(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.)
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Regular readers know that I've become a big fan recently of the so-called "NPR-worthy" book; and by that I mean a nonfiction title that combines the research of academia with the quirkiness and readability of the beach-and-airport crowd, delivering a lively but thought-provoking manuscript by the end that becomes the darling of "Fresh Air" and "Charlie Rose" aficionados. For example, see the nearly perfect The Possessed by Elif Batuman, which starts with the dry facts of the Turkish-American author being a comparative-lit doctorate trained at Harvard and Stanford and with a soft spot for Russian novels, but then explodes from there into a winding trek full of digressions and all kinds of fascinating anecdotes, as she shows how her much more straitlaced writing in the past for The New Yorker and Harper's has led her to all kinds of interesting situations (from an academic conference at Leo Tolstoy's old estate to attempting to spend the night in a life-sized ice castle in the middle of St. Petersburg), and how these experiences were filled with bizarre characters, ivory-tower pissing contests, and all kinds of other unforgettable details. As such, then, this is partly a well-done primer on Russian literature, partly a Lonely-Planet-style travelogue about the former Soviet republics of southwest Asia, partly a confessional journal about academia and growing up in an immigrant family, and partly a gonzo-journalism look at the kinds of people who flock to Russian literature in the first place. It's a beguiling combination of elements, hard to explain but easy to love, and I find it here at the end of the year just squeaking in on time to CCLaP's best-of list for 2010. It comes highly recommended, not just for the book itself but in the hopes that it'll inspire other 21st-century essayists to put out books that are similar in nature.
Out of 10: 9.6
By Matthew Stokoe
Little House on the Bowery / Akashic Books
Earlier this year, I had the chance to review the latest novel by Matthew Stokoe, a contemporary noir called Empty Mile from Akashic Books which I found okay but only so-so; but I have to say, I find myself a much bigger fan now of his more experimental 1997 Cows, being reprinted next month by the Akashic imprint "Little House on the Bowery," in which Akashic basically hands a budget to revered transgressive author Dennis Cooper and says, "Go find us some incredibly creepy books." And incredibly creepy this is, which you should be dutifully warned of before even thinking of picking up this slim yet nightmare-inducing story; essentially a fractured fairytale that's as black as the night is long, the plot itself doles out the same kind of punishment as getting beaten repeatedly with a baseball bat, following our sad-sack antihero through his humiliating days as a minimum-wage employee at an extra-cruel slaughterhouse, dealing all day with his sexually sadistic co-workers and all evening with his cartoonishly abusive mother who he still lives with, the violence so profoundly ratcheted up so early in the story that we quickly understand it to be metaphorical instead of literal. That said, though, this is stomach-churning text to be sure, so ridiculously dark and bleak that you sometimes want to stand up and cheer Stokoe simply for his clarity of vision; and I'll take something this pure and outre over a ho-hum noir thriller like Empty Mile any day, a book that certainly has its problems but that is still hypnotically entrancing anyway, in the same way I suppose that a full bottle of bourbon might look to an off-the-wagon alcoholic with the DT shakes. It's for a limited audience only, that's for damn sure, but those who like such transgressive pioneers as Kathy Acker, Caryl Churchill and Cooper himself are sure to love this exquisite little piece of nastiness.
Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.5 for fans of transgressive literature
7 Scorpions: Rebellion
By Mike Saxton
I spent a long time contemplating what to say about Mike Saxton's literary debut, 7 Scorpions: Rebellion, volume one of a coming science-fiction action-thriller trilogy; because while it's obvious that Saxton has put in quite a lot of time and effort with this title, and probably quite a financial commitment too, it's hard to say anything else about it besides that it's pretty terrible, less a finished genre novel for adults and more a profoundly hackneyed collection of violent apocalyptic-lit cliches designed for the "juggalo" end of the teenage-boy spectrum. (I mean, what can you say about a book that sees right on page one the meteoric rise of an unstoppable laser-wielding supervillain, dressed in spike-covered armor and named after a '70s serial killer? That's page freaking one, people.) But then, this may be the saving grace of such a book too -- because I'm sincere when I say that it will legitimately appeal to videogame-playing 14-year-olds, and there are far worse things in the world than to write a story that appeals to such a group, especially given that I used to be a violent little videogame-playing teenage boy myself. It would certainly be possible to print up, say, 500 copies of such a title, market it wisely, do a lot of live events tied into sci-fi and gaming conventions, and be able to make a tidy little profit by the end, all while getting the book into the hands of people who will legitimately love it; and while I can't in good conscience recommend this novel to intelligent grown-ups, I also wouldn't want to stand in the way of Saxton doing something exactly like what I just described, a plan that won't get anyone rich but that would certainly justify the book's existence, in the face of those who are undoubtedly tempted to make vicious fun of it. It's in that spirit that I recommend this today to the "Grand Theft Auto" playing teenage boy in your own life.
Out of 10: 5.9, or 7.4 for violent teenage boys