Monday, September 28, 2009

Lit-Links, & Other Distractions

I am currently reading Douglas Coupland's latest novel: Generation A. For the last 10 years or so I've made it a policy to hold off on buying Coupland's novels until they hit the remainder bin. Unfortunately, the effect of reading a Coupland novel two years after it's been published is somewhat akin to feasting on a Jif & Welch's sandwich made from week-old Wonder Bread: it's just a little off. Last week I was perusing the stacks at Book City. Since I was in a beloved independent, and since Coupland's title was fresh off the press, I figured the right thing to do was drop the money and take home the book. But now The Guardian Book Club has me wondering if I shouldn't be (re)reading his first novel. Ah, the irony!


I could be wrong, but it sounds to me like P.J. O'Rourke is still bitter he missed out on all that muddy fun.


Oooooh, brother: not this -- again.


This, on the other hand, merits further discussion. My parents, who now rank among David's most devoted fans, seem to have completely forgotten their originally peeved reaction to his acerbic comedic stylings back in 1987. Ah, the irony.


Late addition: "Non-traumatizing Canadian fiction does exist. No, really, it does. And we want to prove it to you" -- Introducing The Workhorsery.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reconvening With The Monks Of Fall

I'm 24 hours away from enjoying another two-and-a-half days of this:

Depending who you talk to, this is either our 21st or 22nd gathering. There was at least one year when I called in sick, so I consider this #20. As for the others, my memory of it all has mashed-up and reassembled itself like a large plate of particularly runny scrambled eggs -- washed down with a tumbler of single-malt scotch, of course. I'm bringing a bottle of 15-year-old Oban. I had a wee slurp of it the other night, and now I'm wishing I'd reached for the Talisker next to it, instead. Oh well: it's sure to grow on someone, if not me.

For the last three years I've lobbied with increasing insistence for a change of locale, with an emphasis on Montreal as an attractive possibility (one of our members has his own table at a particularly fine restaurant). The group e-mails go back and forth, and gradually the chorus for change begins to gel. Then someone mentions this damn bridge, and all bets are completely off.

This year the cabin is up for sale. Since no-one in our company has, as of this posting, offered to buy, we might very well be re-locating next year. After 20 years I refuse to believe it until I finally sink my teeth into that "tic-tac" steak (avec frites, of course).

I've finished bitching about it. The truth is I'm eagerly anticipating the weekend. The bridge is a marvelous place to sit and talk. It's a marvelous place to just sit. And, weather permitting, it's not a bad place to sleep, either.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lego Conquers All

Further proof, as if any were needed, that there isn't a video game engine/concept that can't be improved by LEGO.

Yes, that's Iggy Pop you're looking at. I very much doubt we'll hear his wife or band-mates whining about his appearance. In fact, I'd like Lego to have a go at my appearance!

Not only that, I'd like Lego to have a go at every other successful video franchise. Halo, Bio-Shock and Fallout* -- they could all stand the Lego treatment in a big, big way.

*Grand Theft Auto was not included in this list because there's no improving on it after The Simpsons Hit & Run (wp).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Addition To My Double's Playlist

If we all must have a doppelgänger, then I hope mine is 17 years old. I hope he’s pedaling his bicycle through the maze of suburbia to get to his local library, where he wants to live like some nerdy kind of orphan. And I hope he’s listening to Dragonslayer, by Sunset Rubdown (e). The bombastic three-penny-opera posing, the art-haus ambition that wavers somewhere between Ziggy Stardust and Men Without Hats, and — good lord! — the noise. My 17-year-old double would eat it up.

As for my 44-year-old self, he’s having more fun discovering the early jazz recordings of Andre Previn. Like Previn! (e) and Duet (A) with Doris Day are a delicious introduction to this man’s incomparable piano chops. I think it’s remarkable he segued from the jazz scene into the world of classical music and became an unmistakable entity in both. If he ever took a stab at public explication (a la Yo-Yo Ma), I’d sit down for it without hesitation. (Thanks for the intro, Che!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Backpacker Classics

Bookride compiles a list of "Backpacker Classics": those books which find their way to the top of the pack, where they can be quickly retrieved for the purposes of edification, staving off boredom and impressing that cute blond wearing glasses and woolen socks (which are almost certainly hiding the fact that she left her razor stateside).

My backpack is over 20 years old, and nearly as good as new because I didn't use it all that often. However, at one time or another it did provide shelter for Gravity's Rainbow, Perfume and Lonesome Dove. That's about it, really.

My wife, on the other hand, continues to load her backpack for exotic locales. The works of Tony Parsons have kept her pleasant company, and for backpackers heading out to Africa she recommends Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo (A).

And your backpack?

Via Boing-Boing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Whisky Prajer's Musical Round-Up: End Of Summer '09

So here we are, one year later, and the consensus (aka, “Conventional Wisdom”) among us casual observers is not only are we still in a mess of trouble, but we’re probably on the brink of something a whole lot worse. Since there aren’t many sources of comfort to be had in an environment such as this, the value of good music should not be undersold. And this has been a summer of very remarkable music.

First up is The Excitement Plan by Todd Snider (e), which quickly usurped my predicted “summer disc.” Snider’s charm lies in his wry and whimsical delivery. As he tallies up several lifetimes worth of regret, his tone is enough to suggest some way forward out of the mess he’s made for himself. It might not be much — in fact, that “tone” might be all he has — but it might also be just enough for today. Speaking as a listener who preferred the younger Lyle Lovett to what's currently available, I found a great deal to enjoy in Snider’s new disc.

Snider is also devoted to lyrical craftsmanship, which, it seems to me, is a discipline sorely missing in the current download deluge. I'm also finding that the older I get, the less patience I have for shite lyrics. Readers with a seasoned ear will notice my silence on some of the splashier acts of the day. This summer the act to tune in to was Dirty Projectors, a favorite of David Byrne. Wow, do I ever not get that band. Even Byrne can't put his finger on what he likes about them, but like them he does. His involvement was enough to commit me to Bitte Orca (A).

Bitte Orca might just be the most important disc you’ll hear this year — or not. As for me, I’ve yet to manage sitting through it a second time. The songs all sound like they’re on the verge of meaning something, but I couldn’t hazard a guess just what that something might be. Besides, I get the feeling if I tried, I’d be the butt of some scrawny hipster’s derisive laughter. No thanks.

I’ve got nothing but love, however, for the latest David Byrne & Brian Eno project, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (A). Given Byrne’s typically stream-of-subconscious lyric writin’, I’d say the songs are on the verge of dissolving into nonsense. The tonal delivery, of course, is there to sell the project. Since these two jokers reached me back when I was still young and impressionable, they had little trouble persuading me of their ability to strike the necessary balance between mischief and sincerity. Everything quickly became the sing-along disc of the summer.

Not that I was in much of a mood for singing. Most of what I listened to was jazz, which is usually a form that keeps me silent and gets me meditating. The most pleasantly arcane album was probably last year’s Moonshine by Dave Douglas & Keystone (e). It swings from straight-ahead Cool, to trippy Mushroom beats, to . . . well, I do believe that “Kitten” could actually qualify as Metal. I liked all of it, and as soon as I’ve got some spare change, I’ll be looking into Douglas’ more recent Spirit Moves (A).

Kind of Brown by Christian McBride & Inside Straight (e) continues to get play in the house. I’m not sure why McBride chose to invite comparison to Miles Davis’s monumental work, unless it was to play with expectations or gently tweak the easily offended pieties of the jazz collector. Brown isn’t bringing any sort of colossal change to the jazz landscape, but it is delivering unalloyed joy in the established forms. This is an easy disc to reach for and play again and again.

It’s also worth mentioning For All I Care by The Bad Plus (e) who continue exploring the sonic possibilities in music that’s slid from “astonishing breakthrough” to Staid Entry In The Rock Songbook. I’m as prone as the next schlub to thinking there’s no point in messing with “greats” like “Lithium” or “Comfortably Numb.” So I am increasingly grateful to The Bad Plus for doing exactly that. Their combined reverence and daring-do achieve remarkable results.

Finally, Blood From Stars, by Joe Henry (A). Wow. I’m not sure I’ll be able to step around this one, even though there are days when I would very much like to. The first time I played it I thought, “Sheesh, what a downer.” The second spin proved to be considerably easier — so much so, in fact, that my response was, “What heady stuff this is!” Henry continues his Weillean march on the tightrope, defying the abyss as he explores the ambiguities that tie our giddiest thrills to our deepest regrets. For some of us, Henry is providing the definitive soundtrack to the era. I daresay we’re all united in wishing it weren’t necessarily so.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rescued From The Dollar Store: Breaking Away and Prime Cut

During one of my recent visits to the local dollar store I was surprised to discover a copy of Breaking Away in the DVD bin. In fact there were plenty of other fine titles to be had for a buck and I quickly loaded up my arms. I guess Blu Ray is making its mark (to say nothing of pay-per-view, iTunes and other less savory options).

Gathering the family and cueing up an old and very personal favorite is always a bit of a risk (Buckeroo Banzai (wp) earned me some eye-rolling and a universal, “Boy, was that ever a Dad Movie!”), but I needn’t have worried about Breaking Away. The story of four misfits who don’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve graduated from their small town high school still has appeal. It helps that the characters are holding onto traits that are essentially childish: bicycle racer Dave’s loopy insistence on speaking with an Italian accent, Moocher’s “Oh, hi! You just caught me in the middle of a bench-press set” posturing, Mike’s idolizing of the Marlboro Man (“That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.”) and Cyril’s adolescent wise-cracking (“Don’t forget your toothbrush. You’re still in your cavity-prone years.”) blend together to keep the mood pleasantly sweet.*

The movie places Dave at the center of the narrative, and takes pains to frame his particular lostness via spirited exchanges between his Mom (Barbara Barrie) and Dad (Paul Dooley). It’s an amusing set-up — most of the movie’s memorable lines come from the Dad’s Archie Bunker-like bluster (“I know I-tey food when I hear it! All them ‘eeny’ foods. Zucchini. Linguine. Fettuccini. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”). I mentally dog-eared this as stagey, if charmingly so, but didn’t register just how subtly it worked until midway through the movie, when it hit me that the parents — he with the bum ticker, and she with the looming empty nest — were just as lost as their boy and his buddies.

I had very strong memories of the climactic bicycle race, of course, but hadn’t realized that the entire final lap was a single, unbroken, immaculately choreographed shot. It’s a fitting metaphor for the entire film. This is one of those flicks where every movie-making ingredient you can name falls magically into place and conspires to make the viewer fall in love, not just with what’s on screen, but with movies, period.

*Played by Dennis Christopher, Jack Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern, respectively — all of 'em very young.


A Chicago mob boss opens a brown paper package. He shows the contents — a pile of raw wieners — to Lee Marvin. “We’ll need some boys,” says Marvin.

The wieners, as the preceding minutes have made plain, are what remains of the last collector the mob sent to Kansas City. A Cadillac limo picks up the requested boys, one of whom has to kiss his mother on the cheek before he leaves. The set-up in Prime Cut is rather bald, to say the least: these big city mobsters are taking a trip to America’s Heartland to discover just how hideously cancerous it really is.

It’s worse than I imagined. There are babes wearing nothing but hairspray and false eyelashes, arrayed fetchingly in pens bedded with fresh straw. There is an International Harvester combine that consumes a car and excretes gears and tires. And there is Gene Hackman literally feasting on the scenery while Marvin watches with convincing disbelief.

Prime Cut caromes so wildly off anything credible that it has to be viewed as violent cartoon comedy, a primitive precursor to the sorts of movies the Coen Brothers now excel at. Unfortunately its sincerity is its undoing, deflating all attempted tension even as it delivers bales of ironic pleasure. The presentation of nudity alone is worth the price of admission. It’s completely female (young, of course), completely gratuitous and completely drenched in late-60s counter-cultural attitude.

Considered within the movie’s aesthetic cultural-historical framework, it could be persuasively argued that these girls’ naked bods are used to convey any combination of the following messages: (1) “I’m naked. Get over it.”; (2) “Check it out: gorgeous naked chicks just sitting in the straw!”; (3) “Your prurient interest in these unclothed wymyn is proof that you’re every bit the male chauvinist pig that Gene Hackman is!” While I’ve always been an (admittedly distant) admirer of the first attitude, the latter two remain entwined in a way that seemingly requires Joe Francis to help our society sort out.

Plus ça change, I suppose. As a trip down memory lane to ideological carnivals of old, Prime Cut is certainly worth the spin, if not necessarily the purchase — even from a dollar store.

Amazon: Breaking Away, Prime Cut. And here is a Whisky Prajer rewind where I consider what mature sexuality might look like in the cinema. I recently re-watched Rob Roy, and I think it still holds up.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Notes From My First Colonoscopy

I offer these observations in the same spirit as my pneumonia post: readers, Googlers and other web-surfers should be getting the bulk of their info from more authoritative sources. But if I could send a note to my former inexperienced self, this is what it would say:

(1) The 24 hour period leading up to the procedure is going to be more grueling than the procedure itself.

(2) The day before, drink lots of water right up to midnight. I mean it. I know you think you're drinking lots of water, but you're not.

(3) As soon as you've finished reading this, get on the phone and change your appointment to first thing in the morning. If you go ahead and try to put in a full day at the job before you're driven to the clinic, you will live to think of it as one of the dumbest stunts you've pulled in mid-life.

That's about it, really. Oh, and stop fretting: the doctor is going to give you an "all clear -- book another appointment 8-10 years from now."

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn (A) introduces a re-imagined Edwardian past in which luxury airships, held aloft by a non-flammable natural gas called "Hydrium," circumnavigate the globe. Matt Cruse is a fifteen-year-old cabin boy of one such airship. When the lovely and headstrong Kate de Vries comes aboard, Matt finds himself wrestling with some unanticipated impulsiveness of his own. As he struggles to balance his newfound adventurousness with his duties to his ship and family, Matt uncovers a deeper emotional trauma he’s kept hidden from himself. If that sounds like “eat your spinach” reading, the book is in fact a masterfully taut thriller, with strange creatures and merciless pirates on either side of Oppel’s narrative high-wire.

Being an open-minded, readerly Daddy-O sort, I was quite willing to be charmed by the spectacular entertainment that Airborn delivers. But I was caught off-guard by the story's deep emotional pay-off. I read this book aloud while my wife drove the family to and from our summer vacation. We somehow managed a safe trip despite Oppel’s nearly-narcotic ability to beguile. In this respect Oppel can be compared to J.K. Rowling without either author suffering. This is a fabulous book, which deserves the largest possible audience.

Links: the book's official website, Kenneth Oppel's site.

Batman: Ego & Other Tails by Darwyn Cooke, with Paul Grist, Bill Wray & Tim Sale

This is a collection of stories in which the common thread, aside from the titular character, is Darwyn Cooke. Two of these stories (“Ego” and “Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score”) were written and drawn by Cooke; the four remaining have him claiming one or the other credit. Basically, what we have here is a journeyman’s book which traces Cooke’s development in the comic book biz.

In his introduction Cooke is circumspect about what he achieved in the Batman stories, which I think is appropriate. Cooke's transition from animated TV series storyboard artist to comic book sequential artist, while certainly impressive, is not always free from some unfortunately inert moments. Similarly, his aesthetic is also a work in progress — in “Ego” the shift away from the look of the TV series takes place very gradually, while much of “Selina’s Big Score” is splashed in bold brush-strokes that could be confused with early David Mazzucchelli.

“Selina's Big Score” has, in hindsight, some very obvious and entertaining indicators that Cooke's infatuation with Richard Stark's "Parker" is about to erupt into an all-consuming love affair. Having first encountered Cooke in The Hunter (A, wp) — the current height of Cooke's artistic prowess — I thought this collection made for some amusing, but hardly essential, reading. Instead, Batman: Ego suggests that Cooke is an artist with a nearly limitless capacity for developing aesthetic and narrative depth, moving relentlessly forward. Cooke's best, I do believe, is yet to come.