A Circus Escapade, Tips for Distance Runners, and More | Books for Dudes

This month Doug reviews Mary Beard, feminist classics author supreme, Tessa Fontaine, a talented writer masquerading as a circus performer, a dark-as-a-dungeon tale of pathology from Christopher Yates, and the greatest-book-in-the-world-this-month by JM Gulvin.
Holy crap, does Books for Dudes start out 2018 with some badass stuff. You’ve got your Mary Beard, feminist classics author supreme, you got your Tessa Fontaine, a talented writer masquerading as a circus performer, you’ve got your dark-as-a-dungeon tale of pathology from Christopher Yates, and you’ve got your greatest-book-in-the-world-this-month by JM Gulvin. There’s a mess of other stuff, too, but that’s the main stuff. How badass is that for a group of books? I’d say “pretty badass,” but then I think about Aleksandra Samusenko, the only female tank officer in the 1st Guards Tank Army, and I realize that’s what being a badass is all about. And hey, if you need more, go with the ALA CODES picks for 2017; great selections. Beard, Mary. Women & Power: A Manifesto. Liveright. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9781631494758. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631494765. SOC SCI Two lectures converted to essay form lose none of their power and, one hopes, increases their audience exponentially. As a classics scholar, Beard’s basic argument is that women have been getting the dirty end of the stick since Greek’n’Roman times. Evidence includes Echo and Narcissus and Perseus and Medusa, with parallels to (naturally) Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. "When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice." In between there isn’t much evidence of people like Eleanor Roosevelt or Lucretia Mott or, you know, JWoww. It’s not polemic, it’s not anti-men. VERDICT Good stuff, very well done, erudite, and a great nail in the coffin for the patriarchy. Read it for your brain, dude. Fontaine, Tessa. The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts. Farrar. May 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780374158378. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374717025. MEMOIR Fontaine smashes together two distinct memoirs, one focused on grieving her mother’s prolonged illness and death, the other her unlikely, brave’n’crazy season as a small-time carnival performer. About both she writes that there’s no trick: “[t]he only way to do it is to do it.” These independent stories become twined only when Fontaine reveals that she sought the job to escape her grief and the guilt she felt about being a less-than-stellar daughter: “I thought the sideshow would be a place to escape it. But here it is. Over and over.” As she waxes about her mom, Fontaine finds similarities to herself. Fun and wild, mom was a onetime surfer-girl performer who said things like, “Do you kids know what’s no fun? Everything ordinary.” The circus proves both a disorienting, distracting balm, but as exciting as the snake handling, card tricks, and “secret rituals” of the carnival’s insides are, it is the grinding journey of mom-grief that will resonate with readers, as when Fontaine considers the “wound” of the illness. It must, she writes “must be mendable over time, because it has to be—because people go on, because a death happens and eventually it’s Wednesday, and then Thursday, and somebody has to buy coffee filters.” VERDICT There are plenty of memoirs out there, but take a walk on the wild side, why dontcha? Gulvin, JM. The Long Count: A John Q Mystery. Faber & Faber. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780571337743. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780571323807. F Q: Can a thriller be simultaneously gripping and laid back? A: If it’s written by Gulvin, magnificently so. It’s May, 1967, but this ain’t no flower child hippy-dippy horseshit throwback. John Quarrie is a widower, a Texas Ranger, and a Korean War vet—in that order. A smart, thorough, and experienced investigator, this loner receives and dispatches missions like a knight accepts quests. He backs his confidence with the threat of being (quite literally) the fastest draw in the West. Quarrie is tracking a rampage of mayhem across Texas and Louisiana that’s somehow linked to the apparent suicide of a quiet World War II war vet; the culprit is indefatigably, wrathfully hunting and destroying his victims, and Quarrie needs to figure it out. Details about race relations and mental health treatment are unsentimental, and sadly, true to life. The unhurried pace of Gulvin’s solid writing is attributable to an admirable economy of words and careful, spookily accurate descriptions. Also, Gulvin has engaged enough characters to keep the plot swirling, but not so many that readers will lose track. Readers will correctly predict that this will end with John Q. “winning,” but almost none will guess how. VERDICT If you enjoy Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, or Michael Connelly, this is similarly propulsive, quiet, and compelling. First of a projected series, this one is BFD-approved and highly recommended. Helton, J.R. Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class. Liveright. Jan. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781631492877. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631492884. SOC SCI Don’t be fooled by the title, this isn’t some ironic, hipster selection—it’s literally the chronicle of one dude’s bad jobs and poor decisions. In 1983, after publishing one short story, JRH drops out of college to write full time; he fails, not spectacularly, and recounts the next six-odd years of his activities, replete with verbatim conversations. Some, like the time he spent as a pot-smoking underemployed house painter, are long-form stupid stuff many have done. One learns, right? Others are doozies; it’s hard to understand how a months-long honeymoon of “…doing cocaine or, when the money got low, crank, crystal meth” could turn out okay. It can be fun to read about the travails of others, especially if those others are named “William Shatner” (Up Till Now), but JRH’s episodes aren’t particularly interesting. Reading them is like when your uncle who’s a machinist comes over at Easter, gets some beers into him, and starts telling the story of his winter salvaging railroad ties or when he got fired at Christmas and the boss screwed him out of the bonus—dreary and aimless. In a way, it’s the opposite of David Sylvian, superdude.  VERDICT Whatever its intent, this is a cautionary tale or a chronicle of resilience; JRH should have got to the point a lot quicker. File under: Baby Boomers ruin everything. The Long Distance Runner's Guide to Injury Prevention and Treatment: How To Avoid Common Problems and Deal with Them When They Happen. ed. by Brian J. Krabak, Grant S. Lipman, and Brandee L. Waite. Skyhorse. 2017. ISBN 9781510717909. pap. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781510717930. SPORTS This is a good, reputable, science-based guide with 23 topical articles covering a wide variety of issues and injuries common (and some not so common) to runners and triathletes. Some content is super useful, like the nice fat chapter on foot care. All the stuff we runners experience is covered, from macerated (wet, super-wrinkly) feet to blister formation and prevention, to a table listing the ingredients and pros and cons of applying various lubricants (e.g., Bodyglide vs. Sportshield). Super-exciting, no, but each is written by a team of athletic doctors and medical/running professionals of very high quality. For example, the chapter on “Proper Training and How To Avoid Overtraining” is written by Jonathan Dugas, a triathlon coach with a CV that includes the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s a well-organized science’n’facts tool, not an inspire-you-to-finish-the-race type book. With 50 pages of references (index not seen), it’s good. VERDICT Readers might not want to spring for two reasons: 1) most of the information is common sense backed up by beaucoup science and, 2) it is focused on maximum breadth of coverage for diagnosis and recommended fix, not deeper coverage of common injuries. So a two-page treatment of Iliotibial (IT) Band syndrome is good, but begs more, but the 20 pages on ocular problems…maybe not so useful. Rae, Amber. Choose Wonder Over Worry: Move Beyond Fear and Doubt To Unlock Your Full Potential. Wednesday: St. Martin’s. May 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781250175250. $25.99. ebk. ISBN 9781250175274. $11.99. SELF-HELP Reading this is like being at a high school graduation where the 18-year-old Valedictorian urges the audience comprised of investment bankers, car dealers, and assorted septuagenarians to “never give up your dreams.” Most adults I know are crushed beneath soul-destroying medical/credit/college debt or health issues or whatever else; they gave up their dreams long ago¹. Rae’s language is as convincing as an infomercial (e.g., “Maybe you have a bold vision, but lack the resources to make it happen”). The folksy tone "speaks" directly to readers, and while it doesn’t guarantee success (which is at least honest), it does encourage readers to try. There are also attempts to provide antidotes to negative personality aspects. Some of this is puzzling (see: “jealousy” and the anecdote of Rae’s husband Facebook flirting). Because Rae uses elements of her own journey as book fodder—including her struggle in writing the actual book—she has inextricably linked her personal issues, journey, and solutions to the advice. What the title promises is a map, what it delivers is her map, and what readers need is to develop their own maps. VERDICT Self-help books are a bit of a crapshoot—your mileage will vary. Look up any of Rae’s online advice columns; if that stuff resonates with you, this book goes deeper along those lines and “should” work for you. Smith, Lindsey. Eat Your Feelings: The Food Mood Girl’s Guide to Transforming Your Emotional Eating. Macmillan. Jan. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781250139412. pap. $24.99. ebk. ISBN 9781250139429. COOKING An incredibly strange mix of unhealthy eating advice that also features nutritious, delicious recipes. The bad: there is endless quackery, such as that by eschewing party foods your body may “…seek justice because it doesn’t feel like it was properly served.” The writing is overly personal and also manipulative; on page six you’ll find a 130-word snippet; seven of those words are “love” and 16 others are some variant of “you.” The good: weirdly, the recipes seem totally great, nutritionally sound and super tasty. Three-ingredient peanut butter cookies, chunky monkey banana bites, chocolate chia pudding, egg’n’potato tacos. All good, and made with healthy ingredients. Some, like roasted cauliflower mash or black bean burgers, have a few fussy ingredients and longer-than-needed prep times, but these are balanced by the simple ones. But many health and fitness professionals spend distinguished careers getting people to change their relationship with food, to move away from emotional eating, and to break the cycle of emotional connection to food. Considering food as nourishment, not as an emotional component of your life, is a time-tested way to health. Smith’s entire approach, as shown by the work of many professionals, not a healthy way to live and eschews science. VERDICT Rip out the first 40 pages, then proceed with caution. Having said that, if Smith invites you over to her place to eat any of her home-cooked meals, go without hesitation. Yates, Christopher J. Grist Mill Road. Picador. Jan. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781250150288. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250150318. F This unsettling, dark novel begins in 1982 with a grotesque incident involving three children, then whiplashes to 2008ish NYC where two of them (Patrick aka “Patch” and Hannah) seem to be happily married. The two don’t need to work (trust fund parasites) though Hannah slums as a detective and Patch has recently been canned from something. When he’s not stalking his old boss he’s strutting around their apartment dreaming of  being a restaurateur and blogging about his gourmet food creations in scenes so overly “extra” they destroy the narrative (e.g., he turns "...chicken fat into powder that he scatters over micro-green salads like a dusting of crumbled feta." The story is told from multiple perspectives, though primarily Patch’s, and against all odds, Yates somehow presents this self-absorbed butthole of a guy sympathetically. Hannah initiates sex in public places, and in one scene strategically places meat all over her body "… until the pink and bloody path disappears between her legs." By the time the third person from the past incident reappears, the narrative’s intensity has faded and readers will be puzzling over which of the three is reliable, which is the most violent, and about the interplay among the three different perspectives on the past. VERDICT Yates keeps readers guessing, but the layers of pathology and bitterness abound and the abundance of detail drags the pace to a crawl.

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