Is your home library stocked with high school reading list classics such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (yawn), Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous (ugh), and Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (sigh)? Then spice up your reading choices with unconventional literature written in the 21st century that oozes with popping prose and page-turning bliss. Impress your friends, and maybe, as a byproduct, you'll decide to flip through a tome or two on a sleepless night. And with our handy guide, you won't need to pay much.
The People of Paper (2005) by Salvador Plascencia (McSweeney's)
Mexican-born neo-magical realist Plascencia creates a "part memoir, part lies" art piece that is akin to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude for today's under-35 generation of readers. In the author's trippy fictional world where the book's characters rebel against Plascencia himself the mentally disabled child of an origami woman holds the key to all of life's answers, Rita Hayworth is loved and loathed by "lettuce pickers," and self-inflicted bee stings are the only cure for depression. The beautiful hardcover edition features chapters composed in columns, unconventional use of typography, a handful of illustrations, and the name of a key character physically cut out of the pages.
Representative passage: "He said it was a war for volition and against the commodification of sadness. 'It is a war against the fate that has been decided for us,' he said."
The Brief History of the Dead (2006) by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon)
When people die, they live in The City, a surreal dimension with an American-type infrastructure, a gossipy newspaper, and folks who have united and fallen in love all over again. Residents in the afterlife exist as long as somebody on Earth remembers them. That's before a disaster occurs that threatens to extinguish all of life from both worlds. A young woman, stranded in Antarctica on a needless corporate assignment for Coca-Cola, is humankind's only hope. By using two parallel story lines, Brockmeier illustrates the fragility of relationships and the haunting nature of the human condition.
Representative passage: "The body was the material component of a person. The soul was the nonmaterial component. The spirit was simply the connecting line."
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2005) by Guy Delisle (Drawn and Quarterly)
Professional cartoonist Delisle overcame oppressive working conditions a contract job for a French film animation company in the Communist city of Pyongyang, North Korea and documented Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il propaganda through cynical yet truthful eyes. Unable to take photographs and only allowed to travel and work in the company of a guide and a translator, Delisle kept his sanity by listening to a smuggled radio, reading a copy of George Orwell's 1984, and drawing illustrations that eventually turned into this graphic novel. The Canadian-born cartoonist strikes a proper balance between strong illustrative elements and a well-written cohesive narrative to make this book appealing to drawing fans and novel readers.
Representative passage: "To what extent can a mind be manipulated? We'll probably get some idea when the country eventually opens up or collapses."
Footprints on the Minge (2006) by Gwydion M. Hastur (Horn O'Plenty)
Hastur, whose other published writing credentials include a hilarious piece about the armpit-of-America town known as Interior, South Dakota (population 77), in the travel book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America, centers the plot of this LSD-soaked novelette in our backyard. And to our relief, it's not filled with clichd descriptions of desert sunsets and sweltering summers. Valley Metro, Peoria, and downtown Phoenix all get authentic documentation in this story about a couple of drugged-up misanthropes named Fair Harrington and Thurgood Schlitz, who both run bizarro errands for a keen fellow known as The Doctor. The raw writing style possesses a conversational tone because the book was composed under a self-imposed, stone-sober 30-day time period. A larger distribution is planned later this year, but in the meantime, the book is available by e-mailing the Portland, Oregon-based author and famed bandleader of Dick Taut and The Ripcords at email@example.com.
Representative passage: "The significance of this strange act cannot be underestimated, nor can it be overestimated; nor can it even be articulated, given the inherent limitations of terrestrial language, and certainly those of the present author."
No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (2000) by Naomi Klein (Picador)
Award-winning journalist Klein (The Globe and Mail) traveled the world reporting on the causes for big-business bullying and the rise of anti-corporate activism. Her findings are successfully documented in this manual for those wanting to learn about and take action against the brand bullies. American franchises such as McDonald's, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart all get raked over the coals in discussions ranging from the marriage of corporate branding with identity politics to the dissection of "brand bombing" methods such as clustering (corporate-owned stores occupying block after block of real estate in order to push out independent businesses). One of the book's most horrifying chapters, "The Branding of Learning," examines the mall mentality of high school education, from Taco Bell items on the cafeteria menu to corporate-promoting pupils designing in-classroom Nike sneakers, complete with the infamous swoosh. Readers will definitely be inspired to fight the power after finishing Klein's thoroughly researched tome.
Representative passage: "As more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational companies, particularly those with very high name-brand recognition."
The Believer (McSweeney's)
McSweeney's publishing house is the avant-garde presentational master of cutting-edge novels, a DVD magazine and a quarterly literary journal. Among its staples is The Believer, an almost-monthly magazine featuring book reviews disguised as sharp-tongued nonfiction essays, interviews with the coolest pop icons and scholars, and artist illustrations. The basic four-color publication comes with zero (yes, really) advertisements. Added bonuses include a summer music issue featuring tracks with an indie rock flavor, as well as Nick Hornby's (High Fidelity, A Long Way Down) "Stuff I've Been Reading" column. A one-year, 10-issue subscription of free-spirited cultural goodness sets readers back a measly $45. Check out www.mcsweeneys.net for ordering information.
Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 South McClintock Drive in Tempe, stocks thousands of new and used books as well as collectibles and gifts. For information about the store's full schedule of author readings, book signings, and community events, call 480-730-0205 or visit www.changinghands.com.
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Bent Cover Books and The Back Page Coffee Shop, 12428 North 28th Drive in Phoenix, is a charming, 5,000-used-book store that houses contemporary lit, classics, and titles dating to the 17th century. Call 602-942-5932 or see www.bentcoverbooks.com.
The Phoenix Public Library system includes the Burton Barr Central Library, 1221 North Central Avenue, and 14 additional locations. Reserve up to 35 items and renew materials online by visiting www.phxlib.org.
VNSA Booksale, held annually during the second weekend of February at the Arizona State Fairground Exhibit Building, 1826 West McDowell Road in Phoenix, is the largest used book sale west of the Mississippi. Go to vnsabooksale.org.