April 12, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 12 April 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.)

The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World
By Edward Dolnick
HarperCollins

This is one of those "NPR-worthy" nonfiction titles I'm a fan of, in this case a concise look at the formation of Britain's Royal Society in the 1600s, essentially the very first scientific organization in human history, closely associated with Sir Isaac Newton and one of the main subjects of Neal Stephenson's stunning three-thousand-page "Baroque Cycle" series of historical/fantastical novels. And in fact, I don't really have a lot to say about this book other than that it's competently done and absolutely worth your time; although you should be aware that only half the book is devoted to the history of the Royal Society itself, the other half being layman explanations of the actual scientific breakthroughs being made in those years, including a dense but fascinating look at the differences between Newton's calculus and Liebnitz's, and why calculus in general has been such a profound influence on the modern world. Not really a book to seek out unless you're specifically interested in the subject, but a fine beginner's guide if you are.

Out of 10: 8.7

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House

I actually borrowed this from my mother, after spying it in her house last Christmas; but she warned me that she found it only so-so, which is why it's taken me so long to finally get around to it. And indeed, despite winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize -- or perhaps because of it -- this is really not much more than a well-written but very predictable story collection, which in good academic style is essentially a Winesburg Ohio-type "story cycle" about a bunch of genial blue-collar characters in a small town in Maine, and how all their lives are basically miserable while still also managing to amount to nothing by the end. And at this point I must ask again for the hundredth time -- seriously, why are academic writers so utterly obsessed with genial small-town losers who do nothing with their lives and are for the most part miserable all the time? Why do so many professors think that these types of characters make for compelling fiction, when in fact they're generally the complete antithesis of what makes for good storytelling? I still don't know the answer, but I'm getting more and more tired of even asking the question, which is why Olive Kitteridge came in and out of my life the other week while barely making a blip in my consciousness, not a crime unto itself but certainly not the type of book we should be handing out awards to. Yet more proof of the profound disconnect anymore between literary committees and the general public, it comes with only a tepid recommendation today.

Out of 10: 7.5

Mr. Toppit, by Charles Elton

Mr. Toppit
By Charles Elton
Other Press

This is the debut novel of a British producer of TV costume dramas (among other projects of his was the recent fantastic ITV/Masterpiece adaptation of Northanger Abbey) who for many years was a Young Adult literary agent; and indeed, this feels exactly like the kind of story that someone in that position would sit around composing in their head for years in their spare daydreaming moments, which takes as its start the idea of a Roald-Dahl-type subversive British children's author who languished in obscurity for most of his career, until meeting an American television producer literally during the traffic accident that kills him, with her becoming obsessed with his five-book "Darkwood" series and eventually making them as big in the US as the real-life Dahl's books eventually became as well. Ah, but it turns out that this is not really what the book is about, but rather is a pitch-black dramedy about all the various ways that both this book series and resulting world-famous film adaptations play havoc with the remaining family members, the bossy neighbor who prodded the books' first illustrations, and even the overweight, overbearing, perhaps-lesbian American who "discovered" them in the first place.

I'm doing the book a disservice with this small recap, of course -- it's in actuality a brilliantly expansive look at a whole series of interlocking character issues, mostly a sad drama about dysfunctional families but with some funny moments sprinkled in, including a central mystery regarding who exactly inspired the series' main character that serves as a nice spine in which to hang all the other elements of this beguiling, complex plot. A surprise gem that was much better than I was expecting it to be, it comes highly recommended to everyone from Jonathan Franzen fans to Harry Potter ones, and I suspect will be making CCLaP's best-of list at the end of the year as well.

Out of 10: 9.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:08 AM, April 12, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |