Signs of Life 2004


Books Features
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By the time you read this, you’ll have seen manifold annual Best-of book lists in other magazines and newspapers. But books-perhaps even more than music-are so personal that it seems more appropriate to highlight several of our writers’ favorites. These are books they didn’t want to put down, then recommended to friends and family, and will read and re-read again. (Besides, you already know what your own favorite books of the year are, don’t you?)

Debbie Blue | Sensual Orthodoxy (Cathedral Hill Press) —Philip Christman

We read the Bible as a trove of familiar metaphors and morality tales, pale and unsurprising. But Debbie Blue reminds us that the Three Wise Men are utterly incongruous, “like having Shirley MacLaine at our manger scene”; that Jesus’ sayings are “a little bomb thrown into the human competition extravaganza”; that resurrection is “threatening”; and being born again is “weird,” “messy,” full of “groaning and blood and pain.” Why does this little essay collection make nearly every popular religious book seem anemic-from evangelical bestsellers, with their thin mandates, to the newly trendy Gnosticism that negates physical reality and social existence aggressively as any warped Christianity? Religion of all kinds, writes Blue, “often has an anti-sensual, abstracting sort of tendency,” but “the story of Christ goes in the opposite direction. God becomes incarnate, physical, in the world. God is made truly human in the womb of Mary and is born into the world through the birth canal.” The book takes its unique power from this movement of de-abstraction, meditating on familiar Biblical passages and metaphors until they give up some of their secrets.

Renée Manfredi | Above the Thunder (MacAdam/Cage) —Natalie Danford

Critics frequently divide books into categories, claiming they’re driven by a single aspect. Above the Thunder, Renée Manfredi’s first novel relies equally on ideas, character and plot, while also packing an emotional wallop. At the start, Anna is a solitary character. Recently widowed and estranged from her only daughter, she lives alone in a townhouse furnished with the previous tenant’s belongings and commutes to a job teaching at a junior college. She is, in short, on automatic pilot. But then the man who ran off with her heroin-addict daughter years earlier shows up with her only grandchild, a serious 10-year-old named Flynn who claims to see ghosts. At the same time, Anna begins supervising an HIV support group and becomes especially involved with some of its members. Out of these and other characters, she cobbles together a family that unites around her—and, like all families, sometimes it suffocates as much as it comforts. Manfredi elegantly weaves together the various plot threads and personalities; information accrues slowly, so each turn of events is never telegraphed but seems inevitable in retrospect.

Charles Schulz | The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics) —Philip Christman

How many readers had their first childish brush with existential despair while watching Charlie Brown muddle through yet another doomed baseball game? Life, in Peanuts, was always just a little too hurtful to be rationally explained, just like life really is. The kite-eating tree won’t stop biting; Lucy will always yank away that damn football at the last second; Charlie Brown, if he spoke with the resolution of Ahab, would still be called wishy-washy. Fantagraphics is collecting every last Peanuts strip, year by year—I guess their old paperbacks must be wearing out, too. There are some surprises in the earliest appearances of Charlie Brown and Snoopy: He used to be more smart-alecky, and Snoopy wasn’t always so human. But Lucy’s sadism appears fully-formed from infancy, and Schulz’s fascination with human depravity begins on page one: “Good old Charlie Brown,” someone says. “How I hate him!”

Steven T. Seagle | It’s a Bird | DC Comics —Paul Marchbanks

As an insecure, scrawny and asthmatic kid, I was drawn to Christopher Reeve’s depiction of an awkward, socially myopic Clark Kent who could instantaneously transform into a strong, confident hero. My teenage and college-age forays into comics avoided the Superman mythos, however. I gave a wide berth to the superhero whose inevitable victories now seemed unrealistic and uninteresting, preferring Marvel’s ostracized, dysfunctional mutants; while I might never possess their fantastic powers, I could relate to their psychoses, relational struggles and physical vulnerability. DC Comics’ buff boy-scout just didn’t provide a point of entry.

In writing the Superman comic, the writer/narrator of Steven T. Seagle’s semi-autobiographical It’s a Bird also wrestles with the superhero’s tangibility. As the specter of Huntington’s disease haphazardly erases members of his family, Steve initially fails to identify anything familiar in the figure’s relatively perfect, otherworldly experience. He struggles considerably before the hero’s complexities begin to emerge, before he can admit the contradictions in an alternate identity that isolates the self even as it shelters others. In one of the graphic novel’s socio-historical, ethically tinged digressions concerning the Superman legend, Steve decides “that it is not people from another planet who are superman; it is any individual able to see past their own little world and reach out to the alternate ones beyond their limited scope of existence.”

This simple but profound conclusion has gained new, bittersweet resonance with the recent passing of Christopher Reeve, himself, a man whose recent heroism off-screen was every bit as inspiring to today’s mobility-impaired community as his heroics onscreen were to yesterday’s youth. He not only made us believe a man could fly-he forced us to recognize that sometimes, walking in the real world is every bit as glorious as flying into the fantastic.

Readers’ favorite books from 2004

1. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
2. Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan
3. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
5. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book) by the writers of The Daily Show and John Stewart
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
7. Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
8. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
9. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
10. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini