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Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

M. Henderson Ellis
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Not long ago, John Shirting--quiet young Chicagoan, wizard of self-medication--held down a beloved job as a barista at Capo Coffee Family, a coffee chain and global business powerhouse. When he is deemed "too passionate" about his job, he is let go. Shirting makes it his mission to return to the frothy Capo's fold by singlehandedly breaking into a new market and making freshly postcommunist Prague safe for free-market capitalism. Unfortunately, his college nemesis, Theodore Mizen, a certified socialist, has also moved there, and is determined to reverse the Velvet Revolution, one folk song at a time. After Shirting experiences the loss of his sole "new-hire" -- a sad, arcade game-obsessed prostitute -- it is not long before his grasp on his mission and, indeed, his sanity, comes undone, leaving him at the mercy of two-bit Mafiosi, a pair of Golem trackers, and his own disgruntled phantom.

 A dazzling combination of Everything is Illuminated and Don Quixote, with a jigger of Confederacy of Dunces, and Lord of the Barnyard, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is the first novel to so exquisitely capture the ambiance of expat Prague. Poised to be an underground classic, it asks: what does it mean to be sane in a fast-changing world? 

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

John Shirting, a quiet Chicago native with a passion for excellent coffee and a bad habit of self-medicating, has been let go from his barista job at a branch of the Capo Coffee Family, an eerily recognizable global coffee powerhouse. Determined to win back his job and impress the Capo higher-ups, Shirting decides that Prague is the perfect place to start a new franchise. Shirting soon discovers that it won’t be easy to plant the seeds of capitalist coffee culture in recently postcommunist Prague, once his college nemesis resurfaces in the same boardinghouse and his first hire abandons him. An ode to expatriate living, culture clashes, and the heady days of early 1990s Europe, this novel is a manic, wild ride with a loose narrative style full of off-the-cuff observations. Seeing Prague through Shirting’s eyes is a bit like wandering in a new city without a guidebook—the major landmarks are recognizable, but you’re always on the verge of being lost. The novel is darkly comic (reminiscent of DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, 2011), immersive, nostalgic, and thoroughly enjoyable. --Stephanie Turza

Review

"Both charming and absurd in all the best ways."
- David Gutowski, LargeHeartedBoy.com

"Difficult to put down, unsettling yet addictive, the novel is a must-read for anyone who dares to peek behind the postcard image of a famously beautiful centre of European civilization." - Winnipeg Free Press

"An ode to expatriate living, culture clashes, and the heady days of early 1990s Europe, this novel is a manic, wild ride. . . . [D]arkly comic . . . immersive, nostalgic, and thoroughly enjoyable." - Booklist

"As the title suggests, disorder predominates in Ellis's debut novel set in Prague during the dizzying days of the early 1990s. John Shirting is a quirky and unbalanced former barista from Chicago with a pill habit who winds up in the newly capitalist city hawking a plan to establish a chain of mobster-themed coffee shops. . . . The picaresque absurdity will be familiar to fans of Thomas Pynchon, along with the low-grade paranoia and aggressively whimsical dialogue. . . . . Ellis vividly re-creates the atmosphere of a city in the throes of transformation as well as the American Quixotes who populate this new frontier." - Publishers Weekly

"Former barista John Shirting from Chicago, an expat in the hallucinatory Prague of the Nineties, stands in the good company of Ignatius J. Reilly, Chauncey Gardener, and Forrest Gump as a remarkable and original member of that autistic and exclusive club. In creating Shirting, Mr. Ellis has enriched the literature of estrangement and given us a marvelous portrait of postcommunist Prague in its heady and wild rush into capitalism. This novel is a worthy addition to both expatriate writing and Czech storytelling, managing also to reflect in its rollicking drive profound insights into the ideologies of the last century.”
-Andrei Codrescu, author of So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems and New Orleans, Mon Amour

"John Shirting, master of mission statements and misfit of the planet, makes his way to Prague to offer change that's not needed. A loveable mess, he lives in the past while trying to escape it, often unable to tell whether he's getting better or worse, but his obsession with building a global outpost of the American coffee chain that fired him keeps him moving forward. Ellis has written a hilarious hallucinatory satire, built on shots of caffeine." - Amanda Stern, author of The Long Haul

"With fresh and evocative language, Ellis delivers us into a frenetic and history-haunted world. By turns strange and subtle, imaginative and knowing-and also often very funny-this assured and original debut novel is a must-read for anyone, like me, who ever daydreamed about expat life in 1990s Eastern Europe but didn't have the nerve to go for it.” -Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking With Men, Drink columnist, New York Times Magazine

"Thanks to Ellis's wickedly good writing and laserlike focus on the absurdities of expat life, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is an arresting, hilarious, and thoroughly enjoyable novel - both a vivid portrait of an already bygone era and an up-to-the-minute snapshot of civilization in decline." - Katherine Shonk, author of Happy Now? and The Red Passport

"Don't let the title fool you. The bedlam here is never kept at bay for very long. Ellis writes with manic, overcaffeinated energy about the wild westernization of Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain and he captures that era perfectly. A strong and lively debut." --Andrew Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions

"Mr. Ellis has fashioned a delightful, and ultimately moving, traipse through
Middle Europe in bitingly satiric prose reminiscent of Joseph Heller, David Markson,
and Alexander Theroux at their most playful. A pleasure.”
-Joshua Cody, author of [sic]: A Memoir


"Difficult to put down, unsettling yet addictive, the novel is a must-read for anyone who dares to peek behind the postcard image of a famously beautiful centre of European civilization."-Winnipeg Free Press

"An ode to expatriate living, culture clashes, and the heady days of early 1990s Europe, this novel is a manic, wild ride. . . . [D]arkly comic . . . immersive, nostalgic, and thoroughly enjoyable." - Booklist

"As the title suggests, disorder predominates in Ellis's debut novel set in Prague during the dizzying days of the early 1990s. John Shirting is a quirky and unbalanced former barista from Chicago with a pill habit who winds up in the newly capitalist city hawking a plan to establish a chain of mobster-themed coffee shops. . . . The picaresque absurdity will be familiar to fans of Thomas Pynchon, along with the low-grade paranoia and aggressively whimsical dialogue. . . . . Ellis vividly re-creates the atmosphere of a city in the throes of transformation as well as the American Quixotes who populate this new frontier." - Publish&ers Weekly

Product Details

  • File Size: 1383 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: New Europe Books (March 5, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B009MYA79O
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,248,576 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Phantasmagorical debut novel on 1990s Prague March 6, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The mood of euphoria and confusion that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain reflects a unique moment in recent history. Just as Vienna around the turn-of-the-century, post-Communist East Central Europe exerts a powerful hold over the imagination; there is a sense of nostalgia for what seemed to be a time and place of endless possibility, of frantic and uncoordinated jumps into freedom.

In Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café, M. Henderson Ellis has captured this atmosphere of exhilarating madness from the perspective of the young John Shirting - a recent expat and exile from his native Chicago; a lover of coffee and pills, who rides the waves of capitalism mainly in his own, highly unstable and imaginative mind. It's a tale as original and unpredictable as the time it portrays. Yet beneath the fast-paced narrative - there is a not a word that is superfluous, not a turn of phrase or narrative accidental - Ellis has caught the fragility of it all. A melancholy homesickness lingers between the lines; yet it is never quite sure what for. His characters seem to drift between the wild realities of emerging capitalism and those of their own imaginations and longings. This is exactly what lifts the novel out of the historical era it depicts and onto the wider literary plane.

In John Shirting, M. Henderson Ellis has created an unlikely hero, a man whose misfortunes - both self-induced and inevitable - are as addictive to the reader as they are absurd and, ultimately, moving. Following him on his stumbles as he navigates Prague's twisted streets and stones, you just do not want to let Shirting out of your sight. And so, this is a novel that is hard to put down. It is a phantasmagorical portrait of a city seen through the eyes of a remarkable character - "a Prague of the mind," as Shirting calls it - written by a remarkable author. This book is a fantastic debut, and comes highly recommended to all readers of modern, experimental literature.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Come, Walk With Me and Have A Cup of Coffee April 13, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
I like wise fools and innocents abroad. Well, not even necessarily abroad. Just away from home and adrift in new territory. Candide is my hero. Heck, Terry Southern's "Candy", his sexy, 60's psychedelic version of Candide, is my heroine. Chauncey Gardener, Ignatius J. Reilly, even Nathaniel West's sad and doomed innocents, excite terror and sympathy.

Well, Ellis's John Shirting deserves to be included in their company, and his Prague of the 90's is a better place than most to be adrift, obsessed and delusional, considering that Prague at that point was also adrift, obsessed and delusional. Absurd, wild-eyed and wide eyed, able to creatively misunderstand or misinterpret just about anything, the only reliable thing about Shirting's interior monologue is its unreliability.

Shirting and the other characters may be awkward and meandering, but Ellis's writing isn't. This is sharp, focused, finely tuned stuff. It's funny; it's comic; it's sympathetic; it's unforgiving.

So, if you like these types of characters, if you're interested in Prague, if you just like to read good writing, if you favor nicely turned phrases and bits of business, or if you'd just like to be entertained by an accomplished and crafty storyteller, this could be your choice.

Please note that I received a free advance ecopy of this book in exchange for a candid review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I know Ellis to be a first rate editor and so was eager to get my hands on his first published novel, which I devoured in a single day of airplane travel. Been a long time since I read a book like Keeping Bedlam at Bay: the best thing about it is that Ellis clearly enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading it. It's not hard to imagine him sitting before a keyboard in some dingy, not well-heated Eastern European flat, sipping plum brandy from a very small glass as he channels the expat adventures of the singular John Shirting, a pill-popping, ultra-capitalist weird-o who resides, to some degree, in every American. Even you.

Ellis resists traditional plot structures as his unhero meanders through a series of adventures that maintain just enough narrative tension to keep the thing together. In the end it's his untrammeled imagination and surprising use of language that keeps the pages turning: "Back in Monika's room, the pixilated frog lay in a perpetual state of disembowelment, waiting for somebody to show up and hit the restart button." Underlying the bedlam is an interesting, first-hand perspective on a very specific historical moment--the entrance of free market capitalism into the former socialist world. With aplomb and humor, Ellis reveals the fascinating and idiosyncratic fusion of shiny new McDonalds, backpacking Americans, and lines of old lady "babushkas" arguing before stingy butchers. Bedlam is not kept at bay in Ellis' Prague, despite the title: rather, it is strewn through the pages, and deliciously so.
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