September 23, 2016

Book Review: "Elephant Vice," by Chris Meekings

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Elephant Vice, by Chris Meekings
 
Elephant Vice
By Chris Meekings
Eraserhead Press/New Bizarro Author Series
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
After an influx of an illegal drug hits the coast community of Maybe Beach, two cops are called on to solve the case. Since this is a bizarro novella by Eraserhead Press, things will get weird pretty fast. It turns out the two cops called in are Vincent van Gogh and Ganesha. This mismatched pair learns that this new drug "turns people into the object their essence most resembles." Chris Meekins, part of Eraserhead's stable of new authors, seamlessly brings together an absurdist premise around a gripping cop thriller story. No easy task, since the pairing could fall into the domain of camp. The humor bubbles to the surface because every character is played straight.

As the story develops, we learn about a rogue gang of flamingos and meet Ganesha's assistant, Trish. She's a normal girl except she has bubblegum for hair and drives Ganesha and Vincent around in a filled bathtub. Meekings keeps the plot lunging forward as Vincent and Ganesha discover more and more dead bodies killed by the drug. We also learn about a mysterious character named M. Equal parts hard-boiled detective novel and Art History 101, Elephant Vice had me riveted right up to the end. For those who like their fiction a little strange, this is the novel for you. Violence, romance, thwarted love, jealousy, and a Hindu God and the master of French Post-Impressionism teaming up to solve crimes.
 
Out of 10/9.0
 
Read even more about Elephant Vice: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, September 23, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

September 22, 2016

Book Review: "American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story" by Tom Acitelli

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, by Tom Acitelli

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story
By Tom Acitelli
Chicago Review Press
Reviewed by

For those who don't know, instead of doing one or two New Year's "resolutions" at the beginning of each year, I actually chart out an entire new year-long "plan" for myself, containing 40 to 50 new things I want to try or old habits to break, which is why it seems sometimes that I'm constantly referencing an endless list of them here at the blog as the year continues. One of these items in 2016 was to finally teach myself more about wine, not to a sommelier level or anything, but just enough so I no longer embarrass myself at restaurants; and so that's had me not only doing professional-style tasting notes of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes at my pop-culture blog all year, and renting out every single movie Netflix even carries on the subject, but also checking out a lot of wine books from my local library, especially brand-new ones which the Chicago Public Library system seems to be acquiring at a faster-than-usual rate these days.

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is the absolute latest, an informative and fact-based look at how the US went from producing zero public wine at all during Prohibition, to becoming the world's leader in both production and consumption by 2000, a scant 70 years later. The answer, it turns out, is a long and fascinating one, and also nicely serves as a mirror for the entire Postmodernist Era to begin with: from the post-war Europhiles of the 1950s who dreamed of a day that Americans would have the casual yet sophisticated relationship to wine that they saw in France and Italy while overseas; to the daring California hippies of the 1960s and '70s who aimed for the so-called "impossible" goal of making wine just as good as the French (SPOILER ALERT: it's not impossible); to the yuppies of the '80s who made the American wine industry both mainstream and lucrative; to the Gen-X foodies of the '90s and '00s who brought a whole new level of refinement to the market, as well as embracing wines from such interesting new places like Seattle and Portland; to the Millennials of our own times, comfortable with the casual screw-tops and hipster labels of 21st-century fine wine, even as they present a challenge to the American market because of their embrace of the so-called "New World" wines of Australia, South Africa, South America and more.

Tom Acitelli presents this entire 70-year history in an engaging, anecdote-filled way here, an informative yet fun-to-read manuscript filled with the kinds of details and deep backstory that makes the history finally understandable. (Just for one example, many of us already know about the 1976 so-called "Judgment of Paris," in which a bunch of American wines beat a bunch of French wines in a blind tasting and became a major global turning point for the industry; but Acitelli devotes an entire chapter to who the guy was who set up the tasting and why that's so important, how it got covered by the media and why it made that particular tasting so influential, etc.) The whole book is like this, a parade of famous and infamous figures combined with a detail-oriented look at the winemaking process, how the historical selection of grapes by these wineries (as well as the technological innovations of the Mid-Century Modernist years) influenced this process, and how the popular culture going on around these winemakers shaped and influenced this history. (It's impossible to understand the rise of American wine, for example, without understanding the rise of the macrame-making, yoga-posing, James-Taylor-listening middle-class hippies of the 1970s, and Acitelli devotes a lot of his page count simply to looking at what the Americans with discretionary income were doing with their time in each era to influence the wine market in those years.) Easily one of the best books on the subject I've read this year, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is a lively and wide-reaching account of a subject that's often hard to pin down, and it comes strongly recommended whether or not you're particularly into wine yourself.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 22, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

September 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Hatred of Poetry," by Ben Lerner

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Hatred of Poetry
By Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Ben Lerner, himself a poet, makes a bold claim near the start of this book: that poetry is "an art hated from within and without" (6). He even offers an example of a poet who hates poetry, Marianne Moore, who seems to view her own art more as a necessary evil than anything else. I suppose to a degree you have to agree with Lerner's thesis that poetry is a widely-hated thing to get where he's coming from here. I'd say there's a chance he's exaggerating a little. While I know plenty of people in the anti-poetry camp, penty of others love both reading and writing it and I imagine they might find Lerner's claim that it's a widely-hated art in need of defense a little bizarre. Yet it's easy to see why in the twenty-first century, with poetry at its least publically visible, why the time might've come for someone to stick up for it.

Lerner's declaration is bold and his method of defending poetry is even bolder. Much of it is built on an acknowledgment of the genre's shortcomings. He begins his defense by citing Plato, who found no place for poets in his Republic and who derided poetry for being a pale imitation of our thought. This is the basis of his argument, and he moves through it quite well, citing the various failures of poets over the centuries. Everyone from William McGonagall, widely considered the worst poet in history, to giants like Walt Whitman come into play. According to Lerner, all of these poets attempt to "transcend representation and defeat time" (30), McGonagall through his bizarre juxtapositions and bizarre rhythms, Whitman by attempting to at once speak for himself and the whole of the United States. After acknowledging this flaw, he then flips it on its head by bringing up Claudia Rankine, whom he argues solves the issue of "transcending representation and defeating time" by writing extended essay-poems precisely about the difficulty of that issue.

Lerner's analysis of other poets is strong, and if I can't say I was convinced by his arguments, it's only because I see the necessity of poetry anyway. Suffice it to say he makes me think a little harder about Rankine and Whitman, and suffice it also to say that it's fun to see McGonagall's "Tay Bridge Disaster" raked over the coals. While I'm here, it's also comforting to know that someone agrees with my theory that terrible art has more in common with great art than it does with mediocre art. So if anything's missing here, it's Lerner himself. He writes extensively about his own relationship with poetry - reciting the Moore poem in question while in ninth grade, studying under poet Allen Grossman - and yet I still wonder about Lerner's own process, his own frustrations with poetry. He claims to have a tumultuous relationship with the genre from the outset, but any sense of that tumult we get is more abstract, more academic. Which is great, which makes for some fine analysis, but I do rather wish he'd turned that analysis inward.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about The Hatred of Poetry: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 21, 2016. Filed under:

September 20, 2016

CCLaP Rare: "Armadale" by Wilkie Collins (1866), 1st American Ed., 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

(CCLaP is now selling rare and unusual books through the main website, shipped to customers through USPS Priority Mail and with full refunds always guaranteed. To see the latest full list of volumes for sale, please click here).

Armadale (1866)
By Wilkie Collins
First American Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins has sadly started to slip into obscurity here in the 21st century, or at least he's no longer a household name like his good buddy Charles Dickens still is; and that's a shame, because Collins was actually the second biggest-selling novelist of the entire 19th century (next to Dickens himself), and the man who virtually invented what we now know as "noir" or "detective" tales, which at the time was called "sensation stories" by a scandalized public. Take Armadale, for example, the third of his explosively popular barnburner epics from the 1860s (after The Lady in White, the book he's still most remembered for, and the equally popular No Name); clocking in at just under a thousand pages, it tells a convoluted story about three different generations of men all named Allen Armadale, and how a family feud turned into a curse that was passed down from father to son to grandson, fated to ruin the lives of all the Armadale men no matter what they might do to try to stop it.

Hmm, or is it? That's the question under discussion in this surprisingly modern-sounding tale, of whether we are destined to befall to things like family fates or whether we have control via free will over our futures, told mostly through the story of the youngest Armadale and his bizarrely coincidental adventures with the cousin who supposedly is fated to be his killer, who has changed his name to Ozias Midwinter and has spent his twenties as a vagabond specifically to avoid this curse, just to end up through strange random circumstances within Armadale's closest circles against his will. Granted, a big part of enjoying this book is being able to accept the ludicrous amounts of coincidences and deus ex machina plot turns that make this story work, a forte of Collins' writing and something that used to be a much more common element of this genre, back before the 20th century pared it down into the more hardboiled version we know today; but it also has all the hallmarks of the kind of noir stories we enjoy even in the 21st century, including all the sex and violence within a tranquil domestic environment you would expect, and Collins' trademark emphasis on strong, complex and layered female characters, something nearly unheard of in his day (and not too common even in our own age, to tell the truth). For any collector interested in the seminal 1800s books that eventually produced our modern literary genres, Wilkie Collins' work is a must-have in your library; and at its extremely affordable price today (but see "Condition" below for more), this makes a great addition for beginners and those on a budget.

CONDITION: Good Minus (G-). Today's copy being auctioned admittedly has several major condition issues, which is why it's being sold for the affordable price it is (copies in Fine condition go for literally ten times the amount). Flaws include an outer spine cover that fell off sometime in the past and was glued back on; an inner flap page that comes included with the book but that has been completely torn out; a second signature that is intact but loose; browned page edges; and just the tiniest start of foxing on the inner flaps. Issued without a dust jacket. Note that this is the first American edition, which was released to the public a month before the British edition, including an advertisement for Harpers Weekly that serves as the first printed page of the manuscript.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at The Strand bookstore, New York City, July 2012.

eBay auction
MINIMUM BID: US$30 / BUY THIS MOMENT FOR $60

(If coming across this in the future, see CCLaP's main page at eBay for the relisted auction URL)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 20, 2016. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

September 16, 2016

Book Review: "Dangerous Stories for Boys," by Christopher Bernard

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Dangerous Stories for Boys, by Christopher Bernard
 
Dangerous Stories for Boys
By Christopher Bernard
A Press of Rabble
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Christopher Bernard's new collection of short stories, Dangerous Stories for Boys is a mixed bag by turns frustrating, astonishing, and off-putting. Since this is the second collection of short stories of Bernard's I've reviewed, I've come to the realization I like his long-form work much better. Since reviews are a product of subjectivity and personal taste, the inevitable Your Mileage May Vary caveat remains in place. The issue being there were stories I liked, stories I didn't like, and a story that seemed totally out of place in the collection.

Bernard shoulders the difficult task of contemplating where the white heterosexual male fits in modern US culture. This is no idle musing or patriarchal challenge. Unfortunately, as the short story collection moves along, it becomes the case of well-meaning intentions bungled in execution. One longer story follows a teenage blogger writing strident screeds about things wrong with the world. Much of the story's content had merit. Parents don't understand. Rampant racism and idiocy. Teenage love. The problem was I couldn't get beyond the fact that it was written by a middle-aged man trying to sound like a teen. Everything had the feel of world-weary wisdom. Although the term "authentic" is over-used and borderline meaningless, especially when used to describe cuisine and politicians, the teen didn't sound authentic. It's a challenging perspective to make sound right.

While that story rubbed me the wrong way, another long piece near the end tells about a misbegotten flirtation between a moody high school guy and a Muslim girl who wear a veil to cover her face. He begins obsessing over her beautiful eyes and they have touching conversations. If he pries too deep, she chides him, saying, "FBI! FBI!" Then she suddenly disappears, the guy suspecting it might be an honor killing. We never know for sure, as his amateur investigations turn into an unhealthy obsession. It is Vertigo meets Atlas Shrugged. I bring up the latter work because during his obsessive quest to find the Muslim girl, he contemplates American culture, feminism and Islam, and the dress codes of American and Muslim women. He contemplates and then contemplates some more. The narrative, propelled forward with the intensity of a thriller, slams to a complete halt. The story ends with his embrace of Islam, leaving me with a bad aftertaste. Mainly because he seemed a bright young man suddenly turned into a credulous toady. I didn't buy it.

The final story is Franz Kafka's father writing his son a letter. It seemed interesting, but came across as a literary stunt. The piece felt out of place, especially coming on the heels of the love story/thriller/non-fiction essay. My biggest critique of these stories stems not from their overall intention, but more from the fact Bernard was using a cudgel instead of a scalpel. The title also was a bit too on-the-nose for me. When approaching something like American masculinity, the best approach isn't a frontal attack or scathing critique.
 
Out of 10/8.0
 
Read even more about Dangerous Stories for Boys: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, September 16, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

September 14, 2016

First Time Around: "The Edible Woman," by Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood


(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)


Now, I don't have any figures or anything to back this up, but I'll bet that when readers hear the name "Margaret Atwood," the first thing that comes to mind is feminism. Now, I don't have a problem with feminism, so this doesn't bother me too much. Definitely not from the ideological perspective, although I'd raise the point that the feminist overtones of Atwood's work tend to be something of a critical black hole. Her interaction with fables, fairy tales and science fiction, her substantial formal experiments (2000's the Blind Assassin, which layered four narratives, is her biggest gamble and probably finest work), her strong prose sensibilities and her ability to write well-rounded characters tend to take a backseat to gender issues. Obviously gender issues are an important part of what Atwood does - this part of the discourse around her certainly isn't the result of English majors reading too much into her work - but they really oughtn't be ignored by anyone trying to figure out just what it is Margaret Atwood does.

With all of that said, it's hard to miss the feminism in the Edible Woman. As I said, gender never really goes away in her works, but some of them feature it more prominently than others. Obviously the Handmaid's Tale, her massively acclaimed and massively popular 1985 novel, is built around the role women play in the world and their oppression at the hands of society, where a novel like 1989's Cat's Eye seems to take it on more as a secondary concern. With the Edible Woman, it comes to the fore, maybe more than anything else I've read by her except the Handmaid's Tale. Of course, you can get that from the jacket flap. Marian, preparing for marriage with the solid but also bland and demanding Peter, first finds herself unable to eat, then finds herself feeling eaten. Really that's the plot in a nutshell, but it's missing a few key points, so let us dive in.

Marian works at a survey company and rooms with a woman named Ainsley. Marian, of course, is preparing for marriage with Peter. However, Peter has mixed feelings about the oncoming marriage, as he's afraid of settling down. Certainly he's noticed a difference in his married college friends and wouldn't want that for himself. For her part, Ainsley is determined to have a baby, but does not want it to know its father. So already we see conflicting messages about the role of women, Ainsley embracing motherhood as a beautiful thing, Peter rejecting a wife as a burden. Complicating Marion's impression of herself as a woman further is her married friend Clara, who rather loathes and is completely beholden to her three children.

Even before the plot's complications kick in, Marian struggles to situate her image of herself as a soon-to-be wife. Things complicate seriously when she meets a young man named Duncan, a student whose behavior is sometimes cruel, sometimes socially inept, always indifferent to any sort of consequences. He shows little regard for Marian's feelings, yet she finds herself oddly drawn to him, perhaps because he has so deliberately removed himself from the societal models Marian finds frustrating. They become entangled, and their entanglement inevitably clashes against her engagement with Peter. Around when she becomes involved with Duncan, she finds herself unable to eat. Meats first, as it occurs to her that meats come from living creatures. Eggs next, after she hears an account about someone finding an unhatched chick in an egg.

Of course, this spirals out of control as the novel progresses, but it's not the primary focus. That threw me off a little. I was expecting her struggles against her own rebelling body to be a more primary source of conflict. Instead, Atwood focuses on the increasingly complex relationship between Duncan and his roommates, Marion and Peter, and Ainsley. Rather than form the core of the conflict, Marion's inability to eat serves a strong symbolic function. Simply put, Marion spends the novel spending more and more like an object to be consumed, less and less like a person with agency. In successive scenes, we see her as fuel for Peter's quarter-life crisis, sexual needs, and social standing; fuel for Duncan and his roommates' egos; and as the novel reaches its climax, fuel for society's various perceptions about women. Like many great writers, most notably Kafka, Atwood understands the value and power of literalizing a metaphor. Marion comes to first identify with food and then feel as though she is food, which would make eating too horrifying of an act for her to bear. This would also justify one of the novel's stranger formalistic moves, Atwood's decision to narrate the first and third parts in the first person, but give the second part in the third person. Marion feels as though she is losing her humanity, progressing from subject to object.

All of this is quite heady and could potentially be overwhelming if Atwood, like Kafka, didn't have such a great sense of humor. The climax, which of course I'll keep hidden, illustrates it most obviously, but also check out a scene where Duncan's roommates pontificate about Alice in Wonderland, or some of Marion and Ainsley's banter toward the beginning, or a scene where Marion distributes surveys about beer and is handed a flyer from a temperance organization. The humor never feels distasteful or poorly timed or anything of the sort; rather it serves to add a dimension of satire to the work, and the satire expands its scope. Misogyny strikes me as Atwood's center here, but I see broader jabs at a consumption-based society woven throughout. Of course, that also points at Atwood's future development. Consumption-based society is one of her favorite targets. Nowhere is this more pointedly illustrated than her later Maddaddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, the Year of the Flood, and of course Maddaddam), and these undertones of her fiction took root with this very book. Prose-wise it's also quite strong, with great metaphors like "She bore a chilling resemblance to a general plotting a major campaign" (89); meanwhile, the word "immature" is turned "over like a curious pebble found on a beach" (180).

So far it might sound like I'm painting an excellent book, and indeed the Edible Woman is a strong first outing. Yet it has its weaknesses. I felt it hit a bit of a lull about two-thirds in, rather spinning on narrative wheels, but the party scene that forces the climax shocks the book out of its patterns and brings us to a strong and striking conclusion. That's not too big of a problem, then. Rather bigger is a tendency Atwood never really resolved, the tendency to over-explain. I'll sometimes get frustrated with her habit of implying a given emotion into a line of dialog and then coming out and telling us what we were supposed to take from it. I've found at least one instance of this in every Atwood book I've read and I'm still not over it. Maybe it's a product of her narrative style. She leans toward either first person or close third, lots of internal monolog and impressions. Sometimes Marion's impressions complicate the narrative, the events, or her feelings; other times they simply echo what's already on the table. I've also found Atwood to overuse adverbs, which of course slips right in with the "overexplaining" thing.

We all know what happened next. Atwood became one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed authors of the contemporary period. She's one of the single most famous literary fiction authors currently alive, up there with the likes of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison for instant name recognition. If I've got my facts right, the process was rather slow. While she was quite popular in her native Canada from the beginning, the Handmaid's Tale was crucial in upping her name recognition. From then on out, she's released many of her most acclaimed novels - Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, the Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake and so forth. In addition to writing novels, she had a career as a poet from even before this novel, and she writes all sorts of short fiction. She's been especially prolific lately, with a book a year since 2013 and her sixteenth novel, Hag-Seed, due out in October. You can bet I'll be reviewing that.

So it's interesting to see what Atwood had worked out from the beginning and what wouldn't stick around. This is the only release I've read by her without her famous sci-fi, fantasy and mythological touches, and it's not nearly as sweeping as books like the Handmaid's Tale and the Blind Assassin, with their huge universes and their multiple timelines and their competing conspiracies. Nor had she developed the immersive prose style that drew me into the Blind Assassin. Yet it's a fascinating example of an author finding her feet, and that is the whole reason why I started this series in the first place.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 14, 2016. Filed under:

September 7, 2016

Book Review: "The Transmigration of Bodies," by Yuri Herrera

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Transmigration of Bodies
By Yuri Herrera
And Other Stories
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I must not read enough noir. Yuri Herrera earned himself all sorts of praise for his previous novel, 2015's Signs Preceding the End of the World, blurbed by no less than Valeria Luiselli. Yet I somehow missed it. Yuri Herrara didn't even make my radar until I picked this book up at the library, and I only did so because I found the title compelling. Maybe I was too caught up in all of the other authors that were having a big year in 2015, but I'd definitely be interested in reading it. I'd certainly like to read more noir outside of Chandler and Hammett; I've seen a lot more noir movies than I've read noir novels, and I keep searching for an ideal starting point for the genre's more modern incarnation.

I'm not sure whether The Transmigration of Bodies qualifies, but it was certainly interesting. Herrara's prose can sometimes be clumsy - the less said about his sex scenes, the better - but when he's on, he writes with a nice sense of atmosphere and comes up with the sort of wild similes only a noir writer could. A pedestrian has "eyes wide as an illuminati" (70), for example. He also came up with a compelling plot for this one, which in noir is a lot of the work. The novel's setting, an unnamed city, is wracked both by plague and two warring gangs. When the respective children of the two gang lords find themselves held hostage by the rival gangs, the protagonist, known only as the Redeemer, has to negotiate their releases.

Bartering captives is one of the Redeemer's skills, so he shouldn't be blamed for the fact that the negotiation doesn't quite get off as planned. This is a noir novel, after all, so things will always slip out of the hero's control. He's a lot better at playing the role of the noir protagonist, which at once makes the novel entertaining and a little predictable. I'd like to give Herrera the benefit of the doubt and say that he portrayed the Redeemer as such to sort of deconstruct and analyze noir tropes, but noir tropes have been so thoroughly deconstructed and analyzed that it's hard to tell whether he's getting under the genre's hood. The story was compelling, the plague-racked city was a nice formal touch, but ultimately the Redeemer himself rendered things a little dull. Maybe Signs Preceding the End of the World is better. People keep calling that book amazing.

Oh, and I get why people compare this book to Romeo and Juliet, but don't go in expecting noir Shakespeare or anything like that.

Out of 10: 7.3

Read even more about The Transmigration of Bodies: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 7, 2016. Filed under:

September 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Mirror Thief" by Martin Seay

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Mirror Thief, by Martin Seay

The Mirror Thief
By Martin Seay
Melville House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So yes, I admit it, I went into Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief specifically searching for things I could find wrong with it, because it's been the subject this year of overhype -- a 600-page debut novel that spans across three different timeframes and genres, it's earned Seay a lot more mainstream press than most first-time novelists will ever see, where people have started comparing it regularly to the work of Thomas Pynchon -- and anytime I hear of these kinds of accolades for a debut novel, I'm immediately suspicious of the book in question, and about whether it's getting these accolades because of an overzealous marketing staff and a million-dollar promotional budget, and not because of its actual quality. But lo and behold if this didn't turn out to be a pretty great book anyway, despite all the hype; and although I can't attest to how closely it sounds like Pynchon (believe it or not I've never actually read any of his work, and I know, shame on me), it did remind me quite a bit of an author I'm a near-completist of, and one of my all-time favorite currently working writers in America, the fellow genre-bending Neal Stephenson.

Like Stephenson, Seay turns in an uber-story here, telling one giant interrelated story but through three sections that at first don't seem to have any connection -- a detective tale among con artists in Las Vegas during the Bush years, a coming-of-age story among the beat poets and juvie gangs of 1950s California, and a steampunk thriller set in 1500s Italy, in which a European alchemist is hired by the Ottoman Empire to steal away a crew of master mirror-makers from the tightly controlled monopoly of such fine craftsmen the Kingdom of Venice had over the industry at the time. And like Stephenson, the tendrils of these three threads start weaving tighter and tighter together as you make your way through the oversized book, until coming to a satisfying conclusion that finally fuses them all together (or, satisfying in my eyes, anyway, but more on that in a bit). Like Stephenson, there's a bit of an metaphysical element floating throughout the storylines, not the main point but just enough otherworldliness so that you can't quite call this simple literary fiction; and like Stephenson, the novel is a great example of big concepts being bandied about through plain language, a thought-provoking yet easy-to-read epic that will have you finished with the whole thing faster than you thought it would take.

In fact, there's really one major criticism to be made about the book; that a lot of people (judging by the reviews I've read from others) seem to miss the point Seay is trying to make at the end, and who complain that the three different story threads don't come together enough in the climax to make for a satisfying read. And it's true -- despite the comparison, Seay simply doesn't bring the whole thing crashing together in the same exciting and mind-blowing way that Stephenson is known for in his own multiple-thread epics (or for that matter, Stephenson's genre peer William Gibson, who became famous in the '80s precisely for his ability to juggle multiple storylines into one massive satisfying whole by the end). But that's not Seay's goal in the first place, so it's unfair to criticize him for failing to do something he never planned on doing to begin with; instead his goal is more along the lines of Battlestar Galactica's concept of "all of this has happened before and it will all eventually happen again," a more delicate type of thread-tying that's more about noticing and appreciating the subtle similarities between each storyline, the manner in which they each echo and reflect the others in intriguing ways, and less about tying them all together into one giant uber-climax that informs all three parts in equal ways all at once. In all it makes for a really engaging and enjoyable reading experience, an impressively self-assured debut that makes it easy to see why it's been generating so much buzz, and it comes strongly recommended to a general audience precisely because of this.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about The Mirror Thief: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 1, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 31, 2016

Book Review: "Our Dried Voices," by Greg Hickey

Title, by Author

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Our Dried Voices
By Greg Hickey
Scribe Publishing Company
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

You want to talk about incredibly false clichés of fiction that should go as far away as possible and never come back? Okay, let me run one by you: "all books have boring exposition, they don't get good until the plot starts up." Of course, some books have dull exposition, but exposition doesn't have to be a boring slog. In fact, I find a good work of fiction's exposition quite exciting, as it presents a model where everything is possible and anything can happen, a space in a novel or short story where intrigues and conflicts emerge but still have room to build, thus allowing my imagination to run wild. Besides, who doesn't love that breathless first chapter of Moby-Dick? Or the incredible set pieces Pynchon and Morrison use to set Gravity's Rainbow and Song of Solomon in motion? Or the brawl that begins Invisible Man? The opening pages aren't a necessary evil, a place to offload the boring preliminaries so the reader can then get into the action. They're part of the action, the very thing that gets the readers hooked.

To his credit, Greg Hickey is aware enough of this to begin Our Dried Voices with a sort of mystery. After a lengthy timeline detailing the colonization of another planet, he launches into the disruption of the colonists' daily lives. First their food machine breaks down, then their carefully regulated weather, and finally their sleeping quarters lock up. It's efficiently plotted, and Hickey does offer us a few glimpses at the people that inhabit this colony. This is how an author can use exposition to draw a reader in. Yet I found myself uncompelled by Hickey's exposition just the same. Part of it has to do with his prose, which is mostly dry and overladen with modifiers (a "private half-smirk" here, "calmly confident" characters there) and devoid of any distinctive qualities. Words seem like a simple means to an end to Hickey, and this bothers me. Some of it also strikes me as linguistically impossible; at one point, the colonists "slept lightly, and many seemed to dream." I didn't know people tended to dream while sleeping lightly. I'm also bothered by the protagonist, Samuel, who lacks personality and interiority.

Yet the main problem is, for all the intrigue Hickey builds, he fails to tell a terribly compelling or original story. The colony he builds is idyllic and climate-controlled, everyone provided plenty of food and comfortable sleeping quarters and therefore free to lounge around in the sun and have sex and all other matters of fun. So of course its citizens are emotionally stunted, incapable of true connection, and hostile toward those interested in connecting, of course its protagonist craves connection, and of course trouble emerges in this questionable paradise. Speculative fiction has the power to make readers reconsider their own surroundings - think The Martian Chronicles, think Kindred, think the Left Hand of Darkness. Yet when its premise ticks but fails to illuminate so many sci-fi boxes, it's hard to count Our Dried Voices among the powerful or memorable.

Out of 10: 5.1

Read even more about Our Dried Voices: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:37 AM, August 31, 2016. Filed under:

August 26, 2016

Book Review: "Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories," by Orrin Grey

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts, by Orrin Grey

Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories
By Orrin Grey
Introduction by John Langan
Word Horde
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

A strange figure looming in the darkness across the street. Decadent revelers inside a decrepit hotel. A dead author obsessed with modern culture's obsession with Jack the Ripper, his wrists slashed in a grisly suicide. The grotesque mingle with the banal in Orrin Grey's Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories. The volume brings together short stories previously published in other anthologies. Reading Grey's personal notes after each story provided a peek into his creative process and inspirations.

Grey is a master of the horror short story, setting the scene with just the right amount of menace. If noir is about ordinary folks getting caught up in bad decisions, horror is about ordinary folks encountering something wrong. The wrongness can take many forms: supernatural, monstrous, or human. Something in the established order of things has gone awry. What makes reading Painted Monsters so enjoyable is Grey's gift for imbuing an otherwise normal atmosphere with an amorphous dread. Things seem to occur just out of frame. A character catches a strange figure in the corner of his eye. "The White Prince" is a fractured fairytale, full of slime and lust. "Remains," told through a Cockney narrator, tells the story of Victorian grave robbers working for a university medical researcher. Other stories include Ripperologists - obsessive researchers dedicated to the mythology of Jack the Ripper - and a libertine wastrel throwing his last big theme party before retirement.

My only real quibble was Grey's over-reliance on dream sequences. It seemed like the phrase, "And then I had a dream ..." occurred in every story. For all the innovation and grisly subject matter, these dream sequences made the short stories feel formulaic. It would have been nice to shake up the format a little. Since they occurred with such regularity, it ruined the unpredictable nature inherent within the horror genre. I don't want to know what happens next. At a certain point, the dream sequences were telegraphing. But this shouldn't push you away from Painted Monsters. Grey has the power and the talent to harness that primordial urge, that primitive desire to be shocked and horrified. He plumbs the depths of human depravity. It is easy to become jaded reading horror. Grey provides more than cheap thrills and jump scares. His stories reach for something more, a dark nightmarish gore we try to hide from the world. Orrin Grey has potential for really great work. He taps the vein that fed the work of Clive Barker and Jim Thompson.

Out of 10/8.5, higher for horror junkies.

Read even more about Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, August 26, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

August 24, 2016

Book Review: "Know the Mother," by Desiree Cooper

Title, by Author


(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Know the Mother
By Desiree Cooper
Wayne State University Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

As you might've inferred from the title, this is a book about gender, and as you might've inferred from the cover, this is a book about race. Yet it's also a book about real and tangible anxiety. Children, parents and relatives die; marriages break down; characters face racism and sexism and have trouble adjusting to their surroundings; and above all, people try to reassure themselves that things are okay when things very definitely are not. Don't come into this collection expecting a fun time, in other words. It's a powerful and striking collection, especially when it's at its best, but it's not exactly a breezy summer read.

I called these "short stories," but that feels like something of an understatement. The average story length here is about three pages. The shortest handful are under a page, while the longest, "Reporting for Duty," is a ten-page chronicle of a disastrous road trip that only gets worse when the family in question arrives at a hotel. In some ways, the shorter lengths of the stories work against this book. If Cooper had cut out a few of the less memorable shorter pieces and instead included strong longer pieces, more of these stories would've stuck with me. That's the downside of the rapid-fire approach, although the upside of it is the lesser pieces fly right by.

Still, Cooper reveals herself to be a versatile writer on the best pieces here. The strongest and most dramatic one is probably "Cartoon Blue," where a lawyer miscarries during a conference call. It closes with the haunting image "Beneath me runs a clotted river. The water is red. The walls are a cooling-board brown" (42), which also illustrates the odd balance of Cooper's prose, neither minimalism nor quite high-flown lyricism. Her sense of immediacy also comes into stories like "Something Falls in the Night," about a break-in, or "Home for the Holidays," about a horrifying encounter with racism on the freeway.

Yet she also excels at digging drama and anxiety out of mundane situations. Take for instance "Laughter and Caprice," where a teacher asks her students "When is it proper to spit in a man's face?" (19) and gets an answer she doesn't expect. Or "Cleopatra," where casual sexism and casual racism wreak havoc on the protagonist's psyche. Or, to complicate things a little, "Night Coming," about an African-American woman from upper-class Atlanta who struggles to adjust to Detroit life. That's why I still very much appreciate this collection despite the lesser stories - when Cooper's at her best, she excels at the microfiction thing.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about Know the Mother: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, August 24, 2016. Filed under:

August 17, 2016

First Time Around: "Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson

Title, by Author

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Housekeeping
By Marilynne Robinson
Picador, 1980
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I've noticed these first novels tend to be outliers for authors who would go onto establish an inimitable style. Think of the fascinating untaken roads the fractured structure of the Bluest Eye presented for Toni Morrison, the shagginess Don DeLillo tapped into with Americana that he has all but shed in the ensuing decades, or, if you want to talk about an author I haven't covered but might, the massive difference between Beckett's Murphy and any of his later prose works. Whether you'd like to attribute this to a lack of confidence on the part of young writers or a youthful desire to experiment, the results are still basically the same: first novels tend to read quite strangely when stacked up against an author's later work.

So where does Marilynne Robinson fit into all this? It's hard to say for certain, but Housekeeping certainly complicates my model. It doesn't have anything to do with the other Robinson novel I've read, 2004's Gilead; for that matter, it doesn't have anything to do with any other novel I've read at all Despite its 1980 publication date, it doesn't mark the never-actually-made transition between the wild postmodern digression so common in the 1970s and the Carveresque "dirty realism" that emerged as the dominant in the '80s (except it didn't, given that the most acclaimed novelists of the '80s were probably Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood and none of them have anything to do with "dirty realism," but the narrative wants us to believe the '80s were minimalism's time in the sun, so what can a poor boy do?), because it doesn't fit into any real established movements at all.
Housekeeping is indelibly itself, a self-contained novel that can be compared to no other novels in existence.
So it invites us to reconsider our question earlier - "why are so many first novels so different from the rest? Lack of confidence or youthful experimentation?" - and it doesn't invite us to any easy answers. Robinson proceeds through this novel with the utmost confidence. I see evidence for this in its prose, with lines like "So whatever we may lose, very craving brings us back again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries" (153) bringing a spiritual presence into the text without either resorting to the clichés of spiritual writing or hedging, while at the same point operating gorgeously on a rhythmic and linguistic level. Check out the recurring three-syllable patterns, "fosters us, smooths our hair," and the calming effect it creates. It's also present in Robinson's approach to plot, which is nothing whatsoever like a convention novel.

The pacing in this book is weird, make no mistake about it. The jacket summary promises that the protagonist, Ruth, will be raised first by her grandmother, then by her great-aunts, and finally by her Aunt Sylvie. Now, upon reading this, I got the impression that Ruth and her sister Lucille would spend a good deal of time with her grandmother and her great-aunts, but Robinson shatters this expectation; the grandmother is out of the picture by the end of the first chapter, which admittedly at thirty pages is longer than average, and the great-aunts, who mainly function as comic relief, clear out by the end of the second. Not even fifty pages in, and we've already passed through two rounds of caretakers. This isn't just semantic quibbling on my part, either. I'm talking about how caretakers function as plot points, my expectation that the grandmother would stand for one phase of Ruth and Lucille's life and the great-aunts would stand for another and, by the time we get around to Sylvie in all her strangeness, Ruth would find herself in her third and most permanent phase.

Yet it makes sense, at least according to this novel's logic (and if we can't accept that the logic of an individual novel sometimes supersedes the conventional wisdom about how to write books, where we we?), that Ruth should pass through caretakers so fast before she gets to Sylvie. This novel is fascinated with the transience of all things, including that old standby of stability, the nuclear family. Not to give anything away, but nobody think for a moment that Ruth's seen the last of transience just because she settles with Sylvie. Sylvie, for her part, alters Ruth's perspective on life, caretaking, the works. Any sense of Ruth and Lucille getting a conventional and respectable upbringing is shattered by Sylvie's sheer Sylvie-ness. She moves them into the house of the title, a sprawling and ancient thing in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho. This house has little if anything by way of modern conveniences, even lacking electricity. Sylvie, who spends most of her life on the road anyway and who abandons her adopted daughters for days on end, doesn't seem to care about this. Ruth also grows to appreciate it, and grows close about as close to Sylvie as anyone can get. On the other hand, Lucille strains against Sylvie's oddities, and ends up being the closest thing to a plot engine in this novel. A professor of mine once defined "plot" as simply "things that happen in a book," and part of Housekeeping's fundamental oddity is how confidently it abandons the conventional arc in favor of letting things happen in a more naturalistic fashion.

Besides, Robinson seems far more interested in the peculiar relationship between Sylvie and Ruth than she does in making an arc move forward. Along with this, I'd say, she's interested in the nature of female relationships. Men are barely a presence in this novel, as everyone of consequence is a woman. Sylvie, Ruth and Lucille have no love interests, encounter very few male authority figures, and only have faint memories of the men in their family, most notably a quasi-legendary grandfather who drove a train into a lake long before Ruth and Lucille were born. This leaves Robinson with the option of exploring perhaps the most prominent relationship women have in literature, the mother-daughter dynamic, except she sometimes subverts it and sometimes completely ignores it. Sylvie doesn't function as much of a mother. She enforces zero rules, she's too distant and to be nurturing, and she acts more as an eccentric housemate than anything else.

This allows Robinson to open up a far more complicated relationship dynamic between her and Ruth. Sometimes Ruth seems to mother both her sister and her aunt. Other times, like in an unforgettable boat trip sequence, Sylvie serves as a sort of priest for the novel's implacable spiritualism. Robinson has a certain relationship with Christianity, so I'm sure that's an influence on this book's sense of spirituality, but I (admittedly someone without much of a relationship to Christianity, but that's neither here nor there) don't really detect it in the book's spiritualism, which seems to focus less on salvation or sins and more on the incalculable hugeness of things. Maybe that, above the odd plot motion and the unique prose and the redefinition human relationships, is what makes Housekeeping such a singular novel.

After this book, Robinson spent twenty-four years tweaking her follow-up Gilead, which finally came out in 2004 and promptly won her a Pulitzer. She's sped up since then, releasing two more novels that apparently serve as sequels to Gilead; 2008's Home and 2014's Lila, both also released to considerable acclaim. I've struggled to get into Gilead, but I'll go back to it once a year, hoping it'll reveal to me what so many other people seem to love. She's also written a handful of nonfiction books, none of them as prominent as her novels, and taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She's also earned herself a prominent fan, a gentleman by the name of Barack Obama who you might've heard a little bit about. So I'd say she's earned herself a spot in the pantheon of contemporary writers.

First novels don't usually come this confident. Oh, they're typically good, but they can also be halting and awkward like David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System (not reviewed here because I already did David Foster Wallace last year, but a classic first novel), or messy and overambitious like last month's selection, You Bright and Risen Angels, or not at all like the author's later works, like The Bluest Eye. Housekeeping definitely isn't the first or second, and it's a little like the third but not too much. In many ways, it simply is, a novel just as monolithic and mysterious as the railway stretching into nowhere that you see on the cover. Definitely my favorite novel I've reviewed in this series, and I only took so long on it because I was worried I couldn't do it justice. I'll leave that up to the readers to decide, and I'll also implore anyone who hasn't read it to drop whatever they're reading and pick it up. If anyone, anyone at all, writes a novel even remotely like this again, I'll pull a Werner Herzog and boil and eat my own shoes.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 17, 2016. Filed under:

August 15, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Little Green Men" by Christopher Buckley

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Little Green Men, by Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men (1999)
By Christopher Buckley
Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Up to this summer, I had read exactly two novels by the master political satirist Christopher Buckley -- his first, Thank You for Smoking, and his latest, The Relic Master -- and they both ended up being so brilliant that I decided that I should probably take the time to read the six other novels he wrote between these two. I just finished the first of that series, which I'm taking on in chronological order, Little Green Men which in this case came out in 1999, three years after Thank You for Smoking; but it unfortunately turned out to be a disappointment compared to the other two. See, while his first novel had such an outrageous concept that it made it easy to picture it actually coming to life (a lobbyist for the tobacco industry has a nervous breakdown, decides his industry should actively embrace the most demonic aspects of their trade, and ends up becoming hugely successful because of it), always the sign of a truly great political satire, in Little Green Men the central concept is only outrageous enough to have inspired a lot of eye-rolling while I was reading it, which made it not nearly as enjoyable an experience. (The idea basically is that the CIA has been the cause of every single UFO sighting since Roswell, originally done as a dirty-trick psych-op to make Stalin paranoid, then continued as a way of assuring big budgets for the military and NASA; after a low-level agent in this shadow department gets passed for a promotion, he drunkenly one night targets a George-Will-type intellectual conservative talk-show host as the newest victim of an "abduction," and his credentials-backed story inspires millions of "millennial-anxious" fellow believers to follow him as the leader of a new cult.)

It's a funny book, make no mistake, with great little moments of pitch-black hilarity and intelligence sprinkled throughout; but it takes a whole lot more suspension of disbelief to picture the ultra-zany plotline actually happening, features weaker characters than in the other two books of his I've read (the love interest invented for our hero is an especially wincing one, in this "white-male political-satirist nerds should never write romantic subplots" kind of way), plus is just a subject that feels like a lot of deliberate machinations went into Buckley choosing it to write about in the first place. (He keeps quoting a statistic throughout the book that showed, as of the late 1990s, supposedly a whopping 80 percent of Americans believed that alien life exists, and this entire novel many times feels like that Buckley randomly came across that poll one day and thought, "Now, how do I build a 300-page story around that fact?") And this of course is always a big danger with satirists as well; that after an accidentally great first novel, their attempts at catching lightning in a bottle again always result in more and more diminishing returns, as the labor they put into finding a good subject for satirizing becomes plainer and plainer to see. I've got a bit of a happy spoiler going for me in this case -- I know that his latest novel from 2016 is truly great, so I can rest assured that the books before that at least aren't going to bottom out into unreadability -- but certainly when I take on his next novel in this series, 2002's No Way to Treat a First Lady (in which a Hillary-Clinton-like character catches her President husband cheating on her, and accidentally kills him inside the White House while whipping an antique spittoon at his head in anger), I'll be going into it with my expectations not set as high this time.

Read even more about Little Green Men: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 15, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 11, 2016

Book Review: "Patience" by Daniel Clowes

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Patience, by Daniel Clowes

Patience
By Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Oh, what a letdown it's been as a member of Generation X, to watch all the daring young bucks against the Establishment in my twenties become the exact next generation of the Establishment itself now that we're creeping into our fifties; and nowhere is this generational shift more noticeable than in the world of "alternative" comics, a movement that started with grungy self-published titles traded through the back pages of obscure magazines like Factsheet 5, but with those same creators now bringing the kind of white-male academic reverence, New Yorker cover assignments, and subsequent mainstream embrace that also ruined jazz, whiskey and baseball. (Hint: If Ken Burns has done a documentary on it, it's a subject well on its way to being ruined by white-male academic reverence. Coming to PBS in 2017 -- Zines: A Film by Ken Burns.) All of this was in the front of my mind recently while reading through Dan "Eightball" Clowes' latest book, and the largest single story so far of his career, the 180-page sci-fi tale Patience; for to be clear, this is Clowes being as Clowesian as Clowesian literature even gets, and while as a long-time fan I was perfectly fine with this decades-long consistency of his, it made me wonder if his shtick has by now worn thin among the current generation of young people making and enjoying comics, especially now that the tide has come full circle and young creatives seem to be really embracing traditional superhero comics again.

Both the storytelling and the artwork is almost exactly what you would expect from Clowes by this point; lots of hipsters staring blankly directly full-on at the reader, a kind of cartoonish lumpiness to the characters, 60-year-old men who still talk exactly like bratty teenagers (can't wait for Ghost World Assisted Living Facility), and like nearly all full-length comic books, a plotline that's serviceable but that would barely fill a ten-page story if just words alone, a story that many would find uninspiring and predictable if not for all the pretty pictures and the usual fetishistically precise binding by the now revered Fantagraphics. And like I said, as a 47-year-old who's been reading Clowes' work in real time all the way back since Eightball #4, this is exactly what I expected from Patience, and the three weeks I spent reading it two or four pages at a time during every bathroom visit was a series of five-minute experiences I have no particular complaints about. But I'm starting to question more and more whether anyone 30 or younger is even capable of seeing Clowes' work this way anymore, or if they greet new titles like these with an angry sigh and a, "Oh, great, more early-'90s crap that took up a slot in Fantagraphics' publishing schedule that deserved to go to a younger and more exciting artist."

I don't know the answers to these questions, and admittedly it's perhaps unfair to disparage a book merely on the theoretical idea that there are a bunch of young people rolling their eyes at it as we speak. But certainly there's something to be legitimately pointed out in public when, after a youth when I was always so excited by a new Clowes book, now I seem to greet each new one with, "Yep, that sure was another book by the middle-aged comics creator Daniel Clowes, all right." Although not actively bad, Patience is a prime example of an artist resting on his laurels; and as a critic I'm never exactly thrilled to come across an artist resting on their laurels, and I find it hard to react to these kinds of books with anything other than the same apathetic shrug all the indie twentysomethings also give it.

Out of 10: 7.8

Read even more about Patience: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 11, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 10, 2016

Book Review: "How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel," by Jesse Ball

Title, by Author

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel
By Jesse Ball
Pantheon Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I raked Jesse Ball over the coals earlier this year, on account of the eerie similarities between his second-most-recent novel, A Cure for Suicide and his first, Samedi the Deafness. So I went into this one with some trepidation, not sure whether I'd get another fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery or a weaksauce retreat of a fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery. Turns out I got neither. Matter of fact, I'm pleased to report that Ball's sixth and most recent novel is a dark-humored and socially engaged twist on the coming-of-age story, and if I'm not mistaken, a pretty radical break from what Jesse Ball has established.

Of course, Jesse Ball being Jesse Ball, there's still a secret organization at play. That would be the Arson Club, a group of teenagers who set fires for political reasons. When protagonist Lucia hears of this club, she decides to sign up, which throws her whole routine for a loop, sets her on a course she didn't expect, and gives her something to care about again. She has a certain attachment to fire, as her lighter is her only memento of her dead father. Her mother, whom she visits constantly, lives in a mental institution. The process of raising her is left to her aunt, who lives in a garage. What's more, Lucia's cynicism, eccentric habits and appearance make her an outcast. Lucia is a much different type of protagonist than I've read from Ball before. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's prose style, surrealism and winding conspiracies-vs.-counter-conspiracies plots, but he's not known as a writer of fleshed-out characters. Yet Lucia promises to change this, as her cynicism is undercut by a deep empathy, a sense of social justice, a deep disappointment in those around her, and above all, a real need to belong. You could almost say she's a twenty-first century Holden Caulfield who knows a thing or two about Marx. If that makes her sound like hell printed on paper, I wouldn't recommend reading this book. If you're intrigued, pick it up.

Now, I won't go too far with Catcher in the Rye comparisons, since that's a book that makes some readers want to claw their own eyes out. What I will say instead is Ball really stretched himself here. Plot - as in both "conspiracy" and "the series of events that make up a story" - was the driving energy behind the other two Ball novels I've read, whereas this one seems more driven by Lucia's voice and her character development. Whereas all this man's work that I've read thus far is written in a more emotionally stoic voice, here he lets Lucia do the talking, and she establishes a clear and strident voice from the first chapter, with lines like "don't touch this lighter or I will kill you" and "The secretary is also the gym teacher, and I hate him two, so basically, apart from my aunt, a room full of enemies." It's also fascinating to see where her developing social conscience takes her. Not to give away too much, except to say that fires are of course involved; suffice it to say that Ball hits the right balance of changing some of Lucia's traits and keeping others consistent. Yet it still feels like Jesse Ball, using stylistic hallmarks such as short chapters and unexpected formal changes, among them a pamphlet on fire-starting written by Lucia herself. In that regard, it might be his best novel yet.

Out of 10: 9.0

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 10, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 9, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "The Gods Drink Whiskey" by Stephen T. Asma

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Gods Drink Whiskey, by Stephen T. Asma

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha (2005)
By Stephen T. Asma
HarperOne / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Unbeknownst to readers of this blog, I've been spending this summer tearing through a bunch of books on Buddhism and especially Buddhist meditation; I've started practicing a secular form of meditation in my personal life over the last year, and the insights I've had about my life because of it was recently referred to by a friend as "accidentally Buddhist" in nature, so I thought it'd be interesting to learn a little more about actual Buddhism and to see why my friend made this comment in the first place. The books have generally been hit-and-miss, the natural side-effect of just grabbing a bunch of random titles off the shelf of my neighborhood library; but one of the best writers on the subject of Buddhism in America has turned out to be a local, Columbia College professor Stephen Asma who takes a decidedly blue-collar, rationalist, and no-bullshit approach to his interpretations of these ancient texts, and how they can be applied to the practical lives of contemporary Westerners, without needing all the hippie New Age accoutrements that have typically been carried with them into our country. And thus have I ended up making my way this summer through nearly the entirety of Asma's oeuvre, from practical guides to meditation to a "for dummies" style introduction to the philosophy.

His latest that I've read, though, 2005's The Gods Drink Whiskey, I thought was finally the kind of book that could be justified writing about here at the blog for a general audience; and that's because this is not just a hyper-specialized guide to Buddhism itself, but a sprawling and fascinating look at a year Asma spent in southeast Asia (headquartered in Cambodia but traveling extensively through the rest of the region), where he blends lessons about religion and philosophy with an engaging travelogue, a primer on the politics of these developing nations, and an astute sociological look at how Buddhism has been warped and changed by various local populations in order to fit what they've needed to get out of it. And indeed, by constantly comparing this process to the one Christianity has gone through in the Western world (think of prim Mormons in their Sunday finest, snake handlers in Texas, suburban liberals in New England, and Midwestern fundamentalists flailing about and speaking in tongues, all of whom are supposedly worshipping the same Jesus), Asma makes it easy to understand why there's so many different forms of Buddhism in southeast Asia, why they've been so influenced by the local culture of each area, and why there's so much disagreement between different sects over how to "properly" practice. (Just for one example, and probably the biggest surprise to Americans in the entire book, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism only comprises six percent of all practicing Buddhists worldwide, and is considered by most Buddhists to be an overly fussy, overly ritualistic form of the philosophy that relies way too heavily on mysticism and supernatural elements.)

All this would be interesting enough; but like I said, what makes this book truly spectacular is the way Asma weaves in his personal anecdotes about his travels there, and especially the ironic surrealism of being one of the most experienced veterans at the Cambodian Buddhist Institute where he was hired to teach, which is what brought him over there in the first place. (Although Cambodia is one of the nations where Buddhism was first cultivated thousands of years ago, the monstrous Pol Pot dictatorship of the 1960s and '70s systematically murdered nearly an entire generation of Buddhist teachers and practitioners, leaving an all-consuming gap in expertise after that radical Communist regime was defeated that has forced the nation to do things like hire Americans to come and teach their newest generation of Buddhist youths.) A funny, moving, eye-opening and always informative book, despite this now being a decade old it turned out to be one of the most illuminating and enjoyable travel journals I've read in years, which is why I wanted to do a writeup of it here for the main blog and not just my usual quick mention at Goodreads.com, like I've been doing with all the other Buddhism books I've been reading this summer. It comes very strongly recommended, as does Asma's other books, to anyone looking to get a better sense of what Buddhism is all about as a practical, secular philosophy, apart from the spiritual trappings it's picked up along the way from the various regional communities who have adopted it over the centuries.

Read even more about The Gods Drink Whiskey: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 9, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

August 5, 2016

Book Review: "TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct," by Peter Davidson

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct, by Peter Davidson

TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: What You Would Say if You Had the Guts
By Peter Davidson
Sweet Memories Publishing
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The provocative title and daring call to action would have been quite the conversation piece for Peter Davidson's newest book, TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: What You Would Say if You Had the Guts. Would this be a no-holds-barred take-down of PC culture? Would this be a brave independent voice puncturing the moral hypocrisies of the Left and the Right? Would the jokes at least be good? Sadly, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.

It's not that Davidson has opinions that offend or repel me. There's no opinions of any kind in this. I didn't expect to be buried beneath an avalanche of outdated Dad Jokes. Another additional factor makes this book an abysmal read. He's misusing the term "politically correct." It's not simply being polite. Again and again, the book has a politically correct version and a brutally honest version. Allegedly. In reality, it is an overly polite version and a less polite version. Comedy should result. I'll cite a random example. In this case, it's after a night of marital bliss following a honeymoon:

Jenny, being politically correct: "Oh, William, you were amazing. It was all I ever imagined it would be, and more. You are all man."

Jenny, being brutally honest: "William, that was the most amazing fifteen seconds of my life."

I guess that's sort of funny, except that same joke has been used by countless comedians. Protip: Don't use dated material. Also, don't use other people's material. I'd push harder on the plagiarism if the jokes weren't all lazy cliches.

I read on, hoping it would get improve. Or at least improve slightly. But every attempt at humor landed with a thud. Even a book would with a political or personal philosophy diametrically opposed to my own would have been more entertaining. This is just ... so ... beige. TRUMPED! remains a tasteless bore, not because of anything uncouth, but because it is relentlessly bland.

If you want to read or see a merciless take-down of PC culture, watch some George Carlin or Bill Hicks.

Out of 10/0.3

Read even more about TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, August 5, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |

August 3, 2016

Book Review: "The Vegetarian," by Han Kang

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang


(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Vegetarian
By Han Kang
Hogarth Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

It's not often a book this surreal becomes this popular, at least in literary fiction circles. In fact, this might be the biggest Korean book to reach the States in a long time, and I'm pretty sure they've either translated or are working on translating other Kang books such as Human Acts, in the name of riding the wave and all. Apparently she's been big in South Korea for a while now, and has published quite a few novels, but it took this book to break her big in the United States. Reminds me of Lina Meruane in that sense, and I do more of her work is translated, because I appreciate her surrealist sensibility.

The Vegetarian is often compared to Kafka, which I have a little of a mixed opinion on, but only because the implicit point of comparison is "The Metamorphosis" and it's good to read and understand Kafka outside of "The Metamorphosis." Presumably it's also good to read and understand Kang outside of The Vegetarian, which again makes me curious about what else she's done. Anyway, this novel's plot can be summarized thusly. A timid woman named Yeong-hye begins to have dreams about animals enduring brutal acts. Because of these dreams, she gives up on eating meat. This decision sets off a chain of events that ends with her alienating her husband, having an affair with an exploitive, self-important and creepy artist, and eventually landing in a mental institution.

Notably, the book's three large segments are narrated by three different characters, none of them Yeong-hye herself, who for all her transformation remains something of a cypher in the novel. There is, of course, a pretty strong aspect of feminism here, the idea being that Yeong-hye herself isn't allowed to tell her own story because society tries to reformat it. Indeed, society's attempts to define and alter Yeong-hye's decision, and with it the acts that follow from that decision, are at the core of this novel's conflict. She becomes the recipient first of mockery, then of sexual objectification, finally of an almost infantilizing concern, but is never through all this allowed to explain herself. So in some ways, the reader becomes complicit in her dehumanization and breakdown. Equally scary is Yeong-hye's own transformation; her early attempts to explain herself vanish entirely as the novel goes on and as the dehumanization wears on her.

So it's a great story with multiple layers, and an excellent update of the existential-type "story-of-isolation," but I have a few reservations. For one, I'm not in love with either the prose style or the translation, which is mostly serviceable - and in this sort of novel, you might not need anything else - but occasionally hits modifier-heavy snags like "The dancers waved their hands so vigorously the whole row became a blur of movement, with individual figures impossible to make out" (63). I'm also not entirely sure what to make of the passage where Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat. Yes, it's a terrific way to start off her breakdown, whose conclusion is haunting and features some of the book's strongest prose (not to give anything away, except to say that the section ends with "Below tooth marks that looked to have been caused by a predator's bite, vivid red bloodstains were spreading," which is a great image), but it teeters right on the edge of too much. Still, it does allow Kang to indulge in a little black humor, and we all need that in our lives.

Out of 10: 8.7

Read even more about The Vegetarian: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 3, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 28, 2016

Book Review: "Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art" by Virginia Heffernan

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Magic and Loss, by Virginia Heffernan

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art
By Virginia Heffernan
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So for what it's worth, I tried very earnestly to be a fan of Virginia Heffernan's Magic and Loss, a new collection of academic essays concerning "what the internet really means." I was attracted to it when first coming across it because her main conceit is that the internet is the largest act of performance art in human history; not the individual parts that make up the internet, which ultimately are nothing special (shooting a video for YouTube is fundamentally the same process as shooting a video for VHS; writing an essay for a blog is fundamentally the same process as writing an essay for a paper magazine), but rather the way these trillion pieces of content come together, the way they influence each other, the way that humans' lives have fundamentally changed through the act of being exposed to these trillion pieces of content all at once.

But books of academic essays are a hit-and-miss proposition for non-academes like me; and for every great, accessible academic writer like Malcolm Gladwell you come across, there seems to be an equal amount of books like this one, essentially 300 pages of high-falutin' masturbation, ten-dollar words, Emily Dickinson references, and endless goddamn callbacks to other academic talks at SXSW and TED. It made me grow weary of this book rather quickly, which will be the reaction of most non-academes to this as well; although if you are a full-time resident of the ivory tower, by all means take a chance on it, because doubtless you'll have a better experience than me.

Out of 10: 6.5, or 8.5 for full-time academes

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, July 28, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

July 27, 2016

Book Review: "A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)


A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

For a long time, it looked like Lucia Berlin's stories would vanish into obscurity. Her story presents a classic case of life getting in the way. Born in 1938, she wrote fiction as far back as the 1960s, her career trajectory was interrupted both by struggles with alcoholism and the need to work jobs ranging from maid to switchboard operator to physician's assistant to support her family, as a brief romance with a heroin addict left her a single mother. It wasn't until the '80s and '90s that her work became published regularly, and while she found herself a number of notable acolytes - including the great Lydia Davis, who wrote the forward to this book - and won herself a couple prizes (the excellent micro-story "My Jockey," included here, got some attention in the '80s), she never found the same following as contemporaries like Raymond Carver. However, the publication of this collection has already done work to grant her much-deserved visibility; within a few weeks of its publication, it already outsold all her other work combined.

So what is Lucia Berlin like? Well, her stories are excellent taken one at a time, but I wish I'd taken a little more time with this collection than I did. Four hundred pages worth of short stories, most of them gleaned from Berlin's life and featuring a recurring cast of characters that are, if we believe the forward (and why shouldn't we?) fictionalizations of real people she knew, is a little much to take in a few days. Berlin is, don't get me wrong, quite a skillful writer. "My Jockey" is a fine example of her immediacy, her ability to embody a moment in just a few well-chosen words. I've never been a big Carver fan, but she's exactly what I've always heard Carver was in that sense. Lydia Davis is also correct to point out that Berlin has a remarkable ear for dialect, especially that of the American southwest, where she spent most of her life. The stories also tend to come with a sort of punch at the end, a moment where seemingly disparate threads all tie together in a surprising way. My main problem with Berlin is she only seems to have a few modes: stories about her family, stories about the addicts she meets in hospitals, stories about her travels in South America, stories about romances gone south.

Still, she's definitely found and cornered her thing, if you will. I've already talked a little about her immediacy in "My Jockey," and stories like "My First Detox" and "Unmanageable," with the should-be-immortal first sentence "In the deep dark knight of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed," display it arguably even more. Meanwhile, her sense of humor comes out in pieces like "502," which is shall we say a different type of drunk-driving story, and "Sex Appeal," with surprising doses of slapstick mixed in with a coming-of-age story. The real must-have for is "Good and Bad," though, where Berlin combines her immediacy and remarkable eye for detail with a touching and ultimately sad story about a radical history professor's relationship with her student. Stories like this lend the realism more punch, and ultimately justify the fact that you might have to drag yourself through some samey stories. I guess this would've been better with about a dozen stories cut - most of them are quite short, so the reader would still get a panoramic experience - but Lucia Berlin's still someone worth investigating, and I'm certainly happy she's been saved from obscurity.

Out of 10: 8.8

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, July 27, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |