July 28, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 28 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.)

Eiffel's Tower, by Jill Jonnes

Eiffel's Tower: And the World's Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count
By Jill Jonnes
Viking / ISBN: 978-0-670-02060-7

Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of all the "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books that are being published these days, manuscripts that take a quirky event from history to instead examine the entire culture of that time and place, in a way that's easy to read and always fascinating; but there's an inherent danger that comes with such books too, that in their zeal to churn out a volume with the exact same standards as all the rest of these types of books (300 pages plus footnotes? Check. Ridiculously long subtitle? Check. Could be easily made into a Ken Burns PBS documentary? Check!), many of these authors and publishers will overlook the fact that the subject at hand simply cannot fully support these standards needed for an NPR-Worthy Nonfiction Book. Take for example Eiffel's Tower, by NPR-Worthy Nonfiction Book veteran Jill Jonnes, which I want to make clear from the start is well-written for what it is; but unfortunately for her, it turns out that railroad engineer Gustave Eiffel's late-Victorian ode to industrialism pretty much went up with barely any hitches at all (you know, once he convinced the public that the whole thing wasn't going to topple over with the first strong wind), making a 300-page book about its construction (and the 1889 world fair it was the centerpiece of) feel awfully stretched out at points. How Jonnes compensates for this, then, as can be seen in her own book's ridiculous long subtitle, is by tracking the simultaneous histories of such other fairgoers that year as entertainer Buffalo Bill, painter James Whistler, inventor Thomas Edison and more; but that unfortunately tends to compound the problem rather than help it, with for example sharpshooter and book subject Annie Oakley's entire timeline from this period being not much more than, "She got ready for the fair, then she went to the fair, and then she went home from the fair." Like I said, it's not a bad book at all, which is why it's getting a decent score today; it's just that it's padded out, 150 pages of interesting story stretched to twice that length, which is why it gets such a small write-up today, and why most people will find themselves rather flying through the manuscript when reading it. It comes somewhat recommended.

Out of 10: 8.2

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
By Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / ISBN: 978-0-374-14860-7

Although there are exceptions to this, in general I am not much of a fan of meta-nerd "books about books written for obsessive lovers of books," nor of essays that treat physical books themselves as precious sacred objects, to be lusted after like sex symbols and used to partially define who we are in the first place. (For what it's worth, I instead tend to look at books as simple delivery vehicles for what's truly important, the information being conveyed on their pages through the codified use of language, and tend not to revere such things as precious objects except in truly special circumstances, like first editions and small-run art books and the like.) And that presents a problem with Anne Fadiman's 1998 essay collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, recently acquired by my neighborhood library which is why it came to my attention: because although this book is destined to be intensely loved by some, they will tend to be the same people who make me roll my eyes rather severely when meeting, the kind of people for example who will spend days agonizing over the perfect answers to the kind of silly throwaway questions found on an online dating profile. ("'Hume is sexy; Voltaire is sexier.' No, but wait, what does that say about my long-term nagging doubts over the moral relativism inherent in Enlightenment philosophy?") And the reason this is a problem is that I hate giving so-so reviews of books simply because of a personal bias; and make no mistake, for what this aims to be, it's done quite well indeed, and will be highly satisfying for those of you who are already guessing that they might find it highly satisfying. (Ever correct the grammar of an NPR host? Ever chide a complete stranger for setting a book down open-faced? Ever deliver a monologue on French deconstructionist theory simply from an innocuous statement like, "I heard they're making a new movie out of Tintin?" Then this book is for you...and please stay the f-ck away from me.) So instead I'm doing today what I often do in these situations, to declare myself not a very appropriate person to give an opinion on this title, and to keep my review of it to a minimum in order to cause as little damage to its sales as possible. It's a book you bibliophiles will want to check out, even as it can be safely skipped by those who aren't.

Out of 10: 8.0

Disquiet, by Julia Leigh

By Julia Leigh
Penguin / ISBN: 978-0-143-11350-8

Heavy readers know that there's a specific format in literature out there that's not only difficult to know what to do with, but is indeed designed specifically for a small niche crowd to begin with -- character-oriented novellas, that is, written by academes for other academes, stories too long for most magazines but too short to make for a compelling full-length book, which then tend to get published as these strange little overpriced booklet things destined to appeal only to fellow professors and the like. For example, take last year's Disquiet by Barnard College teacher Julia Leigh; it's barely over a hundred pages even with the most spaced-out text you've ever seen, with a storyline that consists almost entirely of people sitting around a rural French home talking to each other, a project that from page one is fated to be enjoyed only by existing fans of, say, Don DeLillo or Ian McEwan. And for what it is, I guess it's not too bad, although admittedly I'm not much of a fan of these kinds of stories myself; plus I have to confess, the central conceit of this novella (the idea that liberal European doctors would send a traumatized couple home with their stillborn baby, to "bond" with the cadaver for a few days before burying it) is a concept I found so ridiculous as to completely remove me from the story being told, and especially when it came to such details as the need to keep the tiny little dead body in the freezer at night to avoid rotting, or the forcing of the alive children in the house to cuddle and coo the corpse to the sound of their horrified squeals. I mean, I get it, EU radical liberals are crazy, I'm not disputing that; but seriously, what reputable doctor in their right mind would possibly ever advocate something like this? It felt way too much like a smartass professor trying to impress me with a ludicrously unrealistic story premise; and that's how a lot of these academic character-oriented novellas feel to me, which is why I'm not much of a fan of academic character-oriented novellas. This certainly isn't badly written, and will for sure appeal to some of you out there, which is why it's getting the score it is; unfortunately, though, I'm just not one of those people.

Out of 10: 7.7

How to Keep the Woman You Have, by F.G. Walters

How to Keep the Woman You Have: Men, We Are Missing the Mark!
By F.G. Walters
AuthorHouse / ISBN: 978-1-43439-635-8

Uh-oh -- another self-published relationship advice book from a contemporary Christian, featuring ridiculously simple admonitions capped with a badly Photoshopped clip-art cover. That's what I always think, anyway, whenever another one of these kinds of books arrives here at CCLaP headquarters; and now we have our latest, F.G. Walters' awkwardly titled How to Keep the Woman You Have: Men, We Are Missing the Mark! Ah, but surprise, this turns out to be better than I was expecting; I mean, yes, it's still full of advice that a lot of us would consider almost insultingly simple (it takes him twenty pages, for example, to explain that men need to listen more), but at least it's competently written, and unlike a lot of these kinds of titles, Walters doesn't let the religious element overwhelm the manuscript as a whole (although be warned that it's there, for example in an entire chapter entitled "Where Is God in YOUR Life?"). It's not really a book for CCLaP's regular visitors, most of whom already understand nearly every bit of information laid out here; but it's certainly not a bad book at all, one that I imagine will be well-liked by many of Walters' fellow conservative American Protestants. It comes recommended to such people, but not so much to all the hipsters out there.

Out of 10: 7.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:03 PM, July 28, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |