Refresh, Refresh, by Benjamin Percy (Gray Wolf Press, 249 pages, $15)
This native Oregonian's tales of absent fathers and longing sons, dreamers and murderous avengers can be taken as individual, knife-sharp stories, or parts of a larger, more unsettling world. Percy works as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, but his stories always meander back to Central Oregon, as if magnetized to the woods and deserts where he was raised. It's a backdrop that works as well for a pair of grieving parents battling a cave full of bats beneath their suburban home as it does a sprawling nightmarish future, where Rainier, Oregon's Trojan nuclear power plant has exploded and motorcycle gangs buzz around Bend like irradiated ants. The highlight of his second collection of stories is the title work (which was awarded a Pushcart Prize this year), a story that follows a pair of restless teenagers through the tiny town of Tumalo as they bloody each other in backyard boxing matches and wait, restlessly, for word of their fathers fighting in Iraq. Full of pain, anger and even phantasmagoric joy, Percy's stories ring with a clarity that makes his heroes and horrors as real as all those people who populate the piss-ant towns that blur past your window on I-97. KELLY CLARKE.
Portraits , by Ann Ploeger (William James&Company, 96 pages, $25)
Families are strange enough when left to themselves—the holidays, for most, confirm this—filled with obscure narratives and moving targets. But in local photographer Ann Ploeger's portraits, the domestic setting becomes downright uncanny. Ploeger arranges friends and family into unlikely, aestheticized tableaus, blocked into color so lush it becomes an abstraction. The knickknackery of the modern hipster bourgeoisie—a Spider-Man head, say, or some retro fuzzy slippers—are planted like clues to a parlor mystery, or blanked-out icons on the loose from a Memling or van Eyck. In the best photos here, the subjects seem frozen in lives unknowable, lives therefore new. Well: good. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Palestine: The Special Edition, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics, 320 pages, $29.95)
Joe Sacco's 2001 graphic novel, Palestine , is widely viewed as the most important work in comics journalism to date. The book—which chronicles the cartoonist's visit to the West Bank and Gaza throughout the early '90s—first surfaced between 1993 and 1995 in comics form. And while the Portlander and former Willamette Week contributor's meek, self-conscious caricatures of himself inherently argue against it, the phrase "comics journalism" probably wouldn't exist without him. This special hardcover reprint adds original sketches along with contextual notes and photos from Sacco's journeys in the Middle East to an already impressive graphic work. It's not hard to see why Palestine is used as a primer to the Middle East conflict in high schools and colleges all over America: Readers learn about the conflict and meet the people affected right along with the author—a guide and a journey you won't soon forget. CASEY JARMAN.
The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin (Harper Perennial, 240 pages, $13.95)
Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin's debut novel is less bleak than most of his Portland-based alt-country band's songs, if only because there's more room in it for humor and small kindnesses. But Vlautin is drawn to the unlucky side of life. On page one, young Frank Flannigan's passed out in his Reno motel room when a bird crashes through the window, letting in the cold night. It's the perfect image to start off the book, this poor lost creature suddenly appearing where it shouldn't be, destroying itself and putting a hole in the world. Things go downhill from there. One of the major pieces of the book is the solace of music and stories. Frank tells wild stories to his brother and his girlfriend to make them—and himself—feel better. Vlautin's stories may be unbearably sad and his characters almost hopeless, but the author is nicer to the people he writes about than probably anybody else in their lives has been. They've had it rough, most of them, and he doesn't shy away from telling about the bad things they've done, but you can tell he's on their side, hoping they'll be OK in the end. He writes like he's trying to make up for all the meanness in the world. BECKY OHLSEN.
Portland Funbook 2 , by Various (Psilo Design, 80 pages, $5)
It's hard to front on this one. Sort of like Band Aid in coloring-book format, the second round of the Portland Funbook was a collaborative effort by over 60 local artists and 12 local bands, with a goodly portion of the profits going to the Darfur relief effort. The book and attendant stickers (and temporary tattoo) amount to a snapshot of Portland design at the street level, with an unorthodox motley of puzzles and line art involving tessellated hair people, anthropomorphic tubing, absurdist grotesqueries, and the willfully Japanesque. As it turns out, Portland takes its juvenilia very, very seriously. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.