This 36-page collection, inspired by the winding down of NASA’s space exploration program, uses its poem-essays to advocate a continued fascination with the greater unknown. Space is not a metaphor for Albert Goldbarth here, nor does it need to be—the cosmos are a stable and omnipresent source of untapped mystery, and this focus lends the collection both gravity and grandiosity. We’re happy to sit in Goldbarth’s cockpit as he takes us through his various ruminations, touching upon Hubble and Buzz Aldrin and Star Trek alike.
A member of the Metís nation, Catherine Knutsson lyrically weaves native lore and a tense, fascinating tale in her debut novel, Shadows Cast by Stars. Knutsson’s protagonist Cassandra can see “shades,” people’s totem animals, though she’s uncertain what her own totem is. Her gifts come from the Old Way of the aboriginal peoples, and they are crucial in helping her people survive the dark times. The book is set two hundred years in the future when a terrible Plague afflicts the population, and only the aboriginal peoples are immune. As such, the antibodies in their blood are in high demand. What follows is a struggle to survive, to fit in, to accept her own powers, to find love, and to save her people from dark physical and spiritual forces. While Cass learns that “everything has a dark side” there is redemption in love, sacrifice, and replacing the old myths with your own.
of Popular Music
“It's not what you like but what you are like that's important,” wrote Nick Hornby in High Fidelity—words that come to mind when perusing Dylan Jones's sprawling testament to the music he's loved and hated over his adult life. Organized alphabetically, the book offers hundreds of entries, starting with A Tribe Called Quest and ending with Frank Zappa (so much for the "From Adele to Ziggy" of the book's subtitle), but while it's too personal to be a useful reference and the very definition of overwrought, the book has a weighty charm, like listening to a chatty friend wax from fascinating to boring over one-too-many drinks. At some point a dismissive entry will inevitably aggravate the reader, only to be forgiven for a smart insight, impassioned defense, or deft turn of phrase. Probably best devoured in small bits from a porch chair or in the loo, Jones's dictionary is a window into one darn smart music lover's soul—and a refractive lens for your own.
Myfanwy Collins’s collection of stories I Am Holding Your Hand is the literary equivalent of a bag of marbles: some stories are large, some stories are small, some are transparent and some are opaque. Yet each story contains the arced and swooping patterns of a tiny universe. Most of these stories are less than two pages long, and this brevity adds to the collection’s grab-bag feel: any one is as relevant as the others, though there are standouts. Particularly notable are those tales in which Collins lets her narratives breathe, gives her characters more than four pages to reveal themselves—these are the stories in which Collins’s knack for craft and execution shines brightest.
When Evie gets drummed out of Ohio for uncovering a scandal with her special powers, it is the best thing that could have happened to her. It is the Roaring Twenties, and Evie’s bobbed cut and short skirts don’t fit in with Ohio’s more conservative circles, let alone her more wondrous abilities. When she ends up working in her uncle Will’s dreary place of business, The Museum of American Folklore (a.k.a. The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies), Evie’s ability to divine information just by touching an object gets her into trouble. She soon discovers she isn’t the only one with secrets: Will’s assistant Jericho, the Ziegfield Folly dancer Theta and her musical friend Henry, and the writer/hustler Memphis each play their supernatural roles as the Pentacle killer strikes again and again, culminating in an awakening of evil so horrific it’s enough to give you “the heebie-jeebies.” In The Diviners, Libba Bray creates a rousing thriller punctuated with the lingo of the times that catapults the reader from one hair-raising situation to the next. It’s not only the cat’s pajamas, but also makes a great summer read.
While Raymond Moody’s name is now synonymous with afterlife studies, he started out studying astronomy and philosophy. When he heard of a physician who came back from the dead and reported seeing a light, his career path was changed forever: “To say I was hooked on death was an understatement.” He has since recorded thousands of cases of near-death experiences (NDEs), as well as “shared death experiences,” past life regressions, and encounters with the departed. As a result, Moody has published nearly a dozen books that attempt to answer one of the biggest questions in life: What happens when we die? In this memoir, Moody reveals his own near-death experience due to an undiagnosed thyroid problem. Luckily for us, Raymond Moody survived to share his wit and wisdom and continue the pursuit.
A retrospective investigation into the potential origins of the author’s anxiety, there is little scientific framework to Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind and even less speculation about modern society’s effects on the human psyche. Instead, Smith limits his exploration to his own troubled psychology, somehow managing to hold his affliction at bay long enough to express a gregarious, self-deprecating, and thoroughly enjoyable persona.
Thani Al-Suwaidi’s novella The Diesel is a miasmic study of gender, religion, and ambition within the context of contemporary Islam. In his first work of fiction, poet Al-Suwaidi (born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966) writes with the narrative economy of an imagist, yet with the informed disconnect of a Modernist. Originally published in Beirut in 1994, and with two subsequent publications in Iraq and Egypt, this is The Diesel’s first English translation and publication. While diverse Muslim voices are increasingly prevalent in Western literature, The Diesel’s belated entrance should make new work of obliterating cultural stereotypes; it highlights not only humanity’s depth and complexity across cultures, but also our ability to access the universal through the sheer joy of language.
In Fra Keeler, Iranian-American writer Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi turns in a peculiar, surreal narrative of self-exploration and the problematic nature of inheritance. The novel traverses increasingly cloudy waters, only occasionally landing upon moments of clarity—usually when the narrator interacts with other characters. For the most part, though, this is a narrative of isolation, an exploration of self and memory and impulse. The end result is one of extreme and unmitigated subjectivity: readers will find whatever they’re looking for in Fra Keeler, but they can’t avoid Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s infectious jouissance.
Designed and decorated by Seth
In a pairing seemingly made in aesthetic heaven, Biblioasis has released a quaint and stunning edition that combines Seth’s vividly drab illustration with the patient and diligent prose of Chekhov. This trio of linked stories, penned toward the end of Chekhov’s career, has appeared elsewhere in different forms, but here translator David Helwig rejuvenates Chekhov’s commitment to pacing and tone, and Seth’s moody drawings and design nicely supplement the mood and timbre of Chekhov’s narratives. Though it easily holds crossover appeal, the book doesn’t seem overly concerned with winning new fans for either Seth or Chekhov, both firmly established as preeminent in their field. Instead, this book offers existing fans of both a new gem for their home libraries.
This time-travel tale entertains while offering an intriguing hypothesis for the spate of odd sightings, or UVEs (Unexplained Visual Experiences), happening across the globe. Turns out these seeming hallucinations are tears in space-time, glimpses of past ages, and one such UVE nets a bona-fide, unintentional Victorian time-traveler, Mary Stepney. While much of the story follows Mary’s adaptation to modern times via her at first disbelieving discoverer James Harvey, author SK Webb devotes a few chapters to the hypothesis of quantum physicist Professor John Beale, who attributes the UVEs to overuse of technologies utilizing electromagnetic radiation (cell phones, satellites, etc.). While this side step into quantum origin is fascinating (I’m a sucker for it, myself), the real story is the growing affection between Mary and James, an unlikely couple who overcome time and kidnapping by a suspicious government ultimately to be together.
Yoko Ono turned 80 years old on February 18, 2013, but two new books remind us that in actuality, she’s timeless.
Collector of Skies is a full-fledged biography masquerading (successfully) as a picture book: a wealth of photos adorns the text, depicting each iconic moment in this extraordinary artist’s life. The title derives from a poem she wrote at age nineteen summarizing her life to date:
born: Bird Year
early childhood: collected skys
adolescence: collected seaweeds
late adolesence: gave birth to a
grapefruit, collected snails,
clouds, garbage cans, etc . . .
Ono retains this wistful imagistic approach to reality throughout a career encompassing installation art, music, performance, and one of the most famous marriages of the 20th century. Most of this story is known—there are no revelations here—but Collector of Skies puts it all in an inspiring format well suited for the precocious teenager in your life. And no matter your age, it’s a fitting reminder to imagine.
Lisa Carver’s Reaching Out with No Hands honors Ono’s central status as a pioneering, groundbreaking artist by questioning her work each step of the way. It’s a highly personal and idiosyncratic account—at one point, Carver (herself a performance artist as well as writer) says, “I feel such intense appreciation for her, yet it is not a warm feeling”—but her willingness to wrestle with a great forebear makes her text relentlessly charming. Some of the book’s chapters are as brief as a paragraph, and it’s form makes sense: Carver skillfully plumbs Yoko’s story from the point of view of the mediated, the seen. Her chapter on Bagism, for instance, recounts how in 2003, reporter Peter Jennings attempted to interview Ono but “was dragged into the bag to become an unwitting participant in the exploration of finding the pure human.” That’s art.
Yoko Ono, thank you for all your art, and happy birthday.
Told from the point of view of six-year-old Billy Watson, What I Did masterfully captures the restless childhood imagination that often flies free from reality. What Billy did was get his father, a loving yet volatile man under pressure at work, in deep trouble with child protective services. Christopher Wakling’s discerning grasp of the sponge that is a child’s brain results in a complexity of linguistic inventiveness, filled with malapropisms and elaborate mythologies that Billy devises to stave off the boredom of adult talk and tensions. But the deep bond between father and son cannot be broken so readily by suspicion or the father’s own pig-headedness. No one comes off very well, but the messiness of these relationships makes it a truer and more profound tale. As Billy says, “nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and the good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce terrible chemical reactions.”
It isn’t often that artistic innovation, high-level education, and just plain fun get crammed into the same package, but such is the case with Jon Chad’s marvelous children’s book Leo Geo. The book’s designed as a skinny vertical strip, as befits its topic: a journey to the center of the earth. Leo mellifluously describes the science behind his trip the whole way down (and back again)—though the story is not without some science fictional diversions along the way too, like the “quadclops” our explorer hero finds at the earth’s core. Chad’s vertical cartoon is an impressive architectural feat, and his playful sense of humor doesn’t take away from the fact that you (I mean, erm, your kids) will learn all about geology and biology along the way.
Not even Gérard de Nerval’s pet lobster can rival Ruby Small’s pet glacier Cecil. Only the fertile and peripatetic mind of poet Matthea Harvey could cook up this children’s story of a recently calved glacier taking a shine to this normal little girl in a brown pinafore on a family trip to Norway. Ruby has had enough of eccentricity, what with the weirdness of her parents’ penchants (her father is a topiary gardener and her mother designs tiaras), and would much rather have a normal pet dog, but Cecil soldiers on and eventually proves his true devotion to Ruby. Gloriously illustrated by Giselle Potter, who manages to give a lump of ice personality, Harvey’s Cecil the Pet Glacier redefines what is normal or really should be normal: tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional love. With the threat of global warming looming, maybe all of us will need to adopt a glacier soon.
Panio Gianopoulos’s debut novella A Familiar Beast spans seventy-two pages in a 4”x6” format, but it reads like a long short story–think Alice Munro or perhaps an elaborate yarn from Stuart Dybek. The novella covers familiar territory for short fiction: domestic strife, confronting one’s relationship to nature. But with Gianopoulos’s knack for urban modernity, his precise and inventive syntax, and a narrator whose flaws are complex and compelling, he manages to dismiss the question of genre altogether and provide readers a fully realized work.
It’s increasingly evident that “graphic novels” are the perfect vehicle for memoir, breezily conveying the evanescence of memory in a way that prose and film just cannot. Take My Friend Dahmer by Derf, creator of the alternative comic strip The City. The book tells the saga of growing up with the weird kid who would turn out to be a serial killer, masterfully foreshadowing the horror while rendering the incipient monster as just another high school misfit. My Friend Dahmer was twenty years in the making and it shows; it’ll be considered one of the finest examples of its medium for decades to come.
Still need a calendar for 2013? Check out the amazing poetry calendar from Argos Books—each month features a different poem by the likes of Eileen Myles, Mark Bibbins, Cecila Vicuna, Harryette Mullen, and other joyful noisemakers. It's a chapbook you can hang on your wall, really—and it's got a gorgeous letterpress cover to boot. See it here.
Rain Taxi's Really Short Reviews are compendious critiques (look it up)
of books our staff thinks are really cool.