Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolution

"I will liberate myself from deadlines, but not at once. There is no possibility of getting out of the rut into which I have fallen. I don't mind starving as I have already done, but there are others involved too. I give my leisure to writing, two or three hours a day and a little bit of the night, that is, time that is suitable only for trifling work. This summer, when I will have more leisure and will have to earn less, I will undertake something serious." - Anton Chekhov, in a letter

Friday, December 28, 2007

Holiday blessings

I spent Christmas day driving back from Pembroke to Toronto in a rented minivan full of adults, children, a newborn baby, and shoulder-high piles of luggage and presents.

And it was utterly painless. Enjoyable even.

And nobody even complained about having to listen to the Louvin Brothers so much on the way.

Hot dog.

(Not that you could ever really have too much of the brothers Louvin...)

There will be blood

I promise not to be so knee-jerk juvenile in the coming year, but for now, does anyone else see anything odd about the headline The Globe used today for its story about the horrific events in Pakistan?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Closing the vinyl café

What Roy Edroso said:
There are probably far fewer analog audiophiles now than there were once upon a time. That battle has been lost by attrition. When I first heard Raw Power on CD I thought it was crap, and maybe if I still had the LP and a really good sound system I'd still think so. But I don't, and digital is what there is. To what extent was the ass-kicking power of "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia through my college roommate's maxed-out shelftop stereo a superior experience to whatever digitally remixed version we're on now? Was it the grooves, or the time and place? I can't tell you and I don't have thousands of dollars to try and recreate the experience. Maybe we were all better off with Edison cylinders.

But the recesses of our cultural memory are an archipelago where vinyl certainly rules. Things were caught on wax that, with rare exceptions, no one will bother to digitize because there's no money in it, or because no one cares, or because they just plain suck. These artifacts have the same value as any unobserved details of life: they are either worthless or a treasure trove, depending on how much faith one has in the obvious, or patience for that which is not obvious. Like bookstall remainders, garage-sale handicrafts, photos found in the trash, or conversations overheard on the bus, or anything you might happen to attend that did not call attention to itself, they are part of a secret world that is larger, and often more interesting, than the consensus reality we half-awakenly inhabit, and to which we can only abandon ourselves at great risk to our souls.
I'm tempted to add "literary fiction" to that list of cultural marginalia, though not at all in a mean way – not this time, anyway.

Meet me in Paris

If you have any friends (or, indeed, enemies) in France, let them know they can now pre-order my book.

That's right: I'm an auteur.

"Ah bon! I love storeez about zee unhappy Canadians and zere leettle problems wiz zee sex and zee ice hockey!"

¿Que pasa, Enterprise?

Yesterday, I got this e-mail from Enterprise Rent-a-car:
Dear Nathan,

On Tuesday, we sent you an email in Spanish by mistake. To apologise, please accept 15% off your next rental at any neighbourhood location or get a free upgrade at any airport location. We look forward to seeing you soon.
Which, in practical terms, means that I'll be saving nearly a hundred clams on the minivan I'm renting over the holidays, all because Enterprise assumed I have a violent aversion to the sight of Romance languages in my Inbox.

Gracias, Enterprise!

Clichés can come true, part II

This morning I saw a man drop his knapsack while crossing Yonge St. It split open upon impact, and out came a flurry of white paper that proceeded to scatter across the street and into the air like a flock of rebellious geese. Passersby tried catching them and herding them back to their owner, who was grabbing the nearest pages and stuffing them back in his bag while wearing the silliest, shit-eatingest grin imaginable.

I like to think they are all out there chasing them still. (I was too busy being amused to actually stop and help.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

AWOT advances

The advance reading copy of the PFN* just landed on my desk, thanks to the incomparable Sarah D.

This, for those not in the know, is the version that some reviewers will lacerate review from.

Here 'tis:



Actually, that shot doesn't really do justice to my feelings about it. Second try:



That's better.

So... should I start my Giller neglect whining now or wait until next November? I'm new to all this.



* Promising First Novel. Soon to be PBUDFN (Promising But Ultimately Disappointing First Novel).

Dear Santa

I've been so very good this year...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Connie Lunchbox

Conrad Black, taking stock of his current situation, attempts the vernacular:

And even as Black admits he's vexed over why Canadians "seem so obsessed with Barbara and me," he said of his battle against the U.S. government: "It's like I'm wearing a home (hockey) sweater in an opposing arena."

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More Martin

Shaun Smith on the Steve Martin memoir:
The paradox of Martin's success was that his everyman appeal was built on analytical coldness. Unfortunately, that frost carries over into this memoir.

While Martin provides a fascinating analysis of his technical development in Born Standing Up, he provides precious little direct insight into his own persona. Why was he capable of so successfully exploiting his ability to stand outside a subject (i.e.: comedy) and look at it sideways? Why could he not now bring that same faculty to bear on his own character?

I read the book in fan-boy mode and was thus happy for scraps, but I was always aware that what was provided was just scraps.

The last 30 or so pages also seemed in a mad rush to wrap everything up and get out.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Fun with cultural stereotypes

From Robert Priest's account of his trip to St. John's in Now magazine:
This just wouldn't happen in Toronto, I marvel to myself. The literati wouldn't dream of reciting aloud at a party...
And thank god for that. Literary parties are bad enough as it is.

I can't wait for Priest's reports from Vancouver:
No one back in Uptightville, Ontario, would dream of breaking off in the middle of a meeting to smoke a doobie and go kayaking...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Out of time

The clock is out of whack on Blogger – I don't actually post things at four in the morning.

I'm not that pathetic...

Kids say the darndest things (about their dead siblings)

I understand why journalists do these kinds of things, but is anyone else creeped out reading this story from The Globe and Mail?:
WINNIPEG — The little girl shuffled through the snow until her progress was halted by the line of yellow police tape flapping in the wind. Barely four feet tall, she shivered in the cold, her hands hidden inside the dangling arms of her winter coat.

She stared up at the blackened shell of the burned-out house, smoke still rising from what remained of its roof. She said her name was N'Tasha, and she was 11 years old. She wasn't supposed to be there, but she wanted to see the house where her brother, 14-year-old Nathan Starr, was killed yesterday morning.

[...]

"Was my brother trapped on the third floor?" N'Tasha asked, her voice even and her eyes wide. A few moments passed and she shuffled to the other side of the crime scene to get a better look. She said she woke up around 4 a.m. yesterday and found her father speaking to police in her living room.

"It was heartbreaking," she said. "When I watched the news they said he was in something condition."

Critical?

"Yeah, critical. But then he died."

She continued to stare at the house, where even the snow around it had turned to a black sludge. Every few minutes a new question emerged.

"How did Nathan get stuck in that room? Do you know where the fire started?" she asked.

"I wonder which window they escaped from? Not any on the third floor."

She's a grieving little girl, for fuck's sake, not Little Nell...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More Pullman

Dan Smith, the potty-mouthed books editor at the Toronto Star, wrote a short piece in the paper this weekend on the Philip Pullman fooferaw. Here's the main bit (it's not online):
In our practising Catholic household, The Golden Compass remains a treasured read. It spurs kids to think and question. Good. That’s what great books are for.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Reasons for rhyme

If only to show that this blog can be used for good, too, I should point out just how excellent is "The Runaway Jury" commentary over at Alex Good's place.

Carmine Starnino's contributions alone could be bundled into a pamphlet entitled How Poetry Works And Why. It'd be a lot more useful than prankish French intellectuals claiming that books are mostly arbitrary cultural constructs that possess no individual magic.

(Just so things aren't too positive, let me just say that Alex really needs to invest some new blogging software.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Books are a load of crap

Russell Smith in The Globe (behind the pay wall):
I am so thrilled to have discovered Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read: It gives an argument to support what one has intuitively felt all one's life and, more importantly, it gives one an excuse to judge, and judge quite harshly, all those ecstatically lauded, good-for-you Canadian books - on the Giller Prize short list, for instance - that you can't bear to even begin.
As one witty and perceptive reviewer put it: "If it's sincerely meant, Bayard's book is, at best, a helpful guide for pseuds-in-training."

Actually, Russell gets a free pass here – I, too, am very familiar with the experience of watching any given year's barge full of "important new books" slowly run aground and trying to decide which I'd rather do: rub finely ground glass into my eyes, or actually read one of them.

In reality, I do end up reading a good chunk of just about all of them, and while outright duds are always in abundance, the more frustrating books are those that shimmer with talent, but do everything they can to smother that glow with Big Themes, 18 months' worth of research, a world view borrowed from afternoon CBC Radio, and writing that is both overcooked and under-edited.

Having said that, I still think Bayard's book is a joke that fizzles.

(And I think it's very pseud-y of Russell to switch from "I" to "one" to "you.")

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Running scared

I should also add, to the post below, that it's not ideas these ban-happy school boards are scared of, it's parents.

The same thing applies when a public school board yanks a book.

No god but no-god

As stupid as I think this whole "pulling The Golden Compass from the school library shelves" thing is – and I do think it's stupid; a result of a hysterical policy of jumping the instant one parent says "boo"– I find it amusing/annoying to see that it has become yet another opportunity for committed aetheists to grab their copies of Richard Dawkins (if nü-skool) or Bertrand Russell (if old-) and march around the square, holding aloft the gilt case with the door open to show where God is supposed to be, but isn't, man.

The Catholic-bashing is just as knee-jerk, but – despite the fact that I am married to one (semi-lapsed, anyway) – in these cases, I tend to think "well, it's not like they didn't have it coming..."

(Her take on this Pullman thing, by the way, is that Catholics will do what they do, and they really don't give a shit what people outside think – which is not exactly helpful, but important to keep in mind amidst the huffery and puffery.)

I just don't fully get the notion of atheism having a moral dimension. I mean, I did when I was 16, but back then I thought being drunk all the time was a partly moral decision, too. Ever since then, I've been slipping further into a mushy form of agnosticism, with an ever-growing sense that someone just over my shoulder keeps clearing His throat. That's my problem, however.

Cutting ties with a particular religion or church is very often a moral act – and questions of faith certainly get mixed into those decisions – but outright believing or not believing is not something that is consciously willed. It's like assuming there's a moral dimension to one's sexual preference – either you is or you isn't (or both, I guess). Lots of people believe who wish they didn't, and vice versa. People who lose their faith are not "coming to their senses," and people who discover nagging religious feelings within themselves – perhaps to their own horror – are not "going soft." Faith can be a painful, irrational burden, as anyone who has read Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky knows.

That has nothing to do with not recognizing the various mainstream religions' poor track-record on women, etc., the particularly egregious things that have come out of the Vatican in the past few years, decades, millenia, or the nefarious influence of evangelical Christianity in the States, or radical Islam in the Middle East and Asia, or the influence of the Israel Lobby, or the horror of sectarian violence, or whether books should be pulled from shelves, or whether it's boring in church, etc etc etc etc etc etc...

It's about recognizing that no one really chooses to believe or not. It's also about recognizing that, in Canada at least, we are lucky to not live under the heel of a theocracy ("Just you wait!" I can hear people crying already), which makes furious, vocal atheists resemble Daffyd, the only gay in the village, always ready to trumpet their status, to general shrugs. They also resemble, not so shockingly, people who suddenly go from zero to a hundred, religious-wise, late in life, and can't stop mentioning it at every available opportunity. ("Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...")

Which makes me think this all has more to do with Pride than anything else.

(What's this, a can of worms? Wonder what's inside?)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Enough comedy jokes!

It is a truism – or it should be one – that you can tell the worth of a comedian by how funny he is when he's not being funny, when he's not in the middle of a bit. Most stand-up comedy is the entertainment equivalent of an ass-grab – obnoxious, unwelcome, and a more about trying to overpower than to connect.

In a sense, Steve Martin's stand-up was one long bit – a goof on the whole notion of entertainment – but at the same time, he rarely sounded like he was a doing a bit. (And it was when he was indisputably doing a bit or being self-consciously "zany" that he was at his weakest – the whole "wild and crazy guy" Czech brothers act, for example.) Building an onstage persona based on parodying onstage personae is a tricky thing to pull off, and can have a very short shelf-life. (One of the reasons Stephen Colbert is overrated – absolute heresy, I know.)

Martin pulled it off by weaving in and out of this persona, coming at it from all angles. In one short routine from the early 80's – shortly before he gave up stand-up altogether, he parodies the classic "pissed-off, no bullshit" comedian simply by saying "fuck" a lot and acting like a cynical prick, giving the audience the "real deal." He's not doing a character, just subtly altering his delivery, making the knife slip in more cleanly. Since his usual parodic targets were Vegas-type performers, it's great to hear him take a subtle swipe at the new, "angry" comics who were, for the most part, doing the same thing as the old, phony Vegas comedians – dressing up mediocre material with a lot of hip bluster. (Speaking of which, a terrible thing happened to George Carlin when he decided to play the pissed-off anti-establishment man – religious figures are often hypocrites? as are politicians? we care too much about money? shocking. – rather than do what he was better at: being a kind of hippie Jerry Seinfeld, or Lenny Bruce without the balls.)

Why Martin had to leave stand-up is demonstrated by the second side of his "Wild and Crazy Guy" album. The first side has some of my favourite material of his – lines that only he could deliver, like "Let's face it: some people have a way with words, while others... oh, not have way, I guess" – and there's a sense of real interaction with the audience, which sounds roughly nightclub-sized. Most of the second side was recorded in what sounds like an arena full of fans ready to scream at the slightest sign of Steve Martin-style wackiness. He both gives in to it and struggles against it; there's some funny stuff there, but the loss is palpable. He was funnier when he was able to wrong-foot an audience, keeping them in a constant state of uncertainty as to whether or not what he was saying was intentionally funny.

Anyway, here's A.L. Kennedy on Martin's new memoir of his stand-up years.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Shut Up He Explained by John Metcalf

Maybe it's cheating a little to link to a review that I assigned to myself, but since I've got some other troublesome and time-consuming fish to fry at the moment, here's my review of John Metcalf's latest literary jeremiad.

I got some grief from Dan Wells at Biblioasis about this one, so let me be clear that most of what drives this review is disappointment with someone who has done so much good for Canadian writing, but falls so far short of his vociferously professed ideals in his own.

[I should add, in the interest of warding off bad karma, that I am fully aware that many people may be saying something similar about me – without the positive part – in a few months, once the book on the right hits the killing floor.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Scratchy soul

The Funky 16 Corners blog has posted its archive of mp3 mixes.

It's a motherlode of old soul, funk, and r&b. Given that it's all taken directly from 45's, you'd think there'd be more scratching and hissing than a bag of cats, but while they definitely sound better in a room than in a pair of headphones, the transfers are remarkably clean.

My own favourite remains Volume 18: "Blues, Tears, and Sorrow." Being one of those clowns who's always crying on the inside, I just can't enough of that Otis Redding/Etta James-esque sturm und drang.

I can get enough of Hammond organ instrumentals pretty quickly, however, even when the man at the keys is James Brown, but to each his own....

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

My review of same here.

Next up, I've got a couple of jokey, book-type things in the Globe's Report On Business magazine.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Brilliant Trousers, Intellectual Slacks, Clever Pantaloons

This blog's readability rating:

cash advance


TK: the Mensa society for snark junkies and time-wasters.

Blue must be the colour of the blues... and diabetes.

You almost have to admire a staff writer who, faced with the unavoidable truth that a given humourous conceit is simply not working, chooses to soldier on to the end, wings flapping and gears grinding the whole way:

Visions of a blue Christmas were dancing through the heads of people on Parliament Hill this week. Each evening, at dusk, an eerie blue light cast its glow on the Hill, making the Peace Tower look like it had accidentally been thrown in the wash with the blue jeans.

Given that Canada Day had a distinctly Conservative blue tint this year – as opposed to the traditional, if a bit Liberal, red and white – it seemed reasonable to assume that blue was also going to be the Christmas colour, too. And why not? The red-and-green combination has taken on its own political overtones this year, with the co-operation pact between the Liberals and Greens.

But actually, the blue glow on Parliament Hill this week had a less political meaning. In honour of World Diabetes Day on Nov. 14, a number of countries, including Canada, agreed to light up their landmarks in blue. The Empire State building in New York and the Eiffel Tower in France, among many others, were similarly lit this week.
Heh, heh – diabetes. Pure gold.

Another 100 words of taxiing and that jokey intro would have been in the grass at the end of the runway. I especially like that the Empire State Building is in "New York," while the Eiffel Tower is in "France." I guess Big Ben is in "Europe."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

You picked the wrong mid-list novelist to rile, mister!

It's hidden behind the pay wall, but in his Globe & Mail column today, Russell Smith goes after Ken McGoogan for complaining about fiction hogging all the press and high-profile awards.

I love it when authors scrap in public, though in this case, the tone is more akin to a couple members of the United Empire Loyalists or the Meaford Model Airplane Club having a few too many sherries at the monthly meeting and getting yappy, and the stakes are just as low.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Every dog will have his day

For those of you in Toronto, Sweet Smell of Success is playing at the newly opened Revue Cinema this week.

SSoS is one of those movies that can - and should – be quoted from beginning to end. It's like a pocket full of firecrackers, waiting for a match.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Times are tough in Riverdale

The erosion of public funding for schools is even hitting home in comic-land:

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The door prize

Got hit by someone opening a car door yesterday right at Queen and Yonge on my way home. Went right over the handlebars.

No, I wasn't listening to my iPod at the time. Yes, I was wearing a helmet.

The only thing hurt was my pride.

And my knee.

Of the many reasons I'm glad I didn't actually die was the fact that I happened to have two big flowers in my bag at the time – one each for my wife and daughter – and I really didn't want that kind of cheap symbolism floating around after my death.


Here's a dramatic re-enactment:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Wiki me

At long last, I've have been given due recognition: I am now a footnote for a Wikipedia entry on the Gillers.

Now I'm aiming to become a parenthetical reference. Main body of the text, baby – from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hey hey, ho ho - can I get this beef tartar to go?

Monks are being shot in Burma. Lawyers, judges, and opposition leaders are being beaten and jailed in Pakistan.

In Toronto, Margaret Atwood is refusing free food at literary galas:
More than 400 A-list guests dined in style at last night's Giller Prize bash at the Four Seasons Hotel. The literary crowd feasted on tuna tartar and beef tenderloin.

But two of the most notable guests took a pass on that menu and instead brought their own dinner in a box.

Former Giller Prize winner Margaret Atwood and her husband, Graeme Gibson – author of The Bedside Book of Birds – quietly declined the food being passed.

The reason: They were protesting the Four Seasons' role in a massive resort development in Grenada that threatens an endangered species: the Grenada dove.

It's not quite this, is it?

For fuck's sake, even TV writers know how to use a fucking picket line...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Where are the promising authors?

With everyone pitching in with their own complaint of Giller victimization, isn't it about time for someone to point out the shocking absence of as-of-yet-unpublished authors on the shortlists of all the major book awards?

Since its inception more than ten years ago, the Giller has not been given to a single unpublished novel.

That's a damning statistic. This intolerable situation must be rectified – possibly through some form of government funding. Or perhaps we must all clap louder.

Either way, people in Brooklyn are cooler. And it's all Atwood's fault.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

My review of Oliver Sack's new one. It's fun, if a little exhausting. (The book, not the review, which is fairly workmanlike – they can't all be winners.) An Anthropologist on Mars is still my favourite of his, though it currently resides in the category of Books I Love That I Don't Actually Own.

Next up: Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and then, hopefully, a break while I make some last-minute alterations to the Promising First Novel on the right. In the spirit of the upcoming Gillers, I plan to convert all the dialogue into barely disguised lectures on humanism. Plus landscape, landscape, landscape.

After that, I may even read a couple of books without getting paid to do so. The last one of those came back in the summer some time, and I can't honestly even say what it was. (Boo hoo.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Salinger loved too much

Came across this in an old collection of John Updike's reviews and essays – it's from a 1961 review of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (the review's online here):
In "Hoist High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" [sic, see below] (the first and best of the Glass pieces [sic again]: a magic and hilarious prose-poem with an enchanting end effect of mysterious clarity), Seymour defines sentimentality as giving "to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it." This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.

[...]

The author never rests from circling his creations, patting them fondly, slyly applauding. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given.
This encapsulates perfectly the feeling I've had reading so many novels where the protagonists are not even given the illusion of being free agents, but come off more like captive dears, gently manacled to their creator's infatuated view of them, lovingly force-fed bon-bons of description, the cruel world kept at bay except to maybe break a heart here and there or kill off a set of uninteresting parents. Nabokov, for example, was terrible for this, especially post-Pnin.

(About that goof on the title, etc., here is the letter to the editor that sets everything straight. See? Even Updike fucked up titles...)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On the radio


For anyone who is morbidly curious: I will be on this show with this guy debating this cri de coeur this coming Friday.

It'll be live, so anything could happen. Metaphors could get mixed, syntax could get tangled, mostly uncontroversial opinions about major writers could get expressed – anything!

Don't miss it!

Yann-inducing

Not sure why, but I've been interviewed twice in the last couple of weeks about about Yann Martel's campaign to clutter the PMO with used books. To be honest, before I was contacted about it again, I had pretty much assumed the whole thing was done with, but no. One interview was for this story. I appear to get lumped in with some National Post types – not a comfortable fit, I hope, but oh well. I also did an interview for CBC Radio about it, though I'm not yet sure when that'll go out over the airwaves. I tried my best to make clear that this isn't a discussion about the need for arts funding – which is a whole other kettle of worms – but whether Martel's book-a-month club is at all effective. I don't think it is. Martel? Well...
Martel cites a recent funding boost to the Canada Council for the Arts as proof his campaign is having an impact.
Uh, yeah. A prime minister who killed a national daycare plan, who skipped an international AIDS conference, who is slowly stifling social programs, who is using a pointless foreign war as a political prop, who can't be shamed into anything – that man just got spooked by the prospect of getting more used books in the mail.

I asked this in my original rant, but here it is again: you don't think Yann is losing perspective, do you?

One thing I did say in the CBC interview – and I meant it sincerely – is that the best thing to come out of this is that we now have a dozen or so online mini-essays on some great books by a very intelligent, very talented (if more than a little precious) novelist. If you could just sort of squint your eyes to block out the context...

I honestly thought all of this would have been forgotten about long ago – and I'm sure most people on both sides of the issue have – but if he's going to keep calling us all to the barricades, clutching a battered paperback edition of Animal Farm (full of some student's marginal notings of "Irony" and "Symbolism"), I'm happy to keep playing the spoiler.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Alberto Manguel's The City of Words

My review of this year's Massey Lecture by Alberto Manguel here. (Not sure if the slips in the review are my own or those of the typo-goblins, so let's call it a draw.)

I re-read Northrop Frye's The Educated Imagination just before reading the Manguel, and, though it's maybe unfair to put anybody up against Frye, the effect was like trading in a stealth bomber for a bicycle.

I also read Thomas King's The Truth About Stories, which, though not as academically or intellectually rigorous as the Manguel, was much more emotionally accurate and piercing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Just doing my job

You know, book reviewing isn't all about crushing egos and indulging in petty vindictiveness. Sometimes, in those brief pauses between mean-spirited bouts of snark and nitpickery, you find yourself wanting to help someone just starting out, some talented newcomer who, though still green and unformed, may very well be on his way to something bigger.

I don't do it for the thanks, but every once in a while, when some up-and-comer thanks me personally for something I wrote – such as this first-time novelist did, for this review – I can only accept it with humble gratitude.

And then go blog it as fast as I can.

Seriously though, I try not to get starstruck, but Thewlis is a special case. And to not only get thanked, but to exchange "crazy mothers who obsessively google their sons" stories, well...

In honour thereof, one of my favourite Thewlisian moments:

Memoirs of an old fart

Easily the most unintentionally juvenile title of the year:


Snort, snicker snicker...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ricky Gervais's early days and golden years

Came across a show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wrote before The Office called Golden Years, about a man who becomes a David Bowie impersonator.

You can see how much they scavenged from this for The Office and even Extras – as well as how much better Extras would have been if Gervais had allowed himself to play a deluded idiot again, instead of always rolling his eyes at the idiocy that surrounds him. I appreciate that he wanted to put some distance between himself and David Brent, but the result was a character with no real centre of gravity, no charisma, and no real potential for development.

Here's part one of Golden Years (the other two parts are on YouTube, as well):

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Good grief

From Bill "Calvin & Hobbes" Watterson's review of the new Charles Schulz biography:

Lucy, for all her domineering and insensitivity, is ultimately a tragic, vulnerable figure in her pursuit of Schroeder. Schroeder's commitment to Beethoven makes her love irrelevant to his life. Schroeder is oblivious not only to her attentions but also to the fact that his musical genius is performed on a child's toy (not unlike a serious artist drawing a comic strip). Schroeder's fanaticism is ludicrous, and Lucy's love is wasted. Schulz illustrates the conflict in his life, not in a self-justifying or vengeful manner but with a larger human understanding that implicates himself in the sad comedy. I think that's a wonderfully sane way to process a hurtful world. Of course, his readers connected to precisely this emotional depth in the strip, without ever knowing the intimate sources of certain themes. Whatever his failings as a person, Schulz's cartoons had real heart.

This is one of the most culturally and emotionally intelligent paragraphs – not to mention one of the saddest – I think I've ever read in a book review.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Thewlis and I

Review of David Thewlis's The Late Hector Kipling here, marred somewhat by the handiwork of the Star's typo goblins. (It's bad enough when it's my own mistakes that haven't been caught, but when the goblins are inserting them...)

And an interview with my own prickish self here. Call me Pricky Pricker McPrick.

Coming soon, and hopefuly goblin-free: reviews of Alberto Manguel's The City of Words (this year's Massey Lecture) and Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Exit dignity

The very first review I ever wrote was of Oliver Stone's JFK. I did it when I was, I think, in Grade 12, and it got published in The Ottawa Citizen as part of some "kidz R smart" page full of student-generated content. I got paid exactly $15, which I spent on gas for my parents' car and a pack of cigarettes. (I know: badass.)

The review was a negative one, full of snark and written from the vantage point of a very high horse (might as well begin as I meant to go on). I remember liking the basic narrative, but hating Stone's choppy editing and lazy, superfluous futzing around with tone and chronology – even then I had the soul of a reactionary. But still, you can always sense immediately when an artist is consciously fucking around with his material to give it more of a high-art obscurantist gloss. True artists aim for absolute clarity, always. Any difficulty in the final work should be a direct result of the breadth and depth of the vision. In that sense, a book such as To The Lighthouse is only tough going because Woolf keeps telling you exactly what's going on, while providing none of the conventional narrative footholds.

(Uh, I didn't put all that in the review, but I'm sure I was thinking it...)

In the end, any possible seventeen-year-old authority I might have had was dispersed by the way I wrote the review: as an address to a jury, the lamest review-conceit around.

The only one worse than that is a review written the voice or style of the book/film/whatever under consideration. That's just egregious and embarrassing for all involved.

So why oh why did the Globe allow Johanna Schneller to frame her interview with Philip Roth as one of the fictional dialogues from Exit Ghost? (Never mind the questionnaire-style questions she lobs his way: "How many hours a day do you write?" "Who influenced your writing?") On the other hand, Roth is interesting to read in any format, so go read it anyway.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Help a writer, dry an eagle's tear

A friend of mine found this in his Inbox, eyeshittyoonott:
From: Dritan Kercagu
Date: October 10, 2007 12:59:32 PM EST
Subject: Albania - Kosovo

Regards,

I am Dritan Kercagu a student of Literature Faculty at Prishtina University, at the same time I am a writer as well. The aim of this email that I am sending to you is that you help me financially within your possibilities to publish my book that I have dedicated to the twin towers in New York as well as for the souls of those victims.

God bless you

Author
Dritan Kercagu

If you wish to contribute a few Leke toward the Dritan's book, here's what you'll be investing in within your possibilities (again, no shitting):



I don't think even the looniest of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists ever considered the possibility of it all being the work of a giant, horny, heartbroken eagle, but here's visual proof.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Shaidle-ly, no!

Sadly, No! introduces its American readers to the lovely and talented Kathy Shaidle, on the occasion of her saying there is no such thing as poor people, especially in Toronto.

News to me.

(Bonus Mark Steyn content!)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Evolution of a catch phrase

Funny stuff.

(And I'm not bothered at all by the fact that it appears to be my wife and I in panel 3 – I mean, it doesn't actually look like either of us, but is certainly appears to be our sad little life at the moment, right down to the Sun Chips.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

X-treme Wagnerian Sports

As a kind of physiological and cultural self-experiment, and at the risk of falling into yet another musical cliché, I listened to "The Ride of the Valkyries" on my bike ride home yesterday.

I giggled for the first ten seconds at the sheer absurdity of it, and then something... happened.

By the ride's halfway point, I was ready to behead people waiting for streetcars, tear babies away from their mothers, and leave whole lines of cars ruined and in flames.


ADDED: I should note that the version I was listening to was a full-on operatic version conducted by Herbert von "Everything Louder" Karajan. That's right – fucking hardcore.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

William Steig


Lawyers, Guns, and Money (there’s a song I seem to back into very half-decade or so) notes that it’s been four years since William Steig died.

When my oldest was three or four, I went through phase of total Steig immersion – all other picture books seemed too bright, too phony, and too falsely ingratiating to me compared to books like Solomon and the Rusty Nail, The Amazing Bone, and, of course, Shrek!. Everything just tried too hard, whereas Steig’s books were comfortably bizarre and full of deadpan wierdness.

L,G&M notes the misanthropy that seems to run through some of the books. Certainly The Rotten Island is as rotten as advertised, and Shrek is a truly nasty character (as opposed to his merely crankily loveable film counterpart).

But that’s just hipster icing; the real heart of the books is a warm one. In fact, that’s what really drew me into them in the first place: their genuine warmth, which is rarer than you'd think in kids' books. Almost all of Steig's books have a deep throb of sentimentality that is truly earned. Husbands and wives truly love each other; parents are driven to distraction by the woes that befall their offspring; and when things turn out alright in the end, characters tend to dance around like idiots, though usually all that has happened is the restoration of the status quo. Even Shrek, the bastard, is a kind of model of self-esteem: at one point, after doing some awful thing, he is said to be "happier than ever to be exactly what he was."

As with the early Miyazaki films, the narratives of Steig’s books bob along like semi-deflated balloons in a light wind, moving at the speed of actual experience. Stories don't unfold – which would suggest they exist in some kind of pre-formed state – so much as write themselves from page to page. The characters seem genuinely surprised at what happens to them, and yet are active agents in correcting whatever bad fortune comes their way.

But before the restoration comes, characters are often put through some genuinely horrifying experiences. Dr DeSoto, the mouse dentist, must drag himself through a jungle with a broken leg, spurred on by the enraging thought that he might never again see his wife; the little (pig) girl in The Amazing Bone comes very close to being eaten, though any parent reading the story will instantly substitute a more realistic (and thus horrifying) fate for her at the hands of her gentleman abductor.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
contains the most effortlessly bleak scene in all of children's lit, I think: in the story, Sylvester, a donkey, has found a pebble that will grant him any wish as long as he is holding it. Carrying it home, he is cornered by a hungry lion. Instead of wishing the lion gone, he wishes he himself were a rock. And so he becomes a big rock, and because he's not holding the stone anymore, he's stuck that way, maybe for good. At one point, in the winter (when Sylvester has given up all hope of being turned back into a donkey and is mostly letting himself lapse into a coma-like sleep), a wolf with an empty stomach sits on the Sylvester-rock and howls out his grief.

Reading Steig's books to my younger kid now, I'm a lot less Steig-drunk than I was, but I still can't help but shudder a little whenever I come across that picture of the sleeping stone Sylvester and the cold and hungry wolf.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Reviewers on reviewing

Getting ready for the Word on the Street chat mentioned below, I went back to some of the collections of literary criticism that make up my own critical conscience, circle of elders, etc. (I ended up not really needing the prep, though I did get in the Clive James bit about the underlining students.)

Mostly it was the introductions I was interested in, because it was there that the critics – usually many years on from the deadline-shadowed and money-starved times in which they wrote most of the reviews collected therein – took a moment to assess the nature of the work they'd done:
[I]t is an unexpected consequence of becoming known as a writer that you are assumed to be competent to assess other writers. [...] It was, of course, flattering to be asked, but only up to a point: newspapers and magazines have to be filled, and if you won't do it someone else will. It is only the very prolific or the very needy who can afford to say yes to everything. - Philip Larkin, Required Writing

The hack and the whore have much in common: late nights, venal gregariousness, social drinking, a desire to please, simulated liveliness, dissimulated exhaustion – you keep on having to do it when you don't feel like it. - Martin Amis, The Moronic Inferno

I never knew that my early critical bits and pieces would be the sleepers. One hesitates to imply that they are bound for immortality, or even that they have lasted in any integral sense: but there always seems to be a new generation of students – real students, the ones who don't need an exam to keep them reading – who seek out my first collections of criticism in second-hand bookshops and bring them to be autographed at book-signings. They hang around afterwards. I recognize them: they are the way I once was. Just from the way their clothes look slept in you can tell that they write in margins and fill endpapers with notes. Having hustled a second glass of cheap white wine, they want to quarrel with some phrase that I long ago forgot I ever wrote. They've got it there, underlined, with three exclamation marks to indicate disbelief. They want to argue, but on one thing they agree: they don't think I wasted my time writing this stuff. They think I wasted my time writing anything else. - Clive James, At the Pillars of Hercules

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Talking head, sleeping audience

For anyone who's interested, I'm pegged to chat about The State of Book Reviewing – cue thunder – in the Toronto Star tent at Word on the Street tomorrow.
Bring a pillow.

ADDED: Apparently, it's being officially billed as "Book Reviewers: Friend or Foe?" So come see the face of the enemy! Bring the kids!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

First they came for my toy soldiers, then they came for my kleenex

Mark Steyn is in a huff that the objects of one of his favourite masturbatory fantasies are being re-assigned, thanks to the utter worthlessness of the reputation of U.S .military might post-Iraq.
It's been a while since I played with G.I. Joe. [I kind of doubt that, but anyway...] At my age, it tends to attract stares from the playground security guard. Nevertheless, I vaguely recall two details about the prototype "action figure": 1) he was something to do with -- if you'll pardon the expression -- the U.S. military; and 2) he had no private parts. Flash forward to 2007 and this news item in Variety about the forthcoming live-action G.I. Joe movie: "While some remember the character from its gung-ho fighting man '60s incarnation, he's evolved. G.I. Joe is now a Brussels-based outfit that stands for Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, an international coed force of operatives who use hi-tech equipment to battle Cobra, an evil organization headed by a double-crossing Scottish arms dealer. The property is closer in tone to X-Men and James Bond than a war film." Golly. So much for my two childhood memories: 1) he's no longer anything to do with the U.S. military; and 2) the guys with no private parts are the execs at Paramount and Hasbro who concluded that an American serviceman would be too tough a sell in the global marketplace. "G.I. Joe is not just a brand that represents the military," says Brian Goldner, Hasbro's chief operating officer. "It also represents great characters." And who says you can't have great characters based in Belgium?
Mark, I get your point about making G.I. Joe non-U.S. – although, hey: reap the whirlwind and all – but please stop mentioning the private parts....

(And notice how in the the first sentence I quote, Steyn refers to the toys in the singular form. Kind of ups the ewwww factor, like he's a gym teacher with a favourite.)


Bonus: Mark Steyn in full battle gear:


Billy Connolly and the art of the digression

Because I'm on a comedy kick, and because I mentioned Billy Connolly, and because I've got fuck-all else, here's Connolly on the nature of existence:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Clichés do come true (it can happen to you)

It's sad, really, that at the moment I'm finding the best music to listen to while careening home from work on my bike is Master of Fucking Puppets. It just keeps happening.

There is no implied ironic devil salute when I'm doing it – I really do love the record, it's just a little isolated as far as my usual listening habits go – though every once in a while, I feel as though Andy Frost is about to yell out: "Ladies and Gentlemen: these are your Toronto Maple Leafs!" (Yes, I know: "Enter Sandman" is not the real 'tallica ...)

The stuff is unbearable on the way to work, however, when I usually listen to standup comedy – my own private morning drive show, except it's Richard Pryor or Billy Connolly instead of two wieners in implied Hawaiian-print shirts giggling over Lindsey Lohan and setting off a-hooga horns between repeat playings of the hot new Don Henley single.


ADDED: On this morning's private morning drive, I listened to David Cross do a bit about how much he hates doing "Morning Zoo" shows with the two ker-aaazeee DJs; he specifically notes the presence Hawaiian shirts and the extra-stale Monica Lewinsky jokes.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Always a good time for a mime joke

Marcel Marceau dead at 84.

Here are his last words:
[...]




Death can't stop a cheap joke.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Word of mouth disease

Some new self-promotion on the right. This kind of thing may become more frequent in the months to come.

Hopefully.

Lieutenant George: I don't like blowing my own trumpet.
Captain Blackadder: You might at least told us you had a trumpet.

Speaking of which, have you read this thing on agents, yet?

Or this thing, about hating the literature you are forced to study in school, only to discover it on your own later? Someone should compile a list of literary works you need to revisit after school, and those you were right to hate the first time through.

Another problem with EngLit, at least at the high school and early undergraduate level, is that there is rarely any differentiation made between works that are still interesting on a literary level, and those that are merely historically interesting or significant.

Or maybe, as the writer suggests, it's just that teenagers hate to be told. I had no time for The Great Gatsby – granted, I was getting it from a teacher whom I still hold up as a model for piss-poor English teachers everywhere – but I had a great time, even in Grade 9, with all the dirty double entendres in Shakespeare. Still do, actually. (As the German flying ace shouts, in another episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, apropos one of the pillars of English comedy: "Zexual innuendo!")


ADDED: The cover showing at the right – which, though an early version, will likely be very close to the final – was created by the estimable Phil Rudz. I love it, and would welcome any and all comments and suggestions, either by e-mail or in the comments below.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Shitface baby one more time

Beating up on Britney is child's play. The only appropriate response is horror, sympathy... oh, alright, and some dark-hearted laughter.

Witness:



My wife calls this "the greatest indie film ever made." That "huh?!" she keeps doing is as disturbing as it is funny.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Sting

I swear to god: a hornet climbed into my pants yesterday as they were drying on the line. It must have fallen asleep until I, unaware of its existence, put the pants on.

Stinging my leg was its last act on Earth.

I'm all for cheap laughs, but come on....

Monday, September 17, 2007

Giller-diller

Turn those frowns right side down, it's Giller time!

"I'd make comic faces and stand on my head and grin at you between my legs and learn all sorts of jokes. Wouldn't stand a chance would I?" - Joseph Cotten in The Third Man

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Billion dollar babies

In the bathroom of a bar on Bloor St., I saw an ad for – I think – the Woodbine racetrack and casino. It depicts a yuppie-looking guy in a suit jumping up and down for joy; in the foreground is a woman's hand holding a pregnancy test showing negative.

The tagline is something like, "It feels as good as this."

At the risk of sounding schmaltzy and/or defensive, when I think about my kids, I always assume I'm the one who won the jackpot. (Aaawwwww...)

(Actually, the real winner was the woman with the pregnancy test – she narrowly missed getting stuck with a real shithead. Fuck more wisely next time, my dear.)


ADDED: Speaking of children, the new Harry Potter movie is pretty good. No, really – it is. It a little draggy, and the entire story could have been told in 1/3 of the time (basically, Voldemort is gathering his army... still gathering... wait for it...), but it was one of the first Potters that held together as an actual movie. Certainly a hell of a lot better than the molasses-paced book, in which Rowling started to think of herself as, as one wag put it, "Melville for pre-teens." Obviously, it helps to watch it with a member of the target audience and on the IMAX screen, but still.

The newest additions to the "slumming respected English actor" league in this one are Imelda Staunton, who does a great job with what she's got, and Helena Bonham Carter, who just sneers and looks crazy for the 5 minutes she's onscreen. Most of the rest just stand around and look serious. Sadly, David Thewlis has about one line in the entire thing. I still keep waiting for Thewlis to break down and start ranting at Potter about the Book of Revelations.

By the way, I'm reviewing Thewlis's first novel for the Toronto Star soon. Keep watching the skies!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sid Vicious sells phones

This:
The Solo Mobile ad, which Thursday hung high above the crowds inside Downsview Station, depicts a tearful woman wearing a series of buttons, one of which reads "Belsen was a gas," a reference to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp used during the Second World War.

(Cue the "punk still has power to shock" articles, illustrated with pictures of Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joel "The Hitman" Hynes

Below is a little taste of the Joel Thomas Hynes interview in the Fall 2007 issue of Atlantic Books Today (not online, as far as I know).

He comes off a little too WWF at times, or like a rapper looking for beef, but all the same it's great to hear a Canadian writer talking like this.
Response [to Right Away Monday] has been fantastic in the Atlantic region and a lot of Canada, but I've gotten slammed here and there because the book is dark at times and the subject matter is not exactly geared toward Oprah's Book Club. But in the end I couldn't care less about the response, because that's not why I write. I write because it's there in me and I have the ability anbd I'd likely go mental if I did anything else. I'm not writing a sentence hoping some conservative, petty dickhead sub-contracted by the Globe and Mail is going to get what I'm talking about.

[...]

Well, there's CanLit, and then there's literature. Meaning there's a lot of shit out there that's muddying up the bookshelves, and a lot of timeless, raw, and passionate writing that gets overlooked because of who the publisher is or because of markjeting ability or because the world has gone so fucking convervative out there that people don't want to see the bad stuff, the controversial, the dark stuff written down. It's the age of Prozac and everybody wants a happy ending.
I'm not sure the world has gone so conservative – culturally, morally, and economically, things can get fairly frontier-town out there, and that's not such a good thing – but it's true that Canadian publishing seems to represent a virtual (and occasionally literal) de-linking of a huge chunk of society from the rest the rest of the world, a perpetual High Tea held on a floating barge that's slowly taking on water. I've watched a lot of people in books – writers, editors, publicists, booksellers, myself – voluntarily and somewhat subconsciously adopt a kind of narrowed cultural vision in order to survive/thrive in the business. It's too easy to over-generalize these things, or to see dark conspiracies where there are only clusters of like-minded dullards (see: Henighan, Stephen), but there really are moments, when handling the "hot new" historical romance bringing us the latest in liberal humanist piety, when I just know that more than half the people responsible for bringing the book into existence – including, in some cases, the author – would rather watch Terminator than anything resembling a Merchant-Ivory film.

It's a small point, but a significant one: when the cloaks of Literature are donned, we must all become little Oxford dons and laugh with our mouths closed tight. One mustn't love; one must appreciate. One mustn't hate; one must scorn. And above all: one must keep the faith. Not real faith, of course, just a kind of vague belief that culture is good and books are important and the dance of the seven veils that is the modern world must be pooh-poohed in favour of eternal truths – truths that can only be accessed by writing like the love-child of Lewis Lapham and Isabelle Allende.

All of this sets up people like Hynes to over-react, to go out with both guns blazing, just so that they don't get mistaken for one of the dullards. (More of the same here.)

It all adds up to a funky situation. (So get up, get up, get get, get down, most CanLit's a joke in your town....)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dead man gawking

I thought for sure I'd made my first-ever film festival celebrity spotting tonight on the bike ride home from work: for about three seconds, I was sure that was Chris Penn hailing a cab on Harbord....

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Welcome back, you crazy, drunken....

Of all the indignities Ms. Winehouse has suffered through this year, none compare to the double-shot of Jools Holland and a cameraman with a roving eye:



I overindulged on the album earlier in the year, but that song is one I can still sit still for.

Beethoven's goblins

from Howard's End by E.M. Forster:
"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

Big toys for little boys

from Canada's weekly Pravda:
"The kids love it," said Bdr. Simon Gedeon as he demonstrated how to load a 30-pound bullet into a C1 howitzer.

Reminds me of something...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Faster pussycat, kill, kill!

Barbara Amiel on dogfighting:
Farewell procedure, what about the crime? In gladiatorial human sports such as boxing, wrestling and especially mixed martial arts, there's a good chance of injury and, occasionally, death. I find such sports sick-making, but participants enjoy themselves. I have no idea how dogs feel about fighting. They get terribly mutilated or killed, but this "sport" is apparently enjoyed by huge numbers. Just because many of us find it distasteful and brutalizing does that justify outlawing it?
Good to know that other people's schaden is a lot more freude than mine will ever be. The entire column is a masterwork of overclass derision disguised as a simple libertarian desire for fair play and justice. Plus, she unsubtly implies that there is a comparison to be made between the trials of Michael Vick and those of her husband – which I am happy to make if she is.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Annotated Northwest Passage

My review of Scott Chantler's oldey-timey graphic novel in The Star.

Prepare for a sweeping generalization: most graphic novels are only "for grown-ups" in the same way that Casino Royale was the Bond movie "for grown-ups."

That is, yes... but not very.

Blah blah blah Maus blah blah Seth blah blah Adrian Tomine blah blah Frank Miller blah blah.

At least I finally got to use that Bruce McCall quote, a personal favourite.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I kill me


Hey, four comedians (or actors who usually appear in comedies) in the past four decades have committed suicide (or attempted to, or died of an overdose, in Belushi's case).

Now, that's a cover story!

But I wonder how the death-by-misadventure rate among comedic performers compares to the rate among, say, those serving in the military. Where is the "Tears of the Warriors" cover?

And where the fuck is this guy? (Whom I've spent much of the past week listening to, thanks to this blessed compilation – the “Monster Routine With Hecklers” bit mentioned in the article is one of the funniest, not to mention most fascinating, things I've ever heard, and the whole thing is Bruce trying to talk down a trio of drunken interrupters. He never unloads on them, just keeps slipping the knife in while genuinely pleading for them to shut up. In jazz parlance, most of Bruce's stuff is either all Coltrane or Roland Kirk – this was a rare Miles Davis moment, uh, man.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More schadenfreude

On a diet of coal, urine and wife jokes, Chinese brothers claw their way free

Hey, that was the pitch for my sitcom!


A sample:

Brother #1 (eating coal): You know, my wife is physically unattractive and she refuses to perform sexual intercourse with me.

Brother #2 (drinking piss): My wife, too, is physically unattractive and refuses to perform sexual intercourse! Furthermore, she has no aptitude for cooking.

Brother #1 (eating coal and drinking piss): My feelings about my automobile are far more positive than those I have for my wife.

Brother #2 (drinking piss and eating coal): It is regrettable that automobiles cannot cook!

Brother #1: Ha ha!

Brother #2: Ha ha!

Brother #1: Ha ha!

Brother #2: Ha ha!

Audience: Ha ha!

Brother #1: Keep digging.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Schadenfreude

Actual headlines:

Hookah blamed in deadly fire

Stabbing at nude beach

Canadians warned of possible tainted salami

Burned bugs studied for crime clues

Former Stompin' Tom Connors Guitarist Dies After Hornets Chase Him Off Roof

And, finally:

Astronomers find gaping hole in universe

"They were not cops ... and, um, so what if they were?"

That didn't take long:

Quebec police admit agents posed as protesters

MONTREAL–With the proof caught on video, Quebec provincial police were forced to admit yesterday that three undercover agents were playing the part of protesters at this week's international summit in Montebello, Que.

Not that they were there to, you know, do anything wrong:
But the Quebec police force denied they were attempting to provoke protesters into violence. Rather, they said the three were planted in the crowd to locate any protesters who were not peacefully demonstrating. Police said the trio's cover was blown when they refused to toss any objects.
Except that...
The three officers, sporting bandannas, showed up on the front lines of a protest at the summit. One carried a large rock.
A large, peaceful rock.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why write?

I usually get accused of self-loathing and/or childish knee-jerk negativism (as if those are bad things!) when I write/say something like this, so I'll let the more loathsome and knee-jerk negative John Crace say it for me:
But this urge to be creative - or more importantly, perhaps, to be seen to be creative - surely must what makes writing so irresistible to so many. Few jobs allow a purer expression of the self. You can create your own worlds, your own characters and your own stories; the only limit is your own imagination and talent. And this is where, you can't help feeling, the whole thing begins to fall apart. Because for most people there is a huge mismatch in their perception of their imagination and talent. For when people talk about wanting to be a writer, they don't usually mean they just want to write something in their own time for their pleasure. They want to do it for ours' too.
The genuine, unquashable desire to write a book – as opposed to the abstract thought that, gosh, I'd like to write something someday – represents a lack, a hole, a broken connection or twelve. The wound, as both Edmund Wilson and Norman Mailer put it, though that easily shades into macho/masochistic self-congratulation. You write books because you are shitty – deeply shitty – at just about everything else.

That still sounds like self-congratulation – losers, no matter what they say, have their arms permanently crooked for a self-back-patting. Spend some time near a slush pile, with its thick odour of scorched egos, boundless narcissism, seething, Gollum-like neediness and duplicity, hobbyhorses panting and wet, idées not only fixed but fucking nailed into place, alienation from even the barest and most generous outlines of what we call mainstream culture – you read all that stuff, laughing at first, rolling your eyes and shaking your head, until you realize that They Are Me.

And that's why we write: because we are shitty, self-hating losers.









Oh, and because it's so fun.


ADDED: Following up on Steven's comment, I should say that I'm also mindful of a comment Jerry Seinfeld makes to a newly Botoxed and therapized Garry Shandling (in that new Larry Sanders box-set) on the subject of whether comedy comes from a dark place, psychologically: "God forbid you have talent..."

To which Shandling replies: "I detect some hostility in that answer..."

I don't want to go too far down the art-from-misery road, wherein everything is just Notes from Underground, but still. Inasmuch as most people lack something fundamental, writers and other creative types are at least lucky enough to make something of it. The only problem is that, in most cases, what is lacking overwhelms the thing being made of it. And worse: the lack within the thing being made makes the original lack even more... lacking.

Jesus, I sound like Jack Sparrow.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

JB, boma ye

It always happens: after watching When We Were Kings, I always get the urge to either read a lot of Norman Mailer or listen to a lot of James Brown.

Nine-and-a-half times out of ten, it's the latter – though I did read The Fight during an extended-though-never-repeated Mailer phase in my last year of high school, a few years before the movie came out. All I remember from it was a scene in which a drunken Mailer, probably on some kind of masculinity- and/or zeitgeist-defining dare, walks on a ledge outside the window at a party, a few stories up.

Back to Mr. Brown – just before the thing below cuts off (and you can find part 2 fairly easily, if you are so inclined), Brown delivers the line I have advised my son to use against all schoolyard tormentors: "I don't know karate, but I know ka-razy!"

Witness the ferociousness:

[Well, YouTube's done tooken the thing down. Oh well, something just as ferocious below.... (I've put this one up before, but what the hell.)]

Monday, August 20, 2007

War porn

Why oh why does every attempt to romanticize war and our "boys in uniform" end up sounding like gay porn?

Christie Blatchford's Globe tug job on the death of a VanDoos soldier:
In this beautiful place perched atop the green Arghandab River plain, before the sun was even up Sunday over ochre-coloured stony hills, the young men of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment, gathered in anguished knots, clamping one another in brief, fierce embraces, consoling the most stricken with a clap on the back or a tender rub of a bent head.
I feel awful for Private Longtin's family – even worse that his death gets treated on the front page of one of our national papers as if it were a scene from a Bruce LaBruce film.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Writers (and other scum)

This letter appeared in the Toronto Star this morning:
Buried today in the second letter of reaction to the deterioration of Queen St. W. is the problem in a nutshell: "Artists, writers and other shady characters gravitated to the area ... " Put a stop to that sort of thing and the city is safe again.
- P.W. Taylor, Toronto

Apocalypse Thursday

I know the weather's been a little weird in the GTA lately, but the long-range forecast showing on the CityPulse site seems just a little, well, off:




Just in case, I'm packing an enviro-suit, a lot of freeze-dried food, and a loaded shotgun.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Use your reviews

Whenever people (like me) go on at length about the noble art of reviewing – its necessary function, its role as Dionysus's Artistotle, Laurel's Hardy, the Chipmunks' Alvin, etc. – few admit that one of the most useful thing about well-written reviews are their ability to warn us off things we were harbouring doubts about, anyway. In that way, reviewers are like hipper, smarter, older friends who, with a slight pursing of the lips and shaking of the head, gently take our elbows as we're about to walk into Spiderman 3 and guide us across the street to a bar for a drink. "Money better spent," the reviews tell us, and we thank them for it.

It sounds crude, ignorant, intellectually lazy, and ant-art, and it can easily lead to unearned smugness (which should really be the subtitle of this blog), but it's a fact. There's only so many hours in a day, years in a life – we often need reviews for no more than a friendly heads-up or a thumbs-down.

They can do more than this, too: they can also confirm our suspicions about things we were never going to bother with in the first place.

Take for example, James Wolcott's assessment of that Californication show starring David Duchovny.
The sex romps are setups for Hank's kissoff lines and parting shots, some of which are so nasty they're like being spat upon. "Consider yourself defiled," he says to one babe as he brings their session to a premature close, and he tells the wife of a producer he's just laid (who had the nerve to insult him that the movie adaptation of Hank's novel was better than the novel itself), "Not only are you a cadaverous lay, you have shitty taste in movies."

"Have you ever heard someone refer to a lover as a 'cadaverous lay'? I doubt it," beams Doug Elfman in the Chicago Sun Times. "That's a mark of clever, original writing."

No, it's not, it's the hoofprint of misogyny, the same half-quip, half-sneer of hip misogyny knocking around in so many Hollywood comedies about manchildren with low metabolisms. I feel sorry for the actresses cast in Californication, who not only perform nude scenes--something many actresses are wary about, knowing those clips will be pasted forever on the internet--but then have their characters dispatched with a crude insult that adds a special spicy dash of indignity for the drive home. Yes, they knew what they were getting into, but even so--Shampoo didn't rubbish its actresses that way. That Hank gets his comeuppance now and then doesn't dispel the smog of contempt that permeates the pores of nearly everybody on this show for the crime of not living up to the ideals Hank supposedly possessed before the sin of selling out turned him into a husk of a writer attached to a roving penis. This is a show that takes cracks at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, another sign of slumming and catering to hip disdain. As an actor, Duchovny has become all attitude, which makes him the perfect protagonist for Californication, which is nothing but attitude in need of an oil change.

"Good," the mind says, "one more check-mark on my Not-To-Do List."

On a slightly higher intellectual level, it's always good to see someone pointing out the adolescent narcissism, snickering misogyny, and lack of human empathy that lurks behind - nay, animates - most supposedly "grown-up" comedy.

I've been very slowly making my way through the three seasons of The Royle Family (a show I can't believe I haven't watched before now), and the difference is instructive: for a show that depicts a human hell of farts, nose-picking, bad food, put-downs, and general shabbiness, it's astonishing just how deeply adult and empathic the thing is, right down to its core.

Monday, August 13, 2007

While you were sleeping


Just noticed that this blog turned one on Saturday.

Those were innocent days – we were so young!

Relevant info: "Speech and language development in the first year of life typically follows an orderly progression from grunting and sucking sounds in the newborn to the emergence of a first word at 1 year of age."

Scarily accurate.

Ewww...

Just ewww...

Wasn't the iron fist of Political Correctness supposed to have wiped this kind of thing out long ago? I though Women's Studies and Sensitivity Training had made eunuchs of us all? How did a piggish, white male get back on TV?

Curious.

More here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Moving inboxes

New e-mail address at right. I may be one of the only people in the civilized world to have no real complaints about hotmail – for some reason, my Inbox never became paralyzed with junk mail. But this one is easier to track, and for reasons that may or may not be obvious, I am more and more interested in knowing exactly what I said, and to whom.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Same as it ever was

I don't buy everything that Louise Tucker writes here, but it does conform to my own sense that publishing never really was the art-loving, profit-be-damned Shangri-la that some suggest. My belief – based on the skimpiest of research and reading, I'll admit – is that publishing houses that are and were "writer-friendly" are/were that way mostly because they can/could afford to be, there not being a whole lot of money at stake. That's not a criticism either way, simply an observation. Both ways – big and profit-driven, small and writer-friendly – have huge disadvantages as well as advantages for an author.

And even the notion of "writer-friendliness" is in dispute: just as there are plenty of writers who can relate getting the cold shoulder by a big press, there are many who recall their time with particular small presses with nothing less than a shudder. I've met a number of writers who published for years with small presses but who now publish with the bigs and who say, without reservation, that they get treated with infinite more respect by the bigs. Obviously, the amount of money their work brings into the company plays a part in the doling out of that respect, and fortunes change quickly, especially post-flop, but still.

This is all to make the very obvious point that it's not true to say that publishing is now all about money, whereas before it was all about art, man.