July 3, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for July 3rd is here!

CCLaP Weekender for July 3, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Jim Wrona; a photography feature by Gioia Zloczower; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:11 AM, July 3, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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July 2, 2015

Book Review: "On Immunity: an Innoculation," by Eula Biss

(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.)

On Immunity, by Eula Biss

You might expect a book called On Immunity to be a little dry, or else too esoteric for its own good. I know that was what I thought when I first heard about it - the sort of book that's great for someone with a vested interest in immunology and impenetrable for everyone else. This didn't end up as the case at all. Sure, Biss did a mountain of research into the history of immunity - she discusses the rise of and reactions to germ theory, outdated and frankly disgusting vaccination methods, and the current debate about vaccines and autism - but with one eye on the larger cultural conversation and another on her personal experience.

Like Sontag, frequently referenced in this book, Biss digs for the root of our metaphors of the diseased body at war, offering alternative discourse and discussing instances in which the analysis holds up. Vampires also come into play, on similar terms - Dracula is read as a bringer of disease and an out-of-control capitalist in addition to the standard handsome seducer. She's interested in how fear of disease fits in with our general culture of panic. On Immunity therefore analyzes a frightening dilemma: that both vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement are rooted in a broader culture of fear.

However, On Immunity also shines in when Biss turns the conversation to herself. The birth of her child is especially important to this book; she tells stories about his early childhood shots and wonders how his birth might've made her more inclined toward fears she otherwise wouldn't have had, thus pulling herself in and looking at herself with the same honesty as she looks at anyone else. She, in short, recognizes herself as part of a fearful culture and uses this position to better and more empathetically analyze it. In short, not exactly your standard history book: it's honest and even-handed and gets the brain working.

Out of 10: 9.0

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, July 2, 2015. Filed under:
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June 26, 2015

Book Review: "Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution," by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz

(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.)
 
Uncertain Justice, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
 
Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
By Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
Picador
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
The Supreme Court of the United States is the least understood branch of the government. Like the Federal Reserve, it is an elusive institution the general public either knows nothing about or knows only what could charitably be described as misinformation. If people knew more about how the Supreme Court works (and the Federal Reserve, for that matter), it would be less likely to pop up in conspiracy theories or partisan bloviations.

Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz helps illuminate the inner workings of the Court. Tribe and Matz also give succinct portraits of all nine justices, their histories, personalities, and individual interpretation of how justice works. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, and Matz, a Harvard Law School graduate and SCOTUSblog writer, team up to offer a sober assessment of the Roberts Court and its major rulings. (It should be noted that Uncertain Justice came out in July 2014. Certain cases, including Sibelius, popularly known as "The Hobby Lobby case" had yet to be decided. This does nothing to detract from the material in the book though.)* The great thing about this book is one doesn't have to be a legal scholar, attorney, or political junkie to appreciate it. The law effects all of us.

Laurence Tribe's students included Barack Obama, John Roberts, Elena Kagan. This adds a fascinating relevancy to the book. Tribe has also argued in front of the Supreme Court, avoiding the caricature of a professor sequestered in the Ivory Tower, isolated from society-at-large. As a Harvard Law Professor, Tribe offers the reader not only the historical background of major cases, but the specific legal, ideological, and cultural baggage each case carries. All the greatest hits are here: gun control, abortion, free speech, healthcare, privacy, and presidential power.

Uncertain Justice is an early assessment of the Roberts Court. Chief Justice John Roberts is the 17th Chief Justice of the United States, nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005. He took over as Chief Justice after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative jurist. While the general public's attitude towards the law has moved slowly to the left, the Supreme Court remains a conservative bulwark.

President Obama has nominated two justices to the Court, but Republican presidents have had the opportunity to nominate four Chief Justices (Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts). I bring this up not to provoke partisan squabbling, but for readers to take the long view. Despite the imperious title, the Chief Justice is more of an administrative role in the Court. He - until history proves otherwise - assigns cases to specific justices. Although the Chief Justice lacks the authority to write decisions, unless he assigns the case to himself, it is his name in the history books. The Warren Court is now known as a time of liberal change and increased rights. The Taney Court (of Dred Scott v. Stanford) is remembered as the most detested in United States history. Ten years in, where does the Roberts Court stack up?

While characterized as a liberal law professor, Tribe doesn't let his personal ideology overshadow the proceedings. One of the wonderful things about reading Uncertain Justice was how Tribe and Matz articulated arguments from both sides. In some cases it was a challenge to bring myself to make a judgment call. Not because of personal ambivalence, but because each side presented valid arguments. And unlike trial law, an arena of emotions and lurid details, when one argues in front of the Supreme Court, one is intellectually parsing language and wrestling with abstract concepts. Then one applies these to the case at hand. The stakes are huge and the consequences are either revolutionary or devastating, depending what side you are on. Luckily law operates in a more complex yet simple fashion than basic partisan divisiveness. Upon reaching this plateau of jurisprudence, at least ideally, one hopes it doesn't get reduced to "the Republican side" versus "the Democratic side." The questions argued before the Court shouldn't boil down to knee-jerk party tribalism. Leave that for the campaign trail.

In the book, Tribe and Matz discuss a test used by elite law firms: "if you had to eliminate half of the amendments in the Constitution, would you eliminate the odd- or even-numbered rights?" A knee-jerk response would include saying odd, because of the First Amendment, or even, because of the Second Amendment. The authors go on to explain how this is actually a trick question, but use it as a thought experiment. While each amendment is important, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and additional amendments is a living "machine" with interrelated parts. Amendments are dependent on each other and cannot function alone. While freedom of expression is very important, so is equal protection. But how they interrelate becomes dependent on the individual justice's interpretation of the Constitution itself as it applies to the case at hand.

Tribe and Matz examine each case through two perspectives. The first is the narrative. The story of the individual and their claim. The second perspective is case genealogy. Supreme Court cases, like constitutional amendments, are interrelated. Brown v. Board can be traced back to Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sanford. Though not immediately apparent, Brown also has roots in Korematsu v. United States, a case involving the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans. The Court upheld the racial segregation of Korematsu in 1944 on the grounds of "national security." Since racial segregation of "separate but equal" had no national security component, it weakened the justifications for the practice. When it comes to matters of free expression, privacy, gun control, and abortion, a working knowledge of case genealogy is very important. Both to understand what is being argued and to observe the trends occurring in American jurisprudence. In the case of abortion, the Right has abandoned the fight for the wholesale repeal of Roe v. Wade. Instead the fight has evolved into creating legislation that limits access.

Nine people make up the Supreme Court, but unlike the other branches, the arguments are ideological not partisan, a crucial distinction. The Court is very small and its important decisions are not televised. In today's hyper-mediated, image-saturated culture, one would think this means they are secretive. Tribe argues to the contrary, noting that there are no cameras because of what the justices write, not what they say. While some justices have been notorious for their public appearances (Justice Scalia most notably), during their session on the Court, they keep away from the public eye. It would be devastating to the process of American democracy if we had Supreme Court justices show-boating to the camera. Some cases involve incredibly pivotal decision-making. This would be ruined if they had to act like a lowly member of Congress or the President.

The "balance of powers" works because each branch has different strengths and weaknesses. The Supreme Court, unlike the President and Congress, is notable as a deliberative body and issuing decisions based on interpretation. Ideally, Congress and the President represent the nation's popular opinion, the Supreme Court should not. The challenge becomes issuing decisions whose time have come, but not making rash decisions based on the whims of public opinion. In the end, Supreme Court is about rendering a judgment, making a decision that will effect everyone.

Right now the Court is challenged by "political gridlock, cultural change, and technological progress." Just as the Federal Reserve is the lender of last resort, the Supreme Court is final arbiter of justice. The Roberts Court continues the conservative interpretation of jurisprudence, but making that interpretation effective relies on a majority of justices. Unfortunately the present Court, like our other branches, is divided. Supreme Court reporting has devolved into answering one question, "What will Justice Anthony Kennedy say?" Kennedy has become the reliable centrist between the Court's conservative and liberal wings. Hence the abundance of 5-4 rulings.

What has typified this Court is its disdain for "judicial overreach" and its preference for "legislative redress." If the Court has ruled against you, talk to your Senator or Representative about drafting a law to counter it. (Cue hysterical outbreak of words like inequality, oligarchy, and Citizens United references.) This is a cautious Court, one that doesn't seek to create new sweeping new law. It is the antithesis of the Warren Court. With that in mind, there are other ways to seek redress besides the Supreme Court. Protests, boycotts, awareness campaigns, lobbying, and elections are all means to an end. The end being: a law that changes things. Whether that law is constitutional? Well ...

Why am I including a Supreme Court book on a literary website? Because judicial decisions are like book reviews, judgment is rendered through interpretation and this can be controversial and divisive. Unlike book reviews, Supreme Court decisions should not be about "personal taste." Deeming a statute constitutional or not depends on the interpretive framework of the nine justices. Things get more tricky when ideology enters the fray.

For those interested in the Supreme Court (its history, personalities, major decisions, etc.) I would highly recommend Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman, and The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong.

*While Uncertain Justice could easily fall into the category of Current Affairs, it possesses the academic rigor and easy readability that pushes it above the Current Affairs category. Current Affairs is a motley mongrel category, embracing everything from cogent analyses of topical subject matter to the latest ghostwritten swill written by a morning political talk show host. Current Affairs usually means Immediately Obsolete. In the case of Uncertain Justice, it is legal commentary aimed for a popular, non-specialist audience.

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

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, June 26, 2015. Filed under:
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The CCLaP Weekender for June 26th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for June 26, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Joseph G. Peterson; a photography feature by Andreas Till; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

Make a voluntary $1 donation then download the issue
Download the issue for free
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Are you a fan of the CCLaP Weekender and want to help us keep it going? Then please consider an annual voluntary subscription! At $25, that is a mere 50 cents per issue, half as inexpensive as a Kindle Single with the same amount of content.

Buy a voluntary annual subscription to the CCLaP Weekender

Don't want to keep coming by the website for all this stuff? Then sign up for our weekly email newsletter, which will send you not only a reminder every Friday morning about each new issue of the Weekender, but also a recap of everything that has happened with the center in the last seven days (including news about recent author features and events from around the US, a look at all our latest eBay rare-book auctions, links to each book review we posted at the blog that week, and a lot more). To subscribe, simply sign up using the box below. We never sell your information nor send more than one email a week, and you can quit at any time!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:25 AM, June 26, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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June 18, 2015

Book Review: "Women" by Chloe Caldwell

(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.)

Women, by Chloe Caldwell

Women
By Chloe Caldwell
Short Flight/Long Drive Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

When is it a romance novel and when is it a novel about romance? You've got your Nicholas Sparks and your Danielle Steeles, whose work most would agree isn't great literature, on one side of the equation. But then, you've got everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Lorrie Moore using romance as a center of widely lauded works on the other. So where's the dividing line? How do we distinguish between high art and harlequin romance?

If you ask me, it's all about interiority, which is the whole center of Women. It's built around what might look like a fairly standard romance-novel setup: two characters meet, attraction develops, they fall in love, and complications ensue. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Ah, except there are a couple of key points here that make Women well worth your time. First of all, it's narrated by a writer and presented as an account of the relationship's breakdown, which allows Caldwell to ask about boundaries. With so much talk these days around how writers portray their subjects, this couldn't have come at a better time.

"But wait a minute," you may ask, "Is this a novel or a how-to manual?" Fair enough, so let me sweeten the pot. Not only does the writing-about-writing aspect raise those questions, it also contributes to this novel's remarkable characters. Finn and the narrator, who is never named specifically, are imbibed with an uncommon amount of life. The effect is one of being told a story of a failed romance by a close friend, so much do you come to believe these characters. Not just as two women in love, but as two people who lived before they met and would continue to live afterward. So you could call it a romance novel, but I prefer to think of it as an intensive character study that happens to feature a romance.

Out of 10: 9.0

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 18, 2015. Filed under:
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June 17, 2015

Rejoice! Ben Tanzer's collected "The New York Stories" is finally here!

The New York Stories, by Ben Tanzer

I'm happy to say that CCLaP's newest book for 2015 is finally out today; and it just so happens to be a book a lot of us have been waiting for a whopping nine years now. That's right, it's the triumphant release of Ben Tanzer's The New York Stories: Three Volumes in One Edition! Don't know what I'm talking about? Check out the book's dust jacket synopsis for more...

In 2006, celebrated author Ben Tanzer began working on a series of short stories all set in the fictional upstate New York town of Two Rivers, most of them published in various literary journals over the years and eventually collected into the three small volumes Repetition Patterns (2008), So Different Now (2011), and After the Flood (2014). Now for the first time, all 33 of these stories have been put together into one paperback edition, highlighting the long-term planning of themes and motifs that Tanzer has been building into these pieces the entire time. Featuring dark character studies of childhood, middle age, and (lack of) grace under pressure, these stories are considered by many to be among the best work of Tanzer's career, and voracious fans of his short work will surely be pleased and satisfied to have these small masterpieces collected together into one easy-to-read volume. So take a stool at Thirsty's, order another Yuengling, and be prepared to be transported into the black heart of the American small-town soul, as one of our nation's best contemporary authors takes us on a journey across space and time that will not be soon forgotten.

Whoa nelly! I'm proud to say that this particular book holds a special personal importance for me -- Repetition Patterns was the very first book CCLaP published, in fact, so I'm grateful and relieved to finally see this process come full circle here seven years later, and all these small books finally gathered up into one bookstore-friendly trade paperback for the first time ever. As always, you can go by the book's online headquarters to download a free ebook version, or purchase it at Amazon if you want it directly delivered to your Kindle; or for those who prefer a more traditional reading experience, you can order the paperback edition for $14.99 by using the button below...

Options

And of course don't forget that The New York Stories has its own listing over at Goodreads.com, so I hope my fellow GRers will have a chance to add it to their library over there, and especially to post a few thoughts about it after you're done reading the book. Word of mouth is the number-one way a small press like ours gains new fans, so your mention of our titles online can and does have a legitimately huge impact on the total number of copies we sell.

That's it for awhile with CCLaP and new books -- our next new title, the "city all-star" student anthology The View From Here, won't be out until September 15th, although at that point we'll be back to once-a-month releases from then until Christmas -- but don't forget that our authors will be out and about all summer long, doing plenty of live events, the next of which will be the release party for The New York Stories, taking place this coming Friday evening at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood, 2523 N. Kedzie. (And speaking of upcoming Tanzer appearances, he'll also be reading from this book over at Quimby's Bookstore in Wicker Park [1854 W. North Ave], on Tuesday, July 7th. It's a Tanzer Summer and we're all invited!) For now, though, I hope you'll have a chance to stop by the book's online headquarters right this moment, and see why this has already become one of Chicago's most talked-about books of 2015. I'm extremely proud of and happy about this book, and I hope you'll grow to become a fan as well.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 17, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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June 12, 2015

American Odd: "Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle," by Nancy Spector


Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, by Nancy Spector

Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle
By Nancy Spector
Guggenheim Museum Publications
Review by Karl Wolff

Over a decade ago I had the rare opportunity to see The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five interrelated films by Matthew Barney. The Cremaster Cycle included other material, everything from sketches, photographs, music, and sculpture. When I first saw the films, I marveled at their visionary power, epic scope, and esoteric symbolism. The Cremaster Cycle takes it name from the cremaster muscle, a muscle that regulates the temperature of the testicles. The five films chart, among many other things, the progression from an undifferentiated state to a differentiated state. From the pre-natal and pre-genital to that of a gendered being. It was rewarding to reread Nancy Spector's introductory essay, "Only the Perverse Fantasy Can Still Save Us," as the United States grapples with the issue of trans awareness (and its legal, cultural, and political ramifications). To be clear, The Cremaster Cycle isn't about trans issues per se, but it would make an excellent vehicle for intelligent discussions about gender and trans awareness. This will become clearer when I examine more specific aspects of Barney's epic undertaking.

The Cremaster Cycle includes five films, of varying lengths, filmed out of order. They are:

Cremaster 1 (1995, 41 minutes)
Cremaster 2 (1999, 79 minutes)
Cremaster 3 (2002, 179 minutes)
Cremaster 4 (1994, 42 minutes)
Cremaster 5 (1997, 55 minutes)

Unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, these films trace their cinematic genealogy back to avant-garde cinema. Films like Un chien andalou by Luis Bunuel and Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol cater to a specific audience and bring along a certain set of aesthetic expectations. The Cremaster Cycle is also really odd, hence my inclusion of it in this essay series. The oddness comes from its outre subject matter, glamourous-yet-creepy visuals, and massive scale.

While it would take much longer to elaborate the intricacies of plot, symbolism, and interpretation, I'm going to provide a brief overview of each film. (But for those genuinely interested in Barney's work, I would highly suggest checking out The Cremaster Cycle book put out by the Guggenheim Foundation. Even if you aren't one to read the occasionally impenetrable introductory essay, the book is worth pursuing simply to gaze at the lavish visuals.)

The Cycle's five films are:

Cremaster 1: A spectacle reminiscent of Busy Berkeley dance numbers, the film has highly choreographed dancing girls while two Goodyear blimps hover around a football stadium. The imagery recalls testes or ovaries. Overall, the ambiance of the film is one of cold, calculated precision, and a hermetic utopia.

Cremaster 2: The film traces the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore, supposed descendant of Harry Houdini. It brings together Mormon symbolism, a Victorian seance, desert and glacier imagery, and Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini. (Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song about the execution of Gilmore.) In the film, Gilmore is ritually sacrificed in a stadium made of salt sculpted on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Cremaster 3: The longest film of the series is a Masonic gangster picture. The Entered Apprentice seeks to gain entry into the Lodge, but does so through devious means. The Syndicate, an Irish organized crime group, take on the trappings of a Masonic lodge set amid the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. Below the building, Seventies-era Chrysler Imperials play demolition derby with a Thirties-era Chrysler Imperial. In the Thirties-era car is the gender-switched reincarnation of Gary Gilmore, seen as a zombified corpse. The Apprentice competes in The Order, a kind of Masonic game show/sports competition set in the Guggenheim Museum. The Apprentice vies for power against The Architect Hiram Abiff (played by sculptor Richard Serra). At the conclusion of the film, the Apprentice succeeds the Architect, but only through a double-murder/double-sacrifice as the Chrysler Building becomes complete. (Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins plays multiple roles in the film.)

Cremaster 4: The first film shot, Cremaster 4 can best be summarized as a fairy tale road movie. Set on the Isle of Man, the Ascending and Descending Hacks race in opposite directions to complete the race. Symbolizing the ascending or descending sex organs, the race also involves a dandified satyr attempting to burrow through the island and three muscular androgynous "fairies" (Barney borrowing Manx folkloric terminology) acting as a Greek chorus. The race is never completed.

Cremaster 5: The film stars Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain and it is set in Budapest. Staged as a seven-act opera, the lavish neorenaissance Budapest Opera House and the Chain Bridge follow a tragic narrative. The Queen of Chain pines after The Diva (played by Barney). Amid the operatics, Barney also recreates a Houdini-like escape from the bridge. The tragic end was either a dream or a fairy tale, although it is hard to figure out which.

While watching the films or looking at the pictures, it would be easy to get frustrated or bored. Part of the challenge with Barney's work is following the intricate associative connections. It is best to simply absorb the work, taking in the visuals and the soundtrack. Sometimes "not getting it" is beside the point.

In terms of trans awareness, I'm not going to turn this work into a piece of ideology. But at a more abstract and intellectual level, The Cremaster Cycle engages the viewer to contemplate gender, transformation, and resistance. Is gender about "being" or "becoming"?* Nancy Spector asserts that Barney's main obsession is artistic creation through resistance. His work seeks to exist in a constant conflict between two zones: the first is a zone of pure desire (undifferentiated, chaotic) and the second is the zone of production. But he also seeks to short-circuit the zone of production, because when something is produced, the resistance ends. The interplay (both literally and metaphorically) between chaotic desire and productive resistance drive his work.

How is this an example of the American Odd? Where to begin? While Barney is the product of the American arts scene, he brings to this piece a wild melange of influences, obsessions, and subject matter. His artistic use of resistance and spectacle harken back to his days as a high school football player in Idaho. He also brings together biology, geography, history, geology, religion, and sexuality to create a massive personal artistic monument.

*As a side-note, gender plays an important role in Mormon dogma. According to Mormons, one has a gender even before birth. Gender was determined when one as a pre-mortal spirit and one will have gender as a post-mortal spirit. The rigid concept of gender offers another reading into Cremaster 2 with Gary Gilmore's desire to escape. Like Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Cremaster 2 uses Mormonism as raw material to create an epic pantheistic theatrical experience.

Read even more about The Cremaster Cycle: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: The Manson File by Nikolas Schreck

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, June 12, 2015. Filed under:
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The CCLaP Weekender for June 12th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for June 12, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Tony Lindsay; a photography feature by Terry Suprean; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

Make a voluntary $1 donation then download the issue
Download the issue for free
View this issue online at Issuu.com

Are you a fan of the CCLaP Weekender and want to help us keep it going? Then please consider an annual voluntary subscription! At $25, that is a mere 50 cents per issue, half as inexpensive as a Kindle Single with the same amount of content.

Buy a voluntary annual subscription to the CCLaP Weekender

Don't want to keep coming by the website for all this stuff? Then sign up for our weekly email newsletter, which will send you not only a reminder every Friday morning about each new issue of the Weekender, but also a recap of everything that has happened with the center in the last seven days (including news about recent author features and events from around the US, a look at all our latest eBay rare-book auctions, links to each book review we posted at the blog that week, and a lot more). To subscribe, simply sign up using the box below. We never sell your information nor send more than one email a week, and you can quit at any time!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:12 AM, June 12, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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June 11, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "Dhalgren," by Samuel R. Delany

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

Dhalgren
By Samuel R. Delany, 1974
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Samuel R. Delany has never quite had that same household name status as other sci-fi authors. Everyone knows Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guinn, but not so much Delany. Yet he's still a big name in the right circles - he just made his fame with a different crowd. See, unless you count Gravity's Rainbow, Dhalgren is the first sci-fi book to find a spot in my "Stalking the Behemoth" series. Now, there's a reason for this - excepting my sideline into the Brothers Karamazov, which was just too good to pass up, I wanted this series to loosely track the development of the postmodern novel from Don Quixote to the present day. Make no mistake, Dhalgren slots right into this discourse, and probably fits more into it than conventional sci-fi, which might explain why sci-fi heavyweights like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison loathed the book when it was released; meanwhile, the book's praises have been sung to an exulting degree by cyberpunk kingpin William Gibson, whose efforts to modernize the genre are still being felt.

So let me just throw this one out there: while Dhalgren is a pretty well-known sci-fi novel, anyone looking for a more conventional sci-fi experience might not be satisfied here. As I see it, much of this novel's sci-fi credentials come from two sources: earlier Delany novels like 1966's Babel-17, which while by no means conventional fits the genre better, and the presence of speculative technologies like the holograms gang members use to disguise themselves. For whatever it might be worth to you, Delany's speculations on technology are always impressive, and these shields are no exception. Mostly, Dhalgren's aims are more in surrealistic social commentary, sexuality, and a journey of self-discovery whose end doesn't by any means come easy. The self-discovery might not come at all, if you interpret the novel as circular, which is possible based on the ending.

Summarizing Dhalgren's plot is difficult, as it always is with these novels, but here goes. A young man identified only as "the Kid" (or kid, or Kidd, depending on when you catch him) arrives in a city in the Midwest known as Bellona. An amnesiac, he arrives with no idea of what might've driven him toward this city, which has become the center of bizarre unexplained events; gangs and prophets who wrestle for control over the city, buildings that never stop burning but remain unconsumed by these fires, ominous red moons, and so forth. During one memorable chapter, horrific violence is heard but not seen just outside of a rich family's apartment while they keep up idle and ultimately inane chatter. Through all this, the Kid moves through a series of identities - wanderer, worker, gangster, poet and hedonist - but comes no closer to any sort of self-discovery. Identity is key to this book; the Kid's race (he's part black and part Native American) and fluid sexuality both come into play throughout his changes.

The other center of Dhalgren, besides the mysterious city, is an equally mysterious journal the Kid wanders across toward the beginning of the novel. This journal repeats the events of the first chapter, a sexual encounter, and predicts and parallels later developments as well; it's to the point where it could have been written by the Kid himself, working from either a future or alternative timeline. The journal invites all sorts of complicating questions to an already complex novel, raising ideas of identity and warping reality - it becomes arguable in points that the book switches from its own reality to the events recorded in the journal, and the final chapter is a textual labyrinth built around the journal; its fragmented approach and play with the formatting of text must've been an influence on House of Leaves.

Delaney's treatment of Bellona itself is a wonder to behold. The book is often compared to a labyrinth, and looking at how this city is treated, it's no wonder; it gets knottier and knottier as the novel progresses, revealing more violence, more portents, more wild surreal imagery. Furthermore, the city's character seems to change as the Kid passes through his various identities. When he's a gangster, it's violent and chaotic. When he's a poet, it's ancient and hushed and as close to romantic as it gets. When he's a hedonist, it cloisters itself off. When he works with a family, it's a den of denial and distance from reality. So Bellona becomes one with the Kid's arc, and in many ways becomes the kid's arc. No matter what mode the Kid's in, the place teems with life.

It's also striking how the people in this novel react to the weirdness around them. Most of them only seem to care about what effects them directly, whether it's the church's power trip or the security of the rich family. This makes for strong and compelling social commentary, but it also works excellently on an aesthetic level. Not only is Delany free to plunge deeper into the lower depths of human consciousness and the good old human experience, he's also allowed to create even more bizarre of a city, a city where the bizarre has become expected. For as strange as things get in Bellona, life in many ways is allowed to go on. There are a lot of vignettes about how ordinary life works in a city such as this, and it's fascinating to see them play out. Still, I have to admit this aspect is sometimes the slightest bit overdone. You get plenty of conversations that run in circles about what given characters make of a new phenomenon or what they might do on a particular day. I see what purpose these exchanges serve, but I feel they could've been tightened up just the tiniest bit.

Let's also take a moment to look at the Kid's character, because Delany hits a nice balance here. As I mentioned above, his racial and sexual identities are key to this book. Yet for all the sex (and there is a lot of sex in Dhalgren, between whatever configurations of genders you can imagine) and talk about race (also frequent; the Kid identifies himself as all sorts of things over this book's course), the Kid is also allowed plenty of character that has nothing to do with race or sexual preference. In fact, that's sort of his motive; an attempt to find himself as himself and not as a mascot or spokesperson.

But enough story, how's the prose? Plenty of sci-fi novels with intricate storylines have been sunk by prose that ranges from indifferent to poor - much as I love a good Philip K. Dick book, he's guilty as anyone. Luckily for prose-hounds like me, Delany can write. He has a way of riffing on words and sounds, letting syllables and vowels slip into each other, leaving us with a smooth and often energetic glide of words. For example, take the passage "a prism nipped my wrist." Simple as it may seem on the surface, look at how he makes those words dance. It's not just pretty language, either: it also lends to the novel's dreamlike tone.

So how do we take all this? The possibility of it being a book about America can't be ignored. Racial tension runs rampant through this novel, especially at a party held by the cult figure George "Not That George Harrison" Harrison, whose influence and power are feared by Bellona's white community. I read this book in April of this year, and I don't think I need to tell you how that scene is relevant to today's world, not to mention how relevant it was in 1974. Couple that with the indifferent-rich scene that has struck me so much, and you've got a pretty striking condemnation of America's class divides. This is part of what makes Dhalgren a classic of postmodern lit - I've talked about systems novels earlier in this series, and Dhalgren fits the bill.

Yet this novel also makes all sorts of challenges to the sci-fi institution . Its ambitious length and formal trickery, which place it in line with the John Barth of Lost in the Funhouse and whatever Borges masterpiece you might compare it to; its use of a protagonist outside the sci-fi square-jawed-male hero we associate with Frank Herbert and co.; and the sophistication of the writing, structure, and character arc make this a blow for the more intellectual sci-fi practiced by the best handful of sci-fi authors. Sci-fi takes a lot of criticism from the literary fiction crowd, and while I'm a card-carrying member of that crowd, I have to admit not all of it's justified. Books like Dhalgren are what keep me coming back to the genre when its more irritating tendencies overwhelm me. So trust William Gibson on this one, not Philip K. Dick.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 11, 2015. Filed under:
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June 5, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for June 5th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for , 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by TJ Davis; a photography feature by Elina Ruka; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:06 AM, June 5, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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June 4, 2015

Book Review: "Conversations with Beethoven," by Sanford Friedman

(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.)

Conversations with Beethoven, by Sandford Friedman

Conversations with Beethoven
By Sanford Friedman
New York Review of Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

You might think a book called Conversations with Beethoven is pretty niche. That title's got "reserved for Beethoven fans" stamped all over it, right? Even if it doesn't, the fact that it's built around hypothetical exchanges with the famous composer must put it square in that camp. After all, this novel is built on two biographical tidbits: that Beethoven's friends and family had to communicate with him through writing as his deafness grew worse, and that Beethoven worried about his nephew Karl, whom he perceived as wayward. So what we have here is a book for Beethoven fans and only Beethoven fans, right?

Not so fast. I have to point out the impressive stylistic device that drives this novel forward. I'm not talking about the conversations themselves, although those are pulled off quite well: while no conversation is attributed, each character has their own distinct mannerisms, so it's easy to work out who's who once you have everything together. No, it's the magnificent use of inference this novel makes. See, Beethoven's replies aren't included in the text, although they're easily guessed by the reader. Who, in that sense, becomes Friedman's vision of Beethoven. Yes, Friedman rather leads you through your role, but that's an inevitable consequence of the form; the story still has to move, but the story moves via the reader's guided interactions with the text.

Which has, as such things often go, an effect beyond simple showing off. It brings out the earthier and more unpleasant side of the venerated composer. We barely see Beethoven as the compositional genius at all here; we see him as controlling, fickle, crass, easily upset and suspect to piles of flattery. Not only does this take the composer out of the (cold, borderline-dehumanized) canon and bring him into our world, it also invites the reader to wonder how these unpleasant characteristics might've contributed to the man's music. The relationship between artist's temperament and art is mostly implicit, but it's here, and that's what makes it more than a weekend read for Beethoven fans.

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about Conversations with Beethoven: Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 4, 2015. Filed under:
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May 29, 2015

Book Review: "A Kingdom in Crisis," by Andrew MacGregor Marshall

(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 Kingdom in Crisis, by Andrew MacGregor Marshall
 
A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand's Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
By Andrew MacGregor Marshall
Asian Arguments/Zed Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The revolution won't be televised, it'll be hashtagged. To non-natives the political situation in contemporary Thailand can seem confusing and complex. The nation is notorious for its endemic corruption and its industrialized sex trade. For those curious about contemporary Thai politics and how it relates to Thai history, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former reporter for Reuters, has written A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand's Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Published by Asian Arguments, an imprint of Zed Books, A Kingdom in Crisis removes the veil of Western stereotypes and Thai government propaganda. This is high stakes muckraking.

Thailand has a reputation for good food, a thriving sex trade, and a fanatical devotion to King Rama IX. Like other nation-states, Thailand created its own mythology, involving a monarch who ruled over his subjects like a parent ruling over his or her offspring. Marshall examines how this myth was created, how it adapted when Western powers intervened, and how the elite (aka business interests, royal courtiers) want to keep the monarchy under their control. Marshall's premise is once King Rama IX dies, there will be a succession crisis. This will have dire political, economic, and foreign policy consequences for Thailand. The blame partially falls on King Rama IX, since he has a track record for stifling democracy at every turn.

Thailand's monarchy draws its power from both Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions. In Buddhist thought, those who have led meritorious lives in the past can be reincarnated at a higher social station. In Hinduism, royalty is bestowed by sacred blood. Both these place the lower classes at a disadvantage. It is only recently that Thailand's subjects have sought to throw off the chains of oppression and demand their rights. The government has cracked down on dissent and political protest with despotic lese majeste law. In theory, lese majeste is used to punish those who speak ill of the King. In practice, anyone voicing dissatisfaction with the government faces stiff prison sentences. The lese majeste law allows for corruption, incompetence, and tyranny to thrive. It helps the Thai government sell the nation as a benevolent monarchy with a happy populace. With the rise of social media, less people are buying this fraudulent package.

As a fan of both Anthony Bourdain food reportage on Thailand and John Burdett's Bangkok 8 series, I came at this book completely ignorant of Thailand's political situation. While reasons abound for despair, Marshall does offer a few glimmers of hope. He tells about the burgeoning political savvy of the peasantry. Used to the bribery involved in democratic elections and the intimidation of partisan forces, they took the brilliant step of accepting money from all political parties and then voting for who they wanted.

A Kingdom in Crisis used a variety of sources, from scholarly texts to news articles. Marshall also used many leaked State Department documents archived at Wikileaks. United States officials working at the Embassy cast a jaundiced eye on Thailand's faux democracy. While much of what the Wikileaks documents say is not news, their public exposure lifts the veil off the political machinations and endemic corruption in the country. This is a must-read for those interested, traveling, or researching Southeast Asian politics.
 
Out of 10/9.5
 
Read even more about A Kingdom in Crisis: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, May 29, 2015. Filed under:
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The CCLaP Weekender for May 29th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for May 29th, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Matt Rowan; a photography feature by Emily Esperanza; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Are you a fan of the CCLaP Weekender and want to help us keep it going? Then please consider an annual voluntary subscription! At $25, that is a mere 50 cents per issue, half as inexpensive as a Kindle Single with the same amount of content.

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:14 AM, May 29, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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May 22, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for May 22nd is here!

CCLaP Weekender for May 22, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Tony Lindsay; a photography feature by Greg Reigh; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

Make a voluntary $1 donation then download the issue
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Are you a fan of the CCLaP Weekender and want to help us keep it going? Then please consider an annual voluntary subscription! At $25, that is a mere 50 cents per issue, half as inexpensive as a Kindle Single with the same amount of content.

Buy a voluntary annual subscription to the CCLaP Weekender

Don't want to keep coming by the website for all this stuff? Then sign up for our weekly email newsletter, which will send you not only a reminder every Friday morning about each new issue of the Weekender, but also a recap of everything that has happened with the center in the last seven days (including news about recent author features and events from around the US, a look at all our latest eBay rare-book auctions, links to each book review we posted at the blog that week, and a lot more). To subscribe, simply sign up using the box below. We never sell your information nor send more than one email a week, and you can quit at any time!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:14 AM, May 22, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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May 21, 2015

Book Review: "God Help the Child" by Toni Morrison

(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.)

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

God Help the Child
By Toni Morrison
Albert A. Knopf, Inc.
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I was thoroughly satisfied with the first three quarters of God Help the Child. Not to say it was magnificent like Paradise or Song of Solomon, but I thought of it as another feather in Morrison's already-enviable cap. Good prose, effective rotating narrators, solid characters, and on top of that a good story. Main character Bride, spurned by her mother for her dark skin, finds herself reverting from grown woman to child after being attacked by a woman she put in jail for molesting children. So another one of those great grotesque horror stories with sociopolitical overtones Morrison so specializes in, great mix of the visceral and the cerebral; what's not to like?

Then came part four, and Morrison provided a concrete answer to my rhetorical question. The ending. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but let's say that the conflict resolves too quickly and too easily. With an extra fifty pages or a good toning-down, the ending could've been earned. As it stands now, it comes too swift and cleans up too much. Not even Morrison's efforts to complicate it fully come off, because it's just too bright and shiny to follow from what we've seen. Which isn't to say your ending has to be death and darkness and despair or anything of the sort. But Morrison has ended so many of her books so beautifully. Take the sheer excitement of Song of Solomon's conclusion, the lingering fade of A Mercy, the big question mark of the Bluest Eye. These are all great conclusions. Sad to say it, but I can't rank God Help the Child's among them.

That's not to say, of course, that God Help the Child is to be dismissed because of a dissatisfying ending. Most of it is quite good. Because of its rotating narrators and protagonist, a black girl made to feel disgraced by her race, comparisons to the Bluest Eye are inevitable. Still, the cycle-of-abuse undertones and use of a contemporary setting - a first for Morrison - make it a work with its own identity. It's just that she was quite close to another great novel, but ended it so poorly that it can only hope to be a very good one. Shame, really.

Out of 10: 8.2

Read even more about God Help the Child: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 21, 2015. Filed under:
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May 18, 2015

Say hello to CCLaP's newest book, Joseph G. Peterson's "Twilight of the Idiots!"

Twilight of the Idiots, by Joseph G. Peterson

It's the middle of the month, which means it's time for another new original book from CCLaP! This month I'm extremely proud to announce the release of the story collection Twilight of the Idiots by local author Joseph G. Peterson, the second of two books we're publishing this year based on short stories that originally ran in our weekly electronic magazine, the CCLaP Weekender. Joe's a well-loved veteran of the Chicago literary community, with a series of popular and award-winning full-length novels under his belt; while this particular story collection is...well, perhaps it'd be best to just paste in the book's dust-jacket synopsis instead:

Know thyself and nothing in excess. Just as the doomed sailors of Homer's Odyssey fail to heed one or the other of these maxims, and end up getting turned to swine or lured to their peril by the singing sirens; so too do the doomed characters in Joseph G. Peterson's new collection of stories fail idiotically in one way or another and end up, like those ancient sailors, facing the prospect of their own mortal twilight. Set mostly in Chicago and by turns gruesome, violent, comic, lurid and perverse, these stories are suffused with a metaphorical light that lends beauty and joy to the experience of reading them.

Yeah, I know, pretty great, huh? But don't take my word for it -- check out some of the early accolades this book has already garnered...

"For me Joe Peterson's voice is a fresh pair of feet on the very dusty road of contemporary American literature." --Dan Fante, best-selling author of 86'd

"[C]haracters so alive and potent, their psyches marinate in your bones for weeks after you finish the book. This short story collection is a unique ode to the glimmer of beauty in the ugliness of the world. ...Peterson storytelling at its finest." --Chicago Literati

"Peterson's one of the most underappreciated authors on the underappreciated Chicago scene; I stumbled across him at a local literary event, and picked up one of his earlier books, and felt like I'd been let in on a secret. And this excellent collection sees him firing on all cylinders, crafting a memorable set of stories populated by pathetic and lovable characters who take us great places without ever going anywhere themselves." --Jerry Brennan, owner of Tortoise Books

As always with CCLaP, the ebook version of Twilight of the Idiots is being offered completely for free here at our website, just in the hopes of increasing the book's overall audience (and resulting number of online reviews, hint-hint); or if you're a Kindle owner and would prefer to have the book delivered directly to your device wirelessly, you can pick it up for $4.99 over at the Kindle Store. Or of course, if like me you prefer your reading experiences to be more traditional, we have a snazzy paperback version available for $14.99 as well, which you can order directly from us using the following Paypal button...

Options

And of course don't forget this book's listing at Goodreads.com; word-of-mouth is easily the number-one way we generate new customers for our books, so your mention of Joe's collection there can and does make a concrete difference in how many copies it ends up selling.

Live in Chicago? Then I hope you'll also have a chance to come out to the book's release party, happening tomorrow, May 18th, over at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie), from 6:30 to 8 pm. I have to say, I'm incredibly proud to have Joe on CCLaP's catalog now, especially with this being the specific book that has pushed us to add such new things in our routine as paper review copies we're now sending out to such bigger publications as the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. This is a darkly funny and moving collection of pieces about various lumpen proletariats in the Chicago area, and I strongly encourage you to download or order a copy as soon as you have a chance.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 18, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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May 15, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for May 15th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for May 15, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Joseph G. Peterson; a photography feature by Melissa Jean Birckhead; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

Make a voluntary $1 donation then download the issue
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Are you a fan of the CCLaP Weekender and want to help us keep it going? Then please consider an annual voluntary subscription! At $25, that is a mere 50 cents per issue, half as inexpensive as a Kindle Single with the same amount of content.

Buy a voluntary annual subscription to the CCLaP Weekender

Don't want to keep coming by the website for all this stuff? Then sign up for our weekly email newsletter, which will send you not only a reminder every Friday morning about each new issue of the Weekender, but also a recap of everything that has happened with the center in the last seven days (including news about recent author features and events from around the US, a look at all our latest eBay rare-book auctions, links to each book review we posted at the blog that week, and a lot more). To subscribe, simply sign up using the box below. We never sell your information nor send more than one email a week, and you can quit at any time!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:29 AM, May 15, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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American Odd: "History of Joseph Smith by His Mother," by Lucy Mack Smith


History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith

History of Joseph Smith by His Mother
by Lucy Mack Smith
Bookcraft (1979)
Review by Karl Wolff

History of Joseph Smith by His mother is one of the oddest books in the history of American religious literature. Joseph Smith, Jr. was the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saints (LDS) are also known by their nickname, "The Mormons." In the History of Joseph Smith, we get the biography of Prophet Joseph as told by his mother. Beginning with her family history, we read of Joseph's birth, struggles with his faith, receiving The Record (later to become The Book of Mormon), the development and persecution of the early Church, and the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum.

Mormonism is a uniquely odd American religion.* This isn't another off-the-cuff insult to the religion, but more of a grudging historical and cultural appraisal. One can't simply sweep Mormonism under the carpet or dismiss it as yet another crackpot religion founded by a charlatan. That's too easy and too binary. Either/or judgment calls don't forward intellectual investigation. Ivy League eminence Harold Bloom wrote an admiring appraisal of Mormonism in The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation. When Mitt Romney became a real contender for the Presidency and The Book of Mormon: the musical is a Broadway smash, there's no excuse for not being educated on this particular religion.

Joseph Smith, Jr. and the Latter-day Saints have had no shortage of histories, biographies, and cultural appraisals written about them (by both insiders and outsiders). History of Joseph Smith by His mother is arguably the most odd. The oddness occurs because Mormonism has developed and grown within such a short period of time. Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805 - 1844) short life encompassed the latter part of Revolutionary America and the onset of Jacksonian democracy. This is key to understanding the Prophet's revelations and the nature of Mormon theology. History gives relatively short shrift to the revelations and theology, focusing more on family history, everyday trials and tribulations, and the journey from upstate New York to Nauvoo, Illinois.

Joseph Smith received his revelations and translated the Book of Mormon amid the Second Great Awakening (1790 - 1840), a major Protestant revival. This revival brought about populist and egalitarian religious sentiment. Circuit riding preachers and raucous tent revivals criss-crossed the nation, especially the East Coast. But Mormonism was different. During his youth, Joseph felt much anxiety and confusion about what denomination to join. Through his vision of the Angel Moroni, he came to the conclusion that he had to found his own church since all others were in apostasy. As years went by, he received more revelations, from angels, prophets, and Jesus and Jehovah. The latter two being men with physical form. Other specific "American" concepts include Jesus's post-crucifixion mission to the Americas. The Prophet also believed both the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment would take place on American soil. And the controversial concept of man becoming like gods is a distinctly American idea. (Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, originated this idea in 1852.) While it sounds blasphemous, it speaks toward the egalitarian zeitgeist that swept the country during Andrew Jackson's presidency.

He created two levels of priesthood (Aaronic and Melchizedek), preached about the three levels of Heaven (Terrestrial, Telestial, and Celestial). He also taught about "celestial marriage," an important sacrament in the Church. To Gentiles (aka Non-Mormons), celestial marriage means polygamy. While this was one of the flashpoints that created animosity against the Mormons, celestial marriage gets no mention in History. Upon first blush, it would appear that Joseph Smith had a monogamous relationship with his wife Emma.

Why the whitewash? A telling hint is History's initial publication date. Originally published in 1853, Brigham Young opposed it, saying it was full of errors. A corrected version appeared in 1902. The date is especially important, since 1902 was after Utah was granted statehood. As other Western states received statehood, Utah remained a territory. Why? The short answer is polygamy. Young also opposed it because the book looks favorably on William Smith, a possibly successor to the Prophet Joseph. Harold Bloom in The American Religion likens Mormonism to Islam, not only because both faiths follow the revelations of a prophet. Like Islam, the Mormons had a succession crisis. Following the Prophet's martyrdom, many competing factions rose up. The faction with Brigham Young as the successor to Joseph Smith sees itself as the one true legitimate Church. Although a perfunctory look on Wikipedia has several Mormon factions and off-shoots existing today.

The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother offers a unique perspective on an American icon. Persecuted in their day and even subject to an "Extermination Order" by the Governor of Missouri, Mormonism has transformed from a strange heretical off-shoot of Christianity into a major, legitimate denomination.

*For an even-handed history of Mormonism, see Mormon America by Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling.

Read even more about History of Joseph Smith by His Mother: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, May 15, 2015. Filed under:
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May 14, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "Gravity's Rainbow," by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow,
Gravity's Rainbow
By Thomas Pynchon, 1973
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

If you ask the literary community, Gravity's Rainbow is among the major literary events of the twentieth century. It's the postmodern or at minimum post-World War II answer to Joyce. The book's shadow might be longer than anything else with the "postmodern" label. The one with hundreds of characters and absurdly long sentences and mind-boggling tonal shifts, the one that's been labeled "unreadable" and "pretentious" and "obscene" but not often "boring." Nominated for a Pulitzer but robbed of it by virtue of obscenity; since no such prize was given for literature that year, we can maybe call it a shadow winner. Boosters of the book can take solace in the fact that it was granted a National Book Award and nominated for a Nebula; beloved by the "literary" and "genre" crowds alike. Any way you look at it, not a bad set of achievements.

Before we get into the analysis, a little background, both on Pynchon and his influence. Pynchon's known as a recluse, which isn't quite accurate - he gets out as much as everyone else, he just detests the press, so very few photos exist of the guy. In fact, when he won his National Book Award, he had the comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey accept the prize on his behalf. What we know is that Pynchon spent some time in the Coast Guard and worked as a technical writer for Boeing. The latter seems to have influenced his prose style, which is notable for its mathematical rhythms. Pynchon had already made a name for himself when this book came out - his debut V was a success, and the Crying of Lot 49 remains well-loved - but the size and ambition of this novel was unprecedented in his earlier work. Furthermore, he helped codify what some would call a "systems novel," which scholar Frederic Jameson defines as novels concerned with the "character of the social life of so-called advanced countries today." Good examples include David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Don DeLillo's White Noise, Percival Everett's Erasure, and Jonathan Franzen's the Recognitions. They tend to look at this character critically and tend to fit under the postmodern umbrella. Pynchon didn't invent the systems novel. You could argue they're as old as the national identity itself, and more concrete examples include Ulysses and the Recognitions and probably Moby-Dick. Still, Pynchon helped bring the style into prominence and undoubtedly influenced at least Wallace and DeLillo.

Starting on Gravity's Rainbow is always tough for me. This is partially because it kicked off my fascination with the megalithic postmodern novel and is probably the whole reason why I got into big books in the first place, and partially because its reputation for complexity is entirely justified. Normally I'd put a plot summary here, but Gravity's Rainbow is the sort of book that laughs at efforts to quickly recap it. Suffice it to say that Gravity's Rainbow centers around the efforts of Tyrone Slothrop, soldier in World War II, to find a mysterious German rocket that might have the power to warp reality. Still, that's just the beginning of a novel that invokes mythology, history, satire and slapstick, alongside literary traditions like elaborate symbolism and characters doubling other characters. All this with silly songs interjected spontaneously. If this wasn't enough for you already, Pynchon's prose is gorgeous and full of manic energy. Sort of like driving down a twisty mountain road; plenty of gorgeous vistas to enjoy, but you never forget how high up you are or how perilous the road is.

The best place to start with this novel's complexity is to get into its tone. The tone of this novel shifts with such frequency and such deftness that it's hard to place Pynchon at the center, hard to discern how he feels and what we're meant to take from it. For instance, early on in the novel Pynchon follows an episode about keeping a hold on empathy in wartime with one of protagonist Tyrone Slothrop diving down a toilet in search of his harmonica. I'm fond of relating that switch to Pynchon neophytes, but stranger still is how a description of a pinball's trajectory turns into a heavy-duty analysis of power relations that by some sorcery retains the energy of the pinball description. People discuss Pynchon's paranoia so frequently it's become a cliché, but his tone is so complex that it's hard to tell if he's endorsing, spoofing, or simply describing the paranoia he depicts in this novel and attributes to a both pre- and post-Watergate America. His characters are paranoid - Slothrop sees a conspiracy around every corner - but they're also insane, as illustrated by Slothrop's habit of running around with a cape and Viking hat. "Rocket Man," he calls himself in that outfit, and I can't listen to the old Elton John song the same way. So it's hard to tell whose side he's on, or he's on any side, or if sides even matter in this book.

Now, the trick with Gravity's Rainbow is that people tend to love and hate it for the same reasons. Either Pynchon's a genius writer of clear sight and massive vision or he's so focused on breaking down his systems that he's forgotten about the inner workings of character. Either his sentences are linguistic wonders to behold or they're a clever guy trying to show off his cleverness. There's not a lot of middle ground with this guy, and I think that's how he likes it. He sure isn't inviting it. The guy's prose style is, I'll admit, an acquired taste. The sentences wind around so thoroughly, sometimes slipping from one character's consciousness into another as they move forward, that you could get lost reading them. What I prescribe to the detractors of his prose is they let themselves get lost. Gravity's Rainbow is a long book with a lot of moving parts, and not all of it will make sense at first; the novel begins in the midst of a missile attack, so chaos is only to be expected. Pynchon's all about producing an effect on you, and no self-respecting writer would write about a missile attack in calm and even tones. The chaos only settles periodically, but I promise you, the whole thing will make more sense as you read more. It's big and digressive and some of the digressions might not seem to be in there as much more than comedy, but once you understand this book's terms, you'll see what he's doing and why. You have to accept the fact that it doesn't give up its secrets immediately. Things don't begin to tie together until, oddly enough, the plot starts to disintegrate toward the end.

Pynchon's characters are a little hard to defend, since the common claim that they verge on caricature is hard to argue. Make no mistake: Tyrone Slothrop is one of the great comedic protagonists in our literature, but what sort of depth does the guy have? Is there anything more to this guy than a goofy name and a series of ridiculous costumes and a penchant for playing bagpipes? I'll admit that, in a way, he's an allegorical figure; Pynchon might be tipping his hand with that when he equates Tyrone with the tarot card of the fool, or he might just be messing with us. Like I said, it's hard to tell with this guy. My argument in the defense of Pynchon's characters is this: they might seem grotesque to us in the real world, but they're not meant to inhabit the real world. They're meant to inhabit Pynchon's world, and their actions make a lot of sense when considered as a part of Pynchon's world.

Besides, I don't think well-rounded character is the only mark of a good novel. It's a reliable mark, and it helps us invest in character, but that's not your only way in. Does Pynchon write characters with the depth of Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway? Maybe not, but it's a short list of novels that successfully invoke as many emotions and tones as Gravity's Rainbow does. It's an even shorter list of writers who can write more gorgeous and energetic language than Pynchon. Not every writer can excel at everything, and there are trades I as a reader am willing to make if I'm stared down with greatness. Pynchon comes up with an opening sentences like "a screaming comes across the sky" and I'm a happy reader. I'm willing to forgive the character thing because Pynchon can write passages like:
It's been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home -- only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.

See, there's your reward. Gravity's Rainbow has a reputation as a difficult book, and that reputation has overshadowed a lot about it. But all great writers of demanding fiction give their readers something to connect with, and Pynchon is no exception. Even if it's tough to follow Pynchon's winding plot thread, this is still masterful, lively writing in action. So come with your brain turned on, but at the same point, forget about those expectations about what fiction "should" be and let yourself be amazed.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 14, 2015. Filed under:
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Book Review: "Gutshot" by Amelia Gray

(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.)

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray

Gutshot is great, but it deserves the "not for everyone" tag. The same is true of everything Amelia Gray writes, since she's never shied away from the surreal or the grotesque. However, Gutshot's bound to be especially divisive, since in places it's violent to the point of being sickening. This is the weirdest book she's written so far. For the author of a book called Museum of the Weird, that's saying something.

So with that in mind, what keeps Gray above "gross for gross' sake" and makes her an author worth reading? A couple of things. First off, her writing style. She avoids the lazy banalities of similarly grotesque writers, steering clear of the deliberate shallowness of Tao Lin or Bret Easton Ellis at their worst. Her prose isn't pretty and it shouldn't be, but she avoids the blunted affect so many other writers of strange fiction seem to prefer. Since she allows herself more emotional and tonal range, her stories hit hard. She makes you feel the claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a house's ventilation system ("House Heart"), the mix of melancholy and frustration of being haunted by your mother ("The Lives of Ghosts") and the confusion of a town divided by a gigantic serpent ("Year of the Snake"). So she not only gives you weird events but the real consequences of events. Gray's characters may be stuck in unlikely situations, but those situations still have a real impact on them, and she knows how to make you feel that impact.

There's also a sense of natural progression from her previous books to this one. She's been playing with odd emotional tones, shorter forms, and strange events since her first collection, AM/PM. She expanded these ideas out with 2010's Museum of the Weird and started to investigate their emotional consequences with her great 2012 novel Threats. But Gutshot is where she synthesizes these aspects into short fiction that's not just weird but also imaginative and powerful. So even though a couple stories aren't fantastic, especially toward the end, you can't ask for much more than that. I'm so excited to see what she'll do next!

Out of 10: 9.7

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 14, 2015. Filed under:
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