Express Reviews 

American Pekar and Noah's Arctic

The Story of My Baldness
By Marek van der Jagt
Other Press, $22

Marek van der Jagt, the author of this darkly comic novel, is not bald. For that matter, he isn't Marek van der Jagt, either. The burdensome moniker is the pseudonym of Dutch author Arnon Grunberg, who, far from being hairless, is a disturbingly dead ringer for Andy Dick. In this quirky excursion, van der Jagt is a troubled young man, the scion of the most deranged family in all of Vienna. The narrator, whatever his name is, enters into a Freudian minefield in this narration of the tortured adolescent misadventures of a fellow with a wicked Electra complex, enough angst for three English shoe-gazing bands, and a penis resembling a baby carrot. The author's undeniable charm and unusual characters break the ice, but the novel devolves into a series of melodramatic train wrecks revolving around Marek's inability to find (and satisfy) his "crazy love," and thus the tale grows wearisome. As does reading and reading and reading about a dwarf penis. -- Joe Eskenazi

In Fond Remembrance of Me
By Howard Norman
North Point, $21

The sentiment running throughout this memoir is best expressed by a line of Japanese poetry: "What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?" Norman doesn't answer the question so much as inhabit it, recounting a brief friendship with Helen Tanizaki, a Japanese translator he met some thirty years ago while studying folktales in Northern Canada. Norman went to Manitoba to transcribe a native storyteller's multiple versions of the Noah's Ark story. Upon arrival, however, Norman found Helen doing the same work, and with far greater skill. Their platonic friendship, based on a mutual love of language and the Arctic, is colored by the fact that Helen is quickly, if matter-of-factly, dying of cancer. She uses a field guide to ponder which bird she might like to be reincarnated as. The story of friendship is interspersed with tales of Noah -- petulant, slightly deranged, and mystifyingly (to the Inuit) unwilling to eat his animals during a deep freeze. The myths of Noah and the poignant remembrances of Helen blend together quietly but to great effect, creating hot little stones of feeling inside an enveloping bleakness. -- Zac Unger

Lessons in Taxidermy
By Bee Lavender
Punk Planet/Akashic, $12.95

This short memoir is inspiring just by virtue of having been written. Readers will find themselves flipping repeatedly to the author photo to stare unbelievingly into Lavender's steady gaze, her flamboyant vintage cat-eye glasses as defiant as her tone. Born into a poor, violent neighborhood in a woodsy peninsula on Puget Sound, Lavender was diagnosed with aggressive thyroid cancer at the age of twelve. She survived, but that was only the beginning; a genetic disorder that no one else in her family seemed to share precipitated a lifetime of dire maladies. Car accidents, lupus, two risky pregnancies, and more add up to some head-shaking reading, and the story is told in a time-jumping style that, when coupled with the endless litany of hospital visits and calamitous diagnoses, can be a little overwhelming. But Lavender's manner is sure, her recollection so unwavering it's nearly cold -- a symptom, surely, of the mind-body disconnection skills she describes having had to develop during her precarious childhood. But when she writes with warmth of her mother, her teenage friends, and the courage she finds in her oh-so-cautiously built adulthood, the contrast is enough to trigger hard-earned tears. -- Stefanie Kalem

By Jeanette Winterson
Harcourt, $23

Winterson bookends her luminous ninth novel with an inspirational message: "We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes." A lyrical meditation on love and the power of storytelling to shape lives, Lighthousekeeping is about looking back and forward in an attempt to reconcile one's place in time. Thus, Winterson weaves the parallel narratives of Silver, a modern-day Dickensian orphan reared by an old blind lighthousekeeper who sees more clearly than most, and Babel Dark, a 19th-century cleric plagued by the Jekyll-and-Hyde duplicity of his life. Each character suffers from a conflicted sense of self: Silver is "part miracle, part madness"; Dark is a respected preacher who beats his wife and keeps another family in a different town. Self-knowledge, Winterson suggests, is the key to the kingdom -- love -- and there's a fail-safe way toward overcoming the harshest of tragedies: "If you tell yourself like a story," one character advises, "it doesn't seem so bad." -- Sam Prestianni

Our Movie Year
By Harvey Pekar
Ballantine, $16.95

Since the late '70s, Pekar has been one of the great comic-book writers, telling his stories of everyman heroism and struggle with an almost cinema-vérité flair that makes the mundane compelling. Based on his life, the film American Splendor made him into a media star, and Our Movie Year is a graphic novel of sorts -- illustrated by numerous artists including Mark Zingarelli and R. Crumb -- about the making of the movie and Pekar's subsequent ride on its coattails. The "of sorts" qualifier is necessary because, unlike his previous book Our Cancer Year -- about his bout with illness in the early '90s -- it's a series of vignettes, mostly though not wholly related to the movie, and sometimes (particularly in his brief illustrated biographies of jazz and blues artists) wholly unrelated to the film. Consequently it feels like a somewhat hastily thrown together, unsatisfying compilation, with a little too much repetition of the same incidents in different strips. Even in such split-up fashion, it still makes neurotic interior agonizing more fascinating (and naturalistically portrayed) than you'd ever suspect it could be in comics. -- Richie Unterberger

Snakes and Earrings
By Hitomi Kanehara, translated by David Karashima
Dutton, $17.95

Don't blame Kanehara for writing a lousy first novel. That's what twenty-year-old writers do. Blame the luminaries in the author's native Japan who awarded Snakes and Earrings the Akutagawa Prize, that country's highest honor for new authors. Heaven knows what they saw in it. The ludicrous plot? The adolescent prose? Maybe it was the false grit of the book's teenage heroine, Lui. With her camisoles and bleached blond hair, Lui -- we are told -- looks like a "Barbie-girl" but is really an old soul, weary of the world in the way of those not yet twenty. She drinks. She screws around. She longs for a tattoo and a forked tongue like her boyfriend Ama's. To get them, she visits his malevolent pal Shiba, who runs "a kind of punk/alternative store." She comes for the body modification, but stays for the sexual throttling. And for the post-coital conversation, as the two ponder such dorm-room classics as "God has to be a sadist" and "Mary was a masochist." When Ama kills a man and disappears, the story slides toward a predictable and preposterous final twist. Sure, it sold more than a million copies in Japan, but surely the islands that brought us Murakami, Mishima, and haiku can do better than this. -- Chris Ulbrich

The Vanished Hands
By Robert Wilson
Harcourt, $25

This European mystery finds Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón in therapy and recovering from the trauma he suffered in Wilson's previous work The Blind Man of Seville. But Falcón's investigation of the murder/suicide of a construction mogul and his mentally unstable wife soon has him struggling with his inner demons again. With little solid evidence to go on, he seeks answers from the victims' neighbors, each of whom is closely guarding his or her own shameful secret. When several more suspicious suicides and some cryptic personal threats follow, Falcón is forced to rely on his keen insights into human behavior to uncover the truth. Like Wilson's other mysteries -- a gritty and bloody series, set in Africa -- this isn't a hard-boiled police procedural: It simmers with psychological drama and slowly unveils a world where the living are every bit as much victims as the corpses. Unfortunately, Wilson bogs down this engaging character study with a labyrinthine backstory involving prostitution, a pedophile ring, and the Russian Mafia. The Blind Man of Seville fans will want to find out how Falcón fares, but new readers might find this new aventura dauntingly complex. -- Michael Ansaldo


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