February 26, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 26 February 2010

(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 Complete Peanuts, vol. 8: 1965-1966, by Charles Schulz

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 8: 1965-1966
By Charles Schulz

I recently received a hundred-dollar gift certificate to Borders from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas; but that ironically created a problem for me, in that I've thoroughly trained myself over the last three years to think of books only in terms of library rentals, making it difficult to picture what kinds of books I might want to actually own permanently. So I bought a hundred bucks in comics! J-sus Chr-st, I suck! And one of these purchases was a volume in Fantagraphics' new hardcover reissuing of all 18,000 Peanuts strips that Charles Schulz ever wrote, each massive over-designed tome covering two years in the strip's history; the one I picked up covers the 730 strips published in 1965 and '66, a seminal time for Peanuts that cemented the strip's lasting popularity for good. See, it seems anymore that less and less people understand this, but it was during the '60s that Schulz first started infusing his deceptively simple strip with all kinds of heady Modernist references to theology, philosophy, the "New Math" and more, turning it from the simple children's diversion it used to be into a suddenly hip Silver Age cultural touchstone; and this of course was before the '70s, when Schulz first started running out of ideas, deciding to devote the strip more and more to being the unchanging daily core of a TV-friendly merchandising empire.

So on the one hand, the book is a real treat, a reminder of the exquisite minimalist humor that Schulz was so perfect at when he was at his creative height, during the exact period of work I myself was raised on (mostly through an endless series of cheap tattered paperbacks bought for a dime at garage sales) that so heavily influenced my own sense of humor; but on the other hand, I'm also kind of disgusted at myself for buying a $40 over-designed hardback doorstop full of freaking comic strips, and acknowledge that that now officially makes me one of those academically trained stuffy white males who are as we speak sucking away what little fun still remains in the world of comics, just like stuffy academic white males ruined jazz, and ruined baseball, and ruined the blues. (In fact, if you want a good look at all the formerly fun things that stuffy academic white males have ruined over the years, simply make a list of all the documentaries Ken Burns has ever made.) As nice as it's been to sit and re-read all these classic strips from the series' height, it's hard to look at all those artsy detail blowups and that dark-on-dark design scheme and not think, "You know, I've now officially become one of those creative-class douchebags who everyone complains about, and there's a part of me who hates myself for it." Good grief.

Out of 10: 9.0...no, wait, I mean 6.2...no, wait, I don't know what I mean

Sex Dungeon for Sale!, by Patrick Wensink

Sex Dungeon for Sale!
By Patrick Wensink
Eraserhead Press

The prolific umbrella corporation Bizarro Books (owners of alt-horror CCLaP favorite Raw Dog Screaming Press) have an interesting experiment that they run through yet another specialty imprint, Eraserhead Press; to determine which genre authors will eventually have big enough fan bases to justify supporting them, they put out a whole mess of novella-sized story collections by beginning writers, nakedly using their commercial fates to directly decide whether or not to publish a full-length book by that author. And that's how I ended up with a copy of Sex Dungeon for Sale!, one of these slim story collections by Patrick Wensink, a bizarro author who's quite active over at literary social network Goodreads.com; although the manuscript itself is only 75 pages long, it contains twelve different stories and a foreward, obviously an attempt by Wensink to provide a wide sampling of his work and hopefully get it noticed enough to score a full-length contract. But this is also the problem with the book, and in general just the problem I have with a lot of story collections, that the pieces here are not much more than a few pages of extended riffs on their admittedly interesting titles; for example, just take the story "My Son Thinks He's French," a funny name that made me chuckle when first seeing it, but with a story that's not much more than four pages of, "And did I mention that my son thinks he's French?" Although Wensink obviously has a creative mind, and I look forward to seeing what he might give us in a full-length manuscript, the stories here are unfortunately not much more than punchlines with a couple of hundred extra words added to each of them, making this a book you can literally absorb in five minutes, simply by reading the table of contents. Although he's definitely a capable writer, I encourage Wensink to get something much more substantial out there for the public to enjoy, instead of this frothy wisp of a collection.

Out of 10: 7.0

The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World
By Nick Harkaway
Vintage Contemporaries / Random House

When I first heard about Nick Harkaway's rambunctious new novel The Gone-Away World, I was so excited that I put a special reserve on it at my local library, something I rarely ever do (I instead like having the randomness of my library's "new release" shelf partly decide what books I review here, which I feel is closer to the way that most of CCLaP's readers discover new books too); and the reason I was so excited was that the book sounded like it was right up my alley, a smart and lengthy black comedy about a teabagger-caused apocalypse and its Mad Max aftermath, from an academically respected writer my age who has been called "breathtakingly original" by no less than William Gibson. Ah, but then I started reading it, and realized that the book is a classic example of the ol' academe bait-and-switch scam, where a novel is sold as a genre actioner but then ends up being talky and pointless; you know, kind of like if you picked up a crime novel that in its first few chapters establishes a horrific serial killer, but then spends the rest of the book watching the serial killer take a cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus while pensively staring out the window thinking about his complicated relationship with his father. That might turn out to be a fine book, don't get me wrong, but if I deliberately pick up a novel about serial killers, there better f-cking well be some serial killing; and that's exactly how I felt about this disappointing "science-fiction" book as well, one that starts out great but then quickly devolves into endless overwritten digressions about kung-fu moral lessons and childhood friendships and the like. A profound letdown, and not recommended at all.

Out of 10: 4.3

The Humbling, by Philip Roth

The Humbling
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Regular readers know that I am currently in the process of reading all 13 of the "Zuckerman" books Philip Roth has written over the decades (in fact, book two of the series, Zuckerman Unbound, will be reviewed here in just a few weeks), mostly as a way of learning more about the Postmodernist period of the '70s and '80s about which I know barely anything; but Roth also happens to be one of the few writers on the planet right now whose older work is studied like classics even as he continues putting out new books each year, meaning that as a critic I'm also trying these days to stay on top of this new work as well. I just got done with his latest, in fact, 2009's The Humbling, a little hiccup of a book that I literally read from start to finish in a single afternoon; and as is often the case with his shorter work, there's not a whole lot that actually happens here, the story much more a character study of a burly, aging David Ogden Stiers-type Broadway actor who realizes in his mid-sixties that he's losing the ability to act, and as a result succumbs to a whole series of mid-life-crisis cliches but twenty years later than most.

And that's...you know, that's okay, but such rambling, unfocused novellas can't even begin to hold a candle to the books Roth injects with more meaning and drama, like such perennial favorites as American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and my personal favorite so far, the alt-history Bush critique The Plot Against America. Also (and I know I'm going to get some angry emails about this), but I just find something really repugnant about the idea of people in their sixties having kinky sex, kind of like being forced to read about some death-metal kid in Norway raping a nun inside a church or something; and that unfortunately is what almost the entire last third of this novel consists of, stomach-churningly graphic descriptions of our Roth stand-in and his twenty-five-years-younger former-lesbian mistress picking up drunk undergraduates at bars for bisexual threeways featuring strap-on dildos. I mean, seriously, do you really want to read 50 pages about a guy who looks like Philip Roth having anal sex with his buzzcut girlfriend, but very gently so that he doesn't rebreak his Medicare-funded replacement hip? What's that? Oh, the bathroom's the second door on the left. Sorry about that.

Out of 10: 6.3

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:36 AM, February 26, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |