September 2, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 2 September 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.)

Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting (book; 2006)
By Linda Medley
Fantagraphics / ISBN: 978-1-56097-747-6

Like any self-respecting obsessive book nerd, at any given moment I'm actually in the process of reading three or four books simultaneously; there is the deeper and more complex novel, for example, that I will read only at a cafe during the day, a less complex one I read in more distracting environments like the bus, some giant nonfiction book that I will read only a page or two at a time in the bathroom, and then of course whatever book I'm reading in bed those days, which by definition tends to usually be the lightest and least consequential of them all, since I'm always falling asleep while reading it. And thus have I found myself reading more and more graphic novels these days, especially since the Chicago Public Library system started making them more of an acquisitional priority, although admittedly I don't write reviews for most of them, simply because most aren't weighty enough to justify a full analytical write-up.

Ah, but I did want to mention a delightful title I recently made my way through, comics-industry veteran Linda Medley's postmodern fairytale Castle Waiting, a self-published personal project of hers throughout the '90s that once won her the prestigious Xeric Grant. See, turns out that Medley actually studied folklore as well as illustration when in college, and so has spent a lot of time in her life asking weird questions of these old tales that other people usually don't; for example, what happened to Sleeping Beauty's kingdom once she got whisked away by Prince Charming? Turns out that this mammoth (500-page) book is what happened; the "Castle Waiting" mentioned in the title is no less than Sleeping Beauty's old castle fallen into disrepair, a semi-abandoned and semi-mythical place on the edge of the known world where all of folklore's most lovable losers have gathered, making a funky alternative life for themselves there and sharing their backstories Canterbury-Tales style.

And in fact, it's important to understand that Medley means for this entire situation to be a highly metaphorical one, reflecting her time when younger as part of the radical feminist circles of the San Francisco Bay area; these stories are not just cute and smart twists on traditional fairytales, but also a celebration of uniqueness, of alternative families, of women who don't fit the usual stereotypical feminine norms of mainstream society. (In fact, the entire last half of this book is dedicated to a story about a group of nuns who all have beards, and how they have built themselves a fortress to protect them from the abusive men they all ran away from; and if that's not a grand metaphor for a lot of what you see within radical-feminist circles in the Bay area, I don't know what is.) Sadly, financial burdens originally shut this self-published title down in 2001; happily, our friends at Fantagraphics have picked it up again as a regular series, and decided to put out this compendium of the self-published issues first to get everyone up to steam. It's a bit pricey, also a bit preachy at times; in general, though, it gets a solid recommendation from me, and especially to all you smart female genre fans who have always wanted to read a funny, warm fantasy tale written to exactly suit your particular sensibilities.

Out of 10: 8.6

Unlucky Lucky Days, by Daniel Grandbois
Unlucky Lucky Days (book; 2008)
By Daniel Grandbois
Boa Editions / ISBN: 978-1-934414-10-1

Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of experimental work, but that I always face a professional problem when trying to write reviews of such work here; namely, my reviews tend to be long and detailed analyses of the story being told, something almost impossible to do when the book in question is experimental or a collection of poetry or whatnot. And that's why my write-up today of Daniel Grandbois' new Unlucky Lucky Days is going to be so short and muddled; because I liked it, don't get me wrong, I liked it quite a bit in fact, but liked it for the same reasons I will sometimes like a certain book of poetry, which is something I in particular just find difficult to express in an analytical critique. In fact, it helps to think of the 73 chapters of Grandbois' book not as stand-alone narrative stories but rather highly abstract prose-poems; anyone expecting to be able to "follow along" with the book's events is just going to walk away disappointed, while those who wallow in the complex wordplay and striking mental images are bound to like it a lot more. It's a frustrating kind of book to recommend, because I have no good reasons I can point to as far as why you should check it out yourself, other than "ooh, it's weird and cool and I dug it;" nonetheless, I am recommending it today, but only for those who also like such authors as TS Eliot, Mark Danielewski, and Karen Finley.

Out of 10: 7.9, or 9.4 for lovers of experimental literature/poetry

The Learners, by Chip Kidd
The Learners (book; 2008)
By Chip Kidd
Simon & Schuster / ISBN: 978-0-7432-5524-0

Any graphic designer worth their salt will already know who Chip Kidd is; he's the one who single-handedly transformed the subject of book design as we know it, the very first designer to regularly demand that his name appear on a book's dust jacket or copyright page. And in fact, back in 2001 Kidd caught the writing bug himself, and ended up putting out a small yet well-regarded novel entitled The Cheese Monkeys, set in the Modernist '60s and dealing with the noble frustrations of graphic design, specifically in a college setting during the years when the subject of design was first starting to be taken seriously by the academic community. I read and enjoyed The Cheese Monkeys myself, in fact, years before opening CCLaP which is why I've never done a write-up of it; so needless to say, I was happy to see that Kidd had actually written a sequel this year, entitled The Learners and putting our previous student hero now in New York and working his first corporate job.

So ask me how shocked and disappointed I was, then, to actually read The Learners last month and discover that something with Kidd and his writing has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the seven years since Cheese Monkeys; this novel is flat where the original was bubbly, fussy and pretentious where the original was charming and illuminating. And for the life of me, I can't figure out what the problem is either; maybe it's that the setting has moved from a college environment to a corporate one? Because, see, I have this clear recollection of Cheese Monkeys' obsessive fastidiousness about All Things Design to be a delightful treat, a warm love letter from Kidd to this industry he so obviously adores, full of the exact kinds of incisive yet obscure topics of the world that only designers seem to think about on a regular basis; but in The Learners, this fastidiousness just comes off as dysfunctionally nerdy, elitist horsesh-t, the exact kind of stuff you might hear some shaved-head black-glasses NPR Weenie spouting about in the corner of a cocktail party, that makes you just want to walk over and punch him as hard as you possibly can in the middle of his smug little Helvetica-worshipping face. (And yes, I mean both the typeface and the 2007 Gary Hustwit documentary, you f-cking nerd, and man, you really are looking for a punch in the face today, aren't you?) It was a real disappointment, even more of a frustrating experience by not being able to tell where exactly it all starts going wrong; unless you're a graphic designer at a corporate agency yourself, I recommend skipping the book altogether.

Out of 10: 4.4

Beet, by Roger Rosenblatt
Beet (book; 2008)
By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco/HarperCollins / ISBN: 978-0-06-134427-5

Ugh -- yet another oddball comedy about obscure private colleges and the small towns they affect, full of cardboard-cutout characters so obvious and well-worn by now, you can practically stand them up and have them walk on their own. Why again did I decide to read Roger Rosenblatt's Beet? Oh yeah, that's right, because it actually received favorable mentions at several places I respect; plus, for such a cliched subject, I admit that the premise has a few nice little unique dark touches, such as the college in question actually being founded by a high-minded hog farmer back in Colonial times, designed originally to be another member of the then-forming Ivy League but very quickly developing a reputation much shadier than Harvard and Yale and the like. Too bad, then, that Rosenblatt peoples this environment with cartoon characters so buffoonishly obvious, he might as well have pulled them straight out of The Big Book of Go-To Characters for Witty Quirky Novels Concerning the Academic Life. I only made it about a third of the way through, to tell you the truth, before quickly reaching my fill of shrill passive-aggressive politically-correct liberals and the wide-eyed reverse-racist 19-year-olds who love them; one day I will find my Great American College Novel, but unfortunately today is not the day.

Out of 10: 4.8

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:00 PM, September 2, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |