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Wearing the Poisoned Shirt

Be very careful what you wish for -- you might get it! This familiar bit of cautionary and cynical folk wisdom -- with its unspoken but obvious corollary that when you get your wish it will prove distasteful -- would surely have been known to the master American fantasist James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), especially in its contemporaneous incarnation as "The Monkey's Paw," a 1902 story by W. W. Jacobs. In fact, the monitory maxim could almost serve as a recurring motif and theme across all of Cabell's books, in which unrealistic desires and expectations and dreams are often undermined and betrayed by their very fulfillment, proving that the deluded  human heart is never the best judge of what's really healthy for it.

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The Fish That Ate the Whale

If you're a fan of pulp fiction, of ashcan gutter naturalism, of absurdist caper novels, of rags-to-riches sagas, then pick up Rich Cohen's The Fish That Ate the Whale. This history-embedded, anecdote-rich biography of Sam Zemurray, the bigger-than-life figure behind United Fruit Company at its height of power, is a balls-to-the-wall, panoramic, rocket ride through an acid bath, featuring unbelievable-but-true tales of power-grabbing, ambition, folly, passion, commerce, politics, artistry, and savagery: daydream and nightmare together.

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009

Readers who encountered the first and second books in this acclaimed series -- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volumes 1 & 2, which originally appeared  in serial pamphlet form over the years 1999 to 2003 -- had little reason to suspect that they were enjoying anything more ramified and extensive than a steampunk-style, alternate-history-influenced, literary pastiche. 

 

But Moore surprised everyone with the appearance in 2007 of The Black Dossier, which delivered supporting documents and secret history in Pynchonian spades, fencing in vast tracts of additional literary territory, and catapulting the action to the year 1958. Now the series suddenly and unexpectedly possessed a wider remit than simple steampunk shennanigans. And so arrived The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century 1910 and Century 1969. Now the most recent installment, Century 2009, catches up with the present and points the series towards a blazing future all unborn.

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Redshirts

John Scalzi's droll and even touching new novel, Redshirts, is a space opera which, at first, seems wryly and cynically to posit that a low-level grunt's life aboard a Big Government starship might resemble a Couplandesque cube-farm in space, except with killer ice sharks and carnivorous rock worms when the crew is on-planet. But their throwaway lives are not totally at the mercy of mere bureaucratic incompetence and disdain. No, more sinister cosmic forces are conspiring against Scalzi's crew, in the form of "The Narrative." And these added dimensions open out Scalzi's story into something much more earnest and significant than simple parody.

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Immortality

To say that Stephen Cave's metaphysically provocative new book, Immortality, is an extended gloss on the famous Woody Allen joke -- "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying." -- is both accurate and trivializing. Allen (actually quoted for a different quip in chapter 8) gets full props for succinctly and memorably encapsulating two paths to immortality, those that Cave dubs "Legacy" and "Staying Alive." But the comedian utterly neglects to reference the other two strategies of "Resurrection" and "Soul." Cave, however, considers every possible angle of humanity's eternal anti-death quest in his highly readable treatise. His impeccable, insightful, invigorating chain of reasoning about death and its role as the driving force behind nearly every cultural institution and action in human history leaves no tombstone unturned.

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The Weird

The phrase "ocean of the stream of stories," traditionally applied to a vast cycle of Indian legends, now has a new rightful claimant in the form of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's enormous new world-spanning, time-delving, mind-warping anthology of fantastika, The Weird, replenished as it is with flows from many lands and many eras. Assembled with passion, scholarship, and a clear vision, this Neptune-deep, Poseidon-rich volume establishes a non-exclusionary canon for "strange and dark stories," a crepuscular territory dear to the heart of any lover of tales that are deranged, odd, surreal, deracinating, spooky, creepy and -- well, just plain weird.

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Railsea

Do you recall the tagline from the very first Superman movie? "You'll believe a man can fly!" Well, I'm tempted to craft such a hyperbolic assertion for China Miéville's off-the-wall yet utterly convincing new "all-ages" novel, Railsea. Something along these lines: "You'll believe a mole can terrify!" Or perhaps "You'll believe in the majesty of mole hunts!" But of course such silly quips impute a kind of Monty Python-style vibe to the book, and nothing could be further from the truth. This coming-of-age questing tale is completely engrossing, not parodic, and, in its own genius-skewed way, totally naturalistic.

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Death Sentences

The science-fictional motif of lethal, infectious information -- bad memes -- is a fascinating one, with an extended history. One of the earliest instances is Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow from 1895. Chambers's conceit is a malevolent play: read beyond Act II, and you go mad. And of course, Chambers certainly influenced Lovecraft and his sanity-destroying Necronomicon. Now, thanks to the good offices of Minnesota Press, aided by the excellent translating prowess of Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens, English-language readers get to fill in a missing link in this fascinating lineage, with Kawamata Chiaki's Death Sentences, a fine novel from 1984 that extends the riff to the realm of surrealist poetry.

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The Sugar Frosted Nutsack

The inimitably demented and lapidarily hilarious Mark Leyner returns in fine fettle with a rollicking new meta-fictional novel, his first paraliterary excursion in fourteen years. The affect of the book? Drunken sagaciousness, manic sobriety, crazy wisdom, hieratic gossip. Perhaps if you smooshed together Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods, and Michael Moorcock's An Alien Heat, you might decant something similar -- but only after creating a hell of a mess for an inferior brew. So why not just go straight to Leyner?

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Available Dark

It's a shame, in a way, that Graham Greene brilliantly and decisively utilized the title A Burnt-Out Case for his 1960 novel about a hapless, wounded antihero whom passion and art have abandoned. The title would have been so perfect for an installment of Elizabeth Hand's ongoing saga of Cassandra "Cass" Neary, burnt-out, middle-aged ex-punk photographer, who, in this second installment, after her debut in Generation Loss, finds herself again far from her comfortably sleazy New York digs and involved in shady doings in Helsinki and Reykjavik. After her previous scary outing in cold, provincial, and brutal Maine, you'd think she'd know enough to steer clear of northern climes. But that's Cass: all guts and no instinct for self-preservation at all.

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The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch

There must be a rule of thumb in pop-culture archaeology that states that the allure of any topic is inversely related to its assigned importance in the affairs of humanity. The more trivial the subject, the dearer it is to most of its partisans, and the more worthy of scholarship. The smallest things in life often mean the most to people.

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Rub Out the Words

This volume of selected letters written by the novelist and counterculture icon William Burroughs during the period from 1959 to 1974, is a remarkable testament, since it manages to confirm Burroughs's legendary public persona while simultaneously shattering it. In other words, we get the whole picture of the man, not just the usual cropped and etiolated snapshot.

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9 Algorithms That Changed the Future

In our increasingly digitally-dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson "the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers" should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen—a category more and more of us find ourselves in these days, willy-nilly.  

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Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003

Contemporary readers of Bill Griffith's comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, know with certainty that the illustrator is one of the most accomplished draftsmen working in comics today, his talents on a par with those of Robert Crumb. His art -- nuanced shading; economical linework; evocative textures; fidelity to dress, gesture, expression, architecture, automotive design, and the thousand and one other accoutrements of modern life -- is an unfailing daily marvel, especially considering the speed and regularity at which the strip is produced. Moreover, Griffith's staging and pacing are exemplary. Knowing all this, current fans of the strip are in for a surprise, a shock, and, ultimately, a major treat, when they pick up Griffith's new career retrospective, Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, and discover an artist whose rudimentary skills were on a par with those of, say, a young Aline Kominsky.

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I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

Once held close to the chest and protected by well-understood laws, the valuable information about our lives that we blithely disclose with our every keystroke has the potential to turn around and bite us on the butt. Modern jurisprudence has failed to cope with the new intrusions and, what's even worse, has actually come down against the individual's rights. Although the cover image of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did is that of an omniscient HAL 9000-type lens, Andrews's remit is not really the surveillance state exemplified by ubiquitous CCTV cameras and drones, nor is government her major villain. She is primarily concerned with the information we give away to corporations and other shady characters when we work, play, or shop online.

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The Hellstrom Chronicle

Watching The Hellstrom Chronicle upon its fortieth anniversary reissue (in a beautiful, immaculate, eye-candy print -- but with no extra features) propels me back instantaneously to my teenaged years when I saw this unique hybrid documentary for the first and only time. Selected images from the film and its overall tone have remained seared upon my cortex for the intervening forty years, compounded by the contemporaneous reading of the book by Frank Herbert which the film inspired, Hellstrom's Hive. (More on this prose artifact in a few moments.) The roiling psychic miasma of fear and awe, esthetic delight and Lovecraftian horror swept over me again -- dissipated somewhat, it is true, by my advanced wisdom and the world's eventful history since then. But the film remains a landmark worthy of its Academy Award for Best Documentary and stands as a forerunner of much documentary and quasi-documentary work since.

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The Plots Against the President

The Plots Against the President, Sally Denton's fascinating new study of the early presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is a move toward a kind of historiological equivalence. While sketching with a novelist's compassion and precision the unique actors and forces and ideas at play during the turbulent Depression years, her account simultaneously transcends the minutia of the 1930s and reveals brilliant insights into our current condition. Yet, until the book's closing sentences, she makes no explicit comparisons, trusting the intelligent reader to draw the obvious parallels.

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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

The fifty-one tiny stories (vignettes? prose poems? blipverts? flash fictions?) contained in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty resolutely refuse total decryption. But they burrow into the reader's subconscious and sprout odd blossoms. At first glance, Diane Williams appears to be the love child of Donald Barthelme and Kathy Acker. At second glance, she resembles the adopted daughter of Gertrude Stein and Carol Emshwiller. At third and subsequent glances, she resolves as uniquely, enigmatically herself: a Delphic jester uneasily inhabiting some generic suburbia totally incompatible with her gnomic utterances. 

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Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson is a superlative storyteller, able to mint fresh, intriguing characters and propel them through compelling plots. He limns postmodern and futuristic venues with a keen eye. He taps the zeitgeist and spins out its skein of probable trajectories. But beyond all these skills lies something numinous, something that can only be termed a "sensibility." Distrust That Particular Flavor, his first book of nonfiction, representing over twenty years' worth of occasional journalism, book-introducing, and speechifying, takes over your senses and tastes and attitudes, substituting Gibson's sensibility for your own, allowing you, willy-nilly, to channel the man.

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The Infinity Puzzle

The average citizen, playing with his or her iPhone, spares not a moment's thought for the scientists who made it possible. Happily, a worthy remedy to this shameful gap in our communal knowledge comes in Frank Close's The Infinity Puzzle. Written with pellucid prose, a keen eye for salient details, a talent for the illuminating metaphor, a passion for the topic, and a novelist's gift for portraiture, narrative, and suspense, this book plumbs the rich roots of our current scientific understanding of how the universe works, down where it all gets fuzzy and weird.

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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

No amount of prior study or imaginative mental time-travel can prepare the reader for the outré and unsettling sights to be found in Julia Suits's wild and wacky...The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. Burly, topless businessmen clad in hula skirts and ankle bells. Blindfolded clerks riding a Satan's Derby's worth of mechanical goats. Regally crowned shopkeepers plummeting down trick staircases. Farmers committing suicide by cannonball. The mind reels, as these uncanny vestiges of an extinct realm tease our wits and senses with devilish confusion. Chaos reigns supreme!

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The Sexual History of London

The transgressive writer Samuel Delany has theorized that one major reason for the creation of cities in the history of civilization was to provide more and better sex than could be found in pastoral or village settings. By this measure -- and according to the randy evidence found in the endlessly entertaining, illuminating and simply shocking new book by Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London, that storied city must be accounted a shining beacon in humanity's progress.

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The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

There can be no more dependable indicator that we now all inhabit (or delude ourselves into believing we inhabit) a Philip K. Dick universe (or the shoddy simulacrum thereof) than the appearance of this mammoth volume of Dick's journals, letters, and private stream-of-consciousness essays, which he voluminously generated for a full eight years following his infamous mind-blasting, soul-shattering, paradigm-upsetting cosmic epiphany of 1974. Only waves of patented PKD-style reality distortion could have landed us in our contemporary situation.

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The Phantom Tollbooth: 50th Anniversary Edition

This handsome new edition of the classic children's fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth comes stuffed with extras in the form of various introductions and appreciations, by such intelligent, perceptive, and young-at-heart literary folks as Maurice Sendak, Michael Chabon, and Philip Pullman. These tidbits are all savory. But the real meat of the package remains Juster's inspired skylarking in the pages of this eternally silly-yet-wise novel, with its pitch-perfect original bramble-bush illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Having an excuse to enjoy this book again, and to introduce it to a new generation of readers, more than justifies investment in a bright, fresh copy!

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The Death-Ray

Right now Daniel Clowes is voyaging through the prolonged and impressive midpoint of his career, an era which began with Ghost World in 1997 and shows no sign of diminishing. Everything he produces at this juncture is rich with mastery, fertile with invention, and stamped with his ineffable individual touch. The Death-Ray originally appeared in 2004 as issue number 23 of Clowes's periodical comic Eightball. Limited in availability and impact by this format, the story has been rescued by current publication as a luxuriously oversized hardcover. 

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Physics on the Fringe

Any reader who loved The Men Who Stare at Goats or Sex and Rockets will derive similar joy from this finely wrought survey of gonzo ingenuity in the service of science. These "discoverers" or "paradoxers," as they were called in Victorian times, firmly endorse science's claim to represent an objectively true taproot into the numinous substratum of creation. So these outsider physicists are simply seeking to participate in the same consciousness-raising enlightenment which all the great scientists have experienced. But, bereft of any actual talents and training demanded by the academic and corporate "hegemony," they are forced to perform a kind of "hedge science," like the second-string wizards who can't make it into Hogwarts. 

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The Bible Repairman

The name of Tim Powers has been a secret talisman for a select group of readers for decades. His ardent fans have used that byline as an unfailing compass pointing to contemporary urban fantasies of surpassing elegance, thrills, cleverness, and emotional heft, such as his Fault Lines trilogy or Declare. But Powers has also worked in a historical or steampunk vein, and it is this mode that launched his name into wider spheres of public attention with the adaptation of his novel On Stranger Tides as the latest installment of Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean series.

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Cosmic Numbers

For my generation, the gold standard of popular science writing was always Isaac Asimov. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, erudite but layman-friendly books on scientific topics were much scarcer than in this current Golden Age, populated by such giants as Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Richard Dawkins, and Roger Penrose. So when Asimov began his column of scientific journalism in 1958 in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- a feature that was to last for almost thirty-five years, until his death in 1992 -- and thereafter commenced to issue a steady stream of books on a near-infinity of topics, he found an eager audience that adopted him as their helmsman. Jovial, witty, down-to-earth, omniscient, wide-ranging, skeptical, scrupulous, meticulous, and speculative, Asimov always delivered essays that did not so much hold the reader's hand as shine a light ahead while he encouraged you to follow in his bold and brave footsteps. Consequently, for me to assert that a living writer possesses Asimov's virtues is to offer high praise indeed.

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Hark! A Vagrant

Having thoroughly enjoyed Kate Beaton's first collection of wonderfully nonsensical and risible, yet somehow seductively educational comics (her foresworn history degree does not go unemployed in her new artistic career), I went about investigating her website, Hark! A Vagrant, where many of the strips first appeared and where many new ones continue to manifest, and yet I somehow remained clueless as to the derivation and meaning of the title she chose to bestow on her book and site.

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Secret Language

If you are the kind of amateur word-lover who is still in mourning over the passing of William Safire, or who readily employs "anagram" as a verb ("[In the Middle Ages] some people believed that a person's character or fate could be discovered by anagramming his or her name."), or who knows that "sotadics" is a synonym for palindromes, then you will immediately fall acronym over hexagram in love with Barry Blake's survey of all the tricky and elusive stunts that words can pull, Secret Language, originally published in 2010 and now appearing in a handy trade paperback edition.

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April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The People's Platform

Why is the Internet - once touted as the democratizer of the future - ruled by a few corporate giants, while countless aspirants work for free? Astra Taylor diagnoses why the web has failed to be a utopian playing field, and offers compelling ways we can diversify the marketplace and give voice to the marginalized.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.