December 31, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 31 December 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.)

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
By Erik Larson
Vintage Books / ISBN: 0-375-72-560-1

So I finally got a chance over Christmas to read Erik Larson's massively popular and influential 2003 The Devil in the White City, basically the first post-9/11 book to combine academic-worthy research with a gripping, fiction-like narrative style, a combination which has become so popular that it's inspired an entire subgenre of nonfiction titles by now. And it's extra ironic that it should take me in particular this long to finally get around to it, in that it's all about a specific period of Chicago history, and it seems sometimes as if the entire population of this city has read it at one point or another; specifically, it tells the dual tales of the 1893 World's Fair down in Jackson Park on the south side (mostly through the eyes of lead architect Daniel Burnham), one of the most important events in Chicago's history, along with the sordid tale of H.H. Holmes, one of the first-ever modern serial killers back in the same days of Jack The Ripper, who built a block-long hotel across the street from the fair which turned out in reality to be a massive multifloor torture chamber, including secret passageways, dissection tables, and a body-sized gas oven in the basement, all of which he used to kill up to perhaps as many as 200 young good-looking single women before finally being caught. It's utterly fascinating, a well-done and easily readable project that deserves the reputation it's developed over the last half-decade; although let me warn you that this book is guilty as well of something I can't stand, which is the deliberate withholding of obvious information at the ends of chapters as a way of falsely building narrative tension. (For example, Larson mentions George Ferris and the construction of his Ferris Wheel a dozen times before ever mentioning the word "Ferris," sometimes in these really awkward ways that profoundly point out just how deliberately he's avoiding mentioning it, even though it's patently obvious from the start that this is what he's talking about.) Other than that quibble, though, I found the book nearly perfect for what it's trying to accomplish, and it comes highly recommended not only to those interested in Chicago history but also urban planning, the Victorian Age, and lurid true crime.

Out of 10: 9.5

Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk

By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-38552-634-0

I hope this doesn't come across as sour grapes, but the older I get, the more I realize that there's a legitimate danger that comes with a young artist having a big hit early in their career -- and that's that the public then forever compares each new project of theirs to that big hit, most of the rest suffering in comparison and usually called derivative and worse, because to be frank this is what most artists in general do, is endlessly repeat themes and motifs over the course of their entire career. Usually we don't notice, because most artists slowly get better with each new project, keeping their early work deservedly obscure and their later masterpieces simply better treatments of the same subjects; but when it comes to someone like, say, transgressive gay author Chuck Palahniuk, this endless reshuffling of elements becomes particularly noticeable, because of him first clearly laying these elements out in his massively popular early hit Fight Club (made into an even more massively popular movie by David Fincher), and literally not getting an ounce either better or worse at it in the 15 years and 11 novels since. I've reviewed two of his past books here before, 2007's Rant and 2008's Snuff, while just recently finishing up his latest, the post-Bush terrorism comedy Pygmy; and just like the others, I felt that though it was a decent book on its own, it unfortunately also feels many times like a laundry list of quirky Palahniukian touches, to be checked off a master list like a version of car bingo designed by David Lynch. Impossibly ludicrous storyline based on a cartoonishly named plan to take over the world? Check! Gay men who can only relate romantically through the filter of violent, forced sex? Check! Insanely over-the-top random unbelievable events thrown in every 30 pages just to keep everyone on their toes? Check! Main character with a pathological disgust for the human body? Check! Said main character repeating nonsense catchphrases every five minutes or so? Check!

It doesn't necessarily make the individual books themselves that bad, but it certainly diminishes their collective impact in an incremental way, and makes you roll your eyes just a little more the bigger a veteran you are of Palahniuk's work, a main reason why so many authors with big hits early in their careers end up sorta petering out by the ends of them, attracting a regularly shrinking audience who with each new release look back yet a little more nostalgically on that early bestseller that seemed so fresh and daring at the time. I'll keep reading Palahniuk's newest releases for sure, mostly because they're short and punchy and only come along once a year or so, but I've long since given up on the idea of being startled by one in the same I was by Fight Club. That's a bit of a shame, but also very typical, and shouldn't come as much of a surprise from an artist who has proven by his own actions to have only a handful of truly brilliant original ideas.

Out of 10: 7.9

The Joy of Chemistry, by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things
By Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf
Prometheus Books / ISBN: 978-1-59102-771-3

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one; co-authored by two chemistry experts, one of whom is also a veteran of general-interest guides to the subject, The Joy of Chemistry is what the authors call a childlike overview of that world but written specifically for adults, taking an A-B-C approach to the actual issues at hand but written an an engaging grown-up style that never insults. As such, then, it's pretty much what it advertises itself to be, and will be of enormous interest to those who are specifically seeking to learn more about chemistry, even as it can be easily skipped by the majority of you who aren't. It comes recommended today to those looking exactly for such a thing.

Out of 10: 8.5

Finn, by Jon Clinch

By Jon Clinch
Random House / ISBN: 978-1-40006-591-2

Jon Clinch's 2007 sleeper hit Finn is based on a concept almost insultingly simple, which is what makes its brilliance even more astounding -- it takes the events from Mark Twain's 1883 classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and retells them from the point of view of Huck's abusive, alcoholic hillbilly dad. And the reason this is brilliant is because it takes all the familiar characters and milieus of Twain's infamously nostalgic fictional universe of St. Petersberg (based extremely loosely on a series of tales from his own early-1800s childhood in Hannibal, Missouri) and twists them into a horrific modern Sam-Shepardesque study of White Trash Gone Wrong, flipping the treacle of the Pastoral movement on its head and showing all the ugly bits that also came with rural life in the pre-Industrial US. And ugly this book is, make no mistake, with it being wise not to assume that this is family-friendly small-town pabulum just because it's a riff on Mark Twain; just to cite one infamous example, one of the minor characters featured here is a corrupt white preacher who kidnaps black children in free states out of their homes at gunpoint in the middle of the night (because of the black parents having no one to complain to), sodomizes the children and then drowns them in the river afterwards.

And in fact that's the other thing to know about Finn, that there's a point to all the monstrous behavior seen in this legitimate "portrait of evil," which is to take a sophisticated and unflinching look at how the subject of race used to be treated in this country as recently as 150 years ago, of how it could be that some white people could treat blacks that cruelly back then, even while simultaneously getting along with certain black individuals and even being sexually attracted to some of them. The one-named villain of this book's title is a walking lesson in hypocrisy, with his profound lack of education combining with his DT-worthy drinking problem and the simple harshness of frontier life to produce the kind of infuriatingly dim-witted Caucasian animal we still even sometimes see in the modern Deep South (this book could easily double as a character sketch of a typical 2008 McCain supporter); and I have to admit that I was mesmerized by both this book's power and pure audacity while I was breathlessly racing through it. One of those books that usually would get a much bigger write-up, simply that it's getting a little long in the tooth for such a thing at CCLaP anymore (it's almost three years old as of today), and it's a shame I wasn't able to get to it closer to its original publication date, so I could've included it in one of my past "Best of the Year" overviews. Highly recommended.

Out of 10: 9.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:17 PM, December 31, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |