Thursday, January 31, 2008

The richards are different from you and me

This long article in the new Vanity Fair about the battle between Richard "Dick" Scaife, ultra-rich funder of numerous right-wing causes, and Ritchie, his second (now ex-)wife , is a hoot – even if you're not into that kind of thing.

The funniest part is the account of the pair's wedding:
For the exchange of vows, on the old Penguin Court property (Dick had had the gloomy mansion torn down after his mother died, in 1965), Ritchie wore a short white dress. For the reception, at Ligonier’s Rolling Rock Club, the new wife surprised her husband, a fireworks aficionado, by hiring Zambelli, which is responsible for the July Fourth shows on the Mall in Washington, to create a blazing sign on the lawn that proclaimed, in sparkling letters, RITCHIE LOVES DICK. Even today, a certain set of Pittsburgh women, including wives of some of the country’s most brass-knuckled industrialists, speak of Ritchie’s flaming double entendre as among the most shocking moments of their lives.

New Day Resigning

Twenty years ago Monday, Bob Mould officially quit Hüsker Dü, and here's the letter to prove it.

(Found this on the man's blog.)

Having a Vampire Weekend

Thoughts on that Vampire Weekend record:

Thought A): King Sunny Ade sits in with some first-year EngLit and Philosophy undergrads who are putting together a New Pornographers tribute band. To warm themselves up, they try to imagine what it would sound like if The Strokes had written "Sloop John B."

Thought B): Despite all that and much more to its superficial discredit, the album is almost criminally listenable and fun.

Thought C): Which is also to its discredit, in the end, as it yields up pretty much everything it's ever going to yield up on the very first listen. I've listened to the thing 1 1/2 times, and a lot of it is already starting to sour on me. It's at the far, opposite end of the artistic spectrum from Eyes Wide Shut or that new Wu Tang Clan record or the novels of Virginia Woolf – works that are truly unlikeable, but which compel endless revisiting. (To be fair, it's not like they set out to record To the Lighthouse in sound, or anything. Being lite and hooky is just fine. It's just that these hooks don't go in very deep. It's like fishing with shiny nails.)

Thought D): But still, good driving music. And good to sprinkle across mix CDs. And kids like it.

But see for yourself:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A little (Mississippi John) Hurt never hurt

I saw this posted elswhere, and thought I ought to post it myself. Because I can.

Pure ear candy:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What a character

I haven't had a chance to actually read it yet, but because this essay on the nature of character in The Guardian is not only written by James Wood, but also references Pnin and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I will have no real choice but to read it later.

(My bobby soxeresque enthusiasm for James Wood's critical essays is not as gushing as it once was, but I still read pretty much everything I can find with his name attached to it.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New blurb! From a dead man!

The novel is still a couple of months away from publication, and already the raves are piling up.

I'm very excited about this one:

"An insignificant trifle on the lives of provincial porpoises."
– Anton Chekhov
(from a letter to A.S. Suvorin, Nov., 1889)

It certainly sums up the book, but I don't know – seems a little less glowing than I'd originally thought...

Heath Ledger

Look out for all the articles claiming that Drugs Are Big Again in Young Hollywood.

Also, look for at least one newspaper or magazine article writing that "although Heath Ledger's final performance was as The Joker, in the end it was [drugs, depression, fame] that had the last laugh."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

No strike at the Toronto Star?

Shaun S. just sent me this link:

We have a tentative agreement, reached at 2pm on Saturday after days of round-the-clock bargaining with the mediator.

We have also agreed, and so has the company, that no details will be released, by us or by them, before we have a ratification vote with you some time next week. We don't even know the day of the meeting yet.

So we are barred from telling you anything here. The good news is that we can stand down from strike posture. It's back to work as usual. And thank you all for your support; it's made all the difference.

– Maureen Dawson, unit chair

From what I was hearing and reading, the two sides were pretty far apart in terms of demands, so this is hopefully good news for everyone there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

New blurbs

My humble tome just got two new endorsements:

"A portrait of people in a small town so intimate that it feels like you are under the covers with them. Like Tom Perrotta's Little Children, Whitlock examines the horror and grace of suburban life." – Heather O'Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals

"With this debut novel, Whitlock demonstrates a keen insight into the hearts of those living lives of quiet desperation, and deeper, into the fundamental truths of the human soul." – Robert J. Wiersema, author of Before I Wake

Also, the cover is almost done, and it looks fanfuckingtastic. It's been such a long haul with this thing, but all this has got me excited again. By tomorrow, I'm sure I'll be back to wishing the book would just die already, but for now, all is well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Brad Renfro's dead?

Really? Huh.

Don't ask me why, but I once had to endure a viewing of Tom and Huck. Even in that piece of crap, it was clear he was a very talented – but very troubled – guy. Certainly, the gulf between Renfro and Jonathan Taylor Austin Jamal Amber Spyglass Thomas was so obvious it was like watching a duet between Nick Drake and Donnie Osmond.

I'm exaggerating, but still, it was a big gulf.

Too bad.

ADDED: My god, I've made the Knoxville News Sentinel. (Scroll through the links, this humble blog is near the end.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Free speech for creeps

Glenn Greenwald, apropos of Canada's troubling hate speech laws, makes the should-be-obvious point that speech – even that of smarmy, leg-humping, intellectually dishonest shits – has to be free:
People like Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant are some of the most pernicious commentators around. But equally pernicious, at least, are those who advocate laws that would proscribe and punish political expression, and those who exploit those laws to try use the power of the State to impose penalties on those expressing "offensive" or "insulting" or "wrong" political ideas. The mere existence of the "investigation," interrogation, and proceeding itself is a grotesque affront to every basic liberty.
(Interesting – though occasionally goofy – discussion going on in Greenwald's comment thread, by the way.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some of my best friends are paranoid writers

Here we go again: Stephen Henighan has responded to some of the people who responded in an over-the-top way to his over-the-top Giller rant of last year.

In a column in Geist entitled "Witch Hunt"– there's that famous Henighan restraint and sense of proportion! – the man kicks back against those (such as Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill) who would call him racist:
Redhill’s cynical invocation of racism belittles the pain caused by racist acts, just as people who liken everyone they disagree with to Adolf Hitler banalize the monstrous reality of Nazism. An observer of colour would be justified in finding ridiculous the spectacle of three overprivileged white people such as Moore, Redhill and me squabbling over who is a racist. We may all claim our own forms of marginalization—Redhill is Jewish, Moore a Newfoundlander, and I am an immigrant—but none of us has to contend with the distrustful stare on the street, or the nervous hostility of the attendant at the drugstore counter, that are the daily currency of, for example, Canadians of Afro-Caribbean descent. All three of us draw on the European cultural tradition whose development fed on the wealth Europe accumulated by classifying the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world as subhuman in order to colonize them. It would be suicidally foolish to repudiate the European cultural heritage; it would be naïve, however, not to recognize that racism is fatally interwoven into that heritage. The issue is not that some white people are racist and others aren’t. We are all the inheritors of a culture drenched in racist assumptions. The question is: to what extent can we examine these assumptions, explore and analyze the ways that interracial interactions play themselves out in our multiracial society, and, in this way, understand and better appreciate the multicoloured patchwork of our daily lives?
This is all very perceptive and true. Race in Canada is a discussion that rarely gets beyond the level of a high school social studies class, and while this ends with some of that same whiff of chalk dust about it (or is it now the squeak of the dry-erase marker?), he at least aims initially for something a little more clear-eyed and grown-up.

It's almost easy to forget the comment that started all this hullabaloo:
In an instant Vincent Lam, in contrast to previous “multicultural” Giller winners Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry and Austin Clarke—all of them relative loners, none of them born or raised in Canada, none of them able to boast an exemplary interracial marriage such as that between Lam and his Anglo-Greek-descended wife—became a member of the Family Compact and a potential teddy bear. [Emphasis added.]
And who wrote that again? Oh right.

Now, as I try to always make clear, I usually have a lot of sympathy for what Henighan is trying to get at. There is a literary establishment in Canada that is always looking for some appropriate new recruit to be plucked up and absorbed, as there are also many fresh-faced recruits waving their hands frantically in the air and hoping to be picked, like it's Let's Make a Deal and Ondaatje is a bearded Monty Hall. That is just about self-evident. The sheer number of low-selling, undistinctive writers who all the same bob along on the warm gases of award jury seats, creative writing positions, peer-reviewed grants, plum editing jobs, and writing retreats is proof of that. It's annoying, and occasionally more than that, but it's also understandable and human. It's exactly like political patronage – one time in ten it genuinely is a case of the right person for the job being close at hand; the other nine times, well....

(And, just in case anyone from the establishment is reading this, I'm right here for the plucking. I'm housebroken, I've read some Proust, and though I don't know a lot about wine, I'm willing to learn.)

What Henighan repeatedly does with his poorly aimed jeremiads, however, is reveal the limits of his understanding as to how this establishment works. There is obviously a great deal of spite and vanity and simple greed, yes, but there's also a lot of dumb blundering and good intentions gone awry.

As James G pointed out here in comments a few months ago, the fact that Atwood – the scourge of right-wing philistines and art-hating greedocrats, the first with the fuming editorial in the Globe about how the poor, literary pigeons must be rescued from the miserable, bean-counting fatcats, the one who stood up against the forces of avian destruction with nothing but a gym bag full of specially made delicacies – would put her image and her Can(Lit)adarm at the service of Chapters/Indigo and Conrad Black – and nobody even bats an eye – reveals just how dimly self-aware and ineffective this establishment really is, and how pointless it is to butt heads with it. After all, if they knew what they were doing, the books would be selling better and/or having a larger cultural impact and the literature as a whole really would be enjoying that Golden Age we kept hearing about a few years ago (though less and less these days).

Come to think of it, maybe Henighan is the perfect foil for this group, matching their clumsiness and lack of self awareness every step of the way.

Every literary culture gets the critic it deserves, I guess.

The big muddy

I’m nearing the midway-point on my attempt to ride my bike to work right through the winter. So far, I’ve only had to give it up for two days after we got dumped on with snow, and there’s only been a couple of times where I’ve been so cold as to wish myself dead, and at least one of those was due to a poorly thought out decision to wear kid gloves on the coldest day of the year. When your fingertips are in such pain that you want to puke, it’s time to re-think strategy.

So far, it’s been shockingly easy. I find most rides actually relaxing, despite the numerous near-misses and constant four-wheel bullying. (It’s been interesting to see just how long it takes to turn a person into a wild-eyed cycling militant – about three minutes, usually.)

The greatest boon is simply not having to sit on the subway for 45 minutes at the end of the day. I don’t mind the streetcar in the morning – in fact I like it, and kind of miss it – but I find that, on the subway rush home, without a seat or even any space around you, you have to put your mind on idle just so you don’t go nuts with the thought that you’ll be standing there, desperately trying to hold onto a strap, while everybody steams and drips up against you, for the better part of an hour. It’s not plebe-fear – though the occasional vocal crackhead tests my mushy liberal nerves, and any group of teenagers ignites my inner Andy Rooney – but simple frustration at so much mental dead time. I’d happily put up with anything if I could at least sit and read. I get off the subway more exhausted than I ever am biking home.

Plus, on a bike you’re somewhat more in control of your own destiny, even if it is your destiny to be killed by a commuter in a Honda Civic happily distracted by Jack FM and coffee in a spill-proof mug.

And, you get the little bonuses. For example, this morning I ran over a dead rat. So I guess I can strike that one off my bucket list.

(That's my backpack in the photo above, by the by.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hitch's wagon, fixed

I was going to do something on this awful column by Christopher Hitchens, but Chet Scoville at Shakeville has already done it for me.

Roy puts it well (as usual):
I do find these early, baffled stirrings of Obama dread amusing, but if things go like they're going I expect they'll haul out the firehoses soon enough.

Must I see must-see TV?

Whenever some must-see TV series comes along, I am again reminded of the merciful genius that is the six-episode U.K. series. You can get through the complete run of Black Adder, including the Christmas special, in about three nights, but some of these shows go on for about twenty-four one-hour episodes a season – my god, who needs that much low-yield entertainment?

I don't have cable, so anything I watch has to be in gluttonous, "complete season" marathons either on DVD or acquired through.... other means. This means that the shows just keep piling up, the total running times stretching beyond the horizon and coming into conflict with all the music I haven't listened to, all the movies I haven't seen, and especially all the books I have every intention of reading.

For someone with about eight minutes of unscheduled time per day, this presents a problem.

For example, I am only now giving in to the chorus of voices assuring me that The Wire is the best show since, what, Dexter? Battlestar Gallactica? The Sopranos? Six Feet Under? (All shows I never really got around to, either.) I've got the first season all ready to go – fuck's sake, there's four more! – and I swear I will get it under my belt soon enough. (I swear to god, if it turns out to be crap...)

In the meantime, I've been introducing my son to the classicist-yet-campy pleasures of Star Trek: The New Generation. I'm only able to survive that seemingly endless journey by poking around online episode guides so as to avoid altogether those black-mark episodes where, say, Data learns about humour from Joe Piscipo.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Star, by the stars

My joke for the way Dan Smith at the Toronto Star puts together his weekly book section is that he is guided "by the stars." Anyone who has written reviews for him knows the drill: a review submitted one week can appear in the paper the next, or not for months, and occasionally not at all.

Case in point: I picked up Eliza Clark's Writer's Gym last June and sent in the review shortly thereafter. And now here, more than six months later, is the review.*

The more significant piece in this weekend's Star book section was the farewell by Phil Marchand, who is moving over to the film beat (?) to make room for the incoming Geoff Pevere (??).

While Marchand's reviews have been showing distinct signs of reviewer-fatigue of late – a lot of plot summary to bulk up the word count, a tendency toward repetition, and an overall sense of resignation in the face of a steadfastly parochial literary culture – when his boiler was sufficiently stoked, he wrote the kind of sharp criticism he was known for, the kind that can be found especially in his book Ripostes, which I end up re-reading every year or so, both by design and by accident.

Personally, I think the guy should get a medal. (And okay, so should Dan... but have it come much later than expected.)

My hopes for Pevere are, or course, that he will be sharp and funny and perceptive and all that, but really, I just hope that he sticks with it, and that this isn't the first step in the elimination of that position altogether. After all, count the number of full-time literary critics we have in this country.

* ADDED: Awfully good idea to begin the lead up to the publication of my first novel by suggesting that ordinary people shouldn't write novels, isn't it? I sometimes adhere too closely to Klingon-style diplomacy. Oh well.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cozy up with a book

I don't care all that much about the debate over e-readers – I will probably never own or even use one, but I don't plan to tear my hair... er, teeth out in righteous anger if my kids end up using them for textbooks and the like.

Honestly though, sickeningly cozy and simplistic sentiments like the ones in this Opus cartoon just about make me want to switch to digital. We get it: books are great. Books, yum. Does that mean every book has to be paper and ink, or just classics? Would it have made a difference if the book the penguin wanted to read was volume #46 of The Executioner? Goosebumps books are starting to multiply like Tribbles in my house; given that those books get read and discarded in a matter of hours, would it be okay with Breathed if my son just downloaded them instead of raiding the library and our local Value Village every week or so? (Though I admit he learns more by actually going to both locations. Certainly there's lots to learn at Value Village.)

And note, dear reader, that Breathed's cartoon is published... online.

(I've been waiting for an excuse to use that...)

    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...