of hiring a psychiatrist to provide what would eventually be termed a “profile.” “If Captain Finney was circumspect and grave, Dr. Brussel was the opposite: loud of opinion, quick-witted, and maniacally opinionated.” In the end, Brussel’s work helped track down the perfectly anonymous bomber, and much attention is paid to this unique psychiatrist who worked for the NY State Department of Mental Hygiene and supervised treatment of “more than six thousand anguished souls.” For kicks he did profiles of notables such as Charles Dickens and Mary Todd Lincoln. This narrative history can leave readers lost in time by omitting dates, and may be “too poetic” for some (e.g., “[c]linking ice buckets and the hugs of pajama-soft children awaited them in ranch homes set back among the russet leaves of October.” VERDICT Great, energetic, detailed.

Hunt, Samantha. The Dark Dark: Stories. Farrar. Jul. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780374282134. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780374716523. F
I really like these short stories by Hunt. In them, readers are plunked into the middle of a bunch of possible situations and are challenged to find the threads of the stories. It is fully and completely worth the effort, as anyone with a brain connected to a heart will be duly impressed with the strong, resonant images. One is of a woman who has eaten some chicken then arranges the bones in the shape of an arrow pointing at her belly. Another is a principal who “looks like gray meat” when he meets with the 13 pregnant girls in his high school. A couple become deer when asleep. Most of the stories contain supernal moments, though the keen descriptions of the mundane details disguise how sad, silly, spunky, fierce, etc., they can be. Hunt doesn’t take any cheap shots (obvious ones, low-hanging fruit), instead miraculously characterizing things both small and large. A raw onion and cheddar sandwich was “…too strong. It was an angry sandwich.” Roy “turns” into something, evolves, in “The Yellow”: “after three days of ripening in silence…[h]e’d fermented into something wonderful and open, something porous and bright yellow.” Later this same man finds Susanne who “sounded like a tiny door creaking open.” Startling, powerful and viscerally “true” (even though clearly fictive) scenes permeate. VERDICT It’s difficult to say with certainty what, if anything, these stories mean, but their component sentences are marvelous: “Susanne sat on the couch, surrounded by her family, while out in the night, partner to the extraordinary, Roy held a shovel made for digging deeper in the dirt.” What a sentence!

Milton, Giles. Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat. Picador. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250119025. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781250119049. HIST
Hey, it’s easy to hate on World War II books for taking up so much freaking library shelf space—all those 940s!—but Milton’s absolutely riveting narrative history is so good it’ll stick to your hands. The subject is fascinating: lots of secret military stuff came to existence via one office, officially named the Special Operations Executive but also known as “Baker Street,” where it was HQ’d. One example—the limpet mine. Homemade by one Baker Street weirdo, it was developed because the British navy found itself hopelessly out-vesseled, and it was cheaper to sink Germany’s ships than to build a thousand British liners. Same with other ordnance like the spigot mortar. But not just weapons—this was a fresh, guerilla-mode of thinking that top brass at first despised until massive successes with a minimum of Allied troop deaths won them over. The raid at St. Nazaire was one mission dreamed up by Baker Street. Though it was quite costly in terms of lives, it destroyed an important Axis dry dock and denied the German ship Tirpitz any action. Whereas contemporary sabotage is de rigueur, Baker Street struggled against traditionalists mightily until it was vindicated as it employed gangster-ish, criminal trickery. Nothing would have happened unless the early champion—British prime minister Winston Churchill himself—got involved as early as he did. He specifically instructed officers to establish a Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare and kept its funding secret, and “[a]ny German target, however soft, was to be considered fair game, and no weapon was to be considered off-limits.” VERDICT An immensely readable take on the birth of special ops that’s somehow more fun than Damien Lewis’s 2015 title The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops. Full of brave men, near-pirates, bureaucrats, superspies, mad scientists, commandos, secretaries, and Churchill.

Murphy, Finn. The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road. Norton. Jun. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780393608717. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393608724. MEMOIR
Murphy proves two things: 1) Everyone does indeed have a book inside them; 2) Good storytelling can trump unlikely content—like this, which simply consists of episodes in the life of a long haul furniture mover (aka a bedbugger). Road trips, tight turns, close scrapes, and the titular long hauls. Murphy is from Cos Cob, CT, one of the wealthiest communities on the planet, so tawny that the Greenwichers look away in deference. Murphy nails this slice of life. “Working people are suspicious of my diction and demeanor, and white-collar people wonder what a guy like me, who looks and sounds like them, is doing driving a truck and moving furniture.” The answer is that he likes being his own boss, is confident enough to live as he pleases, and experienced enough not to give a crap about what other people think. The prose can be a little purple, and I’m sure that Murphy’s hindsight tends toward the generous, especially given all the seemingly verbatim conversations that go on for pages. Like his take on why truckers drive: at the end of the day, “[t]hey can look themselves in the eye and honestly say they’ve held to their own standards without caving in to pressure by society or somebody else’s expectations. They might fuck up, and they do, but they own their fuckups and keep to those standards regardless of the personal cost.” Don’t you wish you could get an attorney so honorable? VERDICT Literature it’s not. More akin to the writing of Joe Parkin (A Dog in a Hat, etc.) or singing Styx songs in the shower. Likable, winning, and charming.

Schwegel, Theresa. The Lies We Tell. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jul. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250001788. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250022448. F
A lot of lies? Yeah. To whom? Everybody. Gina Simonetti is a Chicago detective with a checkered past who takes no shit, frequently fighting bad guys—even within her own department—with little consideration for her own well-being. In her precious little off time, she seems content to be sole caregiver for her two-year-old niece and stave off the effects of her recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis. Can you “conquer” MS by being a tough nut? Can you work 24/7 and be a full-time mom? Her world crumbles when two things happen: she badly loses a street fight with a desperate, small-time gangster suspected of assaulting his own mother; and her brother comes back for the kid, Isabel. Schwegel effectively evinces a woman who has lost her raison d’être. After a drug-fueled binge worthy of any dentist on a Vegas junket, Simonetti doubles down. Three-hundred-plus pages leaves a lot of space for needless bullshit, and the needlessly “tough” bit (e.g., “I pull my boots on and I’m out the door”) like she’s Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen clash with our protagonist’s inability to handle things like “a set of stairs.” One uniform cop succinctly surmises, “I guess you have to be tough,” emphasis on “you.” VERDICT Readers will dig the infrequent action bits, but everything else is murky. Simonetti is an unusually convincing character, even if others are anonymous, central casting types (your agent called, btw. You have a callback for a “nerdy librarian” for an episode of the reboot of The Jeffersons).

Weigel, David. The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Norton. Jun. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780393242256. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393242263. MUSIC
Look, it’s been hip to hate progressive rock for so long that maybe Weigel’s book signals a turnaround. Musically, prog’s salad days were in the 1970s when attention spans were longer and AOR radio stations happily played along, but the form is still here today (The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, etc.). And while 99 percent of the old bands discussed here now retread old crap (e.g., Yes), there’s a one percent of them still kickin’ ass (King Crimson). It’s an ambitious form of music that requires commitment and seriousness on behalf of the audience as well as the musicians. The form didn’t generate hit singles, the focus was more on albums (Pink Floyd) and concepts (Genesis), and virtuosity (ELP). And no punk or garage band rocker gave a crap for that; even Greg Lake said to Keith Emerson, “By the time you’ve got through playing all that esoteric rubbish you won’t have a fuckin’ audience.” Weigel’s reporter-esque writing tells the story by weaving massive amounts of bits and pieces of old magazine articles, interviews, and liner notes. Though it gleefully skips around America and Britain with a broad focus, the book continually comes back to the few successful big artists such as Yes and King Crimson, providing deep perspective from many viewpoints that will garner an eager readership. It also contains juicy little details, such as that, according to one bitter, crazed-sounding musician, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp ripped off royalties. VERDICT If you have any size soft spot for progressive rock, you’ll enjoy this.

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Douglas Lord About Douglas Lord

Douglas Lord has been reviewing books and audio for Library Journal since the earth was a molten mass. He is an Ironman athlete blessed with a family that sometimes finds him funny and puts up with him constantly reading aloud from advanced review copies. Books for Dudes focuses on books for curious, fun, time-crunched men.

Comments

  1. Liz French says:

    I’m happy to read the BFD take on David Weigel’s prog rock book. I smell a backlash comin’ too!

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