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
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 7:14 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
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 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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May 8, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for May 8th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for Mayh 8th, 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 Oliver Zarandi; a photography feature by Heather Killion; 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 9:07 AM, May 8, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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May 6, 2015

CCLaP Rare: "The Custom of the Country" by Edith Wharton (1913), 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, 1st Edition 1st Printing

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

The Custom of the Country
By Edith Wharton (1913)
First Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: Although academes have been acknowledging former high-society queen Edith Wharton ever since her own youth (among other accolades, she was the very first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature), this Realism pioneer was dismissed by a lot of her contemporaries as the penner only of "melodramas for women;" but with every passing year, we're able to see more and more just what a brilliant observer of class and relationships Wharton actually was, a super-wealthy matriarch who rejected all the psychological trappings that usually came with such a position, and whose insightful novels about the upper class are in fact astute and complex examinations of the kinds of entrapping boxes such people build around themselves on a daily basis. Take today's book, 1913's The Custom of the Country, for a good example -- written about halfway between her two most famous novels (1905's The House of Mirth and 1920's The Age of Innocence), and the last book she would write before her infamous divorce from her first husband and her subsequent permanent move to France, it has been specifically cited in public by Julian Fellowes as one of his main inspirations for his hit PBS series Downton Abbey. ("It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme and immediate way. I think it's a remarkable piece of writing. I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something.")

And there's a good reason Downton Abbey feels so similar in tone to this: taking a cue from her peer Sinclair Lewis, Wharton makes up a Midwestern powerhouse city called "Apex" as the hometown of her protagonist family the Spraggs, who move to New York with Industrial-Age "new money" and then politically marry their daughter Undine into an "old money" family who no longer has any money, as a way of bringing resources to the one and an inherited respectability to the other. But Undine is having nothing to do with this -- after an unwanted pregnancy, she essentially ditches her family in order to have an affair in Europe, then becomes a disconsolate divorcee which causes her no end of trouble within the circles she is forced to maintain. For a tearjerker about "true love," it's an awfully forward-looking and contemporarily relevant book, just like all of Wharton's other novels; and with copies in better condition and with the dust jacket intact selling for ten times as much, today's inexpensive price is a relative steal for those who are "true believers" in Wharton's powerful and still fresh-feeling work.

CONDITION: Text: Good Plus (G+). Although still with a tight binding and holding together quite well, the fact is that this copy has several serious condition issues, with a price today that reflects that, including a faded spine, several stains on the front and back covers, frayed spine edges, and inner hinges that are in the first step of coming apart. Dust jacket: Missing. Contains a pencil signature on the front inner cover that says "Elizabeth Moyer." As confirmed by the McBride Guide to the Identification of First Editions, a date agreement on the title page and copyright page, a lack of additional printing notices, and the appearance of the Scribners logo on the copyright page, makes this a true first edition, first printing.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at Market Fresh Books, Chicago, May 2015.

eBay auction
MINIMUM BID: US$75 / BUY THIS MOMENT FOR $150 OR BEST OFFER
(If coming across this in the future, see CCLaP's main page at eBay for the relisted auction URL)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 6, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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May 5, 2015

CCLaP Rare: "The Beast in Me and Other Animals" by James Thurber (1948), 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Beast in Me by James Thurber, 1st Edition 1st Printing

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

The Beast in Me and Other Animals
By James Thurber (1948)
First Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: We can all agree that the serious "important" writers of any age hold an special spot in helping us understand that age and what it was all about; but what about the more populist writers of that period, the humorists and newspaper columnists whose work was specifically designed to be both more trendy and more disposable? Take James Thurber for one great example of the complexity inherent in this question: for while it's undeniable that his work mostly consists of cute, funny little pieces, designed mostly to run in the back pages of such publications as The New Yorker in order to bring a little smile to people's faces, it's also undeniable that Thurber had a huge influence over the entire popular culture of his time, with Broadway and film adaptations of his work that starred such heavyweights as Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Danny Kaye (and in fact one of his biggest hits, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was once again made into a big-budget Hollywood adaptation with Ben Stiller just last year), and it's also undeniable that his work has a dark, smart edge that helped elevate it way past the usual fluff pieces of most magazine humorists, helped immensely by his personal connection to the artists of the avant-garde because of living in Greenwich Village during the years we now call Early Modernism. Today's book being auctioned is one of the many anthologies that was put together over the years of his short work, but with one detail that sets it apart from most of the others -- this also includes the first book version of his 1947 essay series "Soapland," considered the very first pop-culture examination of soap operas in history, and an early proto-example of Postmodernism decades before the term was invented. Thurber's wickedly funny work still holds up to this day, and fans of this "society mirror-holder" will not want to miss the opportunity to pick up this important book from his career for the inexpensive price it's being offered for today.

CONDITION: Text: Very Good Plus (VG). In great shape for its 67-year age, with clean covers and a tight binding, except for a few bumped corners. Dust jacket: Missing. Contains an ink signature on the inside front cover that reads, "John E Aneck, 9/11/50, S.F." As confirmed by the McBride Guide to the Identification of First Editions, a lack of additional printing notices on the copyright page makes this a true first edition, first printing. Currently protected by a hard Mylar slipcover.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at Market Fresh Books, Chicago, May 2015.

eBay auction
MINIMUM BID: US$20 / BUY THIS MOMENT FOR $30 OR BEST OFFER
(If coming across this in the future, see CCLaP's main page at eBay for the relisted auction URL)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 5, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles |
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May 1, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for May 1st is here!

CCLaP Weekender for May 1, 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 Chicago author Joseph G. Peterson; a photography feature by the Bulgarian team RobotsOnFilm; 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

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:20 AM, May 1, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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Book Review: "Cities of Empire," by Tristram Hunt

(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.)
 
Cities of Empire, by Tristram Hunt
 
Cities of Empire: The British colonies and the creation of the urban world
By Tristram Hunt
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Ask anyone and they will probably have an opinion on imperialism. Look at social media and people will call the United States an empire. When asked to define what an empire is, the question will usually garner obfuscation and self-righteous outrage. After all, what did the Roman Empire ever give us? When it comes to the British Empire reactions arrive in two flavors: "its Whiggish focus on the heroic age of Victorian achievement" (a la Niall Ferguson) and the left reducing it to "slavery, starvation and extermination; loot, land and labour." Tristram Hunt, the Labour PM for Stoke-on-Trent, seeks to investigate British imperialism beyond the moral dichotomy of good-versus-evil. He does so in Cities of Empire: The British colonies and the creation of the urban world.

Hunt begins his narrative in Boston and relates the history of the city up to the Revolutionary War. Right up to the 1770s, Boston remained pro-British and Protestant in attitude and demographics. It is hard to imagine given Boston's own self-mythologizing. The book continues with lengthy profiles of nine more "cities of empire:" Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, and finally Liverpool. The cities Hunt selected provide an idiosyncratic interpretation of what imperialism is. Boston and Bridgetown in the Barbados represent two focal points of Triangular Trade. Cape Town is seen as nothing more than a rest stop on the way to India, at least until gold and diamonds are found. Dublin and Melbourne appear as outliers, but Hunt weaves together how instrumental both were to the British Empire. Dublin is a strange case for two reasons. The first is that Ireland had been in the British Empire (and English crown) since the sixteenth century. Dublin is also the closest in proximity to London, creating an environment where England's geographic backdoor is treated like a foreign colony. Melbourne represents the farthest geographical reach of the British Empire. Hunt paints a picture of a harsh environment that is sparsely populated but rich in material wealth. The narrative reaches a geographic and economic end in Hong Kong, a banking capital emblematic of free market capitalism. Hunt finishes the book by looking at Liverpool, a city enduring the ups and downs of the British Empire. When the British Empire finally collapsed in the years following the Second World War, Liverpool's prosperity collapsed along with it.

This above is only a thumbnail sketch of Hunt's book. A challenge he addresses early on is his focus on only ten cities and the question, "Why those ten cities?" In conducting an experiment, a scientist has to make judgment calls about what variables to include and exclude. Too many variables and the experiment becomes unwieldy and unfeasible. The same goes for the practice of history. A historian has to put limits on such things like scope. Cities of Empire only covers ten cities, but it is almost 400 pages long. Why Hong Kong and not Shanghai? Why Dublin and not Cairo? To encompass a single volume Hunt has struck a balance between depth and breadth. Too broad and the book would have felt superficial. Too deep and the broader scope of global imperialism would have been lost. Hunt also has his pet interests that lead into his interpretation of what imperialism is.

So what is imperialism? How do the phenomena of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism differ? Throughout the book, the British play the Great Game of imperialism with France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. Imperialism is about force and appearance. Force boils down to military and political dominance of the indigenous population. But not every case involved the Union Jack and guns a-blazin'. The British and Dutch excelled at softening up the ground with economic imperialism. Britain created joint stock companies that set up shop on foreign soil. While they brought in wealth to the Mother Country, it had the tendency to look unseemly. The transition from colony to empire occurred through the transition from "counting house to Government House." An empire had to look the part. Hunt's fascination with architecture shines through when he profiles the architects and landmarks that constituted the British Empire. The challenge came in what those landmarks should look like. India saw a push and pull between the creation of imperialist buildings that reflected Indian history and culture. Other imperialist buildings in India look like they were air-lifted from downtown London. Washington, D.C. reflects the might and moral leadership of the United States with impressive monuments and the soaring dome of the U.S. Capitol. It also looks like the architects had a thing for re-creating Roman architecture with a crass gigantism. Depends on who you talk to and your own personal opinion.

On top of the architectural debates, the British Empire created a hierarchical system focused on race. After the secession of the Thirteen Colonies and the end of the First British Empire, a Second British Empire began to slowly build up. Canada, Ireland, and Australia became known as the White Dominions. Not a metaphor. The situation became more top-down and oppressive in places like China, India, and South Africa. South Africa became further complicated by the struggle between British and Dutch colonists. Its geographic location saw it become a hub of a multiracial population, including those from India used as cheap labor. While Hunt seeks to go beyond the good and evil of imperialism, he pulls no punches when bad things are done in the name of the British Empire. Yet as India sought to throw off the yoke of imperial oppression and racist policies, it could not completely eradicate the British influence. Today India has a parliamentary democracy and a damn fine cricket team. At the same time curry could be considered Britain's national dish.

In the end imperialism is neither all-good nor all-bad. But imperialism has a legacy and how do we interpret that legacy? Imperialism also isn't a one-way street. The British Empire left its stamp on the planet, but the areas it administered also influenced Britain. History is a fine balancing act between reporting what happened in an objective and disinterested manner. It is also utilizing personal experience, accumulated knowledge and evidence, and one's moral convictions to arrive at a judgment. The legacy of imperialism shouldn't have the nasty bits papered over nor should it become a narrow-gauge tirade that overshadows the good things resulting from the experience. Hunt ably balances between the two poles, pulling no punches, but also avoiding the tendency to see things in a simplistic black-and-white mindset. After all, what did the Roman Empire ever give us?
 
Out of 10/9.0
 
Read even more about Cities of Empire: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, May 1, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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April 24, 2015

Announcing the triumphant 2015 return of the CCLaP Weekender!

CCLaP Weekender for April 24, 2015

Announcing the triumphant 2015 return of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Chicago author Matt Rowan; a photography feature by Arizona artist Paul Blair Gordon; 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 11:17 AM, April 24, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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April 23, 2015

Book Review: "Metamorphosis," by Nicholas Mosley

(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.)

Metamorphosis, by Nicholas Mosley

Metamorphosis
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Apparently, Nicholas Mosley has been at it since the '50s, and has had two big brushes with prominence: 1990's much-lauded Hopeful Monsters and 1968's novel-in-stories Impossible Object. I say "apparently" because I'd never heard of the guy until recently; I was browsing Chicago's massive Harold Washington Library, as I often do, and I found this among the new releases. Since I liked both the title and cover, and since it was published by Dalkey Archive, I decided to give it a go.

With so many good things having been said about the aforementioned earlier novels, I'm willing to accept that Mosley and I got off on the wrong foot. There was a good novel at the heart of Metamorphosis, but Mosley's focus was off, and it threw the whole affair for a loop. From the ol' conceptual point of view, this is great stuff, focusing on a search for the godlike powers inside humanity via the God Particle. It's a little New Age, maybe, but the backdrop of science and quantum mechanics keep it from spinning off too far into that dread and unfortunate territory. Besides, Mosley backs himself up with a charming voice and a few fascinating and odd episodes like the beached whale toward the beginning.

But if Mosley avoids the dread New Age trap, he falls fully for the dread "novel that should've been a treatise" trap. He gets so lost in speculations about the future of the human race and explanations of quantum mechanics that he loses track of the story. Which is frustrating enough in and of itself, but even more frustrating when he gives us these wonderful scraps of story, like an episode about a man working on the Large Hadron Collider, that would've made for an excellent focus. I'm all about the novel of ideas, but you have to have some novel to back up your ideas, and that's just not happening here; the story's too underdeveloped, the characters too sketchy, for me to buy into it. Mosley's keyed into discussions worth discussing, and I'd be interested in checking out his earlier work, but I don't think this will go down as one of his better books.

Out of 10: 6.8

Read even more about Metamorphosis: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 23, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 22, 2015

Reminder: The "Big Venerable" release party is tonight!

Big Venerable, by Matt Rowan

Just wanted to remind all you Chicagoans that the release party for our newest book, Matt Rowan's story collection Big Venerable, is being held tonight over at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie, to be specific, just a stone's throw from the Logan Square blue-line el station), from 6:30 to 8 pm. Free beer and wine will be available, plus we'll be having short performances from a variety of great local authors, so I hope to see all of you there tonight!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:26 AM, April 22, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Events | Literature |
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April 20, 2015

Say hello to CCLaP's newest book, Matt Rowan's "Big Venerable!"

Big Venerable, by Matt Rowan

Well, it's the middle Monday of April, which means it's time for another new 2015 CCLaP book! And I'm excited to say that this month's release is the start of an interesting new series for us, three books in a row consisting of story collections by Chicago authors, kicking things off with Matt Rowan's Big Venerable. As always, the book's synopsis can give you a better sense of what it's about than I can off the top of my head here, so let me just paste it in below...

A darkly surreal yet absurdly funny short-fiction writer, Matt Rowan has been a Chicago local secret for years; but now this latest collection of pieces, all of which originally appeared in the pages of the CCLaP Weekender in 2014 and '15, is set to garner him the national recognition his stories deserve, a Millennial George Saunders who is one of the most popular authors in the city's notorious late-night literary performance community. Shocking? Thought-provoking? Strangely humorous? Uncomfortable yet insightful on a regular basis? YES PLEASE.

Yes please indeed! I've been a big fan of Matt's work for a long time now; but like many Chicago authors, Matt has never gotten around to writing the kind of big book-length manuscript like what CCLaP mostly publishes throughout the year, so I'm glad to have our magazine The CCLaP Weekender around as an excuse to publish great short-work authors like Matt and others, and to give them the wider audience they deserve. (And speaking of which, I'm happy to say that the Pushcart-Prize-nominated Weekender is finally starting up active 2015 publication again this week; but come by this Friday for more on that. And also along these lines, I'm happy to say that this is CCLaP's first finished book to be edited by our new short-fiction editor Behn Riahi, who has been editing all the short stories in the Weekender for the last year. Behn was the editor of the next book we have coming out next month as well, and is heading up all four of the Chicago story collections we're publishing in 2016, as well as continuing to serve as the Weekender's story editor throughout this year too.)

Big Venerable, paperback edition

As always with CCLaP's titles, a free ebook version of Big Venerable is available at its main online headquarters, in four different versions (PDFs for American [8.5 x 11] and European [A4] laserprinters; EPUB for most mobile devices; and MOBI specifically for Amazon Kindles); or if you prefer getting to download the book straight to your Kindle wirelessly, or simply wish to financially support Matt and CCLaP more, you can also buy your MOBI for $4.99 at the Kindle Store directly. And of course there's a gorgeous paperback version available as well, in our cute new 4.37 x 7 inch dimensions for our novella-sized manuscripts, which you can also order through Amazon or simply buy directly from us using the "buy now" button below...

Options

And speaking of the paperback version, we're having the official release party for Big Venerable this Wednesday, April 22nd, at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie, just a stone's throw from the Logan Square blue-line el station). That'll be from 6:30 to 8 pm, and not only can you pick up the paperback at that, there will also be free beer and wine available, so I hope all you Chicagoans will have a chance to come out. And of course don't forget that Big Venerable has its own listing at Goodreads.com as well; so if you're a fellow member of that literary social network like I am, I hope you'll have a chance to add the book to your library there, and especially to post a few thoughts about the book after you're done reading it. Word of mouth is the number-one way a tiny press like ours gains new fans, so your positive mention of the book online can and does have a concrete effect on how many copies we end up selling.

I have to say, I really love Matt's book, a collection of stories that will remind many of the great George Saunders but with a decidedly Millennial bent to the activities in question; and I think it's a perfect complement to the other two Chicago story collections we have coming out soon, Joseph G. Peterson's Twilight of the Idiots in mid-May and then Ben Tanzer's long-awaited The New York Stories: Three Volumes in One Collection in mid-June. (By the way, the three authors will be doing a series of events together all across the city this summer, so make sure to stop by here for the latest.) I hope you'll have a chance to check out all these books as they become available; but for now, definitely stop by the Big Venerable online headquarters as soon as you have a chance, to either download or order a copy of the book and check it out for yourself.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:39 AM, April 20, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Events | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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April 17, 2015

American Odd: "A Curious Man," by Neal Thompson


A Curious Man, by Neal Thompson

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
By Neal Thompson
Three Rivers Press
Review by Karl Wolff

The phrase "Believe it or not!" is something nearly everybody knows, but its history has been long forgotten. "Believe It or Not!" (with capital letters) was the brainchild of Robert L. Ripley, a California native who came from a hardscrabble background. He took a winning gimmick and ran with it. Before the concept of omni-media empire was a thing, Ripley had created a personal empire that included a regular newspaper cartoon, a museum of sort (the Odditorium), a radio show, movie newsreels, and a TV show (in multiple incarnations). Before there were the omni-media empires of Martha Stewart, George Lucas, and Walt Disney, there was Robert L. Ripley (1890 - 1949). When I was growing up in Wisconsin, my family would take the occasional trip to the Wisconsin Dells. One of the main attractions was the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. I may or may not have gone through it. I was a kid, my memories are pretty fuzzy. (Although I do remember going through another monument to American Odd-ness, The House on the Rock.) "Believe It or Not!" is iconic American Odd. Even those unfamiliar with the biography of Robert L. Ripley, know where the phrase comes from. It is akin to knowing Pulp Fiction references without having seen the Tarantino film. I was one of those people, until I read A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, by Neal Thompson.

A Curious Man offers a breezy, breathless, and fascinating biography of Robert L. Ripley, the man behind the brand. "Believe It or Not!" has become so iconic, it is a challenge to realize that it almost never came to be. As with many rags to riches stories, Ripley's life is an accumulation of chance, circumstance, guile, market- and media-savvy, and both successes and failures. Anyone who became wealthy without enduring failure and making mistakes is either lying to you or the wealth was inherited. (Cue inevitable election season joke.)

Robert L. Ripley (born LeRoy Robert Ripley) was born in Santa Rosa, California, a shy, bucktoothed bookish kid who spent his spare hours sketching. Through the help of his high school teacher he was able to land a cartooning job in San Francisco. He was shortly fired. After a few professional hiccups, he landed a job as a sports cartoonist for San Francisco paper. He eventually moved to work as a cartoonist for a New York City paper. During this time, photography was still a slow and expensive process. Cartoonists provided newspapers with a cheap means of communicating the story. Ripley's contemporaries included Rube Goldberg, another cartoonists whose gimmick turned his name into a descriptor.

"Believe It or Not!" was originally named "Champs and Chumps," showcasing record-breaking sports achievements. With the help of William Randolph Hearst, the cartoon received syndication, and with the help of his polymath assistant, Norbert Pearlroth, the cartoon became immensely popular. The cartoon still runs today ... "Believe It or Not!" The cartoon allowed Ripley to travel the world, collecting odd facts and odd souvenirs. The souvenirs accumulated so fast he needed a place to put them all. He filled a New York City apartment and Believe It or Not! Island, his private mansion. One of his favorite destinations was China. This stemmed from his visits to San Francisco's Chinatown when he was a young cartoonist. He found the culture fascinating.

During the Depression, "Believe It or Not" provided entertainment to those hard on their luck. They read Ripley's travel columns, his cartoons, and visited the Odditorium. The Odditorium made Ripley an inheritor of the freak show tradition began by P.T. Barnum. Ripley tried to legitimize the Odditorium by distancing himself from Barnum, but the American public came for the same reason. Americans love to gawk at freaky stuff. Why do we still watch Jerry Springer, Honey Boo Boo, and the insatiable maw of "reality television"? Ripley capitalized on this, making his interests the interests of America at large, and rode this to the bank.

A Curious Man offers a comprehensive biography of Robert L. Ripley and his omni-media juggernaut. He made the American cultural landscape richer, weirder, and stranger. He was an instrumental pioneer of the American Odd.

Read even more about A Curious Man: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: History of Joseph Smith by His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, April 17, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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April 16, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "The Sot-Weed Factor," by John Barth

The Sot-Weed Factor,

The Sot-Weed Factor
By John Barth, 1960
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

By the time 1960 rolled around, John Barth was a fairly obscure author. He had two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, under his belt, and his original plan was to use The Sot-Weed Factor to expand them into a trilogy about nihilism. However, as Barth wrote through the novel, he found it taking a shape he hadn't quite expected and decided to just roll with that shape. As it turned out, deviating from the script was the best call Barth could've made. Not that I've read the first two -- I own both, and they've got these hideously '70s covers that make me wish I'd shelled out for the omnibus, but it's hard to complain too much, since I paid a combined six bucks for them -- but it's Sot-Weed that made Barth into a literary superstar and an important figure in the Postmodern Thing.

So just how does this book roll? The first thing readers tend to note is the use of 18th century English, which, while closer to the modern way of speaking than even Shakespearean English, doesn't make for smooth reading until you've parsed it out. Of course, Barth didn't use this language just for the sake of obfuscation, but to place this novel within a broader dialog. Sot-Weed is based on a style of British writing called the anatomy novel, a form invented in the 18th century and most famously exhibited with Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which, observant readers may note, is often credited as an early postmodern novel itself. These books are long and digressive, often subvert the very notion of an organized plot, and often display the most ribald of humor.

Sot-Weed is no exception to any of these rules. It's eight hundred pages of subplots that sort of weave together into a broader and more coherent whole; the idea is more to log the adventures of poet Ebenezer Cooke, inheritor of a tobacco farm in Maryland and virgin (if you can say Sot-Weed has plot points, Ebenezer's virginity is one of them); his servant Bertrand, coward and hedonist; and his tutor, Henry Burlingame, who seems to take on whatever identity suits him best. As for the bawdy humor, hoo boy; even Roth in full Portnoy's Complaint mode can't top Barth's onslaught, and if you think I'm exaggerating, wait until you see what he does with the Pocahontas story.

Like I say, there's not a lot of plot here, so the best way to summarize this one is to talk about its premise. Ebnezer is declared poet laureate of Maryland by a British politician, Charles Calvert. Ebenezer is set to inherit his father's tobacco plantation in the same state, and after a series of disasters in England that include a near-duel with a notorious criminal, Ebenezer sets off for the then-"New World" to live out his role as a poet and get out of the trouble he's gotten into. On his journey, his valet Bertrand gambles away the deed to the plantation, so Ebenezer has to get it back. He also develops his poem, "the Marylandiad," throughout the novel. Its tonal shifts do a wonderful job of mirroring the character's own development. But the process of getting it back is just there to have some sort of framework. What matters is that Cooke gets kidnapped by pirates, that he skirts around a Jesuit conspiracy and a Native American rebellion, that he meets and falls in love with a prostitute named Joan Toast, and that Toast and another prostitute spend several consecutive pages exchanging profession-specific insults. Brush up on your eighteenth-century burns. Oh, and Burlingame's disguises. Burlingame's disguises are inconceivable and ludicrous, but in this crazy satirical vision of America, they're glorious and exactly what the book calls for. Barth goes full-throttle with the bombast and I don't see any reason to complain about that.

So far, this might sound like a cartoon. Barth plays fast and loose with the slapstick, but anyone who thinks juvenile humor can't be art must've missed all the innuendo in Shakespeare. Except Barth's a step ahead of his critics, because he places himself in dialog with the broader literary conversation. I'm not just talking about the anatomy novel thing, either -- a real-life poem about Maryland called "The Sot-Weed Factor" was written by a poet named Ebenezer Cooke in the early 18th century. Little is known about the real-life Cooke, apart that he did spend time in Maryland, so Barth pulls a Borges move and fills in a head-spinning amount of gaps. I've heard it claimed that The Sot-Weed Factor doesn't add much to the traditions of the anatomy novel, both from the novel's fans and detractors (and you'd better believe there are both; the anti-Barth), but I think moves like this help build on different traditions.

Consider Barth's conversation with Borges; the great Argentinian may have written a short story about an author who reconstructs Don Quixote (see "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"), but Barth takes the idea further by not only reconstructing a historical poem but also reconstructing the circumstances of its creation. Barth's project here goes beyond the standard blend of fact and fiction; he basically invents an Ebenezer Cooke for us and invents him inventing a poem. It's just that he happens to use kidnapping, prostitution, pirates, masters of disguise, Jesuit conspiracies, opium, and all other matters of eighteenth-century sensationalism as the poem's ingredients. Besides, in rewriting the anatomy novel for the modern context, he shows us that the new is never really far from the old and that all artistic movements are in a consistent state of flux; it's a cliché to call Tristram Shandy an early postmodern novel now, but would we have known that without Barth showing us the way?

Besides, for absurd as this novel gets, there's always empathy here. Ebenezer's chastity, frequently exploited naivety, and propensity for big emotional speeches might seem ridiculous to the modern world, but he's no figure of parody -- Barth allows the guy dignity in even the craziest of his actions, lets him grow into his own, and even offers him some bite. You really feel his journey from fresh-faced romantic to cynical satirist, and that's because Barth gets character. Exaggerated character or not, he's motivated by a lot: not just his love of Joan Toast and his need for the plantation, but his desire to see the goodness in the world. I didn't just bring up Don Quixote for fun -- Cooke is a Quixotic figure, and like with that ingenuous gentleman of La Mancha, you progress from ridiculing him to understanding him. Bertrand isn't an exact analog for Sancho Panza, and he shouldn't be, but his hedonism still plays well against Ebenezer's high-flung ideals. If I have any complaints about these characters, it's that Barth didn't do more with either Toast (mostly a victim to be saved, although she develops some serious cunning as the novel goes on) or Barth's more worldly sister Anna, but the can't-write-female-characters problem certainly isn't exclusive to Barth, although it is an issue that not every central character in this novel is compelling.

Sure, Burlingame's bombast is utterly outside of the real, and Bertrand is a bit of a gag character, but Barth's empathy for Ebenezer pulls us through the novel and his own bizarre adventures. Which is just as well, because his journey from high-flung ideals to satirical cynicism and then to a further point which I'll leave it up to you to discover pretty much is this book. People get on the postmodernists for their thin characters, but I think that's mostly a myth brought on by people not understanding postmodern literature. If you know this book's particular codes and understand what to look for in Ebenezer as he develops, you'll get what Barth's gunning for. If this was just looney tunes in looney tune land, it wouldn't still be considered an important novel fifty years on, now would it?

So there you have it. It's not quite the mind-bending metafiction Barth became known for -- not without its meta aspects, but 1968's Lost in the Funhouse is meta on another level -- but anyone who's up for a postmodern tome and doesn't mind the early modern English needs to give this a swing. Even if you're not up for a postmodern tome, you can think of it as a great bawdy comedy or a study of identity or a building-of-the-artist. Read it alongside Pynchon's massive Mason & Dixon, which takes on similar themes and is written in the same dialect, for bonus fun. When has anyone ever said no to bonus fun?

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 16, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 7, 2015

Book Review: "An Untamed State," by Roxane Gay

(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.)

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State
By Roxane Gay
Grove/Atlantic Inc.
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

An Untamed State is a bit hard for me to rate, since it's a book that succeeds in just about all fields; its characters are fleshed out and complex and evolve over the course of the book without coming to any easy conclusions, its story, which recounts the thirteen-day kidnap of Mireille Jameson, as well as its aftermath, is compelling from a dramatic point of view and develops in ways that are at once surprising and sensible (although the situations seem a little stock in the beginning), and when Gay writes at fever pitch, she manages to make you feel alongside her protagonist Mireille. There are also complex undercurrents of social commentary here, commentary that never settles on one side or the other.

Yet the prose never quite gets there. It's a shame, because in many ways Gay wrote a great novel, but the choice of words involves much bet-hedging. You might've heard about the recent backlash against adverbs in fiction, and if that backlash has ever struck you as pedantic, maybe redundant phrases like "cooed softly" and "dragged slowly" will make you change your mind. On top of that, she too often telegraphs what's already been implied in the text - call it Franzen syndrome, I suppose. Her decision to alternate between first- and third-person narration every few chapters sometimes works, but I'm not sure if she took full advantage of the switches; she works well in Mireille's perspective and voice, but doesn't seem to have as solid of a handle when she follows the other characters through the third person.

Still, there are enough good moments to make this worth your time, and a few astonishing ones. Her description of the early romance between Mireille and her husband Michael, a would-be man of action hampered by circumstance, brims with emotion while at the same time analyzing culture clash, and the descriptions of Mireille's trauma are astonishing. The novel feels most confident when it deals with her attempts to cope with her ordeal and reintegrate herself into society, turning from kidnap narrative to road novel as it moves along. Plus I have to hand it to her for not taking the easy way out at any point, for not imparting any cheapo lessons or giving us any sort of cornball song-and-dance about the power of positive thinking. But come on, "cooed softly?" Is there any other way to coo?

Out of 10: 8.8, but feel free to add a few points if you're not a prose fiend like I am.

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:35 AM, April 7, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 3, 2015

Book Review: "All the Happiness You Deserve," by Michael Piafsky

(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.)
 
All the Happiness You Deserve, by Michael Piafsky
 
All the Happiness You Deserve
By Michael Piafsky
Prospect Park Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Spanning decades and criss-crossing the continent, All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky is a modern-day bildungsroman. The novel follows the life story of Scott, a kid growing up in the Midwest. Scott graduates high school, goes to college, gets married ... and divorced, has children and grandchildren, and then the novel ends with him in the twilight of old age. While coming-of-age novels are hardly rare, All the Happiness You Deserve takes some stylistic and narrative risks, making it stand out among a crowded pack. Piafsky uses Tarot cards as a narrative device, sometimes obliquely or explicitly commenting on the scene. He also uses second-person as the novel's perspective. The Tarot cards as plot commentary works well, the second-person narration, not so much.

Scott's story spans American history and Piafsky expertly weaves the ups and downs one encounters in a long life. Early on he faces a death in his immediate family and the slow-burning fragmentation of his parents' divorce. (I'm being vague on purpose, since this book offers rare pleasures to the reader when Scott encounters either bliss or disaster.) Due to bad luck or his own incompetence, Scott becomes a sad sack figure. He remains oblivious as life events surprise him. Year after year, he can't comprehend the calamitous after-effects of his decisions. One specific passage, when Scott is settled into the low-key life in his wife's small home-town, stands out in its narrative power. Never a fervent believer, Scott ends up spending an occasional afternoon in a nearby church. Piafsky displays his descriptive skills when he describes, through Scott's eyes, the changing light through the stained glass windows. My summary doesn't do it justice. It would be like saying, "Marcel Proust was a gossip and a fan of pastries."

The only part that didn't work for me was the second-person narration. More than anything, it proved a distraction. With writing this good and a story this compelling, the uncommon second-person tripped me up. If the novel chose a more traditional narrative perspective, either first-person or third-person, I would have given it a higher score. Second-person simply isn't for everybody. It is a creative gamble that unfortunately didn't pay off. If you can get around the second-person narration, I would still highly recommend All the Happiness You Deserve. Piafsky writes in such a way that you can feel the passage of time and the accumulation of life events, memories, regrets, and sorrow. And like Muscle Cars by Stephen Eoannou, it is a solemn meditation on American masculinity.
 
Out of 10/8.5
 
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Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, April 3, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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