May 4, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 4 May 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.)

John Belushi is Dead, by Kathy Charles

John Belushi is Dead
By Kathy Charles
MTV Books

I'm usually a big fan of the surprisingly intelligent MTV Books; but while this latest is I suppose okay for what it is (a simplistic coming-of-age tale about two teens in Los Angeles obsessed with dead celebrities, and the trouble this gets them into one summer), the actual quality of the writing is much more on par with Young Adult than Actual Adult, a kind of clunkiness to it all that's very obviously designed so to not go over the heads of fourteen-year-olds. That's of course not bad if you're fourteen, which is why the book is getting as high a score today as it is; but if you're a grown-up, you'd be wise to skip this teen novel altogether, and shame on MTV Books for not making this clearer on the cover. Bait and switch is always an ugly thing, but especially in the publishing industry.

Out of 10: 7.2

Empire of Liberty, by Gordon S. Wood

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
By Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press

It's hard to beat Oxford University Press when it comes to authoritative yet lively looks at highly detailed periods in history; and here's their latest in their modern series about the history of America, written by former Pulitzer winner Gordon S. Wood and in this case covering just the years 1789 (when our modern Constitution was written) to 1815 (the end of the War of 1812, essentially a stalemate but the conflict that proved that Europe could no longer bully the US around). And indeed, this is one of the more fascinating periods of US history to look at, precisely because most Americans know so little about it; a quiet and inconsequential span at first glance (known conventionally as the years when America simply recovered from the Revolution), in actuality it was the 25-year period that saw the formation of the first political "parties" in human history, the collapse of the country's first attempt at federal administration (the "Articles of Confederation," which at first set up the US more like the current European Union, and was a complete disaster), and the quiet campaign to purge the new national government of the very radicals who helped the revolution succeed in the first place, whether radically liberal in nature (like Thomas Paine and his French-Revolution-loving pals, who wanted to do away with capitalism and the upper-class altogether) or radically conservative (such as Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist buddies, who promptly attempted to create a nobility-based "American ruling class" the moment the revolution was over, and were eventually shunned out of existence because of traitorous activity during the War of 1812).

Along the way, then, Wood shows us in glorious detail how this was also the period that first established the myth of the "Protestant work ethic," that first exalted the middle-class into the most important slice of American society, and that incidentally first established the rift between the industrial, everyman North and the agricultural, aristocratic South that would eventually explode into the Civil War, and that still heavily defines regional relationships to this very day, all of it told through a wealth of anecdotes and literally hundreds of pieces of trivia about early American history that I never knew. It's a doorstop of a book, don't get me wrong, but well worth the armchair historian's time, and I'm now thinking seriously about tackling all the rest of the volumes in this massive series as well.

Out of 10: 9.8

Anderson, by Michael Boyce

By Michael Boyce
Pedlar Press

This is the third book now that I've received from the wonderful Canadian small publisher Pedlar Press, where it's become clear that one-woman staff Beth Follett has quite the singular editorial vision when it comes to their titles; namely, all three books I've now looked at feature exquisitely written yet deeply strange narratives, tales that are surreal in nature yet with enough at stake for the characters to keep one's attention, my main complaint about most books that deliberately choose to lose the stream of reality (known among fans by the dual terms "gonzo" and "bizarro"). And indeed, this metaphysical noir is perhaps the most dreamlike of all the Pedlar titles I've now read, the story of a voluntary "psychic detective" who goes around solving the crimes of strangers by carefully picking up on the subconscious clues taking place around him at all times, but who may or may not actually be a psychotic stalker and full-time alcoholic who thinks he's Batman with ESP. As Anderson stumbles farther and farther down the rabbithole of a new "case," then, things just get stranger and stranger; but much like, say, Martha Baillie's The Incident Report (the last Pedlar title I read), Boyce keeps things just realistic enough to feel like they may actually be happening in the fictional world within this novel, the small yet crucial difference between this and most pieces of gonzo fiction, where things can often come off as a literary cartoon and thus make it difficult to get emotionally invested in the characters. Almost the definition of the nebulous term "New Weird," Anderson comes strongly recommended to those who are fans of the genre; although like with most titles of this sort, non-fans would be wise to stay away altogether.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for bizarro fans

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:20 AM, May 4, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |