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!


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


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

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

    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...