Thursday, March 29, 2007

Conrad Black on the lam

Thank god for tiny cameras.

(It was a fairly dull event up until that point, so thank god for disgraced former media barons, as well.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I've got bad news, bad news, bad news, and good news (that will eventually go bad) - UPDATED

Here are the top four stories as per the Toronto Star's p.m. edition:
  • House warns our kids may have shorter lives
  • Quebec election may spur federal election
  • HIV-infected dad who gave his daughter gonorrhea gets three years.
  • Palestinians, Israelis to talk peace.

UPDATE: It's just as bleak today:
  • McGuinty calls for incinerator projects
  • Man shot dead by police at north end apartment building
  • Tensions mount over Iranian detention of British sailors
  • Why a high school auto shop program is working on a Sherman tank
Incinerator projects? A Sherman tank? What's going on out there?

Mark Steyn: the Paul Lynde of right-wing punditry

A friend of mine once pointed out that the bearded, show-tune-loving, imperialist leg-humping Mark Steyn seems contractually obliged to make a giggly, vaguely homophobic slur in just about every other column he writes. Steyn's been blogging the Conrad Black trial for Maclean's – a perfect choice, since he's already made clear he thinks the whole thing is a sham, and Maclean's editor Kenneth Whyte may get called as a witness. (So you just know you're in for nothing but hard-nosed, objective journalism.)

It only took a few posts for Steyn to slip in a little gay-baiting. Apropos of just about nothing Steyn gets this dig in:

Incidentally, on a flight a few months ago, I found myself next to a New Englander who chanced to mention that his Congregational Church had just interviewed a potentially very exciting new pastor. We chit-chatted about him and I happened to ask, “Is he married?”

“Well, he has a, er, partner,” he said. Silly me, I’d forgotten how rare practicing heterosexuals are in the contemporary Congregational clergy. “But,” added my friend brightly, “they were married in Canada.” And I remember thinking that “married in Canada” was a lovely euphemism for what we used to know as “not the marrying kind”. By the end of this trial, the prosecution clearly plans to have “legal in Canada” established as the last refuge of not the law-abiding kind.

This would be the same Steyn who elsewhere refers to lead prosecutor Eric Sussman as a "boyish charmer." If there's ever a neo-fascist version of Hollywood Squares, I know who gets centre square.

Steyn's blog is also notable for this defence of Barbara Amiel's notorious "slut" and "vermin" outbursts:
The "sluts" and "vermin" brouhaha seems to be leading the London papers this morning. But it's worth bearring in mind why Barbara Amiel had good cause to be angry just before she stepped into the elevator: She'd just learned that a juror had been dismissed because he'd supposedly called up the court after being selected and said that anyone who makes in a year what it's taken him a lifetime to earn must be a crook. The clerk mulled this over and decided to remove the juror from the panel. A new juror was then appointed. When the first juror was informed he'd been dismissed, he protested indignantly that he'd never made any such call. He wants to remain on the jury. So too do the defence want him on the jury.

What's going on here?

There are two possible answers:

1) Whoever took the call made an error and got the name of the juror wrong. That calls into question the competence of the court, and means a juror whose mind is already made up is on the panel.

2) Somebody called up in the juror's name. Given that the names of the panel have not yet been released, that suggests a highly sophisticated form of jury nobbling.

Neither alternative is very reassuring for the defence, and both speak poorly for what's supposed to be a fair trial in which four men face jail terms for what could be the rest of their lives.

But that's what Barbara Amiel was mad about just before she stepped into the elevator. It's not about Barbara's temper, but about a staggering incompetence that reflects poorly on the court's credibility. It needs to do better today.
So you see? She was just upset about some jury stuff. If she chooses to let off a little steam by calling journalists "vermin" and a female CBC producer a "slut," well, hasn't she the right?

This is called "Guilty, with an explanation, of being an asshole."

Next week in Steyn's blog: "The judge overruled those reasonable objections, so it's perfectly clear why Amiel later called her limo driver a 'filthy wog' and the woman who works in the courthouse canteen a 'frustrated old dyke'...."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Emotional Relay Race

Just came across a book called Everyone Wins!: Cooperative Games and Activities. Now, non-competitive kids' games (what used to be known as "getting along") are just fine as an occasional alternative to the usual smash 'n' grab, winner-takes-all kind of games that kids actually want to play. But making them literally the only game in town – as many schools, institutions, and parents try to do – just forces kids to direct their aggression and competitive instincts into subtler, more emotional forms of competition and oneupmanship. Capture the Flag becomes Destroy the Self-Esteem. The withering remark becomes more valued on the schoolyard than a fast set of legs. It's actually perfect training for the hollow, passive-aggressive, middle-class adulthood many of these parents want for their children, anyway.

Most picked-on kids fantasize about having the playing field leveled for them, and to have quick wits, sound reflexes, and physical skills eliminated as potential tools for success. But then, most picked-on kids (believe me) also fantasize about having their tormentors boiled down to fat and bone. It's never a good idea to over-indulge the fantasies of children. Children are natural fascists.

(It's a very close cousin to the policy of non-contact, where kids are barred from horseplay and wrestling and play-fighting, which is a recipe for kids who don't understand boundaries, because they've never been tested, and who don't know their own strength. The worst, most damaging acts of violence I remember witnessing as a kid were often committed by the coddled, repressed bow-tie kids who suddenly go all Keyser Söze one day and do something like bite the ear off a bully.)

This book has a few games perfect for that little emotional terrorist-in-training. Games like (and I am making none of these up):
  • Strike The Pose
  • A Chance To Be Nice
  • Dances Of The Mind
  • Talking Without Words
  • Direct Me
  • Make Me Into You
  • Subtle Pressure
  • Psychic Nonsense
  • Emotional Relay Race
  • What Did I Do?
  • What Does This Mean?
  • Do You Know Me?
  • Where Were You?
  • Hello, But I'm Gone
It also has some games I can't see even the worst parents wanting their children to play. Such dubious-sounding games as (again, I am making none of these up):
  • Couples Sports
  • Getting Together
  • Clothes Switch
  • Body Ball
  • Down The Tube
  • Down In The Hole
  • On Your Knees
  • In And Out
  • Hit The Nail
  • One Big Slug
  • Use That Body
  • Use That Rope
  • Blow The Ball
  • Don't Use Your Teeth
  • Gyrating Reptile
  • Hold That Floor
  • No-Hands Ball Pass
  • Snake In The Grass
  • Smaug's Jewels
  • Stiff As A Board
  • Strange Positions
  • Blanket Toss
  • Blanket Volleyball
  • Hawk And Mouse
  • Move Softly
  • Find Your Rock
  • Rope Raising
  • Probably Wet
  • Tied Together
  • Where Did It Go?
  • Popcorn Balls
  • Find Your Animal Mate
  • Hug Tag
  • Inuit Ball Pass
  • Pull Together
  • Try Not To Laugh
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Come Together
  • All Of Us, All At Once
  • Sleeper
And then, of course, after all that it has:
  • Casual Conversation
I. Swear. To. God.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Toronto Police U.S. Army searches for Joshua Key - UPDATED

Was wondering when this might happen.

from The Globe and Mail:

A war resisters' support group says Toronto police officers came looking to question a U.S. army deserter, and it accused police of doing the U.S. military's "bidding."

The Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign issued a press release yesterday saying that three plainclothes officers visited the home of a Toronto family on March 13 looking for Joshua Key. Mr. Key, 28, is a former combat engineer with the U.S. army who fled to Canada in 2003 after serving in Iraq.

The family gave Mr. Key shelter when he arrived in Canada four years ago. According to the group, the officers identified themselves as being with the Toronto police and said they wanted to ask Mr. Key some questions about allegations he made in his autobiographical book, The Deserter's Tale.

In his the book, Mr. Key describes several incidents involving American U.S. troops in Iraq, including one in which he says he saw soldiers playing soccer with the heads of decapitated Iraqis.

What exactly are they going to ask him? He's been here for FOUR YEARS and hasn't exactly been hiding out.

"Mr. Key, are you sure they were playing soccer with the heads? I mean, Americans hate soccer..."

My review of The Deserter's Tale can be found here.

[UPDATE: According to Friday's Globe, the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command has confirmed it's looking for Key. The Star says the T.O. police have confirmed it has nothing to do with them.]

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

From who? to who cares? in record time

I did predict an Amy Winehouse backlash (which doesn't exactly make me Nostradamus), but I didn't predict it would begin before she'd even become wholly unobscure. (See here.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saul Bellow on chicken farms

From Seize the Day:
Wilhem had a queer feeling about the chicken industry, that it was sinister. On the road, he frequently passed chicken farms. Those big, rambling, wooden buildings out in the neglected fields; they were like prisons. The lights burned all night in them to cheat the poor hens into laying. Then the slaughter. Pile all the coops of the slaughtered on end, and in one week they'd go higher than Mount Everest or Mount Serenity. The blood filling the Gulf of Mexico. The chicken shit, acid, burning the earth.

"Saul, we like it, but we're thinking more something for the kids. Like a cartoon. Or, what is it – claymation..."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Grizzly man

Why does this remind me of this?

(Project Grizzly, by the way, is one of those movies I love but can't be objective about. Troy Hurtubise reminds me so much of some of the people I knew growing up that the thing barely registers as a movie. More like a vivid memory.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

In the weeds

During a previous incarnation as the manager of a bar and a restaurant, I was told to hire the singer for this group, who was about 20 at the time, and – by sheer coincidence – the niece of one of the owners. She was a musician even then. Since about 80% of the staff were already musicians, actors, and painters, and our real need was for flexible, very available people who could fill in for others who were on tour, or on a leave of absence, or on a film set. Therefore, I suggested that hiring another working musician was not the best plan.

She got hired. And within a week, she was dropping shifts and telling me not to schedule her to work any weekends, the very thing she'd been hired for.

I have lots of similarly fond memories from that time when I was managing two separate places for around $1400 a month, with a newborn baby at home, and having to bus tables on Saturday nights just to bring in some extra money. Dealing with coked-up primadonna waiters of both sexes, two owners who had stopped talking to each other and were in the process of severing their partnership, and a restaurant that was empty most of the week while its sister bar thrived two doors down. And me all of about 24 years old. I think it was during that period that I first really took to punching walls and doors. It's become kind of a hobby during particularly stressful times.

My wife has some truly insane stories about her days as a waitress; my stories are mostly pathetic. One I'm still fond of is about the busboy who managed to get wildly drunk and stoned on his training shift. About halfway through the evening, I found him sitting at the bar drinking a pint he'd apparently poured himself while the place fell into chaos around him. "You can't sit there and drink when it's busy," I told him, and watched with amazement as he nodded, then stood up to continue drinking. (I'd told him he couldn't sit there, right?) He also managed to go home with the bartender's keys (but not the bartender).

As I fired him the next day (something I had to do a lot, and which, I will admit, didn't always make me feel bad), he tearfully pleaded with me to tell him what he'd done wrong.

"Well, I would suggest that at the next place you work, you don't get shitface on your training shift."

"But the cook and the waiters were out there smoking up, too!"

"Ok, another thing I would suggest is that you don't start ratting on your fellow employees before they're even, you know, your fellow employees."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Oh, for god's sake:
I've heard about writers reviewing to return a favour, reviews written in revenge, authors so devastated by a bad review that they never wrote again. When you think about it, reviewing's a pig of a job. Someone else's years of hard work given over to an amateur, a fellow novelist with an (always strong) opinion in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else and there are thousands of overlapping agendas. Think about that next time you volunteer.
Think about this: fuck off.

A journalist friend told me about reviewing an Elmore Leonard novel negatively, then meeting the author a few months later at a literary festival. The critic found him dignified, charming, and modest, writing and speaking with as much care and professionalism at 84 as he'd done for the past 50 years. The flaws of the novel seemed suddenly insignificant, my friend told me, and he felt ashamed.

What if Leonard turned out to be an arrogant prick? Would the flaws of the novel suddenly become more significant?

Given all that, you just know what's coming...
Nowadays, I only review books I really like. It's cowardly, I know, but I figure it's not my job to make people unhappy. I'll leave that to the professionals.
There it is again: the "mean people suck" school of literary criticism. (More of that here.)

Reviewing can be a pain in the ass, and it can be tough to know that what you are writing will ruin someone's day/week/year. And yes, there are a lot of irresponsible or ill-equipped review(er)s out there, on both sides of the positivity fence. But how many times must this be said: if the only books that get reviewed are the ones the reviewers "like," then logically, the books getting ignored are the ones nobody "likes." All a "nothing but blue skies" approach does is relieve such reviewers of ever having to declare why they don't like said books. Which is an odd power to hand to a bunch of "amateurs."

The Host with the most (or at least more than enough)

Watched The Host last night – it's not out in theatres yet, but Suspect Video has a fairly undodgy-looking copy on DVD. I rarely go into new movies with the right level of expectation. I either expect too much (as with Borat, which I was pretty thoroughly disappointed with, despite the seemingly contradictory fact that it made me laugh a lot), or too little (as with The Departed, which ended up being a lot of fun, even with Nicholson doing his worst Nicholson impression all the way through. He's the new Jack Palance!).

With The Host, I was fully prepared, thanks to Gary Butler, who told me it is "the best monster movie since Jurassic Park." With that, I knew I was not going to be getting the usual Asian extreme stuff, with creepy children or long-haired, contortionist ghosts or haunted handicams. I was expecting something more like smart, early Spielberg*, and that's what I got. Even the fact that the monster gets shown in full-light throughout – usually a no-no, see: Jaws, the death of Quint – is not a problem, nor is the fact that the movie has a few children-in-peril scenarios, which can be a deal-breaker for me if at all gratuitous – that is, if I can almost hear the childless director or screenwriter giggling from behind the camera.

This one won't haunt your imagination for months or anything like that, but it's worth it. Sometimes, all you can feel is gratitude when a movie does everything it needs to and just a little more. (That sounds like faint praise – it does a lot more.)

* not that Jurassic Park has much in common with smart, early Spielberg, aside from a couple of early scenes. Of the three Jurassic movies, I actually prefer the "worst" one, the third. (Which wasn't even directed by the man.) It had the virtue of being one long chase scene, with only brief pauses to moralize.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Me & Mrs Winehouse - UPDATED

Shaun Smith just told me that Amy Winehouse is on Letterman tonight. And me without cable. (Though I'm sure it'll be on YouTube within a couple of days.)

Here's a new Popmatters review of Back to Black. I think the charm of the record will eventually wear off, but for the moment, I continue to get the emotional equivalent of an erection whenever I listen to it.

[UPDATE: Bingo! Bit of a stilted performance, though - sounds as though she's singing a ballad while the band is Northern Souling it. She warms up about ten seconds before the end. Great clapping, though.]

Like a broken MP3

Lysaine Gagnon makes a valiant effort to update a cliché in her column in the Globe. (subscription req'd):
Mr. Charest is using the same arguments as in the 1995 referendum [...] while the PQ, just like in 1995, talks about the cheerful days that would follow a Yes vote. All in all, it sounds like a scratched CD. [emphasis mine]
Actually, a scratched CD sounds like dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit – which would be a very interesting thing for a provincial election to sound like.

[UPDATE: Just realized that Gagnon, if she was really insistent on a compact disc simile, could easily have written "it sounds like a CD player on repeat," which not only would have updated the cliché, it would have improved it, or at least made it more accurate, since a broken record only loops a few seconds' worth of sound, while a CD on repeat starts again at the beginning an infinite number of times. Can I have a Globe column now?]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tough guy

Went to the Writers Trust awards last night. Was mercifully well-managed and painless to watch. (The awards ceremony, not me.) Kenneth J. Harvey won the big fiction prize for Inside, a novel I reviewed for the Toronto Star last year, and which more and more people keep mentioning to me as their favourite of the year.

I said hello and congratulations, etc. to Harvey after the ceremony, and he was gracious enough to thank me for my review (which, though mostly positive, took a few shots at Harvey's self-consciously maverick tendencies, most of which he has dropped, I think). He even said he'd heard I was "a tough critic," which briefly warmed the cockles of my cold, shrivelled heart. Of course, by "tough critic" he may have meant "complete asshole." Most do.

Either way, it was good to see a good book win.

The brown, walnut-stuffed condom gets them every time

My stats just went crazy over the past couple of days with people all over the world (literally) coming to this page.

Has interest in photos of a young, brown Schwarzenegger suddenly spiked, or are we in the middle of global Clive James-mania?

Any ideas?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

When supply outstrips demand, talent

I'm out of it at the moment, so please go read Zach Wells on the funding structure that encourages what he calls the "hyperthyroidal" publishing of Canadian poetry.

The obvious counter-argument is that, if anyone with a working Return key and a nature encyclopedia (two essential tools in the creation of poetry, as far as I can tell) can get published, then at least there is little chance of a genuinely talented poet going completely unbound.

The counter-argument to that is that who would even notice a talented poet within such a river of crap?

The counter-argument to that is that talent will out.

The counter-argument to that is... will it?

To which I answer, "Who cares? We're talking about poetry here, for god's sake."

Friday, March 02, 2007

First you say "awww," then you say "oh."

from the story:

The exceptional friendship will likely be short-lived, said veterinarian Retno Sudarwati, because as the animals grow up their natural survival instincts will kick in.

"When the time comes, they will have to be separated. It's sad, but we cant' change their natural behavior," she said. "Tigers start eating meat when they are three months old."

In this case, "meat" means "monkey."

    A very subtle and funny writer - one I've become obsessed with over the past year - in a decidedly Muriel Spark mood. Imagine The Pr...