Books for Dudes: Six Novels That Will Keep You Up Past Your Bedtime; Plus, Dog Training

Pretty pissed off. That’s how you can characterize the staff here at BFD this month. Not only about the freak snowstorm that took out power for 11 days at World BFD HQ in Connecticut recently. Cry me a river, you say?

Well, I’m pissed off about other stuff, too‚ namely six authors named Donatich, Grossman, Long, Golden, Parks, and Rollins. Each and every one of them robbed me of precious sleep these past 30 days with writing so compelling that it forced me to stay up late and/or skip nap time so I could read a few more of their precious pages. Plus, during the power outage, I used my new bike headlamp to read and wound up falling off the sofa, cracking the lamp on the coffee table, and killing it but good. Yep, pretty well pissed me off, let me tell you.

Donatich, John. The Variations. Holt. Mar. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780805094381. $25. F
There are many things I’ve never pondered, among them astrophysics, tennis, opera, quilting, and priests. And that’s just what this quiet, richly textured debut novel made me do (not all that stuff‚ just the priests). Father Dominic is about as unsteady as an imploding star going supernova: he gets busted for DUI, his blog pisses off the bishop, and his small parish is scheduled to be closed. He acknowledges‚ even embraces‚ his carnal urges. He would be hilarious if he weren’t so real, and so sad. Around him orbit several erratic satellites, including Dolores, an inscrutable teenage loner who may or may not be pregnant and who daydreams about drowning herself, Ophelia-style, on Valentine’s Day. She was like an enzyme, concludes Dom, one had to react to her. This book humbled me by stripping away my ecclesiastical illusions, showing me how one-dimensionally I’ve always considered those among the holy orders. Really, they are just like me: troubled, earthy, curious, tired, profane‚ human. Because Donatich takes his time with the story, and because it evolves through such a marvelous range of fully realized characters, not everyone is going to hang in there for the nearly 100 pages it takes to get this candle lit. But those who do will get a superb view of people with some damnably twisted-up insides. So when you see me dragging ass around work and looking kind of cranked off at the dinner table, know it’s because this book kept me up long, long after bedtime.

Grossman, Paul. Children of Wrath. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780312601911. $25.99. F
At first I mistook this for the long-awaited commentary on the emotional state of America’s children by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. But no, it’s a prequel to Grossman’s excellent The Sleepwalkers (St. Martin’s, 2010), and it’s similarly enjoyable. Famed detective Willi Kraus is a hard worker in the Kriminalpolizei in 1929 Weimar Berlin. Smart, quick on his feet, and unflappably dedicated to justice, Willi’s sole problem is his Jewishness, and, in his life and work, he nobly ignores more shit than a faulty sewer pump. Willi becomes fixated on some disturbing discoveries: children’s bones in burlap sacks washing out of the river. Though instead assigned to investigate a deadly sausage contamination, he prods at both cases enough to discover that they are related (eeeeeewwwwwwwww!) and that both relate to an alleged lesbian satanic love cult starring decadent German beauties (yaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy!). The reading gets choppy when, as in any historical novel, Grossman educates us about whatever was happening at that time. He does it without insulting our intelligence; it’s just that descriptions of Walpurgis Night, still celebrated with dancing around bonfires and straw effigies, and details about the bravery of Jewish-German WWI vets break the spell a bit. Still, the gumshoe element, the morbidly attractive German decadence, the outrageous anti-Semitism, guest stars like Dr. Joseph Goebbels, plus the wonderful frisson of contemplating a blonde, leather-clad lesbian love cult combine into an immensely satisfying, all-around winner. It was compelling enough to keep me up hours past my bedtime and once even to cause me to fall prey to that classic bedtime blunder: falling book-clutched-in-hands, glasses-on-face asleep. This was, of course, followed by the classic wake-up-90-minutes-later-completely-disoriented-and-drooling. Thanks, Mr. Grossman.

Long, Jeff. The Descent. Jove. 2001. 592p. ISBN 9780609602935. pap. $7.99. F
This wild-ass novel, first published in 1999, starts with cynical mountain guide Ike Crockett leading a team of New Agey tourists to their gruesome deaths in a remote Himalayan cave. From there, The Descent deepens (hah) into a plot involving Branch, a military helicopter pilot scarred by a weird incident in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Ali, a smarty-pants, neo-fem Catholic nun who loves linguistics. These three become key players in investigating what is going on under the earth’s crust, where strange things are afoot, Virginia. See, there’s these gigantor tunnels under there, with troglodyte dudes (Homo hadalis‚ hadals for short) running around and sometimes catching and torturing us humans. They got horns; they like blood; they have their own ecosystem. Damned if they’re not probably the real-life version of what humans have always thought of as demons living in what we’ve always thought of as hell. If that sounds weird, well it only gets weirder, man. The hadals really don’t like us; the more we explore, the more pissed off they get. Even so, profiteers at the Helios corporation decide there’s gold in them thar hills and are going to try to make a buck out of this shitshow, somehow. Pro: tight pacing. Con: the characters have just enough meat on their bones to prevent them from disintegrating into thin air. This isn’t great literature, but it sure kept me up late‚ and still makes me move a little faster when trail running past holes in cliffs.

Golden, Christopher & Mike Mignola. Joe Golem and the Drowning City. St. Martin’s. Apr. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780312644734. $25.99. F.
Mignola, the artist known for the “Hellboy” graphic novel series, and the prolific Golden, whose credits include the YA horror novel Strangewood, jointly crafted this enjoyable, steampunky YA title. Fair warning: this is no GN. Illustrations‚ akin E.H. Shepard’s decorative art gracing A.A. Milne’s Poohworks‚ suggest, rather than dictate, imagery. In an alternate near past in which earthquakes have somehow submerged lower Manhattan, we find the plucky 14-year-old Molly racing to locate and save her employer/mentor Felix, a small-time conjuror. To do so, she must ally herself with strange, ancient detective Simon Church and his mightily strong associate, Joe Golem (that’s him on the cover). Soon they are hunting for something called Lector’s Pentajulum, a device they think amplifies magic. Though the three characters share center stage, it’s Church who drives the action. So old that he’s kept alive by [c]hemistry, medicine, arcanum, and mechanics, he’s competing with archvillain Dr. Cocteau for the ol’ L.P., while Joe is the physical hero, and Molly distractingly alternates between outright child and over-mature cynic‚ one who’s lived through a lot of scary nights and ugly places, and the people who went along with them. Though it’s certainly a pleasant, airy read, the seemingly meaningless twists and turns may frustrate those seeking a more direct or linear plot. But if, like me, you decide that a large cup of coffee at 8:30 pm on a Wednesday is Just. The. Thing. You. Want., well, look no further: you’ll enjoy cranking through this and wake up with a Thursday book’n’caffeine hangover.

Parks, Brad. The Girl Next Door. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780312667689. $24.99. F
This take on the intrepid investigative newspaperman as gumshoe by the author of The Faces of the Gone (Nero and Shamus Awards) is breezily enjoyable, if a bit wide-eyed. After a newspaper carrier is killed in a hit-and-run, reporter Carter Ross discovers that this was a homicide as cold and simple as if someone had brought a gun to her ear and pulled the trigger. This weapon just happened to take unleaded gasoline. Wow! Did that give you the shivers? Me neither, but it’s indicative of Parks’s lite, even safe, tone. This 2012 murder mystery is surprisingly free of grit and grime, on the other end of the spectrum from western civilization’s descent into torture porn. Lacking dark tones, seamy underbelly, and twisted insanity isn’t such a bad thing. In one sequence, Carter, reporting on a bear loose in urban New Jersey, sneezes; the bear charges, Carter runs away. Pretty PG-rated. All that’s left is for Carter to fall in love and find out whodunit while fending off his editor. Was it the curmudgeonly publisher? The nice-guy union boss? The cranky reporter? Professor Plum in the kitchen with the lead pipe? The character twists are interesting (who could have predicted that the Aspergers-esque hippie burnout’s milquetoast husband would be such a hardass?). Overall, this ain’t Elmore Leonard or Laurence Shames, but it’s reasonably sure to please. So reasonable, I skipped two prime nap times and stayed up three (3) hours past bedtime one night, accompanied only by chocolate, tea, and my special blue blankie.

Rollins, James. Subterranean. Morrow: HarperCollins. 2010. 422p. ISBN 9780061916175. $22.99. F
Pre-9/11, pre-recession, pre-Occupy, it was still Good Times, and I was in the green of my youth (hey, everything’s relative, Chumley). As did many books back in the day, Rollins’s thriller, first published in 1999, exudes a special pre-Bush II/Obama I sense of fun. Despite the high body count, it’s a wild adventure with sf overtones and a fantasy aftertaste that doesn’t make the fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously (see: The Chalk Girl). After a brief intro in which a soldier disappears in a tunnel two miles under Antarctica’s surface, Rollins rolls out some characters who eventually form a team charged with exploring a newly discovered underground world. All have ulterior motives, and all are comfortably familiar tropes, from the fiercely independent, beautiful scientist/mother who can’t turn down money to the affable, devil-may-care, but skilled Australian rogue who joins the team to avoid a jail sentence. This familiarity, when paired with the weird Antarctic tunnel circumstance, makes the book (dare I say?) dude-friendly (I do dare. I did). There’s mystery, adventure, action, romance, guns, ancient civilizations, and fried banana sandwiches all wrapped up in a tale that’s twice as enjoyable but only half as mass market as your usual Dirk Pitt craptacular, even if it isn’t as homegrown as a creepfest like Stephen M. Irwin’s The Dead Path. Con: shallow characters. Pro: enough energy to light my nighttime reading and keep me up reaaaal late wrapped up in my bed cocoon a couple nights in a row.

MOFO Mailbag: Halp, I haz a dog!

From the Ask BFD Anything mailbag, November 11, 2011:

Dear Doug:
So, suddenly I have this little dog. She won’t behave. What do I do?

‚ Name withheld, outside Pittsburg, PA

Dear NwoPPA:
I have gradually come to understand the consideration and care that dogs need, but if you’d asked me 20 years ago when I was still very much a boy-dude, I’d have looked at you like you had two heads. Or perhaps five breasts. See, back on the farmland where I grew up and worked, dogs just sorta knew what to do; they were (mostly) friendly, stayed out of the way, ate table scraps, had fun when it was time to romp, and slept a lot. We never trained them to do anything. They slept in their dog house, not our house. They rarely barked and generally just acted . . . like dogs. The reason, I think, was that we treated these dogs like dogs. Not so the crazy pests of suburbia. Big dogs cooped up all day, little dogs left unsocialized, and snippy dogs that lack playtime and fresh air, all living in a human environment for which they’re not suited (take a moment for pity, readers). While I’m not all animal-rights-activist*, dogs do have needs, so here are my reads and thoughts, NwoPPA, may they halp.

* Dogs have no rights. Not until they rise up, wrest control of Earth, and form a government.

Arden, Andrea. Dog-Friendly Dog Training. 2d ed. Wiley. 2007. 232p. ISBN 9780470115145. $18.99. PETS
This advises on all sorts of dog-friendly measures, from selecting the right leash and collar to humane training to how to teach the dog that the area rug isn’t its personal bathroom, all in an effort to make life better for you and your four-legged friend. It doesn’t make readers see things through a dog’s eyes‚ for that you could try Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog. But if you follow the ideas trainer and pet expert Arden presents, you’ll create an environment that is settling for everyone: the dog, the family, and that crazy old man living in your attic who only emerges at night when you’re sleeping to eat the good stuff in the fridge. Remember: if a dog is a man’s best friend, then that dog has a problem.

Arrowsmith, Claire. The Sit Down Come Heel Stay and Stand Book: A Step-by-Step Dog Training Achievement Program. TFH Pubns. 2008. 28p. ISBN 9780793806607. $17.95 PETS
I personally found this book amazingly useful in the following situation: a man of my general height and weight with neither time nor inclination to train an animal nonetheless inherits a little four-year-old dog who is a giant pain in the ass and who has received zero training. Ramping up from ground zero with the six titular commands, it took six one-minute lessons for the dog‚ and the man‚ to understand the concept of sit. From there, we moved on to stay, which also proved weirdly, deceptively easy. All that’s required is consistency and some kibble (for the dog; I used leftover Halloween candy for myself). We’re now working on heel, which she’s getting, but I have no use for stand. Go ahead and stand if you want to, dog, but I’m not giving you a treat for performing this basic mammalian function. It’s like shaking or dry heaving; if you think you’re getting a treat for standing, then I should get one for slurping. Anyway, the one we’re having trouble with is down. Sometimes I just want that dog to FREAKING LIE DOWN ALREADY. And she just looks at me like I’m a sad man pretending he’s not middle-aged, holding some kibble in his pocket. Overall, though, using this book has helped the dog be calmer, listen better, and, best of all, annoy me less. She’s even eased up on taking my car for late-night booze’n’cigarette runs.

Hodgson, Sarah. Teach Yourself Visually: Dog Training. Wiley. 2006. 242p. ISBN 9780471749899. $19.99 PETS
This illustrated guide is great for folks who need to see results fast. It makes it clear that a human/dog pair really is a system, a team with a set of behaviors that becomes their norm. For example, when Sweetie Face takes the dog (ahem) to the woods, she does it wrong: the dog runs ahead and gets all snarled up in the brush, and laying the daily deuce turns into a series of maneuvers that requires National Guard intervention‚ because that’s what the two of them have gotten used to doing. When I do it, the dog stays behind me until I release her, she grumps one out, and we return to the house for a well-deserved snack and some rubs‚ because that’s we’re used to doing. She’s a bright little dog, but a team develops with mutual training. Hodgson will help your team learn it right.

Tucker, Michael. Solving Your Dog Problems: A Practical Handbook for Owners and Trainers. Howell Book House. 1992. paper. 146p. ISBN 9780876057391. Price N/A. PETS
I have a couple of problems with this book‚ first published in 1987 (sweet bird of youth, where have ye flown?) and available new and used on sites such as Amazon‚ neither of which amount to bupkes. First, contrary to Tucker’s understanding, few dogs have problems of any kind. Their brains are not wired to comprehend problems. The titular problems generally stem from dog owners not appreciating some of their dogs’ behaviors (e.g., shredding sofa cushions). But that’s a problem with a system (see Hodgson, above), not a dog. Second, Tucker’s introduction states, Perhaps the biggest problem in society today is the over-population of dogs. Now, even taking into account the swing in dates from original publication in 1987 to the update in 1992, we all know that many, many problems during this time overshadowed dog overpopulation, to wit:

  • The severe shortage Doug Lord’s pocket money.
  • The sharp rise in the number of Doug Lord’s facial zits.
  • The slow, steady decline in the number of similar-aged females interested in Doug Lord.

One condition that remained stable throughout the ’87‚ ’92 period, however, was the general state of Doug-Lord-has-a-crappy-car, thanks to the Chevy Chevette and Chrysler K-Car. Read Tucker with a grain of salt. Or better yet, a salt lick!

EXTRA CREDIT: In which I let BFD mascot and all-around terrifying canine Phreak review a book.

Ackerman, Lowell and Arden Moore. Happy Dog: How Busy People Care for Their Dogs. BowTie Pr. 2003. 160p. ISBN 9781931993029. Price N/A. PETS
OMG hey dude, welcome home! I shredded that sofa cushion you left for me. Wait, you tellin’ me you didn’t want me to tear that mother apart? You are so confusing sometimes, you know that? ‘Scuse me while I lick myself. So, did you read that book by Ackerman and Moore (available new and used on the web)? ‘Cuz I was flipping though, and it makes a lot of sense. It says I need exercise, attention, and structure. Good food and fresh air, too, but mostly it’s about making sure I’m tired. Because as far as a pet dog goes, a tired dog is a good dog. And sometimes I need little jobs, like fetching or protecting. But I know you get busy and sometimes just leave sofa cushions for me to shred. About that: I know your voice is louder sometimes, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I just like it when you talk to me! Attention is attention; I don’t care if it’s negative or positive. Lemme tell you, too: I can’t wait to see you get home because I have been waiting, like, ALL DAY and I really have to pee, but mostly I just miss you, my alpha leader. I know you’re busy watching that blue flickering box every night. It’s boring for me, yeah‚ I’d rather be outside sniffing something great, like another dog’s butt‚ but I love you and trust you totally. Otherwise you wouldn’t have given me a home, right dude? Dude? Can we go outside now? Hey, is that sofa cushion for me?

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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.