[Book Review] Pulphead

PulpheadPulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulphead is more of a 3.5-3.75 star book than a 4 star, but the rating system will not allow me to award partial stars so I’m rounding up.

I found Pulphead on the Guardian’s “Best Books of 2011” list and I was itching for something new to read. The review pimped it out as being analogous to David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.” To be fair, this pushed my expectations a little high because almost nothing except, perhaps, Hunter Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt” comes close to the above essay about going to a huge commercial luxury cruise (no Mr. Pibb!) but I found essays to enjoy in Pulphead anyway.

No collection of essays is ever completely even or completely excellent. Here, we find three essays worth the price of admission:

– The Axl Rose retrospective about old, fat, no longer touring with Guns N Roses but pretending to tour with Guns N Roses Axl Rose and his original home town in Indiana. The essay is pure Fiasco RPG fodder. And hilarious while, at the same time, horrifying beyond words.

– The essay about Michael Jackson wanting to break away from the Jackson 5 and strike out on his own away from the controlling interests of Motown. Excellent focus on his relationship with his sister Janet and brother Randy, the winning of Grammys for Off the Wall, his obsession with his nose, and the NBC broadcast where Jackson first performed “Billie Jean” and did the Moonwalk.

– The tale of going to the Christian Rock festival and the hollowness of Christian Rock. Opens with a great story about renting an enormous RV (but just enormous enough), the weird tensions between different groups of Christian Fundamentalists, and the limpness of the music they all came to hear.

A few other essays, the one about renting his house out to a TV show on the CW, the story of the Rastafarians in Jamaica and story of the caves in Tennessee are all interesting but not as good as the above three. And like all other essay collections, the rest are mostly filler. Sullivan is at his best when he is writing about music, and decent when he is writing about something other than himself, but when he starts to inject himself into the narrative things tend to go a little off the tracks.

Pulphead is a good, enjoyable, breezy read. Except for the retrospective on Axl Rose, none of the essays really linger. They aren’t thick, meaty longreads. These aren’t the sort of essays you roll around in your head for days and pick apart and analyze and then go argue with people on the Internet. I don’t put Pulphead anywhere near the same level as David Foster Wallace. They’re good and fun but, for the most part, light reads.

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[Book Review] Snuff

Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a huge fan of the Discworld and the City Watch books in particular but I didn’t care for Snuff as much as I could have — or should have. Down in my gut I feel Commander Sam Vimes has had a great run but now he’s so over-powerful, so unbeatable, and full of so many powerful allies (Vetinari, Lady Sybil, his unstoppable assassin-butler, the demon who lives in his head, every City Watch post ever, etc) he’s no longer much of a joy to read. He has no challenge. He has no mountain to climb. The term for this is Mary Sue, and Vimes has become a Mary Sue character.

I would have happily rolled with Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork if the book had turned into a commentary on Upstairs-Downstairs like it promised in the beginning, or would have kept to the city and focused on the goblins, or simply had more focus /in general/. Too much was going on and not enough was going on that had focus. We had some Class Warfare AND smuggling AND murderers AND drugs AND poor oppressed goblins whom no one understands AND What Happens to Fred Colon AND Vimes Taking Charge… the book lacked focus and the lack of focus took away from the more interesting action sequences and themes. Oppression bad, yes. But it didn’t have the feeling of freeing an oppressed people like, say, Feet of Clay did, even though it was, at its core, the same story.

I would have been happier, perhaps with two books: Vimes investigating a MURDER in a Countryside Upstairs-Downstairs and a more focused story about the Goblins. Or something to that effect. Much like Unseen Academicals, Snuff is a long way from being unreadable but I had to force myself to finish it. It didn’t grab me the same way Discworld books normally do. It’s no “The Times” or “Going Postal.” If I had to rank them, Snuff would dwell somewhere in the bottom third.

A high point: the continuation of Wee Mad Arthur’s education as a Nac Mac Feegle from _I Shall Wear Midnight_. I adore the Feegles and having one who isn’t Rob Anybody’s crew is always good.

Here’s hoping PTerry still has a few books left in him — and if they are City Watch books, they star Carrot and Angua and Cheery and the crew.

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