November 29, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 29 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.)

Working on a Dream, by David Masciotra

Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen
By David Masciotra
Continuum

(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.)

To tell you the truth, before reading David Masciotra's Working on a Dream, I had never really given much thought to the work of Bruce Springsteen; I mean, yes, I liked Born in the USA as much as any other teen in the '80s, and then later in my alt-country phase I became briefly obsessed with his '82 album Nebraska, but it had never really occurred to me that the man's total oeuvre might in fact be an amazingly dense and prescient look at both the past and future of the far-liberal Progressive movement, a school of thought that originated with Teddy Roosevelt and his peers over a century ago and that encompasses such diverse communities as the folk artists of the Great Depression, the Beat poets of the '50s, the hard-rockers of the '70s and the sophisticated indie sounds of today. But as Masciotra shows here in this thoughtful collection of essays, Springsteen has both been influenced by all of these communities and has commented on all of them in his own finished work, crafting a career that has morphed and adapted with the times, but that has never strayed far from the core Progressive values of peace, tolerance, fair practices, human rights, and the struggle against isolation and alienation. In fact, about the only complaint I have about this book has more to say about me than it, I think -- that as someone with a low tolerance for academic-style writing, I found myself often zoning out on these formal and analytical essays long before finishing them, always interesting theses but ones that for the most part went on just way too long for my tastes. Those with a bigger enjoyment for this type of writing, though, are sure to love this very smart albeit admittedly highly biased book (hint -- Tea Partiers should stay well away), and it comes recommended to those who enjoy astute if not overly wordy looks at the current culture around us.

Out of 10: 8.0

Lost Lustre, by Josh Karlen

Lost Lustre
By Josh Karlen
Tatra Press

I've been publicly involved in the arts now in one way or another for around 25 years, from my teenage days in St. Louis' punk scene until now; so believe me when I say just how many amazing artists I've now seen in my life who ended up giving up on the pursuit, sometimes through burnout and sometimes simply to embrace middle-class mediocrity instead, a natural impulse given the human condition but still always a melancholy experience at best, a sad realization that yet another former creative has officially given up the good fight. And so that's why it was such an unexpectedly emotional experience to read Josh Karlen's excellent new memoir, Lost Lustre, because of it essentially concerning exactly what I just mentioned; it's a look back at Karlen's youth in the pre-gentrified Lower East Side of '70s Manhattan, where at a certain point a bunch of his high-school buddies formed a New Wave band called The Lustres, and quickly found themselves rubbing elbows with the Ramones and the Talking Heads at places like CBGB, only to fall apart just as quickly when realizing that they were never going to be much more popular than a local bar band at the rate they were progressing, and with the majority of the now twentysomething members not wanting to take the gamble to go for broke and try to elevate themselves into a full-time nationally touring group.

And in fact, as we see in Karlen's well-done if not sometimes purplish manuscript, as is the case with many bands like these, the Lustres only got as far as they did in the first place through the dogged determination of their lead singer, the charming but self-destructive Tim Jordan who most acquaintances still remember thirty years later as a one-man force of nature, the band's rise and fall as a group tied intricately to his own struggle with alcohol. Talking with all his old school buddies for this book for the first time in decades, Karlen comes to realize that it was Jordan's personality and work ethic that almost singlehandedly drove the band to the few successes they had over their five years as a group; and it was his growing addiction and resulting lethargy that brought the group to an end, as the other members all eventually came to worry more about kids and stable careers than in making art, leaving Jordan to eventually die bitter and alone of his demons in the early '90s, still pursuing his music but now too besottled to have any realistic chance of success.

It's an infinitely sad story, one of dashed hopes and failed dreams, one that former journalist and now middle-class media specialist Karlen fills with wistful regret, and I found myself really responding to it in this visceral, moving way; and even though the story of the band itself only takes up around half of the manuscript, the rest being reminisces about girls, travels, his bohemian parents and growing up Jewish, none of which is nearly as interesting, I'm still giving the book a big recommendation to my fellow middle-aged "creative classers" going through the same struggles, and am also giving indie film producers fair notice that this would make for one of those perfect kind of low-budget costume dramas that win all those dark-horse Oscars every winter. I highly encourage you to pick up a copy as soon as you have a chance.

Out of 10: 9.0, or 10 for aging Gen-Xers

Second Acts, by Tim W. Brown

Second Acts
By Tim W. Brown
Gival Press

To call Tim W. Brown's new novel Second Acts a piece of time-traveling science-fiction is not really quite right -- although it uses such a situation as its set-up (University of Chicago scientists from our age travel back to 1833), it's treated as more of an expository device than anything else, with the story itself mostly being about these modern creative-classers permanently stuck in the past and how they deal with it over years and decades. But then, this isn't really a rational, hard-fact historical drama either, and at times approaches even gonzo fairytale territory: note for example, after realizing how important it is to not draw attention to himself, how the first thing the first time traveler does is start running around prematurely "inventing" things like electric lights and oil as an energy form, wanting to become rich and famous but instead becoming a fugitive criminal, because of forgetting about related safety measures like insulation and rubber that had to be invented along with these former trailblazers, and hence causing massive tragedies in every city where he sets up shop; or note how his time-traveling romantic partner, a co-worker turned mistress, regularly whines about things that any normal 21st-century citizen would rightly know about the early 1800s before arriving (that it smelled, that it was dangerous, that sewage ran openly in the streets, that women were treated like second-class citizens); or note how when the mistress's husband comes chasing after them, technically making him the third time-traveler in history, the first thing he does is pick up a transvestite Indian guide named Bunny who has the mystical ability to understand that he's traveled through time.

And that maybe gets us closest to understanding what Brown meant for this novel to be -- in reality a look at Americans in the post-industrial early 21st century, and how much we take the things around us these days for granted, precisely by delivering a funny quasi-historical tale showing all the messy steps it took in this country to get us there. But then, this book's title also indicates much about what the story concerns; because as the years progress, we watch as some of these characters end up adapting well to the simpler, less safe times around them, creating in effect entire second acts in their lives, while some of these timeonauts are just unable to shed the baggage they brought with them from the 21st century, stubbornly trying to shoehorn it into 19th-century standards and forever failing. It's a hybrid of a book to be sure, one that crosses through many genres without stopping for good at any of them; but in this case I found such a thing delightful instead of tedious or gimmicky, and recommend it to the same kind of people who like Monty Python, Joss Whedon and Terry Pratchett. It's not for everyone, but those just mentioned will love it for sure.

Out of 10: 8.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:27 AM, November 29, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |