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...)