September 14, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 14 September 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.)

Return of the Thin Man, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett
Return of the Thin Man
Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett
The Mysterious Press / Grove/Atlantic

It's "Thin Man" week here at CCLaP! And in fact, it was pure but lucky coincidence that the original 1934 novel came up in my "CCLaP 100" reading queue this month, which I then followed up with a screening of the equally famous 1934 movie; because it just so happens that a brand-new contemporary book on the subject came to the top of my reading queue this month as well, the fascinating Return of the Thin Man edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett. See, even though The Thin Man would be the last novel Dashiell Hammett ever wrote, the resulting film version turned out so popular that movie studio MGM hired Hammett to write "treatments" for the next two sequels (After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man), not exactly stories and not exactly scripts, but rather if someone was describing a script in story form, neither of which have ever been published until this book this year. And so of course that makes this a must-read for Hammett fans, because it's not going to be very often anymore that they're going to come across unpublished work by him*; but of equal interest to history buffs are the lengthy contemporary essays that appear before and after each treatment, in which films scholars Layman and Rivett detail all the steps that went into making these films, their ultimate fates with both the studio and the public, and the cantankerous relationship the runaway alcoholic Hammett had with his MGM bosses, leading them to unceremoniously dump him after Another Thin Man and to hire journeyman writers to pen the last three scripts in the series. A fast, punchy and entertaining read, just like all of Hammett's work, this comes recommended to both hardboiled detective fans and those interested in the history of early cinema.

Out of 10: 9.0

*Although of course I shouldn't speak too soon; just last year, for example, a Hammett scholar unearthed a dozen unpublished short stories of his in the Hammett Archives at the University of Texas-Austin, which I believe are in the process of being turned into a brand-new book as we speak.

A Lost Argument, by Therese Doucet

A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day Novel
By Therese Doucet
Strange Violin Editions

Writing a semi-autobiographical novel, especially as one's first book, can be a cathartic experience but also one laced with challenges, as neatly demonstrated by Therese Doucet's "recovered Mormon" tale A Lost Argument, precisely because it can be difficult to for the author to separate themselves from the subject, and to make the sometimes jarring changes from messy real life that lead to a tight three-act fictional story. Because to be clear, the first half of this novel is an incredibly charming story, and makes for an almost perfect natural story arc just on its own: mousey yet cute teen spends her freshman year at Brigham Young University studying philosophy, slowly coming to realize what a moral contradiction this is at a Mormon college; teen returns to her Arizona family home for the summer, and takes a pick-up class at the local secular university; teen meets handsome, dangerous fellow philosophy major, oozing sexuality and already adept at quoting Kierkegaard as a way of seducing brainy 19-year-olds; teen has simultaneous crises of faith and conscience, all while experiencing the very first blossoming of lust in her young sheltered life, all of it eventually coming to a dramatic head as the summer comes to a close.

And if Doucet had stuck with just this story, changed a few of the details of the surprising end to the summer, and added a small coda wrapping things up, she would've had a real winner on her hands; but instead, she adds another entire half to this novel that is nothing more than random journal entries concerning the next five years of our gently subversive hero's life, random bits and pieces that almost immediately lose any sense of plot movement or character development, almost exactly as dissatisfying as if you went to a college student's LiveJournal account and randomly plucked out one blog post every ten or twenty pages. And that's a shame, because this is clearly a case of a talented but first-time author who simply didn't know where to finish her story, and didn't have an editor around to help her make that decision; and like I said, this is a common mistake when a person writes about their real life, because real life is chaotic and ongoing, while a great novel has tightly constructed boundaries and follows a fairly rigid structure. I'm still giving the book a decent score, because it's well worth it just for the funny and titillating first half alone; but readers would be wise to stop at that halfway mark, which is why A Lost Argument isn't getting a better score than it is.

Out of 10: 8.2

An Urban Myth, by Arielle Bier

An Urban Myth
By Arielle Bier

It's not often that I get sent photography books for review here, which is a real shame because mostly I end up loving them all, even if I don't end up having a lot to say about them. Case in point: Arielle Bier's recent self-published volume An Urban Myth, which started life as a special newsprint-published paper book specifically for the 2011 New York Art Book Fair, and is now available in PDF form at her website. It's a random collection to be sure, but full of gorgeous shots of cityscapes, bodybuilders, partying fratboys, dancing chickens, church signs and a lot more; and when gathered together like this the images take on a sort of odd yet hypnotic rhythm, a pleasing portfolio not bogged down with too much Postmodernist conceptualism, like so many of these art-school projects tend to be. It comes strongly recommended, as does simply a long afternoon visit to her busy and dense website.

Out of 10: 9.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:45 AM, September 14, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |