January 26, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 26 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.)

Muscle Memory, by Steve Lowe

Muscle Memory
By Steve Lowe
Eraserhead Press

I now receive on a pretty regular basis review copies of books from Eraserhead Press' "New Bizarro Author Series," a sort of proving ground for young genre writers where an inexpensive volume will be made of a novella or set of stories, and with that author in charge of hustling around and selling as many copies as possible, their future at Eraserhead largely swayed by how this first low-risk project of theirs goes. And as far as that's concerned, Steve Lowe's Muscle Memory is definitely one of the better ones I've read, if for no other reason than for merely maintaining a consistent tone throughout, and coming up with a unified plot that actually lasts from the beginning to the end, which sadly many of the titles in this series can't even manage to do. It basically follows a white-trash community after a night where all of its citizens somehow swapped bodies with whoever they were being intimate with that particular evening; so while most married couples turn into their spouses, for example, singles remain unaffected, those having affairs are quickly found out, and in one notorious incident a farmer changes bodies with one of his sheep. And while a facile investigation takes place to determine the cause of the switcheroo and how to fix it, the main point of the book is to instead examine how all these people suddenly see the world in a new way, trapped in these strange bodies pumping out strange hormones that their brains aren't used to; and indeed, this is the main reason to read the book as well, is for the endlessly funny situations Lowe manages to conjure up in service of this slight story, for one good example the hilarious image of a bunch of trashed middle-aged housewives at a redneck bar, smoking cigars and telling sexist jokes about their own boobs, just to all simultaneously burst into tears when a sad song comes up on the jukebox. I mean, don't get me wrong, this book is sophomoric, filled with ridiculously blatant humor that will have you groaning and guiltily laughing on every page; but that was Lowe's entire goal, making Muscle Memory a wild success as far as what he was trying to accomplish. Well worth your time if you like this kind of stuff, although you can safely skip it if you don't.

Out of 10: 8.2

(Please note, by the way, that Lowe is donating all the profits from this book during the month of February to a foster care agency in his area; you can click here for more.)

This Must Be the Place, by Kate Racculia

This Must Be the Place
By Kate Racculia
Henry Holt and Company

The main problem with overedited literary debuts from precocious MFAers, in my opinion, is not that they're bad but rather so damn mediocre; take for example Kate Racculia's recent This Must Be the Place, which would be hard to point at in any particular place and say that it's actively bad, but nonetheless has all the impact of a lukewarm watery noodle being slapped lightly against the wrist. It starts with a nicely dark premise, which is the reason I picked it up in the first place -- that after the accidental death of his goofy special-effects-industry girlfriend in Los Angeles, a genial photographer discovers a shoebox full of artifacts from a troubled childhood she preferred not talking about, which prompts him to make a quiet visit to the small town where so many of his lover's unspoken secrets are buried, staying at a boarding house run by the dead woman's estranged best friend and trying to observe things fly-on-the-wall style for as long as he can get away with it. But the problem with so many of these academic novels based on interesting premises is the same problem here, that all its liveliness has been workshopped right out of it, leaving a Prozaced book that just sort of sits there like a white guy in a beige suit eating a bowl of mashed potatoes; conflicts between characters are dialed down to a dull murmur, while all quirkiness and peril is filtered down to the level of a typical Lifetime cable movie. These books are always worth at least taking a chance on, because you never know when you'll discover a hidden gem, and Racculia for sure is a confident writer who knows her way around a page; but now that she's out of school, it's time for her to sit down and write a book that is uniquely hers, full of the kind of memorable turns that are only hinted at here in her first novel. I look forward to that book, but with this one advise people to proceed with caution.

Out of 10: 7.9

The Petting Zoo, by Jim Carroll

The Petting Zoo
By Jim Carroll
Viking / Penguin

So before anything else, let me make it clear that I'm as big a fan of Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries as anyone else, his 1978 memoir about growing up in '60s Manhattan as a working-class sports star, sex fiend and teenage heroin addict, which eventually led to the punk-era Jim Carroll Band that achieved the same kind of minor notoriety as, say, his buddy Patti Smith; so I was as excited as anyone else when hearing that Carroll had been tinkering around with a new novel for the last decade of his life (he died in 2009), during a period where we now know that he was essentially turning slowly into a mentally unstable recluse, and that this novel was finally being published posthumously as The Petting Zoo, including an introductory note by Smith herself. But alas, instead of this being Carroll's graceful swan song, it's more of a rambling, inconsequential footnote to what was admittedly a remarkable career, a wisp of a story that's billed as "autobiographical" but that in reality concerns an only vaguely developed middle-aged visual artist at the end of the 1980s, a painter who's much more famous with the general public than any fine-art painter could've actually been by the end of Postmodernism, which already gives the story a kind of unrealistic urban fairytale vibe, and then is filled with the kind of ten-page fluffy philosophical digressions you would exactly expect from an author who was by then sometimes going entire weeks without human contact, growing an unruly Howard Hughes beard and puttering around the same semi-squalid apartment building where he literally grew up. It's not exactly a surprise that an aging artist's last project would pack more of a whimper instead of a bang, but it's nonetheless worth noting when it's true, with The Petting Zoo being much more for completists and hardcore fans than for a general reading audience. It should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 7.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:15 PM, January 26, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |