September 3, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 3 September 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.)

Walks With Men, by Ann Beattie

Walks With Men
By Ann Beattie
Scribner

As regular readers know, although I don't make a habit of it, I do occasionally enjoy a well-crafted piece of short "literary" fiction, the kind of $20 novella-sized book that I'm usually railing against here; for example, check out the latest from lit veteran Ann Beattie, the '80s character drama Walks With Men, a literal novella which redeems itself by never pretending to be more than it is, an insightful and darkly comic look at manipulative male intellectuals and the smart yet stupid women who are both on to their tricks and fall for them anyway. And in fact, the best compliment I can pay this slim volume is that it feels an awful lot like an autobiographical tale, a case of Beattie perhaps shedding an old ghost from her own youth, although upon reflection I wonder now whether maybe the entire thing was instead made up out of whole cloth; and that's because Beattie (a multiple recipient of the O. Henry citation for short fiction) has a way of getting under the skin of all the characters seen here, delivering an ultra-realistic, ultra-subtle story of a young hipster in early-'80s lower Manhattan and the platitude-spouting writer twenty years her senior who she quickly ends up with, then breaks up with, then ends up with again. Along the way, then, no one is really spared, with Beattie giving us deeply complex look at both these people plus the various friends and other lovers in their lives, showing us nakedly both the strengths and weaknesses of them all, and positing that a big reason this flawed yet otherwise good woman puts up with the shenanigans of this sorta dicklike poseur is that she realizes she's not exactly a prize catch either. It's a charming if not world-weary book that I really kinda fell in love with by the end, the rare case of a quick read that is well worth its full cover price.

Out of 10: 9.2

Mesopotamia, by Arthur Nersesian

Mesopotamia
By Arthur Nersesian
Akashic Books

It's no secret that I'm a pretty huge fan of Akashic Books, although even the greatest small presses sometimes have their off-days; take for example their latest, the wacky caper tale Mesopotamia by Arthur Nersesian, which is not exactly bad but is certainly not up to the level I expected from the author of cult classic The F-ck-Up. In fact, if anything, you could really call this 'Carl Hiaasen Lite,' and your enjoyment of it can be directly related to your existing opinion of that Florida-based humorous crime novelist; only in this case things are set around the Memphis area, a convoluted plot that involves white-trash scams, an alcoholic Asian reporter, an OJ-style mixed-race celebrity spousal murder, and a conspiracy that may or may not prove that Elvis is still happily alive, and running of all things an Elvis impersonator bar down the street from Graceland. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's fine for what it is, and there's a good chance that you yourself will really love it; but it just got a little too silly a little too often for me, plus is just full of disposable contrivances that seem to exist only to up the novel's quirkiness factor (like the fact that the main character's raging alcoholism instantly disappears the moment it's convenient for the story that it do so). It gets a limited recommendation today, a case of Akashic being just a little off its usual A-game.

Out of 10: 7.9

Righting the Mother Tongue, by David Wolman

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, The Tangled Story of English Spelling
By David Wolman
Smithsonian Books / HarperCollins

I originally picked this up because of a hugely entertaining interview with the author I heard on public radio's "The World in Words;" and blessedly, the book turns out to be just as entertaining, a brisk yet informative look at the various attempts over the millennia to standardize what we know as the English language. Because that of course is an important thing to know about English, for those who don't; that unlike, say, France, there is no official governing board for standard English usage, deciding with legal authority what is "proper" use of the language and what isn't, which is the main reason that English is both one of the most difficult languages on the planet to learn and one of the most expressive. But Lord, as Wolman so eloquently describes, there sure have been a lot of people who have tried their damnedest to impose a sense of official order over the language: from Chaucer and his cohorts in the Middle Ages to Webster and the other proto-linguists of the Enlightenment, to the surprisingly high-profile series of reformers during the Victorian and Edwardian eras (including Theodore Roosevelt, Dale Carnegie and Mark Twain) who spent millions of dollars trying to reduce the language down to a level more akin to modern text-messenging, all the way to the modern crackpots who "picket" the National Spelling Bee each year in order to garner more awareness for their cause. As you can imagine, then, there are a whole series of fascinating side-lanes along this path to modern English, which Wolman puts to very good use in his book, making it not just a dry history but a modern travel guide as well, as he journeys from the birthplace of standardized English (southwest England, that is), to the birthplace of printed text (Germany), to the first global headquarters of printed English books (Antwerp, surprisingly enough), peppering his text throughout with looks at all the various bizarre exceptions found in English spelling and why those exceptions exist. (Why does 'rhubarb' have a silent H? Why is 'color' spelled with an extra U in England but not the US?) It's one of the better nonfiction reads I've come across in a long time, and it comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 9.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:25 AM, September 3, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |