February 5, 2016

American Odd: "The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America," by Jim Marrs

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

The Rise of the Fourth Reich, by Jim Marrs

The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America
By Jim Marrs
William Morrow/HarperCollins (2009)
Review by Karl Wolff

First off, I'm a big fan of Oliver Stone's epic conspiracy thriller JFK. I also enjoy James Spader camping it up in The Blacklist. With that said, I've come to terms with enjoying most Oliver Stone movies, but finding his brand of ideology naive and troublesome. As Nathan Rabin said in his book My Year of Flops about the film W, "there comes a moment in every cinephile's intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit." I continue to enjoy the baroque styling and lurid paranoia of JFK compelling as a narrative. Stone's screenplay was partially based on Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, by conspiracy author Jim Marrs. While the film raises many, many important questions about the behavior of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it isn't the same as cold, hard historical fact.

In 1967, Richard Hofstader wrote "The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy." (Italics in original.)* Jim Marrs falls into the later category. His book, The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America, posits America is under the sway of Wall Street, globalists, Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and secret societies. Once again, as with JFK, Marrs can write a sweeping narrative full of fascinating details. To call it historically accurate would be a travesty.

I read this as someone privileged with an advanced degree in History. Studying the history of the United States, one encounters The Master Narrative. Think Ken Burns, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Shelby Foote. This is the history you learn in high school and college. The names and dates falling into place to create a story about freedom, progress, civil rights, and rugged individualism. Various identity groups (Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, women, etc.) have worked hard to create their own counter-narratives. If included at all, these groups would be seen as nothing more than token sidebars in the Master Narrative. Conspiracy theorists also create their own counter-narrative to American myths and hagiography.

In A Few Good Men Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says, "It doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove." Kaffee is a lawyer doing his best to get his clients acquitted of murder. The practice of history is not about right and wrong, it is about what the historian can prove. In order to win the case, or in this instance, to compel the reader to believe the United States has been infiltrated by Nazis wanting to create a Fourth Reich. ("Hail HYDRA!") As a piece of tabloid sensationalism, The Rise of the Fourth Reich excels and entertains. As a piece of historical investigation, it falls flat in spectacular fashion. Throughout my reading experience, I was constantly shuffling back and forth between the text and the footnotes. (Arguably, one of the worst examples of citation.) Jim Marrs has no credible proof. He has innuendo, hyperbole, guilt by association, and poor reasoning.

The book cites evidence from The Institute of Historical Review (a notorious institution of Holocaust-denial), Adventures Unlimited (a conspiracy theory mill), and The New Benjamin Franklin House Press (an organ of Lyndon LaRouche). These get buried amid more mainstream sources ranging from websites to history books. It doesn't help that Marrs gets his information about the Third Reich from The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. It's not a bad book, but it was published in 1969. Since this was published in 2009, he could have picked more recent scholarship and traced the current trends in the historiography of the Third Reich. But that would mean Jim Marrs is a serious scholar, not a third-rate hack. The book also contains laughable mistakes like misspelling Victorian novelist Edward Bulwar-Lytton (not Bulward Liton, jackass!).

The book also has some great howlers, including:

"Apparently, overseas communication between the Nazis in America and the Nazis in Russia continued unabated, which has raised the possibility of a parallel space race controlled or manipulated by the very globalists who had created and financed both communism and the Third Reich." (Ah, yes, go with the sensible explanation.)

"Numerous Web sites and periodicals have carried the accusation that sodium fluoride was placed in the drinking water of Nazi concentration camps to keep the inmates pacified and susceptible to external control." (I'm not sure if this is offensive or stupid or a combination of the two. Barbed-wire, starvation conditions, and SS men with guns pointed at you are also effective measures of pacification.)

"It should be noted that [George H.W.]Bush's name--including his then little-publicized nickname "Poppy," which has caused many to wonder if this referred to his parenthood or the narcotic plant--address, and phone number were found in the personal notebook of oil geologist George DeMohrenschildt, the last known close friend of Lee Harvey Oswald." (I'm no fan of the guy, but come on! The "Poppy" thing comes across as desperate and reaching.)

When one peels back all the innuendo, hysteria, and paranoia, it leaves a rather tenuous premise: The United States is secretly run by a bunch of rich Wall Street types who are members of The Council of Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateralists, and, of course, Illuminati and Freemasons. I wonder if Jim Marrs knows that the SS had its own division investigating the Freemasons? Membership in any one of these groups immediately makes someone suspect and inherently evil. Marrs even tars Jimmy Carter as a Trilateralist pawn, even though Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security advisor, actually created the organization. Carter had his faults, like every other politician, but this book's circular logic is pathetic.

Or, to put it another way, here's Jim Garrison reviewing The Warren Report from the movie JFK, "Again and again they ignore credible testimony, leads are never followed up, its conclusions are selective, there's no index, it's one of the sloppiest, most disorganized investigations I've ever seen."

But why do people fall for conspiracy theories? The present situation doesn't help. It's common knowledge about the revolving door between government and private industry. Money has corrupted everything in the election process, turning every candidate into a groveling lap dog to big-dollar donors. Conspiracy theories help make sense of the situation. It also absolves people of individual agency. We get to live a consequence-free existence. That isn't to say what Marrs said is untrue, since countless politicians, moguls, and business leaders belong to secretive organization. But to imply they are somehow orchestrating world events takes a heroic leap in logic. If anything, these secretive puppet-masters are doing a terrible job. Wouldn't peace be more profitable? Why would they want to kill their own customers? It defies commonsense logic.

In my own case, I'm a skeptic of The Official Story of the American Master Narrative. But the recently exposed misdeeds of the CIA under Allen Dulles and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover makes Marrs's assertions half-right. From the Kennedy assassination to Watergate, it was a paranoid time in American history. Just look at the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. I have many doubts about the Lee Harvey Oswald Lone Gunman theory. The closer one looks, the more the Official Story begins to fray. On the other hand, saying 9/11 was an inside job is giving the Dubya Administration too much credit. If anything, Hurricane Katrina proved the only principle the White House ran on was the Peter Principle.

The challenge with reading something like this is the echo chamber effect. Over and over, Jim Marrs writes about how this or that conspiracy researcher makes some claim. It's the same problem with social media. Liberals only talking to liberals, conservatives only talking to conservatives, and so forth. This has led to a kind of critical illiteracy. Akin to cultural illiteracy, critical illiteracy is an ability to spot fallacious arguments, poor sources, and to formulate relevant questions. One has to know how to think before one can think for oneself. Conspiracy theory becomes a kind of dogma, since each thinks he or she has found THE TRUTH. Then questioning this Truth becomes an act of heresy. Try asking a conspiracy theorist about their sources and reasoning and you might get accused of being one of Them. If you don't agree with The Truth, then you are an apologist for The Official Story. (It doesn't help that the sectors under investigation - intelligence agencies, corporations, the federal government - are good at hiding their tracks. On the other hand: The Freedom of Information Act.) Perhaps the best remedy is a dose of equal opportunity skepticism. Be skeptical of The Official Story, but also be skeptical of the conspiracy theorist hawking The Truth. (In the case of Jim Marrs, a conspiracy theorist who has been published by a mainstream publisher, Random House. Not exactly an underground press. If Marrs really was dangerous and these secret societies so evil and ruthless, why is he still alive? The Nazis had a way of dealing with their vocal opposition.)

The Rise of the Fourth Reich has countless problems with sources and interpretation. For those interested in the nefarious misdeeds of the Dulles-era CIA, I would recommend reading The Devil's Chessboard, by David Talbot. While far from perfect, it has credible sourcing and a sensible (and sensibly limited) interpretive framework.

*This is quoted in Devon Jackson's Conspiranoia! The Mother of All Conspiracies, my previous installment in American Odd

Read even more about The Rise of the Fourth Reich: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Coming next: Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

Filed by Karl Wolff at 7:00 AM, February 5, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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February 4, 2016

"City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg

(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.)

City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire
By Garth Risk Hallberg
Knopf
Reviewed by Nora Rawn

Any literary debut preceded by a notable seven figure advance and clocking in at over 900 pages bears a heavy weight of expectation. Like many before him, Garth Risk Hallberg does not prove equal to the burden. The writing can be overly precious, while the characters sink under the demands of the plot upon them. Several different strands of New York society intersect across the novel, from a wealthy clan to a crew of Alphabet City punks, a retired detective, a fireworks expert, and two Long Island teens looking to join the counter-culture; all of them come together in the novel's conclusion, set during the great Blackout of 1977, but the path they take to get there is too carefully controlled to be invigorating. Partly this is a family drama centering on prodigal son William Hamilton-Sweeney and his sister Regan, but it also attempts to draw a picture of the punk scene, an effort that can be at cross-purposes. Both aspects are reflected in reproductions of documents within the text which range from punk zines to personal letters from the Hamilton-Sweeney patriarch. Meant to provide an immersive experience, instead the facsimiles are more of a distraction than anything else.

William is the main thread tying the novel's strands together as both the estranged scion of the society family and an enigmatic punk frontman, but a young woman named Sam features as well, being both an obsessive fan of William's former band and the lover of Regan's husband. One link to connect a storyline is never enough in this dense tome, which features layer on layer of interlocking connections to the point that the city of New York might as well be a small town instead of a sprawling metropolis. This tendency has been called Dickensian, but Hallberg lacks the humor so prevalent in Dickens, nor do his characters share the detailed particularities of a Mrs. Jellyby or a Miss Havisham. Hallberg chooses instead, having so many characters, to reduce many of them to one-dimensional stereotypes. In this regard he does have some common ground with Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities covers similar ground, but it is to be regretted that, despite featuring a young gay black man as William's lover Mercer, Hallberg never delves into the racial politics of 70s New York. His interest in the down-and-out aspects of city life are confined mostly to the slumming young teens who flock to the music of artists like William.

These contradictory yet intermingled worlds are meant to provide the 'New York'ness of the novel, reflections of the city's multiplicity, but in the main they manage to present only an idea of that pulsing vibrancy without capturing its essence. This ambitious first book handles its occasionally creaking plot serviceably enough, but fails to make that magic transition that breathes life into the characters involved.

Out of 10: 7.9

Read even more about City on Fire: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_on_Fire_(2015_novel)">Wikipedia

Filed by Nora Rawn at 9:43 AM, February 4, 2016. Filed under: Literature:Fiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |
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Book Review: "Saxual Healing" by Billy Medicine as edited by Leo X. Robertson

(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.)

Saxual Healing, by Billy Medicine as edited by Leo X. Robertson

Saxual Healing
By Billy Medicine as edited by Leo X. Robertson
Cardboard Wall Empire
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's hard to decide just how to critically sum up a book like the unfortunately titled novel Saxual Healing, because author Leo X. Robertson tries to have it both ways here: it starts with a long and interesting introduction in which Robertson lays out the fictional premise of the supposedly nonfiction book, in which an acquaintance of his in high school turned out later in life to be transgressively queer and a bit of a dick to everyone about it, penning a series of Kathy-Ackeresque absurdist journal entries about such subjects as the crushes he developed when younger and his sexual exploits as an adult, never meant for public consumption but now "published" exactly for that purpose, all of which was really fascinating and held my rapt attention; but then the 200 pages after that introduction are the actual absurdist transgressive queer journal entries in question, which are exactly as tedious and difficult to get through as you would imagine such writing to be. And there's the problem in a nutshell -- the premise is riveting, but Robertson clearly means for that to just be a framing device for the stream-of-consciousness nonsense that comes after, while the stream-of-consciousness nonsense that he means to be the main focus of the book is hardly worth one's time (except for those of you who already like bizarro literature, that is, who will find it not great but at least tolerable). So I guess I will give this a middle-of-the-road score in order to even things out, but with the warning that the number itself in this case means little. Not a terrible disaster, but certainly meant for just a limited audience of true believers, you'd do well to keep all of this in mind before picking up a copy yourself.

Out of 10: 7.5

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 4, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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February 3, 2016

First Time Around: "Neuromancer," by William Gibson

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Neuromancer
By William Gibson, 1984
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I don't often get the chance to flex my sci-fi muscle around here. I'm not sure if that's because I'm just not that up on what's currently going on in sci-fi or because I'm not as familiar with it as I thought. Either way, for as many objections as I could throw at the worst sci-fi - which range from the prose to the political level - the best is fascinating stuff, and that carries us quite nicely to William Gibson's first effort. He gets a lot of credit for launching the cyberpunk movement, as well as breaking away from some of the genre's more staid conventions. Not a lot of spaceships around here, or a lot of space at all, which means none of Heinlein's visiting aliens, Bradbury's space colonies, or Herbert's galactic empires. Instead, Gibson decided the ideal space for a science fiction novel was the computer. This was not only Gibson's first novel but the first of his Sprawl trilogy (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive followed in short order), and the whole thing made for a shock to the sci-fi system.

A little background on cyberpunk seems necessary here, for fear that this review becomes too jargony. As I mentioned above, Gibson was all about shifting the final frontier into computers. His short story "Burning Chrome" contains, I believe, the first-ever use of the term "cyberspace." Alongside computers, the genre tends to have a weathered aesthetic that's closer to Star Wars than you might expect at first. Remember how the Millennium Falcon was a piece of junk? That sort of thing predominates cyberpunk. For other good points of comparison, think the "real world" of the Matrix, which takes quite a few cues from this novel, or the burned-out Los Angeles in Blade Runner, an early cyberpunk classic. While we're on Blade Runner, both that fine movie and this fine novel bring out the genre's noir edge. Indeed, Gibson's prose abandons the wide-eyed storytelling of Heinlein and Bradbury and goes right for a Chandleresque edge, which sometimes slips into slight self-parody (he dedicates a whole line to the word "archipelago" at one point), but always lends his writing buckets of style and leads to serious lyricism on a few occasions, as we'll get to later. People will sometimes criticize science fiction for being poorly written, but Gibson smashes that stereotype.

Plot-wise, Neuromancer is quite the ride. It centers on Case, a computer hacker who performed his crimes by projecting his consciousness into the internet, known in the novel as "jacking in." Case was big on the circuit for a while, but after he got busted stealing from his boss, he was locked out of cyberspace and hit the skids hard. On the novel's outset, he's a burned-out drug addict who can no longer work, at least until he meets Molly, who offers to cure him of his addiction and let him jack in again if he'll only work for her employer, the seriously shady Armitage. Without a lot of choice, Case accepts the deal, and what follows is a chain of breakneck events involving a Rastafarian pilot, the artificial intelligence of one of Armitage's comrades, a sadist with cybernetic implants (of which more to follow), ninjas, street gangs, terrorists, sex, drugs, and an ever-amusing fence known as the Finn. They end up all around the world and spend a lot of time in cyberspace as well.

Now, there are a few complaints you could logically raise about this book. Gibson's characters aren't as compelling as they'd grow to be in the subsequent Sprawl novels; Case in particular seems an early antecedent to the blasé mercenary that became such a '90s cliché. Really, some of the book's grimness comes off as a little bit forced in general, though much of it is painfully reflective of how human beings can operate. Going off that, Neuromancer is plot-driven as they come, which isn't an issue for me but may raise the "why is this literature?" question for some readers. Plus, in the wake of the Matrix and a number of computer-themed anime like .hack/SIGN and Serial Experiments Lain, Neuromancer might seem kind of quaint anymore, its innovations too far out to be absorbed. Even a franchise as old-school as James Bond used hacking as a plot point in Skyfall, so what hope does Gibson have of keeping his edge?

Well, hold up there. We might all be used to dark computer-driven sci-fi at this point, but the fact stands that Gibson can really write. He has a way with a clever and well-timed modifier - the first page alone offers up "affordable beauty" and "monotonously jerked" - and works up strong vivid flows like "But the dreams came out of the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab" (5). If prose isn't your thing, his action sequences are still pretty thrilling as far as this reviewer's concerned. Part of this is because they complicate the genre-blend, allowing Neuromancer to be a sci-fi mystery with martial arts - a feat the Matrix can't boast - and part of it goes back to Gibson's vividness. Not only does he place you inside of his action, but also inside of the mystery - we work through it alongside Case, piecing a little together here and finding it all confounded there. In other words, Gibson's not so much a "genre writer" as a "genre master," a guy who knows the conventions and bends them to his will, twisting them into new and exciting forms while at the same point reminding us of why they're so popular in the first place. Which all might seem like a long-winded way of saying "do not fear plot-driven fiction," and that's something I find myself saying a little more often than I'm comfortable, but it also must be said that writing good action or good mystery is just as tough of a thing as writing, say, good naturalistic dialog or a series of events that end up with an epiphany. You're not going to get either of those things in Gibson - his dialog is super-stylized, and his epiphanies, if they're here, sure aren't Updike's - but I can't say I missed them.

Yet what I love about this series and what I really read it for is the universe itself. Gibson took his vision of both the "real world" and cyberspace into all sorts of new directions with the sequels, even bringing a group you might not expect to see in a sci-fi novel into Count Zero, and Neuromancer lays down the groundwork. With virtual space and its real-world implications a frequent factor in this novel, you might not be surprised to learn that the very definition of reality gets distended pretty hard in this world; if any famous sci-fi writer from the old guard can be called Gibson's ancestor, it's Ubik-era Philip K. Dick. These computers also end up permeating everything characters do, part of the reason why Gibson is hailed as a prophet of the modern age to rival Don DeLillo. Yet the real secret to this novel's greatness lies in those all-too-human cybernetics I talked about earlier. These are so common in the book's universe many characters are essentially cyborgs, but rather than use this technology to further their lives, people often apply them to vain or even vengeful ends. In that respect, you could probably call Gibson a sort of anti-sci-fi writer, somewhat fascinated but also somewhat terrified with the possibilities the future presents. Effortlessly cool as this book is, it's not exactly a romp, let's put it like that. Although bits of it are, and there's no way any human being with a functional sense of fun can't enjoy all the thievery and martial arts showdowns in this novel.

So even if you think mirrored shades and black leather jackets are among the most absurd articles of fashion in history, you still should give this a spin. The strong writing might challenge your perception of sci-fi if you have the idea in your head that no genre writers have any facility with language, and who knows, you might even find it a great combination of exciting and thought-provoking. If you're already sold on sci-fi and haven't read this book yet, I'd say you've got a hole in your collection that needs to be stoppered up as soon as possible, even if you're an old-school fan who was thrown for a loop by cyberpunk. I've never actually met anyone like this, but they have to exist, right? The slightly flat characters do make the going a little rough sometimes, and Count Zero is a stronger novel all around, but this didn't change the sci-fi and general pop culture landscape by sitting on its hands, you know. If you were put off from cyberpunk forever by those Matrix sequels, maybe you should give this a go and see if you still feel the same.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, February 3, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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Book Review: "The Nine Horizons" by Mike Robbins

(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 Nine Horizons, by Mike Robbins

The Nine Horizons: Travels in Sundry Places
By Mike Robbins
Broads Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Although there's nothing particularly outstanding about Mike Robbins' The Nine Horizons, travel fans will want to pick up a copy anyway, simply because it's such a solid and strong example of a classic travelogue based on real experiences. Split into nine chapters detailing nine trips the British author made throughout the 1980s and '90s, this has the formal tone of an older travel writer like George Orwell, a certain primness to the proceedings that helps keep the sometimes outrageous stories about exotic locations in check; and I must admit, it's fascinating to read so long after the fact Robbins' political observations about certain areas of the world that were once hotbeds twenty or thirty years ago but no longer are (or are sometimes hot again for entirely different reasons, like his entertaining account of a pre-Arab-Spring Syria). Although not a genre-crossing "must read" even for people who don't particularly like travelogues, it certainly should go in your to-be-read list if you are, an illuminating and well-done series of vignettes that kept me quickly turning pages until I was done.

Out of 10: 8.3, or 9.3 for fans of travel writing

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 3, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Reviews |
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February 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Mechanical" by Ian Tregillis

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The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical
By Ian Tregillis
Orbit
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So to be clear, what makes Ian Tregillis' The Mechanical such a dazzling success as a genre novel is primarily his world-building and other "what if" skills; predicated on a fairly standard premise from steampunk literature ("What if physicist Christiaan Huygens had actually invented robots in the 1600s?"), what makes the novel so compelling is what Tregillis guesses would happen to world history as a result, presenting us with a retro-futuristic 1929 in which an all-ascendant Dutch Empire rules the planet (due to being the sole possessors of robots for the last 250 years), steam power was never developed (who needs steamships when you can just have 10,000 robot rowers in the bilge of your luxury cruise liner?), and a defeated French aristocratic diaspora live in exile in Montreal (along with a defeated Vatican), where Catholic rebels have formed a robot "underground canal system" (remember, no railroads) in order to save the "souls" of these artificial creatures, and whose main weapon in their no-tech society is petroleum-based epoxies that gum up a robot's intricate mechanics when hurled against one in battle. But that said, as all us genre fans have learned the hard way over the years, even the greatest premise in the world can't be saved without competent skills in dialogue, character development and the other building blocks of a decent novel; and so while Tregillis' skills in such aren't particularly spectacular, it should be noted that they're good enough to do the job, mainly getting out of the way so we can enjoy the heady theoretical 20th century so unlike our own that the author has posited here. Volume one of a coming trilogy (volume 2 is already out, in fact), this was a thrilling enough and philosophically challenging enough start to make me excited about continuing the series; and it comes strongly recommended to steampunk fans, although you might want to skip it if you're not.

Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for steampunk fans

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:55 AM, February 2, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 28, 2016

"The Only Game in Town," by Mohamed El-Erian

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The Only Game in Town, by Mohamed El-Erian

The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse
Mohamed El-Erian
Random House
Reviewed by Nora Rawn

They say not to try timing the market in investing, but Mohamed El-Erian has done it pretty well in his book on central banks, which comes out in the midst of a stock slump and what is sure to be a great deal of pontificating about the economic fundamentals underlying the market panic. He certainly has the credentials for it, with a PhD in economics from Oxford and years as second in command at bond broker PIMCO. Unfortunately he has the buzzy corporate jargon to match his years in the investment sector. Neither a research economist with a deep grounding in the data on the impact of central bank actions nor a journalist with the ability to find concrete stories to illustrate the generalities he throws around, El-Erian's style is better suited to a presentation of shareholders or a Ted talk, and indeed, he frequently quotes statements by made at various international finance conventions. His connections are telegraphed on every page, but being close to the center of things does not always mean being able to cut through them. The structural problems that El-Erian diagnoses as holding back growth are all readily recognizable and his familiarity with the world of global finance is evident, but he attempts to be too comprehensive in setting the scene, and the brief descriptions with which he lays out his case lack the specificity that would make the book truly informative. As for the central banks, the ostensible focus of the book, they are almost impossible to see amidst the many detours. There is a generic vagueness to the explanations of their actions, as well as to the policies proposed as remedies for spurring the world economy into self-generated growth.

Left unanswered amidst the dime-store pontification (the Greek crisis laid bare issues with the ECB's mandate, new disruptors like Uber are changing the economy) are several important questions. To what extent have the central bank actions on interest rates and debt had a concrete effect on markets and economic output? How efficient is it possible for them to be? While El-Erian frequently acknowledges the many headwinds outside the purview of any banking institution, specifically in politics, even absent these factors it is impossible from this book to tell the degree to which central bank policy can drive outcomes in the real world. For a cliff's notes version of the current economic climate and its near-term prospects, El-Erian more than covers the bases, but he does so by avoiding deep analysis in favor of cursory summation. The overwhelmingly piled up jargon can sound convincing at first glance, but there's not much of substance below the surface.

Out of 10: 2.9

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Filed by Nora Rawn at 7:00 AM, January 28, 2016. Filed under: Literature:Nonfiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |
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January 27, 2016

Book Review: Joanna Walsh, "Vertigo"

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Vertigo, by Joanna Walsh

Vertigo
By Joanna Walsh
Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

An odd collection. A great collection, although it takes some time to settle into its rhythms, but an odd collection just the same, and one with all the markings of a normal collection. The stories in this book feature such commonplace themes that the book could be confused with a conventional work of realism: protagonists worry about their marriages, deal with their parents' aging, and cope with a sense of alienation so overwhelming it's impossible for them to relax. Yet the resulting stories are a bizarre and highly subjective portrait of their characters' interior lives.

I say "characters," but there's nothing to stop this whole book from all being about the same woman, since Walsh never names her protagonists. Even if these women are different, they're dealing with similar things: in "Vagues," the narrator claims her husband "may be sleeping with another women" (17), while "Online" concerns a woman whose husband "met some women online" who "were young, charming and witty" (54). They also deal with the same domineering mother in "Vertigo" and "Claustrophobia." Youth is also an issue, most prominently raised in "Online," "Drowning" and "Young Mothers." Regardless of whether it's one woman or several, Walsh has a good understanding for how to bring readers into her characters. Indeed, much of this is so close that it's uncomfortable; consider the insecurities revealed by the final line of "Relativity," "[Off the bus] we get, and away we go, the young, the old, and the failed girls (109). Or how half of "Vagues" is an essayistic meditation on how oyster restaurants stay in business, with one section even labeled "Theories."

As a result of this extreme subjectivity, time is often distended in these stories. Some contain no identifiable time at all: "And After..." is a series of statements containing starting with the phrase "let there be," part wishes and part commands. Others magnify single moments, such as "The Big Black Snake," which zooms in on the discovery of the title creature. Meanwhile, "Claustrophobia" chops the last several years of the protagonists' parents' lives up, complete with a black-humored discussion of the father's passing, and while much of "Vertigo's" exterior action takes place at a ruin, the conflict is almost entirely in the narrator's mind. Since the motion in these stories is often so odd, it might not be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the subjectivity on display - Walsh created characters and stuck to them. It's a mystifying reading experience, but consider me impressed.

Out of 10: 9.0

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 27, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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Book Review: "Bloodletting" by William D. Prystauk

(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.)

Bloodletting, by William D. Prystauk

Bloodletting
By William D. Prystauk
Edge.
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To be fair, William D. Prystauk's Bloodletting is getting a few extra points today simply for trying to bring something fresh and unique to the staid world of supermarket crime thrillers; its particular private-eye hero is a Millennial but with an obsessive love for the '80s punk scene, and the crime he's investigating takes place within New York City's BDSM community, a community our PI is already a veteran of which is how it is that he's on the case despite his youth and lack of experience. But the book is getting a mediocre score anyway, because despite the intriguing premise it's ultimately just a mediocre genre novel; featuring hackneyed dialogue, stale stereotype characters, and a plot that feels like an episode of Law & Order, I found little in this throwaway novel to actually enjoy or recommend. (Also, if like me you find most twentysomething BDSM goth club kids to be intolerably pretentious and annoying, you might find yourself actually rooting for the killer to get away with his crimes, a big problem when the book's hero is the guy hired to catch him.) A book that only a crime-novel-a-day genre fan could love, it comes specifically recommended to only those people; the rest of you can safely skip it.

Out of 10: 7.4

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 27, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 26, 2016

Book Review: "The Making of Zombie Wars" by Aleksandar Hemon

(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 Making of Zombie Wars, by Aleksandar Hemon

The Making of Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's funny that so much of my time as a reviewer in the last few months has been centered around authors who wanted to write a character-heavy novel with a loose and light plot, but largely failed at making those novels entertaining in any way whatsoever; because Alexsandar Hemon's latest, originally released last spring but that I just got a chance to read this month, is actually a really charming and wonderful example of exactly that, and now makes me want to buy a dozen copies, hand them out to most of the authors I've reviewed in the last three or four months, and say to them, "For the love of God, please read this freaking book before you inflict the world on any more books of your own."

A big departure for the academically revered and usually quite serious Chicagoan and former Yugoslavian immigrant (I say it that way because he immigrated before the Balkan Civil War), The Making of The Zombie Wars is actually a light-hearted comedy about a young male fuck-up, written in the style of Elmore Leonard (or for local lit fans, closely reminiscent of Joseph G. Peterson's Gideon's Confession), the story of a frustrated screenwriter who regularly falls ass-backwards into easy sex, is dealing unsuccessfully with his elderly Jewish father (and even more unsuccessfully with his overbearing sister), has a strange relationship with the PTSD-suffering Desert Storm vet who serves as his quasi-legal landlord, and who stumbles into a series of random, violent adventures because of teaching English as a Second Language to a series of fresh immigrants from eastern Europe (including a former KGB officer from Russia who views the entirety of America with "this is what won the Cold War?" contempt, a great example of the darkly hilarious tone Hemon maintains throughout the entire book).

Make no mistake, though, there's definitely a serious point to be had here; set in the years right after 9/11, a big focus of the novel is the fresh Bosnian immigrants from the ESL class who have literally just escaped the horrors of the war in their homeland, and the ways those experiences have scarred them from ever being able to have normal, non-violence-tinged relationships, likely ever again. But in the meanwhile, Hemon has great fun looking at the foibles of learning a new language, and the eternal capacity of young white males to screw up any situation they're in, even getting in a subtle homage to John Irving's The World According to Garp (each chapter starts with a few pages from our hero's perpetually unfinished zombie thriller Hollywood screenplay, in which it becomes clear that it's being heavily influenced by the real events happening in his life). An especially great treat for residents like me of Chicago's Uptown neighborhood where this novel is set (including an opening scene that takes place literally three blocks from my apartment), you certainly do not need to be a local to enjoy this funny, outrageous, and sometimes very thought-provoking book; and the only reason it's not getting a better score is that this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially for Hemon's existing fans who were expecting yet another NPR-fetish dirge about the immigrant experience. Other than that, it comes highly recommended to one and all.

Out of 10: 9.4

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 26, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 22, 2016

Book Review: "Voltaire's Excellent Adventure: The Broken Boarder," by Martin D. Gibbs and Arthur Graham

(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.)

Voltaire's Excellent Adventure, by Martin D. Gibbs and Arthur Graham

Voltaire's Excellent Adventure: The Broken Boarder: Gatsby, Booze, and Hot Philosopher Action!
By Martin D. Gibbs and Arthur Graham
CreateSpace
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

What the hell did I just read? And I mean that in the best possible way. Voltaire's Excellent Adventure: The Broken Boarder: Gatsby, Booze, and Hot Philosopher Action!, by Martin D. Gibbs and Arthur Graham is certainly unique and downright bizarre. The plot involves the French philosopher Voltaire as a time-traveling adventurer and his quest to save a couple minor characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The novel begins with "An Apology and an Explanation," announcing the saga will be "as logical as a plate of spaghetti written by a Microsoft programmer." What follows is a twisted take on literary postmodernism. One part Mulligan Stew, one part Monty Python, and one part The Norton Anthology of World Literature ... and squirrels ... and wombats ... and lots of drinking, vulgarity, and lunacy.

The main thrust of the plot has Voltaire careening around Jay Gatsby's estate, attempting to save Owl-Eyes from the evil machinations of Klipspringer. Nick Carraway's literary identity is given another, shall we say unorthodox, explanation. And Voltaire makes a detour to another planet to fight a Cthulhu-esque caricature. While the plot moves things forward (or is it backward?), it's not what I found either important or compelling about this strange novel. Only mid-way through reading Voltaire's Excellent Adventure, did I discover it was actually a sequel.

What was wonderful about the novel was how reckless and unhinged it was. It reminded me less of other bizarro literature than the pataphysical absurdities of Alfred Jarry. In Ubu Roi, Jarry has The Entire Polish Army as played by a single character. The play, written in 1896, anticipated both surrealism and absurdism. It also mocks the pieties and pomposities of religion, nationalism, and masculinity. Voltaire's Excellent Adventure comes close to that kind of anarchic spirit. Voltaire travels through time, hobnobs with fictional characters, and gets violent with a cleaver.

That said, Voltaire's Excellent Adventure isn't for everyone. Even for those who enjoy a bit of bizarro lit with their morning coffee may find the novel either off-putting or too loosely written. Granted, this self-published work lacked a certain discipline found in other mainstream works. But for a self-published work, the production was first-rate. I also loved the cover image and its parody of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I found its gleeful disregard for narrative conventions to be charming. The constant references to squirrels and wombats came across as juvenile and silly. I kept waiting for the story to totally fall apart, but it never happened. It was too weird to put down and too joyously sideways not to react positively.

Out of 10/8.5

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Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 22, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 21, 2016

"The Story of the Lost Child," by Elena Ferrante

(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 Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child: Neopolitan Novels, Book Four
Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions
Reviewed by Nora Rawn

To read Elena Ferrante feels like joining a secret sorority. Surely there are men who read her work too--as they should--but her tetralogoy's clear-eyed lack of sentimentality, its sharp intellect, and its emotional acuity all stand out as intensely aware of what it is to be a woman. The center of the books, which this volume concludes, revolve around a female friendship, but they also delve deeply into what it means to be a woman and build a career, what it means to be a mother, what it is to be in the female body. At the same time Ferrante is never didactic or overly broad; every detail, from girlhood mythologies and school studies to the realities of marriage and parenthood, is described with realistic particularity. The books are also incredible depictions of class tension, perhaps unsurprisingly for books whose events take place during the tumultuous period of the Red Brigades, when the youth of Italy were divided between a resurgent fascism and the corruption of organized crime and a violently extremist communist movement. Lenu, the narrator, observes the politics of the age from a certain distance, always more interested in passing as informed than in the topics themselves. Her real fixations are on her old friend Lina's own progress through life, and the upward trajectory of another neighborhood kid made good, her school friend and adolescent crush Nino. Lenu's work as a writer both rises out of these fixations and attempts to be an antidote to them, a way of separating herself from her childhood friend and her mother and her neighborhood, of transforming herself. Like all transformations, it has an undercurrent of anxiety, what might be termed imposter syndrome in a different context. While moving away from her old impoverished beginnings, Lenu simultaneously needs them to acknowledge her transformation.

In this final installment of the series, Lenu and Lina's friendship is able to reblossom largely because the distance between them becomes manageable, not just in proximity but in economic terms as well. By the time Lenu returns to her birthplace of Naples, Lila and her partner have made a success of their computer company and no longer live in squalor. Lenu and her daughters move into an apartment above Lila's, and the next years are spent in relative harmony as the two households follow each other's rhythms, even going to pre-natal appointments together when they are both pregnant at the same time. Yet nothing is ever calm and stable in their relationship, and under the surface various tensions simmer. Lenu resents Lina for her dismissive judgment of Lenu's novels, while simultaneously fearing that she is only ever able to write by harnessing Lila's perceptions of the world. Their relationship is far more dynamic than any possible between lovers or family; even the intense attraction of Lenu for her childhood crush Nino, her reason for leaving her husband and returning to Naples, pales in comparison to the pull of Lina. Yet the long-running affair with Nino highlights Ferrante's strengths, even as it fades next to the inexorable connection between the two women. Nino gives up nothing for Lenu, not his marriage or his many other affairs, while Lenu abandons her new life and returns to the very place she has been trying to escape for his sake; in return, she receives the intoxicating pleasure of being with him and the excruciating pain of being left by him in increasingly uneven measure. A familiar story, but one which is never judged dismissively. The romantic lives of Ferrante's female characters are allowed to merely exist in a way that has largely been the domain of men in literature, without any undue punishment or censure. Or at least it is a world where conventional and unconventional choices are punished equally, where to marry for convenience and money never pays off but nor does acting unconventionally, to retain one's independence or out of passion. In short, the books are like life, the highest possible compliment. The series concludes in as fine a fashion as it began, and in the same place, too, with Lenu puzzling over her mysterious, enchanting friend just as the reader puzzles over these equally enthralling books. They are vivid, immediate classics.

Out of 10: 10.0

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Filed by Nora Rawn at 11:45 AM, January 21, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |
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January 20, 2016

Book Review: "The Prison in Antares," by Mike Resnick

(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 Prison in Antares, by Mike Resnick

The Prison in Antares
By Mike Resnick
Pyr
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Set in the 41st century, The Prison in Antares focuses on a rag-tag group of specialists assigned to a dangerous mission. Nathan Pretorius, recuperating in the hospital following his last mission, has a meeting with a general. General Wilbur Cooper tells him the Democracy's top scientist has been kidnapped by the Coalition. The scientist, Edgar Nmumba, has knowledge about how to stop the Coalition's deadliest weapon, the Q bomb, capable of killing a billion people. After the meeting, Pretorius assembles his team, including an alien shape-changer, a man with super-strong bionic arms, an empath, and a psychiatrist. The novel clips along at a fast pace and has some witty dialogue. It was fun reading a stripped-down military science fiction thriller. In a genre where authors can mistake page count for profundity, reading something short and sweet was great. And the plot couldn't be simpler. Or to quote the Coen Brothers movie, Barton Fink, "Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a roadmap?"

My only real demerit for the novel was its style, or lack thereof. Everything else - plotting, character, pacing - was spot-on. The style seemed rather barren. Granted, on a personal level, I'm more a fan of Iain Banks and Storm Constantine, who both have writing shading into the baroque. The style turned a major plot point - the Dead Enders visit an intergalactic brothel to find out information pertinent to their mission - into an utterly unmemorable scene. In a tightly plotted military thriller, there's a thin line between stripped-down prose and bland writing. Resnick has been compared to old school science fiction writers (read: pre-New Wave science fiction), both to his credit and detriment. The drab style also included depictions of people and technology that came across as downright retrograde. But if you're a fan of old school military science fiction, this might be the series for you.

I am a big fan of military science fiction and Pyr. As much as this particular book left me bored, I'm a huge fan of Joel Shepherd's Cassandra Kresnov series (also by Pyr).

Out of 10/5.7, but 8.0 for fans of old school pre-New Wave science fiction.

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Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 20, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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Book Review: "Kinda Sorta American Dream," by Steve Karas

Kinda Sorta American Dream, by Steve Karas

Kinda Sorta American Dream: Collected Stories
By Steve Karas
Tailwinds Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

When Steve Karas is at his best - and he's at his best frequently here - he's a funny and sharp observer of good old human behavior, capable of getting to the heart of things and working out what's behind a bizarre situation. This is exemplified especially in the closing story, "Savior." Its Mayan-apocalypse theme might seem a little dated in 2015, but that's not to take away from how Karas digs into the desperate need for human connection behind the apocalypse party he sets up. Or check out the disappointment that drives the characters of the Detroit-themed "Kingdom Come." Sure, as a Detroiter I might just be excited to see coney dogs mentioned in fiction, but even with that aside, there's still a lot behind a simple conflict between restaurants.

Besides, did I mention he was funny? Because "Kinda Sorta American Dream" itself, one of the strongest in the collection, had me laughing at every turn. Part of it is the completely unexpected subject matter - it's about a couple who does mall-Santa training - and part of it's how Karas mines that subject matter for great comic moments, especially the ending, which is unexpected but also the perfect way to cap the story off. This also speaks to the guy's eye for detail, which goes back to his ability to zoom into a character. And when he adds a little topicality to all these strengths, he really shines. On "Blue," he takes apart America's issues with police brutality and racism; "Sixteen Hundred Closest Friends" takes on the disconnected nature of internet friendships (ooh! I really love this one! Those characters!); "To Abdo, with Love" takes on America's relationship with the Middle East without losing sight of the people involved in the politics.

I know this is a lot of praise, but there's a downside - not every story is on this level. Sometimes the stories seem underdeveloped, not quite getting beneath the surface of the action; I think "Red Clay" could've illuminated more about sexual politics, and I wasn't sure what to do with the YouTube-themed "Toys in Closets," whose admittedly unique setup doesn't quite seem essential to the story. It also feels a little overstuffed, which is also a problem with the rather lengthy "It Takes a Village." Sometimes he gets a little carried away with stacking lot threads, and sometimes untangling them left me dissatisfied. Still, if you take the best stuff here, you'll see Steve Karas is really onto something, even though I would've liked it more if four or five stories had been chopped.

Out of 10: 8.7

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 20, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 19, 2016

Book Review: "In Some Other World, Maybe" by Shari Goldhagen

(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.)

In Some Other World, Maybe, by Shari Goldhagen

In Some Other World, Maybe
By Shari Goldhagen
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

After reading it myself now, I have to admit that I'm stumped as to why Shari Goldhagen's new novel In Some Other World, Maybe has been receiving such effusive praise; for while it's not bad at all, it's certainly not a book I would call great, a story that just sort of sits there like a Lifetime movie without making much of an impression at all. A character-based slice-of-life tale, the novel does all kinds of clever things to try to set itself apart, a clear reflection of the author's MFA status -- for one example, she traces back all our twenty-something characters at the beginning of the book to show what they were all doing, scattered across the country, on opening day of a Harry-Potter-type genre franchise movie that came out when they were all teenagers, before then bringing them all together as adults through things like shared college experiences and roommate hookups in the LA struggling-actor community -- but the problem is that she simply never does much with it all, a book with not enough plot to be a great story-based novel and with not interesting enough people to be a great character-based novel. About as slow and inconsequential as contemporary literature even gets, this is getting only a limited recommendation from me today, specifically for those who like genteel story arcs that feel just like the blase day-to-day events of their actual friends' lives.

Out of 10: 8.0

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 19, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 18, 2016

Meet CCLaP's newest book reviewer, Nora Rawn!

Well, a brand-new year here at CCLaP, and we have a brand-new staffer to introduce you to -- I'm happy to say that New Yorker Nora Rawn has just joined us as our fourth and latest book reviewer here at the blog. Originally from Baltimore, Nora got an English Lit degree from NYU, and has held such iconic jobs there as a clerk at the Strand Bookstore, and editorial assistant at Random House Audio and as a foreign scout at a literary scouting agency. She's now at the academic publisher Springer, and also contributes reviews to the website of the great KGB reading series there in Manhattan. Like all our other reviewers, Nora will be posting a review of a contemporary book once a week this year, plus once a month will be filing another chapter in a specialized essay series that we'll publish as a book in 2017; she joins Karl Wolff, Chris Schahfer and myself in doing so, so I hope you'll have a chance to enjoy her smart and funny write-ups.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 18, 2016. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Nora Rawn | Profiles | Reviews |
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January 14, 2016

"Our Man in Charleston" by Christopher Dickey

Our Man in Charleston, by Christopher Dickey

(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 Man in Charleston
Christopher Dickey
Crown
Reviewed by Nora Rawn.

Christopher Dickey's latest history book draws on his ample skills as a foreign correspondent to delve into the nitty-gritty of diplomatic posts through the story of British consul Robert Bunch, Civil War-era diplomat in the secessionist hotbed of Charleston. While Bunch as an individual never comes into very clear view, the book adeptly uses the archives of the British Foreign Secretaries who were Bunch's superiors to show the delicate inner workings of diplomacy at a crucial moment. Through extensive quotations from primary sources, he traces the early days of 'fire-eating' secessionist rhetoric and the start of the Confederacy, when the possible intervention of British naval power in favor of either side hung in the balance. Dickey argue that Bunch's disgust with the slave-owning elite of Charleston, and his careful monitoring of their not-so-secret plans to re-establish the slave trade, helped tip the balance towards neutrality despite the inflammatory bluster of the Union's Secretary of State William H. Seward. While Britain's economy was dependent on Southern cotton to fuel the profitable mills of Liverpool, public and political opinion was strongly abolitionist, and repugnance for the Confederacy's unapologetic slave-holding warred with the urge to protect the industrial cotton economy of Britain's North.

Bunch's experience of Southern mores caused him to secretly lobby against any intervention for the Confederacy, even perhaps beyond his mandate, for he had the ambitions to be promoted above the level of consul. Yet at the same time his station in Charleston obliged him to put on a false front of conciliation with plantation society, fearing that exposure of his true beliefs would expose him to risk in the violently pro-slavery environment of South Carolina. Unfortunately, Dickey hints at this mental strain without making it vivid, just as Bunch's family and personal life appear as mere facts. The depiction of the Southern society surrounding him also lacks verve, even though the period being depicted is one full of sensational figures. The efficacy of Bunch's advocacy is also more told than shown, perhaps blown somewhat out of proportion in order to propel the book's narrative arc. Additionally, the narrative itself abruptly stops before the war ends, as a diplomatic gaffe leads to Bunch being deployed elsewhere. The book's most important contribution may be in making it impossible to argue that state's rights were anything but a thin veneer on the issue of slavery as the cause of the war. Again and again the singular importance of slave labor to the Southern economy and its definitional status as the very identity of the Southern states is shown through the words of Southerners themselves. For this alone the book is eye-opening reading, tragic and damning and inarguable.

There are other rewarding details to be found here for a devoted armchair historian, too. While not so many generations removed, the transmission of information was incredibly more difficult during the mid 1800s, and Bunch had to resort to various ciphers in his letters which traveled within the diplomatic pouch, open to interception. News traveled at a slower pace, and indeed the very start of the Civil War was comparatively slow, with the taking of Fort Sumter initially uncontested by the Union. The value of a foreign service officer on the ground for information-gathering was certainly vital at such a time, and the intricacies of the British Foreign Affairs department are shown in careful detail. Those extremely interested in the history of the Civil War or British diplomacy of the era will find it compelling reading on account of the unique approach Dickey takes to the well-trod territory of the Civil War, though the book's claims of Bunch's critical importance in the ultimate outcome of the fight are too wide to be lived up to. Nevertheless, an enthusiast who has read exhaustively about the topic will be happy to have this detailed inside look at the experiences of South Carolina's British consul, though others may find themselves better served with a more comprehensive look at the subject.

Out of 10: 8.2

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Filed by Nora Rawn at 7:00 AM, January 14, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Nora Rawn | Reviews |
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January 13, 2016

Book Review: "Funereal" by Giacomo Lee

(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.)

Funereal, by Giacomo Lee

Funereal
By Giacomo Lee
Signal 8 Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I have to admit, while I was reading Giacomo Lee's Funereal recently, it actually reminded me a lot of a book that CCLaP itself published a couple of years ago, Scott Abrahams' Turtle and Dam; not because of any plot similarities (to be clear, the books have very different storylines), but because they're both great examples of white Westerners writing convincingly about young people in contemporary Asia, with Lee's particular story taking place in right-this-second South Korea (or just "Korea" as it's known in the book, an early sign that we are now looking at this country from the standpoint of a local instead of a foreign visitor).

One of those books that seems to touch on every single thing about Asian culture we Americans find strange, at its heart it's the tale of mid-twenties slacker Soobin Shin, a wannabe indie-rock musician and unemployed marketing major currently working at a doughnut shop in a neighborhood in Seoul known specifically for all its plastic surgeons; the story really takes off when she discovers that one of their regular slovenly customers has just started a new business dedicated to "radical psychotherapy," in which despondent and suicidal clients are given an actual funeral with their actual friends in attendance, and where they lie in an actual coffin for hours at a time, under the belief that it will help them understand the true joys of life without the family shame of seeing an actual psychologist.

This is the ingenious joy of this book in a nutshell -- that this odd little detail helps us understand just what a shameful thing it still is in Korea to admit that one is seeing a medical therapist -- and essentially this entire novel is 228 pages of that, strange little stories about Soobin's surreal life as the new marketing director of "OneLife," which each serve as another way for us as Westerners to examine such bizarre (in our eyes) Asian phenomenon as K-pop, doomsday cults, love hotels, sexual submissiveness in corporate culture, karaoke bars as "brothel lite"s, and a lot more. A book that just almost dips into science-fiction at times, although still feeling like we're simply getting a glimpse at the ultra-cutting-edge elements of Korean life that most of us just don't know about, there's a good reason that Lee is getting compared left and right these days to people like David Mitchell and William Gibson (and has become the latest obsession of the brilliantly weird geniuses at Boing Boing, no small feat); and Funereal comes strongly recommended to those who are specifically into these kinds of stories, and especially those who want to understand hipster Asia better precisely through the weird little details that make it seem like some bizarro genre story.

Out of 10: 9.7

Read even more about Funereal: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 13, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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First Time Around: "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye
By Toni Morrison, 1970
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Hi, and welcome to my 2016 review series, First Time Around! This year, I'll look at first efforts by famous authors. Some of these firsts have become quite famous as the years went on, while others were overshadowed by later works. Toni Morrison's as good of an author to start on as anyone, so let's start with her.

Toni Morrison has become pretty well established among the modern pantheon of great writers. So much so that readers might be used to her style of writing, her steadily unfolding novels so full of horror and beauty, usually told in the third person, which allows her to keep a distance when she needs but zoom into her characters if the moment calls for it. It's to the point where a Toni Morrison novel that isn't firing on all cylinders - take Tar Baby or Home - feels like something of a rehash. If I've got one gripe about her otherwise great novels, it's that she sometimes leans a little too heavily on her usual structure. You read through her work and know when she'll dip into the backstory, when a character will change her mind about another, when the trauma from the past will be unearthed.

I think this is why I find Morrison just the slightest bit frustrating. No doubt she has six or seven great novels to boast of, and no doubt the Bluest Eye is among them, yet some of her novels lean a little too much on her preferred ways of writing. This is most egregious with Jazz, which is half gorgeous and invigorating writing on the music of the same name (which is my favorite type of music, so I'm about it) and half a retread of Song of Solomon. So even when she falls a little into her formulas, her strength for characters, her gorgeous prose, her skill for wrenching guts and her sheer overwhelming intellect make her worth reading. But she does fall a little into her formulas, which makes me come to treasure unusual novels like the dual narrative of A Mercy or the running-in-the-dark stream of consciousness that she employs in her famous Beloved. Utterly none of that detracts from the argument you could make that she's America's best living novelist - not my favorite, but she's one of the few who has mastered prose, character, pacing, and effect - but it's definitely proof that there's no such thing as an ideal novelist, not even among the greats.

This knowledge of how Morrison likes to operate makes her first novel, the Bluest Eye, a shock. It's radically different from the style she developed later. Just as intense, sure, and focused on themes of race and gender like her later books, but her approach to it is nothing like her approach to Beloved or Song of Solomon. She went as far as to denounce the novel in a later forward, claiming she would've written it differently if she could write it again. The novel was a success, earning her an enormous amount of acclaim and attention right out of the gate, and it's usually considered a modern classic. So it's strange to note that Morrison wasn't happy with it, but the evidence of that is all over her later work. Once again, this is nothing like any of the books she published afterwards, making it as valuable as a question of "what-if" as it is as a work of literature.

Before I get into this novel's strange form, a brief summary. It centers on Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl who wants to be white. She is taken in by the MacTeer family, whose daughters Claudia and Frieda befriend her. We learn Pecola was raped and impregnated by her father, in an utterly horrifying sequence told in uncomfortably close perspective. It's also revealed that her parents were servants for wealthy white people. Throughout the novel, the young Pecola's sanity erodes, which sets up a pretty scary climax. Complex racial dynamics play out across this book, especially as they play out across class and gender lines; along with Pecola's desire to be white comes a terrifying internalized racism, acted out by children no less. While there are some lighter moments, including a funny scene of prostitutes shooting the breeze on a stoop, this is a pretty heady novel on a whole.

Now, as to the novel's form. As I mentioned before, it's nothing like her later novels. While she would experiment with multiple perspectives and timelines in Paradise and A Mercy, the Bluest Eye is the only Morrison novel that fractures chronology. It's told in nonlinear time: she starts in the middle of the action, leaps back, jumps forward, doubles back again. Naturally, this creates a disorienting effect, as does Morrison's method of narrating this novel. Pecola is only offered a single chapter to tell her own story, although she is the narrator's central character. Instead, she switches between the first-person perspective of Claudia and a third-person perspective of whichever characters she happens to need. To cap off the disorientation, there are the chapter titles, excerpts from the Dick and Jane books whose words run together in a terrifying monolog.

In some ways, it's easy to see why Morrison chose to abandon this confusing form. The fractured chronology and shifts in perspective makes this the most overtly Faulknerian of her works, and she doesn't like being compared to Faulkner although she loves his fiction. Not to rip on Faulkner, who I think is a great novelist, but nothing comparable to him is going to be an accessible read. You could also object to Pecola's complete lack of agency as a protagonist. I recently was part of a discussion that compared Morrison to Faulkner, which is where I got all charged up to write this review, and one of the participants raised the good point that she's a human plot device. Morrison would drop this approach to characterization off the nearest convenient cliff as soon as her next novel Sula, and developed a series of complex and compelling protagonists. They're even in her lesser novels; I've mentioned my relative dissatisfaction with Tar Baby, but that sure wasn't because of her characters. Pecola doesn't engage in the strange mix of self-discovery and self-defeat - a mix that never, ever resolves - that you find in her later novels. The difference between the arcs of, say, this and Song of Solomon make me realize the flaws in my beloved descent-into-madness story.

Yet I do wonder if Morrison didn't lose something when she abandoned this more fractured form. Look, the characters and their relationships aren't anywhere near as complicated as her later novels, which also employ disturbing imagery to captivating effect. Yet the raw confusion of this novel still gets me, still nags at me, still haunts me long after I've read it. Of course, this is also true of Beloved, but Beloved's impact isn't the same as the Bluest Eye's. Beloved makes its impact through a carefully crafted argument about racial dynamics, the legacy of slavery on America, and the sheer horrifying power of motherly love. The Bluest Eye is closer to a scream than a carefully realized argument, but the bottom line is there's something in screams that hits us as readers, and really as appreciators of the arts in general. I guess I'm saying there's a rawness at work here, one that in some ways leaves her later novels, and I wonder what would've happened if she allowed herself time to cultivate this particular style.

Of course, it's entirely too late to say now. Toni Morrison long ago established her way of writing novels, and now that she's over eighty, it's hard to imagine her going back to it. It's surprising and enlightening to double back on the work of one of one of America's best loved and best established novelists and discover how she wrote before things set in a little. It's also hard to see why she would want to distance herself from such a powerful style and what she would've done differently. I personally don't even have too much issue with Pecola's passivity, at least not as it affects my reading of the novel. Don't get me wrong, it's disturbing. This novel was meant to disturb you. But her paralysis in the face of everything that happens to her helps drill home Morrison's more disturbing points. Subtle it isn't, but sometimes a writer doesn't need to be subtle. You need a sledgehammer for some jobs, and the way I see it, the Bluest Eye's commentary on beauty standards is one of them.

Besides, the first three Toni Morrison novels are my favorite period of her work. There was a sense in these three that absolutely anything was possible that might've been part and parcel of her being a young writer. She tries absolutely anything in these books - you get treasure hunts and creepy small towns and murder cults and everything else that resists the idea of what we might refer to derogatorily as serious literature. Put another way, she indulged herself as a storyteller back then, let things stretch out in all sorts of directions. Did she get better? In some ways - you can certainly argue Beloved and Paradise are as good as the first three, if not better. But she never seemed as full of life as she did in the early days, and that's worth as much as anything else.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 13, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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January 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Wallcreeper" by Nell Zink

(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 Wallcreeper, by Nell Zink

The Wallcreeper
By Nell Zink
Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Ultimately I agree with what fans of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper has to say -- she has a remarkable ability to write in this wonderfully rich and poetic style, yet to keep the story itself funny and relatable, kind of like what you see in the best pieces in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. No, the problem with this book is that the terrible husband at the center of our tale is just so completely and ridiculously evil, with every single action he takes and every single word that comes out of his mouth, that he quickly starts coming across like a cartoon instead of an actual complex human being; and this is a big problem for a novel that's otherwise written in a realistic style, and that wants us to care about these characters in the same way we might care about an actual dysfunctional American couple stuck in a Swiss city with few friends and big culture barriers. It's what's prompted me to give the book an only so-so score today, despite the fact that it really is written very beautifully, and it's important to keep all this in mind when picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 8.4

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 12, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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