November 10, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 10 November 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 Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
The Plot Against America (book; 2004)
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin / ISBN: 0-618-50928-3

So after a month of election obsession here in Chicago, I find my schedule of book reviews in complete chaos: nearly 20 titles read now, all of them awaiting essays, and with me still continuing to read new books on a daily basis. I thought I'd start this week, then, with a whole series of recently read books that I don't have that much to say about, either because of being older titles or not very good or whatnot; and I thought I'd start this list as well with the best book out of all of them, American literary treasure Philip Roth's 2004 masterpiece The Plot Against America, which believe it or not is actually the very first book by Roth I've ever read. And man, what a doozy to start out with, because it so perfectly captures the entire zeitgeist of the Bush years, despite the plot being a science-fictiony "alternative history" one; because, see, for those who don't know, what this book posits is a world where Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the US in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt, and instead of going to war actually works out a non-aggression pact with the Axis powers. And then the story itself is told as a personal memoir, with the main character being Roth himself as a small Jewish child in New Jersey "living" through the events.

It's a brilliant concept, executed even more successfully precisely because of no melodramatic things taking place; under Roth's genius speculative mind, no Jews are actually rounded up into concentration camps under a Lindbergh administration, but merely a national air of hostility created towards them, a government-approved disdain for Jews that clearly affects the emotional well-being of Roth's tight-knit Jewish community in an industrialized mid-century New Jersey. And that's why this is such a magnificent statement about the Bush administration, a sneaky one that you might not even realize at first -- because Roth's whole point by using this fantastical premise is to show that you don't need out-and-out pogroms in order to create a discriminatory society, that you don't need goose-stepping stormtroopers in the streets in order to have a fascist-friendly nation. It's a fascinating book, one with a delightfully surprising ending, a novel that really floored me when I read it a few weeks ago; in fact, about the only complaint I have is that large sections of it are overwritten, and that Roth has a habit of delving into the minutiae of certain scenes in simply too much detail. Other than that, though, it comes highly recommended, and I believe is destined in the future (along with such titles as Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Max Brooks' World War Z) to be one of the essential titles of the early 2000s, one of the books that will help explain to future generations just what it was like to live under the Bush regime. Needless to say, I am now eagerly looking forward to tackling more of this remarkable writer's ouevre.

Out of 10: 9.8

Lala Pipo, by Hideo Okuda
Lala Pipo (book; 2008)
By Hideo Okuda
Vertical / ISBN: 978-1-934287-21-7

So for those who don't know, one of the literary social networks I belong to online is the great LibraryThing.com; and one of the things LibraryThing does that none of the other literary social networks do is actually set up official partnerships with various publishers, so that hundreds of free books manage to get into the hands of their members each month, in return for those members doing write-ups of those books afterwards. It's a highly competitive lottery, one I usually lose each month; but lo and behold, I actually got chosen for one of these free titles earlier this year, the controversial story cycle Lala Pipo by Japanese author Hideo Okuda. See, it's a series of six short stories, all of them concerning dysfunctional losers and the various kinky sexual activities they are into; but all of the stories are connected as well, with the main characters of each appearing as incidental characters in all the others.

But I don't know if it's just the cultural differences between Japan and the US, or perhaps a mediocre translation, but the fact is that this book mostly comes off as hideously bitter and misogynistic, when it was clearly meant to be a dark comedy; the majority of it, frankly, concerns the various ways that women in Japanese society are abused and bullied and humiliated during sexual situations there, with the author coming dangerously close in many passages to espousing a kind of nihilistic approval of the activities, a sort of attitude that seems to say, "The world is coming to an end anyway, so why not slap the b-tches around as much as we want?" Granted, that's a bit of an unfair generalization about this book, with it actually being more complicated than such a statement would make it seem; but for sure these stories are all wrist-slashingly depressing and almost apocalyptic in their sexism, which is surprising for a writer who is described on the back cover as one of the most popular comedic authors in Japan. It's a huge issue in Asia right now, the future of gender relations there, ever since the "Super Free" rape-club controversy erupted there in 2003 (for those who don't know, every year in Japan there are tens of thousands of gang-rape and public-groping crimes reported to the police); I would encourage you to look at this book as more of a serious examination of those kinds of issues, and not as the erotic black comedy its American publishers are promoting it as.

Out of 10: 7.0

Waiting for God, by Lawrence Bush
Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist (book; 2007)
By Lawrence Bush
Ben Yehuda Press / ISBN: 978-0-9789980-5-9

Regular readers know that I have been an atheist for around 25 years now; but they will also know that I am a religion-friendly atheist (otherwise known as a secular humanist), and in fact a member of the progressive interfaith movement as well. And so when I recently came across last year's Waiting for God by Lawrence Bush here in the Chicago library system, I was understandably excited; according to the cover, it was to be an intellectual examination of spiritual issues by a humanist-style atheist, exactly the kind of things I muse about in my personal life these days as well. Unfortunately, though, Waiting for God turns out to not be that at all; penned by a former '60s radical (what he terms a "Woodstocker"), the book is much more an examination and long-term analysis of that remarkable period of history, looking back 40 years later at whether any of the things the Woodstockers believed in spiritually have actually come to pass. And from that aspect, this book is actually kind of fascinating; various chapters here deal with such things as the long-term effect of psychedelics on the Woodstockers' view of spirituality, whether the mixing of Eastern and Western philosophies in the '60s turned out to be ultimately a good or bad thing, and whether it was right for hippies to reject such conservative religious concepts as "original sin" and the existence of Hell. Just, you know, please realize that this book actually has very little to do with atheism, and is much more interested in asking questions than providing answers; as long as you realize this beforehand, though, I definitely recommend the slim and easily readable volume.

Out of 10: 8.2

In the Hand of Dante, by Nick Tosches
In the Hand of Dante (book; 2002)
By Nick Tosches
Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 0-316-89524-5

This book originally came to my attention after reading the 2000 nonfiction piece The Last Opium Den, in which edgy novelist Nick Tosches was sent by Vanity Fair magazine to rural Asia on the eve of the millennium, to find out if any honest-to-God opium dens still actually exist anywhere in the world (in short: not really); that got me interested in actually reading one of Tosches' edgy novels, for example this one, which supposedly centers around the discovery of the original manuscript for Dante's The Divine Comedy in the basement of the Vatican library, which is then stolen and ends up in the hands of a circle of low-end drug dealers and thugs in New York. Yeah, sounds pretty interesting, right? But the truth is that I barely made it through the first 50 pages of In the Hand of Dante before giving up; and that's because Tosches' writing style is surprisingly immature and cliched, given his long and well-respected career, something that sounds more like a teenaged suburbanite trying to appear tough and edgy, instead of a middle-aged grizzled underground veteran who actually is tough and edgy (as Tosches actually is -- seriously, check out his bio sometime, it's fascinating). A real disappointment, given how good The Last Opium Den was, and the high esteem he enjoys among a certain crowd of edgy literature lovers.

Out of 10: 3.3

Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't (book; 2007)
By Stephen Prothero
HarperSanFrancisco / ISBN: 978-0-06084-670-1

I had been really looking forward to reading this book ever since first hearing about it; it's a supposed beginner's guide to the world's major religions, explaining to us stupid Americans the basic tenets behind such complicated subjects as the gods of Hinduism, the morality of Islam, the ten commandments of Christianity, etc etc. But it turns out that this book is not that at all; it is instead mostly an insulting and patronizing lecture about what a bunch of morons almost all Americans are, and how we should all be ashamed of ourselves for daring to speak in public about the issue of religion in the first place. And that's...true, don't get me wrong, but was not the book I was expecting to read, nor the kind of book I have any interest in reading; I already get that most Americans are horribly ignorant when it comes to these issues, including myself, which is the whole reason I picked the book up in the first place. And sure, there actually is a section of this book that tries to explain these basic issues about world religions; but not only does it take up less than a third of the entire manuscript, but also follows no logical sense whatsoever, with the author instead merely giving us a series of dictionary entries listed in mere alphabetical order, giving us no sense of how these topics relate to each other but merely spitting out just enough information for us to not look like idiots at cocktail parties. This book is not only worthless from a practical standpoint, but edges on offensive to anyone who dares to bother taking an interest in it; I recommend skipping it altogether, and sticking to Wikipedia when it comes to learning the basics of the world's major religions.

Out of 10: 2.5

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:39 PM, November 10, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |