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.
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