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 |

November 23, 2016

Book Review: "How I Became a North Korean," by Krys Lee

How I Became a North Korean, by Krys Lee

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 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.)

How I Became a North Korean
By Krys Lee
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

As is sometimes the case, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I was drawn in by the title, which seemed to me the stuff of a great story. After all, the idea of "becoming" a resident of a nation so cloistered as to be completely obscure to those outside of it is prime material, yes indeed. Unfortunately, there's prime story material and then there are prime novels, which so often are two different things entirely. As I've so often stressed in these reviews, it's not good enough to have an on-paper compelling story; the writer has to make it compelling, and this book is only compelling in fits and starts. It revolves around three people who find themselves in North Korea's orbit: Yongju, a native North Korean from a prominent family; Jangmi, an impoverished pregnant woman who works as a prostitute on the China-North Korea border; and the isolated Danny, a Chinese-American from a Christian family.

The story Lee gets the most mileage out of is that of Jangmi, who strikes me as the best-drawn character of the three. She is rescued from her plight by a Chinese businessman, who shows her his technological conveniences - a DVD player, an electric piano - and expects amazement out of her. While she has seen these sort conveniences in her own country, she behaves as though they are new to her, in order to properly fill out her role as the incredulous peasant and thusly find her way over to her benefactor's good side. On the other hand, the story of Danny strikes me as the weakest, running through a series of nerdy-outcast clichés such as the obligatory experience at summer camp; it fails to either transcend the material or build much interest in me. Yongju's story is somewhere in the middle; while it allows Lee to write some suspense-driven set pieces, it too falls back on the shopworn (the forbidden lover; the mother who sacrifices herself to save her child) too often for my liking, or for me to get a sense of Yongju as anything but an archetype.

The prose lets the book down, too; above all else, it contributes to the aforementioned shopworn feel of the writing. In fact, prose-fiend that I am, I might even say it's the cause of it. I've harped on this before, but here we go again - language is our guide to how to understand a book, and if a book's language feels hackneyed, the book will therefore feel the same. In this case, we're treated to stilted dialog, an overreliance on modifiers, and above all, a need to explain that which can be easily inferred. If you want an example, check out this bit of Jangmi's internal monolog: "My baby would live as a shadow child who couldn't be registered or officially exist" (85). The "shadow-child" metaphor isn't the most original, but it gets the job done. Anything after it just registers as unnecessary, and there are passages like this all over this book. I see the potential for Lee to write a far better book than this, but right now she's let down by some of her weaker tendencies as a prose writer.

Out of 10: 6.8

Read even more about How I Became a North Korean: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, November 23, 2016. Filed under:

November 16, 2016

Book Review: "Joe Gould's Teeth" by Jill Lepore

(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.)

Joe Gould's Teeth, by Jill Lepore

Joe Gould's Teeth
By Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Joe Gould's Teeth is a fascinating little novella-sized project from Harvard professor and New Yorker staffer Jill Lepore, which started life because of an earlier article from that same magazine -- an article in 1942, in fact, a character profile of an eccentric bohemian named Joe Gould who had been known and beloved all over Greenwich Village for decades at that point, who had been spending years compiling a Henry-Darger-like million-word "oral history of our times" that in reality was just a transcript of every sentence he had ever heard another person in public speak out loud over the course of his entire adult life. The piece became a sensation, an early example of the "New Journalism" which would become such a force in America after World War Two, written with a kind of humor and empathy that made millions around the nation fall in love with the adorably quirky Gould; so these same people were of course heartbroken when the journalist in question, Joseph Mitchell, wrote a follow-up piece in 1964 after Gould's death, admitting that he now thought the oral history to be a nonexistent project that had been completely made up in the mind of the severely mentally ill Gould.

Fifty years later, Lepore became fascinated with knowing whether Mitchell's assumption was true, whether any of this supposed thousand-volume oral history actually did ever exist; this book, then, is partly a record of that national search, partly a new and deep biographical portrait of Gould himself, based on the massive amount of academic research Lepore did for this book (of its 235 pages, nearly a hundred are nothing but bibliographical notes), and partly a confessional personal essay by Lepore on why she became so obsessed with the subject in the first place, of what she thinks it says about her that she gave over an entire six months of her life to investigating the mystery. And does she ever find this hidden treasure trove of material that so many others have tried and failed to track down? Well, I'll let the book answer that in detail (the tl;dr version -- kind of but not really); much, much more interesting, though, is how the research itself presents a much more nuanced and tragic portrait of Gould than the "lovable eccentric" he was optimistically portrayed as by the Early Modernist writers who used to spend time with him, including people like EE Cummings and Ezra Pound.

As Lepore shows, Gould was in fact very clearly a schizophrenic psychopath, unmedicated and an alcoholic to boot, with a violent obsession for the subject of "race-mixing" (he was a proponent of eugenics and of banning mixed-race relationships, but carried a debilitating crush on black artist Augusta Savage for literally decades, and stalked her to the point of police intervention), someone who regularly turned on the very people who tried to help him, a lice-covered egomaniac and OCD victim who sent literally thousands of letters to his self-professed "enemies" and would sometimes call them on the phone in the middle of the night for weeks and months on end. Most people who have been in the arts for any significant period of time will know a person just like this, someone you gingerly want to help and who has a spark of fascinating creativity at their core, yet lacks almost any skills at socialization and eventually just becomes an albatross around your neck from the act of trying to help them; and that's what makes a book like this so interesting and readable, a portrait of the sorta ur-example of someone like this, and the formerly secret history of how the famous artists around him dealt with him at the time. It comes strongly recommended in that spirit, a quick little read that packs a wallop of thought-provoking ideas.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about Joe Gould's Teeth: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:02 AM, November 16, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |

Book Review: "Nicotine," by Nell Zink

Nicotine, by Nell Zink

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 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.)

Nicotine: A Novel
By Nell Zink
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

If nothing else, Nell Zink has certainly staked her case as literature's newest oddball. For those who haven't heard the strange story of her entry into publishing yet, allow me to summarize as briskly as I can. Essentially, she had been writing novels for years but chose not to publish any of them, due to her intense dislike of the publishing industry; often she sent them to her friends and her friends only. This changed when she read an article of Jonathan Franzen's about songbird hunting in the Mediterranean; sharing the hobby, she sent Franzen a string of emails criticizing his article. Franzen, fascinated by her writing style, offered to help her get published. From all of this sprang her first novel, 2014's delightfully weird Wallcreeper, as well as a second novel (last year's Mislaid) that I haven't gotten around to yet.

"Weird" is also a good word for this novel. It tells the story of Penny, who inherits the house of her late father, a sort of alternate-medicine guru from South America, and her three brothers. When Zink writes of the father's death, she's at her most moving, coming up with terrific passages like "[Penny] becomes aware that humans have souls. These are slender birds like swifts, invisible and made of moist living breath [...] She doesn't believe in the soul thing at all, she just knows it all of a sudden" (30-31). However, when she comes to the house itself, she finds it populated by a group of squatters lobbying for smokers' rights. What follows is impossible to summarize briskly, but it involves a lot of smoking, sexual confusion, emails, stories within stories, the whole nine yards. Which gets a little frustrating; I'm a fan of the "slop-it-all-together-and-see-if-it-works" approach, but I'm not sure how well this novel works.

So Nicotine is weird, but is it delightfully weird? Maybe not so much. Don't get me wrong, Nell Zink is still funny as ever, and she's definitely attuned to a bundle of pressing social issues, from our chaotic election to the same environmental concerns that drove the Wallcreeper forward. Yet part of the novel's problem is that it often circles around these points without developing too much on the plot or prose levels. When the bizarre plot moves in its weirdly lurching way, it's a fun book, but it does get a little stuck on the quasi-Socratic dialogues, although they're certainly compelling and socially relevant quasi-Socratic dialogues. It's interesting wheel-spinning, but it's still wheel-spinning; I rather wish Zink had been as concerned about this book's aesthetics as its social relevancy.

Out of 10: 6.8

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

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, November 16, 2016. Filed under:

November 9, 2016

First Time Around: "Player Piano," by Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

(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.)

Player Piano
By Kurt Vonnegut
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

You'll forgive me a little sentimentality when it comes to the work of Kurt Vonnegut. More than maybe any other author, he was responsible for shaping my literary tastes as they are today; he had enough sci-fi to appeal to the Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert fan in me, enough satire to appeal to the Douglass Adams and Monty Python fan in me, and enough of an experimental edge (see Breakfast of Champions in particular) to ease me into the postmodernism thing. I was in eleventh grade when he passed, and out of curiosity I dug my parents' copy of Breakfast of Champions out of their basement, which I loved. Just a few days after I finished it, I was assigned Cat's Cradle in high school English, and it ended up being my favorite book I read in the whole public school system. What can I say, I really gravitated toward the guy, and by the time I graduated from college I'd read all of his novels and a substantial amount of his nonfiction and short stories. For many years I reflexively cited him as my favorite author.

So it was inevitable I'd review this, the strangest or at least representative novel he ever wrote. It's usually put down as one of his weaker books, and frankly that seems fair enough to me. It's pretty typical of the dystopian fiction of the time, it doesn't have the humor or warmth of his more famous works, and more importantly, it doesn't do anything tonally to cover for the lack of humor or warmth. Instead it's written in a clunky, over-formal style that's certainly suitable for some authors (McElroy and Gaddis come to mind), but hits a whole slew of wrong notes from the ever-entertaining typewriter of Vonnegut. Passages like "concealed loudspeakers in the virgin forest burst into song" (187) and "Doctor Harold Roseberry laid two documents side by side on the naked, waxy expanse of the top of the rosewood desk" (271) just don't seem right from Vonnegut. Sometimes he touches on the style he'd later develop, but more often than not this novel just doesn't work from the stylistic perspective.

Okay, style's one thing and a compelling story's another, but the story just isn't all that compelling to me, either. It is notable as having more than a grain of Vonnegut's future concerns - he'd return to dystopian and quasi-dystopian themes with his superior later novels, most notably the Sirens of Titan - but he doesn't do much to distinguish himself from the likes of Orwell and Huxley here. The story goes thusly. Paul Proteus is a factory worker in a society ruled and kept safe entirely by machines. Like many people within this system, he's initially happy to let said machines do all the heavy lifting. Of course, such a story can only go one way - Proteus joins up with a rebel group and moves to overthrow the machines. One of the novel's subplots features a religious leader, the Shah of Buptar, observing and commenting on the events in question.

So why doesn't this novel pop like some other dystopian novels? Let me first say I'm not an enormous fan of the genre; I find it was a little overstuffed in the '40s-through-'60s speculative-fiction boom, to say nothing of now. Above all, it feels like it lacks a specific angle, something to really set it apart from the pack. Huxley had already covered the machines-controlling-their-controllers angle, as well as the sort of "bottom-up" dystopia that takes on the concerns of the cogs in the machine; Orwell had already done plenty with the "top-down" dystopia, concerning the people who ran the show; Bradbury staked out a bread and circuses angle with Fahrenheit 451, Atwood, the feminist perspective of the Handmaid's Tale. That leaves Vonnegut with very little room to work with. I think the Shah of Buptar is an attempt to introduce a religious aspect to things, but he did that much better with Cat's Cradle, and anyway religion was just one of the topics covered in that broad book.

However, it's still an interesting book from a developmental angle. You can see Vonnegut straining to become himself here, trying to find how he fit within the broader literary conversation, trying to resolve his interest in sci-fi with his belief, probably false but one he nonetheless seems to have held throughout his life, that sci-fi wasn't necessarily an "important" literary genre; this explains why many of his works, such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, have nothing to do with science fiction or dystopias whatsoever. The fear of machines controlling people's lives sounds a little cheesy in 2016, but it's a start, and it seems to me like Vonnegut had to get this book out of his system so he could move onto more iconic work. For the record, I rather feel the same way about his famous short story "Harrison Bergeron" - while it's usually counted among Vonnegut's most iconic work, to me it feels like a forced "message story" desperate to legitimize science fiction. "Who Am I This Time," "Welcome to the Monkey House," and "EPICAC" are, by my lights, much better bets for your dose of short Vonnegut.

I'll tell you what else - it was really important that I read this book when I did. I wasn't quite at the peak of my Vonnegut worship when I picked it up, but my interest in the guy was really resurging - I read two, three, four of his books in the summer of 2010, and this was the capstone of that streak. It provided me with an all-important answer to the "how-did-he-pull-that-off" question that I asked myself when I read the likes of Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five. He pulled it off by trying something that didn't quite pan out and refining it until it did. That's not to say this is even a bad book, it's just a generic one, and "generic" isn't an accusation you can lob at the better Vonnegut.

Vonnegut's career path after this novel is rather well-known, but since this has become a sort of First Time Around Tradition, I hope you'll indulge me. You've already presumably indulged me in my sentimentality - who knows, maybe you checked your email instead - so let's get into it, why don't we. Vonnegut took a few years off from novel-writing after this novel, which flopped commercially, selling short stories and raising a family. Things got going for him with the Sirens of Titan, my favorite Vonnegut novel, and never really stopped. The man released a whole horde of cult favorites, among them Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and especially Slaughterhouse-Five, the famous anti-war novel that's probably the most solidly canonized and certainly the most widely read of his works. In the late '90s, as his work was slowing down anyway, he retired from writing novels and instead became a popular essayist; 2007's A Man Without a Country is pretty engaging the whole way through. He also developed himself a highly memorable alter ego, Kilgore Trout, a writer with terrific ideas but no talent for actually crafting readable fiction. We've all read at least one book that suffers from that problem, I can guarantee you of that.

One thing Vonnegut never really did was enter the literary canon, at least not in the same sense that some of these other authors I've talked about has I've never entirely been sure why; his concerns and insights are certainly worthy of inclusion, and while his writing style isn't beautiful in the sense that Nabokov's or Woolf's or Morrison's is, his conversational and aside-heavy prose style is all sorts of unique. Maybe he had too many aliens and too much time travel; maybe he looked too much like the sci-fi writers he claimed not to like. I have noticed a trend of genre-leaning writers distancing themselves from, if not outright putting down, science fiction as a genre; we all remember when Margaret Atwood insisted that her work was in fact speculative fiction. Some sci-fi is certainly more worthy than other sci-fi, just as some literary fiction is certainly more worthy than other literary fiction, but that doesn't mean we need to paint it all with the same brush. And of course, the problem with this line of thinking is it fails to address the "is Vonnegut really sci-fi?" question, which might in turn loop back to our first question.

Either way, Vonnegut's someone worth getting to know. There's a good chance you're already familiar with him anyway, especially if your tastes favor the odd; he sidled into the postmodern conversation pretty easily with Slaughterhouse-Five, which to me is one of the worthier works of that excellent and often variegated movement. I'm going to be honest here, this is a footnote in Vonnegut's body of work, but in many ways it's an interesting footnote. This vision of Vonnegut isn't nearly as compelling as the Vonnegut that emerged, but it's always fun to consider the what-ifs.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 8:00 AM, November 9, 2016. Filed under:

October 26, 2016

Book Review: "The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick," by Kyle Arnold

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, by Kyle Arnold

(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 Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick
By Kyle Arnold
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I find Philip K. Dick to be a fascinating writer and arguably an even more fascinating figure. Not only are his novels all varieties of brain-bending fun, but the strange occurrences in his personal life have that same reality-warp factor as his novels do. The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick takes up perhaps the strangest of all events, an incident Dick referred to afterwards as "2-3-74," the date on which it occurred. A delivery woman stopped by his house wearing the Jesus fish around her neck. The two briefly discussed the symbol, but the conversation came to a halt when light glinting off it got in Dick's eyes. He later described the light as a "pink beam," which he in turn theorized was a god trying to communicate with him. After this, he began to see images of the Roman Empire superimposed over his native Berkeley and felt as though he had a first-century Christian named Thomas living in his mind. This moment became the catalyst for Dick's last three novels, VALIS, the Divine Invasion, and the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and all sorts of speculation has emerged as to whether Dick's vision was amphetamine psychosis, schizophrenia, or in fact a genuine spiritual experience.

Matthew Arnold takes up the third position, although he acknowledges, as one would have to, the connection between Dick's amphetamine abuse and his unstable mental health. I'll grant that the question of whether Dick was schizophrenic or rendered paranoid by his drug abuse hasn't fully been resolved, but I find Arnold's insistence on discounting Dick's schizophrenia and instead claiming his spiritualism was a result of an extra-attuned empathy frustrating. Yes, he argues the case well enough. Dick himself admitted to an intense spiritual moment in his childhood, one where he tried to crush a beetle but decided ultimately not to because the beetle had the right to exist undisturbed; Arnold cites this as evidence of Dick's extra-attuned empathy. Yet it strikes me as both counterproductive and condescending that Arnold discounts the possibility that Dick was schizophrenic and extra attuned to the universe. This points to a larger problem with the study: Arnold's pursuit of pet theories can lead to immense stretches. Brace yourself for a lot of Freudian and Jungian theory thrown around almost willy-nilly, used to explain everything from Dick's infamously misogynistic and manipulative behavior to a burglary that Arnold believes Dick orchestrated. I just have trouble following him down some of these roads.

Arnold is much more compelling when he connects these key life events to Dick's fiction. He identifies a number of insightful motifs that recur through Dick's work, such as characters being saved at a price, catching glimpses of realities outside their own, and having profound moments of empathy and spiritual connection to the universe (hence the beetle, which Arnold ties to the great Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), and connects them to key moments in Dick's life, in particular the strange and fascinating story of his twin sister Jane, who died in infancy. Literary analysis seems to be where Arnold really shines, at least in terms of crafting an interesting and insightful work about Philip K. Dick; I'm not as sold on the psychology. Still, it's worth reading; if nothing else, you'll learn more about one of sci-fi's most compelling figures.

Out of 10: 7.5

Read even more about The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, October 26, 2016. Filed under:

October 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10/7.0

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

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

October 19, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Clumsy" by Jeffrey Brown

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

Clumsy, by Jeffrey Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Renee Gladman, "Calamities"

Calamities, by Renee Gladman

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

By Renee Gladman
Wave Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

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

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

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

Out of 10: 9.5

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

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

October 14, 2016

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

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
The Great Ordeal, by R. Scott Bakker
The Great Ordeal (The Aspect-Emperor: Book Three)
By R. Scott Bakker
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The Great Ordeal by Canadian fantasy author R. Scott Bakker is the third book in the trilogy The Aspect-Emperor. That trilogy follows the first trilogy called The Prince of Nothing. Since detailing the multistrand storyline of The Great Ordeal would involve a heavy amount of spoilers and summarizing a plot just as epic and complex as the The Song of Ice and Fire series, I'm going to review the novel in the spirit of a brand profile. (I've written brand profiles in my recommendations over at Alcoholmanac. It's a convenient way to give an overview of several products. So consider this review somewhere between flavor text and tasting notes.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 12, 2016

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

Run River, by Joan Didion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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