October 21, 2016

Book Review: "Billy and the Cloneasaurus," by Stephen Kozeniewski

(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.)
Billy and the Cloneasaurus, by Stephen Kozeniewski
Billy and the Cloneasaurus
By Stephen Kozeniewski
Severed Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

With its title based on a throwaway gag from The Simpsons and cover art reminiscent of Chuck Tingle's more outre selections, I didn't expect Billy and the Cloneasaurus by Stephen Kozeniewski to be such a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life.

The novel is set in world populated by billions of identical clones. William 790-6 (57th Iteration) endures an existential crisis when he survives his expiration date and his replacement gets turned into slurry instead. In order to come to terms with his mortality, he ventures into the wasteland where he meets a mad scientist and his dinosaur-like creatures.

I enjoyed this novel for the sheer outrageousness of its premise. What held me back involved its overuse of passive voice. There's a fine line between informal writing and sloppy writing. I wouldn't make an issue out of it if it didn't distract me so much. One more editorial pass to tighten up the writing would have done wonders. It also took quite a while for the novel to pick up steam. Billy doesn't meet the eponymous cloneasaurus until at least a quarter of the way through. Technical quibbles aside, the existential crisis of William 790-6 feels genuine and real. That's not an easy thing to pull off, especially when the clone's individuality would be seen as suspect. He just wants to be a unique human being ... like everybody else!

Out of 10/7.0

Read even more about Billy and the Cloneasaurus: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, October 21, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

October 19, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Clumsy" by Jeffrey Brown

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

Clumsy, by Jeffrey Brown

Clumsy (2003)
By Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

The Chicago Public Library recently entered a partnership with online content provider Hoopla, which among other things means I suddenly have access to thousands of old comic books I've never read before, including most of the back catalog of Top Shelf, Dark Horse and Boom! Studios. And this also includes the first three published books by adored indie artist Jeffrey Brown, his so-called "Ex-Girlfriend Trilogy," so I've decided to take them on once a month from now until Christmas.

Now, admittedly, I've already read Brown's charming series of recent books exploring the adventures of new dad Darth Vader and his precocious children Luke and Leia, so I know already that he eventually learns as a comics artist to write actual coherent gags and to develop a professional drawing style; because otherwise, I probably would've been just as offended by the sloppy amateurism of his first book, 2003's Clumsy, as so many other angry, angry reviewers at Goodreads are. And they have every right to be that angry, because it seems almost a crime against humanity that a cartoonist this bad should have racked up such a huge amount of accolades and fans at the beginning of his career; because to be clear, not only are the vignettes in Clumsy (all of them concerning a long-distance girlfriend he seems to have had in...college?) these non-narrative little pointless slice-of-life pieces, but they're not even particularly interesting slices of that life, in many cases seeming to be just literally some random afternoon that Brown happened to pluck out of his memory where absolutely nothing happened and there's no interesting story to relate.

I have to admit, it makes for a maddening reading experience, and will inspire many to angrily shake their iPad and scream, "Jesus fucking Christ, Brown, won't you just write at least one goddamn story that I was actually glad I took the 60 seconds to read, for God's sake??!!" Thankfully, though, he seems to have finally gotten that message by here in the 2010s; so that will make it an interesting experience over the next few months to get caught up with all his books between then and now, and to see how this progression into actual readable comics displays itself over the course of fifteen years. I'll keep you apprised of the latest; but for now, I most decidedly do not recommend starting with this first book of his, which runs the risk of ruining your tolerance for him before you ever get even close to the good stuff.

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:40 AM, October 19, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

Book Review: Renee Gladman, "Calamities"

Calamities, by Renee Gladman

(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.)

By Renee Gladman
Wave Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Renee Gladman, like many authors, tends to return to a handful of concerns. Most central of them is the complications of language, the turns a book of any sort takes as soon as it leaves the writer's mind and comes onto paper. This theme sat at the center of her 2008 book To After That (Toaf), an extended essay about why she didn't finish writing her novel After That. It's a fascinating book, and one that provides us a window into this one; its ultimate conclusion is that not even an author can truly know their own work. This theme strikes back hard with this book. Gladman's work usually sits on the fault line between fiction and poetry, which I was expecting here, especially based on a) its title and b) the post-apocalyptic concerns of works like Juice and Newcomer Can't Swim, works that describe the build-up to and aftermath of catastrophes without describing the catastrophes themselves. Here, as with To After That, we see Gladman essaying. To say it suits her would be an understatement; I'd wager it's her finest work yet.

The style of these essays, all of them short, is so impressionistic that it's probably safe to call these works "essay-poems" instead of essays proper. She recites a whole litany of feelings she has when she wakes up, recounts her impressions of working with her creative writing students, puts herself in dialog with the work that has influenced her (Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni comes up frequently), and, eventually deciding that what she wants to create is a "picture-feeling" (also the title of one of her works), takes up drawing alongside writing. Drawing helps her confront some of her anxiety about written communication, but this inevitably complicates as well, as she describes in the novel's climactic "Eleven Calamities" section, which rapidly balloons into fourteen calamities as more complexities of communication emerge.

Sounds like an essay so far, or at least a particularly focused memoir. Yet it also shares the minimalism that Gladman has worked with since Juice, a minimalism so austere that the reader is often left to draw their own connections between events and feelings. Gladman favors strategic section breaks, cutting out of her essays at strange times and entering other spaces. She writes about a desire to give one of her books "trees, architecture, people. Buildings first, then people" (53) and then jumps to "looking into the cover of a book called the Fold for a sign" (54). Or she'll speculate about her own process on one page (page 106, specifically) and then drink a cup of coffee on 107, as though her own process drains her. So it's a great writer-on-writing book, but it's an even better communicator-on communication book, and that's really the key to it.

Out of 10: 9.5

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, October 19, 2016. Filed under:

October 14, 2016

Book Review: "The Great Ordeal (The Aspect Emperor: Book Three)," by R. Scott Bakker

(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 Great Ordeal, by R. Scott Bakker
The Great Ordeal (The Aspect-Emperor: Book Three)
By R. Scott Bakker
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The Great Ordeal by Canadian fantasy author R. Scott Bakker is the third book in the trilogy The Aspect-Emperor. That trilogy follows the first trilogy called The Prince of Nothing. Since detailing the multistrand storyline of The Great Ordeal would involve a heavy amount of spoilers and summarizing a plot just as epic and complex as the The Song of Ice and Fire series, I'm going to review the novel in the spirit of a brand profile. (I've written brand profiles in my recommendations over at Alcoholmanac. It's a convenient way to give an overview of several products. So consider this review somewhere between flavor text and tasting notes.)

Thought experiment: George R. R. Martin is The Beatles. R. Scott Bakker is The Velvet Underground. (Full disclosure: I haven't read any of George R. R. Martin's books from The Song of Ice and Fire, but I have read enough reviews of said books to have an elementary knowledge of their plotting, atmosphere, and characters.) The comparison is less about a specific author's Coolness Factor and more about the tone of their world-building. While Martin's work hearkens back to medieval Europe, Bakker's novels focus on a world akin to the latter days of the Byzantine Empire. It is a world devastated by The First Apocalypse. Magic and sorcery play out against an incredibly complex political backdrop.

The Prince of Nothing trilogy follows a warrior of unknown provenance by the name of Anasurimbor Kellhus and a lone sorcerer named Drusus Achamian. Kellhus rapidly ascends the political ladder, eventually becoming Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas, and reconquering most of the continent of Earwa. Drusus Achamian follows Kellhus during the battles and political squabbles that fuel his meteoric rise. Achamian is also a member of a disgraced sect cursed by witnessing the events of the First Apocalypse whenever they dream. Achamian's mission is to prevent the Second Apocalypse and the rise of the Unholy Consult, a long-defunct group known for its skin-spies. (Think Facehugger from the Aliens series and a biomechanical creature that can mimic a person's face.)

Before we go any further, another consideration. George R.R. Martin wrote for TV before embarking on his epic masterpiece. R. Scott Bakker has a MA in theory and worked toward a PhD in philosophy before ultimately abandoning it. Bakker, through a kind of literary alchemy, has created a darkly epic fantasy series that balances a strong narrative drive with challenging philosophical discussions. He has also created an epic series that pays homage to its genre heritage, while simultaneously ripping apart its central tropes. The Lord of the Rings had a Chosen One (Frodo Baggins) along with the forces of Good and Evil so stark one could see it from space. Bakker subverts both tropes with anarchic glee.

In the world of the Three Seas, Kellhus is unambiguously The Chosen One. He is incredibly smart, powerful, virile, and both a religious and political leader. He can also be cold, distant, emotionless to the point of inhumanity, and brutally genocidal. He comes from a secretive northern group called The Dunyain. As Bakker explains in the glossary, "A monastic sect whose members have repudiated history and animal appetite in the hope of finding absolute enlightenment through control of all desire and circumstance." Throughout The Great Ordeal he confronts his greatest generals, daring them to see the fraud of his military campaign and his manipulative nature. While fighting the Sranc, a remnant creature created during the First Apocalypse, these generals endure a crisis of faith. It is further complicated when the campaign stretches beyond its normal capacity and Kellhus orders his soldiers to eat Sranc, an act they first find blasphemous and obscene. As the campaign proceeds, the men turn this one blasphemous act into a kind of Bacchanalian revel with overtones of cannibalism.

Throughout the books Kellhus can come across as an insufferable pedant. Like a cruel professor dissecting a vulnerable undergraduate with cutting remarks and an intimidating intellect. He constantly appears as a deus ex machina, saving the day at the last possible moment. In most books this would be annoying and lazy. But Bakker throws a wrench in the works. Is Kellhus really a benevolent Chosen One or is he a demon in disguise? We never know for sure. Are his acts motivated by the greater good or is he doing everything for his own selfish reasons?

I mentioned virility before. The Aspect-Emperor trilogy also details the domestic lives of his many children. His children range from emotionless zombies to insane psychopaths. The major storyline in this new trilogy is Achamian's reunion with Mimara, his daughter. Mimara becomes the focus of his journey to Kellhus's native land and the revelation that she has The Judging Eye. Her ability to see one's true morality is a frightening power. The Great Ordeal puts the chess pieces in place for the inevitable confrontation between Mimara and Kellhus. Will she be able to divine her father's true morality?

Kellhus is a character who embodies reason and logic taken its irrational extreme. While the major infrastructure of The Great Ordeal is epic fantasy, Bakker populates his world things influences from sources as disparate as Dune and Aliens. It is familiar and unfamiliar both at once. Bakker also writes with stylistic flourishes by turns baroque and decadent. It is the overblown, hothouse flower style that hooked me from the beginning, coupled with a complex world riven with violence and beauty. Here is an early battle between the Ordealmen and the Sranc:

"The skirmishes were as brief as they were brutal. Screeching creatures hacked and skewered in a shadowy world of violence and dust. Afterward, the horsemen - be they Imperial Kidruhil, caste-noble knights, or tribal plainsmen - would pile the dead into conical heaps, hundreds of them, until they dotted the blasted hillocks and pastures of the coast. There they would stand, cairns of fish-white carcasses, gathering flies and carrion birds, awaiting the shining tide that approached from the southwestern horizon."

Bakker's Canadian roots shine through as he describes these knights and sorcerers ranging across vast untamed wilds. If you are waiting for George R.R. Martin's next book to come out, make sure to read some R. Scott Bakker. It's epic fantasy of an entirely different flavor, alien and grimdark, convoluted and terrifying beautiful.
Out of 10/9.0 and 10 for epic fantasy fans who like it grimdark and brimming with complexity.
Read even more about The Great Ordeal: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, October 14, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

October 12, 2016

First Time Around: "Run, River," by Joan Didion

Run River, by Joan Didion

It's easy to see why some people just don't like Joan Didion. Granted, I would invite them to reread one of her sentences and consider how well her stuff works from a tonal perspective, but I still get the argument against her, and nowhere is it more evident than Run, River. A typical argument against Didion's work goes something like this: her books are so centered on the lives of affluent Californians that they don't really contain the insight the press kits attribute to her. It's sort of the Woody Allen problem all over again, but in L.A. instead of New York. Now, I'd argue that later Didion novels like Play it As it Lays (which is excellent) and A Book of Common Prayer (which is really nothing special) contain plenty of insight into the delusions of these types, especially when surrounded by the world around them. Maybe Run, River does, too, but I'm going to be up-front and say I didn't enjoy this book, certainly not the way I've enjoyed other Didion novels.

Part of it really is a matter of what's at stake, because yes, it is hard for me as a reader to access this sort of "lifestyles of the California elite" thing. Our protagonist, Lily McClellan, is the daughter of a man who runs for governor of California and fails, as well as an ancestor of the original California pioneers. She marries the rich Everett McClellan and parties with the powerful, she goes off to an elite boarding school and gains a reputation for being aloof, which sort of eats her up inside (this I like, this I get, but this I do not see enough of), she has a maid and a cook and servants and all of this other stuff, and yes okay I'm certainly not the first reader who struggles with the sympathy thing. But like I always say, forget about sympathy. Any writer can pull a few strings and hey-presto you like the protagonist. The problem is I don't feel as though I understand Lily McClellan more coming out of this book than I did on the outset. This wasn't a problem at all with Play it As it Lays' protagonist, Maria Wyeth, but it's one of this novel's biggest flaws. I don't feel alongside Lily, I don't feel the importance of the events, and in such a character-driven novel that's something of an Achilles heel.

Another flaw of this novel is the bagginess of the prose. I hold Didion the prose stylist in high esteem - her sharp sentences enliven even so-so novels like A Book of Common Prayer, to say nothing of great works like Play it As it Lays, Democracy or her unimpeachable nonfiction. She had yet to develop that style here, which I suppose is an inevitable consequence of this being her first novel. In its place come sentences that just sort of go, sentences that get bogged down with nouns and modifiers. It makes the novel slow going, and more importantly than that, not particularly rewarding going. The novel's opening episodes, which recount Everett's murder of a friend and neighbor, are especially afflicted by this stylistic decision. Moments like this should be terse and gripping, and the later Didion turned plenty of terse, gripping suspense scenes by way of her terse, gripping prose. Here the suspense, the immediacy of things, gets lost.

The bagginess isn't just frustrating on a readability level, either. I don't mind long, dense sentences if they're applied to the right effect. It's also a lesson as to how matters of style build substance, the way an author's word choice transforms the reader's perception of the text. It's not enough to simply include suspenseful material, such as the opening murder; just as important is the writer's ability to write in such a way that creates suspense. The terse style Didion developed would later help her in this regard, as her jagged sentences conveyed the feeling that something could go wrong with every turn of the page. Of course this is something many fiction writers struggle with; the quest for perfect sentences and tone is long and often fruitless, and of course a worthwhile endeavor just the same. Didion would get closer to it than most as her career wound on, but at this early stage she just wasn't there yet.

Now, I don't want to harp too hard on this book, although it looks like I have. Didion does come up with some compelling plot elements, including her efforts to expose the darker side of California culture, a few well-turned moments with Lily in boarding school, and above all, Didion's always-wonderful sense of deadpan sarcasm. Yes, they're more embryonic, but the kernel of what makes Didion such a vital and important writer is here for anyone looking to extract it. I'd argue it's more scholarly interest in that sense, where her later works certainly merit to be read for their own sake, but what can I say? I like to like books, I don't like to bash books, I'm going to look for good things and tout them if they're around. What's more, Didion herself has rather renounced this book as "false nostalgia," and based on her change of style, she lost interest in its style as well as its content. So the novel comes off as something of a false start, comparable to the great Vonnegut's Player Piano, which come to think of it just might be the book I review next month. You heard it here first.

So, with all that in mind, let's talk about Joan Didion's evolution as a novelist, because it does present an interesting case. I've yet to read her fifth and most recent novel, 1996's The Last Thing He Wanted (did Didion lose interest in writing fiction or what?), but what I know about it fits in line with my theory. Her first four certainly split her into two periods. This and Play it As it Lays make up what I call her "California years," where she writes about the cultural myths and realities of her home state, a theme she returned to with 2003's extended essay Where I Was From. This also comes up a lot in her early nonfiction, particularly breakthrough collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem (but also The White Album, for my money her best book). The essays also tie the California myth to the American myth and the turbulence of '60s culture.

Things change considerably as she moves into the '80s. I don't have any facts on this, but I imagine the Iran-Contra Affair made its mark on Didion. She becomes fascinated with Latin America here, and not just the region itself but American intervention in it. Her three last novels are all set in the region, as well as her chilling monograph Salvador; another monograph, Miami, focuses on the relationship between anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida and the CIA. What's more, A Book of Common Prayer presents Didion in transition, as she places the sort of privileged Californians she wrote so contemptuously of in her early books in a chaotic fictional Central American country. It's not a perfect book, but it's definitely an interesting one. As an aside, Didion also has a third phase, one that she seems best known for: the grieving memoirist of The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. There are of course all sorts of sexist implications of the fact that Didion's books mourning her husband and daughter are more famous than her novels and reportage, but they're still books well worth reading. Just make sure you don't stop there.

I hope you enjoyed my Didion mini-retrospective; I sort of wish she'd publish something new so I could justify a more extended run through it, like I did with DeLillo. Sadly she's slowed down over the years, but I suppose that's just as well; she's since gone on to find a lot of success in the field, more than most writers do, and of course she's become one of the most acclaimed American authors as well. So if anyone's earned the right to a break, it's her. Getting back to Run, River, it's hard to put too much fault on Didion here. After all, this is a first effort, with all the problems and markings, all the successes and abandoned paths I associate with such things. Still, it's the most overtly flawed Didion book I've read, and given how good she got, I believe the interested reader is better off sticking to her later books than starting at the beginning and moving forward. Chalk it up to a case of a novelist still needing some time to develop, I suppose. Definitely one of the more flawed novels I've covered in this series.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, October 12, 2016. Filed under:

October 5, 2016

Book Review: "Fried Chicken, Jesus and Chocolate, by Fergus mac Roich"

Fried Chicken, Chocolate, and Jesus, by Fergus MacRoich

Fried Chocolate, Jesus and Chocolate
By Fergus MacRoich
America Star Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I don't know, I just feel this book could've dug in a lot harder than it actually did. It seems to me that Fergus MacRoich really wanted this to be an unflinching view of poverty, told mainly from the perspective of a boy named Ishmael, although the first two chapters come from the perspective of his heroin-addicted mother, who keeps him in an orange crate but neglects him so badly that he feeds on dead bugs he plucks off spider webs (if you've noticed the juxtaposition of delicious oranges against disgusting insects it's because MacRoich fashioned it into a hammer and hit you over the head with it); because of this, he comes to believe that his mother is a spider on the wall, an interesting-enough concept that isn't offered sufficient development and therefore comes off as saccharine. Simply put, I don't need these sort of overtly tragic gestures to tell me that Ishmael's poor treatment at the hands of his mother is a tragedy. He ends up first in the care of his grandmother and then in a boys' home, which of course mean the tragedies pile on both his caretakers and him.

So okay, MacRoich paints in incredibly broad strokes, and okay, none of his characters really transcend the realm of cliché. I'd be able to forgive this if he wrote with any real flair, but this isn't the case at all. Instead, MacRoich writes exclusively in short, jerky sentences, the kind that could provide an unexpected jolt to an-otherwise loquacious and flowing paragraph but becomes quite wearing when it's page after page of "Thomas talked to his self. His tongue didn't know no silence. Had to name every thing he took in. Mrs. Miller couldn't help being her self neither" (247) with no breaks. Not only is the effect stultifying, it also serves to broaden the strokes MacRoich paints with. His insistence on leaping away from every point as quickly as possible keeps him from diving into the moment, embodying what he's doing, really bringing me into the story in any meaningful way. There are, let's face it, a lot of books about a child coming of age as a result of poverty and personal tragedy. Compelling narratives in this mold, and of course in general, rely on detail to set them apart and give a sense of verisimilitude. MacRoich does not.

On a more fun note, "Fergus mac Roich" is also the name of a mythological Celtic warrior of myth who spent most of time besting foes in single combat and apparently had a more insatiable libido than Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and Mick Jagger combined. Disney won't film his myths anytime soon. I hadn't heard of Fergus mac Roich, warrior until I looked up Fergus MacRoich, author. So that's cool, I guess.

Out of 10: 4.0

Read even more about Fried Chicken, Jesus and Chocolate: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, October 5, 2016. Filed under:

September 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road," by Abbie Bernstein

(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 Art of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Abbie Bernstein
The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road
By Abbie Bernstein
Foreword by George Miller
Titan Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
It can be said without exaggeration that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the past fifteen years. It arrived in theaters at an auspicious time. George Miller's visionary cinematic masterpiece hit the pop culture consciousness just two years after Snowpiercer. Like Joon-ho Bong's rabble-rousing actioner, Mad Max: Fury Road involved a charismatic hero, a world beset by ecocide and tyranny, and exemplary world-building. While books detailing the behind the scenes stories of pop culture properties is nothing new, The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein offers a fascinating glimpse at George Miller's creative process. Also, obviously, awesome concept art for Mad Max's Interceptor, the War Rig, and Gigahorse. If you are a gearhead, this book is for you. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, this book is for you. If you like both, you probably either own or have read a copy.

Let's put it this way: I bought The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road new at a major bookstore chain. Why? Because it is important to support a cinematic genius like George Miller. (This is coming from someone without a gram of AdBlocker guilt. Yes, supporting people on social media is important, but I'll be damned if I sit through a shrill ad or have my information sold to a third-party without my consent. Especially given how comically poor security is with gigantic corporate entities like Yahoo!, Target, and others. Soap box filibusters are mediocre. They are not shiny and chrome.)

Mad Max: Fury Road's long gestation period and its imprimatur as a personal project make this otherwise standard movie tie-in book stand out. We see how the movie originated as a single storyboard way back in 1999. An extended pre-production process can sometimes doom movies, but in this case, the vision was refined and refined. Then distilled and polished. The end product is an action movie ever bit as distinguished and idiosyncratic as Touch of Evil or David Lynch's Dune.

Bernstein further illuminates the world with profiles of the main characters. It was fascinating learning about each of Immortan Joe's five brides. In the action and excitement of the movie, they had the tendency to blur into a single collective character. Hugh Keay-Byrne also explains Immortan Joe's actions. "I'm faced with the an army of people who are dying at a massive rate from the pollution of the environment. So I have a breeding program, I have blood banks, I have milk banks, I have hydroponics, anything to keep this up." Because the earth has been so ravaged, Immortan Joe can be seen as having good intentions. Except his good intentions are harnessed to a militaristic, authoritarian, and misogynist regime. He faces the rogue actions of Imperator Furiosa by claiming his brides are his property and wanting to put a bullet in Furiosa's head. (And here would be an inevitable comparison of the two antagonists to our upcoming electoral choices for president. Mediocre!)

The book also puts to rest where Fury Road falls within the Mad Max continuity. According to Brendan McCarthy, the screenwriter, "The world is so toxic that the human race is collapsing. In the earlier Mad Max trilogy, the first film was a biker revenge movie, the second was about the commodity of oil and the third one, humourously, was about everybody fighting over pig manure. We wanted to take that away and actually make this about the ultimate commodity: the human race itself - about sperm and wombs and women and men." So technically, Fury Road would take place several years after Beyond Thunderdome, where even Aunty Entity's attempts to create a stable political situation have collapsed. The world of Fury Road is neo-medieval.

Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won six: Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. Its numerous accolades is testament to George Miller's visual storytelling style and the collaborative spirit of everyone involved. Despite its fantastical premise, the film felt real and live-in. Miller's philosophy of using practical effects whenever possible further reinforced the film's feel and look. The end product is a harsh dystopia, but one that looks beautiful and hand-crafted.

Out of 10/8.5 and 10 for Mad Max fans.

Read even more about The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, September 30, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |

September 28, 2016

Book Review: "I'll Tell You in Person," by Chloe Caldwell

I'll Tell You in Person, by Chloe Caldwell

(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.)

I'll Tell You in Person
By Chloe Caldwell
Emily Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Get ready to find out a lot about Chloe Caldwell, who you might remember as the author of Women. How she's been through bad relationships, how she's come to relate to her sexuality over the years, how she's been addicted to various drugs (including, in the particularly stomach-churning "Soul Killer," heroin). She's given surveys to complete strangers and has struck up a friendship with maybe the most prominent woman author under thirty (Caldwell elected not to name her, so I'm doing the same to honor her wishes, but if she is who I think she is she's indeed quite famous) and abandoned singing and traveled to Berlin. "I'll Tell You In Person" couldn't be a more apt title for such a work, a work that defies the conventions of confessional literature yet still has a confessional bent, and indeed Caldwell claims in an interview that she never had any other title for this book in mind.

This is now the second Caldwell book I've read, and her work is marked by a remarkable sense of honesty. It's sort of like reading someone passing through a process of self-acceptance. See, she never wallows the way Salinger can wallow, nor does she approach the anger that Sylvia Plath made her own. Rather, she strikes me as someone trying to reach an understanding of both her decisions and the events in her life. Which isn't to say she's not vulnerable. When reporting on her high school experiences ("The Music and the Boys") and the period of her life when she and a coworker met strangers at their apartments to give them surveys ("Prime Meats"), she seems a little embarrassed, if anything. Perhaps unnecessarily, especially in the case of the teenage essay, but I'm not going to judge her on those terms, it would rather seem to defeat the purpose.

It's not all confessions, though. There's a terrific piece on grief ("Maggie and Me," about the sudden passing of acclaimed slam poet Maggie Estes) that exists as one of five pieces about Caldwell's relationship with other women; some romances, some friendships, and in the case of the humorous and often-touching "Sisterless," her relationship with a close friend's daughter. There's also plenty of humor to keep things from getting too heavy, as on "Failing Singing," an insightful piece about how we all get old and give up pursuits and the inevitable truth that there's always someone better. As someone who gave up piano and saxophone lessons to focus on my own writing, I sure can relate. Yet even the humor has a dark side. "Yodels" is at first a fun trip through comfort food and nostalgia, but it offers hints at her future addiction; it might be the most insightful and wrecking-ball-like piece here.

So I enjoyed this thoroughly. Caldwell's voice might be a little too manic for some readers, and the self she puts forward isn't always the most flattering, but I think she gets a better collection out of it for showing her faults so earnestly and - this is the key, isn't it? - examining them so unflinchingly.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about I'll Tell You In Person: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 28, 2016. Filed under:

September 23, 2016

Book Review: "Elephant Vice," by Chris Meekings

(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.)
Elephant Vice, by Chris Meekings
Elephant Vice
By Chris Meekings
Eraserhead Press/New Bizarro Author Series
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
After an influx of an illegal drug hits the coast community of Maybe Beach, two cops are called on to solve the case. Since this is a bizarro novella by Eraserhead Press, things will get weird pretty fast. It turns out the two cops called in are Vincent van Gogh and Ganesha. This mismatched pair learns that this new drug "turns people into the object their essence most resembles." Chris Meekins, part of Eraserhead's stable of new authors, seamlessly brings together an absurdist premise around a gripping cop thriller story. No easy task, since the pairing could fall into the domain of camp. The humor bubbles to the surface because every character is played straight.

As the story develops, we learn about a rogue gang of flamingos and meet Ganesha's assistant, Trish. She's a normal girl except she has bubblegum for hair and drives Ganesha and Vincent around in a filled bathtub. Meekings keeps the plot lunging forward as Vincent and Ganesha discover more and more dead bodies killed by the drug. We also learn about a mysterious character named M. Equal parts hard-boiled detective novel and Art History 101, Elephant Vice had me riveted right up to the end. For those who like their fiction a little strange, this is the novel for you. Violence, romance, thwarted love, jealousy, and a Hindu God and the master of French Post-Impressionism teaming up to solve crimes.
Out of 10/9.0
Read even more about Elephant Vice: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, September 23, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

September 22, 2016

Book Review: "American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story" by Tom Acitelli

(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.)

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, by Tom Acitelli

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story
By Tom Acitelli
Chicago Review Press
Reviewed by

For those who don't know, instead of doing one or two New Year's "resolutions" at the beginning of each year, I actually chart out an entire new year-long "plan" for myself, containing 40 to 50 new things I want to try or old habits to break, which is why it seems sometimes that I'm constantly referencing an endless list of them here at the blog as the year continues. One of these items in 2016 was to finally teach myself more about wine, not to a sommelier level or anything, but just enough so I no longer embarrass myself at restaurants; and so that's had me not only doing professional-style tasting notes of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes at my pop-culture blog all year, and renting out every single movie Netflix even carries on the subject, but also checking out a lot of wine books from my local library, especially brand-new ones which the Chicago Public Library system seems to be acquiring at a faster-than-usual rate these days.

American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is the absolute latest, an informative and fact-based look at how the US went from producing zero public wine at all during Prohibition, to becoming the world's leader in both production and consumption by 2000, a scant 70 years later. The answer, it turns out, is a long and fascinating one, and also nicely serves as a mirror for the entire Postmodernist Era to begin with: from the post-war Europhiles of the 1950s who dreamed of a day that Americans would have the casual yet sophisticated relationship to wine that they saw in France and Italy while overseas; to the daring California hippies of the 1960s and '70s who aimed for the so-called "impossible" goal of making wine just as good as the French (SPOILER ALERT: it's not impossible); to the yuppies of the '80s who made the American wine industry both mainstream and lucrative; to the Gen-X foodies of the '90s and '00s who brought a whole new level of refinement to the market, as well as embracing wines from such interesting new places like Seattle and Portland; to the Millennials of our own times, comfortable with the casual screw-tops and hipster labels of 21st-century fine wine, even as they present a challenge to the American market because of their embrace of the so-called "New World" wines of Australia, South Africa, South America and more.

Tom Acitelli presents this entire 70-year history in an engaging, anecdote-filled way here, an informative yet fun-to-read manuscript filled with the kinds of details and deep backstory that makes the history finally understandable. (Just for one example, many of us already know about the 1976 so-called "Judgment of Paris," in which a bunch of American wines beat a bunch of French wines in a blind tasting and became a major global turning point for the industry; but Acitelli devotes an entire chapter to who the guy was who set up the tasting and why that's so important, how it got covered by the media and why it made that particular tasting so influential, etc.) The whole book is like this, a parade of famous and infamous figures combined with a detail-oriented look at the winemaking process, how the historical selection of grapes by these wineries (as well as the technological innovations of the Mid-Century Modernist years) influenced this process, and how the popular culture going on around these winemakers shaped and influenced this history. (It's impossible to understand the rise of American wine, for example, without understanding the rise of the macrame-making, yoga-posing, James-Taylor-listening middle-class hippies of the 1970s, and Acitelli devotes a lot of his page count simply to looking at what the Americans with discretionary income were doing with their time in each era to influence the wine market in those years.) Easily one of the best books on the subject I've read this year, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is a lively and wide-reaching account of a subject that's often hard to pin down, and it comes strongly recommended whether or not you're particularly into wine yourself.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 22, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

September 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Hatred of Poetry," by Ben Lerner

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner

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

The Hatred of Poetry
By Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Ben Lerner, himself a poet, makes a bold claim near the start of this book: that poetry is "an art hated from within and without" (6). He even offers an example of a poet who hates poetry, Marianne Moore, who seems to view her own art more as a necessary evil than anything else. I suppose to a degree you have to agree with Lerner's thesis that poetry is a widely-hated thing to get where he's coming from here. I'd say there's a chance he's exaggerating a little. While I know plenty of people in the anti-poetry camp, penty of others love both reading and writing it and I imagine they might find Lerner's claim that it's a widely-hated art in need of defense a little bizarre. Yet it's easy to see why in the twenty-first century, with poetry at its least publically visible, why the time might've come for someone to stick up for it.

Lerner's declaration is bold and his method of defending poetry is even bolder. Much of it is built on an acknowledgment of the genre's shortcomings. He begins his defense by citing Plato, who found no place for poets in his Republic and who derided poetry for being a pale imitation of our thought. This is the basis of his argument, and he moves through it quite well, citing the various failures of poets over the centuries. Everyone from William McGonagall, widely considered the worst poet in history, to giants like Walt Whitman come into play. According to Lerner, all of these poets attempt to "transcend representation and defeat time" (30), McGonagall through his bizarre juxtapositions and bizarre rhythms, Whitman by attempting to at once speak for himself and the whole of the United States. After acknowledging this flaw, he then flips it on its head by bringing up Claudia Rankine, whom he argues solves the issue of "transcending representation and defeating time" by writing extended essay-poems precisely about the difficulty of that issue.

Lerner's analysis of other poets is strong, and if I can't say I was convinced by his arguments, it's only because I see the necessity of poetry anyway. Suffice it to say he makes me think a little harder about Rankine and Whitman, and suffice it also to say that it's fun to see McGonagall's "Tay Bridge Disaster" raked over the coals. While I'm here, it's also comforting to know that someone agrees with my theory that terrible art has more in common with great art than it does with mediocre art. So if anything's missing here, it's Lerner himself. He writes extensively about his own relationship with poetry - reciting the Moore poem in question while in ninth grade, studying under poet Allen Grossman - and yet I still wonder about Lerner's own process, his own frustrations with poetry. He claims to have a tumultuous relationship with the genre from the outset, but any sense of that tumult we get is more abstract, more academic. Which is great, which makes for some fine analysis, but I do rather wish he'd turned that analysis inward.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about The Hatred of Poetry: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 21, 2016. Filed under:

September 20, 2016

CCLaP Rare: "Armadale" by Wilkie Collins (1866), 1st American Ed., 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, 1st Am. Ed. 1st Printing

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

Armadale (1866)
By Wilkie Collins
First American Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins has sadly started to slip into obscurity here in the 21st century, or at least he's no longer a household name like his good buddy Charles Dickens still is; and that's a shame, because Collins was actually the second biggest-selling novelist of the entire 19th century (next to Dickens himself), and the man who virtually invented what we now know as "noir" or "detective" tales, which at the time was called "sensation stories" by a scandalized public. Take Armadale, for example, the third of his explosively popular barnburner epics from the 1860s (after The Lady in White, the book he's still most remembered for, and the equally popular No Name); clocking in at just under a thousand pages, it tells a convoluted story about three different generations of men all named Allen Armadale, and how a family feud turned into a curse that was passed down from father to son to grandson, fated to ruin the lives of all the Armadale men no matter what they might do to try to stop it.

Hmm, or is it? That's the question under discussion in this surprisingly modern-sounding tale, of whether we are destined to befall to things like family fates or whether we have control via free will over our futures, told mostly through the story of the youngest Armadale and his bizarrely coincidental adventures with the cousin who supposedly is fated to be his killer, who has changed his name to Ozias Midwinter and has spent his twenties as a vagabond specifically to avoid this curse, just to end up through strange random circumstances within Armadale's closest circles against his will. Granted, a big part of enjoying this book is being able to accept the ludicrous amounts of coincidences and deus ex machina plot turns that make this story work, a forte of Collins' writing and something that used to be a much more common element of this genre, back before the 20th century pared it down into the more hardboiled version we know today; but it also has all the hallmarks of the kind of noir stories we enjoy even in the 21st century, including all the sex and violence within a tranquil domestic environment you would expect, and Collins' trademark emphasis on strong, complex and layered female characters, something nearly unheard of in his day (and not too common even in our own age, to tell the truth). For any collector interested in the seminal 1800s books that eventually produced our modern literary genres, Wilkie Collins' work is a must-have in your library; and at its extremely affordable price today (but see "Condition" below for more), this makes a great addition for beginners and those on a budget.

CONDITION: Good Minus (G-). Today's copy being auctioned admittedly has several major condition issues, which is why it's being sold for the affordable price it is (copies in Fine condition go for literally ten times the amount). Flaws include an outer spine cover that fell off sometime in the past and was glued back on; an inner flap page that comes included with the book but that has been completely torn out; a second signature that is intact but loose; browned page edges; and just the tiniest start of foxing on the inner flaps. Issued without a dust jacket. Note that this is the first American edition, which was released to the public a month before the British edition, including an advertisement for Harpers Weekly that serves as the first printed page of the manuscript.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at The Strand bookstore, New York City, July 2012.

eBay auction

(If coming across this in the future, see CCLaP's main page at eBay for the relisted auction URL)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 20, 2016. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

September 16, 2016

Book Review: "Dangerous Stories for Boys," by Christopher Bernard

(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.)
Dangerous Stories for Boys, by Christopher Bernard
Dangerous Stories for Boys
By Christopher Bernard
A Press of Rabble
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Christopher Bernard's new collection of short stories, Dangerous Stories for Boys is a mixed bag by turns frustrating, astonishing, and off-putting. Since this is the second collection of short stories of Bernard's I've reviewed, I've come to the realization I like his long-form work much better. Since reviews are a product of subjectivity and personal taste, the inevitable Your Mileage May Vary caveat remains in place. The issue being there were stories I liked, stories I didn't like, and a story that seemed totally out of place in the collection.

Bernard shoulders the difficult task of contemplating where the white heterosexual male fits in modern US culture. This is no idle musing or patriarchal challenge. Unfortunately, as the short story collection moves along, it becomes the case of well-meaning intentions bungled in execution. One longer story follows a teenage blogger writing strident screeds about things wrong with the world. Much of the story's content had merit. Parents don't understand. Rampant racism and idiocy. Teenage love. The problem was I couldn't get beyond the fact that it was written by a middle-aged man trying to sound like a teen. Everything had the feel of world-weary wisdom. Although the term "authentic" is over-used and borderline meaningless, especially when used to describe cuisine and politicians, the teen didn't sound authentic. It's a challenging perspective to make sound right.

While that story rubbed me the wrong way, another long piece near the end tells about a misbegotten flirtation between a moody high school guy and a Muslim girl who wear a veil to cover her face. He begins obsessing over her beautiful eyes and they have touching conversations. If he pries too deep, she chides him, saying, "FBI! FBI!" Then she suddenly disappears, the guy suspecting it might be an honor killing. We never know for sure, as his amateur investigations turn into an unhealthy obsession. It is Vertigo meets Atlas Shrugged. I bring up the latter work because during his obsessive quest to find the Muslim girl, he contemplates American culture, feminism and Islam, and the dress codes of American and Muslim women. He contemplates and then contemplates some more. The narrative, propelled forward with the intensity of a thriller, slams to a complete halt. The story ends with his embrace of Islam, leaving me with a bad aftertaste. Mainly because he seemed a bright young man suddenly turned into a credulous toady. I didn't buy it.

The final story is Franz Kafka's father writing his son a letter. It seemed interesting, but came across as a literary stunt. The piece felt out of place, especially coming on the heels of the love story/thriller/non-fiction essay. My biggest critique of these stories stems not from their overall intention, but more from the fact Bernard was using a cudgel instead of a scalpel. The title also was a bit too on-the-nose for me. When approaching something like American masculinity, the best approach isn't a frontal attack or scathing critique.
Out of 10/8.0
Read even more about Dangerous Stories for Boys: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, September 16, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

September 14, 2016

First Time Around: "The Edible Woman," by Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

(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.)

Now, I don't have any figures or anything to back this up, but I'll bet that when readers hear the name "Margaret Atwood," the first thing that comes to mind is feminism. Now, I don't have a problem with feminism, so this doesn't bother me too much. Definitely not from the ideological perspective, although I'd raise the point that the feminist overtones of Atwood's work tend to be something of a critical black hole. Her interaction with fables, fairy tales and science fiction, her substantial formal experiments (2000's the Blind Assassin, which layered four narratives, is her biggest gamble and probably finest work), her strong prose sensibilities and her ability to write well-rounded characters tend to take a backseat to gender issues. Obviously gender issues are an important part of what Atwood does - this part of the discourse around her certainly isn't the result of English majors reading too much into her work - but they really oughtn't be ignored by anyone trying to figure out just what it is Margaret Atwood does.

With all of that said, it's hard to miss the feminism in the Edible Woman. As I said, gender never really goes away in her works, but some of them feature it more prominently than others. Obviously the Handmaid's Tale, her massively acclaimed and massively popular 1985 novel, is built around the role women play in the world and their oppression at the hands of society, where a novel like 1989's Cat's Eye seems to take it on more as a secondary concern. With the Edible Woman, it comes to the fore, maybe more than anything else I've read by her except the Handmaid's Tale. Of course, you can get that from the jacket flap. Marian, preparing for marriage with the solid but also bland and demanding Peter, first finds herself unable to eat, then finds herself feeling eaten. Really that's the plot in a nutshell, but it's missing a few key points, so let us dive in.

Marian works at a survey company and rooms with a woman named Ainsley. Marian, of course, is preparing for marriage with Peter. However, Peter has mixed feelings about the oncoming marriage, as he's afraid of settling down. Certainly he's noticed a difference in his married college friends and wouldn't want that for himself. For her part, Ainsley is determined to have a baby, but does not want it to know its father. So already we see conflicting messages about the role of women, Ainsley embracing motherhood as a beautiful thing, Peter rejecting a wife as a burden. Complicating Marion's impression of herself as a woman further is her married friend Clara, who rather loathes and is completely beholden to her three children.

Even before the plot's complications kick in, Marian struggles to situate her image of herself as a soon-to-be wife. Things complicate seriously when she meets a young man named Duncan, a student whose behavior is sometimes cruel, sometimes socially inept, always indifferent to any sort of consequences. He shows little regard for Marian's feelings, yet she finds herself oddly drawn to him, perhaps because he has so deliberately removed himself from the societal models Marian finds frustrating. They become entangled, and their entanglement inevitably clashes against her engagement with Peter. Around when she becomes involved with Duncan, she finds herself unable to eat. Meats first, as it occurs to her that meats come from living creatures. Eggs next, after she hears an account about someone finding an unhatched chick in an egg.

Of course, this spirals out of control as the novel progresses, but it's not the primary focus. That threw me off a little. I was expecting her struggles against her own rebelling body to be a more primary source of conflict. Instead, Atwood focuses on the increasingly complex relationship between Duncan and his roommates, Marion and Peter, and Ainsley. Rather than form the core of the conflict, Marion's inability to eat serves a strong symbolic function. Simply put, Marion spends the novel spending more and more like an object to be consumed, less and less like a person with agency. In successive scenes, we see her as fuel for Peter's quarter-life crisis, sexual needs, and social standing; fuel for Duncan and his roommates' egos; and as the novel reaches its climax, fuel for society's various perceptions about women. Like many great writers, most notably Kafka, Atwood understands the value and power of literalizing a metaphor. Marion comes to first identify with food and then feel as though she is food, which would make eating too horrifying of an act for her to bear. This would also justify one of the novel's stranger formalistic moves, Atwood's decision to narrate the first and third parts in the first person, but give the second part in the third person. Marion feels as though she is losing her humanity, progressing from subject to object.

All of this is quite heady and could potentially be overwhelming if Atwood, like Kafka, didn't have such a great sense of humor. The climax, which of course I'll keep hidden, illustrates it most obviously, but also check out a scene where Duncan's roommates pontificate about Alice in Wonderland, or some of Marion and Ainsley's banter toward the beginning, or a scene where Marion distributes surveys about beer and is handed a flyer from a temperance organization. The humor never feels distasteful or poorly timed or anything of the sort; rather it serves to add a dimension of satire to the work, and the satire expands its scope. Misogyny strikes me as Atwood's center here, but I see broader jabs at a consumption-based society woven throughout. Of course, that also points at Atwood's future development. Consumption-based society is one of her favorite targets. Nowhere is this more pointedly illustrated than her later Maddaddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, the Year of the Flood, and of course Maddaddam), and these undertones of her fiction took root with this very book. Prose-wise it's also quite strong, with great metaphors like "She bore a chilling resemblance to a general plotting a major campaign" (89); meanwhile, the word "immature" is turned "over like a curious pebble found on a beach" (180).

So far it might sound like I'm painting an excellent book, and indeed the Edible Woman is a strong first outing. Yet it has its weaknesses. I felt it hit a bit of a lull about two-thirds in, rather spinning on narrative wheels, but the party scene that forces the climax shocks the book out of its patterns and brings us to a strong and striking conclusion. That's not too big of a problem, then. Rather bigger is a tendency Atwood never really resolved, the tendency to over-explain. I'll sometimes get frustrated with her habit of implying a given emotion into a line of dialog and then coming out and telling us what we were supposed to take from it. I've found at least one instance of this in every Atwood book I've read and I'm still not over it. Maybe it's a product of her narrative style. She leans toward either first person or close third, lots of internal monolog and impressions. Sometimes Marion's impressions complicate the narrative, the events, or her feelings; other times they simply echo what's already on the table. I've also found Atwood to overuse adverbs, which of course slips right in with the "overexplaining" thing.

We all know what happened next. Atwood became one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed authors of the contemporary period. She's one of the single most famous literary fiction authors currently alive, up there with the likes of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison for instant name recognition. If I've got my facts right, the process was rather slow. While she was quite popular in her native Canada from the beginning, the Handmaid's Tale was crucial in upping her name recognition. From then on out, she's released many of her most acclaimed novels - Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, the Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake and so forth. In addition to writing novels, she had a career as a poet from even before this novel, and she writes all sorts of short fiction. She's been especially prolific lately, with a book a year since 2013 and her sixteenth novel, Hag-Seed, due out in October. You can bet I'll be reviewing that.

So it's interesting to see what Atwood had worked out from the beginning and what wouldn't stick around. This is the only release I've read by her without her famous sci-fi, fantasy and mythological touches, and it's not nearly as sweeping as books like the Handmaid's Tale and the Blind Assassin, with their huge universes and their multiple timelines and their competing conspiracies. Nor had she developed the immersive prose style that drew me into the Blind Assassin. Yet it's a fascinating example of an author finding her feet, and that is the whole reason why I started this series in the first place.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 14, 2016. Filed under:

September 7, 2016

Book Review: "The Transmigration of Bodies," by Yuri Herrera

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera

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

The Transmigration of Bodies
By Yuri Herrera
And Other Stories
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I must not read enough noir. Yuri Herrera earned himself all sorts of praise for his previous novel, 2015's Signs Preceding the End of the World, blurbed by no less than Valeria Luiselli. Yet I somehow missed it. Yuri Herrara didn't even make my radar until I picked this book up at the library, and I only did so because I found the title compelling. Maybe I was too caught up in all of the other authors that were having a big year in 2015, but I'd definitely be interested in reading it. I'd certainly like to read more noir outside of Chandler and Hammett; I've seen a lot more noir movies than I've read noir novels, and I keep searching for an ideal starting point for the genre's more modern incarnation.

I'm not sure whether The Transmigration of Bodies qualifies, but it was certainly interesting. Herrara's prose can sometimes be clumsy - the less said about his sex scenes, the better - but when he's on, he writes with a nice sense of atmosphere and comes up with the sort of wild similes only a noir writer could. A pedestrian has "eyes wide as an illuminati" (70), for example. He also came up with a compelling plot for this one, which in noir is a lot of the work. The novel's setting, an unnamed city, is wracked both by plague and two warring gangs. When the respective children of the two gang lords find themselves held hostage by the rival gangs, the protagonist, known only as the Redeemer, has to negotiate their releases.

Bartering captives is one of the Redeemer's skills, so he shouldn't be blamed for the fact that the negotiation doesn't quite get off as planned. This is a noir novel, after all, so things will always slip out of the hero's control. He's a lot better at playing the role of the noir protagonist, which at once makes the novel entertaining and a little predictable. I'd like to give Herrera the benefit of the doubt and say that he portrayed the Redeemer as such to sort of deconstruct and analyze noir tropes, but noir tropes have been so thoroughly deconstructed and analyzed that it's hard to tell whether he's getting under the genre's hood. The story was compelling, the plague-racked city was a nice formal touch, but ultimately the Redeemer himself rendered things a little dull. Maybe Signs Preceding the End of the World is better. People keep calling that book amazing.

Oh, and I get why people compare this book to Romeo and Juliet, but don't go in expecting noir Shakespeare or anything like that.

Out of 10: 7.3

Read even more about The Transmigration of Bodies: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, September 7, 2016. Filed under:

September 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Mirror Thief" by Martin Seay

(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 Mirror Thief, by Martin Seay

The Mirror Thief
By Martin Seay
Melville House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So yes, I admit it, I went into Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief specifically searching for things I could find wrong with it, because it's been the subject this year of overhype -- a 600-page debut novel that spans across three different timeframes and genres, it's earned Seay a lot more mainstream press than most first-time novelists will ever see, where people have started comparing it regularly to the work of Thomas Pynchon -- and anytime I hear of these kinds of accolades for a debut novel, I'm immediately suspicious of the book in question, and about whether it's getting these accolades because of an overzealous marketing staff and a million-dollar promotional budget, and not because of its actual quality. But lo and behold if this didn't turn out to be a pretty great book anyway, despite all the hype; and although I can't attest to how closely it sounds like Pynchon (believe it or not I've never actually read any of his work, and I know, shame on me), it did remind me quite a bit of an author I'm a near-completist of, and one of my all-time favorite currently working writers in America, the fellow genre-bending Neal Stephenson.

Like Stephenson, Seay turns in an uber-story here, telling one giant interrelated story but through three sections that at first don't seem to have any connection -- a detective tale among con artists in Las Vegas during the Bush years, a coming-of-age story among the beat poets and juvie gangs of 1950s California, and a steampunk thriller set in 1500s Italy, in which a European alchemist is hired by the Ottoman Empire to steal away a crew of master mirror-makers from the tightly controlled monopoly of such fine craftsmen the Kingdom of Venice had over the industry at the time. And like Stephenson, the tendrils of these three threads start weaving tighter and tighter together as you make your way through the oversized book, until coming to a satisfying conclusion that finally fuses them all together (or, satisfying in my eyes, anyway, but more on that in a bit). Like Stephenson, there's a bit of an metaphysical element floating throughout the storylines, not the main point but just enough otherworldliness so that you can't quite call this simple literary fiction; and like Stephenson, the novel is a great example of big concepts being bandied about through plain language, a thought-provoking yet easy-to-read epic that will have you finished with the whole thing faster than you thought it would take.

In fact, there's really one major criticism to be made about the book; that a lot of people (judging by the reviews I've read from others) seem to miss the point Seay is trying to make at the end, and who complain that the three different story threads don't come together enough in the climax to make for a satisfying read. And it's true -- despite the comparison, Seay simply doesn't bring the whole thing crashing together in the same exciting and mind-blowing way that Stephenson is known for in his own multiple-thread epics (or for that matter, Stephenson's genre peer William Gibson, who became famous in the '80s precisely for his ability to juggle multiple storylines into one massive satisfying whole by the end). But that's not Seay's goal in the first place, so it's unfair to criticize him for failing to do something he never planned on doing to begin with; instead his goal is more along the lines of Battlestar Galactica's concept of "all of this has happened before and it will all eventually happen again," a more delicate type of thread-tying that's more about noticing and appreciating the subtle similarities between each storyline, the manner in which they each echo and reflect the others in intriguing ways, and less about tying them all together into one giant uber-climax that informs all three parts in equal ways all at once. In all it makes for a really engaging and enjoyable reading experience, an impressively self-assured debut that makes it easy to see why it's been generating so much buzz, and it comes strongly recommended to a general audience precisely because of this.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about The Mirror Thief: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, September 1, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

August 31, 2016

Book Review: "Our Dried Voices," by Greg Hickey

Title, by Author

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

Our Dried Voices
By Greg Hickey
Scribe Publishing Company
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

You want to talk about incredibly false clichés of fiction that should go as far away as possible and never come back? Okay, let me run one by you: "all books have boring exposition, they don't get good until the plot starts up." Of course, some books have dull exposition, but exposition doesn't have to be a boring slog. In fact, I find a good work of fiction's exposition quite exciting, as it presents a model where everything is possible and anything can happen, a space in a novel or short story where intrigues and conflicts emerge but still have room to build, thus allowing my imagination to run wild. Besides, who doesn't love that breathless first chapter of Moby-Dick? Or the incredible set pieces Pynchon and Morrison use to set Gravity's Rainbow and Song of Solomon in motion? Or the brawl that begins Invisible Man? The opening pages aren't a necessary evil, a place to offload the boring preliminaries so the reader can then get into the action. They're part of the action, the very thing that gets the readers hooked.

To his credit, Greg Hickey is aware enough of this to begin Our Dried Voices with a sort of mystery. After a lengthy timeline detailing the colonization of another planet, he launches into the disruption of the colonists' daily lives. First their food machine breaks down, then their carefully regulated weather, and finally their sleeping quarters lock up. It's efficiently plotted, and Hickey does offer us a few glimpses at the people that inhabit this colony. This is how an author can use exposition to draw a reader in. Yet I found myself uncompelled by Hickey's exposition just the same. Part of it has to do with his prose, which is mostly dry and overladen with modifiers (a "private half-smirk" here, "calmly confident" characters there) and devoid of any distinctive qualities. Words seem like a simple means to an end to Hickey, and this bothers me. Some of it also strikes me as linguistically impossible; at one point, the colonists "slept lightly, and many seemed to dream." I didn't know people tended to dream while sleeping lightly. I'm also bothered by the protagonist, Samuel, who lacks personality and interiority.

Yet the main problem is, for all the intrigue Hickey builds, he fails to tell a terribly compelling or original story. The colony he builds is idyllic and climate-controlled, everyone provided plenty of food and comfortable sleeping quarters and therefore free to lounge around in the sun and have sex and all other matters of fun. So of course its citizens are emotionally stunted, incapable of true connection, and hostile toward those interested in connecting, of course its protagonist craves connection, and of course trouble emerges in this questionable paradise. Speculative fiction has the power to make readers reconsider their own surroundings - think The Martian Chronicles, think Kindred, think the Left Hand of Darkness. Yet when its premise ticks but fails to illuminate so many sci-fi boxes, it's hard to count Our Dried Voices among the powerful or memorable.

Out of 10: 5.1

Read even more about Our Dried Voices: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:37 AM, August 31, 2016. Filed under:

August 26, 2016

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

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

Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts, by Orrin Grey

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

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

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

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

Out of 10/8.5, higher for horror junkies.

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

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

August 24, 2016

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

Title, by Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10: 8.6

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

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

August 17, 2016

First Time Around: "Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson

Title, by Author

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

By Marilynne Robinson
Picador, 1980
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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