REVIEW: Saguaro: The Life and Adventures of Bobby Allen Bird

Author: Carson Mellsaguaro-store

2013, Electric Literature

Filed under: Literary

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 7

After failing to find a publisher for Saguaro, the life story of a washed-up rock star named Bobby Bird who embodies every rock and roll cliché, Carson Mell released the novel himself. Electric Literature featured a chapter as part of their Recommended Reading series before they released a digital version. You can read the chapter here. The rest reads like the most depraved moments from VH1’s “Behind the Music” mashed into one musician (plus an adventure on a satanic cult cruise ship and a fist-fight with Bob Dylan).

If Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison had a love child raised by Barry Hannah he would sound something like Bobby Bird.
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REVIEW: Rontel

Author: Sam Pink

2013, Electric Literature

Filed Under: Literary

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 7

If familiarity really does breed contempt then it would be hard to imagine a writer more familiar with Chicago than Sam Pink. His latest book, released on Valentine’s Day, is a bipolar love letter to the city that is at turns hilarious and hateful (albeit a love letter that contains the sentences “Fuck Western Avenue and fuck Chicago” and “How do you want me to Fuck you, Chicago”). Pulled by the two opposite poles of antipathy and sentiment, the anonymous narrator of Pink’s Rontel explores Chicago’s down and out, describing their lives with a compassion that feels genuinely heartfelt.

After calling in on his last day of work, Rontel’s narrator wanders through a hot Chicago summer day, visiting his co-workers and neighbors, playing video games with his brother, and petting his passive cat, Rontel. Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness, the narrator’s memories and fantasies (which are about punching strangers in the face as often as embracing them) sometimes overwhelm the present narrative. This balancing act would be impossible to pull off without Pink’s wonderfully profane narration, a mix of vitriol and pity cut with just the right amount of self-aware humor:

On the Blue Line towards The Loop, I sat down and took out a granola bar I’d stolen from my girlfriend’s roommate.
Her roommate had accused me—to my girlfriend—of eating her food.
Which was untrue.
But then because of how hurt I was by the accusation, I started eating her food.
Haha fuck off.

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The Best Books of 2012, Part 7

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their favorite books from the past 12 months and beyond. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009, 2010, and 2011 while you’re at it. This is the final piece of our 2012 series.]


So it’s that time of the year again. “Best of” season. We all know that “Best of the Year” lists are completely subjective, a handful of famous writers are over-represented, the idea that anyone can read a broad enough range of books published in a given year to judge which is among the best is obviously ridiculous, etc. But, hey, they are also kind of fun. I read a lot of good books this year, the vast majority published before 2012, but here are three I read in and of this year that stand out (and one from a previous year for good measure):

May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks

It’s hard to believe this is Amber Sparks’ first book: most of the short stories in this collection have appeared in some of the indie lit world’s best-known magazines. With multiple publications in Annalemma, The Collagist, Unsaid, Pank, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and others, Sparks’ surreal and quirky stories were already ubiquitous both online and in print by the time this collection came out. It’s easy to see why. The stories in May We Shed pack a lot in their often few pages, forming mini-fables that combine timeless themes with modern sensibilities (see Death and the People, where a jaded Grim Reaper interrupts the all-powerful gods as they play Mario Kart). Sparks’ tales offer enough variety from story to story to avoid too much repetition. Reading this collection is like dipping into pockets of complete surreal-yet-recognizable worlds, and the only complaint I can think of is that sometimes Sparks lets us out too soon.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Fountain earned my undying fandom when I first came across his amazing short story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” in the 2005 O’Henry collection. In a very strong collection, this story was a stand-out. Although he made us wait for Billy Lynn, famously shelving a novel he struggled with for years, the wait was worth it. Billy Lynn follows the members of Bravo Company, soldiers recently made celebrities from a viral video of their action in Iraq, as they are treated to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game. Steeped in pop culture, fluidly switching between past and present as the nineteen-year-old soldier Billy Lynn muses on his life and sudden celebrity, Fountain digs deep into what it means to be returning from war and preparing to leave for war again. Although his extensive research shows on every page, what impressed me most was not Fountain’s accurate portrayal of the soldiers, which was spot-on, but the way he captures the non-soldiers, everyone else—i.e. you and me—as we approach the soldiers to mumble thanks and platitudes about honor and sacrifice. Aside from an annoying and unnecessary typography stunt, this book is pitch-perfect.


Fires of Our Own Choosing, by Eugene Cross

Unlike Sparks and Fountain, I had did not discover Eugene Cross until his book came out -an obvious oversight on my part. I heard him read half of a story from “Fires” at a reading in DC and immediately bought the book. The collection, largely set in and around Erie, Pennsylvania, chronicling disasters in the lives of Cross’ working-class characters, is a combination of Ron Rash and Bonnie Jo Campbell. Thanks to Cross’ experiments with different forms and points of view, this collection never comes off as repetitive even as he mines the similar themes in each story. I can’t wait to see what this writer has in store for us next. Read my full review here.

REVIEW: The Martian War

Author: Kevin J. Anderson

2012, Titan

Filed Under: Sci-Fi

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 4

Anderson’s entertaining The Martian Wars offers a return to the gilded age of science fiction for an H.G. Wells-inspired mash-up, a fast-paceed romp through many of the author’s best-known works.

Anderson’s novel begins in fact, with a young Wells studying with T.H. Huxley, grandfather of writer Aldous Huxley, a man known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his aggressive proselytization of the new theory of evolution. Anderson introduces his fictional conceit early on, when Wells, speculating on extraterrestrial life with Huxley, muses:

Perhaps even now the Martians are regarding Earth with envious eyes.

Even casual fans will recognize this dialogue as an appropriation of War of the Worlds’ opening lines. Anderson’s first chapters continue in this vein, introducing the reader to many of Wells’ best-known plots and characters, including Dr. Moreau, the Invisible Man, and of course the Martian invaders, whom Wells soon learns are planning for the invasion he warns of in his then-unwritten novel.
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REVIEW: The Cocktail Waitress

Author: James M. Cain

2012, Hardcase Crime

Filed Under: Mystery

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 5

When we meet Joan Medford, the young heroine of Cain’s posthumously published novel, it seems he has hit the bottom. Joan has just returned from the funeral of her abusive husband, whose death she is implicated in. Her young son is staying with her sister-in-law, a woman who makes clear her plans to keep him. Already beaten down by life at just twenty-one, Joan’s situation is so desperate that the job she takes as a cocktail waitress at a local bar, where she is alternately pawed by drunken guests and pressured to solicit herself to the client by a fellow waitress, seems like a stroke of great fortune.

Even this luck cannot hold, though, as Cain has more in store for Joan than even these travails.  Unfortunately for Joan, the bottom is far deeper than she thought.
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REVIEW: Fires of Our Choosing

[This outstanding collections of short-stories is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Eugene Cross

2012, Dzanc Books

Filed Under: Short Stories, Literary

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 8

If Dzanc books isn’t on your radar as a go-to press for outstanding collections of short stories, it should be. Once a year, for the past three years, a collection by Dzanc has blown me away. Lauran van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us was my gateway drug, and the way she combined the far-fetched and everyday made the collection one of my favorite books I read in 2010. In 2011, I read Knuckleheads, by Jeff Kass, laughing at the sometimes lunkish characters while shaking my head with recognition. So when I picked up Eugene Cross’s collection, Fires of our Choosing, I knew I was in for something good.

Cross’s book does not disappoint. A combination of Phillip Meyer’s American Rust and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, Fires maps the lives of working-class men and women who often find themselves a dice-throw away from being down-and-out, problems with love, family, and alcohol complicating perpetual crisis of the wallet and the heart. 
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REVIEW: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man

Author: Denis Johnson

1991, Penguin Books

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 6

Leonard English, the flawed hero of Johnson’s darkly comic novel, moves to Cape Cod’s Provincetown during the winter lull following the suicide attempt suggested in the novel’s title. Beginning one job as a night DJ at the local radio station and another as an assistant to a private detective, English often finds himself wandering Provincetown’s late-night streets, and is quickly caught up in the tight social circle of any off-season tourist town. Throw in a missing artist, a star-crossed love triangle, and an employer’s potential ties to a right-wing survivalist movement in the mountains of New Hampshire, and English soon has more than enough to keep him busy, while Johnson has the beginnings of this engaging, gritty noir novel.

Johnson, who lived in Provincetown for the 1981-1982 residency of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, knows his setting well (the novel is set in late 1980 and early 1981), and English’s introduction to the casual cross-dressing and multitude of sexual identities Provincetown is known for is entertaining and deftly-handled. Arriving at the town’s main street, his wrecked car towed behind him, English sees: “Three ungainly women–were they men, in bright skirts?–danced in a parody of a chorus line by a tavern’s door, arm around one another’s shoulders. Passing along the walks and ambling down the middle of the street were people in Bermuda shorts and children eating ice-cream cones as if it weren’t under 60 Fahrenheit today.” It would be hard to visit Provincetown without having a similar experience.
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Best Books of 2011: Part 3

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


Best Books of 2011 (and one of late 2010)


Us, Michael Kimball

Us is a gutsy little book. Kimball’s 184 page novel begins as a step by step account of a husband’s life as it is remade by his spouse’s seizure. A quarter of the way through, Kimball presents a chapter in new voice, a plea from the comatose wife. Soon another voice is added, that of the couple’s grandson who is meticulously imagining his grandparents’ last days in order to understand the strength of their love. Although these storylines might have been hard to sustain alone, together they even each other out. Kimball performs an incredible balancing act by switching between these concurrent narratives, a difficult feat to pull of in any novel and especially impressive in one so short. [Read Mike’s review.]


The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

This hip western owes more to Quentin Tarantino than John Wayne. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are two hired guns in the Gold Rush Era of American history contracted to snuff out a man in Oregon. Much of this books reads as a road novel, following the two unpredictable brothers as they blunder westward, where they meet the fantastic turn DeWitt has in store for them. By turns bleak and surreal, always darkly funny, this novel moves so quickly it practically reads itself. [Read Nico’s review.]


Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

Where The Sisters Brothers is a western road novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie is at turns a coming of age tale and a swashbuckling adventure. Birch’s novel follows Jaffy Brown, an orphan in Dickensian London who, in true Dickensian fashion, is rescued from his life of poverty (and the jaws of an escaped tiger) by a rich, benevolent stranger. Jaffy’s rescuer is the owner of a menagerie and exotic animal emporium, Mr. Charles Jamrach, a historical figure in nineteenth-century London. Sent on a long ocean voyage whose expressed purpose is both whaling and the capture of a dragon, the novel swerves from coming-of-age to high-adventure to tragedy. Strung together by the wide-eyed narrator and Birch’s deft writing, this novel would be a shame to miss. [Read Mike’s review.]


Honorable Mention from 2010


C, by Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s C begins at the turn of the twentieth century and ends in the inter-war period of WWI and WWII. The novel follows Serge Carrefax, tracing the full scope of his short life. McCarthy uses Freud’s Wolf Man as a model for Carrefax, who becomes his everyman, and the fun of this largely plotless novel is watching McCarthy deftly move Serge through the era’s touchstones. In a way, this novel is like a collage: McCarthy borrows freely from other texts, using work by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Maurice Blanchot and Jean Cocteau, among others, as direct inspiration for several key scenes, all organized around the principle of transmission: of messages, of ideas, and of life.

REVIEW: Jamrach’s Menagerie

[This fine adventure story is a C4 Great Read. Find it and other C4 favorites on our Great Reads shelf at Powell’s.]

Author: Carol Birch

2011, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Historical.

Get the book.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7

I read a review of this last Wednesday and, thanks to the magic and compulsive buying ease that comes with owning a nookColor, had finished by Sunday night. I’m ready to jump on the top of the pig-pile of glowing reviews. This book was a blast. How can you not like a novel that begins like this:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

As far as plot goes, this book is almost a mash-up. It has three distinct parts, each of which reminded me of an old favorite. The first section is solid Dickens: it follows Jaffy Brown, a London street urchin in the true Dickensian sense. (The son of a young “fallen” mother, we meet him happily walking the sewers, searching for coins in the muck with his bare feet.) A chance encounter with an escaped tiger leads Jaff to the title character, the eccentric Charles Jamrach, an overblown menagerie owner and importer of exotic animals who quickly takes the youth under his wing, where the innate animal magnetism that led Jaff into a tiger’s mouth quickly leads him to success.
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Top 5 Books: Books That Blew My Mind

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

Top 5 Books That Blew My Mind

5. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I was something like nineteen when I read this book and it blew my mind. It is part memoir, part science-fiction adventure, part war story, part chronicle of failing memory and mental illness, and, as the famous opening line implies, “more or less true.” I don’t even know what else to say except go read or reread this book. I’d like to excerpt the whole thing. Here is the full title, which is impressive by itself:

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, A Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

The rest is up to you. So it goes.

4. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

When I finished reading this I called a friend and said, “I think I just finished the best book I’ve ever read.” Hands-down, the best. The grittiest, saddest, funniest, craziest, most frustrating, most jaw-droppingly ambitious, most inventive book of my longish reading career. I was so impressed I didn’t want to believe it, but when I went back and read this book again it was still true. It contains the most hilarious and uncomfortable chapter I’ve read in any book, which ends like this:

So Hal’s most vivid full-color memory of the non-anti-Substance Meeting he drove fifty oversalivated clicks to by mistake will become that of his older brother’s doubles partner’s older brother down on all fours on a Dacronyl rug, crawling, hampered because one arm was holding his bear to his chest, so he sort of dipped and rose as he crawled on three limbs toward Hal and the needs-meter behind him, Bain’s knees leaving twin pale tracks in the carpet and his head up on a wobbly neck and looking up and past Hal, his face unspeakable.

At this point in the book, all the above makes sense. Wallace has taught you his own hyper-specific, ironic, intentionally imperfect language, or you’ve realized it has always been your own.

3. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

This book is not out to trick you. Moby Dick does not want to pull the wool over your eyes or reveal the wool that has always been there, pulled. There is no post-modern posturing, only a boat, a whale, and the sea. Moby Dick is out to entertain, and it does. Despite the sometimes torrential purple prose (and more exclamation points per capita than a teenager’s liveblog), you occasionally come across something like this:

But far beneath this wonderous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. That lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and, as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; -even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sights.

Like a voyage on an ancient whaling ship, or a contemporary journey by modern means, the tedium is punctured by moments of elevation–and pirates.

2. Jesus’s Son, by Denis Johnson

You know how you have one or two stories where something almost goes horribly wrong, like the time you woke up behind the wheel in your own driveway with no memory of driving home, you almost got into a fight with those guys at that seedy bar by the highway, the cop who pulled you over for a broken tail light almost looking inside your glove compartment/pockets/trunk, but didn’t? Denis Johnson’s characters don’t have those stories. These are stories about when things that go terribly, impulsively, wrong. A random overdose, a spontaneous burglary, a car crash on a dark highway late at night, impromptu brain surgery, dead bunnies, voyeurism, these are not subjects for the weak of heart, but the reason they work so well is exactly because Johnson’s narrator, a sensitive dreamer nicknamed “shit-head,” is just that–a little too weak for the strange underworld he is part of. Here is how a typically untypical story begins:

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…

…I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious thanks to the first three people I’ve already named -the salesman and the Indian and the student- all of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my viens feel scrapped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.

1. The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever

819 pages of immaculate stories that go like this (from halfway through “A Picture of the World”):

But my wife was sad.

“What’s the matter, darling?” I asked.

“I just have this terrible feeling that I’m a character in a television situation comedy,” she said. “I mean, I’m nice-looking, I’m well-dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling that I’m in black-and-white and that I can be turned off by anybody. I just have this terrible feeling I can be turned off.” My wife is often sad because her sadness is not a sad sadness, sorry because her sorrow is not a crushing sorrow. She grieves because her grief is not an acute grief, and when I tell her that this sorrow over the inadequacies of her sorrow may be a new hue in the spectrum, she is not consoled. Oh, I sometimes think of leaving her.

Who has the gall to start a story this way? Only someone who knows he can pull it off.

Although the Suburban Ennui theme can run a little thick, every now and then you will discover a story like “The Swimmer,” or “Goodbye, My Brother,” or “The Country Husband,” or “Reunion,” any of which could be career-capping masterpieces in their own right. In the collected stories, these are the rule, not the exception.