April 24, 2015

Announcing the triumphant 2015 return of the CCLaP Weekender!

CCLaP Weekender for April 24, 2015

Announcing the triumphant 2015 return of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Chicago author Matt Rowan; a photography feature by Arizona artist Paul Blair Gordon; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:17 AM, April 24, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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April 23, 2015

Book Review: "Metamorphosis," by Nicholas Mosley

(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.)

Metamorphosis, by Nicholas Mosley

Metamorphosis
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Apparently, Nicholas Mosley has been at it since the '50s, and has had two big brushes with prominence: 1990's much-lauded Hopeful Monsters and 1968's novel-in-stories Impossible Object. I say "apparently" because I'd never heard of the guy until recently; I was browsing Chicago's massive Harold Washington Library, as I often do, and I found this among the new releases. Since I liked both the title and cover, and since it was published by Dalkey Archive, I decided to give it a go.

With so many good things having been said about the aforementioned earlier novels, I'm willing to accept that Mosley and I got off on the wrong foot. There was a good novel at the heart of Metamorphosis, but Mosley's focus was off, and it threw the whole affair for a loop. From the ol' conceptual point of view, this is great stuff, focusing on a search for the godlike powers inside humanity via the God Particle. It's a little New Age, maybe, but the backdrop of science and quantum mechanics keep it from spinning off too far into that dread and unfortunate territory. Besides, Mosley backs himself up with a charming voice and a few fascinating and odd episodes like the beached whale toward the beginning.

But if Mosley avoids the dread New Age trap, he falls fully for the dread "novel that should've been a treatise" trap. He gets so lost in speculations about the future of the human race and explanations of quantum mechanics that he loses track of the story. Which is frustrating enough in and of itself, but even more frustrating when he gives us these wonderful scraps of story, like an episode about a man working on the Large Hadron Collider, that would've made for an excellent focus. I'm all about the novel of ideas, but you have to have some novel to back up your ideas, and that's just not happening here; the story's too underdeveloped, the characters too sketchy, for me to buy into it. Mosley's keyed into discussions worth discussing, and I'd be interested in checking out his earlier work, but I don't think this will go down as one of his better books.

Out of 10: 6.8

Read even more about Metamorphosis: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 23, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 22, 2015

Reminder: The "Big Venerable" release party is tonight!

Big Venerable, by Matt Rowan

Just wanted to remind all you Chicagoans that the release party for our newest book, Matt Rowan's story collection Big Venerable, is being held tonight over at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie, to be specific, just a stone's throw from the Logan Square blue-line el station), from 6:30 to 8 pm. Free beer and wine will be available, plus we'll be having short performances from a variety of great local authors, so I hope to see all of you there tonight!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:26 AM, April 22, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Events | Literature |
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April 20, 2015

Say hello to CCLaP's newest book, Matt Rowan's "Big Venerable!"

Big Venerable, by Matt Rowan

Well, it's the middle Monday of April, which means it's time for another new 2015 CCLaP book! And I'm excited to say that this month's release is the start of an interesting new series for us, three books in a row consisting of story collections by Chicago authors, kicking things off with Matt Rowan's Big Venerable. As always, the book's synopsis can give you a better sense of what it's about than I can off the top of my head here, so let me just paste it in below...

A darkly surreal yet absurdly funny short-fiction writer, Matt Rowan has been a Chicago local secret for years; but now this latest collection of pieces, all of which originally appeared in the pages of the CCLaP Weekender in 2014 and '15, is set to garner him the national recognition his stories deserve, a Millennial George Saunders who is one of the most popular authors in the city's notorious late-night literary performance community. Shocking? Thought-provoking? Strangely humorous? Uncomfortable yet insightful on a regular basis? YES PLEASE.

Yes please indeed! I've been a big fan of Matt's work for a long time now; but like many Chicago authors, Matt has never gotten around to writing the kind of big book-length manuscript like what CCLaP mostly publishes throughout the year, so I'm glad to have our magazine The CCLaP Weekender around as an excuse to publish great short-work authors like Matt and others, and to give them the wider audience they deserve. (And speaking of which, I'm happy to say that the Pushcart-Prize-nominated Weekender is finally starting up active 2015 publication again this week; but come by this Friday for more on that. And also along these lines, I'm happy to say that this is CCLaP's first finished book to be edited by our new short-fiction editor Behn Riahi, who has been editing all the short stories in the Weekender for the last year. Behn was the editor of the next book we have coming out next month as well, and is heading up all four of the Chicago story collections we're publishing in 2016, as well as continuing to serve as the Weekender's story editor throughout this year too.)

Big Venerable, paperback edition

As always with CCLaP's titles, a free ebook version of Big Venerable is available at its main online headquarters, in four different versions (PDFs for American [8.5 x 11] and European [A4] laserprinters; EPUB for most mobile devices; and MOBI specifically for Amazon Kindles); or if you prefer getting to download the book straight to your Kindle wirelessly, or simply wish to financially support Matt and CCLaP more, you can also buy your MOBI for $4.99 at the Kindle Store directly. And of course there's a gorgeous paperback version available as well, in our cute new 4.37 x 7 inch dimensions for our novella-sized manuscripts, which you can also order through Amazon or simply buy directly from us using the "buy now" button below...

Options

And speaking of the paperback version, we're having the official release party for Big Venerable this Wednesday, April 22nd, at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie, just a stone's throw from the Logan Square blue-line el station). That'll be from 6:30 to 8 pm, and not only can you pick up the paperback at that, there will also be free beer and wine available, so I hope all you Chicagoans will have a chance to come out. And of course don't forget that Big Venerable has its own listing at Goodreads.com as well; so if you're a fellow member of that literary social network like I am, I hope you'll have a chance to add the book to your library there, and especially to post a few thoughts about the book after you're done reading it. Word of mouth is the number-one way a tiny press like ours gains new fans, so your positive mention of the book online can and does have a concrete effect on how many copies we end up selling.

I have to say, I really love Matt's book, a collection of stories that will remind many of the great George Saunders but with a decidedly Millennial bent to the activities in question; and I think it's a perfect complement to the other two Chicago story collections we have coming out soon, Joseph G. Peterson's Twilight of the Idiots in mid-May and then Ben Tanzer's long-awaited The New York Stories: Three Volumes in One Collection in mid-June. (By the way, the three authors will be doing a series of events together all across the city this summer, so make sure to stop by here for the latest.) I hope you'll have a chance to check out all these books as they become available; but for now, definitely stop by the Big Venerable online headquarters as soon as you have a chance, to either download or order a copy of the book and check it out for yourself.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:39 AM, April 20, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Events | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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April 17, 2015

American Odd: "A Curious Man," by Neal Thompson


A Curious Man, by Neal Thompson

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
By Neal Thompson
Three Rivers Press
Review by Karl Wolff

The phrase "Believe it or not!" is something nearly everybody knows, but its history has been long forgotten. "Believe It or Not!" (with capital letters) was the brainchild of Robert L. Ripley, a California native who came from a hardscrabble background. He took a winning gimmick and ran with it. Before the concept of omni-media empire was a thing, Ripley had created a personal empire that included a regular newspaper cartoon, a museum of sort (the Odditorium), a radio show, movie newsreels, and a TV show (in multiple incarnations). Before there were the omni-media empires of Martha Stewart, George Lucas, and Walt Disney, there was Robert L. Ripley (1890 - 1949). When I was growing up in Wisconsin, my family would take the occasional trip to the Wisconsin Dells. One of the main attractions was the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. I may or may not have gone through it. I was a kid, my memories are pretty fuzzy. (Although I do remember going through another monument to American Odd-ness, The House on the Rock.) "Believe It or Not!" is iconic American Odd. Even those unfamiliar with the biography of Robert L. Ripley, know where the phrase comes from. It is akin to knowing Pulp Fiction references without having seen the Tarantino film. I was one of those people, until I read A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, by Neal Thompson.

A Curious Man offers a breezy, breathless, and fascinating biography of Robert L. Ripley, the man behind the brand. "Believe It or Not!" has become so iconic, it is a challenge to realize that it almost never came to be. As with many rags to riches stories, Ripley's life is an accumulation of chance, circumstance, guile, market- and media-savvy, and both successes and failures. Anyone who became wealthy without enduring failure and making mistakes is either lying to you or the wealth was inherited. (Cue inevitable election season joke.)

Robert L. Ripley (born LeRoy Robert Ripley) was born in Santa Rosa, California, a shy, bucktoothed bookish kid who spent his spare hours sketching. Through the help of his high school teacher he was able to land a cartooning job in San Francisco. He was shortly fired. After a few professional hiccups, he landed a job as a sports cartoonist for San Francisco paper. He eventually moved to work as a cartoonist for a New York City paper. During this time, photography was still a slow and expensive process. Cartoonists provided newspapers with a cheap means of communicating the story. Ripley's contemporaries included Rube Goldberg, another cartoonists whose gimmick turned his name into a descriptor.

"Believe It or Not!" was originally named "Champs and Chumps," showcasing record-breaking sports achievements. With the help of William Randolph Hearst, the cartoon received syndication, and with the help of his polymath assistant, Norbert Pearlroth, the cartoon became immensely popular. The cartoon still runs today ... "Believe It or Not!" The cartoon allowed Ripley to travel the world, collecting odd facts and odd souvenirs. The souvenirs accumulated so fast he needed a place to put them all. He filled a New York City apartment and Believe It or Not! Island, his private mansion. One of his favorite destinations was China. This stemmed from his visits to San Francisco's Chinatown when he was a young cartoonist. He found the culture fascinating.

During the Depression, "Believe It or Not" provided entertainment to those hard on their luck. They read Ripley's travel columns, his cartoons, and visited the Odditorium. The Odditorium made Ripley an inheritor of the freak show tradition began by P.T. Barnum. Ripley tried to legitimize the Odditorium by distancing himself from Barnum, but the American public came for the same reason. Americans love to gawk at freaky stuff. Why do we still watch Jerry Springer, Honey Boo Boo, and the insatiable maw of "reality television"? Ripley capitalized on this, making his interests the interests of America at large, and rode this to the bank.

A Curious Man offers a comprehensive biography of Robert L. Ripley and his omni-media juggernaut. He made the American cultural landscape richer, weirder, and stranger. He was an instrumental pioneer of the American Odd.

Read even more about A Curious Man: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: History of Joseph Smith by His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, April 17, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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April 16, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "The Sot-Weed Factor," by John Barth

The Sot-Weed Factor,

The Sot-Weed Factor
By John Barth, 1960
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

By the time 1960 rolled around, John Barth was a fairly obscure author. He had two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, under his belt, and his original plan was to use The Sot-Weed Factor to expand them into a trilogy about nihilism. However, as Barth wrote through the novel, he found it taking a shape he hadn't quite expected and decided to just roll with that shape. As it turned out, deviating from the script was the best call Barth could've made. Not that I've read the first two -- I own both, and they've got these hideously '70s covers that make me wish I'd shelled out for the omnibus, but it's hard to complain too much, since I paid a combined six bucks for them -- but it's Sot-Weed that made Barth into a literary superstar and an important figure in the Postmodern Thing.

So just how does this book roll? The first thing readers tend to note is the use of 18th century English, which, while closer to the modern way of speaking than even Shakespearean English, doesn't make for smooth reading until you've parsed it out. Of course, Barth didn't use this language just for the sake of obfuscation, but to place this novel within a broader dialog. Sot-Weed is based on a style of British writing called the anatomy novel, a form invented in the 18th century and most famously exhibited with Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which, observant readers may note, is often credited as an early postmodern novel itself. These books are long and digressive, often subvert the very notion of an organized plot, and often display the most ribald of humor.

Sot-Weed is no exception to any of these rules. It's eight hundred pages of subplots that sort of weave together into a broader and more coherent whole; the idea is more to log the adventures of poet Ebenezer Cooke, inheritor of a tobacco farm in Maryland and virgin (if you can say Sot-Weed has plot points, Ebenezer's virginity is one of them); his servant Bertrand, coward and hedonist; and his tutor, Henry Burlingame, who seems to take on whatever identity suits him best. As for the bawdy humor, hoo boy; even Roth in full Portnoy's Complaint mode can't top Barth's onslaught, and if you think I'm exaggerating, wait until you see what he does with the Pocahontas story.

Like I say, there's not a lot of plot here, so the best way to summarize this one is to talk about its premise. Ebnezer is declared poet laureate of Maryland by a British politician, Charles Calvert. Ebenezer is set to inherit his father's tobacco plantation in the same state, and after a series of disasters in England that include a near-duel with a notorious criminal, Ebenezer sets off for the then-"New World" to live out his role as a poet and get out of the trouble he's gotten into. On his journey, his valet Bertrand gambles away the deed to the plantation, so Ebenezer has to get it back. He also develops his poem, "the Marylandiad," throughout the novel. Its tonal shifts do a wonderful job of mirroring the character's own development. But the process of getting it back is just there to have some sort of framework. What matters is that Cooke gets kidnapped by pirates, that he skirts around a Jesuit conspiracy and a Native American rebellion, that he meets and falls in love with a prostitute named Joan Toast, and that Toast and another prostitute spend several consecutive pages exchanging profession-specific insults. Brush up on your eighteenth-century burns. Oh, and Burlingame's disguises. Burlingame's disguises are inconceivable and ludicrous, but in this crazy satirical vision of America, they're glorious and exactly what the book calls for. Barth goes full-throttle with the bombast and I don't see any reason to complain about that.

So far, this might sound like a cartoon. Barth plays fast and loose with the slapstick, but anyone who thinks juvenile humor can't be art must've missed all the innuendo in Shakespeare. Except Barth's a step ahead of his critics, because he places himself in dialog with the broader literary conversation. I'm not just talking about the anatomy novel thing, either -- a real-life poem about Maryland called "The Sot-Weed Factor" was written by a poet named Ebenezer Cooke in the early 18th century. Little is known about the real-life Cooke, apart that he did spend time in Maryland, so Barth pulls a Borges move and fills in a head-spinning amount of gaps. I've heard it claimed that The Sot-Weed Factor doesn't add much to the traditions of the anatomy novel, both from the novel's fans and detractors (and you'd better believe there are both; the anti-Barth), but I think moves like this help build on different traditions.

Consider Barth's conversation with Borges; the great Argentinian may have written a short story about an author who reconstructs Don Quixote (see "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"), but Barth takes the idea further by not only reconstructing a historical poem but also reconstructing the circumstances of its creation. Barth's project here goes beyond the standard blend of fact and fiction; he basically invents an Ebenezer Cooke for us and invents him inventing a poem. It's just that he happens to use kidnapping, prostitution, pirates, masters of disguise, Jesuit conspiracies, opium, and all other matters of eighteenth-century sensationalism as the poem's ingredients. Besides, in rewriting the anatomy novel for the modern context, he shows us that the new is never really far from the old and that all artistic movements are in a consistent state of flux; it's a cliché to call Tristram Shandy an early postmodern novel now, but would we have known that without Barth showing us the way?

Besides, for absurd as this novel gets, there's always empathy here. Ebenezer's chastity, frequently exploited naivety, and propensity for big emotional speeches might seem ridiculous to the modern world, but he's no figure of parody -- Barth allows the guy dignity in even the craziest of his actions, lets him grow into his own, and even offers him some bite. You really feel his journey from fresh-faced romantic to cynical satirist, and that's because Barth gets character. Exaggerated character or not, he's motivated by a lot: not just his love of Joan Toast and his need for the plantation, but his desire to see the goodness in the world. I didn't just bring up Don Quixote for fun -- Cooke is a Quixotic figure, and like with that ingenuous gentleman of La Mancha, you progress from ridiculing him to understanding him. Bertrand isn't an exact analog for Sancho Panza, and he shouldn't be, but his hedonism still plays well against Ebenezer's high-flung ideals. If I have any complaints about these characters, it's that Barth didn't do more with either Toast (mostly a victim to be saved, although she develops some serious cunning as the novel goes on) or Barth's more worldly sister Anna, but the can't-write-female-characters problem certainly isn't exclusive to Barth, although it is an issue that not every central character in this novel is compelling.

Sure, Burlingame's bombast is utterly outside of the real, and Bertrand is a bit of a gag character, but Barth's empathy for Ebenezer pulls us through the novel and his own bizarre adventures. Which is just as well, because his journey from high-flung ideals to satirical cynicism and then to a further point which I'll leave it up to you to discover pretty much is this book. People get on the postmodernists for their thin characters, but I think that's mostly a myth brought on by people not understanding postmodern literature. If you know this book's particular codes and understand what to look for in Ebenezer as he develops, you'll get what Barth's gunning for. If this was just looney tunes in looney tune land, it wouldn't still be considered an important novel fifty years on, now would it?

So there you have it. It's not quite the mind-bending metafiction Barth became known for -- not without its meta aspects, but 1968's Lost in the Funhouse is meta on another level -- but anyone who's up for a postmodern tome and doesn't mind the early modern English needs to give this a swing. Even if you're not up for a postmodern tome, you can think of it as a great bawdy comedy or a study of identity or a building-of-the-artist. Read it alongside Pynchon's massive Mason & Dixon, which takes on similar themes and is written in the same dialect, for bonus fun. When has anyone ever said no to bonus fun?

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, April 16, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 7, 2015

Book Review: "An Untamed State," by Roxane Gay

(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.)

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State
By Roxane Gay
Grove/Atlantic Inc.
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

An Untamed State is a bit hard for me to rate, since it's a book that succeeds in just about all fields; its characters are fleshed out and complex and evolve over the course of the book without coming to any easy conclusions, its story, which recounts the thirteen-day kidnap of Mireille Jameson, as well as its aftermath, is compelling from a dramatic point of view and develops in ways that are at once surprising and sensible (although the situations seem a little stock in the beginning), and when Gay writes at fever pitch, she manages to make you feel alongside her protagonist Mireille. There are also complex undercurrents of social commentary here, commentary that never settles on one side or the other.

Yet the prose never quite gets there. It's a shame, because in many ways Gay wrote a great novel, but the choice of words involves much bet-hedging. You might've heard about the recent backlash against adverbs in fiction, and if that backlash has ever struck you as pedantic, maybe redundant phrases like "cooed softly" and "dragged slowly" will make you change your mind. On top of that, she too often telegraphs what's already been implied in the text - call it Franzen syndrome, I suppose. Her decision to alternate between first- and third-person narration every few chapters sometimes works, but I'm not sure if she took full advantage of the switches; she works well in Mireille's perspective and voice, but doesn't seem to have as solid of a handle when she follows the other characters through the third person.

Still, there are enough good moments to make this worth your time, and a few astonishing ones. Her description of the early romance between Mireille and her husband Michael, a would-be man of action hampered by circumstance, brims with emotion while at the same time analyzing culture clash, and the descriptions of Mireille's trauma are astonishing. The novel feels most confident when it deals with her attempts to cope with her ordeal and reintegrate herself into society, turning from kidnap narrative to road novel as it moves along. Plus I have to hand it to her for not taking the easy way out at any point, for not imparting any cheapo lessons or giving us any sort of cornball song-and-dance about the power of positive thinking. But come on, "cooed softly?" Is there any other way to coo?

Out of 10: 8.8, but feel free to add a few points if you're not a prose fiend like I am.

Read even more about An Untamed State: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:35 AM, April 7, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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April 3, 2015

Book Review: "All the Happiness You Deserve," by Michael Piafsky

(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.)
 
All the Happiness You Deserve, by Michael Piafsky
 
All the Happiness You Deserve
By Michael Piafsky
Prospect Park Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Spanning decades and criss-crossing the continent, All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky is a modern-day bildungsroman. The novel follows the life story of Scott, a kid growing up in the Midwest. Scott graduates high school, goes to college, gets married ... and divorced, has children and grandchildren, and then the novel ends with him in the twilight of old age. While coming-of-age novels are hardly rare, All the Happiness You Deserve takes some stylistic and narrative risks, making it stand out among a crowded pack. Piafsky uses Tarot cards as a narrative device, sometimes obliquely or explicitly commenting on the scene. He also uses second-person as the novel's perspective. The Tarot cards as plot commentary works well, the second-person narration, not so much.

Scott's story spans American history and Piafsky expertly weaves the ups and downs one encounters in a long life. Early on he faces a death in his immediate family and the slow-burning fragmentation of his parents' divorce. (I'm being vague on purpose, since this book offers rare pleasures to the reader when Scott encounters either bliss or disaster.) Due to bad luck or his own incompetence, Scott becomes a sad sack figure. He remains oblivious as life events surprise him. Year after year, he can't comprehend the calamitous after-effects of his decisions. One specific passage, when Scott is settled into the low-key life in his wife's small home-town, stands out in its narrative power. Never a fervent believer, Scott ends up spending an occasional afternoon in a nearby church. Piafsky displays his descriptive skills when he describes, through Scott's eyes, the changing light through the stained glass windows. My summary doesn't do it justice. It would be like saying, "Marcel Proust was a gossip and a fan of pastries."

The only part that didn't work for me was the second-person narration. More than anything, it proved a distraction. With writing this good and a story this compelling, the uncommon second-person tripped me up. If the novel chose a more traditional narrative perspective, either first-person or third-person, I would have given it a higher score. Second-person simply isn't for everybody. It is a creative gamble that unfortunately didn't pay off. If you can get around the second-person narration, I would still highly recommend All the Happiness You Deserve. Piafsky writes in such a way that you can feel the passage of time and the accumulation of life events, memories, regrets, and sorrow. And like Muscle Cars by Stephen Eoannou, it is a solemn meditation on American masculinity.
 
Out of 10/8.5
 
Read even more about All the Happiness You Deserve: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, April 3, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 26, 2015

Book Review: "The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison

(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 Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams
By Leslie Jamison
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

At first, this collection's title struck me as an ironic way to quantify the unquantifiable, but Leslie Jamison makes it clear fast that she is out to interrogate empathy: the empathy of society, the empathy of the reader, and her own capacity for it. The Empathy Exams, then, is a remarkably good nonfiction collection. All good collections, genre aside, should strive for thematic coherency, but The Empathy Exams attains it with a remarkable force. Jamison uses each essay to expand and complicate the others, weaving self-induced pain and guilt in with examinations of power and privilege. There's even dialog across essays: a character whose quest to run extreme marathons, chronicled in "The Immortal Horizon," returns as a convict in "Fog Count." The real-life friendship he developed with Jamison is used as a personal entrance point into a study of the American prison system.

What struck me, about this one, was how well Jamison made me feel her words. The title essay, about the strange practice of medical acting - where people are paid to pose as patients for young doctors - creates a palpable awkwardness. "The Immortal Horizon's" description of a racecourse down a mountain is exhausting, while "Lost Boys'" analysis of the much-publicized West Memphis Three is vivid and visceral. Most horrifying is "Devil's Bait." This essay concerns the controversial condition known as Morgellon's Syndrome, which makes its sufferers believe they're infected by parasites; the way Jamison describes the disease might make you paranoid. Her efforts to bring you into her writing enhances the empathy aspect; the reader is made to feel alongside Jamison and her subjects.

This collection is most frustrating when Jamison's empathy seems to fail. There are moments, especially in "Devil's Bait" and "The Immortal Horizon," where it's hard to tell how seriously Jamison takes her subjects, whether the empathy filter is valid or an excuse to write about the central figures as weirdos. It's easy to imagine that Jamison intended this as a way of interrogating her own empathy; however, I don't think this aspect was fully explored, as its deliberateness isn't as strong as it could've been. Still, it's hard to argue with a collection this vivid and fully conceived.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about The Empathy Exams: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, March 26, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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March 20, 2015

American Odd: "Kooks," by Donna Kossy

Kooks, by Donna Kossy

Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief
By Donna Kossy
Feral House (1994)
Review by Karl Wolff

The cult movie Iron Sky has a memorable scene where African-American astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby), dressed like a homeless person, ranting at pedestrians about how "Moon Nazis made me white!" To the average moviegoer, the scene captures the absurdity and camp of the film. But Nazis with moon bases or living in the center of the earth are what one can read about in Kooks: A Guide to The Outer Limits of Human Belief by Donna Kossy. The book is an anthology of Kooks Magazine. Kossy, a former housemate of fellow zinester Pagan Kennedy, plumbs the depths of human belief, discovering a vast underground landscape of conspiracy theories, Ufology, weird science, and other unclassifiable strangeness.

The first edition was published in 1994, with a second expanded edition coming out in 2001. The publication date is key to its importance. In 1994 there was a convergence in technological development. By that time zines experienced a collapse, the cost and effort in making handmade zines fast becoming irrelevant to the new mass medium: the Internet. (On a personal note, I purchased Kooks from the local Half Price Books in the late 1990s, during this very same media revolution.)

In 1994 where would one get this kind of information? Kooks is singular in its mission and scope. Besides Kossy, RE/Search Publications comes a close second in its independent publishing agenda. Before the Internet became a household item, the information explosion, and the immediate accessibility of Wikipedia, the possibility of discovering the background and history of marginal thinkers was slim to nil. Even today, Kossy's subject matter is sorely underrepresented in academia. Although the text could be used for a sociology, anthropology, or history class.

Kossy comes to the material with a sympathy for preservation and accumulation. An earlier book, Ivan Stang's High Weirdness by Mail (1988), covers much similar ground, but plays things for laughs.

Kossy classifies kooks status as "inherently a matter of perspective, relative to history and culture. A kook in the 19th century might become a scientific hero in the 20th." She later goes on to say "We must also distinguish kooks from quacks, frauds, and hoaxers, for kooks are invariably sincere. Their main intent is not to deceive or defraud; to the contrary, they are trying to impart an essential truth. A kook's thoughts rarely turn to profit; some squander personal fortunes to investigate or spread The Word." This book is also important because "There is a tendency common to those who define the boundaries of reality - scientists, religious figures and politicians - to dismiss countervailing beliefs as delusions or hallucination." Despite my own personal animosity towards certain kook-like groups - anti-vaxxers, climate change denialists, creationists, birthers, and truthers - one needs to take a couple steps back. First, from making widespread ideological assumptions and dismissals. The second, from seeing everything from the perspective of "scientism." Meaning, not every human behavior needs to be seen through the lens of the scientific method and the demand of a scientific explanation. Granted, science education is highly, highly important. But Kossy's book falls into the softer, mushier category of sociology and anthropology. Soft and mushy is beneficial in this case, since Kossy wades through some bizarre, contradictory, and occasionally self-contradictory systems of thought. In organizing the book, she faced the challenge of where to put certain individuals. Suffice to say, the book has plenty of overlap. To quote Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." One doesn't have to worry about that criticism in Kooks.

The book is arranged into several categories: Religion, Science, Metaphysics, Politics, Conspiracy, Enigmas, and Outtakes. The first two essays offer a straightforward history of Anglo-Israelism and Black Messiahs. The two different belief systems have radically different origins, but both dwell on the predictable subject matter of anti-Semitism. As strange as it sounds, Anglo-Israelism didn't begin as an anti-Semitic religion. It remained cordial towards Jews and Judaism until more radical hateful strains overtook the movement and mutated it into what we know as Christian Identity. Kossy explores the variety of messianic religions within the black community. Some adapt the trappings of Islam, others of Judaism. The beliefs range from the mainline to the eccentric. For those seeking an explanation of what drove Randy Weaver to proclaim his war against ZOG and what is behind the number-centric speeches of Louis Farrakhan, these essays will enlighten the reader.

While anti-Semitism remains a dark undercurrent in many of the entries, some defy classification. Kossy covers several hollow earth philosophies. One is Cyrus Teed, a self-made messiah who believed we lived on the inside of the earth. During his lifetime, he became wildly popular. Another individual is Norma Cox. Her anti-Semitism is wrapped up in a system of thought that embraces hollow earth theory, UFOs, and Hitler being alive. It would be easy to write her off as yet another racist, but her theories are so bizarre one has to take notice. Her personal cosmology is as strange and vast as William Blake or Henry Darger. Here is an excerpt:

"Wearing the mask of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the god of Vatican hierarchy is the sungod, Apollo, the Lucifer of Scripture; this, while the moon-goddess, the evil Ashtoreth, the whore of Revelation 17, is paraded as Mary, the mother of Christ. The fraud, perpetrated on Catholics since the time the church took root, has so undetected that CBS, the TV network working the communist side of the conspiracy, boldly displays Sungod symbols on the "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt" show. Unknowing, Christians attending Sunday church service are paying homage not to their Creator and His Son but to the pagan superman whose Sun Chariot daily rides from east to west. ..."

At the beginning of her entry on Cox, Kossy writes, "A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it is also essential if one is to explain why the world is a complete mess. It seems that the less you know, the more you can explain, and Norma Cox can explain everything." Kossy, a generally sympathetic accumulator of weirdness, isn't above getting in a good jab.

While Cox's rants possess a bizarro appeal, it is nothing compared to Francis E. Dec, Esquire. His densely-typed screeds had become legendary within the kook community. The writing exhibits that Dec was attempting to sort out his own life, albeit one full of paranoia. Here's a small sample of Dec's "Rant #2":

"Gangster Computer God Worldwide Secret Containment policy made possible solely by Worldwide Computer God Frankenstein Controls. Especially lifelong constant threshold brainwash radio. Quiet and motionless, I can slightly hear it. Repeatedly, this has saved my life on the streets.

"Four billion worldwide population, all living, have a Computer God Containment Policy brain bank brain, a real brain in the brain bank cities on the far side of the moon we never see. Primarily, based on your lifelong Frankenstein Radio Controls, especially your Eyesight TV, sight and sound recorded by your brain, your moon brain of the Computer God activates your Frankenstein threshold brainwash radio lifelong, inculcating conformist propaganda, even frightening you and mixing you and the usual, "Don't worry about it." For your setbacks, mistakes, even when you receive deadly injuries. This is the Worldwide Computer God Secret Containment Policy."

Not too far off from "Moon Nazis made me white!" But while these may be the rantings of a mentally imbalanced individual, the paranoia isn't exactly unfounded. One can look at the personal history of Philip K. Dick. He made a specialty of paranoid science fiction and total government surveillance. Then the FBI broke into his house. More recent developments with Edward Snowden and Wikileaks make one second-guess about the American ideals of free expression and not being spied upon without cause. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you.

Beyond the paranoia and conspiracy, Kossy visited The House on the Rock, the tourist attraction in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Built by eccentric Alex Jordan, Kossy's essay explores how an idiosyncratic dreamer with vast capital can build his dream house. The House on the Rock is an architectural marvel, perched upon a bluff. Jordan's penchant for eccentricity and collecting makes him a Wisconsin version of Charles Foster Kane or Mad King Ludwig II. Not only is the house massive, but it holds the world's largest collection of world's largest collections. The house exhibits a strange power, driving Kossy to equal parts exhaustion and wonder. It plays a pivotal role in Neil Gaiman's American Gods and is, at root, very American. Few houses display a sincere peculiarity like The House on the Rock. It is like the ideals of American Rugged Individualism and the desire to be the biggest collided into an explosion of kitsch. It is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime. I visited House on the Rock when I was a child. Unfortunately, I don't really remember the visit. But reading Kooks made me put the landmark on the next road trip.

Kooks samples many strange beliefs and systems of thought. The book itself is a delightful hodge-podge of in-depth essays and excerpts from primary documents. The primary documents collected here are especially important, since Kossy provides little commentary. She lets the kook's words stand on their own. It is up to the reader to discern any value.

Why is this book odd? You really needed to ask? In all seriousness, Kooks is emblematic of this entire essay series. It operates as a kind of crackpot Rosetta Stone. We will see certain themes repeating themselves - crackpot messiahs, conspiracy theories, strange writing, roadside attractions - along with serving a real sociological purpose. It remains an invaluable resource for those seeking out the weirder crevices of human knowledge and some of the stranger by-products of the American Experience.
 
Read even more about Kooks: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, March 20, 2015. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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March 19, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "The Recognitions," by William Gaddis

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

The Recognitions
By William Gaddis, 1955
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Those who have followed my "Stalking the Behemoth" series might've noticed a few massive gaps in chronology, namely in my leap from Don Quixote to Moby-Dick, but release dates grow a little more consistent from here on out. After all, this is where we enter my favorite period, postmodernism, and who better to kick postmodernism off than Gaddis? I'd get more into where The Recognitions sits historically, but this is a book review and not a history lesson; suffice it to say that it was influential and that its influence is probably not done taking shape. I'm also going to leave it as a given that The Recognitions is difficult, since nine-hundred-page postmodern novels aren't exactly known as beach reading. Besides, that would be such a perfunctory way to review this book, wouldn't it? Check off the acknowledgment of its influence, mention that it's no walk in the park, obligatory reference to how despite its difficulty there's beautiful language and narrative entropy and all of that other good stuff, and hey-hey! I've reviewed The Recognitions. Check it off the list, onto the next review. Let's not do that.

The story at the heart of this book is pretty simple, and compelling enough to be one of the most common we've got in literature: the earnest protagonist, who often stands in for the author whether we as readers like it or not -- Gaddis' protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, even shares his author's initials -- struggles toward self-realization and -actualization in a world determined to deny them that. So, as Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his own review of this book, it's sort of like Catcher in the Rye. But in case Holden Caulfield puts you off, Wyatt isn't a teenager. Rather, he's an adult determined to become a painter but forced by financial strain into selling forgeries for the unforgettably slimy Recktall Brown and his smooth-maneuvering associate Basil Valentine.

Now, I grant, there's a lot you have to cut through to get to this basic story, and I'll be up-front and say that The Recognitions would not be a good fit for a "just the plot, please" type reader; but again, postmodern, 900-plus pages, you probably knew that. As Gaddis is wont to do, it's hard to tell what among it is essential to getting the plot and what's just there to be there, but what matters is how well Gaddis makes it all work. He sells us on his playwright whose dreams of glory keep him from greatness, his musician who really just wants to play, and Wyatt's overbearing Christian grandmother who discourages his painting because she feels it's an attempt to emulate God. And when the story, already laced with references to arcane Christianity and art history and alchemy, gets weird, Gaddis seems at his most in control. Characters hallucinate on ships and exhume mummies and get crucified by mental hospital inmates, and Gaddis finds his common threads, these strands of self-mythology and self-actualization and authenticity, these endless threads of identity to weave together into a bizarre and beautiful tapestry. And even if it doesn't all tie together for you, these extra bits still make for powerful flavor.

Masterful, this one. There are those who swear J R, the seven-hundred page panoply of conversation, is the best Gaddis, but I'm a Recognitions type of guy the whole way through. And those winding sentences really are beautiful.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, March 19, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 18, 2015

Book Review: "Nashville Mercy" by M. Maitland DeLand, MD

(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.)

Nashville Mercy, by M. Maitland DeLand, MD

Nashville Mercy
By M. Maitland DeLand, MD
Deland Media Group
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

If it seems sometimes that I've been feeling worn down lately by the books I've recently been reviewing here, it's because I am -- ever since the new year started, my reading diet has almost exclusively consisted of vanity projects from basement presses by middle-class dilettantes who have an extra couple thousand dollars to hire a publicist specifically to send the book to people like me (i.e. litbloggers with an open promise to review any book that gets sent to them), and books sent under such circumstances almost never turn out to be more than mediocre at best, unreadable at worst. Take Dr. M. Maitland DeLand's Nashville Mercy for a good example, an utterly by-the-numbers crime novel that leans heavily on DeLand's actual medical background for most of its setting and plot; for while it's not actively terrible, it's also not even the tiniest bit better than some random B-grade episode of some random B-grade television show on some random B-grade basic cable channel (the important difference being that the latter only eats up an hour of my life, while the former consumes two entire days), less a polished novel and more a collection of obvious cliches that kept getting strung together until they reached 268 pages. Every time I read a book like this, my soul dies a little, precisely because such books are not out-and-out horrible and it's not like you can actively pan them; it's instead that they're so totally and pleasantly unnecessary, the literary equivalent of unconsciously scarfing down a bag of high-fructose, empty-calorie junk food while surfing Facebook without even thinking about what you're doing, then suddenly becoming aware of your behavior and being overwhelmed with existential nausea for the utterly disposable nature of the world around us, for the hollow clock-watching pleasure these little trifles give us. I know, a heavy reaction for some poor part-time author who just wanted to write a simple little Nancy Grace crime thriller, but this is what happens when you read too many books like these in a row.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about Nashville Mercy: Official site | Goodreads

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 18, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 17, 2015

CCLaP's newest book, Steven Garbas' "Orest and August," is now available!

Orest and August, by Steven Garbas

Choo-choo! The CCLaP publishing train just keeps on rolling here in 2015; and I'm happy to say that our newest book, Steven Garbas' Orest and August, is now officially available for purchase and/or download. As always, it's easier for me to just paste in the book's official synopsis than to try to describe it off the top of my head, so here it is below...

Orest Godwin is ruining his long legacy three fingers of rye at a time. His lectures have become bizarre. He's smoking indoors. And he's begun to carry a knife. When Orest nearly burns down the campus destroying memoirs in his attic, the College has no choice but to dismiss him. After 50 years, a prestigious career is ended in a humiliating act of senility. Or so The Provost thinks. Orest decides he is no longer satisfied to be a known historian; he wants to be historic. So he cashes his pension, draws a new will, and vanishes. With the help of a failing Spanish student whom he has promised a fictional scholarship, he embarks on an adventure from northern California to the lawless badlands of Mexico to join a true rebellion. Armed with Wyatt Earp replica pistols and a case of rye, Orest and Augie trespass through a thousand miles of brothels, cantinas, jungles, diners, and motels, threatening those they meet along the way. If Orest can just elude the pimps he's crossed, the ranchers he's sworn vengeance upon, and kidnapping charges, he might just join his peasant uprising. At least while he can still remember where he is going. And if no one gives him a drop of mescal.

If this suspiciously sounds like a contemporary updating of Don Quixote, that's because it is, which is also reflected in the book's cover art; but Steven always likes me to remind people that the book contains a lot more than this, including sly references to the Bible and mythology, all wrapped up in a very modern storyline that is distinctly the product of Garbas's unique fevered imagination. I'm particularly proud of this book, because it's one of the first in CCLaP's catalog to have the same kind of sophisticated, polished, mainstream feel as a bestseller from Random House or another major press; in fact this book could've very easily been put out by Random House for eventual New York Times bestseller status, so I'm grateful that Steven sent it to us instead. (And speaking of which, I've also already signed Garbas's follow-up novel, The Peach King, another pitch-black human-interest comedy set in the same small town where this novel starts; that will be coming out exactly a year from now, in March 2016, but more on that in the months ahead.)

Orest and August, paperback edition

As always, the ebook is being released for completely free download here at our website, merely in the attempt to generate as large an audience for it as possible, in four different formats (PDFs for American and European laserprinters; EPUB for most types of mobile devices; and MOBI specifically for Amazon Kindles); or if you're a Kindle owner and prefer the convenience of having books instantly delivered to your device wirelessly, you can always purchase it at the Kindle Store directly. And of course we're also offering it as a gorgeous 400-page paperback, which is where both Steven and CCLaP make their actual money; so I encourage you to purchase that version either at Amazon or through us directly via the following Paypal button...

Options

Live in Canada, like the author does? We highly encourage you to instead buy the paperback through Amazon Canada, so that you will only have to pay local postage and wait a few days for your order. And of course don't forget that this book has its own listing at Goodreads.com; so if you're a fellow user of that "social network for book nerds" like I am, I'd like to please ask you to add this book to your library there, and especially to post a few thoughts about it after you're done reading. Word-of-mouth is the number one way a tiny basement press like ours generates new fans, so your recommendation of this book to your friends can and does have a huge influence on how many copies we end up selling.

The CCLaP train keeps on rolling next month, when we release the first volume of our coming trifecta of short-story collections by Chicago authors (including Matt Rowan's Big Venerable in mid-April, Joseph G. Peterson's Twilight of the Idiots in mid-May, and Ben Tanzer's The New York Stories in mid-June); but for now, I hope you'll have a chance to stop by the Orest and August webpage and download a copy of Steven's hilarious yet moving novel yourself, a book that made me laugh out loud on a regular basis yet literally cry by the end when I first read it, which I always consider a big bonus in one of CCLaP's novels. I'm incredibly happy to have our name associated with this smart, utterly readable book, and I hope you'll have a chance to enjoy it yourself soon.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:00 AM, March 17, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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Book Review: "Kiddieland" by Tim Chapman

(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.)

Kiddieland and Other Misfortunes, by Tim Chapman

Kiddieland and Other Misfortunes
By Tim Chapman
Thrilling Tales
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Regular readers of this blog know of my distinct lack of enthusiasm when it comes to reviewing books of short stories, and Tim Chapman's Kiddieland is unfortunately a perfect example of why: for while the book itself is perfectly fine, not too terrible and not too great, not too long and not too short, I find myself with literally nothing else to say about it besides, "Yep, that sure was another book of inoffensive short fiction with an academic bent." And in a world where there are already literally, literally ten million books that already exist that can be described in this exact same way, as a reviewer I find it nearly impossible to get excited about that ten millionth and first example, or to be able to come up with a compelling reason why you should go out of your way to read this ten millionth and first. Certainly not a waste of your time, it's also far from a title that could be defined as a "must-have" or "one to specifically seek out;" and while I absolutely recommend picking it up if you'd like to be a supporter of this hardworking local author, I'm finding it hard to argue why you should care if you have no such local connection. It should all be kept in mind when deciding whether or not to buy a copy yourself.

Out of 10: 7.5

Read even more about Kiddieland: Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 17, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 12, 2015

Book review: "Sidewalks," Valeria Luiselli

(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.)

Sidewalks, by Valeria Luiselli

Sidewalks
By Valeria Luiselli
Coffeehouse Press, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

There's a remarkable sense of flow and coherency to Luiselli's collection of essays, which, alongside her 2012 novel Faces in the Crowd, has helped put her on the literary map as of late. It's not just in the collection's medium blending, either, although this aspect helps it cohere; Sidewalks combines the observation of detail and interest in landmarks of travel writing with the deeper analyses and incorporation of personal details typically associated with the literary essay. No, it's the way in which each essay feeds off and builds on the next. Nothing exists in isolation here; rather, the essays all form an elaborate net. Her starting point is a journey to the Italian island of San Michele, in search of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky's grave. Her flight back to her native Mexico City is then discussed, followed by a meditation on biking ("Manifesto de Velo") that leads to one of the collection's key essays, "Alternate Routes," which juxtaposes her daily bike route with her thoughts on melancholy, as well as a few words on its history and etymology; it's like following her thought process as she bikes.

Besides the form of the book, the form of the individual pieces is also worth discussion. Luiselli breaks many of these essays into brief segments. She is not, of course, the first essayist to do so. However, she carves out her own territory within this well-worn idea by making the small segments stand on their own. The effect, which would be overwhelming if the book wasn't a hundred pages long, is of having several interconnected essays within several interconnected essays. So when she presents a brief fragment about urban violence, "Concrete," it doesn't seem like filler but like one of these pieces in isolation. There are the obvious thematic takeaways from this netting, especially when considered in context with Faces in the Crowd, which is thematically built around connection, but on a more practical note, they're great for building curiosity. A great one no matter what angle you look at it from.

For reference, note that the book has only been recently translated into English, which means its LibraryThing page is still based on its Spanish title, Valse Papieren, which roughly translates to False Papers and almost works better as a title than Sidewalks does.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about Sidewalks: | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 9:50 AM, March 12, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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March 10, 2015

Book Review: "The Dark Will End the Dark" by Darrin Doyle

(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 Dark Will End the Dark, by Darrin Doyle

The Dark Will End the Dark
By Darrin Doyle
Tortoise Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So first, let me admit that I have a bit of a bias here; for while I don't know the author personally, I am friends with the owner of the press that published this, and Tortoise and CCLaP have been talking about doing some co-sponsored events together later in the year, so you should take the so-called "objectivity" of this review with a grain of salt. But that said, even without that connection I would still like this book quite a bit, a collection of dark magical-realism pieces that unsurprisingly comes from a former student of such fellow dark magical-realism authors Stuart Dybek, Elizabeth McCracken and Rick Moody. Be forewarned, this is not the fun, life-affirming kind of magical realism so prevalent in, say, Spanish literature; these are instead stories where entire boats of passengers commit mass-suicide for no particular reason, where babies insist on gnawing on the severed limbs of their parents to stay happy, and where a man competes for the title of "longest case of hiccups in history" to disastrous effect, just to list the subjects of the first three pieces. Smartly done and more naturally compelling than most story collections, this comes strongly recommended from a reviewer who was admittedly rooting for this book from the start.

Out of 10: 8.8

Read even more about The Dark Will End the Dark: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 10, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 6, 2015

Book Review: "Five Bullets," by Larry Duberstein

(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.)
 
Five Bullets, by Larry Duberstein
 
Five Bullets
By Larry Duberstein
Brimstone Corner Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Karel Bondy lives with his family in Prague prior to the onset of the Second World War. He comes from a tight-knit community of Czech Jews. Carl Barry is a wealthy businessman in New York City, overseeing the construction of new skyrises. Carl Barry is Karel Bondy, although this change in identity occurs slowly throughout Larry Duberstein's masterful novel, Five Bullets. After settling in the United States, Carl Barry falls in love with and marries Clara Weiss. She a widow, he a widower. As he becomes closer to Clara, he pals around with her nephew Lewis. Lewis likes to asks questions and Carl enjoys answering them, sometimes with humor and sometimes with answers that are far from truthful. Lewis, ever astute, realizes his uncle is hiding something from him.

Duberstein arranges the novel to follow parallel tracks. In the first track is the pre-war life of Karel Bondy. In the second track is Carl Barry's postwar prosperity. Each track, in its own way, heads towards a collision course. For Karel Bondy, it is Czechoslovakia's sacrifice to Munich and the incremental indignities conceived by the German conquerors. His wife, Mila, retains her optimism, even as conditions worsen. First Jews endure restrictive legislation barring them from certain kinds of jobs and then restrictions become repression and then oppression. As head of the family, Karel keeps his game face on, despite knowing that the German's have far more sinister plans than ghettos and work camps.

Five Bullets is a portrait of the twentieth century. Even after enduring the inhumanity, brutality, and evil that characterized that time period, Karel does his best to retain his humanity. After seeking refuge with a Polish farmer, he leaves to fight with Russian partisans. Unlike the joking and coarse partisans, Karel remains taciturn, cynical, and bitter. When the War finally ends, he decides to settle scores. But we only come to this pivotal scene, when he confronts the SS officer that sent his family to their ultimate extermination, several decades into his new life as Carl Barry. Lewis receives much information from Uncle Carl, seeing him as a font of encyclopedic knowledge. But when it comes to his experiences in the War, it is like pulling teeth.

Then Uncle Carl decides to tell Lewis everything. He decides to tell Lewis the story of the five bullets and how he used them. Five Bullets reads like an intense mashup between Mad Men, Schindler's List, and Titus Andronicus. It is a gut-wrenching story of the Holocaust, an astute portrait of Mid-Century American from the Jewish perspective, and a nail-biting revenge thriller. Duberstein's fiction reveals what we as a species are capable of doing to each other, both on a global, political scale and within the mind of a single individual hellbent on re-balancing the scales, even if that means taking the lawn into his own hands. Coupling together the immigrant narrative with that of a revenge drama turns a simple story into something more sublime.
 
Out of 10/9.0
 
Read even more about Five Bullets: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, March 6, 2015. Filed under:
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March 5, 2015

Book Review: "The Wives of Billie's Mountain" by Kelly L. Simmons

(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 Wives of Billie's Mountain, by Kelly L. Simmons

The Wives of Billie's Mountain
By Kelly L. Simmons
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Kelly Simmons' The Wives of Billie's Mountain is essentially not much more than a frontier story in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder, only concerning a Mormon family in Utah in this case, so what you think of it will mostly depend on what you think of Wilder in the first place. Like her, Simmons' novel is a scrupulously researched and authentic-sounding account of the day-to-day lives of hardscrabble homesteaders (the title refers to the multiple wives of a Mormon husband, who were forced to flee their homes when polygamy became illegal in Utah, and who ended up settling in a series of natural caves along the face of the mountain in question), a fascinating look at a time now past and exactly how difficult it must've been to actually survive in such circumstances; but also like Wilder, Simmons' book is all plot all the time, or not even really "plot" so much as "all excruciating minutiae all the time," and those who suspect that they might get terminally bored reading an entire chapter that does nothing but explain step-by-step how a family of children hoed and seeded a garden one spring week would probably be wise to skip both Wilder and Simmons' work altogether. There are natural pluses and minuses to writing a book in this style, a style that's more of a how-to manual than a fully formed three-act novel, so it's unfair to assign a critical judgement to these pluses and minuses; but no matter what side you in particular fall when it comes to this subject, at least The Wives of Billie's Mountain is a well-written and well-researched example of its genre, and will be right up the alley of those who adore "Little House on the Prairie" and want more, more, more. It comes specifically recommended to such readers, although more general audience members might want to think twice before picking it up.

Out of 10: 8.4

Read even more about The Wives of Billie's Mountain: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 5, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 4, 2015

Book Review: "Loki: Nine Naughty Tales of the Trickster" by Mike Vasich

(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.)

Loki: Nine Naughty Tales of the Trickster, by Mike Vasich

Loki: Nine Naughty Tales of the Trickster
By Mike Vasich
Self-published
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

It's quite easy to describe the contents of Mike Vasich's new Loki: Nine Naughty Tales of the Trickster, which is why today's review isn't very long; it's simply a series of stories about the notorious troublemaker of Scandinavian mythology, but with the dialogue updated to the style of Joss Whedon. As such, then, this is really quite a treat if you're able to get into the spirit of it all, and to understand that you're meant to put tongue firmly in cheek as you read this collection of delightfully dirty and funny stories. You already know if you're the kind of person who would enjoy a book like this; and if you are, I strongly recommend picking it up with no delay.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about Loki: Nine Naughty Tales of the Trickster: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 4, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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March 3, 2015

Book Review: "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman

(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 Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
By Oliver Burkeman
Faber and Faber
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I know this is going to come as a shock to many of you, but I am not exactly an "Up With People" kind of guy, and the relentless forced positivity within a certain section of the liberal arts these days, despite being done for the most noble intentions, tends to wear me out. So thank God, then, for the newish The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by philosopher and participatory journalist Oliver Burkeman; he instead looks at the many groups over the last several millennia, from the Stoics of ancient Greece to the Buddhists of Asia, the Rationalists of the Enlightenment, and even such modern figures as Alan Watts, to show that maybe it's actually pretty healthy to sometimes picture the worst-case scenario, to embrace the failures you make, and to always carry with you a finely tuned daily awareness of your own imminent death. As these groups have each independently proven, he shows through a series of fascinating trips to various contemporary communities, tribes and experts around the globe, it can actually be really healthy for humans to understand their boundaries, to know which things they can reasonably accomplish and which they can't, and to know when to let go of an obsessive desire for a goal before that goal instead kills you; and in the meanwhile, he cites modern study after modern study that are each starting to show how much damage the "power of positive thinking" can have, from increased frustration over challenges to the body giving up on a challenge after enjoying it too much in an idealized version in one's head, even to the kinds of fatalistic embrace of violent quick-change solutions that always come with fascist administrations in times of crisis. (It's not a coincidence that Nazi-era Germans and Bush-era Americans were both obsessed with new-age beliefs.) A fresh splash of water in a lobotomizingly peppy world of endless Tony Robbinses and Deepak Chopras, this will absolutely change the way you look at the world if you're one of those people receptive to its message, and it comes strongly recommended whether to read or to simply carry to your next corporate-job-mandated "Unleash The Power of Positivity!" seminar at your local sports arena.

Out of 10: 9.7

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, March 3, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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