Coincidences, Gravity, and Toxic Tech | Books for Dudes

So many good books, so little time. It’s the bane of a reader’s existence, right? A day without reading is like a day without a little sunshine. What day isn’t a great day to stay in bed with a cup of something soothing and read till you get reader’s elbow? If I can read 50 pages tonight, then surely I can read 500. Ooh, one more chapter can’t hurt, I think, lodging toothpicks in my eyelids to keep them open. Work gets in the way, bills get in the way, other people get in the way, family gets in the way. I have to look into food delivery services direct to my reading spot so that I don’t have to get up and stop reading.

Remember, here at Books for Dudes my crack army of book reviewing badasses curate the content for you; we save you time and energy in the book decision-making department. Front list, backlist, whatever—BFD lists are the books you want. Keep carpin’ all them diems!

Blum, Yoav. The Coincidence Makers. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781250146113. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250146137. F
This is a cheery, funny, fantasy-romance mashup centered on Guy, a rank-and-file Coincidence Maker. He is one of an unseen cadre operating in this world, folks like dream weavers and luck distributors, whom you can’t see but do helpful jobs. CMs initiate events through small efforts (sometimes multiple efforts, and sometimes the cascading effects of many small coincidences). For example, this story begins as Guy is trying—for the 250th time, mind you—to influence a meeting by positioning his coffee cup to fall at just the right moment so that his waitress gets fired and then bursts a water pipe so that the prospective beau gives her a lift. Such are the coincidences of which life and love are made. CMs, Guy’s teacher says, “are creators of possibilities, givers of hints, winkers of tempting winks, discoverers of options.” The character set is tight: Guy carries a torch for Cassandra whom he met when he worked as an Imaginary Friend; Emily is heartsick for Guy. There’s also fellow CM Eric, some regular people, and a charming, odd subplot involving the “…quietest and most efficient hitman in the Northern Hemisphere,” who brings his pet hamster with him everywhere (and never personally harms anyone). It can sometimes be confusing to keep up with Blum’s various alternate realities and flashbacks to earlier times, but it’s worth it. VERDICT Fresh, frequently zippy, sublime.

Chown, Marcus. The Ascent of Gravity: The Quest To Understand the Force that Explains Everything. Pegasus. Nov. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781681775371. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681775944. SCI
Growing up in rural Connecticut presented some difficulties, namely, finding anything to do. Reading proved a dependable pastime and mostly I scrounged through whatever books were left laying around by my six older siblings. The Caine Mutiny, comic books, The Oxford Companion to American History, and lots of Isaac Asimov’s science titles. Like Asimov’s books, Chown’s title is wild—informative, intelligent, and blessedly clear. It does for gravity what Robert Penn did for wood in The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees: a lot. Topically Chown covers the remarkable work of Newton, Einstein, and those “Beyond Einstein” in an engaging conversational and readable manner with an eye to explain that gravity, for as weak a force as it is, still governs everything. Along the way, the bucket of awesome overfilleth with mind-blowing explanations of dope-ass gravity-related stuff, such as that Newton invented integral calculus so that he could explain what was going on inside his head about the universe, that Einstein figured out that “the Sun creates a valley on space-time in its vicinity around which the Earth circles like a planet-sized roulette ball,” and Planet Nine, the recently discovered object ten times the mass of Earth that orbits the sun about every 15,000 years. VERDICT For general readers, not true gravity nerds, who enjoy a good read.

Jacobs, A.J. It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree. S. & S. Nov. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781476734491. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781476734514. SOC
The massively readable Jacobs (Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, etc.) pens an addictive book about genealogy and human connectedness that is fascinating and breezy. Akin to Michael Paterniti’s remarkable The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, this is a personalized journey both conversational and appealing. Though his book is packed with information, Jacobs uses admirable economy of language, winning humor, and an overarching humanistic outlook to make scads of salient points about our collective interconnectedness. “[A]ny two humans—a New York hedge fund manager and a Papua New Guinea yam farmer, for instance—are at most seventieth cousins.” Jacobs can link himself to Obama thusly: “my fifth-great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh-great nephew.” The ostensible goal of the project is Jacobs’s impossible dream: a worldwide family reunion, inviting, well, everybody—all his 70 million relatives. “Like Woodstock,” he writes, “but with more pants and antiperspirant.”  Amid hilarious assumptions about his great-great-great-grandfather’s role in the Civil War and heading chapters with titles like “Son-in-Law of the American Revolution,” Jacobs demonstrates the amazingness of reading an intelligent, funny person writing about what they love—like hanging out with a curator at a museum. VERDICT If you haven’t read Jacobs, do. He’s truly a reader’s writer.

Sharma, Akhil. A Life of Adventure and Delight. Norton. Jul. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9780393285345. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393285352. F
Full disclosure: I only read one of the eight short stories included in Sharma’s book. It was the first one, “Cosmopolitan,” about a retired, gentleman widower of Indian heritage who is lonely and sort of lost. An encounter with his pretty, divorced neighbor Mrs. Shaw leads him to a relationship with her, to growth, change, and adapting from being something like a hermit to someone who enjoys life. It’s a story of subtlety, of culture, of values, almost frightening in its intimacy with a vulnerable man. He’s sweet, curious, and did I mention lonely? The story has a little bit of everything, the kind of story you could read once a year and pick up some nuance or feel and reconnect in a new way. Remarkable. More disclosure: I lied before, I actually read all the stories and they are all pretty damned remarkable. It’s important for dudes to read a variety of materials. Thrillers, manuals on setting up network routers, Beekeeping for Dummies, all of it. On those lists make sure you have books like this, by writers who keenly sense the human condition and can present it in a way that can grow you as a human being. VERDICT Wonderful stuff.

Roberts, Nora. Year One. St. Martin’s. Dec. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9781250122957. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250122988. F
It pisses me off to write this: Nora Roberts has written a pretty good book. As Roberts/JD Robb, she’s written thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of romances. She has a net worth of about $23 million, gives to charity, wins awards…does it end? Answer: No. The only solace for lowly book reviewers is to savage her  romance novels, a practice that amounts to yelling at the ocean. And, to be fair, this guilty pleasure must end. The story begins when some Scottish doofus shoots a pheasant, which lands dead inside a stone circle, a “shield of light.” As the blood soaks into the ground the shield begins to pulse and through it leaks a fast-acting and super-deadly contagion (labeled “the Doom”) that spreads like wildfire through the earth like the cataclysm from the 1995 cinematic masterpiece Outbreak; five billion dead in as many weeks, governments collapse, anarchy (and not much hilarity) ensues. Certain folks are immune and the virus also releases a buttload of “uncannies” into the world. These are shapeshifters, wizards, faeries, all that crap. Some are nice, some aren’t (hi, X-Men!). Some remaining humans want to destroy the uncannies, others don’t, and the survival of life on Earth seems to hinge on a baby girl (something like Neo as “The One” in The Matrix). There are too many characters, and this is nothing that the Pulitzer committee will be considering (but then they gave one to Bob freaking Dylan). VERDICT Readers could do worse. As an entrée into “something different” for Roberts fans or those who have been interested in postapocalyptic fiction, this mish-mash is serviceable and should keep readers who don’t expect too much chugging along.

Wachter-Boettcher, Sara. Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. Norton. Oct. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780393634631. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393634648. TECH
This scathing critique of the tech industry and its techniques is both informative and hair-raising. Wachter-Boettcher winningly posits that from top (industry giants like Facebook) to bottom (smaller, niche companies), services rely on finely crafted promises of ease, interconnectedness, and service to humanity. In reality, these are for-profit businesses. As these companies become more and more ubiquitous they act as quasi-public utilities—sans the governmental oversight and controls; Google’s summer 2017 anti-diversity uproar, Facebook’s September 2017 revelations about Russian ads, and the Equifax breach-and-coverup revealed in that same month (all of which occurred after this book was written) lend much credence to W-B’s well-written criticism. Indeed, W-B convincingly shows Silicon Valley bigwigs as a hegemony that “…routinely excludes anyone who’s not young, white, and male.” The inevitability of embedded tech, of it becoming “…more fundamental to the way we understand and interact with our communities and governments,” writes W-B, must be balanced with an absence of “…biased, alienating, or harmful” aspects in its creation. For every “there’s an app for that,” whether you are tracking your health, dating, or banking online, there’s a design flaw that humiliates, belittles, and undermines real human beings (e.g., a smart scale that scolds a toddler for gaining weight, a binary choice for sexual orientation, Native American names being deemed unacceptable on social media). VERDICT Provocative, passionate, impossible to ignore.

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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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