February 22, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 22 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.)

Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, by Jacob Wren

Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed
By Jacob Wren
Pedlar Press

Rarely does a book come along with a strong academic bent that really blows me away; but man, it sure was the case with Jacob Wren's Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, the first of several books I recently received from Canadian small publisher Pedlar Press. And that's because Wren manages to take a situation that would usually only appeal to the professor crowd -- basically, imagine if Julian Assange and Naomi Wolf started dating, and the thousands of NGO tongues that would start waggling because of it -- but then rapidly expands this storyline to quickly reach almost a fairytale-like quality; for example, after their breakup, the Assange character ends up starting a hipster art gallery in a third-world country, then hosting a hit reality show that combines The Apprentice with leftist political activism, then gets picked up by the CIA for impersonating an agent, and a lot more, keeping what would otherwise be a snoozer of a talky tale instead lively in a Michael Chabon kind of way. Now combine this with some of the most beautiful prose I've read in years, plenty of symbolic ridicule concerning the habit of radical liberals to talk problems to death without actually accomplishing anything, and simply a physical look to the manuscript that makes me believe that there's still a future for gorgeous-looking trade paperbacks, and you have what has so far been one of my favorite reads in the last year, and one I predict even eleven months in advance will likely be appearing in CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year. It's a true revelation in an industry that no longer sees many of them, and needless to say that I'm now looking highly forward to the other Pedlar titles in my reading list.

Out of 10: 9.6

Chasing the Runner's High, by Ray Charbonneau

Chasing the Runner's High: My Sixty Million Step Program
By Ray Charbonneau
Self-published

It's important to know before going into it that Ray Charbonneau's Chasing the Runner's High is not for everyone; in fact, it's a very specific guide geared almost exclusively to his fellow runners, one that has its general moments but that is mostly focused on very specific looks at clothing, exercises, routes, and other practical information that runners must think about when approaching their sport. As such, then, as a non-runner I found myself often drifting off during the wonkier parts of this manuscript, and as a self-published title it also has the common problem of going on much too long about subjects that few will care about (for example, an entire sub-chapter just on the various events that his Boston-based running club sponsors each year); but still, I found the more general information to be entertaining enough, and for sure written at a professional level that's worth your time. I couldn't even begin to attest whether the actual information in this book is helpful or not, but it's at least worth a look for all of you who are more versed on the subject.

Out of 10: 8.0

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
By Ellen Bryson
Henry Holt and Company

An engaging literary hybrid -- partly a historical melodrama, partly a Victorian thriller with lightly steampunkish touches -- Ellen Bryson's debut novel The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno takes place within the real world of P.T. Barnum's American Museum, the bizarre space in lower Manhattan in the 1850s and '60s where the infamous showman first made a name for himself, long before the formation of his later traveling circus. And indeed, this is probably the best-known thing about this novel, that it's a mystery set among the sideshow freaks that used to permanently live on the premises, weaving together fictional characters (like our titular thin man and the bearded beauty with whom he becomes obsessed) with such real people as Tom Thumb and Barnum himself, and getting all the details of the space correct down to a scholarly level. As such, then, Bryson essentially turns in a morality tale couched in deep symbolism, but with enough quirky elements to keep any fan of Victoriana happy -- by the time we're done, we've covered everything from opium addiction to mysterious Chinatown herbalists, Abraham Lincoln's funeral, and more hansom cab rides than you can shake a brass-capped walking stick at -- delivering by the end what is ultimately a mainstream story but with a lot of genre flourishes, a combination that I myself really enjoyed but that is absolutely not going to be everyone's cup of tea. A funny, smart and fast read, I suspect that those who will love this novel already know who they are, and it is to these people that I most recommend this title.

Out of 10: 8.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:44 PM, February 22, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |