Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Kelle Schillaci, Dorothy Cole

JANUARY 11, 1999: 

Billy Dead
by Lisa Reardon (Viking, cloth, $22.95)

With the holidays drawing to a thankful end, perhaps there is no better time to delve into someone else's dysfunctional family for a nice change of pace. This one's got it all: Abuse, incest, torture, and, ah yes, murder. As the title suggests, Billy is dead, bashed in the head with a rock. The prime suspect is little sister Jean, but it's middle sibling, Ray, who gets to narrate the tale. And despite the pesky incest and self-mutilation stuff, Ray appears to be the least dysfunctional of the Johnson siblings, with a quirky almost hill-billy tenderness that somehow draws you in. I admit, I'm a sucker for family drama, and Reardon, in her first novel attempt, keeps an exceptional pace tracking the three day period between Billy's death and funeral while skillfully weaving in crucial flashback episodes, surprising wit, and exceptional character development, as Ray embarks on a rather bloody but redemptive journey. It's a bit twisted, but should, in the end, make you appreciate your own family that much more. (KS)

How Rain Records Its Alphabet
by John Tritica (La Alameda Press, paper, $12)

I started a list of "look-up words" on the back of an air sickness bag while reading this collection during a recent flight, then realized you need a lot more than a dictionary to unravel the mysteries of Mr. Tritica's dense poetic landscapes. His word choice is labored and sparse, on the verge of haiku, but incorporating a highly scientific often ungraspable language that at times bombards and overwhelms the reader. His images are static and dry, his descriptions--mainly of desert landscapes and nature-- are meticulously detailed, and his vocabulary often transforms itself into tongue-tripping distortions of grammatical conventions. I enjoyed the latter, and I can certainly appreciate Tritica's innovative reinterpretations of common themes, but the work as a whole did little to inspire or affect me, which is what I personally look for in poetry. (KS)

Penguin Soup for the Soul
by Tom Tomorrow (St. Martin's Griffin, paper, $9.95)

There's nothing like being told by a penguin in shades how morally screwed up our country is. Anyone who reads Mr. Tomorrow's weekly This Modern World comic strip (in any of the over 100 alternative newspapers in which it's printed) will love this compilation of two years' worth of work. It's like a time capsule from Whitewater to Lewinsky-Gate, but Tomorrow is way more than just a political cartoonist going for the cheap jibes. He lets politicians humiliate themselves with their very own speeches; he recruits Barbie and cameos various comic strip characters in his war against conspicuous consumerism; he dresses Bob Dole up like Bob's Big Boy; and, I might add, is pretty damn hilarious. Witty. Clever. Bizarre. He introduces the book with interesting anecdotes about the controversy some of his strips have inspired over the years (check out the orgy scene on page 114), which means, basically, that people are reading, reacting, and realizing that this strip is more than just a silly cartoon. I promise you'll find something to laugh about in this book. And you might even learn something. (KS)

The Love of a Good Woman
by Alice Munro (Knopf, cloth, $24)

These short stories are about choices. Some of these women choose the path of duty, while others opt to follow their own impulses and desires. Neither group gets what they expect. The characters behave and react like real people, not types, and the results are as unpredictable as real life. So some of these stories end sadly. The collection as a whole is strangely hopeful, as if we are better off taking chances that turn out badly than not trying anything at all. Munro knows how to select details that tell you the most about her characters and what is going on with them. The women are strong and well drawn, but they don't exist in a vacuum. The men are both more and less than evil, cruel caricatures. They have their own problems. And the children behave like children, not idiotic midgets or prescient aliens. You may not like or agree with all these people--you may want to slap some of them silly--but you will recognize them. (DC)

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