Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Flintstones and The Simpsons Come Full Circle

Lately I've been watching The Flintstones with the girls, and enjoying the humorous tidbits thrown over the heads of children to the adults in the room. This following bit of dialogue is from "The Beauty Contest" episode. Fred and Barney are the judges of a beauty pageant put on by their Lodge. They are, of course, trying to keep this a secret from their wives. Cut to Fred coming home from work:
FRED: Wilma, I'm home! Any mail?
WILMA: No, just a phone-call from some girl.
FRED: Some girl?
WILMA: She says her measurements are 45-23-34.
FRED: That's some girl, alright.
WILMA: OK Fred, who is she?
FRED: I don't know, Wilma! Honest, I don't know!
WILMA: Why would she call up to give you her measurements?
FRED (stumbling): Well ... you know how some women are — they just can't keep a secret!
WILMA: A secret! No-one could keep measurements like that a secret!
FRED: It wouldn't be easy.

Then there are the little decorative touches, usually to the side of the action. In one of the "Hollyrock Comes To Bedrock" episodes, we see a sign for "Miracle Pictures", with the motto, "If it's good, it's a Miracle!"

These catch-as-catch-can yuks are what The Simpsons has been reduced to - when shopping for a swimming pool, the Simpsons visit a shop with a sign that reads, "POOL SHARKS: Where The Customer Is Our Chum."

It's been years since I made it a point of watching The Simpsons. I'm almost entirely sympathetic to their line of satire, but whenever I've caught a recent episode, the experience leaves me feeling disatisfied (a bad sign for a half-hour program!). I'm told even the show's producers admit their best episodes all took place in the first four seasons.

I suspect when the producers began to glimpse just how long they could beat this horse, they very consciously chose to yank emotional engagement from the formula. After all, just how many lessons can an eight-year-old reprobate learn over the course of 12-plus years? Instead the tack is to wield satirical tar with an enormous brush, and to lay it on fast and thick.

There's little point in expressing disappointment in The Simpsons. It's like expressing disappointment with the Republicans: what they do clearly works for them. You can whinge til the cows come home; they'll just keep doing what they're doing until the public stops buying.

But the show has fallen from quite a lofty peak of grandeur. Last night I caught the second season episode, Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish. That baby has it all: scathing satire that skewers the political, social, media, religious and scientific scenes. And it provokes genuine laughter (not the frightened, cynical snicker) because it engages the heart. The Simpsons isn't going to return to such olympic form - it can't possibly. But it gets me considering the purchase of the first few seasons' worth of DVDs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


The end of The Last Temptation
The end of a Dime-Store mystery

Lou Reed, New York

Two links on the Chronicle of Higher Education's ALD website have got me thinking deep thoughts. This one comments on how the Men's Movement of the 90s has found a more fertile home in religious circles then it did in secular society. And this book excerpt does a quick and thought-provoking analysis of how the public concept of marriage has changed throughout history.

These articles are related in their concerns, I think, since changes in marriage reflect to no small degree society’s changing concept of masculinity. But when I consider the articles in contrast to my situation, they seem to come from another planet. Through a series of choices and opportunities, I am the stay-home parent who provides the primary care for our two elementary school-aged daughters. My wife is the bread winner, whose job takes her across the pond(s) at least twice a year.

Here's a snapshot of our life: I am typing this on my laptop, just a few feet from our washing machine. When the washing machine reaches spin cycle, I'll put the laptop aside, get up and collect the water in pails, then use the laundry water to water our trees – a conservation tip I picked up from my mother, the summer we braced our back yard with a dozen evergreens. I'll hang the laundry to dry, then iron and fold. I'll also tend to basic house tidying, encourage my daughters' reading regimen, and monitor the emotional temperature of their day.

The last aspect is particularly demanding right now, because my wife is in India. She works for an international NGO devoted to providing physical rehabilitation to the world's most impoverished people. Fix 'em up so they can live productive lives of dignity on their own terms. Right now she is visiting project sites overwhelmed with Tsunami casualties.

I am a Pastor's Kid; so is my wife. I've often said had I married anyone but another PK, my marriage would be a disaster. This always gets a laugh, but there's more truth than jest to it. The adult children of pastors usually fall into one of two categories – hell-raisers, or second generation pastors – and it's not unusual to see the next generation of pastor fall luridly from grace. On that note, it's worth remarking that my wife and I embody both manifestations, to a moderate degree that would cause little discomfort in most people. And if you want to argue that my wife's line of work qualifies as "ministry," knock yourself out. I won't disagree.

I've said before that my religious heritage (or my "walk with God", were I to use the vernacular I was raised in) is an intensely conflicted business. Lately I've been appreciating some of Augustine's stormier writings. This runs counter to my knee-jerk instincts. I've usually thought a person's religious beliefs should help them sleep at night; the consideration of divine paradoxes is something best done during daylight hours, not at nightfall – particularly after reading email from India. In the past, I've gleaned a greater comfort from the writings of Camus than I have from his more church-friendly forbears, particularly Kierkegaard. Adding to this irony is the fact that they are both within ideological spitting-range of the last century's most notorious PK, Friedrich Nietzsche.

There’s another snapshot for you: the sort of intellectual loop-de-loops a PK will go through when giving voice to his own faith concepts. It’s a trait some of us develop quite early in life. Revealing my father's occupation to a potential friend has always been a provocative proposition, sometimes moreso as an adult. The older I get, the more atheist friends I seem to collect. I've always appreciated, even admired the moral framework they've formulated. They've worked hard at it, and often demonstrate a greater fealty to their standards than I do to mine. I give them the benefit of the doubt, in other words – a favor not often returned, particularly when we talk of my father's profession (with one precious exception, I should say).

Ah yes, but atheists who doubt the social value of the church pastor are hardly alone – they merely sing a subtle harmony to an ever-present chorus of disenchanted parishioners. It's true I never heard the outright complaints first-hand, with two slight exceptions I’ll get to later. And my parents were perhaps private to a fault when it came to mention of church politics in front of the children. But as an adult taking part in the community life of different congregations, it didn't take me long to discover this never-absent congregational contingent. I can do the math; I have no doubt my father had his detractors.

Most pastoral careers rise and fall on the ability to "preach the Word." In this field, my father garners general kudos. In our rural town in the early 60s, he was somewhat unusual, having earned an M.Th. (Westminster) before stepping up to the pulpit. He gave consideration to his words, and took care when articulating any theological concept somewhat out-of-step with generations of received Mennonite teaching. More than once I heard him express excitement when he was told of a remedial Bible study held by a group who disagreed with him – it meant they had been engaged, and he was quick to give them a public platform.

The qualities that made my father well-suited for his job, however, weren't usually required for Sunday mornings. The majority of pastoral work is private, and unspectacular: meetings of every stripe, many of them harboring resentments that have simmered for years, sometimes generations; visiting the sick and the elderly; counseling, and of course weddings and funerals. I remember asking my father if he'd seen anyone die. "Oh, sure," he said matter-of-factly, as if it were a weekly occurrence. Then he described the process in terms that were reassuringly gentle. I was five years old, and grateful to hear it wasn't quite so terrible as I'd imagined. And if the occurrence wasn't exactly weekly (or as easy to bear as my father made it out to be), it certainly happened several times in any given year.

He also dealt with situations slightly outside the purview of most contemporary ministers. I recall a night in the early 70s when he received a phone-call from a parishioner. She was married to a drunkard, who was in the habit of getting their oldest daughter to mix his drinks. Now he'd locked his wife out of the house, and was forcing the daughter into bed with him. The police had been called, but for whatever reason our small-town constabulary was keeping the affair at arm's length, and proved slow to respond. My father was a committed pacifist, but didn't hesitate. He called up a deacon, asked for support, then drove directly to the house to physically extricate the girl from this hellish scene. The police arrived nearly half-an-hour later.

Having said all this, it pains me to locate and confess the locus of my discomfort with my father's profession. I can sum it up in one ridiculous word: masculinity.

I’m not at all sure where my confusion first took hold, and I see little point in teasing it out. No-one took me aside and said, “Real men don’t get a fancy-pants education and become pastors.” I did, however, on two separate occasions overhear doubts expressed about my father’s academic pursuits (he eventually earned a doctorate). That’s the trouble with a religion that advertises itself as accessible to all: not only can any enthusiast with a little Bible-reading under his belt claim to be an authority, but higher learning in general is viewed as yet another worldly impediment to the Kingdom of Christ. No matter – the two men in question were eventually reduced to our common fate: teary invalids in a hospital bed, awaiting their solitary end. And my father did what he could to provide comfort for them both.

The current round of masculinity talk being generated in North American evangelicalism is nothing new – they’ve recycled this bullshit for generations. Read any book, attend any seminar, and just try to count how many times the word “authority” comes up.

“Leadership” is also popular; "Vision Casting", etc, etc. In my limited experience, the healthiest congregations are ones where everyone – men, women, children – feels heard. The pastor moderates discussion, exercises humility by hearing everyone out, exhorts, encourages and does a little teaching. And rather than enforcing a personal agenda, he finally submits to the will of the congregation.

“Submit” – there’s another word you’ll hear in these men’s groups. As in, “Wives, submit to your husbands” (Colossians 3:18).

Ah, those Promise Keepers! My father told me about a meeting he attended, ten years ago. A parishioner was keen on the Promise Keepers, and drove him to some mega-event in a California stadium. This was a weekend deal, and on the last day, last meeting, the keynote speaker leaned toward the mic and said, "I want all the pastors to come to the front, please."

My old man was game. He got up out of his seat and found his way to the front, along with several hundred other men. The keynote speaker leaned once again into the mic and said, "These are your men of God. They have made sacrifices you couldn't begin to enumerate. Gentlemen, it behooves you to stand, and to give these men a hand."

And so my father found himself in this "Where's Waldo?" scene, receiving an enormous standing ovation, along with several hundred other men.

I asked him what he thought. He shrugged. "It was nice, I guess. But there were guys half my age, standing there and just weeping. Clearly, it really spoke to them."

Was there anything about the meeting that spoke to him?

"Actually, yes," he said. "The first day, come lunch-time, the concessionaires were obviously overwhelmed. People swarming the counter, by the thousands. And for some reason, hot-dogs were easier to serve than hamburgers – a guy in the back of the line could order a hotdog, and it would be ready. So he would pass the money forward, and it would get to the server, and the hotdog and change would get passed back to him. The concessionaires said they'd never seen anything like it before. That spoke to me."

Hotdogs, wedding vows, deathbeds.... Ladies and Gentlemen, here's what my father taught me:

Masculinity = Earned Trust.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Terry Teachout Gives The Limey A Shout-Out

Wup - I make a point of perusing Terry Teachout's blog, but it looks like I missed this the first time around:

After I got home, I watched Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, a film I hadn’t seen since its theatrical release five years ago. (A friend of mine has a refrigerator magnet that says, "Time Flies, Whether You're Having Fun or Not.") Unlike Sexy Beast, another indie flick of the same vintage that I recently viewed and found rather less impressive than my memories of it (though Ben Kingsley is every bit as good as I’d thought), The Limey holds up and then some. A devastating neo-noir look at what the Sixties wrought, it's the only film of Soderbergh’s since sex, lies, and videotape that’s made me think there’s more to him than his reputation.

That last line? Bullseye! I'm quite fond of The Limey myself - it qualifies as one of my ten favorite films from the last ten years. Since so much of what Teachout usually talks about (music sans electric guitar and a 4/4 beat) flies over my head, it's nice - or "incredible good" - when we do connect on something.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Introducing Fresh Dialogue To The Star Wars Galaxy

First of all, a quick review of Episode III: meh.

Thumbs-up for the Frankenstein rip-off (erm, “homage”) and the sheer comic effect of the freshly-gimped Anakin shrieking, “I hate you!” (now that I think of it, Gimp-akin bears a striking resemblance to the gimp in Johnny Got His Gun (or Metallica's cosiderably shorter - and improved - MTV version, One)). Also, thumbs-up for the Wookies. But thumbs-down for everything else.

Having been raised a Bible-believer, I’m perhaps more prone to spotting (and justifying) narrative inconsistencies than the average viewer, but these six movies, the most recent three particularly, are saddled with some incredible whoppers (relax: I won’t enumerate – that’s what Google was created for). I know Lucas wearily protests he didn’t make these movies for anal-retentive nerds, but remove them from the scene and who’s left? Considering how lavishly they’ve rewarded Lucas, why didn’t he just hire one particularly vocal, articulate nerd to go over his first draft with a red marker? Should Lucas change his mind about this being the close of the Star Wars narrative, I nominate this guy.

Then there’s the universally acknowledged issue of leaden dialogue, which I’ll get to in a minute. I think a good idea might be to give the galaxy a 20-year vacation, then let some young up-and-comer re-tool and re-tell the entire epic – a Planet Of The Apes makeover, if you will, only this time making improvements.

Alright, moving on: if we push this light gloss of disappointment aside, we have to acknowledge that Lucas has provided the world with the best Lego kits ever.

The angles & curves of Star WarsLego Posted by Hello

Lego being prohibitively expensive, this is one aspect where, had I been a less-responsible adult-type-person, I could have dropped some serious coin. As it is, my collection is a delightful dog’s breakfast. I’ve been given several of the “miniatures”, including an Ewok-stomping Imperial AT-ST which my daughters have affectionately dubbed “Mr. Pa-Ping”, after the noise its armament makes. I also bought the land-speeder when it first came out at an affordable $6. My sister recently gave me Jabba’s Palace for my birthday; my mother retrieved an Ewok kit from a bargain bin (perfect for Ewok-shredding fun!). My godson gave me the Luke/Vader/Emperor face-off. And the crown jewel in my collection is an X-Wing I scored with a conservative bid on eBay (a feat that couldn’t be repeated with the Millennium Falcon, alas).

Mr. Pa-Ping! Posted by Hello

I was never much for “mint condition” collecting when it actually counted for something (i.e., my childhood), so I’m not about to start. With the eager help of my daughters, I’ve assembled and disassembled (insert W. joke here) my entire collection several times. The girls are of course keen to play with the kits, and I let them. I find their stories not just delightful (I’m their father, after all), but strangely promising. Who knows? It could be my kids who save the Star Wars galaxy.

For proof, I present the following snippet of dialogue:

Princess Leia: Why, Mr. Pa-Ping – we haven’t seen you in such a long time! How are you?

Mr. Pa-Ping (in sonorous baritone, with faux British accent): Not well, I’m afraid. You see, I’ve lost a leg...

Be sure to mark your movie calendar 20 years from now.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Whither The Book Review?

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a fiction-writer’s workshop. They can be incredibly helpful or profoundly frustrating, depending on which of the three manifestations they follow. 1) The Happy Gang, where seldom is heard a discouraging word; 2) The Glowering Bunch, who sit slouched with arms crossed, and begin every criticism with an impatient shake of the head; 3) Magic! a group that is friendly and encouraging, but also critical and competitive.

Much depends on the facilitator, of course, but if you walk into a room where everyone glowers, you might as well turn around and get your money back. A good facilitator can nudge a Happy Gang toward critical competence, but if a group’s creative insecurity manifests itself in rancor and cynicism, you’re starting with an insurmountable deficit.

I’m tempted to make a similar analysis of the art of the book review, but I’m not so sure it holds. There’s a lot of “Whither The Book Review” chatter happening right now. Bookninja reports that he scans the weekly review page, but when it comes to settling down and reading them, he picks one or two and leaves it at that. Hey, me too!

In other, related news, Neal Pollack, who’s made a name for himself by cultivating an absurd persona that makes Hunter S. Thompson look like Deepak Chopra, is eyeing a potential second act, and having second thoughts. It seems Pollack’s over-the-top posturing had a limited shelf life. (This strikes me about right. I found the overall project amusing – Pollack worked as a one-man MAD Magazine, and had a prodigious output. But, like MAD Magazine, his was a shtick unlikely to carry him past the decade-mark. Eventually readers like me were going to say, “I get the joke – I just don’t think it’s all that funny anymore.”)

Pollack’s original product worked in tandem with David Eggers’ “snark-free” review policy, given voice here by Heidi Julavits in the inaugural issue of The Believer. She calls for an articulate Happy Gang to nurture Western Literature back into a state of prominence. Oprah, we hardly knew ye.

Pollack’s effect was to wield the printed word as a send-up of high-testosterone snark, while often slipping in sentiments that weren’t too far from the truth. This was a tricky balancing act that frequently failed. Isn’t it better just to commit to the sort of review that gets Julavits tied up in knots? Consider these two paragraphs by Lucy Ellmann on Francine Prose:

American sentimentality may once have seemed endearing, but now we know it's just another instrument of evil. Every aspect of American culture has begun to stink of the grave. The pizzas and hamburgers: this is how world tyrants fuel themselves. The cars, the drugs, the music, the TV: this is how they distract themselves from their crimes. But how can they still think they're right about anything? Their children are deep-fried, drug-soaked numbskulls, the adults hapless lemmings in their SUVs, heading straight into the back-end of the American dream. Where is the guilt - and where the apology?

You won't get one from Francine Prose. Reading her is like going on an anthropological excursion into the heart of that darkness. The horror of it is not just that she seems to go along with the suburban-commuter lifestyle she depicts, but that she concludes, from her tale of neo-Nazi woe, that everyone is basically good, or at least redeemable. It's Panglossian! Her faith in America and the essential innocence of its inhabitants turns what could have been a challenging read into a witless fable for our times. What's more, it all has to happen in the present tense: Americans have no past.

Alright! Now we’re getting somewhere! There will be no glossing over this review. Nope – this sort of vitriol sets off a cluster-bomb of reactions. 1) I start to chant, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” (Ellmann surely knows from first-hand experience that Prose gives as good as she gets.) 2) I consider writing a review of the review, which might begin thusly: “Continental condescension may once have seemed endearing...” 3) A deep breath, followed by some muttering: “Loosen yer jockstrap, Ellmann. I mean, what are we really talking about, here? A print run of a couple thousand, remaindered by Christmas? And how many of those copies sold are likely to be read? If you’re so riled up, go back to the book store and hand-sell copies of Vernon God Little, already.”

And there it is: one bad-ass nasty review generating more thought than a year’s subscription to The Believer.

For the record, I’m with Chris Lehmann. I don’t want to spend 30-plus bucks on a book that doesn’t hit it out of the park for me (that’s why I don’t read Globe & Mail reviews by T.F. Rigelhoff anymore: he recommended one too many books that didn’t make it past second base). As a reader of reviews, my method works something like this: if I’m an entrenched fan of a particular writer, I’ll clip and save the review for when I’ve finished the book. If I know nothing of the author or the subject matter, that review had better be one punchy piece of prose for me to read it from start to finish. To that end, you might as well keep it brief – Entertainment Weekly-style, basically. Or, conversely, you can attack either the writer, or the reading culture that is sure to ignore the book you love so much (John Irving is particularly adept at the latter strategy).

Or you can take your time and take your chances. If enough people like what you say and how you say it, word gets around. It might even catch the eye of Maud Newton, Bookslut, Bookninja & Co. – a sure sign you’ve made it on the literary scene.

Bonus link: Darko records Nick Hornby talking sensibly about writers dealing with critics.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Prelude to a Soundtrack

During my 29th year, as I prepared for marriage, I wrote a short novel about a failed Christian rock musician. The central character was an Angelino by birth, whose youth consists of moodily keeping track of Nixon's fall, and smoking pot whenever he gets the chance. This unremarkable tedium is dramatically altered when he attends a youth rally, and answers the altar call.

Now that he's "born again", things get seriously weird. In a pinball explosion of Charismatic encounters, our hero gets annointed to head up a Christian punk band, christened to save souls from the satanic mosh pit. He and some recent acquaintances assemble their band, pull together a few chops, scrawl lyrics on sheets of foolscap, practice jumping around while playing, then set out to claim the country's youth for Christ. Coffee-houses are booked, and the misadventures begin.

The environment is all wrong for a Christian punk band. Coffee-houses book the band, expecting the sort of Kumbaya fare that's become the staple of "Contemporary Christian Music". Meanwhile Christian kids don't know what to make of punk music, nevermind their parents. Christian record companies won't touch them, and their mission/career looks seriously compromised.

Rather than pack it in, our hero follows the Spirit's leading and introduces the band to the bar circuit. Now their notoriety starts to grow by leaps and bounds, thanks to the free publicity of zealous televangelists publicly campaigning against the growing scourge of Christian Rock. Just as the group gains a following, our hero starts writing lyrics with depth and critical bite, frequently targeting televangelists, and the religious music industry that rejected him.

Now he and his group are hedged in by moneyed enemies at all sides. Thanks to this pressure, and a particularly ill-advised misadventure, his fate is sealed. Before his 35th birthday, his marriage is in ruins, his bandmates are fed up, and he is driven from the Promised Land of the California coast to the barren wilderness of Michigan. When we catch up to him in his late 40s, he has remarried, and is making a modest living producing musical tracks for video games.

For the last 11 years, this story has sat in a drawer with two other novels and the usual collection of short stories. I dusted it off the other day, and gave it a quick look. It's not bad, if I don't say so myself. Were I to shop it around, I'd probably ramp up the laugh factor a bit, but other than that, it holds together, and I'm happy with it.

An easy story with obvious parallels (more than one, actually, as I loosely based it on the perilous career of a living Christian rocker). I hadn't thought of it in years, but with my 40th birthday upon me, it was the only project I was drawn back to. This entry was meant to be yet another list, this time the soundtrack to my 30s. I may get back to that, but as I was compiling it and mulling over the obvious embarrassments - so many profoundly guilty pleasures, from AC/DC to POD - I realized that music, rock music particularly, constitutes such an intimate pleasure that I struggle to share it with the public at large.

This isn't self-gratification I'm talking about, either - at least, not entirely. When I was in my teens, I had my passion for rock (even the wholly toothless Christian rock) set straight by an earnest counselor at a Bible camp. It was a base music, unbecoming of the Creator or His children, and I was well advised to leave it alone. Instead, I went home and did my research. Gradually, circuitously, I got to dispensing with the whole notion of a sacred/secular delineation, and for the most part got on with enjoying what I enjoy. This experience is the chief reason why I'm unlikely to ever bend my knee to a proposed "Christian aesthetic."

Ah, but the echoes reverberate! I wonder if there isn't a pivotal adolescent encounter drilled through the inner identity of every adult? For my atheist friends, it's their first emotionally honest conversation about theodicy. Another popular bone of contention in church youth groups is "Following The Will of God" – that's sure to generate discussion among a bunch of hormone-ridden teens! Then there's sexuality: it's a rare person whose initiation into sexual experience isn't clumsy and messy, and not a little confusing, even if they wait for the honeymoon (Oscar Wilde on Niagara Falls: "It's the young bride's second disappointment!"). If sex is indeed a sacrament, it's the most primal of the bunch.

Those generally aren't the echoes that plague me, however. Mine reverberate to three chords on a Gibson - an embarrassing obsession I briefly gave voice to, once upon a time. An assumed persona, foolishly bent on doing the right thing, and expressing every earnest and naïve hope I'd never admit to. Unless, of course, I was under the influence - surely the most appropriate conditions for proper rock & roll.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Hayao Miyazaki: Gravity and Animation

Miyazaki's movies have a much different tempo than the in-your-face American cartoons with vocals by ... jabbering showbiz personalities. (The main characters of Robots couldn't take a walk across town without it turning into a brain-rattling spectacle.) It's not that Miyazaki's work is static. It's that everything has its proper weight. David Edelstein reviews the new Hayao Miyazaki film, Howl's Moving Castle (emphasis mine)

Most Japanese anime qualifies as little more than a personal curiosity. Anime franchises from Pokemon to Akira recklessly plunder the mythologies of the world (or their Cliff's Notes versions) for images and characters, give them a little tweaking, then hurl them into a pal-mal storyline. The result is a spicy, but nutrient-free, soupstock. Miyazaki's stuff, on the other hand, is spellbinding and unforgettable - it sticks to the ribs.

Miyazaki also plunders, but he seems to store his loot in a deep subconscious cellar, where he lets it mutate and mature before revealing it to the public. Nothing is displayed without due consideration of its true emotional impact on his characters, and on the audience. As a result, a sunny entertainment like Kiki's Delivery Service (my personal favourite) literally flies with emotional grandeur; surreal tales like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro disturb and comfort on a profoundly sublime level.

This sort of attention to detail - to its weight - is powerfully rewarding on the big screen and invites multiple viewings on the little screen at home (the DVD subtitles and the original Japanese vocals are always a delightful revelation best enjoyed after you've become familiar with the American dub-over). It's too much to ask American animators (and their studio creditors) to invest their work with deeper emotions like rage and resolve. But if Pixar's financial success is any indication (Toy Story and Monster's Inc. being two of its heftier offerings), even the slightest acknowledgment of emotional weight is welcomed by audiences.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Call of the Meme

Bet you didn't see this one coming! Okey-dokey, then - my answers to the meme:

Total number of books owned: Couldn't say, but if we include comic books we're certainly approaching thousands.

Last book bought: Two, actually - Nick Hornby's Songbook (my wife requested I read this to her in weekly installments while she makes the Sunday night pizza), and Tijuana Straights by Kem Nunn.

Last book read: Barring unforeseen interruption, tonight I will finish The Watch by Dennis Danvers.

Five books that mean a lot to me (I'll be cheating a bit, here):

The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies (I own a single-bound copy). Reading this book in my mid-20s had a more profoundly subversive effect on me than my voracious reading of the Beat Canon. Re-reading it this last year yielded new surprises, including Davies' neat skewering of any sort of nationalistic fervor that can grip a person during heated discussions. Davies' art was never quite so accomplished after this - but it had no need to be.

Moon Palace by Paul Auster. Previous blog here.

Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall From Grace by David Beers. No book does a better job of articulating GenX angst - and you're getting this from an unwavering fan of Douglas Coupland.

Tapping The Source by Kem Nunn. Bikers, surfers, drug-dealers, a mysterious occultic sect ... man, did I get a kick out of this book! Ten years before I read TTS, the last book that tickled me so was Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. In this case, I'm referring to a specific copy of that book. A very dear friend of mine, when she heard I was a McCarthy fan, procured a limited signed edition for me. Priceless.

Five people to be memed: well ... I invite any one of the "Cobbers" to pick it up voluntarily. But I'm confident I can go ahead and tag Scott without incurring his pique.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


So here it is, 12:00 noon, and I'm feeding the girls their lunch of bean soup and peanut-butter sandwiches. It's business as usual, with me chafing at the latest round of goofiness - I ask a question about their morning at school, and get a silly answer customized to test my patience. In the distance we hear the town's Volunteer Fire Department, striking up the sirens and peeling off. Doubtless they're off to address yet another set-upon farmer - it's been a very dry spring, and the VFD have had to attend to barn-fires, and the like.

Then I'm smelling, well, smoke. It's not uncommon for neighbors to burn tree-trimmings and yard-waste in fire-barrels, but this smells decidedly industrial - like shingles burning. The sirens get closer. I jump to my feet and race outside.

Two doors down, our neighbor's house is flaming like a toasted marshmallow.

Curious how quickly the mind does its survival math. Wind + Dry = THREAT!! I gather up the girls and hustle them back to their school two blocks away, then return to the house to figure out what to salvage first if the blaze skips roofs. The smoke is now white, however, and the VFD seem to have things under control.

Our neighbors are in profound crisis, of course, and I am duly impressed by the calming talents of our volunteers.

As for me, I might just breath a sigh of relief - in a day or two.

Following the "Meme"

The fun starts at Darko's place - he's just been "memed" by Cowtown Pattie. For those who don't know, a "meme" is a questionaire that works something like a chain-letter, minus the dire consequences should you choose to ignore the darn thing. The questions in question are:

1. What is the total number of books you have owned?
2. What is the last book you bought?
3. What is the last book you read?
4. What are five books that mean a lot to you?
5. Who are five people you will lob the meme to?

Darko acquits himself with the expected finesse: excellent titles all, including a few delightful surprises.

From there, I moseyed over to Texas Trifles, to see Ms. Pattie's picks. Ms. Pattie is a regular favorite of Michael Blowhard, for good reason. Her observations have a deceptively light touch, but stay with you for days. Read her short bit on Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, and I think you'll see what I mean.

Then I visited the blogs she "memed", and was especially taken by two:

Hokule'a speaks movingly about the emotional echoes that occur when a straight woman's soul-mate is a gay man - here.

And Mary Lee at Full Fathom Five seems like the sort of woman my mother would take a shine to - straight-forward, no-nonsense, innately curious ... and a host of other attractive qualities to boot. Here she undertakes a subconscious whodunnit (whatdunnit?):

One woman, my roommate D., told a fascinating story. She talked about a recurring nightmare she's had of a bloodcurdling female scream that seems to go on forever, and when it finally stops she feels like something is crushing her chest and she can't breath or cry out for help. She's been awakened by this nightmare all her life, and puzzled over it because as far as she knows, she's never heard a scream like that.

This sort of thing hooks me in pretty quickly. I found the final "missing link" both fascinating and incredibly moving. All in all, a wonderful round of provocative reading.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Whisky Prajer's List of Five Great Canadian Novels That Aren't By Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies - And Won't Piss You Off

The wide-ranging, always engaging Minister of Culture and Amusement, Darko, points me to this link of book lists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and asks re: Great Canadian Novels, "Your thumb: up or down?"

The list in question:


As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. A faithless minister and his wife cling to existence in Depression-era Saskatchewan.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Autobiographical fiction on the writer's life in a cold, isolating country.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. One woman's cantankerous refusal to go gently into that dark night.

The Wars by Timothy Findley. How to go from the quiet streets of Toronto to the mud-caked fields of Flanders in three easy steps.

Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff. A son details his mother's perilous and terrifying drift into Alzheimer's.

- Mary-Liz Shaw

My thumb? Waaay down. Here's why:

First of all, Ms. Shaw's banner is telling. Pairing the still-productive Atwood with cold-case Davies suggests Ms. Shaw's experience of Canadian lit is chiefly in the past-tense, when Atwood and Davies were the presiding monarchs over the Canuckle-head lit-scene. The list confirms this: Ignatieff's book is the only title that isn't over 30 years old. Now, I'm not especially prone to making knee-jerk In-With-The-New/To-Hell-With-The-Old proclamations, but I do believe that a list of Canadian books culled exclusively from the 1970s CanLit canon is both misguided and (gasp!) dangerous. Misguided because it's dated and uninformed, and dangerous because anyone who attempts the list will find themselves mired in an odious chore, and permanently turned-off.

This list pretty much covers the mandatory reading in my high school curriculum, and let me tell you, it's no fun. Even Ms. Shaw must be aware of this - just look at her book descriptions, and ask yourself: "Do I really want to read about 'a faithless minister and his wife, cling(ing) to existence in Depression-era Saskatchewan'? How about 'autobiographical fiction (set) in a cold, isolating country'?" etc. If you're already reaching for your dog-eared Wodehouse Omnibus, I don't blame you.

There’s a reason for this perversity. The CanLit crew of the 70s was giddy with international attention - our national culture seemed to be taking its first tentative steps out of the ghetto. But while the young Turks were following the dizzying lead set by Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, it still seemed desperately necessary to acknowledge that constructing the ghetto to begin with was no small feat itself. Thus the canon was established, and 15-year-old boys who'd rather be rockin' out to Loverboy were forced to put down the headphones and pick up Margaret Laurence. Alas, the ghetto they were touring had been formed according to the still-dependable maxim among earnest literwannabes: the quickest way to leave a deep impression is to be relentlessly grim.

Ms. Shaw would have done well to follow the leads of the two names she sought to evade. Davies' oeuvre is a fastidiously flossed impresario's grin, and even Atwood displays flourishes of impishness throughout her reams of "set-it-right" prose. A little humor goes a long way, and if I think back to my grandparents' stories of the Depression, I remember not just the grim and chilling vignettes, but the hilarious anecdotes as well. They impressed me with their robust character, which was the true heritage of that terrible era.

Right then - robust character. Here are my five alternatives to Mary-Liz Shaw (please check the links for further commentary):

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. A Canadian novel that sprawls from the Depression-era to the 80s, engages in impious theological speculation, is profoundly moving, and generates laughs - who'd of thunk it!

How Insensitive by Russell Smith. Mr. Smith's chief source of income, I'm sorry to say, is one of those "How To Wear Trousers" columns in the Globe & Mail. In fact, as his debut novel makes clear, he is a funny and impeccable satirist of the first order. (I should probably be recommending Muriella Pent, his latest novel, which was ranked #1 on’s list of Best Fiction 2004. I haven't read it yet, but it's in the docket, and I'll let you know what I think.*)

The Barking Dog by Cordelia Strube. How to laugh while coming to grips with the fact that you're dying of cancer and your son is a murderer.

Tay John by Howard O'Hagan. Originally published in 1960, Tay John is the only emotionally engaging post-modern novel I can think of. O'Hagan succeeds, I suspect, because he couldn't possibly identify "po-mo", even if Foucault had bit him on the ass (which I'm not suggesting ever happened).

One-Eyed Jacks by Brad Smith. Of Mice & Men, brilliantly retold with a wicked twist-ending in a convincingly seedy "Toronto The Good". The fastest read of the bunch.

If you're after a literary pedigree with some longevity, I'll send you directly to Richler and the still dismally unknown O'Hagan. My point is these are Canadian works that are a treat to read, and have an easy finish that won't send you staggering to the liquor cabinet for recovery. However, if you're still intent on "high seriousness", you can always refer to Whisky Prajer's Five Heartbreaking Works of Staggering (Canadian) Literary Genius.

Post-Script: one year later and I have read Muriella Pent, and, no, I can't recommend it. I do recommend Young Men, however.

Whisky Prajer's List of Five Heartbreaking Works of Staggering (Canadian) Genius

Again, avoiding Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies:

Anything by Alice Munro. There's a reason why she's called "Canada's Living Chekov" (hint: it has nothing to do with putting on a red velour tunic and a bad accent).

The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock. At the rate I was giving this book away after 9/11, I was courting bankruptcy.

In The Wings, by Carole Corbeil. This link has the entire Books In Canada review - a rather moving bit of prose itself.

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe. In a just universe, this guy would be bigger than Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner, or even Cormac McCarthy.

That Summer In Paris by Morley Callaghan. Okay, so this last one isn't a novel. But it's a brilliantly rendered account of what it was like to be a Canadian (like, regular guy, eh?) rubbing elbows with Gertrude Stein's "Lost Generation" in Paris - the last generation of writers everyone paid attention to.

Enjoy! (Thanks, DV!)