November 15, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 15 November 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 Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Litearry Obsession
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Riverhead Books / Penguin

I've been wanting to read Allison Hoover Bartlett's 2009 The Man Who Loved Books Too Much for quite a while now, mostly because of its subject matter: a journalistic expose of John Charles Gilkey, a mentally ill obsessive who stole hundreds upon hundreds of rare books over a period of just a decade or two, not for monetary reasons but so he could build the most impressive private library in history, Bartlett's book switches effortlessly between his individual story and a larger look at the habit/profession of book collecting in general, a subject that regular readers know is dear to my heart. (My latest acquisition -- a first edition of Gore Vidal's 1973 Burr; paid two bucks, worth fifty!) And indeed, although you should keep my biases in mind, in my opinion this turned out to be one of the better "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books I've ever read; thrilling, informative, good for beginners but also for experts, Bartlett even pulls off the rare accomplishment of successfully enfolding her own personal issues into the overall narrative (that is, the issue of her subject confessing lots of crimes while in the process of compiling this book, and what her moral obligations were as far as alerting the victims of these crimes); and in fact, I think it's no coincidence that Bartlett specifically mentions both Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Susan Orleans' The Orchid Thief as two big influences on her own work, in that all three can be held up as shining examples of 21st-century long-form journalism at its best. A book that's hard to put down once you've started (so thank God it reads so easily and quickly), this comes with a huge recommendation to all kinds of people, from my fellow bibliophiles to true-crime fans, those fascinated with obsessive mental disorders, and more.

Out of 10: 9.7

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure: Stories
By Craig Lancaster
Missouri Breaks Press

(Originally written for The Billings Gazette; reprinted here with their permission.)

As the 90 or so years of its existence is starting to show us more and more, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the academic short story is that it allows us to concentrate on character in such an intense way; stripped of its need to carry a strong plot like a full novel must, but still armed with the full power that literature has, the format seems to lend itself to penetrating looks at the human condition, exploring all the complicated facets that arise from sometimes very pedestrian situations. This is certainly the case, for example, with the new story collection Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure by Craig Lancaster, the author of last year's very affecting examination of the ins and outs of Asperger Syndrome, 600 Hours of Edward; because although little actually "happens" in the course of these stories, the events themselves are deliberately loaded for maximum effect, with Lancaster looking at how sometimes innocuous stimuli can have far-reaching consequences in the life of the average person, or at the very least can give us a much clearer view of the people around us as they react to it.

Take for example the best story in the book, also its first, "Somebody Has to Lose," which has a deliciously simple yet expansive conceit at its core: that the teenaged female basketball progeny of an otherwise unremarkable small town, so freakishly good that she was once featured on Johnny Carson as a young girl, has finally become old enough to join the high-school team, right in the same period when a once multiple-championship-winning coach is in the middle of a career-defining slump, all by coincidence happening during the town's 125th anniversary. It's certainly not a substantial enough idea to carry a whole novel; but under Lancaster's delicate style, it's the perfect milieu for exploring all kinds of interpersonal relationships that might arise from such a flashpoint -- the coach's relationship to his "sports widow" wife, his relationship with the town's overzealous boosters and local paper, his relationship with the teen athlete herself (and the athlete's relationship with the coach's teen daughter, itself more complicated than first assumed), etc.

Granted, not all the stories work this well -- one of the weaker entries, for example, "Alyssa Alights," is not much more than a simplistic Social Realist screed, as preachy and sentimentally manipulative as a forgotten 1930s WPA propaganda play -- but when they do work well, as they mostly do here, it's a real delight to inhabit Lancaster's lonely, darkly majestic Montana locations and desperate characters, a look at a slowly eroding 21st-century America that's as strong as many more well-known titles by major presses. It comes strongly recommended.

Out of 10: 8.5

There Is No Year, by Blake Butler

There Is No Year
By Blake Butler
Harper Perennial

So perhaps it was the microscopically small expectations I had going into Blake Butler's admired yet reviled full-length literary debut There Is No Year that made me enjoy it a lot more than I had been expecting; after all, this experimental haunted-house story and Grand Future Of The American Contemporary Novel has been trashed by readers and critics much more than it's been praised, and I also have to confess that I'm not much of a fan of Butler's popular litblog HTMLGiant, which I find just much too pretentious for my personal taste. But it turns out that Year is a much different thing than I had been led to believe, and something that regular readers of this blog will be instantly familiar with; basically, it's the most high-profile bizarro novel in history, and if Blake hadn't taken the time to cultivate the New York MFA industry crowd before writing it, it would've come out with a cheesy Photoshopped cover on Eraserhead Press just like all the other bizarro novels I've been reading in the last few years, and it would've had its 75 readers or whatever and Butler would right now be out on the road with Patrick Wensink and Amber Dawn and Eric Henderixson and Ian Woodhead, scraping and hustling for a living, instead of being the star author of the newly artsy-fied Harper Perennial and being feted by the New York Times and all the other wonderful things that have been happening to him lately.*

And so in a way, this makes this the greatest thing to ever happen to the bizarro genre (or "gonzo," or "The New Weird," or whatever term you want to use), because it's like a giant booster shot of validity to all the books that fit within it; and now when these authors are sending out emails and trying to book appearances with all these McSweeney's-loving lit hosts across the country, when describing their books all they have to say now is, "...You know, it's like Blake Butler," and the hosts will say, "Oh, Blake Butler, well, then, come on by!" But that said, let me also confess that I only ended up reading about half of this before putting it away for good; because much like the superior House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski that Butler liberally steals from honors in pastiche style**, no matter how intriguing this kind of writing is, a little goes a long way with most readers, and while I found 200 pages of this to be almost perfect, the 450 pages of its actual length turned out to be way too much. But the good news is that it's easy to read just half of this book and still be highly satisfied with it, because for those who still don't know, there is no real plot to speak of, the aspect that has inspired most of its criticism; it's instead an unending series of exquisitely beautiful prose-poem micro-stories, something like 300 of them that are each only a page or two long, which much like Nathaniel Hawthorne at his best are much better at establishing a creepy, unsettling mood than in conveying an actual three-act plot. A long as you keep all these things in mind, there shouldn't be any reason that a genre enthusiast wouldn't really love There Is No Year for what it is, instead of despising it for what it isn't, and it comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 8.2 (but only if you read just the first half), or 9.7 for bizarro fans

*And I want to make it particularly clear today that I do think that all of Butler's recent successes are wonderful, no matter what I thought of the book in particular; although he and I have never met, we have a ton of mutual friends, and according to them he is apparently a quite gregarious and hardworking fellow who deserves all the successes he's recently been having. I guess I feel the need to specifically mention this today in particular because, after reading up on other online reviews of this book in preparation for my own, I was really dismayed to see just how many of them are in reality these thinly-veiled screeds of naked personal jealousy from other wannabe intellectuals, hundreds of them all along the lines of, "Wish I could string together 450 pages of nonsensical sentences and be called The Future Of The American Contemporary Novel." No matter what the quality of any particular work, I always think it's a shame whenever an author has to deal with a deluge of petty jealousy from the public masked as analytical criticism, simply because he's found success where others haven't; and so I just want to make sure that people don't lump my own criticisms in with the rest of the haters today, even though like them I found this novel only so-so in general.

**And well, okay, technically you could argue that both books actually rip off Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist in the scenes where they overlap; but that's a snotty cocktail-party discussion for another day.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:40 AM, November 15, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |