The CCLaP website is going through a complete overhaul! And we'd like to hear from you about who you are, how you currently use the site, and what new things you'd like to see in the overhauled version. If you have a few minutes, please fill out our 10-question survey
; in return, we'll send you a link that will let you download all 40 of our original ebooks in one convenient ZIP file, completely for free.
April 26, 2017
Tales from the Completist: "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race" and "My Work is Not Yet Done," by Thomas Ligotti
(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 Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2014)
By Thomas Ligotti
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
My Work is Not Yet Done (2002; republished in 2009)
By Thomas Ligotti
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Regular readers will remember that I recently read the new In the Mountains of Madness by W. Scott Poole, which is not just a biography of horror writer HP Lovecraft but also an examination of the "Lovecraftian" culture that has built up around his work since his death; and that got me interested not only in reading the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft for the first time (a process I'm in the middle of right now), but also checking out some of the contemporary authors who write in Lovecraft's vein, and who are helping to carry and extend the "Cthulhu Mythos" into the 21st century. So for advice with that I turned to an acquaintance of mine, Chicago horror author Richard Thomas; and among the other contemporary writers he encouraged me to sample was Thomas Ligotti, who I had already vaguely heard of as, alternatively, "The best horror writer you've never heard of" and "the horror writer all the other horror writers wished they were."
Several of his fictional works struck my fancy when first looking through his bibliography; but what stuck out much more in my mind when coming across it, and what I ended up taking on first, was actually a nonfiction book he wrote back in 2011 with the intriguing title The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It's essentially a Philosophy 101 survey of all the various deep thinkers throughout history who have espoused what Ligotti calls a "philosophy of pessimism," which he then examines and weaves together to present a sort of unified narrative story about what all these philosophers had in common, and the 3,000-year-old lesson they've been trying to teach us the whole time. It essentially starts with the idea that no living creatures in the universe were ever meant to have self-sentient consciousness, and that the fact that humans do is actually an aberration and a curse, not some sort of gift from a benevolent god; because with this self-sentient consciousness, we're then compelled to spend our lives searching for a meaning to our existence, but are saddled with the knowledge that there is no meaning to existence, that the universe is quite simply an infinitely large void of constant chaos and random violence, bereft of any human-invented quality like "equality" or "fairness," and that each of our lives are nothing but insignificant specks in the cosmic scale, in which we change not a single thing about the universe in our lifetimes and then are promptly forgotten by the human race a mere generation or two after our deaths.
That's the "conspiracy" of the book's title, the idea that someone is perpetrating a grand cruel joke on humanity at all our expenses; for anyone who looks too closely at this unvarnished truth about the universe, one that we were born with the ability to easily see, ends up going violently insane (or in other words, suicide victims and serial killers are simply the people who see the universe as it really is), which means that to stay sane, productive members of society, we must literally spend our entire lives making up pretty little lies about existence (that there is a cosmic order to it, that there is an inherent sense of justice, that we were purposely born on this planet for a specific reason), and then spend every ounce of our energy brainwashing ourselves into believing these lies, despite the fact that we can quite easily see with our rational minds just how much we're deluding ourselves when we tell ourselves these things. That's essentially the basis behind every horror story ever written, Ligotti argues, the schism between the lies we tell ourselves about an orderly, fair universe and the unending parade of chaos and violence that we glimpse when we stop telling ourselves these lies; and he then spends the length of his book hopping from one famous thinker to another over the course of written history, showing how there have always been select philosophers and authors around, from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance to the Victorian Age to now, who have used this same basic set of principles as the basis behind every treatise and manifesto they ever wrote.
Yeah, pretty dark and heady stuff, making it no surprise that True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has admitted in interviews that he based Matthew McConaughey's season 1 antihero Rush Cohle directly on the theories being discussed in this book; and it also goes a long way towards explaining why a genre writer like Ligotti cites as some of his favorite authors such surprising non-horror people as Arthur Schopenhauer, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. So after this, then, I jumped right into the only book-length fictional piece Ligotti has ever written, 2002's My Work Is Not Yet Done, republished in 2009 for a larger audience by hipster British press Virgin Books (all the rest of his books are short-story collections), which unsurprisingly reads like a fictional version of all the nonfiction theories being banded about in Conspiracy. It's essentially the tale of an intellectual malcontent and mentally imbalanced loner working a faceless middle-management job at a blandly nondescript corporation; when he's railroaded by scheming co-workers into getting unfairly fired, he makes plans to launch into the violent act of retribution you would expect from such a person, but then a sudden dark cloud that envelops the city that night imbues him with a malevolent supernatural spirit that suddenly makes the story go in a much different and weirder direction.
I'll let the rest of this delightfully crackpot story remain a surprise, although I will mention that the scope of the narrative gets a lot bigger and grander than you would expect by the time the story is over, and that it's also obvious in this book why so many people call Ligotti the natural heir to Lovecraft and his obsession for all-powerful creatures who regard humans as little more than gnats to be flicked at in annoyance. What may be the most clever thing of all about about My Work, however, is that it's also an astute examination of the former industrial powerhouses of the American Midwest, and the ignoble corrosion they have faced in the post-Industrial age (Ligotti was born and raised in Detroit, and the unnamed city where My Work takes place feels an awful lot like it, although you could also substitute in such cities as Cleveland, Indianapolis or St. Louis), as well as a gleefully cynical takedown of the misguided attempts to transform these cities in the 21st century into shining creative-class destinations full of coffeehouses, bike paths and loft condos. (In fact, in a way you can see the main theme in My Work manifested as the question, "What if literal demons were behind the urban gentrification movement?")
It's been a darkly exhilarating experience for the last few weeks, being stuck so deep in Ligotti's unrelentingly nihilistic universe, a writer who after thirty years of professional publishing just now seems to be starting to come into his own as a popular public figure. (He's one of only ten living writers on the planet who's been republished by Penguin Classics, a feat which only happened a year and a half ago, at which point the Washington Post called him "the best-kept secret in contemporary horror fiction.") If you yourself are looking for a refreshingly chilling alternative to the played-out "ghosts in the suburbs" trope of Stephen King and other Postmodernist horror authors, I suggest you give Ligotti a whirl yourself.
Read even more about The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
Read even more about My Work is Not Yet Done: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
April 25, 2017
The CCLaP website's being redesigned from scratch! And we'd like your input!
Exciting news! As part of my efforts to fill out my resume more as a front-end software developer, the CCLaP website is in the process of being completely redesigned from scratch; not just how it looks and feels, but even the "content management software" that makes it run, a switch from the outdated MovableType system to the now hot and trendy WordPress. Among other things, that's going to give us the ability later this year to do a whole bunch of new things we've never tried before; the intriguing possibilities include...
--A user-maintained comment system, in which you "upvote" and "downvote" the comments you think are the best and worst;
--An in-house social network for interacting with your fellow lit lovers;
--An opportunity to share your own creative work with others through our main website, and to submit your own book reviews for inclusion in our blog;
--A new, more interactive version of our old Chicago literary events calendar, including the opportunity to submit events yourself;
--And a completely overhauled e-commerce system for our merchandise, including a chance to buy a Spotify-style subscription to all our content.
Now, be aware that it's just me doing this overhaul by myself, and that I don't have the time or energy to institute every single one of these ideas; and that's where you come in, in that we'd like to hear about who you are, how you're currently using this website, and which of these ideas for new features you'd most like to see become a reality (or your own ideas for new features, if you have ones in mind). In that regard, we've set up a 10-question survey over at SurveyMonkey.com, which should only take you about five minutes to fill out; and in return we'll email you a link that will let you download all 40 of our original ebooks in one convenient ZIP file, completely for free. (If you prefer, you can also directly send me your freeform thoughts about a CCLaP website overhaul to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The website's new look is going to be revealed in just another couple of weeks, and then starts the hard work of building these new features, with all of them hopefully finished by this autumn and our publishing program going active again at that date as well. I look forward to whatever feedback you'd like to provide us, to help make this new version of the site as sharp and as useful as possible!
Book Review: "Bridge of Words," by Esther Schor
Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language
By Esther Schor
Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I've long had a fascination for Esperanto, the "global second language" that got invented in the late Victorian Age, flourished among the far-left political parties of Early Modernism's Communist era, and had its last big hurrah among the hippies of the countercultural age. (For those who don't know, Esperanto was deliberately designed to be the easiest language to learn in the entire history of the subject, with the goal being that everyone on the planet would eventually know it as a second language to their local primary first language, as a way of bringing about true global communication without everyone on the planet having to learn every 25 years the latest "language du jour" of whatever hegemony just happened to be dominating the rest of the world during any particular generation.) And so I had an immediate interest when recently coming across Esther Schor's new examination of the subject, Bridge of Words, which is an engaging hybrid of a book -- every odd-numbered chapter examines a piece of Esperanto's fascinatingly checkered history, while every even-numbered chapter looks at Esperanto as it exists as a still popular and functioning language in the 21st century, taking on everything from the people who choose to learn it and why, to a detailed analysis of the language itself and how exactly it works.
And indeed, this book is chock-full of interesting stuff I never knew before about Esperanto, not least of which was that it was invented in the first place by an Eastern European pre-Nazi Jew who had briefly been a part of the "Zionist" movement that eventually led to the formation of modern Israel; and that the language itself has complicated ties to the 20th-century struggles of Jewish identity, reforming the Yiddish language, and the Utopian Socialism dreams that went so hand-in-hand with such people back in those years. And this is not to mention the life that the language took on for itself away from these subjects as well, including its embrace by the '60s counterculture mentioned before, as well as it being seen as a way in the '50s to counter the xenophobia of Eugene McCarthy's "red scare" Communist witch hunts. So it's a shame, then, that Schor's own writing style often gets in the way of this book being more enjoyable than it currently is; an Ivy League academe and full-time poet, she often gets too high-falutin' in her examination of Esperanto in all its myriad forms, having the tendency in a lot of places of writing in a nearly incomprehensibly academic way that will go over the heads of most general readers (yours truly included). Still very much worth your time, Bridge of Words is nonetheless unfortunately not as good as it could've been, which is why it's getting a score today that doesn't quite reflect the interest that just the subject itself naturally generates on its own.
Out of 10: 8.5
Read even more about Bridge of Words: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
April 19, 2017
Book Review: "Chasing Utopia," by David Leach
Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel
By David Leach
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It wasn't until publishing Kevin Haworth's 2012 essay collection Famous Drownings in Literary History that I learned for the first time about the Jewish institution known as the kibbutz, a concept that is part practical and part political; in reality not much more than a collectively owned farm in the style of '60s hippie communes, the part that's important to Judaism is that they were founded by the very first "Zionists" who in the 1910s moved to the region now known as Israel, explicitly to establish a nation for Jewish people where none had existed for thousands of years, and it was these mostly Eastern European radical socialists who believed that the key to a "Jewish state" was the embrace of these communist-style cooperatives, even going so far to believe that such collective farms would transform the deserts of the Middle East and eventually bring peace between Jews and Muslims.
As American non-Jew David Leach points out in his fascinating new personal-essay collection, Chasing Utopia, although it's considered a duty by every Jewish person worldwide to regularly spend volunteer time at a Israeli kibbutz, these organizations also accept volunteers from all walks of life, Jewish or not; and back in the '70s and '80s when Leach was a youth, such kibbutzes were considered by many young people to be "the place where backpacking college students went on holiday when they didn't have any money" (or so once said Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon, merely one of thousands of such '70s youths to spend a summer on one of these farms, helped immensely by kibbutzes' reputations as places where the liquor flowed freely and sexual opportunities were easy). That's what led Leach to spend a summer at a kibbutz himself, an experience he would fondly remember with hazy nostalgia well into his middle-aged years as a Catholic Canadian journalist; but one day thirty years later, he happened to catch an item on the news about one of these kibbutzes recently filing an initial public stock offering (IPO) for their brand-new high-tech startup, which made him realize that the very nature of these organizations had gone through a radical transformation during the last half of the Postmodernist Era.
That's what Chasing Utopia basically is, a record of Leach's revisit to Israel for the first time in decades to learn what's happened to the collective farms he so warmly remembered from his youth, a trip that took him on a circular tour of the entire country and that entailed dozens of probing interviews with the remaining communards, government officials, NGO personnel, and fellow journalists. And the results are gripping: profoundly scaled back in number from hundreds to now dozens, the kibbutzes still remaining in Israel have largely been forced through economic circumstances to abandon their old collective roots, transforming themselves into traditionally capitalist, publicly held corporations, ones that have largely given up on agriculture to specialize instead in such 21st-century items as transistors, high-quality mirrors for medical equipment, and even cutting-edge women's razors. And in the meanwhile, as the politics of the region have continued to get even more fractured and complex with every passing year, instead of less like the originally Zionist founders of modern Israel envisioned, this too has had an effect on the kibbutzes, propagandized as a source of nationalist pride by conservatives (with the resulting terrorist attacks by Palestinians you would expect), while being held up as a bold experiment for inter-faith peace by liberals.
The lovely thing about a book like this being written by a non-Jew like Leach is that you don't have to be Jewish yourself to follow along with the issues; Leach approaches these subjects exactly like the disinterested outsider he is, and in many ways this is a great exercise in traditional journalism that helps explain these complicated issues in a clear and balanced way. But what makes the book even more interesting is Leach's personal connection to it all, which is why the sum of this book's chapters is a bigger whole than simply an addition of its parts, and why you couldn't just run these chapters as individual articles in a place like The Huffington Post; for in the spirit of 21st-century personal essay, Leach delicately weaves his personal story into these traditional journalism pieces, not afraid to express his own opinions about the things he's seeing and the people he's talking to. It makes for a fascinating book when all is said and done, my favorite type of nonfiction and the kind of book I would've published if it had been submitted to CCLaP; and it comes strongly recommended to one and all today, a book inherently interesting to those already familiar with the subjects at hand, and a book that will likely make you interested if you never have been before.
Out of 10: 9.6
Read even more about Chasing Utopia: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
April 18, 2017
Book Review: "Ganja Yoga," by Dee Dussault
Ganja Yoga: A Practical Guide to Conscious Relaxation, Soothing Pain Relief, and Enlightened Self-Discovery
By Dee Dussault
HarperOne / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
For the last two years I've been practicing yoga and meditation on a regular basis, first because I was required to as part of attending the computer-coding alternative school DevBootcamp, then afterwards because I found both practices to be positive and constructive ones in my life. And I've also been known to partake in marijuana on a regular basis, something I no longer worry about publicly admitting now that almost 20 percent of the US has legalized it; so when I recently stumbled across Dee Dussault's new book Ganja Yoga, I suspected this would be a book for me, which is indeed what it turned out being.
There's nothing too groundbreaking going on here -- she's not arguing that there's a special kind of yoga that you can only do while smoking weed, simply that yoga can often be more spiritually deep and physically rewarding when you do -- but the book is worth recommending anyway, because it's several well-written primers all wrapped up into one; a basic beginner's look at yoga itself, a basic beginner's guide to pot and the various ways it can be consumed, and a basic beginner's guide to Eastern philosophical thought. No one who's already educated about any of these subjects will find anything particularly new or noteworthy here in Dussault's engaging, fact-filled book; but it's the fact that she talks about all of them at once that makes it worthwhile, a short and entertaining volume that will motivate you to try a little high yoga at least once if you never have. I've certainly now tried it, based solely on reading this book, and can attest that everything she talks about here has a demonstrable validity out in the real world; and while this book is the very definition of "skippable" for those not naturally interested in these subjects, it's absolutely worth your time if you are. It comes specifically recommended in that particular spirit.
Out of 10: 8.4, or 9.4 for those interested in yoga or smoking pot
Read even more about Ganja Yoga: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
April 17, 2017
Book Review: "Huck Out West," by Robert Coover
Huck Out West
By Robert Coover
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
For the first two-thirds of its running time, Robert Coover's new Huck Out West can only be called a perfect novel, which is why it came close to being the first book of the year to score a perfect 10 here at CCLaP. Or to be more specific, it succeeds perfectly at what it's aiming to do, which is to read and feel like a long-lost new chapter in the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn saga by Mark Twain, which to remind you consists not only of the original two volumes of "Adventures" themselves, but also two largely forgotten sequels that Twain himself wrote in his elderly years, 1894's Tom Sawyer Abroad (a parody of Jules Verne's fantastical novels) and 1896's Tom Sawyer, Detective (in which Sawyer serves as a Matlock-style combination PI and lawyer, to both defend his uncle when unfairly accused of murder and to figure out who the real killer is).
It's surprisingly difficult to write a contemporary novel in the spirit of Twain's originals, as the hundreds of unread, mediocre attempts filling the dusty back shelves of your local library attest. (With these characters now being in the public domain, much like Sherlock Holmes, there is now a veritable cottage industry of "unauthorized Twain sequels" that now exist.) But if anyone can do it, it would be the now 85-year-old (!) Coover, an obscure but revered figure in the literary world; alum of the University of Chicago during its Mid-Century Modernist artistic height (the same years Saul Bellow and Philip Roth were there), former teacher at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and famed contributor to such countercultural lit mags as The Evergreen Review, Coover has made a long career out of clever pastiches and boldly experimental works, along the way racking up everything from an NEA Grant to a Guggenheim Fellowship to a National Book Award nomination.
It's this pedigree that allows Coover to get Huck Out West so exactly right in tone for the vast majority of its length; not too treacly yet not too mean, funny and irreverent yet with a subtle political agenda running underneath it all, with a delightful relationship with wordplay but never letting that get in the way of telling the story itself. It's a subtle and difficult balance that even Twain himself didn't get right until his 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is why it wasn't until then that he started getting called the "first grand master of the true American literary arts." (His earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from 1876 nearer the beginning of his career, is more a straightforward tale of childhood nostalgia for an idealized frontier that never actually existed, well-written but not containing that dark political edge that made his later work so admired and famous.) And Coover nails it perfectly for the first two-thirds of Huck Out West, setting his own book in the eventful years between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the US Centennial (1876), taking our now twentysomething heroes and depositing them in the middle of "The Territories" (present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, etc); where Huck in particular becomes a sort of Victorian-Age Forrest Gump, in which among other things he serves as a rider for the Pony Express, becomes an honorary member of the Lakota tribe, almost joins up with the Jesse James gang, briefly acts as an Indian scout for a psychopathic George Custer, and is around to witness the gold rush that leads to the formation of the infamous "Wild West" town of Deadwood.
In a way, then, it's a real shame that Coover finally gets this balance wrong in the last third of the novel, and like many contemporary authors starts tilting too far into 1970s-Postmodernist-style politically-correct "shocking for shock's sake" historical revisionism: by the end of Huck Out West, Tom Sawyer has turned into a racist, wife-beating, crooked-sheriff villain, his estranged wife Becky Thatcher has become a mining-town prostitute to make ends meet, huge chunks of pages are devoted to Native American mythology tales, and the establishment of Deadwood becomes an unending daily horror show of torture and violence worthy of a Cormac McCarthy tale. I mean, I like Cormac McCarthy, don't get me wrong, but I like him precisely because his revisionist Westerns are very explicitly meant to be revisionist, and not even for a moment are you expected to believe that a book like Blood Meridian had actually been written back in the 1800s; but with Cooper's goal here being to trick us into believing that this is a long-lost novel by Twain himself, and largely succeeding in that for the majority of the book's length, that makes it disappointing when he veers into Dances With Wolves territory at the very end.
In another way, though, it's pretty astonishing that the first two-thirds of Huck Out West came out as well as it did, especially considering that most people Coover's age now spend their time watching 16 hours a day of Fox News and screaming about how The Muslims Are Coming To Convert Your Children And Take Your Job. If this is the last book that Coover will ever write -- and let's face it, it might very well be -- then it's a fine capper to a long and fascinating career, with the remarkable thing being not that he got the tone a bit wrong at the end but that he got it so right during all the rest. Although not perfect, it still comes very strongly recommended today, a great example of an author getting the concept of "pastiche" exactly right, and a true reading delight for any fan of Twain's original books on the same subjects.
Out of 10: 9.8
Read even more about Huck Out West: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
April 12, 2017
Book Review: "Lola," by Melissa Scrivner-Love
By Melissa Scrivner-Love
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It's seeming more and more these days that a published genre novel is the new spec script in Hollywood, when it comes to those trying to get staff writing jobs on so-called "prestige TV" shows; and Melissa Scrivner Love's Lola is a perfect example of this, a book that feels for its entire running length like I'm reading a proposal for a new series to debut on FX this coming fall, which I was going to say is not necessarily either a good or bad thing, but might be better classified as both a good and bad thing. And indeed, Love is exactly in the kind of position in real life you would expect from someone who's written a book like this -- the holder of a Master's in English from NYU, and already a working screenwriter in Los Angeles for such mid-tier shows as CSI: Miami and Person of Interest, Lola is an attempt to branch out into edgier material with a more sweeping scope, the story of a low-level Hispanic gang in LA slowly making their way up the ladder of power, but with the twist being that the gang is secretly led by an intelligent, ruthless twentysomething woman, a fact hidden from public view since the male-dominated world of drug-dealing gangs would never accept her as a valid threat.
The book itself, then, reads exactly like you would expect a 13-episode season 1 of such a show to proceed: Lola is given an opportunity to move up a rung within her cartel's organization, but only through a convoluted caper that takes multiple chapters to plan and execute; along the way, she finds herself as a reluctant caregiver to an adorable five-year-old girl in the neighborhood, whose mother is a drug addict who has started pimping the girl out for heroin; this then calls into question the relationship Lola has with her current boyfriend, the one posing in public as the gang's leader but whose roles are reversed once their door is closed at night; and eventually Lola stumbles into an ever-growing conspiracy involving the LAPD, crooked staff members of the district attorneys office, terrorist-funded international drug trafficking, and a surprising kingpin straight out of Breaking Bad central casting. It's not bad at all, and those who are heavy daily readers of crime thrillers will readily acknowledge this as higher than the average supermarket pulp; but it's nonetheless a supermarket pulp, even if a particularly well-done one, making it of only limited interest to those who aren't heavy fans of this genre. A story that'd be great if you were half-watching it on cable for an hour while checking Facebook, that becomes a more daunting proposition when you have to sit and read it over a series of days with your full concentration, with my recommendation of it today existing on a sliding scale, depending on how much you're naturally into these kinds of stories or not.
Out of 10: 8.0, or 8.5 for fans of plot-intensive stories, or 9.0 for fans of crime thrillers
Read even more about Lola: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
April 11, 2017
Book Review: "First Love," by Gwendoline Riley
By Gwendoline Riley
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although they're not my favorite types of books, I've been known to enjoy novels that are primarily dense character studies and that contain only minimalist plots; but for me to really get into such a book, it needs to be almost perfectly done, full of such rich and complex characterization that I'm naturally compelled to keep following along, despite the absence of "what happened next" type material, which I usually consider to go hand-in-hand with good contemporary literature. And although Gwendoline Riley's First Love makes a valiant effort at this, it still falls a bit short, a novel that spends its time spinning its heels just a little too much; the story of young British wife Neve, who can't seem to work up the courage to walk away from a bad marriage she's in the middle of, this book essentially tries to explain the reasons why by taking a broad, hyper-detailed look at all the other relationships in Neve's life, not only the current ones but also through deep dives into her past. It's all written well-enough, and those who are bigger fans than me of delicate, academic-oriented writing will find much to love; but if like me you also enjoy your novels having strong three-act spines, you'll find your interest in Neve and her endeavors sputtering out about halfway through the book's page count, becoming an increasing slog to finish with each subsequent chapter. Not a bad book by any means, it simply wasn't good enough for me to be enthusiastic about it, although others are sure to disagree with that assessment.
Out of 10: 7.9
Read even more about First Love: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
April 10, 2017
Book Review: "The Fall of Lisa Bellow," by Susan Perabo
The Fall of Lisa Bellow
By Susan Perabo
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
To be clear right away, Susan Perabo's The Fall of Lisa Bellow is not a crime thriller, despite its salacious premise of a 13-year-old girl who is kidnapped at a convenience store one random day for mysterious reasons; and fans of that genre who are expecting one will be profoundly disappointed by this book, which is why I warn you right off the bat. (Just for one big example, we never do learn the fate of the kidnapped girl, which will make fans of whodunits throw this book across the room in anger by the end. Buyer beware.) What this book actually is, then, is a smart and deep character study about all the people who were incidentally affected by this crime in the small suburban community where they live; chiefly fellow 13-year-old Meredith Oliver, who was also at the convenience store during the botched robbery, and comes to realize that the reason Lisa was taken hostage and not her was precisely because of the better looks and more expensive clothes that made Lisa a bullying "Mean Girl" who Meredith hated, an emotionally complex realization that she then grapples with to various levels of success and failure over the next year. This in turn then affects her mother, Claire, already struggling with the normal travails of Meredith becoming a teenager that year, questioning her identity as a parent and wife as she grows from middle-age into a "woman of a certain age;" and meanwhile there is older brother Evan, who has recently suffered through a trauma in his own right (an eye-socket baseball injury that has left him semi-blind, his theoretical future career as a pro player now over), and whose own recovery is compared regularly to the ever-widening rabbithole of despair that Meredith finds herself falling into as the months continue.
It's a pretty great domestic drama as far as domestic dramas go, although that comes with the usual caveat that you need to be in the same position as the protagonist (a middle-class, middle-aged, suburban mom, that is) to enjoy this book at its fullest; as someone who's the diametric opposite of that, Claire's hand-wringing over being a good parent, and her struggles to be her own unique person within a stultifying suburban environment, largely went over my head, a specific weakness of author Perabo herself that I didn't experience in, say, the similarly set but much better Little Children by Tom Perrotta. But that said, there are some wonderfully nasty little moments thrown in here and there as well, a reflection of this short-story veteran and Pushcart winner's revered status among fans of edgy academic material, that keep things lively no matter what kind of reader you are. (I especially loved dentist Claire's flashback experience with causing deliberate pain to a seven-year-old patient she had discovered had been bullying her daughter at school, and the way she simply shrugs off the offended horror of her goodie-good husband when she admits it to him, a nice shorthand method for getting across just how far Claire will go as a mother to protect her children.) Not a book I would've sought out on my own, but one I'm glad that Simon & Schuster sent my way, this is perfect reading material for those who are usually force-fed an unending sludge pile of "chick-lit" nonsense by the mainstream media, and are desperately on the lookout for something darker and meatier.
Out of 10: 8.2, or 9.2 for fans of domestic dramas
Read even more about The Fall of Lisa Bellow: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
April 7, 2017
TV Review: "Legion on FX," by Noah Hawley
(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.)
By Noah Hawley (Showrunner)
FX (streaming on Amazon and Hulu)
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Among the numerous TV shows based on comic book franchises, Legion reigns supreme. Simply put, the show is awesome. It is one of those shows like The Wire, Orphan Black, and Trailer Park Boys, because I can easily turn into a blabbing fanboy about it. I heard many people gush over The Wire and how they said things like, "This is the best show on television!" Yet when I saw it, it lived up to the hype. Legion lives up to the hype. The first season isn't over yet, but do yourself a favor and watch it.
But what makes Legion so good? For me I had zero background about the comic. I knew nothing about the character and its place within the Marvel Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy was the same thing. No knowledge of the comic can be a good thing, since I'm not burdened by issues like whether this or that is considered canon. Most of my opinions about comics come from movie adaptations. I am very opinionated about which Batman or Superman is the best. (I lean more towards Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton. Terrence Stamp played a great Zod in Superman 2 and few can top Jack Nicholson's Joker. Those are my cultural touchstones and my personal biases.)
Legion is incredibly good TV for a cocktail of reasons. First, the pilot could be mistaken for a feature film. Everything was top notch. After I saw the pilot, my first question was: "Can they pull this off for the whole season?" Of the episodes I've seen, the answer is a definitive yes. The premise of Legion requires unpacking, because it circles back into how good the show is. The show centers on David, a mental patient. In the pilot he is a patient at the Clockworks Mental Institute. Played by Dan Stevens, David has a friend, fellow mental patient and junkie Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). He also meets another patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). David may or may not have multiple personality disorder and/or schizophrenia. He may also be the most powerful mutant in the world. Syd is also a mutant and her power involves switching bodies.
The series aesthetic is Seventies-but-not. Bold colors, post-Midcentury design cues, and period appropriate music choices. It looks like the Seventies, but everyone has touchpads and other modern electronic devices. Is this a hallucination? Is this real? Because of David's precarious mental state, he is the perfect unreliable narrator. Two adversaries confront him: the Devil with the Yellow Eyes and Division 3. The Devil with the Yellow Eyes is pure nightmare fuel, a character genuinely scary. (I've seen several years worth of Supernatural. Sam and Dean have fought countless monsters, demons, devils, ghouls, etc., but only a couple episodes count as truly scary.) The Devil with the Yellow Eyes will give you nightmares.
The other adversary is Division 3. They want to recapture David and use him for their own purposes. But Division 3 of what? Thus far, that question hasn't been answered.
I haven't scratched the surface in terms of characters and story arcs, but this is a TV series worth watching. Legion is so good because Noah Hawley, the showrunner, has figured out how to maximize the show's potential. Both the comic and the TV show excel at long-form visual storytelling. If a novelization ever comes out, I guarantee it won't be as good as either the TV show or comic. There are some things TV can do that literature cannot.
Seriously, watch this show. It's awesome.
Out of 10/10
Read even more about Legion: Official site | Amazon | Wikipedia
March 24, 2017
Book Review: "The Alzheimer's Antidote," by Amy Berger
The Alzheimer's Antidote: Using a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet to Fight Alzheimer's Disease, Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline
By Amy Berger
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
The more that the science of nutrition becomes a big business, the more we're learning surprising things about nutrition that are causing profound shifts in how we think about the entire subject of healthcare in general; for one example, how the form of severe dementia we call Alzheimer's is more and more looking not like the mysterious, fatal "elderly disease" we've generally considered it for the last century, but actually a fairly simple-to-explain condition whose effects can be countered and sometimes prevented altogether by a change in diet. That's certainly the main thrust of Amy Berger's new The Alzheimer's Antidote, whose tl;dr summation is basically that we should think of Alzheimer's as actually a different but related form of diabetes (a "type 3" if you will), caused by generally the same problems and that can be acted against by generally the same solutions. That solution is basically very similar to what is otherwise known as the "paleo diet" or the "Atkins diet," which with each passing year is looking more and more like just a good general plan for being more healthy altogether -- cut out most of the carbs currently in your eating plan, certainly eliminate 100 percent of the starchy, processed carbs that make up such a huge majority of the daily middle-class diet (potatoes, corn, chips, pizza, bleached rice, bleached flour, etc etc), re-introduce the full-fat versions of yogurt, butter and milk back into your life, and don't be afraid to have more red meat and eggs than have been previously recommended in the last thirty years of our dangerously flawed "no fat" era.
Unfortunately, though, there's a pretty big flaw in Berger's book as well; for while I'm all for books on cutting-edge research that present their findings in terms of, "Here's what some researchers say about the subject, and here's what other researchers say, and even though that second group is currently larger and more respected doesn't necessarily mean we should dismiss everything the first group is saying," it becomes much more problematic when such results are presented in language like, "I'm 100 percent right about this so-far largely unproven theory, and if anyone tells you differently, even if they're more qualified than me and their opinion is largely considered the current mainstream accepted one, they are 100 percent wrong and you should ignore every single thing they have to say." And Berger does this a lot, especially when it comes to the most controversial part of her book, the theory that so-called "ketone nourishment" of the brain (which is what happens when your body doesn't produce enough glucose, the brain's main "food," and thus feeds the brain essentially with the by-products of fat) can actually reverse the effects of Alzheimer's among patients who already have it, and that the best thing you can do for someone with Alzheimer's is immediately stop feeding them any carbs whatsoever, and instead cram in a deliberate overdose of coconut oil and other foods supremely high in "good fat" content, essentially starving them of sugars so that their body will be forced to produce ketone and make the brain survive off that alone.
The people who disagree with this advice not only call it unwise but actively dangerous; but the non-doctor Berger claims that if anyone tells you it's dangerous, even your family doctor, then that person is full of crap and you should ignore what they're telling you, even going to the trouble of changing doctors if that one continues to be insistent about the dangers of a ketone-overdose diet. And while I could certainly get behind Berger's general advice here about how to lower your risk for Alzheimer's if you're middle-aged and don't have it yet (in those chapters, she's essentially not recommending anything I haven't already seen confirmed in half a dozen other books), I can't endorse the kind of reckless attitude she espouses in the ketone-overdose chapters, not in a book about something as important and life-changing as healthcare, an attitude that basically declares, "Anyone who disagrees with me is completely and totally wrong, even if the advice is coming from someone much more educated than I am, even if that advice is considered sensible by 95 percent of the population, and even if my own advice is still only in the early laboratory stage and has yet to be conclusively proven by a large group of disinterested, non-related scientists." Although I'm giving it a decent score today, just for the very good advice on generally eating better, my review comes with the warning to take the more radical advice here with a grain of salt.
Out of 10: 7.2, or 8.2 just for the parts on general dietary advice
Read even more about The Alzheimer's Antidote: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 13, 2017
Tales from the Completist: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," by Muriel Spark
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
By Muriel Spark
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I recently had the opportunity to watch the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the first time (see here for my review of that over at film-nerd social network Letterboxd.com); and I was so blown away by how unexpected, original and surprisingly dark it was, I decided to check out the original novel it was based on from my local library right afterwards. And indeed, the novel is great as well, although this is one of those rare cases when I think I actually like the movie version even better; and that's because the book is written in an experimental style where the narrator is constantly hopping back and forth between time periods, randomly doling out hugely important act-three shocking moments in just weird little afterthought comments during the "present-day" storyline. Although this narrative experimentation is admirable, I found myself better responding to the same story being told in a more traditional way, where we don't find out about the spoiler-heavy fates of Miss Brodie's young students until after having a chance to get to know them and get invested in their fates.
In any case, it's a real stunner of a story if you're not familiar with it already. Ostensibly the tale of a prim middle-aged teacher at an all-girl's academy in 1930s Scotland, the setting plus its Mid-Century Modernist release date led me to believe that it was going to be some sugary family story along the lines of Mary Poppins; but instead it's a surprisingly dense and subversive character study about authoritarianism, how the actions of childhood affect us as adults, and where exactly the line lays between proper and improper relationships between teachers and students. Realize, though, that this summary doesn't do this complicated and always surprising story justice; the charming, infuriating, fascism-loving Miss Brodie is in fact one of the most complicated characters I've ever come across in a modern novel, and her actions and attitudes will have the same mind-messing effect that it has on the small pool of impressionable junior-high girls she takes under her wing every year in order to "mold them in her image." An unforgettable story that's way more wicked and sometimes just plain evil than its genteel setting would indicate, do yourself a favor and make sure to check out both the book and movie versions, each of which follow the same plot but tell their stories in very different ways.
Read even more about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 10, 2017
American Odd: "Pack of Lies," by Gilbert Sorrentino
A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Pack of Lies: a Trilogy
By Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive (1997)*
Review by Karl Wolff
*Odd Number (1985)
Rose Theater (1987)
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929 -- 2006) is the undisputed grandmaster of the American postmodern comic novel. I discovered Sorrentino when I read Mulligan Stew, a rollicking epic free-for-all pitting a pretentious failed writer against his rebellious characters. Along with Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, Sorrentino also writes large-scale encyclopedic Rabelaisian comedies. Reading Mulligan Stew (1979) was a formative event in my life, along with reading Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). I cite the dates, because Coover, Pynchon, and Sorrentino flourished in the paranoid Seventies, creating their comic visions atop the charred remains of Flower Power and the New Left. Sorrentino, Coover, and Pynchon also seemed like a natural progression after a childhood raised on Mad Magazine. Parody, when done well, can be the highest form of art. Working hand in hand with satire, it can be a weapon to use against the assembled idiots, tinpot wannabe dictators, and bigoted scum who share the planet with other more enlightened and tolerant members of humanity. (If it weren't 2017, I'd have said that previous sentence was rather harsh. What me, worry?)
To cite Brian Berger writing Sorrentino's profile as Hilo Hero:
"If Sorrentino rarely had the number of readers he deserved, it's fortunate his most difficult work -- three novels (1985-1989) now collected as Pack of Lies -- found their brilliant expositor in University of Texas philosophy professor, Louis Mackey. Still, its there for all to discover: "Coarse sexuality. Data and cynical commentary. Nervous and demotic language. Jokes!""
I chose to end my American Oddessay series by looking at Pack of Lies. Little did I know how challenging it would be, even for someone who has read several other works by Sorrentino. Simply put, Pack of Lies is a postmodern metafictional labyrinth. Self-referential, bawdy, cynical, satirical, and parodic, it is a merciless take-down of artistic and literary pretensions swirling about in the Sixties and Seventies. The cocktail party set gets a serious drubbing from Sorrentino's poison pen. Besides using characters from previous novels, he also has a parody of Barney Rosset, the philandering honcho of Grove Press. (Sorrentino used to work at Grove Press as an editor.) Write what you know, kids!
For Sorrentino newbies, I would suggest beginning with Mulligan Stew or Aberration of Starlight. Both are more accessible and Mulligan Stew is a laugh riot. To be perfectly blunt, Pack of Lies was a slog to read. Unlike his other work, Sorrentino's trilogy of novels works hard to alienate and confuse the reader.
For most novels, even formally experimental works as challenging and complex as Gravity's Rainbow, one can explain what a novel is about. Pack of Lies is actually a trilogy of three novels. Each novel has its own set of rules. In philosophy an important question is, "What is truth?" With Sorrentino's postmodern fictions, the truth is harder to nail down. With its wonky structure and its acid satire, Pack of Lies could be seen as the redheaded stepchild of Samuel Beckett's famous Three Novels.
Here are my best attempt to summarize the three novels making up Pack of Lies:
Odd Number is a series of interrogations. We never find out the identity of the interrogator. We encounter characters from previous Sorrentino novels. The was a wild party and the interrogations eventually lead up to the revelation of a woman killed in a car accident. Along the way we meet a thinly veiled portrayal of Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, where Sorrentino used to work as an editor. There is also talk about a novel about a film about a party where people talk about a novel, etc. It gets really meta really fast. But it is also laugh-out-loud funny in parts, especially those pointing out the foibles and pretensions of the highbrow literary set. Other things like real estate fraud, softcore pornographic films, and suicide get thrown into the mix. The novel eventually ends on a verbal feedback loop.
Rose Theater reads like fragments from a failed "literary novel." It continues the misadventures of the characters from Odd Number, adding biographies and other detritus.
Misterioso concludes the trilogy in a roughly alphabetic manner. We encounter characters, places, books, and other items as we proceed through the alphabet. One of the main challenges in experimental literature is how to read it. Once I abandoned any pretense of following characters or plot, the novel clicked together like a well-oiled machine. It operated less like a traditional three-act plot-driven novel and more like flipping through TV channels. Characters and situations repeated themselves, a rudimentary plot accumulating over time. But it wasn't about linear progression written in free indirect style. What we encounter are parodies, lists, corrections, incantations, dating, murder, sex, demons, John Crowe Ransom, a copy of Absalom! Absalom! in an A & P, and a suburban vegetarian couple. It is less a novel than an acidic commentary on modern society and the frauds and phonies populating the literary world.
Here's an entry on Antony Lamont, the tortured writer from Mulligan Stew, reappearing in Misterioso:
"Surrounded by the three or four thousand intractable typescript pages of the novel on which he has been sporadically working for some sixteen years, Antony Lamont surrenders, finally, to the suspicion, long held in abeyance, that he has no idea what he is doing. For instance, he doesn't remember what his novel is "about" - is it "about" anything at all? He picks up a handful of sheets and riffles through them, stopping now and again to stare at a totally unfamiliar name. God! He doesn't even remember the names of his characters!"
This passage is really funny, but it also hits really close to home. Being a writer paints a big target on your back. In addition, the line between Next Big Thing in the literary world and Hack Fraud can get blurry at times. Add publicity, the pressure to "make it," and the demands of a ravenous fan base, and it can be quite easy to fly up one's own ass. The aspiring author can wander around with a complete lack of self-awareness and a fanatical conviction of their own genius. (See: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, etc.). Sorrentino takes a sharpened needle to the hubris of authorial pretentiousness. Did I mention that I wrote two previous books of essays? You should totally buy them!
With its constant shifting perspective and verbal pyrotechnics, it becomes increasingly difficult to nail down the truth of the matter. Characters change names or have names very similar to other characters (for example: Sol Blanc and Saul Blanche). It becomes obvious that we are reading a series of fabrications by an author. Fiction is artifice and Pack of Lies shines a bright light upon the craft of writing fiction. Novels in a technical sense - as in where to place them in the bookstore - Pack of Lies is an extended riff on the art of fiction at the point of total disintegration. Plot, characters, and setting have been totally abandoned, reconfigured into anonymous interrogations, strange narrative fragments, and alphabetical lists.
"I thought I made that clear, I'm sorry. It's all in the dim past, as Doctor Plot might write, as a matter of fact, he probably has, a few hundred times." - from Odd Number
Read even more about Pack of Lies: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
Book Review: "Korsakoff Blight," by Eddie Wright
By Eddie Wright
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I have a varying amount of tolerance for so-called "bizarro" literature, because of so much of it being so zany and non-narrative, essentially a written version of a cartoon with no stakes or consequences and thus difficult to get engaged in or care about what happens. And Eddie Wright's newest novel, Korsakoff Blight, is a bit guilty of this too; but thankfully he turns in a more grounded story than most other bizarro novels, one that at least has a coherent plot and real-feeling characters doing real-feeling things. It's the tale of our eponymous hero, a frustrated writer whose life suddenly gets more complicated with the death of his father, also named Korsakoff Blight and who turns out to have been living just a few doors down from Korsakoff Jr. for years, despite his parents being divorced and his father having no communication with him since he was a child. It's while exploring this house that Korsakoff Jr. has just inherited that he starts stumbling across stranger and stranger details -- a hidden room in the basement, a half-finished detective/philosophy novel -- and as more and more of Korsakoff Sr.'s acquaintances start coming out of the woodwork, enveloping Korsokoff Jr. into a surreal conspiracy theory involving alt-realities and mind-erasing designer drugs, Korsakoff Jr. loses more and more of his grip on what's reality and what's dream, experiencing what's either blackout periods that last literally for years or perhaps jumping back and forth in the space/time continuum itself.
It's a small and interesting story that's easy to read yet packs in a lot of deep thoughts, basically David Lynch crossed with Paul Auster and wrapped in a Road Runner cartoon; and while that's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, this is well worth the time of those who enjoy the fringe edges of genre literature, and especially those who like stories that messily mesh together weird tales with science-fiction. It comes with a hearty recommendation today to those specific people, although others can safely skip it with the knowledge that they're not missing out on much.
Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for fans of bizarro lit
Read even more about Korsakoff Blight: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 9, 2017
Book Review: "The Inevitable," by Kevin Kelly
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
By Kevin Kelly
Viking / Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It was a fascinating experience to read Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable right after tackling Nicholas Carr's Utopia is Creepy, an experience that teaches a lot about why so many other tech writers come and go with the same blazingly fast trendiness of teenage pop singers, while Kelly has been around since literally the 1970s and continues to be one of the most thought-provoking writers of that entire industry. For while Carr's book is a disappointing series of blog-sized old-man rants about basically any name-brand technology that's crossed his eyes over the last few years ("What's the deal with Wikipedia!? What's the deal with Twitter!? What's the deal with Second Life!?"), The Inevitable takes a holistic and big-picture look at all the larger trends that have been happening in all of human culture over the last twenty years, to deliver a series of predictions not about what specific technologies or webapps will be the next big trendy ones, but the ways that general human behavior and human society is changing based on whatever the newest trendy apps are.
And indeed, Kelly is in a particularly suitable position to do such a thing -- a former editor of the proto-cyberpunk hippie publication The Whole Earth Catalog, a founding member of proto-web online community The WELL, and one of the founders of Wired magazine, he's made a nearly half-century career now out of taking sweeping looks at the way technology has been changing the very nature of human existence and consciousness since the end of World War Two, delivering in this case a book of 12 chapters that each focus not on a specific technology but a general verb like "cognifying," "accessing" and "filtering." Within each of these intriguingly titled chapters, then, Kelly delves into the recent history of these kinds of activities (for example, the history of chess-playing computers in the "cognifying" chapter), which then inevitably leads to a look at the most cutting-edge current research on the subject (an extended examination of IBM's Watson), a discussion of what surprising things we can learn from this latest research (in this case, that artificial intelligence is likely never going to come in a monolithic, human-aping form like HAL from 2001, but rather an endless series of "dumbly focused" intelligent apps that each do only one thing, but do them better than literally any human could even imagine that subject being done), then ending by speculating a bit on what this trend might foretell in a science-fictional near future (here, for example, that perhaps computers will one day soon figure out how quantum mechanics work, a subject that is quite literally too difficult for human brain comprehension but that might not be for a "silicon brain").
As usual with Kelly's writing, it all adds up to some pretty heady stuff, an admirable hallmark from the optimistic, psychedelia-influenced era of cutting-edge technology in the 1970s he comes from, that we are sadly losing more and more in our current age of technology as capitalist commodity. One of the last grand thinkers from that era of the industry, Kelly's writing is still worth gobbling up with both hands whenever you can get ahold of it, with The Inevitable coming wildly more recommended than any of the other "What's the deal with...?" old-man rants of the moment that litter the tech bookshelves these days.
Out of 10: 9.8
Read even more about The Inevitable: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 8, 2017
Book Review: "Barney," by Michael Rosenthal
Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America's Maverick Publisher and His Battle Against Censorship
By Michael Rosenthal
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
If there's one person from the annals of 20th-century publishing who deserves to be better remembered than he currently is, that would be Barney Rosset; "founder" of Grove Press (that is, after buying the name from a couple of incompetent academes who only managed to re-release three public domain titles in the two years they were in business), who then turned the press into the premiere destination for avant-garde and cutting-edge work in the Mid-Century Modernist years, which he financed through hundreds of reprints of old Victorian erotic novels, eventually spending millions of dollars to convince the Supreme Court to create a brand-new definition of what constitutes "obscene" artistic material, it was Rosset who quite single-handedly ushered in the era of uncensored books and movies we currently live in, just to be personally undone by the '80s by his flamboyantly sexist lifestyle and inherently bad business sense.
And Michael Rosenthal's new Barney does a great job at covering it all; although a short book, it briskly covers all the highlights of this complex and fascinating man's life, not only conveying the whats and hows but delving into the issues that motivated him, the culture around him that was perfectly ready at that perfect moment for such behavior, and what both the good and bad fallout was from his sometimes volatile decisions. And make no mistake, this is far from a sugar-coating or hagiography; Rosset not only comes off here like the petulant, libidinous man-child he no doubt was in real life, but Rosenthal even places this subject at the heart of the biography itself, rightly asking whether this First Amendment crusader would've even had the temerity to simultaneously fight 21 different state district attorneys at once if he wasn't such a egomaniacal lothario. A man who was at the very center of the underground arts during the crucial decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s, who not only introduced American audiences to such European writers as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet but also liberated Henry Miller and the Beat poets into the realm of mainstream national success, this slim but essential volume is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the countercultural era and Postmodernism better, a solidly done portrait of a brilliant, often infuriating champion of subversion in all forms.
Out of 10: 9.5
Read even more about Barney: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 7, 2017
Book Review: "Havana: A Subtropical Delirium," by Mark Kurlansky
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium
By Mark Kurlansky
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although I enjoyed Mark Kurlansky's newest nonfiction book Havana, I don't actually have a lot to say about it, simply because there's not much to it in the first place; not exactly a travel guide to this capital of Cuba, not exactly a history, and not exactly a memoir, it's instead a curious mix of them all, what you might call a "biographical sketch of a city" in the spirit of Peter Ackroyd's London. As such, then, it makes for pleasant surface-level reading, a book that has a general theme per chapter but then spits out random factoids within each of these chapters, full of interesting trivia (did you know that the Sloppy Joe sandwich was invented in Cuba?), but that never really digs down into a deeper or more meaningful look at this fascinating, complicated city. With the Obamian normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, now has never been a better time to read a light but engaging book like this, one that will give most Americans their first look at this most curious of Caribbean destinations; hopefully it will serve to whet your appetite for more.
Out of 10: 8.5
Read even more about Havana: A Subtropical Delirium: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 6, 2017
Book Review: "Next Year, For Sure," by Zoey Leigh Peterson
Next Year, For Sure
By Zoey Leigh Peterson
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I admit, I thought I was in for trouble when reading the first chapter of short-story veteran Zoey Leigh Peterson's debut novel, Next Year, For Sure, as we get introduced to a cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster couple, and witness the cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster things that constitute their relationship; but then in the very next chapter we get a complicated blow-by-blow look at the boyfriend's checkered dating history, why all his relationships have ended with the women in his life despising him, and why this genial, shy young man with intimacy issues can't understand why all his ex-girlfriends end up despising him, and I suddenly realized, "Oh, okay, there's actually something really special going on here in this book, I get it now."
That special something turns out to be an extra probing, extra complex character study of two noble yet deeply flawed human beings, as they accidentally stumble ass-backwards into the perpetual minefield known as polyamory and open relationships, an Olympic-pool-deep dive into what motivates these two engaging yet terrible yet engaging yet terrible people into getting in the kind of emotionally tangled mess they end up finding themselves in by the halfway point of this book. Set in an unnamed hippie-friendly town but one that clearly feels like a Pacific Northwest destination like Portland, the clear standout in this relationship is actually the woman Kathryn, a former childhood member of a religious cult who is now a fairly normal grown-up but prone to occasional bizarre, self-destructive behavior; she's been in a seemingly perfect if not boring-as-hell relationship for nine years now with the meek, genteel, sexually confused Chris, one based on such a bedrock of honesty that one of their favorite activities is admitting to each other when they get a crush on someone else. But when one of these crushes on the part of Chris turns into a more ongoing fascination he's finding hard to let go of, Kathryn for some reason encourages him to actually ask her out on a date and then go out on that date; and essentially the rest of the book is a powerful and poetic look at why she would do such a thing and what the fallout of that date is, a story that sometimes goes in expected directions but often in unexpected ones, and certainly with the main point being to get a deep inside-out look at the people involved and what makes them tick, and not necessarily for the slow-moving plot or to make a moral pronouncement either pro or con about the subject of polyamory itself (sorry, poly fans who were hoping this book would be a manifesto for your lifestyle).
As a guy who loves dense character studies but who rarely comes across books of that type that are truly impressive, this book was addictive like crack for me, which is why I'm giving it a nearly perfect score for readers like me who are into this kind of delicately stylish writing; but I'm also the first to admit that this isn't nearly going to be everyone's cup of tea (in fact, I suspect this book will garner as much intense hatred as it does intense love), which is why I'm giving it an only okay score for general audience members. (Also, by making the main villain of this book Kathryn's former best friend, a bland suburban middle-class housewife who loves Matthew McConaughey movies and who reacts to the entire situation with, "That's gross and you're gross and this whole thing is gross," Peterson is by definition alienating the biggest single demographic of people who will be picking up this book in the first place [publisher Scribner is unwisely marketing this as a book for fans of rom-coms]; and I'm willing to bet money that six months from now, this book's Goodreads page is going to be filled with horrified rants from suburban middle-class housewives about how terrible and immoral all these people are, and how best friend Sharon was completely right and Kathryn was a fool not to listen to her.) Don't let this, though, stop you from taking a chance on this beautifully written, sometimes transgressively thought-provoking book, a nearly perfect debut that makes me excited to see what Peterson has in store for us next.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of deep character studies
Read even more about Next Year, For Sure: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 1, 2017
Book Review: "The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan," by Steve Wiley
The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan
By Steve Wiley
Lavender Line Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I'll admit, although the premise of Steve Wiley's The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan is a really clever one that will immediately appeal to locals -- basically, that there's an entire urban-fantasy secret history of the city, including an underwater "lavender line" el train that runs through a submerged east side of Chicago -- I had been half-expecting the actual book itself to be only subpar, because it's written with the deliberately flowery simplicity of a fairytale, and in general I have had bad luck in the past with self-published urban-fantasy novels written in the style of fairytales. So it was a welcome surprise, then, that Wiley's take on the genre turns out to be quite delightful while still maintaining a dark, mature tone, a book that successfully straddles that fine line between whimsical and treacly.
Chock-full of wonderfully twisted references that only locals will get -- a personal favorite, for example, are the drunk elves enjoying an absinthe-style ritualized round of Malort, which according to the narrator tastes like it does because it's been infused with the evil dead spirit of Al Capone -- this is exactly the kind of book for people who hear a term like "The Green Mill" and picture a literal mill painted green out in the wilds of the city edges, a novel that quite ingeniously incorporates all manner of actual local landmarks and legends then blows them up to the level of high fantasy. I love having a chance to recommend tiny press runs like these that would normally escape your attention, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this short, fast-reading novel soon.
Out of 10: 8.7
Read even more about The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
February 28, 2017
Book Review: "Faller," by Will McIntosh
By Will McIntosh
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although it's certainly a valid trick that can occasionally be put to very good use (Memento comes to mind, for example), genre authors need to be very careful when when deploying the "selective amnesia" trope within their fantastical stories; because when done wrong, you get something like Will McIntosh's disappointing science-fiction novel Faller, whose logic often feels like the author just flat-out confessing, "For the purposes of my badly constructed plot I just happened to need this character to forget this random thing at this particular random moment, which is why they did; then for the purposes of my badly constructed plot I just happened to need this other character to remember this other random thing at this particular random moment, which is why they did." That always feels like a cop-out because it always is, an internal logic that makes no sense merely because the author is trying to hide a weak storyline; in this case, a story that begins with a big chunk of Manhattan floating in space and the people on it having no recollection of who they are or why they're there, but who for some inexplicable reason do remember that violent gangs string up their enemies on telephone poles as a way of intimidating everyone who's left, which is exactly what the violent gangs start doing the moment this chunk of New York starts running out of food.
The whole novel is like this, full of lazy moments of random remembrances and forgetfulness based on what McIntosh needs to have happen on that particular page of the story: humanity has apparently completely forgotten the very concept of English proper names, yet remembers enough about English to assign themselves poetically symbolic names like "Clue" and "Orchid" and "Steel;" humanity has forgotten what cars and planes are, but seemingly remember every single stereotype about small-town rural people being conservatively superstitious and their children plaintively playing hopscotch on the sidewalk with chalk like something out of a bad alt-country song. That makes it even more of a disappointment, then, when the cause of the planet-busting and mass amnesia is finally revealed and it turns out to be a trendy explanation that anyone even vaguely familiar with particle colliders can already guess; and this doesn't even take into account the pre-explosion situation McIntosh invents to get our players all into a place where they're taking such desperate measures in the first place, one whose details defy any and all believability whatsoever (including a ground war in which enemy combatants have invaded California yet not a single nuclear weapon has been used in retaliation; a global conflict that has left tens of millions dead over a final grab for the planet's last fossil fuels, yet with not even a single word said about the current state of solar, water and wind power; and a world in which a coalition of barely functioning third-world nations like Russia and North Korea can somehow completely overpower the endlessly vast and all-powerful US military complex).
The whole thing feels like a case of McIntosh getting one great image in his head one day (and to be fair, the image of a hollowed-out Midtown Manhattan free-floating in the sky is a great image), but then never seeming able to dream up 60,000 words of credible three-act story to wrap around that central image, which unfortunately is the case with way more science-fiction novels than any of us genre fans care to admit. It's getting a minimally decent score for at least being well-written and a fast read, although with a plot that only the most undiscerning hardcore SF fan could love.
Out of 10: 6.9
Read even more about Faller: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia