Every year, selecting the few books that we’ll review in the annual Winter Reading section is a challenge. We have to pick early, so we don’t always know what we’ll want from the fall publications; we have to pick widely so we don’t overload on young adult fiction, historical fiction, food-centric nonfiction or whatever else we’ve been heavily reading during the year. This year, we’ve managed to sustain a fairly regular books column, meaning some things we might have included here (Oregon Book Award fiction finalists, for example), have already been reviewed in EW‘s pages. We’ve written about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise; we’ve reviewed debut novels, nonfiction love letters to lost magazines and new books from UO professors such as Lauren Kessler and Ehud Havazelet. But we can never get it all, much as we’d like to (though we’re not quite finished; check next week for one last 2007 books column and a few last-minute gift suggestions!).
Winter Reading, then, isn’t exactly a best of the year reading list; instead, we like to think of it a bit like the way Douglas Wolk explains the comics he chose to discuss in his engrossing, entertaining Reading Comics: They’re just some of the books we found interesting to read, review and, hopefully, discuss. We hope you’ll find a few things of interest in here, too. — Molly Templeton
Fire Water Burn
TREE OF SMOKE by Denis Johnson. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $27. WINNER, 2007 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2007.
The Vietnam War gets its first great postmodern treatment in Denis Johnson’s sprawling, cautionary epic Tree of Smoke. The author of Jesus’ Son, the widely praised minimalist collection of short stories about junkies and thieves, brings us a maximalist novel that begins with John F. Kennedy’s assassination, crescendos with the Tet offensive and gently recedes from this tumultuous time period to a coda set in the corporate cool of 1983. It is as daring in its structure as in its ambition.
As Laura Miller correctly observed in a review for Salon, a scene where army grunts torture a Viet Cong prisoner because their sergeant was injured and a colonel must intervene and execute the prisoner in order to stop the madness is the “hinge of the novel, its heart of darkness, and the rest of the story’s events radiate from that point, forward and backward in time, with an impressive symmetry.” This two-part structure allows Johnson to frame the war in its dominant tropes: unable to withdraw, unable to advance and doomed to repetition (the very definition of hell).
The story proper follows freshman CIA operative William “Skip” Sands as he is sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia to work for his uncle, Col. Francis X. Sands, who commands a small brigade despite the fact he’s retired from the U.S. military. Skip researches local folklore for his uncle — who believes war is “90 percent myth” — while his patience and patriotism are slowly corroded. Tree of Smoke collects the myths of that era, boils them in a pot and adds dashes of Apocalypse Now!, The Quiet American and a host of other literary references to make this searing, violent novel a work of strange beauty — with knowing winks. — Chuck Adams
Sparkling in the Cold
LET THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ERASE YOUR NAME by Vendela Vida. ECCO, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
Vendela Vida doesn’t waste any time. Her second novel begins with a young woman on a plane that’s landing in Helsinki. When the driver of the shuttle that takes her to her hotel calls, she feels only relief that it’s not her fiancé. What brings this woman, Clarissa, so far from her New York home is carefully and quickly revealed: The day of her father’s funeral, she found that he wasn’t her biological father and that her fiancé had known this for years. Feeling betrayed and rootless — her mother left when she was 14 — Clarissa took off for Finland, the home of the man whose name was on her birth certificate.
In the cold, far north of Lapland, Clarissa finds the Sami priest she thinks is her father, and she meets a young reindeer herder whose aunt, a healer, takes her in. And, in her self-imposed exile from everyone she knew before, she finds both questions and answers. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is a literary cousin to Diana Abu-Jaber’s Origin, which also concerns a woman in search of her own history in a cold, beautifully evoked setting. Vida is more concerned with the people than the place, though. While Abu-Jaber painted icy, gray portraits of upstate New York, where her protagonist searched for a murderer and herself, Vida’s Clarissa notes the red frostbite scar on the face of Henrik, who helps on her quest, and the movement of the hands of Eero, the man she thinks is her father. As Clarissa explores the story of the year her mother came to this small northern town, when the indigenous Sami protested the building of a dam that would flood one of their towns, her own tale overlaps with her mother’s in ways even more difficult than the burden of family and the habit of running away. Vida writes with clarity and grace, giving us an aching, lost girl, not always sympathetic but always grieving, always searching. Her small book has a coolness that’s not the product of distance, though it’s something like it; isolating herself in an isolated, frozen land, Clarissa puts space between herself and the things she both wants and fears to know. But it’s a space that somehow serves to pull a reader in, a suggestion of warmth in a land of ice, snow and memory. — Molly Templeton
Mr. Hooper Lives Upstate
BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Richard Russo. KNOPF, 2007. HARDCOVER, $26.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
The thing about writing in the first person is that it’s very challenging to give any kind of outside view on your character. Perhaps the most famous 20th century first-person work, Lolita, reveals its narrator’s untrustworthiness early on and never looks back. But in Richard Russo’s new work, his first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, he alternates first-person chapters in the voice of convenience store owner Louis C. (“Lucy”) Lynch with third-person chapters about Lynch’s two main touchstones: his sometime-friend, Robert Noonan, and Sarah Berg, who has been married to Lynch for years. Russo chronicles the small class differences in mostly white, blue-collar towns like no one else, and in Bridge he also writes brilliantly about the ways children learn to become adults in such a place. In Thomaston, a town in upstate N.Y., parents work, and often work over, their children; 40 years later, the children’s paths will cross again. The book seemingly weighs in on the side of small-town life with occasional jaunts to other places, for the characters who end up the happiest (and, of course, still alive) stay where they’re planted. They don’t up and flee to Paris and Venice; they don’t pursue their large dreams; they don’t do anything but try to live the best and most honest way they can.
Or do they? Sarah and Noonan are both painters, but only Noonan has fame. In fact, Noonan never painted a thing until he escaped the dye-stained stream of Thomaston, where the tannery has been poisoning its residents slowly and surely. And Sarah, whose artistic gift, readers are given to learn, is quite large, remains mostly content with teaching the occasional high school art class. Meanwhile Lynch, jovial and sentimental, writes about his past in a way that both shines a light on his parents’ marriage and obscures his emotions and some of his less honorable actions, which we nevertheless discover as Sarah and Noonan weigh in. Russo’s plot goes off the rails about 75 pages from the end of the lengthy book, which encompasses almost all of Lynch’s life; it’s as if he thought Lynch somehow needed more explanation while the storyline needed another character. Neither is true, and the melodrama of the Noonan narrative thread ends with a whimper as Lynch and Sarah soldier on. From Lynch’s point of view, things are pretty much just fine, but we know his reliability has its limits. We also know that parents damage their children in various and sundry ways and that the next generations already show damage and partial recovery, all based around the corner grocery. — Suzi Steffen
The Graces, Revealed
THE GREAT MAN by Kate Christensen. DOUBLEDAY, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23.95.
In Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf constructed the young man of the title by having a variety of characters talk about him and around him. He’s not there, and discovering why opens up a vision of loss that Woolf also wrote into To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves. One assumes that Christensen won’t be writing several more books about Oscar Feldman, the man of the title, who resembles no one so much as an oddly idealized vision of a Picasso-esque male abstract expressionist, all sex and brio with no feel for consequences. He’s all about virility, obsessed with painting only female nudes and screwing a variety of different women — not that we ever hear Oscar’s inner life from himself. He’s also not there. Through a postmodern textual wrinkle, the book opens with his (fictional) Times obit. From there, the narrative dives into the interactions of two Oscar Feldman biographers with the three main women in his life: his wife Abigail, his mistress Teddy and his sister Maxine, also a painter.
But Christensen’s intent isn’t really to build an image of Oscar; instead, she shows the lives of the three elderly women and their different, rarely overlapping New York worlds. Abigail, consistently providing care for their middle-aged autistic son, recalls Oscar in a much more gentle fashion than Teddy, who is the mother of two adult women, also Oscar’s children. Teddy’s best friend Lila enters into the narration as well, her reflections on Teddy and Oscar giving heft to the self-interested accounts of the other women and also shining a light on some of Oscar’s irresponsible behavior, which left Teddy in poverty. And Maxine — she’s what’s often known as a battle-axe, a formidable character whose heart the reader gets to see. She always yearns after those she can’t quite have and finds, so late in life, that her art may finally eclipse that of her brother. Christensen deals with the erotic and internal lives of the middle-aged and elderly with a kind of thoughtful yet humorous detail that comes home most strongly in the differences among the meals these women serve to the biographers. That’s literal, of course, but also figurative: Abigail deals handily with one of them, serving him a tempting trade that essentially destroys his integrity. The Great Man ends with fictional book reviews of the two biographies, and readers see that the male writers concentrating on the “great man” have lost their chance to write about the great women he knew. Thankfully, for that we have Christensen. — Suzi Steffen
Dot-Com, or Bust
THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris. LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23.99. FINALIST, 2007 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2007.
The story of a group of coworkers at a rapidly shrinking advertising agency —when someone gets fired, as keeps happening, they get “walked Spanish down the hall,” a complicated and perfectly explained bit of office in-jokery — Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came to the End, is audacious, observant, funny, sympathetic and, above all, inclusive. His choice of voice — first-person plural — includes everyone in the office (as well as the reader) in its wry, dry, storytelling tone. On the one hand, it’s very specific, as former ad agency employee Ferris details the work, the putting off of the work, the ways to spend time and waste time and perhaps, at some point, actually do some work; on the other, the peculiarities of office life are depicted in such a way that they become universal. Life at work, be that work in an office, a warehouse or a bookstore, is its own culture, with its own hierarchies and rules and sense of humor, and it’s that culture that Ferris both relishes in and skewers with this book. There is no single main character though Lynn Mason gets a middle segment that’s quite different from the group narrative. The ongoing question of whether she has cancer gives her colleagues a focus, a way to worry about something outside themselves and their job, as does the firing of Tom Mota, whose inability to sustain a persona that will fit in with the office groupthink leads him to wear three company polos at once and email impassioned missives to the entire company late at night. What happens to those who get fired and can’t leave their office self behind, or to those still working in this shrinking, nervous community, is endlessly funny and surprisingly touching, especially as Ferris brings it all together at the end. — Molly Templeton
Little Lives of Greatness
FALLING MAN by Don Delillo. SCRIBNER, 2007. HARDCOVER, $26. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
Saying that now, six years later, 9/11 lingers in our public consciousness is a gross understatement. While the media frenzy inevitably dulled over time, we’re still saturated with the imagery and iconography of that day, not to mention the frequent reminders from the likes of Bush, Cheney and Giuliani. “9/11 literature” can almost justify its own section at the bookstore. So when Delillo approaches the subject, even head on as he does, it’s more than impressive that his efforts don’t come off as tired or stale. In fact, Falling Man does what I thought impossible — it made September 11 real again, not just a dull wash of 24-hour cable news and American flag decals.
The title refers to a New York performance artist who dangles above passersby in business attire and a pose that imitates the famous photo by Richard Drew. Like Delillo, the Falling Man — to better or worse effect — attempts to approach the tragedy by jarring us out of a haze fed by television reports and political posturing.
The book opens in the immediate aftermath and introduces us to Keith, a businessman who worked in World Trade Center when the planes hit. Through his interactions — and often lack of interactions — with his family, fellow lower Manhattanites and ex-poker buddies, we begin to understand the difficulty of resigning oneself with nothing short of catastrophe.
As Keith eventually becomes singularly concerned with distancing himself from the event, we are introduced to another thread in which Hammad, one of the hijackers of Flight 11, becomes singularly obsessed with his own apparent destiny. “We are ready to sink into our little lives,” Keith says — this seems to be a mantra throughout the work.
While the usual Delillo detractors — those who view his characters as empty vessels for the author’s own ideas — will likely not be appeased, Falling Man continues to make an argument that Delillo is, sentence for sentence, the best novelist in America. — Tony Perez
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by André Aciman. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
Bookslut.com says, “The hardest part of writing a review for André Aciman’s powerful first novel, Call Me By Your Name, is trying not to turn it into a love letter to the author.” Well, consider that challenge already lost. I’ll just say it: I don’t know you, André Aciman, but I adore your writing. Another reviewer says, “Call Me By Your Name may prove to be the beautiful book of 2007. That is the first and only important thing to say about André Aciman’s debut novel, at least after a first reading.”
This lovely book, fraught with the ineffable tension of first love, takes place in memory. The main character, Elio, recounts his tale of 20 years before, in the charged atmosphere of the Italian Riviera, where he and his parents live in the summer. His father, a professor whom some might suspect is a type of contemporary literature prof Aciman knows well, always takes on a grad student over the summer; this year, the American “houseguest” Oliver proves a potent attraction. The heat of summer and the atmosphere of intellectual sparring mix with Elio’s sexual awakening as he learns the language of flirting and lust with another young man. The delicately balanced, splendidly strong prose hovers like desire itself, every breath one step away from the blissful surrender. I’ve hardly read anything more romantic, more tender or filled with longing and regret, than Call Me By Your Name. You may think someone who hates Romeo and Juliet couldn’t possibly care about another romance, but you would be wrong: This book trumps genres, categories, definitions. It rises above them and dances, beautifully, on love, the thread that binds and blinds humans bent — even against our wills — on connection. — Suzi Steffen
AFTER DARK by Haruki Murakami. KNOPF, 2007. HARDCOVER, $22.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
This slim, restrained little book is a far cry from Haruki Murakami’s dense, visionary The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; it’s more in line with the sweet, straightforward Norwegian Wood, though even smaller in scope. After Dark follows a handful of characters through one night in Tokyo, as 19-year-old Mari Asai stays out all night. At home, her beautiful older sister sleeps as she has for the past two months, stepping out of life and into a strange somnolent realm. Mari stays out in the coffee shops and diners of the city, reading, staying awake, balancing a waking life for herself and the sister she’s only once felt close to.
On this particular night, Mari meets a friendly young trombonist; he connects her to Kaoru, a woman who runs a love hotel and needs Mari’s help to deal with a peculiar situation. Stories overlap, and Murakami pulls us ever closer in, describing us — the reader, the writer — as pure point of view (and a cinematic one at that) as we watch the strange events unfolding around sleeping Eri. The tone in Eri’s parts of the story is watchful, almost instructive, as Murakami describes the sleeping girl’s existence; it contrasts with the involved, sympathetic perspective from which we see Mari.
After Dark presents the magic of a strange night around a story of identity, connection and loneliness. It’s a mood piece colored with music (for Murakami, a jazz fan, the song playing in a diner or café is always worth noting) and the comfort of strangers. After Dark is vintage Murakami in terms of the unusual world that seems to overlap with our own, but it’s a slight story, an appetizer of tone and atmosphere (the nighttime city is as much a character as shy Mari). Out of this strange, long night, Murakami carefully and thoughtfully teases slender strands of plot and character to create a quiet, intimate piece that’s unexpectedly compelling and unforgettable, like that last dream before waking. — Molly Templeton
Sewer Pipe Dreams
THERE’S A (SLIGHT) CHANCE I MIGHT BE GOING TO HELL by Laurie Notaro. VILLARD, 2007. PAPERBACK, $13.95.
Author Laurie Notaro is a humorist known for her essays about Idiot Girls, dorky girls and fat brides. In her first fiction book we meet plump, 30-something, happily married Maye Roberts. When Maye’s husband Charlie takes a job at a college in Washington state, Maye must leave her close group of friends in Phoenix and spend her days eating lunch alone in the much smaller town of Spaulding, built upon the sewer pipe industry. There she meets an assortment of oddballs she unwittingly turns into enemies: the bookstore clerk, the mailman, people she stalks at the grocery store and Charlie’s boss’ wife, Rowena, who was not endeared by Maye’s inadvertent striptease when they first met at a faculty function. It’s Maye’s obsession with making at least one friend that drives the story. Her only hope of finding acceptance is to run for — and win! — the Spaulding Sewer Pipe Queen Pageant. She knows she could win with the help of the mysterious Ruby Spicer, the greatest queen Spaulding has ever known, but Ruby vanished decades ago. The story takes a twist when Maye locates a deranged, chain-smoking crackpot who claims to be Ruby and uncovers a sinister secret the town tried to forget. With the help of her piano-playing dog, Maye attempts to win over the town, give the snobby Rowena her comeuppance and clear Ruby’s name.
Notaro herself recently moved from Phoenix to Eugene, and the Sewer Pipe Queen pageant pulls its inspiration from our own S.L.U.G. Queen traditions. The peculiar people Maye encounters — a hell-on-wheels mailman, militant vegetarians, a book club/coven — could be your neighbors. Despite a reliance on overlong metaphors that frequently fall flat and a number of scenes bordering on ridiculous, this book kept me turning pages and laughing out loud until the end. — Vanessa Salvia
Escaping the Rez
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. LITTLE, BROWN YOUNG READERS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $16.99. WINNER, 2007 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE CHILDREN’S BOOK OF 2007.
I recently reviewed Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel Flight as a young adult work, but Alexie himself says he didn’t think of it that way. The violence, he thought, wasn’t the usual young adult fare. Then Absolutely True Diary came out, and if the alcoholism, severe beatings and violence of poverty aren’t as harsh as things that occur in Flight, I’ll be hornswoggled. In any case, the YA community is (mostly) hailing Diary as the second coming; it was crowned with a National Book Award and should be a shoo-in for the Printz honor list as well as other YA awards. Absolutely True Diary also centers around a teenager, this one much more like Alexie himself than was Zits in Flight. This one is a Spokane Indian living on the reservation; his name is Junior; he’s smart; he gets attacked a lot; he leaves the reservation for a white school where, his teachers on the rez tell him, there’s the possibility of hope.
Hmm, Alexie readers might be thinking, sounds very familiar from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven or many of his other books. True, but Diary features some of Alexie’s best writing of recent years, a mix of the unbearable and the humorous with Alexie’s patented grimly desperate optimism, and Ellen Forney’s funny, painful illustrations mesh perfectly with Junior’s voice. What Junior loses by leaving the rez can’t be regained, but he has to leave to survive, and there’s no one better than Alexie at explaining how this tears people apart. Despite some horrifying losses, though, Junior ends up with a tentative, tenuous feeling of hope, of being able to connect in both worlds. And perhaps Diary will lead youth readers into Alexie’s other work, especially his short stories or poetry (some of which appears in different form in Diary). Not that YA work should be a gateway drug, but if it works in this case, I’m pleased; all of Alexie’s work, from poetry to short stories to novels, deserves a wide readership both in the adult and teenage worlds. — Suzi Steffen
The Clockwork God
MAINSPRING by Jay Lake. TOR, 2007. HARDCOVER, $24.95.
Hethor Jacques, a young clockmaker’s apprentice, can hear the finest watch ticking, can hear if the tiny gears are in tune or awry … a fine skill to have in his future profession, but even better when living in the mechanistic world created by Jay Lake in Mainspring. The Earth, divided east to west by a mountainous brass wall, rolls along a colossal solar gear, ticking through each day and year in this carefully calibrated universe. Lake takes a stand in this novel: God exists and He really did make the world; these gears and wheels didn’t evolve. So when a midnight visit by a brass angel leaves young Hethor charged with the duty of winding the mainspring of the world, his adventurous journey is most definitely a spiritual one as well. How he comes to terms with this mythical charge as well as how he makes his way through this fantastic world makes for some great rainy day reading. Author Jay Lake is an Oregonian (up Portland way) and winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. — Paula Hoemann
First Say Farewell
RULES FOR SAYING GOODBYE by Katherine Taylor. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $24.
The protagonist of Katherine Taylor’s first novel is named Katherine Taylor. In an interview, the author has said this is a sort of double bluff, taking on the habit readers and reviewers have of assuming that novels featuring characters that sound rather like their authors are thinly veiled autobiography. The conceit fades away, though, as the book zips through the fictional Katherine’s childhood and teen years at boarding school, coming to rest in her post-collegiate, uncertain existence in New York City.
Though good things often seen to come her way — a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, for example — Katherine muddles along, bartending, thinking about writing, smoking endless cigarettes and noting gorgeous details of life in New York (“Second Avenue was always full of squashed fruit,” she observes; dreamily counting the crushed oranges nearly gets her killed). Her relationships drive the story; an English boyfriend leads her to one life in Europe while a later love gives her a reason to move to Rome. But it never works out — not the love, and not the life. “Maybe it’s time for you to start thinking about what it is you really want,” Katherine’s boyfriend tell her, gently summing up the problem in one simple sentence. Rules is a book full of failure, uncertainty and growth of the awkward, painful kind that results in lonesome weekends and too many glasses of wine, but it’s so acutely depicted that it’s captivating rather than depressing. Katherine is a chilly voice, an unfinished person looking for the next life-shaping thing; she wants to write fiction but finds herself writing magazine profiles, telling the stories assigned to her rather than her own. Until, one assumes, she got around to writing this novel, which at times reads like an unbelievably well-written, candid journal. But Katherine isn’t Taylor and Taylor isn’t Katherine, or if she is, it’s irrelevant; this selfish, slowly growing character takes on plenty of life of her own. — Molly Templeton
Wait For It …
UN LUN DUN by China Miéville. DEL REY, 2007. HARDCOVER, $17.95.
Those who have read some of Miéville’s adult science fiction works may be surprised by the playfulness of this long middle-grade book. The story questions both predestination and the familiar Tolkien (and Biblical) tropes of those who are picked by some greater force to take up a mantle of heroism. Instead, Miéville suggests, you don’t need to be a prophesied hero like Lyra Belacqua of The Golden Compass — or even Frodo Baggins — in order to shoulder a quest, especially if you accept the help of a motley crew upon your journey. But this heroic journey, which ends by skewering the nostalgia and lost-world determinism at the conclusion of many fantasy stories (if Miéville had his way, Milo would never say goodbye to Tock, nor Frodo to his homeland), wanders delightfully through wordplay so enjoyable that adults and young readers both will giggle even as they recognize the authorial message about the bad guy.
Talking much about the plot would reveal some of the joys of the book too soon. And if you pick up a copy, don’t scan the back of the hardback edition, which tries to capture readers by quoting one of the more amusing constructions of the narrative and ends up spoiling some fun. In any case, heroine Deeba’s courage and adaptability combine with Miéville’s obvious adoration of his constructed world to create a superb adventure that should charm many a young reader and even manage to amuse older youth who like a good yarn. Like most great middle-grade adventures, Un Lun Dun has no hint of sexuality and no “bad” language; if you know a strong reader ages 8-12 who has gobbled the Harry Potter books, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne or Philip Reeve’s Larklight, hand over Un Lun Dun for the holidays and watch the fun begin. — Suzi Steffen
NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU by Miranda July. SCRIBNER, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23. WINNER OF THE FRANK O’CONNOR INTERNATIONAL SHORT STORY AWARD.
Whimsical. Inventive. Witty. Charming. Full of wonder … yeah, yeah, yeah; Miranda July’s debut collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, is all those things — so were her performance pieces and her records and her movie.
It’s great that July has the ability to work in varying mediums, but it becomes apparent early in the book that she isn’t exploring new ground. She’s taken the same routine — bizarre, naïve, characteristically idiosyncratic outsider who doesn’t feel loved — and transferred it from stage to vinyl to film and now to the page. Regardless of the age, gender or sexual orientation of the protagonist, the voice and tone of the stories are almost identical. If you look past a few of the premises, the characters throughout the book might as well be the same person.
That being said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that July has some chops. There are moments when genuine emotion breaks through in spite of her insistence on overshadowing it with cuteness, particularly in “The Sister,” “Birthmark” and “How to Tell Stories to Children.” July can occasionally balance wit and humor with a driving need, which is without fail the desire for human connection. Still, when every story hinges on the reader falling for the protagonist’s melancholy quirk, the result is that the collection as a whole is more obnoxious than the sum of its parts.
“What a terrible mistake to let go of something wonderful for something real,” one character remarks. I don’t know — it doesn’t sound so terrible. Never has whimsical and inventive felt so formulaic. But everyone loves you, Miranda. You — darling of magazine covers, critic’s year-end lists and literary awards — are no longer the ignored, the overlooked. Time to drop the unloved shtick and use your talents for something genuine. — Tony Perez
Your PrimeSuffering Years
SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU by Peter Cameron. FRANCES FOSTER BOOKS/FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $16.
This book, which takes its title from a line by Ovid, is novelist Peter Cameron’s first venture into young adult fiction; the author has said that it took him 30 years to find the character of 18-year-old James Sveck and to write about how he felt at 18. James lives in Manhattan with his sister, a student, and his mother, who owns a gallery at which her son works. James is supposed to be going to college in the fall, but he’s spending his considerable free time fantasizing about farmhouses in the Midwest, about escaping from New York and everything he knows there. Self-isolating and prone to using his hyperliterate speech and insistence on precision as a defense, James is so cut off, such a loner, that he’s hard to sympathize with. Without realizing what he’s doing, he plays a joke of heartbreaking cruelty on someone he considers almost a friend; he turns his psychologist’s questions around on her and resists her every attempt to explain, in any small part, his behavior. Cameron’s beautiful trick, then, is that he makes James sad, but not pathetic; sympathetic, but dislikable; wrong, but almost right. He’s a character so self-centered he’s lost his ability to connect, to understand, to even really consider the experience of others, with the exception of his one confidant, his grandmother. He wants out, but he doesn’t really know what he wants, nor how to find it. A portrait of loneliness, of trauma, of adolescent uncertainty about life and self, Cameron’s book is a heartbreaker with a dose of wry humor, its title an offer of both truth and hope. — Molly Templeton
CROOKED LITTLE VEIN, fiction by Warren Ellis. WILLIAM MORROW, 2007. HARDCOVER, $21.95.
From the delightfully disturbing mind of comics writer Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary) comes this dirty, giddy little book. It’s about the other Constitution, the one that’s bound in alien skin and infrasonically forces people to read it, and the hopeless private investigator, McGill, who’s hired by a nasty presidential chief of staff to find said Constitution. Its trail leads McGill and a feisty young woman named Trix through an eye-opening tour of underground American depravity — except that, in comparison with a book that will be used to reset the country’s morality, that depravity doesn’t seem so, well, depraved. Ellis has said Crooked Little Vein is just a “little black book,” but there’s something big and welcoming about his vision of the world, where everybody’s normal, everybody’s fucked, and the geeks are going to save us all in the end. — Molly Templeton
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT, short stories by Helen Simpson. KNOPF, 2007. HARDCOVER, $22.
From a quartet of teens trying not to laugh at the imperfect bodies of adults to a grown woman making the rounds in a park, considering death and change, Helen Simpson’s stories trace the unavoidable condition of mortality. A husband, thinking he’s dying, reforms, at least temporarily; a woman finds herself surrounded by seriously ill neighbors; a grown son grits his teeth as his mother loses her grasp on her memory. In clear, crisp prose, Simpson simply outlines a concern, a fear, and lets the scene stand on its own to echo in the reader’s mind; these stories are as brief and as pointed as the snap of a clean sheet. — Molly Templeton
The Vanished Sisterhood
WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman. WILLIAM MORROW, 2007. HARDCOVER, $24.95.
Readers familiar with Laura Lippman’s cracking Tess Monaghan series may be surprised by this standalone mystery, which contains enough feints that even experienced mystery/thriller/imposter story readers may miss some of the clues. The plot wraps around itself several times, making for an intricate unwinding: Two sisters disappear from a Baltimore mall Easter weekend, and 30 years later, someone claiming to be the younger sister shows up again near the very mall where her life changed drastically. She’s been in a car accident and avoids responsibility by focusing the authorities on her claim to be Heather Bethany, the younger of the disappeared girls.
Lippman builds the suspense by writing about the present, by returning to the 1975 interactions of the family (whose members each have secrets, one of which holds the key to the disappearance) and then by unreeling the various claims and evidence that police officers, social workers and many others go through as they deal with the claims of “Heather Bethany.” Even the smallest character has a weight and detailed thought process that moves Lippman beyond her previous writing, solidly constructed as it has always been. The creepy light she casts over every detail works well enough at destabilizing the reader that though the revelation seems obvious when one gets there, it’s not easy to figure out ahead of time. But unlike some mysteries, What the Dead Know wouldn’t be ruined even if the reader figured it out; that’s how good the writing is. I admit to being a more hopeful person and hopeful writer than Lippman seems to be, and sometimes her take on human beings feels a bit too painful, but she’s absolutely convincing both at recreating the atmosphere of the mid-1970s and at building suspense until the soft landing of the revelation arrives, puffing gently but thoroughly at the survivors’ carefully rebuilt lives. — Suzi Steffen
Hunted and Haunted
THE LION HUNTER by Elizabeth Wein. VIKING CHILDREN’S BOOKS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $16.99.
I fail to understand why readers aren’t snapping up everything Elizabeth Wein can produce, why major movie studios aren’t investing huge sums in the rights to her gorgeous, elegant, terrifyingly real series that covers post-Arthurian politics and kingdoms in Aksum (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea). Oh wait, I think I just answered my own question. Sure, the tales may feature the most incredibly intricate spy network since Megan Turner Whalen’s The Thief, not to mention the complexities of Arthur’s son Medraut (Mordred), who has essentially deserted England and thrown his lot in with the royalty of the kingdom of Aksum, but … they’re set in Africa. Me, I’d pick Wein’s intense, emotionally present and tightly plotted writing over that of any other YA fantasy I’ve read in the past few years.
The cycle began with The Winter Prince and continued — and continued to improve — with A Coalition of Lions and the high-action, high-tension The Sunbird, focusing on Medraut’s son Telemakos. By the time Wein came out with The Lion Hunter, her rich painting of political intrigue and her smart chronicling of the effects of trauma (not to mention the way supposedly royal, supposedly loving adults use and abuse children) simply blew any other competition out of the water. Not that there’s really a competition; Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and Wein’s Aksum series top the Arthurian charts. Considering how much adapters butchered The Dark Is Rising for this year’s movie, perhaps I (and Wein) should be grateful there’s nothing in the works. I suppose this might be a handsell book for librarians and booksellers (the cover … eh), and I’d urge them to do just that. But the complex imagery, tight plots and fascinating intrigue of Wein’s series should continue to draw readers for years to come. Will Telemakos survive the web that continues to draw around him? If the follow-up, The Empty Kingdom, doesn’t come to this desk soon, I’m not sure I will survive Lion Hunter‘s cliffhanger ending, one in which I screamed at Telemakos, “NO!! DON’T! NOOOOOOOO!!!!” But as for buying the book and its prequels, let me gently urge young fantasy fans, “Yes! Do! Yeeeeeessssss!” — Suzi Steffen
Variety is Key
VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE by Lydia Davis. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. PAPERBACK, $13. FINALIST, 2007 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
Lydia Davis is dry — very dry — in her humor, so don’t let the more than 50 short stories collected in the paperback original Varieties of Disturbance bring you to the brink of tears and desperation without a good laugh. This is life analyzed with an eye for surprise, attempting to find truth in the mundane details we all carry with us. In these often very short stories, Davis is the anthropologist/psychologist/sociologist hellbent on deconstructing her characters’ thoughts, actions, artifacts, whatever, for the sake of discovery (but not necessarily revelation or characters succeeding in the end). Quite often, Davis’ characters neither succeed nor fail but merely keep on keeping on, and, like watching a baby wake from a dream to immediately start wailing, it’s both curious and heartbreaking to take in.
These are stories that deal with old people nearing death, that deal with taking care of the very young, that finish where their titles leave off, such as in “Suddenly Afraid,” with the story completing the thought: “because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn.” Many could be considered prose poems, such is the lyrical beauty of their internal rhymes and haiku punctuation.
Then there are the four heavyweight stories embedded within the collection. Despite their relative length, these aren’t necessarily the conventional short stories amongst a sea of experimental flash fictions. Indeed, “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” and “Mrs. D and Her Maids” are just as lacking in any traditional narrative as the heavily footnoted, Robbe-Grillet-inspired “Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho.” Davis has the confidence to collect the evidence and let the chips fall where they may. And she just may be battling Miranda July for the year’s driest humor. — Chuck Adams
Yick. Whoa! Yick.
KOCKROACH by Tyler Knox. WILLIAM MORROW, 2007. HARDCOVER, $23.95.
OK, let me be honest: I took a couple of classes with Tyler Knox. I believe Knox once drove me home from an Iowa Writers’ Workshop holiday party (not that I was in the workshop, just taking a class or two). So perhaps I shouldn’t be reviewing this clever new novel, another in what I’d call the “MFA graduate moves to New York and must dominate city by writing about it” genre. Because Knox has literary smarts, he dedicates this Metamorphosis-upended novel “For G.S.” One can only assume that’s Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the man-become-cockroach. In Kockroach, however, the bug (species Blattella germanicus) wakes up human and, after doing some gross cockroachy eating things, names himself Jerry Blatta.
Knox swiftly transforms the amusing reversal into a commentary on corruption, on the city, on human power — and on how an amoral insect might just become the most powerful person in the country. While that may or may not be a barb aimed at various current politicians, the narrative itself brings to life a certain New York, the city of the 1950s, the Times Square (as one character describes it) “of pinball palaces and shady dance clubs, of the grand old Sheraton-Astor and the fleabag junkie haunts that surrounded it, of the Broadway theaters where I never set foot and the Roxy Burlesque, with its second-rate strippers playing to a third-rate crowd … High heels and low brims, angry taunts and pearl-handled switchblades, jazz fiends looking for green, Benzedrine addicts looking for God.” That description goes on for many more words, the montage of images showing Knox’s research but also a style that brings Michael Chabon to mind far more than Franz Kafka. The tale quickly turns into a spooling out of Edward Hopper’s characters in Nighthawks — the people themselves becoming threads in Knox’s rather conventional depiction of gender relations and power dynamics. Kockroach is a mob tale, really, and a portrait of the city with sly references to Jerry’s past life mixed in (for instance, he survives a huge conflagration — of course). It’s a clever idea and, if someone who has ridden in Knox’s car can say this, a generally fascinating ride. — Suzi Steffen
Between the Hudson and the East
DMZ VOL. 1-3: ON THE GROUND, BODY OF A JOURNALIST, PUBLIC WORKS by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. DC/VERTIGO, 2006 & 2007. PAPERBACK, $9.99 EACH.
New York City is a place that gets inside your head. Live there even for a little while, and you get attached to the place, where everyone has their own version of the same few blocks and there’s always something new to see. Brian Wood (whose Channel Zero you also ought to read) and Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ, a spectacularly imagined series collected into three paperbacks so far, is a particular heartbreaker for a NYC-lover, all burned-out buildings and nightmarish blocks. In a bleak future, the U.S. has split; militias have taken over most of the country, calling themselves the Free States. The United States of America still holds New York City’s outer boroughs, and in the middle is the DMZ: Manhattan. It’s still a Manhattan of millions of stories and hundreds of small worlds, but little else is the same, as photographer Matty Roth finds out when his new Liberty News internship falls to pieces as soon as he lands in Manhattan.
DMZ’s first volume, On the Ground, concerns Matty’s learning to live in the DMZ, meeting its residents and hearing their stories, convincing Liberty News to take him seriously and coming to feel as if he can’t leave this strange, broken, wonderful place; the second, Body of a Journalist, is chiefly about Matty coming to understand the part he plays and the power he can, potentially, wield by using his connections inside and outside the DMZ. (Volume two also includes two separate, brief and wonderful pieces about life on the island.) The third volume, Public Works, is a single story about Matty trying to get inside a Halliburton-like reconstruction company called Trustwell. It’s less immediately enthralling; it lacks the freshness and exploratory qualities of the first two collections, when Matty is still learning his way around, and its parallels to the war in Iraq seem almost too overt. But DMZ‘s depiction of life in a war zone, of the way people fight to survive and to help or hinder each other, is breathtaking. Wood’s sometimes economical, snappy writing and Burchielli’s inspired, fearless depictions of a brutal existence are vivid and textured. There’s something daring about making New York, which feels like it belongs to everyone, into no man’s land — except for these few men and women who tirelessly try to keep it ticking. — Molly Templeton
Growing, Inch by Inch
SHORTCOMINGS by Adrian Tomine. DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2007. HARDCOVER, $19.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
Adrian Tomine’s stories about ordinary, flawed, lovely, insecure people are intimate and familiar, full of heartbreaks, what-ifs and should-haves, all rendered in rounded, elegant black and white. Shortcomings, a hardcover that collects three issues of Tomine’s Optic Nerve series, is an arresting image of a relationship caught in the act of dissolving amid disagreements about ideas and identity and how people define themselves, together or apart.
Ben Tanaka’s girlfriend Miko has been getting more interested in her Japanese heritage, to Ben’s disinterest; in the face of his dismissal of what matters to her, Miko accuses Ben of having a thing for white girls (“It’s like you’re obsessed with the typical Western media ideal, but you’re settling for me,” she says, heartbreakingly, when she confronts him about his porn collection). Ben vents about Miko — and everything else — to his friend Alice, a Korean lesbian whose pointed observations and willingness to accept her friends’ choices about how they define themselves make her a gentle, if sassy, counter to Ben, whose stubborn refusal to consider race as a central part of a person’s identity is tested again and again.
Neither Miko nor Ben is blameless in the dissolution of their relationship; neither is truly right about the other, either. With crisp, biting, funny dialogue and spare, evocative art, Tomine charts their bumpy course to a relatively settled point, though not exactly a happy one. Shortcomings is less statement than suggestion, as Tomine widens his scope from the small moments between people to the larger questions — be they about race, relationships, fallacies or futures — that shape them. —Molly Templeton
THE BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS OF 2007
by Aaron Ragan-Fore
Perhaps it’s the modern inheritance of an art form originally designed to be bundled up with yesterday’s newspaper and tossed to the curb at the end of the week, but comic books are always in such a gosh-darn hurry. The growing mainstream acceptance of graphic novels as legitimate cultural commentary has led to an explosion of quality material, and the taste of the current trend is rarely out of the mouths of the nerderati bloggers, convention attendees and guys who dress up as Stormtroopers before they want to sample next month’s flavor. So here’s a little garden of roses the comics fan on your holiday shopping list might want to stop and smell: 2007’s best graphic novels.
Alt-comix mainstay James Kochalka has been grinding out single-panel autobio strips, a sort of realistic Family Circus with more swearing, for nearly a decade. American Elf Volume 2 (Top Shelf Productions, $19.95) collects cartoons based on two years of Kochalka’s daily life, as he flirts with his wife, coddles his toddler and drinks with his pals. Reading some average shlub’s visual diary may sound excruciating, but Kochalka’s deft lampoon of his own life produces a heartwarming, weirdly self-effacing narcissism. Even Kochalka’s style of real-life characters depicted as cutesy-pie animals endears itself to the reader after a couple weeks’ worth of strips as the style offsets the honesty of the artist’s human interaction.
Another comic using animals as human stand-ins is the the mono-monikered cartoonist Jason’s I Killed Adolf Hitler (Fantagraphics Books, $12.95), a surreal time-travel story of a 21st century professional hitman hired to, well, kill Adolf Hitler. The usual spate of time travel paradoxes ensues, including the requisite Führer-in-modern-times shenanigans. But all the sci-fi and history business is really just a scaffolding upon which Jason constructs a poignant morality play detailing his assassin’s relationship woes, in which time travel serves as a metaphor for memory and change. The WWII setting and anthropomorphic actors make it difficult to resist comparison to Art Spiegelman’s earnest Maus, but Jason keeps his tongue planted firmly in cheek.
White Rapids (Drawn & Quarterly, $27.95), Pascal Blanchet’s lush sophomore effort, also uses history as a template for an intimate story, the abbreviated life cycle of a Québécois company town. Each page is composed like a stylishly snappy 1950s travel ad, probably making this the most visually stunning graphic novel of the year. Blanchet’s strictly structured artistic toolbox only serves to underscore the creative skill he employs in advancing the narrative. The book’s formalism compares favorably with Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, but while Ware focuses on the foibles of humans, here it is the town of Rapide Blanc itself that takes center stage.
It’s no accident that Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency (First Second, $16.95) reads like a movie treatment. The graphic novel is adapted from an unfilmed screenplay, and Campbell brings to vivid, snarling life this Victorian tale of gang warfare and Old West-style retribution in the streets of 1899 Chicago. A must-read for history-minded fans of nonfiction author Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City or of cinematic fare such as Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
Sticking with the retribution theme, 2007 featured a new compendium of the work of the eccentric, abusive and mostly forgotten 1930s cartoonist Fletcher Hanks, titled I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (Fantagraphics Books, $19.95) after a line of particularly purple dialogue uttered by one of the book’s villains. Most of the stories in this volume feature revenge at the hands of two of Hanks’ bizarre, Dali-esque do-gooders: Stardust, an outer space “Super Wizard,” and Fantomah, the skull-faced jungle goddess. These are comic books in their unfiltered, prewar form, a superheroic fever dream, the sort of deliciously salacious stories that made Mom chuck all the comics out when Junior left for college. In Hanks’ cosmology, bad guys aren’t sent packing to prison; they’re changed into melting icicles or eaten by gargantuan spiders. Sure, it’s garbage, but it’s madcap, wish-fulfillment silliness garbage.
In every way Hanks’ superheroes are ridiculous, the Eisner Award-winning first volume of All-Star Superman (DC Comics, $19.99) by dream team creators Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is sublime. Superfans turned off by the darker turn of recent superhero comics or by the moody, emo posturing of Superman Returns can take solace in this heartfelt, off-kilter little book that practically demands its reader recognize why the character has not only endured but thrived as the quintessential American icon through seven decades and countless reinterpretations. The titular Boy Scout is here presented as dynamic, decisive and passionate, a truly Super Man, the sort of friend you wish you had in real life. This is fun Superman, Ur-Superman, the Saturday morning Superman you wish you could have carried with you out of the Superfriends cartoon and into adulthood. Plus, what can beat Jimmy Olsen running around in goofy disguises?
the rest of the best
THE ESCAPISTS by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Jason Shawn Alexander, Eduardo Barreto, Philip Bond & Steve Rolston (artists). DARK HORSE COMICS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $19.95.
Comic book writers writing about comic book writers may sound boring, but then, most comic book writers don’t foil crimes in their spare time. The fictional world created in Michael Chabon’s fantastic novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is brought lovingly to life by Vaughan and company.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLE-MEN: BLACK DOSSIER by Alan Moore (writer) and Kevin O’Neill (artist). DC/WILDSTORM COMICS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $29.99.
You might need a scorecard to keep all the characters straight, but it’s worth it. The third volume of Moore’s instant classic continues as a super-team composed of fictional characters from across British literature defends the Crown against threats both mundane and magical.
THE PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP: THE TRIAL OF COLONEL SWEETO AND OTHER STORIES by Nicholas Gurewitch. DARK HORSE COMICS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $14.95.
If David Lynch wrote The Far Side, it’d probably look a little something like this. Not for the kiddies, unless your kiddies are really, really twisted.
PHONOGRAM: RUE BRITTANIA by Kieron Gillen (writer) and Jamie McKelvie (artist). IMAGE COMICS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $14.99.
Trendy urban wizards waging ancient wars on the dance floors of U.K. raves? Sold.
SCALPED, VOL. 1: INDIAN COUNTRY by Jason Aaron (writer) and R.M. Guéra (artist). DC/VERTIGO COMICS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $9.99.
A new “Native American noir” entry in Vertigo’s near-monopoly of thinking-people’s comics follows an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the corrupt tribal police of a South Dakota reservation.
SOCK MONKEY: THE INCHES INCIDENT by Tony Millionaire. DARK HORSE COMICS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $9.95.
Gadzooks! Victorian stuffed animals fight a pesky swarm of ants for control of their home. Charming in a macabre, Edward Gorey sort of way, and perfect for all ages.
Y: THE LAST MAN, VOL. 9: MOTHERLAND by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra & Goran Sudzuka (artists). DC/VERTIGO COMICS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $14.99.
Wunderkind creator Vaughan’s taut, post-apocalyptic sci-fi espionage series continues as hapless last man on earth Yorick Brown finally learns what killed all his fellow bearers of the Y-chromosome. — Aaron Ragan-Fore
My Farmer, Myself
ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE by Barbara Kingsolver, with help from Camille Kingsolver and Stephen L. Hopp. HARPERCOLLINS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $26.95.
If you value free time, don’t read this book. Because once you do, you’ll become obsessed with finding local food and stocking up for winter … Oh wait! It’s totally safe to read over the holidays because the farmer’s market soon closes for the season. But early in this description of the Kingsolver clan’s attempt to eat locally, Barbara talks about poring over seed catalogues. In January. Which is coming up kind of soon.
While I’ve always enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s works of fiction (except the second half of The Poisonwood Bible: Editor! Please!), her essays usually contain a more deft touch. That’s partly her science training, which emerges in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as well. She’s a bit too scathing about the unsustainability of city-dwellers (she should check out local writer Heather C. Flores’ Food Not Lawns for ideas about how to grow food nigh-on everywhere), and the self-righteous essays college-aged Camille adds show that she’s definitely her mother’s daughter, but the book provides inspiration to those who need a little urging to pickle beets and beans, to plant just a few more tomatoes and to spend many Saturdays getting to know local farmers and their offerings. Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband, adds scientifically solid pieces about why genetically modified food truly isn’t the answer for feeding the planet, among other contributions, and of course does half of the adult work on the farm.
Read this in tandem with Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and A Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, and soon you’ll be growing as much as you can, gently urging Market of Choice or Kiva to stock a lot more local food and perhaps dealing with the reality of turkey from farm to holiday table. Seasonal recipes round out each section, recipes you can also get at the book’s website (www.animalvegetablemiracle.com)and, now, make with the corn you froze, the squash you grew and the kale or chard that’s out there sweetening in the frost. — Suzi Steffen
Mostly Everything Is Illuminated
READING COMICS: HOW GRAPHIC NOVELS WORK AND WHAT THEY MEAN by Douglas Wolk. DA CAPO PRESS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $22.95.
I fell into Douglas Wolk’s friendly, uncommonly accessible book about graphic novels much as I do into a good graphic novel: wholeheartedly and quickly, with an eye to both the familiar and the strange, the comforting and the disconcerting. Wolk is an enthusiast, and his love of comics comes through on every page, even when he’s disparaging the lesser work out there or looking down his nose — with a wry smile — at some of the worst superhero clichés. He’s not afraid to criticize or to be a total fanboy, and it’s this realistic and intelligent appreciation that makes his book such a pleasure to read.
The first half of Reading Comics is part history, part theory, and presents Wolk’s division of the comics world: on the one hand, superhero comics, with their years of history and convoluted timelines; on the other, art comics, more concerned with expressing the perspective of the artist than with the established characters and relationships of superhero books. It’s a simple line to draw, and a useful one. He discusses the escapism of comics, the metaphors, the psychology, the design and art, and then, in the book’s second half, takes what he’s explained and applies it to a generous selection of books. It’s not exhaustive; as Wolk explains, it’s just a group of books, largely falling on the art comics side of the divide, that he finds interesting to talk about, reaching from the precise aesthetic of Chris Ware to the memoir of Alison Bechdel to the sprawling worldbuilding of Carla Speed O’Neill and the groundbreaking work of Will Eisner. Even Wolk, though, can’t make Grant Morrison’s brilliant, dizzying The Invisibles any less dense; reading a few sentences from the chapter on this series out of context is, appropriately, as confusing as a single page from one of Morrison’s books would be.
Reading Comics comes at a perfect time as comics gain mainstream appeal and admirers and as creators continue to take their work in new directions, tackling new topics and trying more and more new things. Wolk is perceptive and calm, possessed of an uncanny ability to express why he loves what he does and how comics work or don’t with clarity and humor. Like an issue of a long-running superhero series, there’s plenty here to grab and keep the attention of a newcomer, but under the surface, there are additional layers for those who know the story’s past. — Molly Templeton
Maps and Legends
THE NEXT RODEO: NEW AND SELECTED ESSAYS by William Kittredge. GRAYWOLF PRESS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $15.
William Kittredge grew up a rancher in southeastern Oregon but became a writer. And what a writer! Reading these essays blasts through any illusions about cowboys, about ranching, about how, exactly, the beautiful landscape of eastern Oregon became the blasted, irrigation-bloated, salmon-destroying place where farmers, Native Americans and environmentalists battle it out for control of now-scarce resources. Actually, a large part of the destruction, Kittredge says, comes directly from his family and his father, who was renowned for his innovative ways of irrigation and farming. But Kittredge was so tuned out of the necessities of the farm and ranch that when he left the Klamath Falls area for college at OSU, he had no idea what his agriculture professors were talking about when they referred to his father.
Kittredge, who taught creative writing for 29 years at the University of Montana and coined the term “Last Best Place” for that state, knows he’s no longer welcome at the table in the land that birthed and shaped him. He left for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when he was 33, and as a consequence, he can write forbiddingly gorgeous things about ranching and his father’s agricultural plans. Things like, “We were doing God’s labor and creating a good place on earth, living the pastoral yeoman’s dream — that’s how our mythology defined it, although nobody would ever have thought to talk about work in that way. And then it all went dead.”
In the multi-part “White People in Paradise,” Kittredge takes on the mythology of a landscape dominated by white men (and he does mean men, who treat women only as mirrors). “We must learn to step on our anger,” he writes. “We need to acknowledge that our populations are stunningly various, with enormously diverse ideas and dreams about the future. We need to name those dreams and fold them one by one into our agendas.” These self-examined but never self-indulgent essays, bright, strong and agonized, deconstruct the self, the landscape and the mythos of the West — and could, perhaps, lead to salvation. — Suzi Steffen
AT LARGE AND AT SMALL: FAMILIAR ESSAYS by Anne Fadiman. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $22.
In a new collection — this one of “familiar essays,” a form the author fears is dying — Anne Fadiman brings her light touch and curious spirit to a broader set of topics than those discussed in her 2000 book, Ex Libris, which was, solely and enjoyably, about books and reading. But while At Large and At Small is ostensibly about topics as varied as a childhood love for collecting things from the natural world and a fascination with Arctic explorers, it is always, in some way, about books. Fadiman quotes, she borrows, she reads, she lists her sources in the back in such a way that an enchanted reader may find herself wanting to read all of those, too. (A frustrated writer may be glad to see the sources simply because they do a bit to belie the enviable ease with which these pieces seem to be written.)
Fadiman turns her attention, her cheery and informed tone, to the essays of Charles Lamb, the biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ice cream, coffee, postage and moving, investigating her own interest in things alongside the things themselves without ever tipping the balance too far to the personal or the objective. “Night Owl” is particularly charming as she addresses the issues of being an owl married to a lark and the mechanics of our internal clocks. New York figures heavily into several pieces, including one about the unfamiliar feeling of wanting, after 9/11, to fly a flag. The closing piece, “Under Water,” is a snapshot of a heartbreak, a horrible moment that exposes both the instant in which everything can change and the length of time a change can continue to affect a person. This is a book for the curious, the unflagging readers, the collectors of interesting bits of knowledge and for those who find joy in the least likely things. Like Ex Libris, it’s a tiny treasure. — Molly Templeton
NEW BRUNSWICK, NEW JERSEY, GOODBYE: BANDS, DIRTY BASEMENTS, AND THE SEARCH FOR SELF, memoir by Ronen Kauffman. HOPELESS RECORDS/SUB CITY RECORDS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $16.
A good read for people who enjoy punk rock books like I, Shithead or movies like American Hardcore, in NBNJG we experience the mid to late ’90s early emo, ska punk scene through a college-age Kauffman as he lives it. I particularly enjoyed the funny scenes, like the vegan straightedge band being pelted by empty yogurt cups and beer cans. Familiarity with the bands is not necessary, as music was more of the setting than a character, but knowledge of the scene would definitely enhance enjoyment. — Vanessa Salvia
ROSIE LITTLE’S CAUTIONARY TALES FOR GIRLS, short stories by Danielle Wood. MACADAM CAGE, 2007. HARDCOVER, $18.75.
These dreamy little stories, linked by their saucy narrator, who likes to interrupt, investigate the ups and downs of the likes of virginity, truth, love, commitment, work and destiny. Rosie Little’s perky tone borrows a bit from Miss Manners as she instructs and advises, but her observations blend with pieces of fairy tales into something entirely different. This is an enticing little book, full of familiar moments, awkward situations and tiny bits of magic. These are stories, as Rosie says, for “girls who have boots as stout as their hearts.” As should we all, really. — Molly Templeton
Mind Over Music
MUSICOPHILIA: TALES OF MUSIC AND THE BRAIN by Oliver Sacks. KNOPF, 2007. HARDCOVER, $26.
Music is not necessary for human life to exist. It has no symbols, images or representations. And yet, for all music’s apparent uselessness, it makes humanity what it is; we are a species of musicophiliacs. That is, we love music for what it does to us emotionally, spiritually, physiologically. But what interests Oliver Sacks here, as it interested him in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and earlier works, is the many variations in how individual brains process internal and external stimuli (this time the stimulus is music). Time and time again in Musicophilia, Sacks reaches the same conclusion: Music seems to transcend the brain and enrich and enhance our concrete sense of self.
As is particular with Sacks, he focuses on case studies, usually patients he has had over the many years he has held private practice. Most have had lifelong maladies, such as John S., a young man with Tourette’s syndrome whose uncontrollable tics are tempered by “certain kinds of music heavy with rhythm,” while others have had split-second disasters affect their brains in profoundly curious ways. Tony Cicoria, a surgeon with no musical inclinations, is transformed into an obsessive composer and piano prodigy after he is struck by lightning. But perhaps the most intriguing and bittersweet case Sacks describes is that of Clive Wearing, who, due to an attack of herpes encephalitis, has anterograde and retrograde amnesia; he remembers very little of his past and can make no new memories. Clive has an attention span of about 15 seconds and yet, almost miraculously, he can sing, conduct small orchestras, play his piano. Through music, Clive finds a present light to grasp onto from the brink of darkness. Sacks’ tome, textbookish in its breadth, lends creedence to what T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets: “You are the music / While the music lasts.” — Chuck Adams
Milton’s Wet Dream
THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: THE RISE OF DISASTER CAPITALISM by Naomi Klein. METROPOLITAN BOOKS, 2007. HARDCOVER, $28.
It seems at once absurd and absurdly low, the price of this new book by journalist Naomi Klein (No Logo). Americans aren’t used to spending $28 for a book thanks to the curious lag in hardcover prices compared to inflation. And it’s so painful to read Klein’s book, a narrative tying torture to economic theory, that even the hopeful final chapter barely rouses a flickering flame of optimism. Who would pay for that? Yet for her meticulously researched tome, for her clarity in explaining just how Milton Friedman and his minions came to dominate world economic discourse by throwing their lot in with the ilk of Augusto Pinochet, whatever recompense she earns can’t be enough.
It’s a global view, her discussion of shock economics, and its theory is clear: Friedman’s Chicago School disciples believe free-market capitalism is the answer to every problem. But many governments try to regulate or soften free markets. In order to remake a state for unrestrained free-market capitalism, the people must be less able to resist. And that happens after a crisis — say, Pinochet’s coup in 1973 (and other U.S.-funded dirty wars in Latin America) or, obviously, Sept. 11. Klein links the sudden rise in fortunes of rapacious transnational companies (Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater would be an great companion read) to their ability to capitalize on disasters. The Friedmanites don’t cause the disasters; they’re just incredibly well-prepared to take advantage of chaos. But, Klein notes, people and governments in Latin America are fighting back — and so can we. Friedman would hate it if you used the “socialized” library services to check out Shock Doctrine or if you banded with friends to purchase it. Small gestures indeed, but another economist, E.F. Schumacher, reminds us that small is beautiful. Or perhaps powerful: Friedman stood only 5 feet tall. — Suzi Steffen
Attention Must Be Paid
HOLD EVERYTHING DEAR: DISPATCHES ON SURVIVAL AND RESISTANCE by John Berger. PANTHEON, 2007. HARDCOVER, $21.
This slim volume of essays and ellliptically crafted thoughts alternately provokes and reassures. Berger, most famous for Ways of Seeing, addresses with his characteristic power everything from September 11 to the reasons suicide bombers might choose that path. I found it challenging to stay with him as he bounced between the 2005 bombings in London and the outrageous police state occasioned in Britain by the War on Terror, but his thoughtful meditations on the despair of the poor (especially Palestinians) give power to a narrative Americans rarely get to hear.
One of the reasons Berger seems so provocative, clearly, is that much of the Western world celebrates the unrestrained versions of capitalism that Berger, a Marxist (on which he elaborates in the essays), finds both horrifying and dislocating. But, he points out, Marxism predicted that capitalism will have its day, and much of the deracination, human suffering and slavery inherent to modern-day consumer culture needs some sort of framework, some sort of hope. Berger’s hope lies in paying attention to the everyday and the ordinary, what individuals go through trying to find food for themselves and their children, how violence disrupts lives from the West Bank to London to Istanbul.
When I presented on Ways of Seeing in a freshman art history seminar, one classmate freaked out at the suggestion that lust for things might lead to exploitation. So it is with Hold Everything Dear: Some critics have reacted with disdain for Berger’s honoring of Palestinian lives, as if talking about the horrors of occupied life somehow means the speaker cares nothing for Israelis or the history of anti-Semitism. Nor do his attempts to justify suicide bombing help on that front. But in general, the last thing Berger wants to do is dehumanize anyone; his slow, allusive essays build a picture of someone who loves others with depth and a commitment to a better world. It’s easy to disagree with Berger, but his ideas in this book deserve attention. — Suzi Steffen
Reading For Pleasure
THE HUMBLE LITTLE CONDOM: A HISTORY by Aine Collier. PROMETHEUS BOOKS, 2007. PAPERBACK, $18.95.
What weighs less than a quarter, comes in a rainbow of fruit flavors and could save your life? A condom, of course! Historian, educator and literary damsel Aine Collier has stretched the rubbery boundaries of high school health-class knowledge that limit most people’s prophylactic familiarity in her historical overview, The Humble Little Condom. Readable as either a flip-through, sidebars-and-pictures experience or as a linear journey from ancient Egypt to the present state of sheathly affairs, Collier’s book entertains as it enlightens, capturing a tone that honors the serious relevance of these little devices while at the same time acknowledging the fun and spicy nature of the acts for which they are designed.
A few little-known facts: Malcolm X supported himself during the Depression by selling condoms at local Boston dance halls; prior to the use of latex, condoms were secured by a little pink ribbons woven around the open edge; a British company is currently piloting an erection-enhancing Viagra condom, designed to reduce whining from “decreased sensation” camps. But far from being a collection of condom trivia, this book tells rich and detailed stories about the people who made and sold condoms, the people who used condoms and the people who thought no one should use condoms. From the days of papyrus and animal bladder sheaths to the AIDS crisis, the humble little condom has been with us a very long time and witnessed a cross section of history that many people, even today, are too shy to talk about.
What this book ultimately reveals is that a history of contraception and disease prevention is, in fact, a highly intimate human history, encompassing issues of gender, sexuality, morality, class, religion, law, medicine, social movements; the list goes on and on. Collier’s wit imbues The Humble Little Condom with enough wink-nudge humor to keep it highly readable, but it is her intellectual rigor that gives the book its magnificent scope and depth, making it a special and decidedly recommended bit of winter reading. — Adrienne van der Valk
Let Them Lead the Way
A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A BOY SOLDIER by Ishmael Beah. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. HARDCOVER, $22. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2007.
No matter how much you’ve read or watched about child soldiers, Ishmael Beah’s memoir will chill your blood. To quote the book’s blurb, “This is how wars are fought now: by children, traumatized, hopped-up on drugs, and wielding AK-47s.” Jesus.
Not that Jesus, or anyone else who might care or offer aid, seems much in evidence as Beah’s life in Sierra Leone collapses during a war that sweeps everything away — family, friends, villages, everything. Neighboring Liberia and Guinea also get sucked into the conflict, which began in 1991, when Beah was 11, and theoretically ended in 2002 with a truce. For a time, Beah and other boys he met as he ran from his destroyed village escaped being recruited either by the rebels (RUF) or the government forces. Both sides used child soldiers heavily, relying on drugs, random violence and calculated psychological control to keep the youth violent at the desired times. The government gets Beah first. He describes how he started taking “white capsules” that gave him energy and sniffing “brown brown” (cocaine mixed with gunpowder) while learning to shoot, to crawl through the forest, to kill on command. And there were other training methods: “We watched movies at night. War movies: Rambo: First Blood, Rambo II, Commando, and so on … We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn’t wait to implement his techniques.” Because time eclipsed for him while he was in this drugged state, it’s hard to follow exactly what occurred to him, but his narrative isn’t just about his experiences at war.
He and other government army boys were taken into Freetown by UNICEF, which was trying to rehabilitate child soldiers. That proved massively challenging, but Beah’s own healing began when a nurse brought him some cassettes and a Walkman. Soon, he was speaking at international conferences on child soldiers, but fighting broke out in the capital, and he barely escaped the country when he was 18. This memoir of his life provides horrifying examples of what happens when arms traffic meets the diamond trade and when adults let go of the humanity that should keep children safe. — Suzi Steffen
What’s Bugging You?
RIDDLED WITH LIFE: FRIENDLY WORMS, LADYBUG SEX, AND THE PARASITES THAT MAKE US WHO WE ARE by Marlene Zuk. HARCOURT, 2007. HARDCOVER, $25.
Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist and noted science writer, gives new meaning to the phrase “invading your personal space.” In Riddled With Life, she elucidates the astonishing number of ways in which humans coexist with parasites and bacteria and corrects the thinking that “bacteria are bad.” Human evolution has been influenced and even led by microscopic creatures who evolved along with us and became essential to our existence. In fact, sex itself evolved due to the influence of parasites.
Zuk explains how a child’s immune system grows strong through early exposure to germs and common household grime. In an environment that’s too clean, a bored immune system has nothing to do but turn on itself, which partially explains the growing incidence of asthma and other autoimmune diseases. I love having ammunition like that when I want to put off mopping and vacuuming!
She offers numerous examples of the influence of parasites on genetics, explaining why males of so many species have fancy ornamentation (like a peacock’s tail) and also carry more parasites. Or how people with Crohn’s disease who were medically treated with whipworm eggs experienced remission of their symptoms. There were so many fascinating examples I couldn’t stop reading them out loud to whoever was in the room with me at the time.
While Zuk is extremely apt at writing for the non-scientist, the facts and figures packed into each paragraph at times left me feeling as if I was back in college anticipating a pop quiz. Sadly, most of my college textbooks weren’t this interesting.
The organisms that cause disease also contribute to our health in mysterious ways. They are alive, with their own evolutionary agenda, and yet their fates intertwine with our own. We can never lead bacteria- or parasite-free lives, and we shouldn’t even try. — Vanessa Salvia
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE: A WAR STORY, nonfiction by Diane Ackerman. W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, 2007. HARDBACK, $24.95.
Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) is famous enough that she can pretty much write whatever she wants. In Zookeeper’s Wife, she has a perfect opportunity to recreate the largely unknown (to Americans) world of wartime Warsaw, the fear and anguish and suffering of those trying to resist the Nazis, the courage of the family running the Warsaw Zoo, where hundreds of Jews escaped the death camps. Yet her writing skills don’t lend themselves to reconstruction, and her clumsy attempts don’t come off well, to put it mildly (a class in the UO’s Literary Nonfiction program might be called for, methinks). Luckily, the story she has to tell, and the details with which she tells it, compel attention anyway. — Suzi Steffen
I EXPLAIN A FEW THINGS: SELECTED POEMS by Pablo Neruda. Edited by Ilan Stavans. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2007. PAPERBACK, $16.
Pablo Neruda’s oeuvre gets a close reading by noted Latin American scholar Ilan Stavans, who writes that his objective was to “distill [Neruda’s] exuberance to its most essential while producing a book affordable to young people.” For students of Spanish language and literature, I Explain a Few Things offers the appeal of being a bilingual edition, but it can be appreciated by a wide range of passionate readers.
From 1924’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair through 1973’s Winter Garden, Stavans cherrypicks poems from Neruda’s canon with an eye for what he describes as the poet’s “ideological odyssey.” Bearing witness to the greatest upheavals in the 20th century should make for an opinionated pundit, and Neruda certainly knows his enemies (Franco, Pinochet, Nixon) from his compadres (Stalin, Castro, Allende). But Neruda was never programmatic, preferring odes to edicts, senses to scripts. “I am a pale and artless poet,” Neruda humorously noted in “The Great Urinator,” “not here to work out riddles / or recommend special umbrellas.”
His early powerhouse “Tonight I Can Write” succinctly sums up in one line (“Love is so short, forgetting is so long”) the romantic trappings of memory and lost loves. But, for Neruda, there were topics greater than love. The titular poem carefully explains his mid-career shift from aesthetic poems to social justice poems. Answering his own rhetorical question on why he won’t write about dreams or the fruit of his motherland, Neruda writes in repeated refrains: “Come and see the blood in the streets.”
In “Ode to Salt,” Neruda takes kitchen sink liberals to task. “In the salt mines / I saw the salt / in this shaker,” he writes, noting that solidarity with the workers must extend beyond the breakfast table. When he writes “I too knew homelessness” in the poem, “The Saddest Century,” Neruda is speaking of exile, not vagrancy, but both, he implies, are born from the same evils. — Chuck Adams