Tuesday, October 23, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

I've updated this year's reading log with some new reviews, posted below for your reading convenience:

Easy Travel to Other Planets, by Ted Mooney
There's a lot to like about the way this novel chronicles the interpersonal drama among a group of intellectuals and artists. The conversations are stylish, fragmentary, and mediated; the prose is compressed, with a cinematic sense of editing; a quasifuturistic theme (interspecies communication) provides ample opportunity for strange riffs; an atmosphere of geopolitical tension permeates obscurely at all times, threatening, at any moment, to condense into apocalypse—at its best, it recalls the energy and thrust of early DeLillo. At its worst, it reads like high-end erotica posing as lit: Mooney's attention to the sexuality of his [female] protagonist lurches towards the prurient at times (in the first thirty pages of the novel, she participates in three sex scenes, including one with a dolphin).

Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art by Jennifer New
Book dedicated to showcasing intricate art journals, mostly hand-drawn. The journals themselves are so self-evidently fascinating that it's hard to say why presenting them in this fashion doesn't quite work. The choice to reduce intricate journal-pages down to postcard size, rendering them mostly unreadable, certainly doesn't help; I think there's also a problem with the sheer number of journals represented here, which helps to give a sense of scope and variety but eliminates the ability to really immerse yourself in any particular journal. The framing essays profiling each journal-maker are worth a read, but ultimately they're not nearly as interesting as the journals themselves: it's just one more degree of remove between the reader and the subjectivity that's alive in the journal-pages. There's so much "frame" here that the art itself is choked out.

Only Words, by Catharine MacKinnon
MacKinnon is an anti-pornography feminist, which can cause people on both ends of the political spectrum to reject her ideas without taking the time to engage with them first. This is a shame, because MacKinnon's argument here is one of the most interesting anti-pornography arguments I've read, avoiding the easy use of anecdotal pathos, in favor of a legal argument, suggesting that pornography's status as "protected expression" is a classification error, and that it belongs more properly in the category of speech acts that are treated legally as actions rather than ideas (hate speech; sexual harrassment). Elegant and deft.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
Final volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy, a children's fantasy trilogy built around the (Gnostic) notion of a War Against God. The fact that such a thing ever achieved a moderate success on the shelves of American booksellers strikes me as so profoundly improbable that Pullman earns points just for pulling it off; that goes double when you also consider that this book also features two heroically pair-bonded male angels and features a young girl's sexual awakening as a major plot point. But to focus on the anti-Narnian qualities on display here is to overlook the sheer strength of Pullman's prose and storytelling craft. In this volume, these strengths are most evident in Pullman's sequences of genuine terror (the passage into the Land of the Dead) and heart-rending tragedy (the parting of lovers). Heavy stuff, but Pullman is right to not flinch from confronting children with emotionally weighty material: it dignifies them as fully human.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Post-apocalyptic minimalism from master prosesmith Cormac McCarthy. This book could fruitfully be partnered with Jose Saramago's Blindness: both stare unflinchingly into extremes of human ugliness in an attempt to unsentimentally illuminate the fragility and sheer miracle nature of human love. In Blindness the love is between a man and a woman; here it is between a father and son, a framework that allows the book also to also rewardingly explore some of the thornier questions of parental ethics—when is it appropriate to lie to a child, for instance? What forms of protection are valid and appropriate? The book disappointingly pulls a few punches in its final pages, but prior to that it was one of the most rewarding novels I've read this year. Recommended.

Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul
If I were to pick a book that this one most reminded me of, it would be Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: you could practically entitle this Understanding Video Games and be none the worse for wear. Like McCloud, Juul comes to his chosen branch of the media tree with a fresh eye, determined to coherently examine its component elements in order to build a new conception of the way they work their effects. For Juul, the key elements are narrative and rule-based play, and the unique experience of video games grows out of cooperation (as well as tensions and slippages) between these forces. Fascinating reading, clear and lucid, an essential work for anyone interested in the academic study of video games or cross-platform narrative. Highly recommended.

(Those of you who are interested in that last one might want to take note that all my "scavengings" from the book (85 in total) can be found here.)