Sunday, January 31, 2010

Salinger, et al.

I came late to the fiction of J.D. Salinger -- quite possibly too late. I'd seen his plain red paperbacks on just about everyone's bookshelf, and thought there was something pointedly biblical about its lack of ornament (much like the common cover to Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet). Since I was already over-familiar with the pseudo-piety behind this aesthetic, I was never curious as to its contents. If you want to appeal to me, resorting to the opposite extreme can only help. Dress it up! Do the jig!

Then I landed the job at the bookstore. From my very first day, we were beset with special orders for "the new J.D. Salinger book" -- Hapworth 16, 1924. It wasn't "new" at all, of course; just a reprint of an old New Yorker story anyone could scrounge up at the city library. Regardless, for months we were one of countless stores calling the Hap-less publishers, who had no updates to give us beyond, "It should be shipping soon." Finally we were told -- verbally, wearily -- that Hapworth was not to be. Four of us divvied up the customer call-backs, then got to work on the phones. I can't remember just how many calls we made (several hundred, certainly) but my ear and dialing finger were sore by day's end.

The entire folderol finally prompted me to purchase a copy of Catcher In The Rye, which was now sporting a plain white cover (a slight improvement, I thought). With visions of SCTV promoting "'Catcher In The Rye' Rye!" I made myself comfy and cracked open the book. This is the first I've admitted it, and I know I'll be disappointing more than a few good friends, but I was underwhelmed. It being the beginning of the 90s, most of the novels I was reading consisted of an almost-visible author peeling away irony after irony in an effort to discover or obscure the truth (example). When I finished Catcher, I wasn't at all sure if Salinger was aware of Caufield's own apparent phoniness. Since this wasn't a puzzle I cared to solve, I was happy to shelve the book as "read" and be done with it.

It's a first impression that's stuck, unfortunately. I hope to give the book another read-through in the next month or two, just to see if parenting adolescents has changed my receptivity to the material.

In the meantime there are two other authors who also passed away this week, who left a deeper first impression on me: Howard Zinn and George Leonard. Zinn needs no comment, really: having been raised a gutless pacifist, Zinn's collective histories were naturally blended into the educational mix (I was quite pleased to see Nicholson Baker recently pick up the standard).

Leonard, on the other hand, might be a bit off the beaten track. He wrote regularly for Esquire in the late 80s, where I first encountered him. His book Mastery (A) is something I still reach for from time to time -- one of the few self-help titles I've found actually helpful. And his enthusiasm for Aikido was infectious enough to get me enrolled for the better part of a year. As I grew older his style struck me as perhaps a little too West Coast Ecstatic to be finally persuasive (Tony Schwartz caught Leonard in a slightly more pensive mood (between wives, if I'm not mistaken) when he researched this book). But Leonard's writing was part of a stream that pushed me outward in my young adulthood, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Post-script: more on "doing the jig!"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Crazy Heart, A Soundtrack By T Bone Burnett

Coming home with a movie soundtrack by T Bone Burnett is a little like receiving a mixed CD from your best friend: you pretty much know what the general aural landscape is likely to be, even as you brace yourself for a few surprises. The effect is compounded if you buy the soundtrack before you see the movie. A friend of mine puzzled over the inclusion of no less than three takes of “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” before he finally saw O Brother, Where Art Thou. Prior to the movie, the alternate takes did not sustain enough tension to keep him tuned in. The ideal listener for O Brother is someone who loved the movie, and wants the CD for a souvenir. O Brother's polar opposite is the soundtrack to The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which pulls together music of incredible depth and nuance for a movie that lacked both (A).

Burnett has become the go-to guy for people desiring a certain “Americana” sound. His own influences include two-string rockabilly and steel-guitar country, usually with a dash of beatnik bongos thrown in. He loves — he lives — to play, which is often the spirit needed to bring out a movie star's chops as vocalist. Thus, when the audience actually hears Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing together they can easily enough buy into these actors embodying Johnny Cash and June Carter, even if they'd rather hear the original on the drive back home.

The Crazy Heart soundtrack (A, e) has that same element at work. Not having seen the movie, I can well imagine that Jeff Bridges' slurry crooning carries the story where it needs to go. Much of what he sings is mixed to sound like it's being heard from the back of a smoky nightclub, which keeps the tonality from falling too hard on the ears. Even so, when the film's original material is interrupted by the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Lucinda Williams, George Jones and Townes Van Zandt, I can't help but notice there's something missing when the movie stars take the mic.

Never mind: it all rests easily enough on the eardrums. In the pantheon of T Bone soundtracks, it falls a few steps from Divine Secrets, just a shade below O Brother — at least until I get to sit myself in a theatre.

I have a few further thoughts on the matter of movie stars' singing, in the comments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Music

Our family requires a little pep in their morning soundtrack when Mondays roll around. Usually breakfast is served with a dash of Big Band music, courtesy of Verve Records (one of the first CDs I purchased back in the 80s, actually -- A). Other times, if the girls are insistent, I'll mix something up.

A frequent launching tune for the Monday Mix is "So Why Not Now?" by Peachfuzz, from their album About A Bird (A, e -- the title track is similarly infectious). I was introduced to these guys by Little Steven Van Zandt, who is partial to "Hero Of Nineteen Eighty Three" from Catch Your Snap (A, e). Musically, this group hearkens to a California sound some twenty years prior to that fabled year: the drummer is heavy on the cymbals, the guitars are jangly and the bassist holds it all down.

I've enthused about this band before, but these are the tracks that keep showing up on our family playlist.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paul Quarrington, RIP

Paul Quarrington has died of lung cancer at the age of 56. I thought he was a pleasure to read. He was also, apparently, a really nice guy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Photography Comes Full-Circle

My first camera, or one just like it (the flash extension allowed me to take flash photographs from as far away as 12 feet):

I can't remember how many boxes of Christmas cards I had to sell on behalf of the Junior Sales Club of Canada (a subsidiary of this group) but the effort paid off quite handsomely. I was probably 12 when I got it. I used the Kodak Instamatic to photograph friends and family members, as well as the credit sequences of Space: 1999 and Star Trek, as broadcast on my grandparents' colour television. That camera was good enough to serve my purposes right into my early 20s.

Everything changed in 1985, when I got my first job at a photofinishing store. It was a typical low-paying entry-level retail job, but they also allowed me unlimited use of their 35mm cameras. Since this coincided with the advent of potential girlfriends, the plastic kiddie-camera with the grainy film was quickly abandoned in favour of a professional-looking SLR with interchangeable lenses and a couple of flashes with slave-units.

In the right crowd (say, the University's Department of Theatre) a tripod and a large camera bag was a surefire chick-magnet. Dramatic young women appreciated a guy who took the time to set up and bring out their very best. If this required an hour on location (during the Brave New Wave 80s, the mode was to strike an aesthetic balance between “gritty” verisimilitude and fashionable glamour — bricked-in alleyways were a staple location) and one or two more in the darkroom, so much the better. The long and short of it all was ample attention was amply rewarded.

What a difference a quarter-century makes. These days a lovely girl will make the duckface for any hottie with a cell-phone, and happily settle for that. SLRs and their endless accoutrement are strictly the purview of recent parents — not exactly conducive to fostering convictions of glamour. Unless you are a newborn, attention is more fleeting than ever, so take what you get and be happy. Better yet, be overjoyed! With extra exclamation marks!!!

Makes me pine for the days of Kodachrome. And Long Playing Records. And massive headphones that make your ears sweat.

How did we so happily revert back to the quality of a 110 camera? When, exactly, did the Good Enough Revolution occur?

(With a sweeping tip o' the hat to Darko)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Movies That Improved On Their Source Material

It's been difficult for me to read the various "10 Best of The Decade!" lists without getting peevish or envious, particularly when it comes to movies. This has been my Parenting Decade, really: ten-plus years when I let the zeitgeist blow other people into the theatres while I caught up with the state of children's programming. I couldn't cobble together much of an entertainment list, but there were one or two very bright moments that burned themselves into the back of my brain. With a little diligence I should be able to cast them onto the blank screen at this location before too much longer.

In the meantime, here is a list of 20 Good Books Made Into Not-So-Good Movies, courtesy of The Onion. In this case I am very happy to report I've seen only two of the stinkers mentioned. But is the reverse possible? Has the movie never been better than the book? I think otherwise.

I start with the novel that generated Up In The Air. I thought the movie was both pleasant and substantial, but I've only glanced at the book. I've never been fond of the "Central character on the verge of a nervous breakdown" motif, and given the "approach with caution" review from Publisher's Weekly (see link), I'm inclined to give the book a pass.

Movies That Improved On Their Source Material. There are two that come immediately to mind, the first being L.A. Confidential.

Is it wrong for me to admit I like James Elroy, but I'm not a fan of his fiction? I think he's a kick to watch and listen to, but tiresome to read. Nevertheless I slogged through a pair of his novels, back in the 90s when it was de rigeur. I couldn't imagine anyone making a film I wanted to see out of Elroy's ornery alternate Los Angeles, but Curtis Hanson pulled it off. The characters were all morally compromised, a la Elroy, and the first time I watched the movie I was thrilled with a sense of possibility: given the framework of the movie, it seemed like just about anything could happen -- everyone was qualified to meet a nasty end. American movies could stand a whole lot more of that.

The other example is Coraline.

Actually, it's my daughter who discovered this. She read Neil Gaiman's novel after having watched her most beloved movie a half-dozen times. "Dad: the movie is, like, so much better than the book! I can't believe it!" This from the 11-year-old who prefers Tolkien's books to Jackson's movies.

There's nothing wrong with the book, mind you. Gaiman's Coraline is a haunting thriller made tense with astute psychological observation. But the movie's creators took that tension, left it intact, then fleshed it out in a world of breathtaking texture and depth.

Any other nominations?

Haiti, And Your Money

When attempting to help the Haitians, it's worth asking some questions about a given relief organization's accountability and established infrastructure on the ground. I can personally vouch for two organizations: the Mennonite Central Committee (my former employer, here) and CBM (my wife's current employer, here). My wife was informed on Friday that the two hospitals CBM has partnered with in Port-au-Prince are both standing, to everyone's astonishment. They are, of course, overwhelmed. If you have been debating where to send your money, please give these groups some consideration.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lapham's Quarterly

"As for Laney, she was no sure proof of God, and her disappearance proves nothing about God, but God feels a little less present to me because she is no longer in the world. My soul feels a little more tired. Little maid, pray for me"

When Lewis Lapham announced it was time he launched a quarterly, I didn't exactly hold my breath in anticipation. I'd long been an admirer of his prosaic prowess, but by the time Bush Jr. was back in the kitchen, prepping to deliver another four years of material ripe for Lapham's eviscerations I was weary of reading it. Remember the smartest kid in your classroom? Not the one who got the best grades, but the one who could have, and chose not to? As much as I enjoyed hanging out with that kid -- a reciprocal indulgence, I'm sure -- that kid sure knew how to tire me out. Lapham was that kid.

Lapham's podium, Harper's Magazine, was in the monthly habit of persuading me of things I needed no persuasion to believe -- specifically, our collective situation is so much more dire than we think. I'm grateful when anyone of influence blows the whistle on their social tier, but when said whistle-blower is as high up the ladder as Lapham, my first monkey-thought is usually, "If I just scrabble up close to where he is, I can begin to work on the situation, too." I dropped my subscription because it was distracting me from what I needed to believe -- that I could, just possibly, attend and make small differences right now, where I already was. Now he was issuing a quarterly the size of a small phone book? I anticipated heaps of sniffy "Here's what's wrong" proclamations, and thought, No, thank you.

In fact, Lapham's Quarterly is well worth checking out. His editorial policy is surprisingly catholic in its inclusions, resulting in a collected read that gently nudges chambers of thought which might have become a little stiff over the years. I spent a couple of hours in the library, poring through past issues. When the quarterly finally devoted its contents to "Religion" I went ahead and bought it. Once again there is something for readers of every temperament and persuasion. Certainly there are pieces I can't be bothered with; there are also items I don't mind being challenged by. But the real surprise is stumbling across a piece that is actually encouraging -- in my case Garret Keizer's The Courtesy Of God. That's where the above quote comes from, and you can read the piece in its entirety here -- an invitation to which I could only say, Yes. Thank you.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Reigning Box Office Champion

When ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, it becomes very clear that Gone With The Wind will not be usurped by Avatar, or even Star Wars, anytime soon.

Terrific movie, that. Man, would I love to see it on a huge screen in an old movie palace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Temptation To Tweet

As I survey the new year and reconsider mon vie on-line ("en ligne"? Really?) I'm wondering if Twitter mightn't clear out some of the scragglier brush that the year inevitably acquires.

I can identify two chief purposes to this blog: (1) self-publishing bits and essays that would have had a tough time finding their way to the printed page due to unorthodoxy of subject matter or format; (2) personal smoke signal -- a small sign that all was comparatively well for yours truly, that I was at the very least mulling over something, albeit something fairly trivial. That second function became the bulk of my blogging, I'd say, shortly after I turned 40.

Acknowledging trivial content in no way invalidates the larger purpose it serves. I've come to realize this as I've watched once-prolific bloggers slow their output to a trickle, and/or come to a complete halt. Over the last six years I have followed and interacted with bloggers I've come to think of as friends. Prior to the blogosphere I was reliant on fickle pen-pals. With the advent of these very public diaries, the daily walk to my post-office was no longer so emotionally freighted with terrible potential: my friends let me know of their condition by posting.

There are formerly vibrant voices that I miss. I get a kick out of Michael Blowhard's Facebook updates, but they don't provide the same grist for the mill that his best posts did. Searchie has gone private, which I respect. But I still try her site from time to time, scratching at the gatepost to see if she's opened the courtyard again. I'm assuming Bearded is reserving all his bile for the small-time contractors intent on improving his abode. Etc, etc.

The fifth-year anniversary seems to be the blogosphere's equivalent of the seven-year itch. Five years of unsupervised play clears out most people's carburetor dung, apparently. This morning when I surveyed the posts of this past (sixth) year I figured there were roughly a half-dozen I still had some respect for. Most of the others could have been reduced to a tweet without much damage -- some might have even been improved by the exercise.

I still value this platform as a place to post the longer pieces, which I assure you are still brewing on the back burner. But I'm wondering -- and at this point the question is open -- if the platform mightn't be better served if I sent the "smoke-signals" via Twitter?

If you have any thoughts or suggestions -- particularly if you have done/are on Twitter -- you know where to leave 'em.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Loving Winter In Winnipeg

The younger takes a stab at ringette.

I received the usual ribbing from friends and neighbors who emerged in the new year with a bit of a tan. "Christmas in Winnipeg, eh? Lucky, lucky guy!" Winnipeg winters can be unendurably cold, it's true. But there are aspects to them that I genuinely miss.

The first of these is blinding sunlight. Clear skies, and a plain covered in snow for 40 miles in any direction makes for a very bright exposure. Does me good, that. It actually entices me out of doors, where I enjoy another aspect I don't find in Southern Ontario: outdoor skating rinks.

Winnipeg has dozens of these -- nearly every school has two or three pads on its playground, and most are well maintained. A person with a pair of skates and some flexibility to his day can expect to have the ice to himself, sometimes for hours at a stretch. He can try all the stunts that would embarrass him and endanger others in a crowded indoor arena. F'rinstance: until four years ago, I could never stop on my right side. I'm still some distance away from the right feeling natural, but with a split-second forethought I can certainly nail it.

An empty rink is an open invitation to pick-up. I don't bother with hockey anymore -- I've yet to play with a group of guys that doesn't include one short-tempered meatball who likes to take it into the corners -- but ringette? Anytime!

Ringette is a passing game: no player in possession can make an end-to-end run. It is also a non-contact sport, which is usually observed with special care when the teams are co-ed. Our family would scrimmage for an hour, then return to the house in a sweat -- even when it was -36 C, before wind-chill. I won't speak for my daughters, but I could make that a daily routine for quite a few weeks before getting tired of that.

Not in this part of Ontario, alas. The times and the climate have a-changed, and outdoor rinks are an artifact of the past. Ah, well. Advantage: Winnipeg.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"'10? It's '10 already?! Quick: roadmap. No! GPS!! Scratch that! Roadmap! NOW!!!"

The older I get the more my daughters seem to dictate my cultural life. They were easy to babysit when they were tots, so it wasn't difficult for my wife and I to go out to half-a-dozen movies in a year. That covered the most critical bases. If we missed something in the theatre, we rented it and watched it after the girls were put to bed at 8:00.

Their bedtime got later as the girls got older, of course, leaving the weary grown-ups with a shorter window of opportunity. We resorted to watching some of the better television shows: The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, etc. Commercial-free DVD TV is quite fine, if occasionally a little claustrophobic. But these nights, by the time the girls are in bed it's a challenge just to make it through the first round of Jeopardy.

Not that I'm unhappy with shared cultural moments -- not at all. I've discovered I actually prefer Taylor Swift to Avril Lavigne. And my daughters discovered that some of their old man's music is actually a lot of fun. This year's most-played CD? WP's Aught-Nine Summer Soundtrack (I never did get around to the planned second disc).

I enjoyed a number of musical releases on my own time, of course. I'm with DV when it comes to Booker T's latest. And when Joe Henry finally released Blood From Stars (wp) it completely eclipsed everything I'd been playing up to that point -- that's the disc of the year so far as I'm concerned.

But the play-count on my 'pod is the true, and rather pedestrian, revelation: I like my work-out music, most of which is way old-school.

When it comes to my '09 list of books read, the top spot is occupied by Joan Silber's Ideas Of Heaven (wp -- although I'd say this review is more acute). Second Place is a three-way tie: Zeroville by Steve Erickson (wp), The Way Home by George Pelecanos (wp), and Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke (wp). Regrets: I would have very much liked to read Richard Russo's most recent novel -- perhaps on my next trip to Maine.

Currently, I was amused to encounter The 2110 Club. There isn't a single nomination that doesn't strike me as wishful thinking in the extreme; it's unlikely any of these titles will be part of the public conversation even 10 years from now, never mind 100 (although I too have high hopes for The Ax). The only book I've read in the last 10 years that I suspect will be around for another decade or two is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Although I usually get a kick out of McCarthy's nihilistic hyperventilations, I absolutely hated this book when I first read it. I've tried to pick it up and give it a re-read since then, and I still can't stand it. It has all the characteristic "Life Sucks" qualities that High School English teachers love (think Lord Of The Flies, leached of all its vicarious thrills), pretty much guaranteeing its mandatory reading for the next 20 or so years.

To future High School students everywhere, let me just say how terribly sorry I am. But hope springs eternal: perhaps the next year -- or ten -- will produce something enjoyable for your dreary curriculum.