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Hemingway's Boat

I can easily picture, with my own share of his glee, the enormous smile that must have brightened the face of Paul Hendrickson when he first crystallized his brilliant conceit for organizing his new account of the last thirty years of Ernest Hemingway's life: to use Hemingway's beloved and intimately essential cabin cruiser Pilar as the polestar of the narrative. No wan symbol or factitious theory to serve as blinkered Virgil, but instead a tactile, intensely documented, sensual, action-crammed vessel (the boat hosted some five hundred visitors, famous and otherwise, in its lifetime) that would carry a rich cargo of story.

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Habibi

This month, Craig Thompson returns with Habibi, as different from his award-winning graphic novel Blankets as could be, but nonetheless evocative of the same intelligence, compassion, creative range, and skills. The tale takes place in the desert kingdom of Wanatolia, and it's a curious realm indeed. On the one hand, camel caravans continue to cross the desert in immemorial fashion, slaves are bought and sold, and a sultan straight out of the 1,001 Nights maintains a lush harem, complete with eunuchs and viziers. On the other hand, oil pipelines thread the sands, people wear mirrorshades, and a giant hydroelectric dam and a sprawling modern metropolis form important venues.

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East of the West

A young man -- he was born in Bulgaria in 1982 -- Miroslav Penkov possesses an old soul. Such is the conclusion to be drawn, at least, from the haunting, haunted stories in his debut collection East of the West. They all exhibit an elegiac, melancholy wisdom more fitting for some aged, seasoned Isaac Bashevis Singer or even Tolstoy. They evoke tears, but not a frenzy of wailing; sorrow, but not utter despair. They seem reflective of the period after everything has collapsed, when people realize life continues, post apocalypse, and they must now figure out how to carry on. Of course, the disintegration of the Soviet empire plays a large part in all this.

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Who Are We -- And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

The recent tragic shootings in Norway by Anders Breivik lend Gary Younge's new book an extra measure of importance and highlight the timely utility of this thoughtful and thought-provoking study, dating even from its pre-Oslo conception by an intrepid journalist with his finger firmly on the zeitgeist. Younge's bold remit is nothing less than the examination of "identity" in all its manifestations -- "religious adherence, chromosomal composition or melanin content," as he wittily phrases it at one point -- and identity's role, for good or ill, in the individual and civic lives of all peoples.

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Murder by High Tide

If ever there were a moment for Americans to fall in love with the incredible legacy of Franco-Belgian comics -- or la bande dessinée -- that time might be now, given the high profile of Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Tintin film. But the imperviousness of US audiences to Gallic funnybooks cannot be overestimated, given that they have already turned their collective nose up at so much, from Jacques Tardi to Lewis Trondheim to Asterix, all of which remain minority passions in this country. In further evidence, Luc Besson's 2010 film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, adapted from Tardi, still has not been deemed release-worthy in the USA. Nevertheless, any hope at all of seducing new readers in America must rely on sheer availability of the texts, in attractive new translations, and no one is doing more along these lines than the publisher Fantagraphics.

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Tomatoland

Reading Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook's hypnotic account of the modern tomato agribusiness and its outliers, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Or, more precisely, alternating chapters provoke either tears or astonished guffaws. While we can chuckle at the thought of newly picked Franken-tomatoes falling off speeding trucks, hitting the pavement at 60 MPH and remaining pristine, accounts of hideous birth defects experienced by the children of migrant tomato-field workers exposed to dozens of toxic chemicals, and the slave-like conditions they labor under, is another meal of misery entirely.

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The Big Book of Adventure Stories

Would you like to know the definition of an adventure story? A beautiful Sicilian princess of medieval times is sleeping on the deck of a ship--curtained from prying eyes, and surrounded by her drowsy, similarly beautiful handmaidens--when her ship is rammed by another vessel manned by traitors from her father's court intent on kidnapping her. Plunged into the sea, she swims for land, where she sets a trap for one of the pursuing conspirators. She kills the big man by snaring him and holding him underwater till he drowns. She steals his clothes and armor and sword, makes her way back to the remaining assailant's craft, rouses the surviving loyalists, disarms the second villain in a fair swordfight, declares a boastful victory, and heads for home.

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The Internet of Elsewhere

There's nothing like a good shot of clear-eyed, upbeat globalism to shatter the dreary national myopia and restore our sense of wonder about what really is an amazing contemporary world. Cyrus Farivar's new book provides just such an injection of multicultural journalistic insight. His thesis is remarkably simple and stated clearly in his captivating introduction: "The most fascinating examples of internet-related changes are not happening in Silicon Valley, but rather in far-off, forgotten or overlooked corners of the globe." To illustrate his point, Farivar fixes on four places: South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran. And before you can say "optimized link state routing protocol with frame relay packet switching," he's off!

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The Joaquín Band

Like a valiant explorer setting out through wild uncharted jungles to uncover a long-lost Mayan ruin whose actual existence is only half verifiable, Lori Lee Wilson embarks boldly through a dense thicket of myth and legend in search of the facts surrounding Mexican-American folk hero Joaquín Murrieta, who was either "a light-skinned romantic Robin Hood or Zorro type; a dangerous criminal who died violently; [or] an 'avenging angel' and guerilla rebel chief at war with the Americans and their capitalist tendency to tread on others for the sake of a quick profit." She emerges from her archaeological expedition with the clearest portrait of the man seen in perhaps his whole long and colorful posthumous career, a depiction that weighs all the evidence with care before venturing a composite.

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Some Day This Will Be Funny

Lynne Tillman's stealthy stories exhibit a quiet, composed delicacy that conceals a titanium armature and a burning fusion reactor core. Her work reminds me of the sculptures of Charles Krafft: elegant porcelain representations of deadly hand grenades and pistols.

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Disease Maps

Disease wants to be information--specifically, visual, spatial information. That's the best way our brains can ingest the scientific facts and reach fresh conclusions. Whether it be the symptoms afflicting an individual projected onto the schematic of a single body (such as we see in the groundbreaking work of Vesalius, with his De Humani Corporis Fabrica), or the agglomerated cases of a rampant disease charted across a geographical region, the most efficient and useful way to comprehend, control, and forecast sickness is to establish a relation between biology and cartography. Such is the thesis of Tom Koch's Disease Maps, a fascinating historical study of how humanity has come to understand epidemics in terms of maps.

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Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth

Alex Toth was no Jack Kirby. He never achieved fame through the creation of world-renowned superheroes. No legion of fanboys ever followed his byline. He was no fount of cosmic ideas. He disdained most publicity, and was more prone to morbidly dwell on what he saw as his failures, rather than boast of any triumphs. And he was not a team player or a happy camper when he felt slighted or misunderstood, which happened more and more often as he aged.

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The Rogue Crew

Ah, the faithful and grateful audience of a beloved author of books for young readers! The favorite books of childhood remain part of our souls forever, unlike those respectable tomes we amuse ourselves with as adults. And the deaths of YA creators can hit hard. Notice of the death of YA fantasist Brian Jacques (he died in February 2011 at age 71) evoked remarkably emotional responses, unanimous in their praise and shared sense of anguished loss.

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Powering the Dream

With this stimulating, surprising, meticulously researched book, Alexis Madrigal confers on the green technology movement the valuable gift of historical perspective, a roadmap of past failures and triumphs that can help our society today to form a sensible prospectus for our future survival and escape from eco-apocalypse. Digging deep into the record of alternate energy schemes and projects extending as far back as the 1830s, Madrigal lays down a saga of visionary inventors, enthusiastic or fickle citizens, millionaire robber-baron investors, self-serving charlatans, far-seeing or short-sighted bureaucrats, hardy pioneers, altruistic saviors, and starry-eyed philosophers, all of whom played a part at one time or another in striving to deliver new and improved sources of power to the species and liberate us from drudgery--while hopefully getting rich in the meantime.

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Who Shot the Water Buffalo?

The author photo of Ken Babbs on the dust jacket of his first solo novel, Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, depicts a jovial, burly, silver-maned fellow wearing an insignia-laden Armed Forces leather jacket. He looks like anybody's unassuming Foxy Grandpa, ready for a night out with his bowling league or a BBQ at the AmVets. But of course, Babbs is operating undercover. One of the original Merry Pranksters, a true Child of the Sixties, legatee of the Ken Kesey canon, Babbs is more Holy Goof than AARP resident of Florida-as-God's-Waiting-Room. Now he's chosen to return to his fabled past--specifically, his Vietnam War service in the early 1960s--in order to deliver a novel based on his firsthand experiences of that grim and absurd conflict, with an emphasis on the absurdity.

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The New Cool

A utopian fantasy: If I were a billionaire, I would purchase one copy of The New Cool for every politician in the United States, from Podunk town council member to POTUS.  Then, employing the arcane superpowers which Glenn Beck imagines George Soros possesses, I would force each politico to put aside any and all tasks, no matter how vital, until they had read and deeply internalized Bascomb's inspiring narrative.

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Duncan the Wonder Dog

At nearly 400 pages, Duncan the Wonder Dog, the debut graphic novel by self-taught wunderkind Adam Hines is merely the opening salvo in what the artist forecasts will be a 2600-page epic in nine volumes, to be completed over the next twenty-five years,  all about the fate of sentient beasts in an alternate timeline (otherwise resembling our own era) where "animal rights" means arguing with a weeping cow about why it needs to die for the benefit of its human overlords.  Not since Dave Sim launched Cerebus on its three- decades-long road to completion has a creator embarked on such an ambitious and perhaps foolishly grandiose project.  But judging by the obsessive meticulousness, craft and talent on display in Duncan, Hines stands a good chance of fulfilling his vision, barring a chance mortal encounter with a rogue pitbull objecting to any of his sentiments.

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There Is No Year

Surely you recall the trippy climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Astronaut Dave Bowman's psychedelic voyage through the hyperspace tunnel, and his awakening in a Louis XVI bedroom, aged and dying, only to be rejuvenated by the Monolith as a space fetus? Well, Blake Butler's There Is No Year, his first novel outside the small press realm, is pretty much that whole sequence replayed one hundred times in succession, occasionally slowed down to one frame per minute. But this analogy has to take into account the following highly distinctive changes.

 

Dave Bowman is now three generically named individuals, "mother," "father," and "son," a family of shamblers suffering from various teratomas, fluctuating body parts, mental lacunae, spastic tics, insatiable appetites, and catastrophic identity disorders.

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Thinking in an Emergency

Elaine Scarry, best known for her meditation on The Body in Pain, here offers a slim yet gravid essay that occupies a curious nexus.  It is partly a work of sociological analysis, on the order of Bowling Alone.  It is partly an appeal to the power of philosophy and rationality, akin to Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy.  It is partly a work of speculative neuroscience examing our thought processes, such as Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.  It is partly a controlled rant (pardon the oxymoron) that seeks to speak truth and justice to power, along the lines of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.  And it is partly a dry-as-dust work from some federal agency like the Congressional Government Accountability Office, documenting with reams of precise statistics why we should all eat more vegetables.  Luckily for the reader, the other four passionate actors in the troupe sit heavily upon this bluenose lecturer and only let him get in an intermittent squeak or three.

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Blood Work

If I might paraphrase Lady Macbeth, who mused sweetly upon one of her victims, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him," I would suggest that a delighted reader's first reaction upon finishing Holly Tucker's captivating, enlightening and mildly horrifying Blood Work might be, "Yet who would have thought the history of blood transfusion to have had so much sheer entertainment in it."

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The Wise Man's Fear

It's easy to see why Patrick Rothfuss's sumptuous, soft-spoken, understated debut novel caused a stir upon its appearance in 2007 and went on to become a fantasy bestseller and engender a passel of fans clamoring for the sequel, which arrives now in the form of The Wise Man's Fear.  Not only was it thoughtfully conceived, well-written and cleverly presented, but it also stood out thematically and stylistically from the competition, that crowd of hairy-chested, brawling, gore-splattered, epic-fantasy lager louts more at home on the battlefield and in decadent court chambers than in Rothfuss's chosen fresh-faced University setting.

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How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

Why are we the way we are? That simple question has bedevilled humanity since the dawn of recorded history, provoking various answers from philosophers, mystics, theologians, fabulists, humorists, cynics, politicians, and, only in the last 300 years or so, from naturalists and scientists.  The latest discipline that seeks to unriddle the mysteries of human behavior and mentality, abilities and customs, is that of evolutionary biology, or evolutionary anthropology.  Taking a thoroughly up-to-date Darwinism as their core set of tenets, these practitioners seek to tease out the formative influences from our hominid past—and beyond—that endowed us with ingrained behaviors and modes of thought that often translate directly into the institutions and cultural practices of our everyday lives.

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Lizard Music

Were you aware that William Burroughs wrote a young- adult novel starring Encyclopedia Brown back in 1976?  Or that, in their prime, the Firesign Theater produced a whole album involving an invasion by lizard-men from an invisible island?  Or that Roger Corman filmed, in only six days, a script by Roald Dahl based on a lost story by George MacDonald titled At the Beck of the Norse Whim?  No?  Oh, that's right:  you don't have access to those alternate timelines where such things are solid facts.  But apparently Daniel Pinkwater does.

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The Cello Suites

Eric Siblin's cleverly dovetailed and enticingly readable investigative account of the famous rediscovery of J. S. Bach's masterful scores for solo cello, at the hands of Pablo Casals in the late nineteenth century, and their subsequent elevation to the consensual apex of musical beauty, puts paid to the quip (supposedly first made by comedian Martin Mull) that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  The image of misguided critical futility inherent in Mull's comparison has no place with a writer like Siblin, who can charmingly and empathetically convey the sweet sounds of a live performance through the medium of black marks on a white page—which, ironically, is exactly how Bach's music was first conceived, transcribed and precariously transmitted down the centuries.

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Alice Neel

If you can read the succinct yet jam-packed teaser of an initial chapter in this first book-length biography of the painter Alice Neel, in which author Phoebe Hoban enticingly and zestily catalogues the highlights of Neel's career, and then still resist plunging immediately into the text that follows-well, you must be an unimaginative, unromantic Philistine of the grossest sort.  Neel's life in tantalizing outline -- born with the twentieth century, artistically active in every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s, stylistically adventuresome, uncompromisingly principled, mentally eccentric, bohemian by nature, acquainted with many famous fellow creators and colorful lowlife characters, adopted by feminists as a standard-bearer, finally endowed with elderly fame -- constitutes the archetypical painterly arc, a narrative of mythic proportions.  How could anyone with even a shred of imagination and joie de vivre fail to fall headfirst into this story?

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Swallow

Urgent health bulletins are issued, warning parents to beware of their children swallowing tiny magnets, which can lead to perforated bowels.  The internet becomes fascinated by tales of a pea sprouting and growing in a man's lung, or an aspirated piece of a plastic cup from Wendy's causing two years' worth of breathing trouble in an inattentive individual.  The x-ray of a dog with an enormous kitchen knife occupying almost the whole length of its innards mesmerizes the random web-surfer's eye.  A video of Michel Lotito, known as "Monsieur Mangetout," racks up a quarter-million views on YouTube.

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Everything You Know is Pong

In my later teenage years, my aspirations toward becoming a writer were crystallized in large part by viewing a feature in the surrepetitiously obtained, newly minted issue of Playboy for November 1971.  The article that struck me so forcefully was a profile of Henry Miller and his joyfully unrepentant and hedonistic lifestyle, earned after decades of hard knocks and bold prose, of which I then knew little and cared less.  The most striking, even surreal photograph of the whole piece showed a fully clothed Miller, aged eighty, playing ping pong with a naked woman, identified as one Candice Thayer.  Any hormone-stoked would-be male author could only dream of attaining such a vocational heaven, made all the more desirable by its supreme frivolity and the apparent absence of any actual writing chores.   

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The Bottoms

Upon its independent debut in the 1980s, the Black Lizard imprint earned distinction by reprinting older classics of the crime fiction genre:  Thompson, Goodis, Willeford.  Since its acquisition by Random House as part of the Vintage line, Black Lizard has spotlighted more recent books by living authors of no lesser stature, such as Jonathan Lethem and Nicola Griffith.  In bringing us Joe Lansdale's quietly brutal, harshly elegaic novel The Bottoms, originally issued in the far-off year of 2000, the current editors have once again established that the noir lineage continues to flourish in the twenty-first century.

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Sizing Up the Universe

National Geographic is simply the admirable gold standard for a certain type of coffee-table volume about the natural and manmade worlds and their many intriguing points of intersection.  Solid, substantial, humanistic and civilized, albeit seldom pioneering.  Vividly if sometimes a bit conservatively illustrated, with gorgeous photos and savvy graphics.  Informative text in a transparent style, lending itself to easy ingestion by bright youths or curious adults seeking to enlarge their horizons.  Reading a NatGeo book always makes one feel virtuous, humble and, in most cases, proud to be a human.

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The Littlest Pirate King

The strikingly elegant yet somehow alluringly naïve artwork of French graphic novelist David B. will be most familiar to English-speaking readers through his masterful autobiographical tome, Epileptic, concerning his malfunctioning brother and their lifelong sibling tug-of-war full of mingled compassion and disdain.  With The Littlest Pirate King, David B. applies the same skills and angle of attack that served him so well in a naturalistic, personal mode to a highly fantastical tale, one in fact penned by another writer.

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April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.