Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2015

Time again for the year end list. This year I had a hard time pinning down just ten books. As you'll see, I technically didn't, but it's my list, so I can do what I want.

10. A God of Hungry Walls by Garrett Cook

Angry and confrontational horror fiction. This book does to the haunted house genre what Gaspar Noe's Irreversible did for rape and revenge films.

Full review here.
Buy it here.

9. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

One of, if not the, best comics I've ever read. 

Full review here.
Buy it here.

8. Valencia by James Nulick 

A melancholy and poetic farewell to childhood and to life. 

Full review here.
Buy it here.
7. Black House Rocked by Paul Bingham and Emril Krestle

Krestle and Bingham paint vivid and bloody images in this "literary split single."

Full review here.
Buy it here.

6. Raping the Gods by Brian Whitney

Spiritual vacuousness and self-destruction driven by need has never been so hilarious.

Full review here.
Buy it here. 

5. If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

It's a testament to Calvino's ability as a writer to create something as metafictional and postmodernist as this novel about novels, while still remaining as readable and entertaining as it is. 

Full review here.
Buy it here.

4. In the Sky/The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau 

Both of these books became instant favorites of mine after reading them. Flowers grown in blood loomed over by an oppressively vast sky.

In the Sky review here.
Buy In the Sky here.
Buy The Torture Garden Here.

3. NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

Sterzinger keeps you laughing to keep you from crying. But you'll still cry eventually.

Full review here.
Buy it here.

2. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Besides being the best crime novel I've read, it's also the best novel about repression in mid 20th century America, outside of maybe Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. Also, if a better exploration of a disturbed mind exists in American fiction, I haven't read it. An absolute classic disguised as a pulp crime thriller. 

Buy it here.

1. Submission/The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The West is killing itself, and no one articulates it more eloquently or in a more engaging fashion than this grouchy frog. 

Submission review here
Buy Submission here.
The Elementary Particles review here.
Buy The Elementary Particles here. 

Honorable Mentions

- Haunted Fucking by Philip LoPresti
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- Beyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg
- The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
- Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim 
- Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
- The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home by Sam Pink

Click here to shop for these and other books at Amazon.com and help support this blog at the same time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Review: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

I didn't even want to fuck her, or maybe I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die, I couldn't really tell.
Francois is a professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and an expert on the great French author Joris-Karl Huysmans. Despite his cushy position, his life is empty. He has no real friends and his flings with colleagues and students are unfulfilling. His love for literature, Huysmans especially, seems to be all he really has.
Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave--a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you'd have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader. 
In the background, France is undergoing a huge political upset. The nativist National Front is in the lead in the election, with the center-left Socialists and the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood tied for second. For his own safety, Francois flees Paris until the election, plagued by riots and violent interference with the polls, is over. With support from the Socialists, the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election and a charismatic politician named Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes president of France.

When Francois returns to Paris, he finds that it's already becoming Islamicized. His university is privatized and since now only Muslims may teach there, he's let go with a generous severance package. However, without his job, his already empty life becomes even more empty.
The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.
The most obvious theme in Submission, right down to the title itself, is the battle of the West against Islam. It's worth noting this book was published the same day of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Houellebecq himself even lost a friend in the attack.

Myself, I was in Morocco when the attacks on Paris in November were happening. I had already been planning on reading this, and I felt compelled to order it as soon as I got back to the States.

Houellebecq predicts a much less violent Islamification of Paris than the current situation would suggest. There are several riots and attacks, however, they come as much from the French Nationalists as from Muslims. The media keeps the violence in the dark to try to prevent the country from breaking into outright civil war.

When Ben Abbes takes power, he implements policies to begin converting France to a Muslim country. Islamic schools are privileged over public ones to ensure a new generation of converts, family subsidies encourage women to leave the work force en mass (which also reduces unemployment), and talks begin to bring Morocco and Turkey into the European Union.

The loss of French identity runs through the story and, as the French are known for, they surrender it with little resistance. From what Francois learns of Ben Abbes, in the long term he is planning to absorb France into a wider Euro-Islamic empire. An empire to rival the Romans and the Ottomans. With Ben Abbes as president of course.

In a very sad moment in the book, Francois's Jewish girlfriend Myriam chooses to emigrate to Israel to escape the increasing anti-Semitic atmosphere in France. When she asks what he plans to do, he can only reply, "There is no Israel for me."

Despite Francois's apparent apathy, the story doesn't hide that something great is being lost. Why should the loss of the culture that produced great writers like Huysmans not be a tragedy?
I would have nothing to mourn.
Another idea presented is that Islam will take over the West because the West is a spiritual vacuum. Christianity is a shell of its former self. Secular humanism is an unsustainable replacement. It's ripe for something like Islam to step in and fill the void.
"Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls--zombies."
This is apparent even with Francois. Like his hero, Huysman, he finds himself attracted to the trappings of Catholicism. Unlike Huysman, his conversion simply doesn't take.
The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot. 
Even in the end when Francois gives in and converts to Islam, it's far more a means to an end, than for any real spiritual fulfillment.

Despite some of the arguments against secularism, atheism, and Christianity, the book still takes a grim view of Islam. Like Francois, most of the people convert out of pure convenience. Francois converts to get his job back and get arranged marriages with multiple young students. One of his socially awkward colleagues does the same.

The new university president, Rediger, seems sincere in his conversion, but he's not especially devout. When Francois researches some of his previous work, he finds that espouses a heavily elitist view of the world. One could easily imagine that Islam was simply the best vehicle available to him for this philosophy.

Even Ben Abbes (who we never met, but is discussed several times), a born and raised Muslim, seems driven by ambition more than anything. Ben Abbes is a politician through and through. He's highly charismatic and plays games with other Muslim nations for what seems to be his own ends.

It's implied early on that much of the French government was complicate in getting the Muslim Brotherhood in power. No conspiracy is explicitly stated, but it's not hard to infer one. It seems like the French elite realized the kind of situation they were in. Houellebecq himself likely harbors some ill will towards France's higher ups. Back in 2002 he had been put on trial for hate speech for saying Islam was the stupidest of all religions. No wonder he thinks the West is committing suicide.

Sell everyone out! We're better off working towards the worldwide caliphate! We'll be at the forefront of this new order!

Let's get off this train of thought before I go full Bat Ye'or. Ye'or and her "Eurabia" theory get an explicit mention in Submission. While Houellebecq doesn't outright endorse this idea in this book, it does seem like it was an influence on the story. Houellebecq is trying to create a scenario where "Eurabia" is a plausible future, rather than Protocols of Zion level nonsense.
"In a sense, old Bat Ye'or wasn't wrong with her fantasy of a Eurabian plot." 
Not all of the political discussions are especially plausible. For example, under the Muslim Brotherhood, crime starts to plummet. There seems to be no real reason why. Ben Abbes's policies, even in this fictional world, wouldn't cause the drop in crime that happens. Houellebecq is trying to show the appeal of this new regime, but moments like this really stretch it.

Despite all the talk of politics and the sociological implications of religion, Submission never loses its groundings in its main character, Francois. He's not exactly likable, but anyone who's ever felt ill at ease with the modern world will have some idea where he's coming from. The book benefits from being told from his point of view, because he's only knows so much. He has his own struggles to worry about in addition to all the changes in France going on around him.

If there's one flaw in the book, it's that some of the ways of making him privy to information on what's going on behind the scenes feels kind of contrived. One of his colleagues at the University just happens to be married to a member of a French security agency, and he learns about what the media's blacking out during the election. This doesn't really become important latter in the book, so it feels rather pointless. He doesn't learn much that doesn't eventually come out in the open anyway.

This is a controversial book for sure. Every review I've read of it has a different interpretation, and I've not agreed much with a single one of them. But goddamn, is it a good one. It's entertaining, intriguing, and it will make you rethink your outlook on the West vs. Islam conflict. Submission is a confirmation that Houellebecq is one of the best authors working today. Highly recommended.

Buy Submission by Michel Houellebecq here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Brief Thoughts 9

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

There's been a number of works that treat Judas, usually perceived as a villain of the Bible, as a sympathetic figure, if not a hero. What about someone like Barabbas, who's almost universally treated with scorn? Not to mention there's little about him in the actual Bible.

Most of what I've read of Barabbas says he was probably some kind of revolutionary. Someone who was arrested for rebelling against Roman occupation. One would think this would earn him some sympathy. This novel by Lagerkvist seems to be the only fictional work that attempts to try to examine the character of Barabbas closely.

It begins with Barabbas watching Jesus being crucified after he's been acquitted. He finds himself confused and fascinated by this seemingly pathetic man who died in his place. He begins to mingle among the man's followers to try to find out exactly who this prophet was and what he taught. Even when he learns of Jesus' message, he wants to believe it, but can't bring himself to.

This is an excellent and well-written novel about one of the least examined Biblical figures. The descriptions of his struggles against Rome, his turbulent personal life, and his spiritual conflict are engaging and thought provoking. If you have any interest at all in the story of Jesus, I highly recommend this novel.

Buy Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist here.

The Listener by Taylor Caldwell

I picked this up because an author whose work I enjoy mentioned Caldwell in an interview. It probably wasn't the best place to start with her.

The plot is about a small chapel where people can go talk to a mysterious figure known as The Man Who Listens. Each chapter is about a different person going to the chapel to vent their problems.

It's not a bad setup and many of the chapters use it to a good effect. They create short and tight character sketches. The best ones give a unique voice that feels authentic to the character.

The problem is that some of the chapters fall into simply preaching. The theme of being ill at ease with the modern world runs through the whole book, but rather than letting some of the characters convey this from a personal standpoint, it just reads like Caldwell putting an essay in their mouth. There's also the fact that all of the chapters have the problems solved way too quickly and easily.

The biggest problem is the final chapter. It reveals who The Man Who Listens is and, good god, does it not work. It's obvious the Man is Jesus from the beginning, but revealing what's actually behind the curtain where the mysterious figure is really ruins the book. Also, the final chapter involves a scientist confessing a discovery he's made, and it results in a very out of place science fiction bend. Holy hell, this last chapter just does not work on any level.

I don't recommend this book at all. However, the good parts of the book were good enough that I am going to read some of Caldwell's other work. Dear and Glorious Physician seems to be her most highly regarded, so I'll probably try that in the near future.

Buy The Listener by Taylor Caldwell here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Chapbook Reviews: Haunted Fucking by Philip LoPresti and Pan is Dad by Emril Krestle

Haunted Fucking: A Book in Spasms by Philip LoPresti
There is no church here.
That's just the sound madness makes
when it claws its way out of a throat.
Philip LoPresti was yet another writer who I first met in an online workshop. Given the kind of writing he presented in that workshop, which focused far more on imagery and language than narrative, it's no surprise he gravitated towards poetry.

Despite the fact I got the first edition of this chapbook almost 2 years ago, I never sat down and read it cover to cover. Though I had picked it up several times to read one or two poems at a time until recently. Reading it all at once is almost overwhelming. Every poem is a confrontational barrage of grotesque images.

This is the kind of poetry that stimulates every one of the senses. In addition to the sounds of harsh noise and scenes of rot, it evokes the musty smell of sex and the coppery taste of a bloody nose.

None of the poems have titles. They're simple labeled "Spasm One," "Spasm Two," and so forth. The result is that reading it all at once causes the poems to blend together. This isn't a bad thing. The poems stand on their own, but as a conceptual whole the book works on a different level.

The first edition is out of print, but a second edition has since been printed. It replaces the last two poems or "spasms" with new ones, and it's well worth picking up.

LoPresti is also a very talented photographer. Like his poetry, his pieces are brutal and beautiful. You can see some of his work online at his website Suicide in the Birth Canal.

Buy Haunted Fucking: A Book in Spasms by Philip LoPresti here. 

Pan is Dad by Emril Krestle
How does one ask the slight of one's hand and pen, to pen
Something good if only god can know When...?
The first work I read of Emril Krestle's was his collaboration with Paul Bingham, Black House Rocked. His contribution was a moody piece called "Twilights," a Maldoror-esque prose poem about a vampire. I liked that story enough that I picked up this chapbook of his poetry.

Some of the poems here have the same Gothic type writing as "Twilights" such as "At the Seated Lincoln" (quoted above), but the poems have a wide range of moods. Some are surreal vignettes, like "At Random," which is about an ass staring in a movie. Others are more humorous, like the titular poem and "Row Your Boats Gently," which is a sarcastic commentary on the infamous Interior Semiotics performance art piece.

Pan is Dad is an enjoyable collection, and for me lives up to the promise he showed in "Twilights." I would, however, recommend picking up Black House Rocked first. If you enjoy his writing in that, then definitely get Pan is Dad next.

Buy Pan is Dad by Emril Krestle here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Brief Thoughts 8

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers by Robert W. Chambers, edited by ST Joshi

I picked up this collection because I was looking for The King in Yellow, but my library had this instead. It seems like a good deal, getting almost 650 pages of an author as influential as Chambers. Well, even the introduction by ST Joshi points out that Chambers was a very uneven writer. The vast majority of what he wrote was romance that was written for money and is largely forgotten. You kind of get that sense from a number of the later stories. It's also worth pointing out that "weird" in this context is basically a broad term for speculative fiction, rather than Lovecraftesque horror. Really, only maybe half this book actually is horror.

One of the odder choices in the editing is that this does not include all of the stories from The King in Yellow, only six of the ten. These are easily the best and most memorable stories here. It's easy to see why the stories are as influential as they have been.

It's also easy to see why The King in Yellow is what Chambers is most remembered for. The rest of the stories range from enjoyable to forgettable to downright grating.

There are two complete works here, In Search of the Unknown and Police!!! Both of them are short cryptozoological adventure novels.

In Search of the Unknown are the recollections of a scientist in his adventures to discover new species. The chapters are formulaic, but still mix it up enough to keep things interesting. Despite that, the quality wanes towards the end and you get the sense that Chambers was running out of ideas. Unfortunately, he kept going with it.

Police!!! is pretty much of sequel to In Search of the Unknown and it's the worst section. The recollections here are more "whimsical," but rather than being funny or entertaining, it's just irritating. I can see why it was tucked away at the end of the book. I'd say just put it down when you get here if you pick it up.

Overall, if you're already a fan of Chambers, this might be worth getting. Otherwise, just pick up The King in Yellow and In Search of the Unknown on their own. I know that's what I'll be doing.

Buy The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers by Robert W. Chambers, edited by ST Joshi here. 

Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist by Frank Chodorov

I don't read much political philosophy these days. I read a lot back in college and frankly I just got burned out on the subject. I started reading this because I randomly remembered Chodorov's "Taxation in Robbery" essay and wanted to reread it. I figured I may as well read the whole book it was in.

Despite the title, the book isn't really a traditional autobiography. The essays are all about politics but are written from a personal perspective.

For example, "I Watch Westerns" is about Chodorov's love of Western television shows and the possibility it may be a sign of immaturity. He notes that it's considered more "mature" to watch things like political programs. The problem with that, he says, is that the nonsense that gets spouted on those programs is far more ridiculous than the stories in Westerns. And at least he knows Westerns aren't supposed to be taken seriously.

Some other stand outs are his essay on Henry David Thoreau and "The Radical Rich," where he attempts to explore why it's largely the sons of the rich in political office, and why the well-off are often at the forefront of radical movements like communism.

Chodorov's writing is intelligent without being pretentious and highly entertaining. There is a passion that comes through in his prose for his beliefs and an engaging curiosity in the questions he explores. Likely, the essays won't convince of you of his viewpoint, but I believe it's well worth reading, even if you're not a libertarian.

Buy Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist by Frank Chodorov here.

Or you can download it for free here.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Brief Thoughts 7

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

When I took an online writing workshop from Jordan Krall, one of the things he said was that if you wanted to learn how to write dialogue, read Elmore Leonard. Get Shorty really drove that home.

I had read Glitz before, and while I did enjoy it, it didn't really "click" with me. It was one of those books that entertained me but didn't leave much of an impression. Get Shorty, on the other hand, was both entertaining and got me to look at how to write in a new way.

The story is about a loan shark named Chili Palmer who tracks a customer to Los Angeles to collect one more debt before he quits. While there, he falls in with a producer and an actress and decides to get into the movie business.

I've written things before that are intended to be read like watching a movie, but this is book showed me how it's really done. Leonard's dialogue flows naturally and the action is described simply without being dry. It's like a novel and a screenplay brought together seamlessly.

I can see what Krall was talking about. If I were a creative writing teacher, this is a book I'd use as a case study. Beats the fuck out of John Updike, that's for sure.

Buy Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard here. 

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock 

Moorcock is an author I've been wanting to read for awhile, but had trouble getting into. Not only is he highly prolific, but a lot of his books are part of a convoluted "multiverse" series. Because of that, it took me some time to figure out where to start. This stand-alone novel seemed like the best place, as well as the collection The Best of  Michael Moorcock.

Karl Glogauer travels back from 1970 to the year 28 AD in Israel, where his time machine immediately breaks and injures him. He's rescued by John the Baptist and his followers who nurse him back to health. Because of his seemingly miraculous arrival, John is convinced that Karl is the messiah they've been waiting for.

Some reviews of this novel have complained that it telegraphs the surprise ending, which is obviously that Karl goes on to be crucified and essentially kick start Christianity. I don't think Moorcock intended this to be a surprise though. This novel doesn't treat it as a twist to my eye.

A few reviews also dismiss this as a juvenile attack on Christianity. It's easy to come to that conclusion, given that when Karl meets Jesus, he turns out to be a drooling, retarded hunchback. I don't think that's a fair characterization of this book though. The portrayal of Jesus is pretty harsh, but Moorcock's depiction of John the Baptist is practically reverent. It also makes a lot of sense from a narrative standpoint that Jesus would be a complete nobody incapable of doing anything in the story.

Moorcock takes for granted that the Jesus story was a myth and treats it as such through retelling. This isn't exactly unusual. Even stories written by Christians that retell the Jesus story take several liberties, such as The Master and Margarita and The Last Temptation of Christ. Ultimately, Behold the Man is a story about where the need for faith comes from. When you try to examine that from an objective standpoint, you're bound to offend someone.

Despite my defense here, I can't deny this a divisive read. Even over 40 years later. But I think that's what makes this worth reading. Christian, atheist or even anyone of any religion raised in the predominantly Christian West should read this. It will make you rethink the story of Christ and what it really means to you.

Buy Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home by Sam Pink

Sam Pink's The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home is billed as a book of plays. Most of them however, read more like short film scripts. Even then, how is one supposed to stage an instruction like this one from "Be Nice to Everyone (Version 4)?"
They look at each other quietly. They forget every word that ever existed, even "forget."
To me, it seems best to think of these as short stories in script format. This actually works very well. Both in Person and in the online works I've read by Pink, his prose style is very minimal with a lot of emphasis on dialogue. Both internal and otherwise. The prose I've read by Pink is usually pretty realistic while his poetry tends to be absurd and filled with violent imagery. These "plays" are more like the latter. This book has the most surreal works I've read by him.

For example, in "All the Disciples" we get a look into the lives of passengers on a bus whose destination is "a giant fire that is black, red, and white static."
THE MOTHER: [to his back] You feel free because the thing that encircles you is so big you can't see it.  
I used to ride the bus all time. Not so much anymore since I live much closer to my job than I used to. Still, this piece does a great job of capturing those fleeting connections you make with your fellow passengers. Just before you're all flung into a giant fire. Because let's face it, that's basically where you eventually end up anyway.

Like Person had it's alternative chapters, this book has several variations on its plays. "Be Nice to Everyone" has four versions. Versions one and two are reworkings of the same play, while three and four are radically different in plot and characters. Though all four of them feature a couple engaging in an argument.

Contrast this moment from version one.
MALE: Yeah, I wrote "YOU'RE DEAD" on the lightbulb. It took me a few lightbulbs to get it eligible. I mean, I didn't really have anything to do this afternoon.
With this moment from version two.
MAN: Yeah, I wrote "I like you" on the lightbulb. I had to use two markers. At first I was using one marker but it like, died halfway through. And I wanted the letters to legible. I thought about doing x's and o's but I didn't for some reason [seems to think for a second, then focuses again] I'm pretty satisfied with the results. I mean I didn't really have anything else to do this afternoon. Plus, I was worried about just saying it to you. "I like you" is a stupid thing to say to someone. That was another one of my worries. But I figured you knew. Please don't hold it against me.
Whether you love someone or hate them, conveying it them properly is really hard.

There are a trio of characters that star in four of the "plays" called The Bastards. They're three men in car identified only as the driver, the passenger and the one in the backseat (except in one play, where they're a male and female ghost and a child). The passenger is either introduced as suffering severe injuries, or eventually ends up with them. These are probably the most violent pieces in the book.
The driver laughs. They all laugh. The driver puts his fingers into the passenger's ripped face and touches the bloody teeth. He keeps laughing. 
The flat, script voice only serves to make the imagery more vivid. Another moment from this same play, "The Bastards [They Erase a Weakling]," has the driver and man from the backseat stuff the passenger face first into a portable toilet hoping the shit water will infect his torn up face. This is probably due to my completely rational hatred of portable toilets, but this image haunts me.

One of my favorite pieces was "Cancer Kills [1]" where an obviously very lonely man begs a pizza man to hang out with him.
MAN: [clears his throat] Isn't there anything I can do to get you to please please please stay even for ten minutes. It's so bad in there.
No matter how lonely you feel (he said typing this alone in his apartment on a Friday night), just thank Christ you're not this desperately lonely.

My other favorite in the book was "The Pedophile (and His Menses)" where a pedophile comes across a boy playing alone in the forest. Rather than trying to molest the boy, he taunts him with a bloody tampon.
THE PEDOPHILE: [laughing] Do you smell something nice? Do you smell something you remember? [evenly] You should've been that. You should've been blood. I have you all over my fingers. You are still with me.
This piece is foul and disturbing, but very funny in a dark way. The pedophile projects his self-hatred onto the boy, aware that he's incapable of really "loving" the child. Rather than doing direct harm, he taunts the boy in some kind of perverted attempt at self-exorcism. Needless to say it doesn't work. Like the lice on his head, they are still with him.

The biggest problem I could find with the book is in "Everyone Wants to Work at the Cloud Factory," seems like it has a major editorial oversight. There is a part where the main character throws everything in his pocket, including his driver's license, into a sewer drain. Yet a couple pages later, he's showing his license to a checkout clerk at a grocery store. To buy a can of tomato juice and orange.

The "plays" are all absurd, but this doesn't seem like it was intentional. Lazy Fascist books are usually edited pretty well, so it's surprising to see an oversight like this. It doesn't detract from the book at all really. This is probably just nitpicking.

The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home is a unique and hilarious collection full of vivid and surreal imagery. While I want to say I like this better than Person, they're two very different types of works, so I can't really compare them like that. Yet they're both recognizable as Pink's voice. I say get both. The more Sam Pink you have in your life, the better.

Buy The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home by Sam Pink here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review: Raping the Gods by Brian Whitney

How many ways can one write about an asshole?
I first heard about Brian Whitney from a review of his book 37 Stories About 37 Women at I Read Odd Books. I had intended to pick it, but just never got around to it. So when Whitney offered a review copy of his new novella Raping the Gods, I had to take a look at it.

The narrator, named Brian Whitney, is a down-and-out author who has written some books under his own name and ghostwritten memoirs for others, former porn star Summer Starr being the most famous.
So now I write books. After I got divorced the last time I wrote this book that I thought was this overwrought view into my soul. I sent it out to hundreds of different publishers. An erotica publisher picked it up. My pain is another guy's orgasm, I suppose.
He finds out that a rich man by the name of Dylan Porter is looking for a ghostwriter to help him write a book about his spiritual journey. Dylan wants to share the story of how, during a "vision quest" in Samoa, he met and raped God. Brian takes him up on the deal, knowing it could be very lucrative. Dylan has some conditions though.
So here is the deal, you can come out here and hang out with me for a couple of weeks and we can do this shit. I like the fact that Brad is on board with you because that will make my family feel safe with it. Also I would like a photo of Summer Starr passed out, naked and wearing a moose hat.
Dylan is very stringent on these conditions.

A lot of this book is very funny. For example, before Brian even arrives in Samoa, Dylan sends him a few surreal e-mails that suggests he may be completely insane. He also sends a diary that he claims is from his high school days. Given the stories the diary is full of, it's likely a pack of lies.
Just in time too, I'm totally broke, my business took a mad hit. I was selling these kids in junior high school Oxycontin. Well really they were Flintstones Chewables I painted white. I'd be playing "Animals" by Pink Floyd really fucking loud and I'd be swaying back and forth a little to make them feel like they were tripping their balls off. It was all good until Tad's brother told him that oxys weren't chewable.
When we finally meet Dylan, it's a bit surprising how lucid he actually seems. It's clear he just likes to mess with people. The way he treats the "slave girls" who live with him makes it even more apparent. This is the kind of thing I don't like reading in public, because people walking by tend to wonder what the asshole with the book is giggling at.

Eventually Dylan starts to open up truthfully about his life and his past. Here the book starts to become more "serious" in tone, but the change in tone is handed masterfully. Dylan's stories about his first marriage, his time in rehab and his past relationships gradually slide from hilarious, to hilariously pathetic, to just pathetic and sad. This is a pretty short book, so that Whitney managed to change the tone this quick while having it feel as natural as it did is impressive.

It fits well with the main theme really. Everyone in this story, Dylan, Brian, the slave girls, are all undone by pursuing their own desires to the point of compulsion. Sex especially. It's far too easy to show the bottom of the barrel. In all those damn after school specials and Lifetime movies, you wonder why people get into the shit in the first place. It doesn't look fun at all. The problem is, it is. The slide from a good time into self-destructive compulsion is a gradual slide, and you can't tell when the healthy fun ended until you don't care anymore.
I stopped reading. I heard myself sigh heavily. I sounded like a tire with the air leaking out of me. I felt that way, too. This was my life. Nothing but crazy people as far as the eye could see. 
I'd already gone in expecting to like this from the summary of the story and that fact it bills itself as "A Tale of Sex and Madness," but the book was even better than I expected. I highly recommend this and I'm bumping 37 Stories About 37 Women up the wishlist.

Buy Raping the Gods by Brian Whitney here. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Book Review: In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau

Earlier this year I read The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau. Part satire of European imperialism and part Sadean fantasy, it's a great read. By coincidence, Nine-Banded Books ended up releasing Ann Sterzinger's translation of Mirbeau's earlier book In the Sky this year.

In the Sky seems to have been a very passed over work of Mirbeau's. While it was originally published in installments in a French literary journal from 1892 to 1893, it wasn't published as a whole until 1989 in its home country France. This translation by Sterzinger is the first English edition.

In the Sky begins with a prologue of an unnamed narrator visiting a friend he takes delight in abusing, referred to only as X, at a mountain cabin where he's been staying. X seems to have lost his mind from the solitude. He had gone to the mountain to write in seclusion, but has given up and instead spends his time contemplating the sky and getting drunk. He sends his friend off with what writing he was able to accomplish, which makes up the remainder of the novel.

X begins by recounting his unhappy childhood with his bourgeois family.
I was born with the fatal gift of acute feeling, of sensitivity to the point of suffering, to the point of being ridiculous. 
He finds himself crying at the drop of a hat and incapable of putting his feelings aside long enough to learn anything. Were this character born in the latter half of the 20th century, he would probably be medicated for depression.

X holds nothing but contempt for his family. He views them as a bunch of selfish assholes who don't care about anything but money and status. They treat him like he's retarded because his talent for observation does nothing for their status in the community. At one point, he learns the drum and the family supports him only because he's asked to lead a church parade, which makes them look good in front of the rest of the town.

X finds his days at school even worse.
And I can't describe the intolerable boredom that emanates from the pack of absurdities, lies, and ridiculous diplomas that is a teacher. Instead of piquing your interest in the lessons he assigns by giving them some life and zest, the teacher makes you feel disgust, as you would for something ugly. He fills everything with his stiff, fake gravitas, a proudly stupid dogmatism that kills the curiosity in a child's soul instead of developing it.
It's 120 years later and shit hasn't changed at all.

His sisters' marriages are likewise more like economic transactions than anything else, and after his parents die they care more about swiping his inheritance than consoling him. He allows them to take almost everything just to have them out of his hair.
My sisters were cautious and orderly women. They wanted to rob me, but they wanted to do it legally and respectably.
Mirbeau's contempt for bourgeois society is on full display here. It's no surprise that he was an anarchist. It's also clear that Mirbeau believed that this society held back individual creativity. When X is finally free of his family, he goes to live with his friend Lucien in Paris, who encourages him to take up writing. After all, his gift for feeling and observation makes him perfect for art. It's the first time he has any real direction.

As a side note on the structure of the book, Lucien is really the main character of the story. Yet we don't even meet him until over halfway into the book. Mirbeau did this in The Torture Garden as well. We don't meet the main driving force in the narrative, Clara, until several pages in and don't arrive at the titular Garden until almost halfway through. This doesn't hurt either book, however. There's a clear purpose to the structures that serves the themes in them.

Lucien, who is clearly based on Vincent van Gogh, is a painter whose art wasn't supported by his family until he achieved some degree of fame. Like X, he's a very sensitive person but channels most of his energy into his art. It doesn't help though.

Lucien works harder and harder to improve his art, yet he can't seem to capture ineffable beauty on his canvas. At one point he leaves X in Paris to try to work at a remote mountain cabin (the same that X was staying in during the prologue) but it only hastens his spiral into insanity. He comes back to Paris in a sorry state.
"Do you remember, I told you about that dog who bays endlessly, a dog you can't see, and whose voice rises toward the sky, like the very voice of the earth? That's what I want to do! A vast sky...and the cry of that dog!"
I was a bit taken aback. "But you're insane, Lucien! You want to paint the bark of a dog?"
Lucien wants to convey things that can't be directly portrayed visually, but just can't find a way to do it. He starts to believe that he's a fraud who can't paint at all.
"Do you you know why I drive myself to find out all these complicated things, what others call "rarefied sensations," and which aren't anything but children's games, and lies...Do you know why? It's because I'm incapable of painting what's simple! Because I don't know how to draw, and I don't know how to renders the shadows and the light!"
Lucien persists in trying to improve his art, but his madness finally gets the best of him. Like van Gogh cut off his ear and then eventually shot himself, Lucien cuts off his own hand and bleeds to death. X's final fate is never given, but we can only assume he won't end up much differently.

Some of the themes in this book remind me a lot of Yukio Mishima's Sun and Steel. Mishima argued in that book that the biggest problem with the art of writing is that it's an attempt to wrangle the chaotic and ever-moving real world into a still and ordered manner. In body versus mind, the body always wins and an author, for whom the mind is primary, needs to make peace with this and find a way to reconcile the two. Mishima did so through weight-training and other exercises to "befriend" his body, hence the "sun and steel" of the title.

In another bit of synchronicity with my reading, I happened to start this book as I was finishing up Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Her main thesis in that book is that the whole of western art is based on conflict of the masculine (synonymous with order, civilization and the Apollonian) and the female (synonymous with chaos, nature and the Dionysian) and the attempts of artists to synthesize the two into an "androgyne."

Considering how Mishima ended up, he's probably the most relevant of the two. Neither X nor Lucien are ever able to reconcile the chaos of the world around them into something bearable through the order of their art. They're both destroyed by their attempts.

A great example of this is a romance that X begins with a concierge named Julia while Lucien is away. At first he's head over heels for her.
How I loved her, the first time that gaze rested upon me, like a bird perching on a dead branch!
Yet after he has sex with her, he finds his feelings for her completely drained.
She really did touch my heart, but that emotion couldn't overcome the disgust, the pitiful and painful disgust for her, that I suffered after the physical act that drowned my love, and all the poetry of my love.
X is incapable of reconciling his idealized love for her with the physical act of sex with her. Sleeping with her brought her from being a goddess to being no different from the whores at the brothels he and Lucien visit.

Mirbeau, who was also a supporter of van Gogh's work, creates an insightful look at how an artist like him could collapse under the weight of their own ambition. This was originally written only 2 years after van Gogh died. Even the title and the sky motif come from van Gogh's most famous painting, The Starry Night. With this perspective and the popularity of van Gogh, an artist who even people who know nothing about art know, I'm surprised that this novel was so overlooked.

As you can see, there's a lot going on in this short book (under 200 pages even including the preface and the translator's note). It's an engaging story with excellent prose with a lot to chew on. This story of artists working in the 19th century avant-garde remains as relevant as ever with its mockery of middle-class values, its portrayal of the frustrations of the artist, and the search for one's place in the vast, hostile sky. It's great that this book was brought to the English language, and I hope it receives the attention it deserves. I highly recommend this. Be sure to check out The Torture Garden as well.

Buy In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Which I Eat Shit

So recently my story, "John Walks Into A Bar," was published on the webzine Trigger Warning. The editor of the webzine was Ann Sterzinger, a writer whose work I admire. I also gave a plug to Trigger Warning's Indiegogo campaign, both here and on my Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, there was some behind the scenes bullshit going on that I wasn't aware of. You can read all the unpleasant details at Matt Forney's website.

I want to apologize for everyone who donated to the campaign because of my promotion of it. My audience is very small, but if even one of you donated, I helped you get fucked over. For that, I'm deeply sorry.

Because of how worse for wear this whole shitstorm left Sterzinger, I strongly encourage you to support her by buying her books. If you need convincing, check out my reviews of The Talkative Corpse and NVSQVAM (nowhere)

Monday, July 27, 2015


My story, "John Walks Into a Bar," is now up at Trigger Warning. Check it out, along with the other great pieces in this issue.

If you like this story, please consider contributing to Trigger Warning's Indiegogo campaign. As of this post it's still up, but ending soon. So hurry if you want to help out this new webzine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

Blake Butler is one of those writers who've been on my radar for a while, but it took some time to get around to reading one of his books (though I have read some his work published online). I decided to start with his second book, Scorch Atlas.

Scorch Atlas is a novel in stories. Each of the thirteen stories and thirteen vignettes are about a different set of characters, but they all take place in the same world. In this case, a world being destroyed by a series of thirteen plagues.

The vignettes in the book describe the different plagues destroying the world. There are normal disasters like flooding and dust storms, but most of the plagues are bizarre occurrences like rains of blood, teeth, glitter, manure and static.
The earth had learned to scratch its back. In massive columns same as what we'd seen on TV during our worst storms, stretched check-pattern, warbled splatter. As well, the sound of a billion needles wheedling, tearing their tips against the grain.
The stories don't relate directly to the plagues in the vignettes. Instead, the stories focus on people dealing with the destruction of the world in general.

For example, in "The Ruined Childhood," a couple's baby becomes infected with some sort of strange and possibly supernatural disease. The baby's skin becomes covered with gunk and dogs start trying to invade their home to get at it. Finally, they decide to bury the baby and leave it for dead. When the father comes home, he finds that it somehow found its way into the attic and its body has swollen up. The father tries to deal with his wife slowly going insane from her loss and the undead child still growing in the attic.

This was probably my favorite story in the book. A surreal horror story about the destruction of a family and a very atmospheric take on the "evil child" trope.
The child's mother shouldn't see this, the father thought. He turned away and hid his eyes. He went back downstairs and locked the door behind him. He tucked a towel under the crack. Though for hours, through whatever insulation, whatever the silence, the child's voice still slammed his head.
Family disintegration is a major theme in the book. In "Disappearance," a boy's father is arrested after being falsely accused of abusing him and missing a free throw. With his father gone, he completely throws himself into searching for his missing mother. Even with the world falling down around him and eventually being quarantined in his school's gym, he persists until he finally finds her in a very strange place.
I sat on the floor in the neon light with stomach rumbling and sounds of flame and stink of rot. I saw things moving toward me and then gone. I couldn't remember where or why I was. I couldn't find my name writ on my tongue or brain-embedded.
Butler's vivid prose creates striking and relentless images of destruction and rotting. In "Seabed," a man named Randall walks among the ruins of his city and meets a little girl who seems to be the only other survivor. They stumble on a beach and find that the ocean's gone dry. On the ocean floor, they find a house.
The sand cracked beneath their feet. The shore sat scummed over and pile-driven down, pale combs of foam dried at the farthest point where water'd lapped. Cracked shells of land-struck jellies and uncased conch flesh sat overcooking, dried out, picked apart. Whole gulls with their skulls pecked in and post-ravaged by sand mites and worms.
The book also conveys the narrative of the world's destruction through other means besides straightforward stories. For example, "Damage Claim Questionnaire" tells us about a woman's loss of her family through an insurance claims form.
Have you undertaken methods to protect against future loss?
I often think of pastry. My joints creek when it drizzles. The windows have been painted over. I'd never kiss another man. The baby calm inside me, his kick stilled off to numb.
The constant rot in Scorch Atlas is even present in it's design. The pages are covered in burn marks, water damage and smoothed out crumpling to make it seem like a document from a now gone world.

I highly recommend this book. It's a wonderfully written and beautifully designed collection of surreal stories. It has a unique take on the speculation of the end of the world as we know it. While it focuses mostly on personal loss, it still manages to show the scale of death and destruction in such a scenario. I also have Blake Butler's 300,000,000 on my shelf and I look forward to reading that.

Buy Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Everything's Fine by Socrates Adams

I bought this book without knowing much about it. I think I saw it mentioned by some other author I follow on social media and bought it on a whim. I can't say I regretted picking it up.

Ian's job is selling PVC tubes. He's not very good at it. His boss tries to light a fire under his ass by giving him a piece of tube, naming it Mildred and making him raise it as a baby. When that doesn't work, he demotes Ian to the position of Tiny Shit Head, a job that consists of being strapped into a chair and forced to watch a monitor count down numbers. In between his job and taking care of Mildred, he plans and saves for a vacation in the French Alps. He ends up developing a crush on the pretty travel agent, Sandra, in the process.
Although I am not earning a great deal of money, I feel as though my new job is going pretty well. It is a demanding position which carries a large amount of responsibility and is high powered and executive. 
Ian is clearly unhappy with his life, but is clearly in denial about it. He tries to console himself that his sale skills are important, even though he clearly has none. He doesn't even have basic social skills. His denial is very thin however, his unhappiness with the world around him peeks through very often. This scene where he's pushing Mildred in a stroller and it begins to rain, for example.
I imagine the water rising so fast that I have to struggle to keep moving, all of the filth of the pavement licking at my skin. The water will rise all the way up to the bottom of the pram. The water will carry on rising upwards.
Ian feels like the world is drowning him.

He doesn't get much respect either. His boss treats him like dirt, people laugh at him behind his back and even Mildred has some choice words about him.
I don't understand him. I can't work him out. I don't understand why he would come and get me. I am a tube.
What I do know is that he has made me so miserable today that is is almost certainly the worst day of my life so far.
Whether the digressions into Mildred's thoughts are really the tube thinking or Ian projecting himself on to it is rather ambiguous. While Ian plays the role he was given and treats the tube like a baby, it's clear he knows how stupid the whole thing is. It also serves as a metaphor for Ian's own situation.
A tube's natural state is to be part of the plumbing, or more specifically, to carry something from somewhere to somewhere else. When it is not part of the plumbing it will roll about and get in the way and be a nuisance, because it is not doing what it is meant to be doing. It is not doing what it was made to do.
The problem with humans is they don't know what they were made to do. None of them knows what their natural state is.
Ian's pathetic state would be really annoying if he made no attempts to better himself. He does, however, work hard to save money to go to the French Alps. He loses a lot of weight by eating less food, but also gets roped into a ridiculous pyramid scheme. He also makes bumbling attempts to get with Sandra, which ends up landing him in even more trouble.

My two major complaints is that for all the time spent building up Ian's absurd and awful life, he seems to snap out of his complacency rather quickly. When he finally goes on his vacation, his epiphany feels rather forced. There is also a lot of repetition in the book that seems to be trying to help show Ian's trapped mindset, but doesn't really end up contributing much.

All in all, I think this is a solid novel. It's a funny and enjoyable absurd comedy about the emptiness of modern work life. Anyone who's ever worked a shitty job will sympathize with Ian's plight. This book is Socrates Adams's debut, and I think it's a good sign he'll be coming out with something even better in the future. I definitely recommend this, and I look forward to reading Adams's future works.

Buy Everything's Fine by Socrates Adams here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Brief Thoughts 6

I've got a couple reviews coming down the pipe at Adventures in SciFi Publishing and at least one on here. Here's another entry in Brief Thoughts until then.

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino 

Calvino quickly became one of my favorite authors after I read Invisible Cities and Cosmicomics. This was his first novel that I read, and I love it as much as his short stories.

The book is told in the second person for the most part. You, the Reader, are tying to read Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler. You discover your copy is defective and exchange it at the book store. You find that your replacement copy is actually an entirely different novel. You set out to find the complete novels and stumble on an international book conspiracy made up of duplicitous translators, overzealous academics and a beautiful fellow reader that you fall in love with.

This is one of the most readable "postmodern" books that I've read. A lot of these types of books intentionally alienate and confuse the reader. This one's not much different, but the main story is a straightforward enough thriller that it keeps things grounded. It's pretty funny too.

The most interesting thing I've found in the book was the dynamic of reading as a form of personal enjoyment vs literature as a social and political force. While Calvino makes fun of the latter with the goofy academic characters, he doesn't dismiss it altogether. It's clear, though, that Calvino believes that literature is an individual experience to the reader, and that should be primary above sociopolitical considerations.

As he demonstrates in this very novel, it's very possible to create books that work to satisfy the reader as an individual without being completely asocial, apolitical or amoral. Being this is a novel about reading, the fact that people are not free to read as they please in many countries comes into play. The later chapters mock censorship of literature without being didactic or preachy

If you haven't read anything by Italo Calvino, you're missing out on a lot. This clever novel is as good a place as any to start with him.

Buy If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino here. 

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I randomly picked up this book without knowing much about it or Hermann Hesse, but I'm glad I did. This is a beautiful novel.

The story is about the spiritual journey of an Indian with the same name as the Buddha, who he meets along the way. He finds himself taken by the Buddha's teachings, but can't bring himself to become his disciple. He believes that in order to fully grasp this knowledge, he has to learn it himself as the Buddha did.

I'm hardly an expert on Buddhism. The only things I know about it comes from a few articles and Osamu Tezuka's Buddha series. This novel conveys the basic teachings of it (to my knowledge) very well, however. In an very poetic way too.

Even people who don't gravitate to Buddhist teachings will get a lot out of this book. It packs a lot of emotions in it's short length (only 122 pages in my New Directions edition). The basic lesson that true wisdom can only come through thinking for one's self is probably the most important theme in the work. It sounds trite, but I've never seen it presented so well.

This is a book who's beauty and importance I don't think I can properly convey. Highly recommended.

Buy Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

I had actually bought NVSQVAM (nowhere) before The Talkative Corpse was released without knowing much about Ann Sterzinger. I'm pretty sure I had read her blog or an interview with her before I bought it. I never got around to reading it. Even as much as I enjoyed The Talkative Corpse, it took me until last week to actually pick up NVSQVAM.

Lester Reichartsen isn't happy with how his life turned out. When he was young, he was the lead singer of the punk band The Incognito Mosquitos. After he was fired by his band mates, he decided to go back to school to study Classical Letters. Unfortunately, he ended up knocking up his girlfriend Evelyn and got talked into marrying her. Now he has a kid he never wanted, a wife he doesn't love anymore, a job he hates as a teacher at a university in a southern Illinois town he hates and he's working on a dissertation he can barely bring himself to give a shit about.
The problem with getting a doctorate in classical letters, he thought, was not that it was useless. It was that anybody smart enough to actually do it wouldn't spend that much effort on anything but their own creations. Why couldn't he have studied something modern and easy? Then he could have something himself, too.
To make matters worse, his kid Martin is a boy genius. Most parents would be proud of this, but to Lester it's nothing but a reminder of how much of a failure he is. The fact that Martin is a smug, annoying little shit doesn't help either.

Toward the beginning, Lester decides to try to seek therapy at his university's health center. It doesn't go well. At all. This part made me laugh out loud and cringe at the same. It reminded me of my own disastrous attempts of talking to a female therapist who was unable to help me. Like Lester, it came from my own inability to really articulate my problems and a lack of qualification from her for my specific problems. Lester finds out one way that it could be even worse. If you couldn't think about much other than how much you wanted to fuck the therapist.
It occurred to him that she wasn't talking very much. Shouldn't shrinks have some answers instead of just sitting there asking questions and looking lickable? He could feel sweat stains growing on the nice purple shrink chair beneath his male behind. He tried to make a joke to himself about thanking his lucky stars that she didn't have a couch, but it only made him want to scream.
A good portion of the first half of the novel follows Lester, Evelyn and Martin as they visit their extended families for Christmas. Lester absolutely hates his working class father and Evelyn isn't exactly fond of her rich parents either. Both of the visits are ridiculous and hilarious. The contrast between the two precedes the same vein that's mined in the The Talkative Corpse. Idiots exist at every class level. Being working class does not make you good or noble, and being rich does not make you smart or worthy of praise. Ann slings her barbs at every level of society.

Lester's dealings with the bullshit of academia remind me why I decided to stop after undergraduate work, besides the financial burden. Lester manages to finish his dissertation and takes another look at it before he sends it off.
The file finally came on screen and Lester stared at it like a caveman. It seemed to have been written in no known language. He’d been over every phoneme of it thousands of times, and even the English words had no meaning for him anymore; the Latin looked like the transcript of a dispute between squirrels.
I studied Psychology in college. Which is why I now work in insurance. I recall one class on brain chemistry that really took its toll on me. I would study for the tests and feel like I understood the material. Then when I actually took them, I would have the same reaction as Lester. The tests may as well have been written in Latin for all I understood on them. I still have no idea how I managed to bullshit my way through that class.

NVSQVAM is very funny. Lester's antics and Ann's witty metaphors had me laughing out loud several times. Part of the humor comes from footnotes where Ann gives sarcastic explanations of things like the Muppets, Wal-Mart and various music trivia. Such as this explanation of who G.G. Allin is.
Musician of a sort, mostly recalled for pooping on stage.
Or this footnote on Kenny G.
Musician whose success in the 1980s proved conclusively the nonexistence of God.
As funny as this novel is, Lester is not exactly who you would call "likable." He's self-pitying, whiny and often mean-spirited. The way he treats his family is flat out awful. The fact he resents them so much and usually treats them like dirt, however, makes the moments he actually bonds with them seem all the more genuine and sweet.
"Goddamnit, Martin, I will hunt you down and SHOOT YOU if you turn out to be like me! Do you understand?"
These moments also make Lester's fall to rock bottom even more tragic. Much of it is his own fault, but that didn't keep his downward spiral from being one of the saddest things I've read in a long time. I'm avoiding spoilers here, but the ending of this book will punch you in the balls. Even if you're a woman or a eunuch.
Unless you believe in God there's nothing but hell. But there IS nothing but hell, so how can you believe in God?
NVSQVAM (nowhere) is a very funny and a tragic novel of not just the horror of living in the early 21st century, but of being alive at all. Lester Reichartsen is an excruciatingly human character whose life makes you laugh to keep from crying at how awful and pathetic it is. Between this and The Talkative Corpse, I'm convinced Ann Sterzinger is one of the most underrated writers working today. The attention she receives is far too sparse for someone who can write this well. I highly recommend this novel and I'll be picking up her debut, Girl Detectives, very soon.

Buy NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger here.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Brief Thoughts 5

It's been some time since I've done this.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

In the past, I would have said that Watchmen is my favorite western comic (my favorite manga being Osamu Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito). After reading Asterios Polyp, I don't that's true anymore.

The story concerns an architect named Asterios Polyp who has won awards for his designs, but never had any of them built. We first meet him at the lowest point in his life. His apartment building burns down during a lighting storm, he grabs some of his possessions and heads out of New York. We learn about his past and about his relationship with his ex-wife, a sculptor.

This comic is amazing. The art is excellent, the story is great, the balance between drama and humor is spot on and all of the characters are fascinating. It's one of the best examples of what comics as a medium are capable of.

The only complaint I have about it is the ending. I won't spoil it, but it reminded me of Douglas Copeland's Eleanor Rigby in a bad way. I see what Mazzecchhelli was going for, but it just felt way too contrived and out of left field.

Despite the ending, I still highly recommend it.

Buy Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli here.

Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer

I enjoyed Mailer's debut The Naked and the Dead, so I gave this book a try. A noir crime novel seems like a perfect fit for someone like Mailer.

Tim Madden, a writer with a drinking problem, wakes up from a drunken blackout to find he has a new tattoo, blood in his car and woman's severed head in his marijuana garden. He sets out to figure out what happened during his blackout.

Plot wise, the novel is a run of the mill detective novel. Mailer doesn't do much with the tropes or cliches of the genre. That said, for what it is it's entertaining.

What makes this different from other detective novels is that instead of hard boiled prose, Mailer's style is much more affected. Instead of focusing on the plot, Madden often goes on tagents about his past and philosophical monologues about love, masculinity and sexuality.

This a mixed bag. Detective novels tend benefit from being tightly plotted and from their straightforward prose. Mailer doesn't quite pull off this style of writing with this genre. There are some tangents that are ridiculous. Madden's monologue about the phallic symbolism of a lighthouse comes to mind.

Despite that, most of the tangents are actually either funny or interesting to read. My favorite is probably a jab that Mailer takes at a John Updike passage that describes a vagina in the most awful purple prose. Madden praises the passage and proceeds to attempt to write something similar that ends up sounding crude and mean-spirited.

The views on sexuality are not exactly politically correct, but I found them interesting enough that it got me wanting to read Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex.

As far as novels go, this isn't bad. I would recommend The Naked and the Dead over this one though.

Buy Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer here.

Duluth by Gore Vidal

The first book from Gore Vidal that I read was Lincoln. It's not a bad book at all, but I probably would have liked it more if I was a civil war buff. Still, it was interesting to read such an unromanticized portrait of a man that is considered by most to be a secular saint. I liked it enough that I picked up Duluth, mostly because Vidal himself considered it one of his best.

This book was more up my alley. It's a goofy and surreal satire of pretty much everything in American society.

The book takes place in a fictional version of Duluth, Minnesota that contains a desert, mountains, a beach and a swamp. There are several plots running through the book, most dealing with the politics of the city. Several of the plots are pastiches of science fiction, police procedural and Harlequin style romance.

Some of Vidal's satire doesn't really work. His mockery of daytime television is a little too obvious and on the nose.

That said, much of the books is very funny and entertaining. He engages in a type of postmodernism that makes for a bizarre but accessible world. My favorite part of the book is probably the antics of the sadistic police woman Darlene Ecks.

While Lincoln seems to get more praise, I would recommend Duluth over it.

Buy Duluth by Gore Vidal here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Adventures in SciFi Publishing is the Place to Be.

The other website I write my reviews on, Adventures in SciFi Publishing, was recently nominated as a finalist for a Hugo Award in the category of "Best Fancast." I want to say congratulations to the producers of the podcast and website and I wish them the best of luck.

I figured this is a good time to plug the last few reviews I've done on the site.

Black House Rocked by Emril Krestle and Paul Bingham

The Bizarro Starter Kit (Purple)

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

I'll continue to write reviews of books that don't fall under the category of "speculative fiction" on this blog, so don't abandon it completely. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: XXX Shamus by Red Hammond

I became interested in XXX Shamus because the publisher compared it to the work of Hubert Selby Jr and Irvine Welsh. Since Selby is one of my favorite authors and I've enjoyed what I've read of Welsh, I picked this up. While it certainly has the nastiness of those two authors, it's a little more plot driven. Personally, I'd say it's like a more lucid and explicit Kiss Me, Judas.

Hooper Garland is a private investigator in New Orleans who specializes in finding missing girls. A young woman comes into his office one day and asks him to find her missing sixteen year old sister, Yasmin, who disappeared after she got pregnant. Hooper is reluctant to take the job, because the last girl he found didn't want to be found and tried to kill herself. He's persuaded to take the job, because he has another major problem with women.
All Hooper knew is that when women got near him, it was like flicking a switch on their lust. They lost control. They took control. It had started to make him nervous.
As Hooper works the case he meets the despicable, pitiful and fascinating people involved in Yasmin's life, as well as trying to deal with the ones in his own.

One of the best things about XXX Shamus is that it manages to keep its plot tight and fast moving, like a pulp mystery novel, yet is able to explore the psychology of its characters in depth. This is what keeps Hooper's problem of being irresistible to women from being more than just a male fantasy. All of Hooper's trysts come back to bite him. He grows tired of his inability to form real intimate relationships.
Like Divinity had said, Hooper's entire life was a porno flick, but he wished it to be a romantic comedy.
Hammond's hardboiled prose is what really makes this book. It's straightforward yet vivid and visceral. Reading this book is like a classic noir film playing in your head. Except there's no cutting away when things get dirty or bloody.
Thinking if this were the Fifties, if he were Mike Hammer, there would be all the innuendo and hints but none of the flesh and bodily fluids and smells and sounds. Back then flirting wasn't an invitation for a no-strings-attached fuck.
From the title alone, you can tell this book is not for everyone. It's extremely graphic and very depressing at times. Despite that, I would recommend it to any fans of crime fiction and neo-noir.

Something to note is that Amazon removed this book from their store. Not just from the Kindle, but they refuse to sell new copies as well. Although you can still buy used copies off of it. Why they chose to remove this book for violating the terms of service, when you can buy actual porn that advertises itself as porn off Amazon is a mystery. It sets a really bad precedent for independent authors and publishers on Amazon as well. However, you can still buy XXX Shamus through the crowdfunding site FanBacked.com

UPDATE (10/03/2015): The FanBacked campaign has ended, but Broken River Books is now selling it direct. Buy XXX Shamus from BrokenRiverbooks.com.

UPDATE (03/05/2018): The Broken River Books edition is now out of print. You can pick up the new edition from Down and Out Books here.