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Renée's Picks

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

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

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

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

David Lynch's sheer passion lures the reader irresistibly along brief chapters of Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness, and Creativity, describing his method of channeling ideas into creative endeavors. Lynch touts digital video as the future of film and regards director's commentaries as sacrilegious. He also reveals his love for diners, flickering lights, Los Angeles, rotting bodies and other things that drive him "crazy, in a good way." He writes of the three years he spent making Eraserhead, O.J. Simpson's influence on Lost Highway, the inception of Twin Peaks' red room, and details of filming his current release INLAND EMPIRE. Epigraphs from the Upanishads introduce many chapters, and Lynch spends most of the book crediting Transcendental Mediation with his success in converting inspiration into successful creations. Lynch's love for both watching and making film is clear; he refers continually to his awe upon entering the "world of a film" and the thrill of "falling in love with ideas." At times, Catching the Big Fish conveys a bit of an agenda (all proceeds for the book go towards the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace), but the simple, sincere and often poetic tone maintain his believability. Lynch has been practicing Transcendental Mediation for over 30 years, and few could argue with his success as a surrealist, envelope-pushing filmmaker-however he does it. Lynch's fans will delight in amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes of synchronicity with actors, musicians and admired directors. Those seeking advice on creativity, meditation, or simply seeking a good read from a creative, quirky mind will also enjoy this book.
Recommended by Renée, August 2007
Book Cover for Poetry On Record Compiled and produced by Rebekah Presson Mosby
Poetry on record: 98 poets read their work, 1888-2006 [sound recording]

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

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

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

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

McCarthy's prose alternates between terse and utterly poetic. He describes the desolation of nuclear winter, despair, and violence with language that is almost paradoxically beautiful. As the man and the boy (as we know them) wander through an America all but destroyed by an undefined catastrophe, they confront starvation, freezing, and cannibals. McCarthy envelops us in the characters' boredom, hunger, cold, loneliness, heart-pounding fear, and shadowy hope. Their dialogue is brief and simple, but buried in these short lines are layers of meaning that imply their relationship and opinions. One of The Road's most compelling themes is the difference between the man's and his son's perspectives of their surroundings. The man regards the world as charred ruins of the vibrant planet that used to be; the boy sees the only world he has ever known. The tension that results from these subtly stated views becomes the subtext which colors their behavior and beliefs, and which offers two opposing avenues of approaching the novel's philosophical questions. What is the difference between a primal society and a society that emerges from destruction? How do people behave in anarchic conditions? How do we know what is right? Why live? Yes, the plot is dark, but McCarthy is a master, and The Road is a masterpiece - one with imagery and argument powerful enough to linger in the minds of those who read it long after they've finished.
Recommended by Renée, May 2007
Book Cover for Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams Valente, Catherynne M.
Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams

A story with no definite plot unfolds and refolds like origami as the narrator describes her dream-visions which may actually be her life, memory or imagination. The narrator might be Ayako, an ancient hermit living on a mountain, or she may be "The I-that-is-Ayako," "a hinge which opens and shuts strange windows, who dreams she is more than her flesh." Several forces propel this book. First, Ayako's visions cross cultures and time with the vast range of mythology she encounters. In one dream, her dream-sister is Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. In another, she births the Egyptian god Horus. Others involve quantum physics, circuses, Oedipus, medieval Japanese culture, and a host of dream-guide animals. All deal with themes of change, transience and uncertainty. The second force behind the book is its lush, adjective-laden language, which fluidly draws comparisons and metaphors that employ even more images. Chapters are named after months from the Japanese Heian period calendar, and they detail changes in animals and nature that signal seasonal cycles, like "Grasses Wither" and "Earthworms Come Out." While the storyline is sparse and buried in surrealism, glimpses of plot emerge from Ayoko's interactions with River, Mountain and Gate-beings who teach her Zen koan-like lessons. With its poetic style, abundance of symbols and ambiguous plotline and characters, the book can be overwhelming, despite its short length. Too many symbols, after all, can become meaningless. But Valente may have intended this shadowy environment to immerse us in the same confusion Ayoko experiences, as she tries to navigate and interpret her visions and distinguish her thoughts from her Self.
Recommended by Renée, April 2007
Book Cover for 32 Stories: the Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics Tomine, Adrian
32 Stories: the Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics

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

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

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

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

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