February 2, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 2 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.)

There Never Was a Better Time, by Doug Taylor

There Never Was a Better Time: Toronto's Yesterdays
By Doug Taylor

I've said here many times already what I think one of the greatest strengths of the print-on-demand, self-publishing format is -- namely, the chance for part-time writers to pen a story specific to their family and situation, so to make the book easily available to the several hundred other relatives and historians who would be interested in such a book. Take for a good example the recent There Never Was a Better Time by Doug Taylor, a slightly fictionalized narrative account of his own family's migration from a small fishing village in Canada to the bustling city of Toronto in the early 20th century; because the simple fact is that this is destined to just never be a big seller, between the extremely narrow subject matter and Taylor's only so-so skills as a writer. But it's also a lively and very readable account of one family's struggles to adapt to the modern age, penned with the kind of eye for historical detail that you would expect from a retired professor like Taylor; and that makes this perfect for people like Canadian history buffs and friends of the family, even if that's admittedly a small crowd. Such manuscripts used to have to be distributed via grimy, expensive stacks of xeroxes handed out at family get-togethers; so how nice, I always think, that we live in an age where it can instead be purchased in a good-looking bound form and sent straight to your home whenever you want. As always, I urge you to take this mindset yourself when it comes to most print-on-demand volumes, instead of comparing them directly to someone like Malcolm Gladwell and always being disappointed.

Out of 10: 7.6

The Vikings: A History, by Robert Ferguson

The Vikings: A History
By Robert Ferguson
Viking / Penguin

Regulars know that I'm a big fan of the so-called "NPR-worthy" history book, in which academic research is combined with a narrative framework and engaging personal style; and for a perfect example of why this deserves a special new term in the first place, look no further than Robert Ferguson's old-skool history book The Vikings, which admittedly has a kickass cover* but whose interior is as dry as the brittle bones of a New England classics professor. Now, admittedly, this is not entirely Ferguson's fault; as he himself admits in the introduction, a big part of why so little is factually known about the Vikings is that this medieval warrior society was largely a non-literate one, resulting not only in a dearth of written records but with most surviving artifacts being stone pictographs, and therefore open to wildly different interpretations. So to fill his 400-page manuscript, then, Ferguson unfortunately has to rely on the trick that most older history books had to as well -- namely, to concentrate mostly on unending lists of minor battles and fiefdom takeovers that happened in the 300 years of the so-called "Viking Era" (roughly 700 to 1000 A.D.), taking place in an endless series of ancient villages you've never heard of and led by an endless series of chieftains whose names you can't pronounce. This is the way most of our childhood history textbooks were, which is why so many people end up despising the entire subject of history by adulthood; how "NPR-worthy" books differ, and why they've suddenly flowered in popularity among the mainstream public in the last ten years, is that they incorporate sections on the culture of that age too, and the ways that normal average random people back then quietly lived their daily lives, nearly impossible to do here because of there being almost no direct evidence to illuminate us. Although a noble effort, and of course perfect for those who don't mind history books that read like doctoral theses, I found myself bored to tears throughout large sections of this book, and suspect that many others will as well.

*Yes, my guilty secret is finally out -- I often pick books based on their covers. I know, as a book critic I should be ashamed of myself for doing this; I know, I know.

Out of 10: 7.2

Animals and Objects In and Out of Water: Posters by Jay Ryan

Animals and Objects In and Out of Water: Posters by Jay Ryan, 2005-2008
Edited by Fred Sasaki
Akashic Books

So when do you know that you've really made it as a book critic? Why, when you start receiving free review copies of lush art books, that's when, chump! I just recently received my first, in fact, Akashic's Animals and Objects In and Out of Water, a late-'00s overview of Chicago-based graphic designer and indie-rock stalwart Jay Ryan; and I was already a big fan of Ryan's work (it's hard to live in Chicago and not be, frankly -- his work is everywhere), so this book turned out to be an extra-big pleasure in my case. Featuring beautiful reprints of over 120 of his best designs, all of them from 2005 to '08, and a series of essays from artists he's done work for (including our old pal Joe Meno), this is a perfect gift for any creative hipster in your life; and with it coming out as an oversized paperback, it's one that everyone can afford too.

Out of 10: 9.0

(IMPORTANT UPDATE AND DISCLOSURE: Since writing this review, I've learned that my cousin Nathan Keay was part of the production team for this book. Rest assured that this didn't influence my opinion, in that I wrote my review before finding this out.)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:13 PM, February 2, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |