Shelf help

Books to get you through the holidays — and ready for a new year
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lit@sfbg.com

WISH LIST My family of origin is so nuclear that on smoggy days a mushroom cloud can be seen above the suburb where my parents still reside. During the holidays we gather there to rehearse and stage the roles we will alternately perform and resist in the ensuing year. While Dad tracks holiday cards sent and received on an Excel spreadsheet, Mom dons a pair of felt antlers and holes up in the kitchen. As for me, I revert to fatigued, endless reading, as if by some cruel law of repetition I have returned to that sullen moment in junior high when my only friend suddenly became popular, leaving me with nobody but books as my companions. Without intervention, I might remain in this half-hypnotized state, rereading Flowers for Algernon until the world outside grows dim, like a dream I can barely remember. This year, however, I'm readying myself with an eclectic batch of new books, books that make me want to participate instead of turning into a listless blotch of angst. These titles provide critical frameworks for dissent, suggest avenues for engagement, and probe cultural blind spots — generating new aesthetic possibilities along the way.

I, for one, like to kick off the holiday season with a powerful dose of well-researched feminist analysis, supplied this year by Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $26). It's akin to taking vitamins to ward off the winter cold that's going around the office. I read some Faludi, I ask my brother to help out in the kitchen. Faludi argues that a highly gendered mythology reasserted its virulent hold over the national psyche (as writ large by the national media) in the wake of Sept. 11. Drawing from an abundance of sources, she parses out the myth: strong male heroes rescue helpless girls, feminism is dismissed as a frivolous and dangerous mistake, and cowboys and manly men rise again to keep the home soil safe. In debunking this overblown narrative, Faludi demonstrates that it doesn't actually help those it valorizes, nor does its rehearsal expedite an increase in national security or political accountability.

Investigating the symbolic construction of identity and myth from the angle of art, Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence (Leon Works Press, 167 pages, $15.95 paper) takes up "black presences in European literature, visual art, and film." Fusing criticism, film theory, and fiction with a keenly poetic ear, Bryant reenters cultural artifacts to open up these symbolically loaded but structurally silenced or backgrounded characters and motifs. Her stories trace the ways in which black subjectivity is distributed or denied within pictures and plots, between viewers and artworks and artists, and in acts of conversation and debate, of queer identification or refusal to see. What is most remarkable is how Bryant transforms these elisions into acts of imagination, restoring or reconfiguring partially glimpsed subjects via fleet and surprising sentences that traverse the distance between representation and meaning.

Renovating symbolic systems can be hard work, and nothing restores a fatigued body and mind like making changes to the physical infrastructure — such as sawing through your drainpipes to divert "barely used" household water from sewers to gray-water systems for gardening and washing clothes. Sexily linking the macro to the micro, the locally grown junta known as the Greywater Guerrillas has expanded its how-to know-how into Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull Press, 416 pages, $19.95 paper), a collection of essays that examine the global plight of water misuse and attendant broad-scale ecological impacts.

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