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By Nick Creek, Butch Phelps, Jenni L.X. Scharn, Blake de Pastino

MAY 18, 1998: 

Altars and Icons
by Jean McMann (Chronicle, cloth, $16.95)

Discovering a book like Altars and Icons: Sacred Spaces in Everyday Life is one of life's rare and enjoyable confirmations. What others may view as weird or eccentric is explored here as ritual and symbolic. This thin, handsome volume relates 40 individuals' explanations of their carefully crafted personal spaces. What to an outsider may appear as a random pile of old junk and clutter comes to life through the author's elegant photos and the devotee's own words to detail each altar's inspirational meaning. Altars and Icons is divided into six sections, grouping the creations based on the intent behind the constructions as well as their physical locations. To the best of my limited knowledge, everyone interviewed in the book is a regular person with the exception of the book's first entry. Eleanor Coppola, wife to Francis Ford, discusses the meaning of the altar dedicated to her deceased son. Other shrine makers included a plumber, a prisoner, a chef and an exiled Russian prince. In all, this book is a moving portrayal of people, their feelings and how they express them. It is worth reading for anyone who isn't suppressing their emotions and sentiments by living in a world void of personal expression. (NC)

Fist of Sun
by Ferruccio Brugnaro (Curbstone Press, paper, $10.95)

Modern mentalities make it most inconvenient to enjoy poetry written in the last part of this century. But I'm not afraid to say it: I like poetry. The question is, does poetry like me? I am not Italian and I do not speak the language. Not many Americans do. So anyone brave enough to pick up Ferruccio Brugnaro's Fist of Sun must rely on Jack Hirschman's translation to convey Brugnaro's outrage over Italy's abuse of its workers. Which Hirschman presumably does. And though I know nothing of these conditions, I rely on Brugnaro's poetry to send his experiences to the page. Which it does. I guess if I really loved poetry I would say it didn't matter that I was reading about something I knew nothing about, or that it was being told through something other than the poet's words. I could learn the poet's past, read other works, maybe look him up on micro-fiche. But as I said, modern mentalities prevent us from caring too much about a poet we will never see in concert or ever vote for. (BP)

Chocolate Jesus
by Stephan Jaramillo (Berkley, paper, $12)

No, kids, this isn't another Martha Stewart Living cookbook. After his first effort, promisingly titled Going Postal, Jaramillo resurrects a hilarious ensemble of perfectly imperfect characters that are so lacking in many of today's novels. The cast is excellent because its members are all ridiculously human. Here's a sample: There's a reverend from the Church of the Returning Vegetarian Christ who broadcasts a show called "Sweatin' with the Lord," a bookie/rabbi who takes bets on the Day of Reckoning, an inventor whose marketing ideas include "Hooker in a Bottle Cap" (don't tell me you're not intrigued by that one) and a guest appearance by a chupacabra. Woven among this motley crew are substories that are oddly poignant in their disparity. This novel is refreshing with its comic honesty and the quirky situations that, strangely enough, mirror the lives of everyday people. Will you like this book? That all depends on how you feel about biting off the head of a chocolate Jesus. (JLXS)

Everything Reverberates
compiled by Chronicle Books (Chronicle, cloth, $12.95)

The folks at Chronicle are certainly no strangers to the oddity known as the quotation book. They've probably published more of those thin, pretty collections of sayings than anyone. But their latest contribution to this fad--Everything Reverberates--is the first one that really shows some brains. Chronicle staffers have gathered 100 quips from famous designers, bringing us the insights of people like graphics genius Saul Bass (who once said that his ads were "so reductive they became metaphors") and fashion doyenne Diana Dreeland (who confessed, "We all need a splash of bad taste"). But the real bonus here is the design of the book itself. Some quotes are pasted onto boxes of cleanser or cartons of milk, and then photographed as if the ideas were themselves commodities. Other citations are laid out next to ones that contradict them, illustrating a conflict of opinion that's all too common in art circles. At its very best, the book's design actually creates a kind of commentary on the advice being given. So while other bite-sized books are pretending to offer us quick wisdom, Everything Reverberates is a quote book that offers no easy answers. It's proof that, if done properly, even a book-shop novelty can make you think. (BdeP)

--Nick Creek, Butch Phelps, Jenni L.X. Scharn and Blake de Pastino

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