Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Boxed Set, Continued: Resistance Is ... Futile?

The impulse DVD purchase sure ain't what it used to be, now that video-on-demand is so very accessible. Throw in the chastening effect of considerable personal experience and it's a wonder I buy DVDs at all. How many times have I dropped $25 or more on some “special edition” of a movie I remembered oh-so-fondly, only to take it home, pop it in the player and realize within 20 minutes that I was reheating a turkey? Even if the movie is my personal Citizen Kane the fact is I'm still getting older, time is moving faster, and the list of yet-to-be-seen “Don't You Miss It!” material is growing exponentially by the day.

So how is it my weekly visits to Costco keep rocking me on my heels, despite this jaded state of mind? It's Christmas, of course: the season for boxed sets. I rifle through the display the way I once rifled through hockey cards. “Got 'im, got 'im, need 'im, got 'im . . . uh . . . mm, future rental . . . got 'im,” etc. Springsteen & Co. enticed me last week. This week I saw Costco selling the complete Man From U.N.C.L.E. for the exact same price ($78).

Yowsa, what kitschy packaging! Time-Warner-HBO certainly knows how to appeal to the boy inside the man (and really: how many women get excited by DVD packaging?). If they had Saran-Wrapped the AMT model to the “briefcase” there's no earthly way I could have resisted the lure, even if I'd fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

But resist I did — just barely. It helped to keep several recent and relatively inexpensive disappointments top-of-mind. I couldn't pass up The Prisoner for $30 — the classic Patrick McGoohan vehicle, of course, not the recent reheat. When I sat the family down and played the first disc, the reaction I received was . . . well, let's just say that my reciprocal reaction to Glee is more ebullient. And even I had to admit this recent exposure was a mixed bag of tricks. As with Star Trek: TOS, much of The Prisoner's enduring charm lies in its period-piece curiosity factor. If the viewer isn't braced for trippy-hippie hijinx and scenery-chewing histrionics, it is difficult to make much of a case for the show's intellectual content. (I had to wonder which acid flashback was the greater torment: The Village or The Banana Splits?)

More pertinently, this summer I picked up the first season of I Spy (five bucks!) a series often touted as the most superior of the Bond spin-offs, what with its interracial duo and international location shoots. Watching it for the first time, some forty years after it first aired, I can certainly acknowledge the innovation and risks that Culp & Cosby took. The first episode sends the two off to China to intercept an athlete intent on defecting to the Reds. The athlete is obviously modeled on Muhammad Ali, and Cosby's character stifles a very convincing impatience with the man's ego and political naiveté. But this is a 90-second scene in an episode that swings a heavy moral hammer to considerably less effect than Roddenberry did, and concludes with a merry little chase-on-foot through the slums of Hong Kong. Family Verdict? “Dad, please. We'd rather watch The Prisoner.”

Also on sale (same price as Boxes Boss & U.N.C.L.E.) is the complete Get Smart, which remains far and away the best DVD investment I've made — one increasingly unlikely to ever be usurped. Get Smart has the period-piece curiosity factor in spades, of course. But more than that, it's remarkable how much better this series was at conveying the same social commentary as the material it was spoofing, while retaining a capacity to entertain through nearly five decades. In fact, now that I think of it, the case could be made that time has only added to the series' already formidable entertainment cache.

And so the U.N.C.L.E. briefcase was returned to its place. And I returned to mine, where I could settle for the better value of another go-round with Agents 86 and 99, while gently nudging the imagination through remembered projections of fevered deprivation.

Links: DVD sets: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (A), I Spy (A), The Prisoner (A). Note the on-line cost difference. And it's increasingly difficult for me to maintain my resistance after reading this guy. Thankfully, there is also this guy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Darkness On The Edge Of My Credit Card Statement

Yesterday at Costco I beheld the Super-Size Me treatment of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The only thing that stopped me from throwing it into my cart was a preternatural awareness of the expenses we're facing as a family on the downward slide into Christmas.

Then I thought back to my zeal for Donald Fagen's boxed set, and how that finally played out. I looked again at this fab bit of packaging and thought, "This is something I'd really love . . . to borrow." I am not dropping hints here. I'm just sayin': my culling instinct isn't done with me yet. And the more I relieve my sagging book-and-music-and-video shelves, the more prone I am to recognize those objects which are unlikely to sustain my interest once the initial "wow" factor has worn off.

Anyhow: Patterson Hood has some deep thoughts (followed by some cool downloads) on the Darkness box (which he was probably comped with) over here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mr. Darwin's Shooter, Take One

It was like the brain had several parts, each representing a faculty of thought, such as love, morality, veneration, greed, preferment, lasciviousness. Covington knew that his own head was a lumpy job. He knew which qualities gave him an itch in the belly, and which made him whistle with hope and pleasure when he woke in the morning and jumped to his duties after saying his prayers. Between the bumps on his head and the blood in his veins there was this third capacity making him glad. It was the spirit of the Lord, the joy of being alive. He would be robbed of his meaning without it.

Thanks to the limits of inter-library loans, at some point today I will have to sit and quaff down the remaining 135 pages of Roger McDonald's fine novel, Mr. Darwin's Shooter (A). I have savored it at a leisurely pace, which I think is how the book begs to be read. Unfortunately I have been too leisurely in my savoring and have exhausted my limit of renewals.

I could, and probably will, buy the book on-line, but I'm now thirsty for the conclusion. This isn't a narrative built on unforeseeable surprises. We meet two Covingtons as the book progresses: a young man taken up by “the spirit of the Lord” and eagerly exploring every pleasure in the wide natural world; and an older, bitter man hobbled with manifold injuries, the worst of which is inflicted on his consciousness. We know from the title some of what has taken place to bring about the latter. Covington is Mr. Darwin's shooter, and in the course of his assisting the young doctor in his efforts to establish the theory of natural selection will find himself bereft of the spirit of the Lord.

McDonald's historical fiction is lovingly detailed, but he imbues his protagonist with a ferocious energy and activity that carves tantalizing gaps in this tapestry. The full story is knit-together — re-knit, really — over the course of the novel. I don't expect it, but even if the final third of the novel were to fall flat, Mr. Darwin's Shooter would be a candidate for the most memorable novel read this year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gasperau, Yet Again

It is old news to Canadians that Gasperau has hammered out a deal with Douglas & McIntyre for the trade-paperback edition of Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. On further reflection this seems the right thing to do: had they dug in their heels as the sole publishers of this year's Giller winner, Gasperau would have become The Long-Running Skibsrud Show. After all they do have other, equally worthy authors on their catalog.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Circumnavigating Coupland

I know I've been a bit snippy toward Douglas Coupland lately. I've been a bit snippy toward nearly everyone and everything lately, so, World: I apologize. I'll try to do better.

Getting back to Coupland: he was tapped on the shoulder to do this year's CBC Massey Lecture series — here is the official link. Did you see that bit about being "widely regarded as the most important public lectures in Canada"? Kinda says more than the flack who wrote those words probably intended, doesn't it? But first time listeners should be forewarned: it's usually only a matter of time before the stuffed shirt delivering the lectures gets your back up.

Last year's lectures by Wade Davis (A) certainly accomplished that with me. A well-traveled, studied, accomplished anthropologist, Davis is appropriately horrified at the precipice our species teeters on thanks to its heedless submission to the tenets of modernity and materialism. His five lectures tucked into a feast of delicious detail culled from the just-barely-surviving wisdom traditions from a few tenacious tribal cultures in extreme climates. While I appreciated much, if not most, of his appeal, his lush praise for the ancient also struck me as a tad naive, if not conveniently two-faced. In the early 70s my grandfather pastored a Mennonite colony in Paraguay, and was frequently amused by the meddling of ardent anthropology students from el Norte. He told of a meeting he encountered between a tribe and a student. The erstwhile anthropologist was lecturing the chief, beseeching him to pull his people back into the jungle where life was good. The chief listened patiently. When he finally was given a chance to respond, he basically hiked a thumb over his shoulder and said, "The bush is that way, kid. If you like our ancient way of life so much, you're welcome to live it."

So, yeah: Coupland should feel right at home with this format. And you may find yourself, as I frequently do, tried by the tone of voice. But if you don't mind the provocation — if, indeed, you actively seek it out — "the most important public lectures in Canada" might just be your cup of tea.

They are, for the moment, available as a downloadable podcast here (scroll down to 2010 CBC Massey Lectures and right-click on the links). Or, if you prefer a more flingable format, the book can be had at Amazon.

Wiki: Massey Lectures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Color Is Your Poppy?

The White Poppy is finally picking up some Canadian supporters, and generating the usual controversy that goes with it. Some surviving veterans from World War II are grousing that the white poppy is a sign of disrespect to them, and to the fallen — “our” fallen, as they are inclined to say, ignoring the fact that an increasing number of Canadian families do not have anyone in their lineage who served in either of the supposedly global conflicts.

Two members of my family served, and one is still alive. He is usually mute on the subject, but he once admitted that as his war in Europe was winding down he applied for transfer to the Asian arena because he was sure he no longer had the capacity for civilian life. I think it is fair, if grossly understated, to suggest he has conflicted feelings about his experiences as a combat soldier.

My own feelings are conflicted when it comes to honoring our fallen. Out in this part of Ontario we have a stretch of 16-lane highway that our Conservative Prime Minister has dubbed “The Highway Of Heroes.” Whenever one of our soldiers is killed in Afghanistan, their remains are flown back to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, then shuttled down this highway via a convoy of hearses and police cruisers to Forensic Sciences in Toronto.

I've witnessed this grim convoy three times. The highway is closed and cleared. Bridges over it are filled with firefighters and citizens paying homage. The convoy flies silently over the empty asphalt. One of those black cars is carrying what's left of a man younger than myself. The other cars contain his family members. There are probably a million strange and predictable factors that led to this person enlisting, then fighting and dying in an entirely foreign country. But the blunt fact is he was killed obeying the orders of our government.

Meanwhile, military personnel who return with injuries and/or severe cases of PTSD face the fight of their lives when they attempt to coax medical support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veteran ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran has suggested our country behaves as if it would prefer our soldiers die on the battlefield. Meanwhile, no-one seems able to say how long we'll keep troops in Afghanistan, or what their final objective might reasonably be.

“Funerals are for the living,” my preacher grandfather used to counsel. Remembrance Day services are, too. If participants bore that in mind, we might spare ourselves from both the mawkish and the hawkish. I hope I can be forgiven for wearing both colors of poppy this week.

Also: Tony Hillerman remembers.

How 'bout That?

Well, well. I don't know why, but I expected someone else to win -- the Mennonite, maybe (again). But there you have it: Gaspereau will now make a few people very, very happy at Christmas -- or not.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Gaspereau Press

Last night my wife and I were discussing which posts from the last five years merited a transition to paper. The conversation quickly turned to publishing models, and who might best endure the current stormy sea-change. I raised Gaspereau Press as a group I admired, and hoped would flourish.

Gaspereau places an emphasis on craft and aesthetics. Their books are outstandingly beautiful and, due to their material and construction, will outlast anything on the current hardcover bestseller list. Or perhaps I should say, “Anything else on the current hardcover bestseller list,” because with the recent Giller Prize shortlist, Gaspereau finds itself at an unexpected crossroads.

The Giller is a big deal in Canada. The event itself is Big Top glitz — champagne, tux-and-tails, lovely young things and industry mucky-mucks having a high time of it. It's all quite pleasant for the shortlisted authors, too, regardless of who wins. Their profiles and sales get a significant nudge. The winner receives $50,000 — and a huge bump in sales.

Gaspereau has a book on the Giller shortlist: Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. Skibsrud has done well with Gaspereau; this short novel as well as a previous collection of her poetry received the top-drawer treatment that honors the author's words with a reciprocal devotion to craft and detail. But with the sudden surge of Giller attention, she and Gaspereau are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Current demand is greater than their arcane production methods can meet. Should Gaspereau farm out production to a larger publisher — temporarily, just this once — to give the author the full benefit of the boosted public attention?

In interviews Skibsrud seems a bit rueful about the effect the Gaspereau philosophy is having on her fortunes as a writer. It's hard to blame her. If the product was available, her royalty cheques would be looking pretty good right now. The difficulty from the publisher's point of view is in ascertaining the actual demand. Unfortunately the final, glum reality is that even Giller winners get remaindered and/or pulped, because book stores (particularly That Canadian Behemoth) anxious for stock inevitably raise projected demand way above the actual demand. This wreaks devastation on the perilously slender profit margins of a small press.

But Gaspereau's aesthetic throws another curve into the problem. As that lovable aesthete, Alice Cooper, has pointed out: if you want to increase demand for a product — whether it's a rock show or a golf club — restrict its availability. Skibsrud's book is the one people are talking about, because when they asked for it at That Canadian Behemoth they were told it is “unavailable for order.”

I hope Skibsrud takes some solace in Cooper's wisdom, because I think Gaspereau is doing the right thing — for the environment, for the publishing/book selling scene, for the public imagination. Hell, if it's the words you want, you can get 'em right now as an eBook for a mere $15 (or less). But if it's the book you want — because you don't just take words seriously, you take books seriously — there's nothing for it: it's cash up front, then join the queue.

Gasperau, Redux

“I like that,” said my wife. “But it would never work for publishers of youth fiction.”

Whoah. Truer words were never spoken. When teens fall in love with a book, they don't just want to read it again and again: they want to read all of its many, many sequels. Trilogies are good, but sweeping sagas are so much better. Authorial typing/publisher printing cannot be done quickly enough to sate the literate adolescent.

The girls polished off The Hunger Games trilogy in short order. Right now they are taken with Michael Grant's Gone series. My older daughter lives in the hope that she will enjoy all four of P.D. Baccalario's Century Quartet books, but I wouldn't put money on it. Baccalario will have to type faster if he hopes to close two more sales before my daughter's growing perspicacity sniffs out his deficits as a writer.

The teen market is significant — in fact it's likely the sole aspect of publishing that's keeping print afloat. And quality control is, for the most part, optional (the sole exception being series continuity: publishers can let grammar take a hit, or authorial voice and perspective slip in a kaleidoscopic flurry, but they'd better keep a sharp eye on continuity). Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had it right: if you have a good thing going with teen readers, the words “too hasty” do not apply to publication.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Comparative Education


My grade seven science teacher reached for the yardstick and asked me to come to the front of the class. He told me to bend over his lab desk. I complied and he gave me a smart swat just above my ass-cheeks, then he told me to sit down again. I no longer remember what I did to earn it, but the welt took just over a week to fade away.
Not quite as pictured...


My grade eight English teacher took my friend down to a small room behind the office, where the teacher hit him with a leather strap 16 times. My friend later wondered if this “licking” mightn't have ended sooner if he'd burst into tears earlier.


If you were a stoner or a day-dreamer in my grade nine history class it was only a matter of time before you were hoisted to your feet by the ears. And while the historical record was attended to with some competency, this adult man applied a truly energetic imagination to his verbal cataloging of an individual student's personal failings. One afternoon he spoke fondly of the Flin-Flon high school teacher who used the staff toilet to water-board a 15-year-old Bobby Clarke. In the silence that followed, he gazed at the florescent lights overhead, this image now becoming only a vague memory of the glorious days when a teacher could, with impunity, deal any manner of physical abuse to his adolescent students.
Though this was (probably) not among the damage dealt...
All three of these guys went on to retire with full benefits. I thought of them this morning when I dropped my daughters off at school. My daughters are accumulating the usual wounds of adolescence — that acidic petri dish of Social Darwinism. But, so far as I can see, their teachers aren't actively contributing to the abuse. Instead it looks to me like they're doing as much as we enable them to do to shepherd these kids through to the other side.

It's progress of a sort.

It Gets Better -- for ostracized teens of any sexuality.

Monday, November 01, 2010


Unfortunately, I'm too agoraphobic to enjoy any sort of rally. But thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can enjoy this weekend's funny signs. Link via ALD.