July 20, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 20 July 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.)

Wildcat, by William Trent Pancoast

Wildcat
By William Trent Pancoast
Blazing Flowers Press

For international readers who don't know, it was in the 1970s that things regarding labor relations in America really came to a head, an escalating series of violent confrontations between unions and corporate militias as the mass migration of manufacturing to Asia in these years caused a panic among everyone involved; and in the US in particular, nowhere did this conflict get bigger or more symbolic than within the auto industry, the one product that had come to virtually define the country in the eyes of the rest of the world by the mid-20th century, and thus was ripe during the countercultural era for further metaphors of American Exceptionalism gone wrong, no matter which side you were on or what in particular you believed. And now we have Wildcat, a short but thematically dense fictionalized account of those years, by a former GM die-cutter named William Trent Pancoast who now teaches writing at several state colleges in central Ohio. (And to be clear, Pancoast has actually been writing and publishing social-realist drama since the '80s; and just in case you're confused by where his sympathies lie, also know that he was an editor of a union newspaper for two decades.)

As such, then, Pancoast has a tendency to dip way too far into straight-out melodrama to make many of his points, and like many self-published works Wildcat could benefit from some more polishing and editing; but that said, this was also much better than average for this type of book, with its strongest point easily being how Pancoast folds in the whole gamut of complicated issues in the early '70s that led to all these messes in the first place -- not just the eternal fight between labor and management, not just the mass exodus of so many American blue-collar jobs, but also the returning ranks of PTSD-suffering Vietnam vets in those years, angry at the world and eager to get into another fight, as well as the countercultural movement, the growing corruption within the unions themselves, the crisis happening within urban inner cities at the same time, and a lot more. It's not necessarily something to go out of your way to read, but a fine and entertaining historical drama if you're to come across it, and especially in the case of those looking to learn more about its time and milieu. It comes recommended in that spirit.

Out of 10: 8.0

Wore Down Trust, by Michael Blouin

Wore Down Trust
By Michael Blouin
Pedlar Press

This is the latest by our pals at Canadian small publisher Pedlar Press, which as regular readers know is dedicated to putting out experimental prose/poetry projects that challenge the notion of traditional narrative; and here author Michael Blouin does a particularly remarkable job, taking as his premise the life stories of musician Johnny Cash and writer Aldan Nowlan (two artists with eerily similar backgrounds, who actually met briefly in 1975), effortlessly switching between poetry and prose to tell lightly fictionalized bios of the two, remarks about the author's own life, and simply observations about the world in general, mixing the whole thing up so that it lays on the page in the same general structure as the average blues song. A great volume to read in slow bits in the space between bed and sleep (and with your drifting consciousness adding to the surrealism that much more), like most of the Pedlar titles this comes strongly recommended but only to the legitimately adventurous, those who enjoy not just reading manuscripts but climbing inside them, and examining the language found there much like kicking the tires of a used car. It is bound to be loved when approached in this fashion.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.4 for fans of experimental fiction

Love in Mid Air, by Kim Wright

Love in Mid Air
By Kim Wright
Grand Central Publishing / Hachette

So why do I continue to read so-called "chick-lit" novels on such a regular basis, a lot of people ask, when I end up despising so many of them? Well, because I'm convinced that there actually are a few titles out there in the world that manage to be not only smart and unexpected but that wallow in the tropes loved by so many middle-class, middle-aged women; and since the signal-to-noise ratio in this particular genre is so shockingly high, I feel a constant obligation to go actually find these few great chick-lit novels that exist in the world, as a public service if nothing else to all of CCLaP's middle-class, middle-aged female readers (and there's a surprisingly large number of you out there). For example, take Kim Wright's Love in Mid Air, which at is heart tells a fairly simple and typical story for this genre (suburban mom has an affair) and makes sure to hit every chick-lit mark that seems to even exist (Shopping! Bookclubs! Church groups! Etsy businesses! Wine in the afternoon! Idiotic husbands! Soccer games! Er, shopping!), but that miraculously avoids being the kind of "Devil Wears Prada" dreck that sets smart readers' nerves on edge; instead, it's an incredibly nuanced and preternaturally insightful look at how these kinds of situations actually tend to play out in the real world, a hyper-intelligent blend of character and action that contains one of the most instantly addictive first chapters I've ever read in any genre.

Part of that can be chalked up to the complex main character herself; a cynical and funny woman but with only slightly better-than-average looks, she compensated when younger by being transgressive and sexually adventurous but has grown larger, softer and more Christian in middle-age, making the poetically intense start of her surprise dalliance just as much a shock to us as her, and drawing us into the ways it serves as a catalyst for her to simultaneously recapture some of her youth and also finally claim some of the traits of the confident, vaguely erotic older woman she was always destined to become. And part of this book's success for sure can also be chalked up to its incredibly engaging style, which oh-so-blessedly for chick-lit treats its males as complex, sympathetic wholes instead of the mustache-twirling cartoon characters so many of these types of novels do; readily admits the faults of our heroine and isn't afraid to show her sometimes acting pretty badly herself; contains the kinds of subtle observations about well-known situations that only a master storyteller can pull off; and is filled with the kind of dry, gently subversive humor that made even bitter, science-fiction-loving ol' me giggle in public on a regular basis. (Two of my favorite moments: the main characters stumbling across a forgotten freezer in their church basement, filled with a hundred frozen 1950s-style "emergency casseroles," many made by spinsters who have been dead for decades; and how the Hallmark store at the mall suddenly transforms into an exotic import shop in Manhattan in our protagonist's eyes, the day after consummating her affair for the first time.) One of those rare books whose score kept getting higher and higher in my head as I read more and more of it, I suspect that this will be showing up on CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year as well, a little-known gem within a genre that tends to muddle in the mind's eye many times into a big, shiny, high-heeled mess, and a worthy companion not only to Tom Perrotta's Little Children but the classic predecessor that both often reference, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It comes strongly recommended to CCLaP's entire audience.

Out of 10: 9.5

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:00 PM, July 20, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |