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: Reviews | Literature:Nonfiction | Literature |

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
Viking
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
Ecco
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.)

Calamaties
By Renee Gladman
Wave Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

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

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

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

Out of 10: 9.5

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

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

October 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 12, 2016

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

Run River, by Joan Didion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 5, 2016

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

Fried Chicken, Chocolate, and Jesus, by Fergus MacRoich

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

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

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

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

Out of 10: 4.0

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

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

September 30, 2016

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

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Abbie Bernstein
 
The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road
By Abbie Bernstein
Foreword by George Miller
Titan Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
It can be said without exaggeration that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the past fifteen years. It arrived in theaters at an auspicious time. George Miller's visionary cinematic masterpiece hit the pop culture consciousness just two years after Snowpiercer. Like Joon-ho Bong's rabble-rousing actioner, Mad Max: Fury Road involved a charismatic hero, a world beset by ecocide and tyranny, and exemplary world-building. While books detailing the behind the scenes stories of pop culture properties is nothing new, The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein offers a fascinating glimpse at George Miller's creative process. Also, obviously, awesome concept art for Mad Max's Interceptor, the War Rig, and Gigahorse. If you are a gearhead, this book is for you. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, this book is for you. If you like both, you probably either own or have read a copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 28, 2016

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

I'll Tell You in Person, by Chloe Caldwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10: 9.0

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

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

September 23, 2016

Book Review: "Elephant Vice," by Chris Meekings

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Elephant Vice, by Chris Meekings
 
Elephant Vice
By Chris Meekings
Eraserhead Press/New Bizarro Author Series
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
After an influx of an illegal drug hits the coast community of Maybe Beach, two cops are called on to solve the case. Since this is a bizarro novella by Eraserhead Press, things will get weird pretty fast. It turns out the two cops called in are Vincent van Gogh and Ganesha. This mismatched pair learns that this new drug "turns people into the object their essence most resembles." Chris Meekins, part of Eraserhead's stable of new authors, seamlessly brings together an absurdist premise around a gripping cop thriller story. No easy task, since the pairing could fall into the domain of camp. The humor bubbles to the surface because every character is played straight.

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

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

September 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10: 9.6

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

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

September 21, 2016

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

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10: 8.6

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

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

September 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eBay auction
MINIMUM BID: US$30 / BUY THIS MOMENT FOR $60

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

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

September 16, 2016

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

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Dangerous Stories for Boys, by Christopher Bernard
 
Dangerous Stories for Boys
By Christopher Bernard
A Press of Rabble
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Christopher Bernard's new collection of short stories, Dangerous Stories for Boys is a mixed bag by turns frustrating, astonishing, and off-putting. Since this is the second collection of short stories of Bernard's I've reviewed, I've come to the realization I like his long-form work much better. Since reviews are a product of subjectivity and personal taste, the inevitable Your Mileage May Vary caveat remains in place. The issue being there were stories I liked, stories I didn't like, and a story that seemed totally out of place in the collection.

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

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

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

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