Lay It On My Heart
Alex: A few pages into Angela Pneuman’s coming of age tale, I was fairly apprehensive. Without much of a religious background, the story’s beginning – a depiction of a fundamentalist Christian family living on “faith alone” in rural Kentucky at the behest of a patriarch who’s a self-described prophet – I was a bit adrift. But I soon came around to Pneuman’s fluid writing, black humor, and lucid depiction of an adolescent’s perspective as she grapples with all that growing up entails: puberty, an increasingly strained relationship with her mother, the trials and tribulations of preteen prurient interests, and a challenging examination of the faith that has always been a guiding light in her life and in her relationship to her father. Pneuman depicts modern religion with a nuance rarely seen; she’s neither above it nor within it, neither snubbing those who believe nor fully believing herself. It’s a portrait of America and adolescence that feels at once classic and contemporary, and reminds me of the value in revisiting the turbulence of adolescence as an adult.
The Committee on Town Happiness
Justin: It’s a struggle to describe this weird and enchanting book of linked stories, told in the form of missives and directives from a group of unusually whimsical local bureaucrats. There are moments that remind me of Kafka or Welcome to Nightvale, and then there are moments of astonishing observation that feel at home in a Paul Harding or Marilynne Robinson novel. The best moments in these stories (or are they really prose poems?) are when Alan Michael Parker effortlessly interweaves the sublime with the utterly banal: “We have been thinking about the trees,” the eponymous committee members write, “We have decided (6-3, with one abstention) that there will be trees in the afterlife.” Squabbling subcommittees, broom closet trysts, and procedural antics – Parker imbues them all with a sense of absurdity that comes easily, but also with a sense of sadness and grace that is less obvious but no less present.
The Most Human Human
Ashley: I don’t necessarily hate starting a conversation with “Hello, how are you?” What I hate is that you, or whomever I’m talking to, will probably respond “Fine” or “Good,” even when you might not be. It’s such a neutral, standard response that it’s lost all meaning. A computer is great at these types of seemingly scripted exchanges, as Brian Christian quickly learns when preparing for the 2009 Turing Test, where judges engage in short instant-message conversations and have to decide whether they’re chatting with a computer or a human. “Pleasantries are low entropy, biased so far that they stop being an earnest inquiry and become ritual. Ritual has its virtues, of course, and I don’t quibble with them in the slightest. But if we really want to start fathoming someone, we need to get them speaking in sentences we can’t finish.” This is just one of many poignant observations Christian makes about the ways humans and computers differ (or, at times, operate similarly) as he tries to figure out how to ensure the judges will deem him human so he can win the Turing Test’s “Most Human Human” award. I don’t want to spoil whether he is in fact the most human human of 2009, but I can tell you he’s at least a very intelligent and witty one, and his narration is engaging even when he’s reading transcripts of instant message conversations. Whether you’re interested in machines or art, and especially why machines can’t make art on their own, there are plenty of soul-searching passages here for everyone.
Joey: The Woods pulled me into a dark, inescapable, alien forest and I loved every second of it. This series is a master class in how to write and draw good horror, fantasy, YA, and just comics in general.
Its premise is equal parts Lovecraft, Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale, Lost, and Prometheus: An entire suburban high school, complete with 437 students and 76 teachers and staff, has been sucked out of the bounds of the charted universe to an unknown planet filled with dark mysteries. The group struggles to maintain order as it becomes readily apparent that the very flora and fauna of the planet are bent on their destruction. When one student stumbles upon an ominously glowing black stone, all of their fates are irrevocably altered.
The most outstanding thing about The Woods is its compelling blend of intricate world building and thoroughly drawn characters: As we learn more about the long history of this strange place, we also are granted insight into the motivations and distinctly earthly concerns of each of the five teens with whom most of the story is spent.