Archive for the ‘Jessica’s Picks’ Category

On February 3, 1979, the chickens of the world became human. Only months later did the United Nations officially recognize the change, and by then there was no denying it: chickens everywhere had instantaneously developed the same intelligence and capability of speech as homo sapiens.

This posed something of an ethical quandary for poultry farmers.

That was the most immediate concern, obviously, but other social dilemmas had surfaced in the intervening decades. Should chickens be integrated into the schools? Should chickens and people be allowed to marry? How do you stop workplace discrimination against chickens?

Jake Gallo struggles with the ugly side of chicken-racism every day. Bitter and angry, he has been the victim of vague institutional discrimination as well as brutal hate-crimes. Out of work and out of luck, he spends his time masturbating to human porn.

(If you have been waiting your whole life to read a chicken masturbation scene, THIS IS YOUR CHANCE.)

All of Jake’s problems fly out of his head when his father Elmer has a stroke. Jake rushes back to his childhood home, but he is too late: Elmer dies before Jake can say goodbye. But Elmer has bequeathed his journal to his son, and in its pages, Jake begins to see his father in a whole new way. Elmer had been hardly more than a chick when chickens became human. The chronicle of his liberation, education, and career reveals family secrets and forgotten history that will change Jake forever.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. Filipino graphic novelist Gerry Alanguilan has taken an absurd concept and turned it into something genuinely moving. The characters are memorable (and distinguishable from one another, despite being chickens) and there are a host of social questions to ponder— though your chicken sandwich might not seem appetizing when you’ve finished.

And I simply must acknowledge Alanguilan’s illustrations. The black-and-white art is outstanding. His chickens are realistic and individualistic without any cartoony silliness. The images are vital to the story, and so magnificently drawn that you’ll find yourself studying them in detail, unwilling to turn the page. The book is not appropriate for children (there are instances of human nudity and intense violence, and there’s lots and lots of swearing) but it is precisely the sort of unexpected and too-little-publicized book that ought to be in the hands of thoughtful adults.

Check the WRL catalog for Elmer


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This week we’ll be looking at five books about animals, but not in that warm-tingly Charlotte’s Web kind of way. These books aren’t supposed to make you sentimental. They’re supposed to make you hopping mad.

“Michael Vick loves animals. At least, that’s what he told me when we met at Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. And he said it with a straight face.”

Michael Vick made headlines when he was convicted of dogfighting. (Apparently he also made headlines as a football player, but whatever.) He is but one of the many people involved with animals, for good or ill, whom Wayne Pacelle has encountered during his seventeen years with the Humane Society of the United States. The current president and CEO of HSUS, Pacelle brings his unique experience in animal advocacy to this examination of human and animal interactions.

Though Pacelle writes with an easygoing tone, much of the book is disturbing. We as people do some horrible things to animals. We justify experiments on animals in the name of science, but we tend to forget the effect on chimps like Sterling, who has literally gone insane after twenty years of confinement: he has become a self-mutilator.

Or we abuse them before turning them into food. Just imagine if we kept human beings captive, fattening them into deformity, deliberately turning them obese (with no regard for the health problems of obesity), and forcing them to breed. We do this to animals by the millions. USDA oversight is a farce; between weak regulations and rampant cronyism, the agribusiness leaders act with all the integrity of nineteenth-century robber barons, or twenty-first century Wall Street leaders. With practically no oversight in place, processing plants are free to torture the animals, literally torture them. Did you know you can water-board cows?

It’s not just food animals who suffer. Only about twenty-five percent of pet dogs come from shelters. This is a shameful statistic, especially when you consider all the dogs who instead come from puppy mills, where the animals are kept in squalid conditions and the mothers are forced to bear litter after litter. Even if you buy your puppy from a reputable-looking store or website, she might have started out life at a mill. And—here’s the really sickening part—the American Kennel Club supports this. The AKC cares more about the cosmetic appearance of dogs than their health or well-being.

These are just a few of the very unpleasant topics in the book. Happily, some very pleasant topics show up, too. Pacelle writes about an array of people who go out of their way to help animals, from pet owners to conservationists to law enforcement officers. The chapter on animal rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, in particular, showcased people acting at their very best.

I can’t call this a heartwarming book. There are too many scenes of cruelty against animals to strike the same feel-good chords as Marley & Me or Dewey. But I hope the same people who loved those books will try this one, and other folks, too: if you’ve ever loved an animal (or eaten one!), this book has information you need to know.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bond


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Because of e-reading devices such as the Kindle and the Nook, electronic books are well on their way to commanding the lion’s share of the market. Though it were unthinkable a mere two years ago, most current industry forecasts suggest that the print book is really and truly dying.

Although public libraries will continue to house print books for some years into the future, it is becoming rapidly apparent that they must adapt or die. Here at Blogging for a Good Book, we have decided to transform our approach. Instead of offering reviews of print books, we will keep ourselves viable and relevant to the public by reviewing popular celebrities, politicians, and public figures.

How better to debut our new approach than with musician, actor, author, and gay-rights activist Justin Bieber? The teenaged heartthrob has been an international sensation for two years now, i.e., approximately twelve percent of his life. He did not actually identify himself as the Kurt Cobain of his generation, but he could have, at least in terms of popularity: he was on the cover of the Rolling Stone, he’s got his own action figure, and he’s got a waxwork likeness at Madame Tussauds, which fortunately bears the signature Lego-man hair that Justin himself used to wear.

Justin’s got a double-platinum album, My World 2.0, and even if you don’t trust the musical judgment of eleventy-billion slavering tween girls, you can heed the advice of the Washington Post: “Behind all the hullabaloo, there’s actually some great music.” He’s got a 236-page memoir, 100% Official Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever, My Story, which is kind of skimpy in terms of narrative, but that’s okay: it’s not like you need to read a whole book to discover the interesting things that come out of Justin’s mouth. His recent Rolling Stone interview managed to rankle feminists and Glenn Beck in one fell swoop. That’s quite the accomplishment.


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Is it possible to get hooked on a book from reading only one page? Because I think that’s exactly what happened. The initial panel in this graphic novel was just perfect, moody reds and blues and exquisitely rendered people and a one-sentence narrative box that tied it all together.

So I turned the page and was reminded of Fight Club, both the book and the film. And then I turned the page again and was reminded of American Psycho, both the book and the film, and anyway by that point I knew I’d found a winner.

Wesley Gibson is a harmless loser. His boss yells at him each day at his boring office job; his girlfriend is having an affair with his best friend; his idea of excitement is choosing the wasabi mayonnaise over the plain.

Then one day a woman introduces herself to Wesley while he’s standing in line at a deli. She pulls a gun from her jacket, shoots a bunch of innocent bystanders, and informs Wesley that he’s heir apparent to a vacancy in a sinister global cabal of supervillains. Oh, and he’s really rich now.

Back in the 1980s, all of the world’s supervillains had banded together to fight against the superheroes. They succeeded. Now Wesley, after a bit of intensive training to desensitize himself to violence, is poised to become the world’s most talented assassin. There are no more superheroes to kill off, but there are plenty of supervillains to keep in line, and there’s no shortage of ordinary human beings to attack.

To state the excessively obvious, this is a violent book. Sex and nudity are relatively modest, but the physical action is extremely violent (though not as violent as the general worldview). Ethics and morality don’t enter the picture, not even in an “honor among thieves” sort of way. There is not a single admirable character in the book. The depraved sensibilities of the supervillains serve to illustrate some very ugly truths about humanity, but still, most readers enjoy a bit of moral growth or social responsibility in their fiction. This isn’t a book for everyone, but for those willing to engage in a bleak and barren dystopia, the story is electrifying, with tumultuous action, witty dialogue, and great character anti-development.

Check the WRL catalog for Wanted


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Vicki Forman, having successfully delivered her daughter Josie after an uneventful pregnancy three years prior, thought her cramps were no big deal; the twins were only six months along. But within a matter of hours, she was delivering two very premature babies, weighing about a pound each.

“These babies were born at the worst possible moment—not before twenty-three weeks, when they certainly would have died, nor after twenty-five weeks, when their prognoses would have been so much better,” explains Forman. Envisioning a wretched quality of life for her new babies, she begs the doctors to let them die gracefully, but the laws in California trump her wishes. All of the most advanced medical technologies are used to keep Evan and Ellie alive.

Nothing can save Ellie, who dies four days later. Evan pulls through, but not without a litany of severe developmental problems—blindness, lung disease, heart disease, seizures, mental retardation, breathing problems, eating problems.

Forman’s honesty is astonishing. She does not paint herself as a saint, does not suggest that she accepts her role with grace and charm. She speaks candidly about her grief and her struggles as a mother of a special-needs child. She yells at doctors, she snaps at friends, she sinks into depression, she resents her son.

She also loves her son. Learning to love Evan unconditionally, learning to be his mother, does not happen overnight; that Forman has the courage to describe it as a process makes her story all the more powerful.  Rendered in straightforward, lovely prose, this is a searing story of one woman’s grief and growth as she raises a most unusual child.

Check the WRL catalog for This Lovely Life


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K. J. Parker is the grimmest contemporary novelist I know. To read K. J. Parker is to lose faith in the human race. The bleakest Greek tragedies are lighthearted romantic sitcoms compared to K. J. Parker. But at least you can depend on comic relief in the midst of all the despair, like so:

“Furio had no idea how to kill a man with his bare hands. It turned out to be one of those things you can pick up as you go along.”

Parker’s humor is always understated and wry, and it might not occur to you till a few chapters later that you have missed a subtle but elaborate joke, but once it finally dawns on you, you’ll realize you’ve been reading the words of a master humorist. It’s quite nice. The funny parts slightly offset the horrible psychic damage you get from the rest of the book. If horrible psychic damage is not your thing, I can offer you this small reassurance: The Hammer is K. J. Parker’s most optimistic book yet, i.e., not everyone is dead at the end.

Our hero is a young man named Gig, the youngest son of a noble family that, rather embarrassingly, is living in exile in a remote colony. By and large the family does a fine job of ignoring the rustic colonists in the neighboring town, but Gig has figured out how to sneak off his family’s estate and has made friends with the merchant’s son, Furio. Gig seeks outside friendship because his family is really truly awful. (Parker’s families, inevitably, are really truly awful, but each is really truly awful in its own way.) Most kids rebel by listening to obnoxious music or experimenting with drugs. Gig rebels by instigating a civil war.

As with every K. J. Parker novel, there is violence aplenty, and conflict between cultures, and morally suspect characters, and ethical and social dilemmas with no clear answers. And, as with every K. J. Parker novel, I was reminded anew that, in comparison, all the other books I read are rubbish.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hammer


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Climate change has already happened. It is not a threat to our future children and grandchildren. It is not a threat at all. It has happened, it is happening, and it will continue to happen. Environmentalist author Bill McKibben sums it up succinctly:

“No one is going to refreeze the Arctic for us, or restore the pH of the oceans, and given the momentum of global warming we’re likely to cross many more thresholds even if we all convert to solar power and bicycles this afternoon.”

McKibben defends this position over the first half of his book, resulting in one hundred of the most emotionally difficult pages I’ve ever read. McKibben’s heavily-footnoted facts are relentless, brutal, horrible. I literally felt sick, reading through the cacophony of abuses we have heaped on the planet. We’ve done so much irreversible damage that the old familiar Earth has mutated into a much less pleasant variation, Eaarth.

Then, just when you can’t bear to hear about even one more environmental atrocity, McKibben gets down to brass tacks: “What we need to talk about now is what it’s like to make massive change on the new Eaarth, where we’re suddenly running out of fossil fuel and dealing with a spooky, erratic climate.”

Got that? We’ve screwed up the planet and there’s no going back, but maybe we can adapt to this new way of life. Drawing on history, economics, social science, hard science, and political theory, McKibben discusses measures we can take to adjust to a radically new way of life. Learning to grow and purchase food locally is a key component, as is learning to generate and harvest electricity locally. In fact, lots of things will need to shift to a local focus. Forget globalization: economies, governments, and suppliers and producers will need to function on a small, local scale.

This extremely important book was published in April 2010, but I will be recommending it to people for years to come. Even after the science ages, the advice on how to live on a hotter planet will still be invaluable.

Check the WRL catalog for Eaarth


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Aging millionaire Campbell Bradford is dying. He has never discussed his childhood in southern Indiana, never offered any hints as to how he got started. He has certainly never explained the story behind his decades-old bottle of spring water, which always feels chill to the touch, no matter what.

It’s too late for Campbell to divulge his secrets, so his daughter-in-law does the next best thing. She hires Eric Shaw to create a documentary in the twin towns of West Baden and French Lick. Eric will dig into the local history, learning more about the magnificent West Baden Springs Hotel and the early-twentieth-century tourism activity that flourished around the area’s natural springs.

It’s fast cash for a has-been filmmaker, and besides, Eric is intrigued by the story. He’s eager to begin researching—but he’ll have no need of libraries or museums or newspaper clippings. The visions will give him all the material he needs.

They start as soon as he gets to town. One moment everything is normal, the next he’s been transported back to the time of gangsters and Prohibition and quality moonshine. A violin plays a haunting melody, and a man in a dapper suit invites him to board the train.

Where are the visions coming from? Could it have something to do with the water in the bottle? (Say—is that bottle of water getting colder?) And who was the man on the train?

Michael Koryta, already established as a crime novelist, here takes the plunge into supernatural horror. This is not exactly a ghost story, though there is a ghost, sort of, and something is being haunted, probably. There is a stately old hotel, a hero with personal demons, a bad guy with worse personal demons, and a creepy bottle of water that holds clues to the town’s distant past.

Check the WRL catalog for So Cold the River


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Last night I made a lamb biryani that was as good as anything I’ve ever tasted in an Indian restaurant.

Do you know how awesome that is?

And! Not only did I make the best lamb biryani ever, I made it yesterday to serve to a guest without testing it beforehand. I was completely confident that it would turn out well, because the cookbook I’ve been using has worked like magic every time I’ve consulted it—which is to say, just about daily since Christmas, when Santa left it under the tree.

Anupy Singla has compiled fifty slow-cooker recipes for Indian food. Each recipe has directions for cooking in a three-and-half quart and a five-quart cooker. (I’ve been using my four- and six-quart cookers and everything’s been fine.) A few of the recipes call for the cook to do a bit of work on the stovetop first. (I haven’t tried those yet. When I get in front of a stove, the end result usually involves something charred and inedible, and also emergency rescue personnel.) Mostly, however, the recipes are super easy: you take the ingredients, dump them in the slow cooker, and mosey on back a few hours later to discover that dinner has cooked itself when you weren’t looking.

Many of the dishes will be familiar from menus at Indian restaurants. I’ve had luck with the chicken tikka masala, and I’ve made the palak paneer several times (that’s the spinach dish with the little cheese cubes) and I had to force myself to stop making the rice pudding quite so often. And then there are the lentils! There is a whole chapter for making lentil dishes and lentil soups.

For the most part, the spices are easy to come by: cumin, turmeric, garlic, ginger, peppers, and cilantro are the commonest ingredients in the book. Noticeably absent from the ingredients lists are fats and oils. Singla calls for them when necessary, but by and large the flavors in the dishes come from healthy spices and vegetables and legumes. The book is illustrated with lovely color photos and, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll never need to eat in an Indian restaurant again.

Check the WRL catalog for The Indian Slow Cooker


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Two little girls are missing.

Petra’s parents make the discovery first: their seven-year-old daughter is not in her bed one morning. They beeline over to their neighbor’s house to see if Petra is with her best friend, Callie—but Callie is nowhere to be found.

We as readers know where Callie has gone. Her abusive lout of a father, with the logic of a very drunk man in the very early morning, has decided to take Callie out for a punishing stroll through the woods. Her crime? Callie won’t speak. For three years she has been mute.

But Callie’s frantic mother doesn’t know where her daughter is, nor does her older brother. And nobody at all knows where Petra might be—though we can’t help but think back to the young girl who was murdered last year, not too far from these parts.

Gudenkauf’s debut sizzles with suspense. The plotting moves at just the right pace, with little pieces of the story falling into place in carefully controlled doses. Making the story particularly intense is the use of the present tense. Usually this approach comes off as gimmicky, but in this novel it works. Each chapter is told in the present from the point of view of a different character (Callie’s mother Toni, Callie’s brother Ben, Petra’s father Martin, policeman Louis, even Petra herself). Callie also gets her own chapters, though hers alone are told in the past tense. Add in some dark family secrets and some tragic cases of misunderstandings and missed connections, and you’ve got a gripping story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Weight of Silence


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Some bad news:

In a study conducted by Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, participants looked at photographs of African-American men convicted of murder; some of the men had received death sentences and others had not, but the participants weren’t told who was who. The participants were asked to rate how “stereotypically black” the faces in the photos were. Eberhardt found that the men who looked more stereotypically black were more than twice as likely to have received the death sentence (Susan T. Fiske, “Are We Born Racist?,”  p.10).

Some good news:

Psychologist Tiffany Ito of the University of Colorado, Boulder, ran a nifty study to test the impact of smiling. Participants were asked to look at photographs of unfamiliar Caucasian and African-American faces. As they viewed the photos, the participants clenched their teeth on a pencil, causing  a crude facsimile of a smile. You’d never mistake it for the real thing, but Ito found that faux smiling led to a significant reduction in the participants’ racial biases in subsequent testing (Kareem Johnson, “Prejudice versus Positive Thinking,” p. 20).

These are but two of the many, many studies discussed in Are We Born Racist?, an anthology of short essays by a variety of contributors, mostly psychologists and neuroscientists, who through good editing and good common sense have made their writing accessible for a lay audience. The focus is on race, especially concerning black and white interactions in America, and every essay is good. Really. Usually in anthologies there are some duds, but in this case I walked away from each entry feeling like I learned something.

So: are we born racist? Kind of. By five months of age infants exhibit a preference for faces with similar colors to their own, and there are some hard-wired instructions in our brains to fear people who look different from ourselves. Overcoming that hard-wired response can be incredibly difficult, in some circumstances, but in other cases it is surprisingly easy. You don’t need diversity training from Human Resources to improve your tolerance for other races. (If you think you’re already tolerant, you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself in this book.) This is a fascinating collection of essays, and at 160 pages, it’s a nice fast read.

Check the WRL catalog for Are We Born Racist?


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Zombies are hot now.


It’s funny. It’s absurd. Zombies have no right to be popular. They’re disgusting. They have rotting flesh. They smell bad. They eat people.

I personally am glad to be alive in a milieu in which disgusting rotting smelly carnivores are a hot item. I am not alone in wanting an antidote to the sighing lovestruck vampire boys who have infiltrated the horror genres in film and books.

Swedish writer Ajvide Lindqvist has contributed an excellent specimen to the zombie sphere. As is only proper, his zombies are disgusting and rotting and smelly, though they do depart in one noticeable way: they don’t eat anyone. They’re actually sort of harmless. Mostly.

The zombies of Stockholm are few in number. One evening, no one really knows why, all the of the recently deceased in the area became reanimated. They have no particular agenda. A few of them can speak, sort of, and some of the fresher corpses seem to enjoy playing with mechanical toys and metronomes, but they aren’t threatening anybody.

The horror of the novel, then, comes not from the “reliving” (as the panicky Swedish government has decided to call them) but from their families. How should David react to his restored wife, and how shall he inform their son? Will the return of six-year-old Eli restore his mother’s spirits or send her into a deeper depression? Does Elvy really want her husband back?

There’s not much in the way of gore or terror here. Instead this is a story that considers the psychological strain of dealing with death and the unknown, with a nice dose of sociological observation thrown in for good measure; the subplot concerning the religious reactions to the risen dead is particularly keen. Like any good novel, the book invites the reader to consider personal and social issues, but there are plenty of zombies doing zombie things to make the ride fun.

Check the WRL catalog for Handling the Undead


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7:54 a.m., September 27th, 1974. Classes are about to start at the Ben Turpin School (grades K-8), and Mr. Elber is finishing up a disappointing extra-credit bio lab, in which he and two students failed to reanimate a deceased fetal pig. Not only did the experiment flop, but now there’s a weird purple smoke wafting up from all the chemicals. It smells really bad, and soon it has drifted outside the classroom and into the rest of the school. Before long, all the adults and most of the children are feeling unwell: symptoms include upset tummies, blanched complexions, drooling, and a ravenous urge to eat other people.

On the bright side, this zombie contagion only affects people who’ve hit puberty. The fourth-grade heroes of the story are hormonally immune to zombiefication. On the other hand, they’ve still got to defend themselves against being eaten alive—and the doors to the school are locked! Who will save them?

Fourth-grader Bob Fingerman, that’s who! Coincidentally sharing a name with the author, young Bob leads his classmates in a desperate plan to break free. Armed with épées, hockey sticks, and baseball bats from the gym, the children wage battle against their undead elders, with only their wits and their crude weapons to preserve them. (And a deus ex machina. The armored truck filled with weapons helps the situation considerably when it crashes through the wall.)

This is campy, silly, gory fun. The pictures are gross, not horrific, with over-the-top violence depicted in ookey splendor on the pages of the graphic novel, again and again and again to the point of absurdity (“Odd how something so terrifying can become redundant so soon,” quips one of the sidekicks). The one-liners are abundant and the humor is sophomoric. Because of the excessive violence, we’ve got this shelved in the adult section of the graphic novels, and my official party line is that this book is appropriate for mature readers, though privately I think it’s perfect for thirteen-year-old boys, or for any adult who never bothered to grow up.

Check the WRL catalog for Recess Pieces


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Here is today’s lesson. Listen carefully. If you take a really complicated and difficult topic, but then illustrate it with lots of engaging pictures and describe it with lucid language and familiar examples, it is still going to be really complicated and difficult.

I’m sorry about that. There is no such thing as a book that makes it easy to understand genetics. Genetics is hard.

Understanding genetics would be much harder without the pictures and examples and clear language, however. Where was this book when I was taking biology in college?

The first two-thirds of the book, I can admit without shame, were exceedingly complex. The focus here was on the nitty-gritty fundamentals of genetics: molecules and DNA and chromosomes and genes and inheritance and cell division. The particulars were too dense for me to grasp (or perhaps I was too dense to grasp the particulars), though the overall gist worked its way into my skull, mostly.

The latter part of the book allowed me to retain my dignity by being easier to comprehend. The section on where genetics is heading was fascinating. The Human Genome Project has already allowed doctors to begin testing women for the BRCA 1 gene, mutations of which can cause cancer, and additional medical treatments and therapies are on the horizon. More disturbingly, designer babies are also on the horizon, though I was surprised to learn that artificial mammalian cloning is falling by the wayside. (It usually doesn’t work, and it is very expensive.)

Coolest of all, however, is not where we’re going but where we’ve been. Thanks to genetics, we are learning more and more about the development of homo sapiens. Using such genetic clues as mitochondrial DNA, geneticists are pinpointing when human beings killed off (or interbred with?) Neanderthals and when they migrated out of Africa. And evolutionary anthropologist Mark Stoneking applied genetics research to the head louse and the body louse to determine when humans started to wear tailored clothing.

This nonfiction graphic novel is sufficiently advanced as to be suitable for high school and college students taking general biology or genetics classes. It is also sufficiently advanced to make the general lay reader feel a bit dim—but even when the concepts are complicated, the book is a fun read. Hard science is rarely so enjoyable.

Check the WRL catalog for The Stuff of Life


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It sounds dreadful: a group of talking dogs goes around the neighborhood solving mysteries. It sounds like one of those wholesome cozy novels where the cat helps his human solve the crime, or like Scooby-Doo without the kitsch appeal. It’s amazing, really, that Evan Dorkin could take such a cutesy premise and turn it into something powerful and dark and wonderful.

Life is perfectly normal for the canines of Burden Hill, until a beagle named Jack begins to suspect that his doghouse is haunted. Concerned for their friend, Pugsley the Pug, Rex the Doberman Pinscher, and Whitey the Terrier seek help from the Wise Dog, an English Sheepdog accustomed to dealing with the paranormal. You’d expect this to devolve into a hokey little fluff piece, but listen: precisely five pages later I had tears in my eyes, and then it happened again two chapters after that. And then a bit after that I had to put the book down to have a good sniffle. And then again, and again.

The emotional depth is truly astonishing. Over the course of several discrete but sequential stories, you come to care for the seven main characters—six dogs and one cat—and the secondary characters they meet. Some of the stories are campy (cannibal frogs! zombie dogs! humongous killer rats!), but the comedic relief never undermines the pathos of the narrative.

Jill Thompson’s artwork beautifully illustrates Dorkin’s text. She draws her animals realistically without resorting to cartoony gags and paints them with lush watercolors. I’m thinking of one panel in particular that made my jaw drop, in which a Weimaraner tilts her head and looks at us with soulful eyes, the light and shadows dancing on her face. The image itself is haunting, as is her speech bubble: “My children are missing.”

This not a book for children. The language is (mostly) mild, but the physical violence can get gory and the emotional violence is intense. Adults and mature young adults, however, should check this out from the library, or even buy it from a comic book store; if the publisher, Dark Horse, sees enough profit from Beasts of Burden, then Dorkin and Thompson will be obligated to continue writing stories with my new favorite paranormal investigators.

Check the WRL catalog for Beasts of Burden


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Pictures. That’s what’s missing from the United States Constitution. The framers did a really good job with the words, but some illustrations here or there would have been a big help in the trickier parts.

But I forgive them. The men attending that Constitutional Convention of 1787 were under a lot of stress. They were trying to come up with something better than the Articles of Confederation, but the small states were squawking about their particular needs, and the big states were squawking about their particular needs, and even if the framers achieved a fair compromise, there was no telling if the American voters would go for it.

Jonathan Hennessey covers this history in his nonfiction graphic novel, but not for too long. The real focus is on the document itself, from the preamble and the articles through the Bill of Rights and the subsequent amendments. And thanks to illustrator Aaron McConnell, this text has what the United States Constitution does not: lots and lots of pictures.

One other noteworthy feature distinguishes this book from the many, many, many books about the Constitution: aside from the illustrations and the speech bubbles (or actually, because of them) this book is unusually accessible and enjoyable. Critical analyses and interpretations of the Constitution can be excruciating; in this case it’s kind of fun. Plentiful examples from history, current events, and Supreme Court decisions give context to the document, and the pictures make things understandable in a way that my high school history textbook never seemed to do.

Rabid American History buffs might find the discussion to be too elementary, and I assume that practicing lawyers will know this stuff inside and out. Otherwise, I heartily recommend this for students (middle school, high school, or college) and for adults who want a refresher on American civics and political science.

Check the WRL catalog for The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation


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Once upon a time there was a marzipan castle where a young princess lived all alone. She had to cook for herself and keep the castle tidy, but when the chores were done, she would go adventuring, her teddy bear Mr. Whiffle at her side. They went hunting for treasure, and they staged mock battles against their pretend enemies, and they comforted one another when the Thing Beneath the Bed scared them.

At this point in our discussion I should emphasize that this is not a children’s book. It bears repeating, with italics: this is not a children’s book.

It is a picture book. The hero is an adorable little orphan girl. She plays with stuffed animals. The story is winsome and whimsical and precious, right up till the point where it becomes the most seriously twisted bit of illustrated storytelling since Edward Gorey put ink to paper.

Apparently Patrick Rothfuss, when not busy writing critically-acclaimed debut fantasy novels, spends his time thinking of ways to be cunning and wicked. Rarely have I encountered a story so morally corrupt. (I have already forked over the $25 for a personal copy.)

Rothfuss is aided and abetted in his deviltry by Nate Taylor, whose black-and-white illustrations are just marvelous. I cannot say enough good things about them. I found myself lingering over the pages, enchanted and delighted by the subtle little details and jokes hidden in the pictures.

This is a very quick read, even counting for the time you’ll spend looking at the artwork. Though it does not have sequential panels, we’ve decided to catalog this as a graphic novel, because we can’t very well put a story this disturbing in the children’s picture book section.

Check the WRL catalog for The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, if you dare.


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Who’s killing off the members of the Usher family?

Or a better question: who wouldn’t kill off the members of the Usher family, given half a chance? They’re a noxious bunch. Martha is not too horrible, but only because age has mellowed her unpleasant qualities. Her daughter Biddy ignores the family, preferring instead to indulge in an extramarital affair. Biddy’s husband Ted, though smart with his financial investments, is hapless as a parent and spouse. Son William can’t be bothered to stay in college, and daughter Amy cares only about herself. The only decent one is Sam, who was adopted, as everyone else resentfully points out at every opportunity.

We first meet this dysfunctional group as they bicker and squawk over Christmas dinner, though they find it difficult to concentrate on their arguments, as the downstairs neighbors are screaming at each other. Only Sam (remember, he’s the good one) sees fit to intervene, but he’s too late: the woman downstairs has killed her abusive husband, then killed herself.

Maybe there’s something in the air, because the Usher family is next. The first victim is Martha. The fall doesn’t kill her—was it an accident?—but it leaves her in a wheelchair, unable to fend for herself. (Sam, unsurprisingly, is the only one willing to care for her.) The next victim does not fare so well, nor the next, nor the next. One by one, the Ushers are dying. Is the house haunted, as Sam suspects? Is a stranger killing off the family? Or is it an inside job?

This is a delightfully nasty little graphic novel. There is physical violence, but more to the point, there is psychological violence: the Ushers are horrible to each other, and it satisfies the baser emotions to see them get knocked off.  Artist Antonio Fuso intensifies the frenetic energy of the story with atmospheric black-and-white drawings, depicting graphic violence alongside more subtle whispers of unease and discord. And at the very end, the drawings and the story deliver a wicked plot twist that I, for one, never saw coming.

Check the WRL catalog for A Sickness in the Family


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