November 15, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 15 November 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.)

Opur's Blade, by James Ross

Opur's Blade
By James Ross
Nightengale Press

(I'm severely behind right now on the alarmingly high stack of basement-press books that have been sent to me this fall, so I'm going to be tearing through a bunch of them at a fairly fast rate from now until the end of the year. Here below are the latest three.)

One of the things I'm fascinated by in the arts these days is the rise of what could almost be called the "pro/am" writer, who takes advantage of small-run publishing plants and social media to craft a humble career for themselves as the author of an ongoing, hyper-specialized series, maintaining a fan base that will never get them rich but is at least enough to justify writing another book; the reason I call these people pro/am, then, is that it seems sometimes that the writing on these specialized subjects (knitting, cooking, athletics) is as much of a hobby for these authors as it is a professional endeavor, and that in a different age these people might be spending that writing time building a model railroad in their basement instead. Take for example lifelong golfer James Ross, who decided only in his fifties to start writing for the first time, and who has now put out four novels in an ongoing series about the laid-back fictitious Prairie Winds public golf course over on the east side of St. Louis (locals, think more like Cahokia than East St. Louis proper), where a recurring cast of quirky characters take on different political and sociological issues in each title (broken families, legal corruption, fighting cancer) while mixing in plenty of golfing, discussions about golfing, theories about golfing, and golfing golfing did I mention golfing golfing golfing?

I mean, don't get me wrong, this latest in the series has more than its fair share of problems, and when directly compared to just about any mainstream novel is almost sure to come out on the losing end; but it's also very readable and entertaining, with a sprinkling of legitimate surprises and intelligent moments, a novel clearly meant for a niche audience (seriously, you better love golfing) but that keeps that niche audience highly satisfied. I find it charming that we live in an age where books like these can not only exist but can even have a decent-sized fan base, without any of the parties involved having to deal with big publishing houses or chain bookstores; and although it's far from the best-written thing I've read this year, I'm glad to know that such quietly enjoyable specialized novels as these are out there.

Out of 10: 7.5, or 8.0 for golf fans

Below Sunlight, by Ryan Adam Smith

Below Sunlight
By Ryan Adam Smith
Self-published

We're just two weeks away now from my upcoming public talk with Nathan Rabin, head writer of the astonishingly great AV Club; and one of the reasons I find Rabin so great is that he not only reviews projects from our culture but even coins brand-new cultural phrases himself, such as the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" (or MPDG) to describe in his words "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures"...or in my words, "Every ex-girlfriend I've ever had." And that's why I have such a soft spot for other books about MPDGs, such as Ryan Adam Smith's Below Sunlight, an almost textbook example of the subgenre centered complexly around a vaguely hippie/punk-like club kid in her early twenties who is convinced that she was put on this earth to eventually become someone's guardian angel, and who therefore maintains a consumerist retinue of angel motifs in her life (angel tattoos, angel purses, angel panties) that would normally be teeth-gratingly annoying but that somehow these manic pixie dream girls always manage to pull off. (And let it be noted, by the way, that for a publishing medium that's usually known for its laughably crappy covers, Smith gets his I think almost perfectly right, using a model who almost exactly matches what I would've pictured this woman looking like too. Oh, manic pixie ex-girlfriends, how I miss you!)

The story itself, then, is told through the eyes of hapless schmuck our hero Sam, a young man who has recently moved from Seattle to Albuquerque in an effort to put space between himself and a traumatic incident involving yet another MPDG ex-girlfriend, with the storyline hopping from one city and plot to the other in alternating chapters, as he and his new circle of dysfunctionally ultra-hip friends go through a whole series of adventures in the deserts of the Southwest, building towards a double-climax that contains what I confess is one of the most original surprises I've read in a basement-press novel in a long time. And while the manuscript contains all the problems you would expect from a title of this sort (stilted dialogue, overly written exposition, too much of a reliance on drugs to establish mood [sheesh, all that cocaine]), let me also make it quickly clear that I was deeply charmed by this novel as well, a literary debut that Smith can be proud of and that hopefully points to some even better books down the road. You have to be forgiving of its faults, but if you are, you're likely to find Below Sunlight a dark-edged yet pleasantly intense tale that goes a long way towards showing why dumbstruck 27-year-olds are always falling in love with manic pixie dream girls in the first place.

Out of 10: 8.1

Quite a Few Extremely Short Stories, by Mick MacO.

Quite a Few Extremely Short Stories
By Mick MacO.
Self-published

Regular readers will remember Irish writer Mick MacO., whose self-published travel journal Trip was a favorite of mine when it came out last year; and now he has a new book out, a slim volume called Quite a Few Extremely Short Stories, where in less than a hundred pages he shares almost fifty very small pieces of prose, some in fact only a sentence or two in length. And to tell you the truth, I'm mentioning it today more to simply let you know of its existence than to do an actual critical review; because these are really more like random thoughts and beginning threads of stories than anything finished and ready for analysis, a cute-looking little book but that I doubt will hold much interest beyond MacO's personal friends. I would definitely pick it up if he was on tour and selling them in the back of the room after a show, but I'm not sure if this wisp of a collection is worth going out of your way to track down.

Out of 10: 7.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:39 PM, November 15, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |