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:

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

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

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
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 |

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

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 29, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

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

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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

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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 |