September 19, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 19 September 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.)

Mister Wonderful, by Daniel Clowes

Mister Wonderful
By Daniel Clowes

I've been a big fan of comics artist Daniel Clowes since around issue #5 or so of his originally self-published Eightball, and have tried to be a regular reader of all his work ever since then; but while I'm a great admirer of his darkly surreal, more narrative work like Ghost World or David Boring, I confess that I've always had a low tolerance for the other type of work Clowes regularly does, which can only be described as pointless exercises in neurotic masturbation, which back in Eightball thankfully usually limited itself to little four- or eight-page fillers at the ends of occasional issues. And that's what makes his new Mister Wonderful so unfortunate, because it's eighty entire pages of this masturbatory material, a literal one-joke gag about a balding schlub who endlessly worries over several hundred thought bubbles that his blind date is too attractive and witty for him. And with this originally being published serially in The New York Times Sunday Magazine last year, that makes it doubly unfortunate, because that makes this the only exposure to Clowes that many of the Updike-loving crowd over there is ever going to get, which means it's going to be harder than ever to convince these people to take comics seriously. I mean, kudos to Clowes for adding another impressive-looking hardback book to his publishing oeuvre; but for fans of his who are patiently waiting for another masterpiece like Velvet Glove, it's recommended that they skip this trifle altogether.

Out of 10: 7.0

Tablet & Pen, edited by Reza Aslan

Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
By Reza Aslan
W.W. Norton

Like many Americans, since 9/11 I've become much more interested than ever before in such subjects as the Middle East, the "Arab World" and the "Muslim World," and have been reading up more and more on the history and culture of the region; and one of the first things you learn when you do something like this is that the traditional colonialist view about this region that has dominated Western textbooks since...well, the colonial period (namely, that virtually all human innovations since the Renaissance have come from Western civilization, and that the Eastern countries have essentially been backwards, superstitious warrior kingdoms since the fall of the Islamic Empire in the same years) is not really right at all, and that in the last 500 years there have in fact been plenty of parallel developments between East and West in such things as science and the cutting-edge arts. And that brings us to Reza Aslan's remarkable new anthology Tablet & Pen, which aims to help along this cross-cultural learning process as much as possible; made up exclusively of influential 20th-century works from the Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu languages, and chosen by this Western-raised scholar specifically because they relate so well to famous Western touchstones, Aslan's main point in even putting this together (including many classic pieces being published here in English for the very first time) is to show just how similar the avant-garde lit scenes have actually been between East and West in the century and a quarter between the late Victorian Age and our own Age of Sincerity (or whatever you want to call the times we're currently living in).

And indeed, for Americans like me who previously didn't know anything about this subject, this compilation is a revelation, concrete proof of just how widespread things like abstraction and social realism were in the Early Modernist era, even while they were being applied in the East not for the purposes of having more sex and plotting socialist takeovers like Western artists, but rather going hand-in-hand with the nationalist movements forming in those countries at that time, rallying calls to basically unite around what was in some cases literally brand-new languages for a brand-new age (like in the case of a newly democratized Turkey), or at least brand-new applications of these languages in ways the culture had never seen before (like in Egypt, for example, which didn't see its first character-heavy three-act short stories in its entire literary history until the 1910s). The similarities then continue throughout this chronological collection, the stories of the Late Modernist era increasingly about the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, the new role of southeast Asia in post-colonial times, and other tricky issues heading into the countercultural and then Postmodernist eras; which then leads us to now, and a time when global online culture is bringing the Eastern and Western arts together in a way neither have ever experienced before. An enlightening, fascinating, always thought-provoking and entertaining read, this comes heavily recommended to any Westerner wishing to learn more about the last century of Eastern history, and will dispel many of the notions all of us here in the US have been raised with concerning the importance of the West in particular on the shape of 20th-century global culture.

Out of 10: 9.6

Germline, by T.C. McCarthy

By T.C. McCarthy
Orbit / Hachette

It's not often that a sci-fi military-thriller mass paperback with a cheesy front cover will remind you of a Pulitzer nominee, but that's certainly the case with T.C. McCarthy's absolutely astounding literary debut Germline; because as a military veteran with a dark past himself, McCarthy brings the same kind of poetic yet intense sensibility to his tale of a near-future fictional war as, say, Denis Johnson applies to his award-winning Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (one of my favorite novels of all time), a kind of delicate rhythm yet rawness to his prose that works so well when it comes to stories concerning politically conservative subjects (state-approved violence, moral codes, man's essential monstrous nature, etc). And in fact, the comparisons to literary classics don't end there: astute readers will also see a lot of Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway in this book too, in the way that it glides effortlessly between the front lines of this war and the surreal, often darkly comical events happening back among the bored administrators and jaded local population; a bit of Joseph Heller in the absurdist reasons this war is even taking place (it's a territorial war in central Asia over the mining rights to the world's last big supply of trace metals, the kinds of rare materials that are worthless except in the case of manufacturing cellphones, which because of futuristic military inventions has turned into the bloodiest conflict in human history, with tens of millions on both sides now dead); and even a bit of Orson Scott Card, in the pure brutality of this war's child soldiers and merciless genetic clones (themselves the subject of the next novel in this new series), as well as a healthy dollop of Hunter S. Thompson, as our main protagonist's runaway drug addiction turns many of his battle descriptions into some of the most bizarre gonzo reporting this side of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. And for all you Tom Clancy tech-heads, there's plenty for you to enjoy too, as McCarthy spins fantastical tales of spacesuit-type armor with self-contained atmospheres, in a world where all troop movement is conducted underground in massive tunnels bored specifically for that purpose, because of pervasive drones and armed satellites from both sides turning all of outdoors into one massive genocidal killing field.

Ultimately the best compliment I can pay this unforgettable novel is this -- that it was one of the very rare books anymore that I literally was not able to put down, continuing to read in little snatches both day and night when I was supposed to be doing other things; and I'm not usually a fan of war novels, which makes my obsession with this one even more profound. The one sci-fi military novel to read if you only read one sci-fi military novel a year, it comes strongly recommended no matter what your opinion on war in general, and it's a shame that Orbit put this out in such a cheesy supermarket edition that will scare off so many of the people bound to love it the most.

Out of 10: 9.3, or 10 for fans of sci-fi military tales

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:51 PM, September 19, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |