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miguel's Picks

Gilfillan, Lauren
I Went to Pit College

Nonfiction
Sometime after graduating from Smith College, the elite women’s college in Massachusetts, Lauren Gilfillan asked to be dropped off in the small town of Avella (named "Avelonia" in this book), Pennsylvania. A beautiful, petite young woman whose appetite for life served her well for this project, Gilfillan would eventually flee Avella and produce this entertaining portrait of a mining town in Southwestern Pennsylvania suffering the misery of the early years of the Great Depression and the inordinately complex "Great Coal Strike" of 1931. Gilfillan is a somewhat incidentally realistic, but whimsical, observer of the ignoble. Even the initial proposal of the journalistic project was a whim — an editor of a publishing house in New York City who had a habit of daring talented, yet somehow listless, young people of his acquaintance to challenge themselves with these sorts of extraordinary projects did so with Gilfillan. I Went to Pit College lacks almost any contextualization of the events described, either causes or effects, but successfully portrays the wonderful resident personalities, welcoming and truly charitable, and the inversely proportional living conditions, of the coal patch. Upon considering Gilfillan's education, the miners posit that deep underground, picking at the profitable seams of "Pit College", is as close to an education as they're likely to get; a brazenly satirical contradistinction to Pitt's contemporary efforts to erect the literal ivory tower of a Cathedral of Learning high over the region, its spire in the clouds. Gilfillan seems to take it all in stride — which makes the book tremendously readable, a story of innocent curiosity and adventure — and is able to participate in a very wide variety of the community’s activities because of just that humble quality; she essentially never turns down a journalistic opportunity, and is granted many: Gilfillan dresses like a boy to secretly observe the scabbing miners at work, stays as an invited guest in many of the homes, joins a caravan of the children (passing as a child of a miner herself) of striking miners who journey to Pittsburgh and stand on street corners soliciting alms for their union’s relief efforts, and so on. A national best-seller upon publication, this book effortlessly captures a community from our past, simultaneously 'Once-upon-a-time' and disturbingly real.
Recommended June 2013

 
Book Cover for Abelard Dillies, Renaud and Regis Hautiere
Abelard: a Magical Graphic Novel

Graphic Novel
A beautifully illustrated tale of a (French?) bird and bear who journey to America for very different reasons. Each counteracts the other, and so present a kind of extreme antithesis: the bear embodies a cynicism painted in brushstrokes of gloom and doom, while the bird emits a naïve optimism through love and light (levity? illumination?), pulling apt and eternal wisdom (literally) out of his hat at random. Artistically this book is gorgeous, but to put such profundity in this aesthetic context is to play a brilliant trick on an equally naïve reader: a book this beautiful shouldn't be this profoundly bittersweet. The irony continues within the story as well: how successful are we at navigating our world to accommodate a metaphysical stance? A smart, simple fable of life and the pursuit of all those leaves of greener grasses.
Recommended May 2013

 
Selimovic, Meša
The Fortress

Fiction
This historical novel is an astounding testament of the Individual. Selimovic, a Bosnian Muslim, writes the first-person narration of Ahmet Shabo, a man whose experience in war has predicated a dissolution of the auspiciously moral bonds of social custom. In the absurd living and dying of the battlefield, habitual normalcy is undermined by the unpredictable behavior of necessity. Returning home to his eighteenth-century village, Shabo conflates innocence and purpose in declaiming perceived order and personifying contingency. The intimacy of the narrative allows the reader to wonder at the motivations behind such voluntary suffering. Selimovic seems to confront the mirage of a hegemonic sphere with a sledgehammer of love: our flights of angels edified in the titular fortress.
Recommended April 2013

 
Book Cover for Reason, Faith, and Revolution Eagleton, Terry
Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

Nonfiction
This recommendation is of a limited nature, due to the subject matter at hand — but Eagleton addresses even this peculiar situation within these pages. Originally delivered as one of the ongoing (and extremely prestigious) "Terry" (no relation) lectures at Yale University, in 2008, this book further develops many of the arguments originally presented there, and provides more context, while at 169 pages, Eagleton doesn't belabour the point. In essence, the book demonstrates a sophisticated, irreverent weapon in the defence of faith and theology as against the blunt and ignoble attacks of the "New Atheism". For Eagleton's purpose, this "bloodless" rationalism is best embodied in the writings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom Eagleton humorously (but deliberately) conflates as "Ditchkins" throughout. To be fair, though, Eagleton spares no quarter, and resituates religion outside the grasp of religious fundamentalism (addressing both Christian and Islamic varieties) and firmly within a theological context, "one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself". A truly powerful contemporary philosophical statement that deserves to be appreciated (and wielded as necessary).
Recommended April 2013

 
Book Cover for The Silence of Trees Dudycz Lupescu, Valya
The Silence of Trees

Fiction
Nadya, the matriarch of a large Ukrainian-American family settled in Chicago, has witnessed the horrors of the twentieth century first-hand, but cannot share her past for fear of disappearing completely, of drowning in the humiliation of powerlessness overwhelming every inclination to individual enfranchisement. Nadya's twisted visions recall too many possible interpretations, all horrible, and an unceasing regret. She succumbs to a shame pursuing her from a homeland fled. The narrative is a first-person confession of the causes and resolutions to which the reader is witness, a testimonial encounter that reveals a redemption impossible to live without. The communication between generations is at the heart of the story, and Nadya's perspective grants us an ability to more fully appreciate the precious flow of time from life to death, oftentimes all too rapid and sometimes seemingly still. Her children, American-born, become her salvation, and the stories that she eventually confesses will, in turn, be echoes of the stories that fashioned her own youth. The children of immigrants always face these silent ghosts, ever-present yet desperately ignored. Not just the existence of stories, but their expression and sharing, are what give us life, and bestow our immortal souls unto the hearts of future generations. This story of the disintegration and reintegration of a woman in mythology and history conquers that trepidation of silence. This book is a beautiful homage to a particular experience well familiar to many families in the Pittsburgh region (and every/elsewhere). However, Dudycz Lupescu writes with a simplicity, respect, curiosity, romance, and authenticity resonating with a well-rewarded audience of diverse readers.
Recommended March 2013

 
Book Cover for Parnassus on Wheels Morley, Christopher
Parnassus on Wheels

Fiction
An adventure story that has a great deal to say about education, writers, writing, reading, and books. An early road novel(la) that has as its primary and featured mode of transportation a wagon suitable for living and for shelving (and selling) books. Three extraordinarily feisty characters who prior to the action in this novel have spent the majority of their time cooking, farming, rambling, and writing, and with whom the reader becomes best familiar through their fighting, selling, landing in jail, or lying to the authorities. This tongue-in-cheek account of the metamorphosis of a provincial spinster is a delight to sentimental book-lovers and romantic types alike (particularly the late-blooming). This book proved so popular when published that Morley would write a sequel, The Haunted Bookshop.
Recommended February 2013

 
Book Cover for On the Road Kerouac, Jack
On the Road

Fiction
The author Jack Kerouac, while helping to introduce "beat" to the world, was hardly a "beatnik." The man knew how to think and (despite Capote's weak witticism) how to write, and with On the Road, did for the U.S. stultified 1950's society what the atom bomb did for conventional warfare: made people think twice about the consequences of living — and dying — with presumption. One doesn't simply read Kerouac; even when you're slap-happy from his amphetamine-driven plot and babbling rants and swaggering ignorance and would rather be reading something else anywhere else, there is something unmistakably honest in his observations. In this overture to the "Duluoz Legend," "one enormous comedy" consisting of the majority of his novels (ending with the spectacularly muted final chord, Vanity of Duluoz), Kerouac begins an asymptotic narrative approaching a felt truth of the twentieth-century American experience.
Recommended February 2013

 
Book Cover for My Afternoons with Margueritte Becker, Jean (director)
My Afternoons with Margueritte

DVD
In a world devoid of love, Germain has been groping his way blindly. Functionally illiterate, knowledge eludes him. Meeting Margueritte during an introduction of pigeons in a park, the two share a friendly moment and the completion of an education. Margueritte is everything Germain is not: old, thin, poetic. The antithetical pair will redeem one another in ways that neither could ever anticipate. Margueritte will feel love, and Germain will feel brilliance. A perfect movie for those who believe in the power of language, and the inspiration of all kinds of love.
Recommended February 2013

 
Demarest, David P., (editor)
From These Hills, From These Valleys

Fiction
An illustrated literary album of western Pennsylvania, this anthology presents fictional snapshots of Pittsburgh and environs from earliest European settlement to the late 20th century. Each selection – either a short story or an excerpt from a longer novel – provides an incisive glance into shaded narratives refracting the echoes of a diversity of people and experience. Here, history is just another character, the hills a mood, the valleys an improvised event. The book serves as a warm invitation to pursue the authors and works receding into the past, while anticipating the creativity that our region continues to inspire.
Recommended January 2013

 
Villagers
Becoming a Jackal

Music
"Becoming a Jackal" is the debut long-play presentation of the songwriting of Conor J. O’Brien, an Irish singer and multi-instrumentalist with the band Villagers. Comfortable manipulating multiple harmonic forms integrated into deceptively simple melodies, Villagers plays to open minds while shifting sonic structures to demand attentive listening from even the most cynical listener. With ambiguous personal themes and fragile voice alternately buoyant and submerged, O'Brien understates microcosmic observations draped in dark metaphors – a musical analogue to Christopher Wool's stenciled text painting hanging inside the rear entrance to the Carnegie Museum of Art: both provide beautiful puzzles to reconsider those moments simultaneously past and anticipated.
Recommended December 2012

 
Book Cover for Wolf Story McCleery, William
Wolf Story

Fiction
Originally published in 1947, and now republished after years in and out of print as part of the incredibly generous efforts of the New York Review Children's Collection to reinforce the indispensability of children's literature as a touchstone for a life enriched by the imagination, Wolf Story is, quite simply, the story of a man telling a story to his son. McCleery clearly draws upon experience, and this saccharescent little tale is saved from devouring its full weight in guilty pleasure by a warm but thoroughly biting sense of honest observational humor throughout. McCleery wrote a book for his son that is, essentially, about the narratives, explanations, and justifications told (or read) to children when they are young. The father in the story, patiently creating an entertaining whopper of a "wolf story" at the request of his son, is almost constantly interrupted by the young listener, put upon by the child to embellish, contort, alter, and otherwise have the story conform more to what the boy wants from the story, than what his father's imagination invents, including moral and practical editorial asides, for the sake of his child. The edification of the book lies within this tension, much to the merriment of the reader. Presumably, both (author / father and reader / child) emerge happily satiated, albeit in strikingly distinct ways. A glorious book: read it to yourself, or to another, but read it.
Recommended December 2012

 
Book Cover for Ordinary Victories Larcenet, Manu
Ordinary Victories

Graphic Novel
With Ordinary Victories and its concluding volume, Ordinary Victories: What is Precious, Manu Larcenet describes the common state of humanity in our contemporary moment. Ordinary Victories is a primeval and profound story of a young man whose wounds of anxiety – both psychological and physical – are both caused by and exposed to a world in which descriptions of reality do not satisfy sense observations, and the twisted rhetoric of reason opposes empty allegiances and convenient justifications. Marco, a young documentary photographer – struggling to bridge equivocal worlds between which lie the chasm of a profound insecurity witnessed in unpredictable panic attacks – and the son of a shipyard worker, presents the foil from which the conflicts arise, and those we meet through him expose the vulnerability of our own lives: with so many of our families separated by distance, Marco’s mother explains the root of rootlessness, as she unsentimentally divulges the necessity of workers to follow the money; with so many of our soldiers abroad, and many returning home damaged, Marco’s neighbor confesses the fathomless pain of political necessity, as he recounts participation in a futile war and its tortured aftermath; with so many of us thrown out of closing mills, factories, and corporations, the shipyard workers express frustration at economic realities, embodying the desperation of confronting seemingly anachronistic skills. Predictably, his psychoanalyst, and less predictably, his aging parents, his brother, his girlfriend, his neighbor, and his cat (named, appropriately, “Adolf”), are behind and around him, both supporting and forcing him to find a way of navigating a moral ambiguity that he’d until now been indulging in photojournalism, isolation, and medication. In art as sensitive as Marco himself, Larcenet depicts these battles and others, and in Marco offers a spark of hope. Larcenet is not exploitative in peeling apart the folds of skin to expose wounds; he allows the curious and vulnerable reader to appreciate both pain and sublimation by unsettling the eye with aesthetic nuance, as Marco’s tectonic states of mind and shifting realities are revealed in distinct graphic styles. The medium, a graphic novel, belies the notion that serious literature is strictly textual by capturing emotion in turns of attentive art. The reader’s glance is enraptured by the eyes of the characters, each betraying the honest expressiveness of which the heart is capable in the most desolate silence, beyond words. Larcenet illustrates the struggle in all of its various perspectives, and succeeds brilliantly: arguably, nothing has yet been published in the 21st century that so purely and transparently records the fragility of our decisions and lives as insecure individuals. This essential work of art successfully represents the tangling ambiguities of the sources of fear and love, attraction and repulsion, and unravels how these emotive responses cling to each other to create authenticity within the person. A beautiful story about all the colors of life, Larcenet illuminates and celebrates all of our “ordinary victories”.
Recommended November 2012

 
Rolland, Romain
Jean-Christophe

Fiction
As we enter the fall months and look about for various means to defeat the isolating influence of the approaching cold winds and heavy snows, I wonder if readers might accept the testimony of a recent experience of mine in their efforts to abide. For a few months this summer, I closely followed the words of Romain Rolland in his novel, Jean-Christophe, about the life of a composer in the early years of the twentieth century. The geography of the novel is a large palette of Western Europe, and the approximately 1,500 pages offer the broadest canvas upon which a writer can manifest a description of his vision. In contrast to other novels of this epic length, Rolland does not overpopulate the text. He is more interested in exploring and sharing the vast spectrum of human experience from a microcosmic perspective: Jean-Christophe Krafft (born on the first page, he dies on the last). The relatively few actors are each revealed in all of their glorious complexity. Rolland's brilliance is demonstrated on each page, as his speculations, meditations, and interpretations offer a rebirth of the spirit. The narrative follows the mind of Jean-Christophe in his attempts to make sense of life, exploring the tension between collective existence and individual reason. In spite of his artistic aspirations and blustery personality, the empathic Jean-Christophe agonizes and celebrates a youth, an adolescence, and an adulthood that immediately resonate with any reader — not because the character is so immediately universal, but because through him, each reader will identify with the truths so profoundly described by Rolland. Rolland writes of a context that reflects, and a particular character who embodies, what it means to be alive to all people and at all times. A glow emanates from deep within the core of the story that slowly warms the heart with a dedicated sense of self-appreciation and -compassion, even to renewed respect and understanding. Jean-Christophe is an insanely detailed portrait of existence; while both brilliant and maddening, Rolland (and so the reader) considers everything. A reader cannot evade the effect of this book, but will be filled with a grateful humility towards the struggles and ambitions that life implies, and the worth and significance of hope and resignation, living and dying: passionate reading, from the highest pitches to the lowest depths of the soul. Rolland won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915, "as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings" (so said the Scandinavians).
Recommended October 2012

 
Book Cover for Burning Valley Bonosky, Phillip
Burning Valley

Fiction
Burning Valley is perhaps the most political novel of Southwestern Pennsylvania ever written. Published in 1953, the book is set in the depths of a hollow on the outskirts of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in the years after World War I. Bonosky structures his story around the various ties that bind: a cat's cradle strung between actors. At issue is the character of Benedict Bulmanis, a son of Lithuanian immigrants. He desperately attempts to flee from the poverty and consequent degradation and disintegration of his community by withdrawing into the Church. Benedict grows increasingly despondent as the institution fails to provide him with the convenience of clearly drawn lines between good and evil. The adolescent obsessed with being worthy of the otherworldly salvation offered by the Catholicism of his heritage is unable to apply traditionally absolute moral tenets in a reliably predictable way and falls unceasingly short of recognized ideals. Benedict's ability to maintain the boundaries between worlds – moral and immoral – gradually weakens as the community in which he lives betrays the universality of the laws it professes. The letters that arrive in the houses of the hollow announce a threat by the bank (and the accompanying force of the police) – serving a company in its efforts to expand – to evict the diverse residents from their uniform homes. With justifications ripped from headlines past and present, the company advertises itself as the lifeblood of the community by providing employment, yet simultaneously adopts policies that destroy the land, the people, and their aspirations. Bonosky is most successful in underscoring the ambiguity of self-proclamations of institutions that insinuate their way into our lives surreptitiously. In conclusion, Bonosky illustrates a worldly salvation offered by a union leader; for the local reader, however, the story more immediately recalls an aspect of regional history guiltily fed down the memory hole of our collective consciousness as rapidly as the hollow of Benedict's birth is filled by the slag of the steel company. Ultimately, the question of identity remains the same: between the groups we are born into and the groups we choose, an individual reconciles the realities and falsehoods of social, economic, and moral fluidity; in our attempts at redemption, to Whom do we belong?
Recommended September 2012

 
Book Cover for Joe Gould’s Secret Mitchell, Joseph
Joe Gould’s Secret

Nonfiction
From 1965 until his death in 1996, Joseph Mitchell never published another word for The New Yorker, the magazine that hired him in 1938 (and, importantly, never fired him). After the title story in this volume originally appeared in the issue of September 19, 1964, Mitchell would steadfastly continue to appear, daily, at his office, producing only an unnerving absence on blank leaves of paper. The silence was considered (at least by others) to be a profound case of "writer's block". Mitchell moved to New York City from North Carolina at the age of 21 to be a reporter, and from 1929 until 1938 wrote for a variety of newspapers; in 1938, he was hired by The New Yorker. His specialty was long-form journalistic portraits of the fringes of the social order, humanizing “characters” neither contemptuously nor out of pity. Mitchell offers no psychology, just friendly introductions. These articles and stories are now collected in two volumes: Up in the Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. He wrote for 35 years, and no more. Joe Gould's Secret is a collection of two articles, the first ("Professor Sea Gull") published in 1942, the second his last article from 1964, both about Joe Gould, the sort of individual a reader simply cannot imagine... he would have to be real in order to exist. Gould is a bohemian (enough to sufficiently embody and personify any conception of the word), an eccentric of tremendous acumen, and a writer – of what he calls "An Oral History of Our Time" ("already," Mitchell writes – in 1942, mind you, "eleven times as long as the Bible") – himself: seemingly, in short, Mitchell's ideal subject. In these pages, Gould manages to both define and destroy Mitchell's career as Mitchell unveils the titular "secret". An underappreciated and underacknowledged artist of nonfiction writing, Mitchell should certainly be considered a pioneer of the form now described as “creative nonfiction”. This book is a funhouse mirror... filled with reflections simultaneously enchanting and horrifying, and an opportunity for the reader living in a meta-post-ironic culture to experience at least some of the passion that comprises and confounds genius.
Recommended August 2012

 
Book Cover for The Haunted Land Rosenberg, Tina
The Haunted Land: facing Europe's ghosts after Communism

Nonfiction
After Tina Rosenberg spent years in Latin America researching her equally provocative book, Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America, her second book, titled The Haunted Land, unravels as a kind of sequel set in central Europe. Both books investigate the various methods that societies have employed in confronting and condemning the actions of recently collapsed despotic regimes. As a journalist, Rosenberg explores the rather profound ramifications of truth extraction in a simple and direct manner – mainly through interviews with some of the most renowned dissident factions and deposed leaders of the various regimes – and triumphs in her reflections and conclusions. The Haunted Land is historically, politically, and philosophically revelatory, and the writing is crystalline. In illustrating the mechanisms of justice, Rosenberg details the relevant background, providing the necessary historical and cultural contexts, and exposes the vulnerability inherent to individuals obliged to the state. The kaleidoscopic interpretations of the past reveal an aspect of a present political reality merciless in its application: justice is a bitter pill to swallow; no one escapes the diagnosis of complicity.
Recommended July 2012

 
Book Cover for Good Poems Keillor, Garrison (editor)
Good Poems

Poetry
I hate poetry / (am not a poet, / nor do I want to be), / but this collection / is a stunning work indeed. / I read these selections / without worry of elusions; / in fact, just the opposite occurs / (I'm captivated, I suppose) — / my own life echoes / these textual inner intimations / of existence, often silent, / or crowed, or cursed, / writ large in verse. / In Keillor's introduction, / with refreshing honesty / you can sense / as he pelts with his two cents / of the poetic pretense a repudiation. / This book I show / to the amateur reader (like me) / who fears / lines too short to fill a page / or words that lend a rhyme. / Reassured now give it another go; / randomly, your brow will rise / in pleasant surprise. / Here you are welcomed / by some who simply insist / that life can be quite stunning / in its proud pedestals / in its humble crumbling / (and sometimes even in words / plain enough to praise): / in a book!
Recommended June 2012

 
Book Cover for The Collector of Worlds Troyanov, Iliya
The Collector of Worlds

Fiction
Sir Richard Francis Burton was an improbably larger-than-life British explorer and writer of the nineteenth century, of so many accomplishments and failures that any list attempting completeness would be a fool's errand and, anyway, too long to string out here. While the twentieth century effectively demonstrated that the stories that constitute "history" depend largely upon the narrator, Troyanov, writing in the twenty-first century, brilliantly demonstrates the subjective nature of reality (without resorting to post-modernist disorientation) by recounting Burton's life on three specific journeys from various perspectives: that of Burton himself, and those of three very different men who served his individualist whims. In South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, this fictionalized account of his life tells a tale, with both devotion and escapism, of the translucent boundaries between an anthropological curiosity and an imperialist hubris. Combining the best of travel literature and historical fiction, every reader will return from this journey altered in their appreciation of the various facets that together make up a world, unmistakably ours.
Recommended June 2012

 
Book Cover for A People Betrayed Döblin, Alfred
A People Betrayed

Fiction
This epic novel forms the first part of November 1918: a German revolution, a historical fiction of the failed socialist uprising in Germany of 1918. A spectacular exercise of the literary imagination of the long-neglected author Alfred Döblin, best known for his book Berlin Alexanderplatz, the story is told in a series of snapshots — photographic in idea, but purely literary in execution; a collage of portraits- and scenes-in-words builds a papier mâché wall upon which Döblin slowly pieces together a pointillist mural. The montage is an invaluable construction of one of those mysterious moments in history when the masses decide to take the reigns of power and pilot the state from the gutters of society. Döblin takes no pity on any of the characters who enter and exit the stage -- some fictional, some all too real -- and isn't attempting to toe a party line or remain faithful to any particular historical interpretation of the events. He merely wishes to preserve in a collective memory, utilizing a collective process, a series of specific events following the bitter and humiliating defeat of Germany in World War I, which led, eventually, to various of the most tragic and inhumane events of the twentieth century. The story is completed in its sequel, Karl and Rosa.
Recommended May 2012

 
Book Cover for The Harbor Poole, Ernest
The Harbor

Fiction
Ernest Poole won the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, awarded in 1918 for a second novel, His Family. Most critics, however, assumed that the prize was awarded to Poole in belated recognition for the excellence of his first novel, The Harbor, published in 1915. This "proletarian" novel doesn't merely tell another story of the working classes, but attempts to describe the education of a middle class boy growing into adulthood, and the simultaneous transition from an individual to a social conscience that this development should imply. Oftentimes, these revealing literary glimpses into the unpleasant living conditions of the poor directly pitted uneducated masses against an impossibly stubborn oligarchy. Poole succeeds here by writing the gray areas of the ambiguous humanity strung out between a desire for security and an inability to ignore injustice. A unique story, the reader is not made susceptible to an overly sentimental vision, but is slowly taken along a path immediately recognizable -- the definition of the individual as a member of his community.
Recommended April 2012

 
Book Cover for Foundation Asimov, Isaac
Foundation

Science Fiction
Isaac Asimov's original "Foundation Trilogy" of novels, consisting of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, is an interesting meditation on building a society and civilization upon the collapse of a previous one. Inspired by Edward Gibbon's monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov plays an optimistic twentieth-century Hobbes, curious about the causes and interpretations of the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps more significantly, he investigates the ingredients that humans consciously and unconsciously select and neglect in their aspirations and inspirations for progress. While all this may sound too heady, Asimov's greatest success lies in couching profound macrocosmic considerations in conjoining stories, like dominoes, filled with action and intrigue, love and lust on an epic scale (centuries! galaxies! psychohistory!), involving all sorts of characters betrayed by their microcosmic perspective—one the reader can immediately relate to, despite the "science fiction." The trilogy eventually expanded to include a wealth of other books that take place within its universe, but these three are the only recipients (ever!) of the Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series" of fantasy or science fiction.
Recommended February 2012

 
Book Cover for Tintin in the New World Tuten, Frederic
Tintin in the New World: A Romance

Fiction
In this meditation on adulthood, Frederic Tuten describes the process of maturation as it might effect Tintin, the world-famous boy reporter. This book provides a timely and important foil to Steven Spielberg’s new movie. In flawless prose, Tuten attempts to describe an intellectual adventure, rather than another pedestrian exploit pursuing criminals that have won Tintin international acclaim. While the main characters remain (Tintin, Captain Haddock, and of course, Snowy), Tuten introduces a supporting cast of international types from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, who alternately represent familiar ideas and entirely confuse any discussion. It is not easy to say what exactly is going on here. Ecology, history, sex, politics, art, economics, dreams (and much more) are at least briefly considered. This novel is, in a sense, "high" art (the rarified setting for much of the novel is Machu Picchu). Yet its original cover art by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein suggests an experiment in appreciating the unexpectedly profound depth of the most common terrains while highlighting a commonality of the most sublime: take a beloved character, known and familiar, and surprise us with how little we know.
Recommended January 2012

 
Habe, Hans
The Mission

Fiction
1938: President Franklin D. Roosevelt extends an invitation to the governments of the world to attend an international conference at Évian-les-Bains, France, in order to address the growing problem of refugees – particularly Jewish refugees – fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. While Germany officially boycotts the conference, the Nazis secretly arrange to send a Jewish representative instead, with the mission to offer up all of the Jews of Europe to the governments of the world: salvation for sale, with a price list. According to the author, only three newspapers bother to report the events. Hans Habe was one of the journalists filing a report. In this novelization, Habe provides an interior description of an international political confrontation. Yet it is not a novel of history or politics, but a novel about the opposition of the personal and the political, and how this hostility defines our lives, and our living, every day—mostly, with tragic consequences.
Recommended December 2011

 
Book Cover for Forget Sorrow Yang, Belle
Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

Graphic Non-Fiction
In this one book, Belle Yang writes and draws two parallel stories about two places. First and foremost, it is the author’s own story, set in California: a memoir of personal redemption. After moving back home to live with her parents, following college and a traumatic relationship, she faces the desperate challenge of living up to failed expectations, both her parents' and her own. Also, it is her father’s story of his own arrival, set in China — a family history of generations struggling against history, and with each other. Yang is easy to relate to, as an imperfect being grappling with herself and fighting with her parents — particularly with her father — despite her prior unsuccessful attempts to escape the environment she continues to think is part of the problem. She can't uncover a constructive method of belying her insecurities or safely expressing her sense of self. The various arguments with her father, however, ultimately prove rewarding: stories begin to break through, underscoring the combative words. Yang, intrigued by apparent similarities despite differences of time, geography, and culture, begins to pay closer attention to the stories than to her sense of frustration. The family stories, which Yang and her father eventually agree to share (without the necessity of a shouting match), demonstrate to Yang the subtle continuity with and participation in the wider world that she, in her isolation, has never felt. Ultimately, the responsibility she feels toward preserving these stories — in effect, her own story — leads her out of painful isolation. The family, separated, unites in this narrative to bring Yang's two halves back together, writing and drawing. A story of finding your place in the world should always be shared.
Recommended November 2011