June 30, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 30 June 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.)

Water Ghosts, by Shawna Yang Ryan

Water Ghosts
By Shawna Yang Ryan
The Penguin Press

One of the biggest pleasures of running this website is the chance to discover new books recommended to me by other writers I admire; take for example California author Jason Riley, who earlier this year sent along to me the novel Water Ghosts by his buddy acquaintance Shawna Yang Ryan, under the belief that I would enjoy it too. And enjoy it I did, although I should warn you off the bat that it's a very academic style of novel, and that you will need to be at least partly a fan of academic fiction to have even a chance of enjoying it yourself. It's essentially the tale of a small Chinese-Amerian town in California called Locke in 1928, after the gold rush but before World War Two; and like all good academic fiction, instead of being based around a fast plot, it's much more a deep examination of the various people who live in this town, including the salty female owner of the local brothel, the slick gambling-hall manager who is her biggest client, the two prostitutes who he is in love with, one of whom is half-white, the preacher's daughter who the half-white woman in turn is in love with, and more. When, then, a mysterious refugee ship shows up out of the blue, carrying three emaciated women including the merchant's wife from back in China, the subsequent reverberations turn the town into turmoil; and indeed, also in good academic fashion, Ryan uses this development to examine in a poetic, magical-realism way whether these refugees are in fact the anciently superstitious "water ghosts" of the book's title. A delicate work full of beautiful prose, this is exactly the ticket for those who are existing fans of, say, Joyce Carol Oates or Amy Tan; but if you're not a fan of these other authors, it'd probably be best just to skip this title altogether.

Out of 10: 8.4

Pen of Iniquity, by Deno Sandz

Pen of Iniquity
By Deno Sandz
PublishAmerica

As I've said here before, although I'm a fan of self-publishing and try to champion the format as much as I can, its complete lack of outside quality checks can in many cases produce a real problem -- that is, books that aren't nearly ready to be released to a general public, which an author may never realize because of lacking the support staff that comes with a traditional press. And unfortunately, a good example of this would be Deno Sandz's Pen of Iniquity, which at least at its start concerns a corrupt Southern jail that is eventually shuttered by the state; but to tell the truth, the beginning was as far as I got into this book, with its many, many unchecked problems making the manuscript virtually unreadable, including superfluous random periods in the middles of sentences, frequent use of grossly wrong words (to cite one early example, "parish" instead of "perish"), and of course a multitude of spelling and grammar mistakes too numerous to count. It's not receiving a score today, because I feel like it's literally not ready to be critically judged; instead, I would highly recommend to Sandz that he stop sending it out to reviewers altogether, and hire right away a good editor or at least proofreader to go over this with a fine-toothed comb.

Out of 10: N/A

World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler

World Made by Hand
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press

I've been toying around recently with the idea of releasing a new book of essays called The CCLaP Guide to Bushist Literature, taking a look back at all the post-9/11 novels I've now read that blame a conservative administration for bringing about a speculative neo-fascist America or even post-apocalyptic disaster (see for example The Road, World War Z, The Plot Against America, Jamestown, The Possibility of an Island, Anathem, Rant, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Under the Dome...are you starting to see why I'm thinking of doing this book in the first place?); and if I were to put such a book together, absolutely one of the titles included would have to be "Doom-N-Gloomer" James Howard Kunstler's 2008 World Made by Hand, the book that in fact is precisely known for kicking off what's now known as the "Peak Oil" movement, the belief that one day pretty soon we're simply going to run out of fossil fuels, and that in our current state we'll all be pretty much screwed when that happens.

I had been warned over and over about this book being terrible to the point of ridiculousness, so I have to say that I was surprised and relieved to find it actually pretty good*; but brother, make no mistake, this is not so much a traditional post-apocalyptic tale as it is Kunstler's wish-fulfillment wet dream of a world he desperately wishes actually existed, a pre-industrial Luddite paradise in upstate New York where all the commuting stockbrokers and dot-commers have now become farmers and blacksmiths, where every good thing about small-town life has been retained but none of the bad, where women have come to voluntarily realize that the only things they're good for are canning fruit and making love to the men-folk, and where it's apparently proven that not a single thing from the 20th century besides medicine was worth keeping in the first place. (And just how self-righteously utopian does Kunstler get? Well, there are no drug addicts in his post-apocalyptic world, for example, despite marijuana and poppies now growing wild on the sides of the abandoned highways; and that's because in the universe of World Made by Hand, only the strong and noble have the will to survive, while those who are apathetic enough about life to do drugs in the first place have all died off long ago. Sheesh, and you thought I was bitter!)

It's these details, then, that lead to the most notoriously eye-rolling elements of the book, the stuff its haters are always mentioning -- like how everyone for some unknown reason start dressing like the Amish after these post-apocalyptic events, how all the men for some reason all decide to grow big bushy hippie beards and start wearing bolo ties, how for some reason everyone in the 2010s suddenly starts speaking in the most corpone, faux-country dialect this side of a Little House on the Prairie episode. (Although to be fair, even Kunstler admits in the book that this is simply a look at one random town where everything just happened to go right; although they receive little news of the outside world in this novel, it's heavily insinuated that the rest of the US hasn't survived the apocalypse in nearly as good a shape as the idyllic rural town that is our focus, with it being implied that slavery has been reinstated in the Deep South, and that a state of Mad-Max anarchy exists pretty much everywhere west of Denver.) It can get silly for sure, but at least the fundamentals of character, plot and style are all rock-solid, making World Made by Hand an imminently readable and even thought-provoking reflection of its Bushist times. For those with a high tolerance for occasional cheesiness, it comes strongly recommended.

Out of 10: 8.6

*And although the book turned out to be better than expected, for unintentional Doom-N-Gloom amusement I highly recommend checking out an episode of Kunstler's podcast, in which he routinely ignores basic rational arguments that are presented to him so that he can instead confidently state his worst-case-scenario diatribes, most of them hilariously (and unironically) ending along the lines of, "...And that's why, by the time of Obama's re-election in 2012, I predict that large sections of the American Midwest will be forced to eat their own babies for mere survival."

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:42 AM, June 30, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |