June 29, 2016

Book Review: "Margaret the First," by Danielle Dutton

(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.)

Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton

Margaret the First
By Danielle Dutton
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I have to admit I didn't expect Dutton (who, besides being a novelist, founded the small press Dorothy, A Publishing Project) to follow up her great 2010 novel Sprawl, perhaps the only impressionistic comic novel I've ever read, with a work of historical fiction. Granted, I definitely see the similarities between Dutton's protagonist here, the real-life Margaret Cavendish, and the narrator of Sprawl. Both are creative and engaged woman hemmed in by their own circumstances; Sprawl's by the stifling nature of suburbia, Cavendish by the more-stifling nature of being any sort of woman, but especially an eccentric and creative woman, in the 17th century. Regardless, Dutton abandons that almost impressionistic style entirely here, which certainly makes Margaret the First a more conventional novel than its predecessor.

Still, Dutton picked a fascinating figure to write about. Virginia Woolf fans in the audience might remember Cavendish from A Room of One's Own; Woolf gives her as an example of a woman writer with as much imagination and talent as any given man who's nonetheless not taken seriously because she's a woman, although she's at least given as an example of a woman who has "money and a room of her own." Born into a middle-class family, she married a duke supportive of her work, a blend of philosophical and scientific speculation and what we might call fantasy nowadays. Her writing asks questions such as "if atoms are so small, why not worlds inside our own? A world inside a peach pit? Inside a ball of snow?" (66), which also allows Dutton access to the creative process. She's picked a fascinating figure to write about, and I felt I got a sense of Cavendish's fullness as a person through these pages. I also loved it on a sentence level. Dutton's prose in Sprawl was terrific and she hasn't lost a trick here, turning great sentences like "Now the smoke rises from a chimney in the village, a greyish plume in a greyish sky" (119).

My main complaint here is she tries to fit too much in a mere 160 pages. This shortcoming can especially be seen toward the oddly paced middle, which rushes through Cavendish's development as a writer and then slows down once she's gotten her books out. However, I also think Dutton could've benefitted from honing in a little on what exactly interested her about Cavendish, or else stretching this book out so the various aspects of her life could unspool a little more patiently. Is this book about her development as an artist? Her integration into high society? Her eccentricities? Of course the three of these interact, but I think she could've done more work to make them interact. But that doesn't take away from the fact that she more or less brings the long-dead Cavendish back to life in these pages.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about Margaret the First: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 29, 2016. Filed under:

June 28, 2016

Book Review: "Black Deutschland" by Darryl Pinckney

(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.)

Black Deutschland, by Darryl Pinckney

Black Deutschland
By Darryl Pinckney
Farrah, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

As regular readers know, I have mixed feelings about slow-moving, heavily character-based stories; but when they're done well, in a way that I can easily engage in, like is the case with Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland, such novels tend to be some of my favorite reading experiences of the entire year. A deliberately rambling tale that's presented much like how a person might tell a story over beers at a bar -- that is, in no particular order, with certain mentions triggering digressions from completely different periods of their lives -- this is the story of a young gay black intellectual in the 1980s, raised on Chicago's southside but who has a Romantic-with-a-capital-R fascination with pre-unified Berlin, basically because of falling in love with Christopher Isherwood's old '50s tales about debauchery there and mistakenly thinking that he's going to be able to find the same thing.

Although never laid out explicitly, we get the sense over the course of this book that our hero Jed spent a whole series of summers in his youth traveling back and forth between the two cities, first as a genteel alcoholic (his drug of choice is white wine) who engages in a whole series of sloppily homosexual affairs; but then at a certain point he decides to dry up, at which point he accidentally falls in with a controversial architect from IIT who then pays him to travel to Berlin regularly, now sober and with his job being essentially to write articles that rationalize and justify this architect's sometimes hated plan to build a new "anti-Bauhaus" housing project in that city, where Jed is now forming a new relationship with a once estranged cousin who is a classical pianist in Germany and has her own complicated history with being a "black nerd role model."

The point of this book, though, is not to follow along with this timeline, but rather to sink luxuriously into the complex characterization and inner thoughts of all these people, and to lounge like a fellow intellectual in their high-minded conversations about art, love, post-war Europe and American urban blight. Granted, that's a slow and long process that will drive some people crazy -- for example, I usually burn through two to three books every week as a CCLaP reviewer, yet this 300-page book took me nearly a month of daily reading to get through, just because the story is so dense and rich and needs to be sipped rather than gulped. If you have the patience and inclination, though, you'll find an immensely rewarding tale that utterly transports you to a time and place most of us would never find ourselves in our own lives, giving us a look at brainy people of color as they flit and flirt their way as expats among a world of European artistes who treat them like sexy space aliens. For those like me who think they can get into a story like this, it comes strongly recommended, and will likely be making our best-of-the-year lists at the end of 2016.

Out of 10: 9.7

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 28, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

June 27, 2016

Book Review: "The Portable Veblen" by Elizabeth McKenzie

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

As regular readers know, I've had a long-standing policy since opening CCLaP to never read literary trade publications or other litblogs, because I want to avoid as much as possible knowing what the Next Big Hot Thing is among publishing insiders when choosing which books to read and review here. And while this was originally done because I want my book choices to more closely mirror the way that the average CCLaP reader picks their own books -- through natural curiosity based simply on a book's cover art and synopsis -- I've discovered over the years that there's another benefit to this, which is that most Next Big Hot Things turn out to be that way because they have a particular gimmick that makes them easy to market to a mainstream audience, or because the publishing company has paid an obscene amount of money to acquire it, but that the books themselves tend to be only so-so in actual literary quality, the kind of novels that you would normally say, "Meh, yeah, that was okay, whatever," if not for the insane amount of hype that went into promoting it.

And so it is that I'm always surprised when finishing a random pick and only afterwards learning that it was the Next Big Hot Thing of this particular season, like is the case today with Elizabeth McKenzie's genteel domestic dramedy The Portable Veblen; but so too it is that I'm actually not that surprised, because today's book is exactly like what I just described, a gimmicky one that's easy to market, but that turned out to be an only so-so actual reading experience. And that gimmick in a nutshell is that it's written in this extremely cutesy-wootsy, rootsy-tootsy, adorably quirky, quirkily adorable style; or in other words, it's the literary equivalent of the film Amelie, which I know has a certain amount of you now immediately saying "Awwwwwwww!!!" (hence the easily marketable part of its Next Big Hot Thingness), but as a serious reader just fills me with an undeniable amount of eye-rolling dread. In fact, I think it's fair to call this a manic pixie dream girl story, because it certainly fits all the classic definitions of one; and the only reason it's not being lambasted in public for being so is that, unlike most of these types of tales, it was written by a female author, not as wish fulfillment by a male one.

Although that said, let me immediately point out that that's a bit of an unfair generalization; for in the book's defense, the MPDG in question here is actually the main character, not some two-dimensional love interest who only exists to help fulfill the male lead character's "hero's journey," and as such she is a much more complex and darker character than the typical MPDG. But that notwithstanding, I found this a real slog to get through, with the kind of simplistic, fairytale-like vernacular that typically makes me grit my teeth when coming across it in a book specifically designed for grown-ups. (And note that I haven't said a word about the actual storyline, because there simply isn't anything to say -- it's the story of two young people who marry and buy a house, and all the things that happen to them as they marry and buy a house -- so it's not like some amazing plot is saving this book from the cloyingly sweet style in which it was written.) It wasn't bad, don't get me wrong, which is why it's still getting a decent score; but like I said earlier, I would most characterize this novel with the sentence, "Meh, yeah, that was okay, whatever," which will undoubtedly make it a disappointment to those who bought into the Next Big Hot Thing hype and were expecting something a lot better. Buyer beware.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about The Portable Veblen: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

June 22, 2016

First Time Around: "Americana," by Don DeLillo

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Americana, by Don DeLillo

By Don DeLillo
Houghton Mifflin, 1971
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Welcome to the second and final week of my Don DeLillo mini-retrospective, which dovetails quite well with my sixth entry in the First Time Around series. Needless to say, we're going back to the beginning of DeLillo's career here, to the time before he was one of the default Great American Novelists, before White Noise or Falling Man or "Pafko at the Wall." Instead, we're going back to the Weird DeLillo, a film buff and jazz fan who swapped out his career as an advertising writer for a career as a novelist, whose whole publication history up until this point consisted of a handful of less-than-impressive satirical short stories. Here we have his first novel, and it's quite the strange one indeed.

Basically, Americana tells the story of David Bell, an advertising executive who gets sick of being an advertising executive. Haunted by memories of a domineering father and feeling fundamentally hollowed out by his work, he sets off with two friends to make a "'long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that's part of my life, maybe ultimately taking two or three or more full days to screen'" (205). Of course, the movie doesn't go as planned, and in the ridiculously rushed fourth part, Bell ends up first on a hippie commune out in the desert and then, for reasons that are never adequately explained, on a desert island, where he watches the failed film over and over, trying to piece together something about his own life from the ashes of his failed creation. I wasn't a big fan of the last part. I like it conceptually, since his attempt at perfect self-understanding devolves into chaos, which I'd say is a super-postmodern move, but the execution of this segment just doesn't feel purposeful enough to bear its own narrative weight, which seems pretty heavy based on DeLillo's intentions.

So in some ways, Americana can be thought of as two books, joined together by David Bell's disillusionment with the world around him: the "office-politics" based first segment, which foreshadows the likes of Office Space and American Psycho in taking corporate America to task for its slow devouring of the American soul, and the road-trip second segment, which explores the anxieties of small American towns purportedly removed from the corporate soul-devouring. The office politics segment has gotten a particular amount of attention because of American Psycho's massive popularity, as Bell has been painted as a sort of proto-Patrick Bateman. Now, I'm not sure what I think of that, because I think DeLillo makes Bell a more compelling character than Ellis does for Bateman. Full disclosure, I'm not a huge Ellis fan, but I appreciate how DeLillo lent Bell interiority, how I get the sense of him as this lonely guy trapped by people he can't relate to. Which I suppose you can also say of Bateman, but DeLillo doesn't rely on violent histrionics or those awful five-page catalogues of what everyone's wearing to make his point.

Anyway, the workplace sequence in many ways interests me more than the road trip sequence, or at least presents me with more to talk about, because it introduces one of my favorite aspects of DeLillo's fiction. This guy loves to set his fiction in a funhouse mirror version of what Americans would still recognize as America, but have his characters react to these bizarre worlds as though they're completely normal. Bell's workplace is pretty strange. People get fired left and right, engage in the sort of stilted circular conversations that became DeLillo's trademark, and a "mad-memo writer" (dubbed "Trotsky" by Bell) drops quotes from various famous philosophers everywhere. In short, it seems like some sort of surreal hellhole is lurking just behind all the smiling faces. Yet DeLillo, master of dissonance that he is, knows how to tie this to something identifiable. After all, someone living in a bizarre world would get used to it. Such is the case with Bell, who is at first bored, then disillusioned, then finally hollowed out by his workplace. His quiet desperation culminates in a sort of basketball game with a piece of paper and a wastebasket, an act of boredom he doesn't let anyone see for fear of it reducing his reputation as an office morale-booster.

That's what draws Bell to them in the first place; he feels that corporate life has drained the world of a vague notion of authenticity, and that he'll find that authenticity in the small towns. Of course, he runs into a problem as soon as he starts pointing his camera at people and as soon as he starts feeding them a script. Couple this with the tensions, especially romantic tensions, that emerge between Bell and his companions, and it's easy to see why he then feels compelled to split with them and stake out on his own, to find his self-identity another way. Which, again, is where the whole novel kind of goes wonky. Which is a shame because, pre-wonkiness, it's one of my favorite DeLillo novels. Not only is it one of his funniest, but it lays down a lot of his later fascinations for all to see, making it almost an embryonic version of his more famous later works. His signature morbidity is certainly in place, as evidenced by the death-themed radio show Bell frequently tunes into; Infinite Jest fans might note its similarities with "Sixty Minutes, More or Less, with Madame Psychosis." See also his fascination with media's effect on people; in one notable scene, residents of a small town crowd around Bell and friends because they have a video camera. It rather reminds me of the pull America's Most Photographed Barn, still my favorite thing in the great White Noise, exerts over that book's protagonists.

I suppose that makes now a good time to get into the "what did he go on to do?" question. I divide DeLillo's career as a novelist into three phases. Americana is, of course, part of the first, his period as a weirdo avant-garde novelist from the underground. His books didn't sell at all during this period, but they received good reviews and earned him quite a following. In some ways, this is my favorite period of his whole career. Yes, he got technically better, and wrote his finest books in the "second period," but this first period has a sense of wildness to it that appeals to me. I'd say the highlights of this phase are End Zone (1972), which equates football with nuclear war (only to famously refute that equation); Great Jones Street (1973), which concerns a reclusive rock star, domestic terrorists, and a cult that sends their underwear across America; and the off-the rails thriller Running Dog (1978), which involves an alleged Hitler porn film and develops a sense of mysticism as it goes on. He also wrote weaker novels like Ratner's Star (1976) and Players (1977) during this period, but even at his weakest, you can tell he was trying to do something new.

It's the second phase of his career that most people caught onto. Beginning with The Names (1982), a thriller set in Greece about a cult obsessed with language, his readership exploded. He followed up The Names with 1985's White Noise, which is still his most widely-read and popular novel, one of those novels that scored with the general reading public (it's on TIME's greatest books of the twentieth century list! With the Grapes of Wrath and to Kill a Mockingbird!), academics, and especially fellow writers; he's probably had as much influence on the current generation of novelists as David Foster Wallace, not to mention a considerable influence on David Foster Wallace's generation. 1988's Kennedy-themed Libra and 1991's terrorist-themed Mao II continued his success, which culminated in '97's 800-page Underworld, the source of some of his finest writing.

Unfortunately, things get a little less interesting afterward. I'd stick up for 2001's slim Body Artist, which I found nicely ghostly if a little lacking in momentum, and 2003's oft-derided Cosmopolis strikes me as an appealing return to crazy-DeLillo. Still, I wouldn't call either of them high points of the guy's career. The award-winning Falling Man (2007), marketed as DeLillo's "9/11 novel," is downright tame compared to the wildness we'd seen from him before; it strikes me as too much of a "serious novel about America," much like Denis Johnson's Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke. Point Omega (2010) didn't do a lot for me, either, and I'm probably better off referring you to my recent review of this year's Zero K than talking about it here. So I guess the arc is underground hero to major American novelist to guy taking a victory lap? Well, he's still got his style, but I do miss the unpredictable early days. DeLillo was liable to do anything early on, and while that would often result in him wandering way off the mark, it also resulted in a string of fascinating novels that I'd easily put at the forefront of twentieth century American literature. Definitely someone worth getting into, in other words.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 22, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

June 15, 2016

Book Review: "Zero K," by Don DeLillo

(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.)

Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Zero K
By Don DeLillo
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Since Don DeLillo's one of my favorite authors, I decided I'd do something a little different this month and take on a two-week DeLillo mini-retrospective. Keeping to the retrospective theme, this review will be a little bit longer than I usually do for my non-series reviews.

My main grievance with Don DeLillo at this point is his past several novels have seemed like victory laps after the massive Underworld. His only real break from his own tropes since has been 2003's polarizing Cosmopolis, which might not be one of his best books but is entirely too weird to hate. So when I first heard this was coming out, which must've been last October, I had a weird feeling it would be another slow, ruminative DeLillo novel about death, disaster and the nature of art. Sure enough, it's another slow, ruminative DeLillo novel about death, disaster, and the nature of art. Like Point Omega, like Falling Man, like the Body Artist, really like anything he's done since Mao II. That I still eagerly snatched it up and allowed myself a good, slow reading of it speaks to how much I appreciate what this guy does. He's still a genius on the prose level, still great at turning his intellectualism into story, but it still feels like his career's been stalled for twenty years.

Which is a bit of a shame, because Zero K's premise offered him room to work outside of his usual tropes. It tells the story of a father-son pair with a strained relationship. The father, Ross Lockhart, is a billionaire with a young but terminally ill wife, Artis. He has invested his money in a compound on the border of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that cryogenically freezes patients until an unspecified future, where they are thawed out, cured of their illnesses, and allowed to live in the future. Naturally, this allows DeLillo ample time to riff on mortality, putting much of his half-funny, half-profound speculations in the mouths of two twins. His son and our narrator, Jeffrey, has his doubts about this compound and a complex relationship with both Ross and Artis; however, he joins both of them there. He has many of the tics I've come to expect from and yet still adore in DeLillo novels; here it's an obsession with giving strangers names he deems "right" and a fascination with the definition of words. So it's inevitable people will talk about this as DeLillo's "death novel," but let's be real - this guy's been mordant from the very beginning.

More importantly, it's the closest to sci-fi he's put out since another divisive novel, 1976's Ratner's Star. Sci-fi DeLillo it's not - while its concept might remind you of Philip K. Dick's excellent Ubik, he spends more time on the philosophy of the cryogenic technology and Jeffrey's internal conflict than the technology's implications. I bring up Ratner's Star because Zero K is in some ways it's that book's spiritual successor. Not only is Ratner's Star set in a scientific compound, and not only does it feature a whole host of eccentrics (although the eccentrics in Ratner's Star are infinitely weirder; one of the scientists spends most of his time in a hole and another likes to show people his nipples), but a teen genius factors into both novels. Granted, the genius in question is the protagonist in Ratner's Star and only a side character here (albeit a fascinating one, one who shares Jeffrey's propensity for inventing whole histories for strangers), but I don't know if DeLillo's ever released two novels so similar. Maybe Players and Falling Man, both of them based on the allure terrorism presents to so-called ordinary people, but even that's a tough call.

Now, let me be clear about something: Ratner's Star is a mess, where Zero K is a tightly plotted novel with nothing out of place, a carefully controlled and chilly but still affecting experience. By any objective standard, Zero K is a much better novel. Yet I have to admit, I miss the shagginess of the early DeLillo. I miss back when I would have no idea if the next page held a chase sequence, a three-page description of a cult that spread their underwear across the nation, or a booklet of rock lyrics. Other than a brilliant segment from Artis' perspective that bisects (trisects?) the novel, one that other reviewers have aptly compared to Beckett, I didn't get anywhere near that feeling of surprise off this novel. So it's skillfully written and all the rest, but I guess I just feel like DeLillo's settled a little more than I wanted him to.

That wraps up week one of the retrospective. Join me next week for a glimpse of the earlier DeLillo, before he'd settled in.

Out of 10: 7.8

Read even more about Zero K: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 15, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

June 14, 2016

Book Review: "Winston Churchill Reporting" by Simon Read

(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.)

Winston Churchill Reporting, by Simon Read

Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent
By Simon Read
Da Capo Press / Perseus Books Group
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Most of us know Winston Churchill as the rotund, elderly leader of Great Britain during the tumultuous years of World War Two; but this remarkable man had a long and varied career before that, including being a war correspondent at the end of the Victorian Age who reported from such far-flung battlefields as Cuba, India, Egypt, Afghanistan and South Africa. As historian Simon Read points out in his new book Winston Churchill Reporting, there's never been a full-length book this entire time that's been devoted just to this part of Churchill's life alone; and that's too bad, because as Read's lively, action-packed account shows, the twenty-something Churchill led a life in the late 1800s worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure, getting into the kinds of scrapes and charging through the middle of the kinds of massive battles that would be scarcely believable if it all wasn't so heavily documented by multiple sources.

The son of an aristocrat, the young Churchill was actually in the British army himself in those years, although assigned to one of those largely ceremonial divisions like so many other members of the aristocracy were back then (his regiment was mostly only known for being international polo champions); but seeking fame, glory and adventure, he essentially (with the aid of his blue-blood mother) begged anyone who would listen to send him out where the actual action was, eventually realizing that he could put his writing skills from school to good use and become a free-floating war correspondent, able to be assigned willy-nilly to whatever British Empire hotspots happened to be seeing the most fighting on any given year, and happily joining in the fighting while there himself. This led Churchill through a whole series of adventures, not least of which was getting captured as a prisoner during the Second Boer War in South Africa, then actually escaping his POW camp by trekking across enemy territory for three days and eventually hiding in a mine, and somehow managing to telegraph updates on his own escape to the British newspapers in real time through the help of British sympathizers (a fact that blew me away when reading about it here), turning him instantly into a national celebrity back home and providing the kick that let him finally win his first election to public office, an event that he built and built upon until eventually becoming Prime Minister forty years later.

Read conveys it all through the unusual style of an action novel instead of the usual academic history book, a gutsy move that could've badly backfired on him; but in this case it works perfectly, in that there is just such an overwhelming amount of recorded evidence still around about Churchill's very personal thoughts and opinions about this period of his life, allowing Read to portray him like a swashbuckling hero with conflicted inner thoughts about warfare precisely because Churchill actually was a swashbuckling hero with conflicted inner thoughts about warfare. A lively and incredibly fast-paced book, this will be a revelation to people like me who only knew Churchill as the balding, stogie-chewing curmudgeon of 1940s fame, and it comes strongly recommended to the general public.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about Winston Churchill Reporting: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 14, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

June 13, 2016

Book Review: "The Age of Aspiration" by Dilip Hiro

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Age of Aspiration, by Dilip Hiro

The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India
By Dilip Hiro
The New Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I was disappointed to stop by the Goodreads page for Dilip Hiro's The Age of Aspiration, as part of researching this review, and see that not a single writeup besides mine has been posted there; that's a real shame, because out of the half-dozen or so books I've read in the last several years on contemporary Indian society, this is easily the smartest and most insightful out of all of them, an incredibly dense 400 pages that attempts to tie together the rising capitalist middle-class in that soon-to-be-superpower nation, the decaying remnants of the old socialist system that still mainly informs the governmental agencies, the uncontrollable corruption within that system that has inspired this completely separated new layer of middle-class capitalism (one that's essentially being slapped on top of the old layer, with no attempts whatsoever to integrate the two), the rising Maoist terrorist activities within the rural mining regions that is a direct result of this new capitalist layer, the complicated ties between Indian business and the Western partnerships in America and Great Britain, and a whole lot more, all by a veteran journalist whose controversial 1976 India Today originally got him banned by a very unhappy Indira Gandhi. Now, granted, this is a difficult book to get through; loaded down with facts and figures, and nimbly dancing across a century-plus of history mostly unknown to Americans (ugh, and all those hundreds of unpronounceable names), this is not going to be an easy read for Westerners like me who know only the absolute basics about Indian politics, business and culture; but believe me when I say that the slog is worth it, or at least for those who want a data-heavy, policy-oriented look at why things in the Subcontinent are so complicated and fractured here in the 2010s. For those people, this comes strongly recommended; but for those who don't think they're up for the task, you would be best off staying away from this book altogether.

Out of 10: 7.8, or 9.3 for fans of wonky, policy-heavy nonfiction

Read even more about The Age of Aspiration: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

June 10, 2016

Book Review: "Pontiac Concept and Show Cars," by Don Keefe

(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.)

Pontiac Concept and Show Cars, by Don Keefe

Pontiac Concept and Show Cars
By Don Keefe
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The Pontiac GTO, Grand Prix, and Fiero are just a few of the memorable models of the famous General Motors marque. For anyone who has visited a car show, a fun aspect involves admiring the concept cars. Pontiac Concept and Show Cars by Don Keefe offers a detailed and entertaining look at the variety of concept and show cars created by Pontiac. While I'm a bit of a gearhead, I found some of the text over my head. This stems from Keefe's emphasis on the engineering and mechanical perspective. But the book can be enjoyed, even if you're not a car mechanic. Despite the specialist bent, the book's text reads like articles from car magazines.

I enjoyed learning about automotive design icons like Harley Earl and John DeLorean. Harley Earl's designs are quintessential Midcentury Modern. Sleek, stylish, and space age, they embody the optimism and ambition of the Fifties and Sixties. Notable examples include the 1954 Bonneville Specials, the GMC L'Universelle, and the 1956 Club De Mer. The Bonneville Specials are reminiscent of the earliest Corvettes and the GMC L'Universelle is probably the coolest minivan ever designed. (Well worth a Google search.)

Beyond the visual aesthetics is the business history of Pontiac. Pontiac became integrated into General Motors in the 1930s and eventually settled into a mid-range marque, balancing design and luxury with performance. What specific facet received emphasis depended on who ran Pontiac. By the end of the Fifties, the Midcentury Modern aesthetic seemed old and dowdy to the younger car market. Thus began the "Win on Sunday, buy on Monday" strategy for sales. Pontiac won big in racing, until it was unceremoniously discontinued due to executive meddling. But Pontiac didn't go down without a fight. It merely re-branded the product. Muscle cars offer race performance without any explicit connection to sanctioned racing.

Don Keefe profiles many different kinds of concept and show cars. From concept sketch to final product involves numerous intermediate steps. These include clay models (scale and full-size), exterior studies, interior studies, engine-less shells, and full-concept models. It was also fascinating to read how a lumbering corporate leviathan like General Motors did business. Concept cars offer a unique perspective, since they can both reflect public opinion yet also showcase a designer's dreams.

I'm rating this lower only because the material is rather niche. But gearheads and fans of Midcentury Modern should pick this up.

Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.5 if you are a gearhead or are interested in Midcentury Modern design.

Read even more about Pontiac Concept and Show Cars: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, June 10, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

June 9, 2016

Book Review: "Always Hungry?" by Dr. David Ludwig

(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.)

Always Hungry?, by Dr. David Ludwig

Always Hungry?: Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently
By Dr. David Ludwig
Grand Central Life & Style / Hachette
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

The bad news about Dr. David Ludwig's newest book, Always Hungry? -- and this is only minor bad news at most -- is that what he calls "revolutionary" information is not actually that revolutionary, essentially repeating the same story from half a dozen other nutrition books I've read that have been published in the last year or two. But that's the good news about this book as well, which is much more important, that Ludwig is preaching a message here that has essentially been confirmed by all the other medical professionals who are currently writing about the absolute newest things science has learned about health and eating in the last couple of years; that the way we've been taught for decades about weight management is essentially worthless BS, that there is no such thing as a simple math formula for "calories in" and "calories out" of our bodies, and that the key to weight loss is not how much food one eats but rather what kinds of foods you're putting into your system.

Specifically, Ludwig (a longtime professor at Harvard Medical School) is confirming something that's becoming more and more of an accepted reality in the 21st century -- that the main reason the US has seen an epidemic in obesity rates since the end of World War Two is because of the growing amount of corporate processing we've been doing since World War Two to the food we eat, innocently begun in the Mid-Century Modernist "Plastic Age" years but that has turned into an overwhelming tragedy by now, with the main culprit being the way that we are now systematically stripping nearly every carbohydrate in our diets (flour, wheat, pasta, rice, chips, potatoes, corn, breakfast cereal, etc) of the things nature puts in those grains to make them slower to digest, and therefore easier to burn off at a small and regular rate over the course of an entire day. The lack of such elements makes our bodies convert these carbs into sugar much faster, which makes our insulin levels go through the roof, which means we burn off that food frighteningly fast (think for example of the crash you experience a couple of hours after a lunch at McDonald's), which in turn sends signals to our fat cells to "hoard" those sugars because it mistakenly believes we're not getting enough to eat (but see this book for a more detailed explanation of that process). Eliminate this processed stuff from your diet, Ludwig argues -- basically, all fast food and all frozen dinners, plus "white" versions of any of the things listed above -- and you're already 95 percent of the way towards a healthy diet that will bring you back to your genetically "natural" weight, whatever that might be; the only thing left at that point is to balance out the food that remains to levels that we as contemporary Americans are usually a little off from, including a little more protein than what most of us typically get right now, and a substantially greater amount of what nutritionists call "good" fat (found in things like nuts, olive oil, fish, avocados, and the unprocessed versions of dairy products, i.e. the "full fat" versions of milk, butter and yogurt).

The book is conveniently laid out in two distinct halves; so for people like me who are mostly just interested in the theory of it all, the first half is devoted to nothing but that, but for those who are actively overweight and are looking for an actual practical diet plan, the second half of the book is devoted exclusively to that, including literal day-by-day menu plans for the first month of the program (with accompanying recipes), templates for recording your process, and plenty of appendices giving you nutritional information about nearly every food involved. Combined with some very simple lifestyle advice to go along with the diet (get more sleep, exercise a bit each day, reduce your stress level through things like mindfulness), it's a pretty comprehensive and convincing plan for not just temporary weight loss but a profound and permanent change in the way you live your entire life; and the only reason it's not getting a higher score today is that you have to be very specifically into these subjects in order to find the book of any interest at all. For those who are, it comes recommended, although with the warning that there are at least another dozen similar books on the market right now that you could read instead.

Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for those interested in nutrition

Read even more about Always Hungry?: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 9, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

June 8, 2016

Book Review: "Bottom of the Ninth," by Wyl Villacres

(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.)

Bottom of the Ninth, by Wyl Villacres

Bottom of the Ninth
By Wyl Villacres
Whiskey Paper Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

One of those "books you buy at readings because you like the reading and decide to review because it's good and sometimes indie authors deserve attention"-type of books. I say "sometimes" because we've all heard of those indie authors who go off on their critics, sometimes making a whole messy Goodreads business out of it, but this isn't Wyl Villacres' type of thing. Baseball, however, is Wyl Villacres' type of thing. It pops up in every story in this book, and while it's often not the main focus, it's the thematic glue that holds the collection together. Even the book's form is modeled after a baseball game, nine stories to mirror the traditional nine innings.

Of course, the huge amount of baseball in this book invites an obvious question: is there anything here for someone who isn't a baseball fan? I'd say so. You certainly don't need to understand the rules of baseball to get this collection. Villacres uses the occasional bit of jargon, like "suicide squeeze" or "6-3-4 double play," but his main points lie elsewhere. He often uses baseball as a backdrop for broken romance, most memorably on "Dead Ball Era," and if anything, I'd say this book's most significant flaw is it overplays the romance angle, which means it runs the risk of becoming formulaic. Yet Villacres displays skill in even the formulaic stories; check out the line "the whole crowd buzzed, static excitement flashing from the bleachers to the upper deck" (11) as a good example of how to work a metaphor through. He also oversells the point occasionally, like on "Suicide Squeeze."

Yet there's also a lot of very strong fiction in this book. Naturally, I gravitated toward the surreal "Foul Ball," which recounts the fate of a fan who ruined the beleaguered (but doing quite well right now) Chicago Cubs' chance at a World Series by catching a foul that a fielder was trying to run down. "6-4" also works as a more conventional "literary"-type story, using the narrator's father's love of baseball as a backdrop for their struggle with liver cancer. There's also a sort of mystery, "No-Hitter," that's a little Chicago Cubs and a little Blue Velvet. So it gets a little one-note, but Bottom of the Ninth is a good, fun read on the whole.

Out of 10: 7.9.

Read even more about Bottom of the Ninth: Official site | GoodReads |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 8, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

June 7, 2016

CCLaP Rare: The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen (5 titles), all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 1st Edition 1st Printing

The Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen, all 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 Complete Novels of Jonathan Franzen
The Twenty-Seventh City (1988)
Strong Motion (1992)
The Corrections (2001)
Freedom (2010)
Purity (2015)
All First Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: In another hundred years from now, who will be the writers from our times still being admired and read on a regular basis (and more importantly, whose old first editions will now be worth tons of money)? Only future history will be able to tell us definitively, but you'd be making a pretty good gamble by saying Jonathan Franzen, who started his career as a bratty but brilliant wunderkind of the Postmodernist Age but has matured into a leading spokesman on the human condition here in our Millennial times. As of 2016 Franzen has published five novels altogether, each of them bestsellers; and today's listing presents all of them in one convenient sale, all five being offered in their first edition/first printing states, and with nearly all of them in exquisite like-new condition (but see the notes below for more).

The journey starts with 1988's The Twenty-Seventh City, a take on Franzen's hometown of St. Louis when it was seeing nearly its nadir as an urban center (the title refers to the city's population rank in the '80s, when at its height in the Victorian Age it was the fourth largest city in the US), a complex and mature thriller that weaves in city history, police surveillance, the rise of Asian immigration to former Midwestern industrial centers, and the various quirks that make St. Louis such a unique destination. We then move on to 1992's Strong Motion, the first of Franzen's epics about dysfunctional families, which uses the metaphor of earthquakes on America's east coast to comment on the "violent systems" of science and religion at the close of the 20th century (and set, incidentally, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a favorite literary destination as well of John Updike and John Cheever).

And then of course there is 2001's The Corrections where everything changed for Franzen; an explosively popular book that changed the very nature of the American arts itself, it won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Prize, all of which pale in comparison to the controversy over Oprah picking it for her book club and Franzen publicly berating her for it, leading to a national conversation over high versus low culture and what the future of "fine literature" is to be. This was followed up by the most anticipated novel of his career so far, 2010's eco-industry black comedy Freedom; demand for pre-release copies was so high, no less than President Obama himself famously convinced a bookstore to slip him an early copy while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard. (Franzen was also featured on the cover of TIME because of it, the one and only time the magazine put an author on its cover during the entire first decade of the 21st century.) And that finally leaves us with his newest, Purity, released only a few months before today's sale, a sprawling saga that jumps from the American South to Communist East Berlin, South America, the virtual confines of cyberspace, and more.

Some of these books are easier to find individually and some are harder, but certainly there are few opportunities to pick all of them up at once using one convenient Paypal button like today; and for anyone who's serious about building a collection of modern classics that will appreciate and grow in value over the course of their life, this is almost too good an opportunity to pass up, a major jumpstart on becoming a "completist" collector of one of the most important writers of the early 21st century. This collection is anticipated to sell fast, so don't delay with your bid.

CONDITION: Dust jacket: All Fine/Like New except for Strong Motion, rated a high Very Good Plus (VG++) for having only one flaw, a tiny chip in the upper-right corner of the front flap. Text: All Like New (in fact, Freedom and Purity were literally acquired in their brand-new state), except for The Corrections which has a previous owner's information blacked out with magic marker on the inside front cover (see photos for more). It would be very difficult to find these books in better condition than they are here.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at various Chicago stores and dealers over the last three years, including Bibliodisia, Bookworks, and Unabridged Bookstore.

eBay auction

(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, June 7, 2016. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |

June 6, 2016

Book Review: "The Box Wine Sailors" by Amy McCullough

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Box Wine Sailors, by Amy McCullough

The Box Wine Sailors: Misadventures of a Broke Young Couple at Sea
By Amy McCullough
Academy Chicago Publishers
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's funny that the basement-press books Newlyweds Afloat by Felicia Schneiderhan and The Box Wine Sailors by Amy McCullough should both randomly end up coming into my life at the same time, because on the surface they both deal with the same subject -- female big-city hipster decides to ditch her urban existence in order to live on a small boat full-time -- although in Schneiderhan's case, she mostly still spends her time in Chicago while living on a houseboat already owned by her new sailor-veteran husband, while McCullough ends up selling all her Portland possessions so to attempt to sail from there to Mexico with her equally untrained and unexperienced boyfriend. Unfortunately, though, while it's easy to get into Schneiderhan's story and end up rooting for her, this is much more problematic with McCullough, simply because she's not a very pleasant person, not usually an issue with authors of fiction but a major disruption when a memoirist is telling a true story; unwittingly loaded down with all kinds of Portlandia-type stereotypes about creative-class entitlement, McCullough spends a huge portion of her book self-righteously ranting against all the people who (correctly) warn her how dangerous her untrained trip on a too-small boat is likely to be, takes full credit for her "intelligence" and "resourcefulness" when the trip accidentally turns out okay anyway (while conveniently blowing off the half-a-hundred near-crashes that were avoided out of sheer randomness), and on at least half a dozen occasions proudly details the times she and her boyfriend flagrantly break the law because they have little money and therefore "deserve" to (such as, for one excellent example, routinely dumping the fecal matter from their toilet directly into coves where people swim, because they don't want to pay the $20 fee to legally dump it in a septic tank).

Also, while Schneiderhan uses her boating experiences mostly just as a jumping-off point for grander and more poetic essays about growing older, giving up societal expectations, and other universal subjects that all of us can relate to, McCullough spends the majority of her page count actually detailing in tech-heavy terms the literal sailing trip they took down the American west coast, which for a non-sailor like me gets tedious fast; and while Schneiderhan and her husband tend to do interesting things that are fun to read about when not on their boat itself, McCullough and her boyfriend tend to do nothing while offshore but eat pizza, drink the cheapest liquor they can find, and endlessly listen to the more pretentious side of the indie-rock spectrum. (McCullough was formerly the music editor for Willamette Week who now lives in Austin, and the snotty attitude and immature slang that comes with rock "journalism" shines through here on every page.) Now, all that said, there are still some fun and interesting things to be gleaned from this book, plus the sheer scope of the trip itself makes it worth checking out, which is why it's still getting a decent score today; but unfortunately you have to work hard to overcome all the weaknesses mentioned above, which is why it's not getting a better score than it is. It should all be kept in mind before deciding whether or not to pick up a copy yourself.

Out of 10: 7.1

Read even more about The Box Wine Sailors: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

June 2, 2016

Book Review: "Pioneer Girl" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

(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.)

Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
By Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
South Dakota Historical Society Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Few people have been aware of this up to recently, but the first attempt Laura Ingalls Wilder made to record her memoirs was actually a book meant for adults, first penned in 1929 and heavily edited and influenced by her daughter Rose, who history has largely forgotten but who at the time was a fantastically successful contemporary author who used to pal around with people like Sinclair Lewis (and who, incidentally, is considered one of the founders of the American wing of Libertarianism). Unfortunately no one was interested in publishing it, which is what led Wilder a few years later to write the children's version that became an international sensation; but that original manuscript has been around this entire time, finally published just recently by the South Dakota State Historical Society in a gorgeously oversized annotated edition.

And I have to say, it was an extremely interesting experience reading both this and the extensive notes that come with it, for although it follows the same general storyline that all of us are familiar with from the "Little House" series, Pioneer Girl makes it clear just how much of the children's version was fudged around for the sake of telling an entertaining tale; entire years of her life are left out of the more famous series, events and locations are moved around willy-nilly, and in general the family's life turns out to have been much more of a series of random moves from city to country to city to country, excised and re-ordered in the "Little House" series to present a more consistent narrative about a pioneer family who starts in the middle of nowhere, then only gradually joins up with the rest of society as the "Civilized West" starts congealing around them.

Then of course there are the other new revelations in Pioneer Girl, the ones that earned the book so much attention when it first came out last year; that since it was originally meant for adult audiences, it divulges the details of frontier life in a much more unvarnished way than the children's books do, sometimes coming across as a more genteel version of Deadwood than you would ever expect from this well-loved grandmotherly author, including the revelation that she was once almost raped as a teen by an alcoholic employer whose house she was living in, not to mention plenty of stories about coarse farmers who used to beat up their wives, near-riots by unruly railroad construction crews being supervised by her father, and a lot more.

Combined with the exhaustive academic notes from the publisher, this presents a much fuller and more balanced look at what in the "Little House" series is often an overly bucolic existence, and a welcome reminder that life on the frontier wasn't always peppermint candies and running barefoot along Plum Creek. Although the children's books are easily more poetic and entertaining, I'm glad that this more stripped-down adult version is finally out for the general public to see, especially in the beautiful and informative edition that the SDSHS has made, which this manuscript deserves and earns. Although I hesitate to strongly recommend it to one and all, certainly anyone who is a fan of the classic "Little House" series should seek out a copy of this coffeetable-sized volume right away.

Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.5 for existing "Little House on the Prairie" fans

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 2, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

June 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Relevator," by Robert Kloss

(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.)

The Relevator, by Robert Kloss

The Revelator
By Robert Kloss
The Unnamed Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

If you're a fan of Cormac McCarthy's pre-All the Pretty Horses novels, Blood Meridian, Suttree and Outer Dark and the others, and you wonder why so much of the discourse around the guy focuses on his later work, you might find yourself quite comfortable in the Relevator's decidedly dark landscape. I can tell just by reading this that Kloss is a hardcore early McCarthy nut. He even references an "outer dark" over the course of the novel, although I think there's an "outer dark" in the Bible, so maybe that's a coincidence. Do I blame him for loving the early McCarthy? Of course not. I've been talking up Blood Meridian to folks who only read the Road since good old 2013. Yet my biggest problem with the Relevator is that Kloss seems a little too comfortable trotting around the ground McCarthy made his.

Make no mistake: Kloss is a good writer, both good with a plot and good with a sentence. As plots go, the Relevator concerns Joseph, who begins the book as a popular carouser in a frontier town. His life changes when he receives a vision from a god and decides to become an apocalyptic preacher along the lines of Paul Dano's character in There Will Be Blood, or maybe Jethro Furber from Gass' Omensetter's Luck. From there, his cult builds and becomes more of a threat to the authorities. The whole time, a black mountain believed to house a mysterious and violent creature of the god looms in the distance, and of course it plays into the story by the end. The story loses narrative momentum by the end - Kloss could've gotten away with ending this novel about thirty pages before he did - but it definitely contains insight into groupthink, power dynamics, the lot of it. So it's a good book to read during an election year.

Kloss never comes out and says the frontier town is in the United States, or for that matter that Joseph is a Christian preacher, but the clues are there. For one, the diction is downright Biblical, full of short declarative sentence written in an oratorical style. Take, for instance, this sentence: "And this shopkeeper brought you the daily paper illustrated with the great finding of the day - some enormous and terrible lizard a hundred million years dead and buried, transfigured into bone and stone and now dug up" (35). Simple and direct, but pitched pretty high on a rhetorical level and often beautiful when Kloss needs it to be. I'm always happy when I see terrific writing early in a book, as it makes me want to read as much as I can, so you can imagine how I felt when I saw "And Soon the black mountain jutted from the horizon. And some considered it a mirage, and some named it the "Finger of the Evil One," and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within" (7). You give me that right away and I'll follow you through a lot.

Yet the ghost of Cormac McCarthy haunts this book, and Cormac McCarthy is still alive. Kloss does a lot quite well, so I can't say it's all for naught because he has a clear influence, but that influence is so obvious that I wonder if there's anything here I can't get from Cormac McCarthy. The whole "preacher-gone-mad" thing is right out of McCarthy's playbook, which would be fine if the writing style wasn't as well. That's a little frustrating, because I'm definitely interested in what Kloss might do next, but I also want this to feel like more than a stopgap between the Road and that eleventh McCarthy novel that might not ever come out at this rate. Great design on this book, though. The cover, the typesetting, the illustrations between chapters... the Unnamed Press really outdid themselves here.

Out of 10: 7.9

Read even more about the Relevator: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 1, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 31, 2016

Book Review: "The Relic Master" by Christopher Buckley

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master
By Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So first, a shameful confession, that I haven't read anything by the brilliant writer Christopher Buckley since his 1994 Thank You For Smoking; and that's almost a punishable crime, given the half-dozen smart and cynical books he's churned out since then, an author who is nominally a Republican (he's the son of famed conservative William F. Buckley, and early in his career he was a speechwriter for the elder George Bush), but whose political satires tend to skewer the stupid and corrupt no matter what their particular partisan leanings. So how great for all of us, then, that Buckley recently declared it impossible to write decent political satire in an age of the Tea Party and Trump, and instead has released his first-ever historical novel, the delightfully wicked and profane Medieval comedy The Relic Master; for this is Buckley being just as naughty as he is with contemporary tales, but in this one lampooning no less than the entire Catholic Church, delivering what is essentially a zany caper about a pair of con artists who fool the church into buying what we now in contemporary times know as the venerated Shroud of Turin.

For those who don't know, the Shroud is supposedly the actual cloth that Jesus's dead body was wrapped in after crucifixion, seared with the outline of his naked body from the electricity that came from his resurrection; and back in the years after the Roman Empire but before the Renaissance, it was a crown jewel in what was at the time a booming business in holy relics among Catholic churches, literally hundreds of thousands of objects from the tiny (pinkie toes of minor saints) to the immense (splinters from the cross that Jesus was nailed to), that were tied in closely to the Catholic practice in those days of "indulgences," in which one could literally buy their way into heaven by paying museum-type admission fees to churches to go pray in front of such relics. That's a big part of what makes Buckley's novel so enjoyable, is that it's an extremely well-researched and factual look at all of these subjects and more, including the Martin-Luther-led Protestant movement in those years that was expressly a rebellion against such indulgences; but then Buckley wraps all these facts and figures into a very witty fictional story, one grounded in the real world where all the characters are quite aware of the semi-scams all these practices are, even the Catholic officials themselves, and where decisions over things like Luther's protection against popish prosecution are acknowledged as mostly political maneuvers that have little to do with actual religious piety. A fairly thick novel but one that I flew through in just a few days, this will be a hit both among existing Buckley fans and those who enjoy any good skewering of organized religion, and it comes strongly recommended to all but the most self-righteous Catholics.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about The Relic Master: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:43 AM, May 31, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 26, 2016

Book Review: "Anomaly Flats" by Clayton Smith

(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.)

Anomaly Flats, by Clayton Smith

Anomaly Flats
By Clayton Smith
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Although I don't want to give the impression that Clayton Smith's Anomaly Flats is bad, because it's not, it's also a fact that I simply don't have a lot to say about it -- it's essentially Welcome to Night Vale but not as funny and not written quite as well, a bizarro tale with supernatural elements that I have to confess I grew tired of kind of quickly. A decent read for those who burn through a lot of these kinds of books, it can pretty easily be skipped by those who don't.

Out of 10: 7.1

Read even more about Anomaly Flats: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 26, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 25, 2016

First Time Around: "Purple Hibiscus," by Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche

Purple Hibiscus
By Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche
Anchor Books, 2003
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I'm woefully ill-versed when it comes to African literature. I haven't even read the entirety of Achebe's Africa trilogy, although of course I've read Things Fall Apart. But if Adiche's recent rise to prominence is any indication, it looks like African authors could see a huge upswing in prominence in the next few years. This is something I'd appreciate, not just because I'm in favor of a literary landscape where voices from all over the world are given equal importance, but also because Adiche is quite good, and because a lot of Purple Hibiscus is quite well-developed, especially considering it was Adiche's first novel. You know how sometimes debuts by prominent authors are underdeveloped? Not the case here.

Somewhat strangely for the types of books I review, Purple Hibiscus' plot can be summarized pretty swiftly, although that obviously doesn't take away from the fact that there's a lot to it. It tells the story of Kalimbi, daughter of a wealthy Christian family. Her father, Eugene, is particularly brutal in enforcing his vision of the religion onto the family, punishing them for as small of crimes as staying in "'the home of a heathen'" for longer than "'fifteen minutes'" (62). One of the heathens in question is Kalimbi's grandfather, whom her father seems to detest; use of the grandfather at once allows Adiche to create a complicated family dynamic and paint a portrait of Nigeria pitched halfway between its indigenous traditions and colonial impositions. Despite his rather tyrannical nature at home, Eugene is quite respected in his community, even publishing a radical newspaper.

At first, Kalimbi is happy to follow the path laid out by her father, excelling in school, going to church, and following her father's orders; this is contrasted against her more rebellious brother and best friend, Jaja. However, things complicate in the wake of a military coup. Eugene publishes a close friend of his who opposes the military rule, finds himself under suspicion, and sends his children to live with their less fortunate relatives in the city of Nsukka. The story complicates yet more when their grandfather comes to live with the relatives as well and when Kalimbi finds herself infatuated with a priest whose vision of Christianity has nothing to do with the fire and brimstone taught by her father; meanwhile, Eugene takes his frustrations out by abusing his long-suffering wife, Beatrice.

I'd like to focus this first bit of analysis on Eugene, a character I wasn't entirely sure what to make of. Not that I don't believe that an authoritarian Christian father could exist in the world, but I think his portrayal edged toward caricature at times, which rather deflated the stakes of some scenes. Granted, Adiche pulls away from that by lending him admirable traits such as his publishing endeavors, and it's almost painfully believable to me that he feels as though his abuses are for the good of his family. Yet I do wonder if such small crimes as, say, drinking water offered by a polytheist would justify a beating from even the staunchest of Christians. Then again, I'm willing to give Adiche the benefit of the doubt, since it's entirely possible. After all, I wasn't raised in a terribly religious household and therefore haven't experienced it firsthand. Still, in some ways, Eugene's character rang a little false for me.

Much more interesting to me was the dynamic between Kalimbi and her cousin Amaka. Amaka is at first openly contemptuous of the much richer Kalimbi; in one of their first interactions, she excoriates Kalimbi with lines like "'I'm sure you think Nsukka is uncivilized compared to Enugu'" (117) and for not knowing "culturally conscious" Nigerian musicians such as "'Fela [Kuti], [Chief Stephen] Osadebe, and Onyeka [Onwenu]" (118). However, as the novel progresses and Kalimbi rather comes into her own, an understanding develops between the two. Kalimbi never stops jabbing at her, but the jabs soften as the two form a sort of alliance in reaction to the changes around them. Adiche loves to deal with Nigerian class issues - that's a lot of what her great novel Half of a Yellow Sun is about, after all - and it's fascinating to see the way they play out between two cousins. To my way of seeing things, it illustrates Adiche's ability to blend the personal and political, to extract a more human relationship out of a more abstracted one. It is, in short, really good stuff, and a solid marker of how good of a novelist Adiche is.

Because this is, make no mistake, a highly political book. Even the eponymous flower becomes a symbol of political change. Early in the book, Kalimbi calls them "experimental [...] rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do" (16). Well-written sentence, too, if heavy-handed; after I read it, I jokingly shut the book and said "well, that's the book, don't need to read anymore." If I have one big complaint about this book, it would be the rather unsubtle symbolism. The best symbols are essentially invisible, so well woven into the novel's framework that they don't even register as symbols. Adiche did that well with Half of a Yellow Sun, a reference to the Nigerian flag and a number of other things that I won't spoil for those who haven't read the book. Here, she kind of tips her hand.

But hey! What type of author wouldn't improve from their first book? No kind of author at all, that's what. No kind of author at all. Besides, Adiche gets the politics of this novel across much better in other ways. For instance, I'm sure the adversarial and domineering relationship between Eugene and Kalimbi is intended as a sort of feminist critique of both patriarchy and broader religious systems - Eugene's wrath is pretty Old Testament - she also knows how to make it seem like a story. Not just because of the father's belief that he's in the right, although I'd again like to emphasize how scary that is, but also in terms of her relationship with her brother, Jaja. The two form a sort of alliance, along with their mother, that lasts throughout the book.

Purple Hibiscus also has a rather complex relationship with Christianity, one that again combines the political and the personal. Given Eugene's portrayal, the novel might seem critical of the religion, and indeed there's a lot here about how rigid it is. Yet the young priest Father Amaki, whom Kalimbi becomes infatuated with, offers a sort of counter-vision, a more kind and accepting view of the religion if you will, and Kalimbi also seems open to the more indigenous religious practices. Now, in this regard, Purple Hibiscus walks something of a fine line. Since we're looking at a coming-of-age story, it's easy to see how Adiche might've woven in some cheesy epiphany that would've asked us to believe Kalimbi resolved all of her major spiritual crises at fifteen.

Just while we're here, I don't get the epiphany thing in general; I find it reduces the complexity of people's inner conflicts to a simple "and then I realized this and everything was okay afterwards." Blame it on the modernists, I guess. Anyway, Kalimbi leaves the novel with a sense of what she doesn't want, but I credit Adiche for having the restraint not to hand her character everything they need to know about spirituality at, once again, the age of fifteen. I'm picky about this sort of realism, but Purple Hibiscus dodges a lot of the common traps the genre falls into. If anything, the lack of unbelievably huge revelations helps Purple Hibiscus seem more real. For that alone, I'm willing to forgive Adiche of a little heavy-handed symbolism. Symbolism's hard anyway.

The ensuing years have been pretty kind to Adiche so far. Her second and third novels, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, came out to massive acclaim and pretty big sales figures. She's also notable for being the only author in this series thus far whose work was showcased on a pop album, as Beyonce's 2013 single "***Flawless" sampled her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists." I'm hoping that one day every author I enjoy somehow or other factors into a chart-topping album. I imagine it might be a little hard to incorporate Amelia Gray's gore or William Gaddis' dense prose into a dance-pop song, but I can dream, can't I?

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 25, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 23, 2016

Book Review: "Hotels of North America" by Rick Moody

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Hotels of North America, by Rick Moody

Hotels of North America
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown and Company / Hachette
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So before anything else, I should mention that I've never read the two big early books that first made Rick Moody famous, 1992's Garden State and 1994's The Ice Storm, so have no basis for comparing his newer books to this one; but that said, I've been hugely disappointed by the handful of his books I've read since then, with this newest from 2015 being no exception. Ostensibly an epistolatory novel in which a motivational speaker's frequent Yelp-type online reviews of North American hotels can be added together to present a deep portrait of his life and loves, the actual manuscript published under this title doesn't even begin to hold up to the premise; even just the second and third reviews of the book are actually set in Europe, not North America, while the fifth writeup isn't a review of a hotel at all, but a story about the narrator sleeping in his car at an IKEA parking lot one night, and the narratives themselves don't even pretend to sound like actual reviews, instead being fully fleshed-out literary short stories that contain no mystery, symbolism, or epistolatory elements at all, the main reason I picked this up in the first place. This would be bad enough, but then when you add the fact that the narrator is an insufferably pretentious ass, who talks in the overblown purplish prose of a character from a Victorian novel, you're left with a book that wasn't even worth the time it took me to travel to my neighborhood library and check it out. Eventually I'll get around to reading those two widely admired early novels of his, just to see whether the hype about them is deserved; but this newest one is a real stinker, and is not recommended to a general audience.

Out of 10: 1.6

Read even more about Hotels of North America: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 23, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 20, 2016

Book Review: "Nuns with Guns," by Seth Kaufman

(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.)

Nuns with Guns, by Seth Kaufman

Nuns with Guns
By Seth Kaufman
Sukuma Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The foul-mouthed reality show producer Rick "The Prick" Salter returns in Seth Kaufman's Nuns with Guns. In the novel, Rick has been exiled from television while he deals with a lawsuit from his previous program, The King of Pain. During that time, he counsels his fellow staff members on other TV shows they want to greenlight. Rick also works hard to give his live-in maid/fiancee Marta a wedding she deserves. But first he needs to get immigration off her back and deal with the thugs harassing her sons Los Angeles taco restaurant. Then a random shooting claims the life of a young bus boy. The gun fatality kicks Rick into high gear. In his anger and frustration about America's comically inept gun control laws, he decides to produce another reality show. He calls it Nuns with Guns.

Kaufman draws us into the heady atmosphere of producing a reality show broadcast on network TV. Rick insists it be on network TV, since that guarantees the most eyeballs. The premise of the show has four nuns competing to bring in the most guns. They do so in various big city gun exchanges. Turn in a gun, you get swag, your picture with a nun, and 15 seconds of fame. But the euphoria and optimism begin to slide as protests and death threats mount. The gun lobby (correction: the gun manufacturers lobby) may have the money, the gutless politicians in their back pocket like so many nickels and dimes, and mastered the art of disingenuous rhetoric, but Rick Salter found a way to counteract that. Americans love TV, spectacle, and a cause to rally around.

I'm giving this the highest score because Nuns with Guns possesses crackerjack writing, social relevance, crossover appeal, and it's really damn funny. There's plenty of emotional sentiment, but it doesn't collapse into maudlin sentimentality. Nuns with Guns is also a fantastic title. Kaufman has done the impossible: he's turned a foul-mouthed, PR-savvy, manipulative, selfish, and occasionally self-righteous reality show producer into a heroic figure. Highly, highly recommended. Even if you're a member of the NRA and love those guns, you would also find this an enjoyable novel.

Out of 10/10

Read even more about Nuns with Guns: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, May 20, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

Tales from the Completist: "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" (2004), by Catherine Clinton

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004)
By Catherine Clinton
Little, Brown and Company / Time Warner

(UPDATE: Since writing this review, I've learned that US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew specifically mentioned this book as one of the big reasons his department chose Tubman for the new face of the twenty-dollar bill, high praise indeed for this decade-plus-old volume.)

Like many Americans, when it was announced this year that Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the twenty-dollar bill, I realized with a bit of shame that I didn't actually know anything about Harriet Tubman, minus the half a day in fourth grade when we learned in public school that she had had something to do with the Civil War; and so to rectify this fact before the release of the new currency, I recently picked up Catherine Clinton's 2004 biography of Tubman (amazingly, one of the only Tubman bios expressly for grown-ups ever written in the entirety of history), where I learned that Harriet Tubman was actually a badass who more than earned her right to be on the twenty-dollar bill, especially poignant because she so thoroughly embodies the stubborn, resilient, libertarian mythos of America that Americans so enjoy projecting onto ourselves.

Born a slave in the deep South in the 1820s, Tubman essentially ran away to freedom in her twenties, but this wasn't enough for her; she eventually became one of the only black women ever involved with the famed "Underground Railroad" of the pre-Civil War era, a guerrilla fighter who made rescue missions back into the South at least once a year all the way until the Emancipation Proclamation, doing such smart things as scheduling her raids in the middle of the winter so that as few of the fat, lazy racists down there would want to bother chasing her, and starting fugitive slave flights on Saturday nights, since at the time it was a law that slaves got Sundays off to go to church, which meant that masters would not realize the slaves were missing until Monday morning, and so were not able to get a notice in the local paper about it until Tuesday morning, long after Tubman and her party were gone. This made her singlehandedly responsible for rescuing literally hundreds of former slaves in the years before the Civil War; then when the war actually happened, she became a secret freaking agent for the Union army, using her skills in stealth and intel gathering to give detailed reports to generals about the size and location of Confederate troops they were about to launch attacks on, turning all the battles she was a part of into routs which Union forces overwhelming won with almost no casualties at all. And all of this, mind you, happened before Tubman had even turned forty; then she managed to live for another half-century after all this, becoming the revered civil-rights leader and national hero that she deserved to be honored as.

Make no mistake, Tubman suffered the kinds of Reconstruction-era indignities that all black people did in the years after the war, including it taking literally decades to get the proper compensation from the US government for her wartime activities that she had earned (and had deferred at the time so that the army could buy more supplies and medicine); and her life was not without its own controversies either, including a mysterious young woman in her life who may or may not have been an illegitimate daughter sired from a white father, her public snubbing of Abraham Lincoln during the war for being "soft on abolition," as well as Tubman's full public embrace of avowed terrorist John Brown, to the extent of Brown eventually referring to her as "General Tubman" in his talks about his coming war against the US government. But all that said, it's hard to imagine a more apt person to be brought to the forefront of the US consciousness right now in this newest low point of race relations, a woman who is well worth taking the time to know and understand. This bio is a great place to start, and it comes recommended to those like me who barely know anything about who Tubman was or why you're going to be seeing a lot more of her starting next year.

Read even more about Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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