June 16, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 16 June 2008

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

The Great man, by Kate Christensen
The Great Man (book; 2007)
By Kate Christensen
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51845-1

This is one of four books that recently came in and out of my life without me finishing, but with none of them particularly that terrible, which is why I didn't want to include them in my snarky "Too Awful To Finish" series of essays. And indeed, award-winning author Kate Christensen's newest, 2007's The Great Man, was itself nominated for won(!) the PEN/Faulkner award last year, and has a whole lot of admirers out there; but as a visual-arts major and a former visual artist myself, I just was never able to get over the central premise of this book, never able to suspend my disbelief enough and simply get into the rhythm of the novel itself. Because the entire story, see, is predicated on something that in a million years would've never happened; it's the fictional story of one Oscar Feldman, who apparently was the only single figurative artist in Greenwich Village in the 1940s to be taken seriously by the Abstract Expressionist crowd, as well as such supporters as critics and gallery owners. And that's simply an impossibility, because it clashes directly against why all those artists were in Greenwich Village in the '40s in the first place; these freaks and weirdos were all running away from the part of the arts that championed figurative and representational work, wanted to get as far away as possible from these people both physically and ideologically. Figurative painters in the '40s were laughed out of town by this Village crowd, and it was just too hard for me to believe that exactly one of them would just happen to instead become the toast and badboy-darling of their entire scene, for no other reason than that all his paintings featured boobies; and that's a real problem when it comes to The Great Man, because the entire rest of the plot is based off it, with the book actually set in the early 2000s right after Feldman's death, and with two competing biographers digging up yet more and more and more ugly dirt about the man and what turned out to be a double private life. I know it's unfair to give up on a novel after only ten pages, which is exactly what I did here; but...well...there you go.

Out of 10: N/A

10 Books That Screwed Up the World, by Benjamin Wiker, PhD
Ten Books that Screwed Up the World (And Five Others That Didn't Help) (book; 2008)
By Benjamin Wiker, PhD
Regnery Publishing / ISBN: 978-1-59698-055-6

And then this is the second book I recently didn't get the chance to finish, which to tell you the truth almost made the "too awful to finish" list; which is a real shame, because at first it seems like it's going to be a delightful little nonfiction romp, a series of essays by one of these pop-culture intellectuals concerning ten infamous books like Mein Kampf and Beyond Good and Evil, whose names have been cited over the centuries to justify all manner of evil. Ah, but then very quickly into it, the smart reader starts noticing a whole plethora of odd details about this manuscript: for example, that the main argument behind most of the essays seems to be that these books all go against the word of the Christian God, which is what made them "screw up the world;" that the entire second half of the book is a condemnation of such liberal touchstones as Darwin, Kinsey, and The Feminine Mystique; that the author currently teaches at a biblical theology center, and that all the people providing quotes for the dust jacket are prominent conservative Christians as well; that even the publishing company is a small press specializing in conservative Christian books. (And this is to say nothing, of course, of the embedded unattributed Christian Bible verses found scattered throughout this manuscript, their attributions deliberately removed so as to not cause attention to themselves.) Add it all together, and the resulting view is pretty clear; this is a book very plainly trying to secretly further a conservative Christian agenda, one that has the gall to directly compare Betty Friedan to Adolph Hitler, with every single usual stereotypical trait of "Christian publishing" deliberately stripped out in this case, obviously to try to "sneak" the book into mainstream popular culture as much as possible. It's deceitful, ethically shady, and I won't be a part of it; the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, frankly, and I wish now I had never come across this book to begin with. Regnery and Wiker, please save the sermons for Sunday morning, and leave the rest of us alone.

Out of 10: 0.0

Saturn Returns, by Sean Williams
Astropolis: Saturn Returns (book; 2007)
By Sean Williams
Ace / ISBN: 978-0-441-01493-4

And then here's the third book I recently didn't get the chance to finish, which coincidentally enough kicks off a little mini-series coming here to CCLaP this month; for, you see, by sheer dumb luck, I was able this month to get my hands on half of the ten science-fiction novels nominated this year for either the Hugo or Philip K Dick awards. This one here, for example, Sean Williams' Saturn Returns (book one of the coming "Astropolis" trilogy), was nominated for the PKD award, which honors the best each year in cutting-edge and experimental SF; but I have to confess that I simply didn't find it very well-written at all, and eventually gave up out of frustration around page 50. The storyline is serviceable enough, I suppose, although definitely enjoys wallowing in what's sometimes the most trite cliches of the entire genre; it is One Million Years In The Future!, where in true Accelerando fashion humans have become immortal, precisely through "uploading" their memories into digital storage and then "downloading" them into new bodies whenever they want. The actual plot, then, at least as I understand it, concerns a soldier from a now long-over war, whose digital backup is accidentally discovered in space almost totally destroyed, almost 150,000 years after the destruction originally took place; put back together by an alien race (except accidentally as the opposite gender), he/she basically spends the rest of the book trying to figure out what happened, why the war ended, and what caused the apocalyptic rift that has essentially destroyed what had been a galaxy-wide means of communications.

And I say "as I understand it," of course, because this is the single biggest problem with Saturn Returns: Williams simply takes on too much, too much speculative crap, and tries to cram it all into a story too small to hold it, using writing skills that simply aren't good enough to juggle it all coherently. The book as a result turns into a muddled mess very quickly, with just dozens of references to made-up terminology that still haven't been explained 50 pages into it, as well as constant allusions to a series of interchangeable-sounding galactic wars in this Million Years In The Future! past, a "Chaos War" and "Mad Times" war and "Slow Wave" war with differences that make perfect sense to the characters, but that become a giant headache-inducing chronological cloud to us. Plus, I have to agree with several other online reviewers when I say, "What's with all the pointless softcore pornography, Williams?" Pretty much the only reason to put the main male character into a female body, as far as I could tell, was so the character could regularly think to himself, "Holy crap, I've got titties!," then proceed to play with them; the only reason to have two of these soldiers date each other in the backstory, as far as I could tell, was so Williams could describe the violent sex they had on a regular basis. I was surprised this got nominated for a PKD award, to tell you the truth; it's the kind of book that makes non-SF people roll their eyes when thinking of the genre, not the kind of stuff you'd think the industry would want to celebrate.

Out of 10: 3.8

Grey, by Jon Armstrong
Grey (book; 2007)
By Jon Armstrong
Night Shade Books / ISBN: 978-1-597-80065-5

And then this finally is the fourth book I recently didn't get the chance to finish, yet another award-nominated science-fiction novel; and the award this one was nominated for is the Hugo, an award which supposedly reflects the best SF novel of the entire year, and is considered by many to be the most prestigious award in that entire industry. But, oh, I don't know -- I don't want to say that Jon Armstrong's Grey is out-and-out bad, because it isn't, just that it's got one of those storylines that sounds a whole lot better as a premise inside an author's brain, while not so great or even that compelling when actually committed to paper. In fact, my brain is already fuzzy about the plot's details, a mere week after putting the manuscript down: it's the future, I remember that, a future run by royal Shakespearean families of sorts, where decorum and protocol rule all and the subtleties of fashion and music have become an outrageous arena for displaying one's political opinions. Unfortunately, though, Armstrong uses such a milieu to tell a mostly forgettable story, something about the wealthy and good-looking son of one of these outrageously-dressed patriarchs, who is part of some sort of weird countercultural fashion movement to dress only in infinitely subtle shades of grey, and I guess belongs to a religion that worships advertisements or something like that, and who along with his true love is fighting the prearranged political marriages that are the norm for their society. Or...something.

Like I said, I can see how this might've seemed like a cool concept for a fantastical novel when Armstrong was first dreaming it up; a shiny surrealist world where private armies wear stylish bright-orange satin suits and have three-foot-high hairdos, and where the ultimate form of rebellion a fey young fashionista can partake in is to only eat tan foods. But see, once you start writing stuff like that down, you start realizing just how ridiculous a lot of it would actually look if seen in the real world, or at least you should; this is the same problem, for example, that leads to all the ridiculous things you see in SF movie adaptations, from Zardoz to Southland Tales, all those silly cartoonish details that make you scratch your head and go, "Who the hell ever thought this would be a good idea?" Grey is not necessarily a bad book, but is definitely only for the most hardcore SF junkies out there, the genre apologists who not only own the DVD box-sets of crappy 1970s obscure television space operas, but actually watch them on a regular basis. Again, it makes me wonder why it got nominated for a Hugo in the first place, when you would think that the award-givers would want to concentrate on the absolute best their industry had to offer that year. Approach with caution.

Out of 10: 5.3

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:42 AM, June 16, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |