February 15, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 15 February 2012

(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.)

Mad Skills, by Walter Greatshell

Mad Skills
By Walter Greatshell
Ace Books / Penguin

While this is far from a badly written book, I think that maybe Walter Greatshell's Mad Skills is perhaps a victim of mistaken categorization; because now that I've finished it, I find it hard to describe in any other way than as a Young Adult action-adventure version of Daniel Keyes' classic Flowers for Algernon, although it was promoted to me by the publishing company as a grown-up book for grown-up audiences. And so as an adult book, this simplistic novel leaves a lot to be desired, a sort of clunky tale of a brain-damaged girl turned into a supergenius through an experimental procedure after a bad accident, who comes to realize that it is merely a byproduct of a secret governmental/corporate plan to mentally control a docile population through innovative brain implants, with both a plotline and dialogue that feel much more often like they're plodding along instead of sailing or soaring; but if you instead assume that this was meant for teenage readers, nearly all of these things can be excused, with the manuscript suddenly much more on par with something like Scott Westerfield's hugely admired "Uglies" series. I've got another title from Greatshell in the pike as we speak, ready to be reviewed here later this year, and I'll be interested in seeing whether that one appeals more to adult readers, or whether Greatshell simply writes in a style more appropriate for a teen audience.

Out of 10: 7.2, or 8.2 for Young Adult fans

Party Wolves in My Skull, by Michael Allen Rose

Party Wolves in My Skull
By Michael Allen Rose
Eraserhead Press

As I've said here many times before, although I'm a fan of so-called "bizarro" or "gonzo" fiction, I also acknowledge that even under the best of circumstances, the subgenre takes some getting used to; after all, many of the stories that fit into this category are not much more than nonsensical dream transcripts with some random sex and violence thrown in for good measure, with not even an effort made to fit in a three-act plot but rather existing as a sort of literary form of a wacky old Warner Brothers cartoon. For example, take Michael Allen Rose's Party Wolves in My Skull, the latest title from Eraserhead Press's "New Bizarro Author Series;" its premise is not much more than that one day, a man's eyeballs stage a coup and run away from his body, leaving two holes to his brain that are promptly taken over by a series of microscopic, pot-smoking feral wolves (or maybe "frat-boy wolves" would be the better term), who essentially wreak havoc on our narrator because of him unable to see what kinds of nefarious things they're actually doing. Deliberately silly and gross, like many of the titles in this series, its fans already know who they are; but for the rest of you, a strong stomach and a high suspension of disbelief is encouraged.

Out of 10: 7.5

India Calling, by Anand Giridharadas

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking
By Anand Giridharadas
Times Books / Henry Holt and Company

Regular readers know that in the last several years, I've been giving myself a crash course of sorts all about the regions we in the West refer to as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, mostly because these areas are becoming more and more important by the day in world affairs, and like most Americans I don't know the least little freaking thing about any of them; but unfortunately, I've learned that most of the contemporary books coming out these days that purport to teach us Westerners more about these regions usually fail at one extreme or another, being either overly simplistic book-length Wikipedia entries that teach nothing about what it's like to actually live there right now, or glorified doctoral theses with a mainstream-friendly cover slapped on the front, full of obscure political theories and lots of demographic data but failing to give the reader a good overall look at the area. But not so with India Calling, an almost perfect balance of these elements by Anand Giridharadas, accomplished mostly by the circumstances of him being a youngish intellectual Indian-American who wished and then got a long-term job with the New York Times to cover the subcontinent, moving there permanently after an American childhood filled with old stories and frequent vacations, which allows him not only to be an outsider and insider at once, but also to simultaneously understand the culture and history behind all the 21st century "quiet revolutions" going on there right now and still be surprised and somewhat awestruck by it all as well.

And of course, it helps quite a bit that Giridharadas's job as a journalist specifically sends him into a whole variety of fascinating situations on a regular basis, where he uses his keen intellect to not only report on what he sees but interpret to Americans why it's so important; and so from his time spent with a former "untouchable" who has entrepreneurially transformed himself into a laptop-owning middle-class motivational speaker, to a day at a rural and largely improvised "family court" system, to his talk with one of the richest and most powerful media moguls in the country, Giridharadas brings a mesmerizing sense of place and society to each of the strange little things he examines, giving us perhaps the best overall "insider's" view of Indian life in the 21st century that English speakers have now seen. A huge recommendation whether or not you're specifically interested in India itself, precisely because you will be after finishing no matter what your attitude was before, India Calling absolutely makes me want to now seek out Giridharadas's newspaper columns on a more timely basis, in the same kind of exhilarated way that I felt about Malcolm Gladwell after reading The Tipping Point.

Out of 10: 9.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:04 AM, February 15, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |