Memoirs, Chick Lit…Dude, What Is Going on Here? | Books for Dudes

With apologies to the LJ memoir columnists, I’m loving me some memoirs this month. The most stirring is Ruth Wariner’s The Sound of Gravel. The cover shows four beautiful kids huddled together for a 1970s family photo. You’ll note terrible haircuts, plaid, and that you’ve fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love with them—the very thing that makes the book so difficult to read. There’s also Chris Cole’s brave, confessional work that seeks to make the world a better place for those with mental illness. Tom Foreman wants make the world better, too, but with humor and charm about running, and Steve Boggan shares his personal experiences with the contemporary gold rush in the American West (didn’t know there was one, didja?).

As usual BFD has loads of other stuff, too: sf, mystery, historical fiction, a book on sports hooliganism. There’s even something approaching chick lit. Yeah, we read it all here at BFD, a column which seeks to save the time of readers who have been lured into the doldrums with stuff like J.A. Jance’s “J.P. Beaumont” writing: “She responded willingly, hungrily. The gown was fastened with a single tie. She was naked beneath it. Supple, willing, and…ready” (these sentences courtesy of Until Proven Guilty). Life’s a little short for crap, don’tcha think?

Gold FeverBoggan, Steve. Gold Fever: One Man’s Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush. OneWorld. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781780746968. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781780746975. TRAVEL
This is a freakishly charming travel memoir of a man just like you: intelligent, curious, motivated, fun, and intentionally positive. With those traits, zero gold-locating skills, and some huge balls, Boggan sets out on a humongous adventure: searching for gold in the American West. Boggan, a journalist, writes with that special panache that sparks readers to keep reading, and his story answers the questions that readers actually want to know, such as Q: How does one file a claim and how much does that cost? A: At the nearest Bureau of Land Management office; $368. Like many personal quests, Boggan has a lot to say about the relationships he forms along the way, and these will warm your cold, dead soul. Like about Terry and JoAnne, retired gold and gem seekers who “spent much of their time just being happy” RV’ing their way across the Western United States following sunshine and being “permanently cheerful.” Boggan’s dry, understated humor lends the just-right touch to his undertaking, such as wondering if his timing “…might be a bit off, perhaps by as much as two hundred years” and the experience practically Americanizes the Brit, who soon makes statements like, “[t]he next morning was crisp, blue-skied and full of promise.” Boggan also intersperses fantastic facts about the original gold rush throughout, such as that in 1849 as many as 300,000 souls hit the Sierra Nevada mountains to prospect and that “…seventy-five per cent of all the men in California had abandoned their livelihoods and homes and headed off to the goldfields.” VERDICT An excellent writer telling a fun and interesting story, Boggan is also a sly fox on one’s chances at prospecting: “You’re probably not going to strike it rich,” he says. “But you just might.”

The Red StormBywaters, Grant. The Red Storm. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9781250073075. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466885073. M
New York, 1923: ex-boxer Will Fletcher starts working as muscle for small-time nasty Bill Storm, whose eyes “…burned with a brutal hatred and a primal urge for violence.” Fletcher eventually ditches him in favor of N’awlins where, in 1938, Storm emerges and hires Fletcher, now a PI, to locate his daughter, Zella. This turns up a beautiful, if dull, lounge singer with a “… whiskey-burned voice…at times caustic on the ears.” Mere hours later Storm is shot to death and Zella hires Fletcher for (yes) muscle. Though Zella tries “the art of womanly seduction” on Fletcher, he refuses to get entangled—a good thing, as all hell breaks loose. A mobster wants to settle an old score on Storm by messing with Zella, and soon Fletcher is playing the cops on one side against the mob on, like, three other sides. Debut novelist Bywaters loses no time in creating a slow-moving, agreeable story with a lot of atmosphere sans the dull details. Fletcher, for example, is haunted by his boxing past as he once killed a friend in the ring. There are dames, guys named Rollie, and genuine puzzlers like “balling the jack.” Period dialog is standout, e.g., “You fool, you’ll never get a piece of that kale! They’ll have that place swarming with buttons.” Segregation and racism are constant undercurrents—“[w]e don’t allow your kind in here” is a frequent sentiment—and while our intrepid, insightful detective doesn’t seethe with resentment, readers will. VERDICT This is damned good—it even won the Minotaur Books/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Competition, which is more than you did, pal. Historical fiction and hardboiled fans will enjoy this, reminiscent as it is of Walter Mosley’s higher-quality Easy Rawlins mysteries.

Body of ChrisCole, Chris. The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness. Inkshares. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9781941758144. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781941758236. MEMOIR
This confessional, painful memoir is by a man who was once so messed up by mental illness (which affects 19.4% of all young people in the United States) that he believed he was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. After struggling with eating issues as a young adult, Cole had a psychotic break at age 18; substance abuse didn’t help. It took a long while, but he straightened out. The important thing to recognize here is that Cole isn’t some demon who terrorized villages or wreaked havoc on Girl Scout troops; he’s a good-natured boy from suburban Georgia. Using the benefit of hindsight, Cole tells his story with self-effacing humor and compassion, crediting those who helped him. The warts-and-all aspect makes readers simpatico with his struggles: it’s not just vulnerable kids who are upset by elementary school fights or fraternity pledge weeks, this shit’s real. People should know about the complete lack of fun involved in coming down off a manic episode, getting depressed, listless, even suicidal and that anxiety and an addictive personality complement each other about as well as OJ and toothpaste (or maybe dogs and chocolate). VERDICT Cole’s simple honesty could be massively helpful for those struggling with mental illness, body issues, or almost anything. This poor bastard experienced a lot of negativity in life, and because he has the balls to speak up about his struggles this is a testament to what we can learn about love, luck, and the power of the body and spirit to heal itself.

My Year of Running DangerouslyForeman, Tom. My Year of Running Dangerously: A Dad, a Daughter, and a Ridiculous Plan. Blue Rider. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780399175473. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698198371. MEMOIR
This is a hilarious account of the year that CNN correspondent Foreman spent regaining his running mojo decades after letting it go. It’s also a testament to family, tenacity, humor, and love. Initially responding to a request from his college-age daughter to run a marathon together (making a team, she says, “like Lilo and Stitch”), Foreman rekindles the joy he once experienced as a high school cross-country champ. Energetic writing makes you want to read more and more (especially at the ends of chapters, much to the chagrin of your sleep schedule), and there’s lots of lol humor, including a tongue-in-cheek list of running’s “routine discomforts” like “… profuse sweating, lung-splitting hypoxia, and muscle aches better associated with prisoners in Russian gulags” amid dangers such as athlete’s foot, chafing, and “something called iliotibial band syndrome.” But it’s not just laughs as this also exposes readers to that most elusive member of the male species: the genuine family man, a role Foreman loves. The book also contains breezy bits of running history, such as the origin of the marathon and biographical snippets of yesteryear champions. Still, the chief components are running and humor. “The [running] schedule says I’m supposed to rest today,” Foreman says at one point to his wife. “From what?” she fires back, annoyed. Overlook the ridiculously airbrushed image of him on the dust jacket and this will most probably inspire you to lace up your shoes because he nails the fun, energizing, life-affirming feeling of releasing a shitload of endorphins through exercise. VERDICT Running aficionados, endurance geeks, and anyone who has made the attempt to get back into shape after some time off will love this.

Riot Most UncouthFriedman, Daniel. Riot Most Uncouth: A Lord Byron Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Dec 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781250027597. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250027580. M
This book stars George Gordon (later simply “Lord”) Byron, though you need not like or even be familiar with him to enjoy this. Set during his Cambridge student days, the man is 100 percent swagger, high on the publication of his first book of poetry, which he claims “…cemented my reputation as the greatest poet ever to have lived.” Because he’s bored—and because he seems to be immune from modesty—he declares himself also “…the world’s greatest criminal investigator.” And just like that he takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of local debutante Felicity Whippleby. Ignoring the rudimentary local constabulary and avoiding the private investigators that the Whipplebys employ, Byron noses around, taking his pet bear (yes, a real thing) along for the investigatory ride. Byron’s megalomania proves exuberantly infectious. You, too, will soon be remarking that others are “…intimidated by my estimable presence” and that your “…raw sexual magnetism had a tendency to frighten or confuse lesser men.” When meeting with a hostile lawyer you too will think, “I wanted to shoot him in the throat.” Mounting debts? Failing classes? Big deal. There is wine to be enjoyed. VERDICT Ian Phlegm Fleming was among the best at writing evil masterminds bent on world domination (see: Simon Bar Sinister, et al.); dudes like Ernst Stavro Blofeld spouting lunacies like “…the methods of the great pioneers have often puzzled conventional minds” in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Friedman (author of five-star Don’t Ever Get Old) might not be the first to take this twist to a good guy, but the result is funny enough to make you snort coffee all over your fellow commuters à la LJ Reviews editor extraordinaire Etta Verma. Inspired, hilarious lunacy.

FanaticusGubar, Justine. Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan. Rowman & Littlefield. 2015. 254p. ISBN 9781442228924. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781442228931. SPORTS
For many men, sports generally and teams particularly were a first “love”—a deeply felt connection to another person/group/thing. These feelings of loyalty and identity inform this fascinating, absorbing examination of the “how” and “why” of sports superfans getting up to no good. The book, learned in tone but stopping short of academic, uses beaucoup examples from real life and explores the many sides of issues such as post-game riots and verbal (and worse) harassment of players. ESPN producer Gubar (four Emmys—four!) explores this in the United States with its occasional violence, and also worldwide, where it seems to be both more common and more deadly. Airhorns, screaming, and vuvuzelas are a step away from rowdy rivalries and fights that can morph into stampedes and riots if not properly understood and managed. From cricket in 1996 Sri Lanka to soccer in 1909 Scotland, hockey, football, pro, college, secondary school, even primary school, both in real life and on the Internets—examples of the titular mischief and madness are everywhere. Alcohol consumption contributes to impaired judgment, as do the effects of adrenaline and testosterone (fanaticism is a predominantly male phenom). But Gubar’s most interesting behavioral insights have more to do with the group psychology of crowds—and participants’ belief that they can remain anonymous while misbehaving amid them (that last is universal, not just sports-related, Chumley). Also, there are plain old nut-jobs contributing to the trend. Sports fandom is an outlet that, perhaps regrettably, is still acceptable for those who want or need to “act out.” However, if you’ve never tooted a vuvuzela or burned a couch, let me tell you—it’s pretty fun stuff. VERDICT While it’s a bit odd to read a book about (basically) hooliganism that’s so insightful and thoughtful, the verdict is: E-YES-PN.

Multiple ListingsMcMillan, Tracy. Multiple Listings. Gallery: S. & S. Mar. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781476785523. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476785547. F
This is a good book for what it does, but it is also the kind of book that dudes refuse to read. So while I am going to kind of review it, I am also refusing to admit that. It is the kind of book designed to make women readers feel comfortable—and it succeeds wildly at that, full as it is of affirming, girlish talk that establishes congenial feelings between narrator Nicki Daniels and the reader. The big thing is that Nicki is just like you—or Stephanie Plum or Ana Steele or any other vaguely defined female lead that a woman reader could pour herself into. She’s about 37, probably pretty hot-looking but only modestly mentions having some good features (e.g., big green eyes); she works hard and is proud of her accomplishments. She’s full of self-doubts and concerns because she’s a nice person—just like you! She’s lucked out in terms of a boyfriend who is handsome and 11 years younger, but, you get the picture; she’s too modest to say that—just like you. The two of them plus Nicki’s 16-year-old son are happy, looking to settle down together. Just before they pull the trigger, her dad shows up. He’s an ex-con. Hilarity/heartbreak/drama ensues. Appealing? Yes. Romantic? Yes. Realistic? Well…it has enough realism to be realistic, so while it doesn’t fire on all cylinders all the time, it chugs along enough to keep readers interested and, most importantly, comforted. It’s the reading equivalent of a nicely scented candle. VERDICT This is really good for readers who need quick, soothing intimacy.

The Great ForgettingRenner, James. The Great Forgetting. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Nov. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780374298791. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374714208. SF
Renner (The Man from Primrose Lane) begins—or does he end?—with an epilog in which a freshly severed monkey paw is found in the woods of rural Pennsylvania clutching the watch of one of the victims of Flight 93, which crash-landed there 14 years earlier. The paw is tattooed with a bright red swastika. Say what? Say “yeah.” The story proper focuses on history teacher Jack Felter, who returns to his pastoral Ohio hometown to help care for his ex-soldier father, now unstable with dementia. It’s the last place Jack wants to be—too many psychic wounds that he blames on his two ex-crushes who ran off together to get married. One, Tony, disappeared three years ago, and the other, Samantha, enlists Jack’s help in finding out wtf happened. Tony was a shrink, and Jack discovers that within two weeks of treating the teenage Cole he was raving about the water supply. Within 26 days, Tony had vanished into thin air. Jack contacts Cole to flush out the scoop, and the boy slowly compels Jack into believing that this world isn’t reality, that dark powers fomented a Great Forgetting centered on lies, half-truths (like who won World War II) and mass hypnosis. Foreshadowing abounds. Dad advises Jack to “…play both sides.” Tony at one point says “[m]emory is about trust.” Jack is spurred to think, “[o]ur grasp on the truth is dependent of the honesty of older generations.” Which is the rub—there’s believability, authenticity here, a lot of it. The likable story moves quickly and has Jack sucked deep and fast into conspiracy theories about everything. Intricate, but easy to follow, this is well done with solid emotional anchors surrounding Jack’s father and Sam. VERDICT If you enjoy alternate histories, this is a damn good one.

Atlas of Remote IslandsSchalansky, Judith. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will. Penguin. 2010. 144p. ISBN 9780143118206. $30. REF
Ever want to be alone? Sure you do. Life’s hectic. Kid(s), parents, work, vacuuming, Walking Dead binges. Even Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Well this is an ideal “Calgon, take me away” title for those of us who have no time to take the time. Schalansky selects and waxes on 50 of the farthest-flung outposts of inhospitality on record. Each, in a sense, is a different planet; Mars is just as out of reach as Pitcairn Island—except. See, Schalansky knows the clever thing about remote islands: If you really really want to get there, you can. People actually go to Floreana, and Pukapuka and the other remote islands here. Sure it’s unrealistic, but it’s attainable enough. Most of the entries come from the vast Pacific with a handful drawn from the polar locales. And Schalansky manages to create two-page wonders of lyrical, even romantic, odes to each by mixing facts and poetically charged surmises. Like for Lonely Island, 20 square kilometers of ice and snow and an average temp of -16F (bring your flannel shirt). The German army destroyed a Russian observatory there in World War II and now “abandoned buildings doze in the belly of the bay, facing the narrow spit of land beyond the frozen marsh.” It’s almost as if Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is on tap. VERDICT Remote islands are about possibility, the tabula rasa of landforms, what the author terms the “beautiful void.” Atlas Genius Schalansky notes in the introduction: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.”

The Sound of GravelWariner, Ruth. The Sound of Gravel. Flatiron. Jan. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781250077691. $27.99; ebk ISBN 9781250077714. MEMOIR
Wariner begins her narrative at five years old, explaining that she is her mother’s fourth child, her father’s 39th, the product of polygamous Mormon sect. While one of Ruth’s happiest memories is with her siblings eating “…a delicious dinner of warm bread, honey, and milk out of cereal bowls,” this ain’t no land of milk ’n’ honey. Mom and kids live in a cinderblock shack in a colony in LeBaron, Mexico—200 miles south of El Paso. Though there is running water, there’s no indoor bathroom or electricity, minimal protection during the cold winters, and not a lot of food or creature comforts. At least one sibling has an intellectual disability and mom’s new husband is too preoccupied to be useful (also creepy AF, which worsens as Ruth ages). Even though once a month they return to the States “…to collect food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance,” the Christmas winter Wariner narrates is heart-wrenching; December is “…a dark, frigid kitchen, which reeked of mice droppings.” It’s not an unrealistic account, but the hindsight is so cleverly woven in that it’s easy to overlook. The young Ruth is sweet-natured, writing, “[l]ife in LeBaron didn’t seem bad to me” yet surely doesn’t understand that murky, whole-family baths, exposed electrical wiring, and sexual eccentricities are exceptions in the first world. As she matures, with mom pregnant time and again, Ruth questions her mother’s commitment to the community and the culture of near-bedlam that the sect inspires (e.g., all-or-nothing polygamy, baby-making, American Armageddon). Ruth’s ferocious love for her siblings is living proof that heroines come in all shapes and sizes, including this one who saved her family and became (go figure) a high school Spanish teacher in Portland, OR. VERDICT A memoir worth reading. Webster’s defines “resilience” as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Gravel shows its face—Wariner’s.

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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.