What Slate's reading this month.

Reading between the lines.
March 17 2008 12:11 PM

What Slate's Reading This Month

Book reviews in 300 words or less.

Fiction

Fanon: A Novel, by John Edgar Wideman

Fanon: A Novel, by John Edgar Wideman. Part wide-ranging meditation on Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born revolutionary who studied the psychological effects of racial oppression, part autobiography, and part artistic credo, Wideman's first novel in a decade is fierce, elusive, and exhilarating. It's an extended prose improvisation that blurs the boundary between fiction and history. Wideman raises the question of whether it's still possible to achieve the kind of psychic liberation—the birth of the "whole man"—that Fanon argued must be the final goal of any struggle against racism. In particular, he measures Fanon's idealism against the crippling toll that American history has inflicted on his own family—his brother incarcerated for 30 years, his wheelchair-bound mother stranded in a ravaged inner-city neighborhood—and comes away feeling that Fanon's ideals feel almost as remote today as they did four decades ago. Wideman is a fascinating and underappreciated writer, and Fanon is, if anything, overly ambitious; it feels like three books condensed into one. Readers wanting a stronger narrative thread should seek out his Philadelphia Fire or The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, but anyone with even a passing interest in Fanon, or African-American literature and culture, should seek out this extraordinary book.— Jess Row

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)
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Skim, by Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator). More a graphic short story than a graphic novel, Skim offers a glimpse over the shoulder of 16-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron, aka Skim. She has a broken arm, a best friend she doesn't really trust, a much desired yet confusing romance with a female teacher, a mother distracted by the breakup of her marriage, and, soon enough, a broken heart.

The fake diary is by now a tired cliché of teen novels, but Jillian Tamaki's artwork elevates the genre from the merely voyeuristic. We don't just read Skim's diary entries; we see what she erases, what she lies about, and what she has no words for. The black-and-white art is spare when Skim's life is under control; it's lush and packed with dense shading as she expands her horizons. Mariko Tamaki supplies brittle, Juno MacGuff-style repartee, but she also allows Skim to acknowledge the changes she is experiencing, even if she doesn't quite understand them: "I think I'm in love. Being in love is not what I expected."— June Thomas

Humor

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes. The McSweeney's Web site functions like a Chicken Soup for the Liberal-Arts Soul. Where else can you find a few lunch-hour Kafka jokes and Faulkner parodies? Fittingly, the McSweeney's Joke Book assembles the best bookish humor the site has produced so far. It's humor born out of writing workshops, sleepy afternoon seminars, caffeine, and stilted ambition. The collection is worth buying for "Winnie-the-Pooh Is My Coworker" alone. Another highlight is "Feedback From James Joyce's Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop," from which I must quote one line: "Think you accidentally stapled in something from your playwriting workshop for Ch. 15." The ideal reader of this book is one with a secret pride over how they "totally own" the Saturday Times crossword puzzle—or your standard overeducated worker in search of diversion on a commute to a job that requires absolutely no understanding of synecdoche.— Michael Agger

Non-Fiction

A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine), by Patricia Pearson

A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine), by Patricia Pearson. A skilled mix of memoir and research, Pearson's short collection of essays investigates what it's like to be constantly choked by lurid internal drama. Despite the subject, Pearson's writing is often exhilarating ("I felt a certain kind of bra-ha-ha joy. Like a character in a Stephen King novel who suddenly laughs hysterically after all of her friends' heads have exploded"), and it's certainly lighter than her earlier nonfiction account of female criminals, When She Was Bad. Pearson makes plenty of intriguing ("parents consistently underestimate the intensity of their children's fears") and arguable (the modern era is uniquely overpopulated by twitchy and freaked-out masses) observations. Her first five essays are particularly finely crafted. The last four are a little loose. Still, they include an angry and important cautionary tale detailing the psychological and physical wreckage that ensues when someone takes, and then tries to go off, Effexor. If you're anxious all the time and you think about that anxiety a lot, this collection will provide you some companionable relief.— Christine Kenneally

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