August 28, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 28 August 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.)

Straight Man, by Richard Russo

Straight Man
By Richard Russo

I was all excited when I first stumbled across this in the "New Additions" section of the Chicago Public Library's ebook collection, because I thought I had randomly come across Pulitzer winner Richard Russo's newest title just minutes after it had been announced at the website, and therefore was going to get to check it out before anybody else; but in fact, although it was new to their collection, the book itself is from 1997, and in fact is one of the more well-loved ones of his entire career. A gentle character-based comedy about life among academes in a small college town, like Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys and Jane Smiley's Moo it takes the self-reflective topic of writing professors on a closed campus (usually a no-no in writing guides for beginners) and embraces it for all it's worth, really delving into the quirky little details that come specifically with academic life, but spicing it up with enough interesting plot developments to make it much more than the usual piece of circle-jerking masturbation than the "writing professor writing about writing professors" subgenre usually produces. And of course, in this case things are helped immensely as well by the main character being such a fascinatingly complex and charming curmudgeon, an aging fiction professor who has long ago accepted his fate at the third-tier podunk college where they all gossip and backbite, and who in his very mild way has decided to rage against the machine which is campus pettiness, combining a world-weary attitude with occasional bursts of M*A*S*H-style outrageous actions, including his habit of playing the Motley Fool whenever in front of the local media just to stir up more crap for his overlords on the school's board of directors. I usually have a low tolerance for this kind of metafictional material, but again like Wonder Boys and Moo this is a rare exception, expressly because Russo takes the time and energy to put together a wonderfully entertaining, sometimes legitimately thrilling story to take place in this environment, instead of the usual endless whiny screeds about middle-aged men having affairs with their 19-year-old students. It comes hugely recommended, and makes me even more excited than I was to finally tackle his Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls for the CCLaP 100 later this year.

At Random, by Bennett Cerf

At Random: the Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf
By Bennett Cerf
Random House

Recently at a party, someone favorably compared me to Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf; and that inspired me to read his autobiography, because not only did I know barely anything about him, but indeed about the entire formation of the modern American publishing industry, other than the vague realization like many others that there used to be no publishing companies, then at some point a lot, then at some point a few again, which then all got bought up by multinational corporate conglomerates in the 1970s and '80s. And the big surprise is that this turned out to be one of the most riveting and entertaining books I've read in years, precisely because there turned out to be so much drama and so many anecdotes leading to the rise of American literature in the early 20th century into the mainstream powerhouse it now is, and to the establishment and then consolidation of what's now known as the "Big Six" in the publishing world, around for so long and so powerful for so long that we tend to now think of them as unmoving monoliths. But when Random House first started almost a hundred years ago, it was just Cerf and his buddy around, two stockbrokers with naughty sides who enjoyed hanging out with bohemians, and thought it'd be a lot more fun to publish them for a living than work at a bank; and that's essentially how this raconteur's memoirs read, as half business and half drunken party all the time back then, with not only all the eventual giants of the publishing industry turning out to have all been friends, but with all of them essentially flying by the seat of their pants just as the Early Modernist era was starting to take shape, what seems now like a deliberate and crafty plan to change the entire arts community as they knew it, but in reality more like all these people just throwing crap at a wall every day and seeing what stuck.

And man, Cerf has just a ton of anecdotes to share here, both praising and pissy in nature, with dozens of pages in this fast-turning and endlessly titillating book devoted to embarrassingly personal tales regarding Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, James Michener, William Faulkner, Ayn Rand, and the scores of other writers and drinking pals who he almost single-handedly turned into the literary icons we know today. Along the way, then, he also offers up lots of advice for others who want to become editors and publishers, stuff that surprisingly mirrors a lot of the best lessons of the high-tech startup industry: avoid outside money (either loans or investments) as long as you possibly can, treat your talent like the rock stars they are, be funny when your competitors are serious and serious when they're funny, and pounce on those competitors' employees in the cases where they become disgruntled with their working conditions and quit. Bawdy, confessional, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes jaw-droppingly unbelievable in the sheer audacity of these arts-industry mavericks, this is easily one of the best "insider" books you'll ever read about the publishing industry, and it comes strongly recommended to those like me who are interested in learning more.

The Dewey Decimal System, by Nathan Larson

The Nervous System, by Nathan Larson

The Dewey Decimal System
The Nervous System
By Nathan Larson
Akashic Books

I know, I know, you haven't been seeing very many reviews this year from our buddies at Akashic Books, which is because they simply haven't been sending very many books this year; and that's a shame, because it seems like every time I pick a new one up by them, at the very least it's still okay but much more often some of my favorite reads of the year. Take this most recent double-header, for example, the "soft apocalypse" noir thrillers The Dewey Decimal System and The Nervous System by former Shudder To Think guitarist Nathan Larson, which turns out to contain one of the most inventive post-apocalyptic milieus I've ever come across (and I read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels); two tales concerning a black former soldier with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, who has recently moved into the New York Public Library with the goal of manually reshelving all its books, within a Manhattan that after an endless series of coordinated terrorist attacks in the near future has voluntarily emptied to roughly one-tenth the population it once was, like The Yiddish Policeman's Union they use simple crime-novel plots as a sly way to explore this expansive alt-history universe, even while layering in an ultra-slow reveal concerning "Dewey"s actual past, the terrible eugenics experiments performed on him by the US military, and why it is that he can't remember any of it, despite still having an autonomic sense memory of how to speak Korean (for one example) or how to kill a man with his bare hands (for another). Two of the most legitimately exciting novels I've read in a long time, these had the rare ability to completely suck me out of my daily reality while I was in the middle of reading them, something that doesn't happen to me much anymore now that I read 150 books a year; and I always take that as an extremely good sign, taut genre actioners that belie the usual tropes of their genres, and which will undoubtedly be making our Best Of The Year lists come December.

Out of 10: 9.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:38 PM, August 28, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |