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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Retrospecticus 2011

How will 2011 be remembered in decades to come? Will it be the year that twitter and Facebook overthrew governments? That the verb occupy took on a whole new meaning? Or maybe it was when ignorant, drunk assholes watched a city burn at their own hands because of a sports team? How about when massive debt on a global scale spread like a flu virus throughout Europe? All are large scale, highly impactful events that have made ripples that will fan out into 2012 and beyond. All of these events will be recapped over the next few days in annual retrospects on every news site and blog. But what about on an individual level? What happened this year that impacted me? What wandered into my orbit that made me think that this year was worth living? What made me happy? Lots, actually. Sure, I'm dealing on a small scale, but it's the little things in life that make it worth living, n'est pas?

Watching Hugo in 3D with my family. 

See, told you it was small scale. But this movie made me so incredibly happy. I normally treat 3D as an angry leper crawling toward me with outstretched limbs, but I realized that all it took was the greatest living director with over 40 years of moviemaking experience working with a seemingly unlimited budget on a movie that seems closer to his heart that anything he's ever done to make a 3D movie worth watching. The fact that it concerns the twilight of cinematic legend George Méliès and a plea to keep silent cinema alive and breathing, all in the guise of a children's movie makes it great; beyond just a movie, Hugo is an experience for anyone who loves film to savor and enjoy. 

Conquering my writing demons

Maybe the single most difficult thing I've done all year. Banishing my doubts and trepidations with one fell swoop, I signed up for a short fiction writing workshop where it would be impossible to crumple up whatever I write to keep it from prying eyes. Quite the opposite, in fact, since I had to not only write for others to read but also read my works aloud. Kind of reminds me of how Seinfeld said that death was the #2 fear behind public speaking, meaning that most people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I may not have conquered death quite yet, but I read my short stories out loud to perfect strangers and lived to tell the tale. Turns out, it wasn't so bad. And since starting this blog and concurrently working on a novel, turns out I'm not such a bad writer after all. 

Reading 1Q84

I had been waiting for this novel to come out for almost 2 years, actively avoiding reading anything about it leading up to its publication in October, then spending almost 2 months savoring every one of its 944 pages. The reviews haven't all been kind, pointing out that Murakami appears to be resting on his laurels and revisiting plots and themes that have been covered in his other books that are half the length of 1Q84, but I didn't mind these so-called faults one bit. In fact, the length and familiarity made the book more enjoyable, knowing I am in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game and pulling out all the stops, no doubt eschewing the advice of more than one editor telling him to pare down his prose. It tickles me to think that such a massive tome by a Japanese author can still elicit midnight book store openings and lineups usually reserved for boy wizards. 

Turning 30

Oy vay. Starting my fourth (fourth!) decade on this planet was something I told myself wasn't a big deal. I'm most likely only a third of the way through my life, I thought generously. I've got milestones ahead of me that will hopefully count as the most memorable of my life....hopefully. But even the most optimistic thought cannot banish the fact that memories that seem fresh in my mind  (graduating high school, getting my driver's license) happened over a decade ago, which leads to me to think if I have really changed all that much in the ensuing years. Which then causes me to think that I have become what I never thought would happen: out of touch with whatever is considered "cool". Most of pop culture is a confusing mess to me nowadays. I've even caught myself saying 'back in my day....' And yet I'm told by people that I'm still just a young pup with his whole life ahead of him. That may be true, but my aching knees and increasingly crotchety behaviour say otherwise. We shall see where I am in the next 30 years. 

Watching my friends get on with their lives

This is an offshoot of the last entry, but it warrants it's own rant. Not so much rant, maybe, since there isn't much anger involved, more just melancholic realization. This is the year that good friends moved away, entering new chapters in their lives that, shockingly enough, don't include me as much as I would like. I will eventually pick up and move on too, but it's always hard when you're not the first to do so. Such a mixture of emotions, most of which were unexpected. Familiar blue sadness painted the canvas of my consciousness, but also red anger and green envy with splatters of ochre nostalgic reminiscences and the occasional trickle of bright white anticipation. A true emotional Pollock canvas, this saying goodbye to your best friends is. 

Listening to the album House of Balloons by The Weeknd

Out of nowhere, The Weeknd dropped a free mixtape called House of Balloons in March, and turned R&B on its head, at least for me. Abel Tesfaye, the man behind The Weeknd, sings songs about sex and drugs, but without all the posturing in a desperate attempt in glorification. Instead, the listener is bombarded with skin crawling hooks like bring your love baby, I can bring my shame/bring your drugs baby, I can bring my pain. Yeah, real uplifting, I know, but Tesfaye sells it so well, embracing debauchery in all it's discomfort, making insanely good music around it, and then giving it away for free. 

Seeing tUnE-YaRdS live 

What. A. Show. Seriously, I had heard that tUnE-YaRdS live was amazing from articles in The Village Voice and Pitchfork, but nothing could truly prepare me for such energy, crowd engagement, and sheer musicianship that tUnE-YaRdS brought to the small stage at Sugar Nightclub. It was an electrifying concert with zero filler, and listening to all the songs from my favorite album of the year live in such an intimate venue ranks as one of the highlights of the year, hands down.

These are just a few off the cuff experiences from the past 12 months of my life. By no means do they sum up the year for me tidily, not by any stretch of the imagination. But they all serve as signposts in my life as I, with the rest of you, hurtle into the unknown territory that is the next year. 2012 looms just on the horizon, almost in our grasp. Who knows, if the Mayans were correct this will be Interrobang's inaugural and sole Retrospecticus, unless I fervently tap an entry out on December 20th.

Only time will tell.

Friday, 16 December 2011

An Otherwise Dreary Day Punctuated by the Surreal

I have just finished Murakami's 1Q84, where the themes of death and rebirth (among many, many others) are explored in the haze of a dreamlike work only Murakami could create. So these topics are at the forefront of my mind whether I like it or not. So after finishing 1Q84, what do I choose for my next book? Hitch 22, a memoir of the British essayist, atheist, journalist, and wit Christopher Hitchens. I started it last night, December 15th. In the first chapter, Hitchens describes what it is like to read your own obituary, since he himself has experienced this. I'll explain: one day in 2008 he was featured in a photograph in an article for the New Statesman, and the caption referred to him as the late Christopher Hitchens. It turned out to be an error, of course, but seeing himself so matter-of-factly announced as having shuffled off this mortal coil rattled him. 

So what do I read the very next morning, December 16th? That Christopher Hitchens has indeed passed away and his obituary has been published, rightfully so this time around. This is a very sad day, for Hitchens is a dying breed among, well, that's hard to say. Among journalists. Among authors. Among outspoken critics and people with bon mots for pretty much any occasion. So raise a glass (or two, or three) of the finest brandy and light a Cuban cigar in honour of Christopher Hitchens. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Kindred Spirits

Last week I pondered how the genre of postmodern literature just may be too big for its britches. The books that fall under that category are too tricky, too wild, too unpredictable, and far too unlike each other to really belong in the same company. That also holds true for one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick. His novels and stories often fall under the same genre. You know, the genre that sits at the back of the class that no one really wants to talk to because it hasn't learned to wear deodorant yet. Yes, science fiction. 

Ask 100 people what genre of books or movies they generally shy away from. I'm sure you'll get a few serious dramas, some British comedies, and one or two "old classics" but I guarantee the majority will say science fiction. Why? Well, for starters, most people base their opinion on two things: Star Wars and Star Trek. These, sadly, are the ambassadors of sci-fi to the general public, but along with them come the creepy fans, the annual conventions, the costumes, and of course, the intense obsession about every last minute detail of both the Wars and Trek universes. Yes, these stereotypes for sci-fi fans exist for a reason, but they represent the absolute nadir. Unfortunately, the entire genre of sci-fi gets the brush off from just about everyone because of a few bad eggs, but if you look just a tad deeper, you can see just how fascinating and thought provoking sci-fi novels can be. And no other author has done more to expand sci-fi to its very limits than Philip K. Dick. 

You know Philip K. Dick even if you haven't heard of him. Many of his novels have been adapted into films, but Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and Minority Report (adapted from his short story The Minority Report) are the two most famous and well known examples. Both films were very good, as was Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, but I don't believe what makes Dick's books and stories so special can be necessarily translated into film. The movies themselves are pretty great in their own right, and are head and shoulders above some of the less memorable Dick adaptations (Next, Paycheck) but even the best can't capture the twisty, labyrinthine, poetic worlds Dick creates in his novels, often exchanging artfulness and subtlety for special effects.  Essentially, if you judge Philip K Dick solely on his contribution to cinema, then you really don't know Philip K Dick.

Okay, so where do you start? Dick has published 44 novels and over 120 short stories, so there's not exactly a dearth of material. He was, however,  never content to be confined in the genre trappings of science fiction, making his oeuvre notoriously difficult to penetrate. I would recommend Ubik as a perfect starting point. This 1969 novel encapsulates many of Dick's obsessions, namely paranoia, the questioning of reality, paranormal powers, and ultimately, faith, but wraps them in a cracking good story rich with humour and pathos. The plot is just the right amount of twisty for the novice reader, and is easy enough to follow right to its emotionally satisfying end. 

For those willing to venture further down the rabbit hole after finishing Ubik, there are many paths to take. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a horrifying acid trip of religious imagery and futuristic paranoia, The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel (some say the first) where President Roosevelt is assassinated and after America loses WWII, it is divided between the Germans and Japanese.  VALIS finds Dick at his most unhinged and autobiographical, diving headfirst into gnosticism, Christianity, Jungian psychoanalysis, and his own personal experiences as narrated by his doppleganger, Horselover Fat. 

As you can probably guess, Philp K. Dick was no ordinary sci-fi author. He abused amphetamines (often attributed to his seemingly non-stop publishing habits) and claimed he had visions; visions of Ancient Rome where he lived as "Thomas," a persecuted Christian. He also claimed that a pink laser beamed to him wisdom and clairvoyance, a plot point he made pivotal in VALIS. Dick's idiosyncrasies and paranoia were perfectly wed to his subject matter, elevating him to a cult figure with an intensely rabid fan base who pore over his works like, quite appropriately, religious texts. But Dick deserves a fate better than being a minor footnote in a genre held in such contempt. Philip K. Dick was a humanist above all else; no matter how hallucinogenic his stories became, they always have a human interest. There is sadness, curiosity, regret, confusion, joy, and longing suffused in his prose. It stands as a testament to this that the K. in Philip K. Dick stands for Kindred. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Current Obsessions

Here some things that are currently taking up far too much time in my life:

Silent films

 Ever since seeing Scorsese's masterful and completely enchanting Hugo, I want to seek out and watch all the old silent classics. Les Vampires, The Kid, City Lights, Sherlock Jr, The General, Sunrise, Safety Last. The list goes on. Hugo reminded me why I love movies in the first place: their complete and unparalleled ability to transport me to another place. There's something special about silent movies, something so incredibly pure and trustworthy about the images. Hugo also made me feel slightly guilty aI haven't had the urge in awhile to do a Keaton or Chaplin or Lloyd marathon, but that shall be remedied very soon. I also want to be primed for the release of The Artist, a movie I am very enthusiastically awaiting.

FlÜd Watches

I have their Big Ben in oak, and there are so many more I would love to have in my collection. They are unique yet fashionable watches that won't break the bank. The only thing to watch out for is that ridiculous $40.00 shipping charge to Canada. Ugh.

Theorizing how Breaking Bad will turn out

So will Jesse find out that Walter used Lily of the Valley to poison Brock? And what repercussions will Walt suffer from the murder of Gus Fring? Will Jesse turn out to be the Southern US meth kingpin while Walt continues to make awful choices about his family and career, ultimately leading to his (no doubt) bloody end? How will the showdown of Hank and Walter look? I shudder to think of all the meaty possibilities and glorious directions this show could follow. How does one end the best television program of the last decade? I can't even wait until next summer.

Stay tuned for more obsessions as they envelop me....

Postmodernism: or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love Contextual Definitions

Reading tastes vary wildly by individual. One person's classic is another's airport paperback. Thats fine with me, I have no want to argue the merits of the so called classics and where they stand in the pantheon of "great literature" or any such nonsense. To do so is an exercise in foolhardy blowhardism to which I haven't sunk in days. It just so happens, though, that many of my favorite authors and books fall into a certain broad, nebulous non-genre known as postmodernism.

What images are conjured when one rolls the word postmodern around their brain as if sucking on a lozenge? To me, the worst part of art and writing, ironically, come to mind. I picture gigantic pencil sculptures, nonsensical prose, and art installations meant to fulfill the onanistic desire of the artist and no one else. These images are not without merit, sadly, but to dismiss postmodernism entirely based on preconceived notions is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will address postmodern literature solely and not pretend to know enough about art to justifiably fill an entire blog post worth of ramblings based solely my own ignorance.

So, where and with whom do we start? Great question, I am wondering that myself.

Well, definitions are fun! 

 post·mod·ern·ism   [pohst-mod-er-niz-uhm] noun( sometimes initial capital letter ) any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

 Well there you have it. Postmodern refers to anything that isn't established modernism. Need a definition of that? We could go on and on, falling down a rabbit hole of OED definitions in a Sisyphean task of defining something that simply cannot be defined. How very postmodern. Some claim that the playfulness of modernism as a means to an end yields to the playfulness in postmodernism as an end unto itself. Certainly a fuzzy boundary, as ones attempts to parse out T.S Eliot's The Wasteland and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and put them on opposite sides of a malleable spectrum. 

In order to gain purchase on such a spectral idea, we must look to examples of what is commonly referred to as postmodern literature and attempt to form a skeleton on which to hang our ad hoc definition. Which brings us back to the question, where do we begin? 

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. That's where I will begin, since it's damn near impossible to have a conversation about postmodern lit without his inclusion. The notoriously camera shy author is the poster boy for many of the most popular facets of postmodernism. The combining of genres. The historical touchstones. The impenetrable narratives. The mixture of high and low art. The random asides. Even Pynchon's most linear works like The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice are ripe with postmodern flourishes, but if you want to dive in head first, tackle his magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow

Seeing as entire books have been written attempting to elucidate to the reader what exactly Gravity's Rainbow is about, this blog will focus not on plot machinations (and if you've read it you'll know why) but on certain aspects that make it "postmodern". Gravity's Rainbow is funny. It's hilarious, really. It's full of moments of great physical comedy (the book centers around erections, after all) and endlessly quotable dialogue:

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.

Black humor and irony are touchstones of postmodern lit. Other works that come to mind that embrace jet black humor are Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (don't read either while sitting in a coffee shop, people will begin to question your sanity since you'll be cackling like the Joker). Both Gravity's Rainbow and Slaughterhouse Five also view historical events (in both books, WWII) through a lens of science fiction and fantastical occurrences. Time travel is treated as an common occurrence, and a single, sentient lightbulb named Byron is given a complete life story. Flourishes such as these don't really stick out in a postmodern novel, though. They simply are woven into the dense fabric of the prose. 

Density is often cited as another postmodern touchstone. This is not referring to the size of the book (although postmodern works can be very, very long) but rather to the knotty, often impenetrable plots and seemingly random characters that populate the story. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a relatively slim novel, but is so packed with asides, frayed plot threads, paranoid rumblings, and random songs that it takes a lot of concentration to wade through it all. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another relatively small novel (at least in comparison to tomes like Against the Day and 2666) often cited as postmodern (and the figurehead of a subsection of postmodernism called magic realism) that reads like it was twice as long since it blends so much together (an entire family tree from roots to canopy). 

This post could continue picking out aspects of postmodernism and highlighting the novels that exemplify the genre, but Jesus my eyes are getting sore staring at this screen. Honestly, it is exhausting just thinking about postmodern lit, since most of the books I enjoy are folded into it for so many different reasons. Murakami.  Vonnegut. Pynchon. DeLillo. McCarthy. Roth. Irony. Black humor. Intertextuality. Pastiche. Satire. Is this a testament to the breadth of postmodern qualities, or to my narrow reading list? Who knows for sure, but I suspect the former rather than the latter. 

When it really comes down to it, if a book that was published post 1941 (the year both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died, which to some signifies the end of modernism and by definition the beginning of postmodernism) contains any element that makes it odd, unique, or individual, you can wrap it up in a nice postmodern packaging and slot it neatly away. And this nonsense about postmodern novels using "playfulness" as an end rather than a means, as if the author was writing it solely to puzzle readers and be dissected by scholars, well that's a load of tripe. Vonnegut wrote about his experiences during WWII the only way he could, and Slaughterhouse Five is filled with as much melancholy, heartbreaking emotion as any Brontë or Dickens novel. And the density of some novels, specifically those by Pynchon, should be embraced. Who says everything has to be neatly laid out, from point A to point Z, in a digestible, linear fashion? It's tremendous fun to be lost in a labyrinth; adrift in literary puzzle where structure is eschewed in favor of flights of imagination, regardless to whatever locked doors or dead ends they may lead to. 

I suppose my gripe with the word postmodern is that it describes so many genres and styles that it describes nothing at all. Besides, what comes after postmodern? Post postmodern? Yes, actually. This type of naval gazing can go on and on ad infinitum, becoming an unwieldy ouroboros bent on making a mockery of the entire literary classification system as a whole! Sigh. It's time to wrap this post up. 

Take home message? Read books. A lot of them. By lots of different authors, alive or dead. If you like a book by a certain author read more by them. If you don't like a book by a certain author, seek other authors out. If you don't like Gravity's Rainbow, don't assume you won't like any other postmodern work by any other author. They vary so wildly in terms of plot, writing style, and character that it's moot to clump them together at all. 

Oh, and read lots and lots of Philip K. Dick. His books will make you a better person. I know they did that for me. 

That is all. 

Words to Live By #9

“Why should things be easy to understand?” 

--Thomas Pynchon 

What better quote to precede a post on postmodernism than this gem by none other than Thomas Pynchon, who very nearly summarizes the entire idea of postmodernism in every novel he writes.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Vice of the Aged?

I admit that I am somewhat of a nostalgia junkie, although, unlike some that long for the past, I pine not for a simpler time, but for a more passionate one. A caveat is required for my claim, however. I am not saying that the present day finds nothing to be passionate about, quite the opposite is true for many people around the world. Governments are being overthrown, economies challenged, social order turned on its head, all achieved by people ignited with passion. All the power to them, but I feel removed, at a distance. Ironic seeing as social media places the worlds strife and conflict right on my iPad, but still, there is no connection to the current state of affairs and the fire in my heart.

Recently seeing Woody Allen's most recent film Midnight in Paris stirred up so many wonderful memories and emotions in me. In it, Owen Wilson plays a man so consumed with 1920s Paris, so taken with that era of nostalgia, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Dali and Modigliani, that he travels back in time every night at midnight, and lives out his fantasies of interacting with his "golden age" heroes. For me, the city is right, but my "Golden age" is about four decades later.

Flash back to Paris 1959, where my passion truly lies. The nouvelle vague seeds of French cinema have been planted by previous eras, specifically Italian neorealism (de Sica and early Fellini), and Hollywood films (Hitchcock and film noir in particular) and bloomed into rare and unnameable roses of cinema. French cinema pre-nouvelle vague is nothing to take for granted, producing incredibly talented filmmakers and some of the most honoured movies of any generation. But for my money, the films produced between 1959 and 1968 represent the most fertile period of filmmaking in history.

What I wouldn't give to have been at the premiere of Jean Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless. This is the film that arguably started it all, with it's experimental editing, on-the-fly shooting style, and melange of genres. Breathless was a slap in the face to all the stilted, studio-shot, creatively bankrupt films that came before it, in any genre. When viewed alongside Resnais' Hiroshima mon Amour and Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups one can see steps being taken in a new, bold direction embodying politics, love, rebellion, and sex in a whole new way.

My church

But it is not merely the abundance of great films, directors, and actors that make me longingly gaze into the past. It is what these films meant to and the passion they ignited in the people of France at the time that make this a golden age for me, and here's where my nostalgia kicks in at full force. People cared about cinema, they argued ceaselessly over the filmmaker's message. They were passionate and engaged. They thought that movies could change the world, shape the war, or make a girl fall in love with you. And they could. Nowadays, you get blockbusters and indie films, a few great, some good, most not. But even the great ones never feel dangerous, like they could incite riots or change peoples' long held beliefs. I long for a time when people young and old protested the forced resignation of Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française theatre, causing an international uproar so deafening that the Cannes Film Festival was put on hold that year. Needless to say, Langlois stayed put. Had I been alive in 1968, I would have chained myself to the gates of the Cinémathèque alongside countless other protesting cinephiles with pleasure.

Some say nostalgia is a dangerous pastime relegated to those who haven't the constitution to deal with the present. I cannot embrace this logic, insofar as the past is inextricably linked to the present, or, as the old adage goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Of course (and this point is made beautifully in Midnight in Paris) someone's past is another's present. I often wonder if people living in '68 Paris knew how influential their era truly was. I would imagine not, which begs the question of how will 2011 be remembered and immortalized a generation or two down the line?

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a flux capacitor to repair.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Digital Breadcrumbs

2011 has been quite the year for technology. As the dominance of the smartphone continues, information has travelled faster from user to user than ever before, creating a world where the only limits are put into place by how far people are willing to dip their toes into this vast ocean of information. We are instantly connected to our own social networks comprised of friends, family, and acquaintances, allowing them to see what we are doing, who we are with, and where we are at any time of the day. Text messages, Facebook updates, Foursquare check-ins, and Google map queries are all leaving their mark on our daily lives, whether we like it or not. The worrisome part of this is that the entire process is invisible, little ones and zeroes embedded in the ether long after we delete our texts, updates, photos, and emails.

In the back of my mind I was aware of this digital permanence, hence my shying away from social networking sites (not that I have anything to hide, per se). But my eyes were opened Ludivico-style when I came across an article in none other than Vanity Fair about Kruse Wellwood and Cameron Moffatt, the two teens convicted of beating, raping, and murdering Kimberly Proctor in Langford last March. The various text messages and World of Warcraft chat logs are reproduced ver batim, as if they were just written. In fact, the Tech Crimes Unit amassed the equivalent to 1.4 billion sheets of paper on the two teens. That's not a typo. Billion. Everything from Google and Wikipedia searches (for items like camp fuel, Lithotomy position, and inside body parts) to google map queries (for wooded areas best to dump the body) and YouTube videos (Florence and the Machine's Blinding). The case against the two was so airtight that they both pleaded guilty of first degree murder. There is a news story making the rounds about a Hillary Adams, 21, who at 14 was beaten with a belt by her father for downloading music illegally from the Internet. The catch? (because there's always one of those). Her father is a prominent judge. She posted the video to Reddit, where it obviously gained hits, resulting in Facebook groups calling for her father to step down. And then there is the case of a Harvard Law student who sent an email to a trusted friend about the link of intelligence to genetics, and therefore race. The email was saved, and the friendship eventually dissolved. What's an ex-friend to do? Why, send the aforementioned email to the Harvard's Black Student Association. The email sender is now permanently and digitally branded as racist for as long as the Internet sticks around.

It seems that as the usage of social media and technology increases, so decreases people's common sense. Information is shared freely and publicly. Incriminating secrets are relayed via text messages. Data is stored for decades without people even knowing it. Has anyone even read the 6000 word privacy agreement from Facebook? Inherent trust is being placed into huge companies who make money off of selling the very information we are serving to them on a silver platter. It may seem of no consequence to post some pictures, email something off color to a friend, or update your status to something that may offend someone, but you must realize that everything is permanent and retrievable. Removing it is like uncooking an egg or removing food coloring from a glass of water.

This post is not meant as a dire warning against the use of technology from the point of view of an old man shaking his fist at the younger generation. I embrace technology more than the average person, in fact. But a certain amount of digital responsibility must be implemented before you press send, because you may as well be chiseling it into stone.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Words to Live By #8

There's no such thing as perfect writing, just like there's no such thing as perfect despair.

--Haruki Murakami

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Icons of Cool #3

Tom Waits is an American original no matter how you slice him. His music is bold and eclectic, with influences as far reaching as Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, and Howlin' Wolf. Waits himself crafts songs of boozy intelligence with no discernible direct influence; no one else can sing Tom Waits' songs but Waits himself (as Scarlett Johansson deftly proved on her ill-advised Tom Waits cover album). Whether his gruff voice is crooning over a soaring trumpet (Somewhere) or whispering over a jangly samba (Jockey Full of Bourbon), Waits is 100% always no one else but himself. It is a testament of Waits' uncalculated coolness that he is the only artist who could fuel an all night bender with aplomb (a lot of his songs are about drinking...) and just as easily lay the soundtrack down for the morning after: full of regret, unfulfilled wishes, and some broad you met at a bar, took home, and you passed out before she took off her coat.

Tom Waits' new album Bad As Me is out now, and good gravy, its terrific. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

It's a Man's World

So what is it exactly that makes a man a man? The definition has seen widely varying criteria throughout the ages, filtered through the media and presented to the population via radio, television, and advertising. Movies in particular have offered us what the ideal man should be, how he should act, what sort of clothes he should wear. And especially how he treats a lady. Several films come to mind when I think of how the ideal man is portrayed. Keep in mind that these are simply one blogger's humble opinions

Firstly, there is North by Northwest, Hitchcock's 1959 grand adventure starring the imitable Cary Grant. Plot mechanics aside (which would take a half dozen paragraphs to elucidate anyways) Grant's Roger Thornhill is the distillation of what a man should be: beyond handsome, quick witted, cool under pressure, ready to jump into a situation no matter how dangerous, and incredibly suave with women. Imagine taking Don Draper (Thornhill is even part of the Mad Men himself, working as an ad executive on Madison Ave), injecting him with a dose of reckless courage, stripping the psychological complexities, and throwing him into one dangerous situation after another replete with beautiful women, international intrigue, and a shake or two of murder. In fact, that's what makes Thornhill such an effective pillar of masculinity: he has zero backstory. He is 100% surface, and that surface is shaped so expertly that viewers cannot help but succumb to that old adage "women want to sleep with him, men want to be him. " You can of course apply this to the obvious film character, the one who really comes to mind when you think of masculinity: James Bond. The very name itself practically bleeds testosterone. But the crucial difference that makes Roger Thornhill more of a distillation of masculinity than James Bond is one of viewer relatability. You see, James Bond is a spy with access to a wondrous array of gadgets, cars, and a seemingly endless bank account. The average viewer can fantasize, but not relate. The genius behind North by Northwest lies in Hitchcock's classic wrong man scenario: Thornhill is thrust into the world of intrigue quite against his will, forcing him to react to the situation in ways we may be able to identify with.

For a more contemporary example of masculinity in cinema, we needn't look further than two releases from this year, both coincidentally starring Ryan Gosling. The first film is Drive, where Gosling plays a taciturn auto mechanic/stuntman/getaway-driver-for-hire who gets involved with a woman, some gangsters, and a big bag of money. Gosling's character, known only as the Driver, is cool, knowledgable, efficient, and prone to incredible outbursts of violence. He is a doer, not a talker. When the woman he loves is in trouble, the Driver springs into action without a hint of selfishness, single-mindedly acting as her protector at any cost. There is never remorse for any of his actions, no matter how extreme, and the viewer accepts this since the Driver is acting solely out of concern for his girlfriend (and to further boost viewer empathy, her child). The Driver is sharklike in his quest, continually moving forward to reach his goal, and leaving bodies in his wake. So can such a violent character really embody masculinity? In a word, yes, since his actions are for a sympathetic cause.

Another film finding Gosling portraying "the ultimate man" is Crazy Stupid Love. Not a great movie by any stretch, but in it Gosling plays a womanizing lothario who happens to be incredibly charming and well-heeled. Throughout the film, we are given zero backstory about him (much like the Driver), adding to his mystique. The movie doubles back to then deconstruct this mystique while Gosling teaches Steve Carell's character what makes a woman want a man. Being mysterious and never talking about yourself makes a man mysterious, therefore more intriguing to a woman. Gosling's character knows how to dress, walk, talk, and can make a mean Old Fashioned (there is a point in the film where he gets Carrel to chant I'm better than the Gap! repeatedly) He is confident but not arrogant, knowledgable but not a know-it-all. He seduces countless women into bed, though; he has impeccable taste but is a serial bachelor. As the film progresses, cracks begin to show in his steely facade. Gosling begins to embrace monogamy and values quality time with a woman rather than a one night stand. He realizes the emptiness of a life without true love and decides he is the marrying type after all. By embodying both the suave sophisticated worldly type as well as the down-to-earth, one-woman-man, Gosling makes his character, in my opinion, the perfect man for the 21st century woman.

Taking three examples of characters from movies over fifty years apart is by no means a scientific analysis of what masculinity is defined by the lens of society, I admit. I just thought it was interesting seeing as I watched all three of the aforementioned films quite recently and found myself thinking I'd really like to be this guy, or at the very least possess certain aspects of each of them. Coincidentally, my wife thought that these characters were all in their own way embodiments of desirable masculine qualities. There are lots of women who wouldn't be attracted at all to any of these types, which is obviously understandable, different strokes for different folks, as they say. But to me, and what I strive to be in a man, these three examples stand at the forefront of what masculinity is and can be, warts and all.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Words to Live By #7

I'm not a paranoid derranged millionaire. Goddamit, I'm a billionaire.

-- Howard Hughes

Sunday, 18 September 2011

My Struggle Against Silence

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a gangster. Wait, no. That's Henry Hill. Me? I've always wanted to be a writer. I remember writing a short story in fourth grade, a little hazy to me now but I think it had to do with a village of talking rabbits, that really impressed my teacher. The comment on the story was that I was a natural storyteller and that I should keep at it. Long after the story I wrote dissipated in my memories, that comment has stuck with me like a rare earth magnet sticks to a fridge. I continued to write throughout school, always performing decently in English classes, but never really taking it too seriously, as in something I could shape into a career at some point. Even in my youth, I never considered writing as a viable option that could pay the bills. (I still don't today, but I am one step closer).

Have you ever had a thought that niggles in the back of your mind like a termite slowly chewing away at a load-bearing rafter in your house? I sure have. I've always scoffed at the idea of writing a book. It's a waste of time, a Herculean task that I could never accomplish. And if I did, so what? Who on earth would publish it? It'll probably be terrible anyways. Still the idea persisted, gnawing away at me, but I continued to stifle it. About a year ago, I decided to banish these negative thoughts. I have no idea why, but I felt the urge to actually do what I've always wanted to do, to make happen what I've never really thought possible. There was no inspiring speech, no words of wisdom, that changed my mind. More like a switch that got turned on in my brain.

So where do I go from here? No man is an island says John Donne. There's no way I could possibly do this by myself. Combing the Internet finding writers' blogs has become an addiction, and reading about other aspiring authors miseries has actually done wonders for me! At least I know I'm not completely alone. And next week, I am attending the first of a series of six writing workshops where I hope to meet like-minded, similarly inspired but also suffering would-be writers. Maybe we can sit around and trade war stories about writers block and discarded fourth drafts we knew were going nowhere the moment we put pen to paper. Validity through peers has never been something I have actively sought out, but now I cling to it like a mountain climber clings to a lifesaving outcrop of rock. I am excited about the prospect of sharing my fiction with other people, about hearing their thoughts and ideas, but at the same time, I'm slightly terrified.

Until quite recently, every time I sat down at my computer to write, I'd delete it afterwards. No matter how I felt about what I'd written, my reflex was to send it to the virtual trash bin. Not all of it was bad, but I never wanted another pair of eyes to grace anything I had written. Hell, it's a struggle just to write about my struggles about writing, i.e. this entire post. It's telling that my first instinct was not to publish this at all. But I suppose it's good to air one's frustrations on occasion; to exorcize the demons, so to speak.

I plan on doing further entries about the process of writing and the pains and (hopefully) rewards that come with doing something you have a true passion for, no matter how crazy it seems. By doing so, I hope to finally become somebody I've always wanted to be.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Autumn: The Winter of my Discontent

Forgive me for waxing poetic at times during this post, but I tend to do so when writing about topics I am truly passionate about. No, I am not about to go on a rant about politics, or complain that religion is the root of all evil. My chosen topic for this post is slightly more anemic than all that. Less Søren Kierkegaard, more Garrison Keillor. Yes, dear readers, as August has abandoned us all in it's wake of Coronas, kiddy pools, and languorous evenings, we have been deposited, some quite reluctantly, in the limbo of September, meaning that autumn has arrived.

"Blasphemy," you cry! "Look out the window. All you can see is sunshine and short shorts! Sandals and sunglasses! We're in the middle of a late summer heatwave. It's almost thirty degrees out there!"
 Nature's own fireworks display indeed!
Touché Mr. Obvious. But to me, autumn isn't just when a chill creeps into the air like a thief in the night. Autumn is all about transition, preparation, and reflection. It lacks the dizzying highs of the showier season of summer, all mindless cinematic blockbusters and ubiquitous beestings; and the isolating lows of winter, what with the four hours of daylight and the ill-fitting snow boots you refuse to replace since you only wear them for two weeks a year. And don't get me started on spring, that irritating younger cousin of summer that no one wants to hang around with since all he does is rain on your parade.

No, autumn is the season that means the most to me. As the leaves change, so does my outlook on life. It seems that I shift from passive observer to the world around me to an active participant as September rolls around. Me being a person ensconced in media of different guises, the world around me impacts this change. I mentioned the switch of summer blockbusters to more adult-friendly fare from September on, and this surely is a tool of this change. The Toronto Film Festival sparks a release of higher quality, adult-targeted films I actually enjoy watching for more than merely killing time. This sea change of cinematic robustness has a trickle down to my viewing habits in my own home as well. To me, there are "autumn films" as well as "autumn directors." For example, it just feels right settling into a movie like Old Joy or Rushmore while the leaves are changing outside and the days are shortening, and directors like Woody Allen, whose entire ouvre is optimally viewed during the autumn months. I have no empirical evidence or reasoning for this fact, other than it just feels right.

Even more than films, music is closely related to onslaught of autumn. Not in the explicit Vivaldi sense, however; but more of that spectral, hard to define quality of "autumn music." Recent examples include Fleet Foxes, whose latest album Helplessness Blues contains pastoral lyrics like "If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm raw," and Bon Iver's self-titled album, which was seemingly recorded to curl up beside a fire with whilst drinking hot apple cider and watch the leaves make their last stand against the oncoming chill.
Completing the trifecta of media consumption for me are books, which for some reason I love reading most during the autumn season. It seems that every year during this time, there is a book that is released that I look forward to more than any other. Last year was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a book that had little to do with autumn but bears the unmistakable stamp of the season since it was released during the first week of September. This year Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is being released on October 25th, and already it is my "autumn book." The Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature are both announced in October, further cementing the literary leanings of my favorite month of my favorite season.

As we cease the frivolities of summer and prepare for the realities of winter, autumn is the perfect stopgap and the best excuse for sweaters, scarves, and the joys of watching your breath hang in the air in front of you without all the worries of freezing half to death or trudging through muddied slush. We are asked to put our childish ways temporarily to rest and mature with the leaves on the trees as they shift from the background to the forefront, from a bland sea of green to a vibrant patchwork of red, orange, and gold. So fear not the loss of summer! After you pack away your camping gear and swimsuit, do not sink into despair and regret for the inexorable march of time. Tour an apple orchard. Kick leaves into the air during your crisp autumn stroll. Tuck into a roast chicken and potatoes. Take time to notice the little things special to these few months; save them up so you can bask in them later as you shovel your driveway and shiver yourself to sleep. It's worth it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Words to Live By #6

Two titans of industry:  

"If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse"

- Henry Ford

"I want to put a ding in the universe"  

 - Steve Jobs

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Icons of Cool #2

C'est vraiment dégueulasse
Okay, is it my fault that international cinema from the 50's and 60's contains so many great examples of cool? First Marcello Mastroianni, and now Jean-Paul Belmondo, he of the pinnacle of Godardian insouciance and insanity.

Look no further than Jean-Luc Godard's game-changing debut film A bout de soufflé (1960) to see how Belmondo, nobody's idea of a handsome leading man, embodies cool.  In the film Belmondo plays Michel, a small-time crook with a serious love for American films, and particularly Humphrey Bogart, who he apes incessantly. He flips cigarettes into his mouth and runs his thumb across his lips just like his hero.

Throughout Belmondo's films, especially with Godard (Pierrot le Fou, Une femme est une femme), Belmondo often plays tough guys with sensitive, romantic sides. He looks almost silly playing a no-nonsense rough type since there always seems to be humour bubbling just under the surface. This isn't to say he never played intense roles, he did and did well, but when I think of my favourite Belmondo films, he always plays a guy who knows all the angles, talks big, and cracks wise at every turn.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Writing His Curses in Cursive

I have spent the better part of a week writing a piece on the new Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration Watch The Throne. It's an album I've been listening to on pretty heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks, and I think it's great. Maybe not all time classic great, but it's a damn fine album with two rap titans at the peak of their powers rapping mostly about how awesome and rich they are and having a hell of a time doing it. But as I was writing about the album, I found myself getting sidetracked, writing mostly about the idiosyncratic, unpredictable Mr. West more than anything else and I realized what the hell, why don't I just write about him and let the album speak for itself. I don't like writing reviews very much anyways.

Kanye West is an artist in every sense of the word. He is brash, bold, unapologetic, and extremely talented. He's also flawed and a major dick a lot of the time. He's the icon this generation deserves. In a time where it pays to be everything to all people, to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible to make the most amount of money, Kanye stands out like a sore thumb hitchhiking down the road leading to his own spectacular demise.

But the guy has flourished to become one of the most critically acclaimed recording artists of all time, atop all the negative press, the public breakups, and the loudmouth interjections. Kanye called out George Bush as hating black people, and was called a jackass by Barack Obama. He has publicly embarrassed beloved pop stars, essentially inspiring instant hatred from millions of people in one fell swoop. So how on earth does one man win back the hearts and minds of people who he has so dutifully alienated, seemingly gleefully so? Easy. Kanye embraces his faults, accepts his behaviors and never makes excuses for his screw-ups. In fact, he crafts his foibles into edgy, sonically daring music so removed from the pop landscape of today it's hard not to listen to it without forgetting everything Kanye has ever done and just admire his raw talent.

I'm trying to right my wrongs, but it's funny those same wrongs helped me write this song

Kanye's personality is inextricably intertwined with his music, so much so that I believe you couldn't have one without the other. His music is an outlet for all his contradictions, his anger, his confessions, and ultimately his redemption. Rarely has one man poured so much of himself into his art. For proof one simply needs to listen to Kanye's 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak, a cold, distant, auto-tuned paean to bleeding wounds and personal tragedies; he recorded it after his fiancee left him and his mother passed away needlessly from an elective cosmetic surgery. Kanye has sent out pictures of his privates to women via email, got busted, owned up and included the act in his song Runaway. He's up front about his cheating, lying and all around hedonistic ways in nearly every song he writes. And not only is he honest, he's bloody clever about it too, often making the listener smile and wince at the same time.

My childlike creativity, honesty, and purity, is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts

What else has Kanye brought to music besides his own bleeding heart? Well, quite a few things actually. Like fun. Yeah, it's crazy that the guy who bares his soul in his music can also bring a complete and utter sense of giddiness to his work. But Kanye does, and more importantly, does it well. He cracks himself up during his songs, he samples everything from Nina Simone to King Crimson, and it always sounds like he's having a blast doing it. Even during his more sober tracks where he's lamenting the murder rate in his hometown of Chicago or contemplating suicide, his high energy is palpable to the listener.

I admit my first watch was a Fossil, now I'm in the Louvre, lookin' for fossils

Successful rappers like Kanye West are wealthy beyond the imagination of most people. They have access to a life that's limited only by imagination. There is a substantial backlash against Watch The Throne because these two multimillionaires are rapping about how great it is to be rich and famous while there are millions of people scraping by during a recession. Fair enough. If all Kanye rapped about was his wealth, and if he did it in a dull, repetitive fashion, he'd have a lot less of a devoted fanbase. But he's a larger than life figure that raps about what he knows, from his humble beginnings in Chicago to an internationally renowned superstar. He plays the luxury angle so over the top that one can't help but just get caught up in it glorious excess of it all.

Everything I'm not made me everything I am

Kanye West stands head and shoulders above 99% of not just rappers, but recording artists today. The musical landscape is so overstuffed with successful mediocrity that the mere fact that someone so bold like Kanye West can thrive is a minor miracle. Love him or not, he can never be accused of lack of ambition, of simply wanting to sell records and take the easy way out. Where others would have vanished into the background after so many public humiliations, he came back with a record like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record of such stunning originality and vision that critics and fans simply could not ignore him. Kanye has taken rap music to a higher level where he is unmatched by anyone else currently making music, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. He is exactly what we need right now: a bold streak of neon technicolor amongst a yawning sea of beige.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Words To Live By #5

The empty round headed shaven chimp like buffoon, Karl Pilkington
"You can be an ugly baby and everyone goes "awww innit nice?" There was some women in a cafe the other week that I was sat in, and she came up and she sat down with her mate and she was talkin' loudly goin' on about "oh the baby's lovely." They said it's got, er, lovely big eyes, er, really big hands and feet. Now that doesn't sound like a nice baby to me. I felt like sayin' it sounds like a frog. But I thought I dont know her, there's only so much you can say to a stranger. I dont know what kept me from sayin' it." 

--Karl Pilkington

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Icons of Cool #1

Okay, I don't consider myself cool by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I know enough to observe it from a distance. The subjectivity of the word "cool" really works in my favor for a post like this, since no one can really call me out on my choices if they disagree with me, since one man's James Dean is another man's John Cazale (and just for the record, John Cazale is one of my favorite actors, and I sure as hell am not knocking him, but I've never really thought of him as cool, per se. More intensely moody in a fragile, heartbreaking "it was you, Fredo" sorta way).

So what is cool to me?

Tall order to be sure, and it's not like I have a list of criteria in front of me with boxes to check, so I'm just going to go on a gut instinct. I'll ask myself would I be in absolute awe if I ever was in the presence of this individual because of their overwhelming embodiment of cool?

If the answer is yes, then there you go.

So, onto my first icon of cool.

Marcello Mastroianni Italian actor born 1924, died 1996.

The glasses, the cuffs. the look. 
The first movie I saw with Marcello Mastroianni was Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). In it, he plays a film director struggling to overcome a mental block of creativity while dealing with the various women in his life, past and present. Fellini and Mastroianni worked together on La Dolce Vita as well, where he embodies the callousness and extravagance of the titular "sweet life" of upper crust Rome during the late 50’s. Both roles require Mastroianni to be a commanding presence while retaining a sensitive, wounded persona. He also has to look as though he can attract the attentions of Anouk Aimee, Anita Ekberg, and Claudia Cardinale without any audience members scoffing at the verité of such a ludicrous notion, for how can one single man seduce one of these otherworldly beauties, let alone three? But Mastroianni does it effortlessly, and I believe thats what his embodiment of cool really boils down to. The unquestionable effortlessness of this man coasting through beauty and glamour, debonaire and sophisticated at every turn, and you never once even believe he's acting.

He just is.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Words to Live By #4

If home is where the heart is baby
Then my home is inside you
I don't need a living room of diamonds, yeah
A chicken shack will do.

--tUnE-yArDs, You Yes You from their album WHOKILL

Honestly, please check this album out. It is full of some of the most amazing and energetic music I've heard in a very long while.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Don't It Always Seem to Go....

Technology, at its most basic, allows us to move through life with relative ease. For some people, it doesn't move out of cause and effect: you flick a lightswitch and you don't stub your toe. You turn on the radio, move the dial, and suddenly you're immeresed in anything from Chopin to Led Zeppelin. All at your fingertips, all within reach. But technology is so much more to us, whether we choose to accept it or not.

There is a reason why various stages of human eras are named after which technological advances shaped and defined them. The Agrarian Age produced tools and information that allowed humans to settle and begin forming larger groups of people, eventually cities, that demanded laws and an organized hierarchy. This is followed by the Industrial Age, spanning over 250 years and encompassing everything from the harnessing of electricity to the invention of the telephone, radio, and television, thusly shrinking the world to our living rooms. We now find ourselves in the Information Age, or as some have dubbed, the Digital Age, and we walk about with the world in our pocket.

There are several factors involved in living in such an upwardly mobile world. Firstly, information is available to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Constant updates for news aggregates like Pulse and Flipboard bombard us with the shape of our world, however we also have the ability to filter it down to only what we want to read about. Secondly, there is the social aspect of mobility, namely, what the hell is happening to us as the world shrinks? It seems as the world gets smaller, the space between us widens. Is this true? Thirdly, as new technology emerges from the folds, offering us supreme convenience, what happens to the old technology?

Massive amounts of information are now available to us instantly. How we choose to imbibe this information, to process and weigh in on it, is entirely up to each individual. But this is the way it always has been. From passenger pigeon to iPad, humans have been able to receive information and make of it what they will. True, we have new devices to receive said information, but it is still delivered via the same interfaces (voice, photos, and videos) as it was since the 30's (and for those of you who are puzzled as to how news was delivered via video during the 30s and before the advent of television, motion pictures often had newsreels that preceded them keeping the cinematic patrons up to speed on all the latest breaking news, plus wacky new dance crazes like the Charelston. I kid, I kid). Essentially, my point is that there are people who push against a more mobile environment armed with the argument that it is simply too much and that human beings aren't capable of separating reputable news sources to....well, the less reputable ones. This is selling humans pretty short! I believe we are savvy enough media consumers to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, in all it's varied guises.

All is not rosy in the land of technological advances. The consumption of world events, something that humans have done for generations, is one thing. However, the interaction between people using only a digital interface is another kettle of fish altogether. Now I don't want to come off as a curmudgeon, some old man on a porch yelling Get off my lawn! at passing kids, but I just don't like social media. Sure, I can admit that there are benefits of it (hey, the prom king from high school has 8 kids and works at Taco Bell on the weekends hahaha) and it gives small businesses an opportunity to get their name out to massive amounts of people for free, drumming up interest with just a few clicks and shares, but the downfalls far outweigh said benefits. Social media sites are beginning to replace genuine human interaction. Becoming friends with someone simply doesn't carry the same weight anymore. Now we click a button, entering into a tacit agreement that each party will browse through photos, peruse various likes and dislikes, passing judgement on tastes in books and movies, and scoffing generally at any unflattering information they stumble upon. And all of this happens without a word exchanged. Yes, it closes gaps, reuniting friends who have lost touch for 30 years, but I just don't buy into it. It has grown into such a grotesque and ugly facsimile of human interaction that it actually disgusts me.

Is there any more powerful drug than nostalgia? Unfortunately, nostalgia is different things to different people, meaning I'm stuck with The Goonies, ALF, Hypercolor t-shirts, and MS-DOS. Sigh. But nostalgia for technology, or what technology may eventually replace, is a particularly potent drug. People are understandably reluctant to give up books and albums in favor of digital media. I get it. I really do, especially the books. I have bookshelves full to the brim. There is a story to every single book I own (ok, not all are interesting, but still) and I covet the books I own, even though I have pared down my collection over the last couple of years. Yes, books are comforting to hold and curl up with in front of a roaring fire with a cup of hot cocoa, thumbing through the yellowing pages, breathing in that used bookstore smell and getting lost in the story. And spinning vinyl, those cracks and pops on all your vintage Django Reinhardt and Otis Redding records. Yeah, sounds great. But time for the truth. When's the last time you lit a roaring fire, made hot chocolate, curled up and read a beautiful leather bound copy of Anna Karenina you picked up at City Lights? Not too recently? Yeah, don't worry. Me neither. I read at the beach. I read in bed. I read on the couch. I only wish I had a kindle when I read books like 2666 (which I also got a papercut on), The Kindly Ones, and Against The Day. All 1000 plus pages. All pains in the ass to haul on the bus, lug in a backpack, or hold above your head as you read in bed. And don't get me started on vinyl nuts who refuse to acknowledge that music exists on any other format (it's also interesting to note that no one ever waxes nostalgic for 8 tracks or cassette tapes). I love having my music with me wherever I go, accessible wherever and whenever I want. Sure, there's no physical presence anymore, but to me that means less waste of CD packaging and materials and less space taken up in my house. Win-win, right? According to some, lord no. These formats are being fetishized beyond all rationality, and therefore people will defend them to death without paying any mind to the other side of the argument. To some I'm a slave to convenience, willing to sacrifice quality and craftsmanship to make life easier. To me, I'm just doing what makes sense. There are new technologies that are supplementing (but not yet replacing, and may never) older ones and I'm taking advantage of them to make my life easier.

"Most people...still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world."

-- Marshall McLuhan

Such a wonderful summation of forward momentum undetected by those who are within it. Those who can see ahead of the curve, can recognize a dying technology and start innovating for people before those people even know what they need, they are true visionaries.

I began writing this entry with great focus. It was to be a succinct and quite short, a diatribe against holding back the future. You cant stop what's coming, to quote Cormac McCarthy. But soon I found I was guilty of the very thing I was railing against. I push against social media, arguably the one phenomenon that has the capability to truly change the world, from pure disgust, unwilling to accept it even though it may be useful to me (but probably not). I realize that there are no real black and whites within these changing times. We are all hurtling headlong into the future whether we like it or not. All I ask is that the next time you see someone reading on a kindle, or watching a movie on their iPad, don't scoff. Don't default to superiority due to the fact that you see them as a slave to technology. I don't believe bookstores will be extinct, nor record stores. Video stores, maybe. They deserve to fade out of the landscape once and for all. Libraries will be around well past my expiration date I'm sure. But there will be new, exciting ways to consume media alongside the old ways. But screw you, I'm still not joining Facebook.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Cover to Cover

When one is trying to think of a topic to write about, one should look to their passions. Well, reading is something I have enjoyed since time immemorial, so I could write about a book, I thought to myself. Well, what book? I have read hundreds of novels I could write a review for, or outline why I liked them, or didn't like them, or downright hated them (I'm looking at you No Great Mischief). Intro, plot outline, criticisms, witticisms (on a good day), characters, memorable events, wrap-up, and I'm done.


I'm not knocking book reviews, but it's just not really my m.o. right now I suppose. But, paradoxically, I still wanted to write about books. I'm in a bind. I normally internalize these epic struggles of self, twisting my conscience like so much salt water taffy. Fingers trembling over the keyboard, I have an epiphany. Talk to somebody! And who happened to be there but my lovely wife, who, once hearing about my crisis of creativity, made a suggestion, and a damn good one at that.

"Why don't you write about book covers. You love them, you always talk about them, and you're judgmental as hell about books with terrible ones".

Stroking my nonexistent beard, I muttered to myself about that being a great idea and already thinking about ways to option it for myself. Yes, the fusion of art and literature that can spark a conversation about a book before anyone even...

"If you do write about book covers, promise you credit me though. God knows you wouldn't if I don't tell you to".

Fine. True. Good point. Sweetheart, this is all you...

Ever walked into Munro's, or Bolen, or Chapters, and wandered aimlessly through the store, stopping to admire the rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves of those delightful books, but not really have any particular one in mind you'd like to read?

No? I envy you, my prepared and decisive friend! For you make lists, do the legwork, comb through the Sunday Book Review, and march right into your bookstore with a determined look on your face, make your purchase, and march straight back home again. Good for you.

Me? I wander. No plan, no legwork, no lists. Sure, I know the authors I like, and sometimes I linger at their little spot on the shelf, all those McCarthys, those Pynchons, lined up and ready for relative discovery. But other times I crave new. I want the thrill of discovery and the eventual championing a newly found author my friends have never heard of, ideally at a dinner party where they all toast my good taste and brave book selection, envisioning me as a literary Percy Harrison Fawcett, braving my way through the tropical jungle that is the fiction section.

Ahem, but I digress.

So what drives me want to read something? Being the superficial guy I am, well, the cover. We've all heard that stale adage, Don't judge a book by it's cover. I admit, there's some weight to it when you apply it to people, but not really books. Yeah yeah, I'm a snob and an aesthete. Sue me. But I love love love attractive, well thought out and designed book covers. And if I am wandering lonely as a cloud through Chapters, an attractive cover will spark my interest and warrant further investigation. After reading the synopsis or the first paragraph, I may just put the book back, but that's not the point. The cover lured me in, setting the book apart from it's brethren and piquing my interest. Yes, I realize that terrible books often have interesting covers, and vice versa. There are exceptions to every rule but I want to outline which covers I truly love. Which ones spark the imagination, please the eye, and whet the appetite. Personal preferences all, for there is no objectivity in art, so may feel free to argue until you are blue in the face. I welcome it in fact.

It should be noted that these books are all in my collection. Sure, I could write about the thousands of other books with covers I admire, but I wanted to stick close to home.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2008)

A great, eye-popping cover full of energy, and is turns out, the cover is wholly representative of the book. The anarchistic interplay between the colours, punctuated by the lonely figure (who is it? Could it be the titular Oscar?) in the bottom right hand corner gazing up at something that is most definitely bigger than he is, just lured me in.

 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)

6 pictures of clouds. The book is called Cloud Atlas. Okay, some semblance of cohesion there. But the pictures of the clouds are all different points of view, different takes. A romantic photograph, a high contrast black and white, a meteorological graph. It turns out the cover summarizes the book neatly in a wonderful, abstract, and artistic way.

 The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass (1959)

A childlike drawing, simple, powerful, yet profoundly disturbing, of a young boy with a drum. Why is his mouth like that? Is he screaming? What's with the drum? It must be important since the novel is called The Tin Drum, surely. This is one of my absolute favorite covers (and favorite books, too). It's ability to provoke remains unequalled in my opinion.

  Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (2009)

An abstract cover, for sure, but one that instantly grabbed my eye. A roaring tiger, seemingly rendered on newsprint, with a halved, inverted New York City skyline as teeth? I'm in. Well worth it, too, as it turned out. A great read about the nature of truth and identity. And yes it takes place in NYC. And there is a tiger in it. Sort of....

 Amusing Ourselves to Death  by Neil Postman

This book has a timeless cover that is married perfectly with it's subject. A television harshly illuminates a stereotypical family, only each family member is missing their head. The pastels serve as an interesting juxtaposition to the menacing, ink-black shadow cast behind them. Yes, TV is a menace, and this is the perfect visual representation of that idea.

These are but a mere five book covers I have selected from my collection. Five covers that somehow grabbed my attention, hinting details without revealing too much, and served as an entry point to a great story. Great book covers can be great art, too. They can please the eye and tease the mind in equal measure. When a book is represented by a lazy, sloppy, or uninspired cover it can be such a turn off to the point where I decide the book isn't worth my time in the least. A rash judgement? Maybe.

But would you wear your pajamas to a job interview?