June 15, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 15 June 2009

(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.)

Standing Still, by Kelly Simmons
Standing Still
By Kelly Simmons
Washington Square Press / ISBN: 978-0-74328-973-3

As I've mentioned before, there's actually a host of different reasons why I might do only a mini-review of a book here instead of a full write-up, besides that the book in question might be of subpar quality (which frankly usually is the reason, which is why people make the mistaken assumption to begin with); take for a good example Kelly Simmons' debut novel Standing Still, which when all is said and done is not a bad book whatsoever, well-written and concerning an interesting subject, with not only a decent sense of pace but a compelling personal style too. But it just so happens that I myself am not a particularly big fan of this type of story, which if pressed for an easy explanation I would say is destined to most appeal to the kind of female audience member also into The Bachelorette, Alice Sebold and the Lifetime Channel; not that I mention any of these references specifically to belittle them, but merely to point out that these too are projects and artists of decent quality that I'm not necessarily into but that others are. As you can guess, the novel is centered around a middle-aged suburban housewife named Claire Cooper, and has a dark premise I was instantly intrigued by, which is why I requested a copy in the first place from this highly active Goodreads.com member; namely, after being kidnapped from her sleepy McMansion near the beginning of the book, over the course of a week she comes to slowly realize that her abductor is actually a better man (ethically, emotionally) than her cold, corporate-embracing white-male-dick husband, with Simmons using a semi-surprising plot to reveal a much more nefarious situation with the husband's day job than Claire had ever been told about.

But be warned that what could've been a fast-paced thriller in another's hands is instead a deliberately slow psychological meditation here under Simmons' treatment, with much of the "action" actually the inner-brain thoughts of Claire as she spends the majority of the book tied immovably to a hotel bed; and also be warned that Simmons sometimes wields her metaphors with all the grace of a drunk hillbilly swinging a two-by-four, such as Claire's regular habit of referring to her unnamed abductor as "Him" and "He" with a capital 'H' (and with all the resulting Freudian daddy/Christ issues such a thing implies). This is why I say that the book is perfect for fans of the Lifetime Channel, for example, because the shows and movies produced by that cable network are known precisely for this, for using patriarchal acts of violence as a way to symbolically explore therapist-worthy issues of how middle-aged women are defined in our society, not only as wives and mothers but also sexually and intellectually; and that's why Standing Still gets today just a little bit higher of a score than I would maybe give it otherwise, because I know for a fact that there are all kinds of people out there who will adore such a book, and wanted to give it a general score that more reflected that. If you're one of those people (and you know who you are), it comes much recommended.

Out of 10: 8.2

How to Read Novels Like a Professor, by Thomas Foster
How to Read Novels Like a Professor
By Thomas Foster
Harper / ISBN: 978-0-061-34040-6

I'm as much of a fan as anyone else of informative non-fiction guidebooks and how-to manuals, but while acknowledging a big danger with such books too; that by their very nature, most contain far less than an entire book's worth of useful information, but because of the commercial norms set decades ago by the traditional paper-based publishing industry, most of these authors are forced to pad out their manuscripts to "book length" anyway, resulting many times in fluffy messes that actually do more damage to that author's career than if they had simply published it as a low-profile magazine article instead. Take for example academe Thomas Foster's How to Read Novels Like a Professor, which as far as advice goes is actually quite astute; like I do here at CCLaP when examining a new piece of long-form fiction, Foster shows how the quality of a manuscript is not only determined by the big basic issues you learned in Lit 101 (plot, character, etc), but a whole host of little ones as well (the author's "voice," how good they are at setting a scene, and a lot more), then methodically explains how exactly to take all these complex criteria into consideration simultaneously while reading any novel one wishes to examine critically. But unfortunately the book utterly fails the rule-of-thumb I have about such titles -- that if I can read just the first sentence of each paragraph and not miss a single important thing, it's a book not worth bothering with in the first place -- which makes it a real shame that Foster wasn't simply allowed to release this as the tight novella-length manuscript it most deserves to be. One day, the vast majority of books bought and sold in the US will be done in electronic format, and it will finally no longer matter to either publishers or customers whether a manuscript is "standard book length" or not; but until that day, titles like this one will unfortunately suffer, a helpful guide but that would simply better exist as a series of blog entries than as a full-length paperback. It's worth checking out from the library or borrowing from a friend, but sadly not the full price being charged for it.

Out of 10: 6.7

Heartbreak Soup, by Gilbert Hernandez
Heartbreak Soup: A Love And Rockets Book
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics / ISBN: 978-1-56097-783-4

Human Diastrophism, by Gilbert Hernandez
Human Diastrophism: A Love And Rockets Book
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics / ISBN:

Palomar, by Gilbert Hernandez
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics / ISBN: 978-1-56097-539-3

Regular readers know that I make my way through graphic novels on a pretty regular basis, usually only ten or twenty pages at a time while in bed at night; and hey, what should just happen to pop up at my neighborhood library the other day than the collected "Palomar" stories from legendary '80s and '90s comic Love And Rockets, only a handful of which I'd ever sat down and read from cover to cover before. (Or, actually I cheated a little -- the book I came across randomly was merely volume one of a brand-new paperback collection by its publisher Fantagraphics, being offered as a cheaper and more mobile version than the all-in-one coffeetable-sized hardback collection they put out in 2003; when I discovered that the Chicago Public Library has not yet acquired volume two of this new paperback series, I simply checked out the larger hardback version, and finished up the stories that way.) For those who don't know, the original Love And Rockets consisted of several different persistent storylines, each of which was run by a different member of the multi-sibling Hernandez family, who as a group originally created and funded this historically ultra-important title from the dawn of alt-comics; the "Palomar" stories (named after the town where they take place, also known as the "Heartbreak Soup" stories after the very first tale in the series) was the one maintained by brother Gilbert, an expansive look at a fictional village somewhere on the west coast of Central America, and all the remarkable things that happen there from roughly the 1950s to 1980s (and sometimes both before and beyond).

And indeed, the entire series as a whole is still a remarkable read, just as sharp and entertaining as when the stories first started appearing nearly thirty years ago; because by concentrating on the long-term fates of dozens of Palomar's citizens, as they mature over a dense 600 pages from childhood to middle-age (or from middle-age to death in the case of the main characters' parents, or from birth to puberty in the case of their kids), combined with a healthy dose of magical realism (inspired by the Latino-American artist's obsession with Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Hernandez turns in a saga much more timeless than his '80s contemporaries, ultimately a story about family that now holds up much better than the instantly dated punk-rock tropes of, say, peer Alan Moore from the same period. (For example, just try reading Moore's early-'80s V For Vendetta anymore without its naive anarchist political posturing making you want to burst into unintended laughter on a regular basis.) It's this original attention to classic detail that makes the Palomar stories still so enjoyable, and what has kept Love And Rockets still so well-known and influential even decades later, when so many of the other roughly-done black-and-white comic-book experiments from the period have by now fallen into near-total obscurity.

Out of 10: 9.4

Teacher Accused, by Alvin Granowsky
Teacher Accused
By Alvin Granowsky
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-49072-1

As we all know by now, sometimes there doesn't have to be anything particularly wrong with a novel at all to make it nearly unreadable anyway; sometimes, for example, it's merely a case of a novel taking on a subject that has already been written about one billion freaking times, and with that one billion and first containing not a single unique new thing to actually say about it. Take for an unfortunate example Alvin Granowsky's Teacher Accused, which to make no mistake certainly gets an 'A' for earnestness; it's the made-up but highly believable tale of teenaged homophobia in a small Texas town, and of the gay high-school teacher (and recent New York transplant) who tries to help and ends up unfairly crucified for it, written by a "straight but not narrow" real-life teacher and national PTA consultant who specializes in hate crimes perpetuated by angry mobs. But you know what they say, that the path to the remainder bin is paved with good intentions, and here Granowsky is even guiltier than normal; although not actively bad, Teacher Accused nonetheless presents not even a single development or plot point that can't be easily guessed in advance by anyone who's ever read a Young Adult novel on the same subject, or watched a single afterschool special. I always dread writing reviews like these, because it's tempting to see it as me "ganging up" on some poor self-publisher who's just trying to bring a little good to the world, but the truth is that this is merely one more legitimate part of the commercial publishing process; that if an author is going to voluntarily ask complete strangers for nineteen dollars (nineteen dollars!) in order to read their book, that book better well contain nineteen dollars' worth of entertainment, regardless of how noble that author's intentions or how much the subject matter "deserves" to be paid attention to. That's a role I chose to take on when I decided to become a book critic in the first place -- to offer advice precisely on whether a given random book is worth your time and money or not -- and unfortunately it sometimes leads to situations like today's, where a perfectly nice person will write a perfectly nice book that is nonetheless barely worth your time, and certainly not worth your money. Teacher Accused unfortunately gets an official pass from me today for that reason.

Out of 10: 4.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:52 PM, June 15, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |