Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"And he hold the mic and your attention like two swords"

The cover for Gareth Hinds's new graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf:

The cover of Madvillainy by Madvillian (aka MF Doom and Madlib):

Compare and contrast. Then go listen to Madvillainy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How to read and why

Sorry, that title was meant as a question – it should have read How to read, and why?

(It sounds best if read in a vaguely Eastern European accent.)

I'm in one of those strange troughs when – the books I have to read (for money) piling up next to me, and the time I have in which to read them running at just above zero (along with my woebegotten attention span) – I will actually pick up unread books and flip through them with a kind of morbid amazement that such things actually get read, that people all over are doing nothing other than sit for hours in one place, reading, and that – most amazing at all – I was ever one of those people, and will one day be one of them again.

Who the fuck reads?

These are the times when, with half-an-hour or so in which to read, I will pull book after book off the shelf, looking for the one. I will veer between rejecting genius out of hand for an arguably inappropriate adjective in the first paragraph and standing in awe of mediocrity for the outsized miracle of putting together sentences, paragraphs, a whole novel. All this while the books I am actually supposed to read sit fat and formidable on the floor beside the couch or weigh down my knapsack like little corpses.

I've actually caught myself standing in my son's room, scanning his bookshelf with growing annoyance. For christ's sake, I come close to telling him, if I could get away with reading War of the Worlds over and over again, or Jack London or something, I totally would.

No, I probably wouldn't, cuz then I'd be like one of those people who read Harry Potter on the subway, and those people are pa-the-tic.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The world the Toronto Sun shines on...

... is a much simpler place.

(Clearly, they're going after that crucial 65-75 "cranky retiree" demographic.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Young snobs in love

Jacob Richler* knows which fork is used for dessert, what wine to serve with fish, and, most importantly, how to treat a lady.

The proof is right here in his Valentine's Day column, in which he advises readers who are "happily equipped for the occasion with a foxy date of some variety" on what to cook. You see? He has barely begun and already I'm hotter than a fresh jalapeño in July. (It has to be really fresh, however, or else serve it to the dog.)

First up, caviar:
It is, of course, not especially surprising that a species with the misfortune of having its unborn young unanimously anointed by the planet's most voracious eaters as its alltime favourite snack would, sooner or later, end up in an uncomfortable spot.But the good news is that the scientists at the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which last year imposed a total ban on fishing in the Caspian, has recently revisited the issue, poring over the numbers and analyzing the data. They have heard Mother's Nature's message and found it loud and clear: The gist of it is that you better eat as much caviar as you can while there's still time?

So earlier this month CITES lifted its ban and invited the five Caspian- bordering states of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan to go for it and plunder another 96 tonnes over 2007.

A dubious decision to be sure. But I've thought the issue over very carefully and the fact is that if five or six ounces of that 96 tonnes ends up in my belly instead of someone's elses [sic], I will not sleep badly, but better.

It ain't romantic unless you're contributing to the endangering of a species. Bring on the seared Panda paw!
So I will definitely be starting things off on Valentine's evening with a little tin of the Caspian's finest and a few shots of frozen Polish vodka. And I advise you to do the same -- not just because it tastes so splendid and luxurious but also for its aphrodisiac qualities, which in this case I suppose come down to imagery: On a night expected to finish up with an activity occasionally associated with producing offspring, it just feels right to kick things off by eating someone else's.
I know whose house won't get trick-or-treated by my kids this Halloween. Who knows when Jake might be feeling frisky?

Oysters come next:
But to my way of thinking, the notion of aphrodisiac content is dodgy, and what's more, food in itself is never actually sexy. It's the way we eat it -- and watch others do it -- that starts those juices flowing. And this is where the oyster delivers its tantalizing final message about the person who has just set about eating it alive: Anyone who is eager to slurp up something that looks like that will obviously slurp at just about anything.
Did anyone else just throw up in their mouth just a little?

And on to foie gras:
Searing the fresh stuff is dead-easy, I promise you, and there is nothing quite like looking across a table at the right pair of lips glistening a little from a few stray trickles of its incomparable fat.
Is he allowed to write this kind of stuff in a family newspaper? Please no one tell Jake about nyotaimori....

Although maybe it's Jake's restraint that makes these columns always seem a little off. Maybe full-on decadence is the way to go. He should convince The National Post to send him on a three-week sex tour of Thailand. Report on the quality of the food being served in Dutch brothels. Advise us what scotch goes down smoothest in the game room after a day hunting the most dangerous prey of all.

Where were we? Oh right, Jacob was preparing to ravish us:
But now it really is time to break out some hot food.
Gosh, Jake, look at the time...
Me, I'm thinking of a small bowl of consomme -- quail, maybe -- with a delicate little ravioli floating on top...
I have to work in the morning...
...and a single raw quail egg-yolk floating on top, because I like the way it bursts so delicately on the tongue, and knowing that it will be doing the same on someone else's, too.
Really, you're a sweet guy, and everything...
Better yet, snow crab are in season, and they are divinely delicate and sweet. Either meal leads to a happy scene of the savage dismemberment of the very recently expired accompanied by lots of licking of buttery fingers.

(*Yes, I know it's becoming something of an obsession. What can I say? I'm like a prospector: I'm only interested in the gold.)

A first step back toward sanity

Supreme Court overturns anti-terror security certificates.

Please mark the occasion by sending a few dollars to The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada. They've been on this since the beginning, and have endured a lot of shit for it. As far as I understand, a lot of the money they take in goes to helping out the families of the incarcerated men, so it's even more worth it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The worst writers of their generation: a second look

I am little baffled as to how Charles Foran could write a whole essay about a whole generation of consumer-society-obsessed American novelists (D.F. Wallace, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Lethem, etc.) and not mention either Don Delillo, who did all of it before and continues to do it, with arguably diminishing returns, or Dave Eggers, who has – like a millionaire stockbroker who has a heart attack and becomes a Buddhist – seemingly broken through all that literary white noise to some self-consciously tranquil place of clarity and love. (Maybe for the worse.)

Foran also, astonishingly, makes no mention of critic James Wood, who covered all this fairly exhaustively, most notably in a series of review essays on people like Franzen, Delillo, and Zadie Smith. (Remember "hysterical realism?")

I'm also not certain what Foran's point is here. That the work of American writers who were all the rage seven or eight years ago is not aging well? That Infinite Jest was maybe a little hollow? Knock me over with a feather. And what's with that shoehorned-in bit about Canadian writers? ("There may even be a link between the impulse to remain oblivious to the textures of material existences north of the forty-ninth parallel and the tendency in Canadian novels to steer clear of formal crisis. Keep the messiness at bay and you can keep the stories tidy.") It's not as though I disagree – Canadian books that "remain oblivious to the textures of material existences" are the windmills I most often choose to tilt at – but it feels like a non-sequitur as it is. The rest of his essay argues that these American writers have come to an imaginative dead-end.

Perhaps Foran is suggesting that, even if it leads nowhere, the frantic chase after some illusory vision of the world is at least better than most of what we get up here, which is more like the preemptive renunciation of such a chase. I wish his whole essay was about that.

(NOTE: You may need to register for a free month's trial to read the article.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Lie down with Mark Steyn, wake up with fleas

As a kind of follow-up to David Solway's love letter to Mark Steyn, I offer you this. Here is the man Solway has called "intrepid and politically incorrect":
In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography—except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out—as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.
It would flatter Steyn too much to be called "politically dangerous," so I'll only say that I fully agree with his being "politically incorrect." Certainly, the "incorrect" part is a label Steyn has earned over and over again.

UPDATE: Steyn now says that this passage is being misread by crazy-headed peaceniks who are always looking to twist his sensible words into something ugly.
My book isn’t about what I want to happen but what I think will happen. Given Fascism, Communism and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, it’s not hard to foresee that the neo-nationalist resurgence already under way in parts of Europe will at some point take a violent form. That’s pretty much a given. Indeed, Ralph Peters and I have already argued about this: the difference between us, as I explain here , is that I think any descent into neo-Fascism will be ineffectual and therefore merely a temporary blip in the remorseless transformation of the Continent.
See? All he was saying is that white Europeans will eventually recognize that they are being overrun with Muslims, and so will turn on these dark invaders, but that it will all be in vain – Western Civ is done for. What so objectionable about that?

As an astute (though Godwin's Law-flouting) commenter at Sadly No! puts it:
You know, if they aren’t advocating genocide as a means of solving the Jewish Muslim question, then what exactly are they advocating anyways? To my knowledge there isn’t a product on the market called, “I can’t believe it’s not genocide.”

Manly book articles for manly book magazines

When Toro magazine went down last week, it took two articles I'd written for them with it – one on Brad Smith's Big Man Coming Down the Road (for the March issue) and one an interview with Robert J. Sawyer (for the April).

The Sawyer piece is still looking for a home, but Toro has decided to make its March issue, which was never sent to the printers, available as .pdf download.

Get it here.

(A thought: do all men now have to have that dopey-looking swoopy Big Boy/Tin Tin thing going on at the front of their hair?)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Camille Paglia and Sting: a bonfire of the vanities

Two brilliant puncturings of two brilliant egos.

The first is Stephen Metcalf's perfect – perfect – assessment of Sting in Slate:
For the better part of 20 years as a solo artist, the King of Pain has been locked in a Mexican standoff with the rest of humanity. We refuse to believe that he is deep; he refuses to believe he is shallow. Nothing—no amount of sniggering on our part, no amount of Elizabethan luting on his—has broken this impasse. High-minded self-regard has been to Sting's star image what groupie-defiling sex once was to Led Zeppelin's. Maybe this is why Sting, still a ludicrously photogenic man, has never looked anything less than stupid on his dozen or so album covers.
Everything in that piece is quotable.

The second is a close look at Camille Paglia's first column for Salon in six years.
Vicious insults to the English language: 3 (”enthused” is not a word, with good reason; “surfeited” means that there’s “more than enough”, you don’t then have to tell me; “drearily prolix” is the worst two-word phrase I’ve ever heard in my life, and I’ve read Camille Paglia.)
(Read Paglia's column here.)

Never, never say there is no place in the world for first-class snark.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Vendela Vida and the hothouse flowers

Last Wednesday night I went to the Gladstone Hotel to catch the tail-end of Sheila Heti's interview with Vendela Vida, aka Mrs Dave Eggers. I arrived in time to catch Vida's quiet, pursed-lip denouncement of those mean, mean reviewers and critics who get mad at books, who treat badly written books like crimes against humanity.

I spent the rest of the interview in the bar next door.

To her credit, Heti pushed back a bit against the idea, saying that this kind of anger was admirable in a way, that it was just part of human nature, that it at least showed a passion for books. For her efforts, she received an icy response from Vida: "So you want more of it?", as if Heti had just tried to defend actual lynchings.

I've never been able to understand this notion that books require delicate handling, that authors should never be exposed to harsh criticism, lest they wither and die. If you read and listen carefully when this kind of argument is made, it becomes clear that the crime isn't in holding such harsh opinions, only that they get expressed publicly. Privately, they are quite willing to say how much they hated this or that book, or how this or that author is an arrogant fraud. I've often heard that bad books should simply be "ignored." Which is a perfectly WASPish idea. Literary criticism, then, would be reduced to the two options: the gush or the snub. (And what if bad books don't get "ignored?" What if they win awards? What if they are presented as the cream of the crop? Do we all just sit on our hands and wait for it all to blow over?)

They may even push the envelope a little in public, admitting that, yes, many books that are so-called "masterpieces" are actually trite and dull and hackneyed and all the rest of it. As long as no names are mentioned. That way, you get credit for being a maverick, without any of the risk.

So who are these opinions being kept from? Well, readers, for one. Or rather, bookbuyers, meaning this isn't a philosophical or aesthetic position at all, but an economic one. Some people are fairly explicit about this, saying that since films are a multi-trillion-dollar industry, a bunch of wags trouncing shitty films online and in newspapers doesn't really matter. Poor little literature, on the other hand, barely scrapes by, so we mustn't let the public be discouraged from spending their much-needed dollars even on terrible or overrated books. Giller winners float all boats, or something. And, as people say when parents complain about their kids reading trash or comic books, at least they're reading.

Others – such as, I assume Vida herself – would become even more icy and purse-lipped at the idea that they are arguing that sales take precedence over honesty.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Friday, February 09, 2007

David Solway and Mark Steyn: the West has jihad it!

In the December issue of Books in Canada – the one with that 27,000-word (!!) defence of Conrad Black – there is a review by poet David Solway (also an associate editor at BiC) of Mark Steyn's America Alone. It's a doozy.

Solway wastes no time calling Steyn "intrepid and politically incorrect" – so almost immediately, even somebody with fading batteries in his bullshit detector should know what he is in for.

Solway chastises squishy-liberal rags like, um, the Globe for not taking seriously Steyn's message, which is essentially that (American) might makes right, and that unless Judeo-Christians start breeding faster than the ullulating hordes, we're going to be up to our ears in car bombs and burqas. Solway also makes clear he's with Steyn on the idea that "moderate" Islam is only vicious, murderous jihadi Islam with a smiley face.
In this view, the term "Islamic fundamentalism" is a kind of tautology. Since Muslims believe the Koran is the literal word of Allah which pronounces on matters both sacred and profane and governs their conduct in the world, it follows that all genuine Muslims are by definition fundamentalists who, as Muslims, must consent to the indivisible unity of religion and politics. "Moderation" merely provides the framework within which the ostensibly "extreme" forms of Islam can prosper and, so to speak, receive scriptural asylum. For Steyn and his congeners, the distinction we like to make in the interests of political correctness between Islam and Islamism is a specious one.
So the problem is that Muslims "consent to the indivisible unity of religion and politics?" Given that the U.S. had an Attorney General for five years who used to anoint himself with cooking oil and who once said "I don't particularly care if I do what's right in the sight of men. The important thing is for me to do right in God's sight. . . The verdict of history is inconsequential; the verdict of eternity is what counts," I'm guessing that Solway used up all of his appreciation for irony in his poetry.

The whole thing is worth reading as well as marvelling over for its breathtaking ignorance and naïvety. The best part, for me, comes right near the end:
For the decadent benevolism of the modern state deprives the individual of his autonomy and thereby infantilises him, reducing him to a supine appendage on a vast administrative organism. If we do not recover our backbone as responsible citizens, we will find ourselves living in an invertebrate world that is no match for a supple and aggressive antagonist who has our demise at heart.
Or, as Steyn himself says: "The majority can never replace the man. And no more than a hundred empty heads make one wise man will an heroic decision arise from a hundred cowards."

Oh no wait, that was Hitler, who also said "Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggle, and only in eternal peace does it perish." Which is not at all akin to Solway writing that
by expropriating many of the basic "functions of adulthood," the welfare state has proceeded to neuter its citizens, creating an inverted pyramid or Ponzi scheme in which fewer children support more and more oldsters while simultaneously sapping their will to confront an implacable adversary.
Actually, to be honest, it wasn't the image of Hitler that kept coming to mind while reading Solway's review, it was the one below:

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Action has a new name

Wowee zowee this is nuts:

Silver Man!

(more here)

A little slice of subterranean heaven

Danforth Bowl - for all your bowling needs, especially those you didn't know you had. And it's run by some supremely nice people.

And there's booze.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Mordecai weighs in

Following up on a debate about arts grants over at Bookninja that reminded me never to yell "fox!" in a crowded hen house, I wanted to post this, an excerpt from a Quill & Quire interview with Mordecai Richler from July 1989:
Q: You have said that in the 1960s all of CanLit could have fit into a taxi, but now we’d need a Canada Council minibus.

A: I think the Canada Council is a pretty good thing – certainly they gave me some very valuable help when I was a young writer. The Canada Council is like betting: you give so many young writers a couple of grants and maybe one out of 10 hacks it after a while. But I’ve been on those committees and I do object to people who send a bucket down that well year after year. I find that distasteful. If you’ve written three or four novels and are stil looking for a grant, there’s something wrong.

Q: At some point writers should support themselves through their work?

A: Or get a job.

(I freely acknowledge semi-intentionally plagiarizing this exchange in one of my comments over at the 'ninja.)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Martin Amis in search of gravitas

A smart essay on Slate about Martin Amis's recent slide away from satire into puffed-up moralizing.
In our own time, no writer has been so obviously, so publicly confused by his warring impulses—to observe what he sees on the one hand and to moralize on it on the other—as Martin Amis. He has written works of corrosive satire almost breathtaking (and breathtakingly funny) in their nihilism (Money and The Information), but he has also, especially of late, written works of a weirdly moralistic bent, denouncing such people as Stalin, Mohamed Atta, and male chauvinists who write abusively about women for the porno-tabloid press. It was as if the rich material he had been handed by life—the world of the high-British, high-Postmodern, Baby Boomer elite—was too flimsy, and he needed sterner stuff. Perhaps it is just the perceived weightlessness, these days, of being British—in the best post-imperial novels of Martin's father, Kingsley, being British consisted primarily in getting scrupulously drunk. (Martin's innovation, in his best novels, was to get his characters drunk and send them to America.) The political critique of the son's refusal to take his own people seriously would be that it implicitly ignored the damage they were doing to the world—even in America, after all, their intellectual support of the Iraq war (including in these Internet pages) was not without effect.
Catch that dig at Christopher Hitchens at the end there?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

No kibitzing

About three-quarters of the way through Philip Marchand's review of the new Guy Gavriel Kay there is a brief digression on the topic of witty banter in fiction:
Kay tries to give [his characters] an even more sympathetic cast by having them constantly joke and banter with each other. In several years of reviewing novels, many of which also try to capture an atmosphere of kidding around, I have never seen it work. Kibitzing just doesn't travel well onto the page.
It's true. From my own experience, the first draft is the one where no one talks – characters are merely embedded, like raisins in a cake, within big, doughy rolls of description and exposition. In the second draft, in an effort to liven things up, everybody has long, jokey, self-aware conversations that go on for pages and that repeatedly shred the tone. In subsequent drafts, this gets cut back ever further until, at last, the rule that characters (and people) are funnier when they don't know they're being funny re-asserts itself.

It's a tricky thing, having a character be intentionally funny – a tricky thing not to let that joke be merely one the author is telling the reader.

Another thing: I've read a fair number of sci-fi, thriller, and mystery novels in the last couple of years (mostly because I was paid to), and, like Marchand, I often found myself annoyed at the jokey, sub-sitcom tone that overtakes a lot of the dialogue. It's a mood-killer every time. I think there is a way to represent the very real influence that sitcoms and the like have had and continue to have on the way a lot of people speak, but in most of the cases I'm referring to, it was clear the author meant for the reader to come away thinking those characters were "funny." I think it only ever works if the author is able to contain a character's "funniness" within a cloud of negative capability; in other words, leaving room for the reader to not find the character funny at all, or to find that it's the character's very funniness – or the attempt to be funny – that is funny, not anything he/she actually says. Does that make any sense?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

That book's got issues

from a story in the Toronto Star about Peel's Catholic school board pulling Snow Falling on Cedars from high school library shelves:
The novel, written by David Guterson, centres on the murder trial of a fisherman charged in the mysterious drowning of another in the 1950s. The story explores many issues, including lingering racism after World War II – the accused is Japanese-American – in a community that saw many of its residents sent to internment camps. [emphasis mine]
"Exploring issues": the prime directive of every work of fiction. Novels are just like little therapists, but you don't have to pay by the hour!

This whole thing is massively stupid – not just because it has managed to give the Peel school board about a year's worth of terrible publicity and has made them all look like yokels, but also because every kid in that school and elsewhere is going to immediately go out and get a copy of the stupid thing, looking for the dirty stuff that got it banned in the first place.

Not to mention all the time, money, and energy that now has to go into defending that yawner of a book. Can't they just ban Lolita again?