August 26, 2016

Book Review: "Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories," by Orrin Grey

(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.)

Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts, by Orrin Grey

Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories
By Orrin Grey
Introduction by John Langan
Word Horde
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

A strange figure looming in the darkness across the street. Decadent revelers inside a decrepit hotel. A dead author obsessed with modern culture's obsession with Jack the Ripper, his wrists slashed in a grisly suicide. The grotesque mingle with the banal in Orrin Grey's Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Stories. The volume brings together short stories previously published in other anthologies. Reading Grey's personal notes after each story provided a peek into his creative process and inspirations.

Grey is a master of the horror short story, setting the scene with just the right amount of menace. If noir is about ordinary folks getting caught up in bad decisions, horror is about ordinary folks encountering something wrong. The wrongness can take many forms: supernatural, monstrous, or human. Something in the established order of things has gone awry. What makes reading Painted Monsters so enjoyable is Grey's gift for imbuing an otherwise normal atmosphere with an amorphous dread. Things seem to occur just out of frame. A character catches a strange figure in the corner of his eye. "The White Prince" is a fractured fairytale, full of slime and lust. "Remains," told through a Cockney narrator, tells the story of Victorian grave robbers working for a university medical researcher. Other stories include Ripperologists - obsessive researchers dedicated to the mythology of Jack the Ripper - and a libertine wastrel throwing his last big theme party before retirement.

My only real quibble was Grey's over-reliance on dream sequences. It seemed like the phrase, "And then I had a dream ..." occurred in every story. For all the innovation and grisly subject matter, these dream sequences made the short stories feel formulaic. It would have been nice to shake up the format a little. Since they occurred with such regularity, it ruined the unpredictable nature inherent within the horror genre. I don't want to know what happens next. At a certain point, the dream sequences were telegraphing. But this shouldn't push you away from Painted Monsters. Grey has the power and the talent to harness that primordial urge, that primitive desire to be shocked and horrified. He plumbs the depths of human depravity. It is easy to become jaded reading horror. Grey provides more than cheap thrills and jump scares. His stories reach for something more, a dark nightmarish gore we try to hide from the world. Orrin Grey has potential for really great work. He taps the vein that fed the work of Clive Barker and Jim Thompson.

Out of 10/8.5, higher for horror junkies.

Read even more about Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, August 26, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

August 24, 2016

Book Review: "Know the Mother," by Desiree Cooper

Title, by Author


(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.)

Know the Mother
By Desiree Cooper
Wayne State University Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

As you might've inferred from the title, this is a book about gender, and as you might've inferred from the cover, this is a book about race. Yet it's also a book about real and tangible anxiety. Children, parents and relatives die; marriages break down; characters face racism and sexism and have trouble adjusting to their surroundings; and above all, people try to reassure themselves that things are okay when things very definitely are not. Don't come into this collection expecting a fun time, in other words. It's a powerful and striking collection, especially when it's at its best, but it's not exactly a breezy summer read.

I called these "short stories," but that feels like something of an understatement. The average story length here is about three pages. The shortest handful are under a page, while the longest, "Reporting for Duty," is a ten-page chronicle of a disastrous road trip that only gets worse when the family in question arrives at a hotel. In some ways, the shorter lengths of the stories work against this book. If Cooper had cut out a few of the less memorable shorter pieces and instead included strong longer pieces, more of these stories would've stuck with me. That's the downside of the rapid-fire approach, although the upside of it is the lesser pieces fly right by.

Still, Cooper reveals herself to be a versatile writer on the best pieces here. The strongest and most dramatic one is probably "Cartoon Blue," where a lawyer miscarries during a conference call. It closes with the haunting image "Beneath me runs a clotted river. The water is red. The walls are a cooling-board brown" (42), which also illustrates the odd balance of Cooper's prose, neither minimalism nor quite high-flown lyricism. Her sense of immediacy also comes into stories like "Something Falls in the Night," about a break-in, or "Home for the Holidays," about a horrifying encounter with racism on the freeway.

Yet she also excels at digging drama and anxiety out of mundane situations. Take for instance "Laughter and Caprice," where a teacher asks her students "When is it proper to spit in a man's face?" (19) and gets an answer she doesn't expect. Or "Cleopatra," where casual sexism and casual racism wreak havoc on the protagonist's psyche. Or, to complicate things a little, "Night Coming," about an African-American woman from upper-class Atlanta who struggles to adjust to Detroit life. That's why I still very much appreciate this collection despite the lesser stories - when Cooper's at her best, she excels at the microfiction thing.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about Know the Mother: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, August 24, 2016. Filed under:

August 17, 2016

First Time Around: "Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson

Title, by Author

(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.)

Housekeeping
By Marilynne Robinson
Picador, 1980
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I've noticed these first novels tend to be outliers for authors who would go onto establish an inimitable style. Think of the fascinating untaken roads the fractured structure of the Bluest Eye presented for Toni Morrison, the shagginess Don DeLillo tapped into with Americana that he has all but shed in the ensuing decades, or, if you want to talk about an author I haven't covered but might, the massive difference between Beckett's Murphy and any of his later prose works. Whether you'd like to attribute this to a lack of confidence on the part of young writers or a youthful desire to experiment, the results are still basically the same: first novels tend to read quite strangely when stacked up against an author's later work.

So where does Marilynne Robinson fit into all this? It's hard to say for certain, but Housekeeping certainly complicates my model. It doesn't have anything to do with the other Robinson novel I've read, 2004's Gilead; for that matter, it doesn't have anything to do with any other novel I've read at all Despite its 1980 publication date, it doesn't mark the never-actually-made transition between the wild postmodern digression so common in the 1970s and the Carveresque "dirty realism" that emerged as the dominant in the '80s (except it didn't, given that the most acclaimed novelists of the '80s were probably Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood and none of them have anything to do with "dirty realism," but the narrative wants us to believe the '80s were minimalism's time in the sun, so what can a poor boy do?), because it doesn't fit into any real established movements at all.
Housekeeping is indelibly itself, a self-contained novel that can be compared to no other novels in existence.
So it invites us to reconsider our question earlier - "why are so many first novels so different from the rest? Lack of confidence or youthful experimentation?" - and it doesn't invite us to any easy answers. Robinson proceeds through this novel with the utmost confidence. I see evidence for this in its prose, with lines like "So whatever we may lose, very craving brings us back again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries" (153) bringing a spiritual presence into the text without either resorting to the clich├ęs of spiritual writing or hedging, while at the same point operating gorgeously on a rhythmic and linguistic level. Check out the recurring three-syllable patterns, "fosters us, smooths our hair," and the calming effect it creates. It's also present in Robinson's approach to plot, which is nothing whatsoever like a convention novel.

The pacing in this book is weird, make no mistake about it. The jacket summary promises that the protagonist, Ruth, will be raised first by her grandmother, then by her great-aunts, and finally by her Aunt Sylvie. Now, upon reading this, I got the impression that Ruth and her sister Lucille would spend a good deal of time with her grandmother and her great-aunts, but Robinson shatters this expectation; the grandmother is out of the picture by the end of the first chapter, which admittedly at thirty pages is longer than average, and the great-aunts, who mainly function as comic relief, clear out by the end of the second. Not even fifty pages in, and we've already passed through two rounds of caretakers. This isn't just semantic quibbling on my part, either. I'm talking about how caretakers function as plot points, my expectation that the grandmother would stand for one phase of Ruth and Lucille's life and the great-aunts would stand for another and, by the time we get around to Sylvie in all her strangeness, Ruth would find herself in her third and most permanent phase.

Yet it makes sense, at least according to this novel's logic (and if we can't accept that the logic of an individual novel sometimes supersedes the conventional wisdom about how to write books, where we we?), that Ruth should pass through caretakers so fast before she gets to Sylvie. This novel is fascinated with the transience of all things, including that old standby of stability, the nuclear family. Not to give anything away, but nobody think for a moment that Ruth's seen the last of transience just because she settles with Sylvie. Sylvie, for her part, alters Ruth's perspective on life, caretaking, the works. Any sense of Ruth and Lucille getting a conventional and respectable upbringing is shattered by Sylvie's sheer Sylvie-ness. She moves them into the house of the title, a sprawling and ancient thing in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho. This house has little if anything by way of modern conveniences, even lacking electricity. Sylvie, who spends most of her life on the road anyway and who abandons her adopted daughters for days on end, doesn't seem to care about this. Ruth also grows to appreciate it, and grows close about as close to Sylvie as anyone can get. On the other hand, Lucille strains against Sylvie's oddities, and ends up being the closest thing to a plot engine in this novel. A professor of mine once defined "plot" as simply "things that happen in a book," and part of Housekeeping's fundamental oddity is how confidently it abandons the conventional arc in favor of letting things happen in a more naturalistic fashion.

Besides, Robinson seems far more interested in the peculiar relationship between Sylvie and Ruth than she does in making an arc move forward. Along with this, I'd say, she's interested in the nature of female relationships. Men are barely a presence in this novel, as everyone of consequence is a woman. Sylvie, Ruth and Lucille have no love interests, encounter very few male authority figures, and only have faint memories of the men in their family, most notably a quasi-legendary grandfather who drove a train into a lake long before Ruth and Lucille were born. This leaves Robinson with the option of exploring perhaps the most prominent relationship women have in literature, the mother-daughter dynamic, except she sometimes subverts it and sometimes completely ignores it. Sylvie doesn't function as much of a mother. She enforces zero rules, she's too distant and to be nurturing, and she acts more as an eccentric housemate than anything else.

This allows Robinson to open up a far more complicated relationship dynamic between her and Ruth. Sometimes Ruth seems to mother both her sister and her aunt. Other times, like in an unforgettable boat trip sequence, Sylvie serves as a sort of priest for the novel's implacable spiritualism. Robinson has a certain relationship with Christianity, so I'm sure that's an influence on this book's sense of spirituality, but I (admittedly someone without much of a relationship to Christianity, but that's neither here nor there) don't really detect it in the book's spiritualism, which seems to focus less on salvation or sins and more on the incalculable hugeness of things. Maybe that, above the odd plot motion and the unique prose and the redefinition human relationships, is what makes Housekeeping such a singular novel.

After this book, Robinson spent twenty-four years tweaking her follow-up Gilead, which finally came out in 2004 and promptly won her a Pulitzer. She's sped up since then, releasing two more novels that apparently serve as sequels to Gilead; 2008's Home and 2014's Lila, both also released to considerable acclaim. I've struggled to get into Gilead, but I'll go back to it once a year, hoping it'll reveal to me what so many other people seem to love. She's also written a handful of nonfiction books, none of them as prominent as her novels, and taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She's also earned herself a prominent fan, a gentleman by the name of Barack Obama who you might've heard a little bit about. So I'd say she's earned herself a spot in the pantheon of contemporary writers.

First novels don't usually come this confident. Oh, they're typically good, but they can also be halting and awkward like David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System (not reviewed here because I already did David Foster Wallace last year, but a classic first novel), or messy and overambitious like last month's selection, You Bright and Risen Angels, or not at all like the author's later works, like The Bluest Eye. Housekeeping definitely isn't the first or second, and it's a little like the third but not too much. In many ways, it simply is, a novel just as monolithic and mysterious as the railway stretching into nowhere that you see on the cover. Definitely my favorite novel I've reviewed in this series, and I only took so long on it because I was worried I couldn't do it justice. I'll leave that up to the readers to decide, and I'll also implore anyone who hasn't read it to drop whatever they're reading and pick it up. If anyone, anyone at all, writes a novel even remotely like this again, I'll pull a Werner Herzog and boil and eat my own shoes.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 17, 2016. Filed under:

August 15, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Little Green Men" by Christopher Buckley

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves 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.)

Little Green Men, by Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men (1999)
By Christopher Buckley
Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Up to this summer, I had read exactly two novels by the master political satirist Christopher Buckley -- his first, Thank You for Smoking, and his latest, The Relic Master -- and they both ended up being so brilliant that I decided that I should probably take the time to read the six other novels he wrote between these two. I just finished the first of that series, which I'm taking on in chronological order, Little Green Men which in this case came out in 1999, three years after Thank You for Smoking; but it unfortunately turned out to be a disappointment compared to the other two. See, while his first novel had such an outrageous concept that it made it easy to picture it actually coming to life (a lobbyist for the tobacco industry has a nervous breakdown, decides his industry should actively embrace the most demonic aspects of their trade, and ends up becoming hugely successful because of it), always the sign of a truly great political satire, in Little Green Men the central concept is only outrageous enough to have inspired a lot of eye-rolling while I was reading it, which made it not nearly as enjoyable an experience. (The idea basically is that the CIA has been the cause of every single UFO sighting since Roswell, originally done as a dirty-trick psych-op to make Stalin paranoid, then continued as a way of assuring big budgets for the military and NASA; after a low-level agent in this shadow department gets passed for a promotion, he drunkenly one night targets a George-Will-type intellectual conservative talk-show host as the newest victim of an "abduction," and his credentials-backed story inspires millions of "millennial-anxious" fellow believers to follow him as the leader of a new cult.)

It's a funny book, make no mistake, with great little moments of pitch-black hilarity and intelligence sprinkled throughout; but it takes a whole lot more suspension of disbelief to picture the ultra-zany plotline actually happening, features weaker characters than in the other two books of his I've read (the love interest invented for our hero is an especially wincing one, in this "white-male political-satirist nerds should never write romantic subplots" kind of way), plus is just a subject that feels like a lot of deliberate machinations went into Buckley choosing it to write about in the first place. (He keeps quoting a statistic throughout the book that showed, as of the late 1990s, supposedly a whopping 80 percent of Americans believed that alien life exists, and this entire novel many times feels like that Buckley randomly came across that poll one day and thought, "Now, how do I build a 300-page story around that fact?") And this of course is always a big danger with satirists as well; that after an accidentally great first novel, their attempts at catching lightning in a bottle again always result in more and more diminishing returns, as the labor they put into finding a good subject for satirizing becomes plainer and plainer to see. I've got a bit of a happy spoiler going for me in this case -- I know that his latest novel from 2016 is truly great, so I can rest assured that the books before that at least aren't going to bottom out into unreadability -- but certainly when I take on his next novel in this series, 2002's No Way to Treat a First Lady (in which a Hillary-Clinton-like character catches her President husband cheating on her, and accidentally kills him inside the White House while whipping an antique spittoon at his head in anger), I'll be going into it with my expectations not set as high this time.

Read even more about Little Green Men: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

August 11, 2016

Book Review: "Patience" by Daniel Clowes

(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.)

Patience, by Daniel Clowes

Patience
By Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Oh, what a letdown it's been as a member of Generation X, to watch all the daring young bucks against the Establishment in my twenties become the exact next generation of the Establishment itself now that we're creeping into our fifties; and nowhere is this generational shift more noticeable than in the world of "alternative" comics, a movement that started with grungy self-published titles traded through the back pages of obscure magazines like Factsheet 5, but with those same creators now bringing the kind of white-male academic reverence, New Yorker cover assignments, and subsequent mainstream embrace that also ruined jazz, whiskey and baseball. (Hint: If Ken Burns has done a documentary on it, it's a subject well on its way to being ruined by white-male academic reverence. Coming to PBS in 2017 -- Zines: A Film by Ken Burns.) All of this was in the front of my mind recently while reading through Dan "Eightball" Clowes' latest book, and the largest single story so far of his career, the 180-page sci-fi tale Patience; for to be clear, this is Clowes being as Clowesian as Clowesian literature even gets, and while as a long-time fan I was perfectly fine with this decades-long consistency of his, it made me wonder if his shtick has by now worn thin among the current generation of young people making and enjoying comics, especially now that the tide has come full circle and young creatives seem to be really embracing traditional superhero comics again.

Both the storytelling and the artwork is almost exactly what you would expect from Clowes by this point; lots of hipsters staring blankly directly full-on at the reader, a kind of cartoonish lumpiness to the characters, 60-year-old men who still talk exactly like bratty teenagers (can't wait for Ghost World Assisted Living Facility), and like nearly all full-length comic books, a plotline that's serviceable but that would barely fill a ten-page story if just words alone, a story that many would find uninspiring and predictable if not for all the pretty pictures and the usual fetishistically precise binding by the now revered Fantagraphics. And like I said, as a 47-year-old who's been reading Clowes' work in real time all the way back since Eightball #4, this is exactly what I expected from Patience, and the three weeks I spent reading it two or four pages at a time during every bathroom visit was a series of five-minute experiences I have no particular complaints about. But I'm starting to question more and more whether anyone 30 or younger is even capable of seeing Clowes' work this way anymore, or if they greet new titles like these with an angry sigh and a, "Oh, great, more early-'90s crap that took up a slot in Fantagraphics' publishing schedule that deserved to go to a younger and more exciting artist."

I don't know the answers to these questions, and admittedly it's perhaps unfair to disparage a book merely on the theoretical idea that there are a bunch of young people rolling their eyes at it as we speak. But certainly there's something to be legitimately pointed out in public when, after a youth when I was always so excited by a new Clowes book, now I seem to greet each new one with, "Yep, that sure was another book by the middle-aged comics creator Daniel Clowes, all right." Although not actively bad, Patience is a prime example of an artist resting on his laurels; and as a critic I'm never exactly thrilled to come across an artist resting on their laurels, and I find it hard to react to these kinds of books with anything other than the same apathetic shrug all the indie twentysomethings also give it.

Out of 10: 7.8

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

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

August 10, 2016

Book Review: "How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel," by Jesse Ball

Title, by Author

(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.)

How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel
By Jesse Ball
Pantheon Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I raked Jesse Ball over the coals earlier this year, on account of the eerie similarities between his second-most-recent novel, A Cure for Suicide and his first, Samedi the Deafness. So I went into this one with some trepidation, not sure whether I'd get another fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery or a weaksauce retreat of a fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery. Turns out I got neither. Matter of fact, I'm pleased to report that Ball's sixth and most recent novel is a dark-humored and socially engaged twist on the coming-of-age story, and if I'm not mistaken, a pretty radical break from what Jesse Ball has established.

Of course, Jesse Ball being Jesse Ball, there's still a secret organization at play. That would be the Arson Club, a group of teenagers who set fires for political reasons. When protagonist Lucia hears of this club, she decides to sign up, which throws her whole routine for a loop, sets her on a course she didn't expect, and gives her something to care about again. She has a certain attachment to fire, as her lighter is her only memento of her dead father. Her mother, whom she visits constantly, lives in a mental institution. The process of raising her is left to her aunt, who lives in a garage. What's more, Lucia's cynicism, eccentric habits and appearance make her an outcast. Lucia is a much different type of protagonist than I've read from Ball before. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's prose style, surrealism and winding conspiracies-vs.-counter-conspiracies plots, but he's not known as a writer of fleshed-out characters. Yet Lucia promises to change this, as her cynicism is undercut by a deep empathy, a sense of social justice, a deep disappointment in those around her, and above all, a real need to belong. You could almost say she's a twenty-first century Holden Caulfield who knows a thing or two about Marx. If that makes her sound like hell printed on paper, I wouldn't recommend reading this book. If you're intrigued, pick it up.

Now, I won't go too far with Catcher in the Rye comparisons, since that's a book that makes some readers want to claw their own eyes out. What I will say instead is Ball really stretched himself here. Plot - as in both "conspiracy" and "the series of events that make up a story" - was the driving energy behind the other two Ball novels I've read, whereas this one seems more driven by Lucia's voice and her character development. Whereas all this man's work that I've read thus far is written in a more emotionally stoic voice, here he lets Lucia do the talking, and she establishes a clear and strident voice from the first chapter, with lines like "don't touch this lighter or I will kill you" and "The secretary is also the gym teacher, and I hate him two, so basically, apart from my aunt, a room full of enemies." It's also fascinating to see where her developing social conscience takes her. Not to give away too much, except to say that fires are of course involved; suffice it to say that Ball hits the right balance of changing some of Lucia's traits and keeping others consistent. Yet it still feels like Jesse Ball, using stylistic hallmarks such as short chapters and unexpected formal changes, among them a pamphlet on fire-starting written by Lucia herself. In that regard, it might be his best novel yet.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about How to Set a Fire and Why : Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 10, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 9, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "The Gods Drink Whiskey" by Stephen T. Asma

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves 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.)

The Gods Drink Whiskey, by Stephen T. Asma

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha (2005)
By Stephen T. Asma
HarperOne / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Unbeknownst to readers of this blog, I've been spending this summer tearing through a bunch of books on Buddhism and especially Buddhist meditation; I've started practicing a secular form of meditation in my personal life over the last year, and the insights I've had about my life because of it was recently referred to by a friend as "accidentally Buddhist" in nature, so I thought it'd be interesting to learn a little more about actual Buddhism and to see why my friend made this comment in the first place. The books have generally been hit-and-miss, the natural side-effect of just grabbing a bunch of random titles off the shelf of my neighborhood library; but one of the best writers on the subject of Buddhism in America has turned out to be a local, Columbia College professor Stephen Asma who takes a decidedly blue-collar, rationalist, and no-bullshit approach to his interpretations of these ancient texts, and how they can be applied to the practical lives of contemporary Westerners, without needing all the hippie New Age accoutrements that have typically been carried with them into our country. And thus have I ended up making my way this summer through nearly the entirety of Asma's oeuvre, from practical guides to meditation to a "for dummies" style introduction to the philosophy.

His latest that I've read, though, 2005's The Gods Drink Whiskey, I thought was finally the kind of book that could be justified writing about here at the blog for a general audience; and that's because this is not just a hyper-specialized guide to Buddhism itself, but a sprawling and fascinating look at a year Asma spent in southeast Asia (headquartered in Cambodia but traveling extensively through the rest of the region), where he blends lessons about religion and philosophy with an engaging travelogue, a primer on the politics of these developing nations, and an astute sociological look at how Buddhism has been warped and changed by various local populations in order to fit what they've needed to get out of it. And indeed, by constantly comparing this process to the one Christianity has gone through in the Western world (think of prim Mormons in their Sunday finest, snake handlers in Texas, suburban liberals in New England, and Midwestern fundamentalists flailing about and speaking in tongues, all of whom are supposedly worshipping the same Jesus), Asma makes it easy to understand why there's so many different forms of Buddhism in southeast Asia, why they've been so influenced by the local culture of each area, and why there's so much disagreement between different sects over how to "properly" practice. (Just for one example, and probably the biggest surprise to Americans in the entire book, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism only comprises six percent of all practicing Buddhists worldwide, and is considered by most Buddhists to be an overly fussy, overly ritualistic form of the philosophy that relies way too heavily on mysticism and supernatural elements.)

All this would be interesting enough; but like I said, what makes this book truly spectacular is the way Asma weaves in his personal anecdotes about his travels there, and especially the ironic surrealism of being one of the most experienced veterans at the Cambodian Buddhist Institute where he was hired to teach, which is what brought him over there in the first place. (Although Cambodia is one of the nations where Buddhism was first cultivated thousands of years ago, the monstrous Pol Pot dictatorship of the 1960s and '70s systematically murdered nearly an entire generation of Buddhist teachers and practitioners, leaving an all-consuming gap in expertise after that radical Communist regime was defeated that has forced the nation to do things like hire Americans to come and teach their newest generation of Buddhist youths.) A funny, moving, eye-opening and always informative book, despite this now being a decade old it turned out to be one of the most illuminating and enjoyable travel journals I've read in years, which is why I wanted to do a writeup of it here for the main blog and not just my usual quick mention at Goodreads.com, like I've been doing with all the other Buddhism books I've been reading this summer. It comes very strongly recommended, as does Asma's other books, to anyone looking to get a better sense of what Buddhism is all about as a practical, secular philosophy, apart from the spiritual trappings it's picked up along the way from the various regional communities who have adopted it over the centuries.

Read even more about The Gods Drink Whiskey: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

August 5, 2016

Book Review: "TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct," by Peter Davidson

(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.)

TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct, by Peter Davidson

TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: What You Would Say if You Had the Guts
By Peter Davidson
Sweet Memories Publishing
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The provocative title and daring call to action would have been quite the conversation piece for Peter Davidson's newest book, TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: What You Would Say if You Had the Guts. Would this be a no-holds-barred take-down of PC culture? Would this be a brave independent voice puncturing the moral hypocrisies of the Left and the Right? Would the jokes at least be good? Sadly, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.

It's not that Davidson has opinions that offend or repel me. There's no opinions of any kind in this. I didn't expect to be buried beneath an avalanche of outdated Dad Jokes. Another additional factor makes this book an abysmal read. He's misusing the term "politically correct." It's not simply being polite. Again and again, the book has a politically correct version and a brutally honest version. Allegedly. In reality, it is an overly polite version and a less polite version. Comedy should result. I'll cite a random example. In this case, it's after a night of marital bliss following a honeymoon:

Jenny, being politically correct: "Oh, William, you were amazing. It was all I ever imagined it would be, and more. You are all man."

Jenny, being brutally honest: "William, that was the most amazing fifteen seconds of my life."

I guess that's sort of funny, except that same joke has been used by countless comedians. Protip: Don't use dated material. Also, don't use other people's material. I'd push harder on the plagiarism if the jokes weren't all lazy cliches.

I read on, hoping it would get improve. Or at least improve slightly. But every attempt at humor landed with a thud. Even a book would with a political or personal philosophy diametrically opposed to my own would have been more entertaining. This is just ... so ... beige. TRUMPED! remains a tasteless bore, not because of anything uncouth, but because it is relentlessly bland.

If you want to read or see a merciless take-down of PC culture, watch some George Carlin or Bill Hicks.

Out of 10/0.3

Read even more about TRUMPED! Beyond Politically Correct: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, August 5, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |

August 3, 2016

Book Review: "The Vegetarian," by Han Kang

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang


(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 Vegetarian
By Han Kang
Hogarth Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

It's not often a book this surreal becomes this popular, at least in literary fiction circles. In fact, this might be the biggest Korean book to reach the States in a long time, and I'm pretty sure they've either translated or are working on translating other Kang books such as Human Acts, in the name of riding the wave and all. Apparently she's been big in South Korea for a while now, and has published quite a few novels, but it took this book to break her big in the United States. Reminds me of Lina Meruane in that sense, and I do more of her work is translated, because I appreciate her surrealist sensibility.

The Vegetarian is often compared to Kafka, which I have a little of a mixed opinion on, but only because the implicit point of comparison is "The Metamorphosis" and it's good to read and understand Kafka outside of "The Metamorphosis." Presumably it's also good to read and understand Kang outside of The Vegetarian, which again makes me curious about what else she's done. Anyway, this novel's plot can be summarized thusly. A timid woman named Yeong-hye begins to have dreams about animals enduring brutal acts. Because of these dreams, she gives up on eating meat. This decision sets off a chain of events that ends with her alienating her husband, having an affair with an exploitive, self-important and creepy artist, and eventually landing in a mental institution.

Notably, the book's three large segments are narrated by three different characters, none of them Yeong-hye herself, who for all her transformation remains something of a cypher in the novel. There is, of course, a pretty strong aspect of feminism here, the idea being that Yeong-hye herself isn't allowed to tell her own story because society tries to reformat it. Indeed, society's attempts to define and alter Yeong-hye's decision, and with it the acts that follow from that decision, are at the core of this novel's conflict. She becomes the recipient first of mockery, then of sexual objectification, finally of an almost infantilizing concern, but is never through all this allowed to explain herself. So in some ways, the reader becomes complicit in her dehumanization and breakdown. Equally scary is Yeong-hye's own transformation; her early attempts to explain herself vanish entirely as the novel goes on and as the dehumanization wears on her.

So it's a great story with multiple layers, and an excellent update of the existential-type "story-of-isolation," but I have a few reservations. For one, I'm not in love with either the prose style or the translation, which is mostly serviceable - and in this sort of novel, you might not need anything else - but occasionally hits modifier-heavy snags like "The dancers waved their hands so vigorously the whole row became a blur of movement, with individual figures impossible to make out" (63). I'm also not entirely sure what to make of the passage where Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat. Yes, it's a terrific way to start off her breakdown, whose conclusion is haunting and features some of the book's strongest prose (not to give anything away, except to say that the section ends with "Below tooth marks that looked to have been caused by a predator's bite, vivid red bloodstains were spreading," which is a great image), but it teeters right on the edge of too much. Still, it does allow Kang to indulge in a little black humor, and we all need that in our lives.

Out of 10: 8.7

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 3, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 28, 2016

Book Review: "Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art" by Virginia Heffernan

(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.)

Magic and Loss, by Virginia Heffernan

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art
By Virginia Heffernan
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So for what it's worth, I tried very earnestly to be a fan of Virginia Heffernan's Magic and Loss, a new collection of academic essays concerning "what the internet really means." I was attracted to it when first coming across it because her main conceit is that the internet is the largest act of performance art in human history; not the individual parts that make up the internet, which ultimately are nothing special (shooting a video for YouTube is fundamentally the same process as shooting a video for VHS; writing an essay for a blog is fundamentally the same process as writing an essay for a paper magazine), but rather the way these trillion pieces of content come together, the way they influence each other, the way that humans' lives have fundamentally changed through the act of being exposed to these trillion pieces of content all at once.

But books of academic essays are a hit-and-miss proposition for non-academes like me; and for every great, accessible academic writer like Malcolm Gladwell you come across, there seems to be an equal amount of books like this one, essentially 300 pages of high-falutin' masturbation, ten-dollar words, Emily Dickinson references, and endless goddamn callbacks to other academic talks at SXSW and TED. It made me grow weary of this book rather quickly, which will be the reaction of most non-academes to this as well; although if you are a full-time resident of the ivory tower, by all means take a chance on it, because doubtless you'll have a better experience than me.

Out of 10: 6.5, or 8.5 for full-time academes

Read even more about Magic and Loss: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

July 27, 2016

Book Review: "A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin

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


A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

For a long time, it looked like Lucia Berlin's stories would vanish into obscurity. Her story presents a classic case of life getting in the way. Born in 1938, she wrote fiction as far back as the 1960s, her career trajectory was interrupted both by struggles with alcoholism and the need to work jobs ranging from maid to switchboard operator to physician's assistant to support her family, as a brief romance with a heroin addict left her a single mother. It wasn't until the '80s and '90s that her work became published regularly, and while she found herself a number of notable acolytes - including the great Lydia Davis, who wrote the forward to this book - and won herself a couple prizes (the excellent micro-story "My Jockey," included here, got some attention in the '80s), she never found the same following as contemporaries like Raymond Carver. However, the publication of this collection has already done work to grant her much-deserved visibility; within a few weeks of its publication, it already outsold all her other work combined.

So what is Lucia Berlin like? Well, her stories are excellent taken one at a time, but I wish I'd taken a little more time with this collection than I did. Four hundred pages worth of short stories, most of them gleaned from Berlin's life and featuring a recurring cast of characters that are, if we believe the forward (and why shouldn't we?) fictionalizations of real people she knew, is a little much to take in a few days. Berlin is, don't get me wrong, quite a skillful writer. "My Jockey" is a fine example of her immediacy, her ability to embody a moment in just a few well-chosen words. I've never been a big Carver fan, but she's exactly what I've always heard Carver was in that sense. Lydia Davis is also correct to point out that Berlin has a remarkable ear for dialect, especially that of the American southwest, where she spent most of her life. The stories also tend to come with a sort of punch at the end, a moment where seemingly disparate threads all tie together in a surprising way. My main problem with Berlin is she only seems to have a few modes: stories about her family, stories about the addicts she meets in hospitals, stories about her travels in South America, stories about romances gone south.

Still, she's definitely found and cornered her thing, if you will. I've already talked a little about her immediacy in "My Jockey," and stories like "My First Detox" and "Unmanageable," with the should-be-immortal first sentence "In the deep dark knight of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed," display it arguably even more. Meanwhile, her sense of humor comes out in pieces like "502," which is shall we say a different type of drunk-driving story, and "Sex Appeal," with surprising doses of slapstick mixed in with a coming-of-age story. The real must-have for is "Good and Bad," though, where Berlin combines her immediacy and remarkable eye for detail with a touching and ultimately sad story about a radical history professor's relationship with her student. Stories like this lend the realism more punch, and ultimately justify the fact that you might have to drag yourself through some samey stories. I guess this would've been better with about a dozen stories cut - most of them are quite short, so the reader would still get a panoramic experience - but Lucia Berlin's still someone worth investigating, and I'm certainly happy she's been saved from obscurity.

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about A Manual for Cleaning Women: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, July 27, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Flood Girls" by Richard Fifield

(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 Flood Girls, by Richard Fifield

The Flood Girls
By Richard Fifield
Gallery Books / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Every so often I'll review a book here at CCLaP that serves as a stark reminder about the biggest problem these days with major-press publishing; and that's that it's now the marketing committees who largely determine what books get published, not the editors, which means that most books only get signed if there's a clear and simple way to describe it to the general public, and that when the occasional complex-to-explain novel slips through the cracks, those marketing people typically do a horrendous job of trying to cram that square peg into a round hole against its will.

Take Richard Fifield's The Flood Girls for a great example, which continues the streak I've had for several years of reading only excellent books by writers in the unlikely literary hotbed of Montana. Published by Simon & Schuster, it comes with this cutesy-wutesy cover clearly designed to invoke quirky indie movies like Little Miss Sunshine; and if you don't get the point with that, the dust-jacket copy makes sure to tell us that the characters in this book are "as lovable as they are derisive, and as unforgettable as they are courageous," compares itself to the genteel Hollywood movie A League of Their Own, and ensures us that Fifield's "sardonic, hilarious and heartwarming" story will "leave you laughing through tears," clearly trying to present us with a quirky feel-good tale that will instantly appeal to fans of projects like...well, Little Miss Sunshine, to hit it right on the nose.

The problem, though, is that this book is not lovable and quirky at all; I mean, it has weird little details, sure, as any slowly-paced, character-heavy story set in a small town might, but these weird little details are mostly very dark and destructive in nature, much like if you asked Sam Shepard to write a book full of Lake Wobegon tales, or perhaps if Northern Exposure and Winesburg, Ohio got married and had a horrible little nightmare of a baby, who screeches all night long and uses its razor-sharp little fingernails to constantly gouge at your skin. I mean, let's be clear, that's what makes the novel so great; precisely because it's not some pandering portrait of lovably quirky small-town life, but rather a much more complicated look at rural Montana existence and all the strange, sometimes intolerable ugliness that happens there, even as life for our root-worthy protagonists occasionally have these beautiful little moments where everything suddenly goes right for them. Or at least for a few seconds, before the meth addicts and the drunken lesbian miners and the date-raping volunteer firemen start making existence a daily chore once again.

That's how a book like this should've been marketed, as a challenging and presumption-defying tale of the complex ups and downs in the lives of some very unique, very flawed people in a forgotten little town in Montana; and if this had come out a small press, that's exactly how it would've been marketed, instead of comparing it like Simon & Schuster did to some genteel mainstream movie like A League of Their Own that this novel has absolutely, positively not one single thing in common with, other than that the main characters in this novel just happen to play on an amateur softball team in their spare time. That's a flat-out insult to us as intelligent audience members, and is indicative of why major presses continue to lose more and more money with each passing year, why less and less great authors are willing to work with them, and why all the most exciting developments in literature are all happening at the small-press level these days. I don't want my main message to get lost -- this is definitely a great novel, and you should definitely pick it up -- it's just a real shame that this book's natural audience has to wade through such an immense pile of Lifetime Channel cheese and treacle to get to it.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about The Flood Girls: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:18 AM, July 25, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 22, 2016

Book Review: "Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories," by Steve Karas

(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.)

Kinda Sorta American Dream, by Steve Karas

Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories
By Steve Karas
Tailwinds Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

A couple weeks ago Chris reviewed Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories by Steve Karas. A hiccup in the review assignments turned into a blessing. Like Chris I have lots of praise for Karas's collection of short stories, but I'll be coming at this from a different perspective. My preferences differ slightly.

"To Abdo, with Love" is offered up early in the collection. It involves a military brat with a pen pal in Syria. While I enjoyed its incisive take on our Middle Eastern forever wars and the slow-motion catastrophe of modern Syria, it did it with a small, individual story. The tweenage girl narrator's combination of naivete and outrage pretty much encapsulates how our nation attempts to solve the world's problems. Luckily not everything in this collection is ripped-from-the-headlines sob stories.

The titular story centers around an unemployed man's journey through the Mall Santa training program. The marital friction caused by unemployment collided with the absurdity of the narrator working as a Mall Santa. I enjoyed its dark humor and its critique of American culture's relentless and oppressive optimism. Work and its absurdities were the focus of "Blue." A shorter piece, it charts the impossibilities of everyday life as an African-American big city cop. All the cop wants to do is get home safe and alive, but he meets resistance from African-American protesters and a drunk redneck at a gas station. The diamond-hard concision creates a vicious mental and moral pressure on the cop. He just wants to get through the day, he doesn't want to become an icon or political fodder for either side.

"It Takes A Village" is a novella-length exploration of modern public education. It follows the life of a special education teacher from Chicago who relocates with his wife to tropical Florida. They are recovering from a recent miscarriage and are working to have a child again. The special ed teacher, like the other narrators in these stories, combines a naivete with outrage. Thrown mid-stream into a toxic hellbroth of budget cuts, faculty in-fighting, and dealing with a problem case, he finds solace in quoting Paul Coelho. It didn't seem overstuffed to me, so much as begging for expansion. I would really like to see a short novel by Karas.

"Toys in Closets," the short story based on a YouTube vlogger seemed like an outlier, but I enjoyed its weirdness. Every hyper-famous New Media darlings have the same dating woes as everyone else. Well, not quite. The quaint romance underlying the narrative gave it a wonderful sweetness. Effervescent where other stories radiated Karas's acerbic wit.

Karas's work represents a fascinating new voice in American fiction. His work is topical without being preachy or obvious. The collision of absurdity with hard-scrabble everyday realism reminds me of Nathanael West. Like West, Karas is a chronicler of an America poised between comedy and apocalypse. These days it's hard to tell them apart.

Out of 10/9.5

Read even more about Kinda Sorta American Dream: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, July 22, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 20, 2016

First Time Around: "You Bright and Risen Angels," by William T. Vollmann

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

You Bright and Risen Angels, by William T. Vollmann

You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon
By William T. Vollmann
Penguin Books, 1987
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

William T. Vollmann is almost as well-known for his eventful (to put it rather mildly) life as for his fiction, and that's kind of a shame because his fiction is as fascinating as his personality. Still, it's hard not to become fascinated with Vollmann the person, so let me relate a few of my favorite accounts of his own life to you, dear reader. He wrote this novel after-hours while working as a computer programmer, many nights sleeping under his desk and eating candy bars for dinner. This was after his stint fighting for the Mujahedeen in the Afghani-Russian war, but before the FBI investigated him as the Unabomber, before he personally delivered a Thai child prostitute to Child Protective Services (and threatened to kill her father, who sold her into prostitution, if he repeated the act with another child! To his face, no less!), and before he adopted a female alter ego so he could gain firsthand experience of sexual harassment. He's an author I'd love to interview, or at least talk to, since I'm ever so curious about what motivates him to live the life he lives.

So that's Vollmann's life, but what of Vollmann's fiction? The simplest way to describe it is historical fiction with a postmodern bent. That seems a little reductive to me, but hey! That's what these long-form reviews are for, to obliterate all reduction, right? Let's get into You Bright and Risen Angels, which can also reductively be described as historical fiction with a postmodern bent. Almost, because much of it is set in the then-contemporary 1980s, so call it more alternate history, yet Vollmann wrote this with an eye for revolutions from the Russian to the French to, yep, the American. In essence, You Bright and Risen Angels chronicles a war between insects, aided and abetted by a human revolutionary named Bug, and the forces of electricity, led by the immortal Mr. White and abetted by characters such as the obsessive mastermind Parker, the goon-with-gun Wayne, and the hilariously sleazy Dr. Dodger, whose endless litany of endorsed products makes for one of the novel's funniest running jokes. But of course, that's just the half of it. Along the way, we're treated to Mr. White's rise to power; his rivalry with Phil Blaker, King of Mars; the reasons for Bug's decision to join the insects; and, most frustratingly of all, the struggle over control over the story between the author (presumably Vollmann) and an explorer/computer programmer/tyrant/force of nature known as Big George.

Now, let me be honest here: You Bright and Risen Angels fails to live out the entirety of its considerable ambitions. Part of this is because Vollmann's ambitions strike me as too huge for a first novel to bear; certainly he'd grow much better at coordinating multiple plot threads, timelines and narrative modes as he moved through his career. The author's conflict with Big George is especially underdeveloped; while some claims are explicitly attributed to Vollmann and others to Big George, Vollmann fails to weave their conflict into the framework of the novel, and certainly fails to make good on a fascinating footnote on page 595, "This is a bookish novel because I, the narrator, know little of life, and I, Big George, will reveal no secrets." A shame there isn't more on the nature of storytelling itself here, since the revolutionaries-versus-reactionaries conflict screams out for it. The war between Mr. White and Phil Blaker is underdeveloped as well; Blaker hangs as a vague presence throughout the novel and makes some minor contributions, only to spring into abrupt and poorly realized action as the story moves toward its climax. I see this as Vollmann trying and failing to have it both ways; Blaker would've been fine as a vague presence, but for me to buy into his intrusion near the end, I'd have to get a lot more of the conflict between the two rivals beforehand.

Still, I can't deny that this novel is great at many other things. For one, while this book is underdeveloped in some places and overdeveloped in others (I found Vollmann oversold the love story between himself and Clara Bee, for instance), it's never boring even for a moment. That's the upside of it being overstuffed, it never flags or falters or lapses into dullness. I'll grant that some readers mind find it a little too manic - it's certainly not a book for everyone - but I'm a fan of big manic novels, and You Bright and Risen Angels certainly fits that bill. Furthermore, this novel's prose belies its author's insistence that this book is "a cartoon." Check out this passage toward the end, describing our revolutionary heroes: "Stephen Mole was content to see that his new companions were so rigorous. Already they were becoming hard and drum-like as a consequence of their way of life, and their voices were getting hoarse. Cosmic rays had peppered them. Their faces were blackened into swollen masks of desiccated purpose. They were cariously unclean, like today's supercharged worker. In their sleep they suckled their own breasts" (510). This is beautiful writing. Dig the surprising use of the phrase "drum-like," the auditory and visual metaphors, the way it efficiently characterizes both Stephen Mole and the other revolutionaries.

Vollmann's view of the revolutionaries, and really revolution itself, is a complex thing as well. On the one hand, the idea of the bugs as an oppressed force jumps out throughout these pages. Certainly Vollmann takes an unsubtle moment to get his point across, namely the moment that incites Bug's defense of the insects. An insect disguised as a human is murdered at a summer camp Bug attends, and Bug's inability to defend his friend inspires him to protect the insects in the future. However, the death of various insects is also part of this novel's background noise. Bugs are swatted, squashed, zapped, electrocuted, poisoned, on and on and on until I found myself sympathizing much more with insects than I had in the past. Certainly we see parallels between the treatment of insects and that of many minority groups in the United States and otherwise, especially given that this is 2016 and so few people want to admit racism is still alive and well in this country. It also allows him to interrogate the environmental impact of scientific and technological progress, and forgive the shameless lefty rant, but that's a wake-up call this country needs. There's something stirring about these passages, a sort of call for action, but that call is tempered by the episode where Bug and friends break into a computer lab owned by Mr. White and slaughter a group of innocent programmers. I'm not here to argue the merits of revolution, but Vollmann's complex relationship with the concept elevates this novel above propaganda for one side or the other, which definitely makes it more compelling as a work of art.

Vollmann went on to embark on a number of ambitious projects as his career went on. Perhaps the most ambitious is the massive Seven Dreams series, which chronicles the European conquest of the Americas, from the Vikings (1990's the Ice-Shirt) to the experiences of the Inuit in the early 1990s (1994's The Rifles). Vollmann has yet to finish this project, although its fifth entry, The Dying Grass, was published last summer and tipped the scales at almost fourteen hundred pages. His other big fiction project is a trilogy of novels about prostitutes; 1991's scorching Whores for Gloria, 1993's Butterfly Stories, and 2000's the Royal Family. Yet Vollmann didn't get his first true taste of prominence until the mid-2000s, when he released two of his best-known books: 2003's Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume study of political violence around the world (there's also a seven hundred-page abridgment, which I've read; the full version only got a limited print run and therefore sells for around five hundred clams), and 2005's World War II-themed Europe Central, which won Vollmann a National Book Award. He's also published a number of acclaimed short fiction collections, most popularly 1989's the Rainbow Stories.

So while he wrote better books, You Bright and Risen Angels introduces the curious reader to many of Vollmann's key themes and attributes. His fascination with history and revolution, his baroque prose and frankly gorgeous prose style, his sprawling stories, his multiple and sometimes conflicting narrative modes, his equal interest in the generalities of historical movements and the specifics of individual characters' lives, and the metafictional aspects that are as important to what he does as the historical ones. I find Vollmann a flawed author on a whole, a little more long-winded than I'd like him to be (the guy takes a pay cut from his publishers so his books won't be edited, but the longer ones I've read tend to feel about fifty pages too long - Europe Central has long passages that are simply more of what's already been established), but his historical and aesthetic concerns fascinate me, and he's definitely one of the more compelling personalities working today. Cartoon or not, You Bright and Risen Angels is well worth reading.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, July 20, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |

July 18, 2016

Book Review: "Under the Influence" by Joyce Maynard

(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.)

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard

Under the Influence
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

One of the things that I'm working on in my personal life this year is to better acknowledge and cultivate my capacity for empathy; for those who don't know, that's not when you feel sorry for someone (that's instead sympathy), but when you try to imagine what it must be like to actually be that person, to walk that proverbial mile in their shoes, which in the best cases leads to a profound new understanding of and connection to that person in question, and thus is of better help to that struggling person than any feeling sorry for them could be.

I was thinking of all this a lot this week while reading through popular author Joyce Maynard's newest novel, Under the Influence, because I have to admit that it's one of those books that I have an only so-so relationship with (a delicate and slow-moving character study by an academic veteran), concerning the kind of female protagonist who often drives me crazy. A mousy suburban middle-classer out in nondescript California, our hero Helen also has a drinking problem, not exactly a terrible one and a habit she already has under control by the time our particular story begins; but it was enough that when she once had to drive her injured little son to the hospital one night years ago when actively drunk, then got caught by the police doing so, her domineering ex-husband was able to show enough of a pattern of her habitual drinking to get her custody of the boy completely taken away from her. And so our story, taking place several years later, is just basically a plot-light look at what her life is like in this post-DUI time, where she does all those self-righteous things that mousy middle-class suburban women do that drive me so crazy, like make negative judgments about every single guy she meets at Match.com while never acknowledging the Victorian steamer full of baggage she's carrying around on her own back, then letting an older wealthy couple she's recently become friends with convince her that the one decent guy she actually meets through the dating service is too wishy-washy and not worth her time.

But instead of my usual habit of condemning Helen and quitting the novel halfway through, I decided to exercise some of my newfound empathy skills and stay with her story, trying to imagine as I read what it must be like to be one of these nondescript middle-aged divorcees, who are trying to lead a normal life again but who don't come across very well on paper. And I'm glad I did, because as this story continues, it blossoms and gets a lot richer in both tone and stakes than you might imagine at the beginning it would; and it's then that we come to realize why the book is called Under the Influence -- not necessarily because of her alcohol problems, which really only serve as character background, but because Helen's bigger problem is that she lets the people around her blindly dictate how she's going to think and act about the world. And that suddenly makes this a much more interesting story, and helps explain things like her mentally bullying ex who she can't seem to stand up against; and this especially makes for a great climax to the book, when the schism between her wealthy patron friends and her new accountant boyfriend starts becoming a lot bigger and a lot more direct (but I'll leave the details a surprise until you can read them yourself), and Helen is forced to choose, almost for the first time in her life, between two competing groups of friends' influences over how she herself is going to see her life and world.

Make no mistake, this book will drive some people crazy, a virtual blueprint for a Lifetime TV movie whose vague Hillary-Oprah-Nancy-Grace-adherent protagonist (you know the kind of person I'm talking about) is deeply flawed in such a highly realistic way that she will immediately remind you of all those women in real life like this who you can barely stand being around. But as an astute and moving look at what makes women like these tick, its hyper-realism is a big asset, and makes it easy to see why Maynard's previous books have been such big hits within this very crowd. It comes recommended in this spirit, although with the warning that you'll need to do some mental shifting to enjoy this if you're not a Hillary-Oprah-Nancy-Gracer yourself.

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about Under the Influence: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

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

July 15, 2016

American Odd: "Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery," by Martin Gardner

A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.

Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery, by Martin Gardner

Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery
By Martin Gardner
Prometheus Books (1995)
Also consulted : Strange Creations: Aberrant Ideas of Human Origins from Ancient Astronauts to Aquatic Apes, by Donna Kossy
Review by Karl Wolff

"Every now and then, someone arises who attempts to make other people believe in the things which they see or hear in their own minds. Self-styled 'prophets' arise to convince us of the reality of their visions. Odd geniuses appear who tell us of the voices they hear, and if they seem fairy sane and socially conventional in every way, they are sometimes able to build up vast followings, to create cults, and establish churches; whereas, if they are too bold in their imaginings, if they seem a little too far or hear a little too much, they are promptly seized and quickly lodged within the confines of an insane asylum..." The man who wrote that paragraph was Dr. William Sadler, who "would himself become the founder of a cult based on a revelation initially channeled through his sleeping brother-in-law!" Martin Gardner wrote that assessment in Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery. Gardner was a noted skeptic and scientist and a prolific writer.

But there is also a Chicago connection. The Urantia Foundation, the subject of Gardner's in-depth investigation, has its headquarters at 533 W Diversey Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60614. Gardner's digressive book takes many detours on its journey to discovering who really wrote The Urantia Book. On its own, without historical or religious context, The Urantia Book appears like an odd religious texts. Over two thousand pages long and filled with strange names, it could be seen as Flash Gordon meets The Book of Mormon. While the latter sections become a lengthy re-imagining of Jesus's life and ministry, the early sections read like bureaucratic legalese. We learn that Earth (or, rather, Urantia) "is number 606 of a planetary group called Satania." Satania is in the constellation called Norlatiadek (headquarters: planet Edentia), itself the 70th world of the universe Nebadon, the 84th universe in the minor sector Ensa, which is the third major sector of the seventh sector superuniverse Orvonton. Confused yet?

How did such a fantastic and grandiose cosmology come about? Gardner traces William Sadler back to his connections with Dr. John Kellogg and Wilfred Custer Kellogg. The Michigan-based health advocates embraced a lifestyle of vegetarianism, hard beds, and cold baths. John Kellogg ran the famous Sanatarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He combined his idiosyncratic view of health and wellness with a pious devotion to Seventh-Day Adventism. The Sadlers moved to Chicago where William Sadler's channeling activities began in 1912. The process of revelation involved the sleeper to dictate to a listener who would transcribe the message. These became known as The Papers. The Urantia Book has 196 of them, divided into four parts.

In Gardner's account, he regales the reader with chapters debunking the science of the book. He details evidence of large-scale plagiarism along with The Urantia Foundation's institutional in-fighting, and "new revelations" from dissident Urantians. Before it lost a pivotal copyright case, the Urantia Foundation was as litigious and ruthless as Scientology. Now The Urantia Book is in the public domain.

While a certain amount of Gardner's debunking came across as a bit heavy-handed, he rightly criticized The Urantia Book for its espousal of racism and eugenics. Beneath a thin veneer of pulpy science fiction narrative lay a vicious racist heart. If this was a piece of science fiction, we could all shrug our shoulders and move on. But there are people who take the book literally, seeing the Papers as revealed by agents of the Gods. Luckily, Urantians only number in the thousands at the very most. They are an off-shoot of Seventh-Day Adventism, but only a very small one. Urantians usually hold small-scale discussion groups and seem relatively harmless. Since they are such a small cohort of believers, Gardner's relentless attack on the absurdity and irrational nature of their beliefs came across as rather mean and smug. Other more dangerous groups also tap into America's long-simmering history of racism and violence.

The Urantia Book is a problematic snarl of racism and outdated science. Yet at the same time it should also be celebrated (is that the right word?) as an epic product of the religious imagination. The Urantia Book is on par with another monumental work of religious eccentricity, Oahspe: A New Bible, written in 1892 by John Ballou Newbrough. Like the Urantians, Newbrough conceived of a sacred universe filled with planets and angels and divine messengers. The United States legal framework allowing for individual expression and a lack of an established church create an atmosphere conducive to divinely inspired oddballs. Don't like your church? Start your own!

Read even more about Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Coming next: The art and writing of Henry Darger

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, July 15, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |

July 14, 2016

Book Review: "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome" by Mary Beard

(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.)

SPQR, by Mary Beard

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
By Mary Beard
Liveright / WW Norton
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So why have you not seen any new book reviews from me in something like a month now? Because I've been spending that entire time slogging my way through one single book, the 600-page SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by British historian and sometimes archaeologist Mary Beard, and wanted to go nice and slow so that I would really absorb everything that she says here. And she talks about a lot of stuff here, not a history of the Roman Empire per se but a history of Rome, the city, during the years when it was an Empire; although that's a bit misleading, because she starts all the way back at the city's semi-mythical founding (traditionally set at 753 BC, but most likely more like 1000 to 1500 BC), and then ends only at 200 AD, the date that the Empire gave full citizenship privileges to every single citizen on the planet.

And Beard has an additional complication in her book as well, which is that she hopes to examine not just the lives of the ultra-rich and famous that most histories of Rome concentrate on, but to shed some light on what daily life must've been like for all the normal everyday citizens as well, the wives and slaves and tavern owners, of whom there is barely any physical evidence and almost no written records; and that's where her experiences in archaeology come into play, examining the latest digs from both Rome itself and its far-flung outposts to give us perhaps the best view yet at what it was like to actually exist and live within the Roman Empire, whether that was at its height around the time of Christ or way back when Rome was nothing more than a series of huts being ruled by a competing series of barbarian-like tribes.

In essence what Beard shows is that Rome has always been a city of slow and steady transition, not frozen in "eras" like we usually think of the Empire but rather a fluid progression from chieftans to group rule, to a proto-form of democracy, to a slow and steady corruption of that democracy, to an eventual dictatorship as the Empire grew too large for a small group of consensus-builders to handle. And in the meanwhile, she brings great insights into living conditions within Rome itself over this approximate millennium that her book focuses on, the kinds of things Romans did for fun, how exactly urban life was set up back when a million people lived together without indoor plumbing or a police department, as well as extended looks at the ways the various colonies influenced and had a pull over what normal life was like in the capital as well. Plainly written but chock-full of actual information, this is not a book you can easily skim through; but if you give yourself the time and energy to do a thoughtful reading of the entire thing, armchair historians will find it a rewarding and insightful experience, a sort of "people's history" to serve as a great companion to all those dusty endless lists of emperors and the wars they officially fought.

Out of 10: 9.0

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

July 13, 2016

Book Review: "Queen of the Jews," by N.L. Herzenberg

(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.)


Title, by Author

Queen of the Jews
By N.L. Herzenberg
Philistine Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Well, you can't say Herzenberg has no ambition. Queen of the Jews runs three different plot threads together: the story of housepainter Alejandro's interactions with his client Galia; Alejandro's separate but related interactions with a professor, who has sinister plans that involve Galia; and a retelling of the Maccabees Revolt, which history students might recognize as a conflict between pre-Christian Jews and ancient Greeks. Of course, a lot of these threads play it pretty standard for the conspiracy-thriller thing, especially Alejandro's interactions with the professor, who never really does much to distinguish himself beyond the "shadowy-villain" archetype, but I have to admit, stringing these three plots together was an ambitious move.

Still, the problem with Queen of the Jews is it doesn't do a lot to distinguish itself from other conspiracy thrillers. There's nothing particularly wrong with the prose, which is competent if unexceptional; Herzenberg overuses internal monolog, especially in Alejandro's interactions with Galia, but at least that internal monolog feels conversational, if a little bit stiff and wordy. Not the best, not the worst, in other words. Similarly, the plotting's a little slow for its genre, but everyone's allowed the occasional slow burn. Queen of the Jews doesn't suffer from any major structural mistakes so much as it simply fails to compel. The ingredients for a compelling novel are all here, too. A conflicted protagonist in Alejandro, torn between his loyalties to the Professor and his feelings for Galia, a fascinating and hugely influential historical event in the Maccabees rebellion, and some political implications - for instance, Alejandro agrees to work for the Professor to receive his green card. Yet the material never lives up to its potential, never gets any better than "just okay," never kicks into overdrive. A frustrating case of wasted potential if there ever was one.

Out of 10: 5.3

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, July 13, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

July 8, 2016

Book Review: "The Orthodox Dilemma," by George Alexander

(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 Orthodox Dilemma, by George Alexander

The Orthodox Dilemma
By George Alexander
lulu.com
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The Orthodox Church is part of the three large branches of mainline Christianity, the other two being The Catholic Church and Protestantism (Protestantism being, at best, a vast umbrella term). In terms of the US population, believers self-identify under the term "Protestant" while Catholics remain the largest minority (usually somewhere in the 40% range). Although population groups should never be thought of as static entities, statistics provide a rough snapshot of a given population.

Of these three mainline Christian groups, the Orthodox Church can be obscure and mysterious to an outside observer. When George Alexander approached me about reading his new book, The Orthodox Dilemma: Personal Reflections On Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity, I was curious and excited. The title is a mouthful and jargon-intensive. To put it succinctly, The Orthodox Dilemma focuses on the administrative, political, and cultural challenges facing The Orthodox Church. These rather esoteric issues are interspersed with George's personal experiences among the various Orthodox communities. Like the Catholic Church, each Orthodox community has a clerical hierarchy. In some cases, priests can marry. Unlike the Catholic Church, Orthodox communities have been having services in the native language for hundreds of years. If you want to know more about the history and practices of The Orthodox Church, I urge you to check out The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware.

George Alexander recounts his personal experiences, both positive and negative, with Orthodox communities. He also examines the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. There are also Old Believers and other fringe groups within the Orthodox Christian category. His aim is global pan-Orthodox Christian conciliar unity. Since breaking off from the Catholic Church in the 11th century (or vice versa, depending who you ask), the Orthodox Church has endured fragmentation and persecution. Orthodox communities exist ignorant of each other. Some Orthodox communities don't think other Orthodox are "real Orthodox." The Orthodox Church is anything but a unified monolithic organization.

To take up this challenge of unifying on a global scale, Alexander participates in the Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE Society. Beyond the administrative hurdles involved, the PAGE Society has done work bringing awareness to the persecution of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. The Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remains in house arrest. Despite the oppression, misunderstanding, and political in-fighting, Alexander asserts that the Orthodox Church should be considered a single, unified religious body.

This book will appeal to those interested in the history of religion and specifically the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Dilemma was a well made self-published book. The topic might be niche, but that doesn't devalue its message. The writing itself could have used one more editorial pass, but otherwise it is an informative and personal account of a fascinating topic.

Out of 10/8.0

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

July 6, 2016

Book Review: "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours," by Helen Oyeyemi

(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.)


What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
By Helen Oyeyemi
Penguin Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Like they say on the jacket flap, What Is Yours Is Not Yours is linked by the recurring theme of keys and a handful of characters who crop up in every story. What they don't say on the jacket flap is just how odd this collection is. Now, I mean odd in the best way possible, since What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours presents a few new possibilities for good old innovative fiction. I often speak of the need for authors to have fun with what they do, to not lapse into an overly stony-faced "this is serious business and serious art" mode, and Oyeyemi is clearly having all sorts of fun throughout this collection, setting out on and pulling off all sorts of literary stunt flights. I guess I just use the term "oddity" as a warning more than anything else; if you're not predisposed to experimental fiction, this might not be for you.

So, a list of the stunt flights things Oyeyemi lands? Opener "Books and Roses," about an orphan trying to find her mother, nests two or three sub-narratives within the main thread, delivering the climax in the form of a letter. "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea," which concerns a young woman's changing opinions on a pop star, ends with a bullet-point breakdown of the denouement. "Is Your Blood as Red as This?" switches narrators midway through; "Presence" has a child out-age his mother (a powerful metaphor, of course, but also a fun device), and "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society" does indeed begin with a brief history of the homely wench society. What's more, Oyeyemi never quite sticks with her experiments or moods all the way through; instead, she'll often pass through them, as though she liked them as ways to underscore parts of her story, but not the whole thing. As a result, her stories might sometimes feel disjointed as they go forward, but she has a way of tying every thread she establishes together within the last few pages. To me, this reveals not just the sense of joie de vivre that I want more literature to have, but also Oyeyemi's confidence in her own abilities, which are considerable.

I'm also drawn to the folkloric undercurrents that run throughout this collection. That's something else I think the jacket missed, but it's definitely something I picked up on. My favorite story here, "Drownings," especially takes on that feeling, riffing on the "evil king vs. humble peasant" thing we've seen time after time and making it feel fresh and funny, while "Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose" offers us a spoof on Little Red Riding Hood where the Big Bad Wolf has been eaten. "Is Your Blood as Red as This?" could, meanwhile, be read as a take-off on Pinocchio. More broadly, her recurring motif of hidden things calls legends and fairy tales to my mind. All of this combines to make the most fun, unique and involving new collection I've read this year, I'd wager.

Out of 10: 9.0

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, July 6, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |