The Improbable Issue, No. 5: Animal Synthesis


In his review of Rikki Ducornet's The Deep Zoo, bookseller and writer Stephen Sparks asks, "Do we want art to lull us or arouse us?" He lauds Ducornet for "pushing against the limits, both formal and moral, imposed upon the imagination by those who fear the consequences of ingenuity and freedom." Ducornet's book, along with the other four titles reviewed here (by booksellers from some of the best indie bookstores in the country—Elliott Bay Book Company, Green Apple Books, Greenlight Bookstore, and Odyssey Bookshop) not only resist that fear but also subvert the powers that wield it.

There was some design to this issue's selection of titles (while there hasn't been in previous issues). The Improbable, No. 5 is timed to release just before Book Expo America, the largest book trade event in North America: a vast landscape of the book as an algorithm-friendly commodity, easily digestible, trend-compliant, the safest bet. These five books, in contrast, are exquisitely category-resistant, embracing real risk-taking and the multiplicitous natures of reality, preferring juxtaposition and synthesis over the literal and the linear, and thus they inhabit a very different terrain, one that The Improbable seeks to illuminate.

Ryan Mihaly in his review of Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera describes the book like this: "what is often split into binaries are together at play: order and chaos, reality and dream, sense and nonsense." I think that's applicable to the other books included here as well, and I find it very interesting that all of books here also have a direct or implicit reference to animals, pointing directly to those other binaries—animal and human, wilderness and culture, instinct and rationality. They also invoke the "creatureness" in every reader—senses electrified, awareness sharpened to see the unfamiliar in the familiar landscape (and vice-versa), intelligence and emotion intertwined rather than at odds. Finally, in all these ways, these five books (the artists and writers who've authored them and the publishers who have published them) are challenging the very powers that tell us what kind of books we want to read.

The Improbable is all about hybridity. In this issue, the books are truly chimerical. If it's your first time here, I hope you'll look through other issues to see all the fantastic species that occupy a richly diverse world of books beyond the manicured lawns and gridded streets.

—Lisa Pearson, editor


p.s. Look for the next issue of The Improbable later in summer as we're taking a month (or two!) off. Sign up for our mailing list to make sure you get the announcement, or follow us @thehybridbook on Twitter. And if you like a review or a book, please help us spread the word!

The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet


Green Apple Books on the Park (San Francisco) 


In addition to being the author of novels, short stories, poetry and essays, Rikki Ducornet is also a painter. (And, lately, the publisher of Stone Eye Press.) It is fitting then, that her latest essay collection, The Deep Zoo, which as its title suggests is something of a menagerie, blurs the boundaries between all of the media she works with.

Like the wonder cabinets that have inspired her work, the pages of The Deep Zoo are stuffed full of curiosities. Unlike the wunderkammer, however, the collection is organized less by a taste for the singular or bizarre as it is by Ducornet’s capacious imagination and marvelous talent for synthesizing. And so the reader will find herself led on a sometimes dizzying tour from Aloys Zötl’s Bestarium to Borges’ dreamtigers to Cortazar’s axolotl; from Margie McDonald’s microbial sculptures to Linda Okazaki’s haunting paintings; from hieroglyphs to Roger Callois’ secret language of stone; from the Marquis de Sade to Abu Ghraib.

For many writers, simply reveling in these subjects would be accomplishment enough. But Ducornet does not limit herself to forging connections between things; rather, she is fundamentally concerned with pushing against the limits, both formal and moral, imposed upon the imagination by those who fear the consequences of ingenuity and freedom. This insistent prodding characterizes Ducornet’s work and forces us, as readers, to reconsider our expectations of art. Do we want art to lull or arouse us? Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line on art’s utility? While this kind of reconsideration may strike the serious-minded as a trifle in a world on the verge of catastrophe, Ducornet reminds us that our position in the universe reflects our imagining of it and that as a consequence, we should be wary of those who attempt to cordon this spark. This is a valuable, possibly even necessary, lesson made more powerful by the beauty and terror of The Deep Zoo


The Deep Zoo is published Coffee House Press and distributed by Consortium/Perseus Group.

$15.95     PB     165 pages, 24 bw illustrations     ISBN: 978-1-56689-376-3     Pub date: January 2015

A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie edited by Orella Volta


Greenlight Bookstore (Brooklyn)


Erik Satie never really had a time of his own. He sat perfectly astride the Belle Époque and the Modern era, though he never belonged to either, which imbues his work with a particular sense of timelessness.  A proto-minimalist and spiritual godfather to ambient music, it wasn’t until John Cage elevated Satie to the level of near-sainthood in the mid 20th century that his work became more widely known. Atlas’s sexy hardcover edition of A Mammal’s Notebook is the most extensive collection of Satie’s writings to appear in English, from annotations to his musical scores, published articles and the contents of his private notebooks. To read A Mammal’s Notebook is to be lead through the looking-glass mirror museum of Satie’s mind by a pied piper playing Dada sonatas. Even when viewed apart from his music, A Mammal’s Notebook provides a unique vantage point into the mind of an iconoclastic kook and visionary oddball.

The texts collected in A Mammal’s Notebook aren’t mere musing on art and craft. They serve more as blueprints for the looking-glass world that Satie created around himself, not out of isolation, but because it seemed a more interesting place to be. Many of the entries here could be viewed in relation to the nonsense writing of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Christian Morgenstern, but Satie’s is a distinctly applied nonsense—with heavy overtones of Dada and absurdism. Indeed, Satie was an absurdist par-excellence, but never for mere amusement. His absurdity served as the ethos that he applied to every aspect of his life and work. From his musical annotations to his beautiful calligraphic drawings and “advertisements” for fictional establishment, it becomes increasingly clear that Satie’s reality may have been more of a subjective experience in its nature. Satie wasn’t out to replace reality; he just subverted the one that was already in place. One of the more interesting entries relating to his musical career is a glossary of Satie’s own “Performance Indications,” used in lieu of standard dynamics to annotate his scores. Satie might instruct a measure to be played “Dry as a cuckoo,” “Under the pomegranates,” or “With tears in your fingers.”

While much of Satie’s writing has to do with music and art, he’s never stodgy or academic. Like his music, Satie’s writing is calculated and deliberate, but always with a kind tongue firmly in cheek. He writes, “I started playing snatches of Music which I made up myself . . .  All my troubles stem from this . . .” There’s always a self-awareness present that allows readers to put complete faith in Satie’s charmingly bizarre notions. If kneeling at the altar of benevolent prankster saints is your thing, A Mammal’s Notebook needs to be on your bookshelf.


A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie is published by Atlas Press and distributed by D.A.P./

$35     HB    224 pages, 153 bw illustrations    ISBN: 9781900565660    Pub date: July 31, 2014

Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera by Richard Kraft


Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, MA)


Rowdy, cacophonous, and totally messed-up, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera is a graphic tale that takes the shape of a comic book but wonderfully subverts the form. Using Kaptain Kloss, a Polish comic book from 1971, as a backdrop, Richard Kraft’s collage narrative summons hundreds of characters (animals, religious figures, Nazi soldiers, choir boys, a giant cherub that always seems to be falling on its rump) to the playing field—literally an open space for free association, interpretation, and play. What unfolds is a plotless opera that is, in every sense of the word, hysterical.

In Here Comes Kitty, what is often split into binaries are together at play: order and chaos, reality and dream, sense and nonsense. Containing a dense mix of recognizable real-life figures and imaginary characters, the book feels simultaneously familiar and nightmarishly foreign. The key here is to not stare too hard. A single image—like a blue Margaret Thatcher caught in a maniacal grin pasted onto a soldier’s body, or a man who looks like he just passed gas standing atop a geyser screaming “Goaaaaaaalll!”—is enough to send you into a fit of laughter.

Along with this soccer field exclamation, the book is filled to the brim with language at play. In a way, Here Comes Kitty feels like a compendium of English-language dialects. We hear (this is an opera, after all) the macho slang of soldiers, juvenile cussing, puerile gags and one-liners, babies’ first words, onomatopoeias, poetic rumination, and nonsense, like the barbaric yawp that opens the book: “EEOEOOOOEEEEEOOOOEO.”

Interpolating the comic narrative are Danielle Dutton’s prose poems, which weave another madcap tale into the opera. The poems riff off Kraft’s collages and add more characters to the fray, none more mysterious than the elusive Mania, the “girl with the face of a lonesome man.” The poems are highly associative, highly visual; because of their mesmeric logic, the opera swells to a fever pitch.

Despite all the visual and textual free play, there is much to be read into. An erudite conversation between Richard Kraft and poet and Ann Lauterbach, included at the end of the book, reveals much of Kraft’s influence—Australian Aboriginal songlines, Indian miniature paintings, the Bible, his experience as a child in a boys’ choir, to name only a few—and encourages looking at the book with new interpretive lenses.

The conversation is magnificent, because it asks us to stop dismissing art that appears to be meaningless and encourages us to take up our critical tools and mine for meanings. Don’t let pure rationality take over; don’t let unbridled visions have complete control either—if you let the two work in harmony, the imaginative nuances and mythical subtexts of art will smoothly open outward toward you.

But don’t forget that Here Comes Kitty is raunchy like an NC-17 movie and crazy like recess gone awry.


Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera (with interpolations by Danielle Dutton and a conversation with Ann Lauterbach) is published by Siglio Press and distributed by D.A.P./Artbook.

$32     HB     64 pages, all color     ISBN: 9781938221088     Pub date: April 30, 2015

I Could See Everything by Margaux Williamson


Green Apple Books on the Park (San Francisco) 


There is a deep well of loneliness in the paintings of Margaux Williamson. A nearly empty table. A torso without a face. A figure asleep on a sofa. Even the colors themselves—a largely muted palate of browns and greys—fill the watcher with the sense that something is missing, a world of bright colors that exists at the corner of her vision.

It makes sense then (in a strange way) that I Could See Everything is a collection of Williamson’s paintings from an imaginary exhibit at the imaginary Road at the Top of the World Museum. These are paintings that should exist in the long nights that reach out and strangle the day, the sort of lonely, endless nights that could only exist at the top of the world. Williamson has created a world so separate from, well, what exactly? I won’t say reality because the reality in these pieces—the reality of seeing the world through books and newspapers and the internet—is the reality many of us often find ourselves living in. It is more that Williamson has created pieces that thrive within the limitations of that solitude. A close up on the dress of Scarlet Johansson becomes a study of the spiraling universe. A nearly empty kitchen table becomes a place where art is created. What is small is also infinite. What is ordinary is also beautiful. It is exactly because Williamson employs such a limited perspective in her pieces that they actually feel so expansive and magical, full of the power of that which is unseen in the dark nights at the top of the world.


I Could See Everything is published by Coach House Books and distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution.

$29.95    PB    164 pages with 86 color    ISBN: 9781552452936    Pub date: May 2014 


Tales of the Brothers Grimm with drawings by Natalie Frank


Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle)


Remember the version of Cinderella you watched as a child, with sweetly singing mice and satisfyingly frustrated stepsisters whose feet just wouldn’t fit in the glass slipper? Remember how the adorable fairy godmother swirled some sparkles over Cinderella’s head and made her into a total babe in that huge blue dress? Well, it was all a pretty lie.

In the original, authentic version of the Cinderella folktale that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected in the early 19th century, the stepsisters sliced off their toes and heels to fit their feet into a pure-gold pump that probably weighed about 15 pounds. The blood oozing out of the shoe and all over the prissy prince’s carriage was the only thing that gave them away as pretenders to the Cinderella throne, because the prince apparently had no capacity for facial recognition. There were singing animals, yes, but they were pigeons, and they had a silly tendency to peck people’s eyes out to exact revenge. The fairy godmother was another pigeon who threw fancy things at Cinderella from a tree.

Everyone knows that the original versions of old fairy tales are much more interesting (read: violent) than the versions that are generally presented to kids today, but reading the authentic stories is still pretty jarring—and it should be. These tales were intended to scare mores into a people who dealt with a lot of very scary everyday occurrences. Forget about disease and starvation: keep your promises, or a hedgehog man will stick you with quills until you’re covered in blood. Be nice to ugly people, or you’ll be turned into a donkey and whipped daily until you die. By that same token, the illustrations that accompany these tales in a published volume should not be the beautiful, dainty drawings of Arthur Rackham, wherein twelve dancing princesses jog through a forest. No, they should be more like the amazing, upsetting, sexually-explicit drawings and paintings of Natalie Frank. Reading this book took me a lot longer than I thought it would, because I had to keep stopping to examine her illustrations. It was always a toss-up as to which was more alarming—the stories themselves or the beautiful, terrifying drawings—but I’m so excited to have this book on my shelves for a long time to come. If I ever have kids, they’re going to hear all sides of the story.


Natalie Frank: Tales of the Brothers Grim is published by Damiani and distributed by D.A.P./

$60     HB     272 pages, illustrated throughout     ISBN: 978886208367     Pub date: May 26, 2015