November 4, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 4 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.)

Rude Awakenings, by Keith M. Donaldson

Rude Awakenings
By Keith M. Donaldson
Trafford Publishing

The Tom-Clancy-style military-tinged political thriller is a genre that is surprisingly difficult to get right, which is why there are so few Tom-Clancy-style crossover hits out there; so when it's done wrong, like in Keith M. Donaldson's Rude Awakenings, the results can often be insufferable, a reading experience that literally makes you think a little worser of the world by the time you're finished. Chock-full of some very basic mistakes -- including entire pages of exposition that read like Wikipedia entries, an over-reliance on acronyms within spoken dialogue, and even master plates that look like they were outputted on a dot-matrix printer -- Donaldson here makes the bad mistake of confusing an interesting premise (Detroit destroyed in a nuclear explosion on a new President's inauguration day) for an actual plot, giving us for at least the first hundred pages not a three-act story based on this development, but literally a blow-by-blow transcript of how a President might respond to such a development over the first week of its occurrence; plus I have to confess, I was intensely turned off by Donaldson's cheerleading of a thinly-veiled Tea Party as the book's heroes, here referred to as the "Centrist" party and led by a man who seems like a rose-tinted version of the batsh-t crazy Rand Paul, an exercise in demon rationalization that had left a bad taste in my mouth by the time I finally gave up on this nearly unreadable manuscript. (And of course, it doesn't help when Donaldson has one of his heroes refer to Barack Obama literally on page 14 as "a weak leader who almost compromised us into oblivion," an early indication of this novel's agenda that will make most non-"Birthers" want to toss the book right there and then.) It does not come recommended today, even to existing fans of right-wing political thrillers.

Out of 10: 1.3

Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David and Jeanne Heidler

Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David and Jeanne Heidler
Random House

As we all know, for every famed politician who eventually enters the history books, there were a dozen politicians around them who didn't, hardworking and greatly respected people in their time but who simply never rose to the level where they were recorded in history's great lists; so to put it in contemporary terms, for example, for every Ronald Reagan, there are a dozen Tip O'Neills, people destined to be forgotten by the public at large just a generation or two after their deaths. And when it comes to the first half of the 1800s, one such person would definitely be Henry Clay -- five-time Presidential also-ran, leader of Congress for almost half a century, scourge of Andrew Jackson, and champion of a whole series of failed projects (including the Bank of the United States, and the idea of compromise between the North and South over the issue of slavery). And it's noble, don't get me wrong, for scholars David and Jeanne Heidler to put together their recent 600-page biography of the man, explaining how he's gotten the short end of the stick over the years by being painted as the dowdy, elitist 'foe' of the populist, fascinating Jackson; but this overlong and overly dry tome also points out the problem of devoting this many pages to a man who ultimately never really did anything truly great, with the text eventually blurring at a certain point into a seemingly endless repetition of, "Then he unsuccessfully ran for President, then he debated tariff legislation, then one of his kids died; then he unsuccessfully ran for President, then he debated tariff legislation, then one of his kids died..." Although he's an interesting figure and I'm glad now that I know more about him, this particular volume delves way too much into the mind-numbing minutia of his day-to-day life, a book perfect for the Heidlers' fellow scholars but maybe not the best choice for a general audience member.

Out of 10: 7.3

The Four Fingers of Death, by Rick Moody

The Four Fingers of Death
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown and Company

So to understand why I found Rick Moody's newest novel so f-cking deplorable, it's important to understand that buried right in the middle of it is a really great, non-ironic science-fiction novel -- set in 2025, it's about a fully downfalling America trying for one last grab at greatness, by finally launching a fabled manned mission to Mars like George W. Bush announced in the years following 9/11; but the same things that have caused America's downfall also turn the mission into a complete disaster (badly designed hardware, ill-trained astronauts, corrupt supervisors, and a corporate mindset overseeing it all), making it a brilliant metaphorical look at what exactly is wrong with the US here in the 21st century, a short but powerful wallop of a book that would've easily garnered a Hugo win if released on its own. But unfortunately, Moody also includes an entire other half, an entire other 300-page cheesy horror tale about how the disconnected but fully alive arm of one of these astronauts (infected with alien bacteria!) makes it back to Earth and goes on a killing spree in the Arizona desert; then he adds this whole bit about how the entire story is supposed to be a novelization of a witty late-21st-century remake of a cheesy 1963 drive-in horror flick; and then he adds this ridiculously pointless introduction, intermission and coda about the guy actually writing this supposed novelization of the witty horror-flick remake, making the whole thing a snotty meta-meta-metafictional project about stories within stories within stories; and then on top of everything else, he writes the entire 700-page trainwreck in this overly cutesy, rambling academic style, a bad attempt at mimicking Kurt Vonnegut (in fact, the book is dedicated to him) that just utterly and completely fails, and that presents to us on a regular basis such unpleasantly postmodernist details as two-page-long single sentences and the like.

F-cking CHR-ST, Moody! Couldn't you have just written the admittedly great sci-fi tale in the middle and left well enough alone? Why is it that every big literary star of the 1990s has felt this uncontrollable urge in the 2000s to write giant, pointless, rambling, pretentious, genre-twisting pomo pieces of f-cking sh-t, of complete f-cking sh-t? (And yes, Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, I'm looking at all of you too. J'accuse!) Is someone slipping something into the Brooklyn water supply that turns all formerly great writers into endlessly digressing hacks? Whatever the case, I can't even begin to describe what a profound and monumental disappointment this book was; although like I said, I still recommend the tight and disturbing science-fiction novel that's buried in the middle of it, a great symbolic look at post-9/11 America that is unfortunately surrounded by 400 other pages of unreadable horsesh-t.

Out of 10: 4.4, but 8.8 for just pages 63 to 320

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:52 AM, November 4, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |