May 26, 2016

Book Review: "Anomaly Flats" by Clayton Smith

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

Anomaly Flats, by Clayton Smith

Anomaly Flats
By Clayton Smith
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

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

Out of 10: 7.1

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

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

May 25, 2016

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

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 25, 2016. Filed under:

May 23, 2016

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

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

Hotels of North America, by Rick Moody

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

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

Out of 10: 1.6

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

May 20, 2016

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

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

Nuns with Guns, by Seth Kaufman

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

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

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

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

Out of 10/10

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

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

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

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 2016

Book Review: "The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath" by Kimberly Knutsen

(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 Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Kimberly Knutsen

The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath
By Kimberly Knutsen
Switchgrass Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To be clear, there's nothing particularly bad about Kimberly Knutsen's The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, and the reason I didn't care for it isn't because it's badly written -- titled off a clever premise that the rest of the book is hung off of (one of the main characters, a rare male professor of women's studies, has decided for his dissertation to "creatively recreate" the last two volumes of the real Sylvia Plath's personal diary, which were originally burned by her husband right after her death), this is a very typical MFA-type character-heavy domestic drama, with nothing really that unique about it but nothing really that terrible either. No, the main problem is simply one of length; at 400 densely packed pages (or over 500 under a traditional layout), and with almost nothing of importance actually happening to these characters in all that time, I just quite simply lost my patience for the book about halfway through, as will most people who don't have a very specific love for glacially paced academic tales. Not a bad book to check out, but buyer definitely beware.

Out of 10: 7.7

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

Book Review: "Ohio Portraits, Vol. 1: A Midwestern Micromemoir," by Erika D. Price

(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.)

Ohio Portraits, by Erika D. Price

Ohio Portraits, Vol. 1: A Midwestern Micromemoir
By Erika D. Price
English Prime Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I'll be honest: the idea of reading an independently published memoir didn't strike me as at all appealing. In my head, I thought this would be a big screed against the author's hometown, all the people that underestimated them, etc., etc. Sort of like how autobiographical self-published novels often work. Yet Erika D. Price took me by surprise. Ohio Portraits is far from my favorite book, and I don't think it can compete with other fragmented memoirs like Eula Biss' the Balloonists, Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me be Lonely, or Maggie Nelson's peerless Bluets, but the writing here is pretty good, and the emotional tone of the work is nuanced. It is, in other words, a pretty solid read.

Now, fragmented memoirs run the risk of coming off as incoherent, since their writers tend not to explain the connections between each section. Generally, readers are supposed to intuit the thematic similarities between sections. Of course, this is very much one of the genre's strengths, as it allows the writers plenty of room to weave disparate themes together. Bluets, for instance, achieves that synchronicity almost astonishingly well. Ohio Potraits' biggest weakness is that it doesn't appear to have that same sort of tightness. It looked to me like the fragments were selected almost at random, which results in moments like "a milk-white, freckled, redheaded kid who somehow looked exactly like Ja Rule" taking up an entire fragment. I had to wonder what, on a more macro level, Price intended to say about Ohio. I see this as a significant shortcoming of the book, which feels rather incomplete sans broader takeaway.

Still, Price does many things well here. I appreciated the variety within the fragments; some paint brief stories, others delve into single characters or conversations, still others take the form of questions or, in one case, apologies. This helps keep things lively and varied, and allows Price broad access to a variety of emotions. Indeed, these fragments all come in different tones, some a little funnier, some a little sadder, some nostalgic and some angry. A few of them even aim for that sort of Steinbeck-style sweep, where Price tries to speak for a whole generation: see Portrait 63, which includes lines such as "We take jobs in the eastern cities, with their steep rents and narrow streets; we hide in expensive, drafty bars in Chicago or St. Louis, bragging about what we know." I'm not even sure how well this came off for Steinbeck, and I'm definitely unsure how it comes off for Price. Still, I appreciated the variety of moods, and as I've said before, the writing is pretty solid. With a little more to connect the fragments, this really could've been something.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about Ohio Portraits, Vol. 1: A Midwestern Micromemoir : Official site | Amazon | GoodReads |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 18, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

May 13, 2016

Book Review: "Mr. Suicide," by Nicole Cushing

(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.)

Mr. Suicide by Nicole Cushing

Mr. Suicide
By Nicole Cushing
Word Horde
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

This book is messed up. I say that with the highest praise. Mr. Suicide by Nicole Cushing is the story of teenage kid living in suburban Louisville, Kentucky He endures the emotional and psychological abuse from his fundamentalist Christian mother. With an absentee father and a stay-at-home brother, the kid retreats into his mind as a means of escape. One day a voice starts talking to him. The voice calls himself Mr. Suicide and occasionally insists the kid kill himself. He can't stand living at home, he's bullied at school, and his grades are slipping. Unfortunately for Mr. Suicide, the kid remains a stubborn target.

What follows is the story of the kid growing older, waiting until he can move out. Written in second person, the story constantly forces you to confront the ugly, jagged realities the kid has to endure. Writing in second person is a risky gambit that pays off. It reminds me a lot of Nic Kelman's girls: A Paean, also written in second person. The novel perspective doesn't give the reader distance from the subject, creating a claustrophobic intensity. Nicole Cushing's novel is like diving into someone's unalloyed id. Slowly and methodically, the kid goes from being troubled to developing into a full-fledged psychopath.

And he's not likable. At all. But good writing isn't about creating likable characters and writing what you know. Yet the kid's story is compelling. He also has a lot of valuable insights, even if he is an emotionally stunted, violence-prone little bastard. As he reaches rock bottom in the high school pecking order, he becomes acutely aware of what he calls The Ladder. He sees it in people going to work as well. He wants nothing to do with it. This book reads like a demonic love-child of Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. Unlike Dexter Morgan, who followed Harry's Code and killed bad guys, this kid makes no qualms with his contempt for middle-class proprieties, Christian morality, and basic hygiene.

As the book progresses, it takes on aspects of a quest narrative with Lovecraftian overtones. The kid shucks off the seductions of Mr. Suicide and becomes enamored with The Great Dark Mouth. I won't spoil the details, but an otherwise garden variety extreme horror novel meanders into the insanity-inducing labyrinth of cosmic horror.

Out of 10/9.0

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Filed by Karl Wolff at 6:48 PM, May 13, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "The Bohemian Guide to Monogamy" by Andrew Armacost

(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 Bohemian Guide to Monogamy, by Andrew Armacost

The Bohemian Guide to Monogamy
By Andrew Armacost
Bizarro Pulp Press / JournalStone Publishing
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Although I'm always glad to have the opportunity to read another book of bizarro fiction, I have to admit that I don't actually have a lot to say about any of them; after all, the main defining trait of this subgenre is that it's like a zany cartoon come to life, so there's simply not much analysis to be done when it comes to determining whether the characters are realistic, whether the plot is believable, etc. Andrew Armacost's The Bohemian Guide to Monogamy, however, at least has the advantage of not even trying to tie its random chaos together into a coherent three-act storyline; it's simply presented as a series of short standalone pieces, cleverly tied together by the author standing in as a sort of Cryptkeeper-type anthology host in the interstitials between stories, under the pretense that he is at a cafe in Savannah, Georgia musing over each piece while also dealing with his supermodel wife and a snooty waiter who keeps bringing him the wrong celebrity-clones he's been ordering off the celebrity-clone menu. If that alone sounds like too much for you to handle, you should both stay far away from this book and from the bizarro genre in general; but if that sounds like an intriguing start to a rabbithole that just keeps getting weirder and sillier with each passing page, you'll definitely want to pick up this slim, enjoyable volume.

Out of 10: 8.2, or 9.2 for fans of bizarro literature

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

May 11, 2016

Book review: "How to be Drawn," by Terrance Hayes

How to be Drawn,

How to Be Drawn
By Terrance Hayes
Penguin Poets
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Has Terrance Hayes enjoyed a big few years, or what? "Big years" for a poet, of course, but he already netted a National Book Award for 2010's Lighthead and both guest-edited wrote a brilliant introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, which was my introduction to the guy. I'd call How to be Drawn a victory lap, but it's more than that: it's his best collection to date, pushing forward his interest in experimental forms, his tributes to his influences, and his themes of racial identity so they form a terrific net of themes and forms. In other words, he wrote some terrific poetry here.

The best example of everything coming together is "Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report." First off, Hayes isn't kidding about the "crime report" thing. The poem not only references crime (Etheridge Knight was a poet who wrote his poems while imprisoned for bank robbery), but it looks like a crime report on the page. However, the content subverts the form: rather than filling out each field of the report in a straightforward manner, Hayes offers impressions, small stories, and commentary. For instance, rather than fill out an address for the "residence" segment, he writes "In the cell's darkness, the code of ancestry breaks" (49). It seems to me he's playing with perceptions vs. reality of race, offering literal boxes for Knight to fit into and then writing him out of the box by offering ambiguous answers to clear questions.

Of course, that's not the only experiment here. Also daring? A poem in the form of an interview, "Reconstructed Reconstruction." Besides the obvious racial implications of the title, the reader is also brought to "reconstruct" the interview, as Hayes offers answers but leaves the questions blank; "Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburg," which almost seems like a series of prose poems or flash-fiction pieces based on an abstracted view of Pittsburg; "Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs," a funny poem about some of Hayes' literary and artistic heroes; and "Who are the Tribes," a downright unclassifiable poem about racial identity. Interestingly, the how-to poems aren't as experimental as you might expect them to be. He gives us three: "How to be Drawn to Trouble," a tribute to James Brown; "How to Draw an Invisible Man," about Ralph Ellison, and "How to Draw a Perfect Circle," which doesn't seem to be a tribute to anyone at all. (Da Vinci, maybe?)

Elsewhere, Hayes shows both top-notch social observation and a wicked sense of humor. Take "Black Confederate Ghost Story," whose first few stanzas are once relevant to the racial discussion and funny: "Attention, African-American apparitions hung/burned or drowned before anyone alive was born: please make a mortifying midnight appearance/before the handyman standing on my porch/this morning with a beard as wild as Walt Whitman's. Except he is the anti-Whitman, this white man/with Confederate pins littering his denim cap and Jacket. (And by mortify, dear ghosts, I mean scare the snot out of him)" (35). Also note the wordplay, which comes back strong on one of the best poems here, "A. Machine." Best line in that poem? "Under the overpass and passed over, the past is over and I'm over the past" (43). So I'd say he nailed it here. I've liked Hayes for a while now, and this is the one where everything he does well comes together.

Out of 10: 9.3.

Read even more about How to be Drawn: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 11, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "The Mystics of Mile End" by Sigal Samuel

(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 Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel

The Mystics of Mile End
By Sigal Samuel
William Morrow / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Say what you will about the school of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, but it's certainly served as a great basis for all kinds of metaphorically and symbolically wonderful pieces of contemporary fiction, from Myla Goldberg's haunting Bee Season to Darren Aronofsky's head-scratching Pi; and now here's another, Sigal Samuel's imminently readable The Mystics of Mile End, which distinguishes itself from these others by being a coming-of-age domestic drama as well, much like reading a beach novel cross-pollinated with a treatise on Judaic intellectualism since this is precisely what it is. Set in one of the "artsy" neighborhoods on the edge of Montreal, which partly got that way by also being the home of a community of Hasidic Jews, the family under discussion here is not actually part of that community -- the single father's a rationalist college professor, while his kids are normal teenagers pursuing normal things -- although as the years continue, both of these facts about the neighborhood have more and more of an influence on them all, each of them in turn having their lives changed in different ways by the concept of "climbing the Tree of Life" that lies at the heart of Kabbalah. To be clear, you don't really need to know anything about those subjects, or even really about Judaism in general, to enjoy this family-based relationship story; but it's also a smart and well-researched look at those topics for those who do know a bit about it, an examination of modern versus historical Jewishness that also serves as a nice metaphor about aging, whether that's from child to adult or from middle-age to the elderly years. It comes recommended to a general audience, and especially to book clubs looking for something unique and worthy of discussion to choose as their next pick.

Out of 10: 9.4

Read even more about The Mystics of Mile End: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

May 9, 2016

Book Review: "The Understory" by Pamela Erens

(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 Understory, by Pamela Erens

The Understory
By Pamela Erens
Tin House Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

(*Please note that I read and reviewed this under the impression that it's a brand-new book, when in fact I was just reading the brand-new second edition; it was originally published in 2007, with this new edition being published as a promotional tie-in with Erens' newest novel, Eleven Hours, which we will also be reviewing later this year.)

Usually, quiet novels about intellectual introverts are a real hit-and-miss proposition for me; but I have to say that I really loved Pamela Erens' take on the subject, the beautifully done The Understory, mainly because she looks at such a person from an outsider's perspective and presents him as a sort of broken human we should avoid trying to be, instead of the "Proust-reading hero battling a world of morons" that so many of these other books present such characters. A slim novel that's just as much about Manhattan as it is about the people being discussed, and especially those overlooked corners of Manhattan that make it such a friendly city for intellectual introverts (the dusty used bookstores, the forgotten '50s diners, the rundown rent-controlled apartments that millions walk by each day without ever giving a second thought), this is the world our OCD narrator Jack inhabits almost exclusively, a man with a minute-by-minute daily schedule that hasn't changed in years (as a great example, it takes him nearly a month to accept the idea of the subway system moving from tokens to fare cards), whose life is thrown into utter turmoil when the building where he's been illegally living for a pittance (taking over a dead uncle's apartment without ever resigning the lease himself) is sold to a developer who wants to gut it and turn it into high-end condos. It's an unbelievably sad and deep character study, of a man who does things like casually realize his birthday was the previous week and that he had completely forgotten to acknowledge it, a man who has his photo taken by a "People of New York" type photographer and can literally not recognize his own face when looking at it; and it's a devastating look at the types of aggressively antisocial people who inhabit big cities in the millions around the world, all the more powerful for being written in such a subtle, poetic way. It will absolutely not be everyone's cup of tea, which is why it's getting only a so-so general score; but it's a must-read for anyone who enjoys delicately written character studies of the kinds of people generally overlooked by history at large, and it comes strongly recommended today specifically to those types of readers.

Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for fans of quiet and poetic character studies

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

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

May 6, 2016

Book Review: "Wine: The Ultimate Educational Resource of Red Wine" by Martin Guessmann

(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.)

Wine: The Ultimate Educational Resource of Red Wine, by Martin Guessmann

Wine: The Ultimate Educational Resource of Red Wine, Types and Origin, Red Wine Selecting & Food Pairing And Tips On Wine Occasion Matching
By Martin Guessmann
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

This was my May selection from the Kindle Owners Lending Library (a side perk of having an Amazon Prime account, in which you get to check out a Kindle book for free once a month); and I sure am glad I didn't pay anything for it, because it turns out to be one of those semi-scams you often see over there, with just a blog post's worth of information but being advertised as a full-length book. Read from start to finish in an unbelievable ten minutes, this "expert's guide to red wine" is like a real-life version of that Simpsons joke about the Olson twins doing an audio guidebook to an art museum: "Well, there's Cabernet Sauvignon, and that's niiice...oh, and there's Merlot, and that's nice too. Then there's Gamay, and that's niiice..." Unless you have a compelling reason to believe otherwise, do yourself a favor and immediately distrust any book being sold at the Kindle Store for $2.99 or less, and that doesn't have an accompanying paper version; because I'm realizing the hard way this year that the place is filled with literally millions of titles like today's, essentially con jobs from terrible writers who are trying to trick you into spending three bucks on a blog post you wouldn't have read for free in the first place.

Out of 10: 0.2

Read even more about Wine: The Ultimate Educational Resource of Red Wine: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

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

May 5, 2016

Book review: "And After Many Days," by Jowhor Ile

And After Many Days, by Jowhor Ile

(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.)

And After Many Days
By Jowhor Ile
Tim Duggan Books
Reviewed by Nora Rawn

It's surprisingly easy to forget what reading a truly wonderful book feels like after spending too much time reading mediocre writing. The first page of Jowhor Ile's debut clears out the cobwebs left by too much good-enough prose and middling character development, instantly setting a distinctive scene and creating a vivid world that it's a pleasure to be immersed in. His novel places the reader in 1995 Port Harcourt on the day when the Utu family's oldest son disappears. Paul's absence is the heart of the book, and it reveals not just the family dynamics but also those of Nigeria itself, held down by repressive politicians and battered by the economic interests of Western oil companies. Never polemical, it is a novel both highly personal and highly political. The Utu family patriarch is a respected lawyer, solidly in the middle class, and the family's children all receive the best educations--yet their relative economic security is no defense against the chaotic backdrop of student protests and government retaliation.

Ile moves back and forth across time to show the childhood of the Utu siblings before their idyll was disrupted by Paul's disappearance as well as the fallout of his loss. The portrait of Nigeria is equally deft, showing the fragile balance between animism and christianity, developed city and still tribal rural town. Narrated by Paul's younger brother Ajie, the voice is fresh and evocative without ever straying into lyricism for its own sake; the jumps in time are similarly complex without ever marring the emotional truth of the book with mere formalism. It is a truly engrossing debut, and hopefully the start of a new literary career.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about And After Many Days: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads |

Filed by Nora Rawn at 9:44 AM, May 5, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |

May 4, 2016

Book Review: "Meatspace" by Nikesh Shukla

(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.)

Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla

Meatspace
By Nikesh Shukla
The Friday Project / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to admit, at first I was not a big believer in all the hype that came with Nikesh Shukla's third novel, Meatspace; for while it starts out as a funny little character-based comedy about young artists in London, it certainly doesn't seem like "the greatest book on loneliness since The Catcher in the Rye," as Gary Shteyngart breathlessly exclaims on the front cover, and it also doesn't seem to "capture a cultural moment like Generation X" like the Guardian proclaimed. But the farther you get into this witty, cleverly constructed book, the better it gets and the more it starts earning these accolades (hint -- things really start picking up once publicly exposed penises get involved); and what seems at first to be just an endless amount of trendy references to Facebook and iPhones really does start adding up to a bigger statement on society as the storyline expands in scope and stakes. A heftier novel than it might seem at first, with an ending that's surprisingly much sadder than the rest of this sometimes laugh-out-loud book would make you guess, it's one of those extremely rare books that actually gets better as it continues, and it's worth sticking in there through the admittedly only so-so beginning in order to get to the good stuff. Recommended for all, but especially to my fellow middle-agers who want a better sense of what daily life for twentysomething Millennials are like right now, where half your social life is lived on your phone and the opportunities for public embarrassment never end.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about Meatspace: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 4, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "Eileen," by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Well, the old backlash seems to have hit Ottessa Moshfegh, and if you take it from me, that's a shame. Of course, it might be inevitable: book gets great reviews, people read it and come away disappointed, they wonder what all the hype was about, and all of a sudden you've got a pile of one- and two-star reviews on Goodreads. Course, Eileen isn't for everyone. The book's set in a small Massachusetts town known only as X-Ville, narrated by a frankly unlikeable character who wallows in self-pity, who treats the people around her as either detestable or angelic with no middle ground, who at first fears and then condescends to her alcoholic father, a retired cop who hallucinates about "hoodlums" and "mobsters" trying to kill him and who heaps verbal abuse upon his daughter. I can understand why someone wouldn't want to live in Eileen's world.

Another part of the backlash might be due to poor marketing, which also afflicted Amelia Gray's 2012 novel Threats. Like Threats, Eileen's jacket flap wants us to believe it's the next great thriller, even going as far as to compare the novel's twist to Hitchcock. No doubt, the book takes a turn toward the criminal. Eileen works as a secretary for a boys' prison, befriends new employee Rebecca, and gets caught up in Rebecca's intense interest in a murder case. But Moshfegh spends more time creating Eileen's world and her fascinating relationship with Rebecca, which sits at the center of this. It's incredible to see how much Eileen projects onto Rebecca, how she invents this savior to lift her out of the small-town malaise, and a lot of that's because of how unsparing Moshfegh is in embodying Eileen's mental state. Whatever you might say about her level of sympathy, she feels so real that her perceptions seem to eclipse the real world. She's one of the least reliable narrators I've read this year, since you get zero alternatives to her perspective and have to sort of wonder if her life's as bad as she makes it out to be. Very little time is spent on the crime itself; far more is spent on building the character and her world. This is also a characteristic of Moshfegh's terrific short stories, and while I don't mind it, you should go in aware that this isn't a zippy crime novel.

I'll admit this comes at a bit of a price, though. Sometimes the wallowing blasts so far over-the-top that Moshfegh seems to condescend more than empathize (take for instance "I ran up to the attic, where I stayed for the rest of the night. Nobody missed me" on page 65), although she buys this right to do so by narrating from the perspective of an older Eileen, one who seems to have mostly gotten her life straightened out, although she maintains some of her younger self's bitterness. Moshfegh also has the frustrating habit of reiterating information, which doesn't strike me as much more than padding. Yet Moshfegh's dry humor and incredible characterization makes up for these defects. Eileen's world isn't a happy one, but it's so well-rendered that it's worth spending some time in just the same.

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about Eileen: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Librarything | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, May 4, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

May 2, 2016

Book Review: "Juventud" by Vanessa Blakeslee

(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.)

Juventud, by Vanessa Blakeslee

Juventud
By Vanessa Blakeslee
Curbside Splendor
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Yes, yes, I know, an author has every right in the world to write about characters and situations that are vastly different than their personal life, and it's unfair to disparage a book just because the person who penned it doesn't seem "authentic enough" to get away with it; but that said, it's hard not to read Vanessa Blakeslee's Juventud without constantly thinking about the disparity of the subject in this case, of a white New England academe who's written a hefty novel all from the viewpoint of a teenage Latina girl in Central America, whose life takes a series of dramatic turns because of her father's role in a local drug cartel. I mean, I don't want to give the wrong impression; the book is well-written, and hits all the notes you would want from a solidly constructed three-act novel (and is also, by the way, one of the most beautifully designed books in the history of Curbside Splendor, and Curbside has put out a whole bunch of beautifully designed books over the years). But it's also an overly precious novel in that way you often see from full-time academic writers, a big turnoff for me and a lot of others; and it's also pushing a rather overt political agenda, and I'm not a fan of novels that primarily exist to make a political point. Definitely worth picking up if these things don't bother you, it can also be easily skipped if like me they do.

Out of 10: 7.4, or 8.4 for fans of MFA novels

Read even more about Juventud: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:40 AM, May 2, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

April 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Subversive Utopia," by Yasir Sakr

(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 Subversive Utopia, by Yasir Sakr

The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Jewish Style in Jerusalem
By Yasir Sakr
MSI Press, LLC
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Jerusalem remains the epicenter for a tumultuous region. Long held as the sacred city for the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it also connects three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). What does this have to do with architecture? When applied to a capital city, its function is to create a physical manifestation of a nation's dreams, ideals, and ambitions. Hence the monuments and government buildings in Washington,D.C. designed to imitate Greek and Roman temples. Big Ben and Parliament were built in the Victorian era, but hearken back to an idealized vision of Merry England in medieval times. The Neo-Gothic spires and design reminiscent of a bygone era. On the other hand, Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is modernist, forward-thinking, and antiseptic. The former Portuguese colony sought to wipe the slate clean and create a new nationalist style unattached to colonial stereotypes and coast congestion. With Israel, things get further complicated by opposing strains of secularism and religiosity. The Subversive Utopia: Louis Kahn and the Question of the National Style in Jerusalem by Yasir Sakr seeks to unravel the convoluted strands of religion, politics, and art.

The Hurva Synagogue was destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The state of Israel sought out the architect Louis Kahn (1901 - 1974) to design a new synagogue from the ruins. What Kahn proposed sparked controversy and touched a nerve. During the Fifties and Sixties, Israel worked hard to preserve a secular and modernist perspective. The nation wanted to make a clean break from the superstition and persecution of the European Jews. Sakr explains how Kahn's design embraced both an avant-garde modernist aesthetic and a Utopian interpretation to the Jewish religious experience. The temple design had the outside of the building supported by wide pillar, reminiscent of Egyptian temples. The interior had twelve niches and centered around an open space. It was simultaneously historical and ahistorical. To cap the provocative design, it would have a narrow passage leading from the Western Wall. In terms of geography, it would be in the sight line to the Dome of the Rock.

Sakr tells about how Kahn's vision upset the staid building authorities and the mayor of Jerusalem. New governments come and go and Israel participates in more wars against the Arab nations that surround it. Still, the Hurva synagogue remains unbuilt. Throughout this history, Sakr follows a parallel course with the development of the Western Wall. While the Western Wall has the significance of something eternal, it came about through the destruction of the Moroccan Quarter during the Six-Day War in 1967. As with other projects, the authorities vacillated between modernist and classical designs. While any city deals with urban renewal and creative destruction, everything is exacerbated in Jerusalem. Every square inch of rubble and every brick is potentially freighted with millennia of history. Everything is contested.

Overall, it was a fascinating read. As a self-described architecture nerd, I enjoyed reading about competing building designs and the contested urban spaces. This gets a low score, not because of its execution, although Sakr isn't a native English speaker and it shows in the text. The low score is because this is highly specialized book. It is basically a Ph.D. dissertation turned into a book. So unless you really, really like architectural history and are interested in the snarled interconnections between avant-garde aesthetics, modernist architectural design, and Israeli domestic politics, this might not be for you. On the other hand, it is a topic ripe for a treatment aimed at a popular audience.

Out of 10/7.0; or 9.0 if you're an architecture nerd or someone looking for a unique perspective on the history of the Middle East.

Read even more about The Subversive Utopia: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, April 29, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "Newlyweds Afloat" by Felicia Schneiderhan

(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.)

Newlyweds Afloat, by Felicia Schneiderhan

Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living Aboard a Trawler
By Felicia Schneiderhan
Breakaway Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's no secret that I've been losing my patience a lot this year with many of the self-published and basement-press books that have been sent to us for review, which mostly has to do with the circumstances CCLaP finds itself in here in 2016; namely, for about two years now we've been in a constant state of being around 75 books behind in this endless to-be-read pile, with new titles coming in just as fast as we can read the old ones and get them checked off the list, and with the wait time between submission and printed review being a ridiculous nine months as of last Christmas, a situation so dire that we eventually decided to just stop accepting submissions altogether in 2016, which basically screws over every author who's publishing a book this year. Given, then, how much work and stress is going into getting these books reviewed and out the door these days, and given how many authors are unfairly not going to have a chance to send us their book at all because of this massive backlist, it is just so profoundly disappointing and anger-inducing to then pick up one of these books just to learn that it's some unreadably subpar piece of genre crap that should've never been sent to a professional review organization like ours in the first place, but that we must read and review because of the open promise we've had up to this year to read and review any book that any person spent the time and trouble to send us, a policy we're changing next year specifically to try to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place. (Heads up, authors -- the first change in this policy is that we're no longer going to accept any books from third-party publicists, originators of 95 percent of the crap books we receive; so if you want your book to be reviewed by us starting in 2017, make sure to send it to us directly yourself even if you've hired one of these PR firms.)

Given all this, then, it's fair to ask why we bother accepting self-published and basement-press books in the first place; and the answer is that it occasionally produces a hidden gem that would've otherwise gotten overlooked by the world at large, a fact I was happily reminded of again this week when reading through Felicia Schneiderhan's engaging and delightful memoir Newlyweds Afloat. A self-professed big-city hipster who has struggled in the past with addiction issues and sleeping around, Schneiderhan was shocked a few years ago to find herself falling in love with a religiously conservative man who literally lives full-time on his 38-foot trawler parked at the forgotten River City pier down on the city's near south side; and this witty yet thought-provoking book is her record of that burgeoning relationship, as well as a series of anecdotes about river-living and a well-researched journalistic account of the city's entire history of such subjects. Now, it helps that Schneiderhan is an MFA-holder who also writes novels and teaches literary workshops down at Columbia College; but as we all know, an MFA degree is not necessarily a guarantee of an entertaining book, and a lot of credit must be given to Schneiderhan for her efforts to make her book both erudite and easily readable, a memoir that digs underneath the surface level of the events being relayed in order to tell a deeper and more poetic story about aging, mid-life surprises, and the unexpected pleasures of living in a radically different way than what the rest of society considers "normal."

I would've never gotten a chance to read this pleasurable and strongly recommended book if we didn't have the policy about open submissions that we do; and while it's become obvious that the scope of self-publishing has so expanded in recent years that we simply must make some changes to this long-time open policy of ours, we will be doing so in a way so that deserving authors will still have a chance to send us titles like these, because I frankly like the fact that CCLaP will often be the one and only professional review organization on the planet to cover a deserving book like this, something I consider a main reason for coming by and reading our blog in the first place. It's my real pleasure to champion a tiny book like Newlyweds Afloat that has been overlooked by nearly everyone else, and it's my hope that you will pick up a copy in this same spirit.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about Newlyweds Afloat: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, April 29, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

April 27, 2016

First Time Around: "White Teeth," by Zadie Smith

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

White Teeth
By Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 2000
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

A more divisive book than you might expect, given how fervent its supporters are. White Teeth earned rave reviews upon its release, won all sorts of awards, sold gangbusters, and placed Zadie Smith on the forefront of young British writers. She was all of twenty-four when she wrote this novel, which led many to believe we had a genius in our midst. It's possible, of course, that all the hype around Zadie Smith made the backlash inevitable, and it came down hard. Literary critic James Wood (no, not the actor) even coined the phrase "hysterical realism" in a broadsheet against this novel, tying it to other greats like DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wood's essay is a curious piece of work, and if conventional realism's stranglehold on the literary marketplace ever loosens, we'll all look back on it as a relic of a different time. Besides, did Wood know about or care about the sheer disrespectfulness of branding a work by a woman "hysterical?" I mean, is he aware of that word's history and etymology?

Needless to say, I don't at all see it Wood's way; his White Teeth review calls to mind John Gardner's equally goofy saber-rattling about "moral" fiction. I only bring it up because it's representative of the criticisms faced by both White Teeth and postmodern literature in general - how it's not "real" enough, how it's more focused on the broader systems of the world than on real human characters, all of this. Yet Smith responded to Wood's review, and to me, her response is more convincing: "literature is - or should be - a broad church." So there's plenty of room for books that choose not to enlighten or ennoble the human spirit, but rather address the zeitgeist and treat it as a sort of character in and of itself, with all its foibles and inward contradictions and so on and so forth. My point? White Teeth is such a novel, one that digs right into what we might call the modern world and digs out quite a few interesting conclusions.

But first, a few words on the plot. As many before me have pointed out, White Teeth is a sort of multigenerational saga, spanning from 1975 to 2000. In '75, an Englishman by the name of Archie Jones attempts suicide after his wife walks out on him, only to abandon the attempt after a chance encounter. He instead finds his way to a party, where he meets his future wife, the Jamaican-born Clara Bowden. A description of Clara's home life, which includes a devout Jehovah's Witness mother, includes some brilliant analyses and deconstructions of faith's inner workings. We're also introduced to his old army buddy, Samad Iqball; their regiment went to World War II but missed the action due to a series of comic but also touching accidents involving a tank. Incidentally, this friendship is portrayed exquisitely well, which sort of blows up the whole idea that Smith can't write characters. Anyway, Samad finds himself torn between his Islamic values and his desire to live an English life. This divide is complicated further by his two sons: Magid, a scientist and atheist who happily assimilates to English life, and Millat, whose devotion to Islam leads him to join an organization known as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN for short), which among other things protests against Salman Rushdie. As Magid gets more involved in genetics and cloning, his path is placed on a collision course with Millat's.

Of course, that's far from everything you get here. This is a postmodern novel, after all. That means the novel is shown from all sorts of viewpoints. It begins in Archie's but sure doesn't stay there, bouncing around whenever Smith needs it to. It's often used to create remarkable tension, like when the elderly Indian woman Alsana first encounters Clara; this scene depicts Alsana's inward prejudices against black people close-up and despite Alsana's outward friendliness. The intertwining themes of this novel also jump out at me as classically postmodern, if you will; it concerns many of Britain's social changes, underscoring how its prejudices and harmonies shifted as the country moved toward the end of the twentieth century. Hence zeitgeist; besides the Rushdie protests, you get nods to Bruce Springsteen, discussion of the relationship between British Muslims and the rest of Britain, and even a bit about the more controversial scientific discoveries of the late '90s. Plus, as you'd expect from a maximalist-type novel, a ton of characters. Out of them, I was most drawn to Neena. Decidedly minor as she is to the plot, she livens up every scene she appears in. A sharp-tongued lesbian feminist raised in a more traditional Indian household, she won herself the epithet "niece-of-shame" and wears it with pride.

"Sharp-tongued" is a good way to describe Zadie Smith herself, especially her prose style. Some readers might dismiss its relentless cleverness as sort of wearying, and I'll grant that Smith never saw a punchline she didn't like. As Smith herself said, "I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault." If that doesn't sound like a good thing to you, you might not enjoy this book. It just happens that her voice is tailor-made for the sort of sharp, hyper-self-aware fiction I tend to love, which means it's the best possible way to write this book. After all, its characters are all forced to come to terms with their roots throughout this novel. Some embrace them, others reject them, still others come to a more complex and uneasy relationships with them. The point is they're all aware of them, so Smith's own narrative self-aware, even self-reflexive tendencies fit her characters' conflicts perfectly.

Her sharpness especially comes out in her dialog, which seems polished for maximum coolness. Which doesn't mean it's not realistic; for as stylized as she is, she's attentive to natural patterns of speech, but within these natural patterns fall a sort of easy wit that doesn't come out in real dialog. If anything, it has a Tarantino twist, which is always good by me. Her prose is also sharp, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace in a way. She's not in the Nabokov/Woolf super-lyrical vein, but she has a way of picking just the right word for the right situation, even if it doesn't look like it at first. A word that'll make you rethink the whole sentence, I suppose you can say. To me, that's as important to great prose writing as lyricism. It not only allows the writer to describe the situation beautifully, but also allows them access to what might be under the scene. A little bit of play with a word's meanings and associations can go a long way, after all. You can find a great example of this on the first page: "[Archie] lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side of him like a fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him." Check out how it not only allows us to access Archie's character, but also sets up some of the novel's key conflicts. That's some writing.

After this monster debut, things changed for Zadie Smith a little. None of her subsequent novels - the Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW - attracted anywhere near the accolades White Teeth won her. Having only read NW, which wasn't as good as White Teeth but did sport a brilliant fragmented segment that followed the lives of two best friends, I can't tell you if they're as disappointing as their critics claim, but I can tell you that the "promising-young-author" hype cycle is merciless. The trouble with dropping a great first novel is everyone wants a great second novel, and everyone wants that great second novel to fall in line with the great first novel. Since NW was quite the departure from White Teeth, I have to wonder if her later novels' tepid reception (excluding the highly acclaimed On Beauty, that is) have to do with their own qualities or their readers' expectations. She's also made a name for herself as an essayist, and Changing My Mind is a must-read for anyone who liked this book's style; it's got a lot of the same insights, but since it's nonfiction, she expands her net into book and film reviews, talk about her own evolution as an artist, and a touching piece on her father. Of especial note are her review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, where she expands on her claim that "literature is - or should be - a broad church," and a hilarious string of movie reviews.

So there you have one of my favorite contemporary novels. Some readers are skeptical of anything that wins as many prizes as White Teeth did, but every so often the prize committee gets it right.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 27, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |