Snoopy and Hungry Coyote Meet for Cocktails 

Book briefs for the month of November.

The Complete Peanuts: 1957-58
By Charles M. Schulz
Fantagraphics, $28.95

Seattle's edgy Fantagraphics has taken on perhaps the least wishy-washy project in the history of comics publishing: The anthologizing of every last "Peanuts" comic from 1950 to 2000 in 25 editions over twelve and a half years. Good grief indeed! Why, then, invest good money in an edition spanning such a tiny phase: the dawn of 1957 to the twilight of 1958? Because, in the era of finned automobiles, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Sputnik, "Peanuts" made the leap. This two-year stretch documents Charlie Brown and Co. transforming into what they would become; it was at this point that "Peanuts" ceased to be the comic on the funny page between "Prince Valiant" and "Blondie" and started to become a cultural and economic force. By this time, Charlie has started losing at everything (and losing kites in trees), Linus has started philosophizing, Lucy has started fussing, and Schulz' art has evolved from his primordial early-'50s sketches. But the real development was Snoopy's metamorphosis from comic beagle to four-legged Walter Mitty. It is within this stretch that Snoopy moves from inside to atop his doghouse. There, he playacted as a vulture, a polar bear, a dancer. The rest is history. -- Joe Eskenazi

The Bar: A Spirited Guide to Cocktail Alchemy
By Olivier Said and James Mellgren
Ten Speed, $16.95

At last count, most folks seem satisfied sipping a cold pint or some palatably discounted wine at day's end. For others, though, gin "is as essential to modern life as cell phones and iPods," write the authors of this self-described "spirited guide to cocktail alchemy." Yes, welcome to postmillennial North Berkeley, where "Paris" and "California" now qualify merely as states of mind, "rather than a definitive, concrete thing." Just ask the authors, whose gourmet credentials include both managing and hanging out at a certain upscale Shattuck Avenue tapas bar. True to Berkeleyan form, their glossy mixology guide flaunts a dazzling visual display, hints at deep intellectual enrichment, and delivers a superficial education on the merits of alcohol -- without ever once letting slip from between Armagnac-scented lips that revolting plebeian blasphemy: "booze." But the book is sharp; designer James Wilson has perfectly translated the dignified tippler's aesthetic into print. And the education isn't all bad. There's enough trivia regarding the various spirits to kickstart ten thousand uncomfortable cocktail-party conversations. With about three-quarters of the thing devoted to backstory, it's equal parts Chez Panisse Café Cookbook and Bartender's Bible, a crash course for the aspiring gourmand, and a slick Cliff's Notes for the barroom rookie. Just remember, kids: Don't drink too quickly; we wouldn't want you accidentally stumbling out of that clean, expensive bar into reality. -- Nicholas Raymond

The Cameraman
By Bill Gaston
Raincoast, $15.95

Released in the United States for the first time, this 1994 Canadian award-winner is a highly cinematic tale that explores deep themes: life as art and the morality of death as art. Seen through the eyes of cinematographer Francis Dann, the story opens with the arrest of Francis' best friend, an enigmatic director known as Koz, for perpetrating and filming the death of beautiful young actress Sheila Moore. Francis is also facing charges for being behind the camera while Koz injected Sheila with a lethal combination of curare, potassium, and amyl nitrate. Of course, Francis didn't know beforehand what he would be filming, though Gaston reveals through flashbacks that Koz has long held an interest in snuff films, and has always wanted to capture on film the moment of conscious death. Dodging the prosecution's demands for his side of the story, Francis sets out to discover Koz' true motive: Was it purely for art's sake, or was it personal, or both? Partly a mystery, partly a romance, partly a treatise on the use of film in revealing higher truths, this novel scores big on a thematic level but often struggles in its execution: The juxtaposition of scenic flashbacks, remembered dialogue, and real-time action gives readers a workout as they keep their fingers crossed, hoping all the threads will be resolved. -- Marina Javor

Ancient American Poets
Translated and compiled by John Curl
Bilingual Press, $16

It's weird using the word "ancient" in reference to a time less than six hundred years ago, but that's an apt way to describe pre-Columbian America as it seemed to the conquistadores -- and as it still seems to modern readers. Curl has opened up three windows on the biggest and best-known civilizations in what is now Latin America: Aztec, Maya, and Inca, circa 1440 -- just decades before the Spaniards arrived. The three poets whose work he examines here wrote about very different things, though all three paid homage to ritual and divinity. While the Aztec ruler Nezahualcoyotl (Hungry Coyote) dwelled obsessively on the brevity of human life in his "Flower Songs," the Maya nobleman Ah Bam portrayed the beauty of the everyday in his "Songs of Dzitbalche," in the book's most romantic (and modern-feeling) section. Meanwhile, farther south, the Inca emperor Pachacuti was using quipu (knotted string) to record sacred hymns for posterity. Curl opens each section with a fascinating description of literary tradition in the culture in question, then presents the poems in the original language and English -- with which, he explains, he's taken some liberties. Closing each section is a biography of the poet. Nonanthropologists might have trouble separating their huehueuh (drum) from their wakakuna (spirits), but some wonderful revelations await. -- Nora Sohnen

The Turning
By Tim Winton
Scribner, $25

Small towns have a way of producing chronic underachievers and pathological overachievers. Both types populate Australian award-winner Winton's new short-story collection with equally stunning force. Set on his home country's western coast, these stories portray the working class in all its folly, violence, and righteousness. In the title story, Raelene spends her days hanging out with a born-again Christian girlfriend and her nights getting beaten up and violated by her husband. She comes to accept Jesus Christ, not so much as her spiritual savior, but rather as a way to endure the rapes: "She was seized by the look of him, his hair flying in the wind, the robe pulled back from his chest. He was all man." In the collection's best story, "Boner McPharlin's Moll," Winton constructs sweeping biographies of an enigmatic derelict and the sweet, pert girl he falls for in high school. No story in the collection better illuminates how a small town works, how gossip distorts secrets, but how, despite all the meddling, the only matter to ever go unnoticed is the truth. Winton is a true master of the form. He has a deft understanding of how the "have nots" realize they've got shit. -- Scott Steinberg

I'll Go to Bed at Noon
By Gerard Woodward
W.W. Norton, $14.95

The Joneses -- the lubricious, Thatcher-era clan who animate Woodward's American debut -- don't just like to drink; it appears to be their reason for existing. Colette, the matriarch, kicks off each morning with a bottle of barley wine and a fistful of Valium. Her brother can often be found sipping one of his home brews, the likes of which wouldn't appear on even the most adventurous wine list: tomato sherry, for instance, and cucumber cordial. But this novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is more than a catalogue of drinking sprees. With its blitzed anger and barroom harangues, it shows how despair floats downstream in family life. The folks at the bottom of the falls are Colette's two sons, Julian and Janus. The former accompanies his mother to the pub, where he does his homework. The increasingly morose Janus neglects his own musical talents to do menial labor. Brother-in-law Bill is a Marxist butcher. While I'll Go to Bed at Noon has plenty to say about dysfunction and drunkenness, it expands to paint a wincing portrait of Britain during the '70s and '80s, a time of boredom and loneliness, when three-day workweeks were, for many working-class citizens, a grim reality. Woodward's take on this world is often so bleak that Americans might miss the humor, but it's there, and it lingers long after the novel's long rambling night ends. -- John Freeman

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