April 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Subversive Utopia," by Yasir Sakr

(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 Subversive Utopia, by Yasir Sakr

The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem
By Yasir Sakr
MSI Press, LLC
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Jerusalem remains the epicenter for a tumultuous region. Long held as the sacred city for the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it also connects three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). What does this have to do with architecture? When applied to a capital city, its function is to create a physical manifestation of a nation's dreams, ideals, and ambitions. Hence the monuments and government buildings in Washington,D.C. designed to imitate Greek and Roman temples. Big Ben and Parliament were built in the Victorian era, but hearken back to an idealized vision of Merry England in medieval times. The Neo-Gothic spires and design reminiscent of a bygone era. On the other hand, Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is modernist, forward-thinking, and antiseptic. The former Portuguese colony sought to wipe the slate clean and create a new nationalist style unattached to colonial stereotypes and coast congestion. With Israel, things get further complicated by opposing strains of secularism and religiosity. The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Style in Jerusalem by Yasir Sakr seeks to unravel the convoluted strands of religion, politics, and art.

The Hurva Synagogue was destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The state of Israel sought out the architect Louis Kahn (1901 - 1974) to design a new synagogue from the ruins. What Kahn proposed sparked controversy and touched a nerve. During the Fifties and Sixties, Israel worked hard to preserve a secular and modernist perspective. The nation wanted to make a clean break from the superstition and persecution of the European Jews. Sakr explains how Kahn's design embraced both an avant-garde modernist aesthetic and a Utopian interpretation to the Jewish religious experience. The temple design had the outside of the building supported by wide pillar, reminiscent of Egyptian temples. The interior had twelve niches and centered around an open space. It was simultaneously historical and ahistorical. To cap the provocative design, it would have a narrow passage leading from the Western Wall. In terms of geography, it would be in the sight line to the Dome of the Rock.

Sakr tells about how Kahn's vision upset the staid building authorities and the mayor of Jerusalem. New governments come and go and Israel participates in more wars against the Arab nations that surround it. Still, the Hurva synagogue remains unbuilt. Throughout this history, Sakr follows a parallel course with the development of the Western Wall. While the Western Wall has the significance of something eternal, it came about through the destruction of the Moroccan Quarter during the Six-Day War in 1967. As with other projects, the authorities vacillated between modernist and classical designs. While any city deals with urban renewal and creative destruction, everything is exacerbated in Jerusalem. Every square inch of rubble and every brick is potentially freighted with millennia of history. Everything is contested.

Overall, it was a fascinating read. As a self-described architecture nerd, I enjoyed reading about competing building designs and the contested urban spaces. This gets a low score, not because of its execution, although Sakr isn't a native English speaker and it shows in the text. The low score is because this is highly specialized book. It is basically a Ph.D. dissertation turned into a book. So unless you really, really like architectural history and are interested in the snarled interconnections between avant-garde aesthetics, modernist architectural design, and Israeli domestic politics, this might not be for you. On the other hand, it is a topic ripe for a treatment aimed at a popular audience.

Out of 10/7.0; or 9.0 if you're an architecture nerd or someone looking for a unique perspective on the history of the Middle East.

Read even more about The Subversive Utopia: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, April 29, 2016. Filed under:

Book Review: "Newlyweds Afloat" by Felicia Schneiderhan

(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.)

Newlyweds Afloat, by Felicia Schneiderhan

Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living Aboard a Trawler
By Felicia Schneiderhan
Breakaway Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's no secret that I've been losing my patience a lot this year with many of the self-published and basement-press books that have been sent to us for review, which mostly has to do with the circumstances CCLaP finds itself in here in 2016; namely, for about two years now we've been in a constant state of being around 75 books behind in this endless to-be-read pile, with new titles coming in just as fast as we can read the old ones and get them checked off the list, and with the wait time between submission and printed review being a ridiculous nine months as of last Christmas, a situation so dire that we eventually decided to just stop accepting submissions altogether in 2016, which basically screws over every author who's publishing a book this year. Given, then, how much work and stress is going into getting these books reviewed and out the door these days, and given how many authors are unfairly not going to have a chance to send us their book at all because of this massive backlist, it is just so profoundly disappointing and anger-inducing to then pick up one of these books just to learn that it's some unreadably subpar piece of genre crap that should've never been sent to a professional review organization like ours in the first place, but that we must read and review because of the open promise we've had up to this year to read and review any book that any person spent the time and trouble to send us, a policy we're changing next year specifically to try to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place. (Heads up, authors -- the first change in this policy is that we're no longer going to accept any books from third-party publicists, originators of 95 percent of the crap books we receive; so if you want your book to be reviewed by us starting in 2017, make sure to send it to us directly yourself even if you've hired one of these PR firms.)

Given all this, then, it's fair to ask why we bother accepting self-published and basement-press books in the first place; and the answer is that it occasionally produces a hidden gem that would've otherwise gotten overlooked by the world at large, a fact I was happily reminded of again this week when reading through Felicia Schneiderhan's engaging and delightful memoir Newlyweds Afloat. A self-professed big-city hipster who has struggled in the past with addiction issues and sleeping around, Schneiderhan was shocked a few years ago to find herself falling in love with a religiously conservative man who literally lives full-time on his 38-foot trawler parked at the forgotten River City pier down on the city's near south side; and this witty yet thought-provoking book is her record of that burgeoning relationship, as well as a series of anecdotes about river-living and a well-researched journalistic account of the city's entire history of such subjects. Now, it helps that Schneiderhan is an MFA-holder who also writes novels and teaches literary workshops down at Columbia College; but as we all know, an MFA degree is not necessarily a guarantee of an entertaining book, and a lot of credit must be given to Schneiderhan for her efforts to make her book both erudite and easily readable, a memoir that digs underneath the surface level of the events being relayed in order to tell a deeper and more poetic story about aging, mid-life surprises, and the unexpected pleasures of living in a radically different way than what the rest of society considers "normal."

I would've never gotten a chance to read this pleasurable and strongly recommended book if we didn't have the policy about open submissions that we do; and while it's become obvious that the scope of self-publishing has so expanded in recent years that we simply must make some changes to this long-time open policy of ours, we will be doing so in a way so that deserving authors will still have a chance to send us titles like these, because I frankly like the fact that CCLaP will often be the one and only professional review organization on the planet to cover a deserving book like this, something I consider a main reason for coming by and reading our blog in the first place. It's my real pleasure to champion a tiny book like Newlyweds Afloat that has been overlooked by nearly everyone else, and it's my hope that you will pick up a copy in this same spirit.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about Newlyweds Afloat: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 29, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

April 27, 2016

First Time Around: "White Teeth," by Zadie Smith

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

White Teeth
By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 2000
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

A more divisive book than you might expect, given how fervent its supporters are. White Teeth earned rave reviews upon its release, won all sorts of awards, sold gangbusters, and placed Zadie Smith on the forefront of young British writers. She was all of twenty-four when she wrote this novel, which led many to believe we had a genius in our midst. It's possible, of course, that all the hype around Zadie Smith made the backlash inevitable, and it came down hard. Literary critic James Wood (no, not the actor) even coined the phrase "hysterical realism" in a broadsheet against this novel, tying it to other greats like DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wood's essay is a curious piece of work, and if conventional realism's stranglehold on the literary marketplace ever loosens, we'll all look back on it as a relic of a different time. Besides, did Wood know about or care about the sheer disrespectfulness of branding a work by a woman "hysterical?" I mean, is he aware of that word's history and etymology?

Needless to say, I don't at all see it Wood's way; his White Teeth review calls to mind John Gardner's equally goofy saber-rattling about "moral" fiction. I only bring it up because it's representative of the criticisms faced by both White Teeth and postmodern literature in general - how it's not "real" enough, how it's more focused on the broader systems of the world than on real human characters, all of this. Yet Smith responded to Wood's review, and to me, her response is more convincing: "literature is - or should be - a broad church." So there's plenty of room for books that choose not to enlighten or ennoble the human spirit, but rather address the zeitgeist and treat it as a sort of character in and of itself, with all its foibles and inward contradictions and so on and so forth. My point? White Teeth is such a novel, one that digs right into what we might call the modern world and digs out quite a few interesting conclusions.

But first, a few words on the plot. As many before me have pointed out, White Teeth is a sort of multigenerational saga, spanning from 1975 to 2000. In '75, an Englishman by the name of Archie Jones attempts suicide after his wife walks out on him, only to abandon the attempt after a chance encounter. He instead finds his way to a party, where he meets his future wife, the Jamaican-born Clara Bowden. A description of Clara's home life, which includes a devout Jehovah's Witness mother, includes some brilliant analyses and deconstructions of faith's inner workings. We're also introduced to his old army buddy, Samad Iqball; their regiment went to World War II but missed the action due to a series of comic but also touching accidents involving a tank. Incidentally, this friendship is portrayed exquisitely well, which sort of blows up the whole idea that Smith can't write characters. Anyway, Samad finds himself torn between his Islamic values and his desire to live an English life. This divide is complicated further by his two sons: Magid, a scientist and atheist who happily assimilates to English life, and Millat, whose devotion to Islam leads him to join an organization known as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN for short), which among other things protests against Salman Rushdie. As Magid gets more involved in genetics and cloning, his path is placed on a collision course with Millat's.

Of course, that's far from everything you get here. This is a postmodern novel, after all. That means the novel is shown from all sorts of viewpoints. It begins in Archie's but sure doesn't stay there, bouncing around whenever Smith needs it to. It's often used to create remarkable tension, like when the elderly Indian woman Alsana first encounters Clara; this scene depicts Alsana's inward prejudices against black people close-up and despite Alsana's outward friendliness. The intertwining themes of this novel also jump out at me as classically postmodern, if you will; it concerns many of Britain's social changes, underscoring how its prejudices and harmonies shifted as the country moved toward the end of the twentieth century. Hence zeitgeist; besides the Rushdie protests, you get nods to Bruce Springsteen, discussion of the relationship between British Muslims and the rest of Britain, and even a bit about the more controversial scientific discoveries of the late '90s. Plus, as you'd expect from a maximalist-type novel, a ton of characters. Out of them, I was most drawn to Neena. Decidedly minor as she is to the plot, she livens up every scene she appears in. A sharp-tongued lesbian feminist raised in a more traditional Indian household, she won herself the epithet "niece-of-shame" and wears it with pride.

"Sharp-tongued" is a good way to describe Zadie Smith herself, especially her prose style. Some readers might dismiss its relentless cleverness as sort of wearying, and I'll grant that Smith never saw a punchline she didn't like. As Smith herself said, "I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault." If that doesn't sound like a good thing to you, you might not enjoy this book. It just happens that her voice is tailor-made for the sort of sharp, hyper-self-aware fiction I tend to love, which means it's the best possible way to write this book. After all, its characters are all forced to come to terms with their roots throughout this novel. Some embrace them, others reject them, still others come to a more complex and uneasy relationships with them. The point is they're all aware of them, so Smith's own narrative self-aware, even self-reflexive tendencies fit her characters' conflicts perfectly.

Her sharpness especially comes out in her dialog, which seems polished for maximum coolness. Which doesn't mean it's not realistic; for as stylized as she is, she's attentive to natural patterns of speech, but within these natural patterns fall a sort of easy wit that doesn't come out in real dialog. If anything, it has a Tarantino twist, which is always good by me. Her prose is also sharp, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace in a way. She's not in the Nabokov/Woolf super-lyrical vein, but she has a way of picking just the right word for the right situation, even if it doesn't look like it at first. A word that'll make you rethink the whole sentence, I suppose you can say. To me, that's as important to great prose writing as lyricism. It not only allows the writer to describe the situation beautifully, but also allows them access to what might be under the scene. A little bit of play with a word's meanings and associations can go a long way, after all. You can find a great example of this on the first page: "[Archie] lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side of him like a fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him." Check out how it not only allows us to access Archie's character, but also sets up some of the novel's key conflicts. That's some writing.

After this monster debut, things changed for Zadie Smith a little. None of her subsequent novels - the Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW - attracted anywhere near the accolades White Teeth won her. Having only read NW, which wasn't as good as White Teeth but did sport a brilliant fragmented segment that followed the lives of two best friends, I can't tell you if they're as disappointing as their critics claim, but I can tell you that the "promising-young-author" hype cycle is merciless. The trouble with dropping a great first novel is everyone wants a great second novel, and everyone wants that great second novel to fall in line with the great first novel. Since NW was quite the departure from White Teeth, I have to wonder if her later novels' tepid reception (excluding the highly acclaimed On Beauty, that is) have to do with their own qualities or their readers' expectations. She's also made a name for herself as an essayist, and Changing My Mind is a must-read for anyone who liked this book's style; it's got a lot of the same insights, but since it's nonfiction, she expands her net into book and film reviews, talk about her own evolution as an artist, and a touching piece on her father. Of especial note are her review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, where she expands on her claim that "literature is - or should be - a broad church," and a hilarious string of movie reviews.

So there you have one of my favorite contemporary novels. Some readers are skeptical of anything that wins as many prizes as White Teeth did, but every so often the prize committee gets it right.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 27, 2016. Filed under:

Book Review: "The Heart Goes Last" 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 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 Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

One of the more interesting aspects of the "CCLaP 100" essay series on literary classics I've been writing over the years has been in researching the authors in question, and discovering that many of them have thirty, forty, fifty books or more as part of their complete bibliography, even though it's the same two or three titles that now get read by modern audiences 99.9 percent of the time. The question becomes, why have these other 47 books faded into unread obscurity? Are they truly subpar novels that aren't worth our time? Were they ever popular with contemporary audiences when they first came out? Or is this simply the reality of a writer destined to be remembered by history -- do they simply have to crank out 50 novels in order to produce two or three that are still worth remembering and reading a century later?

With these questions floating around in my head all the time, then, it's easy to apply them to the contemporary living authors of today, the ones who have already racked up a couple of ultra-popular titles and will likely make up the next wave of the so-called literary canon; take Margaret Atwood for a good example, whose 1985 The Handmaid's Tale is almost guaranteed at this point to be considered a classic by future generations, and whose brilliant post-apocalyptic trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam also has a good chance of outliving her at-the-moment fans. And that's what makes her newest novel, The Heart Goes Last, such a heartbreaking thing to read, because it becomes clear quickly that this is one of those proverbial minor novels to be almost immediately forgotten by history within just a year of its publication, one of those red-linked titles at the end of her Wikipedia bio that obsessive fans in the 22nd century will wonder whether it's worth it to even track a copy down.

Yet another day-after-tomorrow speculative novel like so many of her best ones, The Heart Goes Last is unfortunately a half-baked example of one, with a central premise that is both trite and that makes no logical sense -- in an America that voted in the Tea Party after the Great Recession of the 2010s, things are quickly starting to devolve into Mad Max territory, with privately owned prisons being one of the few industries left that is still demonstrating economic growth, if it wasn't for the fact that those pesky prisoners keep doing things like killing each other and starting riots and becoming now-well-trained threats to society the moment they're released. Wouldn't it be great, some Halliburton-type corporation decides one day, if you could have all the economic benefits of a large prison but without the drawbacks of actual hardened criminals? And thus is the experimental walled city of Consilience started, populated with "volunteers" fleeing the anarchy that most American big cities have become by now, operating under a simple approach -- every month, half the town's population acts as prisoners while the other half are their guards and support staff, then the next month these halves are reversed, with everyone involved getting free middle-class room and board for their troubles, as long as they agree to never leave the town, and never talk to outside reporters.

Granted, Atwood's earnestness is in the right place with this book, but that's also the problem in a nutshell; the whole thing feels like some weird, not-well-thought-out nugget of an idea that popped into her head one night when watching yet one more Donald Trump rally, a sort of kneejerk reaction to the one-percenters that somehow got filled out to 300 pages before anyone bothered to ask whether the novel's central premise even makes narrative sense. What exactly are the economic benefits of a fake prison filled with fake prisoners? Why would someone fund a fake prison in the first place? If the entire town exists as a way to provide cheap labor for the outside world in exchange for middle-class safety, why not just get rid of the entire fake-prison concept altogether and make the town the entire point? And if this is supposed to be a model for a way to potentially save America from complete downfall, why are the town's founders so paranoid about not letting the public glimpse any of it? Especially when they're not really doing anything that people living under Mad-Max-type conditions would especially complain about? (The main thing the town's founders are trying to hide is that they peacefully euthanize troublemakers who refuse to tow the line; but in a world where bands of armed criminals roam the lawless countryside, murdering and raping while facing no repercussions at all, a little lethal injection of the worst malcontents would actually seem like a blessing to most.)

Ugh, the amount of questions regarding narrative logic that immediately pop up when reading this book is enough to boggle the mind, but that's not the end of the problems; Atwood then marries a bunch of cheesy, too-obvious details to this premise, such as the fact that all the houses in this town are modeled and furnished in the style of 1950s suburban ranch homes (the period of history when people professed "being most happy"), or the fact that "rock and roll music" has been banned from the town's private communications system, replaced instead with endless amounts of such Mid-Century goody-goods as Doris Day and Pat Boone. It's less of an Atwood novel and more a freshman writing student's hackneyed ripoff of an Atwood novel, an entire full-length book entirely fueled by a single thought one night while watching CNN of, "Ooh, I hate those Tea Party people so much;" and for an author like Atwood who has proven what a masterful and inventive storyteller she can be, such a book goes way beyond disappointing and into the realm of legitimately insulting, especially given that a million dollars was spent on marketing this book which could've instead been used to promote a thousand better novels from small-press authors you've never heard of. So the next time you're looking through the Wikipedia bio of Jack London or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Theodore Dreiser and get to wondering about all those books listed at the bottom of their page you've never heard of, keep The Heart Goes Last in mind and realize that they've most likely fallen into obscurity for a very good reason.

Out of 10: 5.2

Read even more about The Heart Goes Last: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 27, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 25, 2016

Book Review: "Spring Chicken" by Bill Gifford

(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.)

Spring Chicken, by Bill Gifford

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying)
By Bill Gifford
Grand Central Publishing / Hachette
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I've been on a kick recently of self-help books that have to do with aging, health and what steps we can take in our daily lives in order to increase the quality of both these subjects; and Bill Gifford's Spring Chicken is the latest of these, notable not just for having a snarky sense of humor but for also just as much covering what you can't do in order to help yourself out as what you can. In fact, this is one of the central premises of the entire book, is just how "natural" versus "controllable" the subject of aging is in the first place; is the process of our cells growing older and less efficient something inherent to human existence on this earth, or are there things we could be doing to slow this process down, perhaps even to live forever barring any catastrophic events like getting hit by a bus? Gifford's funny, cynical answer is essentially, "Uh, no," but he definitely takes the long way to get there, looking at both the legitimate things going on in the real medical world when it comes to these kinds of questions, as well as such quackery as Suzanne Sommers injecting her vagina with human growth hormones and all kinds of other nightmarish mental images. Not really a "how-to" book in the way that so many of these others are, this is nonetheless a highly entertaining survey of all the latest scientific knowledge in the 2010s on the subject of aging, one that despite the skeptical tone is punctuated here and there with actual real (albeit small and self-evident) things you can be doing in your life to help the process along. It comes recommended to those specifically seeking books on the subject.

Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.0 for those specifically seeking knowledge on aging

Read even more about Spring Chicken: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 25, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

April 22, 2016

Book Review: "Earth Flight (Earth Girl, Book 3)" by Janet Edwards

(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.)

Earth Flight, by Janet Edwards

Earth Flight (Earth Girl, Book 3)
By Janet Edwards
Pyr
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

In the 28th century, humanity has colonized the stars. Through interstellar portal technology, colonization occurred at a rapid pace. But it wasn't without costs and controversy. Earth Flight, by Janet Edwards, humanizes the personal tragedy of those left behind on Earth. The third novel of the series, following Earth Girl and Earth Star, it follows the life of Jarra, one of the Handicapped, as she strives to overcome her disability and her status as a celebrity.

The third volume throws in several complications to Jarra's situation. These include an alien sphere orbiting above Earth, causing all manner of anxiety and fear. Jarra wants to be part of the Alien Contact team, but her disability prevents her from portalling beyond the confines of Earth. Throw in a controversial romance, abstruse planetary clan rituals and political factions, and the novel has plenty of balls in the air.

The action moves swiftly as Jarra gets attacked from those who don't want her to succeed. Janet Edwards captures the everyday inconveniences of disability and the costs of bigotry to a developing individual. Edwards also creates a plausible slang and a variety of different cultures in her world-building. While I have not read the first two installments and YA fiction really isn't my thing, I did enjoy reading Earth Flight. It was nice to read about teens facing challenges in a science fiction setting without it being yet another garden variety dystopia. What is like when your own immune system prevents you from exploring the stars? Earth Flight struggles to solve that question.

Out of 10/8.5

Read even more about Earth Flight: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, April 22, 2016. Filed under:

Book Review: "Jottings from a Far Away Place" by Brendan Connell

(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.)

Jottings from a Far Away Place, by Brendan Connell

Jottings from a Far Away Place
By Brendan Connell
Snuggly Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to confess, I have a dangerously low tolerance for narrative stories that are weirdly nonsensical just for the sake of being weirdly nonsensical (as opposed to books that are nimbly experimental as a way of heightening the more traditional elements that usually come with three-act narrative stories, of which I'm a big fan); and so that makes Brendan Connell's new book of short stories, Jottings From a Far Away Place, kind of pointless for me to even try to review, because it's about the most weirdly nonsensical book I've read in the last year, and I find myself with not much more to say about it than, "Yep, those sure were some random sentences put together in a random order, all right. That was certainly 150 pages of random sentences I just read, that's for sure." Of course there's nothing wrong with either writing or publishing books like these, and more power to all of you out there who actually like this kind of writing; but I really wish that publishers would take better care to label these books what they are -- experimental prose-poetry, not narrative fiction -- so that critics of narrative fiction like me, who do our reviews based on analysis of such traditional elements as plot, character and dialogue, could be forewarned and simply recuse ourselves from accepting the book in the first place. It's unfair of me to give this a bad score just because I don't like this type of writing, yet I'm obliged to write something because of our open policy to review any book that gets sent to us, so today I will give it no score at all, essentially a wash that ended up being a waste of both my time and yours. That's always a disappointing experience, and I hope other publishers of experimental prose-poetry will please take note.

Out of 10: N/A

Read even more about Jottings from a Far Away Place: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

April 21, 2016

Book Review: "Girl Through Glass," by Sari Wilson

(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.)


Girl Through Glass, by Sari Wilson

Girl Through Glass
By Sari Wilson
Harper Collins
Reviewed by Nora Rawn

It's hard not to be disappointed by the parade of new 'it' debut fiction. More often than not, rather than a unique voice, they offer a rote structure, a dud of a hidden twist, and the window trappings of Culture without the substance underneath. So it goes with Girl Through Glass, a debut novel about a young ballerina rising through the ranks of the New York City Ballet during the tail-end of the Balanchine era. The chapters alternate between a present-day aimless dance professor haunted by her past and the slow unfurling and ultimate destruction of her promising career as a ballerina in late 70s and early 80s New York City. Yet while dance is the center of the novel, and the appeal of its physical discipline and artistic expression are central to the main character's path, as a dance novel the book falls short of conveying what is magical about the art. Meanwhile, the plotting is predictably sensational, dependent on a cliched Svengali figure and a conventional student/professor affair to add interest, with the result that the character development lacks depth, driven as it is by a programmatic scandal. The book ultimately serves as the perfect book club fodder--a seemingly elevated concept executed without imagination. It's a disappointing waste of a potentially marvelous setting that fails to exploit either the darkness at the heart of certain mentor/student relationships or the richness of NYCB history.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about Girl Through Glass: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads

Filed by Nora Rawn at 2:27 PM, April 21, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |

April 20, 2016

Book Review: "The Best of Black Heart 2014," edited by Edited by Laura Roberts, M. Chaistan Flournoy, and Danielle White

Best of Black Heart 2014, Edited by Laura Roberts, M. Chaistan Flournoy, and Danielle White

Best of Black Heart 2014
Edited by Laura Roberts, M. Chaistan Flournoy, and Danielle White
Black Heart Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

The Black Heart Review is an internet literary magazine that seems to do a lot: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction all factor into these collection. However, little of it impressed me. The fiction felt more like stories written by undergrad students than polished, professional work. Lots of second person, lots of clunky phrases like "We were strangers. It shocked me, how suddenly we were" (from "You Were the Girl Who") or "Your history is only one drunk uncle away" (from "Tail"), bizarre conceits like "Relativity's" protagonist, a pig with thumbs and flat Carver-esques such as "For a Crescendo." Some of these stories come out well enough, though. While "Flowers for Mr. Jones" could've used a good deal of polish on the prose level, it's an entertaining-enough story narrated by a witness to a murder, and the melancholy of "Modern Woman" works. Still, you're more likely to get a failed shot at humor like "Abusement Park," where a group of carnies talk about having sex with college girls. Some are interesting conceptually, but I felt like I was reading first drafts of even the better ones, and I found their tendency to end abruptly frustrating.

The poetry was better. "In Taiwan" put me into the moment, and "Beepocalypse" has quite a few nice images despite its absurd title. But then you get wordy works like "A Nocturne," which overuses the sort of baggy modifiers a good poem should discard, or melodrama such as "Old Friend, Butcher, Despot," or poems written with so little concern for rhythm that they might've made better short stories, like "Cathedral" and "October 5th." The creative nonfiction segment was my favorite, showcasing their "literary crushes" series. Here the authors write about their favorite characters in literature. This seems like a fun idea (I could do a great one on why I'm so charmed by Infinite Jest's Michael Pemulis), and has an amusingly breezy tone. Sure, it kicks off with a clunky and obnoxious ode to Tinkerbell's sexuality, but it improves with a reimaging of Lady Macbeth as a karaoke singer and especially a recasting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest villain Nurse Ratched as a beleaguered hero. The essay's author, Elaina Acosta Ford, shares the fiction writers' tendency to cut off abruptly, but she makes a convincing case for one of pop culture's most despised villains, and against one of its most popular heroes, R.P. McMurphy.

I'm all about the idea of giving new voices some exposure, but I just didn't find these particular voices all that compelling. If you've got biases against the indie and semi-indie publishing industries, this won't do much to get you over them.

Out of 10: 5.1

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 20, 2016. Filed under:

Book Review: "Dietrich & Riefenstahl" by Karin Wieland

(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.)

Dietrich & Riefenstahl, by Karin Wieland

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives
By Karin Wieland
Liveright / WW Norton
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To be fair, the new dual biography Dietrich & Riefenstahl is both really well done and a great concept for a book; two German women of around the same age, both in the entertainment industry, and who even lived on the same street at one point in the Weimer Era, the fact that their lives took such wildly different directions after the rise of fascism (Marlene Dietrich turned her back on Nazism and moved to Hollywood, where she became a huge success among Allied audiences, while Leni Riefenstahl embraced Nazism, turned to avant-garde cinematography, and became just as huge a success among Axis audiences) says loads about Europe during the war, the historic split between left and right politics at the time, and the heartbreaking decisions that all Germans were forced to make in those years. No, the problem is that, at 600 densely packed and dryly written pages (which would easily be 900 pages under a normal layout), this was simply way more information than I was interested in, making the book a slog that I sort of gave up on about halfway through. A great title for those with a special interest in the subject, it's unfortunately a little too daunting for those like me with only a passing interest, and it should be kept in mind before picking it up.

Out of 10: 7.0, or 9.0 for those with a special interest in this subject

Read even more about Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 20, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

April 18, 2016

Book Review: "The Search for Heinrich Schlogel" by Martha Baillie

(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 Search for Heinrich Schlogel, by Martha Baillie

The Search for Heinrich Schlogel
By Martha Baillie
Pedlar Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

This is the newest title to arrive in our mailbox from our friends at Canadian experimental publisher Pedlar Press, and I'm always glad to receive their gorgeous and well-done books, even though I have to admit that I'm usually only so-so about their actual avant-garde contents. In this case, that's a fictional biography of a man who doesn't seem at first to have done much worth writing about, but that in good Nabokovian style quickly turns into much more -- a meditation on existence by the obsessed biographer telling the tale, the dreamlike narrative of the subject's day-to-day life, and a clever collection of scanned found objects associated with the mystery, done up in Pedlar's usual beautiful design and attention to detail. Not a book for those expecting a traditional three-act tale, what you think of the story itself will depend a lot on what you think of experimental literature to begin with; but Pedlar at least always puts out some of the best-looking and most conceptually solid experimental books currently on the market, which is what makes finding a new title in the mail always a treat.

Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for fans of experimental literature

Read even more about The Search for Heinrich Schlogel: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 18, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 15, 2016

Book Review: "Cure" by Jo Marchant

(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.)

Cure, by Jo Marchant

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body
By Jo Marchant
Crown / Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

As a middle-aged guy with barely any health insurance and who is officially now pushing 50, I find myself more and more interested in lively NPR-style nonfiction guides to taking your health into your own hands; and that subject doesn't get much more dramatic than Jo Marchant's brand-new Cure, instantly controversial for its main message, that traditional science is starting to more and more prove something that the New Agers have been saying for decades, that your thoughts and attitudes can and do have a direct influence over such physiological, biological traits like your mood, pain levels, even the way your autoimmune system works. Although let's be clear -- the PhD holder Marchant says right in the introduction that New Age BS is still New Age BS, that it's simply impossible to do things like "wish away cancer" or trick a diabetic body into thinking it's getting insulin when it's not, and that the vast majority of new discoveries about this subject have mostly to do with things that the brain and the brain alone controls in our bodies, things like our heartrate and the amount of hormones that get released into our bloodstream, the amount of pain we perceive, even such things like how tired or alert we feel when fighting off the flu.

That said, however, this book is a real revelation, especially mind-blowing because of all of it being based on actual Western-type scientifically rigorous testing going on around the world, showing through lab-based control-tested experiments such things as that placebo pills can often work just as well as "real" medicine in certain cases (even when the patient knows they're taking a placebo), that you can train your body like a Pavlovian dog to get a full effect out of half-doses of medicine, that a 99-cent iPhone app can let regular schmoes regulate things like their heartbeat in a way traditionally reserved for yogis who practice for decades, and that such seemingly innocuous things like meditation and having friends who take care of you when sick have an actual, quantifiable effect on the biological processes that go into recovering from illness. As Marchant says throughout this eye-opening tome, you need to take all of these things with a grain of salt (and in fact this is a big running theme throughout, that all of these findings need much more official studies before we can start taking them for granted, which are nearly impossible to get funded because 95 percent of the medical experiments done in this country are sponsored by drug companies, who have no interest in funding experiments that prove that people need less drugs and not more); but certainly this book has given me a brand-new way to look at the subject of illness and just how much control I actually have over it, an illuminating read that is worth your time regardless of what kinds of conclusions you come to by the end. Strongly recommended to one and all.

Out of 10: 9.3

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

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

April 13, 2016

Book Review: "A Cure for Suicide," by Jesse Ball

A Cure for Suicide, by Jesse Ball

A Cure for Suicide
By Jesse Ball
Pantheon Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Jesse Ball already wrote this book. There's nothing particularly wrong with it as a self-contained unit, no narrative dead ends or clunky prose constructions, and even if the characters seem a little underdeveloped, that's okay because Ball's project doesn't involve complex characters. He's a novelist of ideas, and he's got enough control over his ideas to translate them into novel form without seeming like he's lecturing us. If this was my first Jesse Ball book, I probably would've enjoyed it, but he already wrote it. He wrote it in 2007 and called it Samedi the Deafness, and it was a terrific mind-scramble murder mystery for book dorks, with shades of Kafka and Borges and Calvino. Nowhere near as good as the best work of those heavy names, but Kafka, Borges and Calvino's early work didn't match their later masterpieces either, and frankly, I dug Samedi more than Borges' Universal History of Iniquity or rambling early Kafka stories like "Description of a Struggle" or "Preparations for a Wedding in the Country."

Let's go through Samedi the Deafness and A Cure for Suicide step by step, so you'll see what I'm talking about. In Samedi the Deafness, our hero, James, witnesses a murder, while in A Cure for Suicide, our hero, the Claimant awakens in a village. Samedi the Deafness runs James through a number of other strange circumstances until he finds himself in a sanitarium for liars, while the hero of A Cure for Suicide learns he's also in something of a sanitarium, this one devoted to helping him readjust to the real world after a vaguely defined accident. Looking a little similar so far? Well, here's where it gets annoying: the conflicts play out in the exact same way. Both James and the Claimant are taken under the wing of a kindly but ominous caretaker, both of them start seeing weird discrepancies between the story they're told and their own impressions of the world, both meet a woman who also sees some holes in the world they're shown, and both then get reason to distrust the woman. As both James and the Claimant try to find a little reality to stand on, they're fed a series of secrets, lies and counter-lies that was all sorts of fun to piece through with Samedi the Deafness but feels like shtick here.

If that wasn't enough for you, Ball also recycles Samedi's form. Since these are the only two books of his I've read, I can't tell you if he always takes this approach, but the man favors long chapters composed of short vignettes, some of them as brief as a single line. The choppy form creates a disorienting effect, especially given how quick both books read (although this one does contain a segment composed of long discursive paragraphs that is, I'll admit, a new stylistic development since Samedi), and I'd be more down with him using the same form twice if it felt more developed this time around. Instead, this seems like Jesse Ball consciously and deliberately writing a Jesse Ball-type book, and I'd just plain like to see him change it up a little.

Out of 10: 6.5, but feel free to bump it up if this is your first Jesse Ball book. Just don't be surprised if it falls in your esteem after you check out Samedi the Deafness.

Read even more about A Cure for Suicide: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 13, 2016. Filed under:

Book Review: "Loss Angeles" by Mathieu Cailler

(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.)

Loss Angeles, by Mathieu Cailler

Loss Angeles
By Mathieu Cailler
Short Story America Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I've been mentioning throughout this spring how CCLaP's submission policies are set to change later this year, once we start accepting new books for review again, and Mathieu Cailler's story collection Loss Angeles is a perfect example of why; for while this is a perfectly fine book of short stories, if not on the overly earnest and expected side (most of these pieces could stand to be either more surprising, darker in tone, or ideally both), the fact is that I have barely anything to say about it analytically or critically, because I'm mostly a reviewer of novels and find it difficult to come up with something overarching and conclusive to say about such little pieces that come and go without making much of an impression. That's unfair to both short-story authors like Cailler and to fans of short stories in general, which is why this will be one of the last story collections CCLaP will ever review; because I never seem to have anything better to say about such collections than, "Sure, okay, it's fine, whatever," which is a waste of both my time and yours. As always, this comes generally recommended to short-story fans, but don't blame me if you read it yourself and sort of shrug your shoulders at the end.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about Loss Angeles: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 13, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Mark and the Void" by Paul Murray

(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 Mark and the Void, by Paul Murray

The Mark and the Void
By Paul Murray
Farrah, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Although I never did get around to reading it, for a long time Paul Murray's previous novel Skippy Dies was on my wish list here at CCLaP, simply because people seemingly never stopped talking about it, even years after it had first come out; and now that I've read his newest, The Mark and the Void, I can see why that might be, because this is one of those books that literally keeps poking up in your consciousness even weeks after you've finished it. At its heart it's an angry indictment by an Irish native of the corrupt banking practices that both created the "Celtic Tiger" phenomenon of the early 2000s and that caused it to implode a decade later, faster than anyone could've guessed; but it's important to note right away that it's also a lot more than this, and that in fact this book would've largely been a failure if it had simply been an angry screed against the one-percenters. Instead it's also a surrealist comedy, in which a failed novelist tries pulling a scam on said bankers, whose pathetic and immediate failure hides a series of deeper and more unsettling scams under the surface of the first one; a world in which inept CEOs hire Russian theoretical mathematicians to invent algorithms to show that fiscal losses are actually fiscal profits, and where corporate headquarters are built on the sides of active volcanoes for the tax breaks involved. A true epic that bobs and weaves in and out of so many subplots in 460 pages to make your head spin, this is exactly how an angry indictment of a corrupt rich elite should be, funny and dark and infinitely digressive into a whole series of preposterous situations; and in fact the only reason that this book isn't getting an even higher score is that Murray ultimately can never truly get away from his earnest, Charles-Dickens-like anger over the coke-snorting financiers who bankrupted his country, a wearying type of political ranting that unfortunately pokes up its head on a regular basis in this book, despite it otherwise being so masterfully symbolic and laugh-out-loud funny. Other than that quibble, though, this is a hugely entertaining book that will likely be making our best-of lists at the end of the year, a truly historic look at the 2010s Economic Meltdown that comes strongly recommended to one and all.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about The Mark and the Void: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

April 8, 2016

Book Review: "Nakamura Reality," by Alex Austin

(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.)

Nakamura Reality, by Alex Austin

Nakamura Reality
By Alex Austin
Permanent Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

After the tragic drowning deaths of his two sons, Hugh Mcpherson retreats from society. Working as a English composition teacher, he attempts to withdraw within himself, contemplating the disaster that is his life. Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin also follows the whirlwind career of Kazuki Ono, the father of Hugh's ex-wife Setsuko. During the California leg of Kazuki's book tour, Hugh hides in the back of a crowd while Kazuki reads from his latest mind-bending novel Fingal's Cave.

A short time later, Hugh attempts to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean. In the ocean, he thinks he sees his two sons. They give him a letter. As he tries to read it, it dissolves before him. The failed suicide provokes Hugh to go on a personal odyssey in a desperate quest to find his sons.

Despite the fascinating premise, Nakamura Reality left me confused and ultimately bored. Let me explain. The chapters in the novel alternate between Hugh and Kazuki. Added to this are excerpts from Kazuki's novel Fingal's Cave. The novel-within-a-novel gets interspersed in Kazuki's chapters. Novels about writers are neither new nor unique. The challenge is making the writing life exciting, or at very least compelling to the reader. Reading about a world famous writer scrolling down the page of his laptop is, well, kind of boring. On top of the fact that some excerpts from Fingal's Cave appear in haphazard fashion. I couldn't make heads or tails as to why these were even included in the novel. Whatever symbolic weight attributed to Fingal's Cave came across as a distraction from the novel's momentum.

Granted, this sounds like I'm trashing the novel. To be fair, it just didn't take for me. This is Alex Austin's first novel, so I'm going to be lenient in my overall rating. If you are into literary fiction and are up for a challenge, I would recommend Nakamura Reality. The bright side is Permanent Press knows how to cultivate its authors. They offer a nice spectrum of titles, ranging from by-the-numbers genre pieces and beautiful/confounding/unclassifiable literary works. With that in mind, I'd be curious about the next novel-length project from Alex Austin.

Out of 10/7.0, or 9.0 for fans of literary fiction up for a challenge.

Read even more about Nakamura Reality: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

Book Review: "The Advanced Oenophile" by Denman Moody

(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 Advanced Oenophile, by Denman Moody

The Advanced Oenophile
By Denman Moody
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

This was my first pick from my new Kindle Lending Library membership; for those who don't know, one of the many side benefits of getting an Amazon Prime membership is that you then get to "borrow" one book from the Kindle Store every month, and I'm devoting my 12 this year to such hobbyist activities as wine collecting and indoor gardening. This book, however, has the same problem as many titles on rare-book collecting I've read as well; the author writes in this really bizarre style, simultaneously too formal and too chummy, using purple prose to floridly describe obscure dinners with name-checked friends from 40 years ago where seemingly monumental decisions about the wine world were made behind the backs of all the Philistines, almost as if the author were deliberately trying to parody one of the overblown characters from a minor Charles Dickens book. (Not an actual quote, but a sentence that certainly describes the tone: "Ah, I remember fondly the historic chicken dinner in Houston in 1974 with my dear friend Dr. Hans Bieder, in which it was proven once and for all that light reds from central California are infinitely better than those from the northern half of the state. Oh, what a halcyon night it was!") To be fair, this does contain a certain amount of useful basic information about the various types of wines and wine regions out there, although unfortunately its New World sections are already becoming outdated a mere five years after its first printing (Did you know that a growing amount of people are now enjoying wine from South America??!!); but the majority of this book consists of nothing else but bulleted lists of top-tier wineries in just about any section of the world you can name, which you can find more cheaply and more easily just by popping around Wikipedia on a Thursday afternoon. A fun little read to be sure, if for nothing else than the unwittingly satirical portrait it paints of an insufferable wine snob (Moody was one of the first serious American wine journalists in the 1970s, when the US first started gaining its world-class status, and HE NEVER LETS YOU FORGET IT); but I can't in good conscience say that this is worth paying money for and deliberately going out of your way to pick up, unless like me you have an opportunity to scan it quickly through a free loan.

Out of 10: 5.0

Read even more about The Advanced Oenophile: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 8, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

April 7, 2016

Book Review: "Seeing Red," by Lina Meruane

Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane

Seeing Red
By Lina Meruane
Deep Vellum Publishing
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Based on her sudden rise in the past few months, I wouldn't blame you for thinking Lina Meruane was a relative newcomer. That was my first thought, but the Chilean-born Meruane debuted in 1998 and has since won rave reviews in her native country; no less than the late Roberto Bolaño described her as "one of the one or two greats in the new generation of Chilean writers who promise to have it all." The Bolaño endorsement is enough to make me curious about the rest of her work, yet this is her first book to get an English translation. If I had to speculate about why, I'd say it's because she doesn't write in the magical realist style so many English-speaking readers associate with Latin American fiction. I hope the success of Bolaño and Valeria Luiselli break this stereotype, since it seems to me like a lot of great fiction out of Latin America has nothing to do with magical realism.

Maybe Seeing Red will also help reverse that trend, because it's won a lot of acclaim lately and I'd like to throw my own hat into that ring. Seeing Red chronicles Meruane's experience with blindness, caused by a stroke that left one eye completely filled with blood and another useless whenever she moved. I'm not sure to what degree the book is factual and to what degree it's fiction - although the narrator's own name is Lina Meruane, I believe she's admitted to fabricating a certain degree of this book. Not like that has any effect on my opinion, of course. The way I see it, most memoirs have a degree of fiction to them and most novels have a degree of memoir, so it makes a lot of sense to me that she should combine them. What matters isn't what's real and what's not, but how well she writes, and Meruane writes about her experience with expertise, focusing not just on her own blindness but its effect on her relationships with her boyfriend, family, professors and doctors.

As others have pointed out before me, Meruane's narrator is not a pleasant or patient sufferer. She's demanding, frank, impatient and rude, and she often acts in a way that goes against her best interests. Readers who prefer more sympathetic characters will probably find her off-putting, but look, reating characters readers can empathize with is so, so much more important than sympathetic ones. I've probably said this at least once, but it takes a better writer to make me empathize with an unsympathetic character than to sympathize with a nice one, and Meruane made me empathize with her character by showing me the fear and frustration behind these unpleasant traits. Needless to say, Meruane's voice is searing, and her form fits its well. She broke this book into paragraph-long fragments of two to five pages. Someone less generous might call them rants, especially if they're not as impressed with Meruane's narrative voice. I'd call them more blasts of her consciousness, though, short transmissions of her world if you will. It's an effective device for conveying her narrator's worldview, and in a novel like this, those gestures are quite important. It sometimes feels like it's spinning on narrative wheels, but otherwise, it's hard to complain about.

Out of 10: 8.5

Read even more about Seeing Red: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 7, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 6, 2016

Book Review: "The Big Drugstore" by Patrick Irelan

(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 Big Drugstore, by Patrick Irelan

The Big Drugstore
By Patrick Irelan
Ice Cube Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

In a way, pastiches can be a lot of fun, books that are specifically and deliberately designed to be a ripoff of a particular type of literary genre, which instead of a ripoff is known as a "loving homage" to that genre by its fans; but I always find the same problem with pastiches of hardboiled detective novels (and there are a lot of pastiches of hardboiled detective novels by now), which is that in order for one to work in a contemporary setting, the main character always comes off like some cartoonish anachronism, a "seedy private eye" who nonetheless has the kind of oak-paneled, antique-filled office that in the 2010s would be marketed as a vintage loft and sold for millions to creative-classers, and who never owns a cellphone and still gets all his information from paper newspapers, and who walks around talking like a wiseguy within a world of LOLcats and emoticons. And so too is the case with Patrick Irelan's The Big Drugstore, which is kind of a shame, because instead of an actual rat-a-tat crime novel I think he means it to be, it comes across more like a comedy about a guy who reads way too many rat-a-tat crime novels, even though I have to say that I really loved the central premise of the story, that our hero is a security guard at a Walgreens-type convenience store, who takes it upon himself to go into Philip Marlowe mode when the store's manager is murdered for unknown reasons right in his office under the guard's watch. (Also, I cracked up every time I spied on the back cover the reference to the "gritty and rough" streets of Davenport, Iowa, one of the many details that makes it hard to tell if the publisher is presenting this straightforwardly or with tongue in cheek.) Let's be clear, it's not a bad book at all, and fans of hardboiled pastiches should definitely pick it up; but it's pretty damn silly too, and fans of sincere contemporary crime dramas deserve to know this before buying a copy. It comes with a limited recommendation today, just to those people.

Out of 10: 7.4, or 8.4 for fans of hardboiled detective homages

Read even more about The Big Drugstore: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 6, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 4, 2016

Book Review: "The Children's Crusade" by Ann Packer

(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 Children's Crusade, by Ann Packer

The Children's Crusade
By Ann Packer
Scribner / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Quotes on this book's cover from critics regarding Ann Packer's older work makes it clear that she's a character-based novelist, one with apparently such a mastery over realistic detail that The New Yorker said that "her characters seem observed rather than invented;" but I have to say, if that's really the case, then she's a bit off with her newest book, The Children's Crusade, and unfortunately when a character-heavy novel is a bit off on the characterizations, there's very little left to satisfy. One of those classic academic stories in which nothing actually happens (unless you count "people start out younger and then they turn older" as "something happening"), this is the tale of a family of six who first settle in the 1950s in the area now known as "Silicon Valley," now facing a crisis over whether to sell the property in the go-go Dot Com years; and it's this decision that's giving them an excuse to think back over their entire lives at the rural ranch house, four grown kids with a dad who's now dead and an estranged mom living as an eccentric artist in Taos, after abandoning them Anne-Sexton style in the 1970s. The twofold problem with this, though, is that firstly no one in the family is actually interesting besides the crazy mom and the black-sheep youngest son who inherited many of her qualities; and in a novel devoted almost exclusively to a deep look at interesting characters, that presents a real problem when two-thirds of the characters aren't, and especially the under-developed dad who comes off as this pollyannish too-good-to-be-true Jimmy Stewart type, not nearly in line with the admittedly complex and fascinating job she does with the youngest son James, really the only person here who drives every other decision and reaction that every other character has. And then speaking of which, that's the other main problem, is that James comes off here as two different people -- as a kid he acts profoundly mentally challenged, to the point of undiagnosed autism, while as an adult he's back to being perfectly normal, albeit a slacker fuck-up -- and when the main pleasure of your novel relies on the characters being reliably consistent and believable, it ruins the illusion when the main one isn't. Not actually badly written, which is why it's not getting a bad score, the problem is that there's little here to actively engage the reader intellectually; and while I'm usually willing to cut books some slack on this subject, the fact that the author made intellectual engagement nearly the sole reason to read this book is why I find myself judging it harshly specifically in this case.

Out of 10: 7.1

Read even more about The Children's Crusade: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 4, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |