Supernatural Land, Serious Reads, and Brave Explorers | Books for Dudes

Most of this month’s ten BFD titles are awesome. There are the all-fun books (Kent Lester’s Seventh Sun), the unbelievable (Cecil Kuhne’s River Master), and even the supernatural (John Hart’s The Hush). Makes me think of film director James Cameron’s marriages, tbh. It’s not like I’m his biggest fan, but that dude calls me *incessantly* for marital advice. “Doug, can books/marriages be good, even if they’re not fun?” “Yes, Jimmy. All kinds of books/marriages can be good, even if they don’t seem all that enjoyable on the surface.”

Allen, Danielle S. Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. Liveright: Norton. Sept. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781631493119. $24.95; ebk 9781631493126. SOC sci
Harvard professor Allen found herself “at-bat” as “…the closest family member…with the flexibility and means required to be a steady and consistent presence” in her young cousin Michael’s life after his release from prison. Michael was 15 when he was first arrested in 1995 for attempted carjacking. Sentenced to 25 years to life, he served 11 (sweet Jesus, eh?), after which the author began coaching him on how to get a job, go to college, get a car, etc. Things were looking good, and Allen was allowing herself to feel hope when Michael was shot dead. Released from prison in 2006, he died in 2009. Here, Allen personalizes a situation that will feel unbelievable to many readers. While she doesn’t shy away from the seedier aspects of Michael’s life (he was an occasional drug mule, for example), she does focus on the positives, such as that he volunteered as a prison wildfire fighter. Naturally, she’s also deeply pissed off. Even given the anticrime climate of mid-1990s L.A., Allen calls her young black cousin’s sentencing “…one of the purest expressions of hatred I can imagine.” She’s not posing a hypothetical question when she wonders, “[w]hy did he have to pass from boy to man, an odyssey of eleven years, behind bars?” Readers may also be interested in recent RadioLab episodes (Shots Fired, Parts 1 and 2), which focus on how some families celebrate the lives of their sons, daughters, husbands, brothers, etc. killed by police, and say both awful and powerful things about our society.  VERDICT This is a wrenching testament to how strong and central a force a stable family can be. Allen’s writing is insightful, forthright, and eminently readable, with a homespun, direct delivery.

Genoways, Ted. This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm. Norton. Sept. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780393292572. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393292589. AGRIculture
Unflinching isn’t a term often bandied about when discussing farm reportage, but that’s what we have here in this journalistic take on the evolving “family farm” and what it means in contemporary ’Merica. American farms have gone through many ages and stages over the course of hundreds of years, and Genoways accurately captures the near-constant subsistence culture of this difficult business. Today’s family farms, thousands of times larger in scale than those of previous generations, are still mostly only marginally profitable in a seemingly random seasonal cycle. If, as Genoways insightfully reports, this summer’s soybean crop is threatened or messed up by too much rain, farmers “pray for rootworm in Chile, for hail on the open plains of Illinois” and for failure to befall “someone else as careful as you.”  The two things that farmers depend upon the most—weather and markets—are the two things that make the “difference between the kind of success that allows you to add equipment and acres and the kind of loss that eventually leads to a farm sale.” Many up-close and personal interviews and conversations lend an authenticity missing from what could easily slip into an examination of the business-only end of farming. Moneyball is one thing, but farmball? VERDICT Even if the work seems simple, Genoways’s fascinating account shows that it’s far from a simple business.

Goodman, Lizzy. Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011. Dey St: HarperCollins. May 2017. 640p. ISBN 9780062233097. $26.99. MUSIC
This account of the New York 2000s music scene as captured by teeny snippets of conversation from more than 200 original interviews that have been cut and pasted together (curated) to form a narrative. While engaging, it limits itself with its narrow timeframe, music selection, and approach. A labor of love. VERDICT Do you like aught music? Then this isn’t for you. Do you like learning about the genesis of aught music? Ditto. Do you like reading the words of the folks involved with aught music as they reminisce and brag a little about themselves? Then this is for you. Also—New York City is apparently the only place on the planet that matters in the least.

Hart, John. The Hush. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9781250012302. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250012296. F
Johnny Merrimon, last seen in Hart’s The Last Child, owns 6,000 acres of land in North Cackalacky (aka “Carolina”) in a shit-kicking town where a man will beat another man “half to death over a jostled coffee.” Some of this land is good, the rest of it is *quite* bad—a swamp with a curse where “angry spirits haunted” from long-ago lynchings are still felt deeply by some. Johnny’s ability to “read” his land, to sense people and animals on it, borders on supernatural. Gradually, it dawns on readers that the land is somehow able to accomplish things on its own. Sentience? Amid the mess of human animosities, the relationship between Johnny and the land will propel readers onward. Is he an interpreter, or perhaps the land transmits signals?  The crawl toward resolution is odd and slow, and Hart is in no rush to spill the beans (he even inserts a couple of little thrillers-within-the-thriller as a bonus). VERDICT At more than 400 pages, it would be easy to dismiss this as a bloated work of self-indulgence, another “all my ideas are incredible enough to include in the story” (à la Chelsea Cain’s One Kick). But that would be a mistake because Hart proves his reputation as an Edgar Award–winning wordsmith is well-deserved.

Herz, Rachel. Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food. Norton. Dec. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780393243314. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393243321.  SCI
Most of today’s American/first-world cultures eat, posits Herz (neurogastronomy, Brown and Boston College) in a complicated manner that no longer has anything to do with hunger. Herz’s quest is the scientific endeavor to understand “…the interactions between our brain, food, and eating,” to figure out “…how and why do our senses, mind, and environment impact our experience of food and our motivation to eat? And how does food alter our physiology, mood, and behavior?” And it is fascinating, if occasionally confusing (it is, after all, science with mention of T1R3 receptors and neuroplasticity). Besides the “basic four” tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour) are new ones, including spicy, umami, calcium, and fat. Readers might also be surprised to learn how important smell is to taste, that our senses of taste and smell are fully functional even before birth. Ever try the jellybean test? This even proves that “[t]he meaning and emotions we’ve attached to” scents come from our past. Lavender may help you relax, but only because it has “…been paired…through its use in products such as massage oils, body lotions, and shower gels and further reinforced through marketing and cultural associations.” So liking lavender, much like liking Game of Thrones, is a cultural thing. “If you don’t like the scent of lavender or are unfamiliar with it, no relaxation will occur.” Herz keenly relates the kernels of import within hundreds of scientific studies, and a high Lexile level makes for occasional density. VERDICT Good Lord is this a great read.

Kennedy, Deborah E. Tornado Weather. Flatiron: Macmillan. July 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781250079572. $24.99. F
This masterly story cycle is loosely centered on the disappearance of Daisy Gonzalez, a child with a physical mobility issue who is so cute that it makes her bus driver’s heart hurt. Colliersville, IN, in 2010 is not a nice place. Hand-painted signs feature racist messages and grown men admit to themselves that their hearts feel like they were replaced with rocks. “[S]treetlights are always broken and the yards are littered with pop cans and diapers and driftwood.” One particularly nasty area called The Bottoms is home to the fleabag Ranasack Apartments where a lot of immigrants and undocumented persons from Mexico live. It’s grim, a place where “…the river rises and the air smells like garbage and death.” There you can see “…a small pack of boys holding two dead kittens and a makeshift noose fashioned from an orange extension cord. One of the boys swung a kitten over his head like a lasso, hooting and smiling at the sky, eyes wild, teeth gray.” As in Rae Meadows’s I Will Send Rain, the images are powerful, but it’s the details (gray teeth) that get you. And while characters share a sense of quiet, uncanny perspective, all feel genuine. Teenage Renee, for example, is having a tough time with a teacher of Hispanic descent; her dad is in the local militia. You can see where that’s going. VERDICT Kennedy has seriously rocked this unsentimental, evocative read. A captivating tapestry that describes the community’s stories as clearly as a riverbed tells the story of a babbling brook.

Kuhne, Cecil. River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Countryman. Oct. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781682680742. $24.95. HIST
Wow did John Wesley Powell and his men have balls. Imagine a rowboat with oars; you sit backward and can’t see what’s coming up ahead. They jacked up the boats some, but that’s how these dudes went down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon. Insane. Ten dudes, four of whom quit. Ex-soldier Powell, who financed two-thirds of the operation himself, had lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh. Today’s professional rafters would wet their pants if told they had to run all 200-plus whitewater rapids over the 1,000-plus roiling, cataract-filled miles of this journey in long, narrow, shallow, heavy, round-hulled boats. Kuhne’s history of this geological survey is workmanlike, even plain, relating evidence sans sycophancy. Early on there is some license taken (e.g., Powell stares “…into the swirling current for a long time. He then slowly walked away, never looking back”) but this is minimal. Constantly wet, sandy, and miserable, the men experienced every trouble from equipment failure to acrimony to the severest physical conditions. Hundreds of dangerous stretches resulted in either lining the boats (carefully leading them downriver by rope) or portaging—a difficult, tedious, “surprisingly dangerous” process. Powell, in an impossible position, comes off mixed, the men regarding “…him with varying degrees of admiration, respect, disdain, and utter contempt.” VERDICT Good news for those who like bad news—there’s no good news. A story not of bravery, exactly, but of balls.

Lester, Kent. The Seventh Sun. Forge. Apr. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9780765382221. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466886575. F
If ruthless mad scientists working for greedy corporations hell-bent on harnessing the titular, legendary Seventh Sun’s evil power for death and world domination can be said to be a fun adventure, then this is indeed super fun. Scientist Dan Clifford and marine biologist Rachel Sullivan accidentally discover that NeuroSys is mining the crap out of the seabed off the Honduran coast. The company has unintentionally awakened some badass ooze that pretty much obliterates any living thing it touches. NeuroSys figures it can make a killing (heh) and Dan and Rachel have to stop it for the good of the planet and all. They do so by racing about counteracting shit in the sea, on land, in Congress’ hallowed halls, at the CDC, underwater, in submarines, I think they even used the bathroom over at the Piggly-Wiggly downtown. Action, brainpower, peril, who could want for more out of a thriller that incorporates science?  Whereas your typical thriller (e.g., Robin Cook) tends to plod along, this moves quickly but thoroughly from place to place. Characters remain clearly defined (taking a page from Robert B. Parker’s book-of-making-things-easier-for-the-reader) and the plot is intricate without being confusing. VERDICT This isn’t going to make it into the canon, but it is entertaining and light fare from a writer with obvious talent for that.

McKay, Brett. The Illustrated Art of Manliness: The Essential How-To Guide; Survival * Chivalry * Self-Defense * Style * Car Repair * And More! Little, Brown. May. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9780316362658$25; ebk. ISBN 9780316362665. ETIQUETTE
A spotty collection: as a how-to manual for shining your shoes, yes, sure, go for it. About how to do a low-bar squat? No. On how a suit should fit? Sure. About how to fell a tree (the illustrated one being ~8 feet circumference)? Hell no. Paddle a canoe? Sure. Build a log raft? Wha…?? You get the picture. Good for things like table manners and etiquette, not so much on things like fighting an active shooter. Still, the inclusion of the Eisenhower decision matrix brings this up to above average status. Chapters cover six broad areas: family man, leader, adventurer, technician, gentleman, warrior. Lessons are usually two pages with at least six of Ted Slampyak’s splendidly clear illustrations. Maybe for recent graduates. VERDICT There’s more good than bad, and readers should be able to learn at least a little something by flicking through—as long as you don’t get stupid by following two pages of advice on say, avoiding a shark attack.

Scherer, Josh. The Culinary Bro-Down Cookbook. Grand Central. Aug. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781455595426. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455595433. COOKING
Seventy-plus “brossential” recipes for living a “dope-ass life.” Cuss-loving Scherer says he experienced his “happiest, most important moments” while “chugging beers and drunk cooking…and making obscene foods that most rational people would consider abominations of God.” He’s maybe 25 years old so don’t begrudge him any success. On to the recipes: they’re fucking gross. Heavy on bacon and fat-fried results. Doughnut holes with Maple-Bacon Fat Buttercream. Beer-Poached Bratwurst Party Sub. Malt Liquor Chicken. Dressed-up shit food or shit food smothered in high-calorie sauces is still shit. “Brommandment” (so cute!) #10: Salt Everything. Someday this kid, an ex-UCLA hammer thrower, will wake up with clogged arteries and write about the magic of healthy eating. As for comedy, no matter how low your standards, this is only vaguely funny and not for long. The high offense factor ranges from casually insensitive  to total asshole. A few recipes, especially a salmon dish, sound good. Naturally, they are contained in the chapter “Stuff Chicks Like,” where Scherer claims he’s a feminist and the “bro” sobriquet is a big joke. The celebratory immaturity belies this. He has even prewritten his response to those who advise him to grow up: “Go collectively fuck yourselves.” VERDICT Unredeemable. The antithesis of what many health professionals do as a vocation. People simply cannot eat these foods for long and retain any kind of wellness.²

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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.

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