January 20, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 20 January 2011

(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.)

Culture of Opportunity, by Rebecca Janowitz

Culture of Opportunity: Obama's Chicago -- The People, Politics and Ideas of Hyde Park
By Rebecca Janowitz
Ivan R. Dee

There's definitely a fascinating book to be written about the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, and of all the personality changes it's gone through over the last century and a half; originally developed whole-cloth in the middle of the wilderness in the mid-1800s, it was the location of the hugely influential 1893 World's Fair (which then afterwards was turned into a public-park showcase for Frederick Law Olmsted's experimental theories on landscape design), was envisioned from its outset to be the home of the University of Chicago, to this day one of the American Midwest's only world-class schools, and was literally one of the only urban areas in the entire country to thrive during the "white flight" years of the 1950s and '60s, creating the mixed-class, mixed-race, liberally intellectual environment that produced our current President, Barack Obama. Unfortunately, though, Rebecca Janowitz's Culture of Opportunity is not that book, but instead is the living embodiment of what rural conservatives complain about when discussing places like Hyde Park, an intolerably pollyannish apologia for the New Agey neighborhood and its shiny, happy denizens that is so smugly self-righteous, I could barely even make it through the masturbatory, forever-back-slapping first chapter. The very definition of preaching to the choir, this 250-page bohemian-bourgeoise rah-rah will make those who don't already adore the concept of Hyde Park simply hate it even more, and may in fact end up serving the opposite purpose in many eyes than the neighborhood boosterism Janowitz meant for it to be in the first place.

Out of 10: 4.5

The Thousand, by Kevin Guilfoile

The Thousand
By Kevin Guilfoile
Alfred A. Knopf

Although I've been an acquaintance of local author Kevin Guilfoile for nearly a decade now, I've never actually read any of his full-length work, mostly because of him working in the crime/mystery genre that I neither follow nor care for that much; so I was glad to randomly spot his latest, the DaVinci-Codesque The Thousand, on the "new release" shelf at my neighborhood library this month, because it meant I could make my way through it fairly quickly and without a lot of fuss, frankly just like how I read through most novels in this genre. And indeed, this book is full of the kind of stuff that makes me kind of roll my eyes a bit when it comes to titles like these, which is why I try for the most part simply not to review these kinds of books, because of knowing that I'm far from its ideal audience; our main character, for example, is basically Lisbeth Sanders meets the Bionic Woman, a plucky female private investigator who received a sort of experimental body-wide pacemaker thingie as a child which now gives her nearly supernatural physical abilities, which she uses to slowly uncover a secret society that worships the hidden codes found in the work of the Greek mathematician Pythagorus, a group which believes our tomboyish hero to be the star-child or something that will finally bring all the ancient prophecies to fruition. Or, er, something like that. It's certainly as good as the other novels of this sort that I've read over the years, so I feel confident in recommending it to those who are naturally into this genre; but to really see Guilfoile at his best, you should instead check out the short, smart, bitter humor writing he's done in the past for places like McSweeney's and Funny Or Die.

Out of 10: 8.0

alt.punk, by Lavinia Ludlow

By Lavinia Ludlow
Casperian Books

Based on its title and cover, it'd be natural to assume that Lavinia Ludlow's literary debut alt.punk is going to be a sort-of tell-all novel about the music industry, especially given the author's past as a drummer for various bands herself. But this instead turns out to be a more interesting and charming thing, a confessional-style tale (i.e. it feels like you're sneakily reading someone's blog) about our sympathetic but undeniably trainwrecky narrator, as she stumbles in and out of a series of nightmare relationships with barely functioning grimy musicians in the San Francisco/Sacramento area of northern California, while constantly fending off comments about her weight and career from her dysfunctional family, accepting pent-up abuse from retail flunkies in her job as a pharmacy manager, and OCD-obsessing over germs and cleanliness so incessantly that it makes Woody Allen seem well-adjusted. As such, then, alt.punk is surprisingly funny while still being utterly relentless in its abuse, both self- and outer- in nature, an extremely true-feeling tale that nonetheless veers into cartoonish exaggeration at points (oy vey, all those descriptions of her boyfriend's "Grey Gardens" style nightmare apartment). Fascinating like a car crash, this was one of the rare books I found myself literally unable to put down until I had finished it (thankfully only later that night, in that this 200-page novel is quite breezy), another winner from the regularly reviewed Casperian Books that is well worth your time and money. It comes highly recommended to my fellow artsy slackers.

Out of 10: 9.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:26 AM, January 20, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |