Soccer, Sunshine, and Secret Agents | Books for Dudes

The recent Esquire article “Perilous Business,” by Richard Ford (Independence Day), sees the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist sympathetically presenting himself as a symbolic Author dealing with Criticism in the form of Book Reviews. Not surprisingly, he magnificently skewers the form by laying out what should happen (e.g., “sound fair, judicious”) as opposed to what actually occurs: “Floods” of books need someone—anyone—“sentient” (he writes) to review them. “But a large percentage of these books aren’t very good. The conjoined result is that much book reviewing isn’t any better than the not-so-good books that get reviewed.” Say what? I bristled like Travis Bickle (e.g., “You talkin’ to me?”) but soon realized—fair play. I’m barely sentient on my best day. The upshot of a reviewer (me) evaluating novelist (and reviewer himself) Ford’s cogent case for a proper template for the job is that I have a renewed sense of purpose.

Cook, Sally & Ross MacDonald. How To Speak Soccer: From Assist to Woodwork; An Illustrated Guide to Pitch-Perfect Jargon. Flatiron: Macmillan. Apr. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9781250072016. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250072023. SPORTS
There are books that are good for people, and books that are good for libraries, and the twain hardly ever meet— except when they do. This is one of those. No one—no one at all—should spend $16.99 on this. Why? After one page of introduction, the remainder is literally definitions of terms from, as the cover states, assist to woodwork. Most readers will know about 40 percent of these words (e.g., one-v-one, hat trick, striker). I admit that when my daughter got really good at soccer I was stumped by the random-sounding crap that came out of the other dads’ mouths (e.g., “onion-bag”? It’s the goal netting). One read through this volume takes about an hour, and then you’re done and can put the book away forever. But wait, here’s the kicker (har de har har): libraries should have this book. The library will get a deal (thanks, Baker & Taylor!) and then lots of readers will have the chance to flip through and discover the meaning of rabona, brace, and frog. The authors also wrote similar “How-To Speak” books for football (9781250071996) and golf (9781250071972). VERDICT For every public library.

Dave, Laura. Hello, Sunshine. S. & S. Jul. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781476789323. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781476789347. F
I had high hopes for this book as it started out interestingly with a woman discussing a great song by Earth’s greatest rock band: “Moonlight Mile” by the Stones. She was specifically counting guitarist Mick Taylor’s contributions, which is something near and dear to the hearts of all musos because he never got proper credit. I thought that maybe a book with a lemon-colored cover and a title in flippy, happy-crappy cursive script would turn out good for once, as it’s quite odd for someone to consider such an arcane topic so deeply. But no, it’s soon clear that the narrator hasn’t considered any other fucking thing at all, maybe ever. Despite all Dave’s efforts to make her likable, Sunshine MacKenzie is an ass. Yes, this farmer’s daughter who made it big in the Big Apple by YouTubing her way to stardom and who created a best-selling cookbook with simple, homespun recipes is a sham. Her whole career is a construct devised by a Rasputin-like manager who discovered her tending bar in Red Hook a few years back. She spends the first part of the novel bitching and moaning about her lost life only to poke readers in the face by stating that it wasn’t hers to begin with. Her recipes are plagiarized and she’s been cheating on her lovely husband. The rest is her being forced out of her magnificent home and her disgrace when the truth outs, then retooling, rethinking, rebuilding, learning things for the first time at 35 because she’s such an…ass. VERDICT No.

Gooley, Tristan. How To Read Nature: An Expert’s Guide to Discovering the Outdoors You’ve Never Noticed. Experiment. Oct. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781615194292. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781615194308. NATURE
This is a superior book with a simple, modest goal: fix the world. Well, it could if everybody read it seriously and absorbed its wisdom. Gooley’s advice is unpretentious: use your senses to sense stuff outside. You see trees? Good—what kinds? Which way are they blowing? What can the height of a tree tell you about its health, the water supply, the types of animals and vegetables that live in and near it? This isn’t secret knowledge, it’s right there in the open. Gooley doesn’t want readers to be David Attenborough or Henry Hudson; he just thinks that if you start understanding nature a bit more you’ll be a happier person. Why? A deep connection to nature “allows us to view things in the most practical and philosophical way simultaneously.” A plant is both a source of food and “…a key to appreciating a moment.” The writing is encouraging and authoritative, and Gooley consistently considers nature as “the longest-running, highest-budget, most compelling drama that has ever been staged. There are recurrent themes…but no commercial breaks, no repeats and no cheap seats.” He notes that “it is impossible to return to the same spot twice,” so wake up, slow down, pay attention. There are 15 get-the-heck-outside exercises intended to spur readers down the path of observation. VERDICT While it can feel a bit didactic/schoolmarmy and is often very British, this is a wondrous, veritable how-to guide for “waking up” and discovering Annie Dillard’s “the tree with lights in it” à la Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Harding, Pepper. The Heart of Henry Quantum. Gallery: S. & S. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781501126802. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501126826. F
In 1990, the surprisingly cranky Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine proved you could publish a novel with no action whatsoever. The sole character, Howie, breaks a shoelace and goes up an escalator to get a new one; all 135 pages of Mezza consists of Howie’s meandering thoughts as he does so. It annoyed some (no car crashes? No deadly viruses?), others loved it, and I think Baker’s goal was to force readers to ask: What does a totally average, completely nonadventurous day mean in life’s big picture? Can you find meaning by musing about garbage cans, plastic straws, the faces of coworkers? There is no leeway for such reflection in the story of Henry Quantum. It, too, lacks action, takes place on one day, and sacrifices plot for stream-of-consciousness-esque drivel. But while Baker at least provided the reader a mirror into which one’s own routines and workaday minutiae could be considered, Harding locks an actual (mediocre) narrative into place and sticks with it. To wit: a spoiled, asswipe San Franciscan forgets to get his wife a Christmas present. While wandering around all hell and gone thinking about anything and everything, he bumps into an ex-paramour while his vapid spouse runs late on her way to meet her own lover. If it reveals anything, it’s that these people are yard knobs. HQ is twice the length of Baker’s book and not even half as interesting—and Baker’s book wasn’t all that interesting to begin with. The result is outrageously unreadable. VERDICT For all-in-one-day tales, the Baker is the better. For long-ass sentences about a whole lot of nothing, Proust is yer man. But if you’re a reader with some chutzpah, some moxie, try James Joyce’s Ulysses—best combo of weird, tedious, and compelling ever.

Hesse, Monica. American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land. Liveright: Norton. Jul. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781631490514. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490521. SOC sci
On Virginia’s eastern seaboard lies the rural Accomack County, once prosperous farmland, now home to huge poultry processing operations. There’s a lot of poverty, low educational attainment rates, brain drain, and general shittiness. Still, it’s a nice community where “[d]oors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended, and when two cars passed on the road, both drivers would raise the tips of their fingers off the steering wheels in a wave.” Until late 2012, when arson was performed by a couple of serial pyromaniacs in mind-blowingly large amounts. The events shook the community to its humble core, showcased its hardworking volunteer firefighters who took on the blazes, and frightened the townsfolk halfway to death before the criminals were caught. The criminals proved to be Charlie Smith, a drug-addled local mechanic sadly “lacking in book smarts,” and girlfriend Tonya Bundick. While Smith, himself a volunteer firefighter, evinced “guileless hopefulness” and is portrayed nearly sympathetically by Hesse as a boneheaded doofus with a hero complex, Bundick seems bifurcated into two lives, half hardworking single mom and half self-absorbed hedonist. What to make of arsonists who, before lighting a garage on fire, let out the chickens that would be burned? Hesse seamlessly weaves the collapse of Accomack (standing as a proxy for all America) with the lives and actions of the two criminals, then does the same for their undoing and trial. VERDICT Readers of any discernment will appreciate Washington Post journalist Hesse’s particularly smoooooooove and flowing writing. Truly a pleasure.

Hurwitz, Gregg. The Nowhere Man: An Orphan X Novel. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. (Evan Smoak, Bk. 2). Jan. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250067852. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466876521. THRILLER
What can you say about Hurwitz’s Evan Smoak that hasn’t already been said about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher? Their stories are fast paced, machine tooled, and offer up a supremely unrealistic, manly fantasyland for readers (see also: Patrick Lee’s “Sam Dryden” series). Smoak, aka Orphan X, is part wraith, able to slip through any security system without detection, part special-ops solider, able to cleave a skull with the flat of his hand, and part superspy, able to disappear in plain sight so to smite enemies at will. He’s good-looking, though he masks it, and has refined tastes (e.g., handcrafted Swedish vodka distilled seven times served at 34°F accented with freshly ground pepper, oh Lord, make it stop). He was at one time part of a covert government operation that trained untraceable orphans as assassins; the recruits were named alphabetically as they were deployed; Evan was the Xth one. But he quit, and he relishes his new solo role “doing good” as the Nowhere Man—the guy that helpless people call when there is literally no one else (just dial 1-855-2NOWHERE). Suspenseful, pulsing, controlled. Lone dude against the shadow government. VERDICT Not all heroes wear capes. Unless Evan wears a cape and Hurwitz didn’t mention it? A workmanlike, smooth thriller.

Stross, Charles. The Delirium Brief: A Laundry Files Novel. Tor.com. (Laundry Files, Bk. 8). Jul. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780765394668. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765394675. FANTASY
“Hi. My name is Bob Howard, and I do secret work for the government,” says Bob Howard, secret government worker, in this fast-paced, wryly funny tech/occult/fantasy/SF mashup romp. Bob works for The Laundry, a big, shadowy London-based agency that is pitted against spookily powerful opponents hiding in the most unlikely of places—even in other government agencies. Bob’s workplace blends equal parts magic (e.g., memos protected by “…wards that will set fire to the contents if anyone meddles with them”) and lovingly woven, absolutely Byzantine bureaucracy. Bob bumbles through the story with much of the plot explained by others catching him up (or by Bob explaining the action backward) and spouting genuinely LOL maxims: “with great power comes a great tendency to mangle Spider-Man quotes” and “[w]hen the going gets tough, the tough desperately evade the issue.” One is beginning to wonder what qualifies the hapless Bob to be in such a position when, while defending himself, he nearly psychically shreds the soul of an attacker (he’s the Eater of Souls; it’s like he bites them). From this agent Bob gets the Delirium Brief, which specs out what the bad guy—Rev. Ray Schilling—is up to (hint: it’s no good). This is the eighth book in the series, and while it might be a fine place for fans to wind up, it’s not a particularly good place to start. VERDICT Too many agencies, too many characters (both bad and good), and references to unknown past adventures and events lend to a general confused air for this title. As fun as this is, it’s simply too much.

Runberg, Sylvain (text) & Serge Pellé (illus.). Ravages. Cinebook. (Orbital). 2011. 56p. ISBN 9781849180887. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781849188227.
TenNapel, Doug. Bad Island. Graphix: Scholastic. 2011. 224p. ISBN 9780545314800. pap. $10.99; ebk. ISBN 9780545389464. GRAPHIC NOVELS
After their boat trip ends in a massive storm (the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed…), a family in TenNapel’s Bad Island is left stranded on an odd little island. The teenage boy is a Central Casting Drama Prince of Sarcasm; the smart tween girl totes around a dead pet snake; the steady, botany major mom notices that the plants are completely weird; and the well-intentioned dad stays rock-steady for the family. Soon strange, hostile creatures appear, and the four find themselves running this way and that whilst trying to solve a scavenger hunt–like puzzle to escape. Breakneck pacing and simple, emotive drawings provide a great read, though it slows somewhat during the dark historical subplot that’s both violent and inhumane. Some of the panels feel like rough drafts, quickly sketched, though most are supportive of TenNapel’s masterly use of dialog, which carries the story with punch.

If you’re interested in a counterpoint—and any dude ought to be—try Ravages, the fourth volume in a series by artist Pellé and writer Runberg, who manage to stretch the “art of the comics format,” smashing together things that don’t ordinarily go together, putting their characters in wild situations, and generally disregarding just enough of  what’s “possible” and/or “the story” to be interesting. The war between the humans and the Sandjarr is finally over, and it’s time to celebrate. A lot of political pressure is riding on these ceremonies, and they can’t be stopped by some piddling fatal encounter between lowly human fishermen out of Kuala Lumpur and Rapakuhn, a freaky alien species. Two security agents, one human and one Sandjarr, need to work together to figure this out—and fast. Nearly every finely drawn line and paint panel bleeds action and evinces a level of imaginative detail that recalls New Realism (I think that’s what it’s called, anyway; apologies to my art history professor). The upshot is that whatever Pellé is putting down, it’s worth picking up. As a counterpoint to the counterpoint, consider Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, all of which successfully integrate complex ideas, characters, and dialog into intense works of art. VERDICT Both are good. Bad Island is a breezy 45-minute kind of read; Ravages is more sumptuous, the imaginative visuals both slowing the experience and drawing readers deeper into the story.

Hate of the Month—Sometimes a book can really inspire some damned hatred, ya know?

Pegula, Chris with Frank Meyer. Diaper Dude: The Ultimate Dad’s Guide to Surviving the First Two Years. TarcherPerigree. May 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780143110262. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781101992616. CHILD REARING
This book sucks. It talks down to readers, contains inaccurate information (hey, co-sleeping DOES NOT CAUSE SIDS), and has only the most rudimentary advice (e.g., “watching your language around the family is always in your best interests” or “[establishing] a bedtime ritual is smart and recommended”). Does the author really think readers are that stupid? With “advice” that comes in the form of “be careful letting them into bounce houses,” Pegula sounds like a grade-A asshole. VERDICT Future/new parents should stick with any other rookie dad book, including Susan Fox’s Rookie Dad: Fun and Easy Exercises and Games for Dads and Babies in Their First Year; Kevin Nelson’s broader-in-scope The Daddy Guide, with chapters on birth, childcare, cooking, money, and more; and Gene B. Williams’s The New Father’s Panic Book, which covers the same time line as Bradley G. Richardson’s Daddy Smarts: A Guide For Rookie Fathers, sans that title’s compressed format.

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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 Liz French says:

    Doug, you’ve done it again–made a work-stressy day tolerable and downright hilarious (for me at least). PS: for a better “Moonlight Mile” reference, try Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro novel with that title.

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