July 9, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 9 July 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.)

Brain Thief, by Alexander Jablokov

Brain Thief
By Alexander Jablokov

At first glance, the "trippy" "cyberpunk" novel Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov looks like something that'd be right up my alley, to the point that it's one of the few titles I've ever bothered to put on reserve at my local library, instead of my usual habit of choosing books based on whatever random titles happen to be there on the day of my visit. But alas, this novel is neither trippy nor cyberpunk, but rather a sorta ham-fisted gonzo comedy that shares exactly enough surface-level elements with trippy cyberpunk to justify some lazy marketer slapping the words onto the dust jacket, a book that supposedly concerns the day-after-tomorrow high-tech industry centered around Boston and an artificially intelligent entity that has gone rogue, but whose entire first half (which is as far as I read) mostly consists of zany chase scenes that for some unknown reason are set in locations that feel more like rural California in 1956. Of course, details like these have been forgiven in other bizarro novels I've reviewed here, but Brain Thief also happens to be egregiously guilty of the most common crime among all genre fiction in general, of ignoring character development in their service of an overly convoluted plot; and so not only does this book mostly consist of zany chase scenes when it's been advertised as a brainy thriller, but they are chase scenes set among disposable cartoon characters, completely failing to generate any interest among the reader as to what their fates might be, and instead forcing the reader to judge the book solely by how clever it is (which unfortunately is "not very"). I mean, not every book out there has to be Proust, but for God's sake, I want an artist to at least make an effort at getting us to feel like we're following the fate of a real human being, and not just some cardboard chess piece that emerged whole-cloth from their mind's eye; and this of course is the big problem among CGI-obsessed Hollywood these days too, and why such big-budget spectacles like Avatar still end up feeling flat and listless no matter how inventive the special effects. This book is the textual version of that, and it comes recommended to only the most hardcore fans of bizarro and gonzo fiction out there.

Out of 10: 5.7

The Last Duel, by James Landale

The Last Duel
By James Landale

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of what I call "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books, or in other words a book which contains all the precise research and fact-checking of an academic paper, but written in a narrative style engaging enough to score them an interview on NPR; but there's also a big problem with the growing popularity of NPR-worthy books, which is that in their haste to assemble a 300-page manuscript that can be sold as a typical $25 hardback, a lot of these books will end up containing only about a magazine article's worth of actual interesting content, the other 250 pages padded with ancillary information about those times in general that don't really have anything to do with the subject at hand. Take for example James Landale's The Last Duel, which features a legitimately fascinating event at its core -- the very last publicly recorded formal pistol duel in Scotland, that is, taking place in 1826 just as the emerging Romantic Age was to profoundly redefine the meaning of the word "gentleman," giving Landale the perfect excuse to examine not only this particular event but also the history of dueling in general, from its start in jousting matches among knights in the Middle Ages to its death during the Victorian Age of the 19th century, and of how related issues like greater rule of law, a better-working justice system, more sophisticated weapons, and an overall rise in sanctity for human life eventually did away with the millennium-old tradition for good.

But unfortunately, even all this is only enough to fill about a third of a book, so Landale has to search long and hard for even tangentially related information to fill the rest -- there is an entire chapter, for example, just on the history of the city of Kirkcaldy where the duel took place, and an entire other chapter just on the history of the mercantile industry, a financial dispute within which is what brought about the duel, and an entire other chapter just on the history of the Napoleonic Wars, which is what bankrupted Britain in the 1820s and led to the financial dispute to begin with. That's an awful long distance to travel from one's main subject, and is not the issue I wanted to read about when I picked up the book in the first place, which is why The Last Duel gets an only tepid recommendation from me today, a book worth reading for those interested in the history of dueling but that one will have to do a lot of hunting and pecking with to find the good bits.

Out of 10: 7.0

The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer

The History of the Ancient World
By Susan Wise Bauer
WW Norton

Earlier this year, Susan Wise Bauer's remarkable The History of the Medieval World became the first (and still so far only) book in 2010 to earn a perfect score here at CCLaP; and this was also when I mentioned that it is in fact volume two of an ambitious series Bauer is in the middle of right now, chronicling in a straightforward yet truly global way the entire history of the human race, from its emergence as city-building agrarians around 10,000 BC to literally now, and how later in the year I would also be tackling book one of the series, which covers essentially the Sumerians of the "Fertile Crescent" (humanity's very first "civilized" society) to the fall of the Roman Empire around 400 AD. Well, I'm finally done with that first volume, and I can confidently state that it's just as good as the other one, and in fact would've gotten a perfect score as well except that it's a little older of a title (2007, making it ineligible for CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year), plus by its nature is simply not as interesting as the volume concerning the Middle Ages. (Turns out that between the Sumerians and the ancient Greeks lie roughly two thousand years of interchangeable Mesopotamian warrior societies we have largely forgotten by now, of which we know barely anything, making for not exactly the most scintillating reading.) Highly recommended as a two-book set, which in a tidy 1,500 pages tells the armchair historian just about everything they need to know about the first 11,000 years of recorded history, from the development of the first writing system to the first formal Crusade between Christians and Muslims; and needless to say that I'm highly looking forward to the third book of this ongoing series, whenever that may happen to be coming out.

Out of 10: 9.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:28 PM, July 9, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |