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Renée's Picks

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

Nonfiction
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 by Renée, 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 by Renée, June 2008

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

Nonfiction
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 by Renée, May 2008

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

GLBT
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 by Renée, 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 in March 2008

 
Lat
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 by Renee, 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 by Renée, 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 by Renée, January 2008

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

Fiction
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

Fiction
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

Fiction
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

Nonfiction
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]

Poetry
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

Nonfiction
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

Poetry
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

Nonfiction
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

Fiction
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

Fiction
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

Nonfiction
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

Fiction
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