Short Stories 

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The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

Hill and Wang, $35/hardcover

True or false: The word "democracy" never appears in the Constitution. If you can't pass the 10-question quiz inside this book's jacket, it's time for a refresher course on how your government functions. Amazingly, Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell keep their history lesson from growing dull with creative illustrations and text explaining the need for, method behind and exact implications of wording in our Constitution. When children and students can learn about the nitty-gritty of articles and amendments through something like a comic book, why have them slog through a text? Nothing says fun-with-Congress like pictures of characters with prominent Washington, D.C., buildings for heads peopling a comic panel. And the answer, by the way, is "true." Matthew Schniper

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The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

Louis Kaplan

University of Minnesota Press, $24.95/paperback

For 12 years, William Mumler photographed portraits of 1860s American society, alive and dead. His uncanny works created a worldwide stir that ultimately led to his trial on felony charges of fraud. No one, even today, can put a finger on just how Mumler created his ghosts, if the photographed subjects are indeed of his manipulation. Louis Kaplan argues for Mumler's credibility with contemporary editorials, manifestos, his own essays and those eerie pictures. He discusses whether or not the pictures are hoaxes not, let it be noted, whether or not paranormal activity exists. And he pulls out all the academic stops, citing Freud and Derrida ... which, sadly, dries out his beguiling subject. By the end of the book, the photos' authenticity no longer mattered; I was too tired to care. Edie Adelstein

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Alphabet Juice

Roy Blount Jr.

Sarah Crichton Books, $25/hardcover

The best description I read of Roy Blount Jr.'s new book, Alphabet Juice, is "It's like the Elements of Style, only updated and hilarious." How true! It's mainly a word usage guide, but told through Blount's humorist lens. Though written alphabetically like a dictionary, Alphabet Juice is tough to read straight through because many of the entries reference other entries and you'll feel tempted to skip ahead just to get the extended (and often laughter-inducing) explanation. It's best just to get over the jumping around, however, and keep reading, because Blount Jr. will help you out with words like "subjunctive" and "malapropism," then bowl you over with "kvetch," "snarky" and "saliva." Put this on your gift list for anyone who is a wordie, or even just a fan of Blount Jr. from his regular gig on National Public Radio's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Kirsten Akens

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Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB

Jaime Lowe

Faber & Faber, Inc., $25/hardcover

In 1995, after dropping his first album, Russell Jones (aka Ol' Dirty Bastard) took his limo to Brooklyn's welfare office to cash an outdated welfare check. Three years later, he organized a 4-year-old girl's rescue, after an accident left her crushed beneath a car. In 2004, ODB was found dead with a bag of cocaine in his stomach, reportedly an accidental overdose. Any exploration of the rise and fall of one of hip-hop's most bizarre characters would almost have to be engaging, and Jaime Lowe has woven a well-researched tale in Digging for Dirt. At times, though, the self-confessed fan in her distracts with her bias: She explains away Jones' drug addiction, his time in prison, and the mental instability that led to his demise, all the while observing our troublesome obsession with train-wreck stardom. By the end, I couldn't help but feel Lowe herself was a bit too obsessed by the troubled man. Kevin Kehl


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