really short reviews 2015

Welcome to Rain Taxi’s Really Short Reviews! Here we present short pieces by staff members past and present. RSRs will post occasionally on this page throughout the year. For eclectic assortments from the previous years, visit these links:

2013 Really Short Reviews
2014 Really Short Reviews
2015 Really Short Reviews

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

betweenyouandmeMary Norris
W. W. Norton & Company ($24.95)

“If you must order baby back ribs, try thinking of ‘baby’ as meaning ‘miniature’ instead of ‘wee creature.’ Or become a vegetarian.” Between You & Me is full of such good advice. You’d expect as much from a book that quotes approvingly from Edward N. Teall’s Meet Mr. Hyphen: “Good compounding is a manifestation of character.” Mary Norris, copyeditor for the New Yorker, takes her job seriously; as she says when defending the magazine’s strict comma policy, “Another publication would let you figure it out for yourself. And if that’s what you want, you can always read some other magazine.” Figure out what, for example? Without the commas in “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret . . ." we would have only our common sense to tell us how many times Atwater died. Grammar makes it clear that the cause and timing refer to a singular death. Think you can do without the clarification? Maybe you can. But Between You & Me teaches you to think like (should we say as?) a copyeditor. It offers a fun mix of anecdotes from Norris’s life at the copy desk; historical curiosities such as the U.S.’s underappreciated “apostrophe-eradication policy” and the fact that “editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas”; and practical instruction on usage. Whether or not you know the meanings of nominative and accusative, this is helpful: “‘who’ and ‘whom’ are standing in for a pronoun: ‘who’ stands in for ‘he, she, they, I, we’; ‘whom’ stands in for ‘him, her, them, me, us.’”

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Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

drmuttersmarvelsCristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Gotham Books ($27.50)

Although Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859) was a pioneer of plastic surgery for accident victims, general readers will probably be more familiar with his Philadelphian museum of medical oddities. The mention of “marvels” in the title implies a focus on this famous collection, but this biography of Mütter only touches on the creation of his museum in the final few chapters. Although not a scholarly work per se, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is well-researched, contextualizing its subject’s life and career in the milieu of early modern medicine (a fascinating, if gruesome, era). And Mütter’s is a great American success story: impoverished orphan grows up to revolutionize his field and win the adoration of his colleagues, all through hard work, ingenuity, and a plucky good nature. Our hero even has a foil: the almost comically retrograde Dr. Charles Meigs, who clashes with Mütter in a series of dramatic showdowns. The book is unafraid to explore the grislier aspects of life in the early 19th century: special attention is given to the suffering of women, who died from being exposed to unsterilized tools during childbirth (Mütter, of course, was an early promoter of antiseptic working conditions) and were horribly maimed in kitchen fires. With all this going on, the book barely has time to discuss the “marvels” in Mütter’s eponymous museum; given the engaging nature of this work, readers will clamor for Aptowicz to write a companion volume discussing the collection in a similar context.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Nicola, Milan

Lodovico Pignatti Morano
Semiotext(e) ($14.95)

Beginning writers are often told to “show, not tell,” but author Lodovico Pignatti Morano does neither. The narrator of Nicola, Milan posits that the title character, a kind of tour guide/hype-man/cultural pimp, has a fascinating inner life motivating his public image of magnetic self-assurance and “defeated all-knowingness,” but the reader never gets to breach this exterior. Unfortunately, sometimes the attempts to portray Nicola’s godlike superiority come off like something from an American comedy sketch about Eurotrash (“The way he wears [his necklace] makes one wonder how his expertise can be so vast and all encompassing”), and the other characters often feel extraneous—props to bolster Nicola’s self-satisfied worldview. The book is notable for its exploration of millennial malaise—in spare, evocative language, Morano summarizes the tedium of life in the era of digital globalization, “the horrifically deadening sense of never being anywhere specific” regardless of location. Similarly, the unnamed narrator’s first-person account of his obsession with Nicola probes identity issues that fit our anxious, tech-saturated social landscape. The book culminates in a pornographic-yet-flat recounting of Nicola’s sadomasochistic affair with a young sex worker who “never eats”; the narrator treats this as a big reveal, but to the reader Nicola remains ineffable and thereby oddly boring. Early on, the narrator asks, “How do you act around somebody who seems to know everything?” He could have also asked: How do you write a book about somebody who seems to know everything—and how do you read it?

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Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle

ShowmanshipCover-500x500Joe Jordan
BearManor Media ($26.95)

Although William Castle (1914-1977) essentially defined filmic schlock—he has been cited as an influence by John Waters and Joe Dante—his films are little known today. There is correspondingly sparse critique of his work, and that which does exist focuses mainly on the colorful gimmicks Castle used to promote his movies (placing buzzers underneath seats to startle filmgoers at key points during 1959’s The Tingler, for example). Joe Jordan’s Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle offers detailed commentary on each of Castle’s fifty-six films. The bulk of this consists of plot synopses, which, although necessary, get tedious (as with many midcentury thrillers, the narratives are convoluted enough when viewed, much less outlined). This structure also devotes equal space to Castle’s earlier films—mostly cumbersome, hammy postwar thrillers—as to his exuberant horror flicks of the 1960s. Hence, Showmanship is most useful as a reference work. However, fans will be intrigued by Jordan’s ingenious connections. These include both the down-to-earth (side-by-side comparison of stills from different films, for example) and the outlandish (speculations about in-film references to Castle’s astrological sign; the “strikingly similar” name of a character to that of publishing company Merriam-Webster). In spite of its flaws, Showmanship provides needed background on a vastly underappreciated filmmaker. And what would Castle think of this studious, solemn analysis? If nothing else, he would appreciate it as a great gimmick.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

Definitely Maybe

definitelymaybeArkady and Boris Strugatsky
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Melville House ($15)

Available in English for the first time in its uncensored entirety, Definitely Maybe tells the story of a group of Russian scientists. These thinkers are subtly but menacingly intimidated by an unknown, possibly supernatural force into halting their work and therefore maintaining the status quo. While this is clearly a parable for the stifling intellectual climate of the Soviet Union, the book is also entertaining enough to stand on its own for the casual science fiction fan unfamiliar with the historical context. Some readers may be frustrated with the lack of action—the bulk of the story consists of the characters indecisively squabbling over the exact nature of the duress—and the ambivalent ending. However, anyone that has struggled creatively (whether by censorship or the less dramatic writer’s block) may see themselves reflected in these scientists as they contemplate the “crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths” of the frustrated intellectual.

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I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel

ithinkyouretotallywrongDavid Shields and Caleb Powell
Knopf ($25.95)

In 2011 David Shields and his former student Caleb Powell drove out of Seattle to spend four days together in a cabin arguing Life vs. Art. The loose premise is that Shields has sacrificed something of the former for the latter, and Powell vice versa. The exchange moves naturally among topics such as literature, film, politics, travel, and relationships—it’s mostly good-natured and it’s compelling to read them articulating and defending their positions rather than merely holding them. An obvious precursor here is Plato. As Shields has it: “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.” Other models are discussed at greater length. A primary reference is My Dinner with Andre, which they watch and discuss one evening in the cabin (though Powell sleeps through half of it). But it’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that appears most frequently, with Powell at one point saying, “I don’t want to be David Lipsky to your David Foster Wallace.” To the reader for whom Reality Hunger is the manifesto to read by, Totally Wrong works like a novel stripped of all the boring parts; it even has a tense and emotionally powerful climax. To the reader who has had enough of Shields’s ongoing critique of literature, it will be refreshing to find him admitting, “I’m out of stories, out of new ideas. I need to change my life,” to which Powell responds, “Even your big heartfelt revelations are borrowed from books!”

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Spider in a Tree

spiderinatreeSusan Stinson
Small Beer Press ($16)

Based on the life of Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Spider in a Tree is a novel firmly grounded in fact: the author has “infused the text” with material drawn from the writing of the preacher and his contemporaries. However, the story is not bogged down with historical detail and the psychological themes explored feel universal, making the book compelling. The characters have a complicated relationship with religion, the ruling force of their lives—to them, the spiritual is more real and important than the physical. Any contention over doctrine, even that which may seem trivial to the modern reader, is a life-or-death situation, and this drives much of the book’s action. The characters also hold conflicting feelings about their faith: spirituality sustains them through the mundane discomfort of colonial life, but the Puritan God is also illogical, angry, and prone to “toy with lives as he pleased without any relationship to sense or reason.” Edwards sees evidence of divine grace everywhere, but in a world “haunted by work and sin,” the characters fight to sublimate their bodies and the natural environment, and their culture is shaped by a belief in the uselessness of earthly pleasure and inevitability of mortality and judgement. This combination of “absence, presence, and consolation” motivates the complicated inner lives of these well-realized characters, whose psyches Stinson explores in empathetic and satisfying depth.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World

americancocktailAnita Reynolds
With Howard Miller
Edited by George Hutchinson
Harvard University Press ($29.95)

Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds (1901-1980) was a multiracial expatriate with a Cocteauesque talent for being present at opportune historical moments and befriending people who would later become famous. This memoir begins in Reynolds’ hometown of Los Angeles (where she was a minor silent film star), then follows her travels in New York, North Africa, and Europe, which she fled during World War II, getting out mere days before the Nazis rolled into Paris. She knew many creative personages during the interwar period and relates anecdotes about Antonin Artaud, Carl Van Vechten, and Man Ray, to name a few. Although Reynolds is very likeable, readers might be bemused by her blithe attitude toward some issues—her white boyfriends fetishize her race and in Morocco she accepts temporary charge of a slave, which she likens to a “happy puppy.” However, she eventually embraces responsibility as a wartime nurse and develops a social conscience, negating some of the impetuousness of her narrative style and enriching the book. Like her personality, Reynold’s writing is conversational and impulsive; combined with the picaresque narrative, these traits make American Cocktail an excellent book to read on a trip.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories

visittopriapusGlenway Wescott
Edited by Jerry Rosco
University of Wisconsin Press ($26.95)

Author Glenway Wescott (1901-1987) saw most of the major events of the twentieth century, and this collection of autobiographical stories and essays serves as “a truthful, chronological portrait” of the man and his time. The diverse topics range from stoic, stifled families in the Depression-era Midwest to postwar gay urban life; regardless of context, both fiction and nonfiction are saturated with a gentle, verbose melancholy and layered with meaning. Wescott’s work is also subtly informed by an awareness of sexuality, gender, and class issues, and sympathetic toward those that might be outsiders in terms of these elements. Although the stories have distinct plotlines, there is a lack of overt narrative tension—the protagonists spend much more time thinking than doing, and are often “irresolute as the dead in heaven, where there is nothing more to be resolved.” Wescott’s meandering, adjective- and aside-laden sentences invite the reader to get lost in the rhythm of the words, but will frustrate those looking for a conventionally event-driven tale. These pieces are concerned with the timeless tide of humanity—the characters lose something of themselves as they encounter the inexorable, shared experience of birth, reproduction, and mortality, yet the focus on their interior lives allows them to remain individuals. In thrall to the animal laws of sex and death, Wescott’s work is also a meditative affirmation of our mystic, fragile sentience.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood)

Tony Trigilio
BlazeVOX Books ($16)

complete dark shadowsThis is the first book in a projected multi-volume poem about the eponymous gothic soap opera, which author Tony Trigilio watched as a young child. The show “nurtured and sustained” the poet’s inner life before he could speak, and the “primal sensations” associated with these pre-lingual experiences make them ripe for poetic exploration. At its weakest, the poem dwells too much on the show’s stilted acting and unplanned calamities (which seem to define Dark Shadows as much as scripted events), lapsing into rote summary and striking a tone of ironic adult detachment that gets in the way of the book’s purported mission of “excavating childhood night terrors.” Thankfully, these moments are fairly few, and Trigilio skillfully incorporates his personal history into his exegesis of the series—a sort of autobiography by way of discussing the show. The reader empathizes with the poet’s childhood self as he discloses obsessions and family tragedies, uncovering nuggets of real horror and intense emotion in dozens of episodes of absurd storylines and histrionic dialogue. Overall, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) feels meditative, organic, and weighty far beyond what one would anticipate from a poem about a blooper-ridden ’60s TV show.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews