July 10, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 10 July 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.)

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon / ISBN: 0-375-42288-9

The farther we progress into the early 2000s, the more convinced I am of how in the future, this period of history will be seen as one where Americans finally started more and more understanding the Middle East in the same semi-complex way they currently understand, say, Europe; because make no mistake, international readers, even though the last ten years have mostly been marked by our glee in blowing sh-t up over there, in private there are more and more Americans each day right now eagerly learning just a little more and a little more about what makes up daily life in the areas once defined by the Arabic, Persian, Ottoman and Moghul empires, with the generalities of such terms as "Farsi" and "Shia" (to cite two random examples) becoming more and more known among the general populace for the first time in US history. (And in fact this is ironically a regular occurrence in American history, for wars to be the catalyst behind our population starting to understand a certain region in a more sophisticated way; look for example at how little most Americans knew about far-east Asia until our involvement in such places as Japan, Korea and Vietnam in the second half of the 20th century, how such basics as Chinese food and karaoke are now sincere staples of American life, when just 50 years ago they seemed impossibly exotic to most.) And thus do we arrive at Marjane Satrapi's thought-provoking and highly entertaining graphic novel Persepolis, which has an interesting history: essentially a memoir of her youth as a loudmouthed, chain-smoking punk-rocker in the midst of Iran's oppressive Islamic Republic years, the story was originally published in the early 2000s as four underground comics in France (where Satrapi now lives); which then became a cult hit in the UK when first translated into English and gathered into two bound books; which then brought about the opportunity to make a popular experimental animated film out of it; which then became a surprise hit in the US and garnered an Oscar nomination; which has just recently finally prompted a one-volume English trade paperback version here, which has quickly in the last year become the book to mention here in America at hipster intellectual cocktail parties, half a decade since the same was true in the EU.

And there's a reason this has become such a huge cult hit in the US, because Satrapi here in Petropolis breaks the entire complicated sequence of events that have happened in Iran in the last thirty years down into a whole series of easily relatable Western-style stories, allowing us to understand the complex, surprisingly diverse population of that country in a way many of us never have before: from the ongoing controversy there among women themselves over "taking the veil" (think of American women debating the relative merits versus embarrassments of chick-lit), to how their decade-long war with Iraq's Saddam Hussein allowed religious conservatives to slowly take over all aspects of the government in the first place (think Bush and the Patriot Act), to the ingeniously subtle ways that rebellious youth display their independence in such an environment anyway (by letting a bit of hair slip out from underneath their veil, by wearing brightly colored socks, by participating in highly codified Austenesque nonverbal flirting sessions in public squares and school stairways). And by Satrapi having the courage to add the details of her own unique, sometimes trainwreck of a life -- her habit of falling in love with gay men, her stint as a homeless gutter-punk in Vienna in the late '80s -- the book never even threatens to devolve into afterschool-special liberal homilies, but instead stands strongly as a solid piece of personal yet political literature, a great example of how powerful graphic novels can be when they're at their best, and why your snotty little slacker friends are always encouraging you to read more of them. Given the events that are going on right this moment in Iran (summer 2009, for those reading this in the future), and how similar they now seem to be in so many Americans' eyes to our own peaceful overthrow of George Bush and his "Christian Taliban" ilk just a year before, now is a better time than ever to tackle Persepolis yourself if you never have; and needless to say, the movie as well is now in my queue over at Netflix, and I will be getting a review of it up here too after I've finally gotten a chance to watch it.

Out of 10: 9.7

Released to the Angels, by Marilynn Garzione
Released to the Angels: A Caregiver's Journey
By Marilynn Garzione
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-50632-3

I confess, it can sometimes be an emotionally upsetting thing for me to consume an artistic project concerning Alzheimer's Disease; as someone who lives a life that nearly entirely depends on intellect for its success, of course the idea of losing one's mind is a particularly terrifying one to me. And so it is with a lot of people and Alzheimer's, a thoroughly modern malady that we as a society haven't nearly come to terms with yet, one that's only become a pandemic in the first place because of our ever-increasing ability to extend the lifespan of the physical human body; it's for this reason, in fact, that Marilynn Garzione apparently wrote her new memoir Released to the Angels (yet another title sent to me recently by our friends at print-on-demand publisher iUniverse), in that by sharing some of her own stories concerning the ups and downs of caring for an Alzheimer's patient (in this case, her significantly older long-time husband), she hopes to help others understand such a situation with more nuance themselves, and help them see the surprisingly beautiful and poetically perfect things that occasionally come with it. That's probably the most surprising thing about this book, in fact, the sometimes very unique and always touching new insights Garzione comes up with throughout this tight, 165-page collection of anecdotes, sure to help others going through the same situation keep a better and healthier perspective on the whole thing: for example, I was particularly struck by her observation that if you can learn how to let go of the adult you once knew, Alzheimer's actually gives you a chance to meet the child they once were, an opportunity that most of us never get because of not meeting our romantic partners until after they're adults, an opportunity that caregivers should actually treasure because it gives you such a more sophisticated understanding of this person you love so intensely. Reading that made me immediately think of those first visits to childhood homes with a new romantic partner when you're younger, checking out old photos for the first time and intensely curious suddenly to how this person might've been when they were growing up; it's such thought-provoking surprises throughout this manuscript that makes it such a charmer, and that elevates it above the usual Lifetime Channel movie or Very Special Episode of E.R. concerning the same subject. Perhaps not the most appropriate choice for the young cynical wing of CCLaP's audience, but certainly a book you can give as a gift to a parent and know that you're delivering something smart, well-done and unexpected.

Out of 10: 8.5

The Ringmaster: Proud Man's Game, by M.A. William
The Ringmaster: Proud Man's Game
By M.A. William
AuthorHouse / ISBN: 978-1-42594-259-5

You know, there's a reason that "genre literature" is called that, in that the book under question will share a whole series of well-known tropes and details that a giant pile of other books out there share as well, tropes specifically looked for by fans of that genre in the same obsessive way sexual fetishists seek their fetishes, so much so that they will overlook more basic problems inherent in that manuscript (like weak characters, wooden dialogue, a plot full of holes, and all the other things that make non-fans of that genre complain about that genre). And so by its very definition, this means that most genre novels out there are...well, they're not exactly horrible, but Lord, they're not good, and are bound to be liked only by the most hardcore fans of that genre out there, and intensely loved by nearly no one. Take for example M.A. William's The Ringmaster: Proud Man's Game, which is competently written for what it is, but just feels from the first page to the last like something you've sorta seen a million times before; you know, like that feeling you get coming across an episode of one of those NBC Saturday-night supernatural action thriller shows once it's in syndication, an episode you fell asleep to halfway through the first time you watched it during its original run, so that it now produces this vague sense of deja-vu that you don't know whether to believe or not. Now, granted, some people like NBC Saturday-night supernatural action thrillers that all seem vaguely like each other (and there's nothing wrong with that -- all of us are fans of at least one genre out there that would make most others shake their heads in shame), and there will be people out there prone to be legitimate fans of The Ringmaster too; and you people know already who you are, Oh Ye Obsessive Followers Of Buffy Scriptwriters And Those Dudes Who Are Always Minor Guests Of Honor At Every Sci Fi Convention Ever Held. For those of you who are not fans of such writers, the kind who churn out 80 percent of all genre novels in existence, you can safely skip this title.

Out of 10: 6.0

Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman
Downtown Owl
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner / ISBN: 978-1-41654-418-0

Regular readers might be confused at first over why I found Downtown Owl, the debut novel by famed Generation X memoirist Chuck Klosterman, so incredibly terrible, given how many tropes it shares with CCLaP Publishing's first original book, Ben Tanzer's 2008 Repetition Patterns; after all, both are essentially collections of related stories, both of them oriented more towards character development than plot, both concerning the blue-collar citizens of a small industrial town in the rural US, both heavily informed by the events that happen to these characters in the Reagan-obsessed, pop-culture-happy early 1980s. But see, this gets into something I talk about on a regular basis here, that for every general problem in literature that I rail against over and over at CCLaP, there are always exceptions that I end up loving, and that the differences between the two can oftentimes be surprisingly subtle ones; in this case, for example, even while sharing many of the same surface-level details, the reason I ultimately liked and signed Tanzer's manuscript was that at least he comes to a resolution concerning the situations his characters find themselves in (even if in some stories it's a very quiet one), proof that his lovable losers have grown or at least changed by the end, and thus that there was a reason for us to read the story in the first place. Klosterman, however, provides no such thing for his own 270-page masturbation session, turning in instead essentially a series of hacky Keilloresque go-nowhere character sketches with no natural story arc at all, doubly damning here because of the characters not being very interesting in the first place (a group of old men who sit around a diner each day debating conservative politics; a 23-year-old elementary-school teacher who promptly becomes a miserable alcoholic the moment she arrives at this barely existing North Dakota village; and a dozen more characters who make us think by the end, "Why again am I supposed to care about the fates of any of these mouth-breathers?").

And if this wasn't enough, Klosterman then tacks on one of the most hackneyed, ridiculously arbitrary endings I've ever seen in contemporary literature, literally the meteorological equivalent of saying, "Then a space alien showed up and killed them all with a giant laser ray," the kind of immature mess you'd usually expect from some 15-year-old who's suddenly gotten to the end of their creative-writing homework and doesn't know how to end it. But even with all this, there's still yet another problem with this book even worse than the ones already mentioned, summed up succinctly in the following plea I have for Klosterman if he is to ever one day stumble across this review...ahem...F-CKING ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE ENDLESS GODD-MN REFERENCES TO EMPTY SH-TTY '80S POP CULTURE, SERIOUSLY YOU F-CKING GEN-X HACK, STOP IT STOP IT ENOUGH F-CK YOU ENOUGH, F-CK YOU F-CK YOU STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP F-CK YOU STOP. The older I get, the more I come to understand just how ashamed of ourselves we all should be for letting postmodernism devolve to the nadir it became by the 1990s, where we as a society seemed to suddenly believe that giant lists of band names and television shows somehow were an adequate substitute for actual insight, for actual storytelling craft; and while I still believe in the power of occasional pop-culture references in literature, especially when it's done to make a bigger metaphorical point (for example, see the Repetition Patterns story "Pac-Man Fever," which turns out to not really be about Pac-Man at all), I absolutely can no longer condone the mere mentioning of post-Vietnam consumerist items just for the sake of mentioning them, for example in the unbelievable 64 mentions in just the first 50 pages of this particular book (and yes, I literally sat and counted, and yes, I did so because I knew you wouldn't believe me otherwise).

Klosterman can be forgiven for the four pop-culture-infused nonfiction memoirs he wrote before this first novel of his, because of them coming out during the years when we were all under this cultural spell (including myself -- I was as guilty of worshipping empty pop culture in the '90s as everyone else); but Downtown Owl just came out in 2008, long past the time that we've discovered late postmodernism to be the elaborate intellectual con-game it actually is. I refuse to have anything more to do with PoMo trainwrecks like these in the Sincerist/Obamian Age we now live in, and everyone involved with this book should be ashamed of themselves, for putting so much money and promotion behind such a badly-erring reflection of our current zeitgeist.

Out of 10: 2.8

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:12 PM, July 10, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |