December 22, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 22 December 2009

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, by Mark Gluth

The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis
By Mark Gluth
Akashic Books / ISBN: 978-1-93335-494-1

For those who don't know, one of the ongoing projects over at small press Akashic Books is a series called "Little House on the Bowery," experimental short books hand-picked and edited by infamous edgeplay author Dennis Cooper; the latest for example is a novella called The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, by the Seattle-area Mark Gluth, which I read this last weekend and ended up enjoying quite a bit. It's what I consider an experiment not in style but in narrative structure, or in other words a book that reads rather easily but with a storyline itself that confounds expectations; although ironically it starts as a straightforward tale, a look at the titular writer in the winter of her life, dealing simultaneously in chapter one with her growing dementia and the accidental death of her pet dog from a self-caused house fire. Here though is where the storyline starts getting challenging and interesting, in that Gluth quickly abandons a three-act structure in favor of a dreamlike series of causal connections instead, each based loosely on the circumstances of the chapter before it -- how Margaret befriends a young beginning horror writer, for example, which leads to the discovery of a self-referential short story/suicide note after Margaret's death which incorporates this mentor/student relationship they had, which then leads to a look at a group of contemporary hipsters trying to adapt this story into an indie film. Although I'm not going to detail the entire thing, it's these sinuous connections that fuel the entire length of the story, creating by the end a sort of deliciously non-linear stream-of-consciousness plotline; and like I said, the reason the whole thing doesn't devolve into an artsy mess is precisely because Gluth doesn't take any chances with the writing style itself, crafting instead an easy-to-digest project that effortlessly slips from one subject to the next, like a six-year-old during playtime or a stoner in the middle of the night. It comes solidly recommended today, a great choice for those who consume very little experimental literature otherwise, a tidy but complex little book that can easily be started and finished in a single afternoon.

Out of 10: 8.8

Remember Me, by Marian Kampinski

Remember Me: A Holocaust Survivor's Story
By Marian Kampinski
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-1-44012-178-4

I've talked about the following here before, the tricky question of just how much Holocaust literature is enough, the delicate balance between encouraging all surviving Holocaust victims to write down their stories versus just how many of these stories a person can read before they all start blurring together in one's head; and the reason I've talked about this before is that I'm always receiving more of these middling-quality Holocaust memoirs on what sometimes seems like a monthly basis, most of them from print-on-demand (or POD) company iUniverse, whose promotional staff has sent me something like 20 or 30 books in general over the last year, bless their postage-slave souls. Because in many ways, you could argue that such memoirs are exactly what POD companies are for, what they're in fact best at, for not only giving these survivors an excuse for sitting and writing their tales, but for making it easy and inexpensive for the couple of hundred people nationally who would be interested in reading it to get their hands on a copy; but as someone who's now read a dozen such books, take it from me when I say that unless an author is a particularly gifted one, all these memoirs of World War Two tend to blend together quite quickly, in that for the most part they are dry, journal-like accounts of events that happened to nearly six million other people back then in an almost identical fashion. And so it is with the latest of these memoirs to be sent to me, Marian Kampinski's Remember Me, in this case concerning the Jewish population of Lodz, Poland in the years right before and right after that country's Nazi takeover, riveting of course from a general standpoint but with few details you won't already come across in Schindler's List or Maus. It's one of those documents that will be cherished by her friends and family and appreciated by Holocaust scholars, competently written and not exactly a waste of time; but nonetheless, those without a personal interest in Kampinski's life can pretty easily skip it, and instead pick up any one of dozens of older, better projects concerning the same subject. It's not terrible, not great, certainly a book I'm glad exists, but one I don't recommend going out of your way to acquire.

Out of 10: 7.4

The Long Escape, by Jan Rehacek

The Long Escape
By Jan Rehacek
AuthorHouse / ISBN: 978-1-43894-673-3

And then this is yet another so-so memoir concerning a turbulent time in history from our print-on-demand friends at iUniverse (or, well, actually AuthorHouse, owned by the same people); in this case it's Jan Rehacek's look back at the time he and his family made a hasty escape from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1983, extra fascinating in this case because of Jan being a child at the time, and having the entire thing explained to him by the grown-ups as an extra-long and extra-crazy international holiday. And that makes The Long Escape a bit more inherently interesting than the typical self-published memoir, not just because of the events involved but also Rehacek's funny, childlike recollections of them; but unfortunately Rehacek's actual writing style is pedestrian at best, the work of a non-native English speaker that is simply riddled with errors and awkward phrases. As with many POD titles, it will be of most interest to the several hundred closest friends and relatives of Rehacek, an easy way for him to share his admittedly gripping story with those who will be most fascinated by it; it's always best, I think, to look at self-published POD titles in these kinds of terms, instead of trying to compare them directly to much more professional books that are designed from the start to appeal to a much wider audience.

Out of 10: 7.2

The Cradle, by Patrick Somerville

The Cradle
By Patrick Somerville
Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-1-31603-612-2

I had been looking forward to Patrick Somerville's debut novel The Cradle for some time now; after all, he's a Chicago-based author with whom I share several mutual friends, and this slim title of his has picked up lots of local accolades this year, one of what I consider the most talked-about Chicago books of 2009, along with his peer Kyle Beachy's The Slide and others. So it was a disappointment, then, to read through this academic short-story veteran's first full-length project and realize that when all is said and done, there's just not much there; it's on the short side of the format to begin with (200 pages with large type), much more a character study than a three-act narrative tale, and with a kind of twee preciousness throughout that one always seems to find in books loved by those ensconced in the Ivory Tower. It's basically the story of a young couple in Wisconsin in the Clinton 1990s who are about to have a baby, and of the demanding wife who insists that her husband track down the historic Civil War cradle she was reared in by her now-estranged mother, a quest that will lead the genial former orphan all across the upper Midwest and into a whole series of dark family environments; this then runs concurrently in every other chapter with the story of an entirely different family eleven years later (or 2008), a middle-aged couple whose only son is about to ship off to Iraq, and whose connection to the other family is a mystery that is only slowly revealed over the course of the book's second half.

It's okay for what it is, I suppose, but the problem is that "what it is" simply isn't very much; like so much academic fiction, it's primarily a series of quirky vignettes that never quite add up to a satisfying whole, an attempt to make a grand statement about family by pushing together a series of seemingly unrelated subplots in clever ways, but that remains mostly a muddled mess until the underwhelming, easily guessed ending. Plus, as someone particularly knowledgeable on the subject, I have to admit how much it irked me to see Somerville take so many liberties with 1997 technology in order to make his overly precocious plotline hold together; specifically, I'm referring to a scene where crucial information is learned via a real-time online video chat with a woman in Antarctica using home consumer equipment, which Somerville adequately rationalizes on one end (the woman in Antarctica is at a military installation, which really did have such capabilities in the mid-'90s), but which utterly fails to account for the fact that home broadband connections simply didn't exist back then, the absolute minimum requirement for having a real-time video chat over the internet using consumer equipment like the characters here do. It's a small issue only, I know, but that's what makes it so infuriating -- such a glaring factual problem simply makes me obsessively focus on it when I'm instead trying to lose myself in the actual story, one of those errors that simply highlights the inherent artificiality of written characters on a page being cognitively interpreted by the brain into images and concepts, when the goal of an author is to do the exact opposite as much as possible. It's but one of many details that left me by the end of The Cradle shrugging and muttering, "Meh." Buyer beware.

Out of 10: 7.1

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:57 AM, December 22, 2009. Filed under: