January 29, 2015

Book Review: "A Little Lumpen Novelita," by Roberto Bolaño

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

A Little Lumpen Novelita, by Roberto Bolaño

A Little Lumpen Novelita
By Roberto Bolaño
New Directions
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I've been a fan of Roberto Bolaño from the opening pages of 2666, but like many great authors, he had his flaws. For all his talents as a writer, he strikes me as a terrible editor, or self-editor, if you prefer. A consequence of his style is that that every Bolaño novel has ideas or characters or details that aren't fully explored; part of this is because Bolaño is about mystery and suggestion, the things that lurk around the corners, but part of this might be because the guy wrote a lot and published a lot. A Little Lumpen Novelita, written in 2001 but not translated until last year, falls in some ways on the wrong side of the careful balance Bolaño so frequently strikes between shadowy and incomplete; The Skating Rink also falls on the wrong side, while Monsieur Pain, Amulet, and The Third Reich sit on the fence between the two; I'd wager that everything else I've read by him succeeds exceptionally. Like everything else he wrote, it's a great story -- an impoverished woman descends into a life of bizarre crime when his brother brings home two strangers -- and the sense of dread and the ominous that permeates even the man's weaker works also shows up here. Plus there are some great individual set pieces, like the segment where protagonist Bianca uses a newspaper quiz to reveal and in some ways form her character. The prose, in that great Bolaño style, hits a nice mix of menace and lyricism, and there are a few poignant observations that I won't share because they hit harder in context.

So everything he usually does well, he does well here. Yet other than Bianca, none of these characters ever become more than sketches. All sorts of possibilities are opened up for them, especially her brother and his pursuit of masculine ideals, but aren't really given a lot of depth; the plot hurtles forward too quickly for anything to expand, for anyone outside of Bianca to establish themselves. Other Bolaño novels have given us terrific characters -- recurring alter ego Arturo Belano has imprinted himself in my mind with his swordfight in The Savage Detectives, and it's hard to resist the Col. Kurtz vibes Distant Star's skywriting serial killer Alberto Ruiz-Tagle throws off -- but none of those characters are here, and it's amazing how quickly thin characters can sink a promising premise. And even Bianca isn't a great character, just a serviceable one; she doesn't complicate the way I want her to. Maybe that's why A Little Lumpen Novelita feels like Bolaño going through the motions; the whole time I read it, I found myself struck with the feeling that he'd done better, and with it, I came to the conclusion that this probably wouldn't have been translated if Bolaño had lived a little longer. Of course, me being the kind of person I am, I'll probably read through every Bolaño manuscript New Directions digs up and puts out, but if you're not an obsessive fan like I am, there's really not a lot of need to read this. I can't at all call it bad, but it's definitely inessential; there's a lot you can keep in the shadows, but your main characters' personalities, motives and development just can't stay this dark.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about A Little Lumpen Novelita: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 29, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 27, 2015

Book Review: "No Land's Man" by Aasif Mandvi

(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.)

No Land's Man, by Aasif Mandvi

No Land's Man
By Aasif Mandvi
Chronicle Books

There's not a lot to say about Aasif Mandvi's short and sharp memoir No Land's Man, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading; in fact, I found this one of the more delightful short books I've read in recent months, a disarming and always humorous look at one Indian immigrant's journey from the subcontinent to England and eventually America, informed and influenced by Gen-X pop-culture the entire way. For those who only know Mandvi as one of the smartest contributors to Comedy Central's The Daily Show, they might be surprised to know that he has an equal amount of experience in the arts delving into drama and intellectualism, with his one-man play Sakina's Restaurant eventually turned into the successful indie film Today's Special, and with Mandvi taking various parts over the years in plays by Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner and more; and both of these sides of this talented writer and performer are on display in this small but engaging new book, a self-deprecating yet earnest look at Mandvi's youth as a picked-on Indian nerd in a working-class British town, before his family's random move to Tampa, Florida and his '80s dreams of American success as defined through bad television. (One of the funniest chapters here is how Mandvi aspired as a youth to become the next Fonzie, insisting that his parents call him "The Monz" until his mother finally revolted, passionately lecturing him on the superior acting skills of Omar Sharif over Henry Winkler.) A fast and entertaining read that should take most people no more than a day or two to finish, this comes strongly recommended to both comedy fans and those interested in first-hand looks at the American immigration experience, as well as anyone else looking for a sweet, funny story about nerdom and outsider culture.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about No Land's Man: Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 27, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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January 26, 2015

The CCLaP train keeps rolling! Say hello to Stephen Moles' "Paul is Dead!"

Paul is Dead, by Stephen Moles

It's been an insane 2015 so far for us here at CCLaP, as we have literally released a new original book every single week since the year first started, mostly as a way to catch up with the books from last Christmas that we didn't end up getting out; but now that our back titles are out of the way, I'm happy today to announce our first full-length book of the year, British author Stephen Moles' absurdist comedy Paul is Dead. As always, the book's synopsis does a better job at describing it than I can, so let me just paste it in below...

Paul McCartney is not a celebrity himself, but works on the edges of that industry, unhappily toiling away at a tabloid devoted to famous deaths and the public's ongoing fascination with them. But one day he discovers a mysterious red button on a back wall of his new house, which when pressed causes the immediate death of a celebrity sometimes half a world away. And what does this have to do with the eyeball in a glass jar that his biggest fan has recently mailed to him? Find out the darkly hilarious answer in this full-length debut of British absurdist author Stephen Moles. A rousingly bizarro exploration of fame, identity and mortality, this novella will make you laugh and cringe in equal measure, a perfect read for existing fans of Will Self or Chuck Palahniuk. You might not think a book about death would begin with the word "life" written 27 times in a row, but then you have yet to enter the strange but compelling world of Paul is Dead. Best approached with caution and with tongue firmly in cheek!

Yeah, I know, right?! I've become a big fan of bizarro fiction since opening CCLaP in 2007, mostly because of the tight community of bizarro writers at Goodreads who keep sending me their books for review, so I'm particularly proud to be publishing today our very first bizarro tale ourselves, and especially proud of it being the full-length debut of the very deserving Moles. For those who have never read bizarro fiction before, expect a story that combines very black humor with a sorta cartoonish mentality, sort of like the best of Monty Python or Tim & Eric.

'Paul is Dead' at the Amazon Kindle Store

As always, we've made the ebook version completely free to download here at the website, for those who would like to read it that way; or if you'd like to support the center a little more than that (or simply prefer having Amazon push your ebooks directly to your Kindle wirelessly), you can also purchase the ebook there for $9.99. Plus of course there's a paperback version available, in a cute new 4 by 7 inch format that all our future novella-length books will be coming out in, which you can order directly from us by using the Paypal link below...

Options

Are you a fellow UK resident like Moles? We strongly encourage you to purchase the paperback instead through Amazon.co.uk, the link for which will be available by this Wednesday at the latest; since this is being offered through Amazon's digital printing service, that means your UK order will actually be printed and shipped from there in England itself, meaning that you will only have to pay for local postage and that you'll receive your book in a mere two or three days, just like an American who might order directly through us. (This is the case, in fact, for any of you in Europe, plus other countries that Amazon services like Australia, Canada, India, Japan and more. This is a great new deal we've struck with Amazon, and means that all of you will only have to pay local postage anymore for any book CCLaP publishes, so we highly encourage you to take advantage of this whenever possible.) Plus of course don't forget that this book has its own listing at Goodreads.com too, so I strongly urge all of you fellow GRers to add it to your library there, and especially to post a few thoughts about it after you're done reading it. We literally have no advertising budget at CCLaP, literally zero dollars, so word-of-mouth is the number-one way we generate new customers around here. Your mention of our books online, whether at Goodreads, Amazon, or your personal blog, can and does have a huge impact on the number of books we sell, so we appreciate any write-up you might be able to do.

The CCLaP train just keeps rolling in 2015 as well -- our next book is coming out in just another three weeks from now -- but for now, I hope you'll have a chance to go check out Paul is Dead right this moment, and see like I did why this extremely clever and funny book will have you laughing and shuddering at the same exact time.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:02 PM, January 26, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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January 22, 2015

CCLaP Podcast 124: "Chicago After Dark" University of Chicago Contributor Party

CCLaP Podcast 124: 'Chicago After Dark' University of Chicago Contributor Party

It's Monday Thursday, which means it's time for another episode of the CCLaP Podcast. Today, it's a special one-hour live recording from our recent Chicago After Dark contributor party on the University of Chicago campus, held in conjunction with campus literary magazine Memoryhouse. Recorded in December 2014 at the campus's Reynolds Club.

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:24 AM, January 22, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Podcast | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Events | Literature | Music |
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January 21, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "the Brothers Karamazov," by Fyodor Dostoevsky

the Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov
By Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

A massive book, and not just because eight hundred pages, while not a patch on Proust, is fat. No, the Brothers Karamazov is full of huge ideas about how people operate, ideas of faith and society and cynicism and idealism and greed and selfishness. I mean, the criticism on this book, and just this book, mind, probably takes up more combined pages than the whole of Dostoevsky's oeuvre. There's a lot here, and that's before you factor in the reputation of this book. To a lot of people, Dostoevsky is culture, which means to a lot of people, Dostoevsky is either unapproachable or boring. Plus there are a ton of characters and they're all referred to by multiple names, in accordance with Russian naming conventions.

So how do you even approach this book? What road leads you into it? Well, I'm here to tell you that Dostoevsky is a lot more accessible than you might think he is. See, his four "major novels," the long ones he made his name on - Crime and Punishment, the Idiot, Demons, and this one - all have a hook of some kind. Crime and Punishment has the cat-and-mouse game, the Idiot's got the romantic entanglements, Demons works on the fascination-of-evil principle, and this is a murder mystery. Basically, Fyodor Karamazov, cruel landlord and father of the four brothers - intellectual Ivan, former monk Alexei, hedonist Dmitri, and the oft-forgotten servant Smerdyakov - is murdered, and the clues point to Dmitri. This is used as a jumping-off for a ton of strands: the radical transformation each brother passes through in the wake of their father's death and the investigation of the murder are just as important as the investigation of human morals.

But it's the investigation of the morals you stay for. It's famously heavy stuff, stuff that runs us through the wringer and brings us to the conclusion that it's worth it to be a good person anyway, without the conclusion being forced or things slipping into tract mode. The trick is through the characters. By some sorcery, Dostoevsky makes the brothers feel like people and stand in for broader ideas. At the same time. So when Ivan and Alexei dish about Christianity in the famous "Grand Inquisitor" chapter, it doesn't feel like discourse, it feels like two people talking at the bar. That famously devout Christian Dostoevsky was nonetheless able to put a convincing argument against Christianity into the mouths of one of his characters astounds me. This is astonishing characterization, simply put. This is basically the best deal you can ask for from characterization.

And I'm as amazed as ever that Dostoevsky landed this thing. Maybe it's technically true that he didn't, seeing as he died before he completed this novel and seeing as he had two sequels planned, but just that Karamazov is a coherent narrative with a coherent philosophy and not an incoherent mess of threads butting up against each other is incredible to me. But pull it off he did, and that's why we still read it decades later.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 9:51 PM, January 21, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 20, 2015

Book Review: "The Fortress in Orion" by Mike Resnick

(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 Fortress in Orion, by Mike Resnick

The Fortress in Orion
By Mike Resnick
Pyr
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

One of the things I've come to realize about myself in the last several years is that when I call myself a "science-fiction fan," that's actually a bit of a misnomer; I should instead really call myself a "science-fiction dilettante," because as I learned after attending Worldcon in Chicago a couple of years ago (my first SF convention in 25 years), there's really only a tiny layer of SF novels I genuinely enjoy in any given year, the really unusual and extra-smart stuff by writers who often have conflicted relationships with SF fandom to begin with (oh, hello there, China Mieville), but that I can't really stand the middlebrow space-opera stuff that actually makes up the majority of output of the genre in any given year, but that is the exact favorites of the kinds of super-fans who attend a lot of the conventions, vote for the Hugo Award every year, etc. Mike Resnick is one of these con-favorite authors -- in fact, he was the Worldcon Guest Of Honor the year I attended -- and his new The Fortress in Orion is exactly the kind of middlebrow stuff I'm talking about; it's not very smart but not very dumb either, not too fast-paced but not too slow, with the most stereotypical of hacky premises driving its utterly guessable three-act plot (a cocky yet effective military commander who plays by his own rules is tasked with infiltrating enemy lines on a daring spy mission, and hand-picks a series of sassy rogues and sexy criminals to pull it off), but with hardcore fans loving this stuff because it's fast to get through (a must for the kinds of core genre fans who tear through an entire middlebrow novel a day, every day, whether that's SF or fantasy or crime or romance you're talking about), and because Resnick will actually hang out with you at the next con and buy you a beer for liking his book.

Certainly not a bad novel, in the same way that a typical episode of a typical low-budget syndicated TV show on the SyFy Network isn't "bad," nonetheless it goes down with the same kind of generic smoothness, and leaves just as short of a lasting impression, a good way to kill a Saturday afternoon but with nothing much better that one can say about it. I read and review such books regularly here anyway, because I read and review any book that a publisher takes the time to send me (and to be clear, our pals at Pyr don't just put out these kinds of books, but also the kinds of amazing, mind-bending stuff that constitutes the best of this genre too); but I can't say that I'm ever excited by another of these "fan-fave paying-the-bills" mid-list titles, nor that I'll even remember the experience of reading it another six months from now. ("What do you mean, I actually watched the entire fourth season of Stargate SG-1 with you last summer? Why do I have no memory of watching the entire fourth season of Stargate SG-1 with you last summer?") This should all be kept in mind before picking up a copy yourself.

Out of 10: 7.5

Read even more about The Fortress in Orion: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 20, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 19, 2015

Check out CCLaP's newest book, Karl Wolff's "The NSFW Files!"

The NSFW Files, by Karl Wolff

It's busy days around here at CCLaP, as we not only start up our new monthly schedule of new books for 2015, but are also squeezing out two books from 2014 that we weren't able to get out in time for the holidays; and today I'm happy to announce the second of those delayed books, Karl Wolff's essay collection The NSFW Files. If this title already rings a bell, it's because Karl's actually one of the staff writers here at the blog, and this essay series has been running here once a month over the last year, scholarly looks at various volumes over the decades and centuries that have in one way or another been labeled "obscene" or "erotic" by their contemporary audiences; but as always, the book's dust jacket does a better job of explaining it than I can here off the cuff, so let me just paste it in below...

The runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey made erotica mainstream, but can erotica really be written off as derivative fiction read by suburban moms for titillation? As Karl Wolff investigates in his new collection of essays, erotica belongs in a vast literary landscape, a genre that hides hidden treasures and rare delights. He covers erotica from The Song of Songs to Nic Kelman's girls: A Paean; from Gynecocracy to Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage; from City of Night to Naked Lunch; Story of the Eye to Story of O; and a bawdy bouquet of graphic novels. The NSFW Files includes essays on erotica written by a Nobel laureate, an outsider artist, a surrealist, and a French prisoner, among many more. Most important, the essay collection offers an answer to the question, "What dirty book should I read next?"

The NSFW Files: The Hypermodern Paper Edition

This is our next-to-last short handmade "Hypermodern" book before finally retiring the series for good (although let me admit because of our wonky schedule that we've already released what is technically the very last Hypermodern title, Ben Tanzer's After the Flood from last week); and it's a nice thick one in this case, almost 200 pages altogether, because of Karl adding three new essays that never appeared at the blog, plus a new introduction, a "lecherous lexicon" that explains many of the terms he uses throughout the book, and a new long afterword that helps tie up the themes discussed throughout. Now that our "Hypermodern" series is officially finished (at a final book count of 30 titles), it's now possible to start the process of collecting every single one of them and having a complete set, so there's no better way to start than by picking up this one using the "buy now" button seen below...

Options

The NSFW Files: The Hypermodern Paper Edition

And of course, like all our titles, the ebook edition is completely free here at the website for those who want to download it that way (technically "pay what you want," although with "pay nothing" being a perfectly valid choice); or if you own a Kindle and you find it easier to pay five bucks and have it automatically download to your device wirelessly, certainly I encourage you to do it that way instead. And as always, there's also a listing for this book over at Goodreads.com, so I hope all my fellow GRers get a chance to add it to their library there and especially to post a few thoughts about it after you're done reading. Adding to your "to-read" list there is great, but it's the actual reviews that convince other people to pick it up themselves; and with this being the number-one way a tiny and broke operation like ours generates new customers, your mention of this book online can and does have a very concrete effects in the total number of books we sell.

I've been a big fan of these essays as Karl has been writing and posting them over the last year here, and I'm very excited to have this full book finally out; so if you've enjoyed Karl's online writing about books and comics here as well, I really encourage you to stop by the book's web headquarters right this moment and download a copy for yourself. Yet another new CCLaP book coming your way next Monday too, so I hope you'll get a chance to stop by again and check that out as well!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:37 PM, January 19, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles |
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January 15, 2015

Book review: "Citizen: An American Lyric," Claudia Rankine

(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.)

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric
By Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Reviewing this is a change of pace for me, since I usually review fiction and Citizen is not a work of fiction. What exactly Citizen is, as genre goes, is hard to pin down. Rankine came into the literary world as a poet, but she gained prominence in the literary world with 2004's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which made its point with poetry, essays, and photos. I could describe these in "critic words" like "modern" and "innovative," and those are at once true and valuable facts of both that book, but what really matters about its modern and innovative qualities is how they make it just the right combination of alienating and comforting; first, she makes us feel alienated as the most effective means of conveying her alienation, and then, without proposing any sort of easy solutions -- probably because she doesn't provide easy solutions -- she reminds us that, despite appearances, things will indeed be okay.

Or at least that was the case for that book. Citizen continues in Don't Let Me Be Lonely's style, and in fact develops it a little: brief screenplays about racially incited violence are included toward the end of the piece, fragmentary pieces that contain aspects of, against all odds, the matter-of-fact and the hallucinatory at the same time. These are powerful vignettes, rapid and turbulent; Rankine understands how potentially alienating and difficult literary techniques can be used to nonetheless create a broader communication with the reader. The sense I got, both throughout the broader work and within this specific segment, was an invitation to feel what Claudia Rankine might've felt when she learned of these incidents.

Race is at the center of Citizen, and Rankine approaches the topic with a combination of outrage and alienation. So when she, as an African-American woman, reports on the Serena Williams "Crip Walk" controversy with understandable anger, she does so with sharp attention to the question that seems to sit at the heart of the anger: "how can I consider myself a citizen of a country that, in many ways, does not want me?" She doesn't just do this through text, either, and this is where her formal hybridizing comes out as the strongest possible choice for this book. That her use of photos conveys an undercurrent of loneliness shouldn't surprise anyone -- a particular photo in the early stages of the book shows an empty street, labeled "Jim Crow."

But what if I told you that even her use of white space between words gets this theme across? That might sound like highfalutin concept-art look-at-my-English-Degree crazy talk, but look: at one point here, in a Starbucks, Rankine replies to a racist remark with "no need to get all KKK on them." Cue white space. Cue the man behind saying "now there you go." Cue more white space. With just this use of space, space and not the conventional use of indentation, the awkward pauses and implied lapses in communication spring off the page. One of the very few tricks I've picked up in the study of poetry is how much a simple space between lines can convey, as more than just a break on the page but an actual break in conversation, a sort of disjunct in meaning. Rankine rocks it here.

So it's not just that Citizen is a great book to be reading right now, in the light of recent events that have brought the post-racial dream crashing violently against reality; it's also that it's a book that invites you, by paths both conventional and unconventional, to really feel what Rankine's saying. And you just can't ask for more than that.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about Citizen: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 11:32 AM, January 15, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |
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January 13, 2015

Book Review: "Victims" by Travis Jeppesen

(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.)

Victims, by Travis Jeppesen

Victims
By Travis Jeppesen
ITNA Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I saw in its introduction that Travis Jeppesen's Victims was actually first published in 2003, with our friends at ITNA only picking it up a decade later for the purposes of reprinting it; and that makes sense, in that this is one of those books tailor-made for a cultish fandom, and as weird as it is I can definitely wee how it might end up picking up small but steady sales for years on end, justifying its reprinting in the first place. And make no mistake, this is a weird book -- the simultaneous story of a Jerry Springer burnout and how it is that she falls in with an apocalyptic cult, as well as the story of her teenage son several decades later as he runs away from said cult, these two tales are told at once throughout the manuscript, back and forth and chapter by chapter. As such, then, the book reads just fine, with the kind of densely poetic approach to its traditional narrative that makes such similarly transgressive authors as Kathy Acker or Dennis Cooper so revered too; although I'll admit that the book works a lot better during its first half while it still has plenty of three-act plot to get through, devolving as it progresses into a much less interesting series of gimmicky prose-poem chapters and pointless digressions. Still, though, for what it's aiming to achieve, Victims is in fact quite successful at it, and it comes recommended perhaps not to a general audience but certainly to those who are naturally intrigued by its premise.

Out of 10: 8.4

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 13, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 12, 2015

CCLaP's newest book, Ben Tanzer's "After the Flood," is now available!

After the Flood, by Ben Tanzer

Happy 2015! Now that the new year is upon us, CCLaP is back to the same aggressive publishing schedule as we had last year, mostly because we keep getting sent so many great books and want to have the chance to share them all with you; this means not only a new title every single month this year, but in fact four new books just in the next five weeks, in that two of them are holdovers from last year that we simply ran out of time to get out during the holidays. Today is the kickoff of the very first one, which is celebrated author Ben Tanzer's third story collection with us, entitled After the Flood and now available as we speak as both a free ebook and as one of our special handmade "Hypermodern" hardback paper books. As always, the book's synopsis does a better job of describing it than I can off the top of my head, so let me just post it below...

Greetings once again from the fictional upstate New York town of Two Rivers, location of Ben Tanzer's other two story collections with CCLaP, 2008's Repetition Patterns and 2011's So Different Now. In these new stories, the citizens of this Sam-Shepardesque village are facing the prospect of the "Storm of the Century" and a massive flash flood. Instead of nobly rising to the occasion, however, the characters featured in these intense, probing pieces struggle with the same limitations and poor choices that have haunted them throughout these collections, resulting in the type of portraits of alcoholism, abuse and infidelity we've come to expect from this dark master of the American small-town soul. A brilliantly metaphorical look at the Great Recession of the 2010s, and a fitting end to CCLaP's "Hypermodern" series of small handmade hardback books, this latest volume of the ongoing series by Tanzer is considered by many to be some of the best work of his career, and you are sure to be both moved and horrified by the results.

After the Flood: The Hypermodern Paper Edition

This is a particularly wistful release for us, because it marks the official end of our "Hypermodern" series, a grand total of 30 small handmade books that we started releasing way back in 2008; they've become a victim of their own success, frankly, and we simply don't have the spare time anymore to keep making them, which is why we started publishing traditional paperbacks beginning last year and will be moving exclusively to that format in 2015. The handmade books were great for us while they lasted, and I'll miss having something so distinct in our catalog, so I hope you'll have a chance to order this very last one we'll be doing, using the Paypal link below...

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After the Flood, at the Amazon Kindle Store

But as usual, we're also offering the ebook version completely for free if you choose to download it that way, available in four different formats (PDFs for both American [8.5 x 11] and European [A4] laserprinters, an EPUB for most mobile devices, and MOBI exclusively for Amazon Kindles); or if you own a Kindle and it would be easier for you simply to purchase this directly from the Kindle Store for wireless transfer, you can do so there for $4.99. And of course don't forget that this book has its own listing at Goodreads.com as well; I hope all of you who are fellow members of that social network like I am will have a chance to add it to your library, and especially to post a few thoughts about the book there when you're done reading it. Word of mouth is the number-one way a small press like ours sells more books, so your mention of it online can and very much does have a profound effect on our overall success as a publishing company.

Like I said, two more books coming on a weekly basis after this one, then yet another new title two weeks after that, with more books then coming once a month from now until the end of the year; but for now I hope you'll have a chance to go check out After the Flood right this moment, and we look forward to seeing your thoughts about it online over the next few weeks.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:00 PM, January 12, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Fiction |
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January 9, 2015

Book Review: "Vixens, Vamps & Vipers," by Mike Madrid

(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.)
 
Vixens, Vamps & Vipers, by Mike Madrid
 
Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics
Compiled and annotated by Mike Madrid
Exterminating Angel Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Madame Doom. Fraulein Halunke. Skull Lady. Veda the Cobra Woman. Shoebox Annie French. These are only a few memorable women featured in Mike Madrid's new book, Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics. The Golden Age existed from "the late 1930s [to the] mid '50s." As Madrid asserts in his opening essay, "These women were surprisingly emancipated for what we today think of as a more conservative age." Vixens acts as a companion piece to Divas, Dames, & Daredevils, a collection that explores lost Golden Age superheroines. Comics, long decried as an inferior medium, offers an illuminating reflection on the issues of the day. The Golden Age comics, unhampered by the Comics Code Authority of 1954, possess a strange cocktail of female liberation, schlocky romance elements, and downright unsettling racial stereotypes.

To focus on the craft and execution of the writing and art can sometimes obscure other more fascinating issues. In an anthology like this, Madrid preserves what would otherwise be considered ephemera or trash. Truth be told, for every stand-out example of comic book craftsmanship, there's more than enough examples of mediocre art, cardboard characters, and lame plots. What can we discover about society's mores from these examples?

Included in this collection is a strip about the detective Black X foiling the plot Madame Doom. With art by Will Eisner and Dan Zolnerowich, Black X discovers the Madame Doom's terrorist plot using human bombs. Eisner's Black X has a faithful Indian sidekick named Batu. The Black X comic is illustrative of the trope where the villainess must repress her romantic desires for the hero. Batu is not the only non-white sidekick, but he comes across as the least cringe-worthy in this collection.

On the issue of race, "Rulah: Jungle Goddess" presents a downright vertigo-inducing example of World War 2-era race politics. Rulah, the heroine, rules over her jungle kingdom with benevolence. She's white (natch) and her subjects are black. Her enemy is Mava (black) who is having an affair with a Nazi officer. Mava wants to use Nazi flying bombs to take over Rulah's jungle kingdom and liberate the African tribes. Since this is a comic book written in 1941, the difference between good and evil is stark and obvious to the reader. To the modern reader, it is a confusing mess of benevolent racism (good guys) and a black woman befriending a Nazi (bad guys). Some comics age like fine wine. Others age like mayonnaise on city pavement in the middle of July. For all of its bewildering, migraine-inducing race politics, gung ho patriotism, and imperialist condescension, "Rulah" is a worthwhile object of study.

The Golden Age offers numerous other examples. Unlike the predictable white bread superheroines, the villainesses were racially diverse. This racial diversity was one of the first casualties of the Comics Code. Beyond defanging villainesses, the enemies of the heroes became less violent, less diverse, and less interesting. Thank you, Frederick Wertham, for destroying art and turning Eisenhower's America into a hellscape of blandness. It is fascinating how similar American and the Soviet Union were in their desire to suppress allegedly dangerous artistic expression.

One of my favorite comics in this collection was "Mable Reine: Queen of the Jungle," by an unknown artist. The jungle in this case wasn't the same one occupied by Rulah and Sheena, but the hobo jungles of the Great Depression. "Mable Reine" reads like a cross between Gangs of New York and The Lord of the Flies. Mable is orphaned after a plane carrying her family crashes. She's the only survivor, receiving food and aid from a pair of hobos. After she gets arrested, she sharks her way up the criminal food chain. Mixing the skills of a criminal mastermind and a revolutionary leader, she leads hobo assaults on small towns. It's like The Dark Knight Rises, except that Bane is a teenage girl and a hobo. Forget Marvel and DC, Hollywood should make this movie right now!

Despite the crudeness of execution, the comics collected here presents a fascinating snapshot of America at a different time. The book can work as an object of personal amusement, a portable archive, and raw material for academics investigating American sexual and racial politics. It's also fun to read.
 
Out of 10/9.0
 
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Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 9, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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January 8, 2015

Book Review: "Dissonance," by Lisa Lenard-Cook

(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.)

Dissonance, by Lisa Lenard-Cook

Dissonance
By Lisa Lenard-Cook
Santa Fe Writer's Project
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I've discussed here before the inherent challenge I feel about doing critical looks at Holocaust fiction -- that although you can't just stand up one day and say, "Okay, that's it, we have enough novels about the Holocaust now, and we really don't need anymore" (after all, the Holocaust is the very definition of a story that should be endlessly discussed until the end of time, simply so that the story is never forgotten), nonetheless it makes it very difficult as a literary critic to do an actual honest literary criticism of any particular new one, because the story is just so familiar by now, and the impetus to "never forget the past" can manytimes clash badly with the equally important impetus as an author to write an entertaining and thought-provoking three-act narrative story that is fresh and original. And so it is with Lisa Lenard-Cook's new Dissonance as well, although to her credit she at least attempts to approach the story in a new way; it's ostensibly the story of a contemporary piano teacher in Los Alamos, New Mexico, who mysteriously one day learns that she is the recipient in the will of an elderly Jewish composer she's never met, discovering that she has inherited a series of original songs on sheet paper that have never been performed and that the general public largely is not aware of, her quest to track down their origins taking her into the story of this elderly composer's time at the concentration camps as a youth. But that said, the book indeed suffers from the exact problem I'm talking about, that it was a chore to get through precisely because I already knew every single story beat that was going to happen well before I ever turned the next page, which is problematic when you're presenting your story as a mainstream novel instead of as a history textbook; and so I will do the wimpy thing I always do in these situations and simply give the book an exact middle-of-the-road score, because I am uncomfortable giving a piece of Holocaust fiction a score that's either too high or too low, even though Dissonance deserves them both simultaneously. This should all be kept in mind before you pick up a copy yourself.

Out of 10: 7.5

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:02 AM, January 8, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 7, 2015

Book Review: "Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean"

(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.)

Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean

Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean
Peepal Tree Press / Akashic Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to confess, I would've never thought of picking up anthology of contemporary Caribbean writing on my own, if I hadn't been sent one by our pals at the always excellent Akashic Books; but now that I've read through said volume, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, I must admit that it's so far been one of my favorite reads of the last few months, a surprisingly sophisticated and engrossing compilation that I tore through in just a couple of days. Not nearly the "singing natives in colorful dresses and their magical-realism adventures" anthology that Americans might expect from the subject (although there are a few stories like that in here), this is the entire point of a Caribbean anthology edited by actual Caribbeans, that it instead veers into tales of wealth and corporate espionage, quiet family dramas, and the other kinds of tropes that rarely get a chance to be showcased when it's white people writing about people of color in exotic lands, an illuminating slice of life that present a full range of experiences of what it must be like to live in this tropical and often troubled part of the world. In fact, about my only complaint is that the stories themselves hail from only six of the thirty nations and sovereign states that make up this region, and it would've been nice to see a wider range of representation; but I gotta say, what did get included is really great stuff, an eye-opening and entertaining read that is well worth your time. A big recommendation today for one and all.

Out of 10: 9.3

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 7, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 6, 2015

Book Review: "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," by Haruki Murakami

(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.)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruki Murakmi
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

There's a common cliché in the world of the literary arts, that says that authors are essentially on a ticking clock of slipping quality that is intricately tied to their age; in other words, that writers are at their most creative at the beginning of their careers, typically when they're young and fresh and haven't actually written out every idea yet that they have in their brain, while by the end of that career they are typically doing not much else than rehashing old concepts and coasting on their reputation as a revered veteran. And unfortunately there's not much better example of this than the Japanese surrealist titan Haruki Murakami, who just turned 65 this year and has now put out close to twenty books; for while I was as big a fan as everyone else during his '80s heyday of such classics as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (still to this day the best novel he's ever written), I have to admit that I've been intensely disappointed by the last three books in a row he's published, not just 2007's After Dark (a.k.a. "Murakami Lite") and 2011's career nadir 1Q84 (what will undoubtedly go down as one of the most overhyped novels of the entire 21st century), but now also his new Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which feels like a book he was excited about starting but then completely lost interest in about halfway through.

A book riddled with the usual Murakami touches (an obsession with Western classical music, a young Japanese male narrator who prefers coffee over tea, a romantic interest with distinctive ears, references to evil spirits who haunt our dreams, etc), Colorless nonetheless starts out looking like something we rarely get from the author, which is a deep character study grounded in the real world with only a light plot skeleton holding it together; it's the story of our eponymous hero, who as a teenager had four best friends who each by coincidence had a color in their last name, until all of them suddenly and angrily rejected him from the group in their twenties for no discernible reason, with Tsukuru only now in his late thirties deciding to track each one down and find out what exactly happened two decades previous, because of a new girlfriend who feels that he needs closure over this part of his life. And for most of the book, this is indeed just enough of a story to make a highly readable and intriguing tale, as Murakami shows us the twisting fates of each of the friends in middle-age, and makes a lot of insightful comments about the slippery nature of memory, the fragile nature of friendship, and the surprises in life that greet all of us as we become older and hopefully wiser people.

The problem, though, is that Murakami never does anything with all this, letting the story peter out into a little nothing whimper by the end; we never learn the answer to the plot's central mystery (or, that is, we learn superficially why the friends rejected Tsukuru, which I'll let remain a surprise, but we never learn why the thing happened that led to the rejection), and our hero never comes to any kind of resolution about it all, simply drifting off into contemplation as a way of unsatisfactorily ending the novel. And in the meanwhile, the book is full of annoying distractions as well that seem to have no purpose: Tsukuru's middle-aged girlfriend turns out to already have a lover, but we never learn why she's dating Tsukuru as well or what she plans to do about it all, plus there's an entire subplot about a male friend Tsukuru has as a twentysomething, who he may or may not have had a homoerotic experience with, which might've instead been an intensely real-seeming dream, and who suddenly disappears before anything else happens and never enters the story again. It all adds up by the end to a reading experience that was never actively horrible, but that left me at the last page scratching my head and thinking, "Why did I even bother reading this?" And the answer is because it's Haruki Murakami, and a man with Haruki Murakmi's reputation gets an automatic read from me no matter what the new book is, even as those books keep becoming more and more dissatisfying with each new title. Granted, at this point I'll probably still keep reading each new one as they come out, but I have officially given up on the idea of this once mighty author ever putting out again anything that comes even close to the amazing, powerful novels of his youth.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 6, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 31, 2014

Stalking the Behemoth: Moby-Dick; or, the Whale

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale
By Herman Melville (1851)
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Pop culture is a strange and fascinating beast, but like many of its ilk, it's easy to hate. Now, I could never stay mad at it, but there's a little bit of me that groans every time I turn on the TV (which isn't often, but sometimes it can't be avoided) or sit down at the movies (much better than TV) and hear Moby-Dick referred to as a boring book a character read in high school. Early reviewers who savaged Herman Melville's most famous novel were right to point out that it is a flawed work, but Moby-Dick is not a boring book. I mean, how could a book about the mad pursuit of human purpose, of God, of nature's awe-inspiring power, of the myriad other symbolic associations the White Whale has racked up be considered boring? Especially when you consider that the pursuant of the many ideals the Whale represents seeks to destroy it as revenge for taking his leg? Melville wanted to do it all with this book, and it might be the chronologically first novel written with the clear intent to do it all. In 1849, Richard Wagner coined the term "Gesamtkunstwerk," which roughly translates to "total work of art" and roughly means a work of art that uses every possible art form to get its point across.

Well, Moby-Dick isn't quite that, not in the same way that Wagner's spectacular (in the old-school, "spectacle-like-you've-never-seen-before" sense of the world) operas are, but it's certainly close. Predating the likes of Pynchon by more than a century, Melville uses as many storytelling methods as you can think of to get his point across. This means sermons, songs, satires, overheard conversations, and yes, those infamous encyclopedic passages. People tend to hate these segments, and they probably account for this novel's reputation as being dull, but while the information in them is supposed to be outdated from a scientific perspective, they sure give you a sense of the whale's size, power, and pull over Ishmael, that famously unreliable narrator who grabs the reader by the shoulder and pulls them into his strange and massive allegory via this big breathless rush of words, kicked off by that famous "call me Ishmael" and kept up even as he describes the feeding habits of the blue and sperm whales.

And yes, the novel has its oddities. I'll defend those encyclopedic passages to the death, since the sea fascinates me and therefore whales fascinate me, but there are other decisions I wondered about. Not every character is as multifaceted as the best few. Captain Ahab and the whale, whose relationship is as tangled as they come, Ishmael, and Queequeg are the ones you know, for good reason, but Starbuck, the first mate who can't deal with the turn the voyage takes, is just as compelling. However, some of the other crew members don't get much more than a name, most notably the personality-free Third Made Flask, who still takes up a decent amount of screen time. Strange, also, is Ishmael's bizarre and never-explained ability to reach into the psyches of those around him and pull out their innermost thoughts: for instance, he begins one scene by stating that Starbuck and Ahab were alone in a cabin, and then narrates the scene as though he were there with them, which of course makes me wonder how he knew all this. Plus, while this isn't a flaw to me, the plot is unfocused: anyone looking for tight forward motion should look elsewhere.

Yet, with all the strengths of Moby-Dick taken into account, I can't imagine how it could be thought of as boring. Besides the central premise, which you have to admit is just golden, and the strength of the language, which is beautiful stuff, what we have is a terrific adventure story with a sense of old-fashioned grandeur, a real sweep to it that strikes me as irresistible. It's not just that the scope of it is cosmic, it's that the chase scenes are breathless in a way that well exceeds your favorite Hollywood car chase; they're masterpieces of pacing and personality, and they build to the most colossal of building points. Yes, a lot of time is spent on the Pequod, but a lot of the time on the Pequod is spent tracking Ahab's descent into obsessive madness, which is also fascinating.

So I mean, where does the "boring" thing come from? Is it really just the length of the thing, or are readers just that upset by the encyclopedic portions on whaling? Eh, whatever. If you take it from most people, you shouldn't read Moby-Dick, but I'm here to tell you most people are wrong. Even with its flaws in mind, you should still pick this sucker up as soon as you can.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:47 PM, December 31, 2014. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 29, 2014

Book Review: "Let Go and Go On and On," Tim Kinsella

(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.)

Let Go and Go On and On, by Tim Kinsella

Let Go and Go On and On
By Tim Kinsella
Curbside Splendor
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I think it's natural for creative types to expand into arts beyond their native ones. I also think it's natural for their fans to be skeptical of those experiments. After all, many musicians have tried their hand at acting, but how many have put on a good performance? So it was with a little trepidation that I approached this novel by Tim Kinsella, an active member of the midwest indie rock scene since his mid-'90s stint with Cap'n Jazz. Granted, his lyrics had always been more literary than most rock musicians', so I knew to expect quality; it's just that I'm sure I'm not the only one surprised by Kinsella's move from music to fiction.

So I'd call this novel a pleasant surprise, which is less a knock at Kinsella and more an acknowledgement of my own biases. The novel discusses the life of Laurie Bird, an obscure actress who only appeared in three films: Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and, briefly, Annie Hall; in addition, the fourth segment touches on her brief marriage with Art Garfunkel. However, this is no biography: Kinsella instead constructs a life for his subject, treating the events of the three films as though they were her real life and melding them with known biographical details. This means that Kinsella weaves her into the lives of Hollywood b-listers like Harry Dean Stanton, who played minor roles in iconic films, and Sam Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates, as well as musicians of the era such as Two-Lane Blacktop stars James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, as well as Paul Simon, who had a cameo in Annie Hall.

I'm not entirely sure of how to react to the novel as a whole, but I love the way it's written. Kinsella's language has a strong flow to it, a sense of not just motion but also culmination, and a vividness; he seems equally comfortable with the aimlessness of the Blacktop scenes, the visceral violence of the cockfights, the unrestrained '70s glamour of the last two segments, where Bird goes from the back seats of cars and cheap motel rooms to rubbing elbows with Woody Allen, partying with Ringo Starr, and bumping into Carly Simon as she tries on clothes. Kinsella knows which details will crystallize a scene, often small ones like the color of an article of clothing or the particular Rolling Stones radio. The Rolling Stones are a constant here, a ubiquitous force in this novel.

A couple of things about it, though. For one, it's pretty special interest just by the nature of what it is. If you're not fascinated by '70s Hollywood, if names like Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton don't mean a thing to you, I'm unsure how much you'll get out of this. That probably goes hand in hand with the occasional directionlessness of the novel. When Kinsella's focused, and he's mostly focused, there's a nice sense of slow build to this novel; the climaxes, especially the eventual ending, are reached by a series of small motions and gestures that don't seem like much until you look at them within the context of the broader work. Yet I don't feel that's true of the second part, which touches on this disgusting intensity in places but in other places simply meanders from argument to argument without much purpose. It's Kinsella's tendency to occasionally drift that kept me from losing myself as fully in this novel as I could've.

Still, It's a unique and mostly compelling novel-collage, especially if you've ever found yourself fascinated by an obscure artist or find the ephemera of things a compelling theme. Curbside Splendor had a good year in 2014.

Out of 10: 8.5

Read even more about Let Go and Go On and On: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 10:29 PM, December 29, 2014. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 18, 2014

Book Review: "The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

(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 Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson

The Laughing Monsters
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's funny that the same week I read Denis Johnson's new novel, The Laughing Monsters, I also happened to catch the new movie A Most Wanted Man, which has been (rightly) described by most critics as "based on a minor John LeCarre novel;" because when it starts out, this seems like it's going to be the best way to describe this book too, as a minor one by Johnson in the vein of his last book as well, the ultra-slight crime noir Nobody Move, this time ostensibly a spy thriller but in reality not much more than an extended character study in which not much happens, set in Africa and with the kind of world-weary tone of a typical Graham Greene novel. (The book's title comes from a famous quote by the first white man to travel in Uganda, missionary James Hannington, who found the experience so miserable that he started referring on a regular basis to the local Happy Mountains by this term, which Johnson uses as a metaphor for the entire history of white intervention in African affairs.) And in a way this is a shame, because Johnson's complex, dense and immensely rewarding 2007 Vietnam CIA drama Tree of Smoke continues to be one of the best books I've ever reviewed since opening CCLaP eight years ago, and it's naturally tempting to want to see Johnson output another novel just as thick and amazing; but in a way it's of course perfectly understandable too, in that even the best writers in history usually only have one or two Tree of Smokes in them over the course of their entire careers, and it's unrealistic to expect an author to knock out another one every time they sit down at their computer.

But ultimately the point turns out to be moot anyway; for the more you read The Laughing Monsters, the more complex and fascinating it becomes, and while ultimately not a masterpiece like some of his other works, by its end it is an immensely enjoyable and nastily dark little tale that once again examines the hazy line between good and evil when it comes to the act of undercover intelligence gathering, the same subject of Tree of Smoke but this time transplanted to a post-9/11 American hegemony, an all-powerful "planetary police" that now uses its creepy black-ops powers as a way to thwart all threats to the current world order. Set in a series of unstable African countries, as our protagonist Roland Nair makes his way from the west coast of Sierre Leone to the east coast of South Sudan, at first this seems like it's going to be an expat hangout tale, as Nair reunites with his African civil-war-era compatriot Michael Adriko, hangs out in a series of bars and hotels in Freetown, and slowly becomes convinced to join in on a scam to sell fake uranium to what may or may not be the Israeli secret service. But after Nair reports on his activities in a secret communications room in the basement of a decrepit internet cafe, we start to realize that he's actually there to officially keep tabs on this fake uranium scam, on behalf of what might be the CIA or perhaps is NATO; but then when we see him steal a series of sensitive documents about the locations of such spy centers across Africa, we're led to believe that perhaps he is a double agent, or maybe a mercenary who has grown tired of governments altogether, or even that the entire thing is a triple feint to get him in as a deep, deep undercover agent within a super-secret ring of legitimately dangerous terrorists, and using Adriko's laughably obvious con game with the uranium as a double cover in order to confound everyone involved.

The answers to these questions is what fuels most of the book's plot, so I will allow them to remain surprises to the first-time reader; but what can definitely be revealed is that these plot machinations are simply half of the story Johnson is telling, with the rich descriptions of these deeply flawed characters being just as important a reason to read this book as the three-act storyline itself, as well as Johnson's look at the history of European/American dabbling into African affairs, the futility of such dabbling, and the unending disasters over the last century that such dabbling has created. And so in this, The Laughing Monsters ends up becoming just as complex and fascinating a book as anything else Johnson has written, even if it perhaps doesn't climb to the same heights of an undisputed classic like Tree of Smoke (although in its defense, nor does it even try to). Richly engaging, and a good primer on the recent history of African politics to boot, the book is well worth your time even if you're not naturally a big fan of spy thrillers, and it comes strongly recommended to a general audience today.

Out of 10: 9.2

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, December 18, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 15, 2014

Book Review: "A Killer Retreat" by Tracy Weber

(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.)

A Killer Retreat, by Tracy Weber

A Killer Retreat
By Tracy Weber
Midnight Ink
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Oh, what to say about a book from a basement press you found truly terrible, when you're an organization dedicated to supporting basement presses and cutting them as much slack as possible? That's the dilemma I find myself in today, reviewing Tracy Weber's A Killer Retreat from Midnight Ink, and as a result I'm finding it difficult to even get my thoughts in order; for while it definitely gets an A for ambition and effort, it unfortunately gets as close to an F for execution as we even give around here. One of those contemporary mystery novels where the gimmick is that the person solving crimes is not a formal detective, like what litters so many basic cable networks these days, it's this very subject that provides the first and one of the biggest obstacles to the book itself; for the crime-solver in question, professional yoga instructor Kate Davidson, is so smugly self-righteous and intolerably pretentious that it made me immediately start rooting for her violent demise right on page one, a bad attitude for a reader to have when this is to be the main narrator and the one you're supposed to be rooting for. Now add the childish, awkward telegraphing of the coming goodies and baddies as each new character gets introduced, so clumsily done that one can fairly easily guess the book's entire plot just in the first chapter; then add the immature dialogue, the special-needs dog I wanted to kick every time it appeared, and just the overall "I Watch Too Much Nancy Grace" tone of the book in general, and you're left with a novel I cannot in good conscience recommend to others, no matter how much I hate to admit it. A cautionary tale from the world of basement presses -- that just because it's easier than ever to turn a 300-page Microsoft Word document into a finished paperback book doesn't mean that every 300-page Microsoft Word document should.

Out of 10: 4.4

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, December 15, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 11, 2014

Book Review: "Wayzata" by Ted Korsmo

(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.)

Wayzata, by Ted Korsmo

Wayzata
By Ted Korsmo
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to confess, although there are certainly other valid ways to think about the subject, I myself simply do not care for contemporary authors who choose to mimic a well-worn writing style that has already been around for decades; and that makes Ted Korsmo's Wayzata a problematic title for me to review, because it is not much more than an exact aping of a typical rat-a-tat hardboiled private-eye story by Raymond Chandler or other masters of the genre. I mean, it's done well, don't get me wrong, which is why it doesn't deserve to be dismissed out of hand, because I understand that there are people out there who enjoy such books; but it's hard for me to read such a novel and think anything other than how this genre was already perfected years before even my elderly parents were born, and that the mere act of writing such a tale in 2014 is essentially the act of beating a dead horse. I'm compromising today by giving it a middle-of-the-road score, but be aware that this is far from a mediocre book -- instead, it will be greatly loved by those looking for an exact replica of an Early Modernist detective story, but unfortunately worthless to everyone else.

Out of 10: 7.5

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, December 11, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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December 10, 2014

Book Review: "Undead Obsessed" by Jessica Robinson

(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.)

Undead Obsessed, by Jessica Robinson

Undead Obsessed: Finding Meaning in Zombies
By Jessica Robinson
Booktrope
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to confess, I don't have a lot to say about Jessican Robinson's new essay collection Undead Obsessed, because there's simply not a lot there to talk about; a nonfiction book that purports to be all about the subject of zombies and how they relate to our current culture, it instead reads with all the insight and excitement of some mediocre undergraduate's term paper on the subject, with chapters that are less analysis and more just unending lists of creative projects over the years, that describe how those projects have presented this or that particular aspect of zombie tropes. Written well for what it is, it's the "what it is" part that I have a problem with, essentially a book-length Wikipedia entry that had me quickly skimming through entire sections in the failed hopes of finding anything truly fascinating that Robinson has to say. An A for ambition, but sadly today a D for actual execution.

Out of 10: 6.2

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, December 10, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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