March 24, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 24 March 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.)

Hooked, by Pauline Kael

By Pauline Kael
E.P. Dutton / Penguin

Now that I'm finally entering the last phase of my recovery from the bad bicycle accident I had last year, and am up and clicking at full speed again regarding the contemporary books I review on a professional basis, I've decided to start more and more getting through the older books in my reading list as well, the ones that are on there for personal reasons only. And one of the older writers on this list is the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, because of having so many people now compare my essays to hers; and in an interesting twist of fate, it turns out that of the twenty or so books she published while alive, the only one in the permanent stacks of my neighborhood library happens to be Hooked, covering just the reviews she wrote from 1985 to 1988, a.k.a. my senior year in high school and first couple of years in college, arguably the one period in my life I saw more contemporary movies than any other. (And indeed, of the 175 random films covered in this particular volume, I've seen 75 of them, making it an excellent opportunity to see whether I agree with Kael's taste in movies or not.)

And yes, after finishing this book, I now agree that Kael and I write in a very similar way, although to my haters let me make it clear that I am not comparing the quality of my writing to Pauline Kael's; I simply mean that both of us tend to write very long, highly analytical critiques of artistic projects, penned in a funny, conversational style and referencing a lot of history, with neither of us afraid of expressing strong opinions when it's called for. And in this you can see Kael as creating the blueprint for all modern long-form arts analysis, with her influence seen in everyone from the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani to the staff of The Onion AV Club; and that's a very interesting thing, I think, given that in our current world of a million crappy critics who no one pays attention to anymore, Kael is becoming more and more forgotten by the day, and that I imagine many Kaelesque long-form critics like myself have no idea that that's who they're emulating in the first place. Obviously there's a certain inherent datedness in these old books of hers, but I encourage anyone interested in thoughtful artistic analysis to read through some of her work to see how the master did it, and especially concerning the countercultural times of the '60s and '70s when she first made a big splash.

Out of 10: 8.8

A, B & E, by Marc Nash

A, B & E
By Marc Nash
New Generation Publishing

As far as I can tell, Marc Nash's A, B & E is not really a narrative novel per se, but more like a 185-page prose poem; and while that's a perfectly valid type of book to write and publish, I unfortunately have a standing policy at CCLaP not to review poetic projects, simply because they clash badly with the ultra-analytical style of critiquing that I do here. I mean, don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the 25 or so pages of this that I read; but there precisely belies why I don't review such books, because the only thing I can come up with to explain why I liked it is, "Um, because it's all, um, weird and sh-t." To do a decent review of such books requires an entire skill set that I simply do not possess, which is why today I'm recusing myself from giving A, B & E a score, despite my standing promise here to review any book that a person takes the trouble to send to me. Obviously there are exceptions to that promise (I don't review children's literature either, for example), and as always I encourage interested authors and presses to look over CCLaP's publicly posted submission guidelines before sending in a book for possible review.

Out of 10: N/A

The Dorrington Deed-Box, by Arthur Morrison

The Dorrington Deed-Box
By Arthur Morrison

Regular readers will remember that last fall, I became a huge fan of a 1970s BBC television series called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which just recently came out on DVD for the first time, a compendium of hour-long TV movies based on the actual Victorian detective stories being published in London's penny dreadfuls at the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle's work, almost all of which have fallen into unheard-of obscurity 125 years later. In particular I ended up really loving the episodes based on a character named Horace Dorrington by Arthur Morrison, collected into a single 1897 volume called The Dorrington Deed-Box that is so obscure that not even Project Gutenberg carries it; ah, but it turns out that it is one of the fabled million titles that Google Books has now scanned and added to their massive library, which I recently downloaded in EPUB form and transferred to my Sony Reader e-ink device*, and which I got to read while out at the cafes just like any other book in existence. Excelsior! Behold the glorious modern world in which we live! The future is now, brave cyber adventurers! Enter the matrix and gleam the cube and so forth!

And in fact, all of my fellow Baker Street Irregulars are sure to get a big kick out of the Dorrington stories, precisely because he's essentially the anti-Sherlock Holmes; penned by a literal former East End orphan (the poverty-stricken feral children of Victorian London who Charles Dickens so often wrote about), Morrison's private detective is actually quite the cunning sociopath himself, solving crimes not for any noble purpose but so he can then squeeze the criminals for blackmail money (and eventually turning them in anyway, so that his reputation as an investigator is secure), unafraid to bump off said criminals when they're unwilling to play along. It's a darkly delightful book, full of the same kinds of complex capers as any Doyle volume but without any of the Lawful Good moralizing or sermons, and it makes me realize just what a wide breadth of detective fiction used to exist in the late Victorian period, nearly all of it besides a handful of characters now completely forgotten by the public at large. It comes highly recommended, and in fact with its public-domain status could easily serve as the starting point for a whole series of brand-new tales, for any genre authors out there stuck these days for inspiration.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of Victorian detective fiction

*And for those who are curious, by the way, it's only the title page and illustrations that are presented as scanned images in Google EPUB books, like you're seeing in the above photo; the actual body of the work is instead presented as contemporary computer text, so as to be resizable and reflowable just like any other electronic book.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
By Lev Grossman
Viking / Penguin

(UPDATE: After reading other reviews online, I realized that I could've made my point even more succinctly by simply saying the following: "Oh, wonderful -- another dour academe writes another fussy, joyless genre exercise, designed specifically for MFA circle-jerks who consider themselves 'above' such silly frippery. Yeah, that's exactly what the world needed." I like that review much more than my original one, which as commenters have already noted, sounds like I didn't get the fact that Grossman deliberately ripped off the Harry Potter storyline, precisely to make the point that such a world would actually be fussy and joyless. I get that Grossman deliberately ripped off Harry Potter; my point is that he's an untalented f-cking hack for doing so, and that such a thing is profoundly offensive to those of us who are adult genre fans, and who do enjoy the Harry Potter books precisely for their sense of joy and wonder.)

Regular readers know that I mostly judge books here on relative terms -- relative to the author's experience, relative to my natural interest in its subject, relative to the amount of money that was spent promoting that book. And that's why I was so excited to get my hands on Lev Grossman's The Magicians, one of the most heavily hyped books of last autumn, because it comes with an excellent pedigree: written by the main book critic for Time magazine, it is purportedly an inventive urban-fantasy tale described by many as "Harry Potter for grown-ups" (or technically, "Harry Potter meets Narnia for grown-ups," the milieu of each taking up either half of Grossman's own novel), and with a whole series of gushing blurbs on the back cover from a whole series of impressive authors, with no less than Junot Diaz calling it "stirring, complex and adventurous." (Of course, this nicely illustrates as well the inherent ethical problems with a book reviewer writing and publishing their own creative work; because who's to say that any of these quoted authors actually meant any of the praise they give, and aren't instead terrified of Grossman doing a hatchet job on their own books for refusing to play along? That's why I'm such a stickler for the idea that professional book reviewers should never, ever publish their own creative work in the field of whatever type of literature they're paid to review, and why a big red flag goes up in my head every time one of them does.)

And it's for all these reasons that this book's massive shortcomings made me not just disappointed but actively infuriated; because when people say that this is "Harry Potter for grown-ups," they mean that it is a literal beat-for-beat plagiaristic ripoff of the Harry Potter books, such a thoroughly naked steal of someone else's ideas that I'm legitimately surprised that JK Rowling hasn't sued Grossman back into the stone age. Don't believe me? Well, just look at the evidence -- it's about a group of teenagers who receive mysterious invitations to attend a magic school, housed in a crumbling gothic castle located several hours north of a major metropolitan area, hidden from the public by powerful illusion spells and full of delightfully quirky tics like moving staircases and disappearing doors, overseen by a wise but childlike white-bearded authority figure, who just happens to own a magical map showing the location of all residents at any given moment, where for some reason all renovations seem to have been banned somewhere around the middle of the Victorian Age, which for an equally inexplicable reason has adopted both the structure and even the terms of the British educational system despite being an American school, whose students enjoy on the weekends an intercollegiate sport that's much like the magical version of a human game, and where it turns out that spell-casting is actually a fairly tedious academic process of memorization and proper inflection. J-sus, Grossman, you untalented hack, why don't you throw in a Golden F-cking Snitch while you're at it?

Now, I acknowledge that genre novels by nature are always going to share a certain amount of elements with other novels in that genre, and in fact I have no problem with that when it's done well and used merely as a starting point; for an excellent example, see Susanna Clarke's fantastic Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which takes a very Potteresque concept (magic actually exists in open hiding all around us) but instead does something strikingly original with the idea, creating an entire millennium-long fake history of the UK and then focusing in on the dysfunctional fuddy-duddys who are the masters of this made-up applied science. But in The Magicians, Grossman presents not even a single solitary idea that he didn't steal from someone else, essentially making the whole thing feel like the unnecessary fan-fiction product of some 17-year-old goth girl who's jealous that Rowling beat her to the punch; and while that would be fine if this actually was a piece of xeroxed fan fiction from a 17-year-old goth girl with no original ideas of her own, it's f-cking inexcusable when it's the most heavily hyped book of the year, and comes from the main book critic of Time f-cking magazine. J-sus, what a godd-mned waste of my time this derivative piece of sh-t was. F-CK YOU, LEV GROSSMAN, for stealing a week of my life that I will never get back.

Out of 10: 0.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:27 PM, March 24, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |