THE NYMPHOS OF ROCKY FLATS | Mario Acevedo | Rayo | Former infantryman Mario Acevedo manages to seamlessly blend several genres in his smooth, wryly funny debut novel. Nymphos starts off as a war thriller: enlisted grunt Felix Gomez is just trying to survive in Iraq when he mistakenly shoots a civilian girl who bleeds to death before his eyes. Overcome with guilt, he allows an Iraqi vampire to turn him into one of the undead as punishment. By the next chapter Gomez has harnessed his new powers to get work as a private eye; soon an old friend at the Department of Energy gets wind of his prowess and calls him in to investigate a mysterious outbreak of (woo hoo!) nymphomania that’s sprung up amongst the DOE’s female employees.
Gomez, like a true Chandlerian hero, refuses to boink any of the nymphos he’s forced to interview. He won’t even suck their jugulars: traumatized by his evil deed in Iraq, he subsists on animal blood alone. But there are vampire hunters in town, and without human blood Gomez’s strength is fading. Stuffed with one-liners (“I’d repay him by chaining his undead carcass to a cement mixer and rolling it into a volcano”), the book probes moral questions with a light touch, and in the end Gomez even gets to nail a dryad. The PR boasts that it’s the “only vampire novel to be declassified by the federal government,” but this succulent chunk of pulp doesn’t need the hoopla. | Ann Sterzinger
THE $64 TOMATO: HOW ONE MAN NEARLY LOST HIS SANITY, SPENT A FORTUNE, AND ENDURED AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS IN THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT GARDEN | William Alexander | Algonquin | This “humorous” autobiography screams out for a lecture about the self-absorption of baby boomers and Americans in general–I feel positively dirty for having gotten sucked into the narrative. In a nutshell, William Alexander develops an obsession with gardening that eventually eats up all of his spare time and a good chunk of the family’s apparently ample disposable income. Like any good liberal he tries to downplay their affluence by complaining that, though his wife doesn’t make as much money as the average doctor, local contractors charge them doctor rates anyhow; but the reader’s jaw keeps dropping as Alexander whines about one unexpected multigrand expense after another. Add the fact that he thinks he’s funnier than he is and this could’ve been an unreadable pile of compost. But there’s some decent craft on display, and it’s perversely captivating to watch the best green intentions slide into the muck as Alexander–not without self-awareness–spends enough money growing healthy, organic vegetables for his precious brood to feed a small, impoverished country. | Ann Sterzinger
IRAQ: THE LOGIC OF WITHDRAWAL | Anthony Arnove | New Press | Many people who originally opposed the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq now find themselves, for various reasons, hesitant to back a total withdrawal. In Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, Anthony Arnove–who collaborated on Voices of a People’s History of the United States with Howard Zinn–argues that withdrawal is the only moral choice: the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is the fuel that keeps that country burning. He bolsters his case by showing reconstruction efforts funneling resources away from unemployed Iraqis and to American contractors, who rebuild little, and the vaunted elections leading to a sham democracy that pits Kurds, Shia, and Sunni against one another. This game is murder, Arnove argues, and the U.S. should withdraw its troops now, start paying reparations, and let Iraqis use their own oil revenues to solve their own problems. Conventional wisdom keeps saying there are no good options, but Arnove’s concise 117-page analysis suggests a way out of the misery. | Renaldo Migaldi
THEFT: A LOVE STORY | Peter Carey | Knopf | There’s a distinct whiff of payback to Peter Carey’s latest novel, an art-world satire cum caper tale–enough to have his ex-wife (and former editor) squawking publicly about a thinly disguised character known only as “Plaintiff” and “alimony whore.” But Theft isn’t really a vengeful roman a clef. As the subtitle says, it’s a love story–one more between two brothers than any pair of lovers.
Formerly famous painter Michael “Butcher” Boone is down on his luck: bankrupted by divorce, subject to a restraining order that keeps him away from his son, and just out of prison, where he’s done time for trying to steal his own artworks. He’s also his brother’s keeper, and that’s saying something–Hugh is a hulking, untamed, sensitive soul as likely to throw a punch as to act out scenes from his favorite children’s book. They’re set up in a borrowed house in the Australian bush, Butcher doing anything he can to paint, when the femme fatale needed to make this a love triangle comes on the scene. Plots, murders, and thefts follow, but crimes and deceit aren’t the heart of the book. It’s more a tale of the narcissism and righteous fury of an artist obsessed, the bonds of blood, and the fallout from a damaged childhood. It’s also wickedly funny, and Carey’s prose is like Joyce made simple: canny, inventive, and wildly exuberant. | Kate Schmidt
VELLUM | Hal Duncan | Ballantine | Glasgow writer Hal Duncan travels from Sumerian myth to cyberpunk, with stops at historical romance and Lovecraftian dread, before finally rising above all genres in Vellum, the first volume in “The Book of All Hours.” The book for which the series is named is a sort of atlas of a world known only to a few, one fought over by righteous angels and those fallen from the sight of God.
That conflict is the one consistent, coherent story line in this sprawling fantasy that encompasses Prometheus, World War I, Mathew Shepard, futuristic rebels, and ancient feuds. “It’s not like time is just a straight line from the past to the future,” one character observes, as if supplying an excuse for an unwieldy, disjointed narrative in which no character is stuck in any one time or place.
Vellum is a poetic exercise more dependent on language than character or plot, but despite its amorphous, cosmic theme (which, Duncan says, is simply “people die”), the tender moments between friends, lovers, and even enemies make it a very human story that infiltrated my dreams, which is kind of creepy. | Patrick Daily
TO HELL WITH ALL THAT: LOVING AND LOATHING OUR INNER HOUSEWIFE | Caitlin Flanagan | Little, Brown | Where to start with Caitlin Flanagan? A working mom who condemns other working moms for seeking creative fulfillment–or, God forbid, income–outside the home, Flanagan believes that feminism ruined everything for families. Still, she can’t deny that domestic work is often mind-numbingly boring. Her solution? Hire staff!
Blinkered hypocrisy informs every page of this aggravating new collection of essays. I have never before encountered a writer so shrewd at setting up straw men, though here they’re usually women. Paper-doll-thin caricatures of working mothers and those pesky feminists pop up again and again, carefully lined up to bolster her one-note premise. She’s so narcissistically fixated on the all-consuming problems of the upper-middle-class wife and mother–Should one hire a nanny? How does one handle all those extracurricular activities? Oh, the torment of the sexless marriage!–that it makes Desperate Housewives look like reality TV.
Flanagan, a New Yorker staff writer who kicks up a cloud of controversy wherever she goes, follows the time-honored model of contrarians from Andy Rooney to Ann Coulter: toss out a provocative thesis, shore it up with sloppy generalizations and personal anecdotes, then dust it with spiffy-sounding facts. The only reason to read this retrograde nonsense is to get a glimpse of a life far removed from yours and thank your lucky stars. | Martha Bayne
NATURE’S RESTORATION: PEOPLE AND PLACES ON THE FRONT LINES OF CONVERSATION | Peter Friederici | Island Press | You broke it, you fix it. That ecological idea is driving “one of the dominant environmental and social movements of the twenty-first century,” according to Peter Friederici, a onetime Reader contributor now teaching at Northern Arizona University. The largely volunteer movement combines science with ritual, and physical labor with careful reflection. This low-key but eloquent account brings us close to the work of hands-on restorationists like David Wingate of Bermuda and Chicago’s Steve Packard. Their work may have begun with a yearning to bring back the island cahow or the Illinois prairie, but it’s not really about restoring a particular “presettlement” ecosystem. That goal is both unattainable and undefinable. Instead, says Friederici, the movement’s about redefining our place in nature. Exploitation won’t work because we can’t just take without giving back. Pure John Muir conservationism won’t work either because we have to live here too, and nature can no longer heal itself. We have to find a middle road–but while we’re looking there’s no excuse for not starting to clean up the mess. | Harold Henderson
DIRTY SUGAR COOKIES: CULINARY OBSERVATIONS, QUESTIONABLE TASTE | Ayun Halliday | Seal Press | Ayun Halliday sure has found a recipe for literary success: take equal parts wry memoir and freestyle cultural riffing, dot with moments of quiet meaning, season with a healthy dash of art-spazzy tics, and stir into the genre of your choice. Her formula has produced titles loosely focused on mothering (The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale From the Trenches), travel (No Touch Monkey!), and boho career development (Job Hopper), and now, with her fourth book, the onetime Neo-Futurist is getting in on the foodie action. In a fun, goofy tour through her culinary upbringing, Halliday tries to figure out, more or less, how she went from the pickiest of little girl eaters to an omnivorous globetrotter with a finicky little girl of her own. As ever, she walks a fine line between winning self-deprecation and gleeful self-absorption, but her misadventures with Betty Crocker alone were enough to pull me in. There’s nothing heavy happening here, and it goes down easy. | Martha Bayne
THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE | A.M. Homes | Viking | This manic novel opens with a shot of intense pain coursing through the body of its protagonist, Richard Novak, an online securities trader approaching middle age and slowly becoming aware of a great many things–his mortality, for one, and the sinkhole in his LA front yard for another. When a neighbor girl’s horse gets stuck in said hole, he calls for the assistance of another neighbor, a movie star, who engineers a televised helicopter rescue that sets Novak on a journey of human connection.
The story unfolds at a relentless pace as Novak befriends a wide cast of characters–an Indian doughnut-shop owner, a depressed housewife, a famous Vietnam-era novelist who becomes the bedraggled, goofy conscience of the book–and accidentally remakes himself into a hero, saving not only the horse but an abducted girl, a drunk man in the Pacific, and of course himself. Homes seems to have scaled back her typically sharp-edged surrealism here in an attempt at Day of the Locust-style black comedy, but the book reads more like a straight-up contemporary fairy tale. In an emblematic scene at its center, the writer tells Novak, “People talk about being on the ride of your life–this is your life. . . . Whatever it is you need to know, you already know.” For rich LA guys, I guess remembering this simple notion might require the forces of earthquakes, wildfires, and saber-toothed cats–or, Homes can hope, this book. | Todd Dills
PERISHABLE: A MEMOIR | Dirk Jamison | Chicago Review Press | I don’t know how much room there is for a book like Dirk Jamison’s Perishable in the era of the extreme memoir. There aren’t any tattoo-ready, post-new age catchphrases, the author’s life isn’t ruined by drugs, and the closest thing to sexual abuse he experiences as a child is a Boy Scout leader with a deck of nudie playing cards. Jamison’s only real problems growing up were a sister who kicked his ass on a regular basis and a dad who went Dumpster diving to feed his family.
Jamison’s father was a 70s pseudo-hippie free spirit who brought his kids up in abject squalor in the name of instilling some sort of antimaterialist lesson in their heads, when he was actually just ducking anything that seemed remotely heavy: a real job, responsible parenting, his conservative Mormon wife. Not that his son seemed to mind: Jamison had the mixed blessing of growing up with a dad who acted more like an imaginary friend, always off on some wild adventure. But for all the whimsy and fantasy his dad provided, the only lesson Jamison wound up learning was that fun alone won’t keep a family fed, no matter how much food you find in the trash. | Miles Raymer
TO DARE AND TO CONQUER: SPECIAL OPERATIONS AND THE DESTONY OF NATIONS, FROM ACHILLES TO AL QUEDA | Derek Leebaert | Little, Brown | The derring-do of “special operations” soldiers has long been a pop-cultural trope, but Derek Leebaert, a Georgetown government prof and former marine, takes a longer view. In his new book, To Dare and to Conquer, he argues that while the irregular tactics utilized by small bands of trained, motivated commandos have been overlooked by military historians in favor of the big campaigns, they are the factor on which victory has often hung. The historical narrative is broken down into distinct epochs: fittingly, he begins with the Trojan horse, the exemplary special op with its blend of coordination, timing, trickery, and, of course, violence. The most exciting portions concern the first and second world wars, when newly mutating groups of unruly soldiers were forced to contend with the first war’s brutal technology (the British developed elaborate disguised warships to counter predatory German U-boats) and the second’s ideologies (Nazism produced some remarkably effective commandos, such as the notorious Otto Skorzeny, who freed Mussolini from a mountaintop prison). Today, Leebaert notes, special ops are the most heavily funded arm of the American military. He seems to approve of this, though he does acknowledge ruefully that their very raffish, nonconformist nature inspires tactics of subterfuge that a wily enemy could readily use against us. | Mike Newirth
UNCOMMON CARRIERS | John McPhee | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | John McPhee writes in English, but he wraps the reader in the language of his subjects so thoroughly it feels like code. In his previous 27 books the longtime New Yorker contributor has famously invited readers into close studies of geology and the natural world, weaving lyrical, pithy narratives that use the jargon of a particular field to foster intimacy rather than exclude.
In his latest, Uncommon Carriers, McPhee explores freight transportation in America. Most of the chapters have appeared in the New Yorker over the last two years, but anyone who was holding on to back issues in order to revisit his stories about lobster shipping and the advent of FedEx or his serialized pieces on coal trains can replace their dog-eared piles with this slim tome. McPhee rides along with hazmat truckers, train conductors, tugboat operators on the Illinois River–all workaday men who take pride in their work. The pieces share a common subtext, the history of capitalism in America, which he locates quietly in industries of exhaustive labor: in the CB banter of the truckers, in the rope knots tied by deckhands, and in the piss cups of chain-smoking riverboat cap’ns. | Jessica Hopper
BLACK SWAN GREEN | David Mitchell | Random House | “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust,” says one character in David Mitchell’s 2000 novel Ghostwritten. Now we know why. In previous work Mitchell has proven himself the rare writer who takes formal experimentation seriously, but in Black Swan Green he’s done an about-face and written a straightforward coming-of-age story fully driven by character.
The beautifully drawn 13-year-old Jason Taylor–stammerer, loser, dreamer, heartbreaker–encounters external foes like bullies and headmasters as well as the internal enemy of stammering in passages that are poignant and painful to read. He worries about his parents’ marriage. He breaks his grandfather’s heirloom watch and is afraid to admit it. He’s alternately tortured and accepted by the older boys at school. He has an unrequited crush on a bad girl. He hates math and writes poetry for the parish newsletter under the pseudonym “Eliot Bolivar.”
In Mitchell’s hands Jason engages big ideas with an authentic adolescent brain, brilliantly mixing the existential with the mundane: when Jason, struggling with his speech, starts keeping a “stammering diary,” the first two trouble words he lists are “normally” and “Simon LeBon.” But despite Mitchell’s care with language, the book doesn’t add up to much more than a thoughtful character study, and it’s a bit of a letdown. It feels like the product of a cruel dare–as if David Foster Wallace had been challenged to shed the pyrotechnics and take on the banal brutality of the dating scene. | Erin Hogan
APATHY AND OTHER SMALL VICTORIES | Paul Neilan | St. Martin’s Press | The self-obsessed, literary man-child protagonist that writers like Nick Hornby and Jonathan Ames have spent their careers refining may have reached his evolutionary peak–or nadir–in Shane, the center of Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories, a sort of slacker noir about the murder of a deaf dental assistant. Constantly tanked on High Life, Shane inhabits a world full of dreary bars and taupe-toned cubicles. His only contributions to mankind are potential bumper sticker slogans (“The world is your oyster, but you are allergic to shellfish”) and speculations on what sort of immoral activities his sketchy upstairs neighbor gets into with his pet guinea pig.
Taking a slow cruise through the workings of Shane’s mind should be as painful as living the life he leads, but fortunately Neilan has crafted a hilarious internal monologue full of merciless character dissections and mock-epic statements: “And there I was, twenty-eight years old, being tickled in a crowded bar surrounded by young professionals. And God wept for the world he had made.” He has the grace to tease comedy from an all-deaf keg party without crossing completely into offensiveness, but enough good sense to know it’s funnier if he takes a couple of steps across that line anyway. | Miles Raymer
SOCIAL ACUPUNCTURE: A GUIDE TO SUICIDE, PERFORMANCE, AND UTOPIA | Darren O’Donnell | Coach House | By 9/11 Toronto actor Darren O’Donnell was already fed up with the political limitations of traditional representational theater. So, after the 2003 northeast blackout, when he saw the disparate residents of his neighborhood come together in something of a utopian moment, he set out to find a new approach to making art, one that stimulates civic engagement. He calls his method “social acupuncture”–structured moments that break down boundaries between performer and audience. In the first part of this somewhat bipolar book, he lays out his manifesto and gives examples from his recent work. In one project an audience member whose name was drawn from a hat was invited onstage to field questions from the house–though, in a crafty shift of power, he or she was also welcome to refuse to answer any or all of them. The second half of the book is a rough script for O’Donnell’s interactive one-man show, A Suicide-Site Guide to the City. I’ve only seen parts of it performed–and by design it’s different each time, so some readers might find it tedious doing the mental gymnastics required to fully imagine the experience. But O’Donnell’s synthesis of critical and conversational writing styles can make for wildly entertaining reading, of a piece with his scorching 2004 novel, Your Secrets Sleep With Me. | Todd Dills
LUDMILA’A BROKEN ENGLISH | DBC Pierre | Norton | DBC Pierre (the pen name of reformed con man Peter Finlay) came out of nowhere in 2003 to win the Booker Prize for his debut novel, Vernon God Little, about a Columbine-like massacre in a small Texas town. His follow-up, Ludmila’s Broken English, is equally dark and astute, and chock-full of gorgeous writing.
Blair and Bunny Heath, thirtysomething formerly conjoined twins who’ve lived their lives in an English nursing home, relocate to present-day London in an attempt to lead “normal” lives. Blair is enthusiastic, eager to explore a new world of freedom, opportunity, and sex. Especially sex. But the more reticent and asexual Bunny tries to rein him in, longing for the familiar comfort of the home. Meanwhile, an acerbic teen sexpot is plotting her escape from her desolate, war-torn home in the former Soviet province of Ubilsk. Their stories connect when Blair finds Ludmila’s face on a Web site of mail-order Russian brides and convinces Bunny–who’d rather loll in the tub and drink gin–to make the trip with him. Horrors ensue.
Pierre takes on violence, globalization, and abuses of power both sexual and political with gusto. But the best reason to read this book is his use of language; the most ordinary of situations are rendered surprising, and the dialogue is crazy clever. | Jerome Ludwig
THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS | Michael Pollan | Penguin | Michael Pollan takes a big risk at the start of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his ambitious, elegant attempt to understand the “national eating disorder” that afflicts contemporary American life: he devotes the first 100-odd pages to the waste and barbarism of the industrial food chain, and it’s so fucking depressing that more than one reader may be tempted to bail on the book altogether.
Persistence, however, will be rewarded, as Pollan traces the origins of four meals: one bought at McDonald’s, one at Whole Foods, one grown off the grid by a Virginia farmer, and one he hunts and gathers himself. He scoots with ease from the grotesque workings of a factory farm to the gloomy economics of “big organic” farming to the life cycle of the chanterelle, providing a meticulous examination of the ways we think–and don’t think–about what we eat. One question runs throughout: what, in an age of urban excess, constitutes responsible, sustainable eating?
Pollan gets closest to a real answer on Joel Salatin’s Shenandoah Valley farm, a self-sufficient, organic utopia of pasture-raised cattle and uncaged laying hens. Here Pollan sees a viable future, and if he lets Salatin (who’s also a Christian libertarian kook) off a little easy maybe it’s because he desperately wants to find the light after that dark beginning. | Martha Bayne
EVERYMAN | Philip Roth | Houghton Mifflin | Philip Roth’s 27th book doesn’t rank with the likes of American Pastoral, but it might just be the clearest and most direct treatment of the themes he’s been obsessed with for decades. Everyman opens at the funeral of the unnamed protagonist, who in life was a successful, neurotic, thrice-divorced New York adman who was scared of intimacy, prone to stray, and constantly worried about the other shoe dropping. In other words he’s assembled out of familiar, almost cliched Rothian types, which is part of the point: the idea that death ultimately consumes all of us with the same bleak certainty requires him to paint a worn, somewhat unfeeling portrait. Inventing a character who’s intentionally predictable is a risky move, and the gambit does wind up blunting the impact of individual scenes–moments when an acquaintance dies or a flirtation comes to nothing feel less like turning points and more like good places to break for commercial. But Roth’s not as concerned with characterization as he is with pacing here, and Everyman grows more powerful as its hero’s life becomes increasingly defined by the deaths of old friends and other persistent reminders of mortality. By the closing pages Roth’s assertions about life’s shallowness and finality work precisely because they’re so cold, a mood exemplified by the blunt comment of a grave digger on the job: “This is nice diggin’. No rocks. Straight in.” | Mark Athitakis
ROUGH CROSSINGS: BRITAIN, THE SLAVES, AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION | Simon Schama | HarperCollins | On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s last British colonial governor, promised freedom to all slaves who would leave American plantations and join his forces, a proclamation that led George Washington to condemn him as an “arch traitor to the rights of humanity.” Thousands of slaves did join the armies of King George III, and after being defeated the British largely kept their promise, resettling blacks as free citizens, first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.
Deception, disease, prejudice, and slave catchers notwithstanding, blacks fared better under King George than they would have under President George. By 1806, for instance, the few freedmen in Virginia had lost their schools and the right to own firearms and were ordered to leave the state within a year of their emancipation. Meanwhile William and Anna Cheese, who’d been the property of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence and patriarch of two American presidents, were living on their own land in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1792 Anna was among the first women in the world to cast a vote for a public official. Schama, author of the incomparable Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, has once again turned scholarship into a cliffhanger packed with pity and terror. I had to put it down more than once. Who will dare to make the movie? | Harold Henderson
PLAYING PRESIDENT: MY CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH NIXON, CARTER, REAGAN, BUSH I, AND CLINTON–AND HOW THEY DID NOT PREPARE ME FOR GEORGE W. BUSH | Robert Scheer | Akashic | Veteran journalist Robert Scheer’s subtitle doesn’t begin to suggest the wealth of history captured in this retrospective collection of interviews and other writings. The strongest of the lot is his 1976 Playboy interview with then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. It launched Scheer into the mainstream of American journalism and is included here in its entirety with new commentary. But it’s the final section, a smattering of columns written during Scheer’s tenure on the Los Angeles Times editorial page before he was controversially jettisoned last year, that really packs a punch.
The portrait the columns create of George W. Bush–“the first truly electronically projected President”–stands in sharp relief against those of the other presidents Scheer’s come to know in his long career. Through the administration’s pre-9/11 coddling of the Taliban to its deception over the invasion of Iraq, Scheer refused to toe the White House line. While he acknowledges that none of Bush II’s predecessors were perfect either, the complexity of their thoughts and ideas as he’s captured them here should be enough, for those of you on the fence, to convince you of the crisis at the heart of the American presidency. Scheer’s not done yet–lately he’s launched the independent political Web zine Truthdig.com–but this is a fine testament to his career. | Todd Dills
RUMSPRINGA: TO BE OR NOT TO BE AMISH | Tom Shachtman | North Point | Rumspringa (“running around”) is that formal period in Amish life when teenagers are allowed to taste forbidden fruit–alcohol, drugs, sex, telephones–after which they can choose to rejoin the fold or leave the community. Tom Shachtman draws from hundreds of hours of interviews conducted as research for Lucy Walker’s 2002 documentary Devil’s Playground to provide a portrait of a culture famously removed from contemporary American life. (Shachtman conducted his own follow-up interviews between 2002 and ’04.)
Apart from its voyeuristic qualities (what will the kids get up to?), the book has a decidedly sociological feel, following teens as they struggle between the pull of home and family and the desire to test their boundaries. Emma, a would-be model living far from home, wonders whether God is “happy” with her, “because I am not doing everything with Him like I should.” Shy Joann is both intrigued and scared by what might happen to her, but eventually, says Shachtman, “she could hardly wait for weekends to go out and be ‘bad.'” The kids who do leave tend to be the intellectually and artistically inclined, the disgruntled, the angry, and those who yearn for a more materialistic lifestyle. More intriguing is the discovery that 80 percent do return to the flock, embracing the Amish way of JOY (“Jesus first, yourself last, others in between”) as the proper way to live. | Jerome Ludwig
THE POEM THAT CHANGED AMERICA: “HOWL” FIFTY YEARS LATER | Jason Shinder, ed. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | In America 2006 the idea that someone could thump the world on the skull with a poem and the world would care–that poetry and the world would both be turned upside down–is somewhere between romantic and ridiculous. But here we are, 50 years after Allen Ginsberg dropped his landmark work, “Howl,” and it continues to resonate with readers on multiple continents.
For this appreciation Shinder, Ginsberg’s longtime assistant, has pulled together a glowing, thorough, invigorating collection of essays on the poem that became the manifesto for a generation. Contributors range from academic experts (Marjorie Perloff and Eileen Myles) whose love bleeds all over their analysis to Amiri Baraka, who delivers an I-was-there account of the scene, to Rick Moody, Andrei Codrescu, and Luc Sante, all talking about how the poem exploded within them. It’s a revivifying, hungry book that isn’t just about Ginsberg, his angelheaded hipsters, and Moloch, but about art and big dreams and the revolutionary possibilities they contain. | Jessica Hopper
MONSTER ISLAND | David Wellington | Thunder’s Mouth Press | In his first novel, originally an online serial, David Wellington takes us a couple of months into the end of the world. Europe and North America are assumed lost to zombies, and Dekalb, a former United Nations weapons inspector squatting in a refugee compound in Somalia, sizes up the geopolitical situation: “It was only the pisspots of the world that made it. . . . The unstable countries, the feudal states, the anarchic backwaters.”
A male interloper in local warlord Mama Halima’s Free Women’s Republic of Somaliland, Dekalb earns his keep scrounging up AIDS drugs. He sails to Manhattan with a platoon of the republic’s Glorious Girl Army–complete with plaid schoolgirl skirts and Kalashnikovs–to plunder stockpiles he knows are inside UN headquarters. There he and the girls encounter an island full of blundering zombies and Gary, a former medical student who figured out how to keep his brain from atrophying after death. That’s right–Gary’s a smart zombie, taught to control the lumbering masses by a druid mummy. Now our heroes aren’t just outnumbered–they’re outmaneuvered as well.
The slam-bang plot keeps tightening without meaning very much, but it makes for a fun if grim consideration of the central conflict of the post-9/11 world: the teeming mindless hordes of Manhattan with an imperative to feed versus ferocious young soldiers willing to die for a cause. To be continued in Monster Nation and Monster Planet! | Patrick Daily