by Aimee Bender
(Doubleday) $23

An Invisible Sign of My Own is the first novel by the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. It's a gorgeously written work of silenced troubles and a small town's habit of looking the other way.

The protagonist, Mona Gray, a 20-year-old elementary school math teacher, uses superstition and the logic of numbers to soothe her worry. Mona has been shutting herself down, rejecting each learned pleasure. She quits running, playing piano, movies, sex. "To quit," she says, "requires an intuitive sense of beauty; you have to feel the moment of turn, right when desire makes an appearance, here is the instant to be severed, whack, this is the moment where quitting is ripe as a peach turning sweet on the vine: snap, the cord is cracked, peach falls to the floor, black and silver with flies."

Bender confronts death and depression, fear of sex, and the way we hold our breath when offering ourselves to intimacy. She also manages to write a really funny book, ridiculous and lighthearted, peopled with a neighbor who wears his mood in wax numbers around his neck, with children who brag and act out the difficult truths.

The pleasure in this book is in these difficult truths, in the fact that we can't fool ourselves into thinking our bodies don't have to be listened to. Our lives are busy with long division and word problems, and when things get difficult, we'd rather lose a finger than think about the death of our parents; we'd rather make sex a silent, shamed thing than worry we might want it too much. This novel is ambitious, well put-together, weighty, and funny; a dark fairy tale told as if it's the mundane truth. ADRIANA GRANT

by Kim Addonizio
(Fiction Collective 2) $12.95

Kim Addonizio's third collection, In the Box Called Pleasure, is a book of prose. Her first two were poetry: The Philosopher's Club and Jimmy and Rita, both with the prestigious small-press house BOA Editions. I know smart poets dig her work, but if I, a fiction writer, get a vote, I'm going to campaign long and hard for more prose. Adonnizio--poet, story writer, whatever she is; maybe channeler is most accurate--is able to give voice to the most desperate, saddest, and most believable urban losers in recent American writing.

In "Testimony," Trish, a not-yet-21-year-old girl, rants at a bunch of people at an AA meeting that she's not an alcoholic--but even if she was (and maybe she does drink a little too much), she'd rather drink than be pathetic and clueless like them. This monologue burns off the page; it's furious, funny, and before you know it, it's kicked you in the stomach. Whoever you are, you've either known or been Trish. Maybe both.

"Til There Was You" recounts with embarrassing accuracy what it's like to be in or around a really talentless bar band. The narrator of this piece gradually figures out that no one in the band can sing or play guitar or is very smart or interesting. Why does she hang around with them for as long as she does? Why do we do a lot of the stupid, hopeless stuff we do? The narrators in this collection are mostly female, though some men tell their stories; and one narrator, in a story called "The Gift," starts out female but acquires, through interesting means, a penis. All of these characters crash around their sad, normal lives trying to figure out why these bodies we have, our klutzy, dumb, and stupid hearts, can turn us into such messes. REBECCA BROWN

by Sue Coe
(Four Walls Eight Windows) $22

Sue Coe's paintings are Rorschachs that bleed off the page. Her previous book, Dead Meat, was adapted from her gallery show Porkopolis. It was a series of images brutally depicting slaughterhouses full of terrified animals and the oppressed wage-slaves losing fingers in the process of butchering them. It was nothing less than a head-on confrontation with brutality. Inspired by political artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Jose Clemente Orozco, Coe's images and companion texts are morality tracts that challenge our complicity.

Coe's work has taken on capitalism, racism, and, with How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, apartheid. Over time her topics have steadily encroached upon her audience's personal space. With her latest book, Pit's Letter, modeled on the 18th-century artist William Hogarth's allegorical series The Four Stages of Cruelty, she takes viewers eye to eye with gore--not the wild, momentary impulse we are accustomed to seeing as violence, but the methodical horror show of animal experimentation and vivisection.

With Pit's Letter, it's as if Goya created one of those children's Golden Books. A simple first-canine narrative told in a letter from Pit to her sister, Pit writes from the grave of her life as a puppy taken in by a boy named Pat, to whom Pit is fiercely loyal. After defending him from his abusive father, she is abandoned along a highway. She is then captured and sent to die in an animal shelter, only to be "rescued" by a bio-engineering lab to be used as research fodder. It's an unrelentingly bleak tale whose ghost dog will haunt you long after you have read it. NATE LIPPENS