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Renée's Picks

Book Cover for The Plague of Doves Erdrich, Louise
The Plague of Doves

In this masterful novel, characters intertwine after a murder and lynching on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. Alternating narrators divulge family histories and contemporary events that unfold in an exquisitely complex plot that examines the crime over generations and culminates in a thrilling conclusion. The novel’s emotional effect is just as engrossing, as characters cope with the weight of historical events on their own lives. Each character, from the teenaged granddaughter of one of the lynching’s witnesses, to descendants of the murderous mob, to the smitten judge, delivers a sympathetic tale. Some passages are so gorgeously written, they’re transformative. Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible will revel in Erdrich’s ability to incorporate deep social challenges with lush prose, irresistible characters and a riveting story.
Recommended February 2012

Book Cover for The Necessity of Certain Behaviors Cain, Shannon
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors

Short Stories
The necessary behaviors in these short stories demand a lot of negotiation. In one, a woman struggles to balance relationships with both a boyfriend and girlfriend. In another, a divorcée manages a successful marijuana business and the demands of single motherhood. A cage cleaner at the Queer Zoo is the only straight employee, and his insistence on staying closeted is causing tension with his girlfriend. Obviously, moments of hilarious misunderstanding ensue in these stories—often via wittily sarcastic dialogue. Shannon Cain’s clipped descriptions convey poetic familiarity with the characters’ thoughts and settings. Characters often demonstrate their feelings for each other by proxy—accepting the gift of a puppy or compulsively cleaning an apartment. Beyond the pyrotechnics of these stories’ unconventional premises lie heartfelt explorations of loneliness and companionship. Cain portrays these situations with acceptance that allows as much gravity as humor. Characters tell their mothers wild lies, but they also call them for advice. They ponder functional parenting and family alcoholism while they try to prove the paternity of Bob Barker. The AAA travel agent intentionally remapping customers’ vacations is also coping with her parents’ sudden death in a car wreck. They each arrive at some realization about their lives and connection to others—thanks to whatever behavior they found necessary to bring them there.
Recommended January 2012

Book Cover for Averno Gluck, Louise

Louise Glück’s voice attains mystical perfection in these poems, which use the myth of Persephone to explore the nature of the soul. Her cadence varies from defiance to weariness to reverence as she intertwines natural imagery, especially the seasonal cycle, with the human life cycle. Poems also include references to a contemporary family. Glück establishes a parallel with Persephone’s conflict between Demeter and Hades and a daughter’s choice between her mother and lover. The poet uses these structures to express the equal pressures on the soul to connect earthly and divine spheres. Lines from some poems linger, as when, addressing her soul, the speaker asks “What will you do, / when it is your turn in the field with the god?”
Recommended December 2011

Book Cover for Please Brown, Jericho

Jericho Brown’s poetry collection Please is organized into four sections: Repeat, Pause, Power and Stop. Brown continues the musical theme throughout a cycle of poems whose titles are all numbered tracks and whose content references song lyrics. Other poems refer to characters from The Wizard of Oz and slide fluidly between elevated verse and rhythmic slang. These devices serve as entry points for Brown’s intimate explorations of love, violence, and the lines where they intersect. Sometimes those lines fall between lovers, sometimes between father and son, sometimes within crime-ridden neighborhoods. All of them result in verse as immediate as it is well-crafted, strung with such arresting lines as these from “The Burning Bush:” “Remember me for this sprouting fire…/No ash behind, I burn to bloom. / I am not consumed. I am not consumed.”
Recommended October 2011

Book Cover for BodyWorld Shaw, Dash

Graphic Novel
For his fourth graphic novel, Dash Shaw has created a genre-blending and participatory book. BodyWorld endeavors to absorb the reader in its disorienting tale by its very design: the book is laid out to be read vertically, turning pages from bottom to top, rather than right to left. Chapter beginnings refer to maps on both inside covers. The plot and story devices are just as demanding of the reader’s attention. The story involves several characters in an idyllic suburban town that undergoes mind-altering changes when a sleazy (yet sympathetic) stranger introduces the natives to a hallucinogenic plant he discovered on the school’s campus. Psychedelic, layered drawings express the drug’s telekinetic effects as characters shift into one another’s minds and the plot builds to a frenzied climax. Narrative viewpoints change frequently, and the book includes elements of science fiction, high school drama and detective mystery. Among all of these special effects, Shaw develops a truly fascinating tale full of engaging characters.
Recommended October 2011

Book Cover for The Physics of Imaginary Objects Hall, Tina May
The Physics of Imaginary Objects

Short Stories
Tina May Hall is a writer who pays exquisite attention, a collector of news stories and ordinary facts whose inclusion in her prose sparks it to life. The table of contents is enough to pique any reader’s curiosity, with titles like “Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws,” “Faith Is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol” and “There Is a Factory in Sierra Vista Where Jesus Is Resurrected Every Hour in Hot Plastic and the Stench of Chicken.” The collection abounds with quotidian detail and quirky trivia that instantly develop characters and settings. Hall's writing is electric, sizzling with precise description, impeccable timing and masterful rhythm. While the darkly magical tone and grounded detail connect the stories, they vary in style, including fables, flash fiction, a novella, lists of fragments from poems and historical records, even a prose sonnet. Some sentences are weighted with so much implied narrative, their collective force creates worlds more than stories, as in “Our mothers won’t let us sit on their laps” or “For a moment, I think you are going to propose to me in front of the fry-bread cart, but you are just tying your shoe."
Recommended September 2011

Book Cover for The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands: Poems Flynn, Nick
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands: Poems

In this poetry collection, Flynn continues his examination of torture, specifically in Abu Ghraib prison, that he began in his memoir The Ticking is the Bomb. While he still explores violence in humanity, this work takes a more elliptical approach. Poems quote Walt Whitman and pop lyrics, often achieving a song-like rhythm as they speak in the voice of a soldier ordered to violently interrogate a prisoner. Distortion and disorientation dominate the syntax as Flynn fractures lines with enjambed breaks. He punctuates with slashes, parentheses and spaces, and uses obsessive repetition and serial questioning. He also uses the language of official documents to compelling effect in one poem that reveals only excerpts of non-redacted lines of detainee testimonies. The book’s central concern is the immediate relevance of state-sanctioned torture and acts of war to ordinary citizenry, but the framework used to examine culpability shifts constantly. From the body, to the classical elements, to the radio, to detainee interviews, to the satirized but urgent voice of a soldier addressing his silent “capt’n,” the scope of these contexts suggests that such violence and the responsibility for its existence is inescapable. In both form and subject matter, this troubling collection confronts questions of war, truth and patriotism in an era when those three themes arise and transform daily.
Recommended September 2011

Book Cover for Lighthead: Poems Hayes, Terrance
Lighthead: Poems

Terrance Hayes’ National Book Award winning title simmers with the energy of formal experimentation and linguistic daring as the poet reflects on themes of family, masculinity, music and US history. Many poems make use of unique forms, including pecha kucha, which Hayes adapts from a twenty part structure inspired by a Japanese business presentation technique. Lighthead bustles with literary and cultural allusions, including Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Fela Kuti, and figures from blues, hip hop and contemporary pop music. Hayes’ skilled use of language includes surprising rhyme, slant rhyme and wordplay. When he employs slang, the effect is a poem that sounds almost encoded, as in “New Folk,” with “A month later, / in pulled a parade of well-meaning alabaster post-adolescents.” Hayes’s mastery of voice allows him to move easily between gravity and humor, lyrical rumination and straightforward statement. He draws imagery from a wide range of sources, often rapidly shifting among them, as in “The Elegant Tongue,” in which he discusses kissing, a parable involving an elephant, and Biblical allusion. The poem closes with “Darling, kiss me again in the nastiest possible way. / When the blind fondle the elephant's trunk, an organ / of fifteen thousand miraculous multipurpose muscles, and hiss / ‘This creature is most like the serpent in Eden,’ / tell them, ‘If there is goodness in your heart, it will come / to your mouth,’ and if that doesn't work, tell them, / ‘In the dark it's not the forked tongue that does the piercing.’”
Recommended January 2011

Book Cover for Birds of America Moore, Lorrie
Birds of America

Short Stories
“There was nothing as complex in the world—no flower or stone—as a single hello from a human being,” Laurie Moore writes in one of her short stories, and throughout Birds of America, she proves it again and again. Her characters date people twenty years their junior. They embarrass themselves, offend people and cheat on their partners. They can’t get along with their relatives long enough to finish a game of charades, and remain too introspective to connect with others enough to overcome their loneliness. They get cancer and buy dilapidated houses and shoot intrusive rodents. In short, they are regular, decidedly unheroic people whose quirkiness warrants as much derision as empathetic self-recognition. While Moore addresses such difficult subject matter as illness, death, infidelity and social isolation, her stories ring with wry humor. Her prose brilliantly mixes phrases from common speech with ingenious wordplay and startlingly poetic descriptions—she even throws in a few Tom Swifties. Birds of America is an appropriate, if cryptic title: Moore details the interior life of her characters with the skill and beauty Audubon rendered ornithology into colorful, lush portraits.
Recommended December 2010

Book Cover for How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors Edited by Dan Crowe with Philip Oltermann
How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors

“Can you think for a minute about which object, picture, or document in your study reveals most about the relationship between living and writing, and then send it to us?” was the question editors Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann asked in a letter they sent to dozens of writers. They published the responses in the form of entertaining essays and photographs of these talismans. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Neil La Bute, Douglas Coupland, Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Lethem and about 45 others responded. Not only do the brief entries offer glimpses into these writers’ varied approaches and attitudes about writing, but they also provide a sample of their style and wit. Most authors include a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor along with fascinating anecdotes of how they came to value these objects. Aside from the possibility of discovering a new writer, part of the appeal of this collection is its gorgeous design, which will make it especially appealing to readers who enjoy the similarly-themed Postsecret books ( The authors’ contributions range from hilarious to poignant, and reveal the reality of the working lives of a much-romanticized profession.
Recommended December 2010

Book Cover for Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel Murakami , Haruki
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel

Murakami’s hip, brain-warping novel juxtaposes two plots that unfold in alternating chapters. One, Hard-boiled Wonderland, involves infowars in a futuristic Tokyo, and the other, The End of the World, a struggle for identity in a sinister fairy tale-like village. Part of what makes the novel so engrossing is the distinct tone and characterization each section’s narrator adopts. The data encryptor in Hardboiled Wonderland is a solitary whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking intellectual. The protagonist of The End of the World, caught without his memory in the mysterious laws of the village, conveys a dream-like, urgent mood. Switching between these plots is fascinating enough, and has the effect of playing Dark Side of the Moon to the The Wizard of Oz, but irresistible tension results from the interplay and overlap of the two storylines.
Recommended November 2010

Book Cover for Lucifer at the Starlite: Poems Addonizio, Kim
Lucifer at the Starlite: Poems

The work in Lucifer at the Starlite includes muted, almost philosophical longing set in the context of everyday details, and the thrills and disappointments of family and romantic relationships. Poems depict gods and devils who make pasta and negotiate for CEO-like control of the world. They explore the realms of fairy tales and prayer as well as bars and fetish boutiques. Some pieces employ clever conceits, but Addonizio pulls them off by remaining grounded in sincerity and devoted to the originality of her language. For example, in the poem “You,” she identifies someone as situations and objects that characterize the speaker’s relationship to the person. Highlights of the poem, like the line “You were a town with one pay phone and someone else was using it,” exemplify Addonizio’s specialty at capturing ordinary, familiar details with crystallizing specificity. “You” is one of several list poems that indict unavailable lovers and describe the heart with surprising images, calling it “that tiny little dance floor to the left of the band.” While the book’s structure and range of imagery can be humorous and playful, Addonizio’s voice is deeply reflective and romantic, and her control over the poems’ lyrical tones never wavers.
Recommended November 2010

Book Cover for Love Belongs to Those Who Do the Feeling Grahn, Judy
Love Belongs to Those Who Do the Feeling: New & Selected Poems (1966-2006)

Judy Grahn selected this collection of her poems herself, making for a personalized retrospective of her career so far. Her introduction to each section enriches the reading experience by providing personal, philosophical and historical context. Grahn, who wrote much of her work while involved with political movements in the 1960s to 1980s, writes poetry with the intention of reading it aloud, and employs rhythm, repetition and sound to enrich that presentation. The poems are deeply reflective and deal with feminism, lesbianism and working class experience to love and mythic interpretations of Helen of Troy. Many are informed by Grahn’s considerable research on mythology, and employ imagery from those sources as well as the natural and industrial world. Her poems question, rally, rage, inform, inspire and entertain. Whatever the subject matter and tone, each poem rings with its own vivid voice that engages the reader with its emotion, wit and heart.
Recommended November 2010

Book Cover for The Opposite House Oyeyemi, Helen
The Opposite House

The Opposite House alternates between two storylines. In one, a Cuban family who immigrated to England deals with cultural conflict in their adopted homeland. In the other, a woman who is possibly a Yoruba goddess, navigates her mysterious “somewherehouse,” which has otherworldly tenants and doors that open to both London and Laos. Questions of cultural, familial and individual identity dominate the novel’s themes. The narrator, who is pregnant, navigates her role with her partner and within her birth family, especially in the idealistic conflicts between her mystic mother, a Santería practitioner, and her ultra-logical father, a history professor. As an immigrant and a woman, ideas of belonging and origin also weigh heavily on her. She divides her psyche into her present self, her memories of Cuba, and her hysteric, a part of her personality who “is blank, electricity dancing around a filament, singing to kill.” Oyeyemi’s elegant writing is full of such irresistible daredevil poetry. Her characters are intensely eccentric, yet honest. Their dynamic relationships, especially between the narrator and her best friend and her mother, are emotionally engaging. The Opposite House elegantly weaves an absorbing tale from differing experiences, realities, cultures and myth.
Recommended August 2010

Book Cover for Temper Bachmann, Beth

Nonfiction (Poetry)
Beth Bachmann’s Temper creates tense, eerie poetry from tragedy and its aftermath. The cycle is based on experiences surrounding the murder of the author’s sister, for which their father is a suspect. Imagery simmers with violence and restrained emotion. Bachmann alludes to the natural world and the Christian Mysteries, expanding the murder to encompass larger questions of faith, and human and animal nature. The poems repeatedly describe overgrown vegetation and the industrial no-man’s-land of the murder site, combining natural imagery with gritty, forensic details, and evoking a dark, unsettling mood. Details evoke instances of transformation, decay, and stasis, and her use of language rings with precise vocabulary and crisp sounds, as in the line “ . . . singed paper//before it blackens; copper beneath corrosion;/the acoustics of the finch’s song after a tear//in its vocal tract.” The poems possess an intense observational sensation, and the speaker’s voice is never far. In challenging, confrontational lines, she directly addresses the reader: “Move closer. I want to tell you a story” and “Still standing? Now come here.” Because the poems explore so many perspectives of the crime, including the murder, crime scene, lineup, family memories, her father’s account, and the speaker’s own telling, the narrative remains unresolved and complex. The result is a haunting collection whose tone and language linger long after you close the book.
Recommended July 2010

Book Cover for The Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir Flynn, Nick
The Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir

Nick Flynn’s second memoir is, at its simplest, a moving meditation on the shadow. He focuses primarily on the idea of torture, combined with his apprehension about his pending fatherhood. As he explores these topics, however, the subjects include his past relationships, family history (including his suicidal mother and alcoholic, homeless father), and his own wrongdoings. Flynn was one of several artists invited to witness accounts of ex-Abu Ghraib inmates, many of whom were tortured and depicted in the infamous photographs. While Flynn makes clear that these brutal political and military acts appall him, his stance is far from righteous, as he imagines the humanity of both the tortured and the torturers. This perspective makes the memoir bigger than his own life or a single political argument—it becomes a reflection on the nature of fear and its power and on personal culpability as a citizen and a human. Brief, potent chapters stack and overlap with expert pacing and irresistible intrigue. Although Flynn analyzes his own troubled childhood, his tone is never self-pitying or sentimental. Instead, his prose is clear and vibrant, interspersed with passages so poetic they are breathtaking.
Recommended February 2010

Book Cover for Ball Peen Hammer Rapp, Adam
Ball Peen Hammer

Graphic Novel
Adam Rapp’s graphic novel is as dark as his plays. Its muted colors and grimy subterranean setting match the gruesome violence of the storyline, while the panels and dialogue match the rapid-fire wit and excellent timing of Rapp’s drama. Ball Peen Hammer explores a post-apocalyptic, disease-ridden, food-starved society whose ethics are subverted, with horrifying results for the humanity of every character.
Recommended December 2009

Book Cover for Pop Gun War Dalrymple, Farel
Pop Gun War

Graphic Novel
Pop Gun War is a perfect blend of gritty urban imagery and fantastic elements. The story focuses on Sinclair, a young boy who finds a pair of wings in a trash can. When he straps them on, they work. The characters include a floating fish and his best friend whose size undergoes sudden drastic changes; a sinister silent monk; Sinclair’s very young rock star sister, Emily; the obligatory bully; and, of course, the original owner of the wings. While that cast could make for a wildly surreal tale, Farel Dalrymple grounds the story in the moving emotional connections among the characters. Sinclair’s longing for his sister and the subtle hints of back story are especially poignant. Solid shapes, sketchy lines, splatters and detail create the perfect texture for the outcast characters’ lonely habitat of alleyways, bars, and sparsely-furnished bedrooms.
Recommended November 2009

Book Cover for The Dog of the Marriage: Stories Hempel, Amy
The Dog of the Marriage: Stories

Short Stories
Amy Hempel’s first-person narrators have the tone of a recent acquaintance candidly revealing details of her tangled personal life: they’re a little startling, but somehow very familiar. Hempel’s prose is poetic and concise. Sentences expertly shift between wry self-deprecation and poetic observations. “The Uninvited,” the highlight of the collection, expertly weaves several narratives, including the narrator’s work as hotline operator, watching the movie The Uninvited, and seeking paranormal experiences. The character’s quirks are imaginative and surprising. One woman drives endlessly to clear her mind of a bad relationship, stopping at rest stops to write cryptic postcards and listening to the same cassette repeatedly. Another writes a letter to the parking authority contesting her ticket. These characters love dogs and get divorces and think more than they say.
Recommended October 2009

Book Cover for Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves Grimaud, Hélène
Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves

Nonfiction Memoir
As you might expect from a world-renowned classical pianist who lives with wolves on the side, Hélène Grimaud’s life makes for a fascinating book. In her memoir, she recounts the experiences and music that inspired her on her unique journey. Most of the book focuses on her childhood as an overly energetic and defiant young woman who found an outlet and calling in playing piano. She details her passionate encounters with encouraging (and not-so-encouraging) instructors, mentors, and institutes, and she writes eloquently about her mystical experiences discovering and playing the works of her favorite composers. Interspersed among the brief, loosely-linear chapters are segments describing folkloric and historical information about wolves. While Grimaud doesn’t discuss her personal experiences creating a wolf preservation center until the very end of the book, her account of her first relationship with a wolf and her zeal for the animal are moving and vivid. Grimaud’s unapologetic, zealous appetite for her singular experiences comes through in her forceful, idiosyncratic prose.
Recommended September 2009

Book Cover for Omega: The Unknown Lethem, Jonathan
Omega: The Unknown

Graphic Novel
Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s first foray into graphic novels is an engaging blend of science fiction, mystery, coming-of-age, parody, and homage to the original 1976 Omega the Unknown comic books. Storylines intersect and overlap with characters’ mysterious pasts and motivations, including a silent superhero, his cheesy corporate foil, an overachieving high school student, and a talking (and singing) statue. The plot’s dizzying turns keep the reader guessing exactly from whom and what the world needs saving, but the sincerity of the characters and their friendships keep it grounded and emotionally-engaging. Farel Dalrymple’s varied panels direct and manage the pace. His artwork, strewn with ephemeral details, forms the ideal visual counterpart for the story’s depth. Paul Hornschemeier’s muted, lush colors conjure the mood and urban setting perfectly. Omega includes several silent pages, panning over the cast’s simultaneous actions, a comic-within-a-comic (complete with contrasting artwork), cleverly foreshadowing dream sequences, and an array of other tricks that add to the book’s irresistibility.
Recommended August 2009

Clarkson, Ewan
In the Shadow of the Falcon

Pittsburgh is home to two families of endangered peregrine falcons, and live video of the nests on the Gulf Tower and the Cathedral of Learning broadcast online. Watching these feeds and witnessing the wordless rhythms of the falcons’ daily lives is a moving experience. The novel In the Shadow of the Falcon imagines the life cycle of several Welsh peregrine falcons from their perspective. The author manages to convey the drama, difficulty and elegance of animal life without overly anthropomorphizing the falcons. Instead, the precise language of natural descriptions and poetic imagery of the birds flying, hunting, nesting, feeding and rearing their young characterize them enough to elicit powerful emotional reactions to the victories and trials they face. Some of the most compelling passages in the book relate environmental hazards peregrines and other birds encounter as a result of poaching, pollution, pesticides and other human-caused dangers. While the novel was published in 1973, the environmental cautions and concerns are eerily resonant today.
Recommended June 2009

Book Cover for Slow Storm Novgorodoff, Danica
Slow Storm

Graphic Novel
Danica Novgorodoff crafts a darkly haunting story illustrated with lush watercolor and ink illustrations. As a tornado spirals at the edges of their Kentucky town, the lives of a troubled firefighter and an illegal Mexican immigrant intersect. Well-paced panels vary in size and oscillate from foreboding, stormy grays to flaring oranges to serene, eerie blues. While the story seems simple at first, subtle scenes, background characters and frequent silent panels develop enough subtext to warrant a rich second reading. Supernatural elements weave into the tale, which contrast with the hard work and rough natures and jobs of the firefighters and townsfolk. Novgorodoff handles the various accents in intriguing but natural ways, and her juxtaposition of the difference between characters’ speech and suggested or illustrated thoughts create moments that range from contemplative to heartbreaking. Slow Storm is a gorgeously drawn graphic novel whose narrative incorporates cultural, familial and social themes without departing from the characters at its focus.
Recommended May 2009

Book Cover for The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories Keret, Etgar
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories

Short Stories
I came across this book because it includes Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” which I wanted to read since I loved the movie adaptation, called Wristcutters, which I recognized from the graphic novel version, “Pizzeria Kamikaze.” The rest of the ultra-brief stories in the collection are full of Keret’s straightforward voice and sometimes harsh irony. Most employ first person narratives from varied characters who include an embittered Israeli soldier, a boy emotionally attached to his piggy bank and, of course, the eponymous bus driver. As different as these speakers are, they all share an element of Keret’s cynicism and social criticism. The stories, though often dark, also include whimsical absurdity that makes them both funny and poignant. A convenience store clerk serves souls freed from Hell for a day. A man escapes a planned plane crash. A boy auditions for the circus. Anyone who enjoys equal touches of magic, salt, and the everyday will enjoy these quick, twisted tales.
Recommended April 2009

Book Cover for Monologues for the Coming Plaguer Nilsen, Anders.
Monologues for the Coming Plague

Graphic Novel
The simple manner in which Anders Nilsen presents his comics, using panel-less, scribbled line drawings free of background detail, and freehand, sometimes scratched-out text, belies the subtle humor, complex philosophies and pure wickedness behind them. Some of the most hilarious moments occur in the sardonic exchanges between a pigeon and a woman feeding it, during one of which the pigeon quips, “None for me, thanks. I’m on a hunger strike.” In another motif, two people having a surreal discussion about semiotics and career selection travel to Pittsburgh. Also, there’s a dinosaur.
Recommended March 2009

Book Cover for Jessica Farm Simmons, Josh
Jessica Farm

Graphic Novel
Both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud acknowledged the symbolism of houses in dreams and ascribed rooms and floors different aspects of the psyche. Both psychologists would have a field day with Josh Simmons’ graphic novel Jessica Farm, which navigates a plot filled with dream logic that darts between dread and joy. Jessica wanders from room to room, meeting different “house friends” at every turn. Some are happy, welcoming creatures, while others are nightmarish, but all fit in perfectly with the strange geography of the whimsically shifting house. Much has been said about Simmons’ unique writing process. Beginning in January 2000, he drew a page a month until he had created 96 pages. He plans to continue until 2050, releasing a volume every eight years. The art and story line stand up to the curiosity of Simmons’ unique method. Simmons combines lines and cross hatching to convey a wealth of information in each deceptively simple drawing. Panels range from nearly solid black squares, as when Jessica passes through a dark hallway, to intricate scenes that reveal new details with every look, as when she awakens to a phenomenal sunrise and utters “Zowie.” The images are carefully arranged to fluidly glide between tension, suspense, humor and relief as Jessica moves through various situations. By the end of the book, I was shaken, amused and enchanted, and counting down the days until the next volume comes out in 2016.
Recommended February 2009

Keyes, Ralph
The Courage to Write

Keyes separates this highly approachable and entertaining book into two sections. The first, "The Elements of Courage," examines the many sources of fear for writers and ways fear can manifest itself in the writing process. Causes range from the well-known fears of revealing family secrets, receiving terrible reviews or accidentally publishing mistakes. Some of these fears and their expressions are more surprising, though. For instance, the constant procrastination so many writers experience might not result from a lack of discipline, but a hesitance to confront the raw emotions and self-examination that writing demands. Even that dreaded beast, writer’s block, has some of its roots in fear. These examinations are infinitely helpful in identifying the ways fear causes a writer to avoid writing or writing honestly, so she can recognize the cause of her counterproductive patterns and change them. In the second section, "Coming to Terms with Fear," Keyes details methods for writing that go beyond the common (and useless) assurances like “Just start writing and you’ll feel better” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, Keyes acknowledges the actual importance of fear to the writing process, stating that fear and courage travel in tandem. He offers helpful suggestions, such as designing a writing schedule around your most productive, least defensive time of day, or sharing work at variously public levels. Most encouraging, Keyes includes myriad anecdotes and quotes from well-known writers regarding their own negotiations with the fear to write. Without pep talks or gimmicks, Keyes acknowledges the many ways fear presents itself in different stages of writing, and ultimately recognizes it as a tool and an essential element of writing.
Recommended January 2009

Tanaka, Veronique

Graphic Novel
Metronome, watch, fly, telephone, painting, lava lamp, piano, plant, fan, a man, a woman, and a tribal mask comprise the bulk of the repeating imagery in this experimental, silent, black and white graphic novel. Each page features sixteen equally sized panels, which set a rhythmic pace. Tanaka’s focus shifts from object to object, frequently switching to circles, abstract shapes or blacked-out panels. Close-ups and varied scale blend objects together or compare them to each other, as with the opening scene that switches between the metronome and the watch’s second hand. Tanaka uses her format not only to set pace, but to explore the space of the setting, the mood of the characters, and the possibilities of the panel as a unit of expression. While the story is not as compelling as the technique, the many surprising moments and visual tricks make this graphic novel well worth the read.
Recommended December 2008

Book Cover for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy : Poetry Lin, Tao
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy : Poetry

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy might be better than any $200 per hour session. Tao Lin’s self-deprecating humor, heartbreaking loneliness and profound insights are quirky and moving. Lin uses clever devices like incorporating phrases and punctuation unique to Internet chat, but avoids a gimmicky effect. Instead, the phrases accumulate subtle weight with each use, like the often repeated “i’ll be right back.” His use of straightforward declarative sentences makes the emotional impact of his statements more powerful, even when he expresses confusion. Seemingly stoic accounts of emotion, behavior and morality come across as humorous and slightly sarcastic, but they also increase the impact of lines that reveal loneliness and confusion. An example of his oscillation between tones is in the opening lines of “eleven page poem, page three”: “my favorite motions include ‘brief calmness / in good weather’ and ‘i am the only person alive’ / without constant reassurance I feel terribly alone and insane.” Recurring motifs (depressed vegan hamsters, his blog, energy drinks, head butting, distance and the process by which thought influences emotions and behavior) illustrates the humor and intelligence of the collection. At once revealing and distant, the poetry reveals the tension present in Internet socializing, where it is possible to reveal deeply personal information to total strangers, or to foster long relationships without meeting in the flesh.
Recommended November 2008

Book Cover for Trespass Irvine, Amy
Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land

As if the intriguing title weren’t enough, the book captured me immediately with its first line: “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones.” Irvine’s arresting prose continues throughout this unrelenting memoir that chronicles the period of turmoil in her life following her father’s death and preceding her marriage to a man she describes as the “lion man.” She structures the book into sections named for archaeological terms that summon the symbols and archetypes of the Southwest’s prehistoric inhabitants. These terms gather increasing weight as Irvine relates them to her own life, continually adding and peeling back layers, as though excavating an archaeological site. As she refers to the past to inform her present struggle, she summons not only the Anasazi and Basketmakers, but her own ancestors, including her great-great-great grandfather, who was among the founders of Mormonism. The history and doctrine of Mormonism also add dimension, as Irvine outlines its place in the history of San Juan County, Utah, part of the Mormon promised land called Deseret. The most acute source of conflict in the book stems from Irvine’s opposing desires to both establish community with her neighbors, and to identify with her belief in wilderness protection and the land’s sacrality—convictions that place her at odds with the rest of the population who are largely religious and culturally conservative ranchers. Trespass is a narrative infused with tension, as Irvine details the internal pull she feels from the conflicting lifestyles and beliefs of the centuries of inhabitants who share only the land in common. Ultimately, the desert is as much the focus as the author herself, and she conjures its images with fierce passion and intimacy, unafraid to implicate herself among those who inhabit it, living imperfectly and seeking transcendence.
Recommended October 2008

Book Cover for The Dance of the Dissident Daughter Kidd, Sue Monk
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine

This compelling memoir documents Sue Monk Kidd's journey from a successful inspirational writer, devout Baptist and model conservative woman to her discovery and quest for the feminine side of divinity. In the process, she jeopardizes her marriage and career, confronts internalized patriarchy, fosters deep female friendships, analyzes her personal mythology, studies the history of goddess worship and its conflict with Judeo-Christian theology, and creates her own rituals. As she does so, she makes her own path to connecting authentically with divinity. Rich with vivid anecdotes, dreams and enlightening passages from theory and research, the book is as emotionally powerful as it is culturally fascinating. Kidd recounts her awakening in a voice that is irresistibly honest, casual and bright.
Recommended September 2008

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence
Poetry as Insurgent Art

Part desiderata, part manifesto, this quotable book is a prose poem about the importance of poetry. In four prose poems and a brief essay, its quips vary from rebellious: “Strive to change the world in such a way that there’s no further need to be a dissident”; to patently Ferlinghetti comparisons to classic art and canonic literature: “Poetry can be heard at manholes, echoing up Dante’s fire escape"; to koan-like statements. Also, there are lots of birds. For anyone who needs to be convinced of the vitality of art’s resistance or to be encouraged to pursue the struggle for vitality in life and expression, this little book of poetic affirmations will be a joy to read.
Recommended August 2008

Grahn, Judy
Blood, Bread, And Roses : How Menstruation Created The World

This book changed my entire worldview. Anyone who’s ever felt left out of history class by the prevalence of masculine pronouns has been waiting for Blood, Bread, and Roses. Grahn, celebrated feminist poet and writer, approaches anthropology from humanity’s very inception with the perspective that menstruation was the mother of invention. She argues that menstrual seclusion rituals, widespread among early societies, established human understanding of separation and synchronicity, and that they conveyed that understanding through metaform, behavior that communicates social mores and shared belief. Scholarly, but readable and stimulating, Grahn draws from prehistoric and modern cultural comparison, etymology, and poetic inference to detail the roots of religion, law, mythology, mathematics, science, clothing and eating. While readers may not agree with all her theories, the book is indispensable for anyone who has wondered about the other half of historical gender bias, and longed for more balanced alternate theories.
Recommended July 2008

Book Cover for House of Clay Nowak, Naomi
House of Clay

Graphic Novel
Naomi Novak weaves a dreamlike narrative with clear mythological influences in this gorgeously illustrated graphic novel. The story, loosely linear and highly symbolic in a manner reminiscent of a Catherynne M. Valente novel, follows Josephine, a hemophobic woman who takes a job in a factory to save money for nursing school, as she confronts a shadowy past conflict with a member of her distanced family. Nowak arranges panels with wild artfulness, combining manga-influenced layout with the distinctly European flavor of the story. The dusty, muted colors and sprawling tangles of hair and amorphous plant life depict a sensual mix between imagination, reality and subconscious reverie. Stunning full-page dream sequences drive the plot and motivate Josephine’s actions. House of Clay’s delicious visual and literary appeal will stimulate any reader’s imagination.
Recommended June 2008

Siegel, Lee
Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

Despite its compelling title and slew of vehement arguments, Against the Machine doesn’t really deliver. Lee Siegel, a prolific author and cultural critic, adopts the premise that all Internet interactions, whether via online marketplaces or social networking sites, equate to commercial transactions. He argues that the Internet extends capitalism into our most intimate moments, reducing all participants to “prosumers” whose leisure time is dominated by the continuous urge to create and consume further product. Also, user-generated material and its multi-media offspring blur the distinction between fact and fiction, truth and lies, art and self-expression. These combined factors, Siegel argues, compel us to “perform our privacy” in a culture increasingly homogenized by conflicting impulses to both express our individuality and market that uniqueness. Against the Machine makes an interesting and seldom-argued case, even if it is one that requires a healthy dose of skepticism, since Siegel is too dismissive of opposing views to present a balanced argument. He does an excellent job of contextualizing the Internet in pre-Internet economic, social and psychological philosophies, and of warning against the Web’s commercial agenda and tendency for commodification.
Recommended May 2008

Book Cover for Baby Remember My Name Michelle Tea, Editor
Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing

Whether their essays, stories and comics depict a poor trailer park resident's birthday, an acid trip in San Francisco, or a gender-bending six-year-old on a bike, the contributors to Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing seethe with exuberance. The collection's numerous highlights particularly include the bookends. (Both of whom have Pittsburgh connections.) In Paige McBee's "Keep Your Goals Abstract," poetic interludes of photographs transition between the character's setting and reflections on a cross-country road trip. In Beth Steidle's "Stay," body parts voice disparate opinions, narration slides from a painful breakup to an aquarium scene, and style alternates between confrontational and hallucinatory statements. Michelle Tea's own writing celebrates honesty and wildness, and her skills as a selecting editor are equally vivacious. Each piece segues gracefully to the next through common style or subject matter, and the pace rarely drags or stutters. (For further proof of Tea's editing prowess, read Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class.)
Recommended April 2008

Book Cover for Willful Creatures Bender, Aimee
Willful Creatures

Short Stories
For a collection of allegorical stories whose characters rarely even have names, Willful Creatures is powerfully emotional. Bender writes the whimsical tales so fluidly that their fantastic inhabitants-like a boy with keys for fingers, a woman with potato children, and a pumpkin family-seem natural and immediate. Her language consists of stark imagery rendered into gorgeous, clever prose infused with humor and wonder. Bender groups the stories into three sections with loosely correlated themes. Part One features unlikable villains, Part Two, characters who make mistakes in surreal situations. In Part Three, protagonists confront impossible, absurdist challenges with noble resignation. Robert Coover fans will appreciate Willful Creatures, as will anyone in search of a heart-piercing bit of magical realism. "Job's Jobs," in which God systematically denies a man his every source of creative pleasure, and the closing "Hymn" are the collection's most moving highlights.
Recommended March 2008

Kampung Boy

Graphic Novels
Renowned Malaysian comics creator Lat depicts his youth in a small kampung, or village, with elegantly simple sentences and sketchy ink drawings. While he has earned numerous awards in Southeast Asia for his works, Kampung Boy is Lat’s first major US release. It follows Lat from his birth, through traditional Muslim rites of passage, to his departure for school in a nearby city. He tenderly and beautifully renders poignant memories in full or double-page unpanelled illustrations, such as a gorgeous scene when he and his friends swim in a rippling pond surrounded by plants and trees. While Kampung Boy is free of any political commentary, Lat vividly depicts social customs and changing economic factors that characterize his culture, like the tin mine near his family’s house, gender roles, and government aid programs. The first book in a series, Kampung Boy’s end implies continuation, so be sure to check out the next one, Town Boy as well.
Recommended February 2008

Book Cover for Dogs and Water Nilsen, Anders
Dogs and Water

Graphic Novels
On one family vacation, we ended up in the emergency room, waiting for doctors to remove a large bead from my three-year-old sister’s ear. When she emerged, hearing clearly again, she had only one explanation: “The bear did it.” We never met the imaginary bear, but we never figured out how the bead got in her ear, either. Anders Nilsen’s Dogs and Water is a little like that. Nilsen renders his landscape in sparse black and white drawings that limit details to the most suggestive elements, wildly shifting perspectives when it suits the surreal mood. Emphasizing the tone of uncertainty, he doesn’t frame his panels, so scenes blend into each other via common walls, ground, and clouds. Dogs and Water’s plot is sporadic and symbolic rather than linear. (After I finished it, I looked up “dog” and “water” in dream interpretation guides.) The hoodie-clad main character walks along a deserted road into a desert. But does he stumble into a war zone? Or is he actually drifting far from land in a boat? Or is he underwater? Wherever he is, the character has only his teddy bear—with whom he’s apparently very angry— strapped to his back pack to talk to. Apparently, the bear put him up to all this.
Recommended January 2008

Book Cover for No One Belongs Here More Than You July, Miranda
No One Belongs Here More Than You

Short Stories
Careful. Miranda July will disarm you into feeling as attentive, sensitive and lonely as her characters. Their honest observations of daily interactions are full of humor and heart-wrenching loneliness. They narrate self-absorbed fears and longings with strangers and partners, and put themselves in beautiful, painful, absurd situations. A secretary takes a sewing class with an ulterior motive. A woman in love with Prince William cheers on Potato, a runaway dog. July's voice is so clear, natural and clever, it becomes a second internal voice. You may never recover your former defenses.
Recommended January 2008

Book Cover for Einstein's Dreams Lightman, Alan
Einstein's Dreams

Einstein's renowned E=mc2, which expresses mass energy equivalence, is arguably the most famous physics equation. But it is only part of Einstein's theory of special relativity, whose other consequences include factors that seem more like science fiction than science. Alan Lightman's brief novel Einstein's Dreams plays with the potentially wild behavior of time, and reflects on its effect on our lives. Each short chapter describes one of Einsteins's dreams, different worlds in which time behaves differently (it moves backwards, it doesn't move, it is qualitative instead of quantitative), and explores the way that behavior impacts the people in that world. Lightman describes both setting and characters (most of whom exist for only a sentence) with painterly poeticism to craft moving meditations on the nature of our life and our role in shaping it-with or without time's help.
Recommended by Renée, December 2007

Book Cover for The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch Gaiman, Neil; illustrated by Dave McKean
The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance

Graphic Novel
Read this book somewhere well-lit. Shady characters, dark images, and the subconscious' shadows meld into a story that alternates between reality and nightmare. The narrator recalls a summer of his youth spent with his grandparents at his grandfather's failing seaside arcade, where he meets a mysterious Punch and Judy professor. Gaiman expertly weaves the narrator's evasion with the child's uncertainty about the strange characters around him. Combined with the sinister nature of the Punch and Judy show, the frightening setting of the dilapidated amusement park, and the rainy environment, this book evokes an uneasy but mesmerizing response. Dave McKean's surreal illustrations are reminiscent of Quay Brothers films and lend to the story's distorted atmosphere with eerie warped images of rusty, carved and textured sculptures and darkly colored drawings overlaid with illegible text.
Recommended by Renée, November 2007

Book Cover for If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Calvino, Italo
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is clever metafiction sure to thrill anyone who loves to read. The premise is that you (the Reader) buy a copy of Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, only to discover that the copy has a binding error, forcing you back to the bookstore and into a chain of absurd events. Calvino weaves multiple stories with self-referential wit, satire and philosophizing punctuated with humor. William Weaver seamlessly translates Calvino's effortless, vibrant prose. This book, which makes the experience of reading its central theme, is definitely a must-read.
Recommended by Renée, October 2007

Book Cover for American Born Chinese Yang, Gene Luen
American Born Chinese

Graphic Novel
A graphic novel that's earning awards and critical acclaim visits the theme of self-acceptance through three stories that intertwine in a surprising twist. Irresistible clean line drawings with vivid colors tell the tales of the Monkey King of Chinese fable, Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student in a new school, and Chin-Kee, the archetype of Chinese stereotypes whose antics embarrass his cousin Danny. Typical adolescent trials compose the plot; friendship, teasing, self-consciousness, and infatuation with the opposite sex all play a role as the characters navigate the terrain of bullies, friends, and girlfriends. (Or, in the Monkey King's case, issues of immortality and omnipotence arise in encounters with demons, deities, and a legendary monk.) Gene Luen Yang expertly interweaves conflicts that arise from racism and stereotypes, subtly poking fun at American ignorance, in both humorous and heart-splitting story elements. American Born Chinese boasts appealing frame layout whose simplicity includes key details that enliven the setting. (Notice the Yang family station wagon's very 1980's roof-mounted carrier and Yang's teacher's enormous jewelry.) With charm that's compelling readers to cross the graphic novel/traditional novel divide, American Born Chinese approaches a classic coming-of-age theme in a style that is all at once gentle, humorous and honest, magical and endearing.
Recommended by Renée, October 2007

Book Cover for I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody Antoon, Sinan
I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

Don’t skip the preface to this one. In it, Sinan Antoon explains the meaning of the word i’jaam, diacritical marks that distinguish similar Arabic letters from each other. Without them, a word can have numerous meanings, discernible only by context, so i’jaam also means “elucidating” or “clarifying.” The novel is so named because it is a state translator’s disambiguation of a fictional political prisoner’s diary, written without diacritical dots and found in a Baghdad prison during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The novel plays with the concept of i'jaam, emphasizing the disparity between appearance and reality at several levels. Furat, the prisoner, employs the lack of diacritical marks to make lewd puns that mock state maxims. The tyrannical Leader publicly encourages free expression while he clandestinely arrests those, like Furat, who display dissent. Undercover guards posing as students monitor mandatory patriotic rallies and enforce myriad regulations meant to create the facade of a unified populace. Furat’s many linguistic musings will intrigue those with an understanding or interest in the Arabic language and script, while his knowledge of literature and Iraqi poets will entice others. His vignettes include flashbacks, visions and jarring accounts of prison life whose descriptions range from mundane to surreal. Essentially, I’jaam boasts a compelling premise, but one executed in sometimes stilted language and a slightly rushed plot. The timely political relevance and the novel's brevity, however, still make it worth the read.
Recommended by Renée, September 2007

Book Cover for Catching the Big Fish Lynch, David
Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness, and Creativity

David Lynch's sheer passion lures the reader irresistibly along brief chapters of Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness, and Creativity, describing his method of channeling ideas into creative endeavors. Lynch touts digital video as the future of film and regards director's commentaries as sacrilegious. He also reveals his love for diners, flickering lights, Los Angeles, rotting bodies and other things that drive him "crazy, in a good way." He writes of the three years he spent making Eraserhead, O.J. Simpson's influence on Lost Highway, the inception of Twin Peaks' red room, and details of filming his current release INLAND EMPIRE. Epigraphs from the Upanishads introduce many chapters, and Lynch spends most of the book crediting Transcendental Mediation with his success in converting inspiration into successful creations. Lynch's love for both watching and making film is clear; he refers continually to his awe upon entering the "world of a film" and the thrill of "falling in love with ideas." At times, Catching the Big Fish conveys a bit of an agenda (all proceeds for the book go towards the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace), but the simple, sincere and often poetic tone maintain his believability. Lynch has been practicing Transcendental Mediation for over 30 years, and few could argue with his success as a surrealist, envelope-pushing filmmaker-however he does it. Lynch's fans will delight in amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes of synchronicity with actors, musicians and admired directors. Those seeking advice on creativity, meditation, or simply seeking a good read from a creative, quirky mind will also enjoy this book.
Recommended by Renée, August 2007

Book Cover for Poetry On Record Compiled and produced by Rebekah Presson Mosby
Poetry on record: 98 poets read their work, 1888-2006 [sound recording]

On disc one of the anthology, William Butler Yeats prefaces his lyrical delivery with the disclaimer, "I am going to read my poem with great emphasis upon the rhythm, and that may seem strange if you are not used to it…It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they are prose." By disc four, Joy Harjo croons "Grace" over acoustic guitar, and Carl Hancock Rux chants "Eleven More Days" along with backup singers, drums, electric guitar, keyboards and his own delayed vocals. In between, renowned poets from myriad styles, movements and eras speak their poetry in voices that ring with their specific brands of honest expression. Poetry on Record includes a staggeringly impressive range of poets famous for an equally impressive range of poetic contributions. The anthology is not only a tour of the evolution of written verse-classicism, modernism, post-modernism, beat, confessional, experimental, performance poetry, etc. It is also an audible timeline of the changing ways we capture sound, from the garbled recordings of the booming Alfred Lord Tennyson to the crisp digital immediacy of contemporary poets. Poetry lovers of all genres will be thrilled by the power with which these voices convey the stirring facets of human experience that remain constant throughout the decades of transforming technology and technique. Poetry on Record will leave you wishing a CD of a poet reading their work accompanied every book of poetry.
Recommended by Renée, August 2007

Tea, Michelle, illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin
Rent Girl

Tea candidly recounts her years as a young, broke lesbian in the sex trade in this absorbing, compellingly illustrated memoir. Intrigued by the large amounts of money and glam lifestyle of her wild girlfriend, Steph, Michelle decides to give prostitution a try. This is no exposé of the evils of the sex trade. Rather, Tea explores the range of emotions and experiences as a prostitute, from the allure of her first $700 trick, to her repulsion with the johns, to her struggle to establish boundaries both within and outside her profession. Her tone expertly describes the characters at their most self-indulgent, cruel, narcissistic and deluded with stark honesty and self-deprecating humor. She details the falling-outs, falling-in-love and realizations of a young woman seeking to define herself. For example, Tea details her many "no future tattoos," mapping the path she took to reclaim her body (and self) from the aesthetic of prostitution while still denying the standards of mainstream culture. Like Lauren McCubbin's tough, mysterious, scantily-clad women who stare unrelentingly from the page, Tea makes no attempt to translate her lifestyle, full of sex, drugs and astrology, into a digestible foray into subculture. And she does not apologize, either. Explicitly herself, she informs her reader, "I tell you this, like I tell you everything, not to excuse my behavior but to explain it."
Recommended by Renée, July 2007

Book Cover for Final Girl Gottlieb, Daphne
Final Girl

The final girl is the last man standing in a slasher flick: "Even during that final struggle she is now weak and now strong, now flees the killer and now charges him, now stabs and is stabbed, now cries out in fear and now shouts in anger," according to Carol J. Clover in her essay "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." (Available in the collection The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film.) Inspired by this dynamic character, Daphne Gottlieb uses the final girl to inform her poetry in this sharp, witty and moving collection. In these poems, Gottlieb challenges sexism, hate crimes and gender bias. She defies social mores that define masculinity and femininity. And, most startling of all, she conveys the fear that haunts the reality of someone who lives and acts outside the realm of gender normalcy. Also a performance poet and, recently, graphic novelist, Gottlieb writes verse that both screams and whispers, shatters clichés with sizzling wordplay, and grounds her theories with solid, vivid details. She employs experimental techniques that emphasize both the immediacy and wide range of gender bias by rearranging phrases from everyday and historical sources, sampling Sojourner Truth's speeches, the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a newspaper article about a hate crime. Plenty more material draws from the language and imagery of horror films, including the "Final Girl" cycle, a sequence of ten poems that form the thematic core, where she even reminds us of our implicit participation: "We control the horizontal. / We control the vertical. / We control the abduction." Gottlieb gives voice to the characters whose side we don't hear: transvestite, victim's mother, exile. In "The Other Woman," she states her case with staggering emotional force in punched-out lines: "Have you ever seen flood damage? / Your husband came over / and burst over in my lap … There is nothing / going on. I took nothing / you wanted. You can't / have it back."
Recommended by Renée, June 2007

Book Cover for A Short History of Myth Armstrong, Karen
A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth is the perfect read for anyone fascinated by ancient mythology, archetypes and comparative religion, but intimidated by the plethora of books on the subjects. Armstrong condenses the evolution of mythology and religion into six chapters describing humanity's conception of divinity from 20,000 BC to 2000 CE. As human society progressed through hunting, agricultural and urban stages, its mythology developed symbiotically to help humans deal with the unique problems accompanying each phase. Armstrong continues to follow mythology through the "Great Western Transformation," when the West rejected myth in favor of logic, and she reflects upon the impact this had on Western society and thought. Her footnotes demonstrate the impressive scope of this brief book. She discusses the Bible, ancient Mesopotamian poetry, Enuma Elish, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Dao De Jing, Analects of Confucius, Kabbalah, Anguttara Nikaya, Jataka, Vinaya, Plato's The Republic, Aristotle's Metaphysics, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Also, she frequently references scholars Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. A Short History of Myth consists of concise and accessible history and theory peppered with fascinating cross-cultural examples and comparisons. It serves as an excellent starting point for anyone intrigued by mythology, as a background for those who have already read about it, or as a reflection for those looking to explore the aspects of humanity that unite all of us.
Recommended by Renée, May 2007

Book Cover for The Road McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

McCarthy's prose alternates between terse and utterly poetic. He describes the desolation of nuclear winter, despair, and violence with language that is almost paradoxically beautiful. As the man and the boy (as we know them) wander through an America all but destroyed by an undefined catastrophe, they confront starvation, freezing, and cannibals. McCarthy envelops us in the characters' boredom, hunger, cold, loneliness, heart-pounding fear, and shadowy hope. Their dialogue is brief and simple, but buried in these short lines are layers of meaning that imply their relationship and opinions. One of The Road's most compelling themes is the difference between the man's and his son's perspectives of their surroundings. The man regards the world as charred ruins of the vibrant planet that used to be; the boy sees the only world he has ever known. The tension that results from these subtly stated views becomes the subtext which colors their behavior and beliefs, and which offers two opposing avenues of approaching the novel's philosophical questions. What is the difference between a primal society and a society that emerges from destruction? How do people behave in anarchic conditions? How do we know what is right? Why live? Yes, the plot is dark, but McCarthy is a master, and The Road is a masterpiece - one with imagery and argument powerful enough to linger in the minds of those who read it long after they've finished.
Recommended by Renée, May 2007

Book Cover for Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams Valente, Catherynne M.
Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams

A story with no definite plot unfolds and refolds like origami as the narrator describes her dream-visions which may actually be her life, memory or imagination. The narrator might be Ayako, an ancient hermit living on a mountain, or she may be "The I-that-is-Ayako," "a hinge which opens and shuts strange windows, who dreams she is more than her flesh." Several forces propel this book. First, Ayako's visions cross cultures and time with the vast range of mythology she encounters. In one dream, her dream-sister is Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. In another, she births the Egyptian god Horus. Others involve quantum physics, circuses, Oedipus, medieval Japanese culture, and a host of dream-guide animals. All deal with themes of change, transience and uncertainty. The second force behind the book is its lush, adjective-laden language, which fluidly draws comparisons and metaphors that employ even more images. Chapters are named after months from the Japanese Heian period calendar, and they detail changes in animals and nature that signal seasonal cycles, like "Grasses Wither" and "Earthworms Come Out." While the storyline is sparse and buried in surrealism, glimpses of plot emerge from Ayoko's interactions with River, Mountain and Gate-beings who teach her Zen koan-like lessons. With its poetic style, abundance of symbols and ambiguous plotline and characters, the book can be overwhelming, despite its short length. Too many symbols, after all, can become meaningless. But Valente may have intended this shadowy environment to immerse us in the same confusion Ayoko experiences, as she tries to navigate and interpret her visions and distinguish her thoughts from her Self.
Recommended by Renée, April 2007

Book Cover for 32 Stories: the Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics Tomine, Adrian
32 Stories: the Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics

Graphic Novels
32 Stories collects the first several issues of Adrian Tomine's long-running comic strip Optic Nerve. The selections are from the first strips Tomine initially photocopied and distributed himself, beginning at age 15. His artistic evolution serves as a subtext to the plots of the stories, as his clean-line style and poignant storytelling emerge. He depicts these characters with a delicate care to preserve the spirit of the muses who appeared to him in laundromats, coffee shops and dirty apartments. The strongest stories are vignettes about the small triumphs and failures of everyday characters' lives. A young insomniac describes the diners and bike rides that occupy her nights. A couple interrupts their anniversary with a conversation they'd rather not have. A woman mails a letter to her boyfriend, then regrets it. Several characters rebel against the frustrating conditions and coworkers of their minimum-wage jobs. Tomine finds these men and women at their least heroic, lying in bed rehearsing the witty comebacks they should have said, or recollecting anticlimactic, yet significant memories. His characters shoe-gaze and sport awkward haircuts and ill-fitting clothes. They smoke too much, think a lot, feel even more and say very little. The magic of Optic Nerve is that we're included into their surreal dreams and absurd moments with an intimacy that allows us to smile in recognition as they laugh at themselves.
Recommended by Renée, April 2007

Book Cover for Dream I Tell You Cixous, Hélène
Dream I Tell You

Bound to be a favorite of poets, voyeurs and shrinks alike, Dream I Tell You is a selection of fifty dreams from prolific French writer Hélène Cixous' ten years of dream journals. Themes explore familiar dream topics like death, birth, love, intrusion, unpreparedness and war. Babies, pets, colleagues, crowds, wild animals, Cixous' family (dead and living) and strange dream beings populate her visions. Her unedited, half-awake accounts of her unconscious maintain the poetic and emotive logic of dreams. Such an approach creates some confusion-readers enter so openly into Cixous' mind that characters are never introduced or explained beyond their names-leaving unclear whether Thessie is a child, dog or cat. But it also suspends enough objectivity to enjoy Cixous' visceral experiences vicariously. The reader shares in her terror and suspense as she navigates a violent world under Nazi control and in her perplexity as she deciphers mysterious markings on abandoned babies in the underworld. Cixous' poetic writing resonates with humor, irritation, wonder and fear. She conjures fantastic dreamscapes, like a bed in a glass room in a snowstorm, and eerie nightmarish scenes, like an overpopulated cemetery city built of worm-eaten stairs. But the real joy of the book comes from relishing Cixous' passionate, flamboyant writing in its rawest form, which offers gems like "For the moment I felt him nearby, in the left part of the house, a marvelous guest, as if in the left side of my chest."
Recommended by Renée, March 2007

Book Cover for Fun Home Bechdel, Alison
Fun Home

Graphic Novels
Reading Fun Home feels like a scavenger hunt through someone else's diary. In Alison Bechdel's memoir in graphic novel form, she skillfully illustrates setting through both text and image. Myriad cultural and literary allusions assist movement and characterization "not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms." Detailed drawings include myriad literary and cultural references, and abound with ephemera: newspaper front pages, handwritten margin notes in dog-eared books, phone messages, dictionary definitions, field guides, maps, product labels, photographs, and letters. Fun Home rings with honesty as Bechdel vividly recounts childhood experiences with wry humor and perspective, but never nostalgia. Witty, telling dialogue between Alison, her family and friends punctuates her often poetic narration. Both expertly depict the complicated relationship between Alison and her father, a high school English teacher with a passion for heavy literature and gothic interior design and restoration. Alison discovers he is a closeted homosexual when she comes out to her parents during college, an event that both clarifies and confuses their distant connection. The combination of Bechdel's frank and likeable tone and expert illustration lead the reader irresistibly from one frame to the next as she pieces together the memories and people that influenced her identity.
Recommended by Renée, February 2007

Book Cover for A Child Again Coover, Robert
A Child Again

Robert Coover populates this collection of short stories with characters from myths, fairy tales and folklore who display surprising twists of modern sensibility. Prince Charming suffers an existential crisis at his wicked stepmother-in-law's funeral. Jackie Paper, now an aging equestrian, returns to Honah-Lee to find Puff the Magic Dragon listless and depressed. The Invisible Man abandons his superhero lifestyle for a lonely path of perfect crime. Alice goes through menopause among her ageless, insane Wonderland companions. While he infuses the stories with humor, Coover also uses the familiar icons of our cultural narrative to access serious themes. "Playing House," a parable, questions the difference between light and darkness, and human response to both. "The Return of the Dark Children" visits post-Piper Hamelin to explore the roots of hysteria. Coover electrifies his stories with his characteristic sarcasm and witty wordplay. Vocabulary ranging in topic from elocution to royal court titles to architecture should satisfy any logophile. Each tale flows into the next via common theme or tone, creating a compelling narrative thread through different settings and voices. These stories transform formerly two-dimensional, moralistic caricatures into complex beings enhanced with sexuality, anxiety, memory, fears and hopes. Coover affords us the chance to reevaluate our culture by seeing its foundations anew, giving us the freedom to question it from the same fresh perspective we did as children.
Recommended by Renée, January 2007