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REVIEW: Little Houses

Author: Eleanor Swanson

2013, Stephen F. Austin University Press

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

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

It would be misleading to describe the stories in Eleanor Swanson’s new collection, Little Houses, as “gothic,” but they do involve some elements of the gothic tradition in terms of “other-worldly” manifestations, and an elusive, romantic tone.  But the ghosts that haunt these stories are as real as flesh and blood – more often than not they are brothers, sisters, parents, spouses.  Thus, the real haunting is usually something like the disturbance of the conscience, the challenge to our moral sense, echoing the epigraph to this collection, from Italo Calvino:  “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”

Take the first story, “The Ghost of Bertrand Russell.”  The father and daughter in a seemingly solid young family on a camping trip are gazing up at the stars, looking for meteors, when the ghost of the past rudely intervenes in the form of a memory of an incident involving the protagonist, Andy, and his college Philosophy professor from long ago, Dr. Annalisa Baillet, and a “haunted” farmhouse.   His best friend and roommate, Scot, subsequently killed in Vietnam, is also part of the memory, and by the end of the story both Andy and his wife Joan are haunted by these ghosts from the past – ghosts of their own devising.  The joke in the title, of course, is that Russell idealized reason, regarded religion as superstition and had no patience for such non-scientific phenomena as spirits.   But we’re not talking about “real” ghosts, after all, are we, the stuff of Poe and other authors of gothic romance?

Swanson deliberately invokes Faulkner’s famous Southern gothic story, “A Rose for Emily,” in the story about a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s “secret” life, “A Still Volcano,” when the daughter, Chloe, travels to Arizona to close down her recently deceased mother’s home, pack things up and put the house on the market.  Only, there are no actual skeletons in the bed in this story of a marriage that is an oppressive disappointment.  Instead, there’s a message from mother to daughter that has a real impact on the daughter’s own marriage and how Chloe sees her relationship with her own husband.  Invoking another Emily – Dickinson – the message is contained in cryptic little anagrams, like dispatches from the afterlife that Chloe discovers hidden throughout the house as she sorts and disposes of her mother’s things.

In so many of these stories, the real drama involves the effects of the “weirdness” (not always ghosts, though they always seem somehow “not-of-this-world”) on the relationship between members of the nuclear family – brother and brother or sister and sister, husband and wife, parent and child.  Perhaps the most unsettling of these is a story called “The Hypnotist,” which doesn’t necessarily involve paranormal phenomena – ghosts – but focuses on a woman who marries a former CIA goon, who brainwashes her, feeding her false memories, manipulating her outlook.

At story’s end it’s obvious that the sisters, once as close as, well, “sisters,” will no longer have anything to do with one another.  Jenny, the narrator, has always recognized that her sister Lynne is flaky, but she’d never felt so estranged from her until Lynne became involved with the control freak, Frank, devoted to him as if a cult member.  At the story’s end, “I watched her walk down the concourse until she became smaller and smaller, then slipped away and disappeared into the crowd.”
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Download the May Podcast Episode Now

Sorry for the delay, fans. It’s been a hectic month. Our May podcast sessions are at last now up for free download. We cover a broad range of books, both new and old, chat about Kurt Vonnegut, shit on James Franco a little more, and introduce a brand new segment: One-Star Amazon Reviews. For this first edition, Marc shares with the gang his favorite one-star Amazon user reviews of Melville’s Moby Dick.

The Drunk Review this month is Rob Zombie and B.K. Evenson’s Lords of Salem. Unfortunately, part of the recording was lost. We’ll be taking a mulligan and releasing it as part of a July double bill along with Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Subscribe on iTunes here. If you’d rather the direct RSS feed, here you go.

Have any topic or reading suggestions, or comments about the show? Please email them to info@chamberfour.com or shoot us a tweet.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 6/13/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

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You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. Reviewed by Alexander Nazaryan (Los Angeles Times).

We talked about this for a while on the last podcast, but the whole thriller/literary hybrid thing is generally sure to be a let down. On top of that, this is another overhyped debut novel by a young and supposedly talented author. Nazaryan gives this coming-of-age thriller set during the Cold War a thoroughly tepid reception, so you probably don’t want to hold out hope on this book breaking the trend. But it does sounds promising all the same. This is a wait and see for me.

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Eh, nothing else really caught my eye this week that seemed worth sharing as main entries. There is some little stuff though.

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Quickly: Here’s an interesting article about the Guantanamo prison library.  Camus fans: check this out. File this under grrooooooaaaan.

REVIEW: Travels in Elysium

Author: William Azuski

2013, Iridescent Publishing

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 2

Billed in the jacket blurb as a “metaphysical thriller,” Travels in Elysium proves neither particularly enlightening nor thrilling. What it is is a slog, 539 pages of one-track characters having the same conversations on an over-described Greek island.

It actually starts out okay. The writing isn’t terrible, and the setup is pretty good as far as the “thriller” aspects of the novel go. Nicholas Pedrosa is heading for the island of Santorini where he will join an archeological expedition headed by the famous Marcus Huxley. When he arrives, he finds a team wracked with internal rivalry facing a local populace divided over the dig. Some of them like the money it brings their tiny island; others see it as sanctioned looting.

Then some mysterious things start happening. Someone searches Nicky’s luggage before it’s delivered to his lodgings. He learns that his predecessor, Benja, died in an on-site accident after Nicky had already been hired to replace him. Local laborers working the dig report sightings of the undead Benja, and refuse to continue work until an exorcism has been performed. To top it off, it turns out the goal of the dig may be unearthing the lost city of Atlantis.
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REVIEW: Joyland

Author: Stephen King

2013, Hard Case Crime

Filed under: Horror, Mystery

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 4

I’m not much of a horror reader, so I have little experience reading Stephen King, but since his latest novel ventures into mystery territory, I thought I’d give it a try.

Perhaps my impression is colored a bit by his reputation, but Joyland definitely reads to me like the work of an experienced, competent, slightly bored novelist. There’s a pat mystery with a thrilling (if off-the-shelf) conclusion, but it’s wrapped in quite a bit of meandering, and a substantial B-story that has next to nothing to do with the main plot. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple of afternoons, but if you’re hoping for more than a quick, forgettable book, look elsewhere.

The main character, our narrator, is pretty boring, though everyone tells him he’s special. The worst part of the book is him walking around, thinking his boring thoughts, using up words to get us near 300 pages. His name is Devin Jones (I just had to look that up, is how boring he is), and he’s a college student having a quarter-life crisis because his one and only girlfriend obviously doesn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore, though she’s not quite dumping him.

He takes a summer off from school and works at a South Carolina amusement park called Joyland. Devin meets a couple of lifelong friends, finds that he’s good at dressing up in a big dog costume, and generally has a mediocre summer in terms of general interest. Every detail of this summer, especially the workings of Joyland, is described for us, dragging out the first hundred pages of this book. The best parts are the bits of carny lingo King calls “the Talk,” though they don’t entirely make up for the rest of the dry exposition.

Luckily, after this extended setup, the story picks up in two directions. Devin and his friends Erin and Tom (luckily almost every other character besides Devin is more memorable than he is) hear a story about a murder that happened in Joyland’s Horror House a few years earlier. They visit the Horror House on a day off, and Tom sees the ghost of the girl, which scares him for the rest of his life.

Then they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s murder. I have some quibbles with King’s handling of this mystery—too much supernatural, and the solution is a bit too pat—but overall, if you’re looking for a light mystery, this fits the bill. King certainly knows how to draw out tension and how to feed out plot points bit by bit.

There’s also that tangential B story, about a young boy with muscular dystrophy and his (hot) mother, whom Devin helps. This subplot is wish fulfillment in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, both satisfying and saccharine in the way that Andy Dufresne’s adventures are.

The thread tying these storylines together is supposedly that some people die before their time, and that’s not fair. It’s quite a lazy throughline for a mystery novel with a murder at its center, but again, look elsewhere for world-bending depth.

So, even though this is my first first-hand experience with King, I think this book fits his reputation. It’s not the work of a great writer, but it’s satisfying in a simple way that I expect from a good pulp writer. I won’t remember it next week, but it made for a pretty fun afternoon read.

Similar books: False Negative, by Joseph Koenig; Lady, Go Die!, by Mickey Spillane; Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus

A review copy was provided.

REVIEW: The Hysterectomy Waltz

Author: Merill Joan Gerber

2013, Dzanc

Filed Under: Literary, Humor

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

As the title of Merrill Joan Gerber’s new novel suggests, The Hysterectomy Waltz is a satirical, dark comedy in the tradition of Joseph Heller.  Think Catch-22, but instead of young men trapped by the absurdity of war and the military machine, this is women caught up in the clutches of the gynecological profession, at the mercy of paradoxical medical rules and regulations over which they have no control.  Or rather, one woman, the unnamed protagonist and narrator of the novel.

The story basically takes place in three parts:  the discovery of a tumor on the narrator’s ovary during a visit to her cocky male gynecologist, to whom she has gone thinking she may be pregnant again; her stay in the hospital with all its maddening absurdities and bureaucratic blunders and rigid procedures; and finally the post-surgery coming to terms with her new condition, her new conception of herself as a woman (mother, lover, sensual being).

The narrator has three teenage daughters at the time that she goes to her gynecologist to confirm her pregnancy, and hopes this time she’ll have a son.  But her hopes are dashed when the doctor breaks the news to her that she has a tumor and spells out her options in cold-blooded fashion.  Like all of her male doctors before him, pushing and prodding her intimate parts, he is insensitive and has no respect for her privacy.  So Gerber’s protagonist consults a female doctor, Laura, who lives in Beverly Hills.  Thirty years before, Laura had been her best friend, in Brooklyn.  Laura turns out to be only marginally better than the guys.  She’s part of the medical establishment, after all, that seems to be a pretty narcissistic bunch.
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My Reading Annex #2: Dune, by Frank Herbert

[I’ve been making an effort to catch up on classic genre writing that I probably should have read as a kid, but for whatever reason didn’t. There’s not much use in writing reviews of years-old books mostly accepted as classics, so I’ll write them up under this column instead. Follow it here.]

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If you listen to to our podcast, you might remember me talking about Dune almost a year ago. After putting it aside for a while, I picked it back up recently. With a little more time to sit down and become absorbed in the book, I finally finished Dune and loved it.

Dune‘s greatness (and even though this isn’t an official review, I’ve added it to our Great Reads section) lies in in how comprehensively detailed Herbert makes his universe. Many sci-fi books attempt to create a unique world, but only end up with a bunch of needless explaining of invented terminology and a story that could just as easily work in a different setting. This is not the case with Dune. Like any good sci-fi saga, the setting is as central to the story as the plot and characters.

Herbert seamlessly blends fantasy and sci-fi conventions in a way few franchises besides Star Wars have been successful at. Aristocrats playing politics, sword fights, space ships, and giant sandworm alien monsters punctuate a story that is full of rich lore rivaled only by books like the Lord of the Rings series and creative technology and terminology–but that story never insults the reader’s intelligence by spending the first third of the book pedantically explaining everything.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 6/5/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Reviewed by Ron Charles in the Washington Post.

I first heard of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when io9 called it a “masterpiece.” But since io9 will call almost anything a masterpiece, I ignored it. Ron Charles’s recent review is a much more sober assessment. Though he heaps praise on the novel, he also lays out how its plot (“Plot is not the novel’s strongest suit”) comes down to two twists: one, that the narrator grew up with a chimpanzee for a “sister,” and two, that this went horribly wrong when the narrator was 5. Charles especially like Fowler’s voice and ability to weave in profound insights, but he makes it clear that the book is far from a masterpiece.


Silent Voices, by Anne Cleeve. Reviewed by Anna Mundow at the B&N Review.

When last I included one of Mundow’s reviews in this space, she revealed a strong distaste for “vile cozies.” Here she finds Cleeve’s heroine, Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, to be a refreshing mix of Miss Marple and Lisbeth Salander. Sounds interesting.


The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Reviewed by Bob hoover in the Star-Tribune.

I missed 20-under-40 author Philipp Meyer’s new novel in my latest Book Radar, so luckily I stumbled across this review of it. It sounds a little too melodramatic for my taste, but he’s definitely a talent to watch.


In brief: .Walter Mosley likes to read “in motion or in water.” Doesn’t everybody? … 12 authors describe their most memorable summer reading.The Moneyball of soccer.Summer book guide at the Star-Tribune.

Book Radar: June 2013

[This feature is a brief summary of interesting books coming out each month. Follow it here. Click the title links to find these books at Goodreads.]


Definitely

Lexicon, by Max Barry (out 6/18)

I’ve already pre-ordered this book, on the strength of Barry’s last novel, my favorite book of 2011. I’m trying to keep my expectations as low as possible, but Barry’s a rare talent. There’s a prep school where kids are taught “persuasion” instead of math and science—that’s about the first sentence and a half of the flap copy. My usual custom is to avoid any advance marketing for books I’ve already committed to reading, so I know next to nothing about this one. Which should explain why this blurb was a rambling run-on instead of anything useful. Let’s just move on.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (out 6/18)

Internet darling Gaiman has had a pretty charmed career, from being considered one of the best comic book writers ever, to guest-starring turns writing on sci-fi TV shows like Babylon 5 and Doctor Who. He had a well-received book adaption in 2009′s Coraline (and, to be fair, a much worse adaptation in 2007′s Stardust), and adaptations of American Gods and (my favorite Gaiman book) Neverwhere have been announced. He’s the rare writer that can use the elasticity of sci-fi to dig into universal themes and feelings. He’s China Miéville with a point. So it’s no real surprise that this latest explores the ramifications of suicide using fantasy elements like otherworldly creatures and three ancient sisters.

 

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann (out 6/4)

For some reason, I feel like this novel has already been released. The New York Times Magazine just published an interesting profile of the eccentric McCann and the “cupboard” where he writes. The profiler also says TransAtlantic boasts “stunning language [and] psychological acuity [and] humor and imagination” as well as “sheer ambition” as he weaves history and fiction, stretching from Frederick Douglass to the still-living ex-senator George Mitchell. Sounds a bit like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, one of my all-time favorites.

 

Maybe

Doll, by Taylor Stevens (out 6/4)

Taylor Stevens might be the most interesting thriller writer in the world. She was born into a sexually abusive cult and her fiction seems to be reflective of the intricate fantasy life of a traumatized abuse victim. But, since she refuses to read any other books, her fiction is also quite bad. She’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I’m still waiting for her memoir.

Joyland, by Stephen King (out 6/4)

King’s latest is a half-horror half-mystery mashup that he refuses to release an ebook of. I’m reading it now. It’s OK. I should have a review up later this week.

The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls (out 6/11)

The author of the widely acclaimed memoirs Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle turns to fiction with this novel about two itinerant sisters, one of whom suffers a mysterious trauma (mysterious as in the advance press is keeping mum about it).

Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver (out 6/4)

Shriver’s latest novel follows a woman with a morbidly obese brother and a possibly anorexic husband. Big Brother is “about fat.” Early buzz is understandably mixed.

Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan (out 6/11)

If you enjoyed Maine, here’s another one by the same author.

Carnival, by Rawi Hage (out 6/17)

This high-risk high-reward novel might be totally overwritten or might be awesome. It follows a taxi driver who grew up in the circus, and all the weird people he meets. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a (pseudo-)circus book.

The Shanghai Factor, by Charles McCarry (out now)

An evidently well-respected spy novelist’s new book. There are foreign locales, intrigue, an unnamed protagonist, an organization called simply HQ. You know, spy novel stuff.

 

No

Taipei, by Tao Lin (out 6/4)

Are people still amused by the Tao Lin schtick? I’ll readily admit that the dude has a rare gift for churning up marketing buzz, but his actual writing makes me roll my eyes after a maximum of one paragraph. Anyway, I’m sure his new book won’t be exactly the same as the others…

Earth Afire, by Orson Scott Card (out 6/4)

Speaking of writers who turned one good idea into a career: Orson Scott Card, ladies and gentlemen! Beyond the fact that Card’s a pretty repulsive human being, he’s also been milking Ender’s Game for his entire life. This one’s flap copy starts: “One hundred years before Ender’s Game, the aliens arrived on Earth with fire and death.” In other words, nothing to do with Ender, but we have to shoehorn him in somehow, because that’s the only reason people read Card. Don’t buy this book.

reviews in haiku: May 2013

We’ve been pretty quiet at C4 the last month, with a homebase relocation and getting prepped for the next issue of the magazine. But now that things are started to get settled back down, we’ll be resuming our regular, more frequent scheduling through the rest of the summer. Look for new features and podcast episodes too.

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The Book of Life

“haimish” poetry

what is it to be a Jew?

homey, folksy work

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That Said

old poems and new

a poet of memory

author’s wildcard

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The Woman of Porto Pim

a really good read

but don’t start Tabucchi here

come here for seconds

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Pacific

let’s have a Great Read

Lemony Snicket loved it

gets zany at times