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

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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.