January 3, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 3 January 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.)

Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners, by Ken Wohlrob

Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners
By Ken Wohlrob
Bully Press

While making my way through Ken Wohlrob's Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners, I couldn't help but think about something I read a few years ago about author Nelson Algren, of how he forever had a love/hate relationship with the first novel he ever wrote, which he blamed on the politically active, overly earnest liberals he was hanging out with in the Great Depression 1930s, who in good Stalinist style felt that artists accomplish nothing if they aren't directly commenting on the ills of the human condition, a sort of radical form of Social Realism that resulted in an entire decade of preachy morality tales that by and large have been completely forgotten by history. And that's because, although he certainly gets an A for effort, Wohlrob lays on the Progressive lecturing here awfully thick, a 21st-century Little Dorritt that's never satisfied with a disaster befalling a plucky immigrant hero when five disasters can befall them instead; just take the second story in the collection as a good example, "Job in Williamsburg," in which a long-suffering Spanish janitor learns to paint in a lush Renaissance style in honor of his pious, dead mother, just to have his work ridiculed by cackling hipsters at a Brooklyn group exhibition, only to find out that no less than the Museum of Modern Art ended up buying one of his pieces, only to find out (and I'm not making this up) that they only bought it literally so they could hang it in their public bathroom, as an ironic statement about its worthlessness in a postmodern age, a message I'm not sure could even be delivered more heavily-handed, unless maybe you show poor Ramon writhing on the floor while being viciously kicked by a group of frat boys in business suits, smoking cigars and gleefully chanting, "WHITE MALES RULE! WHITE MALES RULE!" Although his writing style is actually not that bad, I have the sad suspicion that Wohlrob will one day look back on this book with the same kind of ruefulness that Algren always looked at Somebody In Boots; and I encourage him in future stories to find more inventive ways to get across the points he's trying to make, and to leave the preaching at church where it belongs.

Out of 10: 6.2

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
By Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster

If you're anything like me, you mostly only know British author Roald Dahl through his deliciously dark children's tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as maybe a handful of other Young Adult titles like James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and The Witches, all of which have been made into major Hollywood movies in recent years. But as this first-ever authorized biography from veteran journalist Donald Sturrock shows, both Dahl's life and career were a lot more dramatic and event-filled than that; a dashing and adventurous fighter pilot in WW2 Africa, he eventually married an Oscar-winning actress, developed the most notorious Disney Golden Age cartoon to never actually get produced, briefly hosted a "Twilight Zone"-style creepy television series, and had an entire career as a subversive adult author before turning to children's stories in middle-age, along the way incidentally co-inventing a new type of medical valve that would save thousands of lives, and co-inventing a new type of rehabilitative stroke therapy that's now the industry standard. And to the family's credit, this engrossing book doesn't shy away from the dark parts of Dahl's life either, despite it being endorsed by them; he was a fatally egotistical philanderer as well, a mean drunk who would often pick fights at dinner parties with strangers just to liven up the evening, who played hardball over royalties with a series of publishing companies and who famously declared in the '80s that Salman Rushdie deserved the Islamic fatwa that had been issued against him. But as this balanced look at a topsy-turvy life shows, Dahl was also charming, quietly generous with his time and money, and apparently truly amazing when it came to interacting with children, a passionate advocate of YA literature in his later years who helped legitimize that genre in the first place. A fascinating and surprise-filled bio, well worth your time if you've ever been a fan of any of his books.

Out of 10: 9.4

Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest
By Catherynne M. Valente
Spectra

Regular readers know that last year, I once again attempted to read every nominee for science-fiction's Hugo Award in the brief space between their announcement and the winner's ceremony; and this in fact was the only one I wasn't able to get to in time, a dark-horse contender loved by only a small but intensely passionate audience. Unfortunately, though, this is not really SF so much as it is urban fantasy, not the traditional kind in which sexy vampires live among us but rather like a surrealist poem come to life; it's essentially the tale of a dreamlike city that exists hidden among us, where frog-faced oracles prance down Maxfield Parrish lanes, and where citizens identify each other in the waking world by a tattoo of the city map that mysteriously appears somewhere on their body after their first night-time visit. And while I can see why those who passionately love this book do so (it really is written in this hard-to-forget if not overly grandiose way), I have to confess that I'm not much of a fan of the entire urban-fantasy subgenre in general, and I question whether this should've even been nominated for a science-fiction award in the first place. If you're a fan of Cat Rambo or Justina Robson, you'll probably love this as well, although others might want to stay away altogether.

Out of 10: 8.3, or 9.3 for fans of urban fantasy

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:30 PM, January 3, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |