Snakes and Earrings
By Hitomi Kanehara, translated by David Karashima. Penguin, 120 pages, $17.95.

Hitomi Kanehara dropped out of school in fourth grade, took to the streets at 15, and wrote Hebi ni piasu, or Snakes and Earrings (for which she won Japan's highest literary honor for new writers, the Akutagawa Prize), at 20. With the onslaught of J-pop culture, this novel reminds us that things aren't always what they seem. Kanehara's depiction of youth culture in Tokyo is as real as Gwen Stefani's Harajuku girls are fake. It starts with an innocent question: " 'Know what a forked tongue is?' " and delves, quickly and deeply, into a world where lines between depression and hope, darkness and light, and pain and pleasure are seamlessly blurred.

Kanehara's narrator, 19-year-old Lui, innocent and unflinching, is strangely easy to relate to even when she's talking about body mutilation, the prospect of being murdered by an acquaintance, and S-M lust. She starts as an observer of a subculture, the "punks and über-funky Harajuku kids," and quickly becomes a participant, linking herself to Ama, her fork-tongued obsession, all the while doggedly denying the "Barbie" label she's been given. The book begins with a how-to on body modification: "Apparently, you begin by getting your tongue pierced. You then gradually enlarge the hole by inserting bigger and bigger tongue rings. Then, when the hole has been stretched to a certain size, you tie dental floss or fishing line in tight loops running from the hole down the middle of the tongue. Finally, you cut the remaining part of the tongue that's still connected using either a scalpel or a razor blade. In fact, some people don't even bother going through the whole pierce-and-tie process at all – they just slice their tongue in two with a scalpel." The description is as step-by-step as the protagonist's life is uncalculated and out of control. Yet, through it all, Lui is able to gain the confidence of her readers, even as her innocent obsession turns into a horrific snake pit of a love triangle, even as she is physically and mentally falling apart.

Kanehara's simple and concise style is reminiscent of early Banana Yoshimoto. It is more direct and more graphic yet retains the same naive and innocent fascination with the puzzle that is human relationships. Kanehara's characters are strangers who latch onto each other without understanding why; their only link is their anomie, loss is inevitable, and outcomes are so terrifying that hope is the only thing left to believe in – and in this world of fakes and frauds, it seems like Kanehara's Lui is the only one left to trust. (Momo Chang)

The Last Five Miles to Grace
By David Lerner. Zeitgeist Press, 170 pages, $12.95 (paper).

When Mission District poet David Lerner died in 1997 of a heroin overdose, he left behind a legacy of crazed behavior and brilliant poetry. His four collections, Why Rimbaud Went to Africa, I Want a New Gun, Pray like the Hunted, and The American Book of the Dead went out of print shortly thereafter. After a long hiatus, Zeitgeist Press has returned to the small-press publishing community by bringing out Lerner's The Last Five Miles to Grace.

The 1990s in the Mission was a rich time for underground literature. The Crystal Pistol, the Chameleon, and the Cassanova Lounge on Valencia Street offered weekly open mic performances. Sister Spit first started at Blondie's Bar and No Grill. Kvetch started at the Starcleaners. The Albion, in its pre-pool table days, had a half-comedy, half-poetry open mic hosted by Robin Jones and Mary Lynn Rajskub, recently of TV's 24. On Thursday nights Lerner held court in the tiny tin-walled back room of Café Babar.

The Last Five Miles to Grace is a "greatest hits" of David Lerner, collecting the best of the previous volumes along with 50 previously unpublished pages. His signature piece, a six-page poem called "18th and Broadway" that recollects a cryptic message told to him in the psych ward, is included.

"When I was crossing the street
at the corner of

18th and Broadway

the other day

it seemed real wide

it was a sunny afternoon

but there was something wrong

with the light

I looked at the people and saw the bone and meat

beneath the fabric

twitching with nerves

the eyes like 2 fried eggs in the

middle ... a four year old girl asked me

how to get to hell

she said she had business there with her mother ... I screamed and screamed

a bird said 'Hush now,

you'll only wake the demons

and they need their rest.'"

Lerner was a broken-down saint if there ever was one. He was an eloquent screamer, a soft-spoken rage-oholic, a madman with a great manuscript. His poetry will always be a reminder of a time when poetry in the Mission was spontaneous, magical, and more than a little bit dangerous. It's hard to say who the best poet in the Mission was then. Some people say it was Jack Micheline. Others say it was Eli Coppola. Maybe it was David West, who still shows up at readings now and then. But on those nights Lerner was really on, no one could touch him. (Bucky Sinister)

Old Mr. Flood
By Joseph Mitchell. MacAdam/Cage, 120 pages, $15 (paper).

For those raised to believe journalism isn't good unless it's self-aggrandizing, the publication in book form of Joseph Mitchell's "Old Mr. Flood" is the perfect antidote. Originally published in three installments in the New Yorker in 1944, Old Mr. Flood is a character study of a 93-year-old Scotch-Irishman, a retired house-wrecking contractor who is a composite of the men Mitchell met on his daily walks through lower Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market.

Mr. Flood has a peculiar lexicon. He is fond of calling substandard food "gurry." The results of bad drinking are "katzenjammers." The dialogue recounted here shows how Mitchell gives equal weight to Mr. Flood both sober and drunk. After a daily trip to the barber to stay "tidy," Mr. Flood returns to his hotel room, where he is surrounded by stacks of War Cry, the Salvation Army magazine, as well as wooden shrimp scoops filled with cigar ashes. The other installments in the series introduce us to Mr. Flood's coterie, people too contrary to hold steady jobs other than those on the docks, folk too foreign or out of step with a war-mongering time.

Old Mr. Flood is a slim read, 125 pages easily completed during a few Muni or BART commutes. When Mitchell waxes poetic about the days when "hens ate grit and grasshoppers and scraps from the table and whatever they could scratch out of the ground ... then the scientists developed a special egg-laying mash made of old corncobs and sterilized buttermilk and nowadays you order scrambled eggs and you get a platter of yellow glue," you can almost hear today's anti-genetically modified food brigade. Sure, Mr. Flood is reading Moon Mullins and Dixie Dugan in the Sunday funnies instead of Zits, but, well, thank God. (Lisa Ryers)

Jane: A Murder

By Maggie Nelson. Soft Skull Press, 200 pages, $13.95 (paper).

Maggie Nelson's Jane: A Murder is a dream sequence, a detective story, a eulogy, and an act of defiance. Alternating between deceptively straightforward narrative pieces and poems that experiment with language and form, Nelson conducts a poetic investigation into the life and death of her aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 at the age of 23.

Born "four years later, almost to the day," Nelson never knew her aunt, and she offers Jane as both an excavation and an act of imagination. "I invent her," Nelson writes, gathering a patchwork of information from newspaper accounts, police records, and family members. Mysteries emerge: What transpired in the final hours of Jane's life? Did John Collins, the convicted Michigan serial killer, murder Jane? Doubts remain in the case, and Nelson's need to organize all the information into "a simply stated story" borders on obsession. Narrative, however, ultimately fails to provide entry into the poet's most pressing questions. "We don't really live / in stories or scenes // not at all ... The detective and the dreamer / cobble things together /from what lies nearby."

Sifting through her source materials, Nelson takes aim at a battery of damaging cultural and literary tropes about femininity. Excerpted passages from a true-crime account painfully illuminate ways in which Jane's murder was construed as a punishment for her liberal politics and as "retaliation" against the " 'disgusting' impairment" of menstruation. Refreshingly, Nelson manages broader levels of social criticism without eclipsing the vividness of her language or the specificity of Jane's story. She also disrupts the tired linkage of women, death, and beauty. Quoting Poe, she writes, "The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." But "plain Jane" wasn't beautiful, Nelson tells us, and neither was her death; Nelson's poems become spare, grim, and forensic when describing the details of Jane's murder.

What's beautiful is Jane's mind, which Nelson allows a full and complicated life on the page. Nelson chisels poems out of Jane's journal entries, breaking sentences into short lines and stanzas. Jane, at 14, writes in her diary, "I wanted to know my own mind." The mind becomes a recurring motif in the book, as if the central mystery that Nelson seeks to uncover is the texture of Jane's consciousness, her mind. Jane is a fast read, but it provokes a grief and thoughtfulness that linger. (Amanda Davidson)