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Ready, set, read: 7 Austin books to open as 2020 comes to a close

From pandemic-inspired poetry to a graphic novel based on a Mayan legend, this holiday season offers titles for every taste. Below is a list of books from local authors to add to your Black Friday shopping cart or wintertime to-read list.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline ($28.99, 394 pages)

(Penguin Random House)

When Austin writer Ernest Cline's Ready Player One emerged in 2011, its Willy Wonka-meets-Tron adventure story was an exhilarating apology for all things escapist.

Cline's sequel to his wildly popular novel (made into a similarly kitsch-crowded film by Steven Spielberg), can be seen as a kind corrective reset regarding the reality-bashing tendencies of gamers as well as the addictive dangers of hiding in a retro world.

Still sticky with '80s in-jokes and Easter eggs, Cline deftly manages to address the antisocial issues that are inherent in living a virtual life while playing up the viable kinks of a consumer-based total recall.

The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman ($15.95, 144 pages)

(Deep Vellum)

In The Ancestry of Objects, a suicidal young woman enters into some educational masochism by having an affair with a married man, and in doing so harnesses a world of almost Emersonian awareness of the bric-a-brac of her inherited surroundings.

Ryckman's arresting yet detached style recalls The Story of O by way of an IKEA catalogue.

The matter-of-fact investigation of purpose will remind some readers of Sartre's Nausea, while the spectral prose recalls Susan Sontag's Death Kit.

Ryckman is the editor of the Austin-based publisher Awst Press.

A Bed for the King's Daughter by Shahla Ujayli, translated by Sawad Hussain ($16, 60 pages)

(University of Texas Press)

Shahla Ujayli's latest collection, A Bed For the King's Daughter, implodes the codes of fairy tales to crack into the underlying apartheid that motivates even the most innocent and innocuous treacle and manages to put Socrates in the same world with Cinderella and Honda Civics.

An unsettling (yet psyche-soothing) feat of fictive displacement, the twenty-two stories in this collection of instructive surrealism will delight while they indict.

The University of Texas Press published the book.

Rise of the Halfling King by David Bowles, illustrated by Charlene Bowles ($12.95, 64 pages)

(Cinco Puntos Press)

Hatched from an egg, Sayam, the hero of David Bowles's latest graphic novel, is raised by a witch and possesses a humanitarian itch to help those in need. The boy who would be king marshals his magic to meet every test and even gets to best a netherworld serpent along the way.

David Bowles, an expert on Mesoamerican literature, has partnered with Charlene Bowles, a comics artist/illustrator, to offer middle school-aged readers an exciting and engaging take on some ancient Mayan lore that features the antics of a brave Elfin-boy, the schemes of a sneaky sorcerer and the loyalty of a spider monkey.

Both the author and illustrator are based in Texas, with David in South Texas and Charlene in Austin.

Pandemia & Other Poems by Edward Vidaurre ($16, 88 pages)

(Aztlan Libre Press)

Edward Vidaurre, a border poet currently living in McAllen, Texas, tackles grief and the cosmos with a kind of casual theological bravery, assessing that: "God is an open wound. A kung-fu movie and a celestial sicario."

The work in Pandemia & Other Poems moves from toilet tissue and water bill worries of sheltering-in-place to classroom epiphanies of the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Vidaurre's poignant asides on the juvenile joys of cloud-gazing take on an ominous caution in a book where John Coltrane and Covid-19 share a nervous juxtaposition.

The collection was published by Aztlan Libre Press, which is based in San Antonio.

The Nightgown & Other Poems by Taisia Kitaiskaia ($15.95, 75 pages)

(Deep Vellum)

Austin poet Taisia Kitaiskaia's Nightgown & Other Poems is a nightcap of dream-dowsing assurance, a chthonic tonic that stills the reader into contemplating the agendas of monks, the tenacity of Thumbelina and the dark comforts of an evil twin.

"Saints are those who do not live amongst the people," the poet notes with the authority of a Brothers Grimm-savvy Simone Weil.

Earthy yet ethereal, Kitaiskaia's art argues that "shame and rebellion are integral to the angels."

American Utopia by David Byrne and Maira Kalman ($24, 160 pages)


American Utopia, conceived as a standalone companion to David Byrne's 2019 Broadway show of the same name, is a kind of Goodnight Moon for adults who want to calmly put the social stress and political duress of 2020 to bed.

Slogans of acceptance and simple understanding such as "we're only tourists in this life" are warmly rendered by Maira Kalman's wry watercolor work.

The authentic inclusiveness of this picture book project is made obvious with its nods to places like Bullfrog, Utah; Goofy Ridge, Illinois; and Lubbock, Texas.

Byrne, who has often evoked both the principles and panache of a Dadaist, quotes Hugo Ball's assertion that Dada exists "to remind the world that there are people of independent minds — beyond war and nationalism — who live for different ideals."

American Utopia is the kind of poetic picture book of authentic optimism that we need today.

It is based on Byrne's stage show of the same name, which he performed in Austin in 2018.


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