A friend recently suggested I should compile a list of book recommendations for Father’s Day gifts. Owing to extreme domestic dysfunction (i.e. my children are out of school for the summer) this list is rolling in a little late. But it’s a great idea! Thank you, Ali Kraus and indigotilt.com!
I decided to go through my previous reviews and select the best books for dudes. Some are fiction, some are nonfiction; some are new releases, some are old. If you are: a) a man, or b) know a man*, then I feel certain you’ll find this list useful. Here it is:
The Martian by Andy Weir (fiction)
One night three years ago, my father—my healthy, funny, beloved father—went to sleep and did not wake up. He was a truly brilliant guy. In my belligerent youth, I failed to appreciate this as unique. I just thought all men had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from foreign policy to structural engineering. In my house, if some highly complex piece of machinery broke, my dad did not truck over to Lowe’s and buy a new one. He’d dissemble the thing down to its component parts, deduce how it worked, and whip up a new and much more efficient one out of some toothpicks, duct tape and gum salvaged from the trash. (Side note: duct tape is featured prominently in The Martian. Men love duct tape…cliched but true.“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”) Anyway, now of course I realize my dad’s ingenuity was one of the most remarkable things about him.
So reading this novel was bittersweet for me. After only a couple pages, I was whimpering ‘Daddy, DADDY,’ inside my head. Like my dad, astronaut Mark Watney is one of those guys who can figure out anything. Even if you don’t live with one of those guys personally, you know the kind I mean. (And if you want to delve into the Mr. Fixit phenomenon further, read some reviews of Mark Watney’s character on Goodreads. Women absolutely LOVE this guy.)
Example: “…It's everything that I look for in a man, err... book: smart, funny, exciting, and kept me up half the night. Rawr!—Becky.
The story opens with Mark Watney finding himself in an extreme MacGyver situation: his space mission has gone horribly wrong, and he is trapped on Mars. His fellow shipmates believe that he is dead and they’ve bounced, leaving him behind with no way off the planet and no means of communication with Earth. Oh, and he has been impaled by an antenna, which has torn a hole in both his spacesuit and him, leaving him unconscious on the surface of a planet with an atmosphere of nearly pure carbon dioxide. Kind of daunting odds, right?
Fortunately, the dust cloud that knocked Watney out left him with ... more
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (fiction)
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your God like a soldier.
These words, penned by the 19th century British writer Rudyard Kipling, were written in description of the 2nd Anglo-Afghan war, which began in 1878. As we all know, we are no more enlightened in the 21st century than we were in the 19th; the battles for Afghanistan still rage today, churning up a swathe of the world where bloody geopolitics consumes just as many lives as ever.
We know this, but most of us don’t live this, of course. When’s the last time you dodged a sniper bullet or saw your loved one beheaded? In America, our concerns are more mundane: I, for one, must battle the crippling anxiety of having signed up for too many volunteer commitments. But I have a family; I have love in my life. Not so for either of the resourceful, fascinating men who dominate this book.
Our protagonist, who is known by many aliases, is Pilgrim, and he is the man who quotes the Rudyard Kipling poem. He’s a loner, a highly intelligent, highly lethal super-spy, who has forgone the warmth of regular human connection in order to carry out his high-stakes job policing the world’s hotspots. Peripatetic and lonely, Pilgrim carries the reader to Russia, to Saudi Arabia, to France and Germany, to Turkey, to Afghanistan, where the gorgeous narration conveys the backdrop of these places as perfectly as if you were standing alongside him.
The opening scene of the book, however, takes place in New York City, where a once-beautiful young woman is found in a bath of acid. The investigating detective recognizes ... more
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America On The Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. (nonfiction)
Hands down, my favorite author of all time. The man simply cannot write a boring sentence. I’m crazy about all his books, but I’ll pick this one for the list because his tale of hiking the AT with a slovenly friend in tow always reduces me to feeble, helpless snorting. Love!
Click HERE to buy A Walk in the Woods.
The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku. (nonfiction)
Kaku is a theoretical physicist, but don't let that deter you: he writes in prose lucid enough for a normal person to comprehend. All of his books are stellar (pun intended), but start with this one. The stuff he writes about in TFOTM is trippy beyond my powers of description. Forget what you think you know about the left brain/right brain dichotomy, and read all about the mute alternate persona locked inside your own mind. Then brace yourself and delve deeper into the brains of the future. Kaku tackles the latest advances in neuroscience, and we're talking topics that could be lifted from the pages of Star Trek: telepathy, telekinesis, enhanced cognition. These things are real, and they are going to happen in some fashion. It's only a matter of time.
Click HERE to buy The Future of the Mind.
The Big Short: inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (nonfiction)
Raise your hand if you understand the intricacies of what caused the banking meltdown of 2008. No? Well, you should, and Michael Lewis is the man to explain it, because he will make it comprehensible, and also—miraculously—interesting. Now you can impress your friends by yammering on about Collateralized Debt Obligations and Mortgage-Backed Securities, even if you're about as financially savvy as the average toddler. Great writer. Because of him, I read at least twenty other financial nonfiction books, and nobody does it as well as he does.
Click HERE to buy The Big Short.
A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among The Baboons by Robert M. Salposky (nonfiction)
I would have thought I already know about living among baboons, because I have an 8 year-old son with a bunch of friends. Ha. I would be wrong. From the terrific opening lines (“I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,”) to the heart-wrenching ending, Sapolsky’s humor, obsession and brilliance shine through every page of this touching account of his decades studying primates in the Serengeti. A must-read ecological memoir.
Click HERE to buy A Primate's Memoir.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. (Also Reamde, by same author, fiction.)
I’m going to veer off in a different direction this week and review what has got to be the weirdest, most epic book I’ve ever read. I’ll warn you straight up that this is a 900-page, highly technical apocalyptic saga, but to my surprise, I saw it was number three on the New York Times bestseller list the other week. Who knew there were that many hardcore space geeks out there? Please bear with me if you’re not the kind of reader who digs on lavish descriptions of astrophysics.
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
When a mysterious explosion separates the moon into seven giant fragments, human beings are at first astonished, but quickly accept the new celestial reality. There is no immediate threat: the tides still roll and the moon fragments—the adorably named Potatohead, Mr. Spinny, Acorn, Peach Pit, Scoop, Big Boy and Kidney Bean—still orbit the earth. But within days of the death of the moon, at least one man realizes the truth: the Earth is doomed.
Within two years, give or take, the chunks of moon will split further into an exponentially increasing number of fragments. Once this reaches a certain critical mass—the sudden upswing on the exponential curve—the skies over Earth will light up with meteorites, a phenomenon dubbed the White Sky. Within a few days of the onset of the White Sky, the the planet will be blanketed with torpedoes of fire, a process termed the Hard Rain. The Hard Rain is inescapable: Earth’s surface will transpose into a boiling, fiery apocalypse that will kill every living thing ...
Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley (fiction)
Think you have career obstacles? Nick Naylor is the PR guy for the tobacco industry, good-naturedly battling daily hordes of righteous scientists, activists, and public health officials, when he's kidnapped and subjected to a most unusual punishment. It’s a fluffy read, but for some reason, I’m endlessly attracted to Buckley’s caustic skewering of America’s spin doctors. It's satirical, it's wicked, it's decidedly non-PC, and it's funny as hell.
Click HERE to buy Thank You for Smoking.
Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson (nonfiction)
Anyone want to take a guess as to the approximate time period of the Golden Age of pirates? If you guessed 1650–1720 then you’re obviously a huge nerd, but congratulations. You're right.
We’ve all seen Pirates of the Caribbean, so we have a vivid mental image when it comes to what a pirate should look like: swarthy, with beaded hair and Keith Richards-style eyeliner. And we know how they spent their days, too: commandeering ships in order to effect dashing rescues of waifish maidens, while accumulating treasure, intrigue, and enemies along the way.
This is the point in a scholarly review where... more
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (fiction)
The best novel I’ve read in at least a year. It has everything: riveting, unique writing; I-can’t-stop-reading suspense; and a timely and relevant societal message. Before the Fall tells the story of a roguish Martha’s Vineyard painter who is offered a ride to Manhattan on a media mogul’s chartered jet. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes into the Atlantic. Of the eleven people onboard—the media titan, his wife, an unscrupulous Wall Street financier and his wife, an Israeli security officer, the cerebral pilot, a cocaine-fueled co-pilot, a beautiful, troubled flight attendant, and two children—only two of them survive the initial crash. Against unfathomable odds, the painter, Scott Burroughs, rescues another passenger and survives an epic swim to shore, only to find himself caught in a firestorm of media speculation and investigative suspicion. The author, screenwriter/producer Noah Hawley, pulls off the supremely difficult technical feat of writing in nearly a dozen third-person POVs—alternating between backstories and the present day—without even once breaking the tension. If you only buy one book this summer, buy this one.
Click HERE to buy Before the Fall.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (fiction)
Oh, I’m a sucker for a book incorporating elements of quantum physics into a fast-paced thriller. Aren’t we all? This book is pure plot, zipping through alternate realities with page-churning fury. Chicago Physics professor Jason Dessen goes out one winter evening to grab a quick beer with a more-distinguished colleague, leaving behind his wife and teenaged son. He’s headed back to them with a tub of ice cream when he’s abducted by a masked man, who whisks him off to an abandoned warehouse. He’s bashed unconscious, and awakens tied to a gurney. Then things get unimaginably weird. Or unimaginably weird to me; fortunately, Blake Crouch was able to imagine it. That’s about all I can say without meandering off into a bunch of spoilers. Despite the title, there’s actually not much science; Schrodinger’s long-suffering cat gets a mention, as do a few recognizable physics terms, but Crouch doesn't get too far into the weeds in trying to explain how exactly all this bizarre stuff goes down. His writing style is spare—lots of sentences fragments and one-line paragraphs—but it works. It’s a tense, speedy, extremely creative novel.
Click HERE to buy Dark Matter.
Hollow Man by Mark Pryor (fiction)
Meet Dominic. He’s an Austin prosecutor who moonlights as a musician in the city’s vibrant after-hours clubs. Despite a career taking down bad guys, Dominic is hiding something startling: he’s a sociopath, born completely without empathy for other human beings. Which is not to say that he has no emotions—he’s keenly interested in his own well-being. So, Dominic is plenty upset one day when he’s walloped by an awful trifecta: his parents die, he’s unfairly demoted at work, and his gig at his favorite venue is canceled when an anonymous musician reports him for allegedly plagiarizing a song. Since he doesn’t care about other people, his parents dying doesn’t register all that much, but Dominic is quite annoyed by losing income and prestige at work. And his reaction about the accusation that he stole someone else’s song can only be described as apoplectically pissed.
So when he’s offered the opportunity to score some easy cash in a burglary, Dominic ... more
The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly (fiction)
So. I personally have written 1.5 as-of-yet-unpublished novels, which does not qualify me as a world-class writing expert. But consider a couple of writing patterns I discovered in this week’s reviewed book:
—A tendency toward superfluous adverbs: “He was foully eaten alive.”
—When things get exciting there are a lot of exclamation points!
However. You are not going to care. You aren’t reading The Great Zoo Of China for its exquisite prose or its thought-provoking insight into the essential nature of man and beast. You are reading it because it is a stomach-churning, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat adventure story, starring a fearless and supremely competent female herpetologist who is about 1000 times cooler than you... more
Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J.English (nonfiction)
In a recent conversation, T.J. English, the lauded journalist/author, asked me what I knew about Whitey Bulger. Prior to reading English’s latest work, Where The Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, my recollections of Bulger were half-formed, misty snippets plucked from the popular press: I knew he was some kind of washed-up gangster, whose years on the lam had ended in an explosion of public fascination when he and his dishy girlfriend were apprehended in California awhile back. I also had a vague recollection that in the midst of his trial, someone related to it had gotten himself whacked in some cryptic fashion, although I couldn’t remember who or why or how. That's pretty much it. Clearly, I’m no connoisseur of the Irish-American mob.
English, on the other hand, has made a career of investigating and chronicling the infamous South Boston crime legends, along with numerous other underworlds: the drug wars in Juárez, Mexico; Jewish mobsters in Havana; and the Irish gangs of New York, among others. If it’s someplace a sane person would avoid, English has probably been there and had a few beers with a murderous psychopath nicknamed Mad Dog or Mugsy, while ... more
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (fiction)
Wolfe is wordy, but he’s a genius at describing a scene, especially if you’re partial to wry, witty commentary. He can spend two pages on a guy eating a sandwich, and you’re glued to each word in amused fascination. His quintessential saga of ‘80s era Wall Streeters is a cultural masterpiece. It's my favorite book of all time.
Click HERE to buy Bonfire of the Vanities.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (nonfiction)
This one's for the thrill-seeker who doesn't actually want to risk freezing to death, stumbling into a crevasse, or having his brain explode from cerebral edema. Krakauer's vivid nonfiction tale is still the definitive--albeit controversial-- recounting of the ill-fated 1996 Everest expedition in which eight climbers died horribly. Another good one in the survival genre is Nando Parrado's Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, about the 1972 crash in the Argentine Andes of the plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team. You think you're a tough guy? You may be surprised by the infamous lengths the survivors of the crash took in order to to make it off the mountain.
Click HERE to buy Into Thin Air.
Click HERE to buy Miracle in the Andes.
*You'll also love these books if you are a woman. However, stating that would have messed up my title.