Shelf help

Pub date November 28, 2007


WISH LIST My family of origin is so nuclear that on smoggy days a mushroom cloud can be seen above the suburb where my parents still reside. During the holidays we gather there to rehearse and stage the roles we will alternately perform and resist in the ensuing year. While Dad tracks holiday cards sent and received on an Excel spreadsheet, Mom dons a pair of felt antlers and holes up in the kitchen. As for me, I revert to fatigued, endless reading, as if by some cruel law of repetition I have returned to that sullen moment in junior high when my only friend suddenly became popular, leaving me with nobody but books as my companions. Without intervention, I might remain in this half-hypnotized state, rereading Flowers for Algernon until the world outside grows dim, like a dream I can barely remember. This year, however, I’m readying myself with an eclectic batch of new books, books that make me want to participate instead of turning into a listless blotch of angst. These titles provide critical frameworks for dissent, suggest avenues for engagement, and probe cultural blind spots — generating new aesthetic possibilities along the way.

I, for one, like to kick off the holiday season with a powerful dose of well-researched feminist analysis, supplied this year by Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $26). It’s akin to taking vitamins to ward off the winter cold that’s going around the office. I read some Faludi, I ask my brother to help out in the kitchen. Faludi argues that a highly gendered mythology reasserted its virulent hold over the national psyche (as writ large by the national media) in the wake of Sept. 11. Drawing from an abundance of sources, she parses out the myth: strong male heroes rescue helpless girls, feminism is dismissed as a frivolous and dangerous mistake, and cowboys and manly men rise again to keep the home soil safe. In debunking this overblown narrative, Faludi demonstrates that it doesn’t actually help those it valorizes, nor does its rehearsal expedite an increase in national security or political accountability.

Investigating the symbolic construction of identity and myth from the angle of art, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence (Leon Works Press, 167 pages, $15.95 paper) takes up "black presences in European literature, visual art, and film." Fusing criticism, film theory, and fiction with a keenly poetic ear, Bryant reenters cultural artifacts to open up these symbolically loaded but structurally silenced or backgrounded characters and motifs. Her stories trace the ways in which black subjectivity is distributed or denied within pictures and plots, between viewers and artworks and artists, and in acts of conversation and debate, of queer identification or refusal to see. What is most remarkable is how Bryant transforms these elisions into acts of imagination, restoring or reconfiguring partially glimpsed subjects via fleet and surprising sentences that traverse the distance between representation and meaning.

Renovating symbolic systems can be hard work, and nothing restores a fatigued body and mind like making changes to the physical infrastructure — such as sawing through your drainpipes to divert "barely used" household water from sewers to gray-water systems for gardening and washing clothes. Sexily linking the macro to the micro, the locally grown junta known as the Greywater Guerrillas has expanded its how-to know-how into Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull Press, 416 pages, $19.95 paper), a collection of essays that examine the global plight of water misuse and attendant broad-scale ecological impacts. I don’t think it undermines the gravitas of the issue to mention that portions of the book are a sheer pleasure to read, especially when editors Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, July Oskar Cole, and Laura Allen (illustrations were supplied by Annie Danger) detail their efforts to "disengage from the water grid" by taking plumbing into their own hands.

What James Kochalka takes into his hands in American Elf Book Two: The Collected Sketch Book Diaries of James Kochalka (Top Shelf Comics, 192 pages, $19.95) is his life, tidbits of which he transforms into daily diary comics. Visually and verbally, Kochalka risks a silly, reckless sweetness — a sampling of titles includes "Romance of Life" and "Everything was fine until the old wakey wake." The strips are also a little bit perverted and weirdly honest, as Kochalka’s elf-eared stand-in catalogs a receding hairline, farty dairy hangovers, and arguments with his beloved and salty-mouthed wife. As the pages and days pile up, the effect is infectious, such that, while under the diaries’ spell, I began to sense secret fissures of creative potential and magic in the mundane flow of everyday life.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Terry Hope Romero, and the army of flavor lovers they run with have changed the landscape of vegan cooking. In Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (Marlowe and Co., 336 pages, $27.50), Moskowitz and Romero draw inspiration from a variety of international cuisines, without making any claims to authenticity. The resulting recipes (mole, saag, and lasagna, to name a few) are adventures in surprising flavor combinations. A helpful foreword details how to stock a vegan pantry, and tips offered alongside the easy-to-follow recipes instruct on where to find specialty items or how to organize your cooking tasks — advice that, as an unskilled, distractible cook, I found particularly useful. An appendix of menus ranges from rich party foods to low-fat and easy-to-prepare options.

Printed in large type, so it’s easy to read when splayed open next to a bicycle, the repair-manual portion of the illustrated Chainbreaker Bike Book: A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance, by Shelley Lynn Jackson and Ethan Clark (Microcosm Publishing, 256 pages, $12), builds from the ground up. Starting with the ethics and rewards of skill sharing, it moves on to detail parts, tools, and instructions for system-by-system checkups and repairs. The book’s second half comprises reprinted issues of the Chainbreaker zine, originals of which were lost when zinester Jackson’s New Orleans home flooded after Katrina. The zines complement the how-to portions with a wider view of the bicycle’s cultural impact — e.g., the role of bikes in the women’s clothing revolution, the democratizing potential of this low-cost form of transportation. Note: the book hits shelves in February, but aspiring bike enthusiasts can order it now at

And to come full circle … Sherman Alexie’s first young adult (and graphic) novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Young Readers, 240 pages, $16.99), reminds me that a return to YA reading can be the opposite of mind-numbing — when undertaken with a book that’s emotionally spring-loaded, linguistically gymnastic, and devastatingly funny in turns. Drawing from his experiences growing up, Alexie tells the story of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold True-Spirit Jr.), a comic-drawing Indian kid who leaves his reservation to attend an all-white high school. Between racism at school and conflict with friends on the reservation, Alexie nails the ups and downs of a young artist learning to navigate by his own radar, amid competing claims from family and a sometimes encouraging but often deviously indifferent world. Ellen Forney’s inspired illustrations channel Junior’s manic, tell-it-like-it-is sensibility and provide a visual anchor for Alexie’s loquacious narrator.