February 15, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 15 February 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.)

Sophomoric Philosophy, by Victor David Giron

Sophomoric Philosophy
By Victor David Giron
Curbside Splendor

I find myself with mixed emotions, now that I've finished Chicagoan Victor David Giron's literary debut, the lightly fictionalized memoir Sophomoric Philosophy; because on the one hand, it's an undeniably earnest and plaintive book that I very much wanted to like, all about a second-gen Mexican-American who's been pushed his whole life towards the bland middle-class financial-sector job he currently has, but who finds himself more and more dissatisfied with the lack of artistic and intellectual opportunities in his life, or indeed even peers who similarly feel like something is missing in the first place, a powerful source of existential angst that I imagine a lot of CCLaP's readers can relate to. But on the other hand, it's impossible to deny that this is a classic case of a self-published novel that reads much more like a blog, full of random observations and digressive reminisces that often go nowhere, so heavily peppered with highly specific pop-culture references that I sometimes lost track of what Giron's point even was; and as I've said before, while none of this is a problem when reading in small doses on a daily basis (and indeed, is a big reason why we love blogs in the first place), it can get awfully tiring awfully fast in the context of a full-sized bound book that one is trying to read 50 or 100 pages of in a single sitting. (And here's a tip, by the way, to other beginning writers in a similar situation -- that if the anecdote you're thinking of adding ends with everything falling apart at the last second, it's ultimately not going to be very interesting to random strangers, no matter how fascinating the details leading up to the failed climax.) And so that's why the book gets an only limited recommendation from me today, an author who is obviously in command of the basics of writing and who asks intriguing questions, but who now needs to work on the answers he comes up with, as well as the journey his characters take to find them.

Out of 10: 7.1

Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr

Wingshooters
By Nina Revoyr
Akashic Books

While it's easy to see what former Lambda Award winner Nina Revoyr was going for in Wingshooters, the latest from our friends at Akashic Books -- namely, to revisit the territory covered by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but this time from the perspective of 1970s Wisconsin instead of 1930s Alabama -- I have to plainly confess that I found just a whole series of badly handled details along the way, none of which are necessarily that bad on their own, but that add up by the end to a real mess. For example, I never could figure out why Revoyr made her own little-girl narrator half-Japanese, a fact that endlessly distracts you from the central conflict regarding a picked-on black family who moves in down the street from her; and while Lee balanced the preachy side of her "RACISM IS BAD!!!" diatribe with a healthy dose of creepy and poetic Southern Gothic goodness, Revoyr attempts no such juggling (save for a few half-hearted odes to country baseball and wheat fields that feel tacked on even coming off the page), leaving behind almost nothing but a big giant sermon, one so heavy-handed that I actually felt sore by the time I was done, from all the times the author had beaten me over the head with her points, not helped at all by the change in date and setting, which has the effect of morphing the nature of all the racists from complex products of their times (like in Mockingbird) to cartoonish monsters. Maybe it's because I see so many of these kinds of manuscripts, because of being a left-leaning urban arts administrator, but I confess that I have a particularly low tolerance for overly obvious morality tales, especially when they preach a hackneyed message to people who already believe in that message; and while usually I feel only ambivalent about the Akashic titles I don't care for, I have to admit that I find myself with an active dislike for this one, a pedantic book whose stylistic flourishes distracted me from a storyline I found non-compelling to begin with. It does not come recommended today.

Out of 10: 5.4

Player One, by Douglas Coupland

Player One: What Is to Become of Us, a Novel in Five Hours
By Douglas Coupland
Anansi

As I've been learning over the years now, as I become a greater and greater completist of his work (this is now the tenth book of his I've read, of the fourteen major titles he's now published), Douglas Coupland at his weirdest is usually Douglas Coupland at his best; and there's not much better an example of this than with his latest, the badly titled but hugely compelling Player One: What Is to Become of Us, a Novel in Five Hours, which actually started life literally as a five-hour radio play commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the University of Toronto, part of an annual project known as "The Massey Lectures" which in the past has snagged fellow intellectuals like Margaret Atwood and Noam Chomsky. In this case, it's the story of a series of characters who have all gathered at an airport hotel bar on a random weekday for varying purposes, all of which we discover through the chapters written from various perspectives; so then about halfway through, when a sudden oil panic in the Middle East triggers a massive breakdown in law and order in the US, we then watch these characters react in differing ways to the chaos and bloodshed going on around them, with Coupland using the occasion to very slyly play with various philosophical questions regarding the fundamental nature of humanity.

As you can guess by recent novels like The Gum Thief and Generation A, Coupland doesn't have rosy conclusions to come to in Player One, essentially arguing by the end that humanity brought all of this upon itself and therefore deserves to go through it all (and indeed, will likely come out changed for the better by the end, not despite the mass decimation of the human race but literally because of it); but it's the way he comes to these conclusions that is the fascinating part, delivering what for him is an unusually stripped-down and focused manuscript, the constraints of its radio-performance specs obviously having a good influence on him, forcing him to cut so many of the endless digressions that have marked so many of his recent books. It's a dark story for sure, legitimately disturbing at times in a non-ironic post-apocalyptic-thriller kind of way; but it could be argued that it's also the best thing Coupland has written in at least a decade, depending on what kind of Coupland fan you are and which of his books you gravitate to the most. (If you're a fan of more thoughtful titles like Life After God and Generation X, you'll love this, while if you primarily like his more plot-oriented titles like Microserfs and All Families Are Psychotic, maybe not so much.) In any case, it comes highly recommended today, a quick read that will leave you with all kinds of troubling questions regarding the true nature of the human condition.

Out of 10: 9.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:15 PM, February 15, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |