May 3, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 3 May 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.)

The Dead Witness, edited by Michael Sims

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories
Edited by Michael Sims
Walker & Company / Bloomsbury

This fascinating new anthology, by an academe who has made a career out of putting together such anthologies, is a lively and unexpected guide to the early history of the detective story, whose invention is largely credited to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and which really flowered into mainstream success during the Victorian Age of the 1830s to 1900s. And indeed, by placing his only Sherlock Holmes story right in the middle of this massive book, editor Michael Sims is clearly showing just how much precedence there was leading up to what eventually became the most famous character in this genre's history; because with the very idea of a city police department not even invented in the real world until the early 1800s, many of the first stories about solving crimes came about in a roundabout way, whether through "Newgate" novels that salaciously glorified the criminals or "Sensation" novels that combined noir-like plots with Gothic moodiness and supernaturalism. And there's lots more surprises awaiting the eager Victoriana fan who picks this up, not an "all-star" compilation but with stories picked precisely because of their uniqueness and obscurity; for example, how many female writers found real success in this genre back then, or how much great crime fiction came from other areas of the Empire like Canada and Australia. And in the meanwhile, Sims throws in a few nonfiction tidbits to help us maintain a sense of society in general back then; of particular interest, for example, is a full reprint of the first long newspaper article to come out about the first Jack The Ripper slaying. A huge collection that kept an armchair historian like me flipping pages quickly, it comes strongly recommended to other Baker Street Irregulars, and the only reason it's not getting a higher score is the unavoidable fact that you won't like it at all if you're not already a fan of Victorian genre fiction.

Out of 10: 8.9

Enormity, by W.G. Marshall

Enormity
By W.G. Marshall
Night Shade Books

This technothriller by W.G. Marshall posits a well-worn idea at its core (a freak accident turns a couple of people into six-thousand-foot-high giants, at which point all hell breaks loose), but easily elevates itself above most other stories of this kind by taking an ultra-realistic and scientifically accurate look at just what such an occurrence might actually be like in the real world; so not only are our normal-sized heroes battling the giants themselves, but also the now human-sized and unstoppable bacteria that was on these people's skin when the transformation took place, the airplane-crashing waves of superheated air that come with each exhalation by the giants, not to mention the simple challenge of trying to communicate with a creature whose ear alone is the size of a skyscraper, making even the most powerful amplifier ever made effectively non-comprehensible. So as such, then, readers shouldn't expect anything above Jerry Bruckheimer level in terms of characterization and plot; but I have to admit that I found this to be a real rollicking delight anyway, merely from the pure audaciousness of its mundanely disgusting details (ugh, igloo-sized piles of dandruff, UGH) and the breakneck speed in which it introduces these details. A strong contender for CCLaP's Guilty Pleasure Awards at the end of this year, it comes strongly recommended to Michael Crichton fans and other lovers of simply-told but fantastically imagined what-if stories.

Out of 10: 8.8

American Gangbang: A Love Story, by Sam Benjamin

American Gangbang: A Love Story
By Sam Benjamin
Gallery Books / Simon & Schuster

So before anything else, let me get a big disclosure out of the way: that about a decade ago, I did some writing and design work for the website JewishCheerleaders.com, online home of the now defunct alt-porn production company once owned by Sam Benjamin, although let me make it clear that I've had no contact with him since those days; and that's important when it comes to this review, because his hilarious, filthy and touching new memoir on the subject, American Gangbang: A Love Story, is not really about Jewish Cheerleaders per se (although bizarre stories about its formation make up the bulk of the book's first third), but rather how this quest to make smart alt-porn eventually led him to working full-time in the legitimate mainstream porn industry, waking up one day to realize that he was now living in one of the bedrooms of a Malibu mansion that served as a 24-hour drug-filled shooting location for the production company he was now making tens of thousands of dollars a month from, his personal life by definition now becoming complexly intertwined with the abusive interracial group-sex scenes he was now in charge of organizing and shooting on literally a daily basis.

And indeed, in a larger sense what this book is really about is the grand tragedy of the entire "alt-porn" industry of the early 2000s in general, and the dispiriting lesson that nearly all of us who were involved with it back then eventually learned -- that no matter how noble your intentions, no matter how refined your pedigree (Benjamin, for example, had studied semiotics at Brown before getting involved in the industry), the combination of drugs and cash and douchebaggery and exploitation and desperation that automatically comes with any instance of sex being exchanged for money is bound to dirty and sully anyone who comes into contact with it, no matter how peripherally they're involved or how little that person thinks they're being affected. And so in Benjamin's case, as he found himself surrounded more and more by the kinds of deeply dysfunctional fringe dwellers who normally populate the trillion-dollar adult industry of southern California, he also found more and more of his hipster postmodern high-mindedness slipping away from him, slowly turning more and more into the kind of person he used to make fun of and with there being an increasingly blurry line between his fantasy life, the outrageous concepts being created for his porn shoots, and the way he dealt with women on just a day-by-day nonsexual basis.

I mean, not that this is a dour book by any means; in fact it's laugh-out-loud funny for nearly its entire length, with Benjamin having the courage to cast himself as the self-deprecatory foil of most of his own anecdotes, whether talking about his disastrous night while young and broke as an unpopular go-go dancer at a gay club, starring in a strap-on reverse-bisexual shoot for revered San Francisco company Good Vibrations simply for the hell of it, or later darker stories of becoming obsessed with ultra-abusive "gonzo" porn and having it bleed into his non-porn love life. And make no mistake, Benjamin puts his college degrees to good use here (he also has an MFA in Critical Studies from the California Institute of the Arts); this is not only one of the best-structured personal memoirs I've ever read, but Benjamin pulls off the neat trick of giving his stories a general appeal precisely by making them so specific, making this not just a naughty tell-all about sometimes some fairly famous people in the industry (although it's that too) but also a bigger and grander examination of an entire sorry little era in Generation X's history, when literally thousands of spoiled, overeducated young intellectuals thought they could change the very essence of exchanging sex for money simply because they were determined to, only to have the entire effort mainly end up biting them in the ass. I'm obviously too personally associated with the proceedings in this case to give anything even close to an "objective" review, which is why American Gangbang is neither receiving a score today nor will be eligible for CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year; but it nonetheless comes strongly recommended, one of the best historical documents out there to help future generations understand (for example) how a place like Suicide Girls could go in a single decade from a darling of third-wave feminist hipsters to a nearly universally reviled codeword for misogyny and cruelty. When read in this spirit, I'm confident that most people will find it utterly riveting.

Out of 10: N/A

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:17 PM, May 3, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |