February 17, 2017

Book Review: "Milwaukee Mayhem," by Matthew J. Prigge

(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.)
Milwaukee Mayhem, by Matthew J. Prigge
Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City's First Century
By Matthew J. Prigge
Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Beer, Lake Michigan, and the Brewers have made Milwaukee a great Midwestern town. Located on the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, the Cream City is home to innovation, industry, and sensible zoning controls. At least that's what the boosters will tell visiting conventioneers and investors. But every city has its dark side. Milwaukee has had its share of crimes, accidents, and disasters. Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City's First Century by Matthew J. Prigge chronicles the lurid underbelly of this American city.

Matthew J. Prigge hosts "What Made Milwaukee Famous," a radio show produced by WMSE, the radio station of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). He also hosted MONDO Milwaukee boat tours in 2014. His previous books include a history of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and a history of Milwaukee film censorship.

Milwaukee Mayhem divides its brief stories into four categories: Murder, Accidents, Vice, and Secrets. He begins with the famous "Bridge War" of 1845. The last stories come at the tail end of the Second World War. Prigge crafts each tale from newspaper reports from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, back when the city had two competing newspapers. Most stories are brief and thin on the details, but this is because of the original source material - newspaper clippings - didn't reveal much in the first place. But the point of Milwaukee Mayhem isn't depth, so much as variety. These are random snapshots of the past, stretching from the early nineteenth century to V-E Day. While a more progressive perspective might say this book shows how Milwaukee developed from hardscrabble frontier town to bustling civilized metropolis, more jaded minds might offer a different opinion. Crime, like war, corruption, and hysteria, are eternal. Are we better than our ancestors? Our technology has at least improved. These days America has become barbaric, short-sighted, and vulgar.

Reading Milwaukee Mayhem reminded me of watching City Confidential on A&E. Airing from 1998 to 2005 and narrated by Paul Winfield, it offered lurid stories of murder and corruption in otherwise ordinary cities and towns. Prigge's book offers a good substitute for those seeking a pulpy tabloid read.

Out of 10/9.0
Read even more about Milwaukee Mayhem: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, February 17, 2017. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |

February 14, 2017

Book Review: "In the Mountains of Madness," by W. Scott Poole

In the Mountains of Madness, by W. Scott Poole

In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft
By W. Scott Poole
Soft Skull Press / Counterpoint
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

As W. Scott Poole rightfully says in his new book, In the Mountains of Madness, despite how we long-time fans might still think of him, there is just no way anymore to describe Early Modernist horror writer HP Lovecraft as "obscure" or "unknown;" with his concepts popping up in things like Guillermo del Toro movies, top-40 music albums, and Stephen King novels, and his stories themselves now part of the Library of America and Penguin Classics collections, "Lovecraftian" horror has in fact become the most dominant form of this entire genre in the Millennial Age, much more than, say, the "Things That Go Bump In The Night" horror of his own time, or the "Ghosts in the Suburbs" trope that used to dominate horror during the Postmodernist era. And that's what makes Poole's book so intriguing, in that it's not just a traditional biography of Lovecraft himself (although it's that too), but perhaps the first-ever probing look at the fandom that has built up around Lovecraft over the years, one that started literally on the day of his death (the day August Derleth first mentioned the idea of opening Arkham House, the small press in the 1940s devoted to keeping Lovecraft's work in print), and a scholarly community that can get oddly protective and argumentative about the "proper" way to view this complicated man and the complicated work he left behind. (Indeed, Poole admits that several Lovecraftian scholars stopped corresponding with him when he admitted that he was planning in his book on taking a nakedly honest look at Lovecraft's notorious racism, an especially touchy subject now that writers of color are starting to win horror awards named after him.)

This is easily the biggest takeaway from this just-long-enough book, that how we currently perceive Lovecraft as a person has been largely influenced by the biases and personal opinions of previous biographers, and that a close, objective look at the historical documents left behind paints a slightly different picture than the one most of us carry around in our heads: Lovecraft was in fact not as anti-social as we've been led to believe over the years; he was not as hen-pecked by his mother and brief wife as the 100-percent male previous biographers of the sexism-friendly Modernist era have made him out to be; and although not exactly mainstream-popular during his lifetime, certainly he had the normal kinds of sales and influence as pretty much every other semi-amateur B-list genre writer of the 1920s and '30s who published mostly through the murky world of fanzines, and whose passionate audiences mostly kept in touch with each other through the "Letters to the Editor" pages of such zines. But on the other hand, Lovecraft was way more racist than previous biographers have given him credit, and it wasn't the kind of "everyone did it back then" racism because you can clearly see his more enlightened friends passionately arguing in their letters to him why he shouldn't be so racist (an attitude he seems to have picked up during his disastrous short stint in multicultural Brooklyn, the one and only time in his life that he didn't live in lily-white Providence, Rhode Island); and it also becomes clear through an unbiased look at his papers that he wasn't as dedicated to creating a unifying "Lovecraft Mythos" as later fans have attributed to him (the main culprit instead seems to be Derleth himself, who invented the idea of the "Mythos" simply to sell more books), and in fact Lovecraft actually had a kind of self-deprecating humor about the Great Old Ones he created for his stories, often calling himself "Grandpa Cthulhu" in his letters to his teenage fans.

All in all it's an eye-opening book, a great read not just for brand-new acolytes who are looking to learn basic information about Lovecraft for the first time (including a great reading plan in the back for tackling his stories in order of how influential they've been over the years), but also for long-time fans who think they know everything there is to know about this notoriously downbeat, misanthropic writer, and will be surprised to learn that he was actually a funnier and friendlier guy than they ever realized. It comes strongly recommended to such people; although as usual with biographies about specific individuals, it can be easily skipped if you have no interest in Lovecraft to begin with.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.5 for fans of HP Lovecraft

Read even more about In the Mountains of Madness: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 14, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

February 10, 2017

Book Review: "If This Is Home," by Stuart Evers

If This Is Home, by Stuart Evers

If This Is Home
By Stuart Evers
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Definitely the most interesting thing about Stuart Evers' new novel If This Is Home is the ultra-rich Las Vegas condo complex Valhalla where our narrator is working as the book opens, a great symbol for everything wrong with America right now: a glittering house of cards designed expressly to fleece the empty consumerist one-percenters out of their money, prospective buyers are shuttled around to what they are told are the "most exclusive" clubs and restaurants of the complex during their weekend hard-sell tour, not realizing that the other locked rooms they are passing are in fact completely empty; and are given a complex set of rules they're admonished to follow but that are never actually enforced, in order to let these people feel like they're getting away with something they shouldn't because of their wealth and status.

In fact, it often feels like it was Valhalla that Evers first envisioned when starting to work on this novel, and only afterwards filled in a hasty, cliche-filled three-act narrative to justify the book's existence, a shame given how strong the Las Vegas parts are. The story of British expat Mark Wilkinson, who has transformed himself into the cooler, more sociopathic alter-ego Joe Novak in America, the book's structure is basically broken up into three parts -- we mostly stay at Valhalla for the first half, until a "shocking act of violence" (according to the dust-jacket synopsis), which in fact is not actually that shocking at all*, inspires him to go back to his small British hometown for the first time in a decade, where we spend the second half of the novel; then weaving in and out of both these halves is a flashback look at the young-love relationship he used to be in, and whose tragic ending is what convinced him to flee to the US in the first place.

[*And seriously, when you set up a place like Valhalla like the owners have, heavily touted to its billionaire customers as a place where "every desire imaginable is accommodated," I don't know why it would come as a shock when one of them ends up beating up a prostitute; in fact, I would just assume that the first question out of the mouth of every asshole who shows up is, "Say, when do I get to kill a hooker?"]

Like I said, the first half is interesting enough, presenting us with a fully fleshed-out bacchanalian nightmare and letting us glimpse the boring behind-the-scenes grunt work that makes it happen, and teasing us with a backstory about a past girlfriend who had something bad happen to her, even though we don't know what, why, or by whom. But the entire second half of the book unfortunately just kind of falls apart, with Evers seemingly not knowing what to do with the story and so falling back on the most hacky tropes possible; Mark spends literally 150 pages wandering around his old hometown doing nothing in particular, with all his old acquaintances and family members disproportionally furious at him merely for leaving 13 years ago and not dropping anyone a postcard (instead they all react to his re-appearance with the kind of anger you would expect if he had actually killed the woman), and eventually with Mark hallucinating the ghost of his ex-girlfriend following him around, being smartass and challenging to him as a way of pushing him into the family confrontations he came there to have, about the most tired cliche you can even evoke in a murder-mystery thriller.

Most disturbingly of all, though, what is teased throughout the book as a "big reveal" about Mark's girlfriend's tragic end turns out to not be a big reveal at all, a plot development I'll let remain a surprise but that I can assure you has not even the tiniest bit to do with the entire rest of the novel; and in fact this horrific act of violence against her seems to only exist in the first place so that Mark himself can go through an emotional journey of self-discovery afterward, a plain and clear example of the "Women in Refrigerators" phenomenon that's been (rightly) receiving so much critical protest in the last few years. That's a disappointing way to end a novel that started with so much promise; and it's a shame that Evers could never come up with other things as clever and well-thought-out as Valhalla to fill the rest of this noble but often deeply flawed story. It comes with only a limited recommendation today because of that, a book that some will like more than me, but that most people will be generally disappointed by.

Out of 10: 6.9

Read even more about If This Is Home: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 10, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

February 8, 2017

Tales from the Completist: "The New York Trilogy," by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy (1987)
By Paul Auster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

In a few weeks I'm going to have the opportunity to read Paul Auster's surprise new novel, 4 3 2 1, which has already been gathering up tons of accolades from early reviewers; but I've never actually read any work by Auster before, so I thought I'd start with the very first thing he published, The New York Trilogy which originally consisted of three separate small novels in the 1980s, but is now only sold as a one-volume set (but more later on why this is). And that's when I discovered the big surprise -- that far from the dowdy, boring academic writer I had thought Auster was all these years, based exclusively on the types of people who like his work and what they have to say about it, he instead turns out to be this incredible penner of so-called "New Weird" stories, the kinds of books that first became popular during the second half of Postmodernism precisely for being hard to define -- part literary, part horror, part mystery, part science-fiction -- and that have since become a staple of our current popular culture here in the 21st century.

And indeed, I don't know why it took so long for all this to click in my head, given how long I've been a fan of some of these writers, but reading Auster for the first time made me realize that there's actually a whole wing of popular writers sort of buried within the second half of the Postmodernist era who can be described this way, including Thomas Pynchon, Jon Crowley, Haruki Murakami, Tim Powers and more; and that since what these authors were trying to accomplish was so new and so hard to define, the literary world has ended up sort of looking at these writers in completely different ways based on the person (Pynchon is considered an academe who's lucked into some popular success; Crowley is considered a genre writer who has lucked into some academic respectability), instead of seeing them as parts of a much larger "New Weird" movement that unifies everything they've been doing over the last forty years.

For those who don't know, the term was invented by Jeff VanderMeer in the '90s, as a riff off the old term "Weird" from the Victorian Age; back then there were no such things as separate categorizations for "science-fiction" and "noir" and "horror," so basically anything metaphysical was thrown into this general catch-all label, which then encouraged writers to freely flow from one trope to the other within a single book. It was only in the Modernist period of the early 20th century, VanderMeer argues, that these genres became calcified and started developing their rigid rules that authors weren't allowed to deviate from; but what Postmodernism gave us was an explosion of these rules (as well as every other rule about "proper writing" that had been invented up to then), allowing a new generation of authors to once again go in and blend these genres together in interesting and unique ways. And although VanderMeer was specifically talking in his case about the newest generation of genre writers who were just starting to become popular in those years -- people like Charles Stross, China Mieville, Cory Doctorow and more -- I'm coming to realize that you can actually go back an entire generation to see the formation of this New Weird school of thought, one that got its start in the experimental hippie years of the countercultural era, but that didn't really come into its own as a cultural force until the Reagan years of the 1980s.

That's exactly what makes these first three novels by Auster so intriguing, certainly, that they're so hard to traditionally describe; ostensibly detective tales, in which private investigators are hired by shady clients to track down nebulous targets, all three of these books start getting weirder and weirder the further in you get, eventually becoming treaties on identity, the power of naming things, and how the concepts of Transcendentalist thought from the 1800s do or do not particularly fit in the Electronic Age of the late 20th century. The more you read, the less you understand what's going on, and soon the books pick up a creepy vibe much more akin to horror than pulp fiction; but the explanation behind this creepy vibe is much more like sci-fi than horror, even as the books never just come out and explicitly state that something metaphysical is actually happening, leaving it a question as to whether our narrators are perhaps simply going insane from existential dread, a clear reference to the work of HP Lovecraft. Then in the third book, The Locked Room, Auster adds an even more complicated twist to it all, by having a certain character reveal that there's actually these strange nebulous ties between the characters in all three novels; and by the time we're done with the whole thing, we realize that all three books are simply large chapters within the same shared universe and uber-plotline, which is why since the '90s they've only been published anymore as one large volume.

Make no mistake -- Auster is essentially the American Murakami, one who even started writing at almost the exact same time as the other, and anyone who's a fan of that Japanese genre master will automatically be a fan of his American equivalent, no question about it whatsoever. And that raises an intriguing question, of why Murakami has become a millionaire superstar by the 21st century, as well as other New Weird writers like Thomas Pynchon finally now being classified as the complicated, genre-bending authors they are, while Auster forty years later is still mostly considered an obscure academic writer who can only be loved by erudite professors? I don't have an answer to this, because it's clearly not the case -- anyone who loved the old TV shows Lost or Twin Peaks, for example, will also love Auster's books, and it certainly doesn't take an MFA to understand what he's trying to do -- and it's my hope that his newest novel, his first in seven years and one being published when he's 70 years old, will finally start turning the tide a bit when it comes to his public reputation. He's an author who deserves to have a much wider audience than he currently does, a writer who would be loved by millions of sci-fi fans if they simply knew about his existence in the first place; and I encourage all of you genre fans to go and check out some of his work when you have a chance, a surprisingly gripping and easy-to-read author who will leave you wanting more. We'll see in a few weeks how he's held up as a writer in the forty years since these debut novels; but for now, I for one plan on checking out a wide range of his subsequent oeuvre when I have a chance, and I encourage you to do the same.

Read even more about The New York Trilogy: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 8, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

February 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Impossible Fortress," by Jason Rekulak

The Impossible Fortress, by

The Impossible Fortress
By Jason Rekulak
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Ever since James Woods accused Donna Tartt's Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch of being "the world's most overhyped Young Adult novel," back in the pages of The New Yorker in 2014, there's been an ongoing debate in the literary world about just how much the Great Dumbing-Down of America has or has not reached its tentacles into the normally safe world of intellectualism; I mean, sure, we all just rightly accept the fact that something like American Idol has turned all the usual mouth-breathers into screaming obsessive fans of children's talent shows despite being fully grown adults, just like the mouth-breathers we already knew they were, but what does it say about the decidedly adult world of the arts and letters when even children's books like the Harry Potter series are critiqued and promoted as proper fare for grown-ups? How much of that attitude then bleeds over into the books that are legitimately supposed to be just for grown-ups, and how do we even define what a term like "literature for grown-ups" means within a world of endless childhood nostalgia turned into a permanent murky blurring between adolescence and adulthood?

I think about this subject a lot, it seems, anytime yet another "coming-of-age" novel lands in my hands as a book critic, with Jason Rekulak's The Impossible Fortress being just the latest in a long line of these over the last few years; for to give you the tl;dr version right away, this is basically a children's book being passed off by Simon & Schuster as an adult one, and as a middle-aged intellectual who enjoys intellectual work designed for middle-agers, it makes me not only disappointed every time I come across a book like this, but despairing over the entire subject of the future of adult literature in this country. Set in the late 1980s, Rekulak's novel has a cute premise at its core, which is why I decided to read it in the first place: a trio of horny fourteen-year-old boys conspire to steal the infamous Vanna White issue of Playboy from the one and only store in their small New Jersey town that stocks the magazine, namely by one of the boys "seducing" the store's homely, unpopular teenage daughter and convincing her to pass along the code to the store's burglar alarm, just for the boy to discover that the girl is a fellow Commodore 64 aficionado and computer programmer, sparking a geek romantic relationship that threatens to make their potentially lucrative erotic heist (they've been pre-selling promises of color xeroxes of the White pictorial to other fourteen-year-olds) fall apart before it's even begun.

But alas, instead of the novel being a story for adults that just happens to nostalgically look back at one grown-up's childhood, what the definition of "coming-of-age novel" used to be, The Impossible Fortress is instead written in the simplistic language and style of an actual book for children, one that skips decent character development or any kind of adult insight for instead these endless, endless cheap expository references to '80s pop-culture. (Actual quote from near the beginning of the book: "We all knew that buying Playboy was out of the question. It was hard enough buying rock music, what with Jerry Falwell warning of Satanic influences, and Tipper Gore alerting parents to explicit lyrics." And stay tuned for a preview of next week's Basic Cable Nostalgia Pandering Exposition Hour!) It could be argued that the difference is a slight one that's hard to define, and I suppose there's some validity to that, of where exactly the line lays between a story for grown-ups that happens to be about a teenager coming of age, and a story specifically for teenagers who are going through that transition at the exact same time they're reading a book about the phenomenon; but certainly Rekulak is doing himself no favors regarding this question with his plodding, obvious plotline, his half-baked characters who come off as cheap ripoffs of a Netflix cheap ripoff of an overly sugary Spielberg film, and his belief that simply listing things that existed in the '80s is somehow a decent substitute for story development.

Perhaps that's the best way, then, that we can mark the distinction between literature for adult intellectuals and literature specifically designed for children themselves; this book lacks any of the fundamentals of story development that we typically use as the benchmarks for critically assessing a piece of adult literature, things like a mature voice and style, surprising turns in the plot, an escalating sense of stakes, sophisticated use of metaphor, simile and symbolism, well-rounded characters who both infuriate and delight, a sense that these characters are learning and growing from their mistakes, etc. Rekulak trades this all in for a hole-filled Encyclopedia Brown story and a thousand instances of, "Hey, do you remember this thing that happened in the 1980s? How about this thing that happened in the 1980s?;" and while I suppose this will sit fine with those adults who are fans of Harry Potter and American Idol, it will leave those seeking out stories for actual grown-ups empty and disappointed, a book with its heart in the right place but that I can't in good conscience recommend.

Out of 10: 5.8

Read even more about The Impossible Fortress: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 7, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

February 6, 2017

Book Review: "Utopia is Creepy," by Nicholas Carr

Utopia is Creepy, by Nicholas Carr

Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations
By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To be clear, I would've loved to have read a book of insightful, thought-provoking essays about how everything we assume about the internet is in fact wrong, as Nicholas Carr promises with his new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations; so what a profound shame, then, that what this book actually consists of is a bunch of reprints of three-page blog posts from Carr's website, a whopping 95 of them in less than 350 pages, giving us the same kind of puerile, surface-level-only look at issues that he claims is what's ruining the internet in general these days. That's an entirely avoidable situation in this case, which is what makes this such a particular tragedy; for the Pulitzer-nominated Carr is obviously a smart guy, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and a regular contributor to places like The New York Times and Wired, and I suspect he could've delivered a really intelligent book if he had just spent a year actually writing one from scratch, one that slowly and methodically builds up his arguments over the course of tens of thousands of words and a coherent single book-long outline. Instead, though, he's delivered what's essentially a series of 21st-century two-minute Andy Rooney elderly rants with no real point and certainly no solutions being offered -- "Wikipedia sure is full of mistakes, amirightfolks? 'Blog' sure is a funny name, amirightfolks? Second Life sure was overhyped, amirightfolks? AMIRIGHT FOLKS, AMIRIGHT AMIRIGHT??!!" -- thus ironically being exactly guilty himself of what he's complaining about in this book, how the internet has turned all of us into short-attention-span ADD morons who no longer possess the mental skills to follow a rational and extensively plotted argument. A book that would've already been a profoundly disappointing read on its own, it becomes even doubly so by this self-defeating, cloud-yelling aspect of its writing style; and instead of it being merely a book I don't recommend reading, today I am actively suggesting to stay far away from it, if for no other reason so to discourage publishers to continuing to offer up this kind of treacly pablum as proper intellectual fare.

Out of 10: 2.3

Read even more about Utopia is Creepy: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, February 6, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

January 30, 2017

Book Review: "Ames," by Jeremy Andrew Whitehead

Ames, by Jeremy Andrew Whitehead

By Jeremy Andrew Whitehead
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To review Jeremy Andrew Whitehead's Ames is an inherently frustrating experience, and a great example of why it can be so difficult to give a fair shake to self-published literature. Because to be sure, there's a great science-fiction novel buried within this manuscript, based on a really thought-provoking premise that brings to mind Charles Stross' cult favorite Saturn's Children -- namely, what would happen if a ship full of human colonists in suspended animation were sent to a planet to sleep underground for a thousand years, while a team of artificially intelligent robots spent a millennium terraforming that planet into a habitable state, just for those robots to realize a couple hundred years in that they don't actually need the humans at all, and that they could start their own civilization just fine?

That's a great concept, and gives Whitehead room to explore all kinds of interesting world-building questions related to a society that was built specifically for robots that are intentionally modeling themselves after humans; a world with no bathrooms but with recharging stations built into every vehicle and piece of furniture, a world where a small cabal of "first gen" AIs deliberately create millions of less intelligent minions that they control like Orwellian fascist nation-states. And what would happen in such a world if one of those long-dormant underground humans was finally woken up to reassert control? That's another fascinating question, one that fuels the action-adventure plot seen here; so what a shame that this book still needs so much basic work when it comes to proofreading and editing in order to be taken seriously as a piece of literature. And that's the problem with self-published novels in a nutshell; that in an age where it's so incredibly easy to convert a Microsoft Word document into a finished and published paper book for sale to the public at Amazon, it's becoming harder than ever for such authors to secure professional editing services to make those books worth reading in the first place.

Ames is essentially a 500-page book with only about 250 pages of actual interesting content, written by an aerospace engineer who mistakes the detailed procedural lists that come with product analysis for a compelling narrative; and so while that generates some really heady ideas for us to ponder, those ideas are couched within pages upon pages of mind-numbing filler, adding up to a wash whose bad parts equally cancel out the good ones. (Just as an example, the act 1 setup of the story takes Whitehead an entire 125 pages to get across, when it should've been over and done with by page 30 or so.) And this is not to mention the literal hundreds of basic grammatical errors found within the manuscript, things that spell-checks will never catch like Whitehead's habit of putting his dialogue's punctuation outside of his quotation marks instead of inside, which as a heavy reader drove me crazier and crazier with each successive page.

This could've been easily solved if he had had an extra thousand bucks to hire an actual professional editor to give this a once-over; and therein lies the problem, in that actually publishing the book through a place like CreateSpace only costs a tiny fraction of that, leading most self-published authors to skip this expensive and time-consuming but such critical step. I'm still giving Ames a decent score, because just the concepts alone being bandied about is worth giving it a look, especially for extra hardcore SF fans who aren't as bothered by basic grammatical mistakes; but for general-interest readers who are, this is going to be a frustrating read, something one hopes that Whitehead will fix before releasing part 2 of this planned trilogy.

Out of 10: 7.4, or 8.4 for hardcore science-fiction fans

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 30, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

January 26, 2017

Book Review: "Birth," by S.T. Gulik

Birth, by S.T. Gulik

Birth: or The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck
By S.T. Gulik
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Although I'm generally a fan of bizarro literature (as in "I don't actively hate it"), there's one big problem with this genre that prevents me from being a big fan or a fervent fan; namely, every bizarro novel in existence tends to sound exactly like every other bizarro novel in existence, a genre that can quite literally be defined as "a cartoon written out in narrative form," and therefore has a sort of randomly nonsensical "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" nature that makes every book in the genre sort of bleed into one giant absurdist fairytale without a beginning or an end. Take S.T. Gulik's Birth: or The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck for a good example; not badly written at all, its post-apocalyptic tale of an everyman stumbling through a series of comically disgusting situations nonetheless feels like a book I've already read a hundred times before, precisely because I really have read books exactly like this a hundred times before. The genre in general is sort of the ultimate example of a book type that can only be loved by hardcore fans of that book type, but who will then read a book every single day of this type exactly so they can get their daily dose of exactly what they were expecting; and although crime and romance are genres of this type that get a lot more attention, bizarro is one of the more pure examples of this phenomenon, with Birth being a perfect example of one of those throwaway books that a bizarro fan might start at 10 in the morning on a Wednesday, be done with by 8:00 that night, then be ready to start another one exactly like it at 10:00 Thursday morning. It should all be kept in mind when deciding whether to pick it up yourself, or even whether to be a fan of bizarro lit in the first place.

Out of 10: 7.5, or 9.0 for fans of bizarro literature

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 26, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

January 25, 2017

Book Review: "The Edge of the Empire," by Bronwen Riley

The Edge of the Empire, by Bronwen Riley

The Edge of the Empire
By Bronwen Riley
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

There seems to be a trend in history books these days that I'm all for, which is to de-emphasize the date-focused tradition of battles and emperors to instead "paint a portrait" of what daily life in those days must've been like for the average citizen; take Bronwen Riley's The Edge of the Empire, for example, which examines the Roman Empire's far-flung colony of Brittannia (or modern-day Great Britain) by picturing what the trip there must've been like for its newly appointed governor in 120 AD, Sextus Julius Severus, as he made his way with his retinue from the center of Rome itself all the way to the northern wasteland of Hadrian's Wall. This then gives Riley an excuse to look at all kinds of interesting topics that would relate to such a trip, from the roadways and shipping lanes that had been established by then, to how such traveling groups kept themselves fed and housed over such a long distance, the way the countryside's culture changed as you traveled farther and farther away from Italy, what exactly was built by the Romans in these far-off spots and what was co-opted from the pagans who were already there, what kinds of things were valuable enough in those locations to be imported back to people in Rome, and what kinds of things needed to be exported from Rome out to them. It's a surprisingly short book, only 200 pages once you remove the bibliography and notes; and this lets it move at the lively pace of a contemporary novel, certainly not a book for serious academes but a perfect volume for armchair historians like you and me. For those who are interested in learning more about this endlessly fascinating period of human history, but don't feel like trudging their way through a thousand pages of "Caesar This" defeating "Minor That," this comes strongly recommended, a brisk and fact-filled look at what European travel was like in an age before jetliners, ocean cruisers or even paved roads.

Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.3 for amateur history buffs

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 25, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

January 24, 2017

Book Review: "Three Years with the Rat," by Jay Hosking

Three Years with the Rat, by Jay Hosking

Three Years with the Rat
By Jay Hosking
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

The promotional material for Jay Hosking's Three Years with the Rat claims that the novel is "reminiscent of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves," but as typical with this kind of stuff, that's simply a lie; in fact the one and only thing the two books have in common is that they both feature a space that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. Other than that, this book consists of not much more than a fairly pedestrian coming-of-age tale, plotted with the immaturity of a Young Adult novel and featuring dialogue that badly suffers from Joss Whedon Syndrome*, a book that hits all the notes you would expect from such a story (boy moves to Big City, boy makes new group of friends, boy gets into first serious romantic relationship, boy breaks up from first serious romantic relationship), only with a metafictional element holding the story spine together, in that it's the boy's older sister who convinces him to move there, and she and her boyfriend are both scientists who are working on some kind of shadowy project that supposedly supersedes the normal laws of space and time.

That's led St. Martin's Press to unwisely market this as a science-fiction novel, or at least a literary novel with strongly science-fictional overtones (thus the House of Leaves comparison on the dust jacket); but actual SF fans like myself will be disappointed by Three Years with the Rat, not only because the science part is dished out in such a poorly paced, haphazard way (smart readers can essentially glean everything they're trying to do in chapter 1, then the rest of the novel is a series of flashbacks where Hosking tries to slowly reveal the very information he fully showed in the first chapter), but because the eventual "science" that's revealed sounds literally like something a stoned undergraduate would come up with after a bullshit session in the dorm with their buddy**, then afterwards decide would make for a good subject off which to base an entire novel.

That's a huge problem here, because there's nothing compelling left once you discount the disappointing concept at the center of the book; and when combined with the immature writing style that's clearly being presented as something for grown-ups, that makes for a book that's hard to recommend and kind of a slog to actually read. I'm tacking on a few extra points to its score today anyway, as an acknowledgement that teens and Whedon fans will undoubtedly like this more than I did; but make no mistake, despite what St. Martin's is trying to peddle here, Primer this ain't.

Out of 10: 7.3

Read even more about Three Years with the Rat: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

*Joss Whedon Syndrome: When dialogue supposedly meant for grown-ups is written in an overly twee and flippant style, which some people apparently like for some unfathomable reason, but for me is like fingernails down a chalkboard.

**"Dude, you know how, like, time seems to stand still when you're waiting in line at the grocery store? What if it actually does?" "Awww, duuuude." "And what if, like, you could control that time speed by putting six mirrors together directly across from each other in a cube, so that they're, like, all infinitely mirroring each other?" "Awww, duuuuuddde!" "And what if, like, what if you sat in the middle of that mirror cube, and like your entire past ceased to exist because of it, so then you could go back to your ex-girlfriend and undo all the dick moves that made her break up with you the first time?" "Stop, dude, stop! YOU'RE FREAKING ME OUT, DUDE!!!"

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 24, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

January 20, 2017

Book Review: "Cthulhu Fhtagn!" by Ross E. Lockhart

(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.)
Cthulhu Fhtagn!, by Ross E. Lockhart
Cthulhu Fhtagn!
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart
Word Horde
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Cthulhu Fhtagn!, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, is an impressive anthology of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. I enjoyed the variety of the stories within, ranging from the traditional to the innovative. "Dead Canyons" by Ann K. Schwader stood out to me because it brought Lovecraftian cosmic horror into the realm of hard science fiction. On the surface it is about Dr. Susan Barnard and her research team. But Susan's sleep is filled with nightmares. A planetary rover might be possessed. Other stories are more traditional, drawing from the well Lovecraft created in his mythology. There are stories of haunted houses, eccentric artists, and dysfunctional families. A wonderful sampler of cosmic horror. In this uncertain age filled with terrorism, racial tension, police brutality, and political strongmen, the Lovecraftian Mythos is almost reassuring. We are primitive and impotent in the face of the Old Ones, with their insanity-inducing forms and incomprehensible architectural geometries.

(Since CCLaP isn't reviewing short story anthologies anymore, this review is part of clearing out the books still in the backlog.)

Out of 10/8.5

Read even more about Cthulhu Fhtagn!: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 20, 2017. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |

January 17, 2017

Tales from the Completist: "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?," by Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014)
By Roz Chast
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

As a 47-year-old, it's of course no secret that my still-living parents are now in their deep elderly years; and without going into details, I deal with the same issues concerning them as most other middle-aged children with living parents in their seventies and eighties, sometimes with charming results but more and more often frustrating as they get older and older. And that's why I'm so glad to have accidentally come across Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? while on a recent random trip to the library, a 2014 comics memoir that won that year's National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize and the Eisner Award, as well as being nominated for the National Book Award.

A look at the topics this New Yorker cartoonist dealt with as her own parents transitioned into assisted living in their nineties then eventually died, certainly there are some isolated moments of "aren't the elderly so adorable" humor; but make no mistake, the main point Chast is making here is that the process of caring for people near the end of life is mostly a demanding and infuriating one, a relationship that often resembles the one a young parent has with a very small child, but maddening in this case because that "child" is actually a fully grown adult who by all rights should know much better than to behave the way they often do. And that's the irony of the elderly in a nutshell, a paradox for which we gather more and more evidence with every passing year; that in many ways, people near the end of life regress to a childlike level of refusing to practice self-care, often because they're scared or angry about their situation and therefore go into deep denial about the changes in their lifestyle that need to take place. And that's even when they're fully lucid and in charge of their faculties; add things like dementia and Alzheimer's and the situation gets a hundred times worse.

We see this in Chast's memoir in numerous ways, from her parents' refusal to see doctors when sick to their outright hostility over the idea of leaving the broken-down Brooklyn apartment where they've lived the last half-century, a place they can quite plainly no longer navigate without injuring themselves on a daily basis, yet one they're determined to stay in until it literally kills them; and I found Chast's reaction to it all deeply relatable, a combination of deep worry and "all right, to hell with you then" nonchalance, which is then exacerbated by guilt every time she leaves her parents alone and then they hurt themselves once again. Weaved into this, then, are biographical looks at the relationship she had with these caregivers when a child herself, a changing New York City, and the schism between privilege and need that goes through any middle-classer's head as they watch their parents quickly burn through their savings on the kind of healthcare at the end of life needed simply to keep them alive, but not in any way happy or content or wise like we so romantically wish to picture one's elderly years.

It's an eye-opener for sure, a book that millions of people have deeply identified with precisely because Chast speaks the hard truths here that none of the rest of us want to say out loud -- that caring for elderly parents is a tough slog, one with hardly any bright points but with endless low ones, and that is daily challenging our society's belief of what "quality of life" means in an age of almost science-fictional healthcare for the very old. What's the point of even going to those kinds of measures just to bankrupt sick, mentally deficient people who don't want it in the first place, and whose refusal to acknowledge their diminished capacities do nothing but exact a profound emotional toll on those who love them? There's no easy answers to questions like that; but Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? at least examines those questions with panache, intelligence, and a wry sense of dark humor. It comes strongly recommended to those who find themselves in a similar situation.

Read even more about Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 17, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

January 16, 2017

Book Review: "Leaving Paris," by Collin Kelley

Leaving Paris, by Collin Kelley

Leaving Paris
By Collin Kelley
Sibling Rivalry Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

The timeline of CCLaP's history is also roughly the timeline of Collin Kelley's "Venus" trilogy; we received the first volume from him, 2009's Conquering Venus, not long after opening for business, read through the second, Remain in Light, a few years later, and are just now checking out the conclusion, last summer's Leaving Paris which came out while we were on hiatus in 2016 from accepting new books for review. A sprawling tale that covers multiple generations, two continents, and a political conspiracy that gets deeper with each book, it's ultimately the story of two main people -- Martin Paige, a young gay American southerner who finds himself in and out of various complicated relationships over the years, and Irene Laureux, a now elderly veteran of the 1968 Paris student riots, the two pushed together by the universe through a series of waking dreams about the other, as well as a coincidental tattoo that they both just happen to have at the same exact places on their bodies. Their story then also has encompassed a growing amount of minor characters on the peripheries, all of whom engage with and inform the main story of love, murder and right-wing politics at its core -- from Martin's Memphis friend Diane Jacobs, a sassy Jewish teacher and divorcee trying to figure out what to do with her life, to Martin's new French boyfriend Christian Kigali, the shadowy French police inspector Michel Arnaud, closeted former Tennessee boyfriend David McLaren, and a lot more.

I've never claimed in these reviews that the trilogy is particularly great, an opinion I'm sticking with for this third volume; but certainly they're very readable, entertaining, and well put-together, and I admit that it's very satisfactory to see this story come to a conclusion after almost a decade of writing. In the world of small presses, where companies come and go in the blink of an eye and authors often lose the the financial incentive to continue ambitious projects, merely finishing a complicated, interlocking trilogy like this is an achievement unto itself; the fact that it's thought-provoking and tells a good yarn is merely a bonus, despite the fact that its scope threatens to get too big for Kelley to handle here by the third book, the characterizations are sometimes a bit inconsistent, the dialogue is a bit too sentimental at points, and especially here in the third volume he has the habit of making too many random people these characters encounter cartoonishly homophobic in the style of a 1950s moral panic film, an attitude that certainly existed in the Bush-dominated 2005 when this third book is set, but that feels like too much too often in the way he handles it. These are all minor quibbles, albeit ones you should keep in mind before reading the trilogy yourself; in general, though, I was very satisfied with these three books, including the way the entire saga is eventually summed up, and give a general if not strong recommendation to check them out for yourself if you have the chance.

Out of 10: 8.4

Read even more about Leaving Paris: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 16, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

January 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins," by James Angelos

(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 Full Catastrophe, by James Angelos
The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins
By James Angelos
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
A recent essay in The New York Review of Books was ominously titled "Is Europe Disintegrating?" The essay focused on Brexit, Turkey's slide into authoritarianism, and the sulfurous fumes of nationalism spreading across Europe like a gritty remake of the ramp up to the Second World War. Suffice to say, the mainstream media has shown a recent increase in apocalyptic hysteria. Then again, that's how one would act when they treated the American election like a joke. To borrow a one-liner from the world of retail, "Your lack of planning is not my emergency." Others saw the storm clouds way before the mainstream media, although not being bound to ratings and the 24-hour news cycle made them immune to reporting on every utterance of a certain reality TV star. Which brings us to Greece.

Greece's role in the Euro fiasco is not news. During the Great Recession, Greece played an instrumental role in European fragmentation and international tension. It is also a nation subject to the rest of Europe's contradictory stereotyping of it. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing has called Greece "the mother of all democracies," but changed his tune in 2012 when he said, "To be perfectly frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece. Greece simply wasn't ready. Greece is basically an Oriental country." James Angelos, a freelance journalist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal added, "When Europeans use the term "Oriental," in this context, it's not meant as a compliment. The Greeks were other, Middle Eastern, backwards when compared to noble, loftier Europeans." The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins Angelos brings together investigative journalism, travelogue, and personal commentary to give a human face to Greece in the throes of the present financial crisis.

Is Greece the bastion of democracy, philosophy, and the West? Or is it a backward and corrupt regime dominated by inefficient bureaucrats, political extremists, and greedy opportunists? The answer is Yes. (Then again, I'm from the United States. Who am I to chide them for corruption and extremism? In the United States, we've turned those two things into art forms.) Angelos tours the Greece he knew as a child and encountered a country devastated by internal and external forces. He visits "The Island of the Blind," questioning citizens, medical professionals, and civil servants. He tried to understand how the island of Zakynthos pulled off such a large-scale con on the Greek government. He also interviews members of the civil service in relation to a notorious murder case. Despite committing murder, two members of the Greek civil service continued to get paid even while in jail. When questioned, supporters came back with the old saw, "Think about the children!"

The Full Catastrophe also reveals external fault lines in Greek life. When Chancellor Angela Merkel - also head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union - organized the bail-out program for Greece, it included draconian austerity measures. (In fairness, Greece's government bureaucracy was a bloated, inefficient behemoth.) The austerity measures opened old wounds. Since Greece owed billions, a populist reaction rose up against the draconian measures. Greeks started demanding war reparations from Germany, since the German occupation led to starvation, oppression, and terror.

James Angelos weaves together heart-wrenching human stories with a dark comedy. While he remains proud of his Greek heritage, he doesn't hide his outrage and contempt for the long-held tradition of corruption, graft, and outright thievery present in Greek corporations and Greece's civil service bureaucracy. Greece has long been in need of massive civil and corporate reforms. When a nation is on the verge of economic collapse, austerity measures usually aren't the best solution. What better advice to tell a starving person than not to eat? The Full Catastrophe was a highly satisfying read, playing out like a Greek version of The Wire, David Simon's group portrait of universal institutional corruption of the Baltimore area.
Out of 10/9.0
Read even more about The Full Catastrophe: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 13, 2017. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |

January 12, 2017

Book Review: "The Big Sheep," by Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep, by Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep
By Robert Kroese
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

To be clear, Robert Kroese's "phenomenological inquisitor" tale The Big Sheep is not much more than a well-written ripoff of Douglas Adams' "holistic detective" Dirk Gently novels, combined with the characterizations found in the cult movie The Zero Theorem and the alt-history universe-building of a typical "slow apocalypse" science-fiction book. But I happen to love the witty and smart Dirk Gently novels; and given that Adams died several years ago and won't be writing any more of them, I've got no problem at all with Kroese taking up the slack and putting out books nearly identical in both spirit and tone.

Set in a version of the 2030s that has already seen a cataclysmic event in America come and go, it has left behind a tougher and weirder Los Angeles that among other things now contains flying cars (since the old highways of pre-apocalypse LA are no longer navigable), as well as giant sections of the city that have essentially been walled off like Escape From New York and are their own anarchic demilitarized zones, the subject of the newest wave of popular gritty TV shows within an entertainment industry that has been permanently commingled with the journalism industry, so that there's virtually no difference any longer between the two. It's within such a setting that we follow the adventures of metaphysical private investigator Erasmus Keane, as well as his tough but perpetually bewildered assistant Blake Fowler, as they simultaneously take on cases of an intelligent sheep that's been kidnapped from a top-secret genetics facility, and a teenage TV star who's become convinced that someone is out to kill her, the two investigations slowly revealing their complicated connections as the story reaches its absurdist, violent conclusion.

To be fair, there are some problems with the novel, which is why it isn't getting a higher score than it is today; the characterizations are a bit inconsistent from one chapter to the next, there's way too much telling over showing, and the book simply isn't as funny as Kroese seems to think it is. But that said, I was thoroughly charmed by the ridiculous machinations that fuel this novel's day-after-tomorrow storyline, the premise getting more and more preposterous and convoluted with each passing chapter; and in general it was a fast and always entertaining page-turner that will immensely satisfy fans of bizarro literature, as well as those who like the wackier side of science-fiction (think Terry Pratchett). The first of what looks like is going to be an entire series of Keane/Fowler adventures, I certainly would not mind a franchise being made out of these two engaging and memorable characters; and while this first volume doesn't exactly come recommended to all, certainly those who enjoy the kind of novels I just described should pick it up with no delay.

Out of 10: 8.3

Read even more about The Big Sheep: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 12, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

January 6, 2017

American Odd: "Three Wogs," by Alexander Theroux

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

Three Wogs, by Alexander Theroux

Three Wogs
By Alexander Theroux
Henry Holt and Company, Inc. (1972)
Review by Karl Wolff

Alexander Theroux comes from a famous family. Brother to travel writer Paul Theroux and the actor Justin Theroux is his nephew. I first came upon Alexander Theroux in 99 Novels, by Anthony Burgess. It was an informal survey of the best novels in English since World War 2. Burgess praises the usual suspects (Pynchon, Faulkner, Mailer), but he also brought up some otherwise unknown authors. One of them was Alexander Theroux and his masterpiece Darconville's Cat.

But the first piece of prose fiction Theroux wrote was Three Wogs, published in 1972. Wog is a racial slur used by the British. As the back cover explains, "It is used to denigrate people of color - East Indians, Jamaicans, Africans - and, can under duress, be extended to include Asians, Irishmen, Italians, and indeed all people of perceptibly foreign habits or appearance." Wog is similar to the word "bloody" in that it doesn't translate into American English. (Wop is close, but by now it would be considered archaic or obsolete.) In Three Wogs, Theroux regales the reader with three tales of racists who get their comeuppance. (Since this is a literary essay and not a book review, I will disregard spoilers. Even though the title sounds distasteful, I would highly recommend reading Three Wogs. It is the perfect antidote to the dismal headlines in our orange-hued, tiny-fingered vulgar age.)

With geometric precision, Theroux tells three stories, each with three parts. All focus on a WASPy Brit and his or her "wog" antagonist. The first story focuses on a slow burn battle of wills between Mrs. Proby and her downstairs neighbor, Yunnum Fun. The second story deals with Harold Harefoot, a young Brit who works on the graveyard shift cleaning doubledecker buses and Dilip, a Jain from India waiting at the train station. The third story pairs Rev. Which Therefore, a deeply racist and deeply closeted Episcopal preacher having to officiate the marriage of Cyril, a black African singer for whom Which has an unrequited love (or lust). (Theroux has a Wodehousian penchant for funny names and comedic set-pieces.)

What make these short pieces transcend the strictures of comedy is Theroux's verbal pyrotechnics, acidic satirical wit, and characterizations. Theroux is a devout Catholic and an unapologetic leftist. He resembles James May and he has had scrapes with the public, including charges of plagiarism and misogyny. The plagiarism accusations revolved around his two books of essays, The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors. The misogyny charges are harder to shake, but easier to justify. Let me explain. In Three Wogs the female characters do not come across as positive. Mrs. Proby is an unattractive, abrasive, combative, racist and anti-Semite. She comes across like a monstrous doppelganger to future-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the third story, Rev. Which Therefore's mother is a withered hateful racist Protestant shrew. (Throughout his fiction, Theroux's villains tend to be conservative and Protestant. Despite his progressive political leanings, he comes across like he still resents Martin Luther and that whole Reformation thing.)

Theroux's genius shines through in his characterizations. While the WASPy Brits and "wogs" wallow in toxic antagonistic relationships, the stories expand on each character.

Case in point: We first meet Harold Harefoot and he comes across as a racist manchild with no impulse control. He gets into an argument with the Pakistani ice cream vendor. All in all, he is an unsympathetic idiot we shouldn't bother caring about. But then Theroux provides us his back-story: Harold lives in Houndsditch. "It was all now a crumbling and smoke-grimed necropolis in boarded windows, mummified everywhere by old railings, stagnant air, and cobwebs, where draughty hallways reek with the smell of stale cabbage, Blakean children weep soot, and merchants patter with Mammon and make God evanescent." He works "hosing down and scrubbing up the coaches and buses in a subterranean garage at Victoria Station, duties he performed with ill-camouflaged scorn and a minimum sense of art." He spends his Sundays going to Hyde Park's Speaker's Corner, listening to racist tirades by local crackpots.

His antagonist is Dilip, a Jain, who is receiving a university education to study electrical circuitry. Like Harold, he is no mere caricature, although he speaks like Apu from The Simpsons. He endured his family's destruction during the hellish days of the post-colonial Partition. The relentless suffering and hardship drew him towards the Jain faith, with its emphasis on not harming anyone. In the story, he waits in the train station while Harold chews his ear off.

One of the great set-pieces of Three Wogs is its Speaker's Corner sequence. We listen to several crackpots and bigmouths spew forth a never-ending racist tirade. This is Alexander Theroux at his most brilliant. He describes the speaker's blather as "a shotgun wedding between free speech and common sense." Or put another way:

"But it was the speakers, the metal of Old England, who simply amazed, for it was singularly this vision-haunted (occasionally beer-irrigated) array of nobodies, filled with the arrogance of disenchanted insight, who, in the war between order and entropy, ran hand-over-hand high into their makeshift boxes, and, flying into diatribes and mighty gusts of Homeric wrath against God, Devil, or anything else that bent their wick, they cast - on a Sunday of rain, on a Sunday of snow - imitation pearls before genuine swine. Roland punched and fought to the front of the wide, shifting assembly."

Or in contemporary parlance:

"Make America great again! Lock her up! Drain the swamp!"

Published in 1972, Three Wogs was written in 1970. The date is important. In 1968 Conservative MP Enoch Powell gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech. The speech railed against non-white immigrants coming to England. "We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre." (To be fair, comparing Donald Trump to Enoch Powell would be uncharitable. The better parallel is with the producer-punching climate change denialist Jeremy Clarkson.) I imagine Theroux wrote Three Wogs in reaction to Enoch Powell's speech and the festering racism in the UK following decolonization. The mighty Anglos and Saxons, long since heroes on the battlefields of Hastings and Agincourt, now looked like paranoid buffoons, afraid their daughters will marry a Pakistani or a British African. Alas, racism can't be solved with a piece of literature and a "magic bullet" solution.

Theroux's depictions of non-white cultures may come across as simplistic and a caricature, angering a reader looking at this through the lens of the politically correct. Political correctness is something more people need to be attuned to, especially in everyday interactions and in tolerating other cultures, beliefs, and so forth. As a means to interpret literature, political correctness is a narrow myopic lens. It shuts off interpretation in favor of hysterical reaction. Reacting isn't the same thing as thinking.

Three Wogs is indeed racist, in the same way Blazing Saddles is racist. Racial slurs spatter the text, but words are neither good or bad. But people can be good or bad when using these words. Who is using the racial slurs? The Grand Wizard of the KKK and Richard Pryor will use the same words, but the intent will be different. Intention is everything. In Theroux's case, he's using the racist words against the racists. He also made both the racists and the non-white characters fully rounded individuals. This makes it more challenging to fit any specific character into a particular moral box. Life just isn't simple. We'd like to think so, believing in conspiracy theories and such, when in fact we are each a unique product of time and circumstance. It is good to be politically correct, but, like anything else, don't succumb to wearing PC blinders or using PC as a crutch. Besides, Three Wogs is a comic novel. Lighten up, laugh a little.

What makes this American Odd? That's less easy to answer, since Theroux wrote this in London and the three stories take place entirely in London. (One could understand if someone mistook this book for a piece of British literature.) It's oddness only becomes apparent when we see the rest of Theroux's literary output. Unlike his future works - Darconville's Cat, An Adultery, Laura Warholic - this book is short, takes place entirely in Britain, and has no "woman done him wrong" plot. But Alexander Theroux is also an oddball in American letters for other reasons. He has written biographies of Al Capp and Edward Gorey, along with a travelogue on Estonia. His latest endeavor is an 800-page doorstopper about the food aversions of famous people. Alexander Theroux is an odd, odd man and American literature is all the richer for it.

Read even more about Three Wogs: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
Coming next: Pack of Lies by Gilbert Sorrentino

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, January 6, 2017. Filed under:

January 3, 2017

We're accepting books for review again, but have made some big changes to our submission policy

Happy New Year! After a year of being completely shut down from accepting any new books for review, I'm excited to announce that our submission process is now open again, and all of us here at CCLaP are looking forward to presenting the 200 or so book reviews we hope to get through by the time 2017 is over. That said, though, we've made some big changes to our policy regarding what kinds of books we will accept for possible review anymore, so I wanted to start the year by detailing them in full and explaining why we've made the decisions we have.

As regular visitors know, one of the things that really set us apart for the last ten years was our open policy of reviewing every single book someone took the time to send us, minus such genres we generally don't review like Young Adult and poetry. And while that served us fine for many years, unfortunately this started becoming a problem about three years ago, as the process of finishing and publishing a full-length book has become easier and easier, especially now that Amazon's CreateSpace program makes this process nearly effortless and completely free. And at the same time, we've also started hearing more and more in the last few years from a growing amount of independent book publicity companies, ones not associated with a particular publisher but that take on any self-published or basement-press author who just happens to have several thousand extra dollars to spend on their services, companies that are pretty indiscriminate when it comes to the actual quality of the books they represent, just as long as their clients can pay the bills for promoting them.

The result? To be blunt, a glut of barely readable books that are more and more flooding the market, tens of thousands more of them every single year; and unscrupulous publicists taking advantage of our open review policy, sometimes sending us upwards of 50 to 100 titles a year, almost all of which were terrible slogs that we could barely get through. That's what caused our to-be-read pile to swell to 75 unread titles about three years ago, which we were never able to whittle down because new books kept coming in as fast as we could read the old ones; and that's why we stopped taking submissions altogether for an entire year in 2016, so that we could finally get that list down to zero (which we did).

Now that we're accepting books for review again, we're making some radical changes to our policy, in the hopes of not getting into this kind of situation again, one that's unfair for everyone involved; it's a chore for us as reviewers, it eats up our time so that we don't get around to the truly deserving books, and it's a waste of these authors' money who hire these independent publicists, when those publicists know full-well that we're going to give the book a bad review but send it anyway. As a result, the changes to our policy now include:

--We no longer accept books from independent publicists, only ones who have been hired by and work directly for the publisher of the actual book. (We're also always happy to accept books directly from authors, so keep it in mind if you're someone who has otherwise hired a publicist to do that for you.)

--On top of not reviewing Young Adult titles or poetry, we no longer accept short-story collections; there's just too many of them out there now, and there's simply not enough from a critical standpoint to say about any of them. I know this will be disappointing to many of you small-press authors, and for that I apologize.

--And perhaps most importantly, we no longer guarantee that your book will be automatically reviewed just by sending it to us; specifically, if a reviewer is finding nothing positive to say about it as they make their way through it, they have the power at their individual discretion to give up on the book and not review it at all.

Our hope is that these new changes will make our review system here more robust and worthier of an audience going forward; a lot less bad reviews, a lot less mediocre books not worth your time, and a greater concentration on fantastic small books that may have escaped your attention otherwise. What we love to do here at CCLaP is bring books to your attention that deserve that attention, exquisite little books that would otherwise fly under the radar of most readers; we hope that this new submission policy will allow us to do more of this going forward in 2017, and to avoid most of the mediocre books that have been choking our TBR pile for the last three years.

As always, we have no formal automated system you have to go through to submit a book to us for review; simply write to me (Jason Pettus) at cclapcenter@gmail.com with the title in question, and we'll hopefully get you into the review stack that day if your book qualifies. We're always happy to accept physical review copies (write to obtain our mailing address); but seriously, save yourself a lot of time and money and just send us an ebook instead. We accept both Kindle/MOBI files (preferred) and EPUB (no PDFs, please); we also belong to the ARC distribution services NetGalley, Edelweiss and BloggingForBooks, if you happen to use any of those instead. As always, we look forward to hearing from you.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:07 PM, January 3, 2017. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "The Year of Needy Girls," by Patricia A. Smith

The Year of Needy Girls, by Patricia A. Smith

The Year of Needy Girls
By Patricia A. Smith
Kaylie Jones Books / Akashic Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I'm usually a big fan of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, and have enjoyed nearly every novel they've sent us over the last half-decade of our relationship with them; and that's what made it a much bigger surprise than normal to read their latest, The Year of Needy Girls by New England author Patricia A. Smith (not to be confused with New England slam poet Patricia Smith), and realize that it's only a mediocre book at best, 300 pages of wasted potential from a premise that really held promise. That premise revolves around a child molestation charge between a high-school teacher and one of her students; but the twist here is that the teacher is a lesbian and the student in question is a teenage girl, which combined with the provocative title could've given us a rich milieu to examine the slippery line between female friendship and female sexuality, especially among impressionable and emotionally charged young women who are in the middle of imperfectly defining that line for themselves.

The problem, though, is that Smith never delivers on this promise, turning in a book that will be disappointing to any fan of quickly-plotted crime thrillers -- the few developments that actually happen in the case are entirely expected and take the entire length of the book to take place, when the typical crime novelist would be through them all by the end of act one -- yet it's unsatisfying as a deep character study as well, the other direction one might go with a story like this, precisely because the characters aren't interesting or complicated enough to hold up an entire full-length novel by themselves; our put-upon hero Deirdre is kind of wishy-washy, displays no dark pockets of her personality, and is monomaniacal about her career (plus, although not technically guilty of the molestation charges brought against her, is definitely guilty of deliberately putting herself in that kind of compromising position in the first place, in the spirit of "teachers who inappropriately get wrapped up in the personal lives of their students too much," making it difficult to root for her when she could've so easily avoided the situation in the first place), while her lesbian partner is so non-defined as a character that the author has to make up a distracting sensationalist B-story just to give her something to do. (To be specific, a child murder that happens an entire year before our story begins, which has nothing to do with the main story and affects it not even in the slightest way, despite it being touted as a major plot development in the book's dust-jacket synopsis.)

Now add the fact that most of the tension in this book cheaply relies on the citizens of this upper-class liberal New England town reacting with the histrionics of a 1950s moral-panic film to the mere idea of a lesbian being a high-school teacher, an idea that Smith maybe could've gotten away with if setting this story in the actual 1950s, but that rings false and hollow here when set in the 2010s, a lazy excuse to add conflict and stakes to a story that hasn't earned it on its own; and you're left with a novel that will be satisfying neither to crime fans nor those looking for a good LGBT story. It's still getting a decent score from me today, because it's at least well-written; but it's not a book I recommend going out of your way to read, which is sadly the first time in my entire history of reviewing Akashic books that I've had to say that.

Out of 10: 7.0

Read even more about The Year of Needy Girls: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, January 3, 2017. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |

November 28, 2016

Book Review: "Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank

(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.)

Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Like many others, I was shocked and saddened to witness the election of Donald Trump as President last month; and given that the way he won was by tens of millions of people voting for him who had directly voted for Obama in just the last election, I thought it was high time I finally learned a little more about why the American electorate chose to do this in the first place (besides the typical pre-election blowoff that "they're all a bunch of racist Nazis"), and so over the next few months I'll be reading a series of books recommended to me by others that supposedly help explain this. This was the first book of the list to become available at my local library, written by the former founder of Chicago '90s liberal intellectual magazine The Baffler; and it turned out to be half eye-opening, although unfortunately the other half turned out to be eye-rolling, leaving a mixed bag when it comes to whether to recommend it or not.

The eye-opening part, and definitely the part most worth your time, is Frank's detailed history of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that ultimately put Bill Clinton in the White House but that I and my fellow Generation Xers largely didn't even know existed when we voted for him in 1992. Started in the early 1970s by a group of young idealistic hippie politicians, all of whom had attended college and all of whom received deferments from Vietnam, the group certainly started with noble intentions; tired of the old Democratic Party power base of the rural working class, the very people who supported the war and who continued to drag naked racism well into the '70s, the DLC spent twenty years systematically pushing such people out of the power structure of the party, believing instead that the "New Democrats" (as they called themselves) should be a party of meritocracy, educational excellence, technological innovation and embrace of big business, culminating in the '90s when they got their former leader Clinton elected as President.

This is where we get the "neoliberalist" economics that are so rapidly becoming such a villain in the wake of Trump's election win; inspired by the collapse in the '70s of Roosevelt's Keynesian "New Deal" economics into runaway government bureaucracy and hyperinflation, right in the same years the DLC was being formed, neoliberalism instead believes in radical deregulation of markets, the forced end of organized labor, and a "benevolent dictatorship" of elite Ivy-educated technocrats to rule over all the uneducated, mouthbreathing masses (which, to remind you, was originally inspired by a very valid complaint, that these mouthbreathing masses were the people who pushed racism and the Vietnam War way farther into history than either should've existed). And this just happens to be the same things the Republicans believe in too, or at least the Republican Party post-1980 as largely defined by Ronald Reagan; so, as Frank smartly explains, if it sometimes seems here in the 21st century that both parties seem to be made up of the same banker billionaires enacting the same exact blue-collar-punishing policies, that's because they are, a triumph of neoliberalism that was so all-encompassing by the '90s that no one even questioned its existence anymore, which is why I and my Generation X cohorts grew up not understanding that there was even an alternative.

All of this is really intelligent stuff, and it's worth reading this book to see how the DLC has pulled the wool over all of our eyes for so long, painting themselves as the "protector of the people" when in fact they have actually been actively hostile to anyone who doesn't have a college degree and doesn't live in a big city, a huge reason that so many self-made white-collar suburbanites turned against the party here in 2016 when it became clear that yet another neoliberal billionaire Ivy-educated technocrat was to be their official nominee. Unfortunately, though, Frank has a lot more to say about the Democrats than this, and that's where he starts getting into eye-rolling rant territory; entire chapters devoted to what a fuckup Obama was, entire chapters devoted to how anyone who's ever been an employee of a tech startup is a sellout monster, entire chapters on how anyone who's ever recommended that a poor person try to get into college is a dead-eyed sociopath who hates the working class, with special amounts of piss and vinegar directed at such individuals as Richard Florida (inventor of the term "creative class"), who Frank attacks in such a vindictive and personal way that he seems less like a political opponent and more like a jilted ex-lover.

I have a friend here in Chicago who actually went to college with Frank, and she had an illuminating story to tell me about him; how every time he would attend a party that happened to have the TV on (like an election party or a movie-watching party), he would spend the whole night ranting and raving about each and every single commercial that would air, pointing to the others in the room incredulously and yelling, "Why aren't you people getting outraged about this? Why am I the only person getting outraged about this?" That's exactly what Listen, Liberal comes off as, like a guy who's outraged at basically everything in the world and doesn't have the discipline to focus his arguments in on the things most worth getting mad about, a guy who takes eight years of Obama accomplishments and dismisses them in a single half-sentence (paraphrased, "Sure, he reformed healthcare, got gay marriage legalized, kept the country from going bankrupt during the economic crisis, and managed to get the largest stimulus package in American history passed, but..."), because he's too busy screaming about how every software developer in America is inherently evil, because they took a job away from a noble farmer.

To be honest, that's exactly what The Baffler was like when it was being published too, which is why it was never more than a special-interest publication for philosophy majors and hipster radicals; and while Listen, Liberal is recommended for sure, if for nothing else than to get a revealing primer on neoliberalism and why it's the cause of all our current problems, that recommendation unfortunately is a limited one today, a book you need to take with a large grain of salt in order to enjoy it at its fullest.

Out of 10: 7.9

Read even more about Listen, Liberal: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:20 AM, November 28, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

November 25, 2016

American Odd: Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, by Michael Bonesteel

A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, by Michael Bonesteel

Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings
By Michael Bonesteel
Rizzoli (2001)
Review by Karl Wolff

American Odd returns to Chicago for another visionary individual who penned a massive work with an oddball cosmology. In this case it is the reclusive artist and writer Henry Darger (1892 - 1973). Several books have been written about Darger, but I chose Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings because it highlighted both his art and his writing.

Darger is an icon of the American Odd because his art and writing are so unclassifiable. At first blush, his art can also be shocking and offensive. Michael Bonesteel, a Chicago-based art critic and authority on outsider art, defuses the hysterical accusations and exaggerations usually laid at Darger's doorstep with a precisely crafted biographical essay.

"Starting around 1910, he [Darger] began constructing an alternative reality from the ground up, and, for a period of some sixty years thereafter, he devoted the majority of his time and energy to bringing to life his magnum opus, In the Realms of the Unreal, first in words and then in images. He did not do this to make his "art" or "literature." He did not do this to gain fame or make money. He did it to save his life. And though he fought with God over it and risked losing his soul in the process, it worked." [Emphasis mine.]

Darger, like many of the eccentric individuals profiled in the American Odd series, was propelled by something greater than fame or financial fortune. Devoting all his time and energy to The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion saved him and healed him.

During his childhood, Darger endured several traumas. In quick succession his mother died, his sister was given up for adoption, and his father, crippled and impoverished, sent Darger to St. Augustine's Poor House. Despite these traumas occurring in such early childhood, Darger "demonstrated a keep aptitude for spelling and history, and he became fascinated by snowstorms and thunderstorms. He was so sensitive to the beauty of the weather that he once cried when the snow stopped falling." In the day when he attended public school he "developed a great interest in the Civil War."

Darger's experiences in the Poor House were not good ones. Picked on by other children, blamed for things he didn't do, he was punished by the priests who hit his hands with a length of hard rubber. His odd actions "earned him the nickname 'Crazy'". At age eight "his godmother had him baptized a Catholic." He took the doctrines of Catholicism seriously, even though he had trouble containing his temper. At age twelve or thirteen he received the diagnosis that his "heart wasn't in the right place," and then was transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. While in the Asylum, itself a notorious hotbed of abuse, neglect, and violence, Darger learned that his father died. Ironically, he found the Asylum a safe haven. He attempted to run away from the Asylum three time, the last time succeeding. He made his way to Chicago to live with his godmother. She was able to secure a janitor's position at St. Joseph's Hospital. Shortly thereafter, Darger would begin work on his magnum opus.

The challenge with an individual like Henry Darger is categorization. His childhood traumas and institutionalization make it easy to label him "insane." (The nude children with penises being violently killed by adults don't help the matter.) There is no mistaking Darger as a psychologically damaged and vulnerable individual, but classifying him as an outsider artist isn't exact either. In the Realms of the Unreal shows a conscientious effort at world-building. The art itself are accomplished works combining collage and watercolor. The writing itself exhibits a high degree of craftsmanship and learning, despite Darger's gaps in education. The epic struggle between the Vivian Girls and their antagonists combines literary conventions of the epic along with tropes that anticipate postmodern literature. Darger inserts himself into the narrative, sometimes as a heroic figure, sometimes as a villain, along with being the narrator. The charge of insanity comes in because his traumatic childhood and indigent adulthood threatened his mental stability. During the work's creation, the barrier between fantasy and reality frayed and then shattered. Darger didn't know the difference between what was real and what wasn't.

But Bonesteel doesn't get caught up in labels and playing psychiatrist. He cites a New Art Examiner article written by Jack Burnham in 1979 who likens Darger to Rousseau and William Blake. Bonesteel says, "The categorization of artists can be a useful tool in helping us to understand them, but then there are artists like Darger who may straddle more than one category or even defy categorization."

Henry Darger was a reclusive figure unschooled in the arts, but went on to create his own idiosyncratic long-form illustrated narrative. Bonesteel asserts Darger's readymade technique anticipated the Pop Art of Warhol and Liechtenstein. Darger's narrative work also anticipated fanfiction where fans can utilize their favorite pop culture franchises to create their own personal narratives. In some cases these amateur fiction writers are working out their own personal and emotional problems. Like Darger, they use pre-existing properties as a means of catharsis and self-therapy. In the case of Henry Darger, he used characters from magazines and coloring books, re-fashioning them into his own cosmology of heroes and villains.

The American Odd series seeks to celebrate individuals like Henry Darger. Held at a distance, he used his natural talents to create a unique cosmology and a large-scale art work that defies easy categorization. What he did was heroic, even if it was only to preserve his sanity from a harsh, unforgiving world.

Read even more about Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
Coming next: Three Wogs by Alexander Theroux

Filed by Karl Wolff at 6:00 PM, November 25, 2016. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |