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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 12.16.10



WINTER READING

Technically, Winter Reading is one of EW’s gift guides, and to that end, we stuff it with books for a bevy of imagined readers: history buffs, fantasy-addicted teens, literature lovers, memoir junkies, comic-loving kids and music fans (though more music books will appear in next week’s Procrastinator’s Gift Guide). We dig up small press favorites and tuck in a few books, here and there, that the big awards noticed.

But we also read because we love to. Winter Reading gives us an extra reason to indulge, to stick our noses in novels and leave them there, making excuses for our antisocial behavior: “Can’t talk. Reading. It’s work!” Books go with us on trains and buses; they’re propped up at the dinner table and wrapped around a steaming cup of tea at midnight. We argue, gently, about what to include and what has to get left out; we make cases for our pet genres and authors we wish more people would fall in love with. We browse the shelves at (local, independent) bookstores and find those last few tomes we just have to squeeze in. One of us, travelling during the last few days of reading time, ended up buying as an e-book a novel that she had already bought in physical form (we wonder when publishers will start to sell bundled physical, audio and e-books for those who like all forms).

In short, we’re junkies, and Winter Reading is our fix. Hopefully, you’ll find something here that you want to try out — or something you know a friend or family member will love. May you get happily hooked. — Molly Templeton



fiction

HOT SPRINGS

By Geoffrey Becker. Tin House Books, $14.95.

If you gave up your newborn for adoption, then realized five years later that it was a mistake, the logical thing to do would be to kidnap the child back, rename her and head south, right? It is if you’re Bernice Click, the sexy, persuasive and crazy character of Becker’s Hot Springs. Problem is, Bernice doesn’t know anything about how to be a mother to Emily, and her own mother was no role model. And Landis, her boyfriend of six months and partner in crime, doesn’t quite know how they got into this situation but is genuinely fascinated enough by Bernice to pursue her poorly thought out plan. 

Throughout the book, Becker uses the openness of the landscapes they’re driving through and the urban setting where they end up to create tensions and counterpoints in an already twisted plot. The book hinges on one rather far-fetched coincidence that sets Emily’s adoptive mother, Tessa, off on her own adventure to get Emily back without involving authorities. Tessa, too, struggles: with her husband’s indifference, his adultery and increasingly sadistic behavior. Becker piles on the danger and desperation, and surprisingly, brilliant flashes of humor. 

Bernice, Landis and Tessa aren’t exactly redeemed, and everyone finds themselves in a different place in the end than they expected. But through Becker’s taut storytelling, we get one possible answer to the question of how far people can stretch in the name of love. — Vanessa Salvia



PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA

by Peter Carey. Knopf, $26.95. Finalist, 2010 National Book Award for Fiction.

If you’re already a fan of the fabulous, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, Australian-born Peter Carey, you will not be surprised to learn his latest novel is intricate, multi-layered and peopled by puzzling characters caught up in convoluted plots. Reading it requires steadfast focus. I had to stop, re-read and catch up with the rapidly evolving story more than once.

One story opens in rural, post-Revolution France as seen by a titled youngster, Olivier, whose mother is haunted by terrible memories of guillotines and the bloody demise of her class. As political conditions worsen, Mama hires a mysterious spy to acquire a commission for her now grown son to write about American prisons for the French government.  

A parallel tale introduces the observations of a 12-year-old English lad, Parrot, who travels with his indigent printer father to a suspicious household where both receive employment, room and board. With a quick intelligence, Parrot takes the dirtiest job, which involves emptying the chamber pots of an artist living in the attic, and gets a peek at the business’s secret, lucrative enterprise. The French spy arrives at exactly the right moment to keep Parrot alive and on the move. 

Eventually, the spy dispatches strangers Olivier and Parrot together to America, and Carey’s daring, hilarious retelling of the role of Alexis de Tocqueville in early 19th century American history is fully launched. Raw, naked democracy never looked funnier. — Lois Wadsworth



THE DEAD REPUBLIC

by Roddy Doyle. Viking, $26.95.

It’s been 11 years since Irish author Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, The Snapper) released A Star Called Henry, the first book in his trilogy The Last Roundup. With the release this year of the third and final novel, The Dead Republic, Doyle completes the story of Henry Smart: IRA trigger man, soldier in the 1916 Easter Rising, jazz act manager, Hollywood scriptwriter and one-man Gaelic history lesson.

I read the second novel soon after its release more than six long years ago. But the subsequent gaps in my memory enhance rather than detract from my enjoyment of the third book: At its outset, Henry Smart is rattled, confused, amnesiac after a hard life that has stranded him in Utah’s Monument Valley. It’s no accident that, after an engaging side trip into golden age Hollywood, Smart must return to Ireland, to the sweeping historical narrative he embodies, to regain his composure and his agency.

The Smart character himself, a likable but straightforward protagonist, would never stand for such sentiment. “The thought was mad — Irish history was all about me,” Smart muses in a moment of uncharacteristic introspection. But then, “I let go of the thought and it scurried away happily enough.”

Celtic culture buffs and readers of good old-fashioned engaging fiction will be happy to gather up Doyle’s mad thoughts about Irish history, and will enjoy the capstone work of his magnum opus. — Aaron Ragan-Fore



A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

by Jennifer Egan. Knopf, $25.95. A New York Times Top 10 Book of 2010.

In her latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan commits a brilliant sleight-of-hand: Everything goes down nice and easy, like a gossipy pot-boiler about the sexy, glitzy, greedy and needy connections among a vast cast of variously dysfunctional people orbiting around the New York music scene. It isn’t until you set the book down that you realize that Egan, with her fluid, conversational prose, has somehow woven an intricate, far-flung web of fate and circumstance that is as deep, layered and wildly fucked up as one of Faulkner’s fictional family trees. The cumulative effect is surprisingly powerful. Enacting the literary equivalent of the butterfly effect, the individual episodes of Goon Squad — moving back and forth across time, and casting a wide generational net — show how a single choice by a single person can reverberate and ripple outward with unintended consequences down the line.

If the book could be said to have a central character, it’s Bennie Salazar, a failed musician turned music producer with a golden ear. But, really, Egan’s novel, a postmodern pop opera, isn’t so much about centers as circles, and how the aura of influence of each character’s life — from Salazar’s klepto personal assistant Sasha, to his lovers and wives and children and clients, to his high school friend turned homeless fisherman — intersects in secret, subtle ways. There is gravity in every situation, Egan suggests, and a seemingly insignificant gesture might wreck you in a decade’s time.

In this magical novel, the degrees of separation, whether six or 16, are immediately visible and infinitely, intimately important. — Rick Levin



BLOODROOT

By Amy Greene. Knopf, $24.95.

The women of the family at the center of Amy Greene’s Bloodroot lived on Bloodroot Mountain for generations, and were known to have an ability to cure people and animals and commune with nature in mysterious ways. They had “the touch,” the same touch that seemed to draw only the worst kind of men to them. 

In alternating narratives we come to know Myra and her kin: Byrdie, Myra’s granny, her rock; Clio, the only one of Byrdie’s children to survive; Myra, Clio’s only child; John, Myra’s husband, a man who wanted to be good but instead turned out sickeningly bad. Their twins are called Johnny and Laura, but they might as well be known as Fern and Moss for as much as the wildness of Bloodroot Mountain runs through their veins. Laura and Johnny knew nothing of their daddy except that Myra kept his ring finger in a box under her bed. They could get by not knowing any part of the world off Bloodroot Mountain as long as they had each other, but when Myra changed and withdrew her love from them, their fragile world shattered. 

Greene imbues each sentence with an emotional depth and poignancy that brings these characters to stark life. Tracing the shadows of their lives, we see all of them bound together but flung apart by the waves of other people’s choices wrought upon them. — Vanessa Salvia



THE REPORT

by Jessica Francis Kane. Graywolf Press, $16.

This slim volume, published in paperback by a small but prestigious publishing house, deserves some sort of award sticker on its cover. I hereby designate it Suzi’s Favorite Fiction Book of 2010. 

Plot description doesn’t begin to cover the depth, complexity, careful touch and emotional wallop of this book, nominally about a 1943 night when Londoners died by the dozens in an air raid shelter — when there wasn’t even a raid. A parallel story takes place 30 years later, when the son of one of the survivors tries to interview a judge about his opinion on the case. The 1973 storyline provides chilling reminders of the war’s damage and resulting emotional chaos beneath the calm British exterior, years and years of pain, with years and years of stiff upper lips only now starting to tremble.

Kane takes a true story (the deaths at the Bethnal Green tube stop) and weaves her fiction around it, but the truths of the book lie deeper than most nonfiction could hope to burrow. The Report takes a small tragedy and shows, in its careful, patient character-building, exactly how that tragedy ties to the larger war  of the time and the emotional and physical wars humans fight every day. Beautiful, moving, elegant and thoughtful, The Report is fully rounded account of human weaknesses and strengths in a improbably small volume about an small event whose ripples still spread.

Suzi Steffen



GOLD BOY, EMERALD GIRL

by Yiyun Li. Random House, $26.

The stories in this packed little hardback might seem familiar if, say, you read The New Yorker (as short story buyers sometimes do), or if you’ve read many short stories from Iowa Writers Workshop grads. That’s not to say they’re in any way bad; the stories simply feel like familiar furniture in a house across the world. 

Li (The Vagrants)’s stories brim with longing, endless frustrated desire, decisions that seem to stem at once from Bartleby’s refusal and T.S. Eliot’s narrators (I think of “Ash Wednesday” in particular when I read these kinds of stories: “Because I cannot drink / there, where trees flower, and springs flow”), people who never connect. They’re set in contemporary China, often Beijing or Shanghai, where for a variety of reasons, narrators live with complex secrets and losses.

A couple of the stories contain gentle humor, especially “The Proprietress” and “House Fire,” whose themes reflect generational gaps and concerns along with the difference between what we think we know and what we actually do know about our friends, not to mention our children or our parents. Not only can some of the narrators not connect with parents; they can’t really connect with anyone, in some cases because it wouldn’t be safe thanks to politics. In stories like the opening novella, “Kindness,” the value of private space triumphs over even the best intentions of others, whose interest comes to the narrator to feel like a brutal invasion. Both “Kindness” and the titular closing story, which was showcased in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 issue, reflect the author’s empathy and generosity of a sort toward people whose very selves can’t be expressed in their society, a true don’t ask, don’t tell arena for her characters.

The tales repeatedly feature narrators stymied, stopped and frustrated by themselves, lacking understanding, living through suffering with few options and tentatively dealing with life. But the lyrical writing — another Iowa hallmark —  shows the power of memories, momentary glimpses of joy, burnished and cradled, shining amid the bleakness of life. — Suzi Steffen



I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME

By Per Petterson. Graywolf Press, $23. A New York Times Notable Book of 2010. Winner of the 2009 Nordic Council Literature Prize.

It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is coming down, communism is losing its power in Europe and we follow Arvid Jansen’s life for a few cold days while he ponders, in a gray, liminal sort of way, his incipient divorce and the divide between himself and his dying mother. His mother has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and has left Norway to spend time in her hometown in Denmark. Arvid physically accompanies her while he mentally travels in time to his idealistic youth as a Communist Party member, an idealism that led him to give up the university studies his mother wanted for him, to become a factory worker. 

Arvid is hapless and fumbles his way through life and his relationship with wife, children and his mother, who says of him, “He’s thirty-seven years old, but I wouldn’t call him a grown up.  That would be an exaggeration.” Charlotte Barslund’s clean translation from the Norwegian captures the language’s nuances, and the book epitomizes the Scandinavian tendency to see humor in the blackest of situations. — Camilla Mortensen



DREADNOUGHT

by Cherie Priest. Tor, $14.99.

When Dreadnought, the latest novel set in Cherie Priest’s alternate-history universe, The Clockwork Century, opens, nurse Mercy Lynch is up to her elbows in dirty pillowcases, trying to find a watch a patient has misplaced. Mercy is about to get two difficult pieces of news, the combination of which will send her all the way across the country in the middle of the dragging-on Civil War. But there’s a reason Priest introduces her heroine in the middle of a task that has her equal parts exasperated, sympathetic and determined to do the right thing, even when it gets her hands dirty: Those qualities will sustain the young nurse when her journey from Virginia to Tacoma ventures into strange, threatening territory.

Dreadnought is a cousin to Priest’s 2009 Boneshaker, and like that novel, takes its name from a beastly machine — in this case, the heavily armored, intimidating-as-hell Union engine that’s powering the only train headed Mercy’s direction. From dirigible to river ship (where she meets a tight-lipped Texas ranger who seems destined to become a Sam Elliott character in a film adaptation) to Dreadnought, Mercy’s trip is endlessly and peculiarly complicated, but the practical, clever nurse’s perspective stands in cheery contrast against scary diseases and secretive soldiers. Readers of Boneshaker will have an earlier idea about some of this book’s secrets and twists, but that’s neither advantage nor spoiler. Like an engine slowly picking up speed, Dreadnought starts slowly but gathers momentum as Mercy, capable and impatient, works out what’s going on the train, whom she can trust and what she’ll have to do to get herself home. — Molly Templeton



BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis. Spectra, $26.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer. Knopf, $26.95.

A New York Times Notable Book of 2010.

NO ORDINARY JOES by Larry Colton. Crown, $26.

WWII serves as a seemingly endless source of inspiration for writers; though hundreds of books come out each year, many stories still haven’t been told — or need to be told in a new way as the 21st century gets under way in earnest and more and more veterans and civilians die.

Connie Willis’ directly linked pair of time-travel books was meant to be one much shorter work, but once she started doing research on the Blitz in London, all bets were off. As in her previous Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog and “Firewatch,” Willis uses the foil of historians time-travelling from 2060 to address much larger issues. Questions of free will, predestination, observation and the “great man” theory of history intersect with a mostly, and counterintuitively, ripping yarn about life in London for everyone from shopgirls to actors, nurses to volunteer firefighters who kept St. Paul’s Cathedral from burning. The characters — Polly Churchill, Colin Templer, Merope Ward, Michael Davies and James Dunworthy, along with a few others whose actual identities become clear in All Clear — must deal with obstacle after obstacle, including both the disasters of 1940-1941 and massive glitches in 2060 Oxford. Though things end a bit too neatly and in some ways romantically, the extended portrayal of life in Blitz-era London vividly portrays a nation and a city struggling to make it through a now unimaginably horrid time.

Like Willis, Julie Orringer (How to Breathe Underwater, a short-story collection published in 2003) returns readers to Europe during the war with The Invisible Bridge. But this tale, based on her grandfather’s experience, features a Hungarian Jewish family and the fate of Hungarian Jews in general. The novel, which some have described as either too long or too full of description (like Emily Barton’s Brookland, Invisible Bridge does contain an abundance of exact, researched description), begins in 1937 as young Andras Lévi leaves Budapest for architecture school in Paris. His older brother will soon leave to study medicine in Italy — both of them having to exit Hungary, where Jews are given fewer opportunities — and his younger brother’s both an artist and a performer. The tale focuses so closely on Andras’ time in Paris that the abrupt switch to Hungarian labor camps leaves the reader, like Andras, desperate for the pre-war joys. But beyond telling the heartbreaking story of Hungarian Jews, whose destiny the reader may think she knows, the novel shows what was lost during the brutal days to follow — beauty, fellowship, faith, community, romance and any excuse to think that Jews didn’t need a homeland. War wrecks every aspect of ordinary life, every pleasure, everything that’s good, and while some of the cracks heal, Orringer’s book makes clear how much was torn apart by the violent convulsions of power-mad racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic leaders and their disgusting schemes.

In Portland author Larry Colton’s nonfiction No Ordinary Joes, the tale of four submariners captured by Japan and kept in POW camps for years, readers will see a less salutary image of survivors. The four men featured in Colton’s book — Bob Palmer, Chuck Vervalin, Tim McCoy and Gordy Cox — lived hard lives as young men before the war, and their time after being rescued from Japan contains countless stories of rage, alcoholism, virulent racism and, as Colton mentions in his author’s note, a shocking amount of unreconstructed sexism. What they survived was unimaginable, but they didn’t emerge annealed or forged or anything but deeply flawed men whose wives, sons and daughters suffered mightily. In short, though Colton certainly didn’t set out to do this, his book undermines the incessant Brokaw/Hanks drumbeat about “the Greatest Generation” and places the ordinary seamen right where they belong with a full historical reckoning. — Suzi Steffen



SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY

by Gary Shteyngart. Random House, $26. A New York Times Notable Book of 2010.

From J. Swift to K. Vonnegut, satire has been largely a humanist affair, even when the work in question — most famously, Gulliver’s Travels — borders on the literary emetics of misanthropy. Morally repulsed, righteously outraged and with a sharp eye for life’s profound absurdities, the satirist inflates the world into a vulgar cartoon of itself, all puffed up with the helium of hypocrisy and animated by myopic self-interests. 

Gary Shteyngart, author the 2006 critical hit Absurdistan, is a satirist through and through. But, unlike most of his predecessors, his work is less angry and corrective than apocalyptic and elegiac. In his latest, Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart takes aim at what can only be called a post-human, post-literate world. Set amidst the ghettoized horrors of a deracinated, deranged and globally insolvent New York, the author depicts a society where people are so disconnected by their iPhone-like “apparati” that the vestigial act of talking is called “verballing.” Dignity, in Shteyngart’s universe, is but memory, a museum piece, and in its place every animal desire is laid bare (the graphic details of any stranger’s sexual history can be had simply by pointing an apparat at them). 

Dually narrated by Lenny Abramov — an obese, death-obsessed, 39-year-old Jewish corporate shill pedaling eternal life to “High Net Worth Individuals” — and his young, anorexic Korean-American girlfriend Eunice (or, as she’s known in the digital ether, “Euni-Tard”), this story of star-crossed lovers is shadowed and finally overwhelmed by the total collapse of the U.S. economy — a “Rupture” that follows a violent revolt by gangs of Low Net Worth Individuals. 

Like the best writers of dystopic science fiction, Shteyngart creates a fearsomely fucked-up future that is actually just a funhouse reflection of right here, right now. Occasionally the piling up of clever acronyms and wild inventions can be off-putting, but there’s no denying Shteyngart’s substantial talent for skewering corporate-consumerist society gone haywire, nor his ability to wrench your heart with a single line, as when Lenny laments the “cheap, ephemeral world where everyone lets everyone down as a matter of course.” Super true, super sad. — Rick Levin



MY HOLLYWOOD

by Mona Simpson. Knopf, $26.95.

Reviews of this lengthy, slow-paced but somehow still riveting book have focused on two things: its length and what it has to say about gender and class. Claire, protagonist and composer, struggles to balance her new baby and her music while husband Paul works like mad as a comedy writer for a TV show; those scenes paint a bleak, hard-to-read portrait of imbalances in expectations that might strike a solid fear of parenting into any woman who wants a career. Of course, the book is set in the late 1990s, and there is a solution for Claire’s dilemma, or a partial solution: a nanny!

Half of Simpson’s book, which someone blurbed as a satire when it’s anything but, focuses on the nanny Claire finds. Lola, like many of the nannies in Santa Monica at the time, is Filipina and has several children of her own, living with her husband in Tagaytay, but she hasn’t seen them for a while. She provides care for baby William and some care for Claire as well. Simpson shows Lola’s network of friends who are also nannies, mostly Filipina and working hard both to keep their kids safe and to provide childcare that meets their standards and the standards of the parents. Readers will sympathize with the nannies in the Lola portions and the trying-to-work mom in the Claire portions (though those who have jobs outside of the creative industries may wonder why Claire needs so many lattes, walks or time away from her actual job of composing).

Simpson shows Claire’s tentative, abortive efforts at understanding how to parent in a world of what would now be called soccer moms, those wealthy women who seem to have it all together and can get their hair done while having their perfect little darlings create handspun ox felt for holiday presents; she shows Lola’s tenuous state as a hot commodity with a shelf life dependent entirely on the whims of the gossiping suburban moms and dads; she shows the struggles of Lola and Claire to relate to each other. The ambiguous connection never gets truly resolved, for what friendship or connection can form between employer and employee, between the powerful who don’t know their power and those who work for them? — Suzi Steffen



THE LOVERS

by Vendela Vida. Ecco, $23.99.

As in her chilly, distant yet affecting Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name — and in her first novel, And Now You Can Go — with The Lovers, novelist Vendela Vida sends a lonely, wounded woman to a place far from home. Fiftyish Yvonne, recently widowed, has gone to Turkey to revisit the place she spent her honeymoon, 28 years ago. She plans to relax, to remember and then to meet up with her grown children. But the place isn’t quite like she expects, and the wife of the man from whom she rents a house is prone to turning up disconcertingly on the doorstep. In a nearby harbor, Yvonne befriends a young boy, Ahmet, from whom she buys seashells. Ahmet hardly speaks English, and Yvonne doesn’t speak Turkish; though Yvonne thinks she’s connecting with the boy, and the place, she’s still isolated and grieving, and her every relationship is another facet through which she views her distant family and unresolved pain. 

Vida’s novels are often described as “lean” or “austere”; her writing is crisp, her sentences spare, pared back to the necessities. Grief threads through Yvonne’s every movement, but Vida locates her ache in old memories, in the divide between mother and daughter and the way Yvonne describes her own skills: keeping conversation moving, not standing out. This quiet teacher is nothing like the young woman she once was, who went to meet a strange, postcard-writing young man in a grotto in Italy. The Lovers is purposefully distant and surprisingly present at once — an uncomfortable, alluring contradiction, gracefully explored in Vida’s terse, vibrant prose. — Molly Templeton



HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

by Charles Yu. Pantheon, $24. A New York Times Notable Book of 2010.

Charles Yu is a time travel repairman in Minor Universe 31, “a smallish universe, slightly below average in size.” In his tiny time machine, the TM-31, Yu answers the calls of time travelers who’ve screwed up and tried to change the past. Never mind that every time travel story (certain episodes of Doctor Who notwithstanding) insists that we can’t change what happened. People still want to try.

Charles Yu is also the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is both a small, silvery hardback that exists in our universe and a small, silvery book that Charles, the character, gives himself when he shoots himself in the stomach. This is not what you’re supposed to do when you meet your future self, but it’s what Charles, panicking, does, and it sends him into a time loop, exploring a piece of his life over and over again. How many times has he already been in the loop? Why has his mother chosen to be in an even shorter loop, endlessly cooking dinner? And where did Charles’ father, a frustrated inventor, go, many years ago?

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is wrapped in layers of itself, a multi-planed story that uses the technical language of true science fiction to explore the everyday processes of regret, longing, grief and understanding. Yu’s “chronodiegetical technology” is carefully described; his operating system, TAMMY, has a personality and seems to have a heart; Charles swears by sci-fi writers of the present  (“Holy Mother of Ursula K. Le Guin.”). Within his science fictional universe, Yu has found a new way to describe the mysterious ways reliving the past, in our memories, does absolutely nothing to change the present — until maybe, one day, it does. We’re all time travel machines, in Yu’s gorgeously structured metaphor. We’re all capable of changing the past, in the future. — Molly Templeton



INCARCERON and SAPPHIQUE

by Catherine Fisher. Dial, $17.99.

Fans of Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron, which racked up starred reviews earlier this year from just about everywhere that reviews young adult fiction, didn’t have to wait long for the book’s sequel, which sneaks in just at the year’s end (it’s officially out Dec. 28). Like Incarceron, Sapphique takes place both in the sentient prison that gave the first book its name — a giant, ever-changing, seemingly boundless place that bears some resemblance to the arenas of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series in scope — and in the Realm, a world held captive by a Protocol that demands its residents hew to the rules of a bygone era. Technology is banned, but technology runs Incarceron.

In this complicated, often false world, two young people fight to free others from the prison, and to restore honesty to their own lives: Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, who has ventured back into the prison, and Finn, who spent years in the prison and may or may not be the Realm’s long-lost prince.

Inventive, smartly structured and already headed for a big screen near you, Fisher’s novels use breathless plot to explore identity, compromise and the nature of reality — big questions in a shiny, engrossing package. — Molly Templeton



BUTTERFLY

by Sonya Hartnett. Candlewick, $16.99.

This YA/adult horror book masquerading as a coming-of-age story hits at the heart of family and friendship. Thirteen-year-old Plum Coyle lives a self-centered life, just like most people her age, and her point of view carries through most of the book, from the painful opening scene to the pitch-perfect and Cat’s Eye-level alarming scenes with her group of so-called friends. She badly needs an adult to talk to, but as it turns out, adults have secrets of their own, some of which threaten her family and their tentative, isolated filaments of connection. Occasional wrong notes (each character turns omniscient at odd times) and a claustrophobic, deliberately mysterious final scene don’t mar the overall feel of the horrors of adolescence and the threat of grown-up life. — Suzi Steffen

FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK

by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick, $18.99.

With the fantastic, heartbreaking Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta makes a sharp turn away from the realistic fiction of her last novel, the Printz Medal-winning Jellicoe Road. Some things don’t change: Marchetta creates complex, passionate, flawed characters whose relationships to one another tie into their strong sense of place — in this case, the place is the imaginary land of Lumatere, one of the smallest kingdoms in the larger island world of Skuldenore. Ten years ago, Lumatere was torn apart by betrayal and locked away from the rest of the world by a blood curse. Exiles live in camps throughout Skuldenore’s other kingdoms — some in terrible conditions. Finnikin, who as a child played with Lumatere’s young prince, Balthazar, roams the land with his mentor, Sir Topher, hoping for some sign of Balthazar, or of his father, Lumatere’s captain of the guard. When a dream sends him to a distant cloister, Finn meets a young woman, Evanjalin, who’s quite clearly not what she seems. Silent, fierce, smart and manipulative, Evanjalin has her own agenda. How it lines up with and changes Finn’s hopes and dreams, and how they both connect to the future of Lumatere, is carefully spun out in Marchetta’s sometimes wrenching, sometimes romantic high fantasy, which has its footing firmly in very real ideas about power, home, displacement and connection. — Molly Templeton 



MONSTERS OF MEN

by Patrick Ness. Candlewick, $18.99.

In this third book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, we’re back with Todd and Viola, at last. Will they survive? Will the Spackle rebel and get back at those who massacred them? Will the Mayor reveal himself and his plans? Because we know he has them. And guess what? There’s a third point of view in this book, somewhat like the extra complexity that enters Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy in its final volume. 

By the time they get to Monsters, readers have already dealt with two tomes of perpetual present tense, which turns annoyingly frantic with Ness’ neck-breaking plot pace. The book shares with other fantasy trilogies (most famously, Lord of the Rings) an issue around endings — it has, to put it mildly, several — but for young readers, the actual ending may be more satisfying than it was for this adult, who rolled her eyes at lost opportunities. — Suzi Steffen



 

nonfiction

 

THE HUSBANDS AND WIVES CLUB: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group

by Laurie Abraham. Touchstone, $25.

Threats of divorce! Fellatio! Sexual orientation! Shit your bitter parents dumped onto you! The Husbands and Wives Club is set up to read like a Jerry Springer episode. In fact, it has all the drama and suspense of a trashy novel in nonfiction format. 

For a year, author Laurie Abraham sat in with five couples as they dissected their pain, with the ultimate goal of rescuing their marriages. Through Abraham’s eyes, we commune with these couples as they wrestle with their long-hidden resentments and unmet desires.

“Despair is a great motivator,” notes Philadelphia therapist Judith Coché, who pulls from established and debatable marriage therapies to help these couples one weekend a month, at a cost of $6,000 for the year. Midway through sessions that include watching movies about sexual technique and acting out scenes of painful family arguments, one spouse reveals that he questions his sexuality. Marie craves physical intimacy her husband seems incapable of providing. Aaron treats his wife like his mother, then throws tantrums to reassert himself.  

Whether the marriages are saved or not is never answered. Some of the couples have been cocooned in their habits for too long to change — one is wrapping up a decade with Coché during the year Abraham spends with the group. But through the journey of these couples, we can learn almost as much about ourselves as they do, without the hefty price tag. — Vanessa Salvia



EXTRA LIVES: Why Video Games Matter

by Tom Bissell. Pantheon, $22.95.

Anyone who needs proof that video games matter need only seek out an Internet café in some of the desolate, far away places of the globe. I’ve found gamers hunched around terminals playing the latest iteration of Counter-Strike in back-alley apartment blocks in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; antsy pre-teens hogging a guesthouse’s handful of computers playing Unreal Tournament in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam; and seriously addicted twentysomethings paying an absurd amount of cash to play World of Warcraft all day in New Zealand.

But computer gamers are cheap and ubiquitous; it’s much harder to make the case for expensive consoles like Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. Enter journalist, Portland State instructor and self-confessed video game addict Tom Bissell, scribe of the travelogues Chasing the Sea and The Father of All Things. In Extra Lives, Bissell charts a gran turismo through the popular titles of the past eight years (“a golden age of video games,” Bissell claims). He analyzes Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, Far Cry 2 and LittleBigPlanet, among others, often praising the gameplay but damning the banal dialogue. In the meatier sections, Bissell probes the minds of the game designers (mostly white males, drably outfitted and driving beefed-up Beemers) writing the code behind these groundbreaking titles. 

With a scrutinizing eye, Bissell searches for meaning within all the simulated carnage and explicit role-playing, coming up with mixed results. On the one hand, video games can turn narrative into an “active experience,” as opposed to, say, movies; but on the other, games immerse the player in a virtual world, detached from reality. On whether this is a good thing, Bissell writes, “I am not so sure” — hardly an enthusiastic cheer for the supposedly dominant art form of our time. — Chuck Adams



THE ROUTES OF MAN: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today 

by Ted Conover. Knopf, $26.95.

Writer Ted Conover is a man who loves traveling. One could call him an “adventure journalist,” but he isn’t the sort of guy who writes about BASE jumping or kiteboarding. Conover’s adventures are the type of quests that even the poorest of our species can (and sometimes must) accept.

In his first two books, readers traveled alongside Conover as he crossed the border with illegal immigrants (Coyotes) and rode the rails with boxcar hobos (Rolling Nowhere). In The Routes of Man, Conover’s fifth nonfiction treatise, the author combines five long-form essays on the nature and purpose of roads.

“It is reminiscent of a fading romance in American life, their crush on the automobile, the thrill of car ownership,” Conover writes of newly minted nouveau riche drivers in Beijing, “and to witness it is to feel both nostalgia and the excitement of the new at the same time.”

The same can be said of Conover’s Tom Wolfe-brand of immersion journalism. From transporting illegal mahogany from the jungles of Peru to braving Israeli checkpoints in the disputed West Bank to marking the spread of AIDS among Kenyan long-haul drivers, Conover is an erudite and personable first-person narrator.

If the work has a flaw, it is that Conover seems hesitant to draw conclusions or impart lessons gleaned from the landscapes he has viewed through mud-spattered windshields, the springs he has felt through passenger-side truck seats. All the same, Conover’s odyssey compellingly combines history, politics, world culture and sociology.

Aaron Ragan-Fore

 

CLIMATE WARS: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats 

by Gwynne Dyer. OneWorld, $24.95.

Human-caused climate change is moving faster than you think. Changing light bulbs and driving less is not enough. We’re just about past the point of global warming no-return, and we need geo-engineering to get us back. Climate change will lead to mass starvation, mass population movement and war. Here’s the scenario author and journalist Dyer gives for Northern India circa 2036: “The surviving monkeys still play amid the ruins of the Taj Mahal. They come out of habit even through there are no longer any tourists leaving food around. Even if there were much left worth seeing on the site, the radiation levels are still too high. 

If you were looking for a happy eco-oriented read for the holidays, Climate Wars is not the way to go. If you want to get caught up on the doomsday take on the geopolitical and strategic consequences of global warming, Dyer’s your man.  — Camilla Mortensen



UNBROKEN: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption 

by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, $27.

In a sense, the title to Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit)’s second book hits not only a misleading but an outright mendacious tone. Its hero, Louis Zamperini, was a famous runner who probably would have been the first man to break the 4-minute mark for the mile … if not for the intervention of WWII. His time as a POW in Japan nearly killed him and ruined his track career, so in that sense he emerged from the hell that was the war in the Pacific broken and harmed.

 But Zamperini, who came from a poor Italian family in Torrance, Calif., and who ran for USC, doesn’t completely break. Like many WWII veterans — like many veterans in general, like many survivors of traumatic stress in general — he does drink enough to ruin his life for a while afterward. But Hillenbrand, in another gorgeously crafted and meticulously researched book about a speedy athlete, recreates not only the deep horrors of the camps (including a specific Japanese man, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who tortured many POWs and Zamperini in particular) but also the glories of Zamperini’s early athletic accomplishments, the life adrift on a raft after his plane crashed in May of 1943 — and his path to recovery after the war.

The book quietly and without emphasizing the question presents a moral dilemma for U.S. lefties. Orders had come down to kill all of the POWs if it appeared that Japan would lose the war, and the date for them to be murdered (for those who hadn’t already been killed by the less-than-starvation rations, the corruption and brutality of guards and the forced labor system) fell in late August 1945. Hillenbrand never argues that the U.S. knew that or dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9) to ensure that the POWs lived, but readers know what’s going to happen. As with many books about WWII, this painful but beautiful book leaves readers in awe of what humans can do, and with questions about why. — Suzi Steffen



RIVER HOUSE: A Memoir

by Sarahlee Lawrence. Tin House Books, $16.95.

River House, set in central Oregon, is a simultaneous tribute to both the harsh beauty of an arid landscape and the freedom of rivers and oceans. Sarahlee Lawrence is at her best when she describes the land and water and their pull on her and her family. “From my house now a sea of juniper trees unfurl in every direction … The needles of the juniper are actually tiny scales, scratchy to the touch. Each scale has a small gland on its back where a bead of resin seals the pore to conserve moisture. The tree seems to perfectly adapted to the high desert. Some people say it’s too adapted, even invasive.” 

Lawrence writes honestly of a year that begins when she’s only 21 — so honestly that, from time to time, she’s frustrating. She travels the world whitewater rafting dangerous and exotic rivers, and admits she doesn’t always appreciate what she has. An epiphany in South America returns to her Oregon home with sketches of a hand-built log home in hand, and a hope to build her relationship with her father, a lover of oceans who feels trapped in the high desert. As she and her father build her log house by hand, the longing and need for water tear and the land, and at her family. — Camilla Mortensen



GIRLS TO THE FRONT: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

by Sara Marcus. HarperPerennial, $14.99.

I missed out on riot grrrl — or at least I always felt like I did. In 1989, when the women who would form Bratmobile were meeting at the UO, I was half an hour away at Elmira High School, unhappy and unaware. By the time I got out of Elmira, in 1993, riot grrrl had — as Sara Marcus describes in her absorbing, moving and compassionate Girls to the Front — been through highs and lows, been noted and mocked by the mainstream, and begun to twist around on itself. Those who’d started the punk rock, feminist movement had turned skeptical, but young women were still picking up zines, buying Bikini Kill’s record or starting bands, inspired by the seemingly fearless women who had spent the previous years changing the face of youth culture. 

I was never totally clear what riot grrrl was — but maybe, it turns out, neither was it. And maybe that was OK. Riot grrrl was a handful of bands; it was women writing zines; it was small groups meeting to talk about their experiences in a sexist culture, and to locate and transform their anger. It was young women looking out for each other and reclaiming space in the boys’ club of punk rock. It was taking a stand and spreading the word, breaking out of boxes and holding out a hand to the next girl in line.

In Girls to the Front, Marcus — whose moving author’s note is called “I Was Going to Be One of Them” — paints a striking picture of the era that birthed riot grrrl and an honest, flawed portrait of the messy, empowering thing that resulted. It’s difficult to pick pieces of Marcus’ narrative to use to sum up the story; it must’ve been exponentially more difficult to find, in the decentralized history of a press-wary and loosely connected group, the pieces that would yield the best picture of the whole. The story is told in the history of a handful of bands; in the politicized realm of Washington D.C.; and in the effect of a handful of women who had an idea (or many) about feminism and culture, but wanted just to pass those ideas along to other women who’d make them their own. No one led riot grrrl, and it didn’t want leaders — but leaderless, it crashed in on itself. 

“Politics was personal; their revolution had become about a purification of one’s individual life, habits, language, relationships. This is the revolutionary program of a moment that has lost the ability to envision large-scale change, or that sees institutions as so flawed at their core that they can never be vehicles of transformation,” Marcus writes near the end of her book. She doesn’t shy away from riot grrrl’s responsibility for its own demise, but in her epilogue, still finds its enduring legacy: It “taught a crucial lesson: Always ask, Is there something wrong not with me but with the world at large?” Riot grrrl’s history may come to an end, but in her last paragraphs, Marcus makes a compelling argument that we can still learn from, and still be, riot girls: “This very moment contains all you need,” she writes. “Everything you’re hearing right now, where you are ... this is the sound of a revolution.” — Molly Templeton



THE GRACE OF SILENCE: A Memoir

by Michele Norris. Pantheon, $24.95.

In the introduction to The Grace of Silence, Michele Norris (of “All Things Considered” fame) explains her original goal of revealing “an unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race” taking place in America after the election of Barack Obama. The pursuit of this conversation led Norris to examine her own African-American identity, as well as to pursue unexpected — and sometimes uncomfortable — dialogue with her own family members about being black in America. Although her investigation did not unfold entirely as she had planned, Norris makes skillful use of her immediate family history as a narrative frame around which to build a rich discussion of racial realities left increasingly unacknowledged in our theoretically “post-racial” society.

These realities could be as simple as shoveling snow, which was a self-conscious act in Norris’ household. Having the clearest sidewalk, the most bountiful garden and the tidiest children were her parents’ defenses against any possible complaints their skittish white neighbors could muster. Norris witnessed the grace of silence in the stoic rebellion of her block-busting parents, and also in her relatives who, until she began writing the book, cloistered painful family memories such as the shooting of her father by a white Alabama police officer. 

Through careful yet persistent questioning, Norris unveils a personal history that touches on critical periods in the 20th century, such as the mistreatment of black G.I.s upon return to their communities, the anti-miscegenation violence perpetrated against black men in the deep South and even the popularity of the “Mammy” as a cultural icon. As skillful a storyteller as she is a reporter, Norris has done readers a service by breaking from her journalistic role long enough to explore the grace of her own family’s silence, as well as listening to and pursuing “that which [is] left unsaid.” — Adrienne van der Valk



PLENITUDE: The New Economics of True Wealth

by Juliet Schor. The Penguin Press, $25.95.

Consuming less and spending less yet feeling richer is the lesson at the heart of Plenitude, written by economist Juliet Schor. Her thesis is that the work-and-spend path we’re on has led to not only ecological decline and scarcity of food and energy, but also scarcity of incomes, jobs and credit. Our usual blueprint to recovery — debt-financed consumerism — is no longer an option humans or the planet can afford. 

Schor argues that focusing on sustainability will provide a breakthrough to new sources of wealth, green technologies and different ways of living — different enough that we might all be much better off than we are now. Schor’s proof is in trends such as urban farmers and Craigslist users establishing new local market systems as a way off the treadmill and into a more rewarding life. 

If we value what we have in abundance — nature, community, intelligence, time — we’re less likely to value disposable goods that exploit the earth. Schor’s not reinventing the wheel with her suggestions, but she does provide compelling ways to think about work and use of time. Unfortunately, her assumption is that everyone both wants to and is capable of leaping into shorter workweeks that leave plenty of time to buy local, grow food and sell what you don’t eat. Still, she presents an inspiring new way of thinking about the world that just might become the new paradigm.

Vanessa Salvia



REALITY HUNGER: A Manifesto

by David Shields. Knopf, $24.95.

Can a piece of writing be both completely solipsistic and entirely selfless? David Shields, Seattle’s categorically hard-to-categorize author, might respond: The answer is no. For years now, in oddball offerings like Remote and Enough About You, Shields has been blurring literary distinctions between “reality” and fiction. With Reality Hunger, he delivers his most intriguing deconstruction to date, dismantling not only the genres of memoir and fiction, but the whole notion of genre itself. 

Shields abandoned novel writing nearly two decades back and is now committed to keeping pace with our culture’s burgeoning addiction to real-time “reality,” whether that be twittering, Jersey Shore or the latest Oprah-approved memoir. His highly subjective, ironically self-effacing, pastiche-like approach reads like a written hip-hop that stitches elements of the confessional to the lyrical essay, and he samples everybody from William Gass and William Gibson to Montaigne and John Cougar Mellencamp. This “manifesto” — a compilation of quotes, aphorisms and epigrams (only a portion of them actually Shields’) — raises big, bad questions about the point (and the authority) of reading and writing in a world gone insanely WTF and LOL. Short, numbered, unattributed passages (Shields suggest you clip out the citation index) build a gorgeous momentum that achieves a kind of inward/outward epiphany, collapsing all Shield’s navel-gazing into a black hole where simply everything is up for grabs. Art, in the resulting vacuum, is framed in terms as crucial as life and death. In other words — and Shields’ writing seems always to be saying “in other words” — Reality Hunger puts a brand-new shine on philosophy’s immemorial attempt to restore art to culture and culture to art. 

This book is, as Shields (the ventriloquist) writes, “an essay that’s also a lyric, a kind of logic that wants to sing, an argument that has no chance of proving out.” — Rick Levin



COGNITIVE SURPLUS: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age 

by Clay Shirky. The Penguin Press, $25.95.

In his new book, Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) asserts that technology has allowed our species a luxury previously unknown in such great quantities: free time for our brains. We’re no longer employing our mental faculties at every moment with figuring out how to find shelter, grow food or avoid calamity.

Combining this “cognitive surplus” with the promise of instantaneous communication endemic of the Internet births a new sense of altruism, expressed digitally. Our tools for effortless and instantaneous connection lead to amateur editors updating Wikipedia for no remuneration, or to the formation of “groups who pool their efforts without sharing a physical location,” such as online fan clubs who mobilize charitable contributions in the names of pop stars.

Shirky has little time for curmudgeonly culture com-mentators who pooh-pooh social media as a transitory fad for the young. Rather, the “world of low discovery costs” afforded by online communication is for everyone, no longer restricting wide-audience communication to “official” media outlets such as, say, this newspaper. (Updated your Facebook status lately?)

This book is required reading for new media proponents, marketing and media types and really for anyone interested in how technology simultaneously drives and reacts to daily life in the early 21st century. — Aaron Ragan-Fore

 

MYSTERIES AND LEGENDS OF OREGON: True Stories of the Unsolved

and Unexplained 

by Jim Yuskavitch. Globe Pequot Press, $18.95.

When visiting an unfamiliar city, my wife and I like to take a haunted walking tour to help get our bearings. Learning the area’s myths gives us a feel for the culture of the place, and helps us bone up on the broad strokes of local history.

Jim Yuskavitch’s slender volume offers a similar opportunity, the chance to learn about our home state through the episodes one won’t discover on a mural in the state Capitol building.

From the Portland Shanghai tunnels to Bigfoot sightings in the Cascades, from the haunting of the Heceta Head Lighthouse to the disappearance of a 1970s aerial hijacker, Yuskavitch takes a scattershot approach that is more fun than it is comprehensive. The tales are written in a straightforward, unadorned manner, less “campfire” and more “encyclopedia,” and one might wish for a bit more poetry in their telling.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here. The chapter on the Columbia River Valley’s Bridge of the Gods is amazing, and the mystery of the Lost Blue Bucket Mine left me scratching my head. Yuskavitch’s concise retellings will appeal to armchair historians, conspiracy buffs and kids looking for fodder for a really cool school history project.

Aaron Ragan-Fore



poetry

THE LAST SKIN

by Barbara Ras. Penguin, $18.

Barbara Ras dedicates her third book of poetry, The Last Skin, to her mother, who died in 2002. The poet takes grief beyond the personal, seeing “frailty everywhere,” noting that even the mahogany from which the coffin is made is “itself in danger.” Ras travels to Poland and to Lake Titicaca, 12,500 feet above sea level. No matter where she goes, she is reminded of what is lost. In “Windows on the Lake,” she wonders: “How far will a bird hop on ground before choosing / flight, and how long can I sit here with my memories / pinging incoherently off the glass like bugs / trying to find a way out?” 

Although infused with grief, the book also sparkles with whimsy. Ras has a soft spot for the inherent goofiness of the human condition. She also revels in odd words and juxtapositions, finding a lush comfort in language. We sense the writer seeking happiness, but succeeding only partly, and only part of the time.

The Last Skin is brought to a powerful close by “Washing the Elephant,” which begins, “Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash / the elephant” and goes on to stroll past sadness, guilt, desire and love, all viewed as if from the high perch of an elephant’s back. In the end the poem circles around to “it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash / the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories / that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.” — Cecelia Hagen



THRESHOLD

by Jennifer Richter. Southern Illinois University Press, $14.95.

What better antidote to hard times than a collection of poems about pain? Corvallis poet Jennifer Richter, author of Threshold, underwent a long-term, unspecified health issue. We see her wearing a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, savoring the first few seconds after waking before the day’s pain stakes its claim. We also see her as a mother, a wife and daughter, a writing teacher learning from her imprisoned students. No matter what her role, Richter examines life’s jagged edges with stringent honesty and determination.

More than half the poems are prose poems: dense paragraphs, poems without lines. Because a prose poem can’t rely on line breaks to impart any music or pause, its language and imagery has to compel, as in: “The dozens of wobbling ladders in the grass: these are your doctor’s long reports” (from “Recovery 4”).

Richter also makes frequent use of “you” instead of “I” to separate the speaker from the person that speaker is describing. This suits the rawness of the subject matter, and reflects the schism illness can put between the thinking self and the feeling self. 

It’s easy to see why Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey chose this book as the winner of the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition Award: Threshold is restrained and soulful. Richter writes the most breathtaking accounts of motherhood that I’ve ever encountered. When you read Threshold, you know these poems had to be written, and you see how the intensified language of poetry can create a necessary, life-saving refuge. — Cecelia Hagen

Unless noted, all books reviewed were published in 2010.





Tricks Are for Kids

The year’s crop of comic books and graphic novels presents a couple of noteworthy projects that are fun for the whole family, and two that are decidedly just for grown-ups.

Juan Díaz Canales’ and Juanjo Guarnido’s lush and noirish Blacksad collection (Dark Horse, $29.99) falls into the latter category. This single-volume collection of comic albums, originally intended for the European market and now produced in translation by Oregon-based publisher Dark Horse, simultaneously celebrates and lampoons the American detective genre, using anthropomorphized animals as stand-ins for human characters in shades of Art Spiegelman’s famed Maus. These aren’t comics for kids; the adventures of titular feline detective John Blacksad feature all the sex and violence of dime-store private eye paperbacks, lushly rendered with a Disney-like eye for detail and an admirable fidelity to the craft of building a fictional world. 

Like Blacksad, Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95), the first original graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, Art School Confidential), is titled after the surname of its protagonist. And like Blacksad, Wilson is an incredible and affecting work. That’s where the comparison ends, though. The title character is a middle-aged, bloviating blowhard of a loser who loves his dog (sort of), accosts unsuspecting coffee shop patrons (always) and, weirdly, gets wrapped up in a kidnapping plot. Each page is presented as a separate comic strip, with a separate episode title and a distinct art style, bricks in the single storyline house Clowes is constructing. The usual Clowes levels of ennui, disaffection and misanthropy are on full display, blended with just a slight touch of nausea. So laugh along with Wilson as he tries to grow up and get his shit together. Or not. Whatever. He’s a Dan Clowes character.

Full-color Sunday adventure comic strips are the forerunners of modern superheroes. Combine this with the fact that Wednesday is the traditional day of the week that comic book stores release new issues, and you have the handsome new hardcover Wednesday Comics compendium (DC Comics, $49.99). This thing is massive, well over 11x17 inches, and, in combining work by indie darling creators like Paul Pope and Oregon favorite son Michael Allred with superhero stalwarts like Joe Kubert and José Luis García-López, the sprawling project convincingly replicates the Sunday morning comics-reading experience. The stable of DC characters is also diverse, from headliners like Batman and Wonder Woman to niche characters like Sgt. Rock and the Metal Men. There’s a bit of innuendo and a bit of violence, de rigeur for superhero comics. The price tag is a bit steep, but DC has really hit a home run with this project, producing a meaty helping of comics that straddles that elusive middle ground between the reading (and interest) levels of the YA and adult reader. And hey, the titanic thing would look darn stylish under the Christmas tree.

But the real winner for tykes this year is The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids’ Komics (IDW Publishing, $34.99), an encyclopedia volume-sized collection of comic books and comic strips reveling in their immaturity and aimed squarely at children. These comics, spanning from the 1850s to the 1990s, are Looney Tunes-style zaniness, a pure and uncut sugar high reminiscent of chugging the milk left over after a helping of your favorite chocolatey breakfast cereal. There’s not a whole lot here for adults, beyond those grown-up comics history geeks who will enjoy seeing early work by the likes of Dr. Seuss, Steve Ditko (The Amazing Spider-Man), Dan DeCarlo (Archie) and Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey). But that’s OK. Just think of the book as the printed equivalent of a secret clubhouse, and let your kids go on believing you’ve forgotten the secret handshake. — Aaron Ragan-Fore