What We're Reading: Post-Holiday Edition

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Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware
I’m rereading one of my all-time favorite books for next month’s installment of Country Life's Art Book Club (stay tuned for more details!). The story, in a nutshell: Jimmy Corrigan is a little boy with an overbearing mom who grew up to be a sad middle-age man. The tragicomic reunion with the deadbeat dad he never knew is interspersed with flashbacks to the sad childhoods of the men in his family, particularly the great-grandfather who was a kid during the Chicago World’s Fair in the1890s. But let’s not kid ourselves — the story is completely secondary to the graphics here, which have, in my opinion, changed the way people think about not just graphic novels but book design in general. Think super-organized infographics filled to the gills with small, quiet details like a drop of water developing, swelling, then falling with a "plink" on the windowsill below. Loneliness never looked so beautiful. —Laura Hutson, Arts Editor

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The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey
When I’m interested in something, I go all out. I’ll download a band’s full catalog and listen nonstop for weeks, tape work by a particular artist all over my office walls, and Wikipedia the hell out of every obscure detail I can find in a person’s biography. Luckily, Spalding Gray has left me plenty of personal archives to work with. His entire career is built around self-inquiry, so his journals are more of an extension of his work than any deep insidery secrets. So far, I can’t say whether I’d recommend reading this instead of, say, watching Gray’s Anatomy or Swimming to Cambodia. But it’s the minutia that makes these journals worthwhile — misspellings that seem more like puns or Freudian slips than signs of dyslexia, and perfectly rhythmic, morose sentences. —LH

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Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane
Terrific high-octane Prohibition-era pulp aria filled with the kind of snappy dialogue Hollywood doesn't use anymore; starts with an irresistible cliffhanger in the very first sentence — the hero on a boat in cement shoes! — then goes wheeling with guns blazing in flashback from low-life Boston to mob-run Tampa. —Jim Ridley, Editor

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The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
Original, hugely accomplished first novel set in a plague-ravaged world populated by the pilot hero, his trusty mutt and a cranky survivalist; balances zombie-apocalypse adventure with a rueful meditation on loneliness, the ache of memory and the stubbornness of the survival instinct; unique authorial voice suggests a less macho Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway writing by email/ham-radio dispatch — if a writing style can be staccato yet lyrical, with grammatical shrapnel bursts offset by haunting descriptions of imperiled nature, this is it. —JR

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Society's Child, by Janis Ian
Unusually frank, funny and forthright autobiography by an underrated singer-songwriter with a string of atrocious exes (including her therapist!); dishy accounts of the clubby 1960s folk scene, label politics and the perils of befriending Nina Simone, along with great affectionate sketches of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Giorgio Moroder and Bruce Springsteen; maybe the only writer who said she didn't mind losing a Grammy that I actually believed. —JR

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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
Beautifully unadorned first novel that treats its metaphor (adolescence as the advent of apocalyptic change) with steadfast matter-of-factness, as tween heroine details typical suburban woes while the earth literally slows and time distends; love the poignantly amusing idea that worry to a middle-schooler isn't imminent destruction but whether the boy on the school bus understood what you really meant. —JR

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Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
READ THIS BOOK! The most delightful novel I read all year, in which a fleabag Italian hotelier in the early 1960s befriends an American actress who turns out to be ... sorry, the plotting's too intricate and ingenious to spoil; the rare Hollywood satire that's hilarious without being too hyperbolic, mean or aggressively hip; laugh out loud funny until the very last line, at which point I wasn't aware how great a hold the characters had on me, or why I had tears streaming down my face. —JR

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Mostly True: The West's Most Popular Hobo Graffiti Magazine, by Bill Daniel
A super-zine of sorts that explores the long tradition of railroad graffiti art including its contemporary iterations. The book also includes drink recipes, reports on killer hobo gangs, profiles of train artists past and present and tons of cool black-and-white pics capturing life on the rails and all the art that's fit for a boxcar. —Joe Nolan, freelancer

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Evergreen Review Reader, edited by Barney Rosset
A legendary literary arts magazine, Evergreen Review ran until 1972 and this book collects the best of the magazine's first decade through 1966. Highlights include: Henry Miller writing on censorship; comedy genius and SNL pioneer Michael O'Donoghue's smutty, nutty comic strip "The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-geist"; and Jack Kerouac's "October in the Railroad Earth" — originally published before On the Road hit the shelves. —JN

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That is All (audiobook), by John Hodgman
I read the paper version of That Is All more than a year ago, devouring it in a matter of days while hunched over the bar on two-for-one nights at 3 Crow, and absolutely loved it. Which should come as a shock to no one, seeing as how I drove five hours to Asheville for the sole purpose of seeing its author, John Hodgman, speak and have my book signed. That Is All is the third and final installment of Hodgman's “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, a series of fake trivia books that give you made-up factoids about hobos and how to cook an owl. That Is All, appropriately, is about the end of the world — complete with a page-a-day calendar outlining the terrors we'll face and a list of 700 ancient and unspeakable gods. But it isn't exactly about the end of the world — it's all a metaphor for getting old and realizing that you're closer to the end of your life than the beginning. I didn't quite get that the first time around, but the last story — a fictionalized account of Hodgman's last days as a literary agent — and the conclusion spell it out simply, which made revisiting it as an audiobook an awesome joy. Also: it's funny. So, there's also that. I could not recommend this book (either in paper or audio form) highly enough. —LC

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Time Bomb Snooze Alarm, Bucky Sinister
At less than 100 pages of content, it would be easy to accuse Bucky Sinister's second book of poetry of being a terribly short read. But, on the other hand, that also means it is a lean collection that isn't weighed down by unnecessary work that doesn't support the overall narrative. Starting in the waning days of Sinister's blackout-drunk period, Time Bomb Snooze Alarm communicates a kind of existential despair that can only come from watching your punk rock friends die young. It's almost uncomfortably real, which is about the best compliment you can give to a book of poems. The fact that Sinister avoided the tempting trap of being an overwrought Bukowski clone deserves applause just in itself. —Lance Conzett, freelancer

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The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders
Never before has a book title been so perfectly catered to hit all of my literary sweet spots. Victorians! Murder! Detectives! Oh, it's wonderful, and full of footnotes. I'm still early on in my reading, so I won't get to the super-famous Jack the Ripper for quite a few chapters; right now I'm on a section about Burke and Hare who, if you're not familiar, were a pair of murderers in Edinburgh who sold their victims' corpses to medical schools for dissection. It's all so lurid and terrible, I love it. —Ashley Spurgeon, freelancer

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Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound that Changed America, by Louis Cantor
Even though WDIA was white-owned, the struggling station began adding black DJs and announcers in 1948 and within a few years earned its nickname as “Mother Station of the Negroes” through popular on-air personalities like Nat D. Williams, Rufus Thomas and a young blues singer known as B.B. King. Although Cantor is no professional writer, but he tells an engaging story of how music, racial politics and above all, the pursuit of dollars led to sweeping changes in American culture. —Randy Fox, freelancer

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Swords from the Sea, by Harold Lamb
During the first and second decades of the past century, Harold Lamb was one of the top historical adventure writers in the U.S. His carefully researched tales of adventure combined history, humor, realistic violence and occasionally even a hint of fantasy. Forgotten for many years, Lamb’s work has recently been re-discovered by such luminaries as Michael Chabon, whose novel Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure is a direct tribute. This collection focuses on Lamb’s tales of sea-going adventures with Vikings, pirates and even the Revolutionary war naval hero John Paul Jones in service to the Russian navy. It’s entertaining and intelligent reading that makes you want to crack open the history books and dig out the Errol Flynn movies. —RF

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